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The other woman

Chapter Text

Max pulled up outside Miranda’s flat. She glanced at her watch. One-thirty AM. “It’s late,” she said. “You going to Carmen’s?”

He shook his head. “She’ll be in bed by now.”

Miranda nodded. She put her hand on the door handle, then turned to Max. “Are you going to be OK? It was tough today.”

“M’always OK, Miranda.”

“Hmm.” She drummed her finger for a moment. “Come up for a drink. I don’t think you should go back to an empty flat yet.”

Max looked at her. “You worried about me?”

“I just mean… perhaps we should talk about what happened. Help you process it.”

“I don’t need to process it, Miranda. I’m very sorry about Lopez, but I gave him every opportunity to put down his weapon. Followed your precious book, warned him that I’d shoot.” Max stared at Miranda. “If I hadn’t shot him, he’d have shot you. You know that, right?”

Miranda nodded. “I do know that. Still…”

After a moment, Max said, “Are you OK? It’s never much fun to have a gun aimed at you.”

“You know me, Max. Always fine.”

Max shook his head and turned the key in the ignition. “I’ll come up for that drink.”

He followed her into her apartment, filling her kettle while she pulled the curtains closed and flicked on a couple of lamps. “I’ve only got tea,” she said. “Or something stronger? But you’ll be driving later.”

“Tea’s fine,” he said, taking a seat on her sofa while she sorted out a pot and mugs. She put them on a tray on the coffee table, leaving it to brew.

“I should feel lucky,” she said. “If Lopez hadn’t hesitated, it would have been me in the back of that ambulance and not him.”

Max looked down for a moment. “I’m not sorry it’s that way around,” he said softly. 

Miranda nodded and gave herself a shake. “I don’t think I’ve seen you drink tea,” she said. “Milk?”

Max shrugged. “What do you recommend?”

“Always with milk.” She poured the drinks and handed Max’s to him, then sat in her small armchair opposite him. She watched as he took a sip. “Good?”

Max swirled the drink around his mouth, as if it was a fine red wine. “High in tannin, slight aftertaste of bergamot. Eight out of ten.”

Smiling despite herself, Miranda said, “I’ll get some coffee for next time.” She was settling herself back in her chair when their phones buzzed at the same time. She got to hers first. “It’s from Ines,” she told him. “Lopez is out of surgery. They think he’s going to pull through.”

Max looked up from his phone screen, a relieved smile on his face. “Good.” His body relaxed a little against the sofa, his head dropping back for a moment before he caught her eye again. “I didn’t want to kill him. I just didn’t want him to kill you.”

“I know.” She took a sip of tea. “Thank you.”

He shrugged. “Companeros.”

“In the UK you’d be suspended for a few days while they review your use of the weapon.”

“They do that here too. Should be a formality.” He looked at her. “They’ll want a statement from you.”

“Won’t be a problem.”

Danke.”

Miranda closed her eyes and an image of Lopez pointing his revolver at her temple filled her head. He’d begun to squeeze the trigger when Max had fired, a shot that had connected with Lopez’s shoulder and set her free. Her eyes snapped open.

“It’s all right,” said Max softly. “He can’t hurt you now.”

Some of the tension left Miranda’s neck. Not so long ago she’d have snapped back at Max that she was perfectly fine and he needn’t worry, but somewhere along the line he’d crawled under defences. She no longer felt such a pressing need to pretend everything was OK when it wasn’t. She liked knowing that Max had her back.

“What will you do for the next few days? If you’re suspended?”

Max shrugged. “Catch up on some chores. Spend some time with Carmen.”

“Good idea. Lopez has kept us busy for a while. You can’t have seen much of each other.”

“Carmen understands, I think, but she doesn’t really like it.”

“I don’t blame her. Going out with a cop isn’t easy.”

Max looked at her for a moment, his head tilted. “When you first got here,” he said carefully, “Ines told me you’d never had a relationship. Is that right?”

