So, here’s a fun thing I’m trying…
From the Swoon Reads “FAQ” page: “Swoon Reads publishes young adult and new adult romance novels. Writers can submit their original, unpublished manuscript to the Swoon Reads website, and readers who sign up can rate and comment on manuscripts to help us [editors] choose which titles we want to publish. Swoon Reads is an imprint of Macmillan publishing under Feiwel & Friends and was founded by Jean Feiwel.”
So, basically, you can visit Swoon Reads, read awesome currently-unpublished stories, then rate them and comment on them. Manuscripts that are highly rated are considered for a publishing contract from Macmillan. How cool is that?
Since Swoon Reads is all about swoonworthy romance, I decided to submit my swooniest — Kissing Max Holden. Below, you’ll find a brief summary of the story, plus the first chapter in its entirety. If you’re intrigued, I hope you’ll visit Kissing Max Holden‘s page to continue reading — totally free!
When Max Holden’s father suffers a life-altering stroke, seventeen-year-old aspiring pastry chef Jillian Eldridge has no idea how to help her longtime friend. Max, once bright and bold as lemon meringue pie, is sinking into a spiral of beer and self-destruction. Then, late one night Max knocks on Jill’s window, and she can’t turn him away. When her father catches them in the midst of a sizzling kiss, Jake Eldridge gives Jill a choice: Stay away from Max Holden, or find a way to fund culinary school on her own.
Jill doesn’t want to risk her future, but thanks to all the angst at home, she’s drawn to Max like sugar to butter. Her fertility-challenged stepmother is finally pregnant, but instead of elated, Jake is irritable and elusive. When he misses the birth of Jill’s baby sister and her parents’ fighting escalates, she turns to the boy across the street for escape. The more stolen time Jill and Max spend together, the closer they become. Then Jill stumbles upon the truth behind her father’s sketchy behavior, she knows her fragile family is about to shatter. Only Max—who’s more involved in the Eldridges’ drama than he realizes—might be able to help put the pieces back together.
The pounding at my window comes after midnight, and it scares me shitless.
A second knock quickly follows, rattling the glass in its pane and my heart in my chest. There’s such force behind the sound, I’m half expecting a bloodied, glass-encrusted fist to poke through my curtains.
Who the hell…?
Our house is inky dark, and quiet. The last of the trick-or-treaters have called it a night. My dad and stepmother have stowed the leftover Snickers bars and checked the locks; they’ve been asleep for hours. And my friends, they’re all at a Halloween party across town.
Another knock. More subdued, but still resolute. There’s comfort in the knocking’s persistence. Someone with deviant motives would be sneakier. And besides, this knock, his knock, is faintly familiar.
Fear gives way as curiosity blooms, and my stuttering heart resumes a steadier beat.
It’s been years since Max visited at night, years since I let him sprawl out on my carpet and talk my ear off until early morning. It’s been ages since we’ve talked at all, really, but I can’t ignore him now. It’s not in Max’s DNA to give up. He’ll keep knocking and eventually he’ll make enough noise to wake my dad, who will come to investigate. Max is little more than a brotherly figure these days, but my dad won’t take kindly to the sight of him lurking outside my window like a creeper.
I flip on a lamp and slide out of bed, straightening my skewed pajama pants as I pad across the carpet. I catch a glimpse of my disheveled reflection in my mirrored closet door and pause to adjust my tank top and smooth my ponytail.
I jump when he knocks again, as if he senses my ill-timed vanity.
He’s there as I draw the curtains back, peering at me from the unlit side-yard.
Max Holden used to be equal parts zesty and sweet, like lemon meringue pie. Bright and jovial, so brilliant I had to squint when I looked at him. Now, his dazzle has dulled, flattened like a biscuit that refuses to rise, yet I can’t help but hope for his once-trademark shit-eating grin, the one that says, I knew you’d come.
Of course I’ll come. He’s Max and I’m Jillian, and that’s how things have always been.
But he doesn’t smile. He looks tired. Defeated and deeply unhappy.
I push the window up. I don’t officially invite him in, but he braces himself with two hands on the sill and catapults through the opening like a cat burglar. He stretches to his full height—several inches taller than my five-seven—and I look him over, an eyebrow lifted in unconcealed shock: I’ve never seen him so eccentrically unkempt.
