Chris sat up in bed and stretched his arms over his head.  The water was running in the bathroom a few feet from the bed and he seemed confused for a minute before his mind cleared and he remembered that Maddie was there.  He smiled and fell back on his pillow as he sighed and enjoyed the warmth of the blankets around him.

            The water stopped abruptly and he heard the shower door slide open.  "Maddie?"

            "Are you expecting anyone else to be in your shower?"  She asked with a delicate laugh that echoed against the tile walls of the bathroom.

            "Just checking, you never know."  Chris smiled and yawned.

            Maddie dried off and dressed herself in a well-worn pair of jeans and a comfortable button down short sleeved shirt.  She grabbed her hairbrush and walked out into the other room barefoot,  "Look at you, what a lazy bum."  She laughed and sat by his feet,  "Is this what you do on the road?  You sleep in, then get up and dance in the afternoon?"  She kidded him as she poked at his legs under the covers.

            "I'm off.  Technically I am no longer on the road.  I am in fact, on vacation."  He yawned and lowered the blanket to smile at her,  "And let me tell you, it's going to feel great to have some time off."  Chris stretched his arms again and playfully kicked at her behind as she began to brush her hair.

            "Yeah, I know the feeling.  After I graduate it'll be weird to have so much more free time."  Maddie reached up and blindly parted her damp hair.

            "Yeah but you have work still, right?"

            "Part time, yeah.  I went to part time about three weeks ago so I could spend more time getting ready for all my tests and everything.  But once I graduate I'll want more time off to relax and eventually go job hunting."

            "That's awesome."  Chris nodded as his brow furrowed in thought.  "Hey, if you get some free time and really want to relax, you can come out to Florida.  Gorgeous weather, private pool, your very own pool boy and bar-b-que man, a couple cute dogs, one semi-meddling neighbor and one of the worlds worst back massagers… at your service."  Chris laughed.

            "How could I pass that up?"  Maddie laughed and looked over her shoulder at him.  "Do you live alone?"

            "As opposed to?"

            "As opposed to with someone."  She smiled slightly.

            "Who would I live with?  I'm a notorious bachelor with two dogs."

            "No buddies or sisters or anything?"

            Chris chuckled,  "My home is my sanctuary, I don't even like those freaks knowing where I live."  He shook his head and rolled onto his stomach to poke her in the side.  "So unless you consider two pugs 'room mates' then yeah I live alone."

            "Do you like it?"

            "I love it.  If I didn't love it I'd have room mates." 

            "So why would you want someone to come stay with you and intrude on your solitude?"

            "Because you're cuter than the guys and I've got a better chance of scoring with you than with my sisters."  Chris laughed and blushed; hardly believing he'd just said that.

            She laughed out loud and swung her leg up on the bed beside him,  "I'll make you a deal."

            "Done."  Chris extended his hand to shake on it.

            "You don't want to hear the terms?"

            "If it means you'll come out to my house in Florida, I'll do it."  He smiled and took her hand in his to kiss her fingers.

            "You have to come out to California."

            "When?"

            "In two weeks."

            "For how long?"

            Maddie shrugged and licked her lips,  "A day or two."

            "Why?"

            "I thought you said you'd do it."

            "I will, I'm just wondering what it's for."

            "For my graduation."

            "Are you serious?  Hell yeah I'll come out for that.  I'd do that even if you didn't want to come see me, wow… absolutely."

            "Really?"  She raised her eyebrow at him, that wasn't the reaction she'd anticipated.  "You'll have to sit in the bleachers under the hot sun for hours on end."

            "I don't care."  Chris smiled.  "That's a huge deal for you.  I can pretend it's my graduation too… just like, six years late."  He sat up and leaned over to kiss her,  "I'd love to come and watch you graduate."

            "Thank you."  She blushed.

            "You're welcome.  Thank you for inviting me."  He smiled and kissed her again as the scent of her soap and shampoo sent his insides into a swirl of motion.

            "You know what?"  Maddie asked as she leaned back a few inches to meet his eye.  "I never in my life thought I could just be with someone and not feel like I had to show them who I was… does that make sense?  I just… I feel like you know me, really know me… without me having to tell you."  She smiled.  "Even though I know I've told you almost everything."

            "I know what you mean."  He laughed.

            "I've never been this irrational before.  I've always prided myself on being levelheaded and smart, and then you come around and I find myself wanting to quit my job and come spend the summer in Florida with you."

            "That's not rational?"  Chris asked as he scratched at his stubbly chin.

            "Not when I've only known you for a couple months or whatever."  She laughed and shook her head.

