Johnny Zacharra had taken a big risk when he had invited Maxie Jones to attend a fundraiser at the Corinthos' house with him. The night was destined to be a disaster from the moment Claudia had started planning it, and he wasn't sure that he really wanted anyone to be there when it all imploded. However, he knew that he couldn't walk the road alone, and few girls would ever be strong enough endure his world. Lulu had tried, but they had failed. In fact, two weeks after his breakup with Lulu Spencer, Maxie was about the only person Johnny could even let in. He had come to depend on her not only as a friend but as his source of comfort and strength. She was his escape in the midst of everything.
Maxie slipped her hand in Johnny's as they headed up the moonlight path to Sonny's house. Johnny was eerily quiet, and she could feel his hand just barely shaking in hers. He was clearly anxious about tonight, and she wanted to do whatever she could to put his mind at ease. "Hey, whatever happens tonight, I'm glad that you brought me here," she murmured as they joined the end of the receiving line. He offered her a small smile and nodded politely. "I'm serious, Johnny. If you need something – anything – tonight, you just look at me. I'll help you get through this."
He wasn't afraid of what could happen tonight, he was afraid of what already had. He was making a statement by showing up at this party with Maxie at his side. He was restating his place in the Zacharra family, acknowledging the role he played in the organization, showing support for the choices Claudia had made. He didn't agree with a lot of what was happening, but he was apart of it all. In fact, he was stuck right in the middle of everything. Having Maxie there instead of Lulu put her at risk. She would be recognized as someone that meant something to Johnny, but that didn't seem to scare her.
"Maxie, I should have told you this earlier when I picked you up, but thank you for coming here with me tonight. I know that it's not a fashion show in Manhattan, but I appreciate you giving up your evening to spend it with a bunch of stiffs talking business," he retorted softly. They could both read between the lines to hear what he wasn't saying. "You didn't have to do this, but I'm really glad that you did."
"Are you kidding me?" she grinned kindly, turning to adjust the collar of his tuxedo jacket. "After all the events I have dragged you to in the name of Crimson? I know you get paid to go to those things, but it's not like you really enjoy them. It's just the kind of thing you do for a friend."
They both knew that she didn't usually have to try all that hard to convince him to go with her to clubs or parties for the magazine. Besides the very generous deposit Kate made to his checking account in return for his services, he liked spending time with Maxie. She was fun and easy to be around, not at all exhausting like being around Lulu had become in those last few months they'd been together. She made him feel alive, and he could lose himself in her effervescent personality. They knew exactly what was going to happen between them eventually, but they were both still trying to fight it. It was probably easier to embrace the inevitable, but neither of them had ever taken the easy way out.
Johnny slipped his arm through Maxie's and stepped up to shake his brother-in-law's hand. Sonny and Johnny exchanged a nod of mutual understanding before the younger man moved on to hug his sister. Maxie stayed silently by his side, understanding her place. "Nice to see you, Ms. Jones," Sonny greeted her politely. Maxie smiled at him and tried to avoid the probing gaze of his wife. Johnny pulled away from Claudia and escorted Maxie further into the house.
"Well, that was uncomfortable," she stated bluntly. "Does your sister like any woman?"
"Not one she suspects has her claws in me for the wrong reason…"
"And what reason would that be, Zacharra?" she whispered as he slid his arm around her waist. They both looked around the room at the men in their dark suits and women in their fine gowns, feeling somewhat strange about how well they seemed to fit in. "I'm not here under false pretenses. You invited me. I'm not out for anything when it comes to you. I'm just helping a friend out, remember?"
He couldn't help but roll our eyes. "We're not exactly friends, Jones," he reminded her. "I don't ordinarily do with friends what we've done now on two separate occasions. Do you make out with your friends?"
"Sometimes," she answered honestly, not at all apologizing for her sexual prowess. She knew what she possessed and used it to her benefit whenever need be. It was kind of like how he would throw around his last name whenever it was advantageous. "But you're the only one I've kissed lately."
"And what about Spinelli?"
She stopped walking and looked at him. "That's different."
"It's like you kissing Lulu. I can't be angry at you for that. You don't get to be mad at me about Spinelli."
"Who said I was mad?"
"Fine, jealous then," she corrected herself. "And don't even try to tell me you're not jealous, I can see it in your eyes. I'd recognize that look anywhere. It's probably the same one I get when I saw you with her."
"You were jealous of Lulu?"
Maxie hated to admit that she envied anyone, but she had become jealous of her roommate in the past few months. She had seen the way that Johnny looked at her. It was a way that no one had ever looked at her before, not even Cooper. Over time, however, she had seen that look in Johnny's eyes change. It had slowly become a look she could call her own. He clearly felt something for her, but they were both too afraid to admit that there was something there. They couldn't acknowledge that she had come to matter to him. They couldn't confess the undeniable. They just danced around it, allowing themselves to crash together whenever the temptation got to be too much.
Johnny didn't wait for her answer. He knew it before he'd even posed the question. "She and I are over, Jones. You're here with me tonight, not her. I don't know what's going to happen or what you even want. I just know what I want, and right now, I want you."
She turned away from him, heading in the opposite direction of the crowd toward the balcony. Maxie could deal with the times when they crashed together unexpectedly, but she wasn't sure that she was ready to dive all the way in. She'd taken that leap twice before, and each time, she had lost big. Johnny was right behind her, staying a few steps behind. "I'm not asking you to marry me, Jones."
