The First Three Chapters of DON’T SAY GOODBYE!

My latest novel, Don’t Say Goodbyeis a first for me–a contemporary lesbian romance without vampires, werewolves or lady knights of any kind.  But it does have everything you’ve come to expect from me:  a passionate love story and two strong, flawed women who fall in love through hard times and find their happily ever after.

For those of you who haven’t given the book a shot yet, here’s the first three chapters of Don’t Say Goodbye as a tease!  I hope you read them, enjoy them and give the book a chance.  🙂  ❤

Chapter 1:  Unexpected Moment

 

Sometimes, when the workday was particularly God-awful, Maxine would think about what, exactly, had gotten her to this place in life:  the manager of a call center.  Aside from those guys who drive the sewage trucks and that poor older gentleman who had to clean up the mall bathrooms, she figured that her job was probably one of the most unlikable in the world.  She sat at a drab, gray desk in the center of a sea of drab, gray desks, and when her employees were tired of being screamed at by the people who—rightfully—were unhappy at being disturbed during dinner to be sold to, they transferred the yelling people to her.

Today had been particularly God-awful, so Max was currently massaging her temples and wondering what she’d drink for dinner.  Wine, she’d decided, after the fourteenth expletive that the current man on the phone had called her.  Sometimes, when the calls were really bad, Max liked to count the expletives.  It gave her something to focus on besides dinner.  And bed.  Ah, soft, soothing bed and its flannel sheets that perfectly matched her soft green walls.

“…And you can take your subscriptions and shove them up your…”

The man was still yelling.  Max glanced down at her notepad and the big “7:00” she’d scrawled on it and circled with the red pen after getting the voicemail message from her best friend.  Joanna had sounded so excited in said voicemail that she’d repeated the time for dinner twice, probably just so Max was in no danger of forgetting.

Drat–that was right.  Max sighed and massaged her temples again, this time a little more vigorously.  Tonight, she couldn’t go home and drink herself into a lovely, numbing stupor.  She’d promised Jo that she’d go out to dinner with her so that Jo could introduce Max to her new girlfriend.

Jo had been so excited about dinner.  There was no way that Max could cancel.  She placed her elbows on her desk and shoved a few wisps of brown hair behind her ear around her headset.  And there’d be no time to go home and change—she’d have to go right to dinner in her office clothes.  There wasn’t anything particularly bad about her office clothes.  She was wearing a pair of black slacks and a gray sweater with a red scarf tied at her neck.  Her outfit was just…boring.  Ah, well.  So she’d be a little boring.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

The other end of the phone was now dead.  The man had apparently gotten tired of yelling.  Max took off her headset and ran her hands through her hair, leaning back in her chair and stretching.

“Hey, Max!” said Sam.  He paused in his saunter past her cubicle and leaned against the cubicle half-wall, arms folded in front of him as he grinned with mischief.  Max liked Sam—they’d both started as managers of different departments around the same time, and they’d developed the beginnings of their friendship by passing notes back and forth to each other in the managerial meetings sometimes.  Sam drew pretty good caricatures of their head boss, Tom State, usually involving horns.

Sam was one of Max’s only friends at Wellworth Marketing Center.  The turnover rate of employment there was so staggeringly bad that the minute Max made friends with a new hire was also pretty much the same minute that they decided call center work was not for them.  Max had heard stories of call centers that could keep employees.  Wellworth Marketing Center was just not one of those places.

“Hi, Sam,” she said, doodling a spiral beneath her circled “7:00” on the notepad.  She dropped her pen against the paper and stretched overhead again.  “Hey, are you heading to the break room?  Wanna get me a coke?”  She opened her desk drawer and withdrew her coin purse, the one that was covered in green sequins and gold sequined dollar signs.  It was the tackiest thing she owned, a Christmas gift from her brother-in-law who didn’t like her, and she’d hoped that by storing her loose change in it, it would keep her from using it and getting junk food and high-fructose corn syrup filled beverages.  It hadn’t worked yet.

“This one’s on me, Max.  I just got another sales bonus,” he said, winking a bright blue eye at her.

“At this rate, you’re going to become Budley’s manager,” she grinned, invoking the head boss’s name as she tossed the coin purse back into the drawer and shut it with a click.  “Congrats, that’s great news,” she said, and meant it.

“Anyway,” he said, wheedling out the word as he rocked onto the backs of his heels, “I was wondering if you wanted to come to the bar with me after work,” he said, pushing off from the wall and angling his body in the general direction of the break room.  “That way we could celebrate in style.  Beer style.  And we can watch for babes together.”  He hooked his thumbs in his jeans’ belt loops and grinned again.  “Be my drinking buddy?”

Max rolled her eyes, suppressing a smile.  Babe watching.  Right.  “Oh, Sam, I’m sorry…I wish I could,” she said, wrinkling her nose, and this time not meaning a word of it, “but I’m meeting Jo for dinner tonight,” she muttered, glancing at her watch and blinking.  Wow…for the first time in her life, time had actually flown this afternoon.  It was already six thirty…time to punch out.  Max clicked through on her computer’s screen to “log off,” and then she stood, grinning a little at Sam.  “It’s an important dinner, too.  Jo’s got a new girl, and I’m going to dinner to meet her for the first time.”

“How is it that that woman is luckier than you and me combined?”  Sam shook his head, shoving his hands into his jean pockets.  “Some people really do have all the luck.”

“Yeah, I guess…but what about Rita?  You were pretty set on Rita last week.”  Max slid her denim jacket off the back of her chair and shrugged into it as Sam sighed.

“I mean, I was, but then there was that whole weird cult-ish thing about the diet, and that kind of turned me off.”

Max blinked.  “You didn’t like the fact that she was gluten-intolerant?  Sam that’s not a cult thing…that’s a genuine medical thing.”  She hefted her purse off the ground and checked the front flap for her cell phone.

“I like noodles too much,” said Sam with a shrug as he started down the corridor.  “Hey, have fun tonight!  Tell Jo I said hi!”  Sam had come to Max’s apartment-warming party a few years ago, and had hit it off with Jo.  Unsurprisingly, they were now friends, too–but Jo just had that way with people.  She was warmly friendly with everyone, and somehow also knew everyone.  She was the kind of person who was probably friends with her mailman.

“I will.  And give Rita another chance, seriously,” Max called after him.  “She was really nice!”

“If you say so!”  He waved at her over the top of the cubicles, and then ducked into the break room, the door sliding shut behind him.

“Jerk,” she said with a chuckle as she slid her hands into her jacket pockets and started out of the building.

Whenever Max hit the front concrete steps of the building, pushing through the wide double swinging doors, it’s as if a weight that had settled on her sometime in the morning was lifted by a crane and taken off of her shoulders.  She never really noticed it when it began to first settle on her.  She’d be half-way through the day and she would just suddenly realize it was there, this heavy, almost unbearable press that would make her shoulders bow forward and taking deep breaths a little bit more difficult than usual.  Usually she could ignore it and continue on with her day.  But some days—like this day—it was harder.

Max took a deep breath of the cool night air and sighed, lifting up her eyes to look past the street lamps, out into the black of the night.  It was too bright in Boston for many stars, but she knew they were out there.  Pushing her hands deeper into her pockets and ducking down her nose into her coat’s collar for warmth, she trotted down the sidewalk, toward the parking garage and her car.

The beat up Ford Escort was covered with a slick of sparkling frost as she turned the key in the door and let herself in, rubbing her hands together to keep warm.  When the snows started to come each winter, they were always pretty harsh in the beginning because of the air coming off the ocean, if the weatherman was to be believed.  It was abysmally cold that day, and when Max breathed out again, it fogged the inside of the windshield.  She turned up the defroster and rubbed her hands against the steering wheel.

Jo wanted her to meet them for dinner at the Malibu, a cute little diner down on Beacon Street, which was only about ten minutes from work if the traffic was going to play nice today.

But it was one of those days, so traffic didn’t play nice at all.  There was an accident on the way she would normally have taken to the Malibu, so Max had to take the detour and sit in the unmoving traffic for forty-five minutes.  What would have been that easy ten minute drive crawled along and gradually turned into an hour as Max tapped on the wheel with her index finger and turned up her classic rock station very loudly.

She texted Jo with a simple “Traffic.  I’ll be a little late,” and then she sang along to the music.  Max loved singing along in the car.  She could be as loud and out of tune as she wanted to be, and singing along to songs about life being a highway and the good old days of rock and roll always put her in a better mood.  By the time she parked around the corner from the Malibu and despite all of the terrible traffic, she was actually in high spirits.

She combed through her long, lanky brown hair with her fingers and put it up in a nicer ponytail, and she reapplied her mascara.  She didn’t normally wear makeup, but she’d put on mascara this morning, and she’d tossed the tube of it in her purse, so why the heck not put on more, she’d thought.

Meeting Jo’s date was a big deal, after all.  Jo went on a lot of dates.  Jo was just…like that.  She was charming and funny and she had the confidence of a world leader, so of course the ladies were attracted to her, and she ended up going on quite a few dates with quite a few different women.  So for her to actually call up Max and ask her to meet this date, the woman that Jo has just met last week…Jo must be serious.  And a serious Jo?  That hadn’t happened since Alexandra, five years ago.  And Alex had broken Jo’s heart.