His feet are shoved into tattered moccasin-style slippers—cast-offs of his father, probably—and he’s thrown on faded McAlder High sweats, ratty things he wears to wash his truck, another hand-me-down from Bill. His torso is draped in a blousy white shirt with a black, jagged-edged vest over top, a white skull-and-cross bones embroidered over his heart. His dark hair is spiked in every direction, like he recently ditched a too-tight hat; he runs a hand through it when he notices my scrutiny. And his eyes, a gray-blue so deep they’re capable of drowning the unsuspecting, are rimmed in liner, black and thick and smudged.
Max isn’t a makeup kind of guy.
I stare, perplexed. I look away. Then, because I can’t help myself, I peek again.
“What?” he asks, gruff, like he’s spent the evening shouting.
“Um. You’re wearing makeup.”
He shrugs. “And you’re not.”
“It’s the middle of the night, Max. What are you doing here?”
He sinks wearily—and without an answer—to the floor, as if he’s too fatigued to remain upright. He leans against my bed, unfolding his long legs across the lily-white carpet my stepmother, Meredith, had installed after she married my dad and took over our house and our lives. Max’s eyes fall shut. His breathing is shallow and irregular.
I stand awkwardly over him as he shifts to get more comfortable. Now that his eyes are closed, I study him again, turning over the facts I’ve collected… He’s a mess. Drunk is a definite possibility. He went to Linebacker Leo’s Halloween party, like the rest of our high school’s population. From what I heard, he was going with his girlfriend, Becky McMahon. Who could blame him if he emptied a keg to tolerate her presence?
A draft eddies in from my open window. It doesn’t appear to bother Max, but I’m cold in my thin pajamas. I’m also self-conscious in my thin pajamas, which is absurd. Max’s eyes are still closed, and it’s not as if he hasn’t seen me dressed for bed; we’ve been neighbors for ten years and his sister is my best friend. But this—this—is different. We’re alone, and we’re seventeen instead of twelve.
The air feels suddenly gelatinous, hard to inhale. Does he sense it? Probably not. He looks seconds from sleep in his wacky getup.
My brain cranks into overtime… Max, in my room. Shouldering an air of gloom like heavy armor. The gloom isn’t implausible or even surprising, but what is surprising is the fact that he’s come here. Though I’ve tried to get him to talk, he hasn’t willingly engaged with me—with anyone—in months.
Shivering, desperate for practical action, I step over his idle legs and push my window shut. He’s staying, at least for now.
He opens his eyes to the quiet click of the window latch, gazing up at me from beneath heavy lids. “You let me in,” he states thickly, as if he’s just now realizing.
“You didn’t give me much choice. You would have woken my dad if I’d left you out there beating the glass, all drunk and disorderly.”
He smirks. “You’re glad I’m here.”
He doesn’t deny the drunk or the disorderly, I notice. “You think so? I was in bed. We have school tomorrow, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Is that why you weren’t at Leo’s? ’Cause it’s a school night?”
Leo, a huge middle linebacker whose father owns the Chevrolet dealership in town, is one of Max’s closest friends, and I wasn’t at his Halloween party for a variety of reasons. First, I hate the limited selection of costumes available to girls my age (slutty nurse or skanky angel… no, thank you). Second, I hate social gatherings that include more than my core group of friends (Leo invites half the school over anytime his parents go out). Third—and probably most significant—I hate watching Becky paw Max like a scratching post.
I don’t feel compelled to explain any of this though. Max and I may have been buddies in another lifetime, but I don’t owe him anything now.
“Ivy made a big show of missing you,” he says, folding his hands behind his head. The toothed edges of his vest ride up around his ribs.
“I’m sure she had a fantastic time.” I helped her with her peacock costume, or, rather, the indigo leotard we did a crude job of gluing iridescent emerald and violet feathers to. Though my best friend did her damndest to convince me to come to Leo’s, I didn’t get the impression my absence would have much bearing on her fun-meter. Besides, there was no way I was going to squeeze into the black cat “costume” she offered up.
I eye Max’s attire, lips pursed in contemplation. “Don’t tell me… Jack Sparrow?”
“Nah. Just your general parrot-toting, sword-wielding, beer-guzzling buccaneer.” His words are perfectly pirate-slurred.