            "Well you know what?  Inviting you out to stay with me is one of the most rational things I've ever done."  He smiled and bounced off the bed.  "Let me shower then we'll grab something to eat."

            Madeline smiled and leaned back on her arms as she listened through him go through the motions of getting ready for his shower.  The door closing, shower door opening, water turning on, him cursing the frigid water that came out at first and finally the faint sound of a Stylistics song reverberating off the bathroom walls.

            She sat motionless for a few minutes with a blissful smile on her face;  "You're going head over heels for this guy."  Maddie thought to herself.  "But it's time I took some chances."  She whispered as she pushed herself off the bed and scrounged around for her shoes.

 

            Maddie kept her realization to herself as they ate a quick breakfast with their luggage at their feet, waiting for the security team to come get them when it was time to go to the airport.  She kept a careful eye on him, as if she were looking for something wrong with him.  He had his flaws, everyone did.  But even his flaws had character and that's what drew her to him.

            "Do I have a booger or something?"  Chris asked as he ran his hand under his nose.

            "Hmm?  What?  Oh, no."  Maddie shook her head and blushed quickly.

            "You're off in the twilight zone."  Chris laughed.

            "Something like that."  She blushed even deeper and looked down at her plate.  "I had a really good time last night, thanks for inviting me out."

            "You mean thanks for forcing you to come out?"  He smiled and took a bite of his toasted bagel.

            "Yeah."  She looked up to catch his eye, then laughed softly.  "Thanks for annoying me enough to make me come out here.  I don't know how you do that every night and still stay sane, I'd need to sleep for a week to recuperate."

            "You get used to it."

            "I'm sure you do."  She nodded.  "But I uh… I'm glad I didn't miss out on this.  The concert and the party and seeing you and everything, it was just about the most perfect night of my life."

            "Just about?  Where'd I fall short?"

            "You didn't.  But I kept thinking how much of a drag it was that I didn't come out sooner, so that kind of put a damper on the night.  But that was my fault."

            "And you're going to hold that against me?"

            "I'm not holding anything against you."  Maddie laughed.  "Last night will be hard to top."

            "Ha, I've got lots more where that came from."  He tried to wink seductively but he ended up look like a pirate.

            "I can't wait to see that."  She smiled then looked up as two guards walked into the little caf�.  "I think it's time for us to go."

            Chris turned around and followed her gaze,  "Yep, that's our call." He stood up and picked up his bags, then dropped cash on the table to cover the bill and tip.  "Let's get outta here."

            They rode to the airport together with the last of the security team and said goodbye at Chris' gate since his flight left first.  "I'll let you know when I'm coming out for your graduation."  Chris said as he tugged on her hands.

            "Okay."  Maddie nodded.  "If you change your mind or whatever, that's fine.  Just let me know a couple days in advance so I can sell the ticket or something."

            "How much is the ticket?"  Chris asked.

            "Don't worry about that."

            "Maddie… you're graduating, you shouldn't have to pay for something like that."

            "I get free tickets for up to three members of my immediate family.  According to my school, you'll be my brother."

            "Ew."  Chris made a face as dirty southern jokes ran through his mind.

            "Like anyone will be checking."  She laughed and rolled her eyes.

            "Will your family be there?"  He asked as he tried not to let her see how uncomfortable the topic made him.

            "Nope, my brother's show is on the road so he can't fly in."

            "What about your parents?"

            Maddie squished up her nose and shook her head,  "Nah they uh… they've never really left Illinois.  I know, they're weird."  She shook her head.  "They have their work and everything and they can't just take off for a long weekend."

            Chris didn't want to even begin to presume anything about her family, but this was her college graduation.  "So I'll be the only one there?"

            "Well you and a few thousand other people, yeah."  She laughed nervously as Chris' guard nodded toward the ramp leading to the plane.  "You've gotta go, your bodyguard dude is starting to itch."

            "Okay."  Chris nodded.  "Well, I'll call you when I get my tickets to come out and uh… and we'll go from there."  He smiled and wrapped his arms around her for a short goodbye.

            "I'll see you in a few weeks."

            "Yep."  Chris said softly into her hair.  He brushed his lips over hers and lifted his bag onto his shoulder.  "Bye."

            "Bye."  Maddie smiled slowly and waved as he ran down the ramp to catch up with the guard.  She checked her watch then adjusted her bag on her shoulder and walked quickly across the airport to her gate to catch her flight to Los Angeles.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            As the other guys were settling into their much anticipated time off, Chris was making more travel plans to go back to LA for a couple days.  He wasn't sure how long he was going to be there so he left the return ticket open.  Maddie was surprised to hear from him the next day with his flight information, but she already couldn't wait to see him again.  This was the start of what was promised to be a very exciting relationship.  Chris was nothing like anyone she'd ever met with his little adorably annoying tactics and child-like behavior that brought her down to earth and let her enjoy herself a little more.  She could see where others might want him to grow up, but she also saw that side of him in the few quiet moments they'd shared.  He was the perfect balance between the two, and it complimented her own personality so well.