So Max got out of the car, locking it behind her, and tugged down on her jacket, running her hand through her ponytail as she stared up at the half-lit sign for the Malibu.  If the sign was to be believed, it was really called the “M li u.”  They hadn’t changed the sign’s bulbs since Jo and Max had started going to the diner about twenty years ago, when the word had been complete and readable.  After all, they didn’t need to change the bulbs—the regulars at the Malibu knew it for the good, greasy food and the great diner coffee, and the cute retro booths that Jo and Max always liked so much, and with or without the sign properly lit, the place was pretty much always packed.

Jo was in their usual booth at the back of the diner, and Max waved to her from the doorway when she walked in.  Jo slid out of the booth, stood and grinned at her, her hip jutting out a little to the side at a cocky angle.  Jo had obviously gone all out for dinner.  She was wearing her close-cropped black hair swept a little to the side, which made her look mischievous.  Her leather jacket was hung up on the little hook between booths, and her navy blue plaid button down shirt had actually been ironed.  Or, knowing Jo, it was made out of that kind of fabric that didn’t need ironing.

Either way, she looked good, her wide, infectious grin widening even further as Max trotted over to her and enveloped her shorter best friend in a quick, tight hug.  Jo hugged back just as tightly, and then, with her arm snaked around the small of Max’s back, Jo flopped Max around so that the booth was in front of the two of them.

“Max, I want you to meet my new girlfriend,” said Jo triumphantly, the buttons on her plaid shirt now in danger of bursting, her chest was puffed up so much with pride.  “Fiona, this is Max—my best friend in all this world, and a great lady.  Max, this is Fiona.”

Max’s breath caught in her throat as she took the woman’s hand.  Time seemed to slow down, and the air crackled between them.

Time slowed down…and stood still.

When Max had woken up, the day had stretched before her as it always did.  Get up, eat breakfast, drive to work, get to work.  Work.  Go home.  Go to sleep.  There was nothing in it that had marked this span of twenty-four hours as anything other than utterly ordinary or normal or as dull as usual.  But as Max looked at this woman, as time stood still, Max’s heartbeat thundering in her chest, she knew that somehow, unexpectedly, things had changed.  The day was no longer normal.

She hadn’t been expecting this.

Fiona had bright red hair, what looked like very curly bright red hair, held by a lot of bobby pins and clips to her head.  Her bright green eyes sparkled as she smiled and took Max’s hand.  The corners of her mouth turned up impishly…she had the kind of smile that if you saw it across the room, you wouldn’t even realize that you were smiling, too, but then you would be.  She was wearing a plunging blue v-neck sweater that showed a great deal of gorgeous, curving chest, and tight black pants, and as Max took Fiona’s smooth, soft hand in her own, as Fiona’s fingers closed around Max’s palm, and Fiona shook her hand gently up and down, Max swallowed.

Fiona was beautiful.  That much was obvious.  But as her bright green eyes sparkled, as their hands curved up and down as Max and Fiona shook, there was something more to her, Max knew.  So much more.  Fiona seemed, in that first glance, the kind of woman who was perfect for Jo–bright, energetic, positive, with the kind of courage and tenacity that can move mountains.  The kind of woman who would make Jo really, really happy.

And the kind of woman that Max would have given her right arm to meet first.

Jo and Max had always joked that they were attracted to the same kinds of women.  It was sheer coincidence that the best of friends had both grown up and realized they were lesbians (for a very misguided week in their twenties, they’d even tried dating one another.  It was a miserable failure.).

They both knew the kind of women they liked, a list that had never altered across the many years.  Warm.  Funny.  Dynamic, charismatic, forward, vivacious…as Max woodenly sat down in the booth across from Jo and Fiona, Jo protectively putting her arm around Fiona’s shoulders, Max felt the blood drain from her face.  They’d both dated women that the other had said, without a doubt, was their type.

But it had never been…quite like this.

Max had never been a “love at first sight” kind of person.  She didn’t even really believe in it.  Obviously, there would be attraction, but love?  That was the kind of stuff you saw in the movies.  It didn’t really exist in real life.  But for the first time, Max crossed her legs, took the napkin off the table and nervously began to fiddle with it in her lap.  There was a very disconcerting feeling going on in her heart.  It was not altogether unpleasant…just very unnerving and unexpected.

Her life had never, ever felt like it was a scene from a movie.  Until this moment.

Her heart was flip-flopping as she stared across the table at Fiona.  She was staring at Fiona, she realized, a teensy bit like a crazy person.  So she cleared her throat and started to blink again.

It had just been a long day at work.  Yeah.  That had to be it.

“I’m so glad you could make dinner,” sighed Jo happily, squeezing Fiona’s shoulders, but grinning widely at Max as she said it.  “It was super short notice, I know, but I just had to have you meet Fiona…we have a real connection, and it was very important to me that you meet her,” said Jo, leaning back in her booth.

Fiona glanced sidelong at Jo and chuckled a little, rubbing Jo’s jeans-clad thigh with a palm and cocking her head at Max.  “She never shuts up about you—it’s obvious you’re very important to her,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning upwards as Jo groaned and ducked her head with a chuckle.  “You guys have been friends since you were kids, right?”

Max nodded woodenly.

Fiona leaned forward, resting her elbow on the table as her eyes sparkled.  “Wow, I wish I had a friend like that…I mean, I have some pretty close friends.  But none that I’ve known longer than a few years.  I grew apart from most of my childhood friends—I kind of thought everyone just did that.”

“Not everyone.  We’re like sisters, Max and me,” said Jo, nodding and filling up the gap of silence as Max hurriedly tried to collect her thoughts.  She took a sip of the coke that Jo had already ordered for her while they were waiting for her to arrive.  It felt good and cool washing down her throat, gave her something to focus on.  Come on, she wasn’t a teenager.  She’d seen gorgeous women she’d been attracted to before, and she hadn’t hurled herself at them.  She wasn’t a raging ball of hormones.  She could handle this.

Then why was her heart beating so fast?

“Jo and I met in the second grade,” said Max then, taking another gulp of coke and smiling a little.  Yes.  Just stick to the facts.  The diner was warmer than she’d ever remembered it being…  “Jo put a worm down the back of my dress on the first day of school, out on the playground.”

“I won her over with my shining personality,” said Jo with a wink and a chuckle as Fiona laughed, too.  When Fiona laughed, she arched her neck back a little, her teeth flashing bright in the light.  Max blinked and twisted the napkin in her lap under the table, trying not to look at the cream-colored skin of Fiona’s neck.

“How did you guys meet?  I haven’t gotten a chance to talk with Jo much this past week,” said Max, hoping her voice was steady.  The other two women didn’t seem to notice anything strange, so she took a bit of a deeper breath.  Yes, the diner was definitely too warm.

“Well, I’m a cake decorator,” said Fiona, leaning her elbows on the table surface and leaning toward Max a little.  Her eyes were so bright and steady as they gazed at Max, as if they could see right through her.  Max felt exposed beneath that glance and tugged at her sweater’s collar a little, trying to loosen the red scarf.  “I own my own business, just like Jo…so we both went to this women’s entrepreneur dinner because we’re both part of the Self Employed Women of Greater Bay organization…thing.”  Her laughter sounded like bells, a comparison that on any normal day Max would have considered sappy, but as she listened to Fiona laugh, she realized that there was nothing else she could compare the woman’s laughter to.  It sounded like bells.  “I’d just joined the organization, because I just opened up my shop…” continued Fiona, her head to the side.  “It’s been open about a month now, down on Newbury Street, maybe you’ve seen it.  Florabella Cupcakes?  I do wedding cakes and special occasion cakes, too,” said Fiona, pillowing her chin in her hands then.  “Anyway, I walk into this dinner, and I didn’t know it was going to be a formal thing, so I’m wearing what I wore to the shop…jeans covered in flour, and this nice peasant blouse, but I mean, it was a formal dinner.  Jo here…”  Again, Fiona patted Jo’s thigh with the familiarity of a woman who had already touched it quite a few different times.  Max tried not to think about that.  “She was dressed to the nines.  I mean wearing a suit and everything, right down to the tie.  It was scrumptious.”  Fiona laughed again and bumped her shoulder with Jo in an intimate way.  Max realized her cheeks were getting red and stared down at the now practically shredded napkin on her lap.

“So when Fiona came in—I mean, you haven’t been to the meetings in a while, Max, but let me tell you…you remember snooty Margaret, right?  The woman with all of those fake diamond brooches and that laugh like a weasel?”  Jo snorted.  “She led the charge against Fiona after judging her in an instant, saying snide remarks under her breath, and then everyone else was so stuffy that they all got super quiet and were glaring at Fiona.  It was for the stupidest reason, too, I mean seriously.  What she was wearing?  Give me a break…”  Jo chuckled and shook her head.  “So I had to save the situation and went up and asked her to sit next to me.  The rest is history!”

“I didn’t know you were part of SEWGB, Max,” said Fiona, her eyes widening as she glanced at her.  “Jo didn’t tell me you have your own business!  What do you do?”

Max shifted uncomfortably in her seat and wished the waitress—one of her favorites, Tess, the frazzled gray-haired lady peering over her spectacles at a family that had just come in with six rowdy, loud kids—would get to them quickly so that she could place her order, get her food, and then spend the rest of the night eating it and be perpetually stuck with a full mouth and unable to answer questions.  Questions like this one in particular.