Miranda swallowed and looked at the table. “I don’t like the idea of you and Ines talking about me like that.”

Nodding, Max said, “I didn’t really know you then, and Ines hasn’t mentioned anything since. But it’s not me and Ines talking now, it’s me and you.”

Miranda finished her tea and put her mug on the table, turning it so the handle lined up perfectly with the edge. “I have had one important relationship. But no one at the Met knew about it.”

“Why not? I know you’re a private person but…” Miranda watched as the penny dropped. “Oh, no. Married?”

“Bingo.” Miranda gave a wry smile and poured out another cup of tea. “A DCI. I was twenty-five, he was… well. Let’s just say older. A wife and kids, a detached house in the commuter belt. Five years I waited for him to leave. Such an idiot.” She rubbed a finger across her eyelid.

“Oh, Miranda.”

“For my thirtieth birthday, we were going to stay overnight in a little hotel outside London. Obviously not something we did often, and I was looking forward to it so much. Planned it so carefully, even got the restaurant to make sure they had his favourite dish on the menu. But he called me in the afternoon and said one of his kids was sick and he wasn’t going to be able to make it.”

“What happened?”

Miranda fiddled with her mug of tea for a moment. “I was so upset. I drove to his house, which was strictly against the rules, and waited outside until I saw him come out. I thought perhaps he was driving to a doctor or something, maybe going out to get some medicine for his son. I followed him, thinking perhaps I could speak to him somewhere, persuade him to come back with me after all.”

Miranda’s voice was quiet and Max’s gaze on her intent. “He wasn’t going to the doctor or the chemist,” she continued. “He was going to a wine bar a few towns away. And he wasn’t looking after his sick boy, he was meeting a woman who was definitely not his wife.”

“Jeez, Miranda.” She could sense his sympathy, and surprisingly it made her feel warm rather than defensive.

“Ironic, huh? I thought he was going to trade in his wife for me, but he was trading in me for a younger model still.”

“He sounds like a schmuck.”

“No arguments from me.” The clock on her wall ticked loudly as she gathered her thoughts. “In the years were together, he managed to separate me from most of my girlfriends. He was always worried that I’d let something slip and that his wife would find out, so he pretended that he wanted me all to himself. And of course I couldn’t confide in any of our colleagues. By the end, I didn’t really have anyone important in my life apart from him.”

Max leaned forward, his eyes soft on hers. “Must have been difficult.”

“It was.” Miranda took a gulp of tea. “The only upside is there was no one around to witness my humiliation.”

“You have nothing to feel humiliated about. A dishonest man led you on and you were generous enough to believe him. Not your fault.”

“That’s kind, Max, but…” Her shoulders dropped a little. “I should never have allowed it to happen. I knew he was married. I should have been stronger.”

“You’re the strongest woman I know.”

Miranda acknowledged this with a small smile. “With the benefit of a couple of years of hindsight, I can’t understand what I was thinking. He had children, for heaven’s sake. I would’ve been breaking up a family.” Max’s stare was gentle and gave her strength to carry on. “I’m not even sure I was the first person he had an affair with. I think he might have been unfaithful all the way through his marriage.”

“That was his choice, not yours. You thought you were in love.”

Miranda looked into her mug. “At the time, I did. Not now though. I think, and you’ll find this hard to believe, but I think I got carried away with the passion.”

Max spluttered. “Well, there doesn’t seem much danger of you repeating that mistake.”

She gave a wry nod. “I may be ever-so-slightly over-compensating. But you can hardly blame me.”

“I don’t blame you at all.”

There was a pause as Miranda collected her thoughts. “My parents have been married for nearly forty years,” she said. “I know they’ve had their ups and downs, and I know you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s marriage, but I don’t think either of them has ever been unfaithful. Isn’t that what you should aim for? If you can’t imagine staying faithful to your partner for the rest of your life, why would you ever agree to marry them?”