 

            When Chris landed in LA two weeks later, he took a shuttle to his hotel and called Maddie from there.  She was working so he only had to dial her extension in the hotel.  "Hey, guess where I am?"  He asked with a playful smile.

            "Ooo, are you here already?"

            "I'm about… maybe a hundred feet from you."

            "Oh really?"  Maddie leaned over the receptionist's desk to look into the almost empty lobby.  "Where?"

            "Fourth floor, probably three rooms from the elevator."  He smiled.

            "You should have come in to say hi, I didn't know you were staying here." 

            "I always stay here."

            "Well yeah, but…"  She let it dangle.  Where else would he stay?  Certainly not at her little hole in the wall condo.  It was cute and she adored it, but it wasn't for company.  "Anyway, you should come down."

            "I didn't know if you were busy."

            "You can be my afternoon appointment today."  She laughed.  "Do you want a manicure?"

            "No."  Chris laughed.  "I already did that."

            "And did you see how fast girls came flocking to you?"

            "Oh yeah, that was all about the hands."  Chris rolled his eyes.

            "How about a pedicure?"

            "I think not."

            "Come on, you could get a free service and we could kinda hang out while I work.  I can't get in trouble that way, we're supposed to chat it up with out customers."

            "I'll come down but I don't want anything like that."

            "Too bad, you're getting a manicure.  I'll see you in fifteen minutes Mr. Kirkpatrick, just check in at the receptionists desk and Laura will bring you on back."  She laughed lightly, then hung up the phone.

            Chris smiled down at the phone in his hand before he hung up,  "You brat."  He mumbled under his breath as he looked down at his baggy jeans and t-shirt he'd worn for the flight.  He decided it would have to do, then ran his hands through his hair to help with the spiky effect he'd somehow managed to perfect on his own.

 

            He crossed the lobby five minutes later with his hands in his pockets and a permanent smile on his face.  The door opened easily and Laura looked up as he walked in,  "Hi, I have an appointment with Madeline."

            "I - you're back."  Laura stampered.  How she'd managed to keep her job in a salon that celebrities frequented was beyond Chris.

            "Yeah, I'm getting a manicure… I think."

            "Oh, okay.  Yeah, with Madeline…let me go tell her you're here."  She nodded and sprang from her seat to rush down the hall.  Chris leaned on the counter and played with the business cards in the little silver holder.

            "Hey there."  Madeline smiled as she walked toward him.  "You're right on time."

            "Don't sound so shocked."  Chris frowned and rolled his eyes.  "I can occasionally show up on time you know."

            "So I see."  Her smile brightened as she nodded toward the back rooms,  "Come on back and we'll get started."  She tucked her hands into the pockets of her skirt and walked quickly down the hall.

            Chris circled the counter and followed her to the room at the end of the hall where Maddie had turned in.  He shut the door behind him and smiled as Maddie sat at the little table.  "I don't really have to get a manicure do I?"

            "Yeah you do."  She raised an eyebrow and got her things situated.

            "Maddie…"  He started to whine.

            "Don't whine."  She filled the little bowl with warm water and a lavender cleanser.

            Chris sighed in remission; it was pointless to try to argue with her.  He ran his hands through his hair and set his wallet on the little table as Maddie sat down.  "Now don't think you're getting off the hook just because you're working."  Chris side stepped the table and reached for her empty hand.  He pulled her up from her chair then dropped his hand to her waist for a friendly hug.  "Hi."  He said softly before he closed the distance and kissed her, lingering for the briefest of moments on her bottom lip.

            "Hi."  She smiled as the room spun around her.  "I'm working."

            "And I'm saying 'hello'."  Chris licked his lips quickly as he smiled;  "Now we can get started."  He sat in his seat and let her drop his hands into the solution.

            She took a deep breath to right herself, then sat to work on Chris' hands.  He sat still and talked for the whole hour, filling her in on their concert plans and how they were going to work recording into their schedule while they were on tour.

            "So see?  Because the stage takes a couple days to set up, we'll have almost a whole day in each city we go to, if not more depending on the dates."  Chris explained.  "So we're taking a portable studio with us and we'll use local facilities here in LA and in Florida when we're there."

            "So you'll be touring and singing all the songs from before, while you're recording the songs for your new album?"

