Half an hour after his flight lands at Heathrow, Max has Helen pressed up against the side of her rental car. Luna is fast asleep in a carseat in the back, head lolling awkwardly against her chest. This isn’t the right place to be doing this, he knows. But it’s drugging, after weeks of teenage angst—missed FaceTimes, and quick I-miss-yous squeezed into the middle of his workday, and a stack of unread texts at the end of shift that he can’t reply to because it’s not yet dawn in London—to be able to touch her like this again.
He’ll be satisfied with just one more touch.
But then his hand is at her jaw, and her fingers sink into his hair, and he’s no longer thinking about the crowds still pouring from the airport behind him.
Helen comes back to herself first. There’s an anxious, terrible moment when he presses her closer and she works a hand between them to force him backwards. But then she skirts her nose along the line of his throat to press an open-mouth kiss there. Max’s fingers flex involuntarily around her hip.
“Not here,” she whispers, so that her lips brush his skin, petal-soft. “Let me take you home.”
Yes, he thinks, even as his stomach falls to his feet. The quiet murmur of her voice, the way it vibrates through him—Max has dreamed of this since she left him in New York all those weeks ago. He drops his forehead to the window by her cheek, trying to focus on the cool press of glass to get himself under control.
But she’s right there, lips parted, doe eyes blinking slowly at him. Max can’t resist.
Just one more.
He takes her by the back of the neck to pull her mouth up to his, rougher than he means to be in his haste. In the back of his mind, though, he knows she’s right, that there’s no time to luxuriate in this moment. They have to get out of the pick-up lane.
He slides his nose over hers as he pulls back. And when Helen’s eyes stay shut a little longer, it makes something base crow loudly in his chest.
It feels weird, surreal, to watch Helen drive them back. Max tilts his head against the backrest, staring until she notices and breathes out an unsure laugh.
Max grins. He’d insisted that there was no need for her to pick them up, that it was stupid to waste money on a car when they could just Uber the thirty-ish minutes to her place. But if Max is stubborn, then Helen is downright bull-headed, and he has to admit, as usual, that she was right. There’s something about it being just the three of them, about not having to share these first, quiet moments with a taxi driver, that makes him sink, more relaxed, into his seat.
“Nothing,” he says with a shrug, but doesn’t look away. “I missed you.”
Helen bites her bottom lip, white teeth sinking into the plush flesh to keep the corners from turning up.
“I love you.”
Her face transforms into a bright smile. It’s his favourite, the moment she can’t hold back and the full, beautiful force of her feelings come spilling over. He’s helpless to do anything but drink it in.
“I love you too. I’m glad you’re here,” Helen whispers, as if she’s divulging a secret.
The words spread pleasant heat through him, honey in his veins, and the golden, drowsy light from the street lamps casts repetitively over her face. It’s not much longer before Max falls easily to sleep.
A hazy sunrise is just beginning to colour the horizon. It’s not clear what time it is or how long he’s slept, but Max wakes immediately when Helen slips from his arms. Though he’s still exhausted, it’s almost instinct how his body half-sways to follow her.
She leaves the door ajar in her wake. Distantly, another one opens, and then he hears the far-off sounds of Luna fussing. The realisation—that Helen is checking on his daughter, that she’s forced herself from their warm cocoon to creep down the hall in just his stolen shirt and soothe his toddler back to sleep—is sudden and overwhelming.
He’s more awake by the time her soft cooing falls silent and her bare feet pad back into the room. Helen shuts the door with a barely-there thud and slides back in beside him. Her skin is cold when she fits her legs between his.
“She still out?” Max asks, voice sleep-rough.
Helen tucks her head into his neck, mouthing at his collarbone. “Yeah. Did I wake you?”
Max doesn’t answer, and that’s answer enough.
The second kiss she presses to his bare chest lands a little firmer, and she’s so tight against his side that she must feel how his heart speeds up.
“Missed you,” she whispers, low and lulling. “Miss you all the time.”
Max slips a hand beneath the hem of his shirt, splaying his fingers low to her thighs and using the leverage to pull her atop him. The wan, early morning light illuminates her just right.
And they don’t need to rush, there’s nothing but time, but it’s still a desperate, hurried fumble to strip each other of their clothes. He can’t decide where to look first, eyes journeying over each stretch of newly exposed skin.
There are no words for this, for her, sat astride him, hair loose and long about her shoulders, and absolutely, beautifully in control.
And then it’s a slow, languid undoing. It’s the delicious cant of her hips, and the press of teeth against his shoulder. It’s the desperate grip he keeps on her waist, and the sounds she makes, and the unwavering heat of her eyes on him, pinning him in place so he can’t look away even when he can’t take much more.
