His mouth on mine was warm, his breath surprisingly sweet. Cinammony. When I felt his hand on the back of my head, the fingers gently sliding through my hair, I opened my mouth, tasting him. The hand resting on my arm suddenly felt like a brand.
His lips trailed downward, over my throat. I closed my eyes and for a moment was able to pretend we were the only two who mattered, that Kyle and Bethany were distant, unimportant. But even as I tangled my fingers in his thick dark hair, feeling its silkiness against my skin, I knew it wasn’t true. I couldn’t lie that much to myself.
I pulled away. My breathing came fast and short—I looked at Max, at the flush in his cheeks, and said, “We can’t.”
He reached for me again, his hands closing this time around my waist. He pulled me toward him, but I resisted. “Seriously. We can’t.”
He paused. “Why not?”
“Because…” I closed my eyes to block out what I saw in his face—pain, desire. “Because we’ll hurt others…them.”
“You mean Kyle.”
I opened my eyes. “I’ve seen the way Bethany looks at you. At me.”
I put up a hand to stop him. “Look, it’s true, okay? And…and even if you’ve broken up with Bethany…I’ve been friends with Kyle for years. Since we were kids. I can’t just…hurt him like that.”
“Don’t you think you might be hurting him more? By lying to him?”
That stung. “I’m not lying to him.”
“You are.” He stepped back, shaking his head as if to clear it. “You don’t like him the way he likes you. Right? He’s got to get used to that…and move on.” He smiled, but the smile seemed forced. “Who knows? Maybe this’ll give him a chance to find someone else.”
“Someone biologically fit, you mean?”
He hesitated. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you thought it.”
He looked away.
“Look—I know there’s something going on, okay? With you and Havemeyer.” I stepped back from him. Distance helped me think more clearly. “There’s something happening. And I can’t…I can’t let this go on. Unless…”
“Unless I tell you what it is?”
There was a sliver of something in his voice that wasn’t there before. Pain? Anger? I looked at him, into his eyes, forcing myself not to look away. “Yes.”
He lifted his hands, then let them drop at his sides. “Hester…I don’t know what to tell you.”
“There’s no deep, dark secret, okay? It’s just that…my brother? The one hit by the car?”
“He used to work for them. Research and development, stuff like that.” He took a breath. “I just don’t…I don’t like thinking about the place, because I associate it with my brother and what happened to him. Okay? End of story.”
I swallowed. “So…you don’t think the car accident…had to do with his work?”
He looked at me as if I were crazy. “Of course not. Accidents happen, you know?” He shoved his hand through his hair. “I promise you that’s it, Hester. And if you think I’m interested in you because of your connection to Havemeyer, you’re totally wrong. I know what happened to your dad, and I’m really sorry about it. But that’s got nothing to do with how I feel about you.”
I looked away. For some reason, I felt exhausted. Relieved, yes, but also drained. As if I’d run a marathon with a weight tied to my back.
“You really don’t like Shane, do you?”
I hesitated. Then, “I don’t know how I feel. Only that I don’t totally trust him.”
“You think there’s something off?” His tone was clipped, restrained.
I shrugged. “I don’t know about ‘off.’ I just…I can’t fall into the Shane worship that everyone else seems to feel. I don’t know…” I laughed a little, even though nothing was funny. “I think ever since you told me he was forming a club, I’ve been a little weirded out by the whole thing. And now with what Kyle and Em are doing…”
“The drugs, you mean.”
I stared at him. “How do you know about that?”
He leaned against the wall, his expression thoughtful. “I talk to people, you know? And…things get around. I heard about these so-called wonder pills he’d be giving to his club members.” He looked at a point over my head. “I know how you feel. It sounds freaky, I’ll admit. But…”
“If it makes them feel better about themselves…is that so bad?”
I shrugged. His question made sense, but it put me on the defensive. “Maybe if it wasn’t connected to Havemeyer…the king of experimental drugs…I might not have thought anything about it. But…” I turned away, suddenly frustrated. “Maybe I should just do a search on him. See if he really is what he says he is.”
I stared at him. Who else had we been talking about? “Yeah.”
That simple word, the same one I’d thought when Shane had taken Em out of homeroom. “What?”
“Just…don’t.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Look—I’m not saying that experimenting on kids is a good idea, okay? But the kids he’s doing it to…they want it. And the parents are okay with it…” He saw my expression. “I heard about the permission slips, too, okay? And I just don’t think you should go any further with it. Leave it alone.” He smiled at me, a smile that would have been cute if it had reached his eyes. “And go out with me.”
The bell rang. With almost lazy grace Max pushed himself away from the wall and headed for the door. Hesitated. Came back to me, put his hands on either side of my face and lowered his lips to mine. Even though I was still pissed, still off-balance by his reaction to the idea of my researching Shane, I stupidly closed my eyes and let the warmth of his mouth take over. When he withdrew his lips, I opened my eyes and saw his dark blue ones mere inches from mine.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. It was only when he opened the door and walked out, leaving me surrounded by bottles of ammonia and cans of powdered cleaner, that I wondered exactly what he’d meant. What should I be afraid of?
I should have laughed at that. Laughed and pushed aside the thought as ridiculous.
But I couldn’t.