Jo saved her.  “We both joined SEWGB around the same time…right when the organization opened about fifteen years ago,” she said quickly, closing the menu in front of her, and pushing it a little closer to the center of the table, tapping the surface with her well-groomed fingernails.  “But Max doesn’t have her own business.  Yet.”

Max sighed and bit her lip, staring down at her hands.  Great.  When Jo mentioned Max’s mythical business with such enthusiasm, it meant that she was going to launch into the…

“The story begins,” said Jo dramatically, spreading her hands on the top of the table, “when we were both twelve years old.  Long past second grade and worms down the back of dresses.  We were inseparable at this point, and we had big vision.  We were the type of kids who could turn a profit at anything, you know?  And we always went into business together.  We had lemonade stands during the summer and coffee stands during the winter, and we bought bikes with the money we earned, not candy.  So we were doing pretty all right.”  Jo’s infectious grin widened across the table, but Max didn’t have the heart to return it.  Not when Fiona was watching her carefully from across that self-same table, eyebrows drawn together as she listened to Jo’s story, not exactly certain where it was going.  But Jo knew it by heart.

She’d lived it.

“So that summer, when we were twelve, we earned enough money for lumber and nails and built our own tree house in Jo’s backyard,” said Max quietly, folding her hands on the shreds of napkin in her lap.  “And that was one of the best summers of my…”  Max trailed off, swallowed.  “We made a pact with each other one night,” she smiled half-heartedly.  “Our parents were nearing their fortieth birthdays, and they kept saying that they’d meant to do all of these great things by the time they were forty and just has never gotten around to it.  They said it all the time with this deep regret, and it really struck us.  We knew we didn’t want to end up like that.  So we told each other that we wouldn’t end up like that.  We’d live our dreams, we’d never be stuck…not like they were.”  Max bit her lip.  “So we made a pact that by our fortieth birthdays we’d each have our own businesses and be desperately successful and millionaires.  Because we were twelve,” said Max, voice quiet.  “And anything seems possible when you’re twelve.”

Fiona’s mouth had gone flat, like a line.  Because it was obvious, sitting at that table, that at least one of the two girls in that far-off summer, in that beautiful, badly-built tree house, had kept her end of the bargain.  Jo hadn’t gone to college.  Max had.  She’d gone to school for business, because she’d wanted to keep her end of the bargain, and Jo had put all of her savings into an auto repair shop, because they were “sure things.”  Cars were recession-proof, she’d said.  Everyone needed a car.  But her head manager, the guy she’d hired and trusted, had run off with all the money and the business had failed.  Jo had been destitute after that, but she’d kept trying.  Jo hadn’t given up.

And then she’d opened TurnTurn Delivery with her last pennies.  A delivery service of people on bikes?  People said it was a pipe dream and stupid, but when Jo had told Max the idea, Max had seen the inherent genius behind it.  People were going green, wanted to support local businesses and needed their stuff quick and from people they trusted.

TurnTurn Delivery had proven to be a goldmine.  And now there were TurnTurn Deliveries opening up all over the country in select cities.  But it’d started right here, in Boston, by a woman who’d been too tenacious to ever give up.

And now Jo and Max were six months away from their fortieth birthdays.  And Jo was getting pretty close to being that mythical millionaire.

And Max, Max who’d tried, who’d gone to school for business, who had graduated at the top of her class…had joined the call center right out of college, because she was going to play it safe, pay off her school loans, and open her business and work on it nights.

And had never done it.

Max cleared her throat.  The silence at the table had gone on a beat too long.  She didn’t want to be pitied.  And it was stupid, anyway, she knew.  Who keeps a promise that you make to your best friend when you’re twelve?  But sitting across from two successful, bright and smiling women, Max felt shabby.  She ran her hands through her lanky brown ponytail and remembered that she’d wanted to get her hair cut.  Something short and fresh.  Something different.

A change.

Fiona did a surprising thing, just then.  She reached across the space between them with her long fingers, and she grasped up Max’s hand from where she’d set it on the none-too-clean table.  Fiona gave her a little squeeze, pressing her warm, soft fingertips into Max’s palm, and again Max’s heart began to beat faster.

“You know what?” said Fiona then, her head to the side a little as the smile spread slowly across her face.  “I only opened up my bakery this past month, right?  I’d wanted to do it my whole life.  I know you can’t tell because of all that great wrinkle cream I use,” she said, chuckling, with a little wink, the wrinkles around her face deep, but lovely, “but I’m forty-two.  I opened up my first business when I turned forty-two, because I told myself that I was tired of waiting for it to happen, so I made it happen.  You can open up your business whenever you want to, Max.  Entrepreneurs have it in their blood.  It’ll happen in the right time and place.”  She squeezed Max’s hand and then let it go, Max’s heart beating so quickly, she was having trouble seeing straight.  “It’s never too late.  I have faith in you,” Fiona said, then.

Faith.

In her.

Fiona was practically a perfect stranger.  But her exuberance and absolute serious conviction were not something she was joking with.  She’d meant what she’d said.  Max blinked and then shook her head, trying to form a somewhat coherent response that didn’t start with “um.”

Funny, warm, attractive, sexy-as-hell.  And nice.

Jo had hit the ball out of the park with this one.

“Hi, ladies…I’m sorry about the wait,” said Tess, the waitress, bustling over in her bright pink apron as she turned over the paper on her order pad and tapped the pen against it.  “Separate checks?”

“No,” said Max and Jo at the same time.  Jo’s eyebrow raised as Max shook her head emphatically.

“No, Tess…I’ll be taking care of this one,” Max said quietly, licking her lips.  Jo shook her head with emphasis.

“No, I’ll be taking care of it.”

“This is a celebratory dinner,” said Max, surprised at the little bit of edge in her voice.  Jo always paid for dinners when they went out together.  She’d snatch up the bill and hand it to the waitress with her shiny black credit card and an even shinier smile.  Max usually appreciated the gesture—Jo knew very well that Max didn’t have much money, and it was in her nature to enjoy paying for things for other people.  Jo had always been generous.  But today, for some reason, it stung, that insistence.  “I just want to treat you both.  I’m glad you found each other, and that should be celebrated,” she said then, voice softer, quieter.

Jo’s eyebrows remained high, and she shrugged.  “Sure.  Thanks, Max—that’s sweet of you.”

Fiona’s smile across the table lit up the room, and she leaned forward, her shoulders under the light blue fabric curving toward Max.  “Thank you very much—that’s lovely,” she echoed, her sincerity making the words weighty.

“It’s nothing,” said Max, her grin wavering as she glanced up at Tess with a nod.  She ordered in a haze, her usual—chicken parmesan, garlic toast, fries covered in gravy—and Jo ordered her usual—steak, medium-well, baked potato and broccoli—and Fiona ordered a julienne salad.  Tess didn’t write down anything but the salad, and bustled away as one of the kids from a few booths down began complaining loudly about the lack of fries on his plate.

“How was work?” asked Jo, eyebrows still high as she glanced at Max appraisingly.  She knew something was up.  Of course she knew something was up–she knew Max better than she knew herself.  Max was just tired, that was all.  It had nothing to do with the fact that Max couldn’t stop looking at Fiona, though she tried hard to.  Fiona wasn’t hers to look at.

She let that truth sink in for a moment, taking another long sip of coke before she replied.  “Oh, you know…” she trailed off and gave Jo a wan smile.  “It was work.”

“Where do you work?” asked Fiona, stirring her straw in her water, glancing from Max to Jo, back to Max again as Max sighed and rolled her shoulders, then tried for a genuine smile this time.  There was no shame in working at a call center.  She told herself that every morning when she woke up, and every night when she went to sleep.  There was no shame in working at a call center.

But there was shame in denying your dreams so wholeheartedly.  She knew that.

“I work at Wellworth Marketing Center,” said Max, propping her own elbow on the table, and placing her chin in her hands as she glanced at her best friend and her girlfriend across the table.  God, they looked so good together.  They looked like a real couple, not just two women who’d met a week ago.  “It’s a call center,” Max explained, when Fiona’s expression was blank.  Max had preferred the blankness.  When Fiona realized, her mouth became a thin line, then a frown as sympathy filled her eyes.

Max didn’t want Fiona’s sympathy.  Normally, sympathy stung worse than anything.  But for some reason, when Fiona reached across the table again to gather Max’s hand in her own, squeezing her fingers around it gently, but with strength, Max knew this was genuine.

“You need to open your own business.  That’s just all there is to it,” she said then, straightening a little and shaking her head, her bright eyes flashing.

“It’s what I’ve been saying for years,” said Jo, leaning back a little in the booth, her smile edging more towards triumphant than simply agreeing.  Max bit her lip.  They were right, of course.  But it was something Max herself knew pretty well.  She didn’t need Jo telling her what to do, or prompting or goading her.  Max had tried for years to get up the gumption, energy and enthusiasm to open her own business, and most of the time Jo’s prompting was a very supportive gesture.  But sometimes, it came off as superior.

Like right now.

“Have you given any thought on what type of business you’d like to open up?” asked Fiona, her head to the side as she tapped her lip with a finger.  “No, no, let me guess!” she said, as Max opened her mouth to reply.  In spite of herself, Max realized she was grinning.  “You want to open up a doggie daycare,” said Fiona, laughing a little.

