posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:41:47 PM
Author: Dee aka Boy aka Deelicious aka Deejonaise (you get the picture)

Category: M/L

Rating: PG-R (Mild NC-17)

Disclaimer: I don't own it. If I did do you think I'd be writing fanfiction?

Summary: Sequel to Growing Up, Growing Apart and Falling in Love. Prequel to Growing Through It Again.



Growing Pains

Chapter 1

“You’re laaate,” Maria Deluca sang out to Liz Evans as she approached the café table where both she and Isabel Whitman were sitting. Maria held up her wrist and tapped her expensive gold chain watch in a smug, “I told you so” manner. Earlier that week she had made a bet with Liz that she wouldn’t make the lunch-date with her and Isabel on time. Maria took a small amount of satisfaction in being right, but not much. After all Liz had a good excuse for being late; she was more than eight months pregnant, while caring for an exuberant four-year old and she was less than three weeks away from acquiring her Master’s Degree in Biotechnology. She was a woman juggling a handful of responsibilities, which rendered her perpetually late. On the other hand, she also had a thoughtful and supportive husband who was more than willing to lighten her load.

Maria had to admit that she was slightly jealous of the relationship that Max and Liz shared. But then who wouldn’t be? They had been happily married for the last four years without one single, serious blow-up between them. They were inseparable and as completely in love as they’d been from the first moment Max had healed Liz at the Crashdown. And now more than seven years later they still shared that close connection, the unbreakable bond between them that had only grown stronger as the time passed. Even the year-long separation they had endured prior to their marriage didn’t diminish their devotion to one another. To witness them together, so truly enamored of each other was truly a beautiful and humbling experience.

However, it wasn’t that Maria wasn’t happy in her own relationship. She and Michael had been together for the last four years as well. They had a beautiful three-year-old daughter and they were living together quite happily. But you aren’t married, Maria’s nagging inner voice reminded. So what, she responded mentally, she and Michael were together and that was all that mattered. Maria was completely content with what she had. Still…

Liz offered her friends an apologetic smile as she approached their table pushing the stroller that held her sleeping daughter. Her smile softened considerably as she marveled over the picture they made. Isabel was dutifully spooning what looked like strained carrots into the mouth of her ten month old son while Maria was simultaneously throwing her smug looks and wrestling to keep her daughter Mickey in her booster seat.

The moment Liz sat down at the table Isabel lifted her head, sweeping her long, blond hair over her shoulder. “I guess I owe you ten bucks, Maria,” she quipped as she screwed the cap onto the jar of baby food. Liz ignored her statement, kissing both her “niece” and nephew in greeting before stating, “I ran late at the University. I had no idea Professor Burkson was going to talk my ear off.”

Maria made a tsking sound with her tongue. “Any old excuse, Liz. Any old excuse.”

“Well, we’ll see how fast you move when you’re eight months pregnant and lugging around a four year old,” Liz said pointedly.

“That’s not going to be a long wait,” Isabel said, smiling. “The doctor confirmed it today. Maria is ten weeks pregnant.”

“Gee, thanks for letting me tell it, Isabel.”

Despite the dry sarcasm in her tone Maria was beaming radiantly. Liz couldn’t help but beam right along with her. Four years ago it had been inconceivable that Michael and Maria would be together, much less expecting their second child. It was true that they weren’t married, but Maria always said any commitment from Michael was better than no commitment at all.

Liz gave Maria’s shoulder a playful squeeze. “So does this mean the baby shower on Friday is becoming a double?”

“No way, girl,” Maria said with a shake of her head while simultaneously extracting her toddler’s hand from her long, blonde curls, “Mickey behave! Anyway,” she said as she eyed her daughter sharply, “Friday is your day. No infringement is intended.”

“Besides that,” Isabel perked between sips of her cola, “she hasn’t told Michael yet.”

Maria rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Isabel, have you ever heard the expression ‘loose lips sink ships’?”

Isabel just laughed and shrugged. For the second time in minutes Liz was struck by how much had changed between them in the past four years. It didn’t seem that long ago that Maria and Isabel weren’t even on speaking terms. And now they were the best of friends, closer than even Liz and Maria were. But Liz wasn’t jealous. She was glad that Maria and Isabel had found a way to put their past differences behind them. In fact, Maria had even been Isabel’s maid of honor when she and Alex were married.

Alex and Isabel married. The idea still blew Liz away. And they were completely happy, totally in love. Alex doted on Isabel, treated her like a princess. And the baby… It was obvious to anyone that Alex and Isabel were in love with their son. Never had there been raised a more spoiled child. But looking at him now, sleeping so angelically in his mother’s arms, Liz had to take her share of the blame in his spoiling. But he really was the most beautiful little boy… And pretty soon they would all have two new babies to spoil. The thought made Liz want to squeal with delight.

“You haven’t told Michael yet,” Liz said, breaking of a piece of Isabel’s tuna melt and popping it into her mouth, “What are you waiting for?”

Maria gave her a blank, stupefied look. “Duh, hello…. It’s Michael. Need I say more?”

“Oh yeah,” Liz said in agreement.

“Once he gets over the initial shock he’ll be fine,” Isabel assured them as she placed her sleeping son back into his carrier. “You remember how he was when you told him about Mickey?”

“He almost had a heart attack, Isabel.”

“Ok. Bad example. With years come maturity?” Isabel added with a hopeful smile.

Maria glared at her mournfully. “He’s gonna freak, isn’t he?”

“No—I’m sure…” Liz began and then she looked at Isabel and they both said simultaneously, “He’s gonna freak.”

Maria groaned and folded her arms over the table, dropping her head down into them. Isabel patted her shoulder consolingly. “At least we’re happy for you, Maria.” Her well-meaning assurance only caused Maria to groan louder.

***********************************
Max crept up behind his pregnant wife, as she deftly sliced carrots for her pot roast and slid his arms around her so that his hands caressed the underside of her swollen belly. He nuzzled her neck lovingly. “The munchkinette is finally asleep. So now tell me, how was lunch?”

“A riot,” Liz giggled as she tried to flinch away from his nibbling caresses, “Max, stop. I’ll never finish dinner if you keep doing that.” When he still persisted she laid down her knife and turned around in his arms with an exasperated sigh. “Maaaaaaax…”

“How about we skip dinner and go straight for dessert,” Max coaxed with a wicked grin.

“Don’t you wish?” Liz teased with a sweet smile.

“You’re heartless, you know that?” Liz gave him an innocent look. “I think you’re enjoying this whole waiting business entirely too much.”

“And if I am,” Liz challenged, trailing her fingers down his chest. He caught her hand before it reached his groin.

“It’s mean, Liz.”

She smiled. “You’re no fun.” Her brown eyes glinted devilishly.

“Just tell me about lunch,” Max stressed with a frustrated sigh.

“My shower is on Friday. Will you be there?”

“Only if you hog-tie me and throw me in the trunk of the car.” He said it with such a deadpan expression that Liz couldn’t help but burst into laughter.

“You’re nuts!”

Max wrapped his arms around her again, utterly taken by how much he loved her. “I’m nuts about you,” he told her solemnly. They shared a tender kiss. “Have you been treating my boy right today?” he asked when they finally broke their connection.

“I took my prenatal vitamins, drank six glasses of water, and I had a tuna salad sandwich for lunch,” Liz said playfully, “Does that meet your satisfaction, sahib?” She put her hands together and gave him a dutiful, mock bow.

“Well, you still owe me two glasses of water,” Max grudged. “Has he been kicking a lot today?”

“Earlier this morning it felt like he was trying to bust out. He’s calmed down considerably since then. I think he might be sleeping.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you to your doctor’s appointment tomorrow? I can cancel with the Stevensons. They’re driving me crazy anyway.”

“Isabel will be with me. I’ll be fine.” When he still look concerned Liz stood on her tiptoes to kiss his pouting mouth. “You worry too much.”

“I just don’t want to miss anything.” Like I did with Claudia. The words were unspoken between them but Liz already knew what Max was thinking. And the fact that he cared so much, even after all the years that had gone by, made Liz love him all the more.

Liz pulled out of his arms reluctantly and returned to slicing her carrots. “If I tape everything Dr. Kadesh says then will you feel better?” She was unprepared for the sound whack he gave her bottom. Liz yelped, rubbing the tender spot.

“That’s what you get for being a smart ass.”




[ edited 1 time(s), last at 9-Dec-2002 9:43:57 PM ]
posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:44:18 PM
Chapter 2

Isabel Whitman ignored the ringing cellular phone in her purse. Liz looked at her expectantly but Isabel just shrugged. “I already know it’s Max. He’s called me like a hundred times today.” The phone continued to ring persistently. “Your husband’s a psycho,” Isabel gritted in annoyance.

“Here, give me the phone.” With a small smile hovering on her lips Liz flipped back the cover of Isabel’s cell phone and said with laughing calmness, “Am I going to have to change this number?”

For a moment she was met with dead silence and then Max stammered, “L-Liz?”

“Why are you harassing your sister, Max?”

“She’s in an enviable position,” he answered. Liz’s heart warmed at the smile she heard in his voice. “I’d be there with you right now if I could.”

“But you can’t,” Liz reminded gently, “You have clients and an obligation to them.”

“I know but—“

“No buts, Max. I’m not sure I can keep Isabel from strangling you if you call again,” Liz said laughingly, sliding a sideways glance at her irate sister-in-law.

Although Max had a successful practice as a marriage therapist, he acted as if he would give it up in a second to be with Liz. Liz basked in the glowing warmth that filled her heart at the thought. She knew that she meant more to Max than anything or anyone.

“I was thinking that maybe we could all do lunch,” Max suggested, “I’m supposed to meet Alex at the gym later anyway.”

Liz placed her hand over the receiver. “Max wants to know if you want to do lunch,” she whispered to Isabel.

Isabel just shrugged. “Sure.”

“She said yes, Max,” Liz said into the receiver, “Why don’t we have lunch at the café a block from here.”

“That’s fine.”

“Good. It’s a date then. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Wait! You’ll call me as soon as the appointment’s over?” Liz laughingly rolled her eyes. She knew she would never get Max off the phone without making the promise first. She glanced at Isabel again. Her sister-in-law tapped the face of her watch impatiently, “My minutes…they’re ticking away.”

“Max, I promise, I’ll call as soon as the appointment is over. I’ll call you,” she stressed.

“Gotcha,” he said, but Liz barely heard him because she was already breaking the connection.

“You two are so sickeningly sweet,” Isabel moaned as she zipped her cell phone back into her purse, “It’s ridiculous.”

“No more ridiculous than you and Alex making goo-goo eyes at each other all the time,” Liz reminded smugly.

“That’s different. We’re newlyweds,” Isabel protested. It was true. Isabel and Alex had only been married a little over a year. Isabel had become pregnant with A.J. hot on the heels of their honeymoon. Liz and Maria always teased her about how quickly she’d set her mind on being a wife and a mother.

“So are we, Isabel.”

Isabel gave her a “yeah right” look but before she could reply a nurse popped her head into the waiting area. “Mrs. Evans?”

Isabel looked questioningly at her friend. “Do you need me to go with you?”

“No, I’m fine. What we talked about earlier, I’m sure I’m just overreacting. The baby probably hasn’t got enough room in there to do any moving.” Liz smiled warmly even though inside she was quaking with doubt. She hadn’t felt her son move since early yesterday morning. Liz didn’t know why she found that so alarming but everything inside her was screaming something wasn’t right. Which was why she hadn’t mentioned a word of it to Max and was secretly glad he hadn’t accompanied her. She didn’t want him freaking out over something that could very well turn out to be nothing. She needed a level head and Isabel Evans Whitman was as level a head as she could get.

Despite her no-nonsense lawyer persona Isabel Whitman felt uneasy. Her level headedness was not what was speaking out at the moment, but her instincts as a mother. And every instinct she had told her that Liz was scared. But she knew that Liz was fighting desperately to hide her fear so Isabel returned Liz’s fake smile with an equally phony one. She squeezed Liz’s hand. “Everything will be fine.”

Liz could only nod her head before turning to follow the waiting nurse. Isabel watched and at the last minute rose to join them. She didn’t know what she was feeling but she suddenly had the intense need to be near Liz, as if she sensed Liz were going to need her support.

Liz was already in her hospital gown and on the examining table when Isabel entered. Liz’s expression reflected her surprise and relief. “I’m glad you decided not to stay up front,” she confided softly.

“Me too,” Isabel replied just as softly.

Dr. Kadesh came in a few moments later and after briefly introducing Isabel he and Liz exchanged pleasantries. Isabel drifted over into the corner, feeling somewhat obtrusive, and took a seat in the chair situated there.

The doctor matter-of-factly went about his examination while making small talk with Liz. “So have you been feeling any discomfort?”

Liz shook her head, staring up at the ceiling, trying to ignore what he was doing. “No. No backaches or anything.”

“Has our boy been active lately?”

“Not recently,” Liz confided anxiously, “I actually haven’t felt him kick since yesterday morning.”

Dr. Kadesh stood and removed his latex gloves. With one deft movement he tossed them in the trash. “That doesn’t sound unusual. You’re pretty far along,” he smiled engagingly, “might be limited movement in there. But just for your peace of mind how about we hook up the heart monitor?”

His casualness caused the tension to ease from Liz’s body. If he wasn’t worried then why should she be? He was the doctor after all. She was just being paranoid, Liz scolded herself. She was acting like a complete idiot. Liz smiled and sighed and waited patiently for the doctor to hook the heart monitor around her distended belly. She grinned at Isabel who grinned back.

“All right,” Dr Kadesh said, “let’s hear what we can hear.”

Liz closed her eyes, expecting the room to be flooded with the pleasant sound of her baby’s whirring heartbeat. She was met with dead silence. Her eyes popped open and she glanced at Dr. Kadesh curiously. “Do you have the volume down or something?”

Abruptly, the doctor clicked off the heart monitor and began unhooking Liz. She noticed with rising panic that Dr. Kadesh wasn’t smiling anymore. Her heart began to flutter at a maddened pace as she struggled to pull herself into a sitting position. “What is it?” she demanded, despising the terror she heard in her voice.

“I’m not picking up the heartbeat on the monitor,” Dr. Kadesh told her softly, calmly.

The wind was suddenly rushing in Liz’s ears. She couldn’t hear anything but those words. I’m not picking up the heartbeat. I’m not picking up the heartbeat. I’m not picking up the heartbeat. Liz was vaguely aware of Isabel coming to stand beside her. She barely felt her sweep up her hand and squeeze it hard. An etherizing numbness was rapidly spreading through Liz’s body.

“What does that mean exactly,” Liz heard Isabel ask, “that you’re not picking up the heartbeat?”

“It could mean a lot of things,” Dr. Kadesh was quick to reassure, “The baby might be in an inaccessible place, making it hard to pick up the transmission. I want to schedule an ultrasound just to check things out.” Liz nodded dumbly. But she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t think, she couldn’t do anything. Only the doctor’s words reverberated eerily over and over in her head. “This doesn’t have to mean anything bad, Mrs. Evans,” Dr Kadesh added quietly. When Liz seemed unresponsive he looked imploringly to Isabel.

Despite the shaky smile Isabel gave him she was not reassured, especially considering the fact that the look he was giving them was filled with pity.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:46:30 PM
Chapter 3

Liz’s head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. She struggled in vain to open her eyes but her lids felt leaden. The effort taxed her completely. And yet, she kept trying. She knew instinctively that she needed to open her eyes. Liz finally managed to part them into bare slits. Her vision was fuzzy but she could still make out the man in front of her. Max. She tried to smile, but she didn’t think she made it. Liz felt him lift her hand and bring it to his mouth. That was all the reassurance she needed. Liz drifted back into her drug-induced sleep.

When she awoke a few hours later she felt considerably less groggy. Maria was sitting above her, stroking her hair. Her long blond hair framed her face in a cloud of gold. For a moment Liz thought she resembled an angel. Liz smiled up at her curiously. “Maria?” Her question came out in a thready whisper.

Maria jumped at the sound, jarring Liz slightly. “You’re awake.”

“Hmm,” Liz grunted, nodding. She was slowly becoming aware of her surroundings. The incessant beeping of the monitor beside her bed. The tubes that ran down from her arms. The sterile whiteness of the room. She was in the hospital, Liz realized, but her brain couldn’t instantly grasp the reason why.

Maria could see that Liz was struggling to remember what happened and, oh god, she didn’t want to be the one to tell her. Wouldn’t it just be her luck that when Isabel finally convinced Max to take a break in his bedside vigil for sustenance Liz would wake up? Maria mentally kicked herself for such a selfish thought, but she was having a really hard time dealing with all that had happened. And she couldn’t tell Liz, she couldn’t. Maria couldn’t bear to see her friend hurt in that way, she couldn’t witness Liz’s grief firsthand.

“I’m…in the hospital?” Liz assessed fuzzily, “Why? Did I have the baby?” She gazed at Maria in confusion, who was looking utterly stricken.

Maria eased from the bed, uneasy and on the verge of tears. “Let me go get Max, ok.”

“Maria….just tell…tell me.” Liz was so very tired. It was taking tremendous effort to keep her eyes open. She wanted nothing more than to fall back asleep, but something kept nagging her. She knew from the closed expression on Maria’s face that her best friend was keeping something from her. And she looked, Liz realized with dawning clarity, as if she’d been crying.

Liz felt her heart do a funny little jump and she lifted her hand, running it gingerly down the expanse of her abdomen. It was disturbingly unrounded. In that instant, the memories came flooding back to Liz like a tidal wave. No heartbeat. The ultrasound. Dr. Kadesh telling her that her baby…her son was dead. Going so crazy. She would kill him, kill the doctor. Kill everybody. Because she hurt, she hurt so bad. Suddenly, Liz was totally, devastatingly awake. Liz looked again at Maria. Her pale, pretty face was streaked with tears. “Liz,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

A terrible keening sound filled the hospital room but Liz was too grief stricken to realize the sound was coming from her.

Maria rushed forward to put her arms around Liz’s shoulders at the exact moment that Max and Isabel entered the hospital room. Max immediately rushed to his wife’s side and they wrapped their arms around each other, clinging to one another desperately. No words had to be exchanged between them. They spoke to each other through their mutual agony.

“She just woke up,” Maria sobbed desperately, “I didn’t know what to tell her.”

“It’s fine, Maria,” Isabel comforted, pulling her crying friend into her arms.

Liz reared back in Max’s arms, her tear brightened eyes wide and desperate. “Tell me it’s not true, Max. Tell…me.”

Max looked at her sadly, wanting so desperately to lie to her. He could remember distinctly, even days later, the mind-numbing, absorbing grief he had felt when he’d received the call. He had just finished up his meeting with his clients when his cell phone rang. He had expected it to be Liz. He was grinning widely when he answered the phone saying, “So what’s the lowdown on our kid, Mrs. Evans?”

“Max, it’s me…Isabel.”

“Isabel?” He was immediately alarmed. His first thought was that Isabel sounded weird, hoarse. His second thought was more coherent. Why was Isabel calling him and not Liz? He could only think of one reason. Something must have happened to Liz. “Is it Liz? Did something happen?”

“Max, you need to come to the hospital.”

“What happened, Isabel?” His question broke into a terrorized sob. He tried to take several, deep calming breaths but they only succeeded in making him dizzy. “Just tell me what happened, Is.”

“Liz needs you, Max. She lost the baby.”

More specifically the baby, his son, became tangled in his own umbilical cord and strangled. It was a freak accident, that’s what Dr. Kadesh had said, and usually only happened to 1 in 10,000 women. Max supposed that his wife had been the one. There had been nothing they could do for the baby. He had been dead since the day before.

Max looked at Liz now, knowing she was desperate for reassurance. He was desperate for it as well, but he faced the harsh reality. Their baby was dead. “Liz,” he began tremulously, cupping her cheek in his palm.

Liz placed her index finger to his lips to silence him. “Shh. Shh,” she said with a wobbly smile, “If you don’t say it…it doesn’t have to be true.”

“Liz, please…”

“Let’s just pretend…you know.” She looked at him hopefully, desperately. Within moments her expression crumbled, “Please, Max…”

“Our baby died three days ago, Liz,” he told her softly.

“No. No.” She mewled the words like a little child who refused to accept punishment. “I don’t believe you. I want to see him. I want to see him NOW!”

“Liz,” Max said as little wildly, “he’s dead.”

He was saying the words but they were not computing. Her baby was dead? Her baby was dead? It was like her heart knew the truth, but her brain was refusing to accept it. There was just this wide, gaping pain that grew larger and larger as the seconds passed. And as she looked at Max she could feel a deep-rooted anger begin to bubble forth inside of her.

She balled her hands into fists and beat furiously against Max’s chest. “Why didn’t you stop it, huh? Why didn’t you stop it?”

“Liz, don’t!” Max grabbed hold of her flailing arms, pinning them between their bodies. With relieved gratitude he noted that his sister and Maria had left quietly.

“What good are your alien gifts if they can’t even save our baby!” Liz shouted in anger.

“Liz, I told you….I’m not God,” Max said pitiably. Although he knew that Liz was saying the words in anger they still managed to stab at him like daggers.

“Fuck you!” Liz spat out, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”

“Liz, I know you need someone to blame right now-“

“Don’t you dare try to psycho-analyze me!” Liz raged, ripping away from him. “Just get out! Get out!” she sobbed, burying her face in her hands.

Max reached out his hand to touch her but, realizing that having him touch her was the last thing Liz wanted, let his hand drop. He didn’t find it surprising that she would blame him. After all, she had to find some way to make sense of it all. It was unnatural for a baby to die, even more so for one who had yet to even glimpse the world. And Liz blamed him, because he hadn’t saved their son as he had saved her that day in the Crashdown. Max blamed himself, too. Even though he knew, rationally speaking, he couldn’t have done anything for their baby. And that was what hurt more than anything. That he couldn’t give Liz the thing she wanted most at that moment. Her son.

“I know you’re probably tired,” Max whispered sadly, “Dr. Kadesh gave you some really powerful drugs. I’ll just go walk around outside for a little while.” When he started to lift himself from the bed however, Liz grabbed hold of his wrist.

“Don’t go, Max,” she cried frantically, “Please. I didn’t mean those things I said.”

Max sank back down on the bed. “I know.” He pulled her against his chest, kissing the top of her rumpled head. The sweet, clean smell of her shampoo filled his nostrils and he reveled in the scent. There were a million comforting things that he could tell her, tell himself, after all it was his profession, but Max remained silent. There were no words for the agony that filled them now. There were no words period.

And so Max Evans held his sobbing wife while sobbing himself, praying fervently for the pain to end and for the last three days to be only a bad dream.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:47:56 PM
Chapter 4

“So how’s Liz?” Michael Guerin asked when he found his girlfriend curled up on the lobby sofa of the hospital. At the sound of his voice she scrambled into a sitting position, however, she answered his question with a question of her own. “Where are the kids?”

“They’re downstairs in the car with Alex. We’ve been waiting for you and Is to come relieve us.”

For the past two days they had been switching out, first with the guys watching the kids then the girls. Only this time Isabel and Maria had never come home to switch over.

“Oh, well, the doctors decided to release Liz today.” Maria rubbed the sleep from her eyes and rose to her feet to stretch. “We called but I guess you guys had already left.”

Michael felt his heart contract seeing Maria so washed out and tired. Wordlessly, he pulled her into his arms, stroking the length of her tousled gold hair. “There are reporters crawling all around outside,” he told her softly.

Maria groaned, despising her high-profile lifestyle more than ever. What a time to have to fend off the press, when her best friend’s baby just died. Maria felt ashamed but more than that she felt angry. At first, all the media coverage she’d elicited had seemed great. She was famous. She couldn’t walk down the street or eat in a restaurant without someone stopping and asking for her autograph. But lately her fame was getting in the way of her life. In recent years Maria had come to covet her privacy, which was paramount considering her live in boyfriend was an alien. However, privacy was an impossible concept. There was nothing at all that could happen to her or to someone close to her that wouldn’t be splashed across the front page of tomorrow’s tabloids. As if Max and Liz didn’t have enough to contend with having lost their kid, did they really need for the whole world to commercialize in on their grief?

She pulled out of Michael’s arms, kissing his hands. “You didn’t punch anyone, did you? We certainly don’t need another scandal like last time.”

Michael just smirked but Maria didn’t find anything funny. The last time they had been bombarded by the press Maria had been in labor. The paparazzi had blocked the entrance of their eight-bedroom house and had refused to move before getting their fill of photographs. It didn’t take long for Michael to lose his temper and jump from the car. Before Maria could stop him he had sent three reporters flying. Because of all the pandemonium no one was really fully aware of what happened, yet despite that the three reporters pressed assault charges against Michael. They had even tried to press for police brutality because Michael was a cop. It had been a complete fiasco. And although, in the end, the judge threw out the case the tabloids had had a field day with the story for months.

When Michael saw that Maria was none too pleased with his nonchalant attitude he assured her, “Alex and I parked in the back. No one saw us. They were too busy trying to get into the hospital. By the way, where the hell is Ed?”

“I told him to take off. It had to be a drag for him hanging around here.”

Michael walked over to the coffee machine and punched in an order. While he waited for his coffee to finish he braced his back against the machine, folding his arms across his chest. “Max and Liz any better?”

“They’re not doing too much talking. Isabel and I went ahead and took care of the funeral arrangements.”

“They give him a name?” Michael asked as he retrieved his coffee from the machine.

“Jeffrey Maxwell Evans.”

Michael rubbed the tense muscles at the back of his neck. “It sucks that this happened, you know?”

“Yeah, I think so, too,” Maria said softly, “Listen, Michael, there’s been something I’ve been meaning to tell you, but things have been so…” Maria wrung her hands, feeling that now was not the best time to spring her news, but not wanting to keep it to herself any longer. “I’m pregnant…again.”

The coffee Michael had been sipping spewed from his mouth like a geyser. His reaction caused Maria to snap to attention, fixing him with hurt eyes. Michael pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his mouth. “You’re what?”

“I’m pregnant,” Maria repeated, but this time her voice had an edge to it.

“What about the pill?”

“I guess it didn’t work.” Maria folded her arms across her breasts in a mutinous fashion. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize you’re not happy about this, Michael.”

“Well, the last thing I was expecting was another kid especially when we agreed to have only one.”

“We have two now, so deal with it.”

“Maria-“

“Look, Michael, I was thinking that we should maybe….get married.”

Michael looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “What the hell’s the matter with you today? First the baby, now you’re talking about marriage.”

“Michael, this whole thing with Max and Liz really got to me,” Maria began imploringly, “I just realized how short life really is…you know…that nothing is guaranteed. I think we should take advantage of what we have when we have it.”

“And you think we can do that by getting married?”

“I do.”

“Well, I don’t,” Michael shot out a little angrily, “We’ve already talked about this a hundred times, Maria. I am not human, your lifestyle is not conducive to me keeping that a secret.”

“I’ll give it up then.”

“Maria, that’s not going to solve anything and you know it.”

“No, Michael, what I know is that you’re using my fame as a cop out. If you don’t want to marry me just say you don’t!,” Maria shouted.

“Fine! I don’t want to marry you!” he shouted back.

The words echoed through the tiny room, devastating Maria with their harshness. Michael was instantly sorry that he had hurt her, but when he reached out his hand to touch her she yanked away. “Maria-“

“Don’t say anything,” she said hoarsely. She didn’t bother to hold back her tears, but held her head high as they trickled down her cheeks. “I just know how you really feel now.”

“Maria, we’re both emotional right now, saying things we don’t mean.”