Max stared at her for a long moment. “You’re right,” he said quietly, and she nodded, staring down into her mug.

 “So you see, now, why I think it gets complicated once feelings are involved.”

“I do.”

“It’s why…”

“Go on.”

“It takes two to start an affair, and if I’d said no to that DCI, I’d have saved myself an awful lot of heartache.” She glanced briefly at Max. “If I met someone now, someone I was attracted to, I would never act on it if he wasn’t single.”

She felt Max’s gaze on her and she lifted her own to meet it, only for his eyes to slide quickly away. “Sounds sensible,” he said after a beat. She nodded, and waved at the teapot.

“Another?”

He put his mug on the table. “Better not. Getting late.”

“Yep.” They stood and he picked up his jacket.

“Thank you for the tea.”

“Any time.” He moved towards the front door, put his hand on the handle before dropping it and turning back to her. She found herself standing slightly awkwardly in front of him.

“He wasn’t good enough for you, Miranda.”

“You can’t know that. You never met him.”

Max looked down at her, his eyes flaring in the dimness of the room. “I just know.” There was a pause and Miranda felt herself tense, but he just gave a quick squeeze to her upper arm and opened the door. “Sleep well,” he said, and she smiled and watched him back to his car before closing the door.

--

In the end, Max’s suspension lasted just over three weeks, during which time he was forbidden from contacting anyone in the department. She gave her statement and helped other teams with their cases while she awaited his return. It wasn’t boring, exactly, but she was pleased when his review was complete. He returned to the office on a Friday morning, greeting her with a grin. “Miss me?”

“Not even slightly.” He raised his eyebrows. “OK, maybe slightly. But that’s all you’re getting.”

He held up his hands. “From you, that will do.”

They slipped easily back into their old partnership, working on a possible fraud at the bar of one of the island’s more expensive hotels. At the end of the day, Max said a few of the team were meeting for a drink to welcome him back and asked her to join them. She nodded and he drove them to his place to park the car before setting out on foot to Joan’s.

“So,” she said, “did you enjoy your time off? Did you and Carmen get to spend some quality time together?”

Max’s mouth pulled into a wry smile. “Yeah, it was good. Helpful.”

“Helpful?” Miranda’s brows drew together but she caught a glimpse of Max’s closed features and bit back the questions on her lips. Instead she updated him on a couple of bits of office gossip until they reached Joan’s.

As they arrived Max was greeted by a round of cheers, most of the team already a beer or two in and delighted to have Max back. He was quickly absorbed into the centre of the group, leaving Miranda to go to the bar and get drinks for the pair of them. Carmen didn’t seem to be on duty so there was no need to make conversation, which suited Miranda just fine.

She picked up their drinks and took them across to the table, putting them down in front of Max before looking around for a chair. Max turned to Ramon, who was sitting next to him, and jerked his head. Ramon stood up immediately and wondered over to the other side of the table, picking up a spare chair as he went and squeezing it in between a couple of their colleagues.

Miranda slid gratefully into Ramon’s old seat and leaned in towards Max. “Does everyone always do what you tell them to do?”

Max shrugged. “Mostly.”

“Must be good to have such power.”

“It’s not power, really. It’s just, people usually like me.”

Miranda pondered that as Max’s attention shifted back to the noisy group on his other side. People did usually like Max. His personality was so open and charming, people were draw to him like cats to shafts of sun, happy to bask in his attention. She found herself wondering what it would be like to have that attention focused solely on her, but that thought was in danger of leading her to places she didn’t want to go so she picked up her drink and tried to follow the rapid Spanish around her.

In the end it turned out to be a fun evening. She tried to convince herself it was the wine, but really she knew it was the company. She was pleased to have Max back. As the evening came to a close he offered to walk her home. She always felt comfortable alongside him, something about his height and the force of his presence making her feel safe. As they approached her flat, Max said, “What are your plans for the weekend? Got a hot date to help you forget your DCI?”

