posted on 29-Jan-2003 2:18:21 PM
Author: Dee

Couple: M/L

Rating: PG-13 - NC-17

Disclaimer: I do not own Roswell. It belongs to Katims an co., unfortunately. I'm just borrowing these kids for a turn.

Summary: This is the third and final story in my Growing series.

Feedback: I'd love some...thanks.


Growing Through It Again

Chapter 1

“I’m gonna puke.”

Maria DeLuca doubled over in her sequined white satin gown and dry heaved into the ornate trashcan next to the grand piano. When she sat back up her green eyes were glistening with tears and her face had blanched as white as her dress. “Oh God, what the hell am I doing?” she groaned, looking as if she were going to heave again.

Liz Evans patted her friend’s shoulder consoling while frantically searching the room with her eyes for something to drape over Maria’s gown. She discovered a mauve tablecloth on the table beside them and whisked it off, spreading it across Maria’s lap. Maria would surely have a meltdown if it were ruined at this point. “Maria,” she ordered sternly, “You’ve got to get a hold of yourself. This is your day, sweetie,” she continued, framing Maria’s pale face between her palms, “There is no reason to panic.”

No reason to panic, Maria’s frantic brain screamed. No reason to panic? Of course there was reason to panic. This was the day that she, Maria DeLuca, married Michael “I’m a stonewall” Guerin. If that wasn’t reason to panic then Maria didn’t know what was. However, Maria didn’t view marrying Michael as a calamity, far from it. She had waited almost half a decade for Michael to make her his wife. And now that her day had finally arrived she couldn’t banish the dread she felt over the possibility of it being ruined.

In the logical portion of her brain, Maria knew she was being ridiculous. The possibility of something going askew was minimal. She had planned her wedding down to the smallest detail. And yet she kept plaguing herself with the possibilities. What if the caterers screwed up the menu? What if the paparazzi crashed the ceremony? What if Alex picked up the wrong tuxedos? What if Max forgot the rings? What if Father O’Flannery was late? What if Michael didn’t show up? The questions whirred around and around in Maria’s head until she thought she just might go insane from the constant barrage of worry. However, she tried to cheer herself by acknowledging that at least one of her fears had been laid to rest. Her wedding dress fit perfectly. Now if only she could avoid throwing up on it…

As Liz stared at her best friend, decked out beautifully in all her wedding glory, she could almost forget that she and Max weren’t speaking to one another. This was Maria’s day after all and Liz wanted her to shine. Maria had never done anything halfway and her wedding day was no exception. This day more than 350 pairs of eyes would be glued on her as she strode down the isle in her Vera Wang wedding gown. Liz found herself giddy with the prospect of meeting some of the music industry’s biggest names. She still had a hard time reconciling herself with the fact that Maria was a celebrity.

“Is my mascara running?” Maria asked, wiping her fingers briskly across her wet cheeks.

“You look absolutely breathtaking,” Liz assured her with a smile. When Maria looked doubtful Liz grabbed her by the hand and led her over to the full-length mirror on the other side of the dressing room. Maria stared at her reflection as Liz spoke behind her, “You are beautiful, Maria. Nothing is going to go wrong…I promise you.”

She seemed so earnest that Maria couldn’t help but believe her. And Liz was right. She did look perfect. Her wedding gown was made of satin, sleeveless and backless, with rhinestones and seed pearls beaded across the bodice. The skirt flared only slightly converging in the back into a train that was only three feet long. Her veil, which was secured to her head by a rhinestone encrusted clip, flowed wispily down her back to the floor. Thick blond hair had been swept back from her face leaving only a few ringlet curls to frame it while the rest fell down her exposed back. Maria found herself smiling.

Liz squeezed Maria’s shoulders and whispered into her ear, “Michael’s not going to know what hit him.”

Maria turned to face her, fresh tears welling in her eyes. “This is really happening, isn’t it, Liz?” Liz laughed past her own tears, smiling at Maria proudly. “I never figured that Michael and I would be the happily ever after type, you know? Not like you and Max.”

At the mention of her husband Liz’s smile faded somewhat and she turned away to fiddle with the bridesmaids’ bouquets that were spread out atop a shining oak table. “Yeah, that’s me and Max, alright,” Liz muttered under her breath, “happily ever after.”

Maria sensed the discord in her friend’s voice immediately. She grabbed hold of Liz’s elbow and gently turned Liz to face her. “What’s going on, Liz?” she asked in concern, “Did last night not go as you’d hoped?”

Liz sighed and shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about this with you today. This isn’t the time,” Liz stated firmly, “The only thing you should be thinking about is walking down the isle.” Maria’s expression remained resolutely stubborn. Liz knew that Maria wouldn’t stop her hounding until she’d spilled her guts. “Fine,” Liz sighed in annoyance, “He said no.” She walked off towards the mirror, pretending to be preoccupied with smoothing her hair.

Maria turned around, gaping at her. “He said no?” she repeated, almost aghast, “Are you serious?”

Liz shrugged, trying to hide the extent of her disappointment. “He said ‘no,’ Maria, just like all the other times,” Liz reiterated, more firmly this time.

“I can’t believe that!” Maria exclaimed, “But the doctor’s taken you off the medication and everything, why would he possibly refuse to try and have a baby with you now!”

She had to focus on her therapy. That was the excuse he used every time Liz broached the subject of having more children. Besides that she had been on an anti-depressant drug for nearly half a year and trying to conceive hadn’t been an option. But that still hadn’t kept Liz from hoping. And when her doctor had finally agreed that Liz could stop taking her medication Liz had been sure that Max would finally agree to try for another baby. But last night had been no different from all the other times, only this time they had ended up having a tremendous fight over it. Liz regretted the argument and most of the hurtful things she’d said, but she didn’t regret the reason behind it. She still wanted to have a baby.

Liz had been having regular therapy sessions for the last six months with a colleague of Max’s, Dr. Molly Cochran. She was a psychologist who specialized in grief counseling and to Liz she was a Godsend. Those first few months after Isabel announced her pregnancy had been rough for her. Liz hadn’t wanted to feel jealous or bitter in the face of Isabel’s happiness, but she had. There were times when she couldn’t even sit through dinner at the Whitman house; the knot in her chest was so big. She had drifted into depression and it had worried Max so much that he had insisted on her seeing a therapist. Remembering what had happened the last time she sunk into a deep depression Liz hadn’t put up much of a fight over it. She was put on Prozac a week later.

In the end, she was glad she went because after a few sessions with Dr. Cochran she was actually able to feel some real joy over Isabel’s pregnancy. But as Isabel grew larger and her pregnancy became more apparent, Liz’s own desire for another child began to kick in. The feeling had started fleetingly at first, just an impulsive thought when she first felt Isabel’s baby kick beneath her palm. And then she’d seen the sonogram and that cinched it for Liz. She wanted to have another baby.

When she told Max her newfound revelation she had expected for him to be excited or at the very least interested in the prospect. But, he had flat out refused. Not only had he refused but then he had also gone into the detailed reasons why he believed Liz wasn’t ready to have another baby. And at the top of his list was her suicide attempt.

No matter how much progress they made in their marriage it seemed the source of their problems always came back to that day. Liz had to be fair to Max. She had scared the living hell out of him. She had scared the living hell out of herself. Not one day ever went by when she didn’t think about what would have happened had she been successful. She would have left her daughter motherless and, very probably, fatherless as well. Because Liz now knew that if she had died that day Max wouldn’t have been long in following her.

The thought made her shudder. So yes, she recognized how much he loved her, how much that day had scared him. And because she did, Liz didn’t harbor any resentment towards Max over the fact that he still seemed to cling to that day. In fact, he had even refused to heal her wrists scars. He wanted her to remember that day with burning clarity, just as he did and always would. She still had not forgotten what he’d told her the day she casually asked him to heal the marks. He had looked at her as if she’d punched him in the gut.

“I can’t do that, Liz,” he had replied quietly, “God, it hurts me to tell you no, but I won’t let you wipe away that day like it never happened.”

“How can I wipe it away, Max,” she had asked him in near tears, “when you never let me forget that it happened.”

His reply had been soft, emphatic and full of pain. “I can’t let you forget because I can’t forget.”

She never again asked him to heal her scars after that. But by that time it didn’t matter. Liz soon found herself preoccupied with another idea. She wanted to get pregnant. She had been two months into her therapy sessions with Dr. Cochran when she asked Max the first time. He refused. That first time he had sighted the reason as the medication she was taking. When she suggested coming off of it, he had discouraged her. She tried again one month later. He refused again. She had even tried getting Molly to talk to him. He had come home from work irate over her attempt to “manipulate” him.

Last night had been her final attempt to convince him and when he said “no” once again all the anger and frustration Liz had been damming inside broke through. They’d had a terrible argument as a result, so bad in fact, that Max ended up sleeping on the sofa. So the next day, instead of waking up with joyous hearts over the impending nuptials of their two best friends, they had spent the morning locked in a silent battle.

Liz shook her head to clear it of her morose thoughts. “Let’s not talk about it anymore, Maria,” she implored her friend, “I don’t want you to think of anything besides marrying Michael today.”

“That’s all I have been thinking about, Liz,” Maria joked shakily, “Why do you think I’ve been feeling so sick?” But then Maria’s attempt at levity deflated and she crumpled onto the piano bench once more. “Oh, god, Liz! What if this doesn’t work out? What if Michael and I just make each other miserable?”

Liz sat down beside her, nudging her shoulder playfully. “Come on, Ria,” Liz coaxed teasingly, “You and Michael have always made each other miserable…that’s part of the reason you love each other so much. This day is gonna be the start of the best time in your life.”

Maria slid Liz a questioning, sideways look. “Has it been for you?”

Liz didn’t even have to pause to consider the question. Despite the fights and the misunderstandings between them Liz had never, not even for a second, regretted her life with Max. “It hasn’t been easy, Maria,” Liz answered her honestly, “You know that better than anyone, but I wouldn’t trade a day, not a single one.”

Neither of them mentioned the exact reasons why Max and Liz’s road had been rocky. By unspoken agreement Maria and Liz never talked about that time when Maria and Max had almost crossed the line with each other. Liz didn’t like to think about it too much. And besides, it was over between them. Truthfully, it had never really begun. Max was in love with Liz and he had never fallen out of it.

Just then a tentative knock sounded at the door and a few seconds later Isabel poked her head through. “I’ve got A.J. and the girls dressed finally,” she told Maria with a gentle smile, “Do you want to see them?”

Wiping away the last of her tears Maria smiled warmly. “Sure bring em in.”

No sooner had she said the words than the children stampeded into the room with raucous cries and a very pregnant Isabel waddled in after them. She was a week past her due date and her demeanor showed it. Today was the first time in what seemed like forever that Liz and Maria had seen anything remotely resembling a smile grace her features. She had been walking around in a perpetual state of aggravation, snapping off anyone’s head who was foolish enough to engage her in conversation.

Presently, she eased herself into one of the cushioned chairs in the middle of the room, admonishing the children sharply before they could jump all over Maria with their childish oohs and ahhs. For a moment, the three women sat together, silently admiring their children in their wedding finery, while the three rambunctious pre-schoolers chased one another around the room.

Claudia and Michelle looked absolutely adorable in their floor length lavender, satin gowns. Their beautiful dark tresses had been carefully curled into darling ringlets and piled atop their heads. A.J., on the other hand, was dressed in a crisp black tuxedo complete with a lavender cummerbund and bowtie. Of course, the bowtie was now hanging unloosed around his neck, but it didn’t manage to distract from his two year old charm.

Smiling, Maria tore her gaze away from her romping daughter and surveyed her matron of honor with a pitying glance. “So how are you feeling, Is?”

Isabel popped open one eye and regarded her sourly. “Do you really want to know?” Maria slanted a questioning look at Liz who regarded her innocently, before nodding tentatively. “Okay, here it is,” Isabel stated tartly, “My back hurts, my feet hurt, I get indigestion with everything I eat, even bread! I’ve been having damned Braxton Hicks contractions every night for the last two weeks, there’s a hemorrhoid hanging out of my butt and worst of all…I’M A FRACKING WEEK OVERDUE TO HAVE THIS KID!” She paused to take a deep, cleansing breath. “You could say I’m a little stressed,” she finished primly.

“Well, just so you’re okay,” Maria said with a laugh.

Isabel shook her head at Liz dourly. “I can’t believe you’re actually anxious to go through this again,” she remarked tiredly, leaning her head against the back of the chair, “These last six weeks have been a miserable hell for me.”

“Well, it doesn’t look like it will be happening anytime soon,” Liz replied with an overbright smile, catching hold of A.J. so that she could fix his bowtie, “Max and I talked about it again last night and he still said no.”

“He said no?” Isabel repeated blankly.

“Please, let’s not go there, Isabel,” Liz implored with a weary wave of her hand, “I just had this exact same conversation with Maria not five minutes ago. The subject is closed. Max and I aren’t going to have another baby.”

But Isabel had a tendency to be stubborn, especially when she was convicted about something. Besides she needed something to distract her from the fact that she was ten months and one week pregnant! “Let me talk to Max, Liz,” she suggested, “I’ve always been able to reason with him in the past.”

“Don’t do that, Isabel,” Liz warned, struggling to keep a wriggling A.J. still long enough to finish retying his bowtie, “Max will only feel like we’re ganging up on him. Besides I don’t want him to be coerced into having a baby with me. I want him to want it just as much as I do.” She finally finished her task and released her squirming nephew, her expression a little saddened. And then she shook it off, determined not to be depressed on Maria’s wedding day. “What time is it?” she asked brightly.

Isabel flicked a glance at her watch. “11:15. Only one more hour before Maria becomes Mrs. Michael Guerin. I bet you can hardly wait, can you, Maria?”

Maria couldn’t help it. She abruptly bent over the trashcan again and got sick all over again.




[ edited 5 time(s), last at 5-Feb-2003 11:13:34 PM ]
posted on 29-Jan-2003 2:19:32 PM
Chapter 2

“You okay, Michael? You look a little green,” Alex Whitman observed, biting his lip to keep from smirking. As best man he knew he should be supportive and consoling, bolstering Michael’s confidence for the moment that would change his life forever. And yet he couldn’t do it. The situation was just too damned funny. Here he was, Michael “Stonewall” Guerin reduced to a puddle of quivering nerves at the prospect of making Maria DeLuca, his long time love and mother of his two daughters, his lawfully wedded wife. Could life get any more ironic?

Michael stood beside Alex at the front of the church, his eyes glued on the doors that Maria would soon come gliding through in the next ten minutes. His forehead was glistening with perspiration despite the soft candlelight within the main hall. Occasionally, his hands would twitch reflexively at his sides, as if he weren’t quite sure what he should do with them. Twice Alex had to poke Michael to keep him from biting off his nails and spitting them to the floor at his feet.

Ignoring Alex’s pointed jibe, Michael cast an anxious glance around the church, his stomach lurching when yet another throng of guests arrived. Just how many people would be attending this damned ceremony? He leaned over towards Alex, asking him for the eighth time in ten minutes, “What time is it?”

“Exactly one minute after the last time you asked me,” Alex whispered drolly. However, looking into Michael’s shaken features he couldn’t help but relent a little. “Michael, this is supposed to be your wedding day not your execution…why do you look like you’re about to face the guillotine.”

“What if Maria changes her mind,” Michael burst out nervously.

“She’s not going to change her mind,” Alex assured him with a long-suffering sigh.

“But what if she does,” Michael insisted, “I’ve fuc—,” he caught himself, remembering at the last moment that he was in a church. He took a deep breath and started again. “I’ve messed up so much, Alex, what if she just decides it’s not worth it? What if she leaves me standing here?”

“What if she does?” Alex countered reasonably, “What are you going to do?”

Michael looked stunned by his question. He actually frowned in affront. And then his features hardened in a mask of utter determination. “I’m gonna go after her and I’m not going to stop until I make her my wife.”

“There you have it,” Alex quipped with a jovial smile, “Even if Maria does get cold feet I’m sure you’ll find a way to warm them up again.”

Michael realized he was acting like a fool. Alex was right, as usual. The future was inconsequential. All that mattered now was that he was standing in that church…before God, before man and he was going to make Maria his wife. But Michael couldn’t help but subconsciously compare his potential marriage to Max Evans’ well established one. That was truly what he was aiming for with Maria. He wanted the happily ever after, destined to be soulmates thing with his future bride that his best friend seemed to share with his wife. And Max and Liz made it look so effortless, so damned easy…Michael couldn’t help but feel a little jealous.

Some of the situations they had endured in the last ten years would have cracked a lesser couple. But not Max and Liz. Now Michael fully understood what “standing the test of time” truly meant. If Max and Liz hadn’t withstood the test then Michael didn’t know who had. They were amazing, perfect, and the love they shared seemed downright unattainable. Yet, that was exactly the sort of love Michael was striving for. He wanted to love Maria like that…she deserved nothing less.

Michael watched Max now, pacing at the very back of the church. He didn’t think he’d hurt Max’s feelings when he asked Alex to be his best man. Max had actually seemed quite pleased with the development. It meant that Michael and Alex were no longer harboring resentment toward each other over the Maria thing that had happened so long ago. To smooth things over, however, Michael had asked Max to care for the wedding rings, though technically that was the best man’s department. If he could have had two best mans then Michael would have done so. He didn’t like choosing.

As it happened, however, Max and Alex were probably the only males participating in his wedding that Michael knew relatively well. The rest of his groomsmen had been taken from Maria’s endless sea of cousins, entourage, and industry acquaintances. The last time Michael had counted the number had risen to ten. Hell, at that point he didn’t have any idea how many groomsmen there were. And he didn’t care. He was getting married. Hot damn, he was getting married!

Almost on cue, the organ music swelled to a pitch with the wedding march, signaling that it was time for the wedding ceremony to begin. Michael instantly drew himself up straight, his eyes fixed ahead in anticipation for the moment when Maria would come gliding down the isle and into his arms.

Max and Liz made their walk down the isle first. They made a very striking couple, Michael noted vaguely. Max’s tall, dark frame was the perfect contrast to Liz’s petite prettiness. But Michael was so happy he easily missed the tension and strain that was currently etched into their features. He didn’t notice how stiffly Liz looped her arms through Max’s or how carefully Max avoided Liz’s eyes. All Michael could think was: one couple down, nine to go.

And he literally counted them off as they made their entrances and then parted ways near the alter. Two, three, four, five, six…. Michael could feel his palms begin to sweat. When the last couple finally made it he almost wilted in relief and then he snapped to attention once again. He knew Maria would be making her entrance soon. The anticipation was making his stomach gurgle. Michael smiled broadly, awaiting the moment when his bride, his life would fill the foyer with her radiant beauty.

However, at that moment, the radiant beauty filling the foyer wasn’t Maria’s. Isabel Whitman waddled carefully down the isle decked out in cream satin that was rather alluring on her pregnant form, not really bothering to keep to the steps they had choreographed in rehearsal. Her expression clearly stated, “Hey, I’m one hundred years pregnant, I’ve earned the right to do what I want!”

But as much as he loved her, Isabel’s entrance barely registered for Michael. He began fiddling his fingers nervously once again. The time was winding down. Any second now Maria would be appearing. His stomach grumbled again. His heart raced at an alarming rate. He was so nervous he barely smiled when a giggling Claudia and Mickey bounced closely behind Isabel looking like pretty little elves. Both girls alternately dropped rose petals to the floor while rapidly chattering away to each other from behind their gloved hands at the same time. Their little cousin A.J., who was carefully bearing the wedding rings on a cream, satin pillow, followed quickly Claudia and Mickey almost immediately.

But the moment A.J. took one look at the large crowd of peoples swiveled around in their seats staring directly at him, his small face crumpled and he burst into frightened tears. He dropped the pillow, whirled and ran…straight for his Nana. Diane Evans patiently coaxed her grandson back to the isle, occasionally flashing the waiting guests an apologetic smile as she did. In the end, A.J. refused to go down the isle without his grandma holding his hand and so Diane Evans had no choice but to glide down the isle right along side him.

At the alter Alex and Michael exchanged amused grins while Isabel hung her head in acute mortification. Michael started to wink at her when the organ music swelled to a crescendo, signaling Maria’s arrival. He looked toward the front of the church and froze.

Michael Guerin was a man of few words. If it couldn’t be grunted in five syllables or less he usually couldn’t be bothered. But no mere grunt would suffice this time, not when an angel was floating his way. And that was the only way he could think to describe her. She was washed new, shiny, gleaming and she was giving herself over to him. Michael felt tears of happiness and humility prick the back of his eyes. God knew he didn’t deserve her love, but he’d be damned if he gave it up now.

She walked carefully beside Jeff Parker, the full skirt of her wedding dress barely moving as she did. Her green eyes remained focused with his, steady, determined and full of love. He wasn’t surprised that she had bypassed a veil. It was her way of saying, “See me, look at me…this is who you are marrying, this is who will love you for eternity.”

And Michael got the sinking premonition that he would cry, yes, start bawling right there before all three hundred of his guests. My God, he exclaimed in his mind, he was really getting married! Against all odds he had somehow convinced Maria DeLuca to be his wife. It had been sketchy at first. He hadn’t believed that Maria would ever forgive him for not returning immediately after South America and missing Adrienne’s birth. For a long time he had wondered if her forgiveness even mattered. He’d had a difficult time himself dealing with the fact that his best friend and best girl had almost hooked up in his absence.

But all that was thankfully behind them now. He and Maria had painstakingly worked through each and every one of their issues. In the months after he’d stepped back into her life they had diligently tried at being friends for the first time in their entire relationship. It was during those months that Michael came to know Maria, really know her in the truest sense. There had been no expectations between them, no reservations. Without the constant anxiety of trying to live up to another person’s ideals Maria and Michael had actually been able to enjoy one another’s company for a change and share in a real conversation. They had laughed together; played together, raised their children together and eventually fallen in love once more.

Michael had asked Maria to marry him again on a cold day in March. They had bundled up Mickey and Dree and had taken them for an afternoon of snow play in the park. Michael had watched Maria on the merry-go-round with Mickey as he sat with a gurgling Dree, blowing gusts of air for the five month old’s delight. Maria’s cheeks had been ruddy from the cold, her blue-green eyes sparkling like diamonds. She had spun Mickey around once more at top speed before crunching through the frozen snow over to Michael and plopping down beside him on the park bench.

“So Spaceboy, what’s got you all silent and pensive,” she had teased, her breath making wispy little puffs of steam in the frigid air.

He didn’t make any conscious decision at the moment, but merely spoke what was thundering in his heart right then. “I was thinking that I love you,” he’d told her slowly, “and I was wondering if you might consider becoming my wife.” There had been no ring, no flowery speeches, no elaborate romantic plans, just simple, naked truth.

Maria had looked at him squarely and whispered the word that would sing in his heart for all eternity. She had said yes.

After that the days flew by. Maria had handled the wedding plans with the tenacity of a general and with Isabel at her side, as matron of honor, there had been no stopping her. Beyond asking Alex to be his best man, Michael really hadn’t contributed anything beyond his presence to the wedding. Maria had handpicked the décor, the colors, the music, the food, hell even his underwear. But he didn’t give a damn. Not then, not when she was floating towards him looking like heaven, not when he knew that this was just the first of many happy days to follow.

When Maria finally reached his side, Jeff Parker handed her over with a gentle smile and a wink. He took hold of Maria’s unable to stifle his reverently whispered, “Wow.”

“You clean up nice yourself, Spaceboy,” she teased as they turned together to face Father O’Flannery, “Good to know you showed up,” she added with a wise-cracking smile right before her beautiful face resumed an expression of serene solemnity.

Father O’Flannery began the ceremony by reiterating what a weighty responsibility marriage could be. Michael listened carefully to his words, knowing that he could use all the help he could get. He didn’t have any idea what would be expected of him as a husband, but he knew himself well enough to realize that the prospect was great that he’d screw it up somehow. If O’Flannery had some pointers he was more than open to listen.

The ceremony seemed to flow smoothly, which Michael found surprising seeing that nothing had ever, Ever, EVER flown smoothly for him and Maria. He slanted her small, excited smiles, thrilling in his heart when she returned them. Michael was still smiling when Father O’Flannery addressed the crowd before them and asked, “If anyone is present who feels that this man and this woman should not be joined in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”

It was an age-old challenge, one that was rarely answered. Neither Michael nor Maria expected for it to be answered then…but it was. Isabel emitted a low, pained groan, splitting the reverent silence that filled the church and freezing all three hundred and twenty four guests in their seats. As that groan reverberated throughout the church, Maria stood perfectly still, blinking her lashes quite rapidly before finally twisting around to face her matron of honor. Isabel was doubled over slightly, her hands cupping the underside of her distended belly.

Maria stretched her lips in a travesty of a smile; doing her utmost to keep up the appearance that everything was fine. “Isabel, please tell me this is a joke,” Maria uttered through bared teeth.

“It’s just indigestion,” Isabel assured her quickly, shaking her head when Alex started over towards her. “Don’t worry about it, okay. Just go on with the ceremony.”

Her explanation didn’t convince anyone. “Izzy, you look sorta pale,” Michael clucked in concern, “Maybe you should sit down--,”

“I don’t need to sit,” Isabel all but snapped, “I’m fine!”

“Are you sure that you’re well?” Father O’Flannery asked, looking every bit as uncertain as Maria, Michael and Alex.

Isabel felt her cheeks burn as more than three hundred pairs of eyes zoomed on her face in keen interest. “I am fine!” she enunciated, “Good lord, just go on with the ceremony before I die of embarrassment right here…please?”

With great reluctance Father O’Flannery continued, although he did cast apprehensive glances in Isabel’s direction every couple of words. By the time he had finally relaxed enough to proceed with the vows without hesitation Isabel groaned again. Maria rolled her eyes in exasperation turned to Isabel in a huff. “Do NOT tell me that was indigestion, too,” she stated.

“It wasn’t,” Isabel admitted meekly, lowering her eyes, “I think my water just broke.”

Maria wasn’t even surprised. She had been waiting for something to go wrong all morning. Now that it had finally happened she felt an odd sense of relief. “God, Isabel…could your timing be any more rotten?” Maria moaned.

“Well, you’re the one who changed the wedding date THREE times!” Isabel reminded her irately, “God! Was I supposed to hold the kid in forever?”

“Ladies--,” Father O’Flannery tried to interrupt demurely.

Maria shook her bouquet at Isabel. “I asked you if you wanted to back out.”

“Come on, Maria!” Isabel retorted, “This is me, remember? When have you ever known me to back out of a planned function? And besides I thought you wanted me to be your matron of honor.”

Father O’Flannery tried again. “Ladies--,”

“I did,” Maria said quickly, “I mean I do, but not if it means jeopardizing your health.”

“I’m having a baby, Maria, I haven’t been stricken with polio!”

“Isabel, honey, maybe we should go now.” Isabel looked up to find Alex standing beside her. He gently took hold of her elbow and began guiding her away from the alter.

“Wait a minute,” Isabel protested, hanging back, “I can’t want to miss the ceremony…I’m the matron of honor.”

“And I can’t miss the baby’s birth,” Maria added anxiously, “I’m the godmother.”

“Maria!” Michael cried incredulously, taking her by the shoulders and giving her a firm shake, “We’re in the middle of our wedding, for crying out loud!”

“And you’re having a baby,” Alex reminded Isabel irately, “We should be on our way to the hospital right this second not arguing over whether you get to be in the wedding or not.”

Isabel folded her arms across her blossoming bosom stubbornly. “I’ve gone through hell to be in this wedding,” she stated, ignoring the appalled gasp from Father O’Flannery, “I’m not missing one single second.”

Maria was just as determined to go with Isabel to the hospital, as Isabel was to stay and stand in at the wedding. Michael only saw one way to resolve the issue. Turning to Father O’Flannery, Michael demanded, “How fast can you run through the vows?” Father O’Flannery must have broken a record that day because when he was done the whole throng of guests broke into thunderous applause.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 2:22:22 PM
Chapter 3

“Are you finally done giving me the silent treatment?”

Liz Evans glanced up to find her husband leaning over her, an uncertain smile ghosting the corners of his lips. The moment their eyes made contact Liz felt the nagging annoyance she’d held on to for most of the day dissipate. Max looked handsomely disheveled, his boyish grin compelling as he stared down at her. His bowtie had long since been undone and hung loosely about his starched collar. He had removed his cummerbund and jacket as well so that now he was only clad in his creased black trousers and snowy white dress shirt. He would have probably tossed his cap-toed dress shoes and walked about the hospital in only his socks if he didn’t think his doing so would give Isabel fits. And she didn’t need the aggravation, not when she was entering her eighth hour of labor and had only dilated to six centimeters. But still he made a handsome picture and Liz couldn’t help smiling up at him.

“I was under the impression that you were the one not speaking to me, Max,” she emphasized softly, dropping her gaze to her hands.

Max gratefully grabbed at her tentative extension for a truce between them with a joyous sigh. He folded himself down beside her on the ugly lime green sofa in the hospital waiting room. “Then I’ve been an idiot for holding out this long,” he whispered, gently framing her face for his kiss. He angled his mouth over hers fiercely as if he were starved for her. His kiss was both apologetic and wanton. Liz closed her eyes against the tender assault, tasting his lips with equal enthusiasm. When Max finally pulled away minutes later he pressed his forehead against hers and murmured quietly, “God, I hate it when we fight…”

Truth be told they really didn’t fight that often. Only a handful of times in the nearly ten years they had been together and only two of those times had been serious enough to threaten their relationship. But Max hated the feeling of being estranged from her; especially after the hellish eight months they had spent apart following her breakdown. When he thought about how lost and despaired he’d felt during those months Max had to suppress a shudder. He didn’t ever want to reach that point in their marriage again, which was why any disagreement he had with her, no matter how small, affected him greatly. As a result, he hadn’t even gotten an hour’s worth of sleep the previous night for the worry alone.

Liz caressed his cheek tenderly, reading the thoughts that were plainly visible in his eyes. “I don’t like fighting with you either,” Liz murmured in return, nuzzling against his chin, “I’m sorry for what I said to you…you know…for calling you a controlling son of a bitch and all. That was the anger talking.”

Max actually chuckled at that. “I’m not holding it against you. Sometimes I am a controlling son of a bitch and I know it. But I’m sorry if that’s how I came off to you last night,” he said sincerely, “I just worry sometimes…”

Liz pressed her fingers against his lips to silence him. “I know you do,” she conceded in a sigh, “You don’t have to make excuses.” They both knew exactly why he worried and Liz wanted to avoid that discussion at all costs.

She was quickly coming to realize that Max had not exaggerated when he said that he would never get over her breakdown. His fear permeated every word he spoke to her, his every caress. Even last night, when Liz knew she had pushed him beyond the limits of endurance, he had managed to keep his temper in check, never raising his voice to her a single time. He was always so careful with her now, as if he were afraid that saying or doing the wrong thing could send her spiraling into another depression. But didn’t he realize she was stronger than that now? Didn’t he see how far she had come?

Maybe he didn’t. Max had the annoying habit of looking at her through the eyes of a therapist rather than through a husband’s eyes. He was always trying to analyze her every word, seeking some hidden meaning or emotion behind it. Liz knew that he was trying to help she really did, but rather than encouraging her to share her feelings, Max made her want to clam up all the more. She didn’t want him trying to second-guess her motives. She didn’t need it. Liz already had a therapist, what she wanted most was her husband’s love and understanding.

But he was trying. Liz would have to be blind not to see it. And in the end that was all that mattered. Max loved her and he wanted her to get better and that was his motivation for everything he did. Liz kept telling herself that over and over and it helped to keep her irritation from overwhelming her completely. However, as she looked at him now, she didn’t feel irritation at all, just happiness and relief that their fight was finally behind them.

She strummed his lower lip with the pad of her thumb. “So where have you been all this time?” she whispered sweetly.

“Buying you a surprise,” he said, his eyes suddenly sparkling with teasing mischief. He reached into his trouser pocket and pulled free a candy bar.

Liz emitted a piercing, girlish squeal. “Oooh Snickers,” she cooed, already ripping the candy from his hand and tearing off the wrapper. She took an eager bite from the chocolate, moaning in heavenly delight.

“And that’s not all,” Max added, laughing a bit at her rapturous expression. From behind his back he produced a package of powdered donuts. Liz snatched those as well, muttering a grateful “bless you” around her mouthful of candy. Max affectionately stroked the silky length of her hair as she tore into the donuts as well. “Who knew that deep fried circles of fat dipped in confectioner’s sugar were all I needed to get on my lady’s good side?” he quipped wryly, “I should have tried this hours ago.”

Liz giggled at his gentle teasing, the last vestiges of her earlier resentment washed completely away. “Dun fo-get tha snickas,” she added, her mouth gooey with nougat and chocolate. She quickly swallowed her mouthful and then asked with some seriousness, “Does this mean that you forgive me?”

“Only if you forgive me,” Max countered sweetly.

“Done,” Liz murmured, tilting back her head to meet his lips in a fervent kiss. They rarely kissed like that anymore, with the ardor and eagerness of teenagers. Two children and a world of laughter and heartache later their kisses were flavored with familiarity now, more an expression of the love between them rather than raging passion. But Liz had to admit that she missed the passion, missed the fierce abandon of their teenage years. So she savored the feel Max’s tongue swirling about the silky depths of her mouth. She drew it deeper into her mouth, caressed it with her own.

They might have gone on kissing like that forever if the unexpected sound of someone clearing their throat hadn’t startled them apart. Max and Liz lifted their smiling eyes to Michael and Maria Guerin as the couple leaned together against the entrance of the lobby and regarded them with a fair amount of amusement.

“You two put rabbits to shame,” Maria remarked dryly, flopping into one of the empty seats across from them. Michael came to sit alongside her, propping his hip against the armrest of her chair.

Purposely ignoring Maria’s sarcastic quip Liz said, her forehead crinkling slightly, “I thought you and Michael would be on your way to Jamaica by now.”

Neither Maria nor Michael had changed out of their wedding attire. Following the speedy recitation of their vows Alex, Isabel, Michael, Maria, Liz and Max had hightailed it to the hospital. Michael and Maria’s guests had gone ahead to the wedding reception per their request, but they had not attended. Diane Evans and Amy DeLuca had graciously consented to keep their grandchildren with them at the reception while their children accompanied Alex and Isabel to the hospital. But no one had counted on Isabel’s delivery taking so long. Weren’t second babies supposed to come faster? It had certainly been true in Maria’s case. She had barely been at the hospital four hours before she gave birth to Adrienne.

But apparently Isabel wasn’t going to have the same easy birth. The last she and Michael had seen of Alex he had looked harried and dismayed and had informed them that Isabel was still stuck at six centimeters. Her doctor decided to give her a dose of Pitocin a little while later and from the hallway Michael and Maria could hear her moaning for an epidural soon after. They wisely decided to take a break and went in search of an errant Max and Liz. Isabel was no picnic when she was miserable and it didn’t look as if her labor would be ending any time soon.

But, despite that, Maria was determined to be there for the birth. Using her numerous connections she had managed to push back her and Michael’s flight time. Now they weren’t due to leave for another nine hours. Being a celebrity did have its perks. Hopefully, Isabel would give birth way before then.