“No, I meant everything I said and so did you. In view of that I think you should go home and pack your things. That South American, undercover thing you were considering…go on and take it, cause right now I don’t want to be anywhere near you.”

She turned and walked from the lobby, her shoulders straight and dignified, leaving Michael to curse his stupidity alone.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:49:34 PM
Chapter 5

“…and so we gather here today to bid farewell to the little soul that God has seen fit to take back into his tender keeping. May the Lord bless and keep our beloved little Jeffrey Maxwell Evans and the loving family he left behind. Amen.”

In Liz’s mind the reverend’s words seemed far away, as if they were a dream. In fact her entire world had taken on some ethereal, dreamlike reality, where she floated from day to day without ever really being conscious of anything. But she was conscious of the little wooden coffin they lowered into the freshly dug grave. She was completely conscious of the aching void her little son had left in her heart. I never got to hold him, Liz lamented silently, never got to smell his sweet baby scent. She didn’t even know what he looked like. Liz wanted desperately to cry, to curse at the wind, at God, at whoever was responsible for taking her baby, but she knew anything she did would prove futile. In the end, her baby would still be dead.

Liz blamed herself for his loss. Perhaps if she had shared her fears with Max sooner he could have prevented this. Instead of morning their son’s loss they would have been celebrating his birth. The irony struck a bitter chord within Liz. Her son had been due to be born that very day. The day of his funeral. The tears were inside Liz’s chest, welling within her like flood waters against a dam, but she refused to release them. What good would they do anyway? As the small casket disappeared into the ground below Liz realized that a large portion of herself was being buried with her son.

Max slid a wary glance at his wife sitting beside him. She was pale, almost ghostlike, her dark hair pulled back in a tight, ruthless bun. Her attitude was aloof, cool, indifferent. Max wanted so desperately to hold her, to soothe the pain he knew was tearing her apart, the pain that was tearing him apart, but he knew without acting that she would reject him. Liz hadn’t said two words to him since they’d brought her home from the hospital. It was like she had retreated to her own world and was refusing to let anyone in, even Claudia. Max didn’t know what hurt worse, losing his son or losing his wife.

Alex looked on at his two friends with supreme sadness filling his heart. Of all the people this could have happened to Max and Liz deserved it least. In his arms, Claudia began to fret, her small arms outstretched for her mother. Alex did the best he could to calm her, whispering her favorite song into her ear, tickling her. But the more he tried, the louder she cried. In the end, Isabel had to slip her a piece of hard candy to quiet her. Although her bottom lip continued to tremble and tears still caused her amber eyes to sparkle the candy was enough to calm her down.

After a few moments, Claudia laid her head against Alex’s shoulder, stroking his neck with her sticky hand. Alex felt sorry for the kid. For the last three days she had gone virtually unnoticed by her parents, spending the majority of her time with Alex and Isabel. Liz was much too wrapped up in her own grief to notice Claudia or anyone else for that matter. And Max was too preoccupied with trying to help Liz to deal with anything else. On the one hand, Alex understood their pain and sympathized with them. After all, they had just lost a child and Alex knew that the pain must be unbearable. However, Alex did not think that even that was excuse for ignoring the child they did have.

Isabel Whitman felt her husband tense beside her, but she didn’t need to look at him to know that he was angry. And she knew without asking the exact reason why. They’d had their very first argument this morning over it. The knowledge made Isabel feel extremely uneasy and unhappy in addition to all her grief. She especially hated being estranged from Alex considering what they were all dealing with, but she happened to feel that he was being much too harsh with Max and Liz. Isabel’s mind wandered back to their argument earlier that morning.

She had been in the bedroom pulling on her stockings when Alex came in from A.J.’s nursery. “So will we be dropping Claudia off after the funeral?” he asked, bracing his shoulder against the doorframe.

“Actually Max asked me yesterday if we would be willing to keep her a few more days.” Isabel tried to sound casual as she said it, but she was already all too aware of how Alex felt about it. She had expected him to explode and true to her expectations, he did.

“Yes, we sure as hell do mind!”

“Alex,” Isabel began reasonably, “they’re going through a hard time right now. Give them a break.”

“I know they’re going through a hard time, Isabel. All the more reason Claudia should be with them and vice versa.”

“Liz is in no frame of mind to take care of Claudia,” Isabel reminded him softly.

“Only because we make it easier for her not to.”

Isabel leveled him with a cold look. “Everyone who figures that I’m the heartless one in this relationship has certainly got it all wrong.”

“I’m heartless because I’m trying to look out for Claudia? In this whole mess no one’s thought about that little girl once.”

“This isn’t about Claudie at all!” Isabel exploded, finally losing her temper, “You’re just upset because having Claudia here is an inconvenience for you!”

He looked stricken by what she said. His face actually drained of color but Isabel was much too angry to care. “You don’t mean that, Isabel,” he said softly.

“The hell I don’t,” she countered just as softly.

They were the last words she had spoken to him since before the left for the funeral and they continued to be between them even now. Alex had been right, Isabel hadn’t meant any of those things she’d said, but she’d been so angry because he seemed not to care about Max and Liz’s feelings at all. But Isabel did agree with him on one point, they couldn’t go on caring for Claudia indefinitely. She needed her parents and they needed her.

After the coffin had been completely lowered into the ground, Liz turned away and began walking back towards the long, black limo that waited on the curb. Max followed despondently behind her. As if on cue everyone else began to disperse along with them. Michael Guerin immediately seized the opportunity to catch up with Maria and grab her arm.

Immediately, upon seeing her father Mickey squealed, extending her arms to him. Michael swung her up into his arms with a laugh, hugging her close. After sitting through that funeral he couldn’t hold his little girl close enough. But holding Mickey had not been the only reason he’d stopped Maria. “We need to talk,” he told her in a low voice.

“This is hardly the time or the place, Michael,” Maria gritted, checking the urge to yank her daughter out of his arms.

“It’s either now or later, but either way: We talk today, Maria.”

“Fine. Say whatever you have to say,” Maria sighed impatiently, “I want to get back to Liz.”

“Look, I was a jerk to you the other day and I’m sorry. Maria, I love you, you know that. I mean….I guess the whole pregnancy thing just freaked me.”

“So does this mean you’re willing to marry me now?”

“I’m not saying all that-“

“Well, then we have nothing to talk about,” she said, lifting their daughter out of his arms. True to form, Mickey began wailing but Maria ignored it. “Say bye-bye to daddy, Michelle.”

“Bye-bye, Daddy,” Mickey sobbed obediently, flexing her little hand at her father as her mother walked away.

In the limo Isabel squeezed Alex’s thigh and offered him a tentative smile. “Are you talking to me now?” Despite himself, Alex smiled back at her. Part of him was annoyed that his wife could dispel his anger with a single smile and part of him didn’t care because he was just so elated that they were speaking again. “I’m sorry about what I said this morning,” Isabel continued contritely.

“Me too. I can see how I might have sounded a little harsh. Forgive me?”

Isabel’s brown eyes softened as she gazed at her husband. “Only if you forgive me.” They kissed softly, smiling and whispering love words to one another between the kisses.

Maria climbed into the limo, sighing with disgust. “Oh you two, get a room!” Everyone laughed at her comment. Everyone except Liz. She only continued to stare dejectedly out the window to the place where her son had just been buried. Seeing how unhappy she appeared, Max felt a little guilty for laughing, even guiltier because the laughing had actually made him feel better. It was so tiring being sad all the time.

Maria squeezed over in the seat between Max and Liz. Resting her chin against Liz’s shoulder she advised softly, “If you cry, Liz, it will make a world of difference.”

“Why?” Liz asked, speaking for the first time in days. The unexpected shock of it silenced all sound in the limousine. Liz turned away from the window and leveled Maria with a dull stare. “If I cry it changes nothing, right? My baby’s still dead.”

Maria framed her friend’s face with her hands. “But you’re alive, Liz. You’re alive!”

“Am I?” Liz responded bleakly, before turning back towards the window. No, she certainly did not feel alive. Not at all.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:51:49 PM
Chapter 6

“What are you doing here, Isabel?”

“I’ve come to bring your daughter home,” Isabel said crisply. She didn’t wait for him to invite her in but scooted past him into the dimly lit foyer of her brother’s condo. Against her breast his sleeping daughter lay while Isabel carried her pink baby bag in her free hand. When she looked at her brother, however, her cool attitude quickly dissolved into pity. He appeared pale and bleak and he had to have lost at least ten pounds in the last two months. It didn’t appear that he had been getting much sleep either because there were dark smudges under his eyes. God, Isabel thought, he looks horrible. But Isabel fought against her pity otherwise it would weaken her resolve to do what she knew needed to be done. “Is there anywhere I can lay Claudia? She’s kinda heavy.”

“Just bring her into the living room,” Max said, turning in that direction. Isabel followed him in silence. Even in the darkness she could tell that the place was a wreck. As she got into the living room she realized that the sofa had been made into a bed and it looked as if Max had moved most of his clothing downstairs. Max wordlessly indicated for Isabel to lay Claudia on the sofa. Isabel laid her down gently then raised her questioning gaze to Max. “Liz didn’t want to be in the same room with me.”

“Why didn’t you just move your things to Claudia’s room?”

Max shrugged, running his fingers through his already tousled hair. “Just seemed easier, I guess. Can I get you something to drink, Is? Tea? Soda?”

“No. What you can do is tell me why the two weeks I agreed to keep Claudia with me has turned into two months,” Isabel demanded bluntly.

She could tell that her statement shamed Max because he hung his head, no longer able to meet her eyes. But despite being aware of his guilt, Isabel pressed on, without warning full of anger. “I put my marriage in jeopardy for you, Max. I went out on a limb. Alex had been telling me from the very beginning not to make it so easy for you and Liz to ignore Claudia because in your grief you’d take advantage. And I defended you, Max! My husband and I are barely on speaking terms now!”

“I’m sorry, Isabel,” was all Max could manage.

“Sorry isn’t going to cut it, dammit! You haven’t been to see Claudie in over a month, Max.”

Max couldn’t argue with her. Everything that she was saying was true. It seemed that ever since his son’s death his world had been slowly spinning out of control, further and further beyond his reach until he couldn’t recognize his life anymore. With a sense of desperate hope he had believed that after the funeral Liz would somehow get better. She’d done just the opposite. The more time passed the further she seemed to drift from him. She didn’t eat, she didn’t sleep. She was just there. Just existing.

After a month of her behavior Max thought he would go insane. He wanted so badly to reawaken that spirited, lively girl he had fallen in love with. Max had thought foolishly that if they made love, if they reestablished the close bond they had shared before then they both could start the road toward healing. But Liz had fought him off as if he had been trying to rape her. She had screamed at him to get out, that she never wanted him to touch her again. Since that night Max had kept his distance from her. He took her meals, checked on her to make sure she was okay, but he never took it any further than that because he knew it was the last thing she wanted.

And then he had thought about Claudia. How was he supposed to bring her back so a home so full of sadness and gloom? A place where her very own mother wouldn’t recognize her? He had been devastated to realize that Liz had so effectively shut him out. What the hell would that do to a four-year-old child? Max had thought that he was doing the right thing by leaving her with Alex and Isabel. He knew that while there she would receive love and attention and would be surrounded by happiness. He never dreamed, however, that his desire to give his daughter those things would put such a strain on his sister’s marriage.

He gazed at his sister now. She looked tired, worn to the bone. Nothing had been the same in any of their lives since the baby had died. Even Maria and Michael were no longer together. Two days after Jeffrey’s funeral Michael had left on an FBI assignment for South America. He had told Max that he was leaving because Maria had handed him an ultimatum and he refused to be “emotionally blackmailed” by her. However, Max had known the truth. Michael had left Maria because he was scared, scared to commit to her, scared to be the man she deserved. And so, in typical Michael fashion, he ran.

But Maria, of course, took his desertion with the stoicism of a general. Typical Maria. Instead of reflecting on her own disastrous life she set out to help Liz and Max pick up the shattered pieces of their own. Not that he or his wife made it easy for her to help, Max thought. Still he was grateful that she cared at all and that she was unwilling to give up on them.

Max realized that Isabel and Alex had been just as supportive of them and Max had done just what Alex said he would do; he had taken advantage. The burden of guilt was suddenly too much for Max and he collapsed into a nearby chair, sobs wracking his body.

Isabel went to her brother, wrapping her arms around his shaking shoulders, her own tears falling unchecked down her cheeks. “It’s okay, Max,” she whispered comfortingly, rubbing the length of his back, “It’s okay.”

“I…don’t know…what to do…Isabel,” he sobbed brokenly, “Liz…she won’t let me near her…she won’t let me in…God!….can’t she see I’m hurt…hurting, too?”

“Max, you can’t go on like this,” Isabel told him brokenly, “Somebody has to be there for Claudia.”

“But that’s why I left her with you and Alex,” he explained hoarsely, “I wanted her to have that.”

“I’m not her mother, Max,” she told him tearily. Isabel pulled back so that she could look him in the eyes when she said, “I’m not you. Max, you don’t know what it’s been like having that little girl ask for you,” she gestured towards Claudia, “and having to make up excuses as to why you aren’t there. But it was when she stopped asking for you period that I knew I had to bring her home.”

“I didn’t mean to take advantage of you, Is,” Max told her sadly.

“I know it.” Isabel supposed she had to take part of the blame for Max’s dependency. It had seemed all their lives Isabel had looked to Max for support and never the other way around. And now, for the first time in their whole lives, Max needed her. He needed her. The knowledge made Isabel feel fiercely protective toward her brother. She had only sought to ease Max’s pain and help him to cope with the death of his son. She had never imagined that she would be enabling him to remain sheltered in his grief, that she would become, in essence, his emotional crutch.

Alex had told her over and over, but she had refused to listen to him. Even knowing that, she couldn’t hold her anger against Max. She had been the one to side with him over her husband. That had been Isabel’s decision alone. She couldn’t blame the problems in her marriage on Max. She was the responsible for the damage done. She would have to be the one to fix her marriage.

“Max, you can’t expect anyone to raise your child for you, just like I can’t expect anyone to fix my problems with Alex.”

“I’m just so confused right now, Isabel. I just don’t know what to do.”

“Be a father to your daughter, Max. It’s the best thing you can do.”

Max looked towards his daughter, sleeping so soundly on the sofa, and he knew that Isabel was right. There was nothing more he could do for Liz until she was ready to accept his help. But Claudia, she needed a father now. She needed Max. Isabel was right. Being a father to Claudia was the best thing he could do, not only for her, Max realized gratefully, but for himself as well.


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 9-Dec-2002 9:56:52 PM ]
posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:54:33 PM
Chapter 7

“…Joanna you were supposed to be here half an hour ago,” Max said, cradling the receiver between his cheek and shoulder while brushing his squirming daughter’s hair. “What…You’re sick….I have to be at work in forty minutes….no Joanna….Joanna? Dammit!” Max punched the off button on the mobile phone in sheer frustration.

After an almost three month leave of absence Max was all set for his first day back to work and the babysitter turns out to be a no-show. Max cursed under his breath, in part for the situation with the sitter and in part because he couldn’t get Claudia to sit still long enough to tie her hair into a ponytail. Finally, he gave up, scooping Claudia’s curls up in his hand and rubber banding them to the top of her head. She looked up at him with round eyes. Her hair resembled a small tree sprouting from the crown of her head. Max tipped his head to the side, eyeing her quizzically. “It’ll have to do,” he muttered to himself.

Max had come a long way in the weeks since Isabel had visited him. He felt that time had been one of maturation for him. He had realized that whenever adversity had struck between he and Liz he had always seemed content to hide from the problem and pretend it didn’t exist. But since he and Isabel talked Max had decided to face his problems head on. And yes, the sadness was still there and Max supposed it would always be. Liz was still unresponsive toward him, still locked away from him. But Max didn’t allow the negativities in his life to bring him down. He couldn’t afford to. Taking Isabel’s advice he had focused on Claudia and her well-being.

Before Liz had withdrawn Max had taken so many things for granted where his daughter was concerned. He had never given a second thought to Claudia’s hair or dressing her. Liz had always taken care of those things. However, Liz was incapable, if unwilling, to do those things now. Max had been left with no other option but to take responsibility for those things and as a result he’d grown, as a father and as a man. It was true that Claudia’s hair didn’t always look the best and more often than not her clothing was severely unmatched. Still the point was that Max put forth the effort and that spoke volumes.

Thus having come so far Max didn’t want to begin his fresh start at life with being late for work. He cast a woeful look toward the staircase that led to the upstairs bedroom. He couldn’t very well ask Liz to watch Claudia. His only other recourse, because he absolutely refused to bother Alex and Isabel, was to beg Maria’s help. It wasn’t that Max doubted for a moment that Maria would help him if he asked. It was just that he hated the idea of asking. Maria had enough to deal with already.

News of her impending motherhood and break-up with Michael had already become fodder for the tabloids. She spent most of her time ducking the paparazzi or encamped in her penthouse apartment. And since she announced her intention to take a hiatus from singing to “find herself” the media had been all over her in a virtual frenzy, painting her as everything from a heartbroken waif to a temperamental bitch. Max wanted nothing less than to add to her burden, but at the moment he felt as if he’d been left with little choice. He clicked on the phone and reluctantly dialed her number. After the fourth ring he heard a mumbled, sleepy “hello.”

“Maria, it’s me Max. Sorry to wake you.”

“Max!” Maria grumbled into the phone, as she struggled into a sitting position. “Do you know what time it is?” she asked him crankily and because she didn’t know she glared at the digital clock beside her bed. The glowing red numbers red 7:32. Maria yawned. “You may get up with the chickens but that doesn’t mean everyone else does, too.”

“You know I wouldn’t call you if I didn’t have a good reason.”

Maria eyed the phone suspiciously before asking, “What’s the reason?”

“I need a favor.”

“I knew it!”

“Come on, Maria, don’t be like that. Joanna flaked out on me and I need a sitter for Claudia. I’ve got to be at work in half an hour.”

“If I’m supposed to fight the rabid reporters camped outside my apartment to do you a favor what’s in it for me?”

“Chinese,” Max supplied quickly.

Maria was unimpressed. “I had Chinese last week.”

“Okay, how about Greek?”

“Last night”

“God, Maria! What do you want? My kidney?”

“Hmm,” Maria hummed, pretending to consider his offer.

“Maria, don’t be glib. I’m really in a bind.”

“Fine. But you owe me soooo big. Just give me fifteen to get there.”

“Make it ten.”

“Max!” Maria cried in warning exasperation.

“Okay, okay…..twelve then.”

****************************

“….and I’ve told him over and over not to leave the toilet seat up and still he does it,” Mrs. Bradshaw griped, glaring daggers at her husband, “It’s spite, pure spite!”

“Oh, blow it out your ear, Lois!” Mr. Bradshaw responded with equal heat.

Max suppressed the urge to roll his eyes and instead leaned back onto his elbow, supporting his chin with his thumb. “Good, good,” he said, “you two are expressing your anger. Now let’s proceed from there. Lois, why do you feel that Sam is being intentionally spiteful towards you?”

“Well just look at him!” Lois Bradshaw replied with a look of distaste mixed with disgust, “The man is Satan incarnate!” And with that began another endless round of bickering.

Max sighed deeply. He was seriously beginning to doubt his career choice. The couple before him was completely hopeless. All they did was fight and complain, neither one taking the time to listen to the other. Personally, Max thought it was a waste of time for them to even attempt to stay together and he wanted nothing more than to tell them so. But that wasn’t his job. His job was to give them reason to stay together, to give them hope…. However, at the moment that was an especially difficult thing for Max to do considering the problems he was having in his own marriage.

His wife hadn’t spoken to him in over two months, closer to three if you counted having a conversation that required more than a yes or no response. Despite the painful reality that they had lost a child together Liz had cut herself off from him emotionally, which in some ways, was more agonizing than Jeffrey’s death. He needed so desperately to have his wife back, to grieve in her arms and have her grieve in his. Max firmly believed that if Liz were willing to demolish the barrier she had erected against him she could heal….they could heal together. But she couldn’t…or at least she wouldn’t. And Max tended to lean toward the latter.

However, Isabel had been of the mindset that Liz needed help, that she was suffering some sort of breakdown. She had suggested to Max that he actually consider committing Liz to a mental facility. Max had looked at her as if she were the one who had gone insane. Liz was just sad and depressed, maybe a little distant, but definitely not….crazy. The idea that Liz needed to be put away was completely ludicrous to Max. But that was Isabel’s take on the situation. However, Max did not allow her opinion or Alex’s, who ironically supported Isabel’s idea, dissuade him. He firmly believed with time and love he could crack the shell that Liz had built around herself. He just had to be patient.

Max looked again to the fighting couple before him and admitted to himself that he felt just a tiny bit of envy. It was true that the Bradshaws had a great deal to learn about respect for one another, but underneath it all Max knew that they wanted their marriage to work. They would have never sought out his help otherwise. Max could see that they loved each other and wanted desperately to hold onto their marriage. Despite the bickering and the hurtful words they were still desperately holding on. Max couldn’t say the same thing about his own marriage.

It was true that he was willing to do everything and anything to fight for his relationship with Liz, however, the question was whether Liz was willing to do the same. She didn’t seem so far inclined. Maria said that it was only due to grief, that maybe Liz blamed herself for the baby dying and that somewhere inside her she was terrified that Max would blame her, too. And so she shut him out, because, although she had survived the agony of losing her baby, if Max were to hold her responsible it would kill her. Max mentally shook his head in bitter amusement. Maria and her cork-brained ideas, he thought, where did she come up with all this stuff?

But at least she didn’t believe that Liz was crazy and needed to be committed to a mental hospital. That was a plus. In the last passing weeks, though, Max had to acknowledge that Maria had been a wonderful friend to him. Despite her burgeoning personal problems, and they were mountainous, she had never failed to make time for Max. He could call her up at 3:00 in the morning and she would listen to him sound off. She always made him feel as if she had time for him, as if she understood him and all this sometimes without ever uttering a word. Sometimes they would have lunch together, when the media wasn’t pounding her too hard, and she would make his sides ache from laughing so hard at her antics. Now he understood why Liz had always described every lunch date she’d had with Maria as a “riot.”

Before the baby died, Max had always thought of Maria as more of Liz’s friend and his best friend’s girlfriend. He had never considered what Maria had been to him personally. But in the last three months she had proved herself to Max time and time again. His relationship with Maria had evolved from something he had shared vicariously through his wife into something that was exclusively his own. Max marveled over the fact that he had never considered her before but now that he had he realized that he had a friend for life. And for that Max was grateful beyond words.

The sudden and unexpected ringing of the phone jarred Max out of his thoughts. The Bradshaws paused in mid-sentence. The three of them glared in displeasure at the phone. Max jerked up the receiver and swiveled around in his chair so that his back was to the Bradshaws. “Theresa,” he chided his secretary in a furious underbreath, “I thought we had established that you are never to call me when I’m in a session.”

“Yes, Dr. Evans,” Theresa acknowledged with a slight tremble in her voice, “But Ms. DeLuca insisted. She said that it was urgent.”

Max rolled his eyes at the thought. Urgent to Maria could be any number of things, all of which, when you came right down to it, weren’t urgent at all. Max sighed heavily, “Oh just put her through.” When he heard the transfer click of the telephone he said, “Okay, Maria, what’s happened now?”

“Max, you need to get to St. Joseph’s hospital right away.”

Her trembling words caused Max to sit up straight in his seat. “Why? What’s happened?”

“It’s Liz. She tried to kill herself.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:57:42 PM
Chapter 8

“…..it’s my strong recommendation that Mrs. Evans receive a full psychiatric evaluation as it is clear that she has suffered a severe breakdown.”

Max regarded the physician through hollow eyes. He felt as if his world were spinning out of control once again and he was caught, unaware, in the middle, twisting and turning. As Max looked at the doctor he felt as if everything he had put his trust in, his love in, had crumbled. When Maria had first told him over the phone he had been dumbfounded. The words didn’t really compute. The full impact of what had happened didn’t really hit him until he had seen Liz, pale and near death in that hospital bed. And Maria….her clothes soaked through with Liz’s blood. And then he had gotten sick. He ran straight for the bathroom and emptied the contents of his stomach into the toilet. He had been barely aware of Maria above him, stroking his hair.

When he had composed himself Maria had gone to seek out the doctor so Max could know what was going on. Liz had lost a great deal of blood. If Maria hadn’t acted so quickly Liz would be dead. Max had flashed her a grateful, teary smile, which she shakily returned. He was silently grateful for her presence. The doctor then went on to explain the hospital’s policy in treating suicide attempts. They would keep Liz for observation for three days and then she would be referred to the mental facility where she must spend a mandatory week. Beyond that it was Max’s decision what treatment she received. But the doctor made it clear that he felt Liz should be hospitalized.

After he left to give Max time to think over his options Max drifted over to a chair in the corner of the room and slowly sat down. His dazed expression alarmed Maria and so she tentatively approached him, asking, “Are you okay?”

“Isabel told me that I should get her help,” he muttered self-deprecatingly, “but I didn’t listen.”

Maria slid to her knees before him, taking his hands in her own. “You didn’t know she was so bad off. Neither did I. Don’t blame yourself.”

“I can heal her,” Max said in a sob, looking towards Liz’s still figure in the bed.

“That would only take care of the outside,” Maria told him softly, “You can’t fix what’s wrong in her head, Max.”

Max knew that she was right. There was nothing he could do for Liz that modern medicine wasn’t instituting. And besides fixing her body would only be a temporary solution. Whatever had driven Liz to attempt suicide was something that was far beyond Max’s control. It was something he couldn’t change for her, no matter how desperately he wanted to. “Did you call Alex and Isabel?” he asked Maria in a hollow voice.

“Isabel’s going to stay with the kids, but Alex should be here shortly.”

Max chafed Maria’s hands between his own. They were cold and trembling and stained with Liz’s blood. “What happened?” he inquired hoarsely.

“I had just fixed the girls lunch,” Maria began unsteadily, “I thought Liz might be hungry so I took a sandwich upstairs. She wasn’t in the bed when I got there but I heard water running in the bathroom so I figured she must be there,” she paused, taking a deep breath before she continued, “I knocked on the door and told her that I had brought her some lunch and I was about to turn away when I noticed something leaking from underneath the door,” her voice began to crack, tears making it rough and hoarse, “I had to pick the lock on the door because I couldn’t get in at first…. and when I got in…. she was lying on the floor….in a pool of blood….” Max could tell from the expression on her face that she was no longer in that hospital room but back in the bathroom with Liz. “I gagged…you know…because it was so much….and then it was like instinct took over….I wrapped her wrists really tight to staunch the bleeding as much as possible and then I ran to call 911. The operator asked me if she was conscious and I said no….at that point I don’t think I was really even sure she was alive….but the operator told me to elevate her wrists to slow the bleeding….that’s what I did….until the paramedics came.”

Max brushed away the tears on Maria’s cheeks with the pads of his thumbs. “You saved her life,” he acknowledged quietly, “Thank you.”

And that’s how Alex found them, Maria kneeling at Max’s feet, crying while he gently brushed away her tears. “Is she all right?” he asked, immediately striding towards the hospital bed. She looked pale and still, but she was breathing, shallow and faint, but breathing none-the-less.

Max came to his feet and went to stand on the other side of the bed, opposite Alex. “The doctor thinks that Liz needs psychiatric help…you know…an institution.”

“Maybe it’s for the best, Max,” Alex said sadly, “This has just gotten so very out of hand.” Alex Whitman looked down into the ashen face of one of his oldest and best friends and felt as if his heart were breaking in half. However, his massive feelings of grief were compounded by guilt. For months they had all known that Liz was not well and yet they had let it go on. And look what had happened….