Miranda sent him a narrow glance. “Don’t joke about it. And don’t make me regret telling you.” Max held up his hands and she sighed. “Nothing major. I thought I might go to the art market tomorrow morning. Find something for the wall of my bedroom.”

“See? You want to make it into a hoooome.”

Miranda rolled her eyes. “I’ve never pretended it’s not my home. But yes, it would be nice to add a personal touch.” They had reached her front door and she looked up at him. “What about you? Are you and Carmen going to do anything special?”

Max looked briefly down at his feet before his eyes shifted back to Miranda. “Nothing special, no.”

“Oh well,” she said, “maybe something will turn up.” He nodded and she reached out to touch his elbow. “Night Max.” She opened her front door and went through it, turning back and seeing Max still on the pavement, watching her. She rested her head against the door frame and smiled. “It’s good to have you back.”

He touched his fingers to his temple in a gentle salute and began his walk home. Miranda closed the door once he was out of sight.

Chapter Text

Miranda sat cross-legged on her bed, staring at the wall. Nothing too big, maybe 12 or 15 inches wide. Two feet at a push. Getting off the bed, she picked up her handbag and checked the contents – sunglasses, phone, purse, keys. Satisfied, she nodded and headed out in the direction of the art market.

It was a warm, clear morning and Miranda felt her spirits lifting with the sun. The art market was busy with tourists and locals. Miranda was glad she’d made the effort to learn some of the language – she could tell that Spanish-speakers got the best deals.

She was browsing through a box of landscapes when she heard a familiar voice. “Don’t think much of that one.”

She turned to her side with a surprised grin on her face. “Max! What are you doing here?”

“I was at a loose end and remembered you said you’d be here. Thought I’d give you the benefit of my opinions on your artwork.”

“And there was me thinking I’d be able to choose the art going on my own wall all by myself.”

“Can’t have that. You might get it wrong.”

She laughed as she dropped a gentle punch on his elbow and shook her head. Turning back to the box, she flicked through until one caught her eye, a painting of a windmill on a windswept moor. She picked it up and showed it to Max.

“It’s a bit… dark,” he said doubtfully.

Miranda looked at it again and nodded, putting it back in the box. Max started looking in another box and pulled out a horrible painting of a teddy bear in a bow tie sitting next to a clown rag doll. “Maybe more like this?” he said.

She rolled her eyes but couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “If you’re going to be here,” she said, “at least try to help. I want something soothing that won’t give me nightmares or look creepy in the middle of the night.”

They spent the rest of the morning mooching around the market, looking at pictures for Miranda’s wall and laughing at some of the more outlandish artwork. Eventually they landed on a shortlist of three. “What’s it going to be?” said Max. “The seascape, the wheatfield or the cathedral?”

“I like them all,” she said. “Can’t decide. You choose.”

“Me?” Max’s eyebrows rose, but he nodded and thought for a moment. “The seascape. It’s light and fresh. It suits you.”

“Seascape it is.” They walked back to the stall and Miranda handed the painting to the vendor. She reached into her handbag for her purse but Max put his hand on her arm.

“Let me,” he said.

“What? No.”

“Please. I want to. Call it a housewarming gift.”

“I’ve been there six months.”

“A late housewarming gift.” He handed a few notes to the vendor and took back the painting, now wrapped in brown paper. “I’m hungry,” he said, looking down at her. “Shall we get lunch?”

They started walking towards the restaurants lined up on the edge of the market, Max with the painting under his arm. “You’re always hungry,” she said, “and lunch would be lovely, but don’t you have to get back to Carmen?”

“She’s, er, working. Today.”

“That’s a shame,” Miranda said. “But I don’t mind being your second-best lunch date.” She stopped to scan a menu outside one of the restaurants and missed the glance Max sent her. “This place OK?” she asked, and Max nodded, following her in.

Max persuaded Miranda to try some of the island’s specialities and to her surprise she found she liked the way the spices danced on her tongue. “It’s not a cheese and crisp sandwich,” she said, “but it’s better than I expected.”