“I don’t think Isabel is expecting you to put your honeymoon on hold for the baby, Maria,” Max commented pragmatically. One glance at Michael told him that it wasn’t the groom’s idea of a roaring good time either. “You’ve already missed your wedding reception as it is.”

“But I’m the Godmother,” Maria stated as if she were being inaugurated as president of the United States, “I can’t miss little Justine’s entry into the world.”

“Justine?” Max repeated blankly, “When did that happen? Last I heard they were naming her Veronica.”

“Isabel has other plans now,” Michael provided blandly, “You didn’t know?”

Max shook his head. But before he could start lamenting the reasons why his sister had not confided in him something so monumental Maria quickly added, “She only just decided on the name a week ago. I think she and Alex are still debating.”

“Yeah,” Michael agreed, “When we left they were still arguing over whether to name her Veronica or Justine in between Isabel’s contractions.” He shook his head in bemusement. “I don’t even know why Alex bothers to argue…Isabel always wins in the end.”

“And that’s exactly as it should be, Spaceboy,” Maria teased, reaching up to give his cheek an affectionate pat. And then she looked over at Max and Liz. They appeared exhausted and restless all at the same time. Judging by the mega cuddling they had been doing when she and Michael came in Maria could only assume that they had patched things up concerning their earlier argument. Considering that factor Maria also supposed that they might be a tad anxious for some alone time. She was also anxious for a little herself. “So you guys look beat,” she told them without a hint of subtleness, “Why don’t you go home and get some shut eye?”

Liz had known Maria long enough to realize what she was up to right away. Her cheeks suffused with color. “Maria,” Liz sang between clenched teeth, “Max and I are fine. We want to be here when Isabel has the baby the same as you.”

“Well, at least go out for a bite to eat or something,” Maria persisted stubbornly, “You two look like death reheated.”

Liz prayed that the floor would open up and swallow her then and there. But then Liz had known what a meddler Maria could be when she had confided to her the details of her and Max’s disagreement. Despite that Liz flicked Michael a pleading look. He only smirked. Finally, Liz sighed. “Could you be any more obvious, Maria?”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Do you want time alone with your hubby or not?”

It could never be said that Liz Parker Evans looked a gift horse in the mouth. She and Max decided on a nice, leisurely walk together around the maternity ward floor. A companionable silence reigned between them while they strolled hand in hand for the most part before Max reluctantly broke it with the tentative question that had been beating around in his head for a good portion of the night. “Does it bother you to be here?” he asked Liz quietly after they had passed the glass window for the nursery. Liz had not so much as glanced aside at the sleeping newborn babies swaddled in pink and blue. It wasn’t for lack of interest, however. Max could tell that she had forced herself not to look.

Though Liz knew exactly what Max was driving at with his question she attempted to feign innocence nonetheless. She didn’t want to get into a deep discussion right then. Not when her emotions were so dangerously close to the surface, not when she was surrounded by the gentle sound of infant cries. “What are you talking about, Max?” she inquired, carefully avoiding his probing gaze.

“Does it bother you being on the maternity floor and all?” Max clarified.

For some reason his gentle question brought all of Liz’s bitterness and frustration flooding back. Of course, it bothers me, Liz wanted to shout at him, I lost my baby and you refuse to have another! But as quickly as her anger and frustration rose to the surface she squelched it. She wouldn’t permit herself to give into her fury. Liz didn’t feel she had the right to be irate with Max or embittered. After all, she had caused the suffering to their family; it was her fault that he was even wary about having another baby in the first place. No, she couldn’t be angry with him, not when she had brought it all down upon herself. And so she stuffed her feelings, as she always did, as she had been doing for the last six months.

“I can handle being here just fine, Max,” Liz brazened casually, “Besides it’s not about me, remember?”

“Isabel would understand if you wanted to leave, Liz,” Max told her gently.

“I don’t need to leave,” Liz replied, her mild tone taking on a slight edge, “I’m fine, Max. I got over being jealous of Isabel a long time ago…I thought you knew that.”

“I do know that,” Max replied in a tone he often used with his patients, “I just thought it would be hard being around all these babies and not thinking about Jeff--,”

Liz abruptly froze in her tracks. “Don’t!” Liz bit out suddenly, cutting him off, “Don’t talk about him, okay.”

Max closed his eyes and emitted a tired, serrated sigh. They always came back to this. Liz’s inability, no her unwillingness to even discuss their son. It was as if she were trying to erase the memory of him completely from their lives. Even Claudia, at five years old, had been conditioned never to ask her mommy about her baby brother. Max had tried forcing the issue several times in the past and in his doing so he had only served to push Liz further inside herself. Eventually, he had stopped trying to get her to talk about her feelings concerning the baby’s death for fear he’d lose her altogether, but her reluctance to share her feelings was the exact reason Max refused to have a baby with her now.

As if realizing that she had put Max off with her sharp reply Liz anxiously tried to smooth things over. “I didn’t mean to bite your head off,” she said with forced lightness, “It’s just such a happy day…for Maria and for Isabel…I don’t want to spoil it by talking about unhappy things, okay?”

Max nodded, but he didn’t look anymore convinced by Liz’s words than she felt saying them.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 2:24:21 PM
Chapter 4

“Maria’s gonna have a fit when she comes back and sees this!” Liz declared, slapping the tabloid newspaper onto her therapist’s desk before flopping down onto the sofa. “Don’t these wackos ever give her a break?”

Dr. Molly Cochran casually unfolded the newspaper on her desk and read the headline aloud: “From best man to best friend to husband, has Majandra finally found her soulmate?” Dr. Cochran sat the newspaper aside. “Interesting,” she observed thoughtfully, “You seem quite upset about the headline, Liz. Would you mind explaining to me why?”

“It’s not just the headline,” Liz spat, throwing up her hands, “but the entire article. It’s full of lies and innuendo!” She flipped her long, dark hair over her shoulder in a gesture of frustration. “They’re just vultures,” she muttered under her breath.

“You seem to have worked up a lot of righteous indignation on the part of your friend,” Dr. Cochran remarked, “but does your anger, perhaps, stem from something deeper?”

Liz felt her irritation increase by half. She glared at her therapist with narrowed eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I assume this article made some mention of the affair that occurred between Max and Maria last year?”

“That wasn’t an affair,” Liz snapped out, averting her eyes, “Nothing happened between them. I’ve told you a hundred times. Besides it was a long time ago,” she finished softly.

“But not so long ago that you don’t remember,” Dr. Cochran countered softly.

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Liz whispered and stared down at her hands, “I didn’t come here to talk about that.” She paused for several moments to swallow past her tears. “Isabel had her baby yesterday.”

“I thought Maria was getting married yesterday,” Dr. Cochran said with a frown.

“She did,” Liz quickly explained, “and Isabel went into labor at the ceremony. We all went with her to the hospital after the wedding was over. She had the baby last night…a baby girl.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“I was really happy at first,” Liz said, lifting brown eyes full of hurt confusion to her therapist’s benevolent face, “But then Isabel was in labor for a long time and so Max and I went for a walk around the maternity floor.” Liz paused to swallow several times. “We went past the nursery.”

“Hmm,” was Dr. Cochran’s only response.

“’Hmm,’” Liz replied, “That’s all you have to say?”

“I’m waiting for you to tell me how being there made you feel.”

“Lousy, of course!” Liz cried before flopping back against the brown sofa and reclining fully. She threw her arm over her eyes and heaved a large sigh. “I felt like my heart had lodged in my throat,” she admitted bitterly, “And what made it worse was that Max acted totally clueless about it…like he didn’t understand why it would upset me!”

“Have you tried sharing your feelings with him?” Cochran suggested.

Liz snorted. “Why should I have to do that? He should know already!” Abruptly, she sat up and regarded Dr. Cochran with a chagrined expression. “I asked him about having another baby again.”

Dr. Cochran tapped her pen against her mouth pensively. “I thought we had agreed that you should give up that idea altogether until your therapy was completed.”

Brown eyes skittered away guiltily. “But I’m getting better,” Liz argued softly, “You even took me off the Prozac.”

“Only because you insisted,” Cochran reminded her, “You still have a long way to go in your therapy, Liz.”

“You only say that because you’re getting 100 bucks a session,” Liz teased wryly. But her joking tone fell miserably flat.

“I know you don’t really believe that, Liz.”

Dr. Cochran’s tone was perfectly serious. It was quite obvious that Liz wasn’t going to wheedle her way out of this one. Liz hung her head a little in defeat. “Is it such a bad thing that I don’t want to talk about Jeff?” she whispered, “It’s still too raw for me…”

“His death is what prompted your suicide attempt, Liz,” Dr. Cochran argued pragmatically, “You wouldn’t even be here with me right now if it weren’t for that. And then there are your other issues.”

Liz rolled her eyes. “I don’t have other issues,” she stated, her tone matter-of-fact.

“You haven’t yet dealt with the affair that happened between your best friend and your husband,” Cochran clarified, “You continue to stuff those emotions down as well.”

“It wasn’t an affair,” Liz hissed, “How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Dr. Cochran flicked a glance at the tabloid newspaper lying on her desk. “That’s how they portray it in the media, Liz,” she remarked, “That must bother you somewhat.”

“For Maria’s sake,” Liz replied unconvincingly, “They make her seem like some kind of nympho-slut and she’s not like that…”

Dr. Cochran removed her glasses and casually wiped the lenses before replacing them. “And you don’t hold any sort of resentment towards her?” the therapist prodded carefully, “A part of you doesn’t feel that she’s a…how did you phrase it…a ‘nympho slut’?”

“Of course not!” Liz retorted, “She took care of my husband and my child when I was too wrapped up in my own pain to even care about their well-being.”

“You’re grateful to her?”

“Of course.”

“And it doesn’t bother you what-so-ever that, no matter how briefly, Maria usurped your role within your own family?”

Liz stared down at her hands again. “I told you that was my fault.”

“You haven’t felt secure since that time, have you, Liz?” Dr. Cochran deduced finally, “You’re afraid…afraid to lose your position, your standing with your family. You’re constantly trying to prove that you belong with them, that you deserve their love.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Liz snorted, but it was so close to the truth that her heart began to hammer painfully.

“Not even Maria’s marriage helped to put you at ease,” Dr. Cochran continued on patiently, “because you still can’t help thinking that if Maria could insinuate herself into their lives, specifically into Max’s life…then another could as well.”

Liz jumped to her feet, snatching up her purse as she did. “That’s enough,” she announced, her body shaking with emotion, “I’ve had enough this session.”

Dr. Cochran flicked a glance at her watch. “We have fifteen more minutes, Liz.”

“I have to go,” Liz told her, already backing up for the door, “Claudia has a half day at school…I need to pick her up…”

“You can’t skirt around this issue forever, Liz,” Dr. Cochran warned her gently, “We’ll have to talk about this some time.”

“Later,” Liz promised dishonestly, already beating a quick retreat out the door.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Oh, Isabel she’s so tiny…so beautiful…” Liz cooed as she carefully lifted her niece out of Isabel’s arms and glided over to the rocking chair at the foot of the hospital bed.

Isabel glowed with the happiness that was unique to new mothers only, her brown eyes sparkling and tired all at once. “Alex said she looks just like me,” she told Liz as she reclined back against her pillows. “I don’t see it.”

“No, Alex is right. She’s like a tiny Isabel.” Liz peeked under the small cap that covered the baby’s head. “Oh my god,” Liz whispered, “Look at all these soft blond curls…just gorgeous.” Liz stared down at her niece’s cherubic face, drinking in her pink, baby soft cheeks and her thick curly lashes. She reminded Liz of a tiny porcelain doll, an exact replica of her older brother A.J., only her hair was blond instead of dark brown. She too, like her brother, had her father’s crystal blue eyes. Liz’s heart ached just looking at her. Reluctantly, Liz lifted her eyes from the sleeping infant in her arms to her sister-in-law. “So what did you decide to name her?” Liz whispered softly.

Isabel’s grin was both happy and bittersweet. It was impossible to miss the pain Liz was in at that moment. But still Isabel struggled to keep her tone light when she said, “Alex and I compromised actually, if you can believe that. We decided to name her Elizabeth Justine Veronica Leigh Whitman.”

“That’s a big name for such a tiny baby,” Liz giggled, but she was touched that they had decided to name their baby after her.

Isabel laughed too. “We’re going to call her Ronnie for short,” she replied, “I think it fits.”

“Me too,” Liz murmured. The baby snuffled in her sleep then, drawing Liz’s gaze downward once more. “She’s like an angel,” Liz whispered reverently, “It’s a good thing Alex took Claud to the vending machines or she’d be all over Ronnie.”

“She probably wants a little brother or sister of her own,” Isabel observed quietly. Liz didn’t look up at her statement but Isabel could see her shoulders stiffen in response. “Maybe you should try talking to Max again.”

“No,” Liz protested sharply, pinning Isabel with an iron brown stare, “I don’t want to have to beg Max to have a baby with me.” At Liz elevated tone, the baby startled in her sleep and Liz took a few moments to coo soothing words of comfort to her. When she was done Liz realized that her tone with Isabel had been somewhat harsh and she sighed. “I’m sorry,” she apologized softly, “This hasn’t been the most auspicious day. My therapy session didn’t go well this morning.”

“What happened?”

“Dr. Cochran thinks I have issues,” Liz supplied with a degree of sarcasm, “You’d think I was a walking bag of nuts the way she talks.”

“This is because you don’t want to talk about the baby?” Isabel surmised cautiously.

“And other things, too.”

“Like?” Isabel prompted.

But when Liz opened her mouth to tell her Claudia came barreling in through the door with Alex trailing leisurely behind her. “Mommy, Mommy,” Claudia exclaimed happily as she ran to her mother, “Look what Uncle Al got for me!” She opened small hand to reveal a tiny packet of Wrigley’s spearmint gum. But then the gum was quickly forgotten when she laid eyes on her newest little cousin. Immediately, her questing hands began skimming over the infant’s face in wonder. “Wow, she’s so little,” Claudia announced loudly, “Was I ever this little, Mommy?”

“At one time you were, sweetheart,…just teeny, tiny…,” Liz replied with a loving smile, “but, Claudia, you want to use your inside voice, okay, because the baby’s sleeping.” Claudia nodded gravely, her honey colored eyes round as saucers. “Did you tell Uncle Al thank you for buying you the gum?”

Claudia gave a small gasp and swiveled to face her uncle, who was regarding her with a grin of amusement. “Thank you, Uncle Al,” Claudia said in a loud stage whisper.

“You’re welcome, munchkinette,” Alex whispered back in the same manner, chuckling a bit. “God, I love kids…only people in the world who will treat gum like it’s a bar of gold.” Alex went to sit over by his wife and gathered her against his side, while smiling at Liz warmly as she held his daughter. “She’s gorgeous, isn’t she?” Alex bragged in his proudest papa tone, “Just like her mother.” Alex and Isabel exchanged a soft stare.

Liz cleared her throat and stood up, suddenly feeling as if she was intruding. Suddenly finding herself painfully envious. “I guess I’d better go,” she whispered as she walked over to Alex and carefully deposited Ronnie into his waiting arms, “I can come and pick Isabel up tomorrow when they release her, Alex, if that’s okay?”

“I’d appreciate that,” Alex replied. But in truth he had barely glanced at her, his eyes only for his wife and daughter. Liz and Claudia crept quietly from the room.

Outside in the corridor Liz hastily brushed away the tears gathering in her eyes. She stood outside the door for a minute, her breath coming in painful gasps. Claudia stared up at her mother curiously. “Mommy, why you crying?” she asked innocently, tugging at the edge of Liz’s sweater, “Are you sad cuz Aunt Isabel had a baby?”

Liz felt her heart melt at her daughter’s concerned tone and she stooped low to frame Claudia’s small face in her hands. “No, sweetie, I’m not sad,” Liz reassured her, despite the fresh tears gathering in her eyes, “Sometimes it’s just hard for Mommy to be around babies…sometimes it makes her sad.”

“But why?” Claudia asked, on the verge of tears herself. Like any small child, seeing her parent in pain caused her pain. “Don’tcha like babies?”

Liz nodded and smiled through her tears. “Maybe too much,” she whispered.

Claudia surprised her by bobbing her head with childish understanding. “Cause you want to have a baby and you can’t?”

“Yes,” Liz admitted hoarsely, “I would like to have a baby…but I can’t right now.”

Unexpectedly, her words caused her daughter to dissolve into tears. Claudia threw her arms about Liz’s neck, her small shoulders shaking with sobs. “I don’t want you to have another baby, Mommy,” Claudia wept, clinging to Liz as if she believed her mother would disappear at any moment, “I don’t want you to go away again…Mommy, please don’t go away again…”

Liz pulled back slightly so she could see Claudia’s distressed face, wiping away the tears that wet her plump cheeks. “Baby, I’m not gonna go away,” Liz whispered, “Why would you think that?”

“When you had Jeff…” Claudia admitted in a small, tearful voice, “…you went away…for long, long time…I didn’t think you were gonna come back… Daddy was sad all the time and I had to stay with Aunt Isabel and Uncle Al…”

Liz closed her eyes against her daughters words, her throat aching with unshed tears. “But Claud, your dad and I explained that to you, remember?” Liz reminded gently, “I was sick, very, very sick and that’s why I had to go away.” Liz caressed Claudia’s bangs back from her forehead and pressed a small kiss there. “You know that, don’t you, sweetheart?”

Always desperate to please her mother, Claudia smiled and nodded, but her eyes, those expressive eyes of hers, remained haunted with fear.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 2:26:06 PM
Chapter 5

“These are for you,” Max announced to his sister, laying a bouquet of red roses on the table next to Isabel’s hospital bed. “And this,” he added, producing a small, stuffed blue bear from behind his back and wiggling it before his nursing niece, “is for you.” He touched the bear’s nose to the baby’s cheek playfully before finally pressing a kiss to his sister’s forehead. “You look good, Is,” he said, pulling up the chair next to her bed and sitting down, “Where’s Alex?”

“He had to take care of some business at the office,” Isabel replied, readjusting her gown, “He’ll be back later tonight.” She smiled a little; realizing that her brother didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed at the thought of her breastfeeding her daughter. Though he didn’t stare, he didn’t blush either.

Reading the look on her face, Max rolled his eyes playfully. “Come on, Is. First Liz, then Maria, and now you…the idea of breastfeeding has long ago lost its shock value, honestly.”

“I can’t believe it,” Isabel laughed, reaching forward to ruffle his hair, “Seems like my brother is finally growing up.”

Max shoved her away with a good-natured smile. “Can you stop teasing me long enough to let me hold my niece?” He didn’t wait for an invitation but carefully lifted the sated infant from her mother’s arms. Ronnie barely made a fuss as her uncle settled her into his arms. She stared up at him expectantly with intense blue eyes. “It’s hard to believe she was nine pounds plus,” Max remarked softly, trailing his finger down the baby’s downy cheek, “She seems like such an itty, bitty thing.”

“Well, she didn’t feel so itty, bitty when I was pushing her out,” Isabel countered mockingly.

Max paused in cooing to his niece and grimaced at the mental image that suddenly fluttered through his head. “I didn’t need to know that, Isabel.” He returned his attention to the newborn cradled in his arms; his expression tinged with longing as he lightly fingered her golden curls.

“You could have one yourself if you’d stop being so stubborn,” Isabel whispered pointedly, watching as her brother carefully caressed her daughter’s delicate scalp.

At Isabel’s words Max went instantly stiff. He didn’t take his eyes off his niece but a visible tension settled over his body, alerting Isabel that she had, indeed, struck a nerve. There were several seconds of tense silence before he finally spoke. “I have to give you credit,” Max finally bit out tightly, “You lasted a whole ten minutes before you started in on me.”

“Liz was just here a while ago,” Isabel explained softly. Max remained unmoved. He refused to even look at her. Isabel sighed in disgust. “Max, it killed me to look at her holding Ronnie. She just looked so…so lost. Why can’t you just let up and try to have a baby like she wants? Is that so much to ask?”

Max glared at her then, his amber eyes hard as marble. He was angry not only for the intrusion into his personal life, but for Isabel’s presumptuousness. Her assumption that she actually knew better than he what was best for his wife. “Yes, Isabel,” he replied, his lips barely moving as he spoke, “Yes, it’s too much to ask. I really wish that you would stop doing this!”

“Doing what?”

“Meddling, Isabel,” Max clarified with a tired sigh, his anger abruptly draining and leaving only his frustration, “You’re meddling and you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

Isabel wasn’t cowed by his caustic tone; in fact she returned his indignance with equal measure. “I don’t know what’s going on?” she scoffed, “I’d have to be blind not to see it, Max! Liz’s suicide attempt was nearly a year and a half ago. She’s better now! Everyone can see that but you! You…you just want to control everything and--,”

Max actually guffawed at the statement. “I want to control everything?” he exclaimed incredulously, “I want to control everything? Isabel, if I were the one in control Liz would be having therapy sessions five times a week as opposed to just two. She definitely would still be taking the Prozac!” He stood up then and walked over to the bassinet on the other side of the bed, gently placing the baby inside. When he was done he turned to face his sister, his shoulders hunched in defeat, “Believe me, Isabel, someone’s in control here…but it’s not me…”

“You’re the one refusing to have a baby,” Isabel pointed out softly.

“And that’s all I’ve got.” Max’s sigh was weary and sad all at once.

Faced with the evidence of his hopeless misery Isabel had to avert her gaze. Looking at him was just too painful at that moment, even more painful than it had been watching Liz hold her tiny daughter earlier. “Are you trying to punish Liz, Max?” she pressed quietly.

A small sob tore from Max’s throat, but he blinked back the tears stinging his eyes. “I don’t want to punish her, Is,” he whispered painfully, “I just want her to be whole again…and she’s not. She’s not.”

“But Max,” Isabel argued, “she seems so much better…much, much better.”

“I’m not saying she hasn’t made progress,” Max agreed, “But Liz still has a long way to go. She still buries her emotions, Isabel. After nearly ten years together she still can’t tell me what’s really in her heart.”

“Max, what are you saying?” Isabel laughed lightly, “Liz tells you everything.”

How Max wished that were true. But he knew better. He had learned long ago that Liz did not tell him everything. She never had. She masked her feelings, had been masking them almost as long as they had been together. It had started with her insecure feelings regarding Tess and all that destiny crap. Liz had been unsure of her place in his life and she’d responded to her fear and pain by pushing him away. Max had been hurt and angered by her actions and had responded in some knee jerk reaction to hurt her, taking up with Tess almost immediately after their break-up. He had done it to cause her pain, but all he had done was increase her fears and hinder their relationship. Nothing between them had been completely right since.

They had reconciled finally after some misunderstandings and pain, but from that point onward Liz had viewed Tess as a threat. Max hadn’t realized that at the time. Liz had been so eager to move on with her life, their life together, that he’d never considered that she gave Tess even a passing thought. They had moved to California soon after graduation to attend school there. After a few months of living in the dorms Max had convinced Liz to share an apartment with him. They had been so happy and in love that Max had never suspected that the shadow of Tess continued to loom over his relationship.

Liz had never said a word, not once in all that time. If only she had told him the truth back then, if only she had shared her true and honest feelings with him maybe they wouldn’t have had such a hard time dealing with their present problems. But Liz had never learned to talk to him…or maybe he had never learned to listen. Whatever the case Liz had harbored her anxiety about Tess. She had let it fester until it finally drove her into a jealous fury and she cheated on him.

Even almost six years after the fact the memory still stung Max. He had thought back then that he would hate her forever. But he didn’t. Somehow Liz Parker had made him fall in love with her all over again. Max couldn’t shut her out of his heart no matter how hard he tried. But that wasn’t true for Liz. Shutting him out had become almost a defense mechanism for her. She did it now without realizing she did, with unconscious grace even.

Just as she had harbored her resentful feelings concerning Tess following their first breakup back in high school Max knew that Liz harbored resentful feelings about him and Maria as well. She swore she didn’t. She swore that she was over it and she didn’t hold either of them accountable. She was fine. That was her mantra. But recently Max had seen anger flashing in her expressive brown eyes when she would occasionally find him and Maria off somewhere alone together, the slight sneer that would come to her lips when she thought they weren’t watching.

Only six months before Max and Maria had collaborated together to throw Liz a surprise birthday party. They had hidden their true intentions under the guise that Max was lending Maria his professional help. Liz had walked around in a funk during most of that time. She’d been horribly snippy to them both whenever Maria would come over to “work.” The actual day of her birthday Liz had been downright surly and her mood didn’t improve until the reason for Max and Maria’s private meetings had been revealed. It was only after the party that it finally dawned on Max what had made Liz so edgy.

She had been uncomfortable with the time he’d spent with Maria. He had never considered it at first. Following Michael’s return and the emotional turmoil it had caused for Maria, Liz had been extremely supportive of Max’s friendship with her. In fact, she had been the one to encourage him to stand by Maria in the first place. It had never entered his mind that Liz might have had second thoughts about doing that…not until after her birthday party.

Naturally, he had confronted her then. Max had asked her point blank if she had a problem with his friendship with Maria. Of course, she had told him no and he had expected the response, but this time he knew she was lying. He hadn’t asked her again, but her denial had proven one thing to him irrefutably. Liz was still hiding herself from him. She was still keeping her feelings cloistered away.

That’s when Max realized that their problems were so much bigger than the baby’s death and Liz’s inability to talk about it. Apparently, Liz couldn’t talk to him about anything at all. It was as if she were afraid to share her true feelings with him, as if she expected some horrible consequence if she did…

But her silence was undermining their marriage, weakening Max’s confidence in her love for him. How much could she love him if she couldn’t even talk to him? Max had hoped that the therapy sessions with Molly Cochran would help Liz to open up a little and they had helped on some level. But on the major issues Liz remained uncooperative. Max couldn’t think of having another baby, not when he and Liz had so many other issues to sort through first.

Presently, Max leveled his sister with a tired glance, sighing heavily. “It’s not that I don’t want to have another baby with Liz, Isabel,” Max explained wearily, “I really do want that…more than you’ll know, but Liz isn’t ready. Neither am I.”

Isabel scrutinized her brother for a moment. “You’re still not over it, are you, not even after all this time?”

“She could have died,” Max replied woodenly, turning his back to her and staring out the hospital window overlooking the downtown streets below.

“But she didn’t die, Max,” Isabel argued softly.

“She came damned close and I…I can’t ever forget that, Isabel.”

“Are you still angry about it?”

“I’m furious,” Max declared quietly without missing a beat, “But mostly at myself…because I didn’t see it.”

And why didn’t he see it, Max silently charged himself. That was his career after all, what he had studied for, what he did everyday. He should have known that Liz’s depression stemmed from more than just grief, he should have seen the signs… But he had been so wrapped up in his own pain, too busy resenting her and she had almost died because of it. Max was determined that he wouldn’t let that happen again.

“Then tell Liz that. Tell her you’re furious and why,” Isabel advised, “Get angry…yell, rant…but work through this thing, Max. Don’t let it fester between you any longer.”

Isabel was offering him sound advice. Max knew it. But he knew just as certainly that he wouldn’t take it. God knew he wanted to rant, he wanted to yell, wanted to tell Liz exactly what hell she had put him through, what hell he was still enduring. But he couldn’t. The idea of doing so was nearly paralyzing. Because what if he gave into his anger and he lost Liz again…this time forever?

That was Max’s greatest fear, that Liz would once again retreat into that dark place she’d gone to after the baby died and this time she wouldn’t come back. He lived in daily fear of it. Max couldn’t even sleep at night for the fear of it. He couldn’t afford to miss the signs, couldn’t afford to say or do anything that might trigger another breakdown. That was the very reason Max found himself analyzing every word that came out of Liz’s mouth, the very reason he exerted such Herculean effort to hold his temper in check, the very reason he tiptoed around her emotionally… No, he couldn’t lose her again…if he did he’d die this time.

He touched the cool glass of the window, keeping his back to his sister when he said, “Don’t worry about us, Is, we’ll work it out. We always do.”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 2:27:10 PM
Chapter 6

Liz stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She hardly recognized the face staring back at her. Her features hadn’t changed any; they were still as unlined as they had been when she was seventeen. She still had the same brown hair, the same light dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the same wide, doe brown eyes. But as Liz peered closer into the mirror she recognized that her eyes weren’t the same at all. That haunted far off look had come to them once more. She had been thinking about Jeff again…

To even admit that much to herself rocked Liz to her very core. It was a milestone really. Just mentally evoking his name caused an abyss of gut wrenching pain to yawn wide within Liz’s heart. She gripped the edge of the sink tightly, her knuckles whitening with the pressure she applied to the cool porcelain. But not even the deep, calming breaths and rapid blinking could stop the tears from forming in her eyes and slipping down her cheeks. Liz actually vibrated with the emotion quaking through her body. I’m not going to do this, she told herself firmly, I refuse to do this. Her emotions were already betraying her, however, she was powerless to dam them now.

One year, four months, sixteen days and countless hours later she could still remember that day with stinging clarity. Liz could remember the exact smell of the morning, sweet and vibrant. The sky had been ridiculously blue, cloudless. An absolutely fabulous day for a check-up, an absolutely fabulous day for life. Liz had been eager to hear her baby’s whirring heartbeat once again and she looked forward to her appointment with the eagerness of a child anticipating Christmas.

Isabel had accompanied Liz to her doctor’s appointment that day. Max had been bogged down in sessions, though he had tried valiantly to get out of them, and was unable to accompany her. He hadn’t wanted Liz to go to her appointment alone. Until that day he had been to each and every one. Max had believed that Isabel would make an acceptable stand-in for him although Liz had been adamantly against what she saw as Isabel “babysitting” her. Max had nagged Liz nearly to the point of frustration until she had finally relented and agreed to take Isabel along.

That morning had started out so perfectly between her and Max. They had exchanged syrupy, spicy kisses over pancakes and bacon while alternately making funny faces at their daughter across the breakfast table. The memories crystallized in Liz’s mind, rolling back the clock for her. She was once again in the kitchen that day, laughing as Max made a fool of himself for Claudia’s amusement.

Liz smiled at the memory, but then it faded with the recollection of the events that followed. It was actually quite ironic how things could go so very wrong so very fast. Liz refused to think about the rest of the day, refused to think about waking up in the hospital to find Maria crying over her. Liz had numbed herself to the memory as well as the thousand others that followed it. That time for her was like a dream now, hazy and surreal, almost a vague memory. She had no recollection of her son’s funeral at all, except for those brief moments near his gravesite. How she had fought the overwhelming desire to jump into that ditch with him, to wail and scream at those who were putting her baby alone in the dark. She had never forgiven herself for leaving him there. She had never forgiven herself for a lot of things…

Despite all the many reassurances she’d been given, from Max, from Maria and Isabel, even her therapist, Liz knew the truth. She knew she was the responsible one. It was because of her stupidity that she and Max had lost their son. It had to have been something she’d done or something she didn’t do…she had to be the blame somehow. Her family and friends wanted her to believe that God had wanted her baby in heaven…

Liz scoffed a tearful little laugh. She didn’t believe for a moment that God had taken her son. What could God possibly want with her baby? Did he really need another angel in heaven when he already had thousands? Why would he bless her with a baby in the first place if he only planned to snatch him away in the end unless…? Unless she was being punished, unless she had done something horrible to deserve losing her son… Liz’s body began to quake all the more.

When her deep breathing didn’t seem to help Liz get a handle on her emotions, she flicked on the tap water and splashed her face with cold water. She lifted her gaze to the mirror once more. Her troubled expression remained, her eyes hollow and fathomless. What the hell had gone wrong, Liz silently screamed to herself. She had been handling it all so well, she had been so controlled, but then her carefully constructed emotional façade had toppled all in an afternoon. Because of what Claudia had said.

Liz quirked her lips in an ironic smile. It seemed that even her five-year-old daughter was against the idea of her mother having another child. Everyone had an opinion it seemed. Liz supposed she just couldn’t catch a break. Maybe she didn’t deserve one. But even as her bitter thoughts meandered through Liz’s brain she felt guilty about them. She couldn’t fault Claudia. Her daughter had been traumatized following her mother’s breakdown. Though she smiled and danced and carried on in her usual Claudia like fashion Liz saw past the surface joy to the fear. Claudia lived in constant terror that her mother would leave her again.

The months following Liz’s return Claudia had been especially clingy, more so than usual. She would follow Liz wherever she went. That alone wasn’t strange because children did that regardless, but for Claudia it had taken on an entirely new level. She wouldn’t just follow Liz around, but she would watch every move her mother made. Like even now, Liz knew without opening the bathroom door, that instead of being asleep in her own bed Claudia was currently propped outside the bathroom door. But there had been silence outside for so long that Liz was certain her daughter must have fallen asleep there.

To be sure, Liz crept over to the door and cracked it slightly. Sure enough, Claudia was outside asleep, her small body spread across the threshold blocking the entrance. Liz bit her lip, smiling tenderly at the way Claudia had her small hands tucked beneath her cheek, the small wispy breaths she took as she slept. She opened the door with a sigh and bent down to scoop her daughter into her arms. Liz briefly considered the wisdom of taking Claudia back to her own bed, but realized that Claudia would just find her way back to their bedroom once again.

But once she’d had laid her daughter down against the bed Liz found that she couldn’t leave her. Liz bent down to smooth Claudia’s wavy brown hair away from her temple. And then because she could resist she stretched out along side her little girl, spooning her body behind Claudia’s. With the sweet, clean scent of her daughter’s hair tickling her nostrils, Liz fell asleep.

It seemed that she had only closed her eyes for a few moments when she suddenly felt the sensation of someone tenderly stroking her hair. Liz’s lids fluttered open to discover Max bent low over her, watching his two girls with loving reverence, a wistful smile ghosting his lips. “I wasn’t trying to wake you,” he whispered gently, his fingers threading lightly through her hair, “The two of you looked like angels sleeping here.”

Liz smiled and nuzzled against his palm, stretching her body languorously. “Somehow I think you might be biased in that area,” she teased as she pushed herself upright, “What time is it?” Before he could answer she had already flicked a glance at the digital clock beside the bed. It was well after six. Liz regarded Max with slightly raised brows. “You’re running pretty late tonight, aren’t you?”

“I stopped by the hospital to visit with Isabel before I came home,” Max answered vaguely, “You mind if I take Claudia back to her room? There are some things I’d like to discuss with you in private.”

Something about the expression on his face filled Liz with a nameless dread and she suspected that it had something to do with his visit to the hospital. Liz could only guess at what Isabel had said to him, but knowing Isabel she had probably spoken her mind no holds barred. That only meant one thing. Max wanted to discuss her desire to have another baby.

Liz knew the conversation wasn’t going to steer in her favor already and it was her first instinct to stave him off. But then she looked into his earnest gaze and the words stuck in her throat. He seemed so intent on talking that Liz bobbed her head in agreement despite the awful churning that had begun in her stomach. She sighed heavily as she watched him carry Claudia off for her bedroom and quickly composed her emotions in his absence. Liz had just finished smoothing down her hair when he returned.

Max eased down on the bed, not sure where he should begin and deciding to just simply plunge right in. “For the last six months you and I have been arguing back and forth about whether or not we should have another baby,” Max began hesitantly, “It has led to some major disagreements between us lately and I don’t like that. I don’t like fighting with you, Liz and…and I think we should put an end to it…right here and now.”

