A/N: We passed the 100 review mark, thanks to each and every one of you! Thanks to everyone who reviewed, but I've got to tell you, there would be a buttload more reviews if the people who just put me on their favorite story or story alerts just took five seconds and REVIEWED, you know? (Nudge, nudge, hint, hint). But I'm not complaining (I have my complaining face on). So remember, reviews are awesome, and they HELP ME UPDATE SOONER. Understand? Should I repeat that? No? Well, anyway, on to the chapter, which is one of my favorites. I think you'll like it too...



On Saturday, I made myself presentable in jeans and a collared t-shirt. I tied my hair back and glanced idly at my watch.

11:13. At this time, I'd be wrestling with Max over some silly Spanish word. I sighed. There was nothing that I wanted to be doing more.

…shouldn't he be over by now, anyway? He said he'd be here. Then again, thinking back, he never specified when. I slapped my forehead. I was such an idiot. We were about to leave and he wasn't here yet. What on earth was I going to do?



"It's for me!" I shouted as I rocketed down the stairs. Unable to stop a grin of relief, I yanked open the door and shouted a happy "Hello!"


I glanced down. "What?"

"Well," the girl started, "I'm Haley. I'm selling Girl Scout—"

"Oh." My heart did a flip-flop as I dug into my jeans. "Uh, yeah, I'll buy a box. How much?"

"Five dollars for two," she replied hopefully, batting her little eyelashes. What the heck. She was a kid shooting me puppy dog eyes—who could resist?

"Okay, here." I grabbed two boxes off her wagon and handed her the money. "Thanks for the cookies."

She beamed. "Thanks for buying."

I shut the door and promptly recalled that that was the last of my money. Crap. What on earth was I going to buy lunch with next week? I was counting on that. Mom was the only one working (what with Dad in the hospital), and I didn't want to keep leeching off her hard-earned money. Maybe it was really time to find a job.

I sighed.


"This better be you," I growled, yanking the door open again.

And there he stood, impeccably handsome in the light, dressed as casually as I was. Harry the driver waved from where he stood by the limousine.

"Hey," I said weakly, relieved. "Glad you could make it."

"Of course I made it," Max replied, brushing by me into the house. "I wouldn't miss this, not for my cute little friend." He leaned down and tweaked my nose.

Tweaked my nose! The nerve!

I slapped his hand away. "Shut up. We're about to leave."

He glanced back. "I guess we won't take the limo then?"

I rolled my eyes. "Not all of us want to be the center of attention twenty-four seven. We're taking the van."

Max grinned and slung his arm around my shoulders. "Joy." He hardly noticed that I was suddenly struggling to control my breathing at his proximity.

"A little too close," I wheezed, eyeing his arm. But it was nice and warm and comfortable…

He laughed. "But you like it anyway."

"Whatever." We continued through the house to the van, me painfully conscious Max's touch.

"Hello, Max!" Mom greeted happily. She'd been unbearably upbeat since she'd learned about Dad being discharged from the hospital. It was disgusting how she'd conveniently forgotten that he'd landed himself in that hospital in the first place. I ground my teeth angrily, remembering that—

"You okay?" Max asked curiously. "Your face is all screwed up. You don't have a fever, do you?" His hand shot up to feel my forehead.

TOO CLOSE! screamed my internal radar of touching. I shot back a few feet, banging my head against the wall.

Max winced. "Wow, are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," I muttered, rubbing my head. Ow.

He shrugged, and a smirk crossed his face. "Let's get going then. We don't want to be late to see your dad."

I scowled. "Whatever. Just get in the car."

When we reached the hospital, my dad was standing outside, looking all healthy and rejuvenated. He was certainly a better sight than he'd been all those months ago in the hospital. He spotted us driving up and waved, a wide smile spreading across his face. I gritted my teeth.

"Daniel!" Mom shrieked, hitting a pitch I hadn't believed she was capable of. "Honey!" After slamming on the brakes in the most dangerous way, she catapulted from the car without a word to us and into Dad's arms.

"Susan, dear!" he cooed back, kissing her deeply.

"Wow," Max said, watching raptly from the car window. I averted my gaze in part embarrassment, part disgust.

Next were Johnnie and Kate, screeching, "Daddy!" at the top of their lungs. I watched this sourly. I had nothing against my brother and sister, but were they even aware that beloved Daddy had hurt himself?

To my left, Max prodded me with a finger. "Isn't it your turn now?"

"I don't want to," I declared stubbornly, crossing my arms. No way was that guy going to receive an open-armed welcome from me.