“Not exactly,” said Max, spreading her hands on the table.  “Don’t get me wrong—I love dogs!  Just not for one hundred percent of my day.”

“A restaurant?” said Fiona, glancing up to indicate the little diner they were sitting in.  “You want to open up a cute little themed restaurant, where everyone wears hats or matching aprons and sings when they bring out slices of birthday cake covered in candles.”  Her eyes were sparkling as she spoke and leaned forward, Max in her sights.  She was teasing, Max knew, but a little thrill ran through her as Fiona laughed again, shaking her head.

There was an ache in Max’s heart that had begun the moment they’d shaken hands with this extraordinary woman, but it was now growing bigger and bigger.  It was similar and probably related to the weight she got when she was at work.  But harder.  More intense.

More painful.

It was a simple wish.  A stupid wish, and a very hurtful one, if Jo, sitting across the table, only with eyes for Fiona, could know what Max was thinking.  And it was this:

Max wished, with all her heart, that she’d met Fiona first.

It was an almost impossible wish, but not quite.  She’d gone down Newbury Street just a few weeks ago, but hadn’t noticed the new cupcake shop.  If she’d only noticed it, only stopped in, she would have met Fiona first.  And then…

And then…

What?  Max would have swept Fiona off her feet?  That happened in movies, and if Max was any judge of her own life, it was most certainly not a movie.  More like a dull, sad smattering of days and unfulfilled dreams.  Her head was beginning to swim, and she wished with all of her heart that this diner served alcohol.

The dull headache behind her eyes was beginning to intensify.

“It’s silly,” she said then, surprising herself at how vehement her words sounded.  “And those are really good guesses, Fiona.  But I don’t even know what business I’d open.  That’s just it…nothing has ever really struck me as what I was supposed to do.  And that’s the silly thing.  I know I could have opened up a franchise or tried for something that was lucrative, but nothing ever really struck me as what I was supposed to do…”  Max trailed off, risked a glance at Fiona.  Her expression was unreadable, her eyes wide as she studied Max across the table.  “God, that probably sounds all airy fairy to you,” said Max miserably.  “But I wanted to do something I was passionate about.  And I’ve never figured out exactly what that is.”

“No, no–I completely understand,” said Fiona then, her voice soft, quiet.  “You have to do what you feel is right.  If you never knew the business you were meant to have…I understood why you wouldn’t open one.”

Jo shifted uncomfortably in the booth, biting her lip.  That’s not the way it had been with Jo.  She’d followed the money.  That’s why she’d opened up her auto repair business.  And then she’d had the idea for the delivery business, and while it was an inspired idea, Jo wasn’t a passionate cyclist, and she wasn’t a particularly green person–she’d simply had a hunch that it was going to make money.  Neither of these things had ever been her passion, but she’d known that, theoretically, they could make her rich, and that’s why she’d pursued them.

But was Max much different?  Max had followed the money, too, albeit in a more guaranteed way by “working for the man,” as Jo so often derided it.

They’d both wanted stability.  Just in different ways.

“Maybe I’ll never know what I’m meant to do.  Maybe I’m not really meant to do anything,” said Max then, shrugging.  It sounded like such a sad statement, but she hadn’t said it that way.  It was just fact.  Maybe she never would know what she was meant to do, and would that really be such a bad thing?

She knew it would.  From Fiona’s expression, a little pained and a little worried, she knew Fiona thought it would be a bad thing, too.

“Oh, crud,” said Jo, reaching into her pocket for her cell phone.  It was making an insistent beeping sound.  “I’m so sorry, guys, I really have to take this,” she grimaced, standing and sliding smoothly out of the booth, turning her back on the both of them as she began to walk toward the front door.  “Gary?  Yeah, it’s Jo.  Look, about the Manchester order…”  She strode quickly away from the table, and let herself out of the diner to talk in the little entryway.

“She’s been working extra hard lately,” said Fiona, glancing after Max, but while the words were soft and understanding, her gaze betrayed something hurt.  She fiddled with her fork and knife for a moment before looking back up at Max.  “You’ve known her for a long time.  Is she always so…so…”  She waved her hand, blowing air out of her nose in slight impatience.

“Focused?” said Max, glancing after Jo herself.  “Yeah, she’s always been…pretty focused.  She’s a hard worker.  That’s why she’s so successful.”

“Hm,” said Fiona, her mouth pressed together, her eyes distant.  She breathed out, glanced up at Max, then, fully present.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t want to make it seem that I’m frustrated with her.  I’m not.  I just wish…”  She took the napkin, opened it carefully and spread it on her lap.  She didn’t finish the sentence.

Now that Max and Fiona were alone, Max was becoming aware of how her skin seemed to prick whenever Fiona gazed at her.  When Fiona shifted, crossing her legs the other way under the table, the toe of her shoe brushed against Max’s leg.  “Oh, I’m so sorry—was that you?” said Fiona, her head to the side as she gazed at Max with bright eyes.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Max, realizing that as she said it her voice had gotten lower, deeper.  She cleared her throat.  She reminded herself for the thousandth time that she wasn’t a hormonal teenager.

There was just something about Fiona.  Something about her long fingers as they cupped the curve of her own cream-colored chin.  Something about the intensity of her cool, green gaze that seemed to spark between them.  The corners of her mouth turned up into the most fetching smile, and when she chuckled just then, it came out with such a lightness that it made Max’s heart rise in her chest, beating much too fast.

“Look at us.  Both of us are Jo’s widows to her business,” said Fiona, leaning back in the booth.  She propped her elbow on the top of the seatback and tried to subdue her smile.  “While we’re waiting, tell me more about you, Max.  You’re very important to Jo.  And I know she has very good taste.  I’d love to learn more about you.”

Max gazed up at Fiona through her lashes and was surprised to see that Fiona was not gazing into her eyes.  Fiona’s glance raked over Max, over her mouth, over her own neck and shoulders, down to her chest.  She could not be imagining this.  Fiona was giving her the once-over.  Wasn’t she?  Max sometimes had trouble with reading the signals of another woman (sometimes she thought she really was a little hopeless), but there was no way possible that this could be misinterpreted as Fiona’s gaze came back up again, settling firmly on Max’s mouth.  Max licked her lips, suddenly so self-conscious she wasn’t certain what to say.

Max must be wrong.  Fiona was dating Jo.  Fiona wouldn’t be looking at Max, plain, drab, boring Max who was such a dull, brown bird compared to these brightly plumed creatures.  These amazing, vibrant women who had their own businesses, who answered to no one else.  Who had followed their dreams and were making something splendid of their lives.  Max was nowhere close to either of them, and she knew that.

“Max…” began Fiona, her voice low, but Jo pushed through the diner’s door, making it chime with the jingle bells hung on the doorknob.  She shut it closed behind her and trundled over to the booth, shaking her head as she slid into it with a sigh.

“I’m sorry about that, Fiona, Max…it was Gary, and he’s been having a rough time lately with all the orders we’ve been getting for…well, you don’t want to hear me talk shop.”  Jo glanced sidelong at her date and gathered up Fiona’s hands into her own, kissing Fiona’s knuckles.

But Fiona wasn’t looking at Jo as Jo’s lips brushed over the back of her hands.

She was staring at Max, her mouth slightly parted, her eyes bright and sparking.

The pressure behind Max’s eyes pressed insistently, her headache in that instant becoming so overpowering that she could hardly see straight, and she stood suddenly, reaching into her wallet in her purse, taking out two twenties and setting them on the table.  “I am so, so sorry,” she said quietly.  “I’m getting a migraine.  I’ve been getting it all day, and it’s just…it’s going to be a bad one.”  Though it was the truth, it sounded flat, even to her own ears.  “Please forgive me, both of you.  It was so, so wonderful to meet you, Fiona,” she said, choking a little on the words, even as Jo and Fiona hurriedly slid out of the booth, standing awkwardly together as they both nodded, trying to express sympathy and wishing she could stay with murmured words that Max couldn’t make out clearly.

Fiona impulsively stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Max’s shoulders, pulling the taller woman to her with surprising strength as she hugged Max warmly.  “You take care of yourself, okay?” she whispered into Max’s ear.  The heat of her breath made Max shudder, and she knew that Fiona had felt that shudder as she took a step back, as the embrace broke, and Fiona glanced up at her with wide eyes.

“Likewise,” said Max, shrugging into her denim jacket, and then somehow, miraculously, she was out in the cold December evening, so chill that it made her shudder as she staggered as if intoxicated around the corner to her car.  She fumbled with the keys and the lock and was sitting in the driver’s side before she’d even registered what had happened.

She turned the car on, and it rumbled to life, just as the radio began to play “Jesse’s Girl.”

“…why can’t I have a woman like that?”

In tears, Max switched the radio off, and pulled out into traffic.

Chapter 2:  Invitation

 

“You look like your dog ran over your cat, totaled your ride and then shot himself,” said Sam companionably the first time he passed her cubicle the next morning.  Max breathed out for a long moment, massaging her temples as she cast a withering glance in his direction.

“I just call it like I see it,” he said, setting an unopened can of Coke down on her desk and pulling a chair from the next-door empty cubicle over to hers.  He sat down in it, leaned back and crossed his ankles with all the finality of a man who was going to stay in that exact spot until Max told him what was the matter.