            "Yep."  Chris nodded.

            "So then you'll have to tour with the new stuff after this tour?"

            "We don't have to, but we probably will.  Actually, while we're recording we'll be performing some of the songs in concert just to give the fans kind of a sneak preview.  You know what I mean?"

            "That sounds like fun."  She smiled and rubbed his hands with the thick lotion.

            "Yeah, it'll be busy and crazy, but fun."  He smiled.  "Hey…"  He frowned suddenly,  "How come I'm in here getting pampered when you're the one graduating tomorrow?"

            "Because this is my job."

            "You're the one that needs to be relaxing and kicking back while someone massages your hands, not the other way around."

            "This is relaxing to me."  Maddie smiled up at him as she laced her fingers through his to make sure the lotion got on every part of his hand.

            "You know what I mean."

            "I have to work Chris."  She shrugged and moved to his other hand.  "After graduation I have almost two weeks of vacation coming to me, that's when I'll go get pampered and spoiled."

            "Right on."  Chris smiled.  "In Florida?"

            "Possibly."  She smirked and laughed lightly;  "I don't know when I'll be able to come out for sure."

            "That's okay."  Chris sighed; if he had his way she'd fly home with him immediately after the graduation ceremony and never leave.

 

            When Maddie was done with Chris' manicure, he gave her another warm kiss goodbye, and promised to see her that night.  He paid at the front, ignoring Madeline's protests that he didn't have to pay at all.

            He went back to his room and took a short nap on top of his covers, then made a few phone calls just to touch base with his mom and sisters.  Before he knew it, Maddie was knocking on his door and it was after six in the evening.

            They went out to dinner down by the pier in Santa Monica, then spent the evening playing in the arcade and watching the waves roll in on the beach outside.  They made plans for Chris to meet Maddie at her apartment in the morning so they could ride to the campus together.  Towards the end of the night Chris noticed her becoming more and more nervous.  He wrote it off as pre-graduation jitters, while all she could think about was how she could find a way to spend the night with Chris without just coming out and saying it.

            As they walked back toward the car parked three blocks up the street, Chris took her hand and gave it a little squeeze.  "Is your place hard to find?"

            "Hmm?"

            "Your apartment?  Because I pretty much get lost just trying to find the freeway around here."  He laughed and looked down at their feet hitting the pavement at the same time.

            "Oh I… well I guess so.  It's not far from the freeway, if you want I can even give you directions so you don't have to go on the freeway."

            "That won't help."  Chris laughed,  "Maybe I'll just take a cab in the morning, so I can just give the driver the address."

            "You could do that."  She nodded and brushed her hair off her forehead.  As she lowered her hand she felt like raising it to hit herself,  "Or you could just take me home tonight to see where it is."

            "Your car is at the hotel though."

            "But you're coming to get me in the morning so I an get it after the ceremony."  Maddie's stomach tumbled.  "Or you could uh… you could always uh… stay over that way we can just leave from there."  She cleared her throat then looked up at Chris.

            Chris smiled at her adorable nervousness and sighed,  "My stuff is at the hotel.  My suit I mean."

            "Oh."  She said after a moment's pause.

            "But uh, we could always swing by to the hotel so I can get my clothes and your car then I can follow you over tonight."

            "Yeah…"  She began to feel doubtful.

            "Or we can go back to the hotel and stay there, then swing by your place in the morning so you can change into whatever you're wearing to the ceremony."  Chris shrugged and squeezed her hand again.

            "Yeah, we could do that."

            "We can do whatever you want."  He stopped walking in front of his rental car and tilted her chin up to kiss her,  "It's all about you this weekend, so what do you want to do?  Would you rather go to your place or the hotel?"

            "The hotel."  She nodded as she remembered the swamp-like state she'd left her bathroom in.

            "Great."  Chris smiled and kissed her again,  "Then let's go.  It's late and I'm tired."  He drove them back to the hotel and parked near her car in the lot so that Chris could follow her to her place in the morning.

 

            They went up to his hotel room and he quickly picked up the mess he'd left earlier.  Chris kicked off his shoes and stretched to crack his back,  "They've got some movies on the pay-per-view channel if you want to watch something…"

            "I uh… okay."  She nodded.  "Do you have a t-shirt or something?"

            "Yeah, I have a couple.  Hang on."  He went back to the closet and dug around in his bag until he came up with one of his many FuMan shirts.  "Is this okay?"

            "Yeah."  Maddie smiled and took it before she went into the bathroom.  When she emerged a few minutes later she was carrying her clothes in her hands and was wearing only the t-shirt and her underwear.