“Sounds like all you got right was the beer guzzling.”
He sneers. “Becky was my wench.”
“Speaking of your better half, where is she? Oh! Wait! Did she walk the plank? Was she swallowed by a giant squid?”
His laughter, low and inhibited, surprises me, and brings an unexpected wash of nostalgia. It’s the sound of my childhood: leisurely afternoons spent tossing a football back and forth in the street between his house and mine, gross-out comedies in the Holdens’ big bonus room, dripping fudge pops devoured on summer evenings.
His bloodshot eyes crinkle at the corners and his head tips back against my bed. A small, selfish part of me is flattered that he’s here, with me, sharing a chuckle at Becky’s expense. I’ve missed his laughter.
When it dies out, he looks uncomfortable, like he might feel guilty at having experienced a tiny bit of joy. He studies his watch, a vintage thing on a worn leather cuff that belongs to his father. Bill has no use for it these days; Max is the one who wears it unfailingly.
He shakes off whatever memory he fell into and says, “Becky went home a while ago.” He makes a swilling motion, as if throwing back a drink. “I might’ve had one too many. Think I pissed her off.”
“You think you pissed her off?”
“I spilled beer on her costume. Maybe in her hair. But yeah, she’s definitely pissed. She made a scene at Leo’s, and then she left.”
“Wow. Some girlfriend.”
Not the first time Max’s drinking has pushed Becky to leave a party upset. I can’t say I blame her. Becky and I aren’t friends anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give her credit for sticking with Max in the wake of all that’s happened. She could’ve followed through with the Semester Abroad program she was accepted to last spring. Instead, she gave up six months in Italy to hang out in McAlder, where she’s done nothing but watch her boyfriend’s slow but impassioned demise. Still, no matter what sacrifices she makes in the name of Max’s welfare, my loyalty will always be his.
“Right?” he says. “For all she knows, I tried to drive home and ended up in a ditch.”
I blink away the image of Max’s F-150 mangled on the side of a dark road. “Don’t joke about that. She really left you without a ride?”
“Ivy brought me home.”
Of course she did. Ivy’s barely a year older than Max and me, a grade ahead of us in school, but she looks out for him—for both of us. “Does your sister know you’re here?”
“Does it matter?”
I shrug, but inwardly I freak. The last thing I need is my best friend questioning me about my late-night rendezvous with her brother.
“She doesn’t know I’m here,” Max concedes, “and neither does Becky.”
So, he ticked his girlfriend off, caught a ride home with his sister, then stumbled across the street to my house. How scandalous. And yet, there’s something surprisingly right about his visit. Something natural and innate about him seeking me out, even after all this time. I shiver again, though the window’s sealed tight. Sure, Max is tanked, but he came to me.
He inhales like he’s preparing to admit something of upmost importance. He’s so sullen, so un-Max-like, I stoop down and give him my full attention. Quietly he says, “I don’t wanna go home, Jill. I hate home. I’ve hated it since…”
His voice fades, but I know what he intended to say: Since my dad’s stroke.
He pretends to be impervious. He parties with Leo and Kyle and Jesse, boozes it up every weekend. He acts like he hasn’t a care in the world—but those of us who know him, really know him, see how much he’s changed in the aftermath of his father’s stroke. My chest squeezes with sorrow so big I worry my blood has stilled in my veins.
Ivy talks about the stroke all the time, that afternoon almost six months ago when Bill Holden—patriarch, football fanatic, and my dad’s longtime friend—keeled over while pushing his mower across the lawn. Max, the only other Holden home at the time, found him several minutes later and called for an ambulance. Bill was rushed to the hospital, and a diagnosis was made: hemorrhagic stroke, the outcome of an undiagnosed cerebral aneurysm that burst and caused bleeding in his brain.
The damage is irreversible. Bill will never recover, no matter how much his son drinks, no matter how often Marcy, his wife, prays. No matter how often his daughters—Ivy, Mya, and Zoe—reminisce or act out or micromanage.
The impact of Bill’s stroke was instant, and instantaneously unraveling.
Since my dad’s stroke… It’s there, hanging in the air, heavy as a storm cloud. I’m horrified when I notice Max’s clenched jaw and inflamed eyes. He’s had too much to drink, and now he’s battling emotion he’s kept corked for months.
