Eight months ago
“You should probably tell him,” said Robert Moors, one of Maxwell Sheridan’s best friends.
Max let out a lengthy sigh as he tore his gaze away from Nolan Parker dancing for the first time with his new wife.
His best friend was right.
Max should tell Noel about what happened in New York almost six months ago, but Noel was now married. And from the smile on his face, Max knew he was happily married. Noel had the dream. He had what Max had always wanted.
Someone to love him.
He’d never known that kind of love. When he was seventeen, he thought he had true love when he had betrayed one of his best friends and slept with Alex Lawrence’s girlfriend. Max had been infatuated with Sarah Collins since he was eight. He had seen a side of her that she had never let anyone else see. On that step outside her front door, she had opened up to him.
But she had dated Alex, and she was hands off.
Until one drunken night when Sarah had told him that she and Alex were over. It had been a lie. And for almost seven years, he had kept his deep, dark secret from seeing the light. Alex still didn’t know. Max had sworn he’d never betray another one of his best friends again.
Until I met Andrea.
The thought had Max wincing. Andrea Wallace had been the woman Noel had dated to try to get over Clara. It had been a stupid bet. Who could win at golf. An innocent kiss that turned into so much more for him. An attraction they shared but couldn’t act on. She was Noel’s, and Max could only stand by and watch. Andrea had no idea how in love her boyfriend was with someone else.
“I’m sure he won’t care,” Rob added.
Max shifted so he could see the concerned frown on Rob’s face. Growing up, Rob was the focused one. He was going to be an Olympian and win gold. He was the one who always had their backs.
“He loved her, Rob. I can’t do that to him. He’s happy, and it’s his wedding. I can’t do that. Not to him. And not to her. Noel deserves this; we both know that.”
Rob’s brows furrowed, and then he shook his head. “You realise he’s just married Clara, right? He married the love of his life. I’m pretty sure Andrea is the least of his concern.”
The guilt doubled in his chest. The pain had him searching the room for a waiter, for anyone to save him from his traitorous memories and actions. Having kept Sarah a secret all these years hurt, but keeping what he had with Andrea a secret was killing him alive. So much so that he had gone back to Sarah and wanted her to take it all away. To make his infidelities seem non-existent. But no amount of sex with her could make him forget.
He had betrayed Alex when he slept with his girlfriend, Sarah.
And he had betrayed Noel when he had kissed Andrea.
Sloppy seconds was what they called it. And he had indulged in the concept more than once. But Andrea … he couldn’t forget her. Couldn’t wash her off his skin nor scrub her from his thoughts. He wanted her. He wanted to speak to her and see her.
But she lived in Boston, and he lived in Melbourne.
It was never going to work.
“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled. “She’d never want to see me again anyway.”
“You don’t know that,” Rob countered.
She’s said it so many times.
Instead of saying that, Max opted to divert the conversation. “Has Julian’s flight landed yet?”
Rob shook his head. “Nah. Not yet. He said he’d call once he left the airport.” He paused and then scratched the back of his neck. “Max, I really think you need to tell Noel. And I really think it’s time you told Alex about Sarah.”
Max’s eyelids fell closed. After he had taken a deep breath, he glanced over to see Alex dancing with his fiancée. He had a right to know just whom his girlfriend had cheated on him with. Even if it was with his best friend. Max had done a lot of bad things in his life, but sleeping with Sarah had been the worst. Trying to hook up with Andrea came close.
“Yeah,” he finally agreed. “I’ve gotta tell him. I’m just not ready to lose him or Noel just yet.”
“Excuse me, Rob,” a soft-spoken woman said, interrupting them.
Both Max and Rob spun around to find Ally O’Connor standing before them with a hesitant gleam in her hazel eyes. Ally was stunning—sexy when she needed to be, but all around the girl-next-door that no one in society saw. She was Sydney’s it girl. An heiress with more money in her pockets than everyone at the wedding combined.
Out of the corner of Max’s eye, he noticed Rob’s posture stiffen.
“Yes,” Rob said, almost sounding as if he were dismissing her.
Max had known Rob had been interested in the nineteen-year-old since he had first laid eyes on her at Clara and Liam’s rehearsal dinner. Luckily for everyone, Clara had backed out, opting to spend the rest of her life with Nolan Parker rather than Liam O’Connor.
Ally flinched at his abrupt reply. She had dug her teeth into her bottom lip before she released it. “Could we talk for a moment?”
Rob sighed. “Allison, I’m with Max—”
“No, no,” Max said, shaking his hands. “I’m going to step outside for some fresh air. I’ll let you two have a moment. We’ll talk more about that thing we were discussing later. You look beautiful as always, Ally.”