Liz didn’t address what he was saying right away. To conceal the tears suddenly springing to her eyes, Liz stared down at her hands as she did whenever she was flustered. “I guess I’m just trying to understand where all this is coming from,” she murmured quietly, but truthfully she had her suspicions. “I thought we were fine about all this, Max.”

Stroking her jaw with his index finger Max chucked her beneath her chin and then lifted her glistening gaze to his. “I had a rather insightful talk with Isabel at the hospital today,” Max informed her, his manner telling her that he hadn’t been too pleased with the discoveries he’d made during his discussion with his sister. “I guess you’ve been talking to her about wanting to have another baby, too…not just Maria like you had told me,” he surmised after a long, silent scrutiny.

Liz dropped her gaze but she didn’t deny the truthfulness of his assumption. “I just needed someone to talk to, I guess,” she mumbled, shrugging away from his touch, “It wasn’t like I was intentionally lying to you.” She wrapped her arms about her middle and offered him a wary, sideways glance. He didn’t seem furious so much as he appeared stiffly determined.

“But you never once mentioned you were discussing our personal problems with my sister,” Max pointed out sharply, “Not everything that happens between us is up for public discussion, Liz.”

“They’re my friends, Max!” Liz cried out in defense of herself, “I was just sounding off.”

“No, you were just forming allies, Liz,” Max contradicted succinctly, “You knew they would jump me about this baby issue at the first opportunity. You were probably half hoping they could browbeat me into acquiesce.”

Liz was aghast at his suggestion. “I didn’t--,” she protested weakly.

“Liz, don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not lying,” she continued to insist, but his eyes were boring into her in that penetrating way of his and she knew she wasn’t convincing him of anything. Liz could feel another argument coming on. “Did you wake me up just to fight?” Liz asked him crossly, an annoyed frown creasing her forehead.

Max sighed. “I was hoping to clear the air between us, Liz,” he said tiredly, “maybe even talk about your feelings a little.”

“I talk about my feelings in therapy, Max,” Liz all but spat. She knew she was getting on the defensive, knew that she was being needlessly harsh with him, but after the emotional day she’d endured Liz didn’t think she could take Max hammering away at her, too. “I’m not going to sit through another evening of you trying to analyze me to death,” Liz snapped, “You don’t want to have another baby…I get that!”

“Do you, Liz,” Max countered quietly, “Do you really understand or are you just reacting in anger right now?”

His emotionless questioning was too much for Liz’s battered emotions at the moment. Liz glared at him and flung herself from the bed. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she ground out, stalking off towards the bathroom. She closed the door behind her with a loud snap, her breath heaving through her lungs in enraged pants. God, she hated when he did that! It drove her crazy when he got all clinical and detached with her, treating as he would a patient and not a wife. In afterthought she rushed over and twisted the lock just for spite. A lot of good it would do in the long run. Her husband was an alien after all. If he wanted to get into the bathroom a locked door definitely wouldn’t stop him.

However, locking him out filled Liz with some amount of satisfaction and she could feel her fury start to cool somewhat. As her anger slowly drained away Liz was left only with her acute feelings of bitterness. Liz realized that she wasn’t so angry with Max as she was with herself. What had she expected…that he would suddenly change his mind about having a baby and give her the go ahead to stop taking the pill? Liz knew Max better than that. Once he’d made up his mind about something there was usually no budging him. He wouldn’t have another baby with her until he thought she was ready and clearly he didn’t think that.

Liz yanked open the medicine cabinet with a disgusted grunt and snatched up the plastic disk that housed her birth control pills. She stared down at the pink case in her palm, hating what they represented. They were a hindrance, a barrier blocking her way to happiness. But mostly, in that second, she hated Max for imposing them upon her.

Yet as quickly as the emotion flashed Liz squelched it. She knew better. Max wasn’t seeking to punish her. If anything he made her happiness paramount above all else. Liz believed that with everything in her soul. If he didn’t want to have another baby then she just had to trust that he knew best…didn’t she?

Liz stared at the disk a moment more before finally flipping open the lid. With jerky movements she extracted one small pill from the foil package only to have it slip from her agitated fingers and fall into the toilet. She made a futile, halfhearted grab for it but the pill fell anyway.

Liz went absolutely still, her breath suspended in her chest as she watched the pill slide to a stop at the bottom of the bowl. She contemplated that fallen pill for a long time. Was God trying to tell her something, was it Fate? After all, what would happen if she just simply stopped taking them? It wasn’t as if she and Max had been burning up the sheets in the last eight months. The times they had made love had been extremely sporadic lately, especially with Claudia sharing their bed. If they made love the chances were highly improbable that Liz would get pregnant anyway.

And what if she did? Could Max really hold a grudge against her for long, knowing that she was carrying their child? He wouldn’t stay angry. Eventually, he would find a way to forgive her, if not for the sake of their love then definitely for the sake of their unborn child, for the sake of Claudia. Liz knew that she could ride out his anger if it came to that. She had done so before. And eventually he would see the truth; he would understand that she had done it for love, for the chance of having a part of him grow inside her body once again.

Almost without thought Liz began dumping the remainder of her birth control pills into the toilet. They fell into the water with small plops, hardly making any sound at all. Once they were all gone Liz reached forward and flushed them down the drain quickly before she lost her nerve and changed her mind. As they disappeared Liz realized that now there was no turning back. She swallowed several times past the dry lump that had formed in her throat, her body trembling slightly.

Just then the clicking sound of the unlocking door filled the bathroom. Liz hastily chucked the empty container in the trash and whirled towards the door to face Max as he crept inside, hoping her expression didn’t portray her guilt. He had since stripped off his suit and tie from earlier and was now clad in only his dark, blue pajama bottoms. Liz peered at him warily through the canopy of her thick lashes.

“I acted like an ass before,” Max whispered contritely, coming more fully into the bathroom, “That isn’t exactly the way I envisioned our conversation progressing.”

“How did you envision it?” Liz asked hoarsely. She tried not to fidget, but she had a hard time meeting his gaze just the same.

Max advanced on her, his movements careful, tentative. “I wanted to explain to you,” he pleaded softly, “I do want to have a baby with you, Liz…just not right now.” They were inches apart now. Max lifted his hands to cradle her face gently. “I just got you back, baby and I don’t want to share you…not yet…”

“Max--,”

“I love you so much, Liz,” he groaned, brushing his lips across hers, coaxing her to return his questing kiss, “I don’t want to hurt you,” he continued in the same soft tone as he nibbled along her jaw line, massaged her tender scalp with the pads of his fingers, “I just want to get back what we had before…”

“Me, too,” Liz murmured, closing her eyes against his tender assault. Her fingers bit into his wrists. She held onto him like an anchor, feeling herself begin to drift in the sensual haze he was creating around her.

“Let me make love to you, Liz,” Max enticed, his fingers already playing at the silk covered buttons of her blouse, “Let me show you how much I love you…”

“Max--,” Liz tried to protest again, her guilt rising in her chest once more, but he covered her mouth over with his own.

“Don’t say no,” he insisted, sinking towards the floor and tugging on her arm to bring her down with him, “Please don’t say no.”

In the face of his humble pleading Liz felt the last of her resistance crumble. And he had said that he wanted to have a baby… With a small sigh Liz finally gave up the fight and let him pull her down beside him.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:24:17 PM
Chapter 7

Four days later the guilt was eating Liz alive.

What had seemed like a good idea at the time was beginning to feel like the stupidest decision she’d ever made in her life. It didn’t help matters that Max was being so incredibly sweet to her. He was trying so hard, as if he meant to take the sting out of his refusal to try for another baby. The past few days he’d served her breakfast in bed, given her unsolicited backrubs and made love to her like it was the last time he ever would. And with each sweet, little deed, each heated session of lovemaking between them Liz felt her guilt expand to epic proportions.

She felt so torn. She didn’t want to deceive Max any further, but at the same time she didn’t want to relinquish the tender feeling that had sprung up between them in the last few days. For the first time in months things felt normal between her and Max. He was laughing again, teasing her as he always had. No longer was he treating her like some fragile little waif, but like his equal, like the woman he’d fallen in love with so many years before. Liz finally felt like she had her husband back. And in bed, goodness, in bed the sex was absolutely amazing, completely mind blowing, filled with an intensity they hadn’t shared between them since their teenage years.

But it was all a sham. Liz was lying to him, betraying his trust. Every time he touched her, every time he made love to her Liz felt like cringing, felt like dying. She couldn’t completely enjoy the gentle warmth of his embrace not with such huge dishonesty between them. Dishonesty she had put there, Liz forcibly reminded herself. Finally, when the guilt was nearly crushing her Liz gave into the cries of her conscience and called the doctor, requesting another prescription for birth control pills. Next she put in a call to Molly Cochran and scheduled an impromptu session.

Her stomach had been churning with nerves when Liz kissed Max and Claudia good-bye that morning. She had barely been able to sit still while waiting for them to leave the house. Breakfast had been horrendous with both Max and Claudia giggling carelessly while Liz had to force her own smiles. Liz was grateful that Max had taken Claudia to school that morning because that way she would have little chance of bumping into him at the office when she went to visit her therapist.

Liz’s palms were sweating as she made the drive over to Dr. Cochran’s office. She really didn’t have any idea what she was going to say, but Liz realized that sometime in the last few days she had reached rock bottom. She was lying, actually lying to Max. In all the time they had been together Liz had never outright lied to him. It was then that she understood just how truly screwed up her existence had become. Liz could no longer deceive herself into believing that she had the situation under control. She was betraying her husband’s trust and he certainly didn’t deserve it. The situation was getting quickly out of hand. Liz knew that if she didn’t do something soon she would very well destroy her family.

That was the very thought reverberating in her brain as she strode purposefully into Dr. Cochran’s office that morning. In the small waiting room only a few patients lingered. Her wait wouldn’t be unnecessarily long still Liz tapped her foot impatiently as she sat anticipating her turn. She made a feeble attempt to flip through one of the women’s magazines lying about the office table but she couldn’t concentrate on the words.

She had screwed up so big and she knew it. The sick feeling in Liz’s belly increased with the silent confession. Her actions were nearly as bad as the time she’d slept with Cameron Brenner. She had reacted out of hurt then, too, without knowing all the facts. God, she had almost destroyed Max back then. Even nearly six years later Liz could still remember the devastated expression on his face that day. Just that moment of looking at him, witnessing first hand the agony she had caused him shattered Liz completely and now here she was doing the same thing all over again.

No, Liz silently amended; this wasn’t the same thing at all. This time, this transgression was infinitely worse than the Cameron Brenner fiasco. Liz had instantly regretted her impulsive actions and she had never had any contact with Cameron following those disastrous events. Even after Max had left her for the summer to go traveling with Tess and Michael not once had Liz even considered calling Cameron to soothe her bruised ego. But this time was completely different. Max had humbled himself, had come to her with his true feelings and despite that fact Liz had continued to deceive to him. She had continued to sleep with him over and over knowing fully that they weren’t protected. She had done it deliberately. And now she felt like hell.

It wasn’t worth it, Liz recognized now. No matter how badly she wanted to have a baby it wasn’t worth the effort if she had to trick Max into doing it. And Liz didn’t want to trick him. She shouldn’t have to. Maybe Max had been right after all. Maybe she really wasn’t ready to have another baby. Judging from her actions the last few days Liz could readily believe that.

When the receptionist finally called her name Liz jumped, jarred from her self-deprecating thoughts. She hurried towards Dr. Cochran’s office, eager to unburden her conscience. Maybe once Liz admitted her wrongdoing aloud her conscience would cease to torture her. As soon as she walked into the office Molly Cochran swiveled around in her chair and regarded Liz with her speculative gaze. She was careful to keep the pleased surprise off her face as Liz took a seat on the sofa.

“It’s good to see you this morning, Liz,” Dr. Cochran began formally, “I was quite surprised by your call.”

“Are you going to be smug about it?” Liz bit out before she could stop herself. She realized that she was being unnecessarily snippy with Dr. Cochran, but her own guilt was making her irritable.

Dr. Cochran took the insult smoothly. “I apologize if I seem smug,” she said, “It’s only that I have been extremely concerned about you since our last session.”

Liz hung her head, regretful for her rudeness. “No, I’m the one who should apologize,” she sighed, “I’m not having such a good morning, not a good week actually.” She threw her purse down on the sofa in self-disgust.

“Would that have something to do with our last session?” Dr. Cochran inquired.

“Yes, you said you think I have ‘issues’,” Liz provided, coining her therapist’s particular phrase, “But the thing is…lately…I’ve started thinking that you might be right…about that.”

This time Dr. Cochran couldn’t hide her surprise. Her brows shot up to her hairline in shock, but she didn’t utter a word. After six months of therapy Liz Evans finally seemed willing to open up and Dr. Cochran didn’t want to say or do anything that might hinder her sudden progress.

Liz sighed, suddenly self-conscious under her therapist’s intense scrutiny. “Aren’t you even going to ask me what sparked my sudden epiphany?”

“It had crossed my mind.”

At that point Liz dropped her haughty façade, her stoic facial expression crumbling into acute misery. “I’ve really messed up, Molly,” she sobbed, finally breaking down completely. She twisted her hands together in her lap. “You see I have this thing I do…when I’m upset I don’t talk about it…I just keep it inside…because, you see, I don’t like to make waves. But the thing is the problem never goes away. It just gets bigger and bigger inside of me until it finally explodes and I do something horribly stupid.”

“Are you speaking about your suicide attempt, Liz?”

Liz had never considered that before. She had been in such pain during those months prior to her suicide attempt, yet she had rebuffed each and every one of Max’s attempts to talk. But the pain had been so great then. She’d barely had the energy to rouse herself from the bed and shower, much less talk in depth about her feelings. Suicide had just seemed like a preferable alternative to a daily existence of hurt. When Liz thought of what she would have left behind had she been successful she realized that her actions did fall in the category of “horribly stupid.” “That’s just one instance,” Liz half laughed, half cried, “I’ve got a whole string of other times, believe me.”

“What exactly is troubling you, Liz?”

Instead of answering her question directly, Liz addressed something that had occurred to her in the last few days. She had been racking her brain for the reason why she would ever stoop to deceiving Max in the manner that she had and then she had finally figured it out in the small hours of the morning. She had wanted to punish him. All this time she had been fearful that Max was harboring some sort of resentment towards her when she had been harboring her own. “Did you know that I never even got to hold my baby…that I never even saw him?” Liz asked suddenly, “I was supposed to say good-bye to him forever and I didn’t even know what he looked like.” Bitter laughter bubbled forth from her lips. She averted her gaze, staring out the large office window, which overlooked a man made pond below. But she didn’t cry. Those tears had dried up months ago.

Molly Cochran went perfectly still. After six months of extensive therapy Elizabeth Evans had finally opened up a conversation about her dead son without being prompted. Apparently, the depth of her anger, as indicated by her embittered tone, was even greater than Molly had imagined and they had finally, finally tapped into that. Dr. Cochran almost had the urge to jump up from her desk and do a little jig. This is what she had been waiting for all this time. Though she was concerned about what exactly had prompted this sudden baring of Liz’s soul she couldn’t at all be displeased with the results. It seemed that Liz Evans might very well be on the road to recovery, after all.

Dr. Cochran tapped her fountain pen against her desk. “What made you mention Jeff to me just now, Liz?” she asked her patient softly.

Liz slumped down against the sofa, picking at the imaginary lent on the legs of her sweats. “I think I’ve just finally figured out what’s had me pissed off all these months…for the last year really…” Now that she was finally allowing the reality of her feelings to permeate the icy wall surrounded her heart Liz felt tired and emotionally raw. The pain was slowly starting to sink in and it hurt like a mutha.

“Because you never had the opportunity to hold your son?”

Liz responded with a jerky nod. “They do that, you know,” she whispered in a low, far off voice, “The hospitals will let you hold your baby and take pictures and everything before they finally…uh…take them away…”

“But you chose otherwise?” Dr. Cochran prompted.

“I didn’t choose anything!” Liz fired angrily, stabbing her therapist with a glare, “Max thought that holding Jeff when he…when he was gone would be too much of an emotional strain for me.” She wiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks. “They had already taken him down to the morgue by the time I woke up.”

There it was. Plain and simple. Max had taken the decision out of her hands. He had done it because he loved her, to spare her pain, but he had inadvertently caused her more. And that was the problem. She and Max were always so preoccupied with protecting each other from hurt that they never communicated and it was killing their marriage. It was killing Liz. She just wished that they could move past all the surface crap and just talk to each other, really talk.

“Does that make you angry,” Dr. Cochran asked Liz, finally getting the full picture, “Do you resent Max’s interference, his attempts to protect you?”

“But I didn’t need protecting!” Liz cried out tearfully, “Not from my own baby. I wanted to see him…God, I just wanted to touch his hands…his little tiny hands… I needed to make peace with his death in my own way…and that was taken away from me.” Voicing the words aloud was like a dose of clarity for Liz. Max had taken away her decision in how she said good-bye to their son…so she had taken away his when it came to choosing when they would have another baby. And now she regretted her impulsive decision with all her heart.

Dr. Cochran gave Liz a moment while she fell apart on the sofa, her shoulders shaking with the bitterness and anger she had shut away for over a year. When Liz was somewhat calmer Molly moved from her desk and passed Liz a tissue. “Have you ever tried talking these feelings over with Max, Liz,” Molly prodded, “I think you’ve hindered your therapy considerably by your unwillingness to share what’s going on inside you.”

“But I have been willing,” Liz sniffled in argument, “I did try to talk to Max about it once. I asked him if Jeff had looked like me or like him and…he said…he said he didn’t think I was strong enough to hear the answer.” Liz snorted bitterly. “Not strong enough! God!”

Molly inclined her head in a speculative nod, an idea occurring to her. She had never once considered that Liz might not be the only one to need therapy in dealing with her son’s death. Perhaps a couple’s session was also in order… Dr. Cochran paused a moment to word her next question as carefully as she could. “Liz, do you resent Max?”

Liz blinked, clearly taken aback by the question. Did she resent her husband? Liz hadn’t ever really considered the question closely until a couple of nights ago. There were times when she could believe that she hated him, times when she wanted to strangle him, but resenting him, his presence…she didn’t know. It was a long time before she looked up at Molly again, but when she did her brown eyes were clouded with uncertainty. “I don’t know if I resent him really,” Liz began tentatively, “But I hate the way he treats me sometimes…almost like I’m a child or something. It’s like he’s always trying to make decisions for me and it always just gets beyond screwed up. To be honest…I do it to him sometimes, too.”

“How do you mean?”

Now that Liz had opened up the floodgates of communication she found herself unable to stop talking. Suddenly, months of pent up frustration, years really came flowing forth from her lips like a trickling stream. “Max and I have spent our entire relationship trying to protect each other from one thing or another,” Liz explained sadly, “but we’ve always done more damage than good when we try.” She laughed at little, sinking further down into the seat cushions as if she wanted the sofa to swallow her whole. “Even back in high school, I had pushed Max away because I thought we didn’t belong together. I thought I was doing what was best for him. Instead of sharing my real feelings with him, I left him. And then he started dating another girl and it just tore me apart.”

Dr. Cochran knew better than to question the significance of Liz’s revelations. She was astute enough to realize that whatever had brought Liz to this point in her life hadn’t started with the death of her son, but long before that. Something further in Liz’s past had been driving her, continued to drive her to this day. Perhaps it had even begun with her and Max’s relationship… To test her theory, Dr. Cochran asked Liz carefully, “So how did it make you feel when Max turned to this other girl.”

“Like I was right to leave him,” Liz snorted in laughing pain, “Like maybe she was better for him than me, after all.”

“But the two of you did reconcile,” Molly pointed out reasonably.

“But we never discussed my feelings or his, for that matter,” Liz revealed, “Max never talked to me about why he had turned to Te--,…to this girl after we broke up and I never asked him. Not even to this day.”

“And the relationship Max had with this girl still bothers you, even after so many years?” Liz inclined her head miserably. “Liz, why did you really come see me today?” Dr. Cochran asked gently.

Liz lifted troubled brown eyes to her therapist’s direct gaze. “I stopped taking my birth control pills.”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:25:34 PM
Chapter 8

Dr. Cochran thought she should confess the full truth to Max. She hadn’t told Liz to do so in words but she had definitely implied it. Molly Cochran was nothing if not subtle. She had this particular way of ordering Liz to do things without actually ordering her. But in this instance, Liz knew she was right. And because Liz did know it she hadn’t even protested when Dr. Cochran suggested putting her back on the Prozac.

Liz had initially wanted off the drug because she didn’t like how sluggish it had left her. Not to mention it wreaked havoc with her libido. There could be no trying for a baby when she didn’t even have the desire for sex. But combined with her therapy Liz had to admit the drug made it easier to cope. She obviously hadn’t been coping very well without it so Liz didn’t see the harm in giving it another try.

Now as Liz picked up her two prescriptions from the drive-thru window at Walgreens she felt better than she had in months. That morning was probably the first really successful therapy session she’d had. Somehow talking about Jeff, even a little had eased the tremendous weight on her heart. Liz realized now that her inability to talk about Jeff hadn’t just sprung out of her unreasonable guilt about his death, but her absolute terror over letting him go as well.

Sometimes Jeff didn’t even seem real to her at all. Liz thought about why she was truly so resistant about visiting the gravesite with Max as she pulled out into traffic and decided to finally admit the truth to herself. Her refusal to visit the gravesite was the only thing Liz had left to hold onto. If she went there then there could be no more denying. Her son was dead and he was not coming back. A son she had not held, or seen. A ghost child.

How did you mourn a ghost child, Liz wondered. It was impossible. And with all the other “issues” Liz was dealing with she didn’t even want to attempt doing it. So Liz could be straight with herself now. She was intrinsically, unequivocally fucked up. Reluctantly, she admitted that Max had been right. She wasn’t ready to have another baby…she was a long way from being ready.

Today Dr. Cochran had suggested the idea of couple’s therapy to Liz, something she had never before considered. Liz had to smirk at the thought of Max in therapy. He had always prided himself of being so together, so damned calm and sure. Liz wondered how he would react when she told him she had scheduled them for a couple’s therapy session with Molly next week. He’d probably think that his presence there had solely to do with Liz’s recovery and nothing to do with his own.

That was another thing Liz realized. She wasn’t the only one in the marriage with issues. Max had them, too. For the last year and a half they had focused solely on Liz and her emotional needs because, after all, she had been the one to attempt suicide and she had been the one to spend eight months in a mental facility following that incident. But Max had been the one to suffer while she was away.

In those eight months she had been gone something had changed within Max, something deep. He had stopped treating her like his equal and instead had begun relating to her like he would a child. Max pampered and protected her like he pampered and protected their daughter, which would have been quite lovely, if Liz were five!

But then Liz knew she had to give Max the benefit of the doubt, she conceded with a heavy sigh. It wasn’t as if she had been acting very that stable in the last couple of months, especially the last few days. Liz found herself analyzing just how mentally healthy she could have been if, not even two months after she’d started therapy, she started talking to Max about having another baby. By that point she hadn’t even mentioned Jeff in her therapy sessions.

She’d visit his gravesite, Liz decided. Not today, but soon, definitely soon when she was stronger. Presently, she had to concentrate all her energy, all her emotion, all her courage on telling Max the truth. All of it. And then Liz knew she could expect the shit to hit the fan. She cringed at the very thought of it.

As Liz rounded the corner for her house she immediately noticed Maria’s black Mercedes Benz pulled haphazardly in her driveway. Liz frowned as she steered her on car next to the curb and parked. What was Maria doing there? Last she’d heard her friend was taking a honeymoon trip to Jamaica with her new husband. Even though Liz knew that Maria was due back sometime that afternoon it seemed ridiculous that Maria would come to see her the moment she arrived back in town unless…

Liz took off running for the house, her heart pounding with dread and fear. When she burst in through the front door she found Maria reclined on the sofa, watching Judge Pablo and munching on Strawberry Pop Tarts. She glanced up at Liz in surprise. “Hey, where have you been?” Maria demanded, “I thought Mondays were your lazy days.”

Closing the door behind her, Liz eyed Maria warily while shrugging out of her coat. “I had a therapy session this morning,” Liz explained, “What are you doing here? Did something happen to Michael, the girls?”

“Relax, Liz, everything is fine!” Maria laughed shortly, “I swear you’re in panic mode every time I see you.”

“I can’t help it,” Liz admitted, relaxing a little, “After Jeff I’m just always expecting the worst, you know.”

Maria’s mouth actually dropped open a little. Had her friend just mentioned her dead son without prompting and without rage and tears? Liz must have had one hell of a therapy session, Maria supposed. She actually started to ask Liz about just what had happened when Liz shot out a question of her own. “So that still doesn’t answer my question,” Liz told her, sinking into the adjacent recliner, “What are you doing here?” Liz glanced at her watch. “Didn’t you, like, just get back into the States and hour ago?”

“An hour and a half ago,” Maria corrected cheekily.

“And?”

“And I saw this,” Maria clarified, pulling a tabloid newspaper from beneath her butt and flashing Liz with the headline. It was the same paper Liz had shown her therapist days earlier. “I was buying juice at one of those mini convenient stores in the airport,” Maria explained miserably, “and there it was, big as day. I bought every issue on the spot, Lizzie, I swear.”

“You think I’m mad about it?” Liz surmised carefully, her smooth forehead creasing in a puzzled frown. “That’s why you came all the way over here?”

“Look, I know how it bothered you when all those rumors were flying all over the place about Max and me,” Maria explained, “We had finally just gotten all that stuff contained and now these idiots come along and stir up the whole pot again!” Her righteous indignation somewhat spent Maria wilted back against the sofa. “Half of what they’ve printed isn’t even based in fact,” she muttered to herself, “It’s not even worth reading.” And then she slanted an appraising, sideways glance towards Liz. “You didn’t happen to read it, did you?”

“Every. Single. Word,” Liz confessed and without an ounce of remorse. The old Liz would have denied it, would have vowed that such a thing would have never crossed her mind, but Liz was tired of pretending. She was tired of putting on a brave face, tired of trying to make those around her feel better when she felt like crap. Liz knew that she would never heal if she kept her emotions stored inside. “I’m interested to know…what exactly is based in fact and what isn’t.”

The article had mentioned several instances of Maria coming over to visit Max and vice versa where neither of them would leave til morning. They had confessed the kiss, had admitted they had grown unusually close in the months she’d been away, but never had they mentioned spending the night with one another. Liz couldn’t help but wonder if they’d left out that detail what other facts they were omitting.

Maria lowered her guilt-darkened eyes. “Come on, Liz,” she hedged uneasily, a little disconcerted by Liz’s sudden directness, “What kind of question is that?”

“A fair one, I think,” Liz replied unwaveringly, “So why don’t you give me a direct answer, okay?”

Again Maria was taken aback by Liz’s blunt demand. She had thought that they were both past that incident with Max. They certainly never talked about it any longer and though Liz had her moments sometimes she was, for the most part, completely accepting of the friendship between Maria and Max. Wasn’t she? “Liz, what exactly are you getting at?” Maria asked softly.

There it was, Liz’s opening for complete honesty. But now that she had the floor she was afraid to begin. Somehow it had been easier to blame herself for the relationship that had bloomed between Max and Maria. She had never faced her resentment because she had convinced herself that the feelings were unjustified. Now, unjustified or not, Liz could no longer deny that they were there and that they affected her.

It hit her suddenly, like a splash of frigid water in the face. She couldn’t trust them any more, didn’t trust them. Though repressed, ignored and sometimes outright denied the suspicion was still there. And it was hindering her marriage, slowly killing her relationship with Max an inch at a time. In the end, that is what motivated her to speak. She didn’t want her marriage to be destroyed. She didn’t want to continue on as she had. Liz wanted to heal.

She stared down at her hands, clasped together in her lap, before whispering, “Why didn’t you tell me that Max would spend the night over to your place…that you would spend the night with him?”

The soft accusation she heard in Liz’s tone made Maria feel like the scum of the earth. She fixed her gaze on the grandfather clock against the wall behind Liz’s chair because she was unable to meet Liz’s scrutiny any longer. “Liz, I thought we had resolved all this months ago,” Maria replied tautly.

“Obviously not so well,” Liz pointed out shrewdly, “Or you wouldn’t have come straight here from the airport when you saw that tabloid.”

“I thought you’d be upset with the things they had printed,” Maria reasoned.

“I am upset,” Liz told her, “Because right now, I don’t know what’s true and what’s false.”

“Liz, I already told you everything--,”

“No!” Liz protested sharply, “You told me that you and Max shared a brief kiss and that was all, but you didn’t tell me about the excursions to the park, trips to the mall, dinners, and movies--,”

“We were hanging out and that’s all!” Maria interrupted mournfully.

“You were dating, Maria!” Liz shouted, tears suddenly streaming down her cheeks, “You were dating my husband! The hell all you shared was a kiss.”

Maria was crying, too, half in relief and half in burning guilt. She was relieved because she had been waiting for this explosion from her friend for nearly a year. Maria had always believed that Liz had been too emotionally battered, too eager to reunite her family to consider her true and real feelings on Maria’s indiscretion with her husband. It wasn’t that Maria hadn’t wanted forgiveness because she did, but she’d always thought that Liz had let her off much too easily. Consequently, she spent most of the following months waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In contrast, Maria and Michael had fought about the incident for months. There were times when they wouldn’t even speak to each other the tension between them was so thick. But then after several months Maria began to understand the reason for Michael’s agitation. He was unsure of her love for him. He had been afraid that when she looked at him it would be through eyes that probed for his flaws, that lamented the vast differences between him and his seemingly perfect best friend. A part of him feared that she was only with him because she couldn’t have Max.

It had taken Maria quite some time to convince Michael otherwise, but when they had finally worked through all the heartache and bullshit the struggle had been well worth it. But they’d had to talk those issues through; otherwise they would have never healed enough to take that walk down the isle together. And that’s exactly why Maria felt so guilty.

Obviously, Maria had moved past her momentary stupidity of last fall while Liz and Max still seemed bogged down in the quicksand of it. She hated to think because of her own moral weakness Liz now doubted Max’s love for her, or worse yet, believed that she and Max were together only because Maria wasn’t free. Liz didn’t really believe that, did she? Looking into her friend’s haunted gaze at that moment Maria couldn’t be so sure.

Maria sighed, deciding to return Liz’s directness with equal measure. “You’re right…much more went on between Max and me than just a kiss. Physically speaking, yes, that’s all we did. But emotionally we went someplace else completely.”

“You took his heart from me,” Liz accused pitiably.

“No, Liz,” Maria choked, her voice breaking under the pain reflected in Liz’s eyes, “I never, never had his heart. I was just a poor substitute for the woman he really wanted. You, Liz.”

“He doesn’t treat me like a woman,” Liz mumbled sadly, “not anymore.”

“Liz--,”

“I’ve seen the way he talks to you. He asks your viewpoints about certain things. He takes the advice you give him to heart,” Liz stated without bitterness, “But he patronizes me. Whenever I try to discuss something important with him he’s always telling me not to worry about it or he’ll take care of it or not to stress myself. He doesn’t think I can handle anything. He doesn’t treat me like a woman.”

Her words broke Maria down further, the tears flowing from her eyes suddenly increasing. “Liz, you have to know how scared he is for you,” Maria sobbed, “When you were in the hospital I saw him…I saw him everyday… He was on the edge. There were times when I was afraid that he would--,” She cut off, swallowing several times before she began again, “His greatest fear is that you’ll have another breakdown but only this time you won’t come back to him.”

“He told you that?” Liz asked her in a whisper made thready with heartache.

Maria nodded. “He loves you so much, Liz.”

“Then why won’t he tell me,” Liz moaned, choking back her sobs, “God, why won’t he tell me?”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:27:35 PM
Chapter 9

Max opened the front door, whistling a happy, little tune as he pushed his way inside the house and into the foyer. But the moment he entered the house his whistling died out. He was instantly struck by the eerie stillness of the house. Only a single lamp burned in the living room, but beyond that it was deserted. Max hung his jacket on the coat rack and sniffed at the air. He didn’t smell any food cooking either and that was odd. It was unusual that Liz wouldn’t have started dinner by now.

As Max ventured deeper into the house his initial puzzlement began to escalate to outright alarm. Immediately, his mind was overrun with a million dire possibilities. He bounded up the steps, taking them two at a time, bellowing Liz’s name the entire way. When he burst into the bedroom he half expected to find Liz sprawled across the floor in a pool of her own blood. What he found instead was a naked, round-eyed Liz fresh from a bath with nothing but a towel wrapped about her damp hair.

“What is it?” Liz burst out, alarmed by the intensity with which he stared at her.

Max suddenly felt like an idiot. A hot blush crept up his cheeks. “I came in and the house was dark and empty…” he explained lamely.

“…and you thought I’d done something stupid,” Liz finished astutely, “I guess I don’t blame you for thinking that.” She lifted her shoulders in a shrug before grabbing her thick, blue terry cloth robe from the bed and wrapping her nude body within it.

“I’m sorry I overreacted,” Max mumbled, sensing that he’d hurt her somehow. He tried to change the subject by asking, “Why is the house so quiet?”

“Claudia is over to Alex and Isabel’s,” Liz explained slowly, “I started taking the Prozac again…you know how sluggish it makes me.”

After the long, tearful conversation she’d had with Maria that afternoon Liz felt drained. Drained of energy, drained of anger, drained of emotion. She was in serious need of down time. Once Maria was gone Liz put in a call to Isabel, asking if she wouldn’t mind watching Claudia for the evening. Normally, Liz might have felt bad asking such a favor from a friend who had just brought home a new baby, but Isabel had a live in nanny and a housekeeper so Liz knew she could handle it. A short time later she had gone to Claudia’s preschool to pick her up and then dropped her daughter off at her aunt’s.

Liz hadn’t thought she could feel any more emotionally battered than she already did but as Claudia exited the car she had suddenly paused and turned back to face Liz. “You are coming back, aren’t you, Mommy?” she asked in uncertainty, her lower lip quivering.

It was seeing the fear in her round, somber eyes that broke Liz down. She had dragged her little girl back into her arms, hugging her fiercely. “I will never leave you again,” she promised her daughter fervently, raining kisses all over her daughter’s small face, “I love you, Claudia. You’re my whole world.”

At that point Claudia had framed Liz’s face with her small hands and said solemnly, “You’re my world, too, Mommy. I just want to be happy.”

“You make me happy,” Liz had told her. And she meant every single world. She was done with striving after the wind, dreaming for things she couldn’t have. Liz wanted to appreciate the things she did have.

By the time she returned home she was beyond tired. After popping both her birth control pill and a Prozac Liz ran herself a warm, bubble bath and just relaxed. She lounged there until the water grew tepid before finally rousing. She had just finished drying off when she heard Max bellowing her name. She watched him curiously now, while he behaved as if she’d grown a second head.

“You’re taking your medication again?” Max bleated incredulously, but not unhappily, “When exactly did this happen?”