Alex tentatively brushed at the hair that fell across Liz’s forehead. “She’s lost a lot of weight,” he noted hoarsely. Max could only stare. His throat ached with tears he couldn’t seem to shed. He and Alex regarded each other in agonized silence.

Maria struggled to her feet, dragging a shaky hand down her pale face. “I’m gonna go outside….get some air.”

At her words, which seemed so loud in the quiet of the hospital room, Max jerked up his head. “I’ll come with you.” He looked at Alex whose eyes were still glued on Liz.

“I’ll sit with her,” he said when he finally looked up. He looked from Maria whose clothes were stiff with dried blood to Max who looked as if he were about to be ill. “You both look as if you could use some air.”

Max and Maria walked out to the waiting room of the hospital in silence. Only when they were finally inside did Maria lose control of her emotions, collapsing against Max’s chest, sobbing harshly. “God…Max! I’m sorry…. I’m so…so sorry!”

“It’s not your fault, Maria,” Max croaked as he guided them towards an empty green sofa. He didn’t know how long he sat there, holding Maria against him, stroking her hair while she cried. “I should have watched her better,” Maria hiccupped into his chest, “if I’d have watched her better this wouldn’t have happened.”

Max lifted her chin so that their eyes met. “I don’t blame you, Maria,” he told her intensely, “if anyone should be apologizing it should be me.” Maria choked out a teary, scoffing laugh. “No,” Max said, placing his hand against her mouth, “hear me out. Michael walked out on you. You’re single mother who’s five months pregnant and as if that’s not enough you’ve got the press hounding your every move. You did not need me dumping all my crap on you.”

“You didn’t dump anything.”

“Yes, I did. Ever since Liz lost the baby everything in our lives has been out of control.” He shook his head in grieved fatigue. “I mean, my God, she tried to kill herself, Maria! And you know what? All I can feel right now is anger, just pure rage that she could be so damned selfish!”

“Max, she’s hurting,” Maria reminded him softly.

“So am I, Maria,” he sighed, “so am I.”

*****************************
Max smoothed his tie for the fourth time in ten minutes. His palms were sweating. Max drummed his fingers unconsciously against the Formica top table. He had to fight hard against jiggling his knee. However, as he sat in the visiting room of Cedar Ridge Sanitarium he couldn’t help but feel nervous as he anxiously waited from Liz to pass through the door that led back to the patient’s quarters. He hadn’t seen her in a week, not since she had voluntarily committed herself. Max didn’t know quite how to act around her. What would they talk about? Should he just pretend as if nothing had happened? Would she be glad to see him? The questions pounded through his brain as he stared at the closed door for what seemed like an eternity. And then, when he was just about to look away, it opened and Liz, accompanied by a nurse, shuffled through the door.

“You can’t stay long, Mr. Evans,” the nurse told him as she helped Liz to sit down across from him, “She needs her rest.”

When the nurse left Max took time to study his wife. Alex was right. Liz had lost a great deal of weight. In fact, he barely recognized her. He felt as if his wife had vanished only to be replaced by a complete stranger. It was a lonely feeling. Max cleared his throat. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Tired,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “They give me a lot of medication. I’m out of it most of the time.”

Max couldn’t help but feel a small bit of elation. It was the most she’d said to him in three months. Still, it wasn’t enough to deaden the anger he felt building against her. “Are your scars healing?” he inquired somewhat callously.

Liz jerked up her head at his tone, narrowing her eyes. With a scornful smirk she flipped up her wrists to reveal the still fresh stitches that were sewn into her bruised flesh. “Almost brand new,” she quipped.

Max flinched to see the results of her handiwork. He covered the lower half of his face with his hand. “God, Liz…” he muttered.

His reaction seemed to humble Liz because she asked in a shaky whisper, “How is Claude?”

Max glared at her with intense eyes. “She misses her mother.”

The guilt his words evoked reflected on Liz’s face. She felt tears start in her eyes. Liz had to swallow several times before she could stammer, “I miss her, too…”

“….You can come home, Liz,” Max interjected quickly.

“….but I can’t be anyone’s mother right now, Max. I can’t.”

“What?”

She looked at him squarely then, her eyes shining with tears. “I don’t think you should come here again.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 9:59:46 PM
Chapter 9

“I’m making my world famous lasagna so you can’t say no.”

Max popped open one eye only to have his vision flooded with the underside of Maria’s rounded belly. He suppressed a long-suffering groan. Despite his repeated insistence that he be left alone Maria continued to make a nuisance of herself, determined so she said, “to save Max from himself.” But then he had plenty of reasons for feeling lower than dirt considering the fact that his wife had effectively shut him out of her life. Liz didn’t want to see him and she didn’t want to see Claudia. At first Max had been agonized by her request. He didn’t think she could possibly hurt him worse.

After he left her he had driven the streets blindly. Somehow he’d made it to Maria’s door. When she found him standing there she didn’t say anything. She only wrapped her arms around him, holding him close while he sobbed. When he was calm enough to tell her what happened she was quick to reassure him. “Oh, Liz just needs time,” she said, “Give her a few days.”

Max took her advice and a few days later he returned to Cedar Ridge, flowers in hand, determined to reconcile with his wife and repair their marriage. Her doctor met him in the lobby. He told Max that Liz felt that he was a hindrance to her recovery and that she’d requested that Max not be admitted to see her. For a long time Max sat in the lobby, the wilting flowers dangling from his fingertips. In that moment he felt effectively destroyed, helpless. He had no choice but to pick up the shattered remains of his life and attempt to move on.

That night Maria made him lasagna laced heavily with Tabasco. They’d eaten in silence. Max was grateful that Maria didn’t push to know what had happened at the clinic. After that night it went unspoken between them: Max would come over, Maria would cook. Sometimes there were variations in the night. Perhaps they’d watch a movie or play cards. Most definitely they’d make one another laugh. They sat together, watching their children play. Becoming friends….becoming close. The more time they spent together the happier they became and the more trivial the problems that they individually faced seemed.

In the weeks since Max had gone to see Liz, his pain had faded into a pleasant indifference. It wasn’t that he didn’t think of her, because he did, everyday. Nights were especially painful, he missed her so much. Her smell, her smile, the endearing way she had of conforming her body against his as she slept….the way they made love. However, now Max could reflect on those memories without the bitterness or anger that usually came with them. He was slowly learning to live again.

Max reluctantly pushed himself upright and returned Maria’s wide grin. “Not even your lasagna is bribe enough for me living through another one of your Lamaze classes. Why can’t you go to normal classes like everyone else?”

“Because I’m not everyone else,” Maria replied flippantly, sticking out her tongue, “Besides Jean Paul is a guru. He’s way before his time.”

“He’s a nutcase!” Max cracked blandly.

Maria knelt down beside him, taking his hand between her own. “Am I going to have to result to guilt tactics, Max?” Max’s expression remained unmoved. “Please, Max, don’t make me beg. You know I’m absolutely pathetic when I beg.”

“Who’s going to watch the kids, Maria?”

“Lydia.”

Max stared at her in confusion. “I thought you had fired Lydia. You said she was lazy and never showed up for work on time.”

“Well, do you remember when I told you that nannies were a dime a dozen?”

“Yeah?”

“I was really wrong.”

Max couldn’t help but laugh at her befuddled expression. In fact, Maria was always making him laugh. Sometimes she could make him laugh so hard he forgot all the reasons he was supposed to be sad. And Max suspected, although Maria had never actually said anything, that he made her feel the exact same way. The idea made Max happy. He liked to think that he and Maria were good for one another that they were helping each other heal. As the days wore on Max found himself feeling more and more grateful towards Maria, cherishing their friendship as something extremely dear to him.

He looked at her shining face, her wide grin and rolled his eyes in self-disgust. “Okay, okay, I’ll go! Just give me twenty minutes to throw on some clothes and get Claudia dressed.”

“I’ll take care of Claudia,” Maria volunteered cheerily.

Max gave her a sour look before stumbling through the bathroom door.

*********************************

“……you want to feel the air flowing over your body. You’re an airy, little butterfly….fly…fly…fly…fly!”

Max glanced around the Lamaze class in consternation as all the women in attendance made airplane arms and pretended they were flying, including Maria. Max then slid his gaze to the instructor., a short balding man with thick bifocal glasses. He wasn’t much to look at but the women in his class treated him like a god. Frankly, Max didn’t get it. What the hell did pretending to be a butterfly have to do with Lamaze breathing anyway? Max wasn’t an expert but he couldn’t imagine it was a whole lot.

Max ran his hands across Maria’s abdomen in small, soothing circles. Beneath his hands the baby gave three sharp thumps. Maria paused momentarily in her imitation of a butterfly to flash Max a smile. He smiled back and Maria leaned against him again, a butterfly once more. It wasn’t the first time he’d felt the baby kick. That first time had been awkward for them both. Max had felt a twinge of guilt to be sharing something so intimate with Maria. And yet he had been unspeakably grateful that she was willing to share something so personal with him.

“So have you heard from Michael?”

At his question Maria heaved a disgusted sigh and dropped her arms. “You totally ruined my concentration.”

“It was just a question, Maria,” Max countered softly.

The look she gave him was a mixture of contrition and annoyance. “You know I haven’t, Max, not since before the funeral.”

“It’s just I can’t help but feel that Michael should be here sharing this with you, not me.”

“You don’t want to be here with me?”

“Maria, you know that’s not it-“

“Ms. DeLuca,” the instructor interrupted in a stern voice, “is there a problem? You’re not being a butterfly.”

“I’m just feeling a little uncomfortable,” Maria stammered, embarrassed to the core. Behind her, Max bit his lip to keep from laughing.

“Perhaps then you should take a breather…..outside, as to not disrupt the class further.”

Outside the classroom Max couldn’t suppress his chuckles. Maria socked him in the arm. “It’s not funny, Max! You’re going to get me kicked out of this class!”

“Maria, it would only be an improvement.” When she looked hurt by his words, Max sighed, “Maria, I’m sorry, I-“

“I know you don’t want to be here with me right now, Max.”

“What? No, Maria. I just want you to be happy.” He pulled her against him and gave her a firm hug. “Maria, you’re an amazing woman….you deserve a helluva lot better treatment than what you’re getting now.”

“I’m getting the best treatment possible right now, Max.” She looked up at him; her aqua eyes brightened with unshed tears. “You’re one of my best friends, Max, possibly the best.”

“Stop, you’re swelling my head,” Max teased, ducking his head to kiss her lightly on the lips. At the touch of her lips, however, Max felt stunned. The kiss was brief, meant to be one of brotherly affection, but the trill of electricity that shivered through Max’s body immobilized him when he brushed her soft lips with his own. And from the expression on Maria’s face she’d felt it, too.

Self-consciously, she shrugged out of his arms and forced a laugh. “I can’t believe that we got kicked out of class like a couple of school kids,” she said shakily, desperate to change the subject and put the kiss behind them. She didn’t want to discuss what had just happened or why she was shaking as a result of it. She didn’t even want to think about it.

Max accepted her invitation for escape with silent gratitude. He forced a smile. “Yeah, I’d say it was damned humiliating.”

Despite their laughter, however, neither one of them was able to meet the other’s gaze.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:02:02 PM
Chapter 10

“So I hear you and Maria have been spending a lot of time together lately.”

Max grunted in disgust, set his coffee cup back against his saucer and gave his sister a bland look. “Gee, Isabel, you really should be more vocal with what’s on your mind.”

Isabel remained unflustered. In one deft motion she spooned mashed peas into her son’s mouth and leveled Max with a “give me a break” expression. “I just don’t think it’s healthy, that’s all,” she remarked casually in between coos to her son.

Despite her attempt at nonchalance Max heard the veiled warning in her tone. He narrowed his eyes. “And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Max,” Isabel began in the same soothing tone she used to calm down her infant son, “I am not accusing you of anything, I’m just saying-,”

“Nothing is going on between me and Maria,” Max cut in fiercely.

The quick vehemence of his words caused Isabel to look at him sharply. “I never said anything to the contrary, Max,” she replied placidly. She watched as the tension eased from Max’s shoulders. He offered her a sheepish smile, but Isabel wasn’t fooled. Something was definitely going on with her brother. Isabel was quite aware of this and had been for quite a few months. But she was tentative about approaching Max. He’d been through enough already with the baby’s death and Liz’s withdrawal and attempted suicide. He did not need his sister rashly accusing him of flirtation with his wife’s best friend.

However, that was exactly what Max was doing. Yes, something was definitely going on between him and Maria no matter how vehemently he denied it. Number one, the looks they gave one another were a dead give away and if that weren’t enough the room fairly crackled with tension when they were together. Alex had seen it coming long before Isabel. He’d warned Isabel that she should have a discussion with Max months earlier, but as usual she hadn’t listened. She knew her brother after all. He was in love with Liz and had been since he was in the third grade. There was no way he would ever look twice at Maria. They were both in pain, Isabel reasoned, seeking solace in one another in a time of emotional vulnerability. Max and Maria were just friends. And up until a few weeks past Isabel Whitman had been perfectly content with that belief.

Isabel’s only intention was that it was to be a family dinner. None of them had really gotten together since the baby died. And then hot on the heels of the funeral Michael had hightailed it out of town without so much as a good-bye.

Isabel had felt as if her family were falling apart. And so the idea of a family dinner had sounded simply marvelous to her. She had taken great care to prepare everything, not that she had cooked, but she had hired an excellent caterer. For the first time in months they had joked like old times, reminisced. She and Max had laughed about how they’d thought they had enough to deal with concerning their “alien problems” now they had the human ones to contend with as well. Maria, as usual, was full of funny, flippant comments, which kept them all laughing. Isabel would have never suspected that anything was up between Maria and Max at all if she hadn’t gone into the kitchen.

At first glance it was obvious they were in the midst of an intense conversation. Max had his head bent low and he spoke to Maria in hushed, whispering words. Maria was crying. She rested her forehead against Max’s chest while he stroked the length of her spine comfortingly. Occasionally, he would brush his lips across the top of her head. Seeing them together Isabel dropped the tray she held. At the loud clattering of the silver against the floor Maria and Max broke apart, but not before Isabel witnessed the guilty looks stamped on their faces.

Michael had written a letter, they’d told her, he wouldn’t be back for the baby’s birth, possibly not ever. Maria was understandably upset and of course Max was doing his best to comfort her. Technically speaking their story seemed legitimate and Isabel would have probably swallowed it if she hadn’t seen the chemistry between them with her own eyes. She’d made up her mind in that moment that she would confront Max about it.

“Look, Is, I’m sorry I jumped all over you. I’ve just been a little edgy.”

Isabel knew she could accept his apology and avoid all unpleasantness by sweeping her misgivings under the rug. But she couldn’t do it. Not even for the sake of peace between her and her brother. “We should talk about Maria, Max.”

“What about her?” He tried to sound nonchalant but it didn’t escape Isabel’s notice that he was avoiding her eyes.

“Maria’s in a weird place right now….I was just thinking it might be better for you to just back off.”

“Maria needs a friend, Is, not a kick in the gut,” Max replied dryly.

“I’m not suggesting that you end your friendship with her, Max, just temper it down.”

Although part of Max was angry that Isabel was even addressing the subject with him at all, the other part of him knew that she was right. Truthfully, the issue between him and Maria was something he had been debating on his own for weeks. He could admit to himself that things were starting to get a little confusing.

Max loved his wife. And more than anything he wanted to get their relationship back on track, to recement their marriage. He couldn’t imagine spending his life with any woman other than Liz. Which was why he was confused as hell to find himself attracted to Maria. Quirky, weird, pregnant Maria. His wife’s best friend and his best friend’s girl: what Maria was to Max was indisputable. And still he couldn’t help himself. He wanted her.

The solace Max had found in the fact that nothing had really happened between he and Maria was gradually beginning to fade. Now Max had to face the cold, hard facts. It was impossible to ignore that his body responded every time she walked into the room. And that’s what tore him up most….because he really, really, really didn’t want to respond. Never in his entire life had Max ever been attracted to anyone other than Liz and for him to develop this sudden and unprecedented attraction to Maria, Max was more than a little confused and scared as hell. And so he’d done what any normal man in his position would do. He’d made a beeline for the country to see his wife.

As he expected she wasn’t at all happy to see him, but at least she didn’t refuse his visit. At first sight of her Max felt himself recoil in shock as the drastic difference in her appearance. Her hair was….for lack of a better word…..gone. It looked like a buzz cut gone wrong. And she was just as pale and thin as she had been when he’d seen her two months earlier. She reminded Max of a concentration camp victim. As she took a seat across from him, Max had begun to wonder if his unannounced visit had been such a good idea after all. At Liz’s words of greeting Max knew it had been a bad idea.

“I thought we agreed you wouldn’t come here,” she remarked coldly.

“I just wanted to see you, Liz,” Max said simply, spreading his palms in supplication, “I miss you.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Max exclaimed in exasperation, “Why? Why the hell do you think? Because I love you!”

“Well, you shouldn’t,” Liz told him in a flat, emotionless tone, “I don’t deserve it.”

Maybe it was her words or the hopeless way she said them, but looking at her in that moment broke Max’s heart. He reached across the table and took her hands in his own, squeezing them tightly. “Liz, I know you blame yourself for the baby’s death, but it wasn’t your fault. Liz, listen to me, IT WASN’T YOUR FAULT!”

Liz looked down at their conjoined hands then back at Max before deliberately pulling her fingers from his grasp. “I knew that morning that there was a problem with the baby,” she said softly, “and I did nothing. When he died, Max, something in me died, too.”

“You still have me and Claudia, Liz. You haven’t lost everything.”

For the first time since he’d first seen her a look not unlike sadness settled over Liz’s features replacing her look of indifference. “Max, I’m not who I was before…I can’t make you happy.”

Max rapidly blinked back the tears forming in his eyes. “Liz, you’re my life! I love you.”

She continued on as if she’d said nothing. “I think you should divorce me, Max.”

“What?” The word came out in a sob. Max couldn’t help it. She’d ripped his heart out with that statement.

“I don’t want to be married to you anymore. As soon as I’m better, I’m filing for divorce.”

Max closed his eyes against the memory, shuddering. It was then that he realized that he was desperately holding on to a love and a life that Liz obviously didn’t want. The fight for their marriage could not be one sided and Liz was apparently not interested in preserving what she and Max had worked so hard to build. And Max couldn’t really be angry at her about it either because he actually understood her motives. She was penalizing herself. Because she felt responsible for their son’s death she felt she should lose everything she held dear as punishment. The idea was ludicrous, of course, but there was no convincing Liz of that. Max knew that it was a truth she had to realize on her own.

But in the meantime, Max was in a bad place and as always Maria was there, making him laugh, fixing him dinner, just being the friend he so desperately needed. And Max loved her for that. More than loved her. He was afraid that he actually might be falling in love with Maria. The fear of that happening immobilized Max, but there was nothing he could do. His feelings for her had already begun to grow and Max was powerless to stop them.

“Is, I know that things between Maria and I have been getting a little close,” Max admitted to his sister, “but trust me, I’m handling the situation.”

Isabel gave him an unconvinced look as she laid a sleeping A.J. in his playpen. “I’ve seen the way you look at her, Max. It’s not at all friendly.”

Max ducked his head, feeling a blush heat his cheeks. “Well….uh…yeah…but I’ve got to get back to the office, ok, Is. So I guess we’ll talk later?”

“Way to avoid the subject, Max,” Isabel admonished in disappointment.

Before Max could respond his cell phone rang. He flashed Isabel an apologetic look before answering the call. “Evans, here.”

Maria’s panting voice filled his ears. “Yeah well, you’d better haul your ass to St. Mary’s as soon as possible, Evans!”

“Maria, are you-?”

“I’m about to blow, yeah…now get out here to lend me your hand….I need something to crush.”

Max laughed, feeling inexplicably pleased and happy. “The pain that bad?” he teased with a smile.

“Kick ass! Now hurry it up, boss, I can’t hold this kid in much longer.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:05:17 PM
Chapter 11

“Wow, she sure did come quick,” Max remarked in awe, gazing down into the round-eyed face of Maria’s newborn daughter whom she’d named Adrienne Maxine DeLuca.

“My doctor said that the second ones usually come pretty quick.”

“She’s beautiful, Maria,” Max sighed, gazing down at the blond haired baby thinking of his own son whom he’d never seen, never held.

Maria took one look at his face and knew exactly what he was thinking. “God, Max, I’m sorry. I’m such an insensitive clod, I never thought-,”

“Shh,” Max told her quietly, “Two words I would never use to describe you, Maria: insensitive and clod. Besides, this was marvelous, letting me be apart of Adrienne’s birth was one of the most giving things that you’ve ever done for me. It means a great deal.”

Maria laid her hand against his cheek. “It means a lot that you were here for me, too, boss.” Max smiled at her; warmed and embarrassed by the joy her simple touch gave him.

Maria’s nurse a few seconds interrupted their tender moment later. “Ms. DeLuca,” she said, “I didn’t know if you were aware of this but there is a mob of reporters camped outside for you.”

Heaving an exasperated sigh, Maria grabbed Max’s wrist and flipped it so she could read the time on his watch. “You mean I’ve been here a whole four hours and they just arrived,” Maria cried sarcastically, “My God, they’re slipping!”

The nurse gave her an odd look. Max offered her an embarrassed smile and shrugged. “She’s a little high-strung,” he offered as excuse.

Maria slapped his arm. “I am not high-strung!” she protested sharply, “I am merely vivacious and extremely animated.” She flashed Max a smile that destroyed any impression that she was truly upset with him.

The nurse laughed at their antics. “So how long have you two been married?”

Her question stilled them both. “Who? Us?” Maria exclaimed stiltedly, “No! This is my bud, my pal, my ace!”

“We’re just friends,” Max confirmed with an amused smile.

“Ooooh,” the nurse said, clearly not buying their story but willing to let the matter drop, “Well, you have family waiting to see you downstairs. Once we move you to a private room then you can visit.”

After she left Maria gave Max a horrified look. “’Are we married?’ What the hell kind of question is that? I mean, we don’t even act married. Do we?”

Max was never given the opportunity to answer her question. The nurse invaded the room again, this time accompanied by others. It was time to move Maria to her private room.

*******************************

“Adrienne Maxine…hmm. Well, we certainly know how you came up with that name,” Alex teased Maria as she cooed softly to her daughter.

Maria only lifted her head long enough to poke her tongue out at him and then went back to staring at her kid. They were alone in the room since Max and Isabel had decided to go down to the gift shop to buy a present for the baby. Alex saw their seclusion as the perfect moment for him to bring up some things that had been troubling him lately. Namely Maria’s ever-blossoming relationship with Max.

“Are you sleeping with him,” Alex asked her suddenly.

His question didn’t surprise Maria; in fact, she’d been expecting it. “Alex, I know I’m sex goddess and all, but I’ve been the Goodyear blimp for the last three months. Even I’m not that good.”

“But you admit you’re close?” Alex observed.

“Yeah. He’s my kids’ godfather so how can we not be?”

“Oh, come on, Maria!” Alex exclaimed in exasperation, “Don’t try to convince me that you don’t have feelings for Max.”

“Fine. I won’t.”

Alex glared at her in disappointment and anger. “Don’t you realize what you’re doing could destroy Liz?”

“I’m not doing anything besides being a good friend to Max,” Maria replied fiercely, “Besides that Liz can’t see past her own hurt to recognize anyone else’s!”

“And so that’s your excuse?”

“What?”

“For trying to steal her husband.”

Maria jerked her head towards Alex, her face reflecting open shock and hurt at his comment. “That was so not a nice thing to say to me, Alex.”

She was right and Alex knew it. He immediately apologized. She was still angry but she didn’t rebuff him when he settled beside her on the hospital bed. “Maria,” he began softly, “I know you. You’re getting too close and when you get too close your heart gets involved. You can’t be with Max. It would destroy everything.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” she whispered sadly, “But I care about Max, Alex. I love him.”

“We all do, Maria. But he’s for Liz.”

“And what if Liz isn’t for him?”

Alex gave her a sympathetic look. “Maria, you know better than that.”

Maria did know better than that. She’d asked herself over a hundred times just what she was doing with Max. Even if she didn’t admit it aloud Maria knew that there was a lot more to her and Max’s relationship than just friendship. However, to Maria’s credit she was doing her best to keep a cool head. It wasn’t as if she were making a blatant play for Max or anything. He was her best friend’s husband for crying out loud! No, Maria had no intention of taking her relationship with Max any further.

“Alex, trust me, I’m not going to let anything happen between Max and me.”

“Did you mean for something to happen between us?” Alex asked, chewing thoughtfully on his bottom lip.

“Alex! I was freaking seventeen years old! I didn’t know shit. All I knew is that I was hurt and I just wanted it to stop.”

“And that’s not the case now?”

“No!” Maria protested vehemently.

“Hey, knock, knock,” Max quipped as he and Isabel crept into the hospital room. They looked back and forth between Alex and Maria’s irate expressions in confusion. “Did we miss something?”

“Yeah, did you guys have a fight?” Isabel asked.

“No,” Maria denied with an overbright smile, “we just happen to be disagreeing….very loudly.”

“Oh, well, the nurse is on her way here to take Adrienne back to the nursery,” Max said.

“Yeah, and we should get going, Alex,” Isabel added, “We need to get back to the kids.” To Maria she said, “That nanny of yours: I wouldn’t trust her with a rubber duck. You need to fire her ass. Soon.”

“Alrighty then,” Maria laughed.

As Isabel and Alex exited Alex turned back to Maria and said, “Remember what we talked about.” And then he and Isabel were gone. After that the nurses quickly followed and in fluid motion checked Maria’s vital signs then whisked the baby off to the nursery. Max looked curiously from the door to Maria then back to the door again. “So what exactly did the two of you talk about?”

“You,” Maria replied honestly.

“Let me guess,” Max sighed, dragging his hands down his face in exhaustion, “he wanted to know if anything was going on between the two of us.”

“How did you know?”

“Because Isabel jumped me with the same question earlier this afternoon.”

“And what did you tell her?”

Max gave her an odd look. “I told her the truth…..we’re friends, that’s all.”

“Is that all we are, Max?”

“Of-Of course,” Max stammered. He looked at Maria like she’d grown a second head.

Maria looked at him, her expression soft and sympathetic. “Well, I’ve got to admit to you, Max, I haven’t been feeling all that friendly towards you. And I think that you feel the same….and if that’s true, we really need to talk.”

At first Max looked as if he might brush the subject off completely, but for some unexplainable reason he found himself unable to do so. Folding his arms across his chest Max began to pace the room. “So what do you want to do about it?” he asked Maria in agitation.

“Nothing. I don’t want to do anything, okay.”

Max’s expression was one mixed with disbelief and relief. “So what? We just pretend like we don’t have the feelings?”

“We’ve done pretty well so far,” Maria pointed out matter-of-factly.

“So great! It’s agreed. We’re just friends.”

“That’s right….just friends.” But it was something in the way she said it that left Max unconvinced.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:26:55 PM
Chapter 12

Max collapsed in exhaustion on the sofa next to Maria. She was slumped over the armrest half-asleep but she roused when she felt Max plop down beside her. “Is she asleep?” she asked Max in a thready whisper.

“Yes, finally,” Max sighed, “but don’t breathe too loud or shift or anything because the slightest movement can change that blessed fact.”

Both Maria and Max both watched the playpen where her sleeping daughter lay with baited breath. The apartment was finally, thankfully quiet. Although the girls had been put to bed long before Adrienne had remained stubbornly awake. Maria and the baby had been home from the hospital for only a week and Adrienne hadn’t stopped crying in all that time. For someone so small Maria was surprised at just how much air her little daughter could work into her lungs.