The blush that took over her cheeks was so innocently cute that he was jealous of Rob. Max knew deep down that their feelings were mutual. However, Ally’s public image wasn’t really one to be linked to an Olympic hopeful. But Max had every faith in the world that they’d figure it out. If anyone deserved love, it was Rob. The guy had run away from it for so long that it was only about time it cornered him. And a woman like Ally was perfect for him.
Max sent a wink Ally’s way and then slowly backed away. The two stood there staring at each other until Max spun around and made his way towards the ballroom doors. Once he’d reached them, he slipped out of the wedding reception and stepped into the hallway with a heavy exhale. Digging a hand into the pocket of his black dress pants, Max made his way towards the glass doors. Wrapping his fingers around the steel handle, he pulled the door open and went outside. He took in the vast hills and golf holes of the Eagleridge golf course. Then he distanced himself from the wedding reception and headed towards the bridge connecting the gazebo Noel and Clara had said ‘I do’ under to the main course.
When he noticed a woman in a purple dress standing on the bridge, he paused and smiled at the way her brown curls fluttered in the wind. She’d had black hair the last time he’d seen her before the wedding, but the light shades of brown suited her, giving her a softer appearance. Though her black locks brightened the colour of her blue eyes, when he had stood in line to walk her down the aisle, they appeared gentler. Even sweeter.
Max watched the way she gazed at the water ripples after she dropped a small rock into the lake. Unlike Clara’s other friends, Max barely knew Josie. He’d said hi, and when they’d been paired together for the wedding, he hadn’t minded. All he knew was she was a law student with black hair dating a DJ. Next thing he knew, she was this beautiful brunette looping her arm through his.
He took her in. Max had never seen someone so lost in thought or so graceful as she stared at the lake. Josie was beautiful. He’d known that the moment he’d laid eyes on her. But he knew nothing about her. And maybe that was what he liked about her. She never asked for anything from him. Josie Faulkner was a mystery he wanted to solve. It was a strange thought to have. There was no explanation as to why he began to walk across the bridge towards her. For once, he wanted to speak to someone not linked to his past. Max wanted to speak to a woman who he had no interest in anything other than finding out about her day.
“What are you doing out here, Jos?” Max had asked once he stood next to her and rested his arms on the wooden railing of the bridge.
Josie moved her hand closer to his, presenting a handful of small rocks. “Thinking. Throwing rocks into this lake. What about you?” she asked as she lifted her palm higher to offer him a rock.
When her eyes met his, a smile graced her lips in a slow and perfect motion. For a second, the way her eyes glimmered caused his beating heart to spike. It was an odd phenomenon and something he had never experienced before. He swallowed hard, hoping to dislodge that lump in his throat. “Thinking. Just about to throw rocks into the lake with you.”
Josie’s perfectly pink-lacquered lips deepened as her smile grew wider. “Well, go for it,” she urged.
He nodded and took a small charcoal-coloured rock between his fingers. Then he turned and peered over the railing. Breathing out, he let the rock fall away from his touch and watched as gravity pulled it into the lake. The rippling water fascinated him. Ripples were just like life. One action affected the other. The ripple effect. Life’s cruel tricks. One mistake led to another and then another. Just like his involvement with Sarah Collins. She was the mistake that just kept coming. Literally and figuratively. He hated that he couldn’t forget what it felt like to just be with her. It had him returning to her no matter how poisonous she was.
“So our best friends are married,” Josie said, interrupting his thoughts.
Max peeked over to find her lining the rocks on the wood in the space between them. “Yep,” he agreed.
She nodded. “I feel compelled to ask you this, but are you okay?”
His brows met, and he turned his body to face her. “What makes you think I’m not okay?”
Josie sighed while she set the last rock down then mirrored the way he had turned his body to hers. “Max, I may not know you well, but I can see the trouble in your eyes. That guilt in your eyes. I know it all too well. I saw it every time I saw my dad return from Germany after spending all his time there with his daughters.”
Doesn’t she mean her sisters?
“What?” he asked, confused.
She pressed her lips together. “My dad left my mum when he became the Australian Ambassador to Germany. Met this German woman and had kids with her. Watched them grow up and not me. Missed all my dance recitals. I needed him, and he had a new family that he never invited me to join. He comes back each year, and I get to spend two weeks with him and his guilty eyes and conscience. So, yeah, I know what guilt looks like, Max. So I have to ask again. Are you okay?”
Am I okay?