Max grinned. “That’s my girl. Coffee? Or an aperitif?”

“Coffee please.” Max ordered and they carried on their conversation, chatting about their colleagues, speculating about Ines’s love life, working out the differences between policing in Munich, London and Palma and bickering over which system was better. It was the middle of the afternoon by the time they finished and Max offered to walk her home.

“I feel as though I’ve stolen enough of your Saturday already,” she said.

“Nonsense, it was freely given. Anyway, I’ve got to carry your painting back.”

“Well, if you insist.” They strolled back to hers, chatting easily until they reached her front door. She took the painting from him. “Thank you. For this, and for… I enjoyed today.”

Max looked at her closely. “Me too,” he said, and nodded at the painting. “I hope it looks nice on your bedroom wall.”

“I’ll let you know.” She walked up the steps to her door. “Bye, Max. See you on Monday.”

He nodded and waited until her door was closed before heading for home.

--

Monday morning rolled around and Miranda smiled as Max joined her in the office. They were still working on the hotel fraud and needed to speak to the manager and take statements. Max drove them over and they passed the swimming pool on their way to the offices. Some sort of aerobics class was happening in the pool, with loud music and a toned instructor yelling out the actions. Max laughed as they walked past, smiling at the instructor and joining in with the moves, gaining himself a round of applause from the guests in the pool.

Miranda watched on with a smile on her face. At some point, some time between Max dancing at Niall Taylor’s funeral and him singing on the stage of the opera house, she’d stopped being exasperated by his antics and started looking at them fondly. She knew what it meant but wasn’t going to dwell on it. She also wasn’t going to let Max in on the secret, so when he caught her eye she frowned impatiently and increased her pace. Max shrugged and followed behind, sending a final wave to the instructor as he went.

It took a few more days to wrap up the case, but by Thursday the paperwork had been submitted and the charges filed. Max looked across at Miranda, who was logging off her PC and looking around for her bag. “Good job, partner,” he said, and she smiled.

“Couldn’t have done it without you.” She looked around the office. “Do you think anyone fancies a drink?” She felt like celebrating but the case was small – only she and Max had worked on it – and Max shook his head.

“Looks like it’s just you and me,” he said. He looked at his desk and then up again. “Shall we get dinner?”

“OK, sure. Joan’s?”

Max paused. “I feel like steak. Joan only has burgers.”

Shrugging, Miranda said. “OK. But I’m not really dressed for a restaurant that does steak.”

He ran his eyes along the length of her, in a way that made her body tighten. “You look fine to me,” he said. “But if you want, you could go home and change? I’ll pick you up at eight.”

“OK, sure.” Miranda shouldered her bag and kept her head down as she left.

--

Half a dozen outfits lay on Miranda’s bed, and she stared at them with irritation. What did you wear to a restaurant that did steak? And more importantly, what did you wear when you wanted to look good but absolutely did not want to give the impression that you thought you were on a date?

The wide-legged trousers were a no. She wore trousers and flat shoes every day for work. For an evening meal, even one with just a colleague, she’d find heels and a skirt.

Nothing too short though. For all she knew, Carmen might join them and she wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. So that ruled out the green dress. And the black one was just a bit too smart for a Thursday night dinner.

She finally settled on a long, tiered skirt that fitted close around the hips, a wide belt and a slim halter-neck top. Her denim jacket stopped the outfit looking too dressy, even with the heeled ankle boots.

Max arrived a few minutes early, parking outside hers and waving up at her as she stood on her balcony. “Down in a minute,” she called, retreating to her bedroom and locking the glass door. She took a last look in the mirror, sternly reminding herself that it was just Max and it really didn’t matter what she wore. She hung the discarded outfits back in her wardrobe, rolling her eyes at herself, and made her way out.

