“I suppose it’s obvious that I want to be with you, too. I just . . . needed a moment to collect myself in there,” he said quietly.
Max grinned and kissed my nose. “At least we got that out of the way. But I’ve earned the right to a fair trial. No more mistrustful Sara.”
Collecting himself, he slipped my arm through his and turned back to his stunned party. Max announced to all near, “Sorry for the interruption, everyone. Haven’t seen my girlfriend in a couple of weeks.”
People nodded and smiled at us as if we were the most charming thing they’d ever seen. It was a familiar type of attention, the kind I’d received for years. But this time it was real. What I’d found with Max wasn’t about opinion polls and public perception. For the first time in my life, what happened behind closed doors was ten times better than what others saw from the outside looking in.
And he was mine.
Max was still out saying good night to the last of his guests to leave when I slipped back into his bedroom to look at the photos again. They were so revealing of our emotions, they almost made me feel bare all over.
I heard him come in behind me and quietly shut the door.
“Stand what?” He stepped behind me and bent to kiss the back of my neck.
“Seeing these pictures every day.” I pointed to his wall. “If they’d been on my wall while we were apart it would have hurt so much I would have gone fetal and subsisted entirely on Cap’n Crunch and self-pity.”
He laughed and turned me to face him. “I wasn’t ready to get over you yet. I was miserable, but would have been more miserable if I’d admitted it was over.”
And that’s what he gave me, a reminder that the glass wasn’t just half full, it was overflowing.
“It’ll exhaust you sometimes,” I said, “having to be the optimist for both of us.”
“Aaah, but eventually I’ll bring you over to the light side.” He reached behind me, unzipped my dress, and slipped it from my shoulders. It fell in a puddle at my feet and I stepped out of it, feeling the pleasure of his eyes on my skin.
When I glanced up at him, he looked so serious it made my stomach lurch. “What’s wrong?”
“You could break my heart. Just know that, yeah?”
“When I say ‘I love you’ I don’t mean that I love what being with you does for my career, or I love how often you’re willing to shag. I mean I love you. I love making you laugh, and seeing how you react to things, and getting to know the little things about you. I love who I am with you, and I’m trusting you not to hurt me.”
Maybe because he was so tall, and broad, and constantly smiling and impossible to offend, Max seemed so formidable, as if nothing could actually break him. But he was only human, too.
“I understand,” I whispered. It was so strange to be on the other side of messing up, and to be the one who was given another chance.
He kissed me and then stepped back, slipping out of his jacket and hanging it on a coatrack in the corner. I spotted his camera on a shelf in the opposite corner of the room and walked over to pick it up. I stared down at it, found the ON button, raised the camera, and adjusted the lens.
I aimed it at where Max stood, watching me and tugging at his bow tie.
“I love you, too,” I said, zooming to take a close-up of his face. I clicked a few more pictures in rapid succession as he stared hungrily at me. “Undress.”
He pulled his tie away from his collar and dropped it, eyes growing darker, and began unbuttoning his shirt.
“A warning,” I murmured from behind the camera as he pulled his shirt open. “I’ll probably need to lick every inch of your chest tonight.”
A smile tilted his mouth. Click. “Fine by me. I might insist you lick a little lower, too.”
I took a picture of his hands at his belt, his pants on the floor, his feet as they stepped right in front of mine.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, reaching to take the camera away from me.
He laughed and shook his head. “Get on the bed, Petal. Apparently you need a reminder of how this works.”
I climbed back, feeling the cool sheets as the mattress dipped below me. He reached down, adjusted my leg, studied me.
The light from the Manhattan skyline slipped across my body, illuminating a strip of skin on my ribs. His finger ran up the inside of my thigh as I looked up at his face, partially hidden by the camera.
New life. New love. New Sara.