Max Holden is dangerously close to tears.
I should let him say what he needs to say. Just spit it out and fall apart and be done with it. But I can’t stomach the thought of him sad or weak or out of control. The idea of tears rolling down his face guts me.
Impulsively, I reach toward him, brushing my fingertips along the smudged charcoal liner rimming his lids. He exhales, but stays still. There’s beer on his breath. Something spicy too—cinnamon, I think—and it’s inexplicably appealing. I have the briefest, most inappropriate thought: I wonder what he tastes like?, before I remember how damaged he is. Tonight he needs a friend, not a neighbor with indiscriminate hormones.
My fingers tremble as they skim the kohl line of his eye. Touching him this way tangles my emotions—surprise snarled with self-awareness, embarrassment twisted with wonder. We haven’t made physical contact since we were kids, but I committed the velvety quality of his skin to memory long ago.
The last thing I want to do is disrupt the trust he’s instilling in me, but there’s only so far I’m willing to go. Max has a girlfriend, one who’d be crushed if she knew I was touching him—if she knew he was letting me touch him. And I can’t help but think of Ivy. Ever since Max and Becky got together, she’s set firm boundaries when it comes to her friends and her brother.
Besides, he’s Max and I’m Jillian, and in the morning, after a night of anxious obsessing, this whole experience will seem dreadfully bizarre.
As my fingers drop away, Max opens his eyes. He catches my hand as it falls. He stretches it open, holds it close to his face, and studies my palm like he’s reading a map. My fingertips are stained an odd carrot color. I spent Halloween the same way I spend most evenings: baking. The orange food tint I used to color marzipan for Pumpkin Cupcakes is evidence. Layered over the orange, accentuating the dips and valleys of my fingerprints, is the black liner I lifted from Max’s pirate makeup.
He folds my palm into the web of his and drops our knotted fingers to his lap, like the two of us holding hands is the most natural thing in the world.
“Why are you being nice to me?” he asks blearily.
“I’m always nice to you,” I say, distracted by the heat of his hand on mine.
“Remember when we were friends?”
“Max. We’re still friends.”
“Not like we used to be.”
“Nothing’s like it used to be.” The admission hurts my heart.
“Remember when you used to hang out with me, not Ivy?” There’s a sharpness to his voice that’s alien. Whether he means to or not, he’s proving my point.
“Remember when you used to hang out with me, not Leo and Kyle and Jesse?” I counter. “Not Becky?”
Predictably, he ignores my rebuttal. “Why don’t we ever see each other anymore?”
Because you’re always playing football, or partying, or hooking up with your girlfriend, I want to say, but I’m tongue-tied. “We grew up.”
“That’s bullshit, Jillian.” He’s glaring now, no longer sleepy-drunk, but bitter-drunk.
I tug my hand out of his. The lost connection—not to mention the bite of his tone—makes my stomach roil. “Don’t put this on me,” I say. “A lot has happened, stuff I’ve had no control over.”
“What? You mean Becky?”
I mean his father and I want to say as much, but the hurt he wore a few minutes ago flashes in my mind and I can’t bring myself to mention Bill. Bill, who’s had to leave his half of the Hatz-Holden Logging management responsibilities to Marcy. Bill, who’s confined to a wheelchair and needs help eating. Bill, who has trouble communicating a simple hello.
I stand abruptly. I’ll go to my desk, littered with cookbooks and recipe cards. I’ll read my latest issue of Bon Appétit. I’ll ignore Max until he sobers up. Then I’ll send him on his way.
The ghost of his touch makes my palm tingle, but I feel better now that I’ve put some distance between us. I’ll pay for these late hours tomorrow, but there’s no way I can get comfy in bed with Blackbeard acting all wasted on my floor. How dare he blame me for the slow demise of our friendship?
I step high over his legs, fuming at his audacity—his idiocy. He grabs the hem of my pants, and I lose my balance, wobbling on one foot like a dizzy flamingo. Frantically, I consider my options: collapse on the floor with a noisy thud, or—God!—fall quietly onto his lap.
The mere thought of my dad waking up to the sound of my ass hitting the floor tips my mental scale and my dodgy equilibrium, and I give in to the slight inertia of Max’s pull. Into his lap I drop, landing with an embarrassing oof. Judging by the look on his face—chagrin swirled with a healthy dash of unadulterated amusement—he’s more shocked by my new seat than I am.