Max rolled his eyes. "Didn't you drag me along so you could face him? Come on." He unbuckled his seatbelt and attempted to pry my arms away so he could unbuckle mine.

"Come on, don't be stubborn, dear."

"Don't call me that," I snapped, keeping my arms firmly crossed. I stuck out my tongue at him, and he laughed.

"Don't be such a stubborn a—"

"No cussing," I cut off quickly. "None of that stuff." I glared at him and his foul mouth.

He grinned wider. "Fine, come along, you old donkey." He gave my arms a hearty yank, but I remained statuesque. After a moment of stony glaring, I yanked back, intent on proving that I wasn't to be moved. Surprised, he toppled forward.

Right. Onto. Me.

I sucked in a gasp of shock, and his weight promptly knocked it out of me again. Boy, was he heavy. And warm. And he smelled really good. And his eyes…

He opened his mouth, and I shot him a glare before saying staunchly, "No, I am not enjoying the view."

He grinned. "How did you know I was going to say that?"

I rolled my eyes. "Too obvious." After a moment of uncomfortable shifting, I asked in annoyance, "Can you get off now?"

"Nah…" He inhaled loudly. "You smell good. And you're warm. Nope, I'm too comfortable to move. Sorry."

"Get off me, you moron!" I struck him halfheartedly on the head. The voice in my head taunted, It's not so bad. Just accept it. He's nice and warm, and you like him. This is a dream come true…

Someone cleared his throat. I glanced up, and the blood drained from my face.

"What on earth…?" Dad said faintly, taking in the scene.

He saw me strapped into the seat. He saw Max on top of me, practically close enough to ravage me. He saw me half-smiling in stunned bliss.

"My stars, get off me!" I roared, shoving Max hard enough to free myself. I unsnapped the seatbelt and flew out of the van, breathing hard and blushing scarlet.

Max sat down hard on the floor of the van, looking bemused. "Hello, Mr. Long. My name is Max Stanton."

I coughed. "He's my friend," I muttered pointedly.

"Ah, yes!" Mom explained happily, totally oblivious to what Dad was gaping at. "This is Max. He's a friend of Kathleen's. He wanted to come welcome you too. Isn't he such a darling?"

I rolled my eyes and tugged at my collar a little. Was it just me or was it hot outside?

Max clambered out of the van and extended his hand. "How are you, Mr. Long?"

Dad took it slowly. "Well enough, I suppose. Are you and Kathleen…?"

I shook my head vehemently. "No way. We're just friends."

Max slung his arm around me. "We're this close to dating," he said, winking as he held his fingers about an inch apart.

"No, we're not!" I said hotly, shooting a glare at Max. "We aren't. Don't believe him, Dad! Seriously!"

Dad chuckled. "I believe you, baby girl."

Baby girl.

I froze. No. NO. What was wrong with me? How could I have been distracted? How had I forgotten so quickly that he was a traitor, a freaking hypocrite?

"Whatever," I muttered, avoiding his gaze now. I leaned back into Max's embrace unconsciously. "Let's just go home." I climbed back into the van and buckled myself into the back seat, glad when Max buckled himself in beside me. At least I wouldn't have to deal with Dad beside me.

"Right-o," Dad agreed cheerily. "Let's go home!"


"I think I'll leave now."

"No really, please, stay!"

"You're having a family reunion. I'm not exactly family, am I?"

"Please. Please." I took a steadying breath. "I can't handle it alone."

Max shrugged. "You've got siblings and your mom."

I made a face. "Not really that helpful." I took another breath. I really couldn't face this party to welcome my dad home alone. I might summarily combust into flames of anger or self-destruction.

"What did he do to you anyway?" Max asked, ruffling his hair. "What makes you hate him so much?"

I felt a familiar anger rise in my chest. "Well, he—" I caught myself. "Well, you don't really need to know. I just…" Say it, Kath. Say it. "…I need you."

His eyes widened. "What?"

"I need you," I mumbled through a red face. "Seriously."

His face melted into an awed smile. "Say that again."

"No way! You heard it the first two times."

"Come on, say it again! Or else I'm leaving…"

I grabbed his arm desperately. "Fine!" Deep breath. This sort of admission took courage. "Max, I need you."

He sighed in mock exasperation. "Well, if that's the case, I can't really refuse."

"You're a monster," I grumbled.

He grinned devilishly. "Thank you. Now let's face this father of yours."

I put my game face on. "Okay."

"There's my baby girl and her boyfriend," Dad cried as we entered the living room. "The cake's almost ready. Hurry up!"