Maria lay back against the cushions of the sofa gingerly and heaved a humongous sigh. “I do not remember Mickey ever being this rowdy. Or Claudia either for that matter.”

“She might have colic,” Max suggested as he leaned forward, rubbing his eyes in exhaustion.

“Oh, is that what they’re calling it now when babies never fall asleep?” Maria commented dryly.

“I can stay the night if you want,” Max said, leaning back against the sofa and turning his head towards her, “you know, to help out. Cause it seems like she’s gonna be a real handful.”

Maria opened one weary eye. “Would you?” she sighed in exhausted gratitude.

“I’ll just make up the sofa,” Max said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

Maria honored him with a wide, gracious smile. “You are a doll,” she said and before thinking about it she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a sound kiss on the mouth. The shock of it stilled them both and for a moment they only sat together, surprised. And then as if by some silent mutual understanding their mouths met again, softer this time, more deliberate.

Max’s hand slid up to cup her cheek as he angled his head to deepen the kiss. Perhaps it was that small gesture or maybe the tentative touch of his tongue that jerked Maria back to reality. She ripped out of his arms suddenly, staring at him with a horrified expression. “What the hell was that!”

Her violent reaction brought Max back to reality as well. “I know, I know….I’m sorry,” he stammered, “I don’t know what I was thinking….what came over me…”

Maria leapt off the sofa and began pacing the room like a caged animal. “We agreed at the hospital…just friends! Remember!”

Max rubbed his hand over the lower half of his face in agitation. “You kissed me!” he pointed out irately.

“That’s right! I did! And it was wrong! Wrong! WRONG!” She stopped pacing long enough to stab him with a desperate look. “You have to go home, Max!”

“Maria, it’s eleven o’clock at night! Claudia’s asleep for crying out loud!”

“You can leave her here, then!” she shot out wildly, gesturing her arms in wide, fluid motions, “but you, you, you have to leave! Now! Now, leave!”

Max didn’t bother to argue with her especially when he knew she was upset and in no frame of mind for rational talk. Reluctantly, he scooped up his jacket and headed for the door. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” he told her before stepping through the door into the night.

When he was gone Maria’s knees gave out from beneath her and she sat in the middle of the floor, her chest heaving with panicked, guilty fear. What on earth had she just done? Why on earth had she done it? After all they had talked about, after everything she and Max had agreed on at the hospital… She felt like such an idiot. But then she’d known better, hadn’t she? Alex had told her to back off. He and Isabel had seen where things were going long in advance. But oh no, Maria was so smart and Maria was so in control, she knew what she was doing.

Had she really thought that she could keep tempting fate and not end up paying a heavy price? It had started with a kiss, but Maria knew if she didn’t put a stop to things now it would escalate to much more. She couldn’t afford to sit there and lie to herself, not when she knew that Max and Liz’s marriage was at stake. Oh yes, she could brush off the kiss, let Max have his little speech about what a mistake it had been and how it would never happen again, and, oh yes, how they could just go on and pretend it had never happened.

And that would work for a few weeks. Both she and Max would convince themselves that whatever happened was over and then they would go back to things as usual. But after awhile it would happen again and they would go through the routine again and again and again until they began making excuses for themselves. And in the end they wouldn’t just hurt themselves, but most of all they would hurt Liz.

The feelings that Maria had for Max were strong, but not strong enough to destroy a friendship that she had been building since the third grade. Alex had been right when he said that Maria knew better. No matter what excuse Maria gave herself where Liz was concerned Maria knew that she didn’t deserve betrayal. Maria wasn’t so naïve as to believe that she and Max shared some great, undeniable love. She knew that any price they paid to be together would not be worth the heartache they would cause to those who trusted them. And though, it had killed Maria to send him away, because part of her had really wanted him to stay, she had known that it was the best thing. Because Max didn’t belong with her. He belonged with Liz. He always had.

Beyond that Maria knew that, deep down, Max didn’t really want to be with her. Sure he had feelings for her and yes there was attraction, but all that sprung from Liz’s constant rejection of him. Max Evans would have never looked twice at Maria had it not been for that fact. Although, Max probably didn’t realize it Maria was aware that he was probably confusing his gratitude towards her with feelings of love. She had been there for him at a very emotional time in his life, a time when his wife had emotionally shut down on him. But he didn’t love her, not really. However, the difference for Maria was that she did. She loved Max. And because she did she knew it was up to her to do what was best for him.

Perceiving that, Maria knew she couldn’t allow things to go on between her and Max as they had been. And so she made her decision. Tomorrow she was taking a trip to the Cedar Ridge Mental Facility in Pennsylvania. She was going to see an old friend and, hopefully, talk some much needed sense into her.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:28:40 PM
Chapter 13

Maria fidgeted nervously in her seat as she waited for Liz to be escorted into the waiting room. For the sixth time in the space of ten minutes she asked herself if her decision to come here had been the right one. Sure her reasons were noble as hell, but what exactly was she going to say to Liz, “You need to get your act together or I’m going to bone your husband?” Maria supposed she should just be honest. After all the point of her coming here was merely to convince Liz to reconcile with Max. However, she did that it didn’t matter as long as it was done.

Maria wondered how it would be seeing Liz again after so much time. Eight months, Maria thought, my god, where had the time gone? How could so much have changed in their lives in such a short amount of time?, Maria wondered.

Impatiently, she drummed her fingernails against the wooden table while she watched the waiting room door with the intensely of a stalking animal. She had a number of reasons to be nervous, however, what was really causing her palms to sweat was the prospect of seeing Liz again. Maria hadn’t seen her in almost three months, not since her suicide attempt. It was hard for Maria to think about that day. She could still remember how warm Liz’s blood was as it seeped against her fingers. Maria shuddered with the memory. She realized, with a sense of disappointment, that she was not as strong a woman as she had previously believed herself. There was something inside of her that couldn’t bear the idea of seeing her best friend in a mental institution. Even now the reality of where she was, where Liz was made her feel dizzy.

And then, of course, there was the guilt factor. Only the night before Maria had been kissing Liz’s husband and enjoying it. In light of what she’d come here to say to Liz, Maria knew she would have to put her personal feelings about Max aside in order to accomplish what she intended. It would be hard to look Liz in the eye, feeling the way she felt about Max. She worried if her emotions would be plain on her face. Maria fervently hoped not. Because, in spite of the fact that Maria had driven 3 ½ hours outside of New York to convince Liz to fight for her marriage, she was dying inside to have to do it. Considering those things, it was going to be hell facing Liz and Maria hadn’t even begun to address her situation with Max.

Max. He had called her first thing that morning. She had recognized his number immediately on the caller I.D. and that was the reason why she didn’t pick up. But she had wanted to. She had really, really wanted to. She doubted that he’d gotten any sleep for worrying over what had happened between them. Maria knew she hadn’t. He was probably anxious to fix things and put the matter behind them. But Maria knew better. It wasn’t as simple as saying they were sorry it happened and moving on. Maria now knew that she had to put distance between her and Max. Distance was the only thing that would solve the dilemma they were in.

Which was why that morning before she left Maria had made arrangements with her agent to do a two-week publicity run in Hawaii. She had called her mother afterwards and had no trouble convincing Amy DeLuca to take her granddaughters for the next two weeks. The thought of leaving her kids for so long pained Maria, especially Adrienne because she was so young, only a week old, but Maria didn’t see that she had a choice. Now all that was left for her to do was to convince Liz to go back to Max.

Maria was jerked out of her thought when the mechanical waiting room door slowly swung open. Liz Parker glided through purposely, her facial expression blank and remote. It changed, however, when she found Maria sitting outside and not Max as she had expected. And she instantly panicked. “What’s the matter!” she cried as she rushed over to the table and gripped the edge so hard her knuckles turned white, “Did something happen to Max? To Claudia?”

It took a moment for her wild questions to penetrate Maria’s brain; she was too busy taking in the changes in Liz. “You cut your hair,” she breathed in awe, “I like it. It’s kind of funky.”

Liz ignored her comment. “Maria, what’s going on?”

“What? Oh, Max? He’s fine and so is Claudia so you can stop mad cowing.”

An audible sigh of relief leaked from Liz’s chest and she sank down into the chair opposite Maria. “Thank you, God!” she uttered in a thankful breath.

Maria regarded her with a degree of amusement. “For someone who was threatening divorce not a month ago you sure seem awfully concerned about Max.”

Because Maria’s teasing observation made her uncomfortable Liz took refuge in anger. “Just because I want a divorce doesn’t mean I want him dead, Maria. What are you doing here anyway?”

“If I didn’t know better I’d think you weren’t happy to see me, Liz.”

“You haven’t bothered to come before now, so what’s the grand occasion?” Liz snapped.

“Well, maybe if you gave people the impression that you would actually welcome your visitors maybe you’d have a few more,” Maria pointed out sarcastically.

“It could be I just wanted to be left alone,” Liz retorted.

“Well then you shouldn’t act like such a bitch when you get what you ask for!” They glared at each other in hostile silence. Finally, Maria sighed, her faced loosing its angry edge. “I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

“No, I’m sorry….just being inside this place is really starting to get to me.”

“I hate seeing you here, Liz,” Maria admitted tightly.

“And I hate being here.”

The sadness and dejection in her words made Maria’s heart hurt. She reached across the table and gave Liz’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Then why are you still here?”

“I don’t have any place else to go,” Liz whispered hoarsely.

“You can go home….to Max.”

“That’s not an option,” Liz said, averting her gaze.

“Why?” Maria persisted, “It’s obvious you still love him, Liz.” Liz could only nod her agreement. “He needs you.”

“I can’t.”

“Why the hell not?” Maria asked again.

Liz looked at her as if she had just asked the most stupid question in the world. “Where have you been the last eight months, Maria? I’ve put Max through hell. I just can’t waltz back into his life like nothing happened. He deserves better than some flake of a wife who tried to kill herself and ended up in the nuthouse.”

“Oh my god,” Maria breathed, finally beginning to understand what had been motivating Liz for the last few months, “That’s why you asked him for a divorce. You don’t think you deserve him.”

“I don’t.”

“Liz, you’ve been deliberately driving him away!”

“I’ve been pushing him towards happiness,” Liz countered, “God knows he’s not going to find that with me.”

“You idiot! You’re his life!” Maria couldn’t believe it. All the hateful things Liz had said and done had been because she loved him, because she thought he deserved better than her. All this time when both she and Max had been thinking that Max hadn’t crossed Liz’s mind the entire time they’d been apart, here it was that Max had been all Liz had thought about. Max and his happiness. And she thought she wasn’t good enough?

“Liz, you have to go home,” Maria told her again.

“Maria, no. You didn’t see his face the first time he came here to see me. He was devastated, Maria. I could see just by the way he was looking at me that I had destroyed him. I can’t hurt him like that again.”

“Liz,” Maria began carefully, “you’re hurting him now.” When her words didn’t seem to penetrate Maria threw up her hands in disgust and leaned back in her chair.

Suddenly, Liz squealed and clapped her hands on her cheeks, exclaiming, “Maria, you’re not pregnant anymore!”

Maria flashed her a wry grin. “Gee, Liz, it only took you a whole ten minutes to notice.”

Liz ignored her sarcasm and asked excitedly. “Boy or girl?”

A sappy expression overtook Maria’s face. “Girl. Her name is Adrienne and she’s just the most adorable little thing. She’s got this curly blond hair and these wide blue eyes….thank God she doesn’t look like Michael.”

“I take it he still hasn’t come home?”

Maria gave Liz a surprised look. She didn’t expect for Liz to be aware of the Michael situation since he’d taken off during Liz’s non-lucid period. “I guess you weren’t as out of it as you let everyone believe,” Maria guessed quietly.

Liz lowered her eyes. “No, I wasn’t.”

Maria wanted to question Liz more about that admission, but because Liz looked uneasy she didn’t push the conversation. Instead she said, “Now that I know the reason you’ve been hanging out here all these months, I can’t leave until you agree to come home with me.”

“Maria, don’t-,”

“Liz, come on, this has gone on long enough.”

“I can’t…face Max,” Liz whispered disjointedly, “He must hate me.”

“No. But he’s angry, Liz, and he’s really, really confused,” Maria said, stressing “really.”

It was obvious that causing Max pain didn’t bring Liz any joy. She looked absolutely miserable at Maria’s admission. “And Claudia? Is she angry, too?”

“She’s four, Liz. She misses her mom, that’s all she knows.”

Liz bent her head, causing her teardrops to plop into her lap. “I’ve screwed up so bad, Maria….”

“Come home and make it right, then.”

“Easier said than done,” Liz mumbled.

“God, Liz, when did you become such a coward?” Maria uttered.

Liz snapped her head up at Maria’s disgusted inquiry. “What?”

“Girl, I remember how strong you were after you got pregnant with Claudia and Max left you. Any other woman would have curled up into a ball and died, but you just picked up the pieces of your life and kept going. What happened to you, Liz?”

Liz could only shake her head as the tears rolled silently down her face. “I lost my baby, Maria.”

“So did Max.”

“I don’t always make the right decisions, okay! I’m sorry,” Liz cried angrily, swiping at the tears on her cheeks, “I’m not perfect, dammit!”

Maria got up from her chair and wrapped her arms around her friend. “Babe,” she whispered as she stroked her hair, “no one ever expected you to be.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:30:14 PM
Chapter 14

Maria clicked on the light in her living room then stifled a scream of terror to find Max sitting on her sofa. She collapsed back against the door, clutching her chest. “What the hell are you trying to do” she demanded irately, “give me a friggin heart attack?”

“Sorry,” Max said, but he didn’t look at all apologetic.

Perceiving his lack of contrition, Maria demanded impatiently, “What are you doing here?”

“We have things to discuss,” Max replied as he came to his feet, “I’ve been trying to call you all day. Where have you been?”

“I had an errand to run,” she said evasively. Maria had decided on the drive home that it was best not to mention to Max that she had driven to Pennsylvania to see Liz. It was something private between her and Liz and she wanted it to stay that way. “Where’s Lydia and the kids?” she asked when she suddenly realized the living room was empty.

“I sent Lydia home. Adrienne’s asleep and Mickey and Claudia are upstairs watching The Lion King….for the fourth time, so I figure we’ve got a good hour.”

Maria lifted her brows at the tone in his voice. “An hour to do what exactly?”

“Talk…,” Max said softly, “….about last night.”

“Max-,”

“Wait,” he interrupted, holding up his hand for her to keep silent, “it should not have happened. Maria, your friendship means a great deal to me and the last thing I want to do is wreck it.”

“I’m glad you said that, because I’ve been doing some thinking.”

The way she said that made Max feel uneasy and that feeling was heightened when she followed that statement with, “Maybe you should sit down.”

Max settled back against the sofa, trying not to portray the anxiety he felt. All day long while he’d been a work he’d been unable to think about anything else but last night’s kiss. And it filled him with guilt. After he had left Maria he had gone back to his empty apartment. Upstairs in his bedroom as he had pulled on his pajamas he had caught of a picture he, Liz and Claudia had taken almost two years earlier. They were smiling brightly, their eyes sparkling with love, their daughter a miniature of them both. Max had sat on the edge of his bed, traced the lines of Liz’s face with his fingertip. And for the first time in months, he cried.

He hadn’t expected to feel so guilty or so crushed and the pain of it caught him off guard. It was like acknowledging for the first time in months that his marriage had really fallen apart. And in that realization Max finally understood that he had lost the most precious and wonderful thing that had ever happened to him. It made him feel lost and desolate and alone. He realized on some level that he had used Maria as a distraction so he wouldn’t feel that loneliness or desolation.

Maria. She and her family had been lifesaving angels to him and his daughter. Maria and her girls had breathed life back into them again, had made them a family again. And Max didn’t want to lose that. He didn’t want to go back to being desolate and alone. His marriage was over, that much he knew, but did he have to lose everything? Romantic interest aside, he needed Maria’s friendship. And that was why he had been so desperate to contact her because he didn’t want to lose that friendship. He couldn’t afford to.

“So,” he began somewhat reluctantly, “what having you been thinking?”

Maria curled up in the recliner across from him, pulling her feet beneath her. “Well, as you know, things between us have been getting somewhat complicated…” She waited for Max’s nod of agreement before continuing, “Well last night after we….uh, kissed, I realized that some changes were in order.”

“Maria-,”

“Wait, before you say anything, hear me out,” Maria told him quickly, “Look, I know you think you’re in love with me or whatever, but Max, you’re not. In fact, we both know you never would have looked twice at me if it hadn’t been for all this stuff going on with Liz. We got close. You were there for me during one of the hardest times in my life and I was there for you. And of course we would start to feel things for each other, but that’s not real, Max, and I think you know it.”

“But our friendship is real, Maria, and that’s what I want to fight for,” Max insisted.

“That’s not possible,” Maria told him hoarsely, “You see, friends don’t kiss like we kissed last night and friends don’t have erotic dreams about each other…friends don’t make love, Max, and if we keep going on like this that’s exactly what is going to happen between us.”

“Not if we don’t want it to,” Max argued.

“And I guess we wanted to kiss last night, huh?” Maria pointed out with a touch of sarcasm, “Please, Max, let’s just end this for now. You need a break and so do I.”

“Maria, you’re the only reason I’ve come through the last eight months sane! You’re my best friend.”

“That’s just it! I shouldn’t be, Max. Do you know who should? Your wife. Liz. That’s her responsibility not mine!”

“I didn’t know you thought of me as a “responsibility,” Max uttered, stung by her choice of words. He rose unsteadily to his feet. His mind was suddenly spinning with all she’d said. “I’ll just get Claudia and go.”

“Max, please-,” Maria pleaded, rising with him.

“No, you’ve made your feelings clear. I’ll respect them.” And with those words he climbed the stairs to get his daughter.

**********************************

“You’re in a foul ass mood tonight,” Isabel noted of her brother as she motioned for her housekeeper to clear away the dinner dishes.

“So what’s new?” Alex cracked from across the table before taking a sip of his wine.

Max rubbed his temples in frustration. It had been a bad, bad idea to accept Isabel’s dinner invitation. But he really hadn’t felt he had a choice. It was either have dinner with the family or stare at the walls of his apartment and go stark, raving mad. He opted for dinner. But since arriving he’d done nothing but gripe and complain and snap at everyone who dared strike up a conversation with him, even Claudia.

“Why don’t you just call her?” Alex demanded in exasperation, meaning Maria, “You don’t even have to worry about the long-distance.”

“Who said I wanted to talk to Maria?” Max snapped, glaring at him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Alex sighed sarcastically, not the least bit ruffled by Max’s surly attitude, “It could be that twitch you get above your eye every time her name is mentioned.”

This time Max didn’t even bother with a response. Instead he moodily pushed his desert, key lime pie, around on his plate with his spoon.

“Max, you’re acting like a spoiled brat!” Isabel snapped.

“Then why the hell did you invite me to dinner then!” Max retorted back.

“Because I wanted to tell you I was pregnant!” Isabel yelled and then hot on the heels of that statement she burst into tears.

Her shouted response stunned him. He sat there with a stupefied expression on his face. “God, Is…I’m sorry,” Max sighed, feeling lower than dirt.

“Don’t bother!” Isabel choked, scrapping her chair back from the table, “Excuse me!” After she ran from the dining room Alex rose to follow her but not before glaring at Max, saying, “You can be a real ass at times, Max.”

Left alone in the dining room Max dropped his face into his hands and heaved a self-pitying sigh. He had never imagined it would be so hard with Maria gone. Without her there to distract him, he couldn’t help but think of Liz and how much he missed her. Twice he’d had to stop himself from packing up the car and heading up to Pennsylvania to see her. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. She’d only end up rejecting him. And now to make matters worse he’d been harsh with Isabel when all she’d wanted to do was share her happy news with him.

Alex was right. He was an ass. After a few moments Max gathered himself up and shuffled into the living room. Alex and Isabel were snuggled together on the sofa. Alex was gently kissing the underside of his sister’s cheek. Seeing them together made Max’s throat ache with unshed tears. He’d missed that, being so close and in love. It hurt immeasurably to think he’d never share that with Liz again.

As Max came more fully into the living room Alex and Isabel jerked up their heads. Alex gave Max a warning look. “So help me, Max, if you start with her again I gonna deck you.”

“Whoa!” Max said, holding up his hands in surrender, “I come in peace.”

“Max,” Isabel said softly, “I know you’re having a hard time with Maria being gone-,”

“It’s not just Maria, Is, it’s everything….I just really need some time to myself tonight.”

“Just leave Claudia here then,” Isabel suggested gently, “She doesn’t need you biting her head off every ten minutes.”

The drive home for Max was lonely and quiet. Sometime during dinner at Isabel’s it had begun to drizzle snow. He hardly noticed at the flakes fell lightly against his windshield. His mind was on other things. As he drove past countless streets, he thought about his next life move, something he’d avoided doing since Maria had left. Instead of contemplating his life and where it was headed Max had nursed his anger towards Maria. But he had to be honest with himself now. He wasn’t angry with Maria. He was angry with Liz. Because she had left him alone to deal with all these confusing emotions and pain. Because she had stopped loving him.

And that was the only explanation he could come up with for Liz’s sudden coldness towards him. She wanted a divorce, for crying out loud; of course she didn’t love him anymore. Max could almost deal with that if it hadn’t been for the fact he loved her so damned much. Maria had been right when she said that he wasn’t in love with her. He wasn’t. He had only loved one woman in his whole life and he realized sadly that he would probably love her for the rest of it. At the moment, Max didn’t find that revelation entirely comforting.

As Max rounded the block towards his condo he noticed a figure sitting, huddled, on his front porch. “What the f-,” Max frowned as he pulled into his driveway. As he quickly alighted from the car the figure on the porch stood. When the stranger lifted his head the glow of the street lamps illuminated his face, revealing his identity to Max. Max blinked his eyes several times and stumbled forward, unable to believe what, who he was seeing. “Oh…my…god,” he breathed in awe, “….Liz.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:32:10 PM
Chapter 15

Max drifted closer to Liz wanting to touch her to assure himself that she was real. She stood before him in a blue blazer and a blue knit hat, snowflakes blowing around her like fairy dust, looking like an angel. He stepped closer still, until they were almost touching. “What are you doing here, Liz?” he whispered softly. His eyes searched her face for anger but all he found was open, heart wrenching love. Max felt his heart began to hammer beneath his ribs.

“I thought it was time to come home, Max.” And because she couldn’t wait any longer she stepped into his arms. Mar didn’t know how long they stood there, pressed into each other’s embrace tightly, the snow falling around them. All he knew was that he was holding his wife, smelling her…oh god…it had been so long, too long.

“Max,” Liz finally said a few minutes later, “my fingers are beginning to go numb. Do you think we could take this inside?”

Her words brought Max reluctantly back to reality. He pulled away, clearing his throat in embarrassment. “How long have you been waiting?” he asked as he fumbled with the lock. A million questions were zooming through his head, but that was the only one he could think to form.

“About half an hour,” Liz said, shivering, “I guess you changed the locks cause my key didn’t work.”

“Yeah,” Max confirmed as he pushed open the front door. Once inside he clicked on the living room lights and secured the deadbolt on the door. When he turned back around Liz was in the middle of the living room, noting the changes in the apartment. She turned and gave him a speculative look. “You’ve been redecorating?”

“Maria….uh-,”

Liz nodded in understanding, needing no further explanation. “So where’s Claudia?” she asked, noting for the first time that their daughter wasn’t with Max.

“She’s with Alex and Isabel tonight.” When Max noted the disappointed frown that furrowed Liz’s forehead he quickly added, “We can hop in the car and head out there if you want.” He began to shrug back into his jacket.

“No,” Liz said with a sad shake of her head, “She’s probably asleep by now anyway.”

“Yeah…” Max could only stare at her, drink her in. He watched avidly as she removed her cap, running her fingers through her short, spiked hair. “Why don’t I take your coat,” he said, stepping forward to take her blazer.

“Thank you,” Liz responded and handed him the jacket. It didn’t escape her notice that they were speaking in polite phrases, like two people who barely knew one another. Liz didn’t need to have a BA in psychology to know that Max felt ill at ease with her. To be honest, Liz felt uncomfortable as well. She barely recognized anything in her own house anymore….

“Why don’t you sit?” Max suggested after he’d returned from hanging up her coat.

Liz sat down on the sofa, which was not the cream colored one they’d once had, but a black, leather one instead. Max sat down beside her. She gave him an uneasy smile. “A leather sofa….whose idea was that?”

“Maria. She said it was funky.” The look on Liz’s face clearly stated that she didn’t share that sentiment. “You don’t like it?” Max surmised.

“Just…why’d you get rid of our old one?”

“I just needed a change, I guess.” They sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment. Liz picked at her nails. Max watched Liz pick at her nails. Each waited desperately for the other to break the silence. After a few minutes, however, when Max saw that Liz wasn’t so inclined he went ahead and took the plunge. “So how exactly did you get out of Cedar Ridge? You’re not AWOL, are you?”

Liz laughed at the alarmed concern she heard in his tone. “No,” she said, smiling, “I checked myself out. Legally, I could since I was the one who checked myself in.”

“Oh?” Max said, digesting that small tidbit of information. “How you get here?”

“I went Greyhound.”

“You rode a bus all the way from Pennsylvania to New York!” Max burst out, “Alone? Have you lost it?”

“How did you expect me to get here? Sprout wings and fly?”

“Well, truth be told I really wasn’t expecting to see you at all, seeing as how the last time I did you were threatening me with divorce.” Max’s brows furrowed together in sudden confusion. “And considering that…yeah, what are you doing here, Liz?”

“I live here,” Liz responded sarcastically, put on guard by the sudden attitude she heard in Max’s voice. Oh boy, she thought, mentally bracing herself, here it comes.

“And what happened to wanting a divorce? ‘Oh, get away from me, Max!’ You know, that whole spiel?”

“It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind,” Liz countered lightly, hoping to infuse some humor into a situation that was quickly turning serious.

“That’s mighty convenient for you, isn’t it, Liz?”

“Why are you suddenly getting so snippy with me, Max?”

“Maybe because I just remembered all the hell you’ve put me through in the last eight months! I was so happy to see you that I almost forgot that… I’m really pissed off at you right now!”

Liz felt her anger die before it had a chance to bloom. Max was well within his right to be angry with her. In fact, she had expected it. She did, after all, owe him an explanation for her behavior. More than that he deserved one. So instead of allowing her temper to flare, Liz took a deep breath and said calmly, “Look, I realize I have a lot of explaining to do-,”

“That’s the understatement of the century,” Max bit out derisively.

“-And I’d like to do that if you’ll let me.” Max folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the sofa, waiting for her to begin. “First of all I owe you an apology for the way I’ve been acting these last few months….” She went on to explain everything to him in minute detail from her devastation over Jeffrey’s death to why she had been pushing him away in the past months. By the time she was done it was two o’clock in the morning and they both were in tears. “….I know I’ve hurt you, Max…so much, but please, please…..forgive me.”

Max rubbed at the tears in his eyes. “It is not that easy, Liz. You bailed on me when I needed you more than anything….I don’t know if I can forgive you for that.”

“Max, don’t say that,” she whispered pleadingly. She reached forward to touch his cheek but he grabbed her hand before she made contact and pulled it away. His reaction caused renewed sobs to bubble in her chest.

“I don’t think I could take you touching me right now,” he told her painfully.

“Max,” she sobbed, “all I’ve wanted to do is touch you.”

