Prologue – Eyes Wide Open
The heat and humidity was intense.
It was like someone was a pressing hot towel over my nose and mouth, leaving me to breathe in nothing but the hottest, stickiest air. My skin was slick with sweat and my thoughts were a jumbled mix of curses against the electricity for going out today of all days, and prayers for even the tiniest breeze to waft my way.
My thin white sundress, so cute and fresh this morning, clung limply to me, even such a delicate covering feeling like heavy wool in the ridiculous temperature. Meanwhile, my mum's necklace, the thin white gold chain and small pendant in the shape of a bird in flight that I always wore around my neck, stuck to my skin as if glued there.
I sat very still on the back veranda, my legs dangling over the edge of the decking, looking out over across the eerily dark view. The power cut had extinguished the squares of light cast by neighbours' windows and the headache-inducing flashes of the Anderson's over the top Christmas lights. All was dark and still.
That was until I heard the screen door behind me sliding open and the sound of bare feet on the wooden boards padding towards me. Whipping my head around, my heart gave a massive thump of surprise as I saw Max, fresh out of the shower and shirtless with his hair still dripping droplets of water down onto his bare shoulders.
"Hey, Charlie-girl." He threw himself down beside me and I tried desperately to hide my reaction to his sudden appearance and pretend as if having him so close, exposing so much toned skin and smelling like that awesome manly shower gel stuff, was having no effect on me whatsoever.
"Beauregard," I greeted him shortly, gritting my teeth against the painful mix of fury and lust he always managed to stir up inside me.
"Where are the others?" He leant back on his hands making the muscles in his arms bulge against his tanned skin.
"Dad and Lisa have taken Katie over to Lisa's mum's place." I averted my eyes resolutely forward as I answered him, my gaze focused on absolutely anything except him. "I thought you were out," I added, unapologetic in my anger toward him.
"I was, I came back." His mild response annoyed me even further. How dare he be so chilled and laidback when it felt like every single one of my nerve endings was dancing crazily along to La Cucaracha under my skin?
Not having anything worthwhile to say in reply to that I blurted out a bratty, "Lucky me."
I didn't feel embarrassed by the unnecessarily childish answer, in fact I took comfort in acting like a spoilt six year old around him. Spoilt six year olds, after all, don't lie awake at night feverishly imagining his oh-so-familiar hands sliding across their skin and…well, you get the idea. These imaginings were becoming a constant for me, seemingly intensifying in heat in unison with the weather...and today had been the hottest day of all.
It wasn't my fault, though, it was his. Usually Max Beauregard only turned up five or six times a year, leaving me plenty of time to recover and reassert my supreme indifference towards him in-between visits. This, however, had been a bumper year of Max sightings. It seemed that barely had he disappeared, but he was back again with nothing but his backpack, guitar case and some sob story that he fed my dad to allow him to firmly ensconce himself once more into my family home.
It was physical and mental torture for me; an ache that grew more forceful every time I saw him. I wanted him gone, but as much as it pained me to admit it, I just plain wanted him more.
Instead of responding to my immature comment with a similarly childish one of his own, Max blew out a sigh and said, "Come on, Charlie-girl, play nice. It's too hot to argue."
Forgetting about my determination not to look at him, I twisted my neck round to stare at him in disbelief. He didn't want to argue? When for the past 17 years that had been the sole basis of our relationship?
The story goes that the first time I had kicked in the womb it had been when Max, a baby himself, had placed his hand against my mother's stomach. It had been the first, but certainly not the last, time I'd kicked him, and now suddenly he wasn't interested in a fight? Weird.
Unaccountably amused by my astonishment, a small smirk pulled at the corners of his mouth making my stomach suddenly turn in a mad mess of tingles. God those lips, they shouldn't be allowed.
"You're blushing," he commented.
"No, I'm not," I denied hotly, aware that my cheeks were staining an even deeper red as I spoke.
