“Just that I’m glad you’re here.” Bethanne hadn’t intended to admit that. Yet it was true. She hadn’t expected to see him again, hadn’t believed it was even possible. The explosion of surprise mingled with joy gave her pause. Bethanne had planned to use these weeks away to consider her future with Grant. This wasn’t the time to confuse the issue by indulging some romantic fantasy about a man on a motorcycle.
Max studied her with those intense brown eyes. “I’m glad I’m here, too.” He clasped her hand and intertwined their fingers. Bethanne’s heart raced like that of a teenage girl on her first date. Get a grip, she told herself. As they walked out of the casino she kept reminding herself how ridiculous being with Max was. This was a dead-end relationship. A dead-end everything.
Although it wasn’t nine o’clock yet, it remained light out. “Any place you’d like to go?” he asked.
Being unfamiliar with Las Vegas, Bethanne didn’t know what to suggest. “Not really.”
“Okay, I’ll choose.”
They reached his bike in the parking lot and he removed Rooster’s helmet from the older man’s Harley, which was parked beside his, and handed it to her. She climbed on the back of Max’s bike and set her feet where he’d shown her before. Max took his seat, started the engine with a roar and turned out of the parking lot.
Bethanne slipped her arms around his waist and held on, although less tightly than the first time she’d ridden with him. Closing her eyes, she felt the breeze rush past and after a few minutes she relaxed. She wasn’t sure where Max was going. It didn’t matter.
When he slowed the bike, Bethanne realized they were completely out of the city, on a hill that overlooked the valley. Night had settled in and the casino lights lit up the sky.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, after they’d parked and taken off their helmets. He looked down at the city, and Bethanne joined him.
“I used to sit up here and just stare at the lights,” Max continued. “It’s so crazy down there and so peaceful up here.” He stood beside her in silence for a few minutes. “Tell me about your ex-husband,” he suddenly said.
“Grant?” she asked, uncertain what to say.
“You have more than one?”
“No. Your question surprised me, that’s all.”
“Is it difficult to talk about your divorce?”
She shook her head. “Not anymore. I guess it comes down to a case of the two of us growing apart. He found someone else and the sad part is, I was so involved with his career, with our children and friends, that I didn’t notice. I mean, a wife’s supposed to sense these things, right?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Did you…did you ever cheat on your wife?”
“Never.” His answer was quick and decisive. “I wasn’t even tempted.”
“At the time, Grant and I had been married nearly twenty years. We’d grown comfortable with each other. Complacent, I guess. He wanted me to be a stay-at-home mother and I enjoyed that role. I hosted dinners, arranged all his travel… I considered myself a full partner in his life and his career—and yet I didn’t know about Tiffany. I honestly didn’t have a clue. If someone had told me, I swear I wouldn’t have believed my husband was capable of betraying me that way.”
“Were you unhappy?”
“No, not in the least. But after Grant moved out, I was an emotional mess. I felt lost, bewildered, defeated. As if I’d suddenly been blinded, with no idea where I was or how to find my way out. It took weeks—no, months—to come to grips with the situation. I’m a different person now. The years have given me perspective. I can understand better what happened and why Grant was attracted to Tiffany.”
“Sounds as if you’re making excuses for him.”
She looked down at the ground and moved the dirt around with the toe of her shoe. Maybe she was making excuses for Grant; if so, it was probably because he’d recognized how wrong he’d been and told her so, over and over. “Grant’s sorry about it now…. I mentioned before that he wants us to get back together. He had roses delivered to the hotel.”
“Here in Vegas?”
She nodded. “They were in the room waiting for us. He wanted to apologize because we had a small argument over the phone last night.”
“About me, I suspect.”
“If you must know, he was horrified that I’d taken off with you.”
“He’s right. It was a risky thing to do.”
“Are you dangerous, Max?”
He didn’t answer.
“Is Max your real name?”
“It is. Max Scranton. My friends find it ironic—the Mad Max thing. But I’ve been Max my whole life.” He hesitated and leaned back against the bike, stretched out his legs and crossed his arms. “Kate used to call me—” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“Does it hurt to talk about her?”
He looked away. “What you told me yesterday is true. It does get easier. I didn’t think that was possible.”
“How much longer will you continue to run?” she asked. She wouldn’t have been nearly as forward if he hadn’t been curious about her and Grant.
“Is that what I’m doing? Running away from the pain?” The question didn’t appear to offend him.