“It’s not far. I thought we could walk,” he said, and they began to stroll back towards the centre of town. Miranda flicked her eyes to the side as they walked, quickly looking him up and down. If she wasn’t mistaken, he’d made an effort too, swapping his usual crumpled linen for indigo denim and a crisp white shirt. He rarely looked bad, but she cursed her luck that he should seem quite so attractive this evening.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

He named a restaurant that even she had heard of. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They do chips. You won’t starve.”

She smiled. “I’m sure I’ll find something to suit my cautious Welsh palate.”

He looked down at her. “A few months ago you wouldn’t have said that. You’d have said, ‘Of course I won’t starve, why would I starve, are you saying I’m difficult Detective Winter?’”

“I wouldn’t have said Detective Winter.” He raised an eyebrow. “All right, maybe I have softened up a bit. I’m still not going to eat any sobrasada.”

Max held his hands up in surrender, a smile on his face. They turned a corner. “We’re here.”

The restaurant had indoor tables dressed with white linen, crystal glasses and silverware. The outdoor tables were more casual and she pointed at one. Max caught the eye of a waiter and said quietly that he’d booked for indoors but they’d prefer to be outside. They followed the waiter to one of the free tables and took their seats.

Max picked up a menu and scanned through it, closing it after a moment. Miranda’s perusal was more thorough, and when the waiter came over she asked for a dish of roasted cod and tomatoes. True to his word, Max went for a fillet stake, served rare. He asked the waiter’s advice on a bottle of wine; he suggested a rose that would complement both meals.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Miranda said after the waiter left. “They always recommend the most expensive bottle they think they can get away with.”

Max shrugged. “My treat. Anyway, we’re celebrating.”

“I thought you had a wedding to save for.”

There was a pause. Max leaned forward and opened his mouth to speak, but the waiter returned with the wine and Max sat back. Miranda took a sip from her glass. “Not bad,” she said.

“It’s delicious. Admit it.”

Miranda waved her hand. “It will do.” The smile on her face gave her away. “Okay, okay, fine. It’s very nice. Thank you.”

Max pulled his notebook from his pocket. “Got to write this down,” he said, miming holding a pen. “Miranda… admitted… Max… was… right.”

Miranda narrowed her eyes. “The reason I so rarely admit you’re right is because you’re so very rarely right.”

Max clutched his hand to his heart. “Miranda! So cruel!”

Laughing, Miranda flicked her napkin at him and he picked up his water glass, angling it as if to spill the contents on her. “Shall I?” he said.

“Just try it.” She picked up her wine glass in retaliation, but he was saved by the arrival of their meals. As the waiter put the plates in front of them she became conscious of the smile that was still on her face, and that for a moment she’d let go of her usual inhibitions. Max was good at bringing people out of their shell, but she’d always been able to maintain her guard against him. She didn’t want to lose that skill.

The fish was succulent and full of flavour. Miranda cleared her plate, watching as Max devoured his steak, and she finished a second glass of rose. Max pointed at a man and a woman sitting at a nearby table. “You think they’re on a date?”

Miranda took a sideways glance at the pair. “I think they’re a couple,” she said, “but they’ve been together for ages.”

“Nah. First date. You can tell, they’re both nervous, hardly speaking.”

Miranda shook her head. “They’re not on a first date because they haven’t made enough of an effort. Look, they’re still in their work clothes.” Without thinking, her eyes flicked Max up and down. She coughed and continued. “And they’re not speaking because they’re bored with each other. One of them is trying to decide whether to dump the other now, or have one last sleepover and do it in the morning.”

“Such cynicism.”

“Realism. Not everyone gets to live happily ever after, Max.”

Max regarded her. “I guess not.”

The waiter arrived to clear their plates and offer the dessert menu. “I shouldn’t really,” said Miranda.

“Share one with me.”

“I couldn’t.”

“OK.” He took a menu from the waiter. “Just me then.”

“No. Wait.” He looked at her. “You twisted my arm.”