“Just don’t,” he said, flinging down her hand, “I’m not ready.” At her heartbroken expression Max could feel his own tears start again but he fought hard to remain resolute. “I know you didn’t think you’d just show up after all this time and expect things to be the way they were before.”

“I didn’t, but I thought you’d at least let me try to make it up to you,” she whispered.

“By doing what? Going to bed with me?”

“If you want….”

Inside Max’s head fireworks were exploding. If he wanted? IF HE WANTED? Hell, yes he wanted! More than anything, to touch her body, to have her lay against him, to fall asleep next to her…it was the moment he’d been longing for, dreaming of. But how could he possibly make it so easy for her, after all she’d done….and after all he’d done? Only three days earlier he had kissed her best friend. It just didn’t seem right… Liz deserved more and so did he.

And so he looked her in the eye…and he lied. “No, I don’t want to.”

It was obvious the words hurt her. As soon as they left his mouth the color drained from her face. She shrank away from him, curling herself in a little ball on the sofa. Seeing her, Max knew he had to get out. He had to leave or all his good intentions would go to hell.

He quickly rose to his feet and said, “You can take the bedroom. I’ll sleep on the sofa tonight.”


Chapter 16

She had cried herself to sleep. Max knew that because he had hovered outside their bedroom listening to her sob. He sank down to the floor, folding his knees against his chest. He wanted to go to her, everything inside him screamed for him to do it. But he couldn’t. First and foremost, his pride wouldn’t allow it. Liz had hurt him, worse than he could have ever imagined being hurt. He’d thought he’d known pain when she’d slept with her ex all those years ago. But that was nothing compared to the agony of being shut out your lover’s life, of being abandoned by the person who meant most to you in life, the person who was your life….

And then, as if things weren’t already complicated enough, Max felt guilty about what happened with Maria. Earlier that evening he hadn’t thought that he could possibly regret that kiss anymore than he did. He’d been wrong. Max had looked into Liz’s sweet face tonight and wanted so badly to kiss her, to make love to her but felt completely unworthy to do so. Max felt trapped between his conscious and his pride. He leaned his head back against the wood frame of the door. He was in agony….

Which was why, at nearly four o’clock in the morning, instead of laying on the sofa headed for dreamland, he was upstairs outside his bedroom, yearning for his wife… I am really one pathetic mess, Max thought to himself. He sat there for a few moments longer and then pushed himself to his feet. However, just when he was about to turn his back and head back downstairs the bedroom door opened.

“Max?” Max froze and turned back around slowly. “What are you doing?”

“It’s cold. I wanted to check to see if you had enough blankets,” Max lied. It didn’t escape his notice that she stood there in one of his pajama tops. Though the shirt was way too big for her it stopped mid-thigh affording Max when an eyeful of her shapely legs.

Liz smiled at him self-consciously, reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear then realizing it wasn’t there to tuck. “We…uh…have an electric blanket, remember?”

“Right,” Max said, feeling like an idiot.

Liz stood there expectantly, as if she were waiting for him to say more and when he didn’t she sighed her disappointment. “Well, if that’s all…” she said, starting to close the door.

“The sofa’s bad on my back!” Max burst out suddenly.

“What?”

Oh well, he thought, you’ve started it now, Evans, why not just go the full distance? “I thought maybe we could share the bed,” Max clarified shakily.

Liz looked mildly amused by his suggestion. She bit her lip to keep from smirking. “What’s wrong with Claudia’s bed?”

“My feet dangle over the edge,” Max supplied quickly.

She wasn’t buying it, Max could tell. However, she stepped aside and opened the door wider to let him through. “Is that all you’re sleeping in?” she asked as he passed her. She was referring to the blue boxers he wore, leaving his chest and muscled legs naked to her view.

He stood so close that they were just barely touching. “You know how hot I get at night,” he breathed softly.

The statement had double meaning and they both knew it. Liz lowered her head and ducked around him. “Hmm, okay. I’ll just take the left side…and you take the right.”

Max nodded. A few moments later they were settled into bed. Liz lay with her back to him and held her body ironing board straight, teetering on the edge of the bed in her effort to put as much distance between them as possible. Max knew what she was doing and to be irksome spread himself wide across the bed. So that every time he moved closer to her body Liz would inch closer to the edge. Finally Max said, “You know if you keep doing that you’re going to fall out the bed and when you hit the floor I’m gonna laugh.”

Liz threw him an irate glare over her shoulder. “Well, quit trying to touch me, then!”

“I’m not trying to touch you,” Max denied cockily, “I’m trying to get comfortable. Not everyone can sleep like they have a stick rammed up their ass.”

“Screw you, Max,” Liz muttered, jerking the blanket from him and wrapping it more securely around her.

“You wish!” Max retorted, yanking the blanket back.

“Just go to sleep,” Liz ordered in irritation, yanking the blanket again, “And don’t touch me!”

“Don’t worry, I won’t!” Max grumbled, turning over to his side so that they lay back to back.

He fell asleep throbbing. At that moment he’d never wanted her more.

************************************

“Wake up. I’m ready to go see Claudia.”

Max opened up one eye and groaned. He had not had a good night’s sleep. All night long he’d been plagued by erotic dreams of him and Liz. Twice during the night he’d awakened with the intense and insatiable desire to touch her. And in fact, he did. He’d run his hand along the curve of her hip where her nightshirt had ridden up. Her skin had been so soft and smooth and warm. But it was when he had dared to kiss her there that she stirred and he jerked away from her. Afterwards he’d gone out to stand in the snow….in his underwear. And now she stood above him, perky and pink, not looking at all like she’d spent the sleepless night he had.

Max frowned up at her, slowly taking into account that she was fully dressed. “What time is it?” he croaked.

“11:30. Way past time for you to be out of bed,” Liz admonished briskly.

Max groaned again and closed his eyes. “Just ten more minutes…that’s all I ask.”

Liz gave Max’s shoulder a gentle nudge. “Max, please…I’m really anxious to see her.” Max looked up into her pleading brown eyes and found himself unable to refuse.

Anxious to see Claudia was an understatement. They had barely cleared the driveway of Alex and Isabel’s house before Liz was out of the car and running for the front door. Once she and Claudia caught sight of one another they made a beeline towards each other. Watching them hug and laugh, Max felt tears blur his eyes. Liz rained kisses all over Claudia’s face, stroking her hair, telling her over and over just how much “mommy” had missed her. And Claudia, in turn, insisted on showing Liz every picture she’d drawn in her absence. Alex and Isabel lovingly kept their distance, allowing mother and daughter to become reacquainted, recognizing their long awaited reunion would come later.

However, while Liz played tea party with Claudia in A.J.’s nursery Isabel took her brother aside and asked in an excited underbreath, “When did she get back? Did you go and get her?”

“Actually, she was waiting on the front porch when I left here last night.”

“Really?” Isabel said speculatively, “They did release her, right?”

Max chuckled softly. “She’s out free and clear.”

Isabel nodded. “And things between the two of you?”

“What about it?”

“Max, don’t be dense! Are things…better?” The way she said the word “better” Max knew she was hinting at whether he and Liz had reconciled in a physical sense.

“We talked, yes, but that is all we did,” he said, emphasizing the “all,” “Things are still very complicated. Isabel.”

“Ahh,” Isabel surmised, astutely picking up on just where the “complications” were arising, “you could eliminate a lot of that, Max, if you just forgive and forget. It’s the making up that’s the best part anyway.” She slid a gentle look across the room at Alex as she said that.

“Really?” Max asked, giving his sister a wry look, “Is that all it takes?”

Isabel gave her brother a quick peck on the cheek. “Yeah, pretty much.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:33:47 PM
Chapter 17

Max Evans now knew the true meaning of sexual frustration.

He watched in silence as Liz and Claudia played beach house Barbie in the middle of the living room floor. As their girlish giggles wafted over to him he couldn’t suppress his smile at seeing their dark heads bent so closely together. Liz was home again. The reality of it was just beginning to sink into Max’s head. Liz was really home, really whole. She was actually sitting in the middle of their living room floor playing with their daughter as if she’d never left. Max was overwhelmed by the joy Liz had brought with her return. He hadn’t seen Claudia beam like that in months. It was as if she had been saving the best of herself for her mother.

Max could understand why. Who wouldn’t want to save the best of themselves for Liz? She was beautiful, her eyes glowing with a delight that was impossible to miss. Max found himself listening to her laugh like a man hypnotized because there was a time when he thought that he would never hear it again. Hungry for the sight of her he took in every minute change. Not so much was different, save a few things. And the hair…well, it was starting to grow on him, sort of like Meg Ryan’s cut in that movie Addicted to Love. But still he missed the long, dark strands flowing over her shoulders, over him…while they made love. Max shook the image from his head. Nope, that’s definitely not the way to go, Evans, he thought sternly, just stick with the hair. Sometimes, while she slept, he’d been tempted to touch it, to feel it spring around his fingers. But he didn’t touch her hair. In fact, he didn’t touch her at all.

He hadn’t slept in bed with her since that first night, partly because he thought it had been a bad idea and partly because he couldn’t take the pressure of sleeping beside her and not touching her. The aggravating thing was that he had slept with Liz was to rile a reaction out of her, not rile a reaction out of himself. But ever since that night, being so close to her, he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind. All she had to do was walk into the room and he was erect. It was a state he was reluctantly becoming well acquainted with.

But even as Max berated himself for being a pathetic piner he still couldn’t help but stare at her in helpless wonder. The longer he watched her the more intense his desire to touch her became. It took Max several moments to realize that Liz was no longer giggling with Claudia but was talking to him.

“…and she wanted to come out here, but I convinced her that you had everything under control.”

Max jerked his gaze from her mouth in dazed confusion. “What?”

“My mother,” Liz stressed, “She wants to come out for a visit.”

Max groaned. He hadn’t seen Liz’s mother since Liz was hospitalized…thankfully. After Liz had her breakdown Nancy Parker had really read Max the riot act, all but blaming him for Liz’s condition. Once she learned of Liz’s suicide attempt it had taken an act of congress for Max to get her to leave New York. She’d even suggested that she and Jeff take Claudia for a while because she didn’t know if her home life provided enough stability. Thank God, Maria had been there to deal with her bullying or Max just might have snapped. So no, under no condition did he want to see Nancy Parker again any time soon. “I hope you told her no,” Max said to Liz with a look of disgust.

“I told her we were handling things,” Liz replied petulantly and when Max looked relieved she frowned, “You know, I actually wouldn’t mind seeing my mother again. It might be nice to have a chat with her and not have a suicide watch over me while I did.”

“Well, that’s because the last time she was here she didn’t accuse you of being an unfit parent.”

“She didn’t,” Liz breathed in disbelief.

“Grandma Nancy wanted me to come live with her,” Claudia provided, including herself in the conversation without ever pausing in her play. Liz looked at Max in sorrow, for the first time fully comprehending how completely her breakdown had affected him. “Max, I didn’t know-,”

“Of course you didn’t,” Max cut in sharply. He knew he was being an ass to her but he couldn’t help it. Each time they broached the subject of Liz’s breakdown Max would feel all his anger come surging to the surface. “Look let’s just drop it. If you want your mom to come, it’s okay.”

Liz shook her head, looking at Max while rumpling Claudia’s silky hair. “I thought we should spend our time getting reacquainted as a family…no distractions.” The way she said that last part Max could tell she was waiting for a reaction from him. He didn’t give her one.

“Daddy, why don’t you play with us?”

Max smiled at his daughter and shook his head. “I don’t think so, Claudia…I’m not into Barbie.”

“You can be Mr. Toad, then,” Claudia improvised and then before Max could reply she jumped to her feet, “I’ll go get him!” And then she was gone, bounding up the stairs with childish exuberance so quickly that Max didn’t have the chance to stop her. The living room became eerily quiet with her gone.

“So why don’t you just say it already?” Liz finally sighed a moment later.

“Say what?”

“How royally my irresponsibility and selfishness has screwed up our lives.”

“Why should I say anything? You seem more than well aware of that fact.” He’d meant the words to be sarcastic, but they had come out tender, regretful.

Liz crawled over towards him, resting her forearms against his knees. “I feel like I’m going to be apologizing to you for the rest of our lives.”

“Just forget about it,” Max advised dryly, “We can’t change the past, Liz. It’s done.”

“I’m sorry,” Liz persisted stubbornly.

Max reached forward and rubbed his knuckles against her cheek before he could stop himself. Her skin was soft to the touch, warm. “I know,” he whispered quietly.

Liz closed her eyes, shutting out everything around her but the feel of Max’s knuckles sliding along the side of her cheek. “Won’t you kiss me, Max?” she pleaded softly, “Just one time…”

“Liz-,”

“Just once,” Liz entreated again, her eyes still closed.

Max sighed heavily, knowing he’d lost the fight and not caring. He gently slid his fingers along the underside of her jaw so that he cupped her face, held her captive between his palms. As if in a dream he tilted her face up for his kiss…

“I found Mr. Toad, Daddy!” Claudia sang out, effectively breaking the moment. Max jumped away from Liz as if she’d burned him. He quickly composed himself and gave Claudia a big smile, thanking her for Mr. Toad. For Liz it took a little longer. When Max released her she’d actually felt tears come to her eyes. She took a few moments blink them back before plastering a smile on her face. She pulled Claudia against her, hugging her tightly. “Honey, did Mommy ever tell you that you have terrible timing?”

“Huh?” Claudia bleated in confusion, squirming to get free of her mother’s arms, “Come on, let’s play some more. Daddy, you have to get on the floor and you and Mommy can be married and I’ll be the daughter, ok?”

Max laughed at his daughter’s ramble. “I caught the sit on the floor part, but after that you lost me,” he teased. In that moment his eyes met with Liz’s and they shared an intense, silent moment.

Claudia gave her father and mother a long-suffering look. She waved her hand between their faces irreverently. When her parents finally broke their stare she demanded impatiently, “Can we play now, pleeeeease?”

Chapter 18

Liz met Max at the door. He was surprised to see her standing there, apron tied around her waist, smiling at him as if he’d just slain a dragon. Without a word she took his coat and hung it in the foyer closet. That done, she took his hand and led him into the living room, pushing him toward the recliner. Once he was seated, she walked around to the back of the recliner and began massaging his shoulders, still without ever saying a word. Max smiled up at her in bewilderment. “It’s not my birthday,” Max teased softly. Liz only shrugged and began rotating her thumbs into Max’s shoulder blades. Max groaned in pleasure. It was then that he caught a whiff of the heavenly aroma wafting from the kitchen. “Something…smells…good,” he observed between moans of gratification.

Liz bent her head low so that her words rushed against his ear in a warm breath, “I made dinner.”

Max shivered at the tingles of desire that ran down his spine. He shrugged off her hands, acutely uncomfortable all of a sudden. Liz didn’t push the issue, but came around to stand in front of him. “You didn’t have to make dinner,” Max told her, trying to ignore his sudden erection.

“I don’t have to do a lot of things, Max…but I made dinner for you because I wanted to.”

It was then that Max realized that Liz was dressed up. She was wearing makeup and beneath her apron she wore a sheer white gown that outlined the shape of her body. For that matter the apartment was dark all except for a few candles… Max eyes zigzagged back to Liz. “Where’s Claudia?” he asked suddenly. It struck him as odd that she wasn’t running around because Liz should have picked her up from pre-school by now.

“She’s with Alex and Isabel tonight,” Liz supplied simply.

Warning bells began instantly clanging in Max’s head. “Why?”

Instead of answering his question Liz merely smiled down at him innocently. Her smile didn’t ease Max’s suspicion one iota. “What are you up to, Liz?” he asked her, somehow managing to keep his face scrupulously straight.

“I just thought we could do something this evening…” Liz admitted lightly, “…Just the two of us,” she added with a sexy little smile.

Max couldn’t help it he smiled back at her. “Just the two of us, huh?”

“The Money Pit is coming on TBS tonight.” His all time favorite comedy, Max thought, she definitely wasn’t playing fair. “I made grilled chicken and fettuccini alfredo,” she sang sweetly. Nope, Max confirmed mentally, definitely not playing fair. Max relaxed back into the recliner and grinned at her broadly. “You did all this just to spend the night alone with me?”

To Max’s surprise the teasing expression on Liz’s face faded into one of earnest solemnity. She sank to her knees before him, running her palms up his thighs. “You’d be surprised by all I would do…just for you,” she whispered warmly.

Max looked speculatively from Liz’s caressing fingers back to her hooded brown eyes. “You wouldn’t be trying to seduce me, would you?” he murmured.

A soft breath of laughter escaped Liz and she leaned close to nuzzle him. “Of course not,” she said unconvincingly, “it is, after all, the last thing you want,” her gaze slid insolently to his crotch then back up to his face, “right?”

“Liz, I-,”

“Wait,” Liz interrupted quickly, not wanting for things to get too serious, knowing that he would back away from her if they did, “Max, I just want to have fun…hang out…like we used to.”

“Just watch a movie and have fun?”

“Yes.”

“Then what’s with the make-up and the dress?”

Liz looked down at herself with a self-conscious laugh. “Okay, you win. I’ll go upstairs and change.”

“And I’ll pop some popcorn and get the ice cream. If we’re going to watch The Money Pit we’ve got to do it right.”

Half an hour later they were both pressed into the sofa, Liz in sweatpants, socks and one of Max’s big, bulky sweaters. Max was equally comfortable in his T-shirt and jeans. The candlelight that Liz had illuminated the living room with was now replaced with firelight from the fireplace. The coffee table was littered with the remains of their dinner, not to mention popcorn, an empty ice cream container and two drained bottles of wine.

More than a little tipsy, they lay curled up against one another, laughing uproariously at Tom Hanks’ antics. “You know,” Liz said, her words slightly slurred from the liquor, “Alex looks a lot like Tom Hanks,” she leaned her head back against his shoulder and grinned up at him widely, “don’tcha think?”

Max peered hard at the television screen, focusing as much as his inebriated brain would allow. “My God!” he exclaimed suddenly, his eyes widening in shock, “he could he be Alex’s twin!” He and Liz both shared a drunken giggle and as Max found himself looking down into her beautiful face he felt overwhelmed with the desire to tell her just how much he loved her. “You look like the moon,” he said in wonder. Okay, it wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind, but in his befuddled state it would have to do.

Liz’s forehead knit together in dissatisfied confusion. “You think I’m round an’ pale?”

“No,” Max whispered boyishly as he used the tips of his fingers to stroke her cheek, “You glow like the moon.”

“Really?” Liz breathed. She felt as if she had been paid the most exquisite compliment ever.

Max shifted his fingers higher, sliding them into the soft hair at Liz’s temples. “I…love…you…Liz,” he told her haltingly.

“But I’m so ugly,” Liz protested, burying her face in his chest.

“No.”

“My hair’s all gone,” Liz wailed plaintively.

“You don’t like it?” Max asked in amazement as he stroked the nape of her neck.

“I miss it long,” she admitted in a muffled little voice. Max smiled to himself and whispered her name. When she lifted her head he slid his hands into her hair, slowly combing his fingers through it, lengthening her shiny, dark hair with his powers. After he was done it cascaded over her shoulder in a chocolate waterfall, reaching nearly to her waist.

Liz looked at him in speechlessness, tears of amazement of joy burning her eyes. “But you hate using your powers, Max…” she said, too choked up with emotion to finish her sentence.

“For you, Liz,” he told her reverently, “It’s one of the perks in having an alien for a husband.”

The sweetness of his gesture sobered Liz somewhat and she felt tears of intense love spill down her cheeks. “Max, can I kiss you, please?”

Max answered her question with action, dipping his head to brush her lips softly. They stared into each other’s eyes, their faces still near. “Is that what you call a kiss?” Liz murmured teasingly, “I didn’t realize it had been that long.” She nuzzled her nose against his cheek; brushing light kisses against it as she did.

“Maybe you can refresh my memory,” Max said with a provocative sigh. And Liz needed no further invitation. She lifted up to press her mouth to Max’s only longer this time, unhurriedly reacquainting herself with the contours of Max’s lips, their softness. It was a tentative kiss, meant to be one more of exploration than passion. And Max kissed her back, opening his mouth over hers, gradually kindling the fire between them.

Without really being aware that he was doing it, Max leaned Liz back against the cushions of the sofa, his mouth becoming more insistent as it slanted over hers again and again. Liz’s fingers bunched into the soft cotton of Max’s T-shirt, pulling him closer against her. She nudged her middle against his groin, needing to be closer.

It was that arousing contact with his body that made Max rip out of her arms abruptly. Liz stared up at him in surprise, her breathing harsh. “Why did you stop?”

In the firelight Liz watched several emotions chase their way across Max’s face: love, frustration, confusion…hunger and finally resolve. “Liz, we can’t. It’s too soon.”

Liz scrambled upright, suddenly furious. “Too soon for what, Max! We’re married! This is what married people do!”

“I’m not ready,” Max maintained stubbornly. Liz shot an incredulous look to his groin, where his erection was evident. “Liz, my body may be there, but my head,” he tapped at his temple, “it just isn’t yet.” And before she could say anything in reply he got up and left the room.

Liz didn’t know why, but having him say that hurt worse than anything she could have imagined. But she didn’t know why she had expected anything different either. They had been in this place before, a long time ago. It had taken Max time to forgive her, but he had forgiven her. Liz knew that it was just a matter of being patient. And judging from tonight, Liz knew it wouldn’t be long before Max yielded. He’d probably crack before the week was out.

In the meantime Liz Evans was a patient woman. She could wait.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:34:57 PM
Chapter 19

“It’s not that I don’t enjoy your company, Max,” Alex quipped as he leaned down to take his shot on the pool table, “but what the hell are you doing here?”

That was an interesting question. What the hell was he doing at his sister’s house at nine o’clock at night when he could be home sleeping with a wife who he knew damned well wanted to sleep with him? It wasn’t that Max hadn’t already asked himself that question a hundred times. He cursed himself for a moron because he stayed. And still he stayed. Because every time he contemplated returning home to Liz, knowing that she was bent on seducing him, Max lost his nerve.

He was a coward. Max admitted this to himself now. His reasons for staying away from Liz had nothing to do with his being unwilling to forgive her, but everything to do with his own conscience. Under any other circumstances Max would have been all over Liz, not hesitating in the slightest to take her to bed. But he could barely look her in the eye these days. He felt so guilty over what had happened with Maria. Although it was technically true that he and Maria had done nothing beyond kissing, Max felt in his heart that he and Maria had been more to each other than just two friends who had shared a stolen kiss. She had all but replaced Liz in his life. Max knew that for himself and he sensed on some level that Liz new it as well.

Max couldn’t blame her for being suspicious. How could she not be?, he asked himself derisively. The entire apartment was completely changed and with every other sentence out of Claudia’s mouth beginning with “Aunt Maria,” Liz had to be suspicious about what was going on. Lately, she had been questioning Max, subtle, innocent questions about what he had done while she was in the hospital. At first Max had hedged, being as evasive as he could before quickly changing the subject, but that was no longer working. Liz had now progressed to asking him more detailed questions, the majority of them being about Maria.

Alex straightened and set his cue stick to the floor, propping himself against it. “You’re obviously not going to play, Max,” he said, meaning pool, “so why not tell me what you’re doing here?”

“Can’t a guy just want to spend time with his family!” Max exclaimed somewhat defensively.

“Not three days in a row, Max,” Alex pointed out dryly.

“Oh,” Max sighed, feeling the righteous indignation he’d been building up deflate abruptly.

“Max, I’m thinking something is bothering you,” Alex observed, laying his cue stick onto the pool table and motioning for Max to take a seat. Max pulled up a chair from the opposite end of the game room while Alex propped himself up onto the pool table. “So what is up with you?” he asked after Max had sat down.

“Liz,” Max replied simply.

Alex was instantly anxious. “Is she sick again?” he burst out quickly, already beginning to worry.

“No, she’s fine,” Max assured him quickly, “I’m the one with the problem.”

“I’m listening.”

Max cleared his throat before beginning in a low tone, “I’m sure Isabel has told you that Liz and I are working to get things between us back on track…”

“I may have heard something to that effect, yeah,” Alex confirmed.

“Well lately Liz has been wanting to take things to the next level, if you catch my meaning.”

“She wants to have sex,” Alex said simply, not bothering to bush beat.

“Yes,” Max admitted, looking absolutely miserable.

“And that’s a problem because…?”

“Because of Maria.”

Alex’s mouth fell open in shock. “Please God, tell me you did NOT sleep with Maria,” he exclaimed.

“I didn’t sleep with, Maria.”

Alex hung his head, barking a short, sighing laugh. “Yeah, okay, now for the truth.”

“I didn’t sleep with Maria,” Max repeated, stressing the “didn’t” The relieved look that feel over Alex’s face was short-lived, however, when Max added, “But we did kiss.”

Alex was nonplussed. He responded in the only way he could think of. “Alrighty then.”

Max threw Alex a supplicating glance before hanging his head in misery. “What am I going to do, Alex? The guilt is killing me…I think maybe I should tell Liz the truth.”

“Absolutely no way!” Alex vehemently advised, “That would only succeed in making an already bad situation worse.”

“I can’t go on lying to her,” Max groaned.

Alex sympathized with him, but he couldn’t believe telling Liz about what happened between him and Maria was the best move. “Max,” Alex began with deliberate calm, “Liz was just released from a mental institution…do you really want to load her down with this information?”

“What are you saying, Alex?”

“I’m saying what if she snaps again, Max, have you considered that? Maybe Liz isn’t emotionally ready to hear something like this. She would see it as a betrayal and I honestly don’t think it’s something she can handle right now, if ever.”

“So I’m just supposed to go on lying to her….indefinitely,” Max burst out incredulously.

“You’re not lying per se…”

“Lie of omission, Alex,” Max clarified dully.

“Some things are better left unsaid, Max,” Alex told him honestly, “You and Maria just kissed and it’s over, right?”

“Yeah,” Max said, “it’s over.”

Alex hopped off the pool table and slapped his hand against Max’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort. “Then just take my advice and bury it. It’s the past now….just let it stay there.”

Chapter 20

On the drive home Max thought seriously about all the things Alex had told him and although he knew that Alex was right in some ways Max knew that his conscience wouldn’t allow him to keep lying to Liz. He did not want to hurt her, but Max realized that he and Liz would never progress in their relationship if this secret continued to be an issue between them. The sooner he told her the truth, the sooner they could work at moving past it.

She was sitting in the living room waiting for him when he arrived home.

“Where have you been?” she inquired softly as he stepped through the door. Max noted right away that she didn’t appear angry with him, only concerned. She stood in the middle of the living room, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, looking relieved and grateful to see him standing there. Her lack of righteous fury only made Max feel worse.

Reluctant to face her he took meticulous time hanging up his jacket before turning around and answering, “I was at Alex and Isabel’s.”

“Oh,” she said with a funny little squeak, “Well, have you eaten? There’s chili on the stove.”

“No, Isabel plied me with plenty of food there.” He still stood near the door, afraid to advance closer. “Is Claudia asleep?”

Liz nodded. “She wanted to wait up but…” she choked off, unable to finish as sobs began to erupt from her chest. She crumbled; crying like her heart would break in two. Seeing that he had made her cry was more than Max could withstand. He rushed forward and took her in his arms, cradling her head against his chest while she cried. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he said over and over again, kissing the top of her head.

“I-I didn’t know….y-you w-were…still so angry w-with me, Max,” she sobbed, clutching at his shirtfront as her body fairly vibrated with misery, “I don’t w-want you to hate me!”

“I don’t hate you, Liz,” he reassured her in a gentle tone, “I could never hate you.”

