Emma walked hesitantly into the study room. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been this nervous. How the hell did she get stuck working with Max as a partner? Her plan of dividing up the course work among their study group members had totally backfired on her. When she mentioned it to the team, it never occurred to her that this might happen. And then of course with her luck, it did. She had only been thinking of relieving her workload and attempting to regain a normal life at the time.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered when she saw him sitting down at the conference table studying his course packet. Ever since they had agreed to be friends, it kept messing with her mind that there was something else going on between them. They were obviously beyond ridiculous thoughts.
He looked up at her as she walked in, giving her the same easy smile that seemed to be reserved only for her. “Hey, Em.”
God, even the way he casually tossed her nickname around made her head spin. He just seemed so comfortable with her all the time, while she had an internal battle with herself going on 24/7.
“You okay, partner?” he asked looking concerned.
“Um … yeah. Hey,” she answered. “Sorry, just a little distracted today.”
“You wanna talk about it?” he asked, standing up and pulling out a seat for her right next to him.
Always the perfect gentlemen. “It’s nothing really but thanks.”
“Well if you ever need anything … my office is open,” he said gesturing with open arms and smiling.
“Good to know.” She settled in her seat and pulled out her computer. “So I was thinking we could divide and conquer? I can do the write-up and you can work on putting the PowerPoint together?” The less they had to communicate, the better.
“Sure. You’re the boss. I just take orders.”
This was going way better than expected. She loved how he was so uncomplicated. “Okay, then.”
She spent the next hour working diligently on the write-up. Well, if diligently includes sneaking looks at your partner every 15 minutes. I mean, someone had to check he was doing his work. The worst part was every time she looked at him, he would stare right back at her and smile. Not awkward at all.
It was during one of these side staring contests that he stretched and finally spoke up. “I’m going to take a breather. Do you want anything?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks though,” she said looking at her computer screen and pretending to type something really important.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it.”
“Hmm. Okay,” he said mumbling something as he left the room.
She took a deep breath and felt like she could finally relax. She took the time to concentrate and finally write down some decent words. She was in the middle of wrapping up the Challenges of the case study, when a Snickers bar was tossed in front of her computer.
Her eyes instantly lit up, and then slid over to Max who had resumed working like nothing had happened.
“Um … I think this is yours?” she asked holding it up.
He looked at her briefly and shook his head. “Nope, that’s yours.”
“How did you know?”
“Please. As if you don’t eat those all the time.”
“Oh. I didn’t know people noticed this little vice of mine.”
He grinned at her. “Oh, I definitely noticed. Don’t worry though, your secret is safe with me.”
She felt her heart melt a little at his confession. “Thank you, Max. You really didn’t have to.”
“It’s no big deal, Em. Just thought you could use a pick-me-up.”
“Well, it’s really thoughtful … so thank you.”
“It’s just a Snickers bar, but you’re welcome. Are you gonna have that anytime soon or are you going to make me steal it back?” he said nudging her.
“Don’t you dare go anywhere near my chocolate,” she said unwrapping the bar and taking a big bite.
Max just laughed and continued working on the presentation. “I was thinking we could put something funny on the last slide, like a random picture of a raccoon or something.”
“Why not? They’re funny. People laugh every time. Guaranteed.”
“Don’t people usually just put their student picture on there?”
“I don’t know about yours, but mine is pretty horrendous. I’d rather put a picture of something else.”
“Yeah, me too. But a raccoon? It’s a bit strange.”
“Tell you what. We can put a picture of us and the raccoon can go on the side. What do you say?”
“Where are we gonna get a picture that has both of us in it?”
“I’ll take one right now. I’m a selfie master,” he said getting his phone out.
“I probably have chocolate all over my teeth,” she said finishing the last of the Snickers.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out.” He grabbed her chin and squished her cheeks together, forcing her to open her mouth.
“Max, cut it out,” she said laughing and trying to swat his hand away.
“I’m doing this for your own good … and the benefit of the picture. Just smile for me.”
“So you don’t like smiling?”
“No,” she said stubbornly and crossed her arms.
“You smile all the time. C’mon it’ll just take two seconds.”
“Max, this is really embarrassing.”