She bit her lip and sighed, fiddling with her mouse for a long moment while she considered him.

“Last night was a disaster,” she said then, tugging off her headset and running a hand over her head and through her messy ponytail.  “It was just…I mean, it was seriously a first class disaster.”

“What happened?” asked Sam with sympathy as he tabbed open his own can and took a swig of Coke.

“I mean, for starters…”  She trailed off.  For starters what?  Fiona was more beautiful than Max could understand?  Fiona was more wonderful than any woman Max had ever had the pleasure to meet?

Max wished with all of her heart that Fiona was with her, and not her best friend?

It was utterly terrible, that thought, and deep down (really deep down), Max didn’t wish that at all.  Not really.  She was happy for Jo, incredibly happy.  Jo had dated so many women, but hadn’t given any of them a chance to get close to her after she’d had her heart broken so completely by Alexandra all those years ago.  She deserved, so, so much, to be happy, and she hadn’t been in such a long time with anyone.  And Max knew that Fiona was just the woman to make Jo happy, was, in fact, the woman perfect for the job.

“For starters…” prompted Sam, his head to the side, one eyebrow up over his glasses.

“I mean…the woman Jo’s seeing.  Fiona.  She’s just…she’s just great…” Max spluttered, spreading her hands and trailing off again.  She wasn’t certain what to say.  “She’s just–”

Sam’s eyes widened.  “Max…”

“What?” said Max miserably, placing her arms on her desk and her forehead on her arms with a groan.

“Oh, my God, you like her,” said Sam, mouth open in astonishment.  “Hell.  I haven’t seen you get that look in years, but I still remember it!  The last woman you had it for was Valerie.  Remember Valerie?”

Max blinked.  “I had this look for Valerie?”

“Hey, we all make mistakes,” said Sam with a wide grin as he pat Max’s arm and straightened in his chair, the wheels creaking under him.  “But seriously, you’re attracted to her, aren’t you.”  It wasn’t a question.

“I…”  Max had never been good at lying, and the blush making her cheeks flame was probably a very good indicator that yes, absolutely, she was attracted to Fiona.

“Well,” said Sam, leaning back in his chair, the thing creaking now ominously beneath him as he pushed back, propping his shoes on the edge of Max’s desk.  She’d told him so many times not to put his feet on her desk that she just didn’t have the energy to tease him about it again.  “This…is bad,” he said, setting his can of Coke on the desk next to hers and clasping his fingers over his stomach.  “I mean, Jo’s pretty into her, right?”

“Sam, there is no way that this is bad, because there’s no real problem.  I’m not about to steal Jo’s girlfriend, thanks ever so much,” she said dryly, shoving his feet off the desk.  He grinned at her and crossed his ankles again, propping his heels on the edge of her trashcan instead.  “I mean, I wouldn’t have a chance in hell—”

“So you would if you could.”

“Don’t be a jerk,” she said quickly, shaking her head.  “Jo’s happy for the first time in ages, and I’m happy for her.  I would never take that away from her.  Even if I could.”

Sam considered her for a long moment before he stood and wheeled the chair back into the next cubicle.  He ducked back in, picking up his can from her desk.  His eyebrows were up as he considered her.  “I like Jo, Max…don’t get me wrong,” he said then, leaning against the half-wall of her cubicle.  “But I’m kind of partial to you, and I’m loyal.  So.  I wish there was a solution to this.  A solution that made you happy.”

It was a sweet sentiment, and it made Max smile a little.  Sam was a good guy, for all of his little quirks.  “That’s nice, Sam.  I appreciate it.”

“And if you want something to help you forget about this little mess, I’m more than happy to set up with a really gorgeous looking gal.  See, I have this cousin—”

“You’re always pushing that cousin on me,” said Max, laughing a little as she wrinkled her nose, but it sounded hollow.  “Don’t worry about me,” she said with false bravado.  “I’ll be all right.  I’m sure there’s a woman out there who’s meant for me.”

Sam studied her for a long moment before he nodded, turned on his heel and walked down the hallway without another word.

He didn’t have to say what he’d been thinking.

Max had been thinking it too, after all.

What if the woman who was right for Max was Fiona?

God, what a mess.  She buried her fingers in her hair and pressed her forehead against the cool surface of her desk, taking deep breaths.

It didn’t matter.  Fiona was Jo’s, and that was that.

And everything in her that cried out against that fact just needed to shut up.  Now.

 

 

By Friday, Max had moved through all of the stages of grief and had come out the other side into the Land of Guilt, as she was jokingly calling it.  With time and distance between her and meeting Fiona, and not being confronted with that captivating, beautiful woman in anything but a memory, Max felt utterly terrible that she’d ever felt a shred of attraction for Fiona.  What kind of friend was she?  Jo deserved a truly loyal friend, someone who wasn’t going to drool all over her new significant other.  A friend who would be purely happy for her because she was happy.  Wasn’t that what friends were for?  And hadn’t they been friends for decades, almost all of their lives?  God, Jo deserved a hell of a lot more than this.

Their friendship was worth much more to Max than anything else in the world.  And Fiona had always been off limits, anyway.

And Max needed to stop thinking about something that could not possibly be.

Max always hated Fridays, contrary to almost everyone else in the rest of the United States, and probably the entire globe, because on Fridays in the Wellworth Marketing Center, everyone had to do outbound calls.

Outbound calls were what Max thought Hell probably consisted of, if she’d believed in Hell.  She was given a very long spreadsheet from her superior that contained a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers, and then depending on what client they were working for that week, she went down the list and called each number, offering the person such varied things as insurance, magazine subscriptions and delivery denture cream.

Thankfully, this day was not the delivery denture cream client.  Max always felt guilty about selling people things that they didn’t necessarily want, but selling these things to older people who already didn’t have a lot of money lying around for non-necessities (and delivery denture cream was very, very much a non-necessity), made her feel particularly evil.

No, today they were working with a client who sold insurance to small businesses.  So Max was not actually calling people, as such, but businesses.  It was a distinction, though small and seemingly meaningless, that gave her a lot of ease.  Businesses usually had money, so if she could convince some poor person to get that insurance for their business (as if they wouldn’t already have insurance, she’d first groaned when they’d taken on the client), it’s not as if it was coming out of someone’s pocket.  It was coming out of a business’s pocket.  And that, to Max, was almost ethical.

Ethan’s Vacuum Repair Shop had said they’d call her back with an answer (which was a very polite way of saying “no.”  Max marked the line on her spreadsheet with blue—which meant no).  Gro Green had actually sworn at her and hung up the phone.  She marked the line with blue.  The Livingston County Thrift Store had laughed and hung up the phone.  Another blue line.  In the entire spreadsheet, there was only one pink line—meaning a yes–and that was because they actually already used that insurance company.

Max closed her eyes and breathed out steadily, working her jaw.  She was so tired and she couldn’t wait for the end of her shift.  She was fantasizing about what she’d have for dinner.  She’d probably get take out.  It was Friday, after all.  And then she’d open a new bottle of wine, and…

She scrolled down in her spreadsheet, the automated caller cycling through the numbers.  The phone was ringing before she even saw the spreadsheet’s line declaring the business, address and phone number.

Max blinked.  She gulped down air and sat up straighter in her chair.

Florabella Cupcakes.

Fiona’s shop.

“Florabella Cupcakes, Fiona speaking, how can I make your day better?” came a bright voice on the other end of the line.

“Oh, my…oh, my God,” spluttered Max.  “Fiona?”

“Max?”

Fiona remembered her voice.

Fiona remembered her voice.

Max grappled, trying to spin together the last few remnants of her composure.  The script that she’d been given to say to every prospective client flew out the window.  “My…my goodness, I’m sorry to bother you.  I’m actually calling on behalf of my company…we have a new client…”  She trailed off, unsure if she should continue or if she was, in fact, blathering and not making any sense at all.  “I’m supposed to try to sell you insurance,” is what she half-mumbled, then.

Fiona laughed into the phone, that beautiful, warm, throaty laugh that sounded like bells ringing happily in some quaint little European town.  “That’s funny that you would get my number.  What a small world, right?”

“A very small world,” Max muttered, glancing at her computer monitor that was beeping an angry red at her.  Big brother, aka the Stupid Software (as Max called it), knew she was going off script and was prompting her to try and close the deal, because it assumed that if she veered off script, it was because she was very, very close to closing the deal.  But, as usual, the Stupid Software was wrong.

“I actually already have insurance,” said Fiona, regret tingeing her voice.  “I’m sorry.  Am I screwing up your quota?”

That surprised Max.  That anyone would care about her quota was a surprise, in and of itself, but how warm Fiona’s voice was…well, that was another kind of surprising all together.

“I’m doing okay with my quota—don’t worry,” said Max, fiddling with the cord of her headphones.

“Listen, I’m so sorry about your migraine…are you feeling better today?”  Fiona’s sweet voice seemed to curve toward Max like a finger, beckoning her.  Max closed her eyes, massaged her temples, and swallowed.

Yes.  The migraine that she’d used as an excuse to leave the dinner.  That migraine.

“I’m doing much better, thank you so much for thinking about it,” she said in a low voice as a co-worker walked past the entrance to her cubicle.

“I was so sad to see you go…I would love so, so much if you came by for a cupcake sometime.  Maybe today?  Or, you know, tomorrow, or Sunday, or…”  Fiona laughed as she trailed off.  “My treat.  Cupcakes are great for headaches.  Has anyone ever told you that?”