“Then why have you come home late for the past three nights?” Liz countered tearily, pulling out of his arms to angrily swipe at her tears, “Why do you prefer to spend all your time with Alex and Isabel and not with me?”

As the firelight danced over her face, emphasizing her anguished features Max knew he didn’t have the strength to go on hurting her. “Liz, I have something I have to tell you-,”

“No! Wait!” Liz interrupted anxiously before he could continue, “before you say anything please, please hear me out. I was wrong to shut you out, Max. It was a selfish thing to do considering you were grieving, too. And I know you hate me for it. I hate myself for it!” she cried hysterically, “But I’m sorry…so sorry that I hurt you. I don’t know how I could have done that to you. But I’m asking you to forgive me, Max! Please,” she sank to her knees and doubled over as if in pain, her sobs loud and harsh in the quiet, “I’m begging you to me…please….please God, forgive me!”

Max stared down at her crumpled, weeping form, crying himself. He sank down on the carpet with her and began gently wiping at her tears. “Please….don’t cry, Liz…” he soothed tenderly, “please don’t cry anymore.” He was in agony to see her in such turmoil, knowing he had caused it. “Please…” he whispered again when she still continued to sob. Left with no other recourse he began kissing her cheeks, her eyes, her mouth, soft soothing kisses all over her face, lingering kisses. “Liz,” he moaned, kissing her lips once again and crying with her, wanting desperately for the hurting to stop.

He kissed her longer, deeper, his mouth becoming increasingly insistent until Liz began to respond to him. She kissed him back, feeding him her tongue just as fiercely as he gave Liz his own. Max wasn’t sure if it was Liz or his own hands that unbuttoned his shirt. He only knew that he needed to be close to her, that he could deny her no longer. He needed to ease the ache that had been building inside them both.

Max quickly shrugged out of his shirt, throwing it in a heap on the floor. It was followed by the remainder of his clothing soon after, in addition to Liz’s own sweats and T-shirt. Max explored her naked body thoroughly; reacquainting himself with curves he hadn’t touched in almost a year. He knew her body as well as he knew his own and still he couldn’t suppress the wonder of holding her, of touching her most intimate places. That he could bring her such sublime pleasure humbled Max, made him feel omnipotent.

Liz felt the same, felt his hunger, his same driving need. They kissed each other wildly, exploring one another’s nakedness as if they were starved for touch. Their bodies tangled together, pressing, rubbing, undulating. At the first penetration of Max’s body Liz felt tears sting the backs of her eyes again, overwhelmed by the sheer beauty, the marvelous wonder of having Max inside her again.

Max stroked her deeply, his thrusts without rhythm or finesse. He plunged into her again and again driven by the desperate need to find completion within her. He was only aware of the sensation of being surrounded by her incredible warmth, her incredible love for him. His climax came upon him amazingly quick despite all his efforts to hold on. It rushed from him in a tingling spurt of sheer sensation. When it was over Max collapsed against Liz, feeling winded and weak and….wonderful. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of Liz’s fingers tenderly stroking his hair. He was asleep in minutes.

Later when they awoke they made their way up to the bedroom where they made love again for a second time, only slower and with more leisure. Afterwards Liz cuddled up against Max’s side, laying her head on his chest. Max idly twirled a lock of Liz’s hair about his finger, adoring how it spread across his chest like a silky river. He had missed that. “So do you like it?” he asked her lazily, almost asleep.

“Mmm, it was really good,” Liz purred in languid pleasure, “But it was even better the second time.”

Max’s answering laugh rumbled deep in his chest. “I meant your hair.”

Liz smiled up at him, propping her chin against his chest. “Oh, that,” she laughed, “I think it looks beautiful.”

“You do?” Max asked with boyish innocence.

“It’s perfect…like you.”

Max traced his finger along the curve of her cheek, worshipping her amazing beauty with his eyes. “I love you, Liz.”

“I know that now…for a while there I wasn’t too sure.”

“You couldn’t have believed for a moment that I had stopped loving you,” Max teased in disbelief.

“Well, you did refuse to go to bed with me…”

“Only because I’m a idiot,” Max told her fervently.

“So then you don’t regret what happened tonight?”

“Never.” Pleased with his solemn reply Liz snuggled back against him with a contented sigh. “Oh,” she yawned, as she began falling asleep, “what was it you were trying to tell me earlier?”

Max stroked her hair with tender adoration and whispered, “It wasn’t important.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:39:35 PM
Chapter 21

Maria pulled up into the driveway of Max’s two-story apartment with a heavy sigh. After she cut the engine she sat there for a moment, her mind wandering. In the backseat Mickey and Adrienne were asleep. Mickey lay curled up against her baby sister’s car seat, clutching her sister’s small hand in her own. Maria smiled wistfully at the picture they made. Seeing them helped ease some of the tension she felt over her impending confrontation with Max. However, despite the relaxing effect her daughter’s had on her emotions Maria continued to be a nervous wreck.

It didn’t help matters that Mickey had spent the entire plane ride back to New York hounding Maria with questions about Claudia and “Uncle” Max. They had been endless. Was Uncle Max going to pick them up from the airport? Would Uncle Max help her and Claudia make a snowman? Could she ask Uncle Max to read her Ten Apples Up On Top one more time? On and on until Maria thought her head was going to split in two. And yet upon landing in New York and retrieving her car from parking services where had Maria headed? Straight for Uncle Max.

Okay, she’d missed him, pure and simple. She had missed laughing with him, missed the irritating way he had of analyzing every little detail…had missed what great friends they had been. And that was why she had come. To save that friendship between them the only way she knew how. She would have to leave New York indefinitely…but no before she spoke to Max. She couldn’t leave things between them as they were.

The last time she and Max had spoken it had not been a very pleasant conversation. She had cried after he had gone, but she made herself not pick up the phone and call him. That very next evening she left on a plane for Roswell, New Mexico. Maria hadn’t even called him to say good-bye. She regretted that now. In fact, she regretted a lot of things. But what Maria regretted most was not telling Max how she felt about him. And that was that she was in love with him.

There she admitted it to herself. Although, technically, she had done that two weeks earlier the realization still packed enough power to shock her into speechless immobility. Maria DeLuca was in love with Max Evans. And more than anything Maria needed to tell him that. It wasn’t that Maria wanted to make the admission because she thought that it would change things romantically between her and Max. She knew better. Max, whether he realized it or not, was still in love with Liz. He always had and always would be. And beyond that Maria knew that once she told Max about visiting Liz at Cedar Ridge no force on earth would keep Max from getting to Liz. He would go running back to her on winged feet. No, Maria didn’t expect any big payoff from her admission other than getting it off her chest. She also wanted Max to fully understand why she was leaving town. Maria didn’t want him to become bitter over it.

The irony of her situation struck Maria as laughable. In all the time that Max and Liz had been together, Maria had never thought of him as anything beyond a brother to her. She had been too blinded by Michael Guerin to notice anyone else. Max Evans had been her best friend’s considerate, albeit shy and methodical boyfriend. And now, after all these years, it was as if Maria were seeing him for the first time, recognizing him for the truly amazing man that he was. And that was exactly why she needed to leave.

There was no way that she could remain in New York and watch the man she loved fall back in love with his wife. Even the thought of it was agony. What was especially hard was that Maria had come to think of Max and Claudia as her family.

But Maria realized with a disheartening sigh that what she and Max shared in the last five months had not been real, at least not for Max. She had actually known it long before that moment, that she was only a substitute for the woman Max really wanted, but she hadn’t allowed the idea to penetrate her heart. She was quick to dismiss her misgivings because she had wanted so much, whether right or wrong, for Max Evans to love her…

A chill began to settle in the interior of the car and Maria knew she had been sitting outside too long. She could put the confrontation off no longer. Swinging around in her seat, she nudged Mickey awake. When the three year old realized where she was she came instantly alert. “Yay! We’re going to see Claudia and Uncle Max!”

Her childish enthusiasm made Maria smile. “Yeah, baby, we’re going to see Uncle Max…but just for a little while.”

With a crushing sense of dread Maria bundled up her daughters and hustled them out of the car. After strapping a sleeping Adrienne against her in a carry satchel Maria trudged through the snow towards Max’s front door. Exhaling deeply, she unlocked it with her key.

The apartment was quite and dim. Maria led Mickey inside and crept in behind her, shutting the door firmly. What she saw inside the apartment made her blood chill. The living room looked as if a tornado had gone through it. Clothes were flung all across the floor and furniture. The cushions on the sofa were lopsided and dirty dishes cluttered the coffee table from corner to corner. In addition to that it was nearly 10:00 in the morning and the place was eerily silent. Max never slept a minute past eight o’clock unless something was wrong. “Oh, no,” Maria groaned, fearing the worst.

“Is Uncle Max here, Mom?” Mickey asked, looking around the apartment owl-eyed.

“His car is out front so I guess so,” Maria answered absently, her mind working at a frantic pace. The last time she’d seen Max’s apartment in such a disaster had been right after Liz had lost the baby… A feeling of panic set in Maria’s chest making it difficult for her to breathe. She turned back to Mickey, stooping down so that they stood eye to eye. “I’m going to go upstairs and find Uncle Max, okay. I want you to stay down here and watch Nickelodeon while I do.” Mickey gave her mother an obedient nod. “Michelle Guerin, do not touch anything,” Maria admonished sternly, “I will be back in a few minutes.”

After turning on the TV for Mickey, thankfully Blue’s Clues was on to keep her occupied, Maria began to climb the stairs up to Max’s bedroom, her heart thumping with dread. In the darkened hallway she came to Claudia’s door first. Maria opened the door and peered inside. She smiled in relief when she saw Claudia snuggled beneath her giant Elmo doll, only one small foot visible. She closed the door with a soft click.

When she reached Max’s door she hesitated for a brief second before raising her fist to knock lightly. Maria waited a few moments for an answer and when she didn’t receive one she called his name softly, twisting the doorknob as she did. As she opened the door fully she came into full view of Max…and Liz. He was propped up on his side, idly stroking Liz’s shoulder while she slept soundly beside him, however, when he heard the door open he looked up in surprise, a surprise that quickly turned to dismay.

Maria was stunned speechless, her mind racing with a million things at once. But one thought was prominent: she had to get out of that house and get out NOW! “I didn’t know you had company,” she said quickly, shutting the door and spinning for the staircase.

Inside his bedroom Max scrambled out of bed and began frantically pulling on his pajama bottoms. His abrupt movement jarred Liz awake. She lifted her rumpled head and asked sleepily, “What’s going on?”

“Someone’s at the door,” Max said, hoping he sounded calmer than he felt, “Go back to sleep.” Liz didn’t need any coercion; she laid her head back against the pillow without hesitation, asleep again in seconds.

Max had just skidded down the stairs as Maria was heading out the door with Mickey. “Maria, wait!” he cried. At the sound of his voice Mickey came running back, catapulting herself into his arms. “Uncle Max!” she exclaimed happily as he lifted her in his arms, “Guess what?”

“What?” Max asked, smiling but his eyes were on Maria.

“I went to Roswell to see my Grammy,” Mickey told him, bursting with pride, “Have you ever been to Roswell?”

“I was born in Roswell, Mickey,” Max told her in a laugh.

“Like my daddy?”

“Yeah…like your dad.”

“Where’s Claudia?” she questioned quickly.

“Not now,” Maria interrupted in a steely tone, “We have to go, Michelle. Get down.”

“You can stay for a little while can’t you?” Max asked as he set Mickey to the ground, “Mickey, why don’t you go in the kitchen and have some Nilla wafers. You know where they are.”

Maria glared at him as Mickey skipped off in the direction of the kitchen. “I was leaving, Max,” she snapped out. Max didn’t reply. Maria decided to dive right on into the main event. “So I see Liz is home again.”

“Yeah…last week,” Max said hoarsely. “Maria, about what happened between us…”

“Nothing happened between us, Max. And even if it did it’s irrelevant now. It’s already like old times between you two,” Maria quipped bitterly. It was impossible to mistake the hurt he heard in her voice.

“Maria, I’m sorry…”

“For what?” she bit out, “This was what you wanted…I mean we both wanted it. You belong with Liz.”

“Maria, believe me, you are the last person on this earth that I would ever want to hurt.”

“Yeah and why is that, Max?” Maria croaked, shattered because she couldn’t keep her tears from spilling down her cheeks.

“Maria, you’re my friend. I l-,”

“Don’t say it! Don’t you dare say it! Because you don’t have any idea, Max!”

“Maria, what are you talking about,” Max asked as gently as he could.

“I’m in love with you, damn it!”

The admission stunned Max so much that he could do nothing other than stand aside as Maria called Mickey and headed out the door. He drifted to the door after her in stunned silence, watching as she skidded out the driveway and down the road.

He never noticed a devastated Liz standing at the top of the stairs.

Chapter 22

Alex took one look at Liz’s pale, agitated face and knew something was wrong. He also noticed immediately that she wouldn’t meet his gaze. Unwilling to show the concern that was quickly rising within him and risk Liz bolting in the opposite direction, Alex pasted on a bright smile. “Well, this is an unexpected surprise,” he said.

“Hey, Alex, can I come inside?” Liz asked softly, offering him a half-hearted smile. Alex stepped aside to let her in, noting with concern that she looked more than upset. She looked shattered. He peered around her, expecting to see Max and Claudia close behind. “Max isn’t with you?”

“No,” she said with a funny little smile, “not this time.”

“So dare I hope the visit is for my benefit?” Alex hinted, wiggling his eyebrows. He hoped to illicit a laugh from her, at the very least a genuine smile, but she her face remained expressionless.

“Actually, I was wondering if you had seen Maria,” Liz told him, “I went by her apartment and she wasn’t there.”

Alex looked at her incredulously. “What do you guys have, radar? She’s in the den. Come on.” He started off in the direction of the den with Liz close behind him. When they neared the doorway Liz asked quickly, “Alex, do you think I could talk to her alone?”

Her question stopped Alex in his tracks. He looked at her for a long, intense moment before coming to his own conclusion about why Liz wanted to see Maria alone. Now the look on her face made perfect sense. Alex hoped his pity didn’t manifest itself in his expression. “Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” he warned Liz half teasing, half serious, “And just try to work it out, ok?”

“I’ll try,” Liz reassured him with a small smile. When Alex turned to leave she grabbed his shirtsleeve, detaining him. “Thanks, Alex.”

Alex leaned forward and kissed Liz’s forehead tenderly. “That’s what friends are for, Liz.”

After he was gone, Liz took several deep breaths before walking into the den. Maria was ensconced in the sofa, her feet propped against the coffee table, flipping through the television channels. At Liz’s entrance she said, “Alex, you know, for a rich guy you’d think you could afford some decent finger sandwiches. These suck.”

“As irreverent as ever, huh, Maria?”

Maria spun around quickly in her seat, her face draining completely of color when she saw Liz standing less than two feet away. She got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach suddenly. The memories of that morning, which she had successfully blocked all day, assailed her with the force of a hurricane. Her knees actually began to tremble with trepidation. Maria knew the time had come for her to face the consequences of her actions earlier that day. Maria was determined that, before Liz left, she would know the entire truth. “Liz,” she said lamely as she rubbed her suddenly damp palms against her thighs, “hi.” She stood awkwardly, obviously about to attempt an uneasy hug, but Liz took a step back.

“I came here to talk about you and Max, Maria,” Liz announced in a flat tone.

Maria didn’t bother to pretend that she didn’t know what Liz was talking about. They had been friends for too long for Maria to play that game with her. “You weren’t asleep this morning?”

Liz shook her head. “No…I wasn’t.”

At her admission Maria immediately dissolved into sobs. She attempted to stifle them with her hand but she was unsuccessful. “Liz…god…I am so sorry…”

“Are you sleeping with him, Maria?” Liz asked directly, emotion choking her own voice.

“No! God, Liz, of course not!” Maria began anxiously pacing the floor, raking her fingers through her hair. “Is that what you think?” Maria threw her an injured glance, her face mottled with anguish.

“I don’t know what to think,” Liz stated implacably, licking at her own tears, “I just found out this morning that my best friend is in love with my husband.”

Liz hadn’t let the knowledge sink into her brain earlier that morning. She had just been too numbed by what happened, too disbelieving of what she’d heard. But now it hit her full force, weakening her knees. Blindly, she stumbled over into a chair and collapsed into it.

She hadn’t been able to face Max, had been too afraid of what he would say to confront him. Liz hadn’t been ready to know the truth this morning. She hadn’t wanted to know the truth. But after spending the majority of her day avoiding Max and running out of excuses as to why she was doing it Liz knew she had to find out the truth or the not knowing would send her over the edge. Liz felt lost, not being completely sure of who she could trust to tell her the truth, but her instincts had told her to go to Maria. And so Liz had lied to Max, telling him that she was running to the supermarket for groceries. She had gone searching for Maria instead.

Maria moved to kneel before Liz, tentatively placing her hands over Liz’s. “Liz, you know I would never, ever hurt you deliberately, but Max was in so much pain…we both were in so much pain…he had so much to deal with after the baby died and… I just meant to help him…I just wanted to help him, that’s all, and it just became more…he needed someone, Liz, they both did…they needed you…I was just trying to help him…I never meant for this to happen…”

“Why did you come this morning?” Liz moaned aloud, not really expecting an answer, “Why?”

“You know why, Liz,” Maria sobbed, laying her head in Liz’s lap.

“Because you love him,” Liz whispered painfully. Liz’s hand hovered over Maria’s head in indecision before finally settling into her hair. She fingered Maria’s hair gingerly, her tears dropping into Maria’s golden curls. “I can’t even be mad at you, Maria. And I want to be,” she sobbed, “I really want to hate you right now.”

And as Liz stared down at Maria’s bent head she knew exactly why she couldn’t. Because she knew that Maria had spoken the truth. And that is what tormented Liz most of all, that she had played a large part in the events that had unfolded in her apartment that very morning, that a big portion of her hurt had been her on doing. Liz knew that she couldn’t hold Maria and Max accountable for what they had done, whatever it was, without first acknowledging the part she had played in it all. How could she blame Maria for stepping into her life when she had all but thrown it away? How could she be angry when she knew full well that Maria had been the one to keep her family together all these months? Maria was the reason that Liz’s daughter didn’t hate her, that Max hadn’t turned his back on her. Liz didn’t believe for a moment that Maria had deliberately gone after Max. She had not expected to love him, just like Liz hadn’t expected to. And Liz could tell just by looking that Maria was just as devastated by the knowledge as she was.

“I don’t want to ruin your marriage, Liz, that wasn’t my intention this morning,” Maria moaned in misery, lifting her tear-stained face to Liz, “I don’t want to come between you and Max.”

“You couldn’t even if you did,” Liz said without heat or censure. Her tone was more of fact-stating. “Maria, I have no intention of losing my husband…to you or anyone else for that matter.”

Unbelievably, the implacable calmness with which she made that statement startled a smile from Maria. “It makes me happy and sad all at the same time to hear you say that.”

“I can understand why you love him, Maria…even though I wish you didn’t…”

“So do I,” Maria whispered, brushing the tears from her cheeks, “I want you to know, Liz, that nothing happened between us, nothing-,”

“Don’t say that,” Liz cut in sharply, “Everything happened…everything changed, Maria…whether you slept with him or not.”

“Does that mean we won’t be friends anymore?” Maria asked her fearfully.

“Of course not,” Liz assured her in a tender sigh, “Not being friends with you would be like losing a vital part of myself, Maria. We’ve been friends over twenty years and I…can’t just trash that. But I don’t know if it will ever be the same.”

“It will,” Maria promised, smiling through her tears, “I’ll win back your trust, Liz.”

“Maria,” Liz said, squeezing Maria’s hands tightly in her own, “I owe you a debt of gratitude that I will never, never be able to repay. You gave me back my family when you didn’t have to. You sacrificed your happiness for me. When it came down to your love for Max and your love for me, you…chose…me,” Liz choked, feeling her sobs begin to vibrate in her chest, “and I will never forget that.”

“Liz, you been like a sister to me my whole life…” Maria confided tearily, painfully touched by Liz’s words.

“Maria, it’s not an issue of trust for me so much as it is that you shared something with Max that I never will…because I threw it away. That’s something that’s going to bond the two of you for the rest of your lives…and whether either of you admit it, there’s always going to be a part of him that loves you because of it. And that hurts…so much.”

“Liz, I just want us to be friends again,” Maria told her fiercely, “That is the only thing I want right now, the only thing that’s important to me. Just tell me that we can still be friends.”

Liz looked down into her tear-streaked face, knowing she meant every word. And she couldn’t say no, and honestly, she didn’t want to. “Yeah, Maria…” she conceded, reaching forward to enfold Maria in a forgiving hug, “yeah, we can.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:41:05 PM
Chapter 23

“You’re back.”

Liz jumped at the sound of Max’s voice in the darkened living room. She quickly clicked on the lamp to find him sitting at the base of the stairs waiting for her. “I told you I’d be a little late,” Liz explained lamely, shutting the front door and leaning back against it.

“Yeah, you did,” Max stated with calmness he did not feel, “but you didn’t tell me why or where you were for that matter. So it’s nearly 11:00 p.m….where have you been?”

“I’ve been hanging with Alex…and Maria.”

At the mention of Maria, Max hung his head in shame, instinctively knowing that Liz knew the truth. “So you talked to Maria, huh?” he said, his voice suddenly hoarse and dry, “Well, I guess there’s some things I need to explain then…” He lifted his head to find Liz standing directly in front of him. He kept his eyes glued at her waist, unable to look at her. “Liz?”

“Shh,” Liz admonished, kneeling before him. Taking his face between her hands, she gave him a long, slow kiss. At first Max was too startled, too confused to respond but after a few moments he began tentatively kissing her back. When she finally pulled away, Max licked his lips, savoring the taste of her. He closed his eyes, mentally strengthening himself for what he was about to do, “Liz, I have to tell you something-,”

“I don’t want to talk,” Liz interrupted quickly, pressing her finger against his lips, “….Max, make love to me.”

Max shook his head in confusion. “Liz, I have to tell y-,”

“Just take me to bed…please?”

“Liz,” he continued persistently, “I have something I need to tell you.” Abruptly, Liz rose to her feet, lifting the edge of her shirt as she did. She whisked it over her head and tossed it across the room. When she reached behind her back to unclasp her bra, Max said softly, “Liz, don’t…” Liz let her bra fall forward. It slipped down her arms and landed at her feet. She then hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her sweatpants, dragging them, along with her panties, over her hips and past her knees. After she’d kicked out of her pants she looked back at Max, completely naked, her expression beseeching. “Are you still going to say no?”

“No,” Max breathed as he stared at her. He rose slowly to his feet.

“No?”

“No,” he said again, before taking her mouth captive in a desperate kiss. He backed her against the wall, holding her face captured between his between his hands while his mouth slanted over hers again and again. Liz groped for the edge of his shirt, dragging it over his head and tossing it away. The moment he was free of it their mouths fused once more. Together they worked his jeans downs his hips.

With his pants pooled around his ankles, Max lifted Liz up so that she could wrap her legs around his waist, pinning her against the wall. He entered her in one sudden thrust. Their eyes met for an electric moment while they’re shared a mutual gasp of pleasure. And then Max buried his face in the crook of her neck and gave himself up, to Liz; to the passionate desperation that claimed him whenever she was near. He pounded into her mindlessly, only wanting to reach the goal, to have her there with him.

Liz dug her nails into his naked back, biting her lip to keep from crying out. She locked her ankles at the small of his back, arching against him to allow his stroking body deeper access inside her own. Her orgasm came in a wave of blinding pleasure that caused her to moan long and loud. Max followed her quickly after, jerking her body down onto his one last before spilling his seed, his life, and his love, into her.

After it was over they were both exhausted and panting, glistening with perspiration. Because Max’s knees could no longer hold him, he sank to the floor, taking Liz with him. They lay back against the wall, still entwined, their foreheads resting against each other.

“Were you ever going to tell me the truth?” Liz asked him when her heart finally stopped thundering.

“I wanted to, Liz…I just didn’t know what to say…”

“Are you in love with her?” Liz suddenly asked in a breath. Her tone was sad, fearful.

Max heard her fear and it broke his heart. He stroked her cheek, gazing deep into her eyes when he said, “No, I’m not, Liz.”

“But you thought you were,” Liz guessed, seeing the truth in his eyes even though he didn’t answer her with words.

Liz’s agonized expression was too much for him and he dropped his gaze to where their legs were entangled. “We just kissed once, Liz,” he admitted in a hollow voice, “Nothing more happened between us.”

“Max,” Liz said with a bittersweet smile, “ that was enough.”

“Are you going to leave me now?”

The sad, boyish candor of his words made Liz smile in spite of everything. “Where would I go?” she asked him quietly, “You’re my home.”

Her words humbled him and caused tears to glisten in his eyes. “I just want you to know that…it’s over between Maria and me. She came by this morning and said some things…but that doesn’t matter, Liz, none of that matters because I want to be with you. I don’t want to hurt Maria,” he finished solemnly, “but I don’t want to be with her either.”

“I don’t want you staying with me out of pity, Max. I couldn’t stand that.”

Max looked down at her in amazement; unable to believe she had actually conceived of such an idea. “Liz, I love you,” he told her with fierce conviction, “I can’t even breathe without you.” He sealed that statement with a breath-stealing kiss.

When they broke apart a few moments later Liz said, “I saw Maria’s baby today.”

“Adrienne?”

“She’s beautiful…like a miniature version of Maria in every way. Seeing her made me think of…” she trailed off, her expression bereft. She glued her eyes on his chest, unable to look at him, to see the hurt she knew would mirror her own.

“I know,” Max answered her, not needing for Liz to finish her sentence to know what she had been about to say. “Do you still think about him?” It was a needless question, because Max knew very well that she did. So did he. He asked more out of encouragement. She needed to talk about their son and so did he.

“I think about him all the time…” she said sorrowfully, “He would have been eight months old at the end of the week…did you know that?”

“Yeah,” Max whispered hoarsely, “I knew that.”

“When you got rid of the baby stuff…it killed me,” Liz admitted in a small, muffled voice, “That day you went to work I went into his nursery and just stared at the bare walls for hours it seems…”

“I didn’t think you’d even noticed,” Max told her in surprise, “…I thought you didn’t care.”

“I cared…I care a lot. I just knew that if I acknowledged it…if I let myself feel that pain, I would have started screaming and I would have never stopped. All those months I lay around like a zombie I was desperately trying to hang on to my sanity, Max. The day I tried to commit suicide I just decided to let go…”

“Why?”

“Cause you had moved on without me,” Liz said with quivering emotion, “I just thought maybe you were better off that way.”

“Liz, I had no choice…who was going to take care of Claudia? Who was going to keep our life together?”

“And is that what Maria did for you…kept your life together?”

“She was a friend, Liz,” Max whispered, forcing her gaze to his, “I needed someone…and she was just there…”

“I know,” Liz conceded, dropping her eyes, “…you shared everything…”

Max ducked his head low to see her face. “Not everything, Liz.” After a long moment, Liz finally lifted her head to look at him. “I haven’t been to Jeffrey’s grave sight since the funeral,” Max confided in a low tone, “I’ve been waiting for you…I think we need to say our good-byes together.”

Liz nodded her agreement, knowing he was right, but not looking forward to the prospect of going and reliving the memories she had been hiding from for months. And because she didn’t want to think about it any longer, she changed the subject. “Do you remember when we first found out that we were having a boy?”

“Yeah…,” Max said with a glimmering smile of remembrance, “I walked around for days grinning like an absolute idiot.”

“And you bought all those cigars, remember? You ending up getting so sick because you tried to smoke one.”