Don't call me that, I thought sourly. Aloud, I mumbled, "He's not my boyfriend."

"Eh?" Dad said. He grinned. "Look at Kathleen, growing up. She's going to make a great wife someday, eh, Susan?"

Mom beamed and nodded dreamily. Man, she was a total sap now that Dad was home. No spine whatsoever.

"Well, let's get this show on the road," Max declared, smoothly covering up the awkward silence.

Remember to thank him a million times for being here, I thought as we all sat down and lit the candles. One candle for every month in the hospital. Nine months total.

We sang "Happy Homecoming", in which Dad and Mom burst out into laughter as we tried and failed miserably to fit all the syllables in to the tune. I scowled and resolved not to let out another note—until Mom cried, "Kath, honey, why don't you get on the piano and play something for Daddy?", to which I couldn't refuse when Max grabbed my hand and shoved me down on the piano bench.

"You traitor," I whispered murderously, crossing my arms.

His eyes gleamed with laughter. "Well, I want to hear you play something too."

"I hate you," I reminded him. At the family's urge, I started a piece, which segued into many, many pieces throughout the next hour. First Mozart, then Scarlatti, then an exhausting Chopin, then Schubert, then more, and more, and more, until I was positively dizzy from reading notes. Max sat on the piano bench beside me, stifling a chuckle at my every expression, ranging from murderous to resignation.

When the clock struck eleven, my dad finally laughed and held up his hands. "I think that's enough, kids. It's bed time, isn't it?"

Johnnie groaned. "What, we can't stay up until midnight? It's a special occasion."

Even Mom was for it. "That's right, honey. They just want to celebrate you coming home." She gave him an endearing smile. I gagged.

Dad sighed in mock-defeat. "Fine, fine. At least let Kathleen over there rest her hands. If she plays any more, she'll get carpal tunnels." He grinned at me, and I turned away.

"Well, if you want to stay up," Mom continued, "get upstairs and brush your teeth first, all right?" When the two of them were gone, Mom took Dad's arm. "I think we should get you cleaned up too. It's been a long day."

"That is has," Dad agreed heartily. "I'm in for a shower."

And then we were alone. I sighed and shook out my hands, attempting to ignore the sudden uncomfortable silence.

Max yawned. "I'm disappointed."

I paused in stretching. "Why?"

"Well, you're excellent at piano as well. Is there anything you completely fail at?"

He looked so morose I laughed. "Of course."

He raised an eyebrow. "Like?"

I didn't even have to think. "Like cooking. Or playing tennis. Or being patient." I shrugged. "Those kinds of things."

"You're bad at cooking?" he mused. "Well, you'll have to prove it to me someday."

I rolled my eyes. "Come over some time and I'll cook you breakfast. You'll be lucky if you don't run from me screaming bloody murder."

He laughed and stretched his legs. "I'm sure it can't be that bad." Then his expression turned thoughtful. "Although it'd be refreshing if it was."

I whacked him across the head. "Shut up."

He grabbed my hand. "Enough of this family stuff. Want to take a walk?"

Well, wouldn't that be nice? But Dad and Mom wouldn't allow me to be wandering out late at night with a boy of all things…then again, Max was on good terms with Mom, which gave him the slightest of advantages. And Dad hadn't exploded on him so far, so it'd probably be okay…

"Well, I guess so," I said after another moment. "As long as we don't go too far or stay out too long."

"I'll have you back before midnight. Don't worry." He grabbed my hand and led me out the door—not that I needed the guidance.

"Where are we going?" I asked, shivering a little in the cool night air. Oh, weather like this was incredibly calm and peaceful. The moon was bright, and the stars gleamed like light bulbs far above. A slight breeze was blowing through, and the air was light.

Max shrugged. "Around the block, I guess." He tucked his hands into his pockets and walked slowly along the sidewalk.

I followed him silently and watched the stars. The night cast a beautiful glow on the street, eerie yet awing. It wasn't everyday you saw a sight like that. It was times like this that I could see nature as it truly was—beautiful in every way.

I sighed. "This is nice."

He nodded slowly. "I know. It's pretty, isn't it?" He gazed at the stars.

My heart quickened. It was ridiculous, but when the moonlight struck his face like that, when his eyes were tilted up just a bit to catch their glow, he looked positively breathtaking. He looked so…so…calm. So un-Max-like. So handsome.

I can't believe I thought that.

But it was true in every way. At that moment, I had to wonder what his expression would be like when I spilled by guts to him—everything, not omitting a word. Max, I like you. No joke. Ah, wouldn't his expression be something to see? Even if he smirked then, or outright laughed, I wouldn't have minded. The truth would be out, and that would be enough.