Liz took his reaction for disapproval. She frowned. “It’s a prescription drug, Max, not crack-cocaine. I had Dr. Cochran call me in a prescription,” she told him, “It’s strictly on the up and up, okay. I’m not doing anything illegal.”

Max realized then that he was acting a little demented, but he felt slightly off kilter. Suddenly comprehending how ridiculous he was being, Max had to chuckle slightly at her words. “I didn’t mean to imply that I thought you were,” he reassured quickly, “I just know how much you hate taking those pills. Why would you decide to suddenly resume?

Liz had been formulating a way to tell him the truth about what she’d done all day, but now that they were face to face the words stuck in her throat. She felt the intense desire to retreat back within herself as she had done for the past six months but she knew that would accomplish nothing. Besides she had made a promise to herself that she would forge ahead. The time for hiding was over. She would be completely honest with Max no matter how much it hurt. Taking a deep breath, Liz went on and plunged right in. “I had a session with Dr. Cochran this morning!” she blurted.

Max eyed her curiously as he stripped off his tie. “I hadn’t realized you had a session scheduled this morning,” he remarked absently, “How’d it go?”

“It was rather enlightening,” Liz clarified, “Actually…I called her this morning to schedule one.”

Max froze in the process of slipping down his trousers, his pulse quickening. He couldn’t help the instant alarm he felt at Liz’s revelation. Already a hundred different possibilities were tumbling through his head and none of them good. Any other time he had to nag and harp after Liz to keep her appointments with Molly and today she had gone voluntarily? Max could only think of one reason why Liz would schedule an impromptu session with her therapist. Something was wrong. Something really bad. “Oh God, what’s happened,” Max uttered in dread, pants forgotten.

“Finish getting undressed first,” Liz invited softly. She watched as Max hastily stripped off his work clothes and yanked on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, his expression grim. When he was finished he stood with his hands braced against his waist, regarding her expectantly. Averting her eyes under his intense scrutiny, Liz gestured towards their bed. “Maybe you should sit down.”

The anxiety bubbling in Max’s belly increased tenfold. He groaned mentally. If she was asking him to sit down first then whatever she had to say was definitely going to be major. Max drifted over to the bed and sat down gingerly. “Tell me what’s happened,” he said, his hands fisted against his thighs.

Liz’s fingers fluttered to her throat. She felt her rapidly beating pulse, drumming softly like the beat of a butterfly’s wings. “Now before I tell you what’s going on I first need to help you understand why I did it,” she prefaced.

Max groaned audibly this time, already dreading whatever impulsive action Liz was about to reveal to him. He couldn’t help but think about the other times she had knocked him flat on his ass with the things she did and he cringed to think of what she might have done now. “Just be straight with me, Liz,” he ordered her evenly.

“No, first I need to help you understand,” Liz protested stubbornly. She ran a shaky hand over the lower half of her face. “I’ve really been in a bad way these last few months, Max--,”

“I know that…that’s why you’re in therapy, Liz, be--,”

“Just let me talk for a second, alright?” Liz interrupted shortly. Max closed his mouth with a snap, giving her his undivided attention. Liz forged ahead once more. “I’ve had a lot of stuff going on inside me for the last six months,” she revealed fervently, “A lot of resentment and anger towards you, Max.”

“Towards me?” Max parroted in surprise.

“Yes, towards you,” Liz declared, “About Maria…about the baby, even about Tess…it’s just all mixed up. I mean…all this time you’ve been saying you want me to talk about my feelings, you want me to accept…accept what happened to Jeff, but whenever I ask you about our son you always clam up on me.”

“Liz, letting go isn’t about rehashing the past,” Max stated calmly, “You need to accept Jeff’s death and move on. Torturing yourself with details that don’t matter isn’t going to help your recovery.”

“Details that don’t matter!” she exploded, “Hah!” she scoffed, throwing up her hands, “You’re friggin unbelievable, Max!” Liz emitted a low growl of frustration, stabbing her finger at him angrily. “That tone you’re using is exactly why I can’t talk to you about anything!” she blazed, “Stop talking to me like you’re my shrink!”

“Liz, I don’t--,”

“The hell you don’t!” Liz snapped out wildly, “I have one therapist, Max, I don’t need two! Can you just be my husband for a change? God!”

Realizing that she was quite agitated and angry Max felt himself tense all the more. He didn’t want to make her upset, didn’t want to disturb her already fragile emotions. Max was so afraid of saying something that would set off a complete breakdown he was almost tempted to say nothing at all. But comprehending that would provoke her all the more Max decided to plan his next words with deliberate carefulness. “I’m sorry if I came off that way to you, Liz,” he responded calmly, “but I don’t quite know what it is you expect from me.”

“I want for you to talk to me like I’m a woman,” she admitted with a tired sigh. Liz hung her head down, utterly exhausted. “I want you to talk to me about our son when I ask you…or anything else I ask about even if you don’t think I’m strong enough to hear it.”

At that point Max dropped his professional façade and just gaped. “You’re mad at me right now because I don’t talk to you like a woman? What the hell does that mean?”

Now Liz finally had his attention. That cool, clinical detachment of his had finally been broken and now Max Evans was spoiling for a fight. “You treat me like I’m some fragile China doll that’s gonna break if someone utters so much as ‘boo’ to her,” Liz snapped.

“Liz, have you forgotten that you’re a mental patient?” Max bit out sardonically, “That might be the reason why I treat you like a ‘delicate China doll’ as you put it!”

“I am strong enough to handle life, Max,” Liz enunciated slowly, “I was strong enough to survive the death of my son, wasn’t I?”

“No, you weren’t,” Max countered bitterly, “You were a coward, Liz. You weren’t the one who made the funeral arrangements,” he continued in a tear hoarsened voice, “And you weren’t the one to pick out his tiny clothes for the service…and you weren’t the one who had to explain to Claudia why her little brother wasn’t coming home.” He lifted his pain brightened gaze to her blanched face, all the months of bitterness and fear and anger and remorse visible on his face. His tears raced down his cheeks unchecked. “No, Liz, you didn’t survive a damned thing….all you did was hide.”

“Is that why you never talk to me about Jeff?” Liz whispered softly.

“You’re not strong enough to hear.”

“I deserve to know, Max!” Liz bit out. “You’re always taking away my choices, Max!” Liz cried, “I know you don’t mean to but you do!”

“‘Taking away your choices’?” Max repeated in disbelief, “What about the choices you took away from me, Liz!” For one crazy second Liz thought he might have found out about the birth control pills after all, but his next words dispelled the fear. “You decided to commit suicide rather than talk to me. You decided to shut Claudia and I out all that time. You decided we weren’t important enough! Where were my choice then, huh?”

“So you’re punishing me?” Liz sobbed out, “You want to make me sorry for what I did?” She wrapped her arms about her middle, as if she were in pain. “I’ve got news for you, Max…I’m sorry about what I did every day of my life.” Her tears were flowing freely now and she made no effort to check them. “I thought if I could give you another baby I could make it up to you and I could make it up to Claudia. I thought--,”

Max rose then and took her sobbing form against him, hugging her tightly. “Liz, please don’t cry,” he implored tearfully, “Please don’t cry like this… I’m sorry for what I said…the way I said it. That’s why I never wanted to tell you these things. I didn’t want you to feel bad…I didn’t want that…” His words seemed to illicit more tears rather than soothe them. He stroked her hair lovingly. “You don’t have anything to make up for, Liz. Jeff died…it was terrible and it was tragic and so unfair, but Liz, it wasn’t your fault…it was never your fault…”

“Max,” Liz whimpered into his chest, “I did something terrible…and I’m so sorry…so sorry…”

“You’re getting help now,” Max reassured her, “that’s all that matters. I’m not going to hold the suicide against you anymore…it’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to me.”

Only when Max voiced the words aloud did he realize how utterly true they were. He was constantly saying that he wanted to have the life they used to share, but they could never move forward if he didn’t let go of the past. Liz was right. He had been punishing her. Punishing her for leaving him to grieve for their child alone, punishing her for hurting him more than anyone ever could. But now Max didn’t want to be angry anymore. He wanted Liz to heal and he wanted to heal with her.

He brushed his mouth against her temple. “I love you,” he whispered into her hair, “I love you so much…please don’t ever doubt that. I don’t blame you anymore, Liz. It’s time we both let the suicide attempt go. That’s the past now.”

His gentle words brought Liz reluctantly back to reality and she knew she couldn’t put off telling him the truth any longer. Gradually, Liz pulled from his arms, brushing at her damp cheeks. She didn’t meet his gaze but backed up several steps. “I wasn’t talking about the suicide, Max,” Liz whispered gloomily.

Max stroked his hand up and down the length of her forearms in husbandly concern. “Does this have to do with your therapy session this morning? Did something happen?”

Liz inched away from his touch, feeling wholly unworthy of his kindness, his love. She wished that she didn’t have to shatter the gentleness of the moment. She wished that she could just wrap herself in his warmth and never come out. She wished that they were perfect again. But she couldn’t and they weren’t and so Liz did the only thing that was left for her to do. She forced her gaze to his and just said the words. “I threw away my birth control pills.”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:28:54 PM
Chapter 10

Max didn’t utter a sound. He stood frozen, unblinking, obviously shell shocked. The color slowly drained from his features a bit and he took a stumbling step backwards. Liz stared down at the floor shamefully, waiting for him to blast her with his fury. Seconds passed by without him uttering a single sound. Liz fidgeted a bit. “Well, aren’t you going to say something?” she asked him meekly.

“They were just…bad or something, right?” Max half pleaded, half stated, “That’s the reason you threw them away…you didn’t do it on purpose…did you, Liz?”

It would be so easy to lie and God knew she had contemplated it, but their marriage was already on shaky enough ground without adding lying to her list of crimes. Her vision began to blur as she stared down at the hardwood floor beneath her bare feet. “I did do it on purpose.”

She heard Max’s sharp intake of breath above her head. “How long ago did you do it?” he rasped.

Liz wanted to simply curl up in a ball of shame when she heard the shattered hurt in his question. “Four days.”

Max wilted even more. He slumped over to the bed and sat down, his shoulders hunched in defeat. It was a long, long time before he spoke to her again and when he did his tone was vibrating with barely contained rage. “You threw your birth control pills away four days ago,” he stated evenly, “and yet you let me make love to you every damned night knowing we weren’t protected.”

“It was a mistake,” Liz conceded shamefully.

“A mistake?” Max repeated, his voice smooth with anger, “A mistake?” She could hear an edge of sarcastic laughter in his tone, but when he finally raised his head he pinned Liz with a glare that was devoid of mocking amusement but burning with righteous fury. “You fucking lied to me for four days and you say it was just a mistake? That’s one helluva mistake, Liz!” he snapped out irately. He dropped his head forward in his hands and ground out, “How likely is it that you’re pregnant right now.”

“Not very likely,” Liz replied meekly.

Max glowered at her briefly. “But possible, right?” Liz jerked her head in affirmation, which caused Max to swear under his breath violently. “God, this is the last thing we need right now!”

Liz swallowed spasmodically, wanting to sink through the floor, wanting to run anything, wanting to do anything other than being alone in that room right then with Max and all of his pent up righteous indignation. But then, Liz considered, she had wanted to know his true feelings. She had asked him to stop holding back with her and now it seemed he was about to comply with her wishes. “Max, I didn’t do it to hurt you,” Liz began pleading. Max emitted a grating, sarcastic snort. “I thought a baby would bring us closer,” she insisted tearily.

Max leveled her with betrayed eyes. “And I thought I could trust you.”

For some reason that statement, coming from him of all people, filled Liz with anger. How the hell did he get off calling her on trust issues? Suddenly, Liz’s shame was overrun with indignation. “You thought you could trust me?” Liz scoffed bitterly, her features twisted with scornful irony, “How about I thought I could trust you, Max. You’re the one who screwed around with my best friend behind my back!”

“Oh, we’re back to that again, are we?” Max bit out sarcastically.

“We never left it, Max,” Liz retorted.

“And so all that you said about accepting it and moving on…was that all just bullshit?” Max charged, “Got to hand it to you, Liz, the lies just roll right off your tongue, don’t they?”

“What about your lies?” Liz countered furiously, “You said that nothing beyond a kiss went on with you and Maria, yet here I find that she spent her nights here…in my house, probably in my bed for all I know!”

“I told you that Maria and I did not sleep together,” Max bit out angrily.

“And I’m supposed to take you at your word?” Liz argued coolly.

The moment the impulsive words flew from her mouth Liz wanted to call them back. Because voicing them aloud alerted Liz to exactly how shattered her marriage had become. Did it really boil down to a matter of her not trusting him any longer? It was quite obvious to Liz that she had lost Max’s trust. And where was their marriage if neither of them could trust one another. The question staggered Liz, made her incredibly afraid and incredibly sad all at once. It was the first time she truly understood how far they had fallen.

Max had been an integral part of her life for so long that the idea of being apart from him caused a physical ache in her heart. But now Liz had to examine just what she was holding onto so tightly. What was between them any longer? Maybe this time the damage done was beyond repair, maybe there was nothing left to salvage.

Swallowing back a hiccupping sob, Liz went to sit beside Max on the bed. He didn’t look at her, but only stared down at his hands. “You really think I lied to you about what happened between Maria and me,” he asked her hoarsely.

“I don’t know what to think,” Liz answered honestly, “I want to believe you, Max, but I just…can’t.”

“I didn’t sleep with her, Liz. I couldn’t have ever done that to you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion, “I swear it.”

“It’s not that easy for me to believe you anymore, Max,” Liz replied honestly. Absently, she played with her wedding band, her thoughts morose. After taking several moments to work up the courage she asked, “What about you? Can you honestly say you still trust me like you used to, Max?”

Max closed his eyes, instinctively understanding what she had left unspoken, knowing what she was truly trying to ask him. “It took me a long time to get over what happened with Brenner,” he replied slowly, swallowing past the hard lump in his throat, “But I did get over it, Liz. When we got back together I trusted you completely…I really did.” He sighed harshly before continuing. “But then after your suicide attempt my confidence in you was shaken again. I don’t think I ever completely got it back and apparently…neither did you.”

Liz nibbled at her lower lip. “No…no I didn’t.”

“So where does that leave us really?” Max asked in an aching tone, “You can’t trust me and I can’t trust you. What kind of marriage is that, huh?”

“No kind, really,” Liz answered morosely.

“So is this it, then?” Max croaked out sorrowfully, “Do you want to end our marriage, Liz…is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

The moment he asked the question aloud was the very second Liz knew it was the last thing she wanted. “No! I don’t want that at all, Max,” Liz replied in teary protest.

Max sagged with visible relief. That was the glaring fear that had permeated his bones since their conversation about trust began. Bottom line. Did Liz want to stay with him? Did she still love him? Truthfully, had he given her any reason to do either? Max was suddenly seeing their life together a great deal more clearly now that her true feelings had been laid bare and he began to see that the disastrous path their marriage had taken hadn’t been entirely Liz’s fault.

For months he had blamed her for the crippled state of their marriage without ever taking any responsibility for himself. It was because of her suicide attempt, her cowardice, her inability to share her feelings. But now Max saw other things, like his controlling nature, his dismissive attitude, his unwillingness to listen to her. God, he’d been an idiot, a fool, and a self-righteous jerk! He had been telling her for months now what she was and was not strong enough to handle yet he had never hesitated in placing the entire responsibility for their marital happiness on her shoulders. No wonder she had been so miserable. No wonder she had believed that her only means for making it right would be to have another baby.

Max dropped his head forward, feeling his guilt settle over him like a dark cloud. He had been so busy trying to “doctor” her lately that he hadn’t seen her at all. It was ironic that all his training, all his schooling, all his experience had failed him when it came to helping his own wife. He looked at her now, his eyes full of hollow fear, afraid that, despite her protest, she did want to banish him from her life forever. He wouldn’t blame her if she did. “I’ve really fucked up lately, haven’t I?” he whispered.

“Me too.”

Max strummed at his lower lip thoughtfully. “What do you want to do about it?”

Liz half laughed, half sobbed in trembling respite. It was the first decision he had left up to her in over a year. “Well, I’m really glad you asked.” She sniffled, swiping her fingers across her damp cheeks and forcing a smile. “I didn’t know if you’d want to try after…after…”

“…after you told me the truth about the pills,” he finished for her quietly.

Liz jerked her head in an affirming nod. “I thought you’d hate me.”

“For a second I did,” Max admitted thickly, “But now I think I might hate myself even more.” He and Liz locked eyes then, their gazes transmitting what could not be put into words. “So how do we fix this, Beautiful?”

She giggled a bit at his endearment. “What do you think about couple’s therapy?” Liz suggested airily.

Max actually guffawed at that, but immediately swallowed his laughter when he realized that Liz was perfectly serious. “You’re not joking?” he breathed in disbelief.

“Molly suggested it this morning during my session,” Liz said, “I think it’s a good idea.”

“Liz, come on!” Max snorted, “I do this for a living everyday…we are not at the point of therapy.”

Liz stared at him in speechless, incredulous shock. She couldn’t comprehend how he was being so incredibly blind. “It really is true what they say about doctors not being able to treat themselves.”

“Liz--,” Max began in protest again.

She pressed her index finger against his lip to silence him. “Max, you know our marriage is on the rocks right now,” Liz argued gently, “We’re never going to survive without help and you know that.”

Though the truth of her assessment stung beyond belief Max didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she was completely right. Professionally speaking, if a couple came in to him with the problems he and Liz were experiencing he’d probably think that they were beyond the realm of therapy. That was a fact he had learned early on in his practice. Once trust died between a couple it was never very long before their marriage followed suit. He didn’t want to think that could happen with him and Liz, but it was looking highly probable.

It was a difficult realization to come to. Max had always believed that he and Liz were different somehow. Ordinary couples needed therapy but not them. Never them. They were soulmates, after all. Soulmates were perfect, incorruptible, and absolutely forever. Max still believed those things wholeheartedly, but now he also realized that even soulmates had to work in order to maintain a happy marriage. Marital bliss wasn’t a given for anyone, soulmates or not. The road wasn’t simply made easy just because you were meant to be. Max understood that now.

Max rubbed at his tired, bleary eyes. “When do you want to do this session?’ he sighed.

“We have an appointment set for next week with Molly,” Liz told him, “She said she wouldn’t be offended if we wanted someone else, though.”

Max couldn’t help but be taken aback by her thoroughness. “You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought,” he remarked absently, “I suppose Molly will do fine. She’s an excellent therapist.”

“I think so, too,” Liz agreed. And then she noted his dazed expression. “I’m sorry if this all seems rather sudden to you.”

“No, no…it’s fine,” Max objected.

“No,” Liz argued, “You’ve taken in a lot today.”

“Well, I guess you have unloaded quite a bit on me,” Max finally admitted in a grunt, “It’s a lot to take in all at once.” He rubbed his hands together, gathering the courage to ask his next question. “Liz, do you still love me?”

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t, Max,” Liz answered without hesitation, but then she added just as certainly, “But I do believe that you and I need some time apart from one another…at least until we’ve been through our therapy sessions and talked some things out.”

Max had to blink back the tears her words caused. “Are you saying you want me to move out?”

Liz couldn’t look at him when she nodded. “At least for a little while.” Max didn’t utter a word, but only compressed his lips tightly. It hurt incredibly to know she was causing him additional pain, but now that Liz had come so far she couldn’t back down. “Do you have some place you can go?” she asked gently.

“Isabel and Alex have plenty of room at their place,” Max replied hoarsely, “I’ll call her and…and arrange things.”

“Okay, that’s good,” Liz said, standing, “I’ll just leave so you can pack a few things, then.” She started to walk away then but Max grabbed her wrist at the last moment. It was the first time he had touched her since their conversation began. Liz rolled her eyes toward the ceiling while simultaneously praying for the strength to hold back her tears. “Max, please don’t do this,” she pleaded.

“Why do I have to go, Liz?”

The boyish confusion in his tone shattered the remains of her aching heart and it took every ounce of willpower she had to remain firm. “We can’t fix what’s broken if you stay, Max,” she said softly, “We need time apart so we can think clearly. That’s the only way we’ll figure out where our relationship is going and if we have a future.” It was a long time before Max finally nodded his agreement and released her wrist. “I’ll go with you over to Alex and Isabel’s,” she said to him, “We need to explain what’s happening between us to Claudia together.”

“Of course,” Max managed, though his throat ached with the words, “whatever you want to do, Liz.”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:29:59 PM
Chapter 11

“I didn’t expect you to be here.”

Liz glanced up from the headstone engraved with her dead son’s name to the solemn face of his father. “You’ve taken really good care of his plot, Max,” Liz remarked, pushing herself up from her knees, “Thank you.”

“He was my son, too,” Max replied simply. He passed her his handkerchief, which she accepted with a nod of her head to brush the dirt off her hands.

She hadn’t seen him since the night she’d asked him to move out. That first night had been really awful. First the tense silence that followed when he packed his bags and that continued during the drive over to Alex and Isabel’s had been unbearable. But nothing had compared to having to sit down and explain the situation to Claudia. Liz’s throat still closed with tears when she thought about that.

They had taken her to the den and closed the doors for privacy. Claudia’s face had been like stone the entire time, as if she were expecting them to tell her something horrible. As gently as they could both Max and Liz explained to Claudia how Daddy would be moving out for just a short while so that he and Liz would have time to think.

Claudia had stared at them round-eyed and silent, plainly devastated and utterly confused. When they finished speaking she had said nothing at all. Her eyes were dark pools of pain while she looked at them both mutinously before uttering three, emphatic words: I hate you. She hadn’t screamed the words, really hadn’t spoken them above a whisper, but Claudia managed to shatter every single glass at the dining room table. The breaking glass startled Liz. There were times when she could easily forget her daughter was half alien.

For the remainder of the evening their audacious five and a half year had given both Liz and Max the silent treatment. She had almost held out the entire evening until it was time for her and Liz to go home…and then it finally hit her that Max wasn’t coming with them. Claudia had tugged on her mother’s arm, struggling against Liz’s insistence to leave. “Mommy, please,” Claudia had begged, her eyes swimming with tears, “can’t Daddy come home with us, too? Please! I’m sorry I said I hated you…I didn’t mean it…please just let Daddy come home!”

“Claudia, honey, I already explained this to you. It’s not forever…just for a few days,” Liz told her gently, but it didn’t matter. Claudia had already ripped herself from Liz’s grasp with an anguished yelp and flung herself into her father’s waiting arms.

“I wish you had never come back,” Claudia sobbed into Max’s neck, “You just mess everything up!”

The words slashed at Liz like knives and she did her best to hide the pain they caused, but she couldn’t hide her pain from Max no matter how hard she tried. “Shh, shh,” Max crooned into her silky hair as he held her tight against him, “Don’t ever say things like that to your Mother. She loves you and so do I.” Above Claudia’s head Max locked emphatic eyes with Liz, voicing the words meant for their daughter directly at her. “I made a bad mistake and hurt Mommy really bad and now she needs some time so the hurt can get better.”

Claudia lifted her head with a sniffle. “But you’re sorry, right, Daddy?” she pressed desperately, “Tell Mommy you’re sorry and then it’ll be all better.”

Max fingered her wet cheeks tenderly. “It’s not that simple, munchkinette.”

Claudia bit at her trembling lower lip. “You don’t love me anymore?” she surmised tearily, “I did something wrong?”

Those four timid words tore Liz’s heart and she came to kneel beside them with a soft, keening sob. Thankfully, Claudia came into her arms easily as she wrapped her shaking daughter in a tender embrace. “This is NOT about you, Claudie,” Liz assured her fiercely, “You are perfect and wonderful and the best thing to happen to us. Don’t you ever forget that! Daddy and I have hurt each other so much lately…we just don’t want to do it anymore.”

“Are you gonna get a dimorsed?” her daughter asked frightened innocence, “Cuz my friend Suzy’s parents got a dimorsed and now she cries all the time…even at recess…”

“Your mom and I are not getting a divorce,” Max promised her forcefully, “That is never going to happen.” His earnestness had reassured his daughter but it had made Liz tremble. Because in his eyes she could see how fiercely he loved her. She knew he wasn’t just making a promise to Claudia, but a promise to her as well. And that was the exact reason Liz had asked him to move out. She knew Max well enough to realize that he would do everything in his power to win her over and he would…because he had just that type of hold over her. And Liz couldn’t allow that to happen. Not because she wasn’t sure she wanted Max. She did. But she wanted him to be sure that he wanted her. He said he did right now, but Liz didn’t imagine he was thinking all that clear. A few days away from her would give him the perspective he needed.

But the pleading in his gaze was near unbearable as she looked at him and she nearly broke her resolve then and there. It had taken all the willpower she had to gather Claudia up to leave him. Yet, she had never ceased believing she’d done the right thing.

The conversation played through her mind now as she returned his handkerchief. She hadn’t felt regret the night she’d walked out of Isabel and Alex’s house nearly a week earlier, but now Liz was beginning to feel the first twinges. He looked awful. It was apparent that he’d gotten about as much sleep as she had in the last six days. His pants and shirt were slightly wrinkled, as if he’d slept in them. His usually neat brown hair was tousled and falling over his forehead partially obscuring his marvelous eyes. He was also in dire need of a shave.

Hoping to mask her concern behind a blasé tone Liz remarked with a teasing smile, “I hope you haven’t been seeing your patients looking like that.”

“I took a few days off,” Max answered softly, stooping down to lay the bouquet of colorful flowers in his hand down onto his son’s grave plot, “I haven’t had a lot of time to take care of my appearance this last week.” And then Max shook his head wryly. “That’s not entirely true. I just haven’t been motivated.”

“I can sympathize with your lack of motivation,” Liz replied solemnly to his back, “I’ve tried calling you the last couple of days. Isabel said that you were busy.”

Max traced his son’s name with the tips of his fingers. “I have been.”

“Not too busy for Claudia though,” Liz observed meekly.

Realizing that he hadn’t been fooling her with his excuses, Max closed his eyes and heaved a tired sigh before swiveling around and coming to his feet. “I wasn’t intentionally avoiding you, Liz,” he admitted softly, “I just didn’t know what to say to you really.”

His admission caused Liz to crumple with relief. She had been half fearing that Max’s avoidance was due to the fact he’d decided he didn’t want her after all. Her mood lightened considerably to learn that wasn’t the case. “Max, I never intended for this separation to be long term…just a couple of days so we could both think. Even you suggest separation for your patients so that when they get back together…”

“…they’re both at a point where they’re ready to forgive,” Max finished irritably, “Yes, I know what I said. I just never thought my own words would come back to bite me in the ass.”

“The point is…” Liz emphasized meaningfully, “I never wanted more than a few days.”

“Oh well, that makes it so much better, Liz,” Max retorted sarcastically.

Liz wisely gulped back a giggle at his cross tone. Max seemed quite irascible at the moment and she didn’t think he’d appreciate her laughter. Still, she was overjoyed to see him, bad mood or not. The last six days had afforded Liz with plenty of time to think. Once she got a handle on her resentment, her anger, her general emotional drainage she was able to examine her true feelings. One fact was glaringly, painfully obvious to her. She did not want to end her marriage. The problem was she had absolutely no idea how to fix the problem…and they had gotten big.

Even if Liz could bring herself to swallow the anger and hurt she felt over Max and Maria’s almost relationship it wouldn’t change the fact that she had shaken Max’s trust in her as well. They could move on from it, Liz knew, as they had so many times in the past, but the resentment would always be there. Always lurking, always threatening, always with the potential to tear them apart. Liz wasn’t content to merely band-aid their problems any longer. She wanted to fix them and in order to do that she and Max had to dig deep to find out where they had gone wrong in their marriage.

So to say she was looking forward to their therapy session later that afternoon would have been seriously understating her feelings. In fact, she couldn’t remember ever being so excited over a session with Molly before.

It had been that very excitement that had prompted her to visit Jeff’s gravesite that morning. She had deliberately insisted on going alone despite Maria’s repeated offers. And it had been hard, staring at that cold piece of stone and knowing that it was all she had left of her infant son. And for the first time in over a year Liz let herself feel to full weight of her grief. She had cried until she thought she had no more tears left and then she had cried some more. But when it was over, Liz wasn’t left with the empty coldness that had taken residence within her heart during the last year. Strangely, it had been lifted and for the first time in a long time Liz felt optimistic about her future. She took that as a sign that maybe she was getting better after all.

Watching her emotions skitter across her expressive face, Max felt bad for snapping her head off. “Forgive my irritability,” he sighed, “I haven’t slept in six days. Ronnie wakes up every two hours. It’s a nightmare.” He chuckled, a dry, raspy chuckle. “I’ve forgotten what’s it’s like to have a baby in the house.”

Liz hung her head. “Me, too.”

In that second Max couldn’t resist touching her. He allowed his hand to glide down the soft down of her cheek, his heart swelling when she closed her eyes and nuzzled against his touch. Without words, they drifted together in a light embrace. “I want that, Liz,” Max whispered against the top of her head, “I want to have another baby with you. I miss it, too.” Liz could only nod; her throat was too closed off with tears to say anything. “Liz?” She lifted her eyes at the question in his tone. Max framed her face with his hands. “Can I come home, baby?”

Liz’s answered without the slightest hesitation. “Yes.”

Max hadn’t been expecting the answer, if his sharp intake of breath was any indication. “Are you serious?” he burst out, “I can really come home?”

“Yes,” Liz insisted, laying her cheek back against his chest, “I want you to come home, Max. I just needed to know you still loved me…I needed to know that.” She sagged against him gratefully. Maybe the awful standoff she’d been enduring with Claudia could finally come to an end now.

He was silent for a long while as it finally dawned on him why Liz had asked him to leave. It hadn’t been because she couldn’t be around him, but because she was afraid he might not want to be around her. Max scoffed at the ridiculous notion even while his heart ached with regret. There had been a time when they knew one another’s feelings without words. Somewhere down the line they had evidently lost that connection. Max wanted desperately to get it back. “So where are you headed now?” Max asked her when they finally drifted apart.

“I thought I’d grab some lunch,” Liz told him brightly, “You wanna come with me?”

“Will I be breaking the therapy rules if I say yes?” Max asked with a smile.

“Do you want to eat or not?”

She took him to the café where she, Isabel and Maria had their luncheons together. Truthfully, Liz hadn’t been to the place in over a year, not since Maria had announced her second pregnancy, not since Liz had been pregnant with Jeff. Yet, it seemed appropriate to go there today. Liz felt as if she were releasing old demons and learning to breath again. She didn’t want grief and fear to keep her from living any longer.

They were seated at a quiet table for two near a window overlooking the sidewalk. It was the perfect place to afford them some private conversation. After their orders had been placed and their drinks served, Liz folded her hands in her lap and asked, “So are you nervous about today?”

“I’m kinda nervous about what to expect,” Max admitted, “I’m kind of afraid of what you’ve been storing inside all this time.”

“I’m not going to pounce on you, Max,” Liz reassured him laughingly, “I want the same thing you do.”

“And what is it you think I want?” Max asked carefully.

Liz shrugged. “You want us to be happy again,” she stated in a soft, aching tone, “You want to be able to look into my eyes and see my soul again. You want to feel me the way you used to.”

Max had to believe they were on their way to recovery at that moment. Liz had guessed his feelings exactly. Maybe they weren’t as far gone as he had first feared. He reached across the table to clutch at her hands. “I want that more than anything, baby,” he told her earnestly.

“Then we’ll get it back,” Liz replied with absolute conviction.

They exchanged gentle smiles before Max finally released her hands to take a sip of his iced tea. “You know…I really don’t have any issues with you, Liz,” he said serenely, “I mean other than the birth control pill incident I’ve pretty much made peace with everything else.”

Liz tucked her hands beneath her chin and regarded him with thoughtful mockery. “Have you now?” she inquired.

“You know I don’t like to make waves, Liz,” Max replied.

“Since when?”

“Liz, I’ve never enjoyed fighting with you.”

No one enjoys fighting.”

Max waved his hand dismissively. “You know what I mean.”

“No, what I know is that you never used to be concerned about making waves with me, Max,” Liz reminded him, “When I slept with Cameron Brenner you let me have it with both barrels.”

“And you deserved it,” Max replied tightly, “But I don’t think your sleeping with him hurt me as much as the knowledge that you had lost faith in me.”

Liz fell into a pensive silence. Seconds later their server brought their food, two Reubens without sauerkraut with fries and dill pickles. Max attacked his food with gusto while Liz only picked at hers. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I lost faith in you like that, Max?” she asked him quietly.

“You told me,” Max said after swallowing his mouthful, “You said you saw me hugging Tess and you freaked…that’s why you turned to Brenner.” He frowned at her. “Why are you rehashing this?”

“Haven’t you ever wondered why something as simple as your hugging Tess would send me over the edge like that?” Liz prodded softly.

Max set down his sandwich with a frustrated sigh. “Liz, you were twenty-one years old. You were hardly the poster child for maturity back then, neither was I. You made a mistake…we got over it. End of subject.”

“Obviously it still bothers you if you’re so touchy about it,” Liz pointed out.

“Who’s shrinking who now?” Max countered acerbically.

“I just want to get these feelings out in the open.”

Max shoved his food away, having lost his appetite. “Then save it for the session,” Max replied coldly.

The remainder of their lunch was eaten in tense silence. When it was over Max paid the bill and left without uttering even a terse good-bye. Liz didn’t take offense over his asinine behavior. She had been in denial long enough to recognize it when she saw it. Max was expecting for her to have a lot of emotion stored inside and she did, but what he didn’t realize was that he had also been stuffing his feelings as well. Liz actually drove to her appointment with a smile of satisfaction.

When she finally arrived at the office Liz wasn’t surprised to find Max already there, pacing the length of Molly’s plush, office carpet. He hardly seemed aware of Molly watching his agitated movements with keen interest. The moment Liz entered he jumped and then stalked over to the sofa and flung himself down. Liz could tell he was more than a little miffed. He was about to blow. The thought made her smile even more because she knew they were about to take the first step towards healing their marriage.

“I’m glad to see the two of you here today,” Dr. Cochran announced after Liz had taken a seat beside Max on the sofa. “We’ll just go ahead and get started then,” she suggested gamely, “Max, why don’t we begin with you?”

“Me?” Max bleated incredulously, “Why me?”

“You seem perturbed about something this afternoon?” the doctor observed, “I thought you might like to talk about it.”

“I’m not perturbed.”

“Frustrated then?”

“I’m not frustrated, either,” Max ground out.

“You’re upset?”

“I’m not upset!” Max all but roared. And then realizing he’d just lost him temper with one of his colleagues Max quickly gathered up his composure. “Well, maybe I’m just a little uncomfortable right now,” he admitted grudgingly.

Molly Cochran raised her brows in dawned understanding. Max Evans could give treatment, but he had a difficult time receiving it. “Would you feel better with another therapist, Max?”

Max waved away her offer with a dismissive turn of his hand. “No, you’re fine, Molly,” he assured her, “It’s quite alright.”

“If you’re sure…” Dr. Cochran prompted.

“I’m sure!” Max confirmed shortly.

“Okay, then,” Molly conceded, crossing her arms and lounging back in her chair, “Talk away…I’m only here to listen.”