No one had asked him that. No one had cared enough to warrant concern towards him. Not Sarah. And not Andrea. Only Josie. The realisation warmed his chest. She cared enough and that caused him to smile at her.
“I’m okay, Jos,” he said.
She took a deep breath and surprised him by taking his hand. The jolt in his chest startled him at the connection of their hands. His lips slowly parted as he found it difficult to breathe. Found it difficult to comprehend such intense feelings. Max watched as she gazed down at their hands and then returned those beautiful blue eyes to him.
“If you ever need someone to talk to, I’m here for you. You seem like you need a friend. And honestly, I could use one, too,” she admitted.
He squeezed her hand, feeling content with such an innocent act. In fact, he enjoyed her touch. “Consider us friends.”
Her small laugh had him grinning at her. “Well, Max, now that we’re friends, you wanna go abuse Noel and Clara’s generosity at that free bar?”
“I love the way you think, Josie,” he said, afraid to lose her touch.
Something about Josie and just the touch of her skin alone was different. And she wanted to be friends.
This was something Max wanted.
Josephine Faulkner, in all her mystery, was a friend he needed.
Just as he was about to lead the way, his phone rang. Sighing and believing it was the current client he was dealing with, Max gave her an apologetic smile. Josie nodded for him to take the call, and Max dug his phone out of his jacket pocket. He glanced down to see Sarah’s name flashing and dread instantly filled his body. Out of all the days for her to call, today was most definitely not a good day. Noel and Clara did not need to see that woman—the one who had caused their separation—on their wedding day.
Max lifted his chin and had clenched his jaw before he said, “I’m sorry, Jos, I’ve gotta take this. I’ll meet you inside?”
“Is everything okay?” she asked. The worry in her voice was something new. No one had ever directed such concern towards him.
Warmth spread through his chest, and he nodded. “Yeah, nothing to worry about. Save me a dance, okay?”
She let out a sweet laugh. “Sure. I’ll see you in there, Max.”
Then she walked past him, off the bridge, and made her way back to the wedding reception. Quickly spinning around, he watched her take step after step away from him, loving the way her skin glowed from the bright sun and how her hair blew because of the warm wind.
The phone vibrating in his hand caused him to shake his head. What he felt around Josie was different, new, and he wasn’t sure if warranted. She seemed nice and sweet. But he wanted them to be friends. Something about her and the idea of a friendship between them had changed something within him. Whether his outlook on life or his approach, he would be the better man he knew was somewhere deep inside him.
With a confident and reassuring nod to himself, Max let out a sigh and answered the call.
Tightening her hold on the bouquet of peonies she had picked up from the florist at the gift shop, Josephine Faulkner took a deep breath as the doctor exited the hospital room. He had brushed his grey hair out of his face and behind his ear before he turned and faced her.
“Good morning, Josie,” Dr Frederickson said with a smile. Not too large or small. It was perfectly mastered not to show off too much or too little. She was sure it was the same kind of smile that had broken news to families for years.
The thought had Josie’s heartbeats accelerating. They were already living through more bad news, and she wasn’t sure how she would cope with any more. Right now, she wasn’t. On the exterior, she seemed fine, but the reality of the situation was that she was only just passing law school, and she was sure she was on the brink of failing one of her units. More bad news and she could kiss her law career goodbye.
“Good morning, Doc,” she said as kindly as she could.
The elderly doctor sniffed and shoved his hands into the pockets of his white coat. “We’ll have to wait until your mother recovers from the neutropenia fever caused by the first round of chemotherapy. She’ll have to stay in the hospital for at least a couple of days, and we’ll keep her on antibiotics. This isn’t rare, Josie. It happens. You were right to have her admitted.”
At least, we haven’t hit worse.
But the thought continued to linger. There was no way Josie could continue with her day and not know. After a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, she decided to ask. Not asking meant she’d end up knowing far too late to be able to prepare herself.
“Doc, is there any chance this could …” She trailed off, hating the fear that laced her voice. She had once been confident and so sure of herself, but since her mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer ten months ago, Josie’s life had spiralled into uncertainty. It meant changes for not only her but also for her mother. It also meant re-evaluating her life.
Her rebellious days were over. Days spent dating lowlife DJs were behind her. It was time to stop punishing her father by getting lost in men who would never treat her the way her mother would have liked. They had never done anything for her. The sex had been mediocre. It lacked at best. Her last boyfriend had been less than a lover. But her father, when he cared, hadn’t approved, and it had been just what she was looking for.