It’s everything he’s felt for three years, every unspoken moment since Helen first tossed him her jacket and made him work for her. It’s their past, wedding rings and conferences halfway across the country, like they’d ever had a hope of running from this. And it’s the future too, finally real and solid. It’s her, every glorious, naked inch.
They fit together so well. Every touch and move is sure, automatic, like they’ve been doing this for lifetimes.
In the moments after—after he’s taken her apart again and again and again, after she’s pressed him back against the mattress with a hand at the base of his throat, not squeezing but resting there deliberately—where Max wonders if it will always be like this, if Helen will ever stop having this effect on him. Her eyes are inky black, and she’s panting into his mouth, and, god, Max is a man prone to hyperbole but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he’s never felt so much for another person in his life.
He lifts her wrist to his mouth, pressing a kiss to her pulse point, and Helen melts in his arms. And they stay just like that until he loses the battle against jet lag and the comforting weight of her, and his heavy eyelids droop closed.
The apartment is nothing like Helen’s palatial place in the West Village, but it’s her all the same—hardwood floors, and a wide open plan, and big windows that make up for the lack of space. She has an eye for real estate, a fact that Max tries not to fixate on for too long.
His pants are still on the floor where he’d hastily shoved them off, and he tosses them back on with a wrinkled t-shirt that he scrounges from his bag. When he’s decent, he goes looking for her.
Movement and the fresh smell of coffee draw Max to the kitchen doorway. He leans his head on the wood frame, watching, because Helen isn’t alone inside.
Luna is perched in her lap eating cereal. Well—eating might be a liberal descriptor for what his daughter is doing to her food. With one hand fisted around a plastic spoon, and the other plunged deep into the soupy mess in her bowl, Luna’s clothes are soaked through with milk. And Helen, his incredible, long-suffering partner, is ignoring the food in her own hair in favour of cleaning Luna off as best she can with dry paper napkins. She’s talking too, all low and serious like the babbling toddler can understand her.
The moment is so tender, so painfully domestic, that it sends a wash of goosebumps down the back of Max’s neck. It’s a crystal clear picture of the future that he wants so badly.
Luna flips the bowl, sending a gluey mess of Cheerios spilling across the counter, and he finally comes back to himself. Max swoops forward, plucking his soggy daughter from Helen’s arms before the wailing starts. For her part, Helen just laughs it off, reeling off more paper napkins as if she’s not wearing a matching wet stain down her front.
“I’ll get it,” Max says. “Just let me clean her off first.”
Helen shakes her head absently, wiping at the milk as it pools dangerously close to the edge of the counter. “No worries. You handle her.”
“Seriously,” he continues more urgently, using his free hand to hold her wrist, “change. Shower. I should clean up her mess.”
Helen flinches. It’s a tiny, barely noticeable movement, but they’re enough in tune that she might as well have reared back. She drops the soaked wad of tissue into the trash and steps around him.
And she doesn’t touch him as she passes, nor does she say another word before she’s gone.
Helen’s taken leave for all three days of their trip, so she’s free to join them for brunch. They decide on the cafe just a short walk from her building. Max distractedly feeds Luna, trying to divide his attention between her and Helen on the other side of the table. She’s quiet, stirring her coffee instead of drinking it. Awkwardness still lingers, and Max can’t figure it out.
Was it the mess that Luna made of her kitchen? Or annoyance at having to tend to his daughter when he was still asleep? His thoughts are endless and terrified—had he been wrong this entire time, so desperate to replace what he’d lost that he had forced her into a role she doesn’t want?
She excuses herself to the bathroom with her phone in hand, dropping a kiss to Luna’s forehead when she lifts her arms but leaving her behind. The wait for Helen to return is excruciating, and those dark fears spread and fester into something poisonous. It’s made only worse when she sits back down a few minutes later and her eyes are tinged red.
She hums but stares, almost casually, out the window.
“Shall we get going?” she interrupts before he can get his question out. “I want to show you guys the sights.”
Max squints at her. It’s a clear deflection, one that he’s slow to concede.
“Yeah. Yeah, we want to see the whole city, don’t we, Lu?”
In response, Luna shoots out a small hand, grabbing a fistful of scrambled eggs from his plate before he can react. There’s a short burst of chaos where Max has to wrestle against her unbelievably strong grip, and it takes another few minutes to wipe her palms clean again.
By the time he turns back to Helen, her head is tilted and she’s wearing a tiny, fond smile. And the sight of her makes Max relax into himself, because he knows—how much she loves him, how much she loves Luna and this family that they’re making.
But then she swipes surreptitiously beneath her eyes as they stand, and it bothers him.