When he halted abruptly, I almost broke my nose on his back.

"Don't stop like that," I grumbled. "You almost gave me a whiplash."

He didn't turn around, but I heard him chuckle gently. Gently?

"Something wrong?" I asked warily. I hadn't known him for his mood swings, but was this some secret, inner-Max? Maybe he'd lured me out into the darkness of the night, to a deserted street, where he could have his way with me. My stars, how could I be so easy to fool?

"Uh…Max?" I ventured anxiously.

This time he turned around. I was surprised at the expression on his face—gentle, more than a little hesitant, a little afraid. Afraid? Max? Okay, something fishy was going on here.

"You okay?" I questioned, studying him for signs of illness.

"Better than ever," he answered, catching my eyes. He hesitated another moment, his right hand in his pocket.

It dragged on into an uncomfortable silence until I said, "Do you have something to say?"

He exhaled with a grin. "Not exactly. But I wanted to give you something." He took a long breath, as if he was mustering courage. His right hand withdrew from his pocket and put something in my palm.

It was the locket. I glanced up, confused. "You took this back."

"I think I'm ready for you to have it now."

"Ready?" Now I was confused. "Ready for what?"

He averted his gaze, looking embarrassed. Max embarrassed? And was that a blush on his cheeks?!

No way! What on earth was going on?

As I gaped at him, he gave me a semi-irritated glance. "Well? Open it."

Jolted from my frozen state of shock, I fumbled with the lock. He made an impatient sound, and I glared at him.

And suddenly, it popped open. Wondering exactly what to expect, I tilted the locket so the inside was exposed to the streaming moonlight.



No way.

My head whipped up, and I stared at him, filled with shock and wonder and—dare I admit it?—intense, intense happiness.

"Really?" I whispered.

"I wouldn't joke about something like that," he replied lowly, gazing at me as if he was assessing my reaction.

I glanced at the locket, then back at him. This was it. This was what I wanted. It felt wonderfully, fantastically right.

I took a breath and let it out before smiling widely, filled with joy. "Yes. Yes, I will."

Max looked utterly shocked. "Really?"

Now it was my turn to cast him an annoyed glance. "I wouldn't joke about something like this," I shot back.

His face split into the most breathtaking smile I'd ever seen from him. My heart galloped a mile a minute.

"Well, then," he breathed. "Now that that's settled…" He took a step closer and leaned in until I could feel his breath on my lips.

Without even realizing what I was doing, my eyes shut. Max is about to kiss me. Ah, the bliss…

Wait a second—the bliss?!

What was I thinking?! Dating was a huge enough step. Kissing was on the next tier, which we clearly hadn't reached.

My eyes snapped open just in time for me to slip my hand into the rapidly closing space between us. His lips were warm, and his eyes widened.

With a gasp, he stumbled back, covering his lips with his hand. "What was that for?"

I was trembling from a rush of hormones and the rapid beat of my uncontrollable heart. "No…no kissing."

His eyes widened further. "No kissing? What kind of rule is that?"

Steady yourself, Kath.

"If we're going to be dating," I began, taking steadying breaths, "we're going to set down some ground rules."

"Ground rules?" he repeated incredulously. "What for?"

"Well, my protection, for one," I replied. "Number One: No kissing."

He continued to stare. "That's terrible."

"That's life. Number Two: No inappropriate touching in any part of the body. And I mean any."

Max pouted. "No touching? Then what about holding hands?"

"Holding hands is allowed," I amended. "Numero Tres." I thought for a moment before sighing. "I'll think about Number Three."

With a crestfallen expression, Max sighed. "I suppose I'll have to live with them."

"If you can't live with them," I replied, "then we can stay friends." Please live with them. Please, please, please…

"All right," he surrendered, "it doesn't sound too bad. But that's basically what we've been doing all along. Dating you has got to have some incentives."

I rolled my eyes. "You're dating me for the incentives?"

"Some incentives besides the title of 'Kathleen's boyfriend'," he answered, shoving his hands in his pockets again.

"Well…" I sighed. Dating Max was a big thing. Little compromises wouldn't be too bad. "Well, I guess hugging isn't crossing the line."

He grinned. "I can live with that."

I felt my heart lift. I was on top of the world. I was dating Max.

I had the sudden urge to laugh aloud. Max slid a sidelong glance at me. "What's so funny?"

"I'm just…I'm really, really happy," I replied softly.

Max smiled, and his arm wrapped around my shoulders. I melted into his embrace.

"Me too," he said quietly. "Me too."