In the next moment he'd sat up and reached over to cup my chin in his hand. As I gave a weird gargled sort of gasp of surprise, he gently turned my head from one side to the other taking in my flushed skin from all angles.
"Yeah, you are," he pointed out, and the mocking edge in his tone was enough to make me pull myself together and push his hand away crossly.
"It's, like, a million degrees out here," I said quickly, "of course I'm red, that doesn't mean I'm blushing."
"OK," he held up his hands in mock surrender, "we'll just pretend I believe you."
I knew I should've just let it go. He'd given me an opening to drop it and that is what I well and truly should have done, dropped it like a hot potato and then maybe kicked it under the couch or something for good measure. But I didn't. Some unbelievably stupid voice in my head nudged me onwards so, instead of staying silent, or doing something even smarter like getting up and walking off, I found myself saying, "Why would I be blushing, anyway?"
I swear I could hear the mood change it was so obvious. I gave one short, sharp breath in at the same moment I saw him go very still.
"I don't know," he said, suddenly cautious, his dark eyes searching out mine in the darkness. "Why would you?"
I just said I'm not." I drew my legs up quickly, preparing to make a mad dash for the safety of inside, but he pre-empted my flight and rested a repressive hand on my arm.
"OK," having frozen the moment he touched me, I was in no danger of running off anymore, but he didn't take his hand away as he continued, "but, just to check, me sitting here without a shirt on isn't making you blush, right?"
My mouth was suddenly very dry and I automatically licked my bottom lip trying to regain some moisture. This proved to be a very bad idea as his gaze honed in on my dampened lip and lingered there doing uncomfortable things to my centre of balance.
"Your ego is unbelievable," I wanted to sound snarky or at least bored, but my voice was irritatingly breathy. "You being shirtless has absolutely no effect upon me at all."
"Oh, OK." That stupid smirk was back in place, but there was something else behind it this time, something infinitely more dangerous. "So say if I did this…"
My eyes widened as he pushed himself up onto his knees, letting go of my arm, but then reaching forward to leisurely run the palm of his right hand up from my left ankle to my knee. The heavy silver ring he wore on his middle finger added a slight, delicious scraping sensation to the touch of his skin and I fought to repress a shiver.
"That wouldn't have any effect upon you either?"
I could feel where his hand had moved like a trail of liquid lava up my leg, but I shook my head. "No effect at all," I lied through my teeth, wondering just how far we were going to take this dangerous game.
"Really?" He feigned surprise, but the light of challenge was in his eye. "So what about if my hand just happened to slip…?"
He leant forward and I automatically shifted back to accommodate his body until my back was flat to the veranda decking with Max kneeling between my legs, holding himself over me with his left hand. His right, meanwhile, began a tantalisingly slow journey from my knee up my thigh until his hand disappeared beneath the hem of my now bunched up dress.
With his fingers trailing gentle circles across the sensitive skin so close to the most sensitive place of all, I lost the power of speech. For the game to continue, for us to go wherever it was we were headed, I needed to tell him that I remained unaffected, but for the first time in my entire life, my voice abandoned me.
Seconds ticked by with the both of us frozen where we were, my left leg hooked up around his waist, my hair spread out darkly across the honey toned wood like spilt molasses.
"Still nothing?" His voice was hoarse and I was pleased to hear that his breathing was ragged.
Still mute, I nevertheless managed to play out my part with a small shake of my head, daring him, willing him onwards.
He lowered his head, his long-ish hair brushing against my cheeks, and brought his mouth down to linger a hair's breadth from mine. My eyes fluttered closed, waiting for his kiss and I heard him say, his voice tinged with a kind of raw desperation, "Last chance, Charlie-girl."
I opened my eyes again to see him staring intently at me, but still as a statue. If I couldn't talk, I did at least have my other abilities so, not breaking his gaze, I lifted a hand to cup the back of his head and guided his mouth firmly down over mine.
And so it was that we both went into our first kiss with our eyes wide open.