Max laughed, in spite of herself.  “My doctor never prescribed me that in lieu of my migraine medication, no.”

“Well, let me tell you, it’s a well-kept secret,” said Fiona, her voice dropping softly to a conspirator’s whisper.  “And I’d…I’d love to see you again,” she said, then.

Had Max imagined that?  But no, she most certainly had not.  She couldn’t have.  Fiona had told her, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted to see her.  It probably wasn’t in the way Max was already imagining.  It was simply because Max was Jo’s best friend.  Surely the new girlfriend would want to stay on good terms with the best friend.  But as Max thought this, she knew that wasn’t exactly true.

It was because Fiona was just a nice person.

There were a million things to say to that, and Max ran through all of them in her head for a heartbeat before she breathed out, picking up her blue stress ball in front of her keyboard, the one with the little eyes and mouth that would pop out when she squeezed it hard enough.  She squeezed the heck out of it just then, closed her eyes and said:  “yes, I’d love that.  I’ll try to stop by after work—what time are you open until?”

“Six, but I’m in the back long after making the cupcakes for the next day.  So just knock on the window and I’ll hear you.  Sound good?”  Fiona actually sounded delighted, her warm voice filled with excitement.

It made Max’s heart beat even faster.  And it was already reaching heart-attack level paces.

Max breathed out, squeezed the stress ball just a little harder, the cartoon eyes and mouth popping so far out it seemed that the ball was in danger of breaking.  “I’ll see you tonight!” she managed.

“Wonderful.  I’ll see you then.  Bye!”  And the line went dead.

Max’s screen went back to the spreadsheet, and a little pop-up box asked if she’d closed the sale.

Max stared at it for so long, it began to blur in front of her eyes.

Yeah, she’d closed the sale.  Sort of.

The rest of the day flew by in a strange, panicked blur as Max tried desperately to think of some excuse to not stop by Florabella Cupcakes after work.  Which was ridiculous, she knew.  She was just stopping by to see her best friend’s girlfriend, who was an incredibly nice, friendly person, who simply wanted to give Max a free cupcake.  She was panicked about a free cupcake!  There, when she thought about it like that, it really did seem silly not to think about going.

Around five o’clock Max rose from her chair, stretched overhead and dragged her sequined coin purse out of her bottom desk drawer, hefting it in her hand.  It had a couple of quarters, which meant she could probably get a Coke and some candy.  What a terrible idea.  She grinned to herself and began to walk down the aisle.

A leg stuck out of a cubicle a few feet ahead of her, causing her to pause.  It was a man’s leg, wearing a very scuffed-up loafer, and jeans because it was casual Friday.

“You know,” said Sam, peeking his head out of his cubicle and waggling his eyebrows at Max.  “You were actually whistling just now.”

“No I wasn’t,” she scoffed at him, grinning, as he got up, hands in his pockets and grinning, too, to follow her to the break room.

“Yep, you were so totally whistling.  You never whistle unless you’re in the best mood ever.”  He dragged out the contents of his right pocket, which consisted of a few small balls of lint, three quarters and a wadded up gum wrapper.

“Why shouldn’t I be in a good mood?  It’s Friday,” said Max, a little uneasily as she considered the candy machine, her eyes unfocused and not really taking in all of the delights before her.  He was right.  She had been whistling, and she pretty much only whistled on the night before a date.

But this wasn’t a date.  This was very much not a date.

It was because of the free cupcake.

Yes.  Of course.  She was excited about the free cupcake.

She groaned and ran her fingers through her long, lanky ponytail.  Extra lanky because it was casual Friday, and everyone was just lucky that she’d had enough gumption to put on clothes this morning and ditch the pajamas.  “Sam…” she said, trailing off as she fed quarters into the machine, pushing the button for the chocolate covered peanuts.  She swallowed what she’d been going to say when he cast a glance in her direction.  She didn’t want to talk about seeing Fiona.  Not yet.  “Did you ever call Rita back?” she said then, purposefully making her voice lighter as the machine spat out the wonderful chocolate.  She picked up the wrapper and tore off the top, tossing it into the trashcan.

“The one who couldn’t eat wheat?” said Sam a little too innocently as he shoved his quarters into the coke machine and pressed the button for the can of lemonade.  “Yeah,” he said then, after a few beats, grinning back over his shoulder at Max.  “I did.  We’re actually going on a date tonight.  And I apologized to her for being such a jerk at dinner.”

“You hadn’t told me you’d been a jerk at dinner,” said Max, brows raised as she leaned against the wall, popping a chocolate covered peanut into her mouth.  Ah.  Bliss.

“Yeah.  I kind of made a big deal about having to go to a gluten-free restaurant because I thought the food was going to be terrible.  Which, I realize,” he said, holding up his hands as Max’s mouth dropped open, “was the jerkiest move since jerks were invented.  So I apologized a lot and sent her flowers and we’re going on another date since she’s giving me another chance.  Because she’s a lot nicer than I am.”  He looked a little chagrined and more than a little self-conscious.

“You’re such a jerk,” said Max with narrowed eyes, chewing on another peanut.  “You’d better treat her right this time.”

“I will.”  Sam popped open the tab on his can and took a swig of lemonade.  They both should have started ambling back to their desks, but they paused in the break room, the air heavy between them.

“Look…” began Sam, but Max was biting her lip, shaking her head.

“If this is about Fiona–”

“Maybe it is,” said Sam, leaning back against the wall, too, head to the side as he considered Max.  “Look, you only live once, right?”

“There are whole bunches of people who believe in reincarnation who would robustly contest that fact,” joked Max, but Sam’s face remained perfectly serious.

“You only live once,” Sam repeated, a little more solemnly this time, “and I just think…well.  Sometimes things happen for reasons, okay?”

“Sam, I don’t need a come-to-Jesus talk about the perfect time and place and etcetera,” said Max gently, stepping forward and offering him a chocolate covered peanut.  He declined, but fell in step alongside her as they both left the break room.  “But for the umpteen millionth time, I love Jo.  She’s been like a sister to me my entire life.  And I would never, ever do anything to jeopardize that, and I’d really like to not talk about this again.”  She paused in front of Sam’s cubicle, her voice lowered as she turned back to face him.

“Okay,” said Sam with a shrug, his gaze lingering on Max’s face.  “You just…” he trailed off, sighed.  “You deserve to be happy, too, all right?”

“I’m happy,” said Max with a defensiveness she didn’t feel.

Sam’s eyebrows rose again, and he said nothing, only slid into his cubicle, and his chair.  Max opened and shut her mouth, because she wanted a scathing retort…and none were currently available.  All of the wind went out of her sails.

The truth of the matter was that she wasn’t happy.

But she’d been happy this afternoon.

…Because of Fiona.

Chapter 3:  Icing

 

Max had the phone number for Fiona’s cupcake shop because it was on her call spreadsheet for work.  In theory, she absolutely, positively could call Fiona back and tell her that something had come up, and that she wouldn’t be able to make it that evening for that cupcake after all.

But Max didn’t call and tell Fiona she wasn’t coming.

Max drove to Newbury Street the moment she got off shift, parking her Escort down the street a few shops from Florabella Cupcakes.  The night was cold and hushed, though there were still people bustling past with shopping bags and big winter coats, the holiday shopping season already in full swing.  Max pulled her coat a little closer about her, shut the car door, and then she was walking down the sidewalk toward the cupcake shop, her hands deep in her coat pockets.

The shop window displays on the street were so cheerful and charming, reminding her of old black and white Christmas movies Max had watched and loved as a kid.  Newbury Street was at the heart of the more artsy district of the city, and that was reflected in the type of shops it contained.  There was a yarn shop, and a gourmet boutique shop of cheeses, and a handmade toy shop with carved toy soldiers in their windows, and a used book store that was already closed for the evening, but had a very bored-looking tabby cat in the window, gazing out at her through slit eyes, his tail moving back and forth in annoyed flicks as he sprawled on a stack of enormous hardcovers and watched the window shoppers with narrowed eyes.  Max tapped the glass of the cat’s window gently with a long finger, and the cat practically rolled his eyes at her before widening them and pouncing a little at her finger.  Max chuckled at him–he was a really nice cat, and he’s the guy who always drew her into that book store, even though she did love books.

Now, she nervously lifted her coat’s collar closer about her ears to better keep out the chill, and kept walking down the snowy sidewalk.  She was close to the cupcake shop, and this meant that she still had time to turn back, to call Fiona and tell her that she couldn’t make it.

She still had time.

And then she ran out of it.

Because right there, nestled between Marie’s Yarn and Fabric Arts and The Blue Dog (which, upon walking past, Max realized was an upscale coffee shop, the little booths visible through the window filled with people nursing gigantic, steaming mugs of some fantastic-tasting holiday coffee beverage, and busy on their laptops) was Florabella Cupcakes.  The cupcake shop had a pink and white striped awning and two little white iron tables and chairs out front covered in filigree that looked sweet and inviting, though Max doubted that anyone was currently using them in this weather.  They were also covered with a light dusting of snow.

