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At the sharp clack of a heel on his parquet floor, Max glanced up from wiping down the thick wooden bar that ran across the back wall of his pub, the Spotted Cow. Kurrajong Crossing was quiet this time of day, the lunch rush having long gone, and the evening crowd not yet descended. The sharp, pungent scent of lemon rose from the wax he polished the bar down with daily as the soft cloth swiped over the gleaming wood. Glittering speckles floated on the warm, late afternoon air in the shafts of autumn light that streamed through the vintage, colonial-style windows that lined the front dining booths.
A warm smile kicked up the corner of his mouth.
Millie Stevens walked toward him on the stilettos that seemed a permanent feature on her feet and perched on the bar stool she’d claimed as hers the minute he’d opened the Cow, over ten years ago. Her mid-thigh length skirt rode up to show a stretch of shapely thigh as she crossed one leg over a knee. She leaned her elbow on the bar and propped her chin on her fist.
Often acknowledged as the Crossing’s resident mean-girl, Max couldn’t help but reject that generalisation. He’d always liked her, had always gotten on well with her. Sure, she had a sharp tongue sometimes, but he knew her well enough to realise much of that was a form of self-protection more than true nastiness. It was just unfortunate that most others didn’t seem to recognise it.
His smile turned into a grin. “The usual?”
She shrugged one elegantly clad shoulder. “Maybe just an orange juice?”
A waft of something summery and light enveloped him, hinting of citrus and the sea. He breathed deep.
Max glanced at the huge clock on the opposite wall. She was earlier than usual for a Friday night. She often didn’t get there until after seven. It was barely twenty past five.
“All alone today?”
He scooped up some ice and grabbed a bottle of juice from the fridge under the bar. He hated that post-mix crap and refused to sell it to his customers, only using locally produced, fresh juice from the juicing factory over on the highway. He sat the glass in front of her on the freshly laundered bar mat.
She nodded and twisted the glass around on the mat, condensation starting to cloud the sides of it.
Max took the credit card she held up and turned to tap it on the EFTPOS machine. Sometimes Millie was as chatty as his sister Darby, other days words barely made it past her lips.
Looked like today was one of the latter days.
Millie had a small group of friends who had all gone to school together, although he knew she still missed Lucy something shocking.
So did he.
Millie and Luce had been inseparable, until a brain tumour had stolen her from them far too soon.
“You’re forty soon, right?”
Her voice turned him around again. He let out a soft chuckle. “Are you trying to make me feel old, or what?”
A cheeky smile unwound on her mouth. Her green eyes sparkled in the spotlights above the bar. “You’d like to think so, but no. You know I turn thirty-seven next week?”
Max poured himself a cola and leaned against the bar. No one else was in the Cow yet. Most people didn’t turn up until after six on a Friday. His brothers Gabe and Simon would turn up anywhere from five-thirty to six PM.
He pointed at her and smirked. “Indeed, I do. What would you like for your present this year?” Another hint of that scent hit him, distracting his train of thought. “Is that a new perfume? It’s really nice.”
She raised a well-sculpted eyebrow. “It is. I got it yesterday in Bialga. I’m surprised you noticed.”
I notice everything about you.
Max didn’t say anything, just shrugged. He should just ask her out and be done with it. His feelings for Millie had morphed and grown in the last six months, to the point that he couldn’t ignore it, but he held his tongue, Lucy’s final words echoing in his head, as they always did any time he let down his guard and even considered taking that step and asking Millie on a date.
“I want you to be happy, Maximus. Someday, when you can face it. But please … Not Millie. Promise me.”
His face must have shown his confusion at the restriction. Lucy’s expression hardened, a strange light entering her eyes.
“She wouldn’t stay. You know that, right? She never does. It’s like she has a time limit on her emotions. You’d only get hurt. Isn’t this,” she gestured to herself, “enough pain?”
Max blinked and shook his head, Lucy’s gaunt, illness-ravaged face fading from his mind. He pushed away his lingering confusion at Lucy’s words that day. Millie wasn’t like that. He knew it. Lucy had known it. It didn’t make sense. He sighed to himself. Rehashing the past wasn’t particularly helpful.
Millie fiddled with the napkin holder that sat near her on the bar was weird. Millie never fiddled, was never anything other than poised, sophisticated, and immaculate.
“I need to ask you something. I would’ve come by after hours, but …” She held up her hands.
She worked office hours, and he opened the Cow at eleven every morning, often not closing until two in the morning on the busy weekend nights.
He’d go upstairs to the apartment above the tavern, shower, then fall into bed only to do it all again the next day. The only time he’d be home when she could come by would be before heading to work, when he’d be dead to the world.
He and Millie had been friends for a very long time. She’d been Lucy’s best friend. He and Luce had married when Luce was thirty. He’d known Millie fairly well before that, though, through Luce’s close friendship with Ryan, then through Millie’s own relationship with Ryan, one that had ended disastrously.
He’d helped pick up the pieces afterward, and the fallout had lasted years.
“For my present? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, for a very long time, and I think the time is right. I’m financially secure, I have a good job, and I own my home.”
She sat straighter on the stool and smiled at him. He almost forgot how to breathe as the impact of that smile hit full force.
“I want you to give me a baby.”
End of Excerpt