She whirled around. "Don't you think know that?" Her voice was fierce and defiant, her eyes wild and angry. "Dammit, Johnny, why did you have to do this? I just wanted us to be friends. I thought that maybe this could be the one friendship that I didn't completely wreck. We were on the same level, just using each other for a little comfort. Then you have to go and profess your feelings for me! Why couldn't you just keep your mouth shut?"
He didn't even try to hold back his boisterous laugh. "My feelings for you? I just said that I wanted you, Jones. I'm just talking about sex. We've hooked up twice now. I just thought we could do it again and maybe actually go through with it."
"No, you don't get to do that to me!" she shouted, pointing at him in accusation. "You don't get to act like that is what you meant when we both know it wasn't. You weren't just talking about sex. You're so scared to have anything real, just like I am. That's why you destroyed what you had with Lulu. We both know it. It's exactly what I would do. I just can't be another victim of your need to wreck things. I'm dangerous enough on my own."
Johnny raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. He had never met someone that he wanted to shake and kiss so much at the same time. "Who says that I would wreck you? Is it possible that maybe you'd end up wrecking me? Maxie, you're the one who is scared here. If you have feelings for me, maybe you need to own up to them. Don't project that on me!"
"I'm not projecting anything." Her voice was small and childish. "I'm not."
He took a step closer to her as he watched her strong façade crumble. Johnny had seen it coming as soon as she stopped screaming. He cupped her cheek with his left hand and pulled her against him with his right arm. "I'm sorry, Maxie, I shouldn't have said anything."
"I hate you."
"I hate that you were right."
"I know that, too," he retorted. "I'm not that happy that you were right either."
"What are we going to do about this?"
He shook his head. He had no idea how to fix this. If it was a business deal, he would know exactly what choice to make. If it was a threat to his family or a move that the organization should make, the choice would be clear. Those things were easy because they really didn't matter to him. Maxie mattered. "Maybe we don't have to do anything. Maybe we just wait it out and see what happens."
"I'm not so good at the waiting part, Zacharra," she reminded him. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not known for my patience."
"I have no illusions about who you are, Maxie," he whispered. "I know you."
She turned her face further into his hand and rested her cheek against his palm. "The last time you kissed me was in the backseat of the limousine. It wasn't really about us. You scare me, Johnny, and nothing ever scares me. I've gotten really good at losing people. I know how to deal with that. I'm just not very good at having people matter to me," she confessed. "What if in three months you decide that I don't fit into your life anymore? What am I supposed to do then? I can't let you matter because I'll just lose you. Don't you see that? I know that this isn't going to work but it has to work. I just can't try this unless I really believe that."
"I don't understand you, Jones," he smiled affectionately, reaching down to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. She wasn't really making any sense, but he didn't care. He understood how much it meant to her and that was all he really needed to know. "I could make you all these promises but you're never going to believe me. You'd just have to take a leap of faith. You'd have to risk three months of your life so that I could prove to you that I'm still going to care in twelve weeks. When I showed up here tonight, I was so damn nervous about being a Zacharra again, but now I'm standing here with you on this terrace, and I don't care about any of that. It doesn't matter at all to me. What matters is that I fix this between us because you're the one thing that makes sense to me. Maxie, I'm here. Just let me be."
"I'm the one who is supposed to be supporting you."
"You are just by being here," he assured her. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm here with you, right where I want to be."
"This isn't you."
"Don't tell me who I am," he replied gently. "I know that I'm not typically this guy, but you're not a typical girl. There are going to be times when I shut you out. There are times when I have to tempt the fates and walk those ledges and stand in the line of fire. That's always going to be apart of me. But there is this part of me too. You need to hear all these things so you believe me."
"You're going soft on me, Zacharra."
He looked at her warningly before seeing the mischievous glint in her eyes. "Look at what you do to me. I never thought I'd see the day where a petite little blonde fashion plate could turn me into a bubbling puddle of emotion, but I guess it's worth it to see you smile like that. I know that I'm putting myself out there, probably in a way that I never have with anyone before. It's just what you said earlier struck a chord. Kissing you in the backseat of the limo wasn't completely about either one of us," he agreed. He was quiet for a moment as she peered up at him behind the fringe of her blonde hair. He brushed his thumb across her bottom lip, never once breaking her gaze. "Hey, Jones, next time you kiss me, could you make it about me?"
"Maybe it was about you," she teased him innocently.
Johnny shook his head. "Nah, not even a little bit," he smirked, "but this is." With that, he dipped to catch that bottom lip with his own as he wrapped them both in an intoxicating kiss. The exchange went on until they were both breathless. "Well, maybe that was about me."
"I beg to differ," she sighed as she kissed him again. "I think it was about me."
"You think everything is about you," he taunted her. "What am I going to do with you?"
"You're going to make me happy."
"So just like that? You're going to believe me?"
"I'm going to try," she agreed. "We don't have to figure all this out tonight. Tonight, we're going to play the perfect couple at your sister's incredibly screwed-up fundraising party. We're going to smile and shake hands and charm the crowd to raise money for children like Michael. And then you are going to take me home and prove to me just how hard you still are."
Johnny grinned at her double entendre as he led her back to the party. They spent the next three hours eliciting donations and the next three after that making up for lost time. Maxie was never going to be the kind of girl who could take a guy at face value, and Johnny was never going to be the kind of guy who could just give her the normal life. They weren't like other couples. Normal rules would never apply. Yet, with that leap of faith, they had the chance to have something so much better than perfection. They had the chance to be real. That was a risk Maxie Jones was willing to take.