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The other woman

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Miranda opened the door and Max followed her through, leaning against a wall as she prepared coffee for them both. “If you need to call Carmen it’s fine,” she said, putting mugs on the side and reaching for milk. “Let her know where you are.”

He pushed himself away from the wall and came a little closer. “I don’t need to call Carmen,” he said. She glanced at him as she poured the coffee; he was looking at her closely. “We’ve –“

“Shit!” She grabbed for the milk carton after she accidentally knocked it from the side, fumbling with it for a moment before gathering it safely and setting it back on the worktop.

“Good catch,” said Max.

She smiled. “Sorry, clumsy. You were saying something.”

“Doesn’t matter.” He took the mug of coffee she offered and followed her to the small sitting area, taking the chair opposite her.

They sat in silence for a moment, drinking coffee and listening to the ticking of the clock. Max smiled. “Hope Ines takes it easy on us tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” said Miranda, rolling her eyes. “She’s famous for taking it easy on us. She’s probably already got something lined up that will mean we’re in the office all weekend.”

Max shook his head. “You make it sound like she’s got it in for you.”

Miranda shrugged. “Sometimes I think she’s warming to me, but then I breathe the wrong way and get Scary Ines again.”

“It’s only because she wants the best for you. She wants you to challenge yourself. She knows you’re a good cop.”

“Yeah, I guess. But it would be nice if we got on a bit better. It feels like everything’s a battle.”

Max paused for a moment. “Do you think, if you asked Ines, she would know whether or not you liked her?”

Miranda looked at him in confusion. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“It’s just… You say you want Ines to get on with you. But you don’t give her anything in return. Maybe if you were easier to get on with, she would get on with you more.”

“Oh, so it’s my fault is it?”

“No, it’s not about fault, Miranda.” Max wiped his hand over his face. “It feels like you push away the people who try to get to know you. You make it very difficult for us.”

There was a pause as Miranda swallowed. “Perhaps you should try a little harder.”

Max leaned forward a little. “I suppose it’s not so difficult for me,” he said softly. “At least not anymore. But maybe for others. It’s one of the reasons why I worry.”

Miranda finished her coffee and put her mug on the table, feeling strangely unsettled. “This conversation is going around in circles. Probably means it’s time to turn in.”

Max looked at her for a moment before draining his own mug and putting it next to hers. She got to her feet and he followed, walking around her and down the stairs to the front door. She joined him and they stood at her door, looking at each other. She reached out and touched his upper arm. “Thank you again,” she said. “It was a lovely meal.”

After a beat, Max said, “It was my pleasure, Miranda.” He bent his head and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. She couldn’t hold back her gasp at the feel of his lips on her skin, and she sensed him tense at the sound. He withdrew a little, looking down into her eyes, his gaze flicking to her lips and back.

It wasn’t clear who moved first, but within moments their lips were joined, bodies pressed together, arms wrapped tightly around each other as they kissed as if they were drowning and needed each other for air. Miranda felt Max edge her backwards until her spine was against the wall, his body leaning into hers as he devoured her lips. Her senses were on fire, every touch burning her further, and when his fingers grazed her breast she felt her knees almost give way.

Smiling, Max trailed kisses down her throat and across her shoulder, his hands pulling her top free and pushing it up over her ribcage. He straightened up so he could pull her top over her head, groaning as he caught sight of her naked breasts. “Miranda Blake,” he breathed. “Wunderschön.” He lowered his head and caressed a nipple with his tongue, and she clung on to his shoulders as the heat pooled at her core.

She knew there was something wrong, something she should be thinking about, but Max slid his hand along her thigh and lifted it around his hip, his groin pressing intimately against hers, and as she felt his hardness against her centre she lost any chance she had of stopping.

His mouth moved to her neck, sucking at the sensitive flesh at the junction with her shoulder, and his hand bunched up her skirt until he could grip her bare thigh. Miranda’s own hands were busy undoing shirt buttons and seeking his skin, smoothing across his chest and up his back, her fingers digging into his shoulders as his teeth tugged at her earlobe.

“Miranda,” he murmured, moving his hand further up her thigh, stroking lightly over her knickers, making her gasp. He slid a finger under the elastic and pulled down, easing the knickers over her hips and dropping them to the floor where she kicked them away. His mouth sought hers again as he smoothed a hand along her thigh, urging it upward, seeking her flesh. She was open to him and he traced a finger along her sensitive folds, slick to his touch. “Christus, Miranda, you feel good.”

Miranda moaned, her own hands fumbling at his belt, and as she drew down the zip he caught his breath. She pushed down his jeans and shorts, freeing him to her gaze. Her eyes widened as she looked at him and she took hold of him tentatively, making him gasp into her hair.

After a moment he pushed her hand away. “Keep that up and there’ll be trouble.”

She pressed a trail of hot kisses against his throat. “Think maybe,” she muttered, “too late.”

He pressed her against the wall and lifted her legs around his waist, her skirt bunched around her waist, his fingers gripping her hips, holding her tight. “Need you, beautiful Miranda,” he said, looking down into her eyes. “Is this OK?”