But when her mother had told Josie of her cancer, life was no longer about her. Her mother needed her attention and time. That was when law school took a tumble. Though her tutors were disappointed, she hadn’t confided in the details of her life. Not yet. Not until it was necessary. Not until she was on the brink of being kicked out of Deakin University.
“Josie,” the doctor breathed out. “The cancer coming back isn’t uncommon. But we need to run more tests. Yes, it could be aggressive, but we’ll have to see how your mother reacts to the chemo. We’ll know more soon. It’s best if she stays in the hospital. We can’t risk her going home, especially since she doesn’t have anyone to look after her.”
“I know you could,” he said, interrupting her. “Looking after your mother won’t be as easy as you think it would be. It’s a lot of pressure. You do have Power of Attorney, so if you wish to, you can. But I highly recommend you continue life as you have been. It will calm your mother.”
Continuing life will make her happier.
I can’t give up on law school.
I can’t let her see how this affects me.
Josie bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from crying. She was hardly the crier. Now, her tears snuck up on her, and she had no idea how to handle them besides accepting they were forming and then falling.
“You’re right. Thanks, Doc. Is she all right to see visitors?”
The doctor removed a hand from his coat pocket and settled it on her shoulder. Then he made a slow nod. “She is. But keep the conversation light. She needs plenty of rest.”
She gave him a tight smile, making no promises as she stepped around him and entered her mother’s hospital room. The first thing Josie noticed was the paleness of her mother’s face and her hollow cheeks. The vision before her was not the warm and bright mother who had raised her. The smiles were no longer the same. Instead, they were broken and never complete. Her mother had tried, but the cancer showed when she attempted to smile. There lay a woman who had already fought one cancer battle and was now enduring battle number two. But this time, Josie wasn’t sure how much fight her mother had left. Though she was determined and mentally willing, her body told another story.
“Mornin’, Mamma,” Josie said sweetly as she made her way to the side of the hospital bed.
“My sweet Josephine, good morning,” she said softly and reached for her hand.
Josie tried to hide her flinch at the contact of her mother’s cold touch. Emily Faulkner gently squeezed her daughter’s hand and attempted one of those tired smiles. Josie placed the bouquet on the side table and pulled her hand from her mother’s just long enough to pull the visitor’s chair closer to the bed and sit on it. Then she reached for her mother’s hand and rubbed her thumbs across her bony knuckles.
“How are you feeling?” Josie asked, unable to remove the concern that seemed to echo loudly in her voice.
Her mother’s other hand covered Josie’s. “Haven’t felt this good in years.”
The teasing tone in her voice had Josie chuckling. “You’re such a bullshitter.”
“Language, Josephine!” her mother scolded.
Rolling her eyes, she let out a groan. “Mamma, I’m twenty-two years old.”
“I don’t care. You’re still my little girl. Use language like that again and watch out—” Emily’s wince had Josie getting out of her chair, running her eyes over her mother’s frail body to find the source of her pain.
“Do you want me to get the doctor?”
Her mother shook her head. “Don’t be silly. I told you; I’m the best I’ve been in a long time. Now, are you ready to see your father tonight?”
Josie sank back down on the chair and let out a heavy sigh. It was her mother’s idea to see him. He would only be in the country for a few days with the German Chancellor. The only reason Josie hadn’t refused was because her mother’s eyes twinkled when she had suggested she see her father. But her interactions with him were anything but warm and loving. In fact, it felt like an inconvenience for both her and Ambassador Jeff Faulkner.
“Mamma, I don’t think seeing him is a good idea. Especially with you being in the hospital.”
“Josephine, your father is hardly in the country. It will be good for both of you. You need a nice dinner to unwind. Working at the bakery and uni is a lot to handle.” Her mother gave her that ‘I am your mother and I am right!’ expression, pursing lips and all.
Josie let out a lengthy exhale and conceded defeat. If it made her mother happy, she would do it.
“But no mention of my health,” she reminded.
“Stupid instruction, but all right.”
Her mother lifted their clutched hands and brought Josie’s knuckles to her lips, pressing dry kisses on her skin. Then she said, “I love you, Josephine. You know I will always love you.” Emily’s voice had softened in that tone that worried Josie. It was delivered in that ‘I’d better say I love you in case it’s the last time’ way, and it caused a crack in her heart.
The tears flowed.
She knew it was okay to cry. Josie was sure her mother would appreciate her tears, but Josie needed to show her mother that if she was strong, then she could be, too. That she could beat cancer for the second time in less than a year. But Josie knew the reality of the situation, and that was that the second time could be the last time.
“I love you, too, Mamma,” she said as she stood, leant over, and kissed her mother’s head. “I love you so much.”