“I’m not letting go of you until you smile.”
“I probably look like an idiot right now,” she said looking down.
“You look beautiful, as always. Trust me,” he said in an almost whisper.
She let out a sigh when she met his deep hazel eyes again. They were filled with so much honesty and endearment, she couldn’t help but smile.
“See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” he said, finally dropping his hold of her chin.
“So do I have anything?” she asked with flushed cheeks.
“No, you were good since the beginning,” he stated nonchalantly.
She gasped at him and then punched him in the arm. “I hope you’re enjoying this.”
“As a matter of fact, yes I am. Very much so,” he said pulling her chair close to his and wrapping his arm around her shoulder. He grabbed his phone with his free hand and angled it to take a picture. “Smile.”
She barely registered the flash and then he was showing her the picture all of a sudden. “Damn, we look good,” he said proudly.
She looked at the picture more closely. At first she thought he was joking but he was right, they did look good. Even more so, they looked good together. But that was something she wasn’t going to admit.
“Here, I can send it to you,” he added.
“Um … sure. Just send it to my Gmail.” Last thing she needed was Roy to see that picture. He would probably freak if he saw it. Now her entire class was going to see it. What if word got out to him somehow? Maybe this wasn’t the best idea.
Her thoughts were confirmed when she opened up her email on her computer and saw Max’s email with the photo attached and a subject line that read best partners ever. She knew he was just being funny, but she just had a bad feeling about it.
“Max, I think it would be better if …” she started to say, but got caught up in the next email she had received from her dad. She knew it wasn’t the best moment to be doing this, but she began reading it anyway. Big mistake.
It was another one of his crazy email rants saying how she was a horrible daughter and only cared about his money. The latest addition was that she was a slut and an idiot for following “some guy” to another country. At this point, she thought the emails were frequent enough for her to just be able to shake it off, but it caused the same reaction in her every time.
She could already feel her body shutting down, when she read the last sentence saying he was disowning her as a daughter. How many times would he keep threatening her? Sometimes she wished he would just go ahead and do it. Cut all the ties from him so she wouldn’t have to feel the constant stab in the heart.
A sob got stuck in her throat and then she felt a warm hand squeezing hers. Shit, she had forgotten Max was sitting right next to her.
Feeling completely mortified that he was about to witness her full-blown meltdown, she let go of his hand and ran towards the bathrooms. Tears were already streaming down her face and she somehow made it into one of them through blurred vision.
She pressed her forehead against the marble of the wall, trying to force her body to cool down and willing the shudders that wracked through her body to stop. She quickly started counting numbers in her head as a distraction, but didn’t make it past 15 as it usually happened.
Stop. Stop crying. Just stop this Emma, you’re being ridiculous, she reprimanded herself. It only added to her frustration when her mind didn’t listen and the emotions wouldn’t let up.
She didn’t know if she had been that way for a minute or an hour, when she felt a strong arm circle around her waist, causing her to immediately stiffen.
“Shh, Emma, it’s okay. Let it out,” a voice whispered.
She felt a hand rub against her back, the soothing up and down motion making her relax her stance. And then she was thrown into his chest and being hugged so tightly, her arms immediately went to wrap around his waist. He was giving her the comfort and solace she desperately needed at that moment, and she wasn’t about to give up on that offer. He wasn’t judging her or asking any questions, it was as if he could feel her pain and just knew exactly what she needed.
“It’s gonna be okay sweetheart, I promise.”
She felt so safe and protected in that moment, she just had to believe those words. The hand that was soothing her back was now gently massaging her neck and shoulders and she felt herself melting into him.
“That’s it, just try to relax,” he said kissing her temple.
God, his voice was so smooth. She felt the tears stop, but her body was still shaking uncontrollably.
“Breathe with me, Em.”
Puzzled at what he meant, she felt him take a deep breath, his chest slowly inhaling and exhaling in a rhythmic motion. She did her best to concentrate on his breathing and follow his movements. They were too slow for her at first as she realized she was breathing really hard compared to him, but she forced herself to take deeper breaths and eventually caught on after several rotations until they were finally in sync and breathing together.