The “open” neon sign in the window was turned off, and so were most of the overhead lights inside, but the window display on both sides of the door was well lit, and Max paused for a moment, taking it in.  There was a Christmas tree in both windows, covered with pink tinsel and absolutely laden with cupcake ornaments in all sorts of styles, from hand blown glass cupcakes (that were probably antique) to hand-sewn felt cupcakes to what appeared to be a cupcake carved out of wood and painted.  There was a cloth banner draped in the air above each tree that read “celebrate the season with cupcakes!” in cheerful pink and gold cursive.

There was movement beyond the door, and then Fiona was there, turning the lock and opening it up.  She was wearing a frilly pink apron over a blue blouse and jeans, and she had flour on her nose, splotched on the apron, and a little bit in her red hair that was swept up into a ponytail.  Max was taken aback by how charming she looked with that dusting of flour in odd places.

Fiona’s grin was huge, in that moment, and she wasn’t grinning at anyone else but Max.

And Max, in that moment, felt her heart rise and warm.

“I’m so glad you came!” said Fiona, stepping out but keeping a leg in the door so it didn’t close.  She gestured Max closer, and then Fiona was wrapping her warm arms around Max, giving her a tight squeeze as the warmth from the shop rolled out around them, too, chasing the chill of the winter away.  The scent of cupcakes rolled out with Fiona as she squeezed Max tightly, but also the sweet hint of something floral and vanilla.  The embrace lingered a beat too long, or maybe that was just Max’s imagination.  Fiona stepped back, her bright green eyes flashing warmly.  “I just took a batch of peanut butter cupcakes out of the oven, so you’re right on time,” she said, her smile deepening.  With a gentle hand at the small of Max’s back, Fiona pushed her gently through the door and into the shop, shutting and locking the door behind the both of them.

The scents inside the shop were so much stronger than what had come out of it into the street to meet her.  As they swept over Max just then, she breathed out.  They were so heavenly that Max couldn’t help it.  She closed her eyes, leaned back on her heels and inhaled deeply, rising up on her toes as she did so, buoyed up by the intense, mouthwatering aroma of cupcakes and sugar and pure deliciousness.

“That’s what heaven smells like,” said Fiona, then, and Max’s eyes snapped open.  Fiona stood beside her, her hands on her hips, one hip jutting to the side as she gazed up at Max with those bright green eyes that seemed to spark, even in the darkness of the cupcake shop.  Something passed over Fiona’s face in that heartbeat, something unreadable that Max wasn’t certain about, but then Fiona was smiling again, and gesturing toward the back of the shop, around a corner, toward the light that was spilling out into that hallway.

They moved past the little quaint tables and chairs that, for some reason, reminded Max of Paris, even though she’d never been to Paris.  She’d certainly seen enough movies centered in the city, and usually the main characters of those movies were seated, at some point, at a coffee shop that had tables and chairs just like these, with their soft whites and pinks and shabby chic appearance.  The tall counter next to the cash register had about five levels of plexi-glass shelving for cupcakes, all of which were currently empty.

“Thanks to the holiday season, business is booming,” said Fiona as they both walked toward the back hallway over the charming black and white tile floor.  “I sold out again today, and actually had to close up shop early!  I don’t want that to happen to me again…that’s bad for business.  So I’m baking a couple extra dozen tonight, just in case of sell out again,” she said, grinning up at Max.  “Come on back!”

They rounded the corner, and Max was met with a row of three ovens across from shelves of trays and a long expanse of counter space covered in dozens and dozens of cupcakes, arranged in phalanxes like a tiny cupcake army, ready to take over.  It was much warmer back here in the kitchen, and Max found herself unzipping her denim jacket as Fiona pranced forward, an oven timer sharply beginning to beep.

“Oh, right on schedule—this is perfect!” she said happily, bending down to open up the oven door.

The wafting scent of peanut butter cupcakes swept over the both of them as Max tried very, very hard not to look at Fiona’s beautiful curves.  And they were beautiful, the swell of her thighs and bottom in the jeans.  Max’s fingernails pressed hard against her palms, and she glanced down at her boots leaking melting snow on Fiona’s clean black and white tiles.

“They’re done!” said Fiona triumphantly, setting the pan of cupcakes on the cooling rack and turning towards Max with a grin as she took off her oven mitts.  The mitts were bright pink, the same pink as her apron.  Fiona followed Max’s gaze and looked down at herself with a wry expression.  “Believe it or not, I don’t even like pink.  But it’s what people expect from a cupcake shop,” she said, rolling her eyes a little as she chuckled.  “I just go with it.”

“No…it suits you,” said Max quietly, struggling for the words.  She put her hands deep in her pockets, felt her cheeks color as she murmured:  “you look great.”

Fiona glanced up sharply at that, her eyes bright and wide, but just as quickly she was glancing down at herself chuckling.  “Hah!  I’m covered in flour and exhausted.  But you’re…you’re very sweet to say that.”  She glanced up again, biting her lip, and there was silence for a moment between them as Max’s heart began to beat too fast.

“So, what kind of cupcake do you think you want?  I have a lot to choose from.”  Fiona grinned hopefully at Max and pointed to a few pans.  “Those are strawberry and peaches and cream and cherries jubilee.  I like to keep the fruit separate from the chocolate ones.  This is peanut butter chocolate, ‘Death by Chocolate’ and raspberry chocolate.  Then I have white chocolate and orange chocolate…”

Max began to chuckle.  “Oh my goodness.  How long have you been baking to make this many?”

“Well, I closed a little early.  And I’m very fast,” said Fiona, hooking her thumbs into the frilly apron’s pockets and grinning broadly at Max.  “Impressed?”

“Very,” said Max, truth making her sigh out the word.  She cleared her throat, glanced over the trays and trays of cupcakes and tried very hard not to look at the beautiful woman standing in front of her.

But Fiona kept drawing Max’s eyes back to her.  Back to her ridiculous, sweet apron, and her red curls escaping from under the blue bandana that was trying to keep her hair contained.  She wasn’t wearing any makeup, but she didn’t need any.  Fiona’s lashes were long and curved, her cheeks rosy, her smile defined by little curving lines around her lips that showed how often she smiled.  She looked like what Max had always assumed a ballerina looked like, which was an odd comparison, but she definitely made Max think of one.  All fine bones and powerful grace.

Fiona glanced at the rows of cupcakes, folding her arms in front of herself as she shifted the weight into her heels.  She’d noticed Max was staring at her.  Max cleared her throat again, panic setting in.  “Um…  I really like chocolate and peanuts.  I’d probably like the peanut butter chocolate one, though I have to confess,” she said as Fiona brightened up, popping one of the cupcakes out of the tray, “I’ve not really eaten a lot of cupcakes in my day.”

Fiona patted the bottom of the cupcake and tested its warmth with her hand against the wrapper.  “We’re going to have to wait to frost it.  This tray came out of the oven about a half hour ago, so it’s closer to being frostable than the ones in the tray I just took out.  Do you have a moment?” said Fiona, setting the cupcake down on the counter as she moved toward her industrial-sized refrigerator.  “If you don’t eat cupcakes often, I really want this one to be perfect.  Memorable.”

Oh, it was already memorable.  The ovens were very warm, but even if they weren’t going, Max would have been far too warm anyway.  Fiona ducked into the walk-in fridge, and Max cast about, feeling awkward and out of place, uncertain of what to do.  There weren’t any chairs to sit on.  She compromised with leaning against the wall.  Fiona returned, shutting the fridge door behind her and holding a little spatula.

“You refrigerate your spatulas?” said Max with a smile.  Fiona nodded, pulling the bucket of frosting out from under the counter and setting it gently next to the cooling cupcakes.

“Yeah…it helps me pick up the frosting better,” she said, setting the spatula on top of the bucket’s lid.  She picked up a tray of unbaked cupcakes; the batter nestled in its wrappers in wet spirals, and opened the oven door.  A wave of heat hit Max, and she averted her eyes as Fiona bent over, the jeans clinging in all of the right places, her bottom and thighs making the perfect curve…

Max sighed, running her hand through her hair and taking off her jacket, holding it in front of herself a little like she was the new kid in class, and it was the first day of school.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so self-conscious and awkward, other than those first days at a new school, and that had been a long time ago.  A lifetime ago, it seemed now.

“So, Max…what’s that short for?” asked Fiona, taking off her oven mitts again and smiling charmingly at Max.

Max rolled her eyes a little with a tense chuckle, and bit her lip.  “It’s short for Maxine.  It’s the age-old story, really.  My father wanted a boy, so he was going to name a boy Max and a girl Maxine…and then call her Max anyway.  It stuck.”  She glanced up at Fiona from under hooded eyes.  Fiona was leaning against the counter, one foot on top of the other, lounging and balanced like someone who probably did a lot of yoga.  Fiona struck Max that way: very in tune with all of herself, in perfect control of her body, never awkward or gangly like Max was.  “What about Fiona?” Max asked.  “Where did that come from?  It’s a beautiful, unusual name…why did your parents pick it?”

Fiona’s gaze flickered for a moment, and then she shrugged.  “It’s a good Irish name, you know?  I was born in Ireland, but my mother couldn’t keep me, so I was adopted out to American parents when I was about two.  They changed my name because they thought Fiona fit me better.”  She wrinkled her nose, pushed off from the counter and fiddled with the dials on top of the stove.  “They were well-meaning, though I wish I very much knew my first name.  It would make me feel more connected to where I came from, I think.”

