Monday, June 7, 2010

Chapter 1 - Helpless

“Kahlan, do you think… do you think you could help me?”

Max poked his head into the hall. I saw his shoulder, it was bare. He bit his lip and arched his eyebrows, a helpless look on his face. A look that said, Please.

I put my finance textbook down on the coffee table. “What’s the matter?”

Max backed into the room as I reached the door. He was wearing shorts… swim trunks. I looked down at them confusedly. Then I noticed his injured arm was out of its sling and he was holding it gingerly against his side, bent at the elbow.

“This is dumb, I’m sorry,” he said, moving to usher me out of the room.

“Max, what do you need? I’ll help you.” Maybe he needed help putting his sling back on, or reaching something in the closet.

He sighed and looked down at his arm. “I can’t wash my hair. I can’t really do anything.” He looked up at me, and I saw the Talbot charm sparkling in his eyes, like he almost wanted to laugh. “Wanna take a shower with me?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. Then opened it again, but nothing came out. Now Max did laugh.

“That’s a priceless look! I’m sorry, don’t worry about it,” he said, putting his good arm out to turn me away.

I didn’t move. Max was my friend. He needed a little silly help. He was even wearing a bathing suit! He was trying to charm me into doing something he really needed.

“Don’t be dumb, of course I’ll help you.” I headed toward my room.

The only bathing suit in my drawer was a bikini. I hadn’t worn it since I’d taken a long weekend in the Bahamas over Labor Day.

No tan lines left, I thought. I adjusted the top and checked the mirror. Looks pretty good, if I do say, I complimented myself. Why am I thinking about that? I should be wearing a burqa if I’m going to get in the shower with Max.

In Max’s room, the bed was unmade, the sheets rumpled like he’d just woken up. Charcoal grey and white, very masculine but inviting. I bet they’re still warm, my out of control brain said.

I couldn’t help it. Max and I had been friends for almost two years. We’d been roommates for 4 months, since I moved into the house Max shared with Kris. I had seen Max at his best and worst – hoisting the Stanley Cup, hiding from a crazy puckbunny he’d brought home one night, making dinner, opening gifts, fighting with the guys. After all that, something about Max was still delightfully sexy. It’s the French, I knew. Everything he says sounds dirty.

“You can climb in there if you want,” he called from the bathroom. “I can shower afterward.” I could hear him chuckling.

“Sorry, hot stuff. You need two hands to handle me.”

Max’s room had a private bath. He was standing with his back to the mirror, twisted gently and looking at the web of bruising that covered his upper back and right shoulder. He saw me in the mirror, then snapped his head around when he saw my bathing suit.

“Woah,” he was not shy about looking me up and down. “I should have….” He shook his head. “This is either a great idea or a really bad idea.”

“Easy Superstar,” I kidded him, breaking the tension more for myself. Be cool. Max is such a flirt.

I reached for his shoulder and turned him around. His soft, olive skin was covered with bruises like starbursts, interconnecting where the soft tissue around the shoulder blade and taken the brunt of the impact with the boards. I moved around his shoulder, gently touching his skin. I traced my fingertip over the rise of his swollen bicep. An angry purple stripe folded down the front into his underarm. He sucked in air through his teeth as I brushed a particularly sore spot.

“Max,” I whispered. I hadn’t seen his shoulder since right after the injury two days ago, before the bruises could bloom. I straightened… and realized I was very close to his face. He was looking at me closely, without turning his head. Impossibly long eyelashes, stormy gray-green eyes. I pulled away slightly.

“Are you okay?” was all I could manage. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

“I’m on some meds,” he smiled. “It’s more stiff than anything, and the swelling makes it feel numb.” He looked at my hand, still on his chest. “Where you fingers touch me, it feels cold. So the feeling is coming back.”

I snatched my hand away. “Sorry!”

He caught it as I was swinging it back. “I liked it. First thing I’ve felt besides pain in a few days.”

Bad idea, this is a bad idea, Max repeated in his head.

“How hot?” I asked, reaching for the shower handle.

“You’re about a 9,” Max said. “But in that suit, I’d go 11.”

I glared at him over my shoulder. “Freezing cold it is!”

Max had a great shower. It was a standing, glass-walled cube, separate from the bathtub. He’d installed a massaging shower head with different settings for the water pressure. On the highest setting, the water was like a jet. It was a strong massage after a game or long road trip. Kris was always asking to shower in here, now I knew why. I put the pressure on a gentle setting, almost like falling rain.

“I think that’ll work,” I said, backing out.