They walk down to Hyde Park, holding Luna between them. She’s enjoying the start of fall, kicking up yellowed leaves that litter the sidewalk. They reach the park and she’s off, squealing at the bursts of water from the fountains, chasing the ducks around the pond, insisting that Max lift her so she can pat the ‘big horsey’ statue on the nose.
He wonders how they look from the outside, the two of them hand-in-hand with a child that could be theirs. The thought almost makes him do something stupid and premature.
By late-afternoon, whatever reserves of energy Luna’s been functioning on start running low, and soon enough she’s out cold. Helen slips him her keys so she can carry Luna back. It still startles him, the sense of normalcy about the way they pass the little girl off, and the easy way Helen instructs him on which key does what. Once he gets the front door open, she leaves him to go put Luna down with a kiss to the underside of his jaw. The press of her lips leaves Max all dumb and ecstatic.
“Fancy seeing you here,” he says when she emerges, opening his arms so she can walk directly into them. Helen burrows her face into his shirt, and he feels her shoulders rise and fall when she breathes him in.
She lingers against him for a long beat. Max feels, the moment that she starts to step away, that it will be a mistake to let her pull back, and catches her around the elbow.
“You okay?” he repeats, bending to meet her eyes.
She starts to do that thing he hates where she retreats into herself, schooling her expression and pressing her lips together to pick her words carefully before she speaks.
“Look at me,” he says, and then again when she hesitates.
Helen breathes out a rough breath before she finally lifts her gaze. There’s something defensive in the way she tilts her chin, like she’s trying to protect herself. From him.
“Will you talk to me? Please?” he asks, begs, heart racing panickedly in his ribcage.
The desperation in his voice is loud and clear, and she falters with her mouth half-open and a ready-made brush off on her tongue.
“Whatever’s wrong,” he says, sliding his grip down her arm to tangle their fingers, “I’ll fix it. Just tell me.”
She blinks up at him, big and doe-eyed. And when he thinks she’s about to dismiss him again, she just…doesn’t.
“I love you.” The way she says it, all hoarse and bleak, makes his stomach sink. “I love having you here.”
Max swallows a dry lump. “Okay.”
“But this is so new, we’ve barely even…” she bites off the rest of her sentence.
Max can’t speak, can’t focus on anything but his hands in hers, the contrast of their skin, the burn behind his eyes.
“Sometimes I forget that we’re still figuring things out, you know? We fell into this so fast, and it came so naturally that half the time I think we’ve been doing this for years.”
“I know. I feel that too,” he says hopelessly clinging to this, to them, with blunt nails even as it feels like their relationship is crumbling before his very eyes.
“Then why,” she squeezes his fingers, “do you keep acting like an inconvenient guest in my home?”
Helen scoffs, rolls her eyes, and the breath returns to him in a wave.
“Jesus, Max. I’ve waited weeks to get you here, but you’re acting like I’ll turf you out if you and Luna aren’t on your best behaviour.”
He swallows. “I am?”
“We’re in this together, right? Her messes, her tantrums—those aren’t things I put up with to be with you. Don’t…don’t treat me like an outsider.”
It’s a horrible moment of clarity, that he’s screwing this up already without meaning to. Max considers for a second, and then uses his grip on her to tow her across the apartment. He sits on the couch by the window overlooking the street and pulls Helen down into his lap, letting her get settled and comfortable over his knees before he speaks.
Helen’s responding smile is gentle and warm. “Hi.”
He squeezes her thigh through her jeans, and she leans forward to rest her head on his shoulder. Since she’s in reach, Max brushes a kiss to the crown of her head and rests his lips there, breathing in her scent.
“I’m rusty,” he murmurs into her hair, and she laughs against his neck, “at being someone’s partner. And you—god, sometimes it feels like I tricked the universe, and soon it’s gonna figure it out and take this all back.”
She brings a hand to the side of his face, rubbing sweet circles into his skin.
“You’re…so far out of my league. You’re Doctor Helen. And now you’re here, doing amazing things, and I’m just some sad single dad on the other side of the Atlantic with nothing to offer. And that scares me.”
“Max,” she breathes.
“I’m trying not to jinx it. I don’t want you to ever second guess this, I—I don’t want to lose you.”
“You couldn’t,” she whispers, and the rush of her breath against his throat spikes his pulse. When she lifts her head and sits up, her gaze is steady and sure. “I only want you. I only want this. Cleaning up after Luna, sharing a home with you guys—that’s not a dealbreaker. That’s the whole point.”
He can’t resist her mouth then, sliding a hand into her hair to pull her down to him. The fraught tension between them breaks, and all that’s left are these frantic, messy kisses and his hands on her like she’s all his.