She nodded and he pushed gently into her, watching as her eyes slid closed. He felt so big, she had to stretch to take him. “Max,” she gasped, and he gave a shaky laugh, catching her lips with his as he began to slowly move.

“So good,” he said, picking up speed, “so hot, Miranda.” She moaned, her arms around his neck as he pushed into her. She could feel the tension coiling in her centre, and she knew she was near.

His thrusts became messier and slid a hand around to between her legs, circling with his thumb, and she shattered, crying out his name in a blaze of white heat, wave after wave as she clenched tightly around him. She was dimly aware of him following her, his arms holding her tight, his face buried in her neck, a few words of muttered German falling from his lips that she didn’t need to translate.

It took a moment to come back to earth, and she lowered her legs to the floor, feeling him slip out of her, as she tried to catch her breath. The cold tiles beneath her feet helped bring her back to reality. He put an arm around her shoulder to pull her into an embrace but she stepped back, reaching down to pick up her top. She pulled it over her head, her eyes fixed firmly on the wall, and made an attempt to smooth down her hair. She took a deep breath.

“You need to leave.”

“What?” He put a hand on her waist but she jerked away, walking up the stairs to the living area. The extra height meant she was, unusually, looking down at him. He made to follow her but she put up her hand.

“No. Stop. You have to go.”

Max looked bewildered. “Look, I know this wasn’t what we expected, but –“

“Don’t tell me, you were overcome with the passion.”

“Yes, actually.” He pulled up his shorts and jeans, staring closely at her. “I can see you’re upset. I’m not leaving you now.” He put a foot on the bottom step but she pushed on his shoulders.

“Oh, I’m upset, am I?” Her face was set tight but she still feared she was giving too much away. “I told you,” she said. “I told you I couldn’t do this again!”

He tried to catch her wrist but she was too quick, evading his grasp and taking another step back. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, scanning her face as if for clues.

“Go home,” she said flatly, heading for the stairs. “Go home to Carmen. This will never happen again. It shouldn’t have happened at all.” She turned and began to walk up to her bedroom. “Make sure the door is closed behind you.”

She reached her bedroom and sat on the edge of her bed, her shoulders slumped. Memories of her ill-fated affair with the DCI flashed through her mind. The years she wasted, not realising she was waiting for an illusion. The lies she’d had to tell, the friends she’d lost, the family she’d come close to breaking up. She’d vowed never again. She pictured Carmen, smiling at her from across the bar, and her heart twisted. She wouldn’t be that woman again. Max had no right to ask her to be.

Her throat tightened as she bit down a sob. It hadn’t escaped her notice that other than a couple of youthful flings, she’d only seriously wanted two men in her life, and both had preferred other women. What did that say about her?

She could hear noises from the kitchen and took a deep breath, pleating the duvet between her fingers and blinking back the tears. By the time she heard his tread on the stairs a few minutes later she had composed herself again. She looked up as he rounded the stairs. He’d zipped up his jeans but his shirt still hung open over his shoulders. Her gaze travelled the length of his body and she swallowed. Jesus, she couldn’t want him again already. She couldn’t want him again, full stop. “I told you to go.”

He put the small tray he’d been carrying on the chest of drawers. “Tea?” He poured two mugs without waiting for an answer, picking them up and handing her one before taking a seat on the bed next to her. She took it silently without meeting his eyes.

He nodded towards the painting they’d bought at the art market. “Looks good.” She didn’t respond and he sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “This has all gone very wrong.”

She took a sip from her mug. “You can’t go around hurting people, Max,” she said quietly. “You’re not a bad person. Don’t turn yourself into one.”

Max looked into his tea and nodded. “I didn’t plan for this to happen.”

Miranda softened a little. “It’s OK. Everyone can make a mistake. We’ll just – move on. Pretend it never happened.”

Max’s mouth pulled slightly at the corner. “I need to tell you something. About Carmen.”

“It’s bad enough what we’ve done. We don’t need to discuss her behind her back as well.”

“But you don’t understand. Carmen and me. We’re not together any more.”

Miranda stilled, then stood abruptly. She heard a rush of blood in her ears as her heart began to pound. She walked around him and put her mug on the tray. Standing with her back to him, she tapped her finger on the tray, the only sign of her tension. “What do you mean?”

Rising, Max came to stand behind her, putting his mug next to hers. He put his hands gently on her shoulders and turned her to face him. Her eyes were on the floor and he ran a finger under her chin, tilting her head upwards until she couldn’t avoid his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I tried to tell you this evening, but…” he shrugged, a rueful smile on his face.

She gave a small shake of her head. “How could you keep something so important from me?”

He took her hand and walked back towards the bed, sitting against the headboard with his legs straight out, pulling her to sit alongside him. He put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, planting a kiss at her temple, and in her confusion she didn’t have the will to resist. Her relief at finding Max was no longer with Carmen was clouded by guilt that she might have had something to do with their break-up. Max said, “When we spoke, here, just after the shooting, you talked about how people shouldn’t consider getting married if they couldn’t imagine staying faithful for the rest of their lives. I thought about that a lot. Tried to work out if I wanted that for me and Carmen.”