He pulled her face back a bit and looked straight into her eyes with complete warmth, while gently smoothing back her hair and tucking it behind her ear. She buried her face back into his chest, hugging him as if he were a lifeline and entirely grateful for him being there with her. Normally it would take hours for her to get over her meltdowns, but somehow he managed to calm her down pretty quickly. Even Roy would always end up walking away and leaving her alone, clearly frustrated at her.
All of a sudden, she could feel everything about Max as she came to. The sound of his slow heartbeat against his chest, the enticing smell of cologne on his neck, the hard planes of muscles molded perfectly into her body. She let out a soft moan and the next thing she knew, his lips were pressing against her face in a trail of soft kisses that left her breathless and wanting more.
She almost yelled at him when he abruptly stopped and jerked away from her, but then he covered her mouth with his hand and whispered into her ear. “Don’t panic. Say that you’re not feeling well.”
What in the world was he talking about? That’s when she heard the pounding on the door followed by, “Emma. I know you’re in there. What the hell is going on?”
She felt herself crash down to earth in one second. Holy shit. Roy. Had he seen Max with her, too?
She turned to look at Max in a panic. Exactly what he had told her not to do. He had a very serious expression on his face, but slowly removed his hand from covering her mouth and nodded slightly after motioning towards the door.
“I … uh … I’m not feeling well, Roy,” she tried to say as calmly as possible. She glanced at the doorknob and thankfully saw that it was locked. At least Max had the sense to lock the door when he came in, something she hadn’t even thought of.
“What is it this time Emma? Daddy wrote you another mean email?” he asked sarcastically.
Tears instantly sprung to her eyes. Oh no, not again, she thought. How is this even happening? She looked at Max who was shaking his head with a murderous expression on his face. Why was he mad all of a sudden? Maybe she could tap into that anger.
“Yes, he did actually. Do you have a problem with that?” she yelled.
“Whatever. I’ll see you at home. Find someone else to go cry to,” Roy said.
“Maybe I will, jackass,” she mumbled under her breath, realizing the complete irony of the situation. She heard footsteps walking away, and let out huge sigh of relief. That was so close. Too close.
She turned to look at Max, who was completely shocked and alarmed now. It was amazing how many different expressions she had seen in him during the last five minutes. She almost let out a chuckle thinking about it.
“Have you completely lost your mind?” he whispered.
“He left, didn’t he?” she whispered back.
“God, this is so wrong on so many levels,” he said running his hand through his hair and pacing the small space of the bathroom.
“I know. I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”
He stopped to look at her. “No, that’s not what I meant. Earlier … when I …” his voice trailed off. “Emma, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I did that. I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, starting to look agonized.
She felt her cheeks turn red just thinking about it. It had felt so good being in his arms, she couldn’t remember ever being held like that. And his kisses … she could still feel them lingering around her cheeks. The worst part was that she hadn’t wanted him to stop and she probably would have let him do much more than that. What the hell was wrong with her? Even he was clearly regretting it. Why couldn’t she?
“It’s okay, Max. You were helping me. I guess we just got carried away.”
“It’s not okay, Em. You have a boyfriend … who almost caught us in here … and who treats like you shit, by the way. Not to mention your father. Why do you even put up with that? Do you even realize everything that just happened right now?”
She winced at his words. The whole thing just sounded horrible, especially spoken out loud like that. And now in a short span of an afternoon, Max knew the inner workings of her life she wished no one knew about. Yes, the whole thing was a giant shit show.
“I’m sorry, Max. Can we just … forget the whole thing?”
“Is that what you want?” he asked studying her.
She nodded at him. “You’re my only friend here and I don’t want to lose you,” she said staring at the floor. “Please, let’s just pretend none of this happened.”
He let out a deep breath. “Okay, Emma. We’ll forget it.”
“Thank you, Max. I should … probably go.”
“Yeah, you should. I’ll hold back here for a bit.”
“Okay,” she said wiping her eyes one last time and heading for the door. “I really am sorry.”
He grabbed her by the arm and gently pulled her back, running his thumb against her cheek. “It’s not your fault, Em. Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah, I think I had enough of a cry fest for one day,” she said trying to smile. “See you in school?”
“Of course. Good night, partner,” he said looking kind of sad.
“Good night, Max.”