Smiling, Max glanced down the menu and ordered a pudding based on a traditional Portuguese custard tart and asked for two spoons. “You’ll love it,” he said.

Miranda poured out the last of the wine and turned to look out at people mingling on the square outside the restaurant. “That pair, though,” she said, pointing at a pair of twenty-somethings strolling on the pavement opposite. “First date.”

“You think?” Max turned to look at them.

“Absolutely. He keeps going to touch her arm but pulling back before he makes contact. And she keeps looking up at him and smiling, then looking away quickly, like she’s worried she’ll give herself away.”

The couple reached the taxi rank on the edge of the square. They stood together awkwardly for a moment before the woman reached up to peck his cheek then get into the back of a cab. “Shame,” said Max, looking at the man who was smiling at the woman as she strapped herself into the car.

“Just wait,” said Miranda. The man was about to close the taxi door on his date when she slid back out of the car. She looked up at him shyly then put her arms around his neck and pulled his lips down to hers. He responded immediately, catching her around the waist and deepening the kiss. After a moment she pulled back with a smile and said something Miranda couldn’t catch. He grinned and nodded, and they both got into the back of the cab. Miranda watched with a wistful expression as the taxi pulled away.

Max looked at her. “You’re not so cynical really, I guess,” he said softly.

She gave herself a small shake. “Don’t know what you mean.” She was saved from further interrogation by the arrival of their dessert.

The plate was a picture, a small custard tart with a sorbet and a shard of praline on the side. “Looks delicious,” said Miranda. Max handed her one of the spoons and set about dividing the tart in two.

There was something intimate about sharing the plate, their heads bent close together as they ate. The tart was only a few mouthfuls, rich and creamy, and perfectly offset by the freshness of the sorbet. “Delicious,” Miranda said, putting down her spoon. Max picked up the shard of praline and held it towards her.

“Want a bite?” She laughed and shook her head. He moved it closer to her mouth. “You sure? It looks amazing.”

Miranda rolled her eyes and was about to refuse again, but for a moment her natural reserve fell away. She took hold of Max’s hand and bit the end of the praline. Letting go, she straightened up and rolled the praline around in her mouth. “You’re right,” she said, “It’s divine.”

Max was staring at her lips. He blinked and looked down at the praline in his hand, then grinned and took a bite of his own.

The desert finished, Max sat back in his chair, arms outstretched, his face turned towards the people walking to and fro in the square. Miranda allowed her eyes to stray over him, taking in the strength of his shoulders, his large hands as they curled over the back of a chair, his familiar, handsome features. She looked down into her empty wineglass with a frown.

When she looked up again Max was staring at her. “Another?”

She shook her head. “Work in the morning. We should really make a move.”

The corner of his mouth turned down. “Guess so.” He signalled for the bill while she pulled on her jacket.

When the bill arrived Miranda picked it up but Max snatched it out of her hand. “Told you, my treat.”

“I want to go halves, at least.” She took out a few notes and put them on the table. Max looked at her with exasperation, but she just shrugged and started walking in the direction of her flat. Max quickly pulled out a few notes of his own and left them with hers, pointing to them as he passed the waiter, hurrying to catch up with Miranda.

As he drew alongside her, she said, “Thank you for tonight. I would never have gone there on my own.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.” They walked in silence for a moment then he said, “I worry that you’re on your own so much.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine on my own.”

“You always say that.”

“It’s always true.” She sensed his eyes on her and pulled her jacket a little tighter around her body. “Look, we’ve had a really nice evening. Do we have to spoil it by arguing about my social life?”

She felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Fine. We don’t have to talk about it, but you can’t stop me worrying about it.”

Her brows drew together. She didn’t want Max’s pity. She slowed as they reached her flat. “You really don’t need to,” she said, coming to a halt. “I’m happy in my own company.”

Max looked at her, smiling while giving a small shake of his head. He tilted his head in the direction of her front door. “Got any coffee yet?”

 

Chapter Text

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.