I’m dazed and mortified beyond words—beyond recovery, apparently—while he stares at me, clenching his jaw against what must be hysterics. “Jesus, Jill. What’d you drink tonight?”
I struggle to right myself. “Nothing, thank you very much.”
He’s snickering, and I want to smack him. “Really? Because that was—”
“You pulled me down! And shut up, would you? You’re going to wake my dad.”
His laughter quiets. “Jake’s cool. Remember when we were in middle school and he caught us smoking the cigarettes we stole from Mya’s dresser? All he did was toss the pack and sit us down in front of a documentary about lung cancer.”
“Yeah, and neither of us smoked ever again.”
“My point is, he didn’t freak out. And by the way, I did not pull you down.”
“I was walking and you grabbed my pants!”
“I didn’t want you to leave.”
I whack his chest. “I was going to my desk, you moron.”
He rubs the spot where I hit him, as if I’m capable of causing him pain. When he’s satisfied there will be no bruising, his hand lands on my leg. It’s inadvertent, I think. A comfortable resting place, although his other arm is looped behind my back.
We must notice the position of his hands, my body, the close contact, at the same time because suddenly all the oxygen funnels from the room. Max doesn’t look so amused anymore. His attention flickers momentarily to my mouth before he drops his gaze. Heat floods my face. What the hell am I doing in his lap?
“Yeah…” Max says, shifting. He’s not such a cocky pirate after all.
I brace my hands against the floor behind me, muster the little dignity I’ve managed to retain, and prepare to push myself up. “Sorry. You’re okay, ri—?”
He tightens his hold on my waist.
“I’m okay,” he says. He’s recovered his swagger—I’m sure the copious amounts of beer he consumed earlier are helping—and his voice is low, throaty, familiar. It’s his flirty voice, I realize, the one he sometimes uses with Becky. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I try again to climb from his lap, but his hand glides up my spine, beneath my ponytail, and wraps tenderly around the back of my neck. Now he is flashing me that grin, the one I was hoping for when I opened my curtains, the one that exudes confidence and promises fun. I want to hate him for teasing me. For using me. For being so freaking enticing.
I could never hate him.
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” he says.
“Max.” It’s a warning. It’s an invitation. With a smile and a stroke of his fingertips along the curve of my shoulder, he’s drawn me in, and I’m losing the very fragile grasp I have on this situation… I need to get up—right now—but he’s not making it easy.
“What were we talking about again?” He’s so close I can see dark stubble on his jaw. I study it to avoid his eyes, but then I want touch it, to feel its coarseness against my fingertips. I focus on my hands, clasped in my lap. The beer, the cinnamon, the wintery-clean scent of the soap he’s used for as long as I’ve known him… I’m certain he hears my heart’s incessant pounding.
“How everything’s changed,” I say softly.
I melt into him as he whispers the nickname that never fails to thaw me. “Yes?”
“If you tell me to go home, I will.”
His declaration lets me see us from a distance, unencumbered by his scent and his warmth and his gentle touch. I’m a reasonable person. A smart girl. And Max is a mess. Showing up late—or not at all—for class, ditching football practice, staying out until all hours. Just last week I watched him shove a freshman on the Quad because the kid accidently bumped into him. Tonight he’s three-sheets and looking for distraction. As much as I’d like to help him out of the hole he’s been hiding in, I won’t be his no-strings-attached hook-up, the other woman to his waning relationship with Becky.
I resolve to tell him as much—that he should, in fact, go home. That he should drink a glass of water and swallow a couple of Aspirin before bed. That I’ll see him tomorrow at school.
But before I can utter a syllable, he’s charging forward, eyes glazed, lips parted. I’m so astonished, so stunned, I let him push his mouth against mine, and even though it’s aggressive and utterly unexpected, I reciprocate.
I can’t help myself.
I can’t process this frantic, feverish kiss, but it shoots straight through me, a streak of heat and want. Oh my God—it’s good.
Just like that, I forget all the reasons why kissing Max Holden is a terrible idea.
Want to know what happens next? You can find all of Kissing Max Holden on my page at Swoon Reads. I’ll love you forever if, after reading, you take a moment to rate and review. <3