He’s panting when they separate. “No running off with handsome British doctors?”
Helen licks at his top lip. “Not unless they can do that thing you do with your tongue.”
Her shriek is startled when he hauls her up and stands. She winds her legs around his waist for purchase, laughing all the way to her bedroom.
Helen arrives at Max’s place first. The organised chaos is achingly familiar, mismatched bedsheets and patchwork rugs, fresh laundry still unfolded in its basket on the couch, and Luna’s toys scattered across but perfectly confined to her play corner in the living room.
Helen drops her keys by the door, leaving her luggage there so she can shrug out of her coat and toe off her shoes. Even though she knows she should wheel her suitcase through to the bedroom and unpack, she’s exhausted, and there’s a bottle of wine sitting unopened on the kitchen counter. It’s an invitation, a welcome, a make-yourself-at-home.
That’s how Max finds her, curled up at one end of his couch, opposite the pile of clothes, with a near empty glass of red. She’s tipped her head back against the upholstery and closed her eyes, so that he’s on her before she even realises he’s back. He kisses her closed eyelids first, and then the tip of her nose and the peak of her Cupid’s bow. Helen hums, smiling at the familiar taste and smell of him.
“How was your flight?” he whispers.
“Long,” she whispers back, letting him when he wraps a big hand around hers to take her wine glass. “How was the hospital?”
She feels the shift of the sofa, and hears the dull noise as he sets the laundry basket on the coffee table so he can take a seat beside her.
Helen makes a noise in the back of her throat. “Just how you like it.”
Max brushes some hair off her shoulder to lay another gentle kiss there. She sighs. It feels impossible to pry her eyes open.
“Get some sleep,” Max says knowingly. “Luna’s with the neighbours down the hall, I’ll grab her in a bit.”
“But I wanted to ravish you,” Helen mumbles, already mostly gone.
He laughs. “Later. Sleep.”
So she does, deeply. She half-wakes a few hazy, indistinct times—to the sound of water running, the echo of floral detergent in the air, the swaying sensation of being carried after arms slide beneath her back and knees, and lift.
And then it’s soft all around her. She’s warm and surrounded by the familiar smell of Max, registering even in her half-somnolence the feeling of her hair being touched, the shuffle of sheets being rearranged, a soft touch against her cheekbone.
He stands then, and the mattress lifts a notch. The loss of him at her side feels so profound, like he’s being physically torn from her, and if she were more awake she’d beg him to stay. It makes her wonder what kind of idiot she is, to have given this up for a lonely life a million miles away.
It’s a terrifying thought that maybe, maybe, she’s chosen wrong.
Helen is no cook, but she’s pretty sure the frying pan shouldn’t be smoking quite like that.
“Is Daddy burning the food again?” she bends her head to ask the toddler wrapped around her neck. Helen rubs a gentle hand up and down Luna’s small back, laughing until she realises that Max is looking at her with raised eyebrows.
“Daddy?” he mouths. There’s an edge of something dark and dangerous behind those blue eyes, and Helen feels the effects of it between her thighs.
But then the smoke alarm wails, breaking the tense moment, and he’s cursing and flinging the pan into the sink.
Helen takes Luna through to the living room, shutting the door so she’s not choking on the cloud of black smoke. It takes a while to coax her little arms away, persuading her only when she’s sure she can see them through the glass doors and Helen has promised not to go away again.
She returns to the kitchen and Max is half-heartedly scraping the charred bottom of the pan with a spatula. Helen slides up behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head between his shoulder blades.
“You were right,” he mutters mournfully, “we should have ordered in.”
Behind them, her phone pings on the counter, and then again and again in quick succession. Helen slips away, scrolling through her texts while Max despairs.
Lauren Bloom, 19:28 PM
you're in ny??
istg im gonna kill your boyfriend
calling you now you better pick up
Her phone starts ringing in her hand as if on cue. She rolls her eyes, but answers on the second ring.
“Don’t hi me. Why didn’t either of you tell us you were coming back?”
She looks up and Max has already turned around, blinking big, curious eyes at her.
“How did you find out?”
Lauren scoffs. “Please. I have eyes everywhere.”
“Well, that’s suitably terrifying.”
Max comes around the counter with a handful of takeout menus, offering them to Helen so she can take her pick. They silently agree on the Thai place a few blocks over, and then she turns her face up for a kiss.
“We’re going out.”
“Who’s going out?” she replies, confused when she’s abruptly pulled back into the phone conversation.
Lauren makes a noise of irritation. “Tomorrow. Make sure you have a sitter for Luna, cause we’re getting wasted.” And then she hangs up.