Because Max didn’t seem disposed to open the conversation Liz plunged right on in, tackling the issue where they had left off at lunch. “I think Max might a little upset with me,” Liz told Molly, “I asked him about Cameron Brenner today when we had lunch.”

“Brenner?” Molly repeated, as she scanned through her notes, “Isn’t that the young man you had a brief fling with in college?”

Before Liz could confirm, however, Max spat out, “That’s exactly my problem! Why are you bringing up something that happened nearly six years ago?”

“The incident obviously still provokes a great deal of emotion for you, Max,” Dr. Cochran observed.

“Of course it does!” Max cried, “She cheated on me for crying out loud. I don’t like to remember it!”

“So then you have a pretty good idea how your affair with Maria DeLuca made Liz feel then, correct?” Molly prodded.

Max jerked his head guiltily, all his righteous indignation fizzled out. “That wasn’t the same.”

“Exactly,” Molly agreed, “You had no emotional ties to Cameron Brenner while Maria DeLuca was your wife’s best friend. In addition to that, you and Liz were unmarried at the time of her infidelity, but that wasn’t the case when you cheated on her.”

She made her statement clinically and without accusation but still Max felt battered by her words. And guilty…extremely guilty. He realized that if he still felt so incredibly sensitive about what had gone on with Brenner all those years ago that Liz was definitely still smarting over the near disaster with Maria. No wonder she had brought it up during lunch. Liz had been trying to get him to see her feelings, to have him realize that they ran parallel to his.

Max closed his eyes and sighed deeply. This was going to be a longer session than he’d first anticipated.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:31:12 PM
Chapter 12

“Max, you mentioned that your relationship with Maria DeLuca was different,” Molly Cochran speculated aloud, “How so?”

“Maria and I never slept together,” Max replied quickly, but the defense sounded lame even to him. And then, suddenly, Max decided to stop hiding behind that justification. “No, no it’s not different,” he restated with a self-deprecating frown, “Even though Maria and I didn’t sleep together I can’t say I didn’t consider doing it…that I didn’t want to sleep with her.”

Lowering his gaze, Max hazarded a shameful glance in Liz’s direction. Her face was chalk white, her breath coming in shallow, quick pants. She blinked rapidly in a plain struggle to get a handle on her tears. Though he didn’t look at her directly what he could see of her face looked as if he had sliced her heart open. “I’ve suspected that for a long time now,” Liz croaked after a lengthy pause, “This is the first time that I’ve heard you admit it out loud before.”

“How does that make you feel, Liz,” Molly asked gently.

Liz licked at the tears gathering in the corners of her mouth. “It makes me feel a little angry,” she said stiffly, “but, definitely, I think it hurts me more than anything else.”

“That’s why I didn’t want to tell you,” Max moaned, finally forcing himself to meet her hurt-filled gaze, “I didn’t want to hurt you, Liz.”

“So you lied,” she considered flatly.

“I didn’t lie.”

“Lie of omission, but still a lie,” Liz rebutted obstinately.

“I never made a secret of the fact I was confused, Liz,” Max told her gently, “I was in a very bad place when things went down with Maria and I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“So you’ve told me,” Liz bit out.

“It wasn’t like I just made up my mind to cheat on you!” Max cried in frustration.

“Well, did it have to be Maria of all people!” Liz snapped out harshly, “Why did it have to be Maria, Max? Why did you have to choose my best friend?” Suddenly spent of emotion Liz slumped back against the sofa, her chest heaving painfully. “Didn’t you know how much that would hurt me?”

Max looked away, helplessly glancing towards Molly for assistance. The therapist only watched him expectantly, clearly waiting for him to answer Liz’s painful question. Max released a long, staccato sigh, raking one hand through his hair in dismayed anxiety. Liz had asked a very good question, one he didn’t readily have the answer to. Why had he chosen Maria?

Max had never asked himself the question before. He supposed he had never considered it as being a matter of choice. He and Maria had just seemed to drift together. There had been no rhyme or reason to the relationship. It had simply happened. He and Maria had both been grieving; they had both been left alone. In the beginning, Max had greatly needed friendship and Maria had unselfishly offered hers.

But the platonic flavor of their relationship hadn’t lasted very long. At the first signs of attraction between them, however, Max had been startled and somewhat confused, but not overly alarmed. He had reasoned himself out of worry quite nicely. Of course, there would be some miniscule attraction there; after all, he did enjoy her company. And besides that Maria served as a link to Liz. By being close to Maria he was able to, vicariously, stay close to Liz and preserve the connection between them. At least, that was what Max had told himself whenever his conscience began to prickle.

In addition, Max had never set out to feel anything for Maria at all, however when he had finally recognized the inappropriate turn their friendship had taken he’d done nothing to end it either. Now Max had to ask himself why he had allowed the situation to spiral so horribly out of control. He had seen the signs, had known that he and Maria were approaching the danger zone long before that first kiss between them and yet he had plunged on heedlessly despite those glaring warnings. And for what? Why had he continued on such a destructive course when he knew it would lead to ruin. Max could only come up with one viable explanation: he had wanted to punish Liz.

The moment Max admitted the possibility in his heart he knew that it was irrefutably true. It wasn’t so hard for Max to believe that the desire to punish had been his underlying motivation. After all, she had hurt him more than he’d thought it was possible to hurt another person. She had sliced his heart to ribbons and seemingly without remorse. They had only just lost their infant son and she had banished him from her life, first mentally and then physically as well. Max had felt impotent emotionally abraded in those months, set adrift in his own life course without the power to direct it. Liz had effectually taken all his choices away. The exact same crime she’d accused him of.

Max had lashed out at her by the only means available to him. Maria. He had failed to make her feel the weight of her actions by citing their marriage or their daughter, but he knew he would wake her up if he turned to her best friend. Max had all but flaunted his and Maria’s near relationship in the face of their family and friends. His own sister had called him on it! Max couldn’t have been more obvious unless he’d tattooed it on his forehead. He had known, at least unconsciously, that eventually someone would take the news to Liz. Max had anxiously anticipated it.

He hadn’t had a single doubt that would “wake up” once she learned what was going on. He’d used the same tactic once before, long ago when Liz had turned away from him then, too. He could still remember how she left him in that cave, telling him to follow his destiny and how they couldn’t be together. Max had known that she loved him, had seen the truth in her eyes even as she told him that they couldn’t be together. But she had walked away despite that, ripping out his heart when she did. At the time he had been so full of anger and resentment and betrayal he had done the one thing he knew would cause the most damage. He’d made sure that her biggest fear came true. He had turned to Tess. And that had been the biggest mistake he ever made. He and Liz had been paying for that childish mistake ever since.

Evidently, the cracks in their relationship had begun then and had gradually grown larger and larger in the progressing years. He and Liz had fallen into some horrid cycle of denial and one upmanship. He would hurt her and she would internalize it only to lash out destructively at a later time. She would hurt him and he would brood over it before finally forgiving her only to unconsciously punish her for her misdeed for months, even years afterward. It was certainly no way to treat the love of his life, his soulmate. Max realized the full weight of what he’d done with an increasing amount of shame.
He lifted his eyes to Liz once more, finally ready to answer her question. “I think I turned to Maria because I wanted to shock you, Liz,” he uttered quietly, “I just wanted to break through that wall you put up against me. I wanted you to see how I was hurting. I wanted to hurt you like I was hurting.”

“Like you did when you turned to Tess Harding,” Liz deduced sadly, “You hurt me then, too, Max.”

“I know.”

“Do you hate me or something?” Liz choked out, “Am I really that horrible that you want to do these things to me?”

Max swallowed back a hiccupping sob. “No,” he denied hoarsely, “I don’t hate you. I don’t hate you. It’s just when you shut me out…I just…I feel lost and I don’t know…I don’t know how to be on the outside of your heart, Liz.” He brushed at his cheeks fiercely. “It kills me.”

Liz managed a small nod of understanding, her heart crumbling bit by bit to see him so miserable, but her spirit feeling lightened with each emotional burden she released. “And you felt like I’d shut you out of my heart that time we broke up…the first time.”

Max jerked his head in a miserable nod. “Yeah…I did.” He stared down at his hands. “I guess nothing has been the same between us since then.” Max felt an oppressive weight of guilt settle onto his shoulders. He was slowly coming to discover that he had played a rather large part in the communication breakdown between him and Liz. In fact, he had been the one to start the whole vicious cycle. No wonder they were in such a shaky place…Liz had been harboring these feelings of hurt and confusion since way before Maria…since Tess Harding really. Max didn’t really know how to respond to the knowledge.

“Did you never ask Liz her feelings on the matter?” Molly asked, correctly reading the guilty expression on Max’s face. “Didn’t you ever talk about Tess Harding and what she did or didn’t mean to you?”

“I thought we had settled it all,” Max replied lamely in excuse, “When Liz and I got back together I thought we were okay.” He slanted Liz a look of distressed vulnerability. “Weren’t we okay, Liz?”

“Don’t lie to him, Liz,” Molly prompted gently, “Share your true feelings with him.”

Now it was Liz’s turn to be self-conscious. She began nervously twirling a strand of her hair about her index finger, finding it difficult to meet Max’s desperate stare. Liz knew that all his illusions about her happiness, his confidence in his ability to read her feelings were being dashed to pieces. He had to believe now that he didn’t know her at all, that he hadn’t known her for some time now. Liz had to admit that his assumption wouldn’t be entirely off the mark.

She forced herself to look at him, forced herself to stare into his eyes while she told him what was truly in her heart. Because then she knew, no matter how much the words stung, no matter how it hurt him to hear the truth, he would be sure to see her love for him reflected in her eyes. He would know that she didn’t blame him. Not anymore. “I was never entirely confident in myself…in us after what happened with Tess, Max,” Liz admitted softly, “Even after you forgave me for what happened with Cameron part of me still felt so unworthy. I felt caught between being angry that you left me in the first place to go with Tess and feeling like I’d deserved it.” She took a deep breath before plunging on. “I spent most of our marriage feeling like I had to prove myself to you.”

“I haven’t made you feel that way, have I, Liz?” Max couldn’t believe that he would ever be so insensitive as to make her feel she had to prove her worth to him, but looking at the beaten expression on her face Max realized that was exactly what he had done. “Oh my God…I have…”

“I know you don’t do it on purpose, Max,” Liz rushed to reassure him, “But you have this standard…I just feel like you’re always judging me. It’s like you’re perfect and I’m the screw-up and I’m always the one running around trying to make something up to you, but you never have to make anything up to me.”

Her words held an embittered edge; her body was incredibly tense as she spoke. From her body language alone Max could tell that she’d been holding her anger for a long while. And it explained so much. Why she had cheated on him with Brenner in the first place, why she shut him out at one of the most awful times in their lives, why she’d attempted suicide, why she had tossed her birth control pills. This whole time she’d felt alone. He hadn’t treated her as a friend or an equal, definitely not as a wife, but as a child to be scolded, to be taught a lesson and in his arrogance, his damnable need to be the martyr Max had nearly broken her to pieces.

The realization caused tears to sting anew at his eyes. He grabbed blindly at her hands as they raced a silent path down his cheeks. “Liz, I’m so sorry…” he rasped, not knowing what else to say, but feeling that no words would ever make up for the damage he had done, “I’m so sorry.” Liz buried herself in his arms then and they clung together, crying and healing together.

“Max, why do you feel you owe Liz an apology?” Molly inquired gently. She was loathe to break up their tender moment, but wisely realized that there were still some issues to be resolved between them.

Max reluctantly untangled himself from Liz’s embrace, but kept his arm loosely draped around his shoulder. “Liz was right when she said I’m judgmental,” he said stiffly, “I don’t mean to be…but I know I have the tendency to always point out where she’s wrong without ever seeing my own mistakes. For months now, I’ve been holding her responsible the many things that have gone wrong in our marriage but the entire time I was the catalyst behind it all.”

“How so?” Molly prodded.

“I blamed her for sleeping with Brenner, but I’m the one who shook her faith in me when I turned to Tess so soon after our break-up,” Max replied, “I never explained to her why I did either. At first, I thought I was just trying to spare her pain, but now I realize that all I did was plant seeds of doubt. I know realize that there are a lot of things I could have done differently.”

“What things?” Dr. Cochran asked.

“I could have told her the truth about why I went to Tess for one thing,” Max replied gruffly, “I also should have been completely honest about Maria and the baby and everything. I’ve been using guilt and manipulation to control her and…and that’s just wrong. I haven’t been fair to Liz at all…not for a long time now.”

“Why don’t you tell her now?” Molly suggested.

Max nodded and tipped down his head to meet his wife’s watery gaze. “You were right when you said I stopped treating you as a woman,” he told her fervently, “Somewhere down the line I lost respect for you and not because of something you’d done, but because I didn’t respect myself. I was so eaten up with fear over losing you that I did whatever I had to do to keep you, even if that meant killing your spirit a little at a time. I’ve treated you so badly, Liz, but I was so scared of losing you again that I would have done anything…anything. But all I did was push you further away…I know that now. I put you through hell and I’m so sorry…sorrier than I can say--,”

Liz placed her finger against his lips, stilling the emotional tremors in his voice. “Don’t,” she whispered tenderly, “This isn’t about placing blame or accepting it. We’re here to heal, remember, to rebuild what we once had. Nothing else matters, Max.”

Still, he continued on, needing to verbally punish himself for his blindness. “I’ve been a self-righteous son of a bitch,” he insisted thickly, “I don’t deserve your forgiveness, Liz, or your love.”

“Well, if you don’t deserve my forgiveness I don’t deserve yours,” Liz argued stubbornly, “I’m not a saint, Max. I lied to you over and over again. I hurt you and betrayed you more times than I can count--,”

“I thought you said this wasn’t about taking the blame,” Max interrupted somber smile.

“That’s exactly my point,” Liz said, “We’re both to blame. We both made mistakes and now we both have to forgive each other and move on.”

Molly Cochran had a hard time biting back her smile of satisfaction. She was quite pleased with how far this couple had come and in just two short hours. Unlike the tense distance that had separated them when they first arrived they were now curled up together on the sofa looking every bit like new lovers.

“I think we’ve covered enough for this session,” she said softly, breaking the tender moment between them, “Why don’t we meet again next week? Same time.”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:32:14 PM
Chapter 13

“Do you want a sandwich?” Liz asked brightly, humming to herself as she rummaged around in the kitchen, “I can make you a sandwich.” But when she tossed a smiling glance over her shoulder at Max she found him leaning against the doorjamb, brooding. “What’s with the face?”

“What face?” Max asked morosely.

“You look like you’ve lost your best friend,” Liz remarked, slicing off a pat of butter into the skillet she’d prepared for her grilled cheese sandwich.

“Have I?”

“Have you what?” Liz queried, appraising him with a thoughtful frown.

“Lost my best friend?”

Unable to ignore the dark edge in his tone any longer, Liz shut off the stove and turned to face him, leaning back against the oven door. She folded her arms across her breasts. “Max, what’s bothering you?” she asked him gently.

Now that was a loaded question if Max had ever heard one. Did she have a year? He had just discovered today that he had been putting her through silent hell for the better part of a year, possibly their entire relationship and he felt like crap over it. He felt like someone who had just sped through an intersection at a red light. They continue on their way unobstructed while completely unaware of the accidents and carnage they’ve left in their wake. Yes, that described Max quite nicely and today…today he had dared a glance in the rearview mirror and finally “seen” the horror.

Now he didn’t know what to do. Now he felt completely uncertain. Max was afraid that every word he said, every deed he did would somehow make things worse. He was almost tempted to say nothing at all, but he knew he wouldn’t do that. Max had learned in therapy that silence was what had brought them to this point in the first place. He didn’t talk, Liz didn’t talk and the problems festered. So despite the trembling fear he felt, not so much to voice his feelings or ask the questions in his heart, but to hear Liz’s answers Max forced himself to share what was on his mind.

After taking a few seconds to fortify himself with courage Max blurted out quickly, “Why don’t you hate me?”

Liz hadn’t been expecting the question and it showed. Her jaw dropped slightly in response. She was almost tempted to laugh but the agonized grimace on Max’s face was perfectly serious. He was really turning himself inside out over it. “Why don’t I hate you?” she repeated in amazement, “Max, what sort of question is that to ask me?”

“A logical one, I think,” Max replied, “considering all the things that came to light today. You’ve been hurting all this time and I’ve never acknowledged it. I can’t imagine how frustrating that’s been for you.”

“Oh,” Liz said, her eyes widening with clarified understanding, “So that’s what has been on your mind.” She understood completely now. He was still smarting over the therapy session. Well, not smarting exactly, but definitely downhearted. Following the session he hadn’t been extremely talkative although he had not declined Liz’s invitation to follow her home. She had assumed that once he had some time alone to reflect on things he would feel better, but obviously his mood had not improved. He was still beating himself up with guilt.

“Well, Max, I was frustrated at first,” Liz conceded honestly, “But after talking with you today I’m not so much anymore.”

“Still--,”

“No, Max, really,” Liz interrupted, “I’m fine. There were so many things I didn’t understand before and now I do. Now I understand why you turned to Maria and why you’ve been treating me like the village idiot for the last eight months, though that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Still, knowing the reasoning behind your actions make it easier to cope.”

Max’s lips twitched at her wording, his morose frown suddenly giving way to a snorting chuckle that bubbled forth from his mouth. “The village idiot?”

Liz couldn’t keep from smirking either. “It was the only thing I could think of,” she said in laughing defense, “but an apropos description I assure you”.

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” Max agreed, making a face.

Her smile stretching even wider, Liz strolled over to where Max stood, lifting her eyes to his only when she stood directly in front on him. “The point is, Max,” she began coyly, tracing her fingers over the wrinkled lines of his shirt, “our therapy session today was supposed to make you feel better not worse.”

“It’s all the latent guilt,” Max said, catching hold of her hand and bringing it to his lips, “I feel like I’ve been hit by a MAC truck, not to mention the fact that I’ve been a complete bastard to you for the last eight months. That’s really hard for me to accept.”

Liz slipped her arms about his waist and laid her cheek against the solid wall of his chest. For a moment she contented herself with listening to the thumping sound of his heartbeat before she spoke. “You weren’t as bad as that, Max,” she reassured him in a whisper and when he still didn’t respond she added wryly, “I don’t expect self-flagellation, you know. Just endless apologies and many, many gifts.”

Max actually smiled at that, though he tried hard not to. Only Liz could do this to him. Only she could take him from the deep pit of despair to the highest precipice of laughter. She was his sunshine and joy, his thunder and tears. She was his everything, his entire world. When he thought of how close he’d come to losing her, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well and how long he had been pushing her away, his heart lurched. Max promised himself that he would never do that again. But in order to assure that Max had to be careful, he had to be attentive, he had to listen.

He hugged Liz against him firmly and buried his face into the fragrant crook of her neck. “You’re too good to me,” he said solemnly, “Thank you for not giving up on us.” He kissed her shoulder, his lips lingering for a moment before he lifted his head. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”

The instant their eyes connected, however, something changed between them. The moment was no longer about simply comforting one another or forgiveness, but now about closeness as well, the need to heal in every sense. Tentatively, Max lowered his head once again, brushing Liz’s lips with his own. He reared back slightly, gauging her reaction to see if she would welcome his advances or spurn him. Liz locked gazes with Max once again, her tongue darting out to moisten her lips seductively. It was all the invitation Max needed.

With a shuddering groan he sealed their lips once more, his fingers tunneling into her silky hair. The soft tendrils spilled over his hands like a fountain as he angled her head backwards in order to gain greater access to her warm mouth. He swept the delicate recesses of her mouth with his tongue in hungry need, dipping to taste again and again. Liz slid her hands up his chest, her fingers curling into the lapels of his shirt while he kissed her breathless.

Her world became fuzzy, blurring slightly as Liz was inescapably pulled into the kiss. Liz became lost in Max, in his touch, his intoxicating scent. She didn’t want to be found. She wanted to go on kissing him forever.

When Max finally broke the kiss they were both stunned, their breaths soughing from their chests in harsh pants. They hadn’t kissed that way since the night Ronnie was born, with desperation and desire they couldn’t hide. It was as if they had both finally and truly let go of their demons and given themselves over without reservation. There was no longer room for resentment and recrimination between them, the passion between them left no room for anything else. “What was that?” Liz gasped, her fingers playing over her still tingling mouth.

Max leaned his forehead against hers, his mouth stretching in a sexy half smile. “I’ve wanted to do that for nearly a week now,” he told her breathlessly, “I just didn’t know the best way to go about it.”

“Well, apparently that’s not a problem anymore,” Liz teased him softly.

“Apparently,” Max chuckled and then his smile faltered a bit, “You’re not upset, are you? You don’t think we’re moving too fast?”

“Quite the contrary,” Liz drawled, curving her arms about his neck to bring his face within inches of hers, “I want to do it again.”

Max was more than happy to comply. He cradled her face in his hands and brought their lips into contact for another voracious kiss. Max felt intoxicated, caught up in the sweet taste of her, the eager way she pressed her body to his. Liz’s very presence wove itself around him like a gossamer thread of seduction, slowly entangling him in a web of throbbing desire. He needed to touch her all over, to run his hands all over her body and make her his again. He needed her to claim him in the same way. With a low moan of hunger, Max lifted Liz against his hardening body, sandwiching her between him and the doorframe.

Breathless minutes later Liz found herself laughing softly into Max’s mouth. “That was…wow,” Liz purred, sensuously rubbing her legs up the length of his thighs and wrapping them provocatively about his hips. “You’ve obviously been keeping a lot pent up inside,” she observed with a teasing smile.

Max smiled in return and nuzzled against her nose. “I’ll say…” They shared another soft kisses amid panting giggles, but all too soon Max’s conscience began to prickle him. They had only just had their first therapy session that morning and already Max was considering the possibility of making love. No, he wasn’t considering, he mentally amended; he wanted to make love. Right now. He reared back slightly, smoothing his hands down the length of Liz’s shiny hair. “Are you sure this is okay,” he asked uncertainly, “We only just made a breakthrough today--,”

“Max--,”

“—And I don’t want to rush things--,”

“Max--,” Liz tried again.

“—Or make you feel uncomfortable--,”

“Max!” she said in soft exclamation, finally claiming his attention. “You don’t have to feel like you’re taking advantage of me, baby,” she told him fervently, “I want this.” To emphasize her point Liz brought her hands down between them and unfastened the first three buttons of his shirt, spreading the material wide and pressing an opened mouth kiss to the delicate pulse at the base of his throat. Max moaned as her tongue played over his skin and their mouths sought out one another once again.

Curving his hand down her slender body to cup her bottom, Max lifted her higher against him and blindly walked into the living room with her. Liz wrapped her legs around him firmly, never once allowing him to break their hungry kiss. Max fell back onto the sofa with her so that she straddled him, half groaning, half laughing as he did. They halted the kiss only long enough to make frantic readjustments for comfort and then they were at it once again. Max’s wedged his hands between their straining bodies, his fingers nimbly unfastening her blouse buttons while continuing to devour Liz’s mouth. Only when his task was complete did Max finally pull away.

He looked up into Liz’s desire darkened eyes struck by her wild, feral beauty. Her thick brown hair was disheveled and tossed about her shoulders, falling around her, falling around him. He rubbed at the silky tendrils across her shoulder, kneading her skin through the soft curtain her hair created. And then his fingers drifted to her lips, which were pink and pouty and abraded, glistening in the dimness of the living room light, beckoning him to come in for another taste. Max did just that, sampling her lips sweetly before trailing his mouth down the soft column of her throat, nibbling gently as he made his way to the curve of her breast.

Reflexively holding his breath as he did so, Max parted the lapels of her powder blue blouse to reveal her quivering breasts, encased perfectly in one lacy…black…bra. Max groaned, inexplicably aroused by the contrast between Liz’s perfect golden skin and the inky blackness of her bra. “My God…”

However, the moment the cool air hit Liz fevered skin she was snapped back to her senses. What were they doing, Liz asked herself harshly; they weren’t nearly ready for this. They had only just begun therapy and already they were falling back into their old routine. Max was right…they were moving too fast. If they were going to repair the emotional fissures in their marriage they couldn’t make all the same old mistakes. Liz lurched backwards, suddenly mortified by how far they’d gone. “Oh my god, we shouldn’t be doing this, Max,” she told him, panting with a mixture of desire and fluttering panic.

Instead of being angry, as Liz would have expected, Max simply sighed and inclined his head in a regretful nod. “I…I know it. I should have stopped before we went too far,” he admitted shamefully. Max didn’t want her to take any of the blame. As a licensed professional he should have known better, but all his good judgment seemed to go to hell whenever Liz was involved. He slid his hands up and down the length of her forearms. “I just wanted you so much…”

Playing at the sad curve of his mouths with her fingertips, Liz offered him a tentative smile. “I wanted you, too.” She started to lean forward to brush his lips in a sweet kiss before rolling away from him when the front door suddenly yawned open.

With a surprised cry, Liz scrambled off Max’s lap as if she’d been scalded, but not soon enough. Both Maria and Claudia had gained an eyeful; Liz straddled blatantly across Max’s lap with her shirt gaping wide open. Maria could only stand and gape, her expression frozen in dubious shock. In contrast, Claudia’s pretty face split in a thousand watt grin of pleasure.

Neither Max nor Liz had ever felt so mortified in all their lives. Maybe there was the time when the entire gang had walked in on them making love, but that was a long time ago. Besides they were older and now their child was present, too. It was a little difficult to look Claudia in the eye despite the fact she was grinning.

In the embarrassing seconds that followed Liz was the first one to regain her wits. Clutching her shirt together with one fist she said to Claudia as calmly as she could manage, “Honey, why don’t you go upstairs for now?”

“But I wanna stay here,” Claudia protested, her child’s instinct telling her that she was about to miss out on something good.

“Upstairs,” Liz told her firmly. Claudia was obviously not happy about her mother’s edict but she obediently complied with it. They heard her stomping up the stairs the entire way. Only when she was gone did Liz quickly refasten her blouse. “Maria, what are you doing here?”

“The school called me,” Maria explained lamely, “I tried calling your cellphones but--,”

“We had them turned off,” Max said quickly, “Liz and I were at a therapy session this morning…it ran kinda long.”

“And went very well, too, huh?” Maria quipped, regaining some of her lost composure. She nodded towards Liz’s blouse, which in her haste to refasten she had misbuttoned. “Liz, uh…you might want to…”

Liz’s looked down, her cheeks flaming anew when she realized what she’d done. She quickly jumped to her feet and whirled around to rebutton her shirt. When she was done she faced Maria again, her features blasé though her cheeks were apple red. “Why did you have to get Claudia from school,” she asked, “She didn’t get sick or anything, did she?” Liz hoped not. She had barely looked at Claudia earlier she had been so mortified with embarrassment. Liz hated to think that her daughter might have needed comfort before she was sent upstairs to wait alone.

An odd look settled over Maria’s features and her lips twisted into a smirk. “No, Claudia didn’t get sick,” she quickly reassured her friend. But just as Liz and Max started to sag with relief she added, “She got suspended.”

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:34:29 PM
Chapter 14

“What?” Max exploded, bolting upright on the sofa.

“I said Claudia was suspended from school today,” Maria enunciated slowly. Faced with the comical disbelief on both Liz and Max’s faces Maria felt more in the mood for a hearty laugh than a serious discussion. But she could understand their incredulity. She too had been speechless with shock when the school had called. The idea of little Claudia Evans, sweet tempered, obedient little Claudia, being suspended from school had been too ludicrous to contemplate. But since then she’d had more than an hour to adjust to the facts. Now she had to give Max and Liz the time to adjust as well.

“Claudia was suspended?” Liz asked, as if she thought she’d misheard Maria the first two times, “From school?”

“Yes, from school,” Maria confirmed with an exasperated shake of her head, “Claudia was suspended from school.”

“Why?” Max demanded after finally shaking away the shock, “She’s in kindergarten! What could a five year old possibly have done to warrant a suspension from school?” Max paused mid-rant when something else occurred to him. “And why did they call you to come get her and not us…her parents?”

“They did call you,” Maria corrected, “But, like I mentioned before, your cellphones were turned off. As her emergency contact I was the next choice.”

“What happened?” Liz asked softly, sinking back down onto the sofa.

“Evidently, Claudia decided to punch a little boy in the chest because he made a disparaging remark about you.”

“A disparaging remark?” Liz burst out blankly, “What remark? Claudia would never punch anyone. She’s not like that.”

Maria held up her hands in surrender. “Don’t kill the messenger!” she exclaimed, “I only know what the principal and Claudia told me.”

“Did Claudia tell you she hit this boy?” Max wondered aloud.

“Yeah…” Maria confirmed almost sadly, “She’s not sorry about it.” Maria allowed them time to absorb this newest bit of information in the ensuing pause before continuing. “Claudia walloped that boy pretty hard,” she said to them, “He had a bruise on his chest the size of Texas. The teacher said she actually knocked the wind out of him. He couldn’t get up for five minutes. They actually called 911.”

“Oh my God,” Max uttered, completely blown away that his angel, his little darling Claudia had hit someone hard enough to knock them nearly unconscious.

“I’m not entirely sure she didn’t use her powers,” Maria continued blandly, “but when I asked her she said no.” She lifted her shoulders in a light shrug. “You might want to ask her about it anyway.”

Both Max and Liz’s expressions remained blank with shock; almost as if they hadn’t registered a word she’d said. “Look, I’m sorry to bring you such bad news,” Maria apologized, “especially when things are, apparently, going so well for the two of you.” Maria found herself a little flustered by that development as well. Max and Liz’s relationship seemed to be on the road to recovery while her and Liz’s relationship seemed to just be limping along. Misplaced though her feelings might be, Maria felt somewhat bitter by the fact.

“It’s okay,” Max told her dismissively, “Thank you for bringing Claudia home in the first place.”

“No problem.” Maria glanced at her watch. “Look, I’d better get going,” she said evasively, “I’ve got to meet with my agent before I pick the girls up from school.”

As she turned to leave Liz called out, “Wait! I’ll walk you to your car.” Max exchanged uncertain glances between Liz determined features and Maria’s ashen ones before grabbing hold of Liz’s arm. Liz looked down at him expectantly. “What is it?”

“Maybe we should go talk to Claudia now,” he suggested haltingly. Max knew he wasn’t doing a good job of hiding his apprehension over her decision to walk Maria to her car and at the moment he didn’t even try. After the admissions he’d made in therapy today Max didn’t want to think about what Liz might have to say to Maria.

“Max, it’s fine,” Liz reassured him, knowing exactly what had him so agitated, “Maria and I have a few things we need to get straightened out.”

Max was still reluctant to let her go, but he had to respect Liz’s decision no matter how much it scared the hell out of him. He released her arm. “I’ll wait here until you get back then,” he said softly.

By the time they made it outside to her car Maria’s stomach was churning with nerves. She fumbled with her car keys nervously only to drop them in the grass alongside the driveway. Obligingly, Liz bent and handed them back to her. In contrast to Maria’s fidgety tenseness Liz was serenely demure. She clasped her hands together in front of her and regarded Maria with a tentative smile. “I thought we should finish up our conversation from the other day,” Liz said quietly.

Maria tossed her hair back from her eyes, but couldn’t quite meet Liz’s steady gaze. “I thought we did.”

“There are still some things I’m not quite clear on,” Liz replied smoothly.

“What things?”

Liz emitted a short, scoffing laugh. “Come on, Maria!” she bit out a little coldly, “You never used to play games with me…why start now?”

Throwing up her hands in agonized exasperation, Maria demanded tearily, “God, what do you want from me, Liz!” Ever since Liz’s true feelings about what had happened between her and Max had begun to flow to the surface Maria lived in constant fear of what she might say. Now the hurt and anger and betrayal that had been with Liz so long were in evidence, burning plainly in her eyes whenever she looked at Maria. There was a sickening feeling in Maria’s gut when she saw it because she knew what it meant. She was going to lose her best friend, after all…

“I want you to tell me the truth!” Liz charged her, her calm veneer slipping a notch.

“What truth!” Maria cried, “I’ve told you everything, Liz!”

“Why did you come back that day?” Liz asked her suddenly, her dropping her façade completely to reveal the agitation just beneath the surface, “I can make peace with almost everything else, but I just can’t figure that part out at all. Why did you really come back that day, Maria? Was it only to tell Max you loved him or was it because you wanted something more?”

“What are you asking me, Liz?” Maria whispered miserably.

“What would you have done if I hadn’t been there that day you came back,” Liz demanded silkily, “Would you have kissed him again…made love to him…what?”

“Liz--,” Maria tried to reach out and touch her but Liz shrugged her away angrily.

“Why did you come back that day, Maria!”

“Because I didn’t want to lose my friend!” Maria shouted back. Her outburst stunned Liz into silence. Truthfully, Maria had stunned herself as well. “He’s my friend, too, Liz. I just…I didn’t want to lose his friendship.”

“You would have chosen his friendship over mine,” Liz accused softly.

“Why does it have to be a choice?” Maria sniffled.

“You kissed my husband…you told him you loved him!” Liz exploded, “Of course there has to be a choice!”

“That’s over between us, Liz! We were so confused,” Maria denied, “It didn’t mean anything…I swear it…I swear.”

“That doesn’t make it easier to hear, Maria!” Liz spat, “In fact, it makes it worse.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I want to know the truth. That day…are you telling me you didn’t come back that day to take him away from me?” Liz asked wearily, “You didn’t want anything beyond his friendship…is that what you’re telling me?”

“God, Liz, if I wanted to take Max to bed I could have the night we kissed,” Maria retorted bluntly. And then her bravado shriveled abruptly and she slumped back against her car. “But I didn’t want that, Liz…it’s why I came to see you in the first place. No matter what had gone on between us I could have never slept with your husband. I would have never…” She broke off in a choking sob and pressed her hand against her heart as if to soothe the ache there. When she lifted her eyes to Liz again they were swimming with unshed tears. “You’ve really lost all respect for me, haven’t you?”

“You told him you loved him, Maria,” Liz answered stonily, her heart contracting at the hurt she heard in Maria’s tone though she was careful to hide it, “I heard you tell him. And you were so upset that day. It was obvious that you felt more for him than friendship…that you wanted more.”

“He had only just kissed me the week before,” Maria snapped sarcastically, “forgive me if finding him in bed with you only days later kinda hurt a little!” It dawned on Maria then that they were standing out in the driveway having a screaming match that anyone could happen by and overhear. She dragged her hands down the length of her face. “You obviously don’t trust me anymore, Liz, so why are we rehashing all this? I can tell you til I’m blue in the face that I didn’t deliberately set out to seduce Max. I can tell you that I was lonely and pregnant and friendless and we just gravitated together because he felt the same. I could tell you that the moment I realized I’d crossed the line with that kiss I came straight to you and it still wouldn’t matter one damned bit! You’ve already tried me now I’m just waiting for the sentence! Do you want to end our friendship, is that what you want?”

Liz had to consider her question for a long time and when she was done she still didn’t have an answer. On the one hand, Maria had been her best friend nearly all her life. In fact, she was more like a sister to Liz. It was impossible to imagine her life without Maria DeLuca Guerin in it. But on the other hand, Maria had hurt her deeply. There were so many things she could easily forgive Maria for, so many grievances she would have gladly excused, but this thing with Max…try as she might Liz couldn’t completely let go of her resentment and anger over it. Whenever she saw them together it was always in the back of her mind and she couldn’t shake, no matter how hard she tried.