Max climbed into the shower and moved under the spray. He faced the water, letting it run down over his head and face. I stood outside, holding the door open.

“You’re getting water all over the floor,” he said.

The water was the perfect temperature. I stepped in as Max backed up to avoid touching me. I pulled the door closed, and there really was plenty of room for both of us. Max’s shower stuff was lined up along a chest-high shelf. I took the bottle of Bulgari body wash and snapped it open. That’s it, I thought. Max always smelled good. He was a very pretty guy, a little vain but so sweet you forgave him every time. And he was watching me.

“I always wondered what that smell was,” I breathed it in again, couldn’t help smiling. “It smells like you.”

He laughed. “Does that mean you like it?”

“I’d know it anywhere,” I said, squeezing some into my hand. “You always smell good, even when you’re sweaty.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “You’ve been living with hockey players too long.”

I looked around, and realized that Max didn’t have a sponge. Of course not, he’s a guy. We both looked down at the dallop of soap in my hand, then looked at each other.

“Hold on…” I opened the door and squeaked down the hall, into the bathroom that Kris and I shared. I grabbed my green mesh sponge from the shower. As I walked out, Kris came around the corner from the kitchen.

“I didn’t know you were here,” I said.

Kris was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, barefoot, eating a bowl of cereal as he walked. He’d been headed for the rec room at the back of the house. Now he was staring at me, with his mouth open. I was practically naked and dripping water all over the floor.

“Did we get a hot tub while I was at practice?”

“Max can’t move his arm.” I said holding out my handful of soap.

Kris’ eyes bugged out. “So you’re giving him a bath? No, wait, you are SHOWERING with Max? He’s got you in the SHOWER soaping him down?” He was stunned, and starting to smile. He spun on his ankle, took four steps and burst into Max’s room. I followed him into the bathroom.

“What is going on in here?” Kris said, sitting on the counter by the sink.

“Nurse Kahlan is about to give me a sponge bath,” Max opened the shower door and leaned out. “Jealous, Tanger?”

Kris laughed. “Just surprised it took you all season to think of this.”

“I’m getting cold with the door open,” Max said, pouting at me.

“I am NOT watching you two get it on in the shower.” He hopped down, and came right up to me. “But I am going to throw myself under a bus. Got a nurse costume in your room?”

Bad idea, Kris thought, a little frantically. That is a bad idea.

I closed the shower door behind me. “Well that was awkward.”

“Are you kidding? He’s on the phone with Radio Crosby right now. By game time, everyone on the team will know.” Max was genuinely laughing now. “Sorry, I didn’t think of that before.”

I scooped the soap out of my palm with the sponge. “Oh please. Those horndogs think the three of us are some crazy ménage-a-trois setup anyway.”

Max took a step toward me. “I like it when you speak French,” he purred.

He was very close. And it was very warm. The glass had steamed up around us. I put a hand out to steady myself, and my palm cleared a perfect print in the fog. I was suddenly aware that I was nearly naked, in the shower, with Max. Even though he was injured, an unbidden flash of what he could probably do to me with a single finger bounced through my mind. I blinked it away.

“Turn around, Tiger.” I said.

I held the sponge above his shoulder and squeezed, letting the soap run onto his skin. I touched the sponge down gently, and he flinched.

“Too scratchy?” I asked.

“A little, yeah. I didn’t realize how sensitive it is.”

I dripped the rest of the suds onto him and set the sponge aside. Here goes nothing, I thought. I put my fingers flat against him, hardly touching. I made a small circle, then moved a little and made another. It covered the top of his shoulder, moving in toward his neck. I brought my hand down his shoulder blade, where the bruising was darkest.


“Oui. It doesn’t hurt,” he said softly.

I ran my fingers over his ribs, along a muscle that always fascinated me. The players all had it – a defined strip at the back of the ribcage, an extension of the abs. I had never seen it on a normal guy. I kept going, up into the crease between his side and arm. I moved my hand over his tricep and onto his bicep, over his tattoo. Max wasn’t a huge guy, but his well defined arm muscles made my hands look small. Soap ran down off his elbow.

He turned toward me, giving me his arm without moving it. I pressed gently up to his shoulder, then along his collarbone. I took a single finger and ran it over the fierce, nearly-black line in the space where his shoulder moved against his chest. I felt him shudder. He took a deep breath.

I looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time. They were wet - the spot I’d barely touched was really hurting him. Strong, tough Max. It was hard to see him in pain. Sure, the guys got hurt. Mostly they got frustrated at whatever was keeping them off the ice. Their drive blinded them to pain. I had figured out a long time ago that some people can ignore just about anything in pursuit of a goal. So for Max, this was an especially bad situation.