“What was that?” Max asks, holding his own phone away from his ear.
Helen makes a face. “I think we’re going to die tomorrow.”
The bar Lauren chooses is packed, and hot, and Helen’s shoes keep sticking to the floor. It’s the type of place she hasn’t been to since her university days, and barely even then.
They’re all there though, crammed into a booth that’s far too small; Floyd folds in beside Iggy and his husband, Lauren’s mostly in Leyla’s lap, and Helen is actually in Max’s. Though they’re surrounded by a jeering crowd, and the air is stale and heavy, it fills her with soft affection to be within arms reach of most of her favourite people. It makes the bar somewhat more bearable.
Max’s hands land on her hips, steady, burning even through her clothes, and then she’s finding it difficult to breathe again.
Another round of shots is deposited on their table, and Lauren claps sharply before parsing them out.
“To the return of our favourite traitor,” she says, swinging her glass into the air so they can all tap them together.
Helen is unimpressed. “I’m not cheers-ing to that,” she says flatly, and throws the tequila back.
Lauren just shrugs, and drags Leyla off to the pool table so she can slyly grope her under the guise of the game. They get lost in the crowd quickly.
The heat mounts until it’s sweltering. Even with her braids up, Helen still lifts the ends of her ponytail off the sweat-slick skin at the back of her neck to cool off. She starts to slide off Max into the space Lauren and Leyla have left behind, but he holds her, hands pressing just hard enough to keep her in place.
Their corner of the bar is dim, and the others aren’t paying any attention when he leans in to mouth at the skin she’s just revealed. Helen lets him when his hands come around to settle on her stomach and ease her against him.
“Are you enjoying yourself?“ he rasps throatily, lips skimming the shell of her ear.
“Yeah,” she breathes. The alcohol is turning her edges pleasantly fuzzy. Max shifts his hand again to twist into the silky fabric of her dress, and her breath hitches in response.
He hums into the curve where her neck meets her shoulder. And they’re in public, not even alone at their table, but she tilts her head anyway. He glides his nose along until it’s at her jaw.
“I,” she gasps, “need the bathroom.”
Max doesn’t immediately let go, like he hasn’t quite heard her. Helen shifts so they’re not pressed as tightly, and takes a real, calming breath.
“I need the bathroom,” she says again, more clearly this time.
Max blinks those big blue eyes at her. His expression is startled. Slowly, as if he’s being forced to, he peels his fingers one-by-one from her thigh. Helen slips from his lap to make her escape.
Halfway across the room, she turns to make pointed eye contact with him. He’s at her back by the time she reaches the hallway where the toilets are.
It’s a small miracle that there’s no queue to wait in. They stumble over each other, slamming through the door furthest from the main bar. Inside is dingy and disgusting, but they’re four shots deep and drunk enough that it barely matters. Max frames her face with both hands and descends on her before they can even get the door locked.
“You have lipstick,” she pants on the breaths in between, “on your face.”
“I love lipstick,” he says, and then they’re tumbling into the wall and he’s pressing her against the sink.
“Everyone’s gonna know what we’re doing,” she mumbles against his mouth, eyes rolling up to the ceiling.
And then there’s a fist in her hair, and a tongue in her mouth, and she needs him right now or she thinks she’ll die.
The heat smoulders and swells between the press of their bodies, while he fumbles under her skirt for the edge of lace and she fumbles to loosen his belt. They’re shifting clothes aside rather than removing them, so impatient that his hands are in her knickers before she knows what’s happening. Her brain is foggy, overcome by the buzz of liquor beneath her skin, and the twist of his fingers, and the rumble of his voice as he talks her through it.
And then he lifts her. And then—fuck.
She wakes in the morning to moss on her tongue and fingers skating down her spine. Helen shifts her face to press into the pillow.
Max bends and lays a gentle kiss to her naked shoulder. “How d’you feel?”
“Like I’m not eighteen anymore,” she says around a mouthful of cotton.
She groans, and tilts her head a little so she can squint, one-eyed, up at him. “How are you faring so well?”
Max stands first, making sure he’s out of reach before he answers. “My last few shots were just water.”
Helen flings a pillow after him.
She brushes her teeth first, scouring the bitter taste of sleep and booze from her mouth. Max has poured her coffee and set it beside a plate of dry toast when she emerges.
“Thank you,” she says as she climbs onto a barstool. She’s blowing through the hot steam when Max slides her phone over.
“It was going off all last night.”
Helen taps on the screen and grimaces.