Max realized her mouth was open and shut it.  “They just…they just changed the name of a two-year old?  I mean…”  She didn’t know what she meant, it just felt like something you shouldn’t probably ever do.  It felt wrong.

“They were well-meaning, not necessarily right,” said Fiona with a shrug, stacking the oven mitts on top of each other on the counter.  “But it’s all right.  I like this name.  I love my parents.  I can’t really remember my birth mother…just glimpses of her, really.  I know she had hair like mine.”  With a wry smile, Fiona tugged at a loose curl that spilled out down beside her cheek from the bandana.  “It’s important to me to have my mother’s hair, because I guess it still makes me feel connected to her, and that’s really the only connection I have.  That probably seems silly, putting so much stock in having the same hair,” she said with a small smile.

“It’s not silly at all.  Honestly…I think that’s beautiful.  I don’t think I could imagine dealing with all of that as well as you have.  I was—and am—really lucky, I know.  My parents were so normal and boring.  They took really good care of us, me and my sister.  They did the best they could by us, worked normal, boring jobs so that we could have everything we needed…”  Max trailed off as she noticed Fiona watching her.

“Mine, too.  They wanted what was best for me, always,” said Fiona, her thumbs in her apron pockets again as her green eyes glittered in the low light.  “I guess we were both lucky in that way.”  She gazed for a long moment into Max’s eyes.

Max watched the curve of Fiona’s jaw, the smooth, sweet skin that flowed from that graceful curve of jaw down to her neck, under the scalloped edge of her shirt.  She could just see the gentle tap of Fiona’s pulse along her neck.  Max was very aware of how fast her own heart was beating.  She was too hot, too aware suddenly of how small the kitchen really was.  It had seemed so big a few minutes ago, but Max knew that if she took three steps forward now, she could place her hands at Fiona’s waist, her fingers curling around the curves there.  She could press the length of her body against Fiona’s, feel the perfect way those bodies would fit together, hip to hip, breast to breast, their forms melding together.  Max looked down at the floor again, a blush rising in her cheeks.

She shouldn’t be there.  She knew she shouldn’t be there, discussing her past, her family with this woman she should really only know in passing.

But she couldn’t bring herself to leave the warmth of Fiona’s smile, the sight of her body that Max, whether she wanted to admit it to herself or not, was desperately attracted to, the mind she was—impossibly—attracted to even more.  She couldn’t bring herself to leave the sunshine that was Fiona’s very presence.

Fiona turned, touching the cupcake’s wrapper with her fingers, and then she was taking the top off of the container of frosting.  The warm scent of sugar, chocolate and peanut butter began to waft into the air a little stronger, spilling out of the tub to surround the both of them.

“Have you heard from Jo this week?” asked Fiona softly, taking up her spatula and scooping up a big dollop of frosting.  She put it in a see-through plastic bag, and screwed the nub of a frosting tip onto the corner of the pastry bag.  She squeezed the bag until the frosting was against the tip, and then it began to pipe out beautifully onto the cupcake in a spiral that grew smaller as Fiona expertly maneuvered it in a narrowing circle.  Max watched her work and came over closer to get a better look.

“No I haven’t—not since that night we all went out to dinner together.  How are things with you two?” asked Max, her voice a little strained.

“Oh, they’re good.  Good,” Fiona repeated a little distractedly.  “I just haven’t seen her much this week is all.  She’s opening up a new branch of TurnTurn Delivery in Seattle, so she’s been traveling a little…well—more than usual, I guess.  But it’s just difficult to get used to, is all, her gone all the time.  We’ve been on a lot of nice dates, but now all of the best ones, it seems, have been given rain checks.”  She spiraled the frosting upward and tugged the bag a little toward her so that the top peek of the frosting was perfectly pointed.  She set the bag down on the counter and turned toward Max with a small smile, and the cupcake on a napkin, held out to Max like forbidden fruit.  “It’s ready!”

“Wow, it’s beautiful, Fiona,” said Max, and she meant it—but she wasn’t looking at the cupcake when she said it.  She was looking into Fiona’s eyes.  To be honest, she wasn’t even certain she meant the cupcake.

When Max reached out to take the sweet from the woman’s hand, their fingers inevitably touched.  Like it’d been fate.  An electric surge moved through Max, and she sighed reflexively.  There was such heat that shot through her in that moment.  Such a deep, intense longing.  She wanted to kiss Fiona’s hand, her fingers one by one, her knuckles, her palm.  She wanted to taste that woman’s skin, brush her lips over the dusting of sugar that seemed to cover Fiona’s hands, a sweetness that seemed to reflect what was within.  Max wanted these things with such a fierceness that an ache blossomed deep inside of her, an ache Max had never really felt before.  Or had felt such a long time ago, that it was like feeling it again for the first time.

She breathed out and picked up the cupcake from the napkin, and their hands no longer touched.  Again, Fiona’s expression flickered, but the smile came back in an instant, and she took a step back, gazing at the oven and the kitchen timer.  It beeped just as she did that, and she bent over, opening up the oven door and pulling out the tray of cupcakes with a hand sheathed in her pink oven mitt.

This time, Max did not look away as Fiona busied herself with taking that tray out of the oven.  She let herself drink in Fiona’s form, the gorgeous curves of her body as she bent down to take out the tray.  Max’s heart was beating too fast, and she tugged at the wrapper around the cupcake, desperate for something to do to take her mind off the fact that Fiona stood only three steps away.  Three steps was not a long distance.  Max could take those three steps in a heartbeat, and then her fingers would trace a line down Fiona’s cream-colored neck, her mouth hot against the captivating pulse beat there.

But Max did not take those three steps.  She took a deep breath, and she bit into the cupcake.

The blossom of sweetness that erupted in her mouth made her sigh again, this time in pleasure.  It was a euphoric taste, a perfect blending of peanut butter and chocolate and the sweetness of the creamy icing.

“Good?” asked Fiona, her eyes sparkling as she gazed sidelong at Max.  Max licked her lip, nodded slowly, her mouth too full to say anything.  “I’m glad you like it,” said Fiona, walking past Max to set the cupcake tray on the cooling rack beside her.  The hallway was very narrow, and Fiona brushed lightly past Max as she did so, her hip grazing against Max’s thigh.  A jolt went through Max, a lingering thrum of warmth deep inside of her, and she swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry as Fiona went past again, the scent of her lingering in the air even after she’d gone by.  That sweet vanilla, and that warm, spicy floral.

“Sorry,” Fiona murmured, pausing next to Max, her eyes flicking up to Max’s, and then down again, deliberately staying on Max’s lips for a long moment.  “You have a bit of frosting…” she whispered, and she reached up with her hand and brushed a thumb over Max’s lips.

Shock flooded through Max just as quickly as the heat, and she stayed perfectly still, afraid that if she moved, if she even blinked, something would betray her, her thoughts, the flush of warmth inside of her.  She would groan, or she would shudder, or she would lean forward against Fiona’s warm, sweet thumb that lingered a beat too long against Max’s mouth.  Fiona drew her hand back, then, flicking her gaze away, and taking a step back, turning away from Max.

There was no frosting on Fiona’s thumb that Max could see.

Max wolfed down the rest of the cupcake in two bites, tossing the wrapper in the garbage under the counter.  She pushed off from the wall, her head reeling, uncertain of what had just happened.  But she wanted to think about it.  She needed to think about it.  She needed time to think about it.

“It was wonderful.  Amazing…”  She grappled for something to say that could put in a smattering of words what she’d just felt.  But she couldn’t.  Fiona leaned against the counter, her face unreadable, her mouth set in a long, firm line as she crossed her arms, as a fleeting smile ghosted over her lips.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she said then, and her voice trailed off, seeming to linger over the words.

“We’ll talk soon,” Max promised, practically stumbling as she backed out of the small, narrow kitchen into the darkened cupcake shop.  She got to the door, fumbled with the lock, and then was out in the brisk night air, the cupcake shop and all its warmth behind her.

She didn’t even put her coat on.  Max just walked quickly down the street, holding the bulky jean jacket under her arm, her shoulders hunched as she reached up with hot fingers, touched her lips gently, touched where Fiona had touched them.

Max licked her lips, tasting the sweetness of the cupcake and its frosting, tasting the sweetness of Fiona’s fingers.

She stood shaking outside of her car for a long moment, gazing down the street that was now entirely deserted.

Somewhere far distant, one of the apartments above where she stood was playing the radio loudly.  The mournful strains of “Silent Night” seemed to float around her, the mournful music echoing and spiraling down as Max got into her car, shutting out the cold, quiet night.

She breathed out, gripping her steering wheel.

Max could no longer deny what she was feeling.  This wasn’t something that she’d be able to box away in her heart and never look at again, something she could be guaranteed to never feel again.

She was absolutely and completely attracted to Fiona.  Every aspect of Fiona was beautiful to her.  She was the most amazing woman Max had ever met.

And now that she’d acknowledged all that, she also needed to acknowledge this:

There wasn’t a single thing she could do about it.

Read the entire book, available now:

Get Don’t Say Goodbye on Amazon.

Get Don’t Say Goodbye on Amazon UK.

Get Don’t Say Goodbye on Smashwords.

Get Don’t Say Goodbye on Barnes and Noble.

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About Bridget Essex

Author of lesbian romances; madly in love with my wife, author Natalie Vivien.
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