“I remember that,” Max said chuckling, “What on earth had possessed me to do something so hair-brained?” he asked, his brows knit in confusion. He and Liz looked at each, coming to the answer simultaneously, “Michael!” They both burst out laughing in memory.

“You turned sooo green…” Liz giggled, “Whenever anyone even mentioned a cigar you would go completely pale. See!” Liz exclaimed when she looked up and found Max’s face blanched of color, “You’re doing it now!”

“I’m glad you find the idea of me being nauseous so funny,” Max quipped irritably, but he was smiling. However, as their laughter began to drain away, Max’s thoughts were again turned to their original dilemma. “So what now?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean are we together? Apart? I mean, what are we going to do now that you know the truth?”

Liz bit her lip, pretending to consider his questions gravely. “Well,” Liz sighed, tapping her finger against her bottom lip, “I’m not exactly sure…”

Max almost took her seriously until he spied a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. He hugged her against him affectionately. “What exactly can I do to convince you?” he whispered into her ear.

Liz looked at him seriously then, using her fingertips to skim his face reverently. “Love me, Max,” Liz said softly, “…just love me for the rest of your life.”

Max kissed her lips lovingly, all his laughter gone for the moment, “You had that without asking, Liz,” he murmured into her hair, “You always have.”

Chapter 24

“Hey, Alex?” Maria called, tearing her gaze away from the television long enough to flash Alex a brief smile as he entered the den, “We’re running low on popcorn.” She shook the bowl to emphasize its emptiness. “You mind popping some more?” She glanced around at him again, noticing then that Isabel was not with him. “What happened to Isabel?”

“Oh, she went to bed,” Alex explained, plopping down on the sofa next to her, “She wanted to stay up with us, but she’s exhausted…she said she’d catch us next time.” He grabbed the remote from Maria and began clicking through the channels randomly.

“That’s a bummer…” Maria observed glumly, “…Working on a Saturday really sucks.”

Alex stacked his hands behind his head, propping his feet on the coffee table and crossing them at the ankles. He lounged back against the cushions with a smug smile. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he sighed in satisfaction, “because I’m on vacation.”

Maria tossed him a disgusted look, slapping him in the chest with a pillow cushion. “You’re all heart, Alex!”

“Are you complimenting me or insulting me?” Alex inquired glibly. Maria responded by giving him the finger. Alex just laughed which provoked Maria into plucking the remote from his fingers, changing the channel he’d chosen. “It’s a shame Isabel is tired. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is coming on at ten. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.”

“Oh, she wouldn’t have wanted to watch it anyway,” Alex said lightly, snatching back the remote.

“Why?” Maria asked while trying to get back the remote, but Alex managed to hold her off successfully.

“I don’t know…something about movies like that trivializing the alien plight or something…anyway I guess it’s an alien thing.” Finally he wrestled Maria to the sofa and sat on her, halting her shenanigans. Maria flailed underneath him without results. “Do you want to compromise?” he asked, meaning the TV.

Maria cast a sideways glance at the television. “Friends,” she suggested, wriggling beneath him.

Alex countered with, “Gilligan’s Island.”

Maria grimaced. “How about a movie then? And get off me! You weigh a ton!”

Alex obliged her, settling back against the sofa. Maria hung over the edge, gasping for breath. “God, Alex! Jog much?”

Alex only smirked. “Okay, for movies we have Rocky I, II, and III.” He glanced at Maria, lifting his eyebrows and grinning, “How about it? Yeah?”

Maria leveled him with a bland look, her expression clearly saying, “I know you didn’t go there with me.” Alex rolled his eyes with a sigh of disgust. “Runaway Bride it is then.” While he got up to put in the tape he remarked casually, “So you and Liz seemed really chummy before she left…” He leveled Maria with a speculative glance.

“Oh, why don’t you just ask already!” Maria cried in exasperation.

“Fine,” Alex conceded, leaning back against his 45 inch screen television and crossing his arms over his chest, “What happened?”

“We talked,” Maria said with deliberate evasiveness.

“Duh!” Alex retorted, “Now what did you talk about? Did you tell her the truth about Max?”

“I didn’t have to…she already knew when she came here.”

Alex’s mouth fell open in shock. “Max…that idiot!”

“What about Max?”

“He came by a couple days ago asking me what he should do about Liz,” when Maria looked confused Alex explained, “Basically, he was feeling guilty about kissing you and wanted to tell Liz the truth.”

“And what did you tell him?” Maria inquired softly.

“I told him I thought it was a bad idea…not that he bothered to listen to me,” Alex finished with a touch of annoyance.

“Actually, he did,” Maria clarified, “Liz overheard us talking this morning.”

“OH MY GOD!” Alex exclaimed as understanding dawned, “She heard you tell Max that you were in love with him?” Maria nodded slowly. “And you’re still alive?”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Alex, you know Liz isn’t like that.”

“Well, what did you tell her? What did she say?” Alex wanted to know.

“I told her the truth and she forgave me,” Maria said simply, “I told her that while she was sick Max and I got close and I fell in love with him.”

At the last of her sentence Alex gave a noncommittal grunt. Maria frowned at him. “What was that for?”

“What was “what” for?”

“That sound,” Maria clarified crisply, “that sound you made.”

“I didn’t make any sound,” Alex denied.

“You did!” she accused, “You grunted when I said that I was in love with Max.” Alex grunted again. “See!” Maria cried, throwing up her hands in disgust, “There you go again!”

“I’m sorry,” Alex said, unrepentant, “but I can’t help it if I find the idea of you being in love with Max ludicrous.” He deftly dodged the pillow Maria sent flying his way as well as her shoe. “Hey, don’t kill the messenger! And watch my television,” he turned around to caress the screen lovingly, “This is my baby.”

“What you just said was really crappy, Alex,” Maria gritted out, “It’s like you’re belittling my feelings.”

“I don’t think you know how you feel, Maria,” Alex observed flatly as he turned back around.

Maria drew herself upright in righteous affront. “And what the hell is that supposed to mean?” She was an octave away from yelling.

Alex frowned. “Maybe if you took more time to analyze your feelings about Michael instead of convincing yourself you’re in love with your best friend’s husband you wouldn’t be so mixed up right now!”

“Fuck you!” she spat out in surprised hurt.

“Someone needs to get you to face the truth,” Alex said softly, “For one thing, I think you still have feelings for Michael and you’re just using Max as an excuse not to deal with them.”

“No, Alex,” Maria countered coolly, “I do have feelings for Max…I happen to hate Michael’s guts!”

“Hate is a two-sided coin, Maria.”

“Meaning what, Confucius?” Maria snapped in annoyance.

“Meaning in order to hate Michael as virulently as you do…deep inside somewhere you must still love him, too.”

“Alex, that is the biggest load of crap I have ever heard!” Maria choked a mocking laugh. “Michael Guerin left me alone and pregnant. He betrayed me, refused to marry me, wrote me a dear Jane letter…I haven’t heard from him in months and you think I still love him? Oh, Alex, whatever it is you’re smoking stop it now because it is obviously frying your brain cells.”

“Joke all you want, Maria,” Alex invited plainly, “Inside here,” he tapped at his chest, “you know I’m telling you the truth.”

For a moment Maria looked like she wanted to punch him and then her face went chillingly blank. She came to her feet. “I’m going home,” she announced coldly, “I’ll just go get my kids.”

“Maria, come on,” Alex cajoled, catching hold of her arm. She snatched it away and glared at him. Alex sighed, seeing that she was in no mood for reason. “At least leave Mickey and Adrienne here tonight…it’s late.”

Maria drove home fuming. Who the hell did Alex think he was? She didn’t know what made her angrier; that he dared to say those things or that she was driving home actually considering what he said. Of course she wasn’t still in love with Michael! What kind of spineless wimp would that make her if she was? The idea was ridiculous considering all that he had done to hurt her. And besides that she hadn’t thought of him in months. Of course, that was because she made herself not think about him. Even now, after so much time, she couldn’t even have a conversation about him without losing her temper. “Damn it,” she whispered, banging her hand against the steering wheel.

By the time she made it home Maria was bone tired, mentally, physically and emotionally. She entered her apartment with a weary sigh, not bothering to click on any lights. Stumbling around in the darkness, she began to remove her clothing, dropping the discarded pieces in the floor as she made her way back to her bedroom. What she needed was a good night’s sleep in her own bed, Maria thought, everything would look much clearer in the morning. Clad in only her bra and panties, Maria shuffled into her bedroom.

Humming a little tune under her breath Maria clicked on her bedroom light and then fell back against the wall with a scream of horrified surprise.


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 10-Dec-2002 12:37:14 PM ]
posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:42:07 PM
Chapter 25

Maria DeLuca took several deep-sucking breaths, clutching at her chest while trying to convince herself that what she was seeing was actually a hallucination. Michael Guerin was in her home. More precisely, he was in her bedroom…in her bed. He sat up now looking completely disoriented, obviously awakened by her piercing scream, and staring at her through, confused bleary eyes. “Michael! What in hell are you doing here?”

Michael swung his legs over the edge of his bed, massaging his temples as he did. “I was under the impression that I lived here.” He groaned, extending his arms in a bone-popping stretch.

“Excuse me if I’m delusional here,” Maria bit out sarcastically, waving her hands in her agitation, “but the last time you paid rent was almost nine months ago and I was under the impression that one had to do that in order to have a place to live…which you, buddy, don’t got. Get out of my bed and get out of my house.”

Maria’s head was spinning, going in eighteen hundred different directions at once. Michael was back. Without warning, without reason, he was just there, lying in her bed as if no time had gone by at all. Maria wanted to strangle him and hug him all at once. Suddenly all the fears she had been suppressing for so many months, that he was dead, or hurt, had been alleviated and the relief that overwhelmed Maria left her feeling weak. She hadn’t realized she cared, had never acknowledged her fear. And it made her uncomfortable. No, it made her damned mad! Because she didn’t want to feel that. She wanted to be angry, she wanted to hate him. She did hate him.

And yet when he stood up, her eyes drank him in. His clothes were wrinkled and he badly needed a shave. His hair was longer now and he seemed to have a harder edge than before, but beneath all that Maria could still see Michael, the father of her children. Maria clamped down on her emotions, giving herself a mental shake. She wouldn’t allow herself to feel anything for him, not now and not ever again. She glared at him with cold eyes. “I said get out Michael.”

“Maria, I know that you’re mad…and there’s no excuse for what I did,” Michael began haltingly, holding out his hands in supplication and then nervously shoving them into his back pockets. “I was scared. I wasn’t ready to be a dad and husband and all those things that came with it.” His eyes pleaded with her to understand but Maria remained coldly resolute. Despite her frosty reaction Michael took a cautious step closer to her. “I wasn’t ready then, Maria, but I am now. I’ve changed. I bought presents for Mickey…and the baby….”

“Adrienne,” Maria said frigidly, “Her name is Adrienne.”

A crooked smile curved the corner of Michael’s mouth. “Adrienne, I like that name. It’s-,”

“What do you want, Michael?” Maria interrupted smoothly. “Just cut to the chase and cut all the sentimental bullshit.”

“Fine,” he said, reaching down into the pocket of his khaki trousers and extracting a black velvet box. In one deft motion he flipped back the cover, revealing the biggest diamond Maria had ever seen. It had to be at least two carats, gleaming beautifully even in the artificial light that illuminated the room. “It took me three paychecks to pay for this thing,” he told her proudly.

Maria slowly lifted her disbelieving gaze from the ring to Michael’s grinning face. “Will you marry me?” he asked. Maria didn’t bother to hold back any longer. With a grimace of blinding white fury she drew back her fist and socked him as hard as she could. And it hurt. Her knuckles actually cracked from the contact with his jaw. But it had been worth the pain to watch Michael hit the ground like a felled tree.

Michael rolled over, massaging his aching jaw. “Why the hell did you do that!” he demanded with an angry glare, “I thought you wanted to get married!”

“You can not possibly be as clueless as you pretend to be,” Maria sighed in the disgust. As she walked around his prone form she became aware of the fact that she was wearing only her bra and panties. She headed straight for her closet and pulled out one of her bathrobes. After she had secured the belt tightly she turned back to Michael, who was now sitting upright in the middle of the floor. She nodded towards his duffel bag, which was propped in the corner of her bedroom. “You should get your things and get out.”

“You know,” Michael said, struggling to his feet, “you certainly have a sanctimonious attitude considering what you’ve been up to for the last few months.”

“What did you say?”

“I’m talking about you and Max.”

“How do you know…?” Maria trailed off, an idea suddenly occurring to her, “Exactly how long have you been back in town?”

“A little over five months.”

Rage exploded in Maria’s brain, obliterating all reason. She glanced around the room and picking up the heaviest thing near her, a crystal lamp that sat on the bureau next to her bed, she hurled it at Michael with all her might. The lamp missed his head by mere inches, shattering into the wall behind him. Michael looked at her in incredulous horror. “You son of a fucking bitch!” Maria blazed, her eyes narrowed into blue slits, “You’ve been here the whole time! What have you been doing? Spying on me? Have you been spying on me, Michael?”

“Look I can explain, Maria,” Michael said quickly, backing away as Maria began to advance towards him menacingly.

“I don’t know what happened, officer,” Maria remarked, practicing her speech for the police, “I have no idea how his dismembered carcass got into the trunk of my car…”

Michael held out his arms to stave her off. “Maria, stop it!” he cried when she bent over to pick up on of those thick heeled shoes she was so fond of wearing. She began slapping it against her palm threateningly. Michael thudded back against the wall, crunching the remains of the lamp beneath his feet. “Maria, damn it, I love you!”

He shouted the words. To hear them broadcasted so loudly stopped Maria in her tracks. For a moment silence fell over the room, as his words seemed to reverberate off the walls. Maria looked at him in absolute amazement and then…she doubled over in laughter. “Oh my god,” she gasped, falling against her bed and laughing hysterically, “You love me? Michael Guerin loves me!” She clutched at her middle, rolling from end to end of her bed. Her body shook with an almost frenzied amusement before abruptly coming to a stop. She sat up in her bed and glared at Michael in disgust. “You’re more deluded than I thought you were.”

“Maria, you’re being unreasonable,” Michael accused in impatience and annoyance.

Suddenly Maria felt her anger go out of her, leaving her feeling hollow and defeated. She realized then that Michael didn’t get it. He just didn’t get it. He didn’t realize that he couldn’t just come walking back into her life after eight months after walking out of it the way he did. Maria stared at him sadly. “Me aside, Michael. Why did you do this to Mickey? She loves you. I couldn’t make her understand why you left. Why would you do that to her?”

“I did what you asked, Maria. I took that assignment in Colombia. I thought it would be a good thing because we both needed some time to calm down,” he paused for a moment, searching her face to see any signs of softening. Her expression remained aloof and cold. “The assignment lasted only three months and the whole time I was there all I did was think about you and Mickey and the new baby. That’s when I bought the ring, Maria. I’d been an idiot and I knew it. I left South America as soon as my assignment was over.”

“If you thought about us the whole time why didn’t you come back here directly, then?” Maria countered dryly.

“Because you had this cozy little arrangement going on with Max that’s why!” Michael bit out bitterly. “When I first got back I thought it would be a bad move to try and jump back into your life and so I would just follow you around and watch you play with Mickey. That’s how I found out how serious things were getting between you and Max…”

Maria began to tremble, not feeling as resolute as she had when he had first begun speaking. “I don’t believe you…” Maria stated, but lack of true conviction made her voice waver.

“No?” Michael queried with a lift of his eyebrows, “How about this then? You and Max took Claudia and Mickey to the movies to see that Disney flick that came out a few months ago…. I know that you made him dinner twice a week…I know that you had lunch with him everyday… And I know that sometimes you would sleep overnight at his apartment and vice versa.”

Maria gasped in dread, reluctantly realizing that Michael was telling the truth. And yet still she stubbornly clung to her conviction, “I got the letter…it was post-marked from South America.”

Michael threw her a long-suffering look. “Maria, I’m an alien, remember…manipulating postage for me isn’t exactly rocket science.”

Maria shook her head in denial, as she felt too much information assail her too fast. Michael was there…he had been there for months. He thought she was with Max. He had seen them. Manipulating postage. And he was back. Why? Why now? Maria lifted dazed eyes to his. “If you think I’m with Max then why are you here?”

“Because Liz is back…”

“What has that got to do with anything?”

“I knew he would dump you the minute that Liz came back,” Michael clarified succinctly. “He was using you, Maria, and you just didn’t see it.” He crept over towards her, taking a wary seat next to her on the bed. “I thought you might need someone, Maria. I thought you might be willing to try again with me.”

Maria felt lost in a hurricane of emotion. When she looked at him her expression revealed her inner turmoil. “You missed Adrienne’s birth…because you were jealous?”

“My so-called best friend had taken over my life, Maria,” Michael said as if he thought she were dense, “That’s a little hard to get over. I can’t forgive him for that.”

Closing her eyes in an attempt to blot out his words, to blot out Michael period, Maria said, “I think you should go.”

“Go? After everything I just told you?”

She glared at him then. “Just leave, Michael.”

Michael glared at her in dubious betrayal for a long moment before finally looking away. “Fine,” Michael spat, his frustration and anger sending him surging to his feet, “Just tell me where to find my kids. Are they still with your mother in Roswell or did you leave them wherever the hell it is you’ve been all night?”

Maria looked up at him warningly. “Don’t drag them into this, Michael. It’s between us.”

“That’s what you think,” Michael countered softly, spinning around to grab up his duffel bag and jacket. As he stood in the frame of the door he looked back at Maria and said unpleasantly, “We’ll be seeing each other again real soon…”

Only when Maria heard the front door slam did she dissolve into the tears she’d been holding back since Michael’s desertion eight months before.

Chapter 26

The loud banging on the front door jarred Max from his slumber. He jerked upright with a suddenness, disturbing his sleeping wife who was sprawled across his naked chest. “What is it?” Liz asked in groggy confusion as she lifted her head. She sat upright completely when Max slid out of bed and began pulling on a pair of discarded sweats.

“Some lunatic is downstairs banging on the door.” Hot on the heels of his statement their bedroom was jarred by another series of violent thump, thump, thumps followed this time by the insistent ringing of the doorbell. Liz glanced at the clock, which read 4:48 a.m., then Max in terrified confusion. “Who could that be?” she whispered.

“I don’t know…” Max said as he rummaged through their closet to retrieve his baseball bat, “…but whoever it is had better be armed.” He slammed the bat against his palm before stalking out of their bedroom. Liz leapt out the bed quickly pulling on her bathrobe and flying after him.

By the time she made it downstairs Max was already pulling open the front door. The next thing Liz knew Max’s head snapped back unexpectedly and he hit the floor with a thud. The bat clattered to the floor and rolled away. Just as Liz rushed forward Michael Guerin stepped through the door to tower over a still prone Max. Liz knelt down at her husband’s side and assisted him to his feet while glaring at Michael. “What the hell’s the matter with you!” she shouted at him.

“Yeah, Michael,” Max said, flexing his jaw, “why did you hit me?”

“That was for Maria, you bastard!” Michael spat out, taking another step towards Max with the obvious intention of punching him again. Liz stepped between them. She leveled Michael with a cold glare. “If you touch him again, you’ll have me to deal with,” she warned him implacably, “Now either come inside or leave. You’re letting out our heat.”

Her words seemed to restore order to their world for a few moments. Eyeing one another with wary suspicion and distrust Max and Michael made their way into the living room while Liz secured the latch on the front door. When she turned around she found Michael slumped down in the recliner, eyeing Max with unconcealed hatred. Max, on the other hand, would not meet his stare, but instead fingered the cut on his lip before healing it. Liz crept into the living room. She folded her arms across her chest. “You know I wasn’t aware that you guys counted telepathy among your many powers,” Liz quipped crisply, “Are you two going to talk or just stare at each other all night?”

Before Liz could get a response the telephone began to ring. With one last disgusted look at the both of them she headed for the kitchen to answer it. She knew before picking up the receiver who was on the other end. “Maria?”

“Michael’s back, Liz,” Maria sobbed into the phone the moment she heard Liz’s voice.

“Yeah, I know…he’s here now.”

“Oh my god!” Maria moaned, immediately picking up on the tension in Liz’s voice, “What did he do?”

“Besides punching Max…nothing really.”

“God,” Maria uttered hoarsely.

“Do you need me to come over?” Liz asked.

When Liz strode back into the living room a few moments later Max and Michael were still as she had left them. Rolling her eyes, Liz headed over towards the hall closet to retrieve her coat. “As much as I’d like to stay and referee this little reunion between you two…Maria needs me.” As she said the last of that she leveled Michael with a penetrating stare. He at least had the grace to look guilty. She shrugged into her coat and then went to give Max a kiss good-bye. “I won’t be long,” she told him and then she added in forethought, “…hopefully. Try to work this out, ok?” At the last moment she recalled her state of undress. Blushing, she ran upstairs quickly to change. Later when she left, she gave Max one last wave good-bye before heading out the door. Max stared after her, repressing the urge to call her back.

“So how long have you been sleeping with my girlfriend?”

At Michael’s bitter question Max jerked his gaze from the door. “I’m not sleeping with Maria, Michael,” he stated as calmly as he could, “I don’t even know where you would get such an idea…you’ve been gone for months.”

“This isn’t about me and where I’ve been.” His tone was one of cool stubbornness and thinly veiled rage. “This is about you…and Maria.”

“I’m sorry, Michael, I hadn’t been under the impression that you gave a damn.”

Michael closed his eyes, mentally checking the impulse to smash Max’s face in. His fingers contracted spasmodically against the armrest of the chair in an effort to keep control of his temper. But it was a hard thing to do. Especially, when Max was sitting across from him acting so damned smug and self-righteous. He made Michael want to throw up. It galled Michael that Max could pull the shady shit he did and still come out everyone’s golden boy and champion. Michael made one mistake and everyone was ready to lynch him, with Maria leading the pack. But on the other hand, Max could make a mistake and everyone’s would be patting his hand and telling him how sorry they were that he’s so misunderstood.

Just thinking about it made Michael’s rage reach a new boiling point. When he had first seen Maria and Max together he had been too numb to feel anger or pain or betrayal. It was like watching a clip of someone else’s life. He hadn’t really let himself feel it until a few days later. And it had almost killed him. That Maria had found someone else…now that hurt. That her someone else had been Max…that was torture. More so because Michael knew that Max would never feel for Maria what he knew Maria would eventually grow to feel for him. Max belonged to Liz Parker. Max couldn’t have more so been hers if Liz had branded her name into his chest. Michael knew that. Hell, everyone knew it! And he had thought that Maria did, too.

For the first month he had waited for her to realize that. He had waited patiently for her to break off her ever-growing closeness with Max and realize that it was Michael she truly loved. Michael had waited and waited…and waited. After so many months of waiting, however, Michael original hurt began to transform into anger, hardening and growing until it became an almost blind rage within him. Which was exactly why he’d sent that letter to Maria. Michael had wanted her to hurt just as much as she had hurt him. He had wanted her to experience that same agony. And Michael accomplished his goal and, in the process, pushed her even closer to Max.

Michael glared at Max now, feeling his hate for Max flowing in him like a river. “I never figured you for such a low-down dirty snake, Maxwell.”

“And I never figured you for one to take such a sanctimonious attitude, Michael,” Max retorted pointedly, “Need I remind you that you left Maria of your own volition. No one made you do anything you didn’t want to.”

“I guess the same can be said for what happened between you and Maria while Liz was in Cedar Ridge, huh, Max.”

Guilt caused Max to quickly avert his gaze. “That was different.”

“Why?” Michael spat out. “Because you say so?”

“Because Maria and I never set out to hurt anybody, Michael.”

Michael launched himself out of the recliner and loomed over Max, glaring down at him in fury. “What are you saying, Maxwell? That I left to deliberately hurt Maria?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Michael,” Max replied calmly, his entire body tense. “Just sit down and let’s try to talk this out like adults.” Michael continued to hover above him for a few tension filled seconds before retreating back to his seat. Max took a deep breath before beginning. “Michael, I’m not saying what happened between Maria and I was right…because it wasn’t. But I am promising you that we did not sleep together…that our relationship did not get physical.”

“Not that you didn’t want to, right, Max?”

Max sighed in exasperation. “Won’t you even try and meet me half-way, Michael?” Michael remained belligerently silent. “We share too much for you to end it this way and you know it.” Michael only glared at him. “Damn it, Michael! You think you’re the only one allowed to make stupid mistakes? I’m not the epitome of perfection!”

“That never stopped you from acting like you were,” Michael accused sharply.

“No, Michael,” Max contradicted softly, “I never believed that of myself…you did. Ever since we were kids you’ve always put all this pressure on me to always know the right thing to do…to always find the solution. And what you never realized is that I’m just like you. I don’t have all the answers, Michael.” Max’s words were beginning to crack the wall of anger Michael set up around his heart, but he was careful not to show it. “I don’t know why my son died…I don’t know why Liz tried to commit suicide…I don’t know why I turned to Maria when she did…I don’t know anything, Michael. I’m just trying to get along the best way I know…the same as you.” Max looked at Michael for a long, telling moment. “And I don’t think you want to hate me,” he said.

“Well, you don’t know me as well as you think you do.” But when Max looked stricken by his words he reluctantly added, “But no…I don’t.” He clinched his hands into fists. “As much as I want to scrap you off, Maxwell, you are a part of me. So I can’t hate you, not really, even though you do deserve it.”

“Well, what do you want, Michael.”

He answered that question without hesitation. “Maria.” And then Michael Guerin did something he never thought he’d do: he swallowed his pride. He would have never done it if not for one overwhelming reason: Maria. Lifting solemn, sincere eyes to Max he said brokenly, “I don’t want to lose her, Max…please…please, help me not to lose her.”

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:44:46 PM
Chapter 27

Liz stumbled through the front door at half past six. She was exhausted. The last thirty-six hours of her life had been the most emotionally draining hours she had ever experienced. She had discovered that her best friend was “in love” with her husband, confronted her, confronted Max and reconciled with them both all within a few hours. Liz shuddered to think at how Maria, who had experienced similar chaos, must feel at that moment. She had to be feeling everything Liz was feeling…squared. As she dragged herself into the living room she was only mildly surprised to find Michael Guerin asleep on her sofa. She shuffled past his prone form into the kitchen, where she found Max making coffee. She moved up behind him silently, wrapping her arms around his waist, and laid her cheek against his naked back.

Max smiled and turned in her arms. “How’s Maria?” he asked, pulling her close and nuzzling her temple.

“Not good…” Liz sighed tiredly, “She thinks she should get a lawyer.”

“What?” Max burst out in disbelief.

“She’s taken this notion in her head that Michael is going to try and take the girls away from her,” Liz explained with a sad shake of her head.

“That’s r-,”

“Ridiculous, I know…I tried to tell her the same thing, but you know how she is when she’s upset.”

Max nodded in complete understanding. “In one ear and out the other…” he said, voicing aloud what both he and Liz were thinking.

“How about things on your end?” Liz asked, looking up into his tired face, which she suspected, mirrored her own.

“Well, he’s willing to tolerate me and he wants me to help him win Maria back.” Max’s expression revealed that he was obviously not pleased with the idea. “Of all the people Michael could have asked for help, I should have been the last…”

“Maybe not,” Liz countered thoughtfully, “Maria loves you…trusts you. She might be willing to listen.”

“No,” Max refused flatly, already knowing where Liz’s mind was headed, “Things are already sticky enough with Maria without me going over there trying to talk to her, Liz. Besides that, I think I’m the last person she wants to speak to right now.”