Lauren Bloom, 00:52 AM
where are you?
did you go?
did you go home?
helen did you go home?
max is gone too…
you little whore
did you srsly bail to get dick
Lauren Bloom, 01:13 AM
SOMEONE IS FCKIN IN THE BATHROOM IS IT YOU
IS THAT YOU
OMG IT’S YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Lauren Bloom, 01:19 AM
WHO KNEW DR HELEN IS A FREAK
Helen drops the phone, and then her head into the cradle of her hands.
“Is something wrong?”
She laughs, shoulders shaking. “I forgot how much I missed it here.”
Max hums into his coffee, sips it slowly, and says almost casually, “You could come back.”
Helen feels her muscles stiffen. She drops her hands from her face.
“Not immediately,” he continues, rambling the way he does when he’s walked himself into trouble, “but, I mean, your job is still open. And, of course we’d never turn Doctor Helen away.”
The free flow of words stops suddenly. He blinks at her, mouth still open and wavering like a tap whose water has been turned off.
“Don’t do that. Please.” It tears from her insides, bloody and begging. She’s doing everything she can not to cry.
There’s a long stretch of silence, and then his Adam’s apple bobs.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Ignore me.”
“I thought we—“
“Ignore me,” he repeats firmly, and turns away to mess with the coffee machine. More deafening silence follows, and something raw and painful thrums between them. Helen swallows and it hurts.
Luna toddles into the room then, rubbing at her tired eyes with the flat of her palm. She lifts her arms to Max, wanting to be held. He manoeuvres one-handed to fill a sippy cup with water and hand it to her. Luna sucks at the spout and rests her head on her father’s shoulder. They rock back and forth in barely audible conversation. It’s practised, a sweet little ritual to wake her up.
Helen stands, surreptitiously wiping her cheeks and breathing around the ache in her throat. Max looks up as she approaches, big, nervous eyes following her until she stops just inches away. He hesitates, but reaches for her, hopeful. There’s relief in his face when she slides her hand in his and lets him pull her into the embrace.
And when the tears finally spill over, Helen presses her eyes shut and wraps her arms tighter around them both, as if she can hold the fracturing parts of them together through sheer force of will.
“I have to talk to Doctor Jackson,” Helen whispers, breath fanning warm across his cheek. “Will you give me a second?”
Max isn’t a fan of black-tie events, but when Helen had told him the clinic was receiving an award from the Mayor—for ‘ensuring vital services, aid or equipment for members of the local community’—there’d been nothing but a surge of pride. Karen would have a fit if she’d known how easy it was from then to get him into a tux.
If he’d thought the fundraisers at New Amsterdam were unbearable, though, it has nothing on tonight’s festivities. And, yes, the speeches are dull and the wine is cheap. He can endure all that.
Tonight, it’s Helen. Or, rather, Helen in that dress. It isn’t indecent, not really—full sleeves and a high neckline, and its hem almost brushes the floor. But she turns around and there’s nothing but an expanse of naked, unblemished skin. And then there’s the slit.
Splitting the skirt at the side, every step bares her leg to the soft swell of her upper thigh. It makes Max dumb, makes his tongue feel too big for his mouth. He feels the blush in the high points of his cheeks, spreading across his face and down to his neck. She’s utterly devastating.
But if he’s noticed, so has everyone else in the room. With just a cursory glance around, Max sees the eyes that follow her as she crosses, notices how Doctor Jackson’s smile turns warmer as Helen gets near. He welcomes her to his conversation with a hand on her bare back. Max grips his glass just a little tighter.
Someone taps him on the shoulder, and he plasters on a practised patent smile as he spins.
“You look like you’re having about as much fun as I am,” the woman laughs, all smiles and coiffed blonde hair.
Max snorts good-naturedly. “Am I that obvious?”
“After a while, you start to recognise the frequent fliers at these things. Anyone new is bound to draw some attention.”
He hadn’t realised how he’d relaxed into a more genuine smile until it turns to stone on his face. Is she…flirting with him?
“Oh,” he flushes, “well, I’m not—the thing is—“
He’s still sputtering like a fool when Helen approaches from behind and slides a hand into the crook of his elbow.
“Babe,” she says, but she’s not looking at him, “it’s time to get to our table.”
No, her attention is solely on the woman across from him, and the hand she’s laid over his on the table. Max doesn’t know when that happened. He snatches away.
“This is,” he starts, and then blinks because he doesn’t know.
“Anne Hill,” the other woman supplies helpfully, holding that same hand out for Helen to shake. “Doctor Helen Sharpe, right? We’re really so impressed by what you’re doing over in Fulham. It’s quite admirable, how you’ve managed to turn things around so quickly.”