I don’t know what came over me. I wanted to hug that look of his face – pain and fatigue. I leaned down and kissed his shoulder, barely connecting just a wisp above the darkest bruise. When I lifted my head, Max didn’t look surprised. He stepped a little closer and put his head against mine, so the sides of our foreheads and cheeks were touching.

He sighed. I could feel the full weight of his frustration, his disappointment at being hurt and how unlucky he felt. His eyelashes fluttered on my cheekbone.

“I’m so mad,” he whispered.

“I know.” It was all I could say.

“Will you sit with me tonight, in the box?” he asked.

I nodded, against his face. Then I straightened. He was smiling sadly at me. I gave him a straight smile, the kind you make with your cheeks instead of your lips.

“Thanks for doing this,” he said.

I smiled. “I think you just needed a hug. But you’re so French, you have to be all scandalous.”

“At least I’m wearing shorts!”

I finished washing his injured side, and give the other side of him a quick once over with the sponge. His shampoo was guy-scented too, and I squeezed way too much into my hand.

“Oops, this is a girl amount!”

“So wash your hair, then do mine.” He stepped out of the way.

I soaked my long brown hair under the spray. To get out of the water, I had to turn and face Max, then backup to the other side of the stall. I could feel him watching me. His eyes were on my body as I lifted my arms over my head, massaging the shampoo into my hair. I rinsed and reached for the conditioner.

“I really wish I could help you,” he said, sounding a little more serious than I think he intended to. “I have never watched a woman do this before. It’s torture. The good kind.”

I started on my hair again, my eyes closed under the pretense of keeping the water out.
“It’s a good thing I can’t see you,” I said. “You’re getting that look on your face.”

“What look?”

I smiled to myself, eyes still closed. I raked my fingers down, separating the ends of my hair and rubbing in the conditioner. “The Butter Look.”

“The what?”

“You get this look when you see a beautiful girl. Like you’re toast and she’s butter, and you’d like to make her melt. Like she’s delicious already, but she’d taste better with you.” I wiped the water from my eyes and opened them. “I call it the Butter Look.”

Max laughed. “Do I do that?”

“Oh yes. But it’s kinda sexy. It’s very French.” I stepped out from under the spray. “Lots of guys ‘appreciate the ladies’,” I gave air quotes, “but you actually appreciate them. That’s why women like you so much.”

“I didn’t know you thought about this.” He stepped back under the water.

“I like to watch you guys,” I admitted. “A bunch of single guys – all with their own styles around women. Or no style at all.” I paused, and at the exact same moment Max and I both said, “Sid.” We laughed.

I put a tiny amount of shampoo in my hand, stepped up behind him and rubbed my palm into the crown of his head. Max was only three inches taller than me, so I could easily reach. I spread the liquid through his short, dark hair and used my fingertips to rub it into his scalp. He murmured encouragement. I had always loved having my hair washed in the salon – there was something decadent and surprising about having your head touched.

I covered Max’s whole head, sliding and pressing across his forehead, around behind his ears and along the hairline at the nape of his neck. He was enjoying it, so I took my time. I used my thumbs lightly on his neck, at the base of his skull. He moaned softly and leaned into my hands. I slid my hands under his earlobes with a gentle tug, then put two fingers on either side of his jawbone, where the top teeth meet the bottom. I made small, firm circles, feeling where the tension from his shoulders had bled upward. I moved up slowly until I was touching his temples. With one finger on each side, I made gentle forward circles then backward. Then I spread my fingers and drew them up through his hair, meeting over the top of his head.

He stood absolutely still for a moment, then his shoulders sagged a little.

“That was better than sex,” he purred.

“You’d have to check that with someone I’ve actually slept with,” I countered.

“Nope. No way it’s better than that.” He tilted his head down into the water.

I doled out a dime-sized spot of conditioner and ran my fingers through his hair again. He pressed into my touch, but I finished quickly. He stuck his lip out in an exaggerated pout.

“Always leave them wanting more,” I teased.

Max stood in the shower after Kahlan left. There is something wrong with feeling that good about your roommate, he thought. Kahlan was beautiful, without question. Her long brown hair, kelly green eyes, tall athletic frame… Max shook his head. Get a grip dude, it’s Kahlan. Plus, she’s almost done with school. She could be leaving soon. Why ruin something that’s walking out the door anyway? As he turned the water to cold, he could help but think about the kiss.

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