“No, that would be Michael.” They both shared a comforting laugh in her little joke, easing the tension between them. “Max, please, try and talk to her. I couldn’t get through, but maybe you could.”

“Liz, have you forgotten already what happened here just yesterday morning?” Max asked in a furious underbreath.

“No, I haven’t,” Liz responded moderately, “But I’m not thinking about myself right now…or you…or Michael…I’m thinking about Maria. And there are some things going on with her right now that she’s not dealing with…and that’s dangerous. I know what happens when you lock your emotions away inside of you, Max,” Liz continued earnestly, “It destroys you inch by inch. I don’t want to have what happened to me to happen to Maria. She needs someone she can open up to, Max.”

“What’s the matter with you? Why can’t she open up to you?” Max asked almost petulantly.

“She needs you, Max…go to her.”

********************************

“Going somewhere?” Max asked when he entered Maria’s bedroom and found her hurriedly throwing clothes into a suitcase. At the sound of his voice she jumped, her would-be scream choking off in her throat. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” Max said quickly, “I just came to return your key.” He held it out to her.

Maria eyed him with a degree of suspicion as she folded her hand around the brass key. “Why didn’t you just send it by Liz?”

“I thought maybe we should talk…face to face,” Max explained evenly, “You know, about everything that’s going on.”

Maria tossed him a look of pure disinterest before turning to pack more clothes into her suitcase. “Does Liz know you’re here?” she asked suddenly as she snapped closed her bag and set it on the floor beside several others like it.

“Actually, she’s the one that sent me,” Max admitted.

“Figures.” Her tone was dry, but devoid of her usual wit. As Max looked at her he noted that she hadn’t likely gotten any sleep the night before. Her eyes were slightly puffy from crying and smudged underneath with dark circles. He watched her ponytail flop over her shoulder as she threw clothes into a suitcase with jerky resolve.

Max cleared a space for himself on the bed and sat down. He ignored Maria’s look of obvious annoyance at his determination to stay. “Liz thought maybe I’d have more success talking to you,” he explained mildly, “She said you weren’t too talkative when she was here.”

Because she knew he would not relent, especially in light of the fact Liz had sent him over, Maria heaved an exasperated sigh and sat down beside him on the bed. Her movement upset the mountain of clothes on her bed, causing them to teeter on the edge before falling in a clump on the floor. She and Max looked at the pile of clothes in bland disinterest before looking at each other again. “Liz just doesn’t know when to quit, does she?”

“She loves you…we both do.” Maria lifted her eyes to him. They were sparkling with tears. As they dropped from her eyes Max felt compelled to wipe them away, but he checked the impulse. Though he badly wanted to comfort Maria he didn’t know if it was the wisest thing considering…

“You’re thinking of yesterday morning,” Maria guessed, noting the change in his expression.

Max didn’t attempt to deny it. “Did you mean what you said?”

“You mean about being in love with you?” Max flinched, averting his head in discomfort, and nodded. “I thought I did.” Her soft admission caused Max to jerk his head back around sharply. Maria, however, wasn’t looking at him anymore but staring down at her hands. “Now with Michael showing up…I’m just so confused.”

Before last night, Maria had been so sure that her feelings for Max had nothing to do with Michael’s rejection. And then Michael had come home and shot that belief straight to hell. Maria now realized that she had turned to Max, not out of love, but in seeking something from him she had never been able to get from Michael. Friendship. She and Michael had been many things to each other…lovers, allies, acquaintances, even enemies, but never had they been friends. Michael had never let her close enough. Two children and nearly five years later Maria DeLuca still had no idea what made up Michael Guerin emotionally. And what little she did know was based on her own speculation and not some emotional revelation from him. Max, on the other hand, had opened himself to her. He had treated and trusted Maria as his friend and had given her his friendship in return. It was something she had always yearned to be given…only she had wanted it from Michael Guerin. Maria recognized now that the very thing she of which she’d accused Max, of using her as a substitute for Liz, was the very thing Maria herself was guilty of. She had used Max as well.

While Maria was mulling over her inner turmoil, however, Max had to suppress a smile of relief. Suddenly, Maria snapped her gaze back to his. “How could he do that, Max? How could he, in one day, confuse everything I thought was true of myself?”

“Maybe that’s a good thing, Maria,” Max told her cautiously.

Maria leaned back her head, rapidly blinking against her tears to keep them from falling. “God! My life is such a mess,” she uttered in misery, “Things were simpler when I thought I was in love with you.”

“Speak for yourself,” Max wisecracked, half teasing, half serious.

Maria choked out a teary giggle before becoming serious once again. “I never meant to complicate your life, Max.”

Max reached forward and gave her hand a firm squeeze. “You didn’t complicate my life,” he disclosed sincerely, “if anything you made it easier.”

“But Liz…”

“Liz understands what happened between us, Maria. She doesn’t hold it against you.”

“She should,” Maria croaked wearily, “I was a lousy friend to her. I’ve made a mess of all our lives, including Michael’s.” Oh god, Michael, she thought, how in the world was she ever going to sort that entire thing out? Last night after some of her anger had subsided and she’d talked with Liz Maria found herself understanding the motivations behind Michael’s actions. He realized he had made a mistake when he left her all those months ago. But when he came back to make amends it was only to find that Maria had “taken up” with Max, his best friend no less, and apparently forgotten him. Maria believed that had she been in Michael’s place she would have done the exact same thing. He’d probably felt lost and alone, not knowing what to do or where to go.

However, while Maria felt sympathy for Michael, she couldn’t help but feel resentment as well. The facts remained that Michael had abandoned her, deserted her when she was pregnant and needed him most. Maria found that hard to forgive. Maria found it especially hard in light of the fact that had it not been for Michael’s selfishness she would have never had to find comfort in Max, thereby causing the humongous mess they were facing now. And it seemed, from her conversation with him last night that he was unwilling to take any of the blame upon himself. He was wrong for leaving, yes, and for that he had apologized. But as far as taking responsibility for Maria’s resulting relationship with Max and admitting his part in creating it, Michael was not about to do it. Instead he laid responsibility for the entire mess at Max’s door, holding Max to blame for his thoughtless mistakes. But then again what was new? Michael had always blamed Max for his mistakes.

Now that was a serious problem for Maria. In fact, Michael’s failure to take responsibility for his actions had been a major obstacle in their relationship before. That and the fact that Michael was emotionally shut down. Those two factors usually spelled death for a relationship and those were the very two things that had sent Michael skittering off to South America in the first place. Number one, he had been unwilling to take responsibility for Adrienne’s conception, preferring to blame the pregnancy completely on Maria. Number two, instead of talking out his feelings with Maria he had merely blown her off, not bothering work things out. No, that wasn’t true, Maria mentally amended, Michael had been willing to work out their relationship…but only on his terms and to Maria that had been unacceptable.

After all, she hadn’t asked for the moon. All she had wanted was his wretched hand in marriage. Which was why it had made her so angry that, after breaking her heart into a million pieces, Michael Guerin had the nerve to waltz back into her life after an eight-month separation and propose to her. As if she could be won back so easily, Maria thought scornfully. She had suffered too much to make it so simple for him. Not to mention that she was still confused over her feelings for Max, although she was pretty sure that she wasn’t in love with him. All the emotions that had come surging back to the surface when she saw Michael again had confirmed that. Maria admitted to herself now that she was still in love with Michael Guerin. Even as angry as she’d been, despite her devastation, underneath her blinding hatred, she had never really stopped loving him. She had never stopped hoping he would come home.

“So what are you going to do now,” Max asked tentatively, “about Michael, I mean?”

“I hadn’t thought past leaving town.”

“Do you really think that’s a solution?”

Maria shook her head. “But I don’t see any other alternative. I know Michael…he’s going to be impossible to reason with. He already believes that you and I are sleeping together… I just don’t want him to drag Mickey and Adrienne into this.”

“Well, I spoke to Michael last night and the only thing he is concerned with is you, Maria. He says he doesn’t want to lose you.”

Maria rolled her eyes in fatigued disbelief. “I don’t believe that for a second. I know Michael. He only wants me because he thinks you have me. I represent a prize for him…one-upmanship on you. He’s been in competition with you since the two of you were kids.”

“That’s not true…” Max denied.

“Isn’t it? Where was the first place he headed after he left here last night?”

“Maria, he only came to confront-,”

“He came to stake his claim and you know it,” Maria broke in with a dismissive wave of her hand, “This is all a contest for Michael…to prove to himself that he’s better than you. He’s not concerned with me…he never was.”

“Well, if you feel that strongly about it…why not tell Michael instead of running away.”

“We have nothing to talk about, Max. Besides that I’m not into wasting my breath or talking to walls, for that matter.”

“You do have things to talk about,” Max insisted, “Maria, you and Michael have children together…that’s reason enough. At least try and work it out for their sakes.”

Maria scowled at Max in hurt betrayal. “That’s a low blow…to bring them into this…”

“I just want to see you happy.”

“And what makes you so damned sure Michael Guerin will make me happy?” Maria snapped out in dubious affront.

“Maria, you’re not being fair,” Max cut in patiently.

“No, you’re not being fair!” She jumped up from the bed and stabbed her finger at Max only inches from his nose, “You can’t come in here and use my kids against me as leverage to get me to forgive Michael. It’s underhanded, Max, and I expected more from you!”

“Whether you want to admit it or not, Maria, Mickey and Adrienne are an issue here!” Max responded with equal heat, “They deserve their father!”

“Well, I guess he should have thought of that before he left me!”

Max mouth snapped shut on his retort. He mentally counted to ten before attempting another approach. “Okay, so it’s over between you and Michael…I get that. You’re leaving town…yada, yada, yada… But, do you think it might be possible for Michael to at least see his children before you do?”

Maria heaved a disgusted sigh, throwing up her hands in aggravated surrender. “Fine! Anything to shut you the hell up.”

Her scornful reply only made Max smile.

posted on 9-Dec-2002 10:45:59 PM
Chapter 28

“Thanks for letting me do this,” Michael said quietly when Maria answered the door.

Maria schooled herself to remain impassive when she looked at him, but still she couldn’t help but be affected by his presence. He looked haggard and exhausted. Maria wondered briefly if he’d gotten any sleep in the last two days. She knew she hadn’t. Setting her jaw tightly, Maria conditioned herself not to care. As she motioned him inside she said, “I’m not doing this for you…I’m doing it for Mickey.”

Maria barely got the words out before Mickey came barreling out of nowhere, wrapping herself firmly around her father’s knees. “Daddy!” she exclaimed in glee, hugging him tight. She looked up at him, her small face glowing with joy and angry at the same time. “Where the hell have you been?” she demanded in childish outrage.

“Michelle Guerin!” Maria admonished with narrowed eyes, “You will not use that kind of language!”

“But you say “hell” all the time,” Mickey pouted.

Michael smirked, not bothering to reprimand her for her language. “It’s okay, inch-high,” he said softly as he ruffled her hair, “I know you’re mad at me.”

“Damn right!” Mickey retorted.

“Michelle, you’re really pushing it,” Maria warned threateningly.

Mickey just grinned, as irreverent as her father. Michael bent down and scooped her up, groaning under how much weight she’d gained. “Guess I can’t call you inch-high anymore, huh?” he mused, noting her height, “You’ve grown like a weed.” His eyes ran lovingly over her bright features, taking in her longer hair, which was now curling like her mother’s and the new definition to her face. All her baby fat had seemingly melted away, making her resemblance to Michael all the more uncanny. Michael stroked her hair.

“I’m going to be four in two days,” Mickey informed him holding up four fingers for emphasis.

“I know, kiddo,” Michael said, walking her off into the living room. He sat down on the arm of the sofa, cradling her in his lap. Michael didn’t notice when Maria crept silently from the room. He was too busy staring at his daughter.

“Aunt Isabel’s going to throw me a party tonight,” Mickey supplied eagerly.

“Really? Is she?” Michael asked, smiling at her softly.

“Is that why you came? For my birthday? Are you staying for my birthday?”

“I plan on staying a lot longer than that, inch-high.”

“Good,” Mickey said with a firm nod, “because I missed you.”

At that moment Maria returned, holding a sleeping Adrienne cradled in her arms. As she came around in front of him Michael slowly slid Mickey to the floor, his heart beginning to beat with fear and anticipation. Maria carefully deposited Adrienne into his waiting arms saying, “This is Adrienne, Michael.”

Michael looked down at his small daughter, who was barely three weeks old, and felt his throat clog with tears. She was so beautiful…so tiny…so perfect. He touched one, small delicate hand, marveling at how her fist closed around his finger instinctively, even in sleep. She looked exactly like her mother, Michael noted with an inner smile, right down to her curly, blond hair. But then again, Mickey had been blond when she was a baby and now her hair was as dark as Michael’s. He sifted his fingers gingerly through the baby’s downy hair before lifting tear glazed eyes to Maria. “God…Maria…”

Maria’s answering smile was bittersweet. “She is lovely, isn’t she?”

“Like her mother,” Michael replied, his heart evident in his eyes. Maria looked away, unable to hold his potent stare. Mickey alleviated the uncomfortable moment.

“Be careful not to wake her up, Daddy,” Mickey warned with the utmost seriousness, “She’ll start squawking and never stop.”

Michael grinned down at Mickey. “She’s loud, huh?”

Mickey nodded emphatically. “I asked Mom if we could take her back to the hospital but she said no…so we’re stuck with her for life.” She said that last part in such a grave tone that both Maria and Michael had to laugh.

“I thought you might want to take them out for a while,” Maria suggested when her laughter had subsided, “I packed Adrienne’s baby bag for you.”

Michael’s gaze snapped to hers in disappointed surprise. “But I-I thought we were going to t-talk,” he stammered, suddenly feeling bereft.

“We will,” Maria assured him firmly, “I just thought you might want to spend time with the girls first.”

********************************

Once Liz opened the door Michael fell inside the apartment with an exhausted yelp. “Help me,” he pleaded. As he heaved himself inside Liz became aware that he held a squalling Adrienne in his arms and that Mickey was wrapped around his left leg. He literally dragged her inside. Liz bit her lip to keep from giggling. Michael saw her effort and groaned in exasperation. “Liz, I’m serious…I can’t get the baby to stop crying. I’ve tried everything…singing, rocking, changing, feeding, begging…nothing has worked! And Mickey…I can’t get her to detach from my leg…it’s a nightmare.”

“Well, have you tried telling her?” Liz inquired reasonably. She scratched her head in thoughtful consideration.

“Oh, duh…why didn’t I think of that!” Michael retorted with obvious sarcasm.

Liz looked down at Mickey sternly. “Michelle, let go of your father’s leg,” she stated matter-of-factly. Mickey obediently let go. “Now go upstairs and play. Claudia’s there.” Mickey ran for the stairs with a squeal of glee, leaving a stunned Michael behind. Liz leveled him with a bland look. “You just have to be firm, Michael.”

“Thanks a lot, Sigmund Freud, now let’s see what you can do with the kid,” he quipped, nodding towards Adrienne, “She’s been crying for an hour now and I’m about to go insane.”

Liz gently removed the crying baby from his arms. “You’re nervous, Michael,” Liz said in between nuzzling Adrienne’s cheek, “and she can feel that. Can’t you, baby?” Liz pressed a gentle kiss on the baby’s forehead and cooed to her softly to calm her down. A few moments later, she was quiet, gurgling peacefully.

Michael looked at her in slack-jawed amazement. “How in the hell did you do that?”

“You have to relax with her, Michael,” Liz advised patiently, “If you relax with her then she’ll relax with you.”

In response, Michael trudged into the living room, throwing down the diaper bag in disgust. “Well, I obviously suck as a parent!” he muttered, cursing under his breath several time.

“You’ve just gotten out of practice,” Liz said as a way of comfort. She laid Adrienne against her shoulder, stroking her back gently to ease her hiccups.

“Is Max around?” Michael asked, peering around the apartment, “I need to speak to him.”

“He’s gone with Isabel to pick out decorations for Mickey’s party,” Liz said as she settled into the recliner with the baby.

“It’s just as well…” Michael mumbled, “I’ve got to get the girls back soon so Maria and I have a chance to talk before she leaves for the party.”

“You haven’t talked yet?” Liz asked in surprise.

“No,” Michael said, as he plopped down on the sofa and rested his forearms upon his knees. He steepled his fingers together and propped his chin against them. “And that’s really bugging me…that she wanted me to go off with the girls before straightening things out between us. It makes me think that maybe she doesn’t want to get back together.”

“Well, you did hurt her….” Liz hedged carefully.

Michael looked at her sharply. “Well, she hurt me, too!” But just as suddenly as Michael’s anger flared it died, leaving him feeling depleted and depressed. He collapsed back against the sofa, his arms widespread. “I feel like everything in my life is out of whack!” he moaned in exasperation. He lifted his head to peer at Liz. “Do you know that I barely recognized Mickey when I first saw her? I’ve been watching her from afar for months, but I never dreamed that she would have gotten so damned big. That’s how out of touch I am with everything.”

Liz nodded her empathy. “I know…I felt the same way when I saw Claudia again. I missed her growing up…I missed a lot,” Liz lamented softly.

“Do you know what I’d give to have things back to the way they were before I left?” Michael asked, his desperation evident.

“But we can’t go back,” Liz said simply, “We just have to accept things as they are now.”

“Does that also mean accepting that Maria is in love with my…” he trailed off, realizing he was about to say “best friend,” and amended his choice of words, “…with your husband.”

Liz frowned at him. “If that’s what it takes.”

“Have you accepted it?” Michael challenged.

Liz met his challenge. “Actually, I have.”

“Well, I’m not that magnanimous,” Michael responded sardonically.

Liz heaved a deep sigh. “You should just forgive them, Michael. They didn’t do it to hurt us, in fact, they could have gone much further than they did.”

“Am I supposed to be grateful that Max didn’t fuck my girlfriend?”

“Yeah,” Liz retorted, “you should. Just imagine how hard it would have been for us to deal knowing that they had been lovers!” Her rejoinder actually shut him up. He closed his mouth, compressing his lips in an angry line. “You can think of it as the price we have to pay for being so selfish,” Liz told him mildly, “When you look at it from that perspective…it seems a rather small thing.”

“How can you be so understanding?” Michael wanted to know.

“What are my options really?” Liz sighed, “To lose my husband and my best friend all in one fell swoop and for my own stupidity? No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, at least you have a better excuse than me,” Michael grumbled, “You were grieving because you lost your baby.”

“So was Max,” Liz replied in defense of her husband, “His grief wasn’t any less painful than mine. I did a selfish thing to him…just like you did to Maria.”

“Okay, oh Great Fountain of Wisdom, how do I fix it?”

“You can start by forgiving them,” Liz said, “And after that…I recommend groveling…lots and lots and lots of groveling.”

Chapter 29

Michael stood at the door, a sleeping Mickey slung over one shoulder and a sleeping Adrienne curled in his other arm. Maria suppressed a smile at how adorable he looked.

“I expected you earlier,” Maria said, lifting her sleeping baby from Michael’s arms and heading over towards the basinet to lay her down. “What took so long?” Maria asked over her shoulder.

“I got to talking with Liz,” Michael explained, laying Mickey carefully across the sofa.

Maria turned around, regarding him speculatively. “That’s interesting,” Maria considered, raising her eyebrows, “What did you two talk about?”

“You.”

Maria felt herself tense with dread. “Really? And what did Liz have to say?”

Michael grinned at her, ducking his head. “That I should grovel to get you back.”

Maria felt herself returning his smile. “I think it’s gonna take a lot more than that, bucko,” she replied wryly.

“Yeah…Liz said something to that effect as well,” Michael said with a wry grin of his own.

“Smart woman.”

They regarded each other in companionable silence for a few moments. It felt good to be in the same room and not have an awful tension present as well. Finally, Maria said, “So…”

“So…”

“I suppose we should talk now.”

“Yeah…I suppose so.”

Michael fidgeted. Now that they had come to the moment he had been looking forward to all day Michael had no idea what to say to her. To begin with an apology seemed too lame in light of all the things he had done to hurt her. And despite her laughter and easy-going attitude with him, Michael knew that Maria was still very angry. Realizing that, he anticipated that their discussion was going to get extremely heated and would very probably not work out in the way he hoped. Still, he knew that he had to start somewhere, knowing that Maria would shut him out forever if he didn’t try to make amends.

After a few seconds Michael opened his mouth, his explanation ready, then at the last moment he snapped it closed, deciding to take another tactic. “Instead of me going on and on about how sorry I am for hurting you…why don’t you first tell me how my leaving made you feel.”

“Why?” Maria asked, her brows furrowed in bewilderment.

“Because I want to be sure to employ more than the adequate amount of groveling when I eventually beg your forgiveness.”

Maria had to smile at that. “You’re an idiot, Michael,” she told him with an exasperated roll of her eyes. “I made lunch if you’re hungry. It’s in the dining room.”

Michael followed her into the neighboring room, taking a seat in the chair she indicated. Despite the food set before them, they did nothing more than pick at the sandwiches on their plates. “You know, I’m still really pissed off at you,” Maria mumbled, not meeting his eyes, “In fact, I wouldn’t even be talking to you if Max hadn’t taken the time to reason with me.”

“So the only reason you’re doing this is because Max asked you to?” Michael inquired tensely.

“No, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing,” Maria retorted.

Michael glared at her for a instant, gauging her sincerity, before asking somewhat miserably, “Exactly how close are…you and Max?”

“We’re good friends…that’s it.”

“Have you always been…” Michael paused for a moment, “’good friends’?”

“We kissed once,” Maria admitted honestly, “but that’s all that happened.” Despite her reassurance Michael swore softly, banging his fist against the table. Maria jumped. “Well, what did you expect after you just packed up and left me?”

“Definitely not for you to take up with Max, that’s for damned sure!”

Maria could feel her anger rising to the surface. “Do you have any idea what your leaving did to me, Michael?” she gasped brokenly, “My best friend’s baby had just died and I was pregnant…pregnant with a baby I wasn’t even sure I wanted. Do you know how guilty that made me feel? Especially when I knew that Max and Liz would have given just about anything to have their baby back?”

Her words hammered away at Michael. They killed his anger and made him feel lower than ever before. “For a long time I couldn’t even be happy about being pregnant,” Maria continued, tears clogging her throat and making her words hoarse and choppy, “I couldn’t help but be resentful because I felt like that was the reason you left me. I hated myself for so long for trying to force you to marry me, Michael! My self-esteem was basically in the toilet.”

Maria thought back to those first days after he left. For weeks she had seriously considered abortion, because she hadn’t been sure she could handle raising another child and having to do it alone. She’d felt like her world was breaking apart around her and her only refuge had been to bury herself waist deep in Max and Liz’s problems. It was the only way she could cope, the only way she could keep from being bogged down in her own personal troubles. Truly, the first three months after Michael left had been hell for Maria. She believed sincerely that she might very well have had a breakdown like Liz if Max hadn’t been there to support her.

She glared at Michael coldly. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth Max when you should be thanking him for handling your responsibilities in your absence. He’s not the problem here, Michael; you are. If you want someone to blame, blame yourself!”

“And what about you, Maria? Do you share some of the blame or is that all on my shoulders?”

“Of course I share some of the blame!” Maria snapped, “No one forced me to take things with Max as far as I did. That was a choice I made on my own. However, I might have never needed to turn to Max if you hadn’t left me in the first place.”

“What was I supposed to do, Maria?” Michael burst out irately, “You had given me two choices: Stay and marry you or Get out your life forever! I didn’t have much wiggle room, if you get my meaning.”

“And, gee, we all know which one you chose,” Maria spat bitterly.

“I wasn’t ready for marriage, Maria! I told you that! I was scared!”

“That’s what I don’t understand, Michael. Why were you scared? Why the hell were you scared?”

It was a good question, one that Michael didn’t have a ready answer for. All he knew was eight months ago the idea of marrying Maria terrified him, mostly because he had been paralyzed by the fear that he would some how screw it up. It had been the story of his life. Everything he touched turned to crap. He knew that if he had married Maria that would make him vulnerable to her in a way that he had never been vulnerable to another person in his life. Marrying Maria would have been a public declaration that Michael was committing his life to her, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally as well. He knew he would be entrusting to Maria that part of his heart that he had never before let anyone see let alone touch. And he had been too frightened to do it. Because he knew that if she ever left him it would kill him.

He looked at her now, tears beginning in his eyes even though he didn’t want them to. “Maria, do you realize that every person that’s ever loved me in my entire life has loved me out of obligation?”

“Michael, you know that’s not true…”

“It is. If it wasn’t for the fact I came out of those pods with Isabel and Max they wouldn’t have anything to do with me,” he uttered tersely, “I’ve always been the outsider where they are concerned.”

“What in the world would make you believe that?” Maria demanded, looking at him as if he’d gone insane.

“When I was a little boy, Maria, I let myself hope for things,” Michael whispered, his eyes searching her face frantically for understanding, “I waited in that foster home for someone to come and love me…to help me make sense of who I was…what I was. And I got Hank, Maria,” he stated in a flat, emotionless tone, “I haven’t let myself hope for anything else ever since.”

“What are you saying, Michael?”

He grabbed up her hand, chaffing it between his own. “I’m saying that I couldn’t let myself hope we’d be happy if we got married…because I was never confident that things would work out…that you wouldn’t leave me.”

His revelation stunned Maria because it had been something she had never expected for him to reveal. She realized that it was his way of apologizing. That finally, after years of her begging, he was finally trusting her with his feelings…his fears. It left Maria humbled, devoid of anger, her heart brimming over with the love she felt for him. “In all the time we’ve been together, Michael, I’ve never left you once,” Maria remarked with tender emotion, “You were always the one that did the leaving.”

Her gently spoken words did what nothing else had accomplished; they broke the dam of tears inside him. As his body shook with sob after sob Maria wrapped her arms around him, holding his face against her while he cried. “I’m so sorry I hurt you, Maria,” he wept harshly into her midriff, “What can I do to change it?…What can I do….?” Michael felt naked emotionally as a result of his revelations, but he felt he had nothing to hide any longer. He put his emotions on brilliant display for her, figuratively giving her his heart with both hands. It wasn’t that he was 100% sure that she wouldn’t crush it, but that he was 100% sure that she deserved it. He lifted his tear-streaked face to hers and Maria lovingly wiped the tears from his cheeks. “Please, please tell me I won’t lose you over this, Maria…tell me we can start over.”

“Michael, we’ve never really even been friends,” Maria said, “So if we’re going to start over…maybe we should start there. Do you think you can manage that?” She smiled down at him and it was impossible to mistake the forgiveness he saw gleaming in her eyes. Michael expelled a deep sigh of relief.

As he smiled back at her, Michael felt the cold, icy shell that had protected his heart for most of his life begin to disintegrate. The hope he had fought against for so long had begun to bloom in his chest and he was powerless to stop nor did he want to. Michael could finally, after countless arguments and fruitless fights, trust his heart unequivocally to Maria without the immobilizing fear that she would leave him. He understood now that if she could forgive him for his desertion, for his thick-headedness, for his general self-centeredness and lack of good sense, she would undoubtedly forgive him for anything. And Michael anticipated that he would need plenty of forgiving considering how often he managed to screw up. To know that Maria loved him, beyond revenge, beyond hatred, beyond her own hurt feelings made Michael feel acutely unworthy and yet immensely overjoyed. Michael Guerin realized, in that one shining instant, what a truly fortunate man he was and just how truly and deeply he was loved.

He reached up to touch Maria’s cheek in reverence and adoration. “Yeah, DeLuca,” he replied finally with a grateful chuckle, “I think I could manage that.”

The End


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 15-Dec-2002 2:14:19 AM ]