God, he tries his best to fight back a dopey grin because this is not the time, not with Helen tense and unimpressed at his side. But he gets it, Anne’s genuine, gushing excitement to meet Helen, how easy it is to be awed by her. He trails a hand down the line of her back, moulding her closer to his side.
Helen is polite and gracious. Behind her unwavering placid expression, though, her eyes are alight with something fierce. She cuts her eyes at him when he laughs at Anne’s joke.
“Are you—?” the other woman starts, pointing between them.
Helen’s answering smile is pure poison. He feels her rock closer, answering with a subdued hum.
“Oh, I—wow…I mean, of course, you’re very well suited.”
Helen lifts a hand to the hair at his nape, raking her nails through so that he shivers. “We should get to our table,” she says again. “It was great to meet you, Ms Hill.”
Anne nods, pale and gaping as Helen leads him away.
“Babe?” Max bends to murmur in her ear when they’re out of earshot.
“I can’t leave you alone anywhere.”
Max scoffs. “Really?’
She pulls back, looking at him curiously.
“Doctor Jackson couldn’t get enough of you.”
Helen blinks. Blinks again. And then bursts out into laughter.
“You can’t be serious,” she says disbelievingly. “Max, the man’s like ninety.”
“That didn’t stop him from feeling you up.”
Helen presses a hand to her mouth, eyes glittering up at him with restrained amusement. He peels her fingers away so he can drop a not-quite-chaste kiss there. Laughter tastes sweet from her lips.
There’s something about watching Helen receive her award, all shiny beneath the spotlights above, and hearing the dignified way she delivers her speech, like they hadn’t feverishly written it together at three in the morning, that fills Max with something bright and warm. It takes a Herculean amount of effort not to stand and cheer, so that he’s not the embarrassing boyfriend. He can’t be blamed, though, if his enthusiastic applause rings the loudest.
Before she’s ushered off for pictures, Helen turns to find him in the crowd. Their eyes meet as if drawn by magnets, and they’re both smiling. She’s all the light and air and space in the room.
“I’m surprised you could fit time in to attend this evening.”
Max turns to Helen’s mother beside him. She has the programme for the night in her hands, pretending to read through it so that it takes a moment for him to realise how loaded with malice her offhanded words are.
Serwa Sharpe had disliked Max almost from the moment she’d first set eyes on him. Helen had invited her to breakfast, and she’d taken one look at him across the table and pursed her lips. From there, it was endless sly remarks about his age, his job, even his clothes, until Helen had put a stop to it with a hissed, ‘Mum’.
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss this, no matter what else I have going on.”
“How noble,” she says, eyes still on the programme.
And, yes, Max wants desperately to make her like him, but she’s just so…mean. Not Karen-mean, where sometimes she lets slip a peek at her soft underbelly. Serwa is cold, hard edges and a tongue that takes him effortlessly apart. He downs more wine, as if that will numb the sting.
“I suppose I’m glad,” she continues after a while, “that you’re finally prioritising my daughter’s needs over your own. Maybe the breakup did you some good.”
Max tilts his head and swallows thickly. “Excuse me? What breakup?”
Serwa blinks. “Oh. I’d just assumed. When Helen told me that her moving plans no longer included you, I jumped to the conclusion that you’d separated.”
“We didn’t,” Max says, and it comes out more snappish than intended.
“Right,” Serwa takes a small sip of her water, unaffected. “Well then.”
They get home late. All the lights are off, and the sitter takes her money without a word as she traipses to the front door. Helen drops her bag on the couch and turns to him, outlined from behind by silvery moonlight. It does something otherworldly to her.
“Come here,” she whispers, and Max shrugs out of his jacket and obeys. They stand toe to toe, breathing each other.
“You looked good tonight,” she says, reaching for him.
Max wants to tell her that she did too, that she looked like every fantasy he’s ever had, but he’s scared what will come out if he opens his mouth. She doesn’t notice his silence, pulling the ends of his tie apart and peeling it off with deft fingers.
“But if you ever let anyone,” she nips at his chin, “touch what’s mine, I might not be as nice as I was to Anne Hill.”
He gulps down a mouthful of air.
Helen is lazily undoing the buttons on his shirt when he finally breaks.
“Why does your mother think we’ve broken up?”
Her fingers still. She tilts her head up. “What did she say to you?”
It feels almost like a punch to the gut, because nothing in her expression demonstrates surprise.
“That’s your question?”
She drops her hands with a quirked brow. “Is there something in particular you want me to ask?”
Max shakes his head. This is going all wrong, but he’s getting angrier the more he thinks about it.
“Why did you let her think we’d ended when you moved? Who was I there as tonight, since you haven’t told anyone that we’re in a committed relationship?”