“And what did you decide?”

There was a pause. “I didn’t want to hurt Carmen. I cared enough about her not to want that. But I knew that if we stayed together, at some point I probably would. Because I couldn’t truthfully imagine being with her forever. Never being with anyone else.”

“I see.” Miranda straightened up and turned slightly to face him. “Is she OK?”

“She’s fine.” Max’s mouth pulled into a wry smile. “She was much finer about it than I expected, as it happens. Not very flattering, but I can hardly complain.”

“I suppose not. But I’m glad she’s not heartbroken.”

“Far from it.” Max reached out and threaded his fingers through hers. “She said she’d often wondered whether there was something happening between you and me. I think she believed me in the end, that there was nothing, but…”

“What?”

“Well. She wasn’t completely wrong, was she?” Max lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss against her knuckle.

“I never wanted you two to split up.”

Max raised an eyebrow. “I’m a detective, and the evidence doesn’t add up.”

“Shut up. I didn’t.” She tried to find the right words. “I never wanted to be the cause of you two splitting up.”

“I understand. But you did nothing wrong.” He trailed a finger along her arm. “I didn’t expect this, you know. Being with you. Hoped, maybe. But it would still have been right to split up with Carmen, even if there’d been nothing between you and me.”

Miranda nodded, feeling some of the tension leaving her. “When did all this happen?”

“Not long after the shooting.”

“But that’s weeks ago. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Max wiped a hand across his lips. “I suppose I needed to sort myself out first, work out what I wanted. And I thought that if I told you, it might change things between us.”

“You think?” Miranda’s eyebrows were up near her hairline.

“I wanted us to be able to spend some time together, without you wondering if something else was going on. I wanted you to get to know me better, see me as something more than just the annoying guy you work with. And I wanted to begin to get to know you better too. I thought that if you knew about Carmen, you might not be able to relax with me like you normally do.”

Miranda shook her head. “Max, you are an idiot.”

“What did I do now?”

“Did it never occur to you that I might be more relaxed around you if I knew you didn’t belong to someone else?” Max chewed that over for a moment. “I’ve had to be guarded around you, Max. Because of how I felt, because of this.” She waved her hand in the general direction of their bodies on the bed. “Because of Carmen, and what happened with the DCI.”

“I didn’t think of it that way.”

“No kidding. And another thing. Don’t you think I deserved to make my own decisions, based on all the facts?” The indignation was rising in her voice, and he smiled at her.

“That sounds more like the Miranda I’m used to.”

“I’m serious! I swore to myself that I’d never be anyone’s ‘other woman’ again. I felt sick about what just happened.”

He turned towards her and reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “I am sorry about that,” he said softly, then a grin spread across his face. “But it’s not my fault I’m so irresistible.”

Miranda gasped and reached behind her for a cushion, swinging it round to hit Max on the head. Max grinned and took the cushion, putting it back behind her. His face turned serious again and he took her hand. “Once Carmen and I had separated, it didn’t take long for me to work out how much I wanted you. It was like, I’d been given permission, finally, to think of you that way. And then – boom!”

Miranda smiled, but she still felt unsure. Max continued, “I think I had been denying a lot of things for a long time. I’m not proud of that. So I thought I should take things slowly with you. As it happens, I thought I’d be able to keep my hands off you for a lot longer than I managed in the end. That I’d have time to maybe court you properly.” He sent her a soft smile. “If anyone here is irresistible, it’s you.”

Miranda’s heart was tripping as she looked down into her lap. “You resisted me for over a year,” she said in a small voice.

“Hey,” said Max. “For a good part of that year, you acted like you barely tolerated me.”

“Well, for a while, I could barely tolerate you. But then…” She glanced at him then looked away and sighed. “Things changed. How else should I have acted? I’ve told you why I couldn’t let you know how I felt about you. And anyway,” she said with a sudden smile, “you can still be very annoying.”

“True.” He shifted so he was facing her and toyed with the fingers of her hand. “I really hadn’t planned what happened this evening. I didn’t use any protection.”

Miranda thought about dates for a moment. “I think it should be fine.”

“Well, that’s good. I am sorry, though. I can’t remember the last time I lost control like that. Not since I was a teenager.”

Miranda raised a shoulder. “It takes two to paso doble. I didn’t exactly put up a fight.”

“No, but.” He drew a soft finger down her cheek. “It wasn’t what I wanted for our first time.”

“Our first time?” she said innocently. “Are there going to be other times?”

Max’s gaze was intense. “You know there are. And they won’t be half-dressed, up against a wall.”

“That’s a pity,” said Miranda. “I quite liked the wall.”

Max let out a low growl. “Miranda Blake, you’ll be the death of me.”

She looked at him. “This is really happening, then? We’re going to do this?”

“Oh yes,” he said, his voice rumbling low in his chest. He leaned towards her, his eyes not leaving hers, catching her nape in his fingers and tilting her face for his kiss. She sighed into his mouth, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him close. She could hardly believe it. He was hers.