She nodded. “Actually, I think I would’ve pulled up roots and left Seattle if not for Andrew and Annie.” It occurred to her that he might have children. “Did you and Kate have a family?”
Anguish came and went in his eyes so quickly that Bethanne wondered if she’d imagined it. “A daughter. Katherine was born with a rare genetic disease. She died when she was eleven. Since we both carried the gene, we decided not to have any more children. After Katherine it was just the two of us. Then…Kate was gone, too. I didn’t deal well with that. I blamed myself for a long time.” He spoke with his gaze on the lights of the city below. “I buried myself in a bottle for the first year. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if it wasn’t for Rooster and my brother. Fortunately, Luke stepped in to take over the business. Otherwise, I would’ve lost it, along with everything else. In a way I think that’s what I wanted. Maybe what I deserved. Death robbed me of the two people I loved most. Nothing else mattered. I think I wanted to die myself. Death would be easier than living with the pain.” He paused and inhaled deeply. “Then Rooster took control. He refused to let me slowly kill myself. I’m grateful now, but, trust me, at the time I much preferred the idea of drinking myself to death.”
Max had lost so much. His daughter and then his wife.
“I don’t talk about Katherine,” he murmured, staring into the night sky. “Not with anyone.” He looked decidedly uncomfortable. “You…unnerve me, Bethanne. I don’t know how else to describe it—and I don’t like it. Feeling vulnerable is something I avoid. I don’t understand what makes you different.”
Bethanne didn’t understand it, either. She placed her hand on his forearm and felt him tense. “Why did you come looking for me?” she asked.
He snorted softly as if he wished he knew the answer himself. “The thing is, I’m not sure why I wanted to see you again. All I knew was that I…needed to.”
Still sitting, he held out his arms, and she leaned into his embrace. He held her close. Bethanne tucked her head beneath his chin and released a slow, thoughtful sigh.
A hundred questions chased one another in her mind, but she couldn’t ask a single one. After what seemed like a very long time, he reluctantly let her go.
“You feel like you belong in my arms,” he whispered.
Bethanne wanted to tell him she felt the same way, but she couldn’t afford to encourage this relationship. Over the past six years she’d dated, but no one had affected her the way this man did. Instead, she looked up at him, and his dark eyes held hers.
She shook her head. “No, don’t…”
“You’re going to kiss me. Aren’t you?”
“I’m flattered, don’t get me wrong—but my life’s complicated. I took this trip with my mother-in-law and Annie because I needed time to sort through some things.”
“Whether to reunite with your ex-husband.”
“Like I said, my life’s complicated…and I can’t…I won’t get involved with you.”
“This isn’t funny! My life is—”
“Complicated,” he finished for her. “Yeah, I know. It’s just a kiss, Bethanne.”
“I know.” She felt foolish for acting as though it was something more. “But the way I feel…” She didn’t finish, wasn’t even sure she should. She’d just told him how attractive she found him.
He seemed to realize what she meant. “Got it. It’s time I took you back to the hotel.”
“Right.” She didn’t want to leave, but it was for the best and clearly he recognized that, too.
He placed the helmet on his head and climbed on the bike. Bethanne did the same. Instead of circling her arms around him the way she had previously, she simply gripped the sides of his leather jacket. If he noticed, he didn’t mention it. In her two times on the bike, she’d learned quite a bit about motorcycles. As they rode, her body automatically adjusted to the curves and turns.
The reverse journey, back into the city, seemed to take ten times longer. When they reached the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, he pulled into the parking area, where the valets assisted drivers. He waited for her to climb off first.
She removed the helmet and handed it to him. Her throat clogged with tears as she struggled to speak. She wouldn’t see him again, and while she knew that was the only responsible option, it saddened her. Finally, she decided on a simple “Thank you.”
He nodded without looking at her.
Turning away, she entered the casino and was startled by the surge of loud music.
Tired now and discouraged, Bethanne hurried toward the elevator. She was standing in the lobby when she saw Rooster making his way toward her.
“Where’s Max?” he asked, obviously surprised to find her alone. He held a beer bottle in one hand.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. He dropped me off and left.”
Rooster frowned and took a swallow of his beer. “He just dropped you off?”
She hoped Max’s friend would give her some insight into him. “We went up to a hill where we could look at the city and talked for a while.”
Rooster led her away from the crowd and into one of the bars. “Let me buy you a beer.”
“Thanks, but I’m not much of a beer drinker.”
“Order whatever you want,” he said. He found them a table and raised his hand to get the attention of the waitress.
“I prefer red wine.”