Just like she wasn’t ready to make love with Max, Liz wasn’t ready to fully embrace her friendship with Maria either. They had been playacting all these months now. Liz had really made the effort to pick up where they’d left off, but something had always been missing. Maria had deduced the truth. Liz had lost respect for her, she no longer trusted the woman who she had once called “best friend.” There was no getting around it. Liz hung her head as she finally faced the truth. “I wanted for things to go back to the way they were, Maria,” Liz told her fervently, “I really did…but I wasn’t ready. I was lying to myself and to you and to Max when I said I was ready to forgive…”

“I thought you might have been, but I just wanted to believe everything would be okay between us again,” Maria countered sadly, “So where does that leave us?”

Still unable to look Maria in the eye, Liz fiddled with her wedding ring. “I’ve got to focus on working out my problems with Max and you…you just got married and you need to focus on your husband so…”

“…so you want me to keep my distance,” Maria finished bitterly.

Liz screwed her eyes shut and nodded. “I think that would be best. I need to be able to trust you around Max again and, right now, I don’t think I do.” Liz stared down at the ground, waiting for Maria to provide some sort of response. However, Maria said nothing and the next sound she heard was Maria’s car door slamming and the ignition revving to life. She looked up just in time to see Maria peeling out of her driveway. Liz stared after the retreating sports car, her heart breaking into a million pieces.

Max crept up behind Liz and tentatively slid his arms around her waist. He propped his chin against her shoulder and asked gently, “Was it bad?”

Liz sniffled back her tears. “It was worse than I could have imagined.”

“I’m sorry I did this,” Max said with tender solemnity, “I never meant to ruin your friendship with her.”

“What did you think would happen, huh? Dammit, why didn’t you think, Max?” Liz demanded stringently, clinging to his embrace even while her words vibrated with anger and sorrow, “Why didn’t you think?”

Max felt like he was splintering apart, his entire being aching with harsh regret. “I was wrong…I’m sorry, I really am. I was trying to hurt you, Liz,” he confessed shamefully, “I wanted to hurt you.”

Liz shrugged out of his arms then and brushed away her tears. “And you did,” she confirmed, her lips twisted in a bitter, ironic smile, “So did she.”

“Liz, I--,”

“Don’t say anything,” she interrupted softly, “Don’t apologize…just don’t. It’s over and done. We can’t change it, Max. I’m trying to deal with it…I just need time.”

Max cupped her cheek sweetly before letting his hand fall away. “I’ll give you all the time you need, baby,” he whispered, “I’ll do whatever you want…anything to make you happy, Liz.”

Liz couldn’t fight back her lopsided smile at his tender words. “You might not want to make promises you can’t keep, Max,” she teased him softly, “I might just take you up on your offer.”

“Do it. You can have anything you want,” Max insisted, pulling her into his arms once more when he saw her smile, “I’ll give you anything within my power.”

“Anything?”

Anything.”

Liz pretended to consider his offer, tapping her chin thoughtfully. And then she her smile wavered a bit and she snuggled against him even closer. “I just want you, Max,” she said tenderly, “I want to trust you again…I want that more than anything.”

Max looked deep into her eyes, his conviction, his remorse, his burning love for her present in his gaze when he promised, “You will. I promise…I will back your trust. And once I do, I’ll never betray it again.”

He made the vow with such fierce sincerity Liz couldn’t help but believe him.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:35:49 PM
Chapter 15

“So you want to tell Mom and me what happened at school today?”

Claudia was slow to glance up from the coloring book, which she had been sprawled over for the last hour. She hadn’t really been doing much coloring, however. She had been desperate to keep herself busy while her parents were occupied with her Aunt Maria. She had prayed fervently that Maria would stay forever thereby keeping her parents downstairs and away from her, but apparently God had decided to take the day off.

She had almost been lulled into a sense of security when her bedroom door finally creaked open. Claudia’s little body tensed with fear when her father’s gentle voice sounded over her head, which was exactly the reason she took her sweet time looking up. Claudia wasn’t the least bit fooled by Max’s soothing tone. She didn’t need to look at his face to know he was furious with her.

Pushing herself upright on her bed, Claudia drew small circles on her coloring book with her fingertip. “What if I told you I tripped,” she asked innocently, “and that I hit him by accident?”

Max stooped down beside her so that they were at eye level. “Was it an accident?” he asked, gripping her by the chin so that she was forced to meet his eyes.

With him staring at her in such a penetrating manner Claudia found she couldn’t lie. “No,” she admitted miserably, but then she added in childish bravado, “Billy Kimble got what he deserved! He’s a mean fourth grader and he picks on people all the time!”

“He deserved a punch in the chest?” Max inquired. Claudia jerked her head in a mutinous nod. Max leveled his daughter with a stern look. “Now, Claudia, I know your mother and I have taught you not to hit people for any reason. You know the rule about keeping your hands to yourself.”

“But Billy called Mommy crazy,” Claudia protested hotly, her golden eyes glistening with angry tears, “He said his mom said that Mommy was crazy and our family was dys…dys…” She struggled to find the word.

“Dysfunctional?” Max provided gently.

“I think so!” Claudia confirmed hotly, “He said his mom read that our family was bad and then he called Mommy crazy and a retard! He kept singing it over and over! I couldn’t just let him say that about Mommy, Daddy! I couldn’t!”

Liz’s heart ached at the revelation. So Claudia was being teased at school about her condition. Liz wondered how long it had been going on. She couldn’t imagine that it had begun recently, yet she and Max hadn’t heard a single word about it. Obviously, Claudia had been handling it rather well, at least, until this latest incident and then she’d just snapped. Liz was caught between pride over her daughter’s emotional bravery and guilt because she had been the one to put Claudia in such a position to begin with. It seemed that Max wasn’t the only one with sins to atone for.

“It’s alright, munchkinette,” Max soothed as his little girl started to break down. He met his wife’s eyes over her head and saw that Liz was in just as much agony. But when Claudia started to cry in earnest Max pulled her into his arms, cradling her in his lap. He looked up at Liz and held out his arms in invitation. Liz didn’t hesitate. She came to sit alongside them, melting into Max’s embrace while she alternately kissed and stroked Claudia’s hair reassuringly. “I don’t want people to say bad things about you, Mommy,” Claudia sniffled between hiccups.

“I know you were just trying to protect me, Claud,” Liz whispered gently, “but I don’t want you to fight anyone…no matter what they say.”

Though Claudia nodded her eyes were wide with tearful confusion. “But don’t it hurt your feelings when they say bad things?” she asked innocently.

Liz decided to answer Claudia’s question with a question of her own. “Does it hurt your feelings, Claud?” she pondered astutely.

Claudia shrugged and looked away, but by this time Max had caught on to what Liz was trying to do and he joined in. “Are you mad because Mommy got sick?” he asked his daughter gently.

At first Claudia looked as if she didn’t want to answer at all. She compressed her lips together tightly as she stubbornly held onto her resentment. But then it bubbled forth all its own, unwilling to be contained any longer. “I know you were sad about Jeff,” Claudia burst out painfully, “but did you have to forget about me and Daddy? We loved you, too.”

Liz swallowed back a painful sob. “I didn’t forget about you, sweetheart,” she protested. She fingered her daughter’s flushed cheek. “I never forgot about you and Daddy.”

“But you wouldn’t talk to us,” Claudia fretted tearfully, “I tried and tried. I would go into your room even when Daddy told me not to and you wouldn’t talk to me.”

That was the final straw for Liz. She crushed Claudia against her while harsh sobs tore from her body. The three of them clung together desperately, father, mother and child, gradually healing the schism between them and becoming a family once more. “Claudia, I am so sorry,” Liz whispered fiercely into her daughter’s hair, “so very sorry. But you need to realize that I love you. I was sick and that’s why I didn’t talk, but it wasn’t because I didn’t love you.”

“Do you love Daddy, too?” Claudia asked meekly.

Liz exchanged a soft look with Max before she replied. “Yes, I love Daddy,” Liz answered solemnly, “I love you both.”

“But you won’t let him come home,” Claudia wailed plaintively, “You guys are always fighting and…and we’re not never happy no more. You’re just messing everything up!”

“Is that why you’ve been so angry lately,” Max inquired quietly, “because you think your mom and I are messing up.” It explained so much lately, her surly behavior, her sudden backtalk, and the suspension. Claudia had a great deal of resentment packed tight in her tiny body and today that resentment had obviously exploded. “Honey, I know me and Mommy have been messing up lately, but you have too.” Claudia lowered her head in shame. “And that’s okay,” Max went on gently, “because we’re allowed to make mistakes sometimes, but we just can’t keep on making them. We have to try and fix the things we mess up.”

“Were you and Mommy fixing things when I saw you kissing today?” Claudia asked boldly. She missed the provocative smiles that passed between her parents.

“That’s exactly what we were doing,” Max confirmed largely, “We’ve got a lot of fixing to do. I’ve got to fix what I messed up with Mommy, Mommy’s got to fix what she messed up with you, and you’ve got to fix what you messed up at school. Which reminds me,” Max said in afterthought, “When you punched Billy Kimble today you didn’t use your powers, did you?”

Claudia shook her head. “I wanted to,” she replied, her chin jutted in stubborn anger, “but I remembered what you told me about using my powers remonsibly and so then I just used my them to make my fist like a rock and I punched him instead…really hard.”

Caught between laughter and relief Max could only pat his daughter’s head lightly. “Honey, that’s still using your powers,” he explained.

“Yeah, but I didn’t use them on him,” Claudia stressed.

“I’m glad you didn’t use your powers on Billy, but punching him was still very bad and you hurt him terribly, Claudia,” he told her.

“I just…just wanted him to shut up,” Claudia pouted, on the verge of tears, “I wasn’t…wasn’t trying to hurt him bad.”

“That’s okay, baby, I know it,” Max soothed, kissing her forehead and brushing away the new tears falling on her cheeks, “But now we have to figure out how we’re going to make this all better…with our family and with Billy.”

“We could all say we’re sorry,” Claudia suggested brightly.

“That’s a good idea,” Liz agreed, a smile of pure affection ghosting her lips.

“I’ll go first,” Max volunteered. He looked at Liz, his eyes solemn and serious when he said, “I’m sorry, Mommy, for being such a jerk to you. Will you forgive me?”

Liz giggled a little at his pouting expression. “I will,” she replied and then she turned her attention to Claudia and said, “I’m sorry I made you feel like I didn’t love you, Claudia-laudia. Will you forgive me?”

Claudia’s answering nod couldn’t have been happier. “And I’m sorry for being such a bad girl,” she piped up brightly, smiling for the first time since their conversation began, “I’m sorry for getting a ‘spension and I promise I never will again.”

Both Liz and Max pressed sound kisses to both sides of her plump cheeks. “Apology accepted,” Liz told her, “but Claudia doing bad things doesn’t make you a bad person, but you should apologize to Billy when you go back to school. I’ll call your principal tomorrow morning and explain the situation to him. Maybe we can get something worked out.”

“What do we do now?” Claudia asked when the apologies were all over.

“I suppose I should punish you,” Max mused aloud. He had to swallow back his laughter when he felt Claudia tense in his lap. Deliberately making her sweat it out he tacked on after a long pause, “But I don’t really want to do that.” He lifted his eyes to Liz once more. “I think there’s been enough punishment going around this family lately.”

Liz’s heart lurched once more because she knew he was talking about more than just Claudia’s school suspension. Max had grown weary of the drama that seemed to plague their lives just as Liz had. He seemed ready to leave all the sadness and heartache behind. Liz was ready as well. “What did you have in mind?” she asked him softly, a relieved smile spreading across her face, “Should we have a family night or something?”

Family night, Max considered thoughtfully. That was something they hadn’t had in ages, not really since Liz had been released from Cedar Ridge. Max could admit that they definitely needed one. The time together would allow them all to heal from the wounds opened in the last few weeks. It would give them the opportunity to become a family again. “I think that’s a great idea,” he said to his girls.

Claudia jumped down from her father’s lap in a flurry of excitement. “I’ll get the Trouble game,” she exclaimed, already racing for her closet.

“No,” Max called out, stopping her in her tracks, “I thought we’d do something different tonight…something really fun.”

“Like what?” Liz wanted to know.

“How about Chuck E. Cheese?” Max asked with dramatic flourish. As expected Claudia went into a series of piercing squeals, dancing around her room in happy little circles. Seeing her so happy Max couldn’t help but grin.

Liz, however, was completely surprised by his suggestion. “Max, the nearest Chuck E. Cheese is in Lubbock, Texas,” she cried incredulously, “That’s 150 miles away…it’s much too far.”

Fearful that her mother was about to put a pall on their plans Claudia pouted loudly, “Aww…mom!”

“Aww…mom!” Max mimicked with an identical pout. He pulled her against him and began tickling her sides. “Come on…it’ll be so much fun!”

“It…it will take…two…h-hours to…g-get there!” Liz choked out in laughter.

“We could sing songs on the way,” Max suggested teasingly. He flipped her onto her back and pinned her arms above her head. “Claudia, get over here,” he ordered playfully, impervious to Liz’s squealing and squirming, “You’re at our mercy now,” Max teased, “Surrender gracefully or I will be forced to sic the tickle monster on you.”

Liz’s giggle over their antics turned to an immediate guffaw when she dared a glance at her daughter and found Claudia wiggling her small fingers in mock menace. “Okay, I give,” Liz surrendered laughingly, “I give, I give, I give!”

“A wise decision, madam.” Max leaned down to give Liz a quick kiss, but it unexpectedly turned deep the moment their mouths met. When Max finally pulled away he felt dizzy with happy and love and weak with burgeoning desire. He stared down at Liz, his expression hooded and sexy. “You’re such a tease,” he whispered, but he was smiling dreamily as he said it.

“And you can’t get enough,” Liz whispered back provocatively.

That’s when they realized they had a captive audience. Claudia was standing three feet away, grinning at them like the mad hatter. “Go to your room,” Max growled at her playfully.

Claudia stared at her father blankly. “This is my room, Daddy.”

The dubious expression on his five year old’s face was too much. Max glanced back down at Liz again and they both burst into ironic laughter.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:37:07 PM
Chapter 16

When Max and Liz finally made it home eight hours later the phone was ringing incessantly.

Their evening had been long and exhausting, but extremely welcome. At Chuck E. Cheese’s they had nibbled on mediocre pizza while playing every game the place had to offer. Claudia had bounced from one side to another with an exuberant energy Max couldn’t remember ever having as a child. Max was sure that he’d spent upward of seventy dollars playing skeeball alone but it had been worth it just to win an overstuffed lion and Malibu Barbie for his girls. Of course, he did have to use his powers at bit in the end…but Claudia and Liz didn’t need to know that. To them he was the most marvelous man on earth.

While the drive to Lubbock, Texas had been filled with Claudia’s constant chatter the drive home had been romantically quiet. Exhausted and full from her night of fun Claudia had fallen asleep shortly after they hit the highway. In the quasi-private moment Max and Liz had exchanged small, secret smiles reminiscent of the moony looks they had exchanged in high school. As Max had driven home, he guided the car with one hand while holding Liz’s hand with the other. She had fallen asleep that way, with her hand curled in his. It was the most at peace Max had felt with her in years. He wished he could drive forever just so that he could keep the moment with him always.

When they finally reached home, Max had been reluctant to wake either of them. They looked absolutely exhausted. Usually Claudia would wake once they started to pull in the drive, but this time she didn’t even stir. Neither had Liz. They slept a boneless, deep sleep that nothing could disturb. It was because they were finally at peace, Max realized with a soft smile. After so many months of turmoil and uncertainty their family was finally becoming whole again. Max closed his eyes in a silent prayer of thanks to the God he didn’t believe in.

After watching them sleep for a few moments more, he shook them both awake. Upon entering the house, however, all clinging tendrils of sleep had vanished. Claudia was once again talking up a storm and desperately trying to convince him and Liz that she wasn’t at all sleepy. She and Liz were still battling it out as Max unloaded the car of their parcels. Inside the house, while Max did a dive for the ringing phone Liz escorted Claudia upstairs with Claudia still arguing points of sleepiness with her mother.

Chuckling over their antics, Max grabbed up the phone and sang out, “Hello?”

“Where have you been all night?” Isabel exploded anxiously, “I’ve left you at least ten messages.”

“Texas,” Max answered, grinning from ear to ear when Liz glided back down the stairs and came sauntering straight for him. She snuggled up against him sensuously, nuzzling her nose against the base of his throat. He brushed a tender kiss across her forehead. “I took Liz and Claudia to Chuck E. Cheese tonight. I turned off my cell because I didn’t want any interruptions. Why what’s up?”

“Maria was in a car accident this afternoon.”

Immediately, Max’s smile was faded clean from his face. “Oh my God, is it serious?” He and Maria hadn’t spoken much since Liz’s true feelings about what happened between them had come to light, but that didn’t negate the fact that Max was concerned for her well being. His heart rate picked up slightly. “Is she okay? How did it happen?” He fired the questions at Isabel, giving her little time to respond.

Liz stared up at Max’s anxious face, her heart beginning an inexplicable hammering as she watched his features drain of color. “What is it?” Liz mouthed to him but for the moment Max ignored her and held up a finger for silence.

“Max, calm down!” Isabel ordered shortly, “It happened earlier this afternoon. Apparently, she was distracted and she ran a red light. It’s pretty serious,” Isabel said, “She’s got some broken ribs, a punctured lung, some internal bleeding…she had to be rushed into emergency surgery…God, Max it’s just a mess. I think you should get out here as soon as possible.”

“We’re on our way,” Max told her tersely before clicking off the phone.

Liz, who was watching him expectantly, demanded the moment he hung up, “What happened? Who was that?”

“I don’t want you to panic--,” Max began soothingly.

“Just tell me what happened!”

Max sighed in heavy resignation. “Maria was in a car accident this afternoon.”

“Oh God!” Liz gasped out in horror, her hand flying to her mouth to staunch her cry of fear, “Is she…she’s okay, right?”

“Her condition is pretty serious,” Max replied darkly, “Isabel said she had to have surgery.”

Liz went on autopilot in that moment. She didn’t allow herself to become bogged down in fear and grief; instead she acted, her body immediately kicking into “must do” mode. “I’ll go upstairs and get Claudia,” she said decisively, “Go outside and start the car…we’ll be out in five minutes.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alex and Isabel were milling about outside Maria’s hospital room with Max and Liz arrived. From their ashen expressions her condition hadn’t improved much since Max’s abrupt conversation with Isabel. Hoisting his sleeping daughter more securely against his chest, Max demanded shortly, “How is she?”

“She’s out of surgery now and she’s conscious,” Isabel said morosely, “Her condition has been upgraded from critical to stable. Michael’s in with her. The doctor’s are examining her right now.”

“Can we see her?” Liz asked anxiously, already heading for the door.

Alex stepped forward to block her path. “Wait until Michael gives the okay, alright?” he suggested tentatively, “Maria’s just now coming around and they have some things to talk about.”

Liz gaped at him. She understood that Michael might want some alone time with Maria following her accident, but he had to realize that there were others present who cared about her welfare as well. In addition, though Liz would admit that she and Maria weren’t on the best of terms at the moment, she was beside herself with worry. She wouldn’t be able to think clearly until she saw for herself that Maria was okay. “I won’t intrude,” she said by way of assurance, “I just want to see for myself that she’s alright.” But when Liz tried to nudge Alex from her path he refused to be moved. “What’s the matter with you?” Liz burst out in exasperation, “Michael has got to know that we want to see her, too.”

“It’s not that, Liz,” Isabel interject gently, pulling Liz back a bit, “Just give them some time together…then we’ll go in.”

Something in Isabel’s tone, the thready hoarseness of her words made Max narrow his eyes in growing apprehension. “What aren’t you telling us, Isabel?”

Isabel averted her eyes and revealed in a gruff mumble, “Maria was about 9 weeks pregnant.”

Liz fell perfectly still. Her mind immediately zeroed in on one particular word. “Was?” she squeaked.

“She miscarried the baby,” Isabel whispered sadly, “Michael’s telling her now.”

“Oh my God,” Liz uttered, nearly of the edge of hysteria, “Oh my God…oh my God…” She couldn’t even think straight her heart was hurting so much.

“She didn’t want to tell you,” Isabel rushed to add when Liz continued to chant a mantra of stunned “oh my Gods. Isabel’s tears flowed freely as she watched Liz gradually break down into sobs. “She knew how much you wanted to have a baby and…she thought you’d be upset.”

Liz fell back against the adjacent wall, her entire body trembling uncontrollably. It explained so much. Why Maria had been so sick in the weeks before the wedding. Even on her wedding day she had been unable to keep anything on her stomach. Pregnant? Maria had been pregnant the entire time and she’d never said a word...because she hadn’t wanted to hurt Liz. The most joyous news a woman could receive and Maria had kept quiet to spare Liz’s feelings. And now she had to face a woman’s worst nightmare. Liz pressed her fist against her lips in a futile attempt to stifle her sobs. “I want to see her,” she choked, “She needs me.”

Max laid a shaking hand against her shoulder. “No, Liz. Isabel’s right,” he said woodenly, “Maria and Michael need to be alone right now.”

“Amy’s down in the lobby with the kids,” Alex informed them, “Why don’t we go relieve her so she can be up here with Maria. I can fill you in on the details on the way.”

Max nodded, but when he started to take hold of Liz’s elbow she jerked away. “I staying here,” she stated.

“Liz--,” Max started to protest and then decided against it. This was part of their couple’s therapy. He couldn’t push her to do what he thought was best, but had to respect the decisions she made for herself. And right now she wanted to stay here for Maria. He bent down low to brush her lips in a fleeting kiss. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”

Favoring him with a halfhearted smile, Liz gave a brief nod and then watched as Alex, Isabel and Max disappeared down the corridor. Only when they were gone did she let her sorrow overwhelm her and sink down to the cool floor. She hugged her knees against her chest in a futile effort to control her trembling.

The moment seemed absurdly surreal to Liz. How had things turned so quickly? Just that afternoon she had seen Maria and they had been fighting in her driveway. She had imagined it would be a long time before they were on friendly speaking terms again. Now Maria was in a hospital and Liz was almost crazy with the desire to be by her side. In the face of this newest tragedy all the misunderstandings and feelings of betrayal Liz had seemed insignificant. Her best friend has just suffered a miscarriage. Liz’s heart ached with pity. She knew exactly what agony Maria was enduring and she would have never wished that sort of pain on anyone. Liz felt her need to see Maria increase tenfold.

An eternity later Maria’s room door swung open and Michael and the doctor stepped out into the corridor. As they spoke to each other in hushed tones Liz pushed herself to her feet, creeping closer to them. Liz waited respectfully for Michael to finish with the doctor before approaching. “How’s Maria?” Liz asked tentatively, unnerved by Michael’s haunted expression. He looked haggard and grief-stricken and lost…just like Max after Jeff had died…just like her. The pity in Liz’s heart expanded even more.

When Michael seemed hesitant to answer her question Liz added gently, “I already know about the baby…Isabel told me.”

Michael released a keening groan. “Maria didn’t keep it from you to hurt you, Liz,” he explained miserably, “She wanted to tell you so much, but she didn’t want you to feel bad.”

“I know she didn’t,” Liz said, “Besides that’s not important right now…all that matters is Maria. How’d she take it…you know…about the baby?”

“She really didn’t say anything at all,” Michael replied bleakly, “She just looked at me… She told me she wanted me to get her mother.”

Liz nodded in understanding. Maria probably had yet to process all Michael had told her. “She’s in shock,” she said thickly, “Did the doctor give her a sedative?”

Michael hiccupped a bitter laugh. “He tried…Maria said she didn’t want it. She said she didn’t want another drug pumping through her body.” He hung his head so that his chin was resting against his chest. “She doesn’t want Max to heal her either. I asked her and she said she just wanted to leave it. It’s like she just doesn’t even care. She’s acting like this is all no big deal, but I know she’s in pain, Liz, and she just won’t talk to me about it.”

“Just give her some time,” Liz advised gently.

Michael just shrugged. “I guess…”

“How did it happen?” Liz asked in a daze, “I mean I know it was a car accident but--,”

“I don’t have all the details myself,” Michael explained, “Maria allegedly ran a red light and was broadsided by an oncoming car. I’ve told her a million times not to talk on that damned cell phone while she’s driving.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb. “And to make matters worse the press has been all over this. She’s been accused of everything from driving under the influence to reckless endangerment. Maria doesn’t need this shit right now.”

Liz knew from experience how brutal the paparazzi could be, especially if they thought they had a scoop. The last thing Maria needed was the press getting wind of her miscarriage and broadcasting it all over the evening news. It was obvious that Michael had reached the very same conclusion. He looked so wretched at the moment that Liz couldn’t help but lean forward and give him a light hug. “I’ll go in and sit with her while you find Amy,” she volunteered softly, “Maybe she’ll talk to me.”

“Thanks,” Michael croaked in a grateful mumble.

When Liz pushed her way inside the room was dark save from the blue glow of the television screen. Maria had her back turned to the door, but once she heard it swoosh open she shifted onto her back with a groan of pain. “Mom?” she questioned in a hoarse whisper.

Liz stepped out into the light. “No, it’s me.”

“Liz?” Maria groped for the switch on her bed that controlled the lights, bringing attention to the numerous tubes that weaved out from her arm. A moment later the room was illuminated fully and Liz caught her first glimpse of Maria’s injuries. The whole left side of Maria’s face was a swollen purple, abraded over with angry red cuts that had just begun to crust over. Liz flinched in reaction. Seeing her response Maria rasped a raw chuckle, “It…looks…worse than…it is.” Talking was especially hard for her. Just the simple shallow breaths it took to form words made her lungs and ribs ache like fire. “What…are you…doing here?”

Creeping closer to the bed, Liz schooled her face to remain devoid of pity and sorrow. “Where else would I be?” she asked Maria lightly, taking a seat in the chair beside her hospital bed, “So why’d you decide to go one round with your windshield? You obviously lost.”

“Thought…I could…take it,” Maria quipped in a slight slur. It was evident that she’d been sedated, but was fighting hard against the medications efforts. Her eyelids drooped heavily, yet whenever they were in danger of closing completely Maria would snap them open once more. As Liz watched her the teasing that ghosting her bruised face gradually faded away to painful sadness. “…Didn’t…have to…come, you know,” Maria gasped. She bit down hard against the pain just speaking the words caused her.

“No matter what’s happened between us,” Liz told her, sweeping up Maria’s hand and pressing a kiss to the back, “we’re still family, Maria, and I love you. You scared the hell out of me.”

Maria coughed out an ironic chuckle. “We’re…even now…” she laughed softly, but then her features turned sad once more. “…don’t…don’t deserve you,” she choked, “…betrayed you…betrayed our…friendship…”

Liz tried to blink back the tears that formed in her eyes in response to Maria’s despair but the flowed anyway, falling in hot drops across the back of Maria’s hand. “Don’t talk about that now,” Liz ordered her softly, “You need to rest. Stop fighting your medication.”

“Can’t…sleep…” Maria rasped. Tears began to leak from the corners of Maria’s eyes and soak into the pillow beneath her head. “I lost…my baby today,” she stated painfully.

“I know that, sweetie.” Liz brushed Maria’s hair back from her bruised forehead just as she did with Claudia, courageously holding back the sobs that threatened to tear forth from her chest. God, it did hurt to see her in such pain…

Maria took a small, gasping breath. “Hurts…a lot…didn’t expect…so much…”

“I know,” Liz said, squeezing her hand hard, “I know you didn’t.”

It was Liz’s unconditional empathetic reassurance that caused Maria to withdraw then. The very fact that Liz had run to her side without hesitation and after the terrible way Maria had betrayed her made Maria feel even lower than before. She didn’t deserve Liz’s empathy; she definitely didn’t deserve her support. The reason the whole mess with Max had happened in the first place was because Maria hadn’t been strong enough to stand on her own two feet. She wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

Maria pulled her hand from Liz’s grasp and rested it against her abdomen. “…shouldn’t have…come,” she told Liz breathlessly, “…I’m handling this…”

“Maria, you just lost a baby,” Liz said gently, “You don’t have to go through this alone.”

Maria wouldn’t even look at her. “I…have…Michael.”

“Michael doesn’t understand the hell you’re going through right now, Maria…but I do.”

Maria couldn’t refute the truth in that. If anyone knew the agony she felt, could identify with the emptiness spreading through her chest it would be Liz. Maria wanted to just curl up in a ball and shut out the world. She didn’t want to hear anyone or see anyone. She only wanted to go that dark, quiet place inside of her and wait for the world to fade away. Compared to the pain eating away at her an emotional retreat would be a blessing. Maria knew Liz had felt all those things and more when she lost her own baby. Of course, she would understand. But Maria couldn’t confide in her. She wouldn’t.

Today Maria had finally seen the damage she’d done to Liz and their friendship. Maria had fervently hoped that she and Liz could go back to the way they’d once been. She had wanted it so much that she had turned a blind eye to reality. The truth was that she had crossed a line. It didn’t matter how remorseful she was, she had shaken Liz’s faith in her, destroyed the trust between them and damaged their friendship probably beyond repair. Maria took full responsibility and because she did she was willing to respect Liz’s desire for them to keep their distance.

However, with her accident and miscarriage Maria knew that Liz would put all those feelings of resentment aside. Liz was too loving and kindhearted not to and while Maria was elated to know Liz’s actions obviously meant she still cared Maria also felt singularly unworthy of her loyalty.

Liz would insist on being at Maria’s side every step of the way, loving her and supporting her through this latest crisis in her life. She would put her feelings on the backburner again because she loved Maria. Again she would sacrifice her own happiness to make things smooth between them and Maria knew she couldn’t allow that to happen. It was one of the reasons they were in such a painful mess to begin with. Liz hadn’t sorted out her feelings the first time around and look what had happened. Perhaps if Liz given herself the opportunity to heal then maybe then Maria would feel free to accept her comfort now.

But Maria couldn’t accept her comfort. Though this miscarriage was the most painful crisis she had ever dealt with she wouldn’t allow herself to lean on Liz. And the decision was especially hard because Maria felt solely responsible for the accident. She desperately needed a friend to reassure her…she needed Liz. Without a confidant Maria beat up on herself brutally.

She had knowingly gotten behind the wheel when she was upset. Her lack of judgment had caused injuries to her and another driver as well as the lost life of her unborn baby. She couldn’t tell Michael these things. It had been his baby, too, and what if he held her responsible as well? What if he couldn’t forgive her? Maria lacerated herself with guilt until she was almost sick with it. And Liz was there and so willing to give comfort…

But Maria couldn’t do it. Though her burden was quite heavy, Maria refused to dump her problems in Liz’s lap. Liz had wanted space. Maria would give it to her. Liz needed time to heal, her marriage and herself, and she would never accomplish either if Maria was there hindering her progress. Liz had sacrificed enough for her. Now it was time that she made a sacrifice for Liz.

“I appreciate…your offer, Liz…” Maria gasped painfully, “…but I don’t…I don’t want…any help…” She swallowed hard before pushing the rest of the words from her mouth. “I…don’t think you…should come…again…” she stammered in a whisper, “I don’t…want…your help…”

“Maria, you don’t mean that,” Liz argued stubbornly, “You’re hurting right now and you’re saying things you don’t mean.”

Yet, Maria was just as stubborn. “I do mean it,” Maria forced out, causing herself a mountain of pain for her trouble. She took several hitching breaths before she could continue. “We’re not…friends,” she stated breathlessly, “…I don’t…want you…here…”

“Maria, don’t do this,” Liz begged tearfully. She realized exactly what Maria was doing, recognized that she had done the exact same thing and Liz knew how dangerous such self-isolation could be. Her own isolation had led to a suicide attempt. “Please let me help you.”

But Maria didn’t respond to her pleading. She merely kept her eyes focused intently on the wall ahead.

posted on 29-Jan-2003 3:38:21 PM
Chapter 17

“I’m really worried about her,” Liz finished, falling back against the sofa when she was done relating to Dr. Cochran her visit with Maria three days before.

Molly Cochran darted her thoughtful gaze between Max and Liz several times. It seemed that Maria’s accident had put Liz in an emotional tailspin. Her natural need for space warred with her equally natural need to be there for a friend during a crisis. However, Molly could see clearly that if Liz let herself focus on Maria’s recovery she would neglect her own.

Dr. Cochran also wondered how Max felt about it all. He’d been respectfully quiet the entire time Liz was talking but his expression had been somewhat unusual, almost pained. Molly couldn’t help but wonder if Max still harbored some residual feelings for Maria. She just decided to ask. “Max, you seem quiet today,” Dr. Cochran observed, “Did Maria’s accident upset you as well?”

Max glanced at Liz apprehensively before answering. He seemed most uncertain of himself, as if he needed to seek Liz’s approval before he spoke. “Of course, I’m concerned,” he stated carefully and again he glanced at Liz, “I just…” He trailed off at a loss as to how to put his feelings into words.

“You just what, Max?” Molly prompted.

“I feel like if I act too concerned about Maria then Liz will see it as some kind of betrayal,” he finally admitted in miserable honesty, “But the truth is I want to see Maria. I want to talk to her myself and make sure she’s alright.”

“You didn’t last night?” Molly wondered aloud.

Max shook his head in regret. “I had to stay down in the lobby,” he explained, “The situation just felt too tense. I didn’t want Liz to construe feelings that weren’t there or to mistake my concern for something more.” Max ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. “God, it’s hard to believe so much turmoil was sparked over one, little kiss,” he remarked thoughtlessly.

Molly trained her gaze on him keenly. “Is that how you view it, Max…as one, little kiss?”

Sensing he’d said the wrong thing Max tried to belatedly cover over his error. “I…I didn’t mean it like that,” he stammered.

Liz stared at him with an expression that bordered on betrayal. “Is that all it was to you,” she demanded in a painful whisper, “Just an innocent little kiss I should have blown off.”

Max shoved all ten of his fingers through his hair. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he said as a way of smoothing things over, but Liz’s face remained stony and cold and…hurt. “God, Liz!” Max uttered, dropping his face forward in his hands, “The kiss didn’t even last longer than five seconds!”

“Five seconds?” Liz repeated woodenly, but she found herself frowning in answering surprise. Perhaps it made her a fool, but this latest admission by Max made Liz feel better. This whole time her imagination had run wild about the kiss Maria and Max had shared. Liz imagined that Max had kissed Maria in the same manner he kissed her, not just with his lips, but his hands and body as well. Liz had tortured herself with the images of Max’s plunging his hands into Maria’s hair, hungrily opening his mouth wide against hers, his body thrusting against her seductively in the age old motion of desire. It was those images that were in the back of Liz’s mind every time she saw them together. It was those images that made it almost impossible for her to move on past the incident. But all that ran wild in her imagination couldn’t have taken place in only five seconds, could it?

Liz wondered about the nature of that kiss for the first time. All this time she had assumed, based on the things Maria and Max had both told her, that the kiss had been on of unbridled passion, one that would have landed them in bed if they hadn’t put a halt to it. Could all that have really resulted from a five second kiss, Liz wondered? “When you say five seconds,” she prodded after an awkward silence, “what do you mean?”