Helen has never responded well to his temper, and her defences come up quickly. “Are we?”
“Are—“ He breaks off, willing himself to calm down because yelling won’t solve this. “Are we? You can’t be serious.”
He’d been sure that it was clear the night he took off his ring, that it could never be anyone but her. That she’s it for him. But now she’s staring at him with a sort of apathy that hasn’t been directed at him since they first met.
“We’re apart, Max. All the time. This isn’t a relationship, it’s,” she pushes a loose braid from her face, “it’s stolen moments. It’s a couple of days every month, if we’re lucky and our schedules align.”
He blinks, wavering at the actual physical pain her words cause. He understands that those first few weeks were barely—that they’d spent more time on the heavy stuff, packing and subletting and moving her entire life across an ocean. Maybe they didn’t get to enjoy the giddy beginnings of something new, the novelty of being able to touch at will. Instead of sex late at night, and then in the shower in the mornings, or during lunch breaks when they’re desperate enough to drag the other into a supply closet, instead of that, they’d been faced with repeated reminders that they’re not flighty teenagers, that they have responsibilities.
“But…we’re trying, right? Maybe it’s tough now, but it won’t always be.” It comes out as a plea.
“There’s no end in sight, Max.”
The way she says it, so dejected like she’s ready to throw in the towel, makes him so momentarily furious that he loses it.
“You were the one who decided to come back here,” he shouts, forgetting himself and his daughter sleeping down the hall. “You decided that this was permanent. I’m just—I’m trying to give us a fighting chance, but I can’t do it alone.”
“Whose fault is that?” she asks, empty and quiet, and it’s a pointed blade sliding between his ribs.
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” she says, slow and clear so each word is another knife, “you have no right to say that to me when you were the one who left me hanging.”
It’s enough to make his eyes water. It’s every one of his worst fears rolled into one—that she resents him, that he’s already inflicted too much damage to their foundations to ever build something real.
“You know why I had to stay,” he says. His voice sounds distant, like it’s not coming from him.
“The hospital,” she nods. “Doctor Fuentes. I remember.”
“You—you said you understood.”
“I did,” she says, but it cracks unconvincingly. “I do. But…do you think that means it didn’t hurt?”
“It isn’t easy for me either.”
“I don’t care,” she shrieks, so sudden that it stuns Max into silence.
They’re both breathing heavily, unsteadily, lashing out because it’s the only way to cope with the awful, bitter loneliness of living with your heart outside your body. Helen swallows loud enough that he hears across the room.
“You told me, not asked, told me that you weren’t coming with me, and I just had to forgive you and move past it because I love you. More than I’ve ever loved anyone in my entire life. And I want to believe that you feel the same for me.”
“Helen—“ he says, lifting a hand, but she dodges away from his touch, crossing to the window so there's distance between them.
“But I’m so angry at you, and myself. Because you made me a promise you couldn’t keep,” she whispers, so soft that Max barely hears her, “and I was stupid enough to believe you.”
It’s a surprise to him that he can hurt any more. He feels physically sick.
“So maybe it’s hard for you,” Helen continues, and the light from outside catches the gloss of tears on her cheeks, “but you have New York, and the Dam. What am I left with? An empty flat that should have been ours? A lifetime of red-eyes, waiting for the next time we can fit each other in?”
It’s weirdly abrupt when she stops talking and silence descends. Her words hang. Helen crosses her arms across her chest, a barrier between them. Somewhere, a clock ticks. It feels like a metaphor for something.
“We should stop,” Max croaks, “before someone says something they can’t take back.”
Helen looks at him like it’s the last thing she’d wanted to hear. And then she angles her face away. “Yeah.”
Max wants, with a desperation that leaves him breathless, to pull her to him and make it okay. Wants to say something to wipe that ruined look from her face.
But then Helen speaks again.
“I’ll bunk with Luna tonight. You should get some sleep.”
Her bare feet move silently across the floor as she leaves the room. And Max turns, mouth open, floundering for the right thing to say to bring her back to him.
Moments later, a door opens and closes. As is his wont, the words he needs are nowhere to be found.
Max has an idea what the message will say before he even reads it. It’s been radio silent between him and Helen for days. He’d meant to call her, to have a real conversation where he’d talk, apologise, understand. But then the hospital’s staffing issue had needed his full attention, and he’d almost missed the deadline to register Luna for preschool, and it was thing after thing until he’d put it off long enough that November had become December. So when she texts him instead of picking up the phone, he can’t honestly say he’s that shocked.
Helen, 06:37 AM
I’m not going to make it to New York this month, I’m sorry. Wish Luna happy holidays for me.