Max shrugged, absolutely positive that he’d sent them back ten steps in their therapy with his idiotic statement. “I don’t know, Liz…it was brief.”

“Show me.”

He jerked his eyes to her face in dubious shock. “What?”

“I want you to show me how you kissed her,” Liz clarified.

Max shot Dr. Cochran a questioning look but she just nodded for him to proceed. With a shuddering sigh Max leaned forward and brushed his lips against Liz’s mouth. He lingered there for a moment before finally pulling away.

“That’s it?” Liz asked him, brow furrowed in thought.

“That’s it,” Max confirmed.

“So there was no tongue, no caressing,” Liz reasoned skeptically, “Not even any heavy breathing?”

“It was over pretty quick,” Max told her.

“Who ended it?” Liz asked, “You or Maria?”

“It was Maria.”

“Oh,” Liz breathed, rearing back from him slightly. Max could see that the small detail hurt her immensely. He cursed himself for being an idiot once more. “How did it happen?” she asked, “How did you end up kissing her in the first place?”

“It was Adrienne’s first night home,” Max recounted with a sigh, “She had been crying the entire time and I could see Maria was at her wit’s end. Her nanny had flaked out and I knew she didn’t have anyone else to help her.”

“So you decided to stay?” Liz concluded.

“She’d just had a baby…I didn’t want to leave her alone.”

“So nobility led to a kiss?” Liz pondered aloud. The sarcasm in her tone was quite evident.

Seen from that perspective Max could understand why his and Maria’s explanations seemed so ludicrous to her. They sounded ludicrous to his ears. Good intentions or not Max had suspected where things might lead and yet he had stayed anyway. There was no excuse for that and he knew it.

“Liz, what are you thinking right now?” Molly inquired softly.

An odd expression passed over Liz’s features as she settled back against the sofa. “I’m thinking that maybe Maria wasn’t lying to me after all when she told me she wasn’t out to seduce my husband,” Liz replied pensively.

“She’s wasn’t,” Max quickly reassured, “That was never what it was about.”

“Then what was it about, Max?” Liz demanded tersely.

“For me…at the time, I was trying to fill the void in my heart,” Max explained miserably, “You had just asked me for a divorce, you refused to see me…I felt like my heart had been pulverized and served to me for breakfast.”

“And Maria?” Liz prompted, “What about her?”

“She was really in a bad place,” Max explains, “I think she was just lonely and scared. Michael was gone and she was pregnant and you were in the hospital. She didn’t think she could raise her kids alone. I guess she felt like she didn’t have anyone but me.”

“Is that what she told you?”

Max nodded. “Pretty much.”

“Because I didn’t want to lose my friend!” The words echoed in Liz’s head sharply. A week ago, before Maria’s accident, Liz had found it impossible to accept her explanation. Now she found herself considering the possibility that Maria was being honest with her after all. Michael had just left her and Liz tried to commit suicide only a few months later. Liz could believe that Maria felt she didn’t have anyone to turn to. All the more reason she would cling so tenaciously to the friendship she’d formed with Max.

Unaware of the conclusions Liz was drawing in her head, Max said urgently, “I’ll never be able to express to you how sorry I am, Liz. You don’t know what it’s like for me to see you in such emotional limbo, wanting to go to your friend, but being unable to do so because of something I did.” Max hung his head as waves of shame washed over him anew. He was beginning to think he’d never fix the damage, no matter how long he worked at it. It seemed almost beyond repair. “I don’t know how you don’t hate me,” he muttered thickly.

“Oh, Max,” Liz moaned, leaning down to rub her lips across his silky skein of hair, “I could have forgiven you for cheating. God knows I put you through hell…I can understand why you felt the need to turn to someone else. I’ve been guilty of the same thing myself, but why did it have to be Maria? Why did it have to be her?” Her tears dropped into his hair, running down her cheeks smoothly. “That’s the part I have a hard time forgiving, Max…that’s the part I can’t forget.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Max rapped a jaunty knock outside the bedroom door, startling Liz’s attention from the book spread out in her lap. “Feeling better?” he inquired tentatively.

“Much,” Liz told him with a complacent smile, “Being off the Prozac is always a plus.” In a rather surprising twist that afternoon Dr. Cochran had informed them that she thought it was no longer necessary for Liz to be on the anti-depressant. Her recommendation was quite a milestone. The first time Liz had stopped taking the drug had been at her own request, but this time it was because her doctor felt she no longer needed it. They were definitely making progress.

Liz pressed her book closed and set it aside. “So is the girl down for the count?”

“Three bedtime stories and two glasses of water later and I emerge victorious.” For emphasis Max flexed his muscles in a parody of an Arnold Swartzenegger pose.

“She’s got you wrapped around her tiny, little finger, Max,” Liz teased, wiggling her pinkie at him, “It doesn’t take me nearly as much effort to get her to sleep.”

“She’s a daddy’s girl,” Max shrugged, “What can I say?”

They lapsed into quiet and it was then that Liz realized he was still hanging out near the bedroom entrance, as if he were afraid to come inside fully. Liz patted the empty space on the bed next to her. “Come sit,” she invited lightly.

“Are you sure?” Max asked in boyish appeal, clearly torn between accepting her invitation and dreading it. “After this afternoon I didn’t think…”

“Am I the only one who thinks therapy is actually going well?” Liz countered with a laugh.

“I don’t know…” Max reasoned, “You seem to do an awful lot of crying when we’re there.”

“So do you,” Liz pointed out.

Max nibbled at his lip thoughtfully. “That much is true,” he conceded, a lopsided smile curving the corners of his mouth, “I just didn’t think you’d be in the mood for my company after all the Maria stuff and--,”

“Are you kidding?” Liz exclaimed, “All this time I’ve been thinking you and Maria made out hot and heavy and today I discover that it was little better than a peck! That’s great. I’ve got enough emotional stuff to sort out concerning you two, I don’t need to deal with the idea of actual physicality between you and her as well.”

“What emotional stuff?” Max asked, finally taking her up on her invitation to sit. He scooted next to her on the bed, folding his legs beneath him.

Now it was Liz’s turn to become all shy and withdrawn. She picked at her nails as a way of diversion. “I still think you might have been in love with Maria…at least a little…” she admitted in a small voice.

“I wasn’t,” Max denied softly, “The only woman I loved was you…I just thought I couldn’t have you.”

“Well, Maria was definitely in love with you,” Liz retorted.

“She sure got over me quick enough after Michael got back,” Max interjected with a mocking snort, “I was a sub for Michael just like she was a sub for you.”

“You really wouldn’t have slept with her?” Liz prodded hopefully.

Unable to resist the urge to touch her in some way Max pulled her into his arms so that she was leaned back against his chest and began stroking her hair. “Did I ever tell you what happened afterwards?” he queried softly.

Relaxed by his gentle, caressing fingers, Liz let her eyes drift closed. “No, what?”

“Well, after Maria completely freaked and kicked me out I came back here and the first thing I saw when I got upstairs was that picture.” He nodded over towards the family photo right along side their bed. “I took one look at it and I knew you were the only woman I wanted, the only one I loved and would ever love. And then I cried like a baby. I’d never felt so guilty or so unworthy in my entire life. I didn’t like the feeling of losing you…losing us.”

“Really?” Liz breathed, melting against him all the more.

“It’s always been you, Liz,” he told her fervently, “From the first day I saw you until this very moment I have never loved any woman but you.”

“Oh, Max,” she murmured, leaning forward a bit so that she could lace her fingers through his.

A few seconds later, however, Max felt her tears falling against his forearm. He tipped up her chin so that he could see her eyes. “Tell me what’s really bothering you,” he urged gently.

“I keep thinking about Maria,” she sniffled, “I know she’s in horrible pain right now.”

“And it’s making you think about Jeff,” Max surmised astutely.

Liz’s face crumpled completely then. “I just missed him a lot today,” she sobbed against his chest, “I just don’t understand why things like this happen.”

Max pressed a tender kiss to her forehead. “Neither do I, baby.”

“I want to be there for Maria, but she won’t let me,” Liz cried, “I tried giving her some space, but yesterday when I called she wouldn’t even talk to me. She shouldn’t have to do this alone.”

“She’s not alone,” Max whispered, “She has her mother and Michael. She’ll be okay.” He framed her face in his hands and brought her mouth against his. “You’ve got to stop beating yourself up about this, Liz. You’re a good friend.” He kissed her again, longer this time. Liz’s hand drifted up to cup the back of his neck, holding him there. They opened to each other hungrily before reality reasserted itself.

Reluctantly, Max turned his head away so that his lips grazed across Liz’s cheek. “I should go,” he said gruffly.

Liz stroked her hand down his thigh. “Stay, please,” she implored. Before he could protest she turned completely in his arms, rising up on her knees so that she could push him back against the bed. She straddled over him, running her hands beneath his white cotton tee. “Make love to me, Max,” she whispered fiercely.

Max groaned, his cock becoming achingly hard in the chafing warmth between her thighs. “Liz, this is a mistake,” he protested, but even as he did he bracketed her hips with his hands and lifted against her center. For the moment, his natural need to be close to her overrode his reason. This time their soft groans of pleasure mingled.

“I need you inside me, Max,” Liz murmured, leaning down to nibble at his throat.

Max made a valiant effort to hold her off. “You’re…you’re using sex to com…compensate for the hurt you’re feeling inside, Liz,” he stuttered out breathlessly.

Liz lifted her hand and regarded him in comical disbelief. “You’re going to be a therapist…NOW?”

Max lifted his hands to caress her dark curtain of hair back from her face. “Sex has never been our problem, Liz,” replied solemnly, “It was the one thing we could always get right, but that’s not what either of us need right now.” Liz’s face clouded once more as she recognized the wisdom in his words. With a small, humiliated whimper she rolled away from him. But when she would have scooted from the bed entirely, Max hooked his arm around her waist and brought her back against him. “Just because we’re not making love doesn’t mean I can’t hold you.”

She curled back against him, breaking into fresh sobs, clinging against him tightly as if she would never let him go.

posted on 30-Jan-2003 7:17:48 AM
Chapter 18

“What are you doing here?” Michael demanded in a surly tone when he found Liz standing outside his apartment door. His mood plummeted from fair to poor the moment he laid eyes on her. After lying next to his sobbing wife for the better part of the night and then having the source of her torment show up on his doorstep Michael Guerin was in no mood to be polite.

Liz’s smile faltered a bit at Michael’s cantankerous welcome but she supposed it was understandable given the stress he was under. “That’s some greeting there, Michael,” she quipped in return, unaware of his simmering anger, “I can tell you’re really happy to see me.”

Michael was clearly not amused. In fact, he looked as if he were using serious restraint in order to keep from throttling her. “What do you want?” he enunciated through clenched teeth.

Growing increasingly alarmed by his hostile attitude Liz began to fidget. “I called the hospital,” Liz clarified quickly, “They said Maria had been released today so I came here.” She looked at him expectantly. “Well, aren’t you going to let me in?”

Her question prompted him to pull up the door behind him and lower his voice to a bare whisper. “Listen, Maria doesn’t need your bullshit today, alright?” he muttered in a furious underbreath, “So why don’t you turn around and march your little uppity ass right back home!”

Liz glared up at him in speechless affront. “What is wrong with you, Michael?” she burst out, “Why are you being so antagonistic? Did something happen to Maria?”

Michael glared right back. “Don’t play dumb, Liz,” he retorted hotly, “Maria told me all about how you asked her to stay away. You said you needed her to keep her distance.”

“Oh,” Liz replied, finally understanding the reason for his unprovoked hostility. Considering the fact that Maria was dealing with the after effects of a miscarriage Liz’s request had to seem especially cruel to Michael. “All that’s not important right now--,”

“The hell it’s not important!” Michael roared in interruption, “You were the one who told me we had to move on for the sake of our relationships. You said we had to accept what had happened between Maria and Max and then, essentially, get over it.”

“I said that,” Liz admitted meekly.

“And that’s exactly what I did,” Michael plunged on angrily, “I forgave them both for what happened and when I did I didn’t look back again. I thought it was the same for you, too.”

“Michael--,”

“But no, you’ve been holding it over her head this whole time. Now I hear that you weren’t really over it at all, but you just thought you were,” Michael sneered, “Now, eight months after the fact, you decide you can’t be Maria’s friend anymore. You’re completely unbelievable, lady!”

“Michael, I didn’t plan it this way,” Liz burst out desperately, “I can’t help what I’m feeling…I’m just trying to be honest!”

“You’re entitled to your feelings, Liz!” Michael invited with a mocking snort, “By all means, feel whatever the hell you want, but stay the fuck away from my wife from now on, you got it!”

“Why are you being so hateful to me?” Liz understood that he was grieving, but his anger towards her seemed to go so far beyond that, almost as if the very sight of her disgusted him.

Michael barked a sardonic laugh in response. “You want to know why I’m being so hateful,” he demanded in a silky whisper, “You’re twisting Maria in knots, that’s why! I watched her for months while she ran herself into the ground trying to be the perfect friend to you, trying to atone for her ‘great sin.’ Do you even know why she didn’t ask you to be her matron of honor?” he snapped, “Because she knew you were trying to restore your perfect life with your perfect husband and she didn’t want to interfere with that! When she found out she was pregnant she couldn’t even be happy about it because she was too concerned with what the news would do to you!”

“I didn’t know,” Liz whispered.

“Of course, you didn’t!” Michael exploded, “You’re too busy playing the victim, Liz, being the martyr! Poor, poor Liz, everyone hurts her. Poor Liz she’s been so betrayed. Well, you’ve handed out your share of betrayal, too, sister!”

“I can see that you’re angry right now and--,”

“Shut up!” Michael bit out, stabbing his finger only inches from her nose. His face was livid with anger, his eyes looked as if they might pop from his head at any second. “Just shut the hell up! I don’t want to hear it. My wife is in there tearing herself to pieces over your fucking indecisiveness! She can’t even grieve she’s so worried over the damage she’s done to you!”

Suddenly, the door cracked open and Maria popped her head out, a concerned frown furrowing her forehead. “Hey, what’s going on?” she whispered in confusion, “I can hear you yelling all the way upstairs.”

“Nothing’s the matter,” Michael intoned stiffly, “Liz was just leaving.” He leveled Liz with a steely glare before turning his softened gaze on his wife. “Go back inside. You should be resting, baby.”

“No, I’m fine,” Maria assured him softly, “Why are you yelling at Liz? I told you it’s not her fault, okay.”

“You shouldn’t be worrying about this right now?” Michael insisted gently. He sifted his fingers through her hair, gingerly skimming along her healing bruises. “You look tired.”

“Michael, I’m fine,” she said again, but she was extremely pale and it was obvious she was in pain. “Let me talk to Liz for a minute,” she implored, “You go oversee the movers…I don’t want them breaking my stuff.” Michael looked more than reluctant to fulfill her request but when he opened his mouth to argue she added, “I’m a big girl…I can handle myself.”

With a disapproving grunt Michael leaned forward and kissed her cheek tenderly. “Don’t stay out here too long,” he warned before disappearing into the apartment.

When he was finally gone, Maria lifted her mortified gaze to Liz. “I’m so sorry for the things he said to you,” she apologized, “He was so out of line.”

“No, he’s entitled to his opinions,” Liz said hoarsely. The words were barely above a whisper. She had to push the words past an aching tightness in her throat. Liz’s heart twisted as she looked Maria over. She looked absolutely wretched. Not just pale and bruised, but lost. Her eyes held a vague haunted look. It was like she was there, she was standing right before Liz, but she wasn’t. “Should we sit down?” Liz asked solicitously, “You look like you’re in pain.”

“Only when I walk, talk, laugh or breathe,” Maria quipped. Her jocularity fell horribly flat. Liz didn’t even crack a smile. Truthfully, neither did Maria. She didn’t feel she had all that much to smile about. “You’ve obviously got something to say so why don’t you come in?” she invited finally, stepping backwards to allow Liz inside. Liz followed her into the family room in utter silence, unable to miss the stacks of moving boxes that lined the walls in the hallway.

“Are you guys moving or something?” Liz asked in surprise after she’d taken a seat of the sofa.

“Yeah,” Maria confirmed, easing herself down onto her chaise lounge, “To Texas. San Antonio actually. Michael got a job offer. My mom’s over the moon about it cuz now the girls’ will be closer to Roswell.”

Liz felt as if the floor had dropped out from beneath her feet. Things were changing with such rapid speed she could hardly get a handle on it all. “When?” she squeaked.

“He has to be in San Antonio by the end of the week so we’ll be gone by Friday,” Maria replied and then she added when Liz looked dazed by the news, “It’s better this way, don’tcha think?”

Liz blinked back the tears forming in her eyes. “W…were you…were you going to tell me?” she sputtered out tearfully.

Her question threw Maria into an obvious quandary. She worked her hands feverishly, but found difficulty forming the words. “I don’t…I was…I…,” she stammered out before finally throwing up her hands in dismay, “I don’t know…I’m just trying to make it through the day right now. I don’t know what I’m doing…I just…”

“Maria--,”

“Liz, I need you to know something,” Maria interrupted suddenly, her own voice thick with tears, “The other day when I tore out of there without saying anything…it wasn’t about you. I wasn’t angry with you. I was angry with myself…because I had managed to destroy one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” She was crying openly now. “I couldn’t admit it to myself before, but maybe part of me did want your life. It’s like you had this perfect husband and this perfect kid and you were just throwing them away…and I…I didn’t have anything. What I did was wrong…I know that and I’m sorry that I hurt you, Liz.”

“Maria, I don’t want you to think about this now,” Liz protested, crying as well, “That’s not why I came here today.”

“I know why you came here today,” Maria stressed, “And I can’t let you do it.” She smiled through her falling tears. “You’ve got a big heart, Liz, and I know you. You’ll put your own pain aside to be there for me and I’m much too vulnerable right now not to accept your offer.” She snorted a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m too messed up to be the strong one, Liz…I’m doing the best I can.”

“Maria,” Liz whispered softly, “this isn’t about me, okay. You’re in pain right now…you need a friend. I want to give that to you.”

“But I can’t take it,” Maria protested. But Maria knew she was weak, just as she’d told Liz. She couldn’t trust herself to continue on denying Liz’s gestures for friendship if she remained. That was the very reason that when Michael had been offered a job as a profiler in San Antonio Maria had urged him to jump on it. Though she had made her life in New York, her career even, she couldn’t stay there any longer. “You should probably go now,” she suggested to Liz when she caught sight of Michael lurking in the hallway, “If you stay much longer Michael will probably blow a gasket.”

Liz pushed herself to her feet, but shook her head when Maria tried to do the same. “No, you don’t have to walk me out…I know the way.” But as she started to turn and leave the house something held her back. She spun around to face Maria again. “Hey Maria?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t hold it inside,” Liz advised shakily, “Whatever it is you’re feeling, don’t keep it jammed up inside your heart, okay. Curse, scream, cry…do whatever…just don’t…”

Maria nodded her understanding, tears threatening once more. “I won’t,” she promised with a bittersweet smile, “Take care, Liz.”

“Yeah…” Liz sobbed, turning away once more, “you take care, too.”

posted on 3-Feb-2003 1:48:26 AM
Chapter 19

Max tickled Liz’s foot experimentally, but when he didn’t receive even half a giggle he knew that something was weighing on her mind. “You didn’t say a word all through dinner,” he said, tweaking her toes, “What wrong’s, babe?”

“They left today,” Liz replied softly, pulling her foot from Max’s lap and folding it beneath her on the bed. Max didn’t need to ask who “they” was. He knew exactly whom she was speaking of…he had been thinking of them, too. “I kept expecting her to call or something…but she didn’t.”

“You know how stubborn Maria is,” Max soothed, “She’s just trying to give you the space you asked for.” They both fell into thoughtful silence for a while, but Liz’s troubled expression didn’t lift. “Something else is wrong,” Max guessed intuitively.

“My period came,” she sighed after a moment.

Max scratched at his cheek pensively. “Oh.”

“Oh?” Liz questioned, “You don’t have anything to say other than ‘oh’?”

“I don’t know how you want me to respond,” Max replied honestly.

“Just say what you feel,” Liz urged, “Don’t hold back because you think you’ll hurt my feelings, okay.”

“Why don’t you tell me how you feel about it first,” Max invited.

Liz was shocked speechless by his response. Max was usually only too eager to share his viewpoints with her, especially when he felt strongly about a certain thing. Liz could always expect a lecture. She would prepare herself for one. Now, it was odd to have all of that slowly changing. Max was finally willing to listen to her feelings first before launching into his lecture, if he would launch one at all. She hadn’t expected that development so soon. “You…you want me to talk first?” she stammered in disbelief.

“Yeah,” Max said, a little surprised by himself, “I want to know what you have to say first. I’m not the authority on everything, Liz, in fact, I’ve learned recently that I don’t know too much of anything. I’ve certainly been ignorant when it comes to you.”

Liz didn’t bother to deny the truthfulness of that statement, but she didn’t see any reason to make him feel any worse about the realization either. She gnawed at the corner of her mouth. “So you want to know my feelings?”

“Yup.”

“The unabridged version,” Liz persisted.

“Fire away.”

“I might say some things that won’t make you happy,” Liz warned.

“I’m a big boy,” Max teased with an impish smile, “I can handle it.”

“Okay, not getting my period today just made me realize how perfectly everything always works out for you.” She paused for some response from him but he only nodded for her to continue. “When I saw it this morning it just made me mad all over again. Once again you get everything you want and I have to eat the disappointment.” The words were brutal in their honesty, but needed. In the past, Liz had let her resentment fester, often telling herself that she deserved the treatment she received or the feelings she felt. But Liz recognized now that she didn’t deserve it and Max didn’t deserve a wife who lived a lie.

She hadn’t deserved to have Tess thrown in her face. She hadn’t deserved to be left alone and pregnant. She hadn’t deserved her husband turning to her best friend. And yet, she’d taken it as if she had, doing damage to herself and Max as well. But Liz had found it within herself to forgive those grievances, however what made her grit her teeth was the realization that Max’s forgiveness of her had never come that easily. When had he ever had to put his own feelings aside for her sake? When had he ever just let her transgressions go without seeking retribution? Liz didn’t want to be silent about her resentment anymore. That time was past now. The meek, insecure Liz Parker was long gone now, ground into dust and replaced with a woman who would speak her mind and damn the consequences. In the end, Liz had learned, she’d be made the stronger and better because of it and so would her marriage.

She twisted her fists against her thighs. “Just once I wish that things didn’t always work out so perfectly for you.”

“You think I always have my way?” Max wondered aloud.

“You do always have your way, Max! Think about it…you screw up and I forgive you, just like that,” Liz snapped her fingers for emphasis, “I screw up and I’m punished for months afterward. Even this damned pregnancy has worked out in your favor.”

“I thought you wanted to forgive me, Liz?” Max whispered, his tone hurt and dismayed.

“Of course I did…I do…I just…” she struggled to find the right words before resuming with, “Sometimes I just wish I could dish out the punishment to you the way you do it to me. Then you could really know how it feels.” Liz wanted more than anything to make her marriage work, but she hated feeling like she always had to be a doormat in order to do it. She hated that the only way to achieve peace in their relationship was if she ate her own disappointment. Max could wallow in his hurt, but Liz, no; she always had to be the forgiving one. “I simply can’t understand why you can’t forgive me like I forgive you.”

“I forgave you for Cameron,” Max reminded her lamely.

“No, you didn’t. You stuck it to me by leaving and then taking up with Tess Harding,” Liz contradicted, “You only started sniffing around again when you thought Kyle was interested. You didn’t want me until you thought someone else did.”

“Is that what you really think?”

“Are you telling me something different?” Liz countered, “Do you really love me, Max, or am I just a prize to you? Because I love you…I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t, but what happens when I screw up again? Because I will…I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Will you turn to another woman then, too?”

“Where is all this coming from, Liz?”

She met his eyes emphatically, her words matching the intense expression on her face. “I thought I’d feel better with Maria gone, but I don’t…I still wonder, Max. The next time I hurt you what woman will you turn to when you need some comfort, huh?”

Max started to reply in angry defense, but quickly snapped his mouth shut. He couldn’t dispute anything she’d said to him. Every word was absolutely true. How different things might have been between them if he had never turned to Tess that first time. If he had only gone to Liz following the breakup and insisted she talk to him. And even if she hadn’t, he could have waited patiently, trusting that Liz would come back to her senses and to him. But he had never trusted that. He hadn’t trusted her all those years ago to come back to him and that’s where the whole vicious cycle began.

He did love Liz, more than he thought it possible to love anyone, but Max had never believed that he deserved her. The times she had left him, whether physically or emotionally, he had never expected her to come back to him and his first reaction was always to seek solace in someone else. That made him a weak human being and his inability to forgive Liz as easily as she forgave him made him even weaker.

Max made a startling discovery in that moment. He didn’t like himself. Not the boy he’d been and not the man he’d become. It had become easier to pick out Liz’s flaws and enlarge them rather than examine his own. No wonder she questioned his love for her. He didn’t act like a man in love, but a man bent on proving himself worthy by putting her down constantly.

In his practice Max had counseled many abusive men, those physically and mentally abusive, but he had never identified himself with one of them. But now Max could see that he had been doing exactly to Liz what he had disdained in his male patients for most of his practice. Due to his own inadequacies and insecurities he had taken to using Liz as a scapegoat for problems that were his making. He wasn’t any better than the men he counseled and, in some ways, he was worse. He dished out the advice effortlessly but he sure as hell didn’t take it.

And yet, despite all this, Liz had chosen to forgive him. She had risen above her own hurt just to salvage their marriage, because she loved him more than the chance to harbor resentment. When had he ever done that for her? Max finally raised his eyes to Liz and they were shadowed with remorse. “You think I’m a hypocrite, don’t you?” he asked hoarsely.

“Yeah, I do,” Liz confessed, “But the ridiculous part is that I still love you…I still want our marriage.”

“Why?” Max all but sobbed, “Why would you want it? Why would you want me?”

Having vented her anger freely, Liz felt compassion feel her heart at the lost edge she heard in Max’s tone. She swept up his hand and brought it against her lips. “Do you remember how it was when we were living together in California?” Liz asked him gently.

“I thought we were happy,” Max croaked.

“We were,” Liz conceded, “That was as close to perfect as we’ve ever been. And what I want is to have that…that connection with you again, but this time can be different because we’ve grown and we’ve actually learned to communicate with each other.” She brushed her lips along the ridge of his knuckles. “As angry as I am with you sometimes and as much as you’ve hurt me…I could never picture my life without you, Max.”

The sweet gentleness of her words broke his emotional restraint and his tears spilled over with a stifled sob. “I’ve…I’ve messed up so much…” he cried piteously, “I don’t know how I’m going to fix it.”

“You are fixing it,” Liz told him, sweeping his tears away, “You’re changing…and so am I. We’re not children anymore, Max, and it’s time we stopped acting like them. We’ve been turning away from each other instead toward each other. Only just recently did that start to change and I see that as progress, baby.”

“So do I,” Max murmured, lowering his head so she couldn’t see his eyes, “But you’re still so angry…”

“I am,” Liz admitted honestly, “but I get over it a little more everyday and the fact that you take time to listen to me now makes it easier. The couple’s therapy is really helping, too, but we’ve still got so far to go, Max.”

“I know.”

“I just don’t want you to think everything will be fixed in a few sessions,” Liz rushed to add, “Until we really ingrain what we’re learning about each other and ourselves in our hearts we’ll just go right back to the same self-destructive behavior.”

Max smiled a little at her assessment. “Now, you sound like a therapist,” he teased somberly.

“I know a couple of good ones,” Liz quipped in return. To show that she wasn’t holding any sort of grudge, Liz stretched out alongside Max and cuddled against his side. She didn’t have to wait long for his arm to curve around her body and hug her tight. Liz smiled against his chest. “We’ve should have been talking like this years ago.”

“Yeah,” Max agreed in a whisper, “It’s definitely made me realize some things.” He stroked her hair sensuously, threading his fingers through the dark strands. Liz tipped up her head and smiled at him. “Oh yeah? What have you realized?”

Max tenderly traced the lines of her eyebrows. “How incredibly fortunate I am to have you,” he said in a quivering sigh, “It will take the rest of my life to make up for the damage I’ve done, but I swear I’m done with minimizing you and being vindictive. You don’t have to worry that if you mess up I’ll turn to someone else. All I want is you and all I’ve ever wanted is you…I’ve just always been amazingly stupid about showing it.”

“I haven’t made it easy for you,” Liz said softly, “The stupidity runs both ways.”

“No, you haven’t made it easy for me,” Max agreed, “But I can’t use that as an excuse because the decisions I made were mine…I can’t blame you for them. And now I have to live with the fact that because I was selfish and stupid I ruined a friendship that’s lasted longer than I’ve been alive.” He skimmed his fingertips down her cheekbones. “So how do you forgive that, Liz?”

Liz considered her answer carefully. She listened to Max’s heartbeat increase crazily as he anticipated her response. “I love Maria, Max,” she whispered, “I always will…even despite all this. We’ll be friends again…I believe that. It will never be like before, but there’s no way we’ll just end…anymore than you and I will.”

“So then you still think I’m your soulmate?” Max asked achingly.

“No, baby,” Liz protested softly, settling her body more closely against his, “I know you are.”

posted on 4-Feb-2003 1:43:46 PM
Chapter 20

“So I was curious,” Molly Cochran drawled during their next therapy session, “How’s your sex life lately?”

The covert, sweet looks being exchanged between Max and Liz quickly gave way to rising red blushes with Dr. Cochran’s blunt inquiry. Max snatched his hand from Liz’s grasp as if he’d been burned, feeling inexplicably guilty in light of Molly’s question. “Wh…What?” he stammered, failing miserably at covering his embarrassment.

“I asked how your sex life was,” Dr. Cochran clarified again, noting the uneasy expressions that passed over both Max and Liz’s faces.

“We’re not having sex,” Liz finally admitted after a tense silence.

Molly Cochran twirled her pen between her fingers, her gaze thoughtfully curious. “Have you just not been in the mood?” she inquired frankly, “I know that Prozac tends to dull the sex drive but I thought the side effects would have passed by now.”

Liz cleared her throat in acute discomfiture. “Um…no…um, my sex drive’s…um, definitely not dull,” she stammered in reply.

“Then Max is the problem?” Dr. Cochran surmised.

“No!” Max burst out, more vehemently than he’d intended. He took a few calming breaths before replying in a more sedate tone, “What I meant was, no the problem is not me and it’s not Liz. We just thought it was best that we wait.”

“Wait for what?” Her blunt question only incurred blank stares from the couple before her. She hid her answering smirk behind her hand. “Surely you haven’t been waiting for me to give you the go ahead.”

Liz and Max glanced at each other in uneasy distress. Truly, that was what they both had been waiting for. Liz turned her attention to Dr. Cochran. “Well, we just thought that…well, maybe that…you see…”

“Do you want to make love?” Dr. Cochran interrupted brashly. Her question received an emphatic “yes” from both parties. “Then do it,” she told them, “My suggestion is that both of you take a vacation together with Claudia. Perhaps renew your vows, which would be good for her to see because then she can witness for herself the solidity of your marriage. You should focus on spending time together as a family. I think that’s important.”

Though thrilled by her suggestions Max still found himself staring at her in gaping surprise. “Are you serious?”

This time Molly Cochran didn’t bother to hide her smile. “It’s my professional opinion that you and Liz are long overdue for a second honeymoon. Go with my blessing and we’ll meet again when you get back.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Max and Liz might have debated endlessly about where to take their vacation if Isabel and Alex hadn’t intervened. It turned out that they had an excellent recommendation. Aspen, Colorado. The moment Liz heard the suggestion she was taken. And not because she could ski. Liz didn’t think she would set foot on a slope the entire time she was there, but the prospect of witnessing nature’s beauty up close and personal, to not only see a snow capped mountain but to touch one as well was intoxicating. She was already hopping with excitement over the prospect before the Whitmans had even given them any details.

They suggested that Max and Liz stay at the Aspen Dolomite Townhouses. They came complete with two master bedrooms, a rock fireplace, televisions with dvds in every room, a steambath and a Jacuzzi. After Max heard that he was sold on the spot, but Alex still insisted on pulling up the sight on the Internet just so Max could have a first hand look. And that cinched it.

Following that they fell into a flurry of activity, making arrangements for Max to take off from work the entire week and Claudia to be excused from school. Normally, Liz might have been uncomfortable with the idea of Claudia missing class, but Max had argued, “It’s kindergarten…how detrimental can a missed week possibly be?” After taking a few days to finalize everything, reservations, plane tickets, packing and plant care while they were away, Liz, Max and Claudia were on their way to Aspen, Colorado and a new beginning.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“It’s amazing,” Liz remarked, staring at her daughter tucked neatly in the bucket seat of the plane fast asleep, “This child can sleep anywhere. I mean, it doesn’t bother her in the least that we are 30,000 feet above the ground and surrounded by clouds.”

Max wisely bit back his amused grin at the barely veiled agitation in Liz’s tone. Though she made a courageous effort to appear nonchalant it was quite obvious that Liz was terrified. She gripped the armrest of the chair so tightly that her knuckles had gone white from the pressure. She absolutely refused to peer out the window no matter how many times Max invited her to take in the view. He reached across their daughter to give her hand a light pat. “Liz, relax,” he soothed, “There’s nothing to it, baby.”

“Except we’re 30,000 feet in the air flying straight towards the mountains,” Liz countered stiffly, “I don’t like those odds.”

Again Max had to swallow back his laughter. “If it makes you feel better to know, you’re 20 times more likely to die in an automobile crash than in an airplane,” he said gamely.

Liz glared at him, her mouth set in a sour pout. “Actually, that doesn’t make me feel better at all,” she quipped sardonically, “but thanks for the effort.”

“Why didn’t I know before this moment that you hated to fly?” Max asked.

“It never came up and besides, what were we supposed to do?” Liz retorted, “Drive all the way from New York.” And then she caught herself, realizing she was being unfairly cross with Max. “I’m sorry,” she said contritely, “I’m just really tense.”

Max smiled; making it evident he hadn’t taken offense at her snappy attitude. “Why don’t you try focusing on something positive,” he suggested brightly, “like the fact we’re getting remarried tomorrow.”

A slow, smile of genuine pleasure spread over Liz’s face. “Oh that,” she teased with feigned disinterest, “I suppose I could dredge up a bit of happiness over it.”

“A bit of happiness,” Max scoffed at her choice of words, “I’m giving you my name, woman! You should be doing cartwheels in the isle.”

Choking on a giggle, Liz leaned in close and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ve had to pee for the last hour,” she told him gravely, “If I haven’t unsnapped this seatbelt to do that you can damned well be sure there will be no cartwheels in the isle…at least not from me.” They both laughed over her joke, drawing attention from the other passengers and causing Liz to momentarily forget she was terrified.

Max leaned in for an awkward kiss, melding his lips with hers briefly before pulling back. “You know,” he said as he settled back into his seat, “I still have yet to officially propose to you.”

Liz favored him with an eye-rolling look. “That’s not even necessary, Max,” she said flatly, “We’re already married…there’s no need to propose again.”

“Oh, I think there is,” Max countered, digging down into his pocket to produce a flat, black velvet box. He angled in his seat so that he could present it to Liz. “The first time I asked you to marry me it was after Claudia was born,” Max explained gently, “I’d been an ass to you for nearly a year and was fresh out of a relationship with another woman. That’s hardly romantic.”

“Max, you don’t have to--,”

“Shh, let me finish,” he interrupted softly, holding up his hand for silence, “You deserved so much more than I gave you, Liz. I’ve always regretted that we didn’t have a real wedding. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t sweep you off your feet like I should have in the first place. This is my chance to make up for all those stupid mistakes.” When he ended his eyes were locked with hers and glistening with emotion. “So, Elizabeth Evans, I’m asking you,” he began, flipping back the hood of the box to reveal the full carat diamond bracelet inside, “will you marry me…again?”

Liz stared back and forth between the box and Max, speechless with love, filled to the brim with it. She had expected for the week to be full of romance and healing, but she hadn’t expected Max to take it so far. But she should have. Ever since they’d begun their therapy sessions together Max had been beating himself up over the past. He was determined to make up every last mistake he made. It was like he was fighting to be worthy of her again. Liz knew how that felt. She, too, had been fighting to be worthy of him as well.

However, that wasn’t the road to happiness. They couldn’t make their relationship solid with one half always feeling unworthy. It hadn’t been a sterling arrangement when Liz was the one being down on herself and it wasn’t any better with Max.

If Liz had learned one thing in the last week since Maria’s accident it was that blame was inconsequential. Holding a grudge accomplished nothing and life was too fleeting, too fragile to carry around bitterness. Liz couldn’t help but consider how she would have felt if Maria had died in that accident. True, Liz had been hurt and betrayed by Maria’s actions, but she would have felt one hundred times worse if Maria had died while the two of them were on the outs.

In the moment Liz learned of the accident she forgave Maria. It wasn’t a conscious decision really, but Liz recognized that the bitterness enveloping her heart was no longer there. When she looked at Maria she no longer saw the woman who’d had a brief dalliance with her husband, but the girl whom she had shared late night binges on ice cream with, the girl who punched Tony Menudo in the head when he called Liz ugly, the girl who had run screaming from the Crashdown when Liz told her of Max’s otherworldly existence. She saw the woman who had been loyal and true to her through one of the most difficult experiences of her life…and the rest didn’t matter anymore. Maria had stood by her through too many things for one mistake, no matter how colossal, to screw up their friendship forever.

It was true that they hadn’t parted perfectly, but they had parted friends and Liz was comforted by that fact. She knew the next time she saw Maria there would be no hidden recriminations, no remorse and no anger, only happiness and excitement over seeing an old friend once more. The realization filled Liz with a tremendous sense of peace.

And that was the very reason she wanted to settle any lingering disillusionment between her and Max. There was enough regret in their marriage to fill the entire plane, but Liz thought it was high time that they both stopped dwelling on it. She had more than atoned for her sins and Max…he had as well. Nothing she could have done to him would have been as bad as the guilt he was inflicting upon himself now.

Even now she could see the remorse darkening his eyes as he held out the bracelet to her. Liz supposed he would never get over it no matter what she said. For the rest of their lives he would punish himself for the pain he caused her. Max was just that way. Liz was overwhelmed with sadness by the knowledge, but instilled with an odd sense of confidence as well. Knowing that Max would never let himself forget his mistakes assured Liz that he would never allow himself to repeat them either.

Liz blinked back the moisture gathering in her eyes. “Max, you didn’t have to do this,” she whispered hoarsely.

“I would have done more if possible,” Max told her, “God knows you deserve the best.” He removed the bracelet from the box and draped it across his fingers. “When I saw this I knew it was perfect for you,” he said achingly, “This is just a small token of my affection, Liz.”

A small token, Liz balked inwardly. That bracelet had to be worth at least $4.000. If the bracelet were a small token Liz shuddered to think what Max would do if he went all out. Liz was both flattered and anxious at the thought. “Max, you’re already spending $4,500.00 this week for the townhouse,” she reasoned, “This isn’t necessary, you know. I love you.” She lifted her hand to cup his cheek, her thumb playing over his lower lip. “The past is over. You have nothing to atone for, baby. I forgiven you just like you’ve forgiven me.”

Max’s jaw hardened in self-deprecation and his eyes dropped away briefly. “But I haven’t forgiven myself, Liz,” he said quietly, “I need you to understand how much I love you. Words aren’t enough.”

“Sometimes they can be,” Liz countered gently, pressing her palm against his cheek, “Here…I’ll show you.” She cupped his face and brought his lips to hers for a slow kiss. “I love you, Max. You’re my heart, my soulmate, my life…nothing you do will ever change that.”

Her words spilled over the tears Max had been blinking back. It was several moments before he could speak and when he tried his words were strangled. In the end he settled for a hoarse, “ditto,” which elicited a teary giggle from Liz. Max smiled into her hand, nuzzling his stubbled cheek against her palm before pressing a tender kiss to the center. “Does this mean you won’t marry me again?” he asked wryly.

Liz bit her lip. “Now I didn’t say all that,” she laughed. She held out her wrist to him, smiling through her tears as he maneuvered around in his seat and reverently clasped on the bracelet. Only when he was done did she drop her eyes from his and look down at the marvelous gift he’d given her. The diamonds caught the light from overhead and glinted brilliantly. Liz admired the treasure with tremulous fingers. “God…Max, it’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“So is that a yes?” he asked her.

Her confused eyes rebounded to his face. “A…a yes?” she questioned.

Max had to chuckle over her blank expression. “Oh, how quickly they forget,” he tsked teasingly, “Does your acceptance of the bracelet mean you’re accepting my proposal as well?”

“Oh, of course it does!” Liz exclaimed, throwing her hands about his neck and hugging him as tightly as she could manage in the narrow confines. “Yes, I’ll marry you again…I’ll marry you as many times as you want!”

They were so lost in kissing one another following Liz’s heartfelt vow that they didn’t notice when all 92 passengers and the six flight attendants broke out into thunderous applause.

posted on 5-Feb-2003 7:19:14 AM
Chapter 21

Max froze, his wine glass arrested halfway to his mouth as he caught sight of his wife exiting the back bedroom. “Oh my God,” he whispered, his eyes roaming reverently over her breathtaking form, “I don’t know what to say…you…you look stunning.”

Somehow even the word “stunning” seemed inadequate to describe the sheer radiance exuding from Liz in that moment. Max knew for certain that he’d never seen a more breathtaking bride. The dress she had chosen to wear was a simple one, made of airy, delicate linen that floated about her petite frame like a pretty cloud. Her shoulders were exposed, their smooth creamy perfection accentuating the beautifully embroidered bodice. She wore her hair loose, flowing down her back and over her shoulders in fat, buoyant curls. There was no veil to obscure her breathtaking face, only a simple wreath made of white and pink flowers to adorn her head. She wore no shoes, but padded into the living area looking every inch a lovely, barefoot nymph. Just looking at her caused Max’s stomach to do a curious little dip.

Liz noted the Max’s slackened expression with a pleased smirk as she stepped from the bedroom. However, she felt her cheeks warm when he continued to stare at her in plain, speechless joy. “I…I didn’t know if the dress was too simple,” she stuttered lamely, “What do you think?”

“It’s perfect,” Max protested softly, “You’re perfect.”

Liz was a little swept away by his appearance as well. Even in a simple tuxedo and white shirt without the bowtie Max managed to look absolutely mouthwatering. He was barefoot as well, but he managed to pull the look off gracefully. Liz started to drift towards him; intent on giving him the kiss she’d been planning for the better part of the morning when Claudia jumped in her path.

“Mommy, you look like a princess!” Claudia added in excitement, pitching herself into her mother’s unsuspecting arms.

“Be careful, Claud,” Max warned sharply, “You don’t want to ruin Mommy’s dress.”

“She’s fine, Max,” Liz assured him, snooping down to press kisses all over her daughter’s giggling face, “I’m not the only one who looks like a princess.” She stroked the rich, dark curls that tumbled down her daughter’s back. “You look so pretty right now you know what it makes me want to do?” Liz murmured softly.

“Hmm…take a picture?” Claudia ventured.

“No,” Liz said emphatically, her hand drifting down Claudia’s back, “It makes me want to…tickle you!” Liz attacked Claudia’s sides playfully, reveling in the tinkling laughter that spewed from her daughter’s lips. “I owe you big, don’t I, Tickle Monster?”

Claudia jerked awkwardly in Liz’s arms, laughing and giggling uncontrollably. “Daddy, Daddy,” she gasped happily, “Daddy, help!” But Max held back, just content to watch the laughing pair, drinking in their laughter. He wasn’t the only one to relish in the moment either. It had been a long time since Liz had seen her daughter so happy. She didn’t think she’d ever get enough of seeing Claudia smile.

Claudia managed to wiggle from beneath her mother’s tickling fingers and dart across the room laughing, inciting a mock chase when she did. Max watched the two of them romp across the room, his two perfect angels, a grin of bursting happiness stretched across his face.

When Claudia finally collapsed against Liz in laughing exhaustion she asked innocently, “Why are you and Daddy getting married again if you’re already married?” Her smooth brow was furrowed in concentration, alerting Liz to the fact that her daughter had obviously been mulling the question over for quite some time.

However, Max was the one to answer. He went over to them and curled himself down beside his wife and daughter. “Well, munchkinette,” he explained with a gentle smile, “I just love your mother so much I want to make her my wife again. And this time is even more special than the first.”

“Because you love her more?” Claudia asked.

Max nodded, his eyes locked with Liz as he did. “That’s right…I love her more,” he agreed softly, “I love her more than I ever could have dreamed possible.”

“How much is that?” Claudia demanded.

Her precocious question earned her a kiss and a nuzzle from her father. “As much as the sun and the moon and the whole universe,” Max told her expansively. He pressed his forehead to hers, his tone becoming quietly serious. “As much as I love you.”

His romantic confession left Liz’s heart fluttering. Impervious to her daughter’s inquisitive stare Liz leaned forward and tenderly touched her mouth to Max’s. It was more an exchange of breath, a fleeting brush but the kiss was filled with so much promise that it made Liz’s palms sweat. Today they weren’t merely renewing their vows; they were renewing their hearts and their love for one another. Today they were starting over and from that moment on the past would be nothing more than a distant memory. Today was their future and Liz was finally done with looking back. When she pulled away she said dreamily, “This is going to be the most romantic day ever.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Max replied with a grin, “Because I’ve got this entire day planned from start to finish.”

“By planned you mean,” Liz prompted.

“Well,” Max said as he pushed to his feet and pulled Liz and Claudia up with him, “After we finish reciting our vows I made us reservations at this wonderful little restaurant called Cache Cache. It’s one of Aspen’s premier restaurants.”

Liz brushed the wrinkles from her dress and then proceeded to do the same with Claudia’s. “Cache Cache?” she repeated in inquiry, “Sounds kinda ritzy.”

“Only the best for my girls,” Max returned cheekily.

A short time later the judge arrived to marry them. Though reciting their vows was only a formality Max had pulled out all the stops. It was only then that the situation finally hit Liz full force. This renewal ceremony was about so much more than the mere repetition of their vows. The first time they had exchanged them they had barely been out of high school, still naïve children and already with a child of their own. They both, she and Max, had made so many foolish mistakes. Liz could see now that back then they weren’t exactly ready for marriage. There were still so many issues that they hadn’t worked out between them and they paid for it later.

But now, after nearly a month and a half of therapy, Liz believed they were on the road towards healing. She understood the true meaning of the wedding vows she took with Max. To love, honor and cherish were more than just words. Love, for instance, encompassed a whole new responsibility that Liz had never considered. She couldn’t help but thin of the Bible’s definition of love: “Love was long-suffering and kind. It was not jealous and did not brag. It did not behave indecently and did not look for its own interests. Neither did it keep account of injury. Love bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things and endured.” Love endured. And that was the kind of love Liz bore for Max now and she knew, without a single shred of doubt that it was returned to her.

In order to move forward, in order to truly love Max, Liz knew she would have to let go of the past entirely. That meant that she couldn’t dictate what became of Max and Maria’s friendship. It was true that, out of love for her, they might try to avoid one another to spare her pain, but it was paramount that the decision be theirs to make. Liz couldn’t browbeat them or guilt them into making it. And she feared that was exactly what she’d done. Now Liz understood that she and Max weren’t the only ones who had unresolved issues. Liz recognized that her love for Max had to be stronger than her jealousy of Maria.

Max, too, had gained deeper meaning from the recitation of their wedding vows. He had never considered what it meant to cherish before. At first, he’d believed the idea had more to do with showering your spouse with gifts and compliments. But that wasn’t cherishing at all. True cherishing was loving your mate as you loved your own body. It was treating her with respect and dignity even when it might seem that she didn’t deserve it. Max had fallen miserably short of fulfilling that vow.

He’d been wrapped up in his own hurt for so long and so intent on punishing Liz for the wrongs she’d incurred that he never took the time to stop and analyze the reasons she did the things she did. That was a courtesy he paid to everyone, even himself, but he’d never shown such benevolence to Liz. In his line of work Max was paid to find the meaning behind people’s motives. Almost every action is motivated by a hidden source. Max knew this and yet he’d never searched for Liz’s hidden source. Instead he’d belittled her and discounted her and, yes, even disrespected her. No, he hadn’t cherished her at all and he knew it.

That was the very reason their renewal ceremony held such significance to Max now. He had learned the true meaning of cherishing and it was his determination that he would go on cherishing Liz for the rest of his life. Not for the rest of hers, but for the rest of his. He made the vow in his heart even as he spoke the words to her aloud.

Presently, he turned to her and took her hand in his, speaking solemnly the vows he had written just a few days earlier:

“When I first saw you I knew instantly that you were meant for me,” he whispered shakily, “I can’t explain it, but I just knew we were destined for one another. But back then I believed maintaining love would be easy, after all we’re soulmates. It was supposed be a simple matter of looking into each other’s eyes and everything would be perfect.” Liz laughed a bit at the idea. “It wasn’t like that though,” Max forged ahead with a bittersweet smile, “There were misunderstandings and miscommunications and tragedy beyond our imaginations. There was love and laughter and tremendous betrayal, too. We’ve had our share of tears, Liz, especially in the past months, but I’m glad for them. This time has taught me that love can be a storm, sunny and warm one moment and pounding and furious the next, but every second is beautiful. I wouldn’t take any of it back because those times brought us here to this place, to this moment.” Max framed her face in his shaking hands and leaned his forehead against hers. “I love you, Liz Evans. You’re everything I am, everything I could be…everything I will be. You’re my life,” he finished solemnly, “Always.”

Smiling through her tears, Liz gruffly recited her own vows. “Max, my husband, there were times when I thought I hated you, times when I loved you more than breath, times when I didn’t feel like I deserved you. Every moment between us has been intense. I had never considered that before. I thought when we married we would just fall into this perfect routine of life and for a little while we had. But then that storm hit and I don’t think we were prepared. I hurt you…in a hundred different ways and you hurt me, too, but we’re the better for it. We’re stronger now than ever were before. Far less perfect, far less ideal, but definitely more in love. I swear to you, Max, that I will never, ever take you for granted again. I love you…and I plan to spend the rest of our lives showing you just how much.”

By the time they were done both Max and Liz were in tears. They wept openly, tears of joy and happiness and abundant love. Even the judge had a gentle mist in his eyes. The groom had told him a little about the tragedy and heartache he and his wife had recently suffered. In his professions, couples did not usually weather the storm of adversity as well as these two. Most marriages would have ended in divorce and not renewal. For that reason alone they should have been commended, but what truly left the judge speechless was the love shining in their eyes for each other. It was so strong, so tangible that even he felt it. Their love fairly filled the room. It was evident in their beautiful daughter, who had watched the entire ceremony with a beaming smile. He was absolutely positive that this couple would make it, sharing their grandchildren and golden years together. So when he intoned the words: “By the power vested in me I now pronounce you husband and wife…again,” he had never meant them more.

Max didn’t wait for the invitation to kiss the bride, but had already sealed his lips to Liz in a breath-stealing kiss.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Liz glanced up from her menu, carefully schooling her face of any disgust. “So do you see anything you like?” she asked Max casually.

“I don’t!” Claudia announced loudly, tossing her menu on the table. (There were definitely drawbacks to having a five year old that could read already.) She folded her tiny arms across her chest and glared at Max mutinously. “I think everything here is YUCK.”

Max lowered his menu, his expression demure but Liz could tell he was struggling to keep from laughing out loud. “What about you, Liz?” he asked solemnly, “Do you happen to share Claudia’s opinion that this restaurant is…” he glanced down at his daughter, “How did you put it again?”

“I said it was YUCK,” Claudia intoned again, “That means nasty, gross, and…and just YUCK!”

This time Max did snicker and so did Liz. “So you’re telling me that the peppercorn filet mignon and truffles isn’t to your liking?” he teased his daughter.

“Max, I know I’ve always wondered how the other half lives,” Liz giggled behind her hand, “but somehow I think they’re getting the short end.”

“I want a cheeseburger and fries!” Claudia said.

“And I want a steak and a potato,” Liz added impishly, “Not steamed asparagus and buttered leeks.” She and Claudia both looked at each other and shuddered.

“Okay, you win,” Max conceded, leaning back in his chair, “What do you ladies suggest?”

“Well, Alex did tell me about this great place called Jimmy’s, An American Restaurant and Bar,” Liz said, “He said it was pretty good and it’s got a whole variety of foods to please the picky eater.” She gave an imperceptible nod towards their precocious daughter.

Max scrapped back his chair. “Jimmy’s, An American Restaurant and Bar it is,” he announced. He bent down to hoist his daughter into his arms.

“But…but what about the waiter,” Liz stammered, “He went to get our drinks already.”

“We’ll leave him a big tip,” Max replied, digging in his pocket for a twenty. He tossed it down on the table. He then looped his free arm around Liz’s neck. “Come on, baby, let’s go have so fun…”

posted on 5-Feb-2003 11:14:30 PM
Chapter 22

When they arrived back at the townhouse it was fifteen minutes to twelve and Claudia was fast asleep. As they stepped inside Max favored Liz with a lascivious grin. “Well, the girl’s asleep,” he murmured playfully, moving up behind her to nuzzle against the back of her neck, “whatever will we do with ourselves now, beautiful?”

Liz danced out of his reach with a smile. “You’re going to make me drop her if you keep that up,” she warned with laughing severity.

“Here, let me take her,” Max suggested, already lifting her from Liz’s arms, “I’ll go put her in some pajamas and tuck her into bed.”

“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?” Liz demanded, plunking her hands on her hips.

Max wiggled his brows wickedly. “How about you go jump into your pajamas and then maybe I’ll come and tuck you in, too.” But his expression clearly said he had no intention on putting her to bed.

Liz returned a wicked smile of her own. “You’re so bad,” she told him.

“Not yet,” Max promised as he headed off for Claudia’s bedroom, “But I will be.”

Liz scampered into their bedroom, eager to shed her clothes and done the lacy black negligee she’d purchased just prior to their trip. Once she was finally undressed and had slipped into something sufficiently “comfortable” Liz darted about the room, hastily lighting every candle she could find. When she had finished with that task, she raced for the bathroom to brush both her hair and teeth. Her mouth was still full of toothpaste foam when Max poked his head inside. He grinned at her. “What are you doing?”

“Wha dah ih loo lah?” Liz retorted sarcastically around her toothbrush, but her eyes were twinkling with merriment. She leaned over the sink to rinse out her mouth, unintentionally providing Max with an eyeful of shapely calves and thighs when she did.

Max dragged his eyes down the length of her scantily clad body, appreciating the creamy display of flesh. “All this for me?” he murmured softly.

Finally becoming aware of his smoldering stare, Liz sauntered over to him and spread her hands wide over his chest. “I assume by your hungry look that you approve?” she purred.

In answer Max swept Liz up into his arms, startling a giggling yelp from her, and carried her into their bedroom. He laid her down against the bed gently before stretching out beside her. But instead of kissing her as Liz expected he instead propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at her, his eyes clouded with reverence. His fingers drifted lazily over her collarbone, occasionally meandering over her shoulders to toy with the spaghetti straps of her negligee. However, he made no attempt to remove it.

Liz gazed up at him in mild apprehension. She cupped his cheek, allowed her fingers to trail lightly down his throat. “Max, what is it?”

“I’m suddenly extremely nervous,” he said, blowing out a shuddering breath.

Liz couldn’t help but laugh at that. “You’re nervous?” she whispered in disbelief, “Why? We’ve only done this a million times.”

“Not so many as that,” Max laughed, lowering his mouth against hers briefly, “But it’s never meant so much before.”

Liz knew absolutely what he meant. All this time they had been making love they had never truly known each other. There were trust and communication issues that had created a wide, silent chasm between them. Making love had done nothing to bridge that chasm and, in some ways, it had pushed them further apart. Now that chasm was gone. Max had seen inside Liz’s heart and she had seen inside his. There were no more secrets, no more regrets or recriminations. They were new, made over in their renewed love. Tonight, in many regards, would be like the first time for them.

Never taking her gaze from his, Liz began deliberately undoing the buttons of Max’s shirt. “We’ll go slow,” she said softly, her hands drifting up the inside of his shirt over his naked chest and curving around the back of his neck. She pulled him down against her, opening her mouth against his throat. Max moaned as he felt her tongue play over his skin. “I want you, Max,” she whispered, rolling him onto his back and then straddling over him, “Let me love you.”

Their mouths met in a carnal kiss, hungry and desperate, crackling with pent up desire and trembling with need. Together they removed Max’s shirt in a frantic need to be skin to skin and tossed it across the room heedlessly. Running her tongue along her lips, Liz feasted her hands across his warm flesh, reacquainting herself with the muscled hardness of his shoulder, chiseled feel of his pectorals, the smooth, and corrugated hardness of his abdomen.

Max quivered beneath her touch, his hands gone wild as well. His fingers alternately plunged into her hair and roamed over her back, plucking at the straps of her nightie, cupping the soft fullness of her breasts. Liz groaned into his mouth as she felt his fingers roll over her aroused nipples, a groan that melded into a moan when he speared his tongue into her mouth again and again.

Sliding his hands down the curve of Liz’s slender back, Max gripped her trim bottom becoming aware for the first time that Liz wasn’t wearing any underwear. Only then did he rip his mouth away from hers. “Oh God…” he gasped, grinding himself up against her heat, feeling her damp warmth even through the confines of his slacks and boxers. “Baby, baby,” he murmured mindlessly as Liz kissed her way down the expanse of his chest, her tongue rotating in small, maddening circles against his skin.

Liz brushed her mouth across his nipples, flicking them with her facile tongue, delighting in the groan of pleasure that tickled her ears. She traveled lower, past his heaving abs, past the enchanting dip of his navel, down to wear the snap of his pants began. Liz leaned back slightly and deliberately, provocatively released the button. Only then did she lift her eyes to Max.

He was watching her with eyes made dark and sparkling in the dim candlelight. Max lifted his hand and laid it against her hair, dragging his fingers down its shiny, brown length. “It’s lonely up here,” he told her tenderly.

Liz cupped the hard bulge of his arousal. “Don’t you want me to make you feel good?” she asked hungrily.

“You always make me feel good,” Max grunted as he dragged her up the length of his body, “Now it’s my turn.”

With one deft motion, he flipped their positions so that Liz lay pinned beneath him, her legs spread wide. His mouth ground against hers seconds later, their tongues tangling, dancing together in fluid hunger. Liz rubbed her aching clitoris against his groin, both gratified and aggravated by the friction that it caused. Yearning to be closer, to feel his naked skin against hers, Liz wedged her hands between them to hastily unfasten Max’s pants. He was more than accommodating. Without ever lifting his mouth from hers, he allowed her free access, even helping her to push his trousers and boxers down the length of his straining thighs. Max wasted no time kicking them away.

When he settled back between her legs once more, their sexes were naked against one another. Max gasped at the contact with her moist heat, yearning to drive himself inside her then and there. He wanted to. More than anything he simply wanted to bury himself to the hilt and then lose it, just lose himself completely in her body. But not before he’d sampled her body as she’d sampled his.

Unable to resist any longer, Max pushed the flimsy straps of Liz’s negligee from her shoulders and pulled the material down, revealing her full, quivering breasts in the candlelight. He didn’t hesitate to taste her, covering over one taut peak with his mouth and drawing it inside. He suckled her expertly, a finesse derived from years of experience. Max knew exactly what she liked, how she purred whenever he scraped his teeth ever so lightly against her sensitive skin. And the moans, those gurgling moans she would make when he flicked his tongue and used it to draw her throbbing nipple even deeper into his mouth.

Liz gripped the back of Max’s head, dying for him to go on as he unselfishly lavished the same attention on her other breasts while aching also for the torture to end. She wanted him inside her… “Please…please…” she gasped, lifting her center against his throbbing length, her body whipped into a frenzy of need when his head would tease her dripping entrance again and again. “Please…Max…”

That was all he needed to hear. Lord knew he was ready to give them both what they wanted and he would have if not for the tentative knock that sounded at their door. “Mommy? Daddy? Can I come in?”

Max froze, his every muscle tensed in anticipation and frustrated desire. He leaned his forehead against Liz’s and blew out a disbelieving breath. “You have got to be kidding me,” he ground out in an ironic laugh.

Claudia knocked again, her voice timid and quivering as it drifted over to them. “Mommy, it’s dark out here. I had a bad dream. Can I come in and sleep with you, please?”

Max looked down at Liz and saw that he was losing her. Already her eyes had lost the fierce heat of desire and had softened with motherly sympathy. “Oh no,” Max groaned imploringly, “Please, don’t, Liz…”

“She’s scared,” Liz argued softly.

“And I’m hard,” Max countered boldly.

Liz stared up at him in silent appeal. “We can’t just leave her out in the hallway.”

“Just for five minutes,” Max prodded, “That’s all I need.”

But Liz was unbending. “Max, get off.” Max rolled from the bed with a disappointed groan. “Just let me get her to sleep and we’ll pick up where we left off,” she promised as she bent to retrieve her robe. Her suggestion only earned her a sour look from Max before he stumbled off for the bathroom for a long, cold shower.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was the sensation of sensuous warmth surrounding his penis that finally penetrated Max’s sleepy senses. By the time he pried open his eyes, however, he was able to focus the warmth to one particular source. His wife was straddled over him stroking his rigid length, her hand milking his arousal in long, sensual strokes. Max didn’t have time to respond. His body was already on the verge of climax. He grasped Liz’s hand, holding it tight around him while he speared once, twice before shuddering with the force of his orgasm. His semen cascaded warmly over the back of their hands and his belly.

“How long have you been doing that?” he asked when she collapsed across his chest, impervious to the semen slicking their bodies. It was an inane question. She had obviously been doing “it” for quite some time, hence his quick release. Max threaded his fingers through her damp hair. “Now that was some wake up call.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” Liz murmured against his throat, “I was just lying here watching you sleep and I couldn’t resist.”

As Max lay beneath her sweat-dampened body stroking her trim back, he became aware of certain things. For instance, they were now in bed alone and Liz was completely nude. After he’d taken his decidedly cold shower Max had returned to bed to find his wife and daughter snuggled against one another contentedly. The last thing he remembered doing was wrapping his arms around them both and then falling asleep. But now Claudia was gone and obviously Liz had seduced him and he had slept through it all? Max frowned up at Liz in question.

“She was down for the count so I took her back to her room,” she said, reading the unspoken inquiry in Max’s eyes, “You must have been really tired…for a while I didn’t think you would wake up at all.”

“I didn’t want to at first,” Max murmured, “I was having the most amazing dream…”

Liz folded her hands atop his chest and rested her chin against them. “Were you?”

“Yeah,” Max continued with a smile, “this totally hot chick was riding me.” Liz’s answering chuckle became a pleasured gasp when he suddenly shifted against her, his sex stirring to life once more. “Maybe we can make my dream a reality…” Immeasurably pleased with the suggestion Liz pushed herself upright and started to reach for a condom on the nightstand. Max grabbed hold her arm lightly. “What are you doing?” he asked in a whisper.

Their mouths were only inches apart. The exchange of breath between them was charged with sexual energy. Liz licked her lips provocatively before bringing her gaze up to his face. “Protection…remember,” Liz murmured.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Max suggested, drawing her hand away.

“But Max you know I just started the pill again a few weeks ago,” Liz reminded him gently, “That’s not enough time to--,”

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Max stated again, more emphatic this time and Liz did not mistake his meaning.

Her mouth fell open slightly. “Are you serious?”

Max nodded slow and deliberate. “Do you want to still?”

Liz pressed her mouth to his in a fervent kiss. “Oh, you bet your sweet ass I do,” she purred against his lips.

Max had to laugh at her reply. “Then let’s put my sweet ass to work, Mrs. Evans. I’m nothing if not hardworking,” he teased as he rolled her onto her back, “We’ll make a baby even if it takes all night.” Max nudged between her thighs and proceeded to give it his best endeavor.

posted on 5-Feb-2003 11:16:06 PM
Epilogue

The moment Liz spotted Michael Guerin striding through the airport terminal she waddled up to meet him, leaving her husband and daughter at the baggage claim. Michael enfolded her in an affectionate hug made slightly awkward by her swollen middle, a smile of genuine pleasure lifting his face. “You look really good, Liz,” he said when they broke apart, “I was afraid you guys wouldn’t make it for a minute.”

“Our flight out was delayed for the heavy rain back in New York,” Liz explained, drinking in Michael’s appearance as well. She pressed a finger to his abdomen. “You look like you’ve gained weight, Guerin.”

Michael patted the extra paunch around his middle. “Sympathetic pregnancy,” he declared, his face absolutely straight, “Max putting on any pounds?”

“A few,” Liz smirked, “But don’t tell him…he’s incredibly sensitive about it.”

“Hey, speaking of Max,” Michael said, craning his neck around her in bewilderment, “Where the heck is he? He did come, right?”

“Baggage claim,” Liz replied, “He should be here in a little while. I think there was a mix-up with our luggage.”

Michael nodded, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Well, I’m kinda glad he’s tied up because it gives us a few minutes to talk privately,” he said solemnly.

“Oh?”

Lowering his eyes in sheepish regret Michael muttered, “The last time I saw you in person I acted like a complete asshole. I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to speak to me again after that…what I said was just really out of line.”

“I’d be one snarky bitch to hold that against you, now wouldn’t I, Michael?” Liz replied gently, “You were grieving…I know that. You needed to take your anger out on someone and I was the easiest target. Besides, it was a year ago, Michael. No biggie. We’ve spoken tons since then…I’m not holding a grudge.”

“It’s just…you know…I never officially apologized,” Michael stammered, “And I…I just wanted to tell you…you know…that I was sorry.”

Liz smiled at him. “Apology accepted.”

“I have found our luggage,” Max announced as he came hobbling up to them, bearing four suitcases and Claudia’s small carry on. However, he dropped his burden the moment he saw Michael. They enfolded each other in a back slapping embrace all manly grins, almost as if it hadn’t been a year since they last saw each other. “You’re getting old,” Max remarked, landing a playful punch to Michael’s gut, “I think I see some gray up there in the temple area.”

“And you’re getting fat,” Michael countered dryly, “You kinda got that double chin thing working.”

“Makes two of us, man.”

Michael started to make an equally sarcastic reply when he felt someone tugging at his pants leg. He looked down to find Claudia staring up at him expectantly. “Oh my God, Claud,” he exclaimed, stooping down to hoist her up and groaning when he did, “You’ve gotten so big. From little girl to woman all in one year.” He groaned again. “You’re definitely too big for me to be picking you up like this,” he finished, setting her back down on the ground, “I think you broke Uncle Michael’s back.” He tweaked her nose for good measure.

Claudia giggled. “You’re so silly, Uncle Michael.” She looked about the airport terminal hopefully. “Did Mickey come with you?”

“Nah, she’s still with her mom back at the house, but we’ll be leaving to see them in a little while.”

“Good,” Claudia replied with a decisive nod, “But first Mommy said I could have McDonald’s if I was good on the plane, so we’ll get that first.” She grabbed hold of Liz’s hand and pointed towards the distant McDonald’s sign. “See Mommy, there it is.” Liz cast a helpless glance back at Max and Michael as Claudia dragged her away.

When they had scurried up ahead Max began hoisting up the bags once more. “Here, let me give you a hand,” Michael offered, already taking up the last two remaining suitcases. He and Max followed behind Liz and Claudia at a leisurely pace. “So how’s she doing?” Michael asked, hitching his chin in Liz’s direction.

“She’s getting a little antsy,” Max said, his eyes glued to his wife’s retreating back, “Her due date’s just a few days before Maria’s, you know. We’re real close…plus she’s been scared. Liz was about eight months along last time when we lost Jeff. She hasn’t talked about it very much but I know she’s worried.”

Michael nodded in sympathetic understanding. “I went through the same thing with Maria in her first trimester,” he confided, “She would wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats. I don’t think even knowing that the baby is due in six weeks has put her mind at ease. She still won’t drive a car.”

Max glanced at him in surprise. “I thought you said her therapy was going well.”

“She’s really good about talking her feelings out,” Michael conceded, “But nothing Dr. Phillips says, nothing I say is gonna convince her to get back behind the wheel. She’s driving poor Ed crazy I tell you.”

“And her depression?” Max prompted, “How is she doing with that?”

“It’s definitely better,” Michael replied, “The new pregnancy really helped a lot. You know Maria and I aren’t the most patient people.” He slanted Max a wry look. “I know you didn’t think it was wise to get pregnant so soon after the miscarriage.” Max only shrugged, committed to keeping his professional opinions to himself. Michael and Maria had a therapist they were happy with, one he had recommended. Max didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. “She’s really improved, Max,” Michael insisted, “You’ll see for yourself when we get to the house. She’s almost completely the same old Maria.”

Max grinned. “And she really has no idea we’re coming today?”

“No clue,” Michael laughed, “In fact, she thinks I’m out picking up her birthday cake as we speak. The very fact Isabel managed to keep it a secret this long is phenomenal. She and Alex arrived yesterday.” Michael blew out a disgusted sigh. “The house is full of screaming kids…and half of them are mine.” He and Max shared an ironic laugh before Max sobered abruptly.

“Are you sure Maria will be alright with it?” Max asked in uncertainty, “You know…with us staying for a few days. I know she and Liz have been talking lately, but still…they haven’t seen each other in over a year.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Michael exploded in a laugh, “Maria’s been weepy all week ever since she asked Liz if she could make it for the party and Liz said no. She said it was pregnancy hormones, but I know she was disappointed. I felt like hell lying to her this whole week.”

“Hey, but it’s for a good cause, right?”

Michael chuckled. “Definitely a good cause,” he agreed, “I can’t wait to see Maria’s face when she sees Liz. I know she missed her a lot.”

“Same for Liz. She’s been looking forward to this trip all week,” Max said, “It’s about time they saw each other again…it’s been a long time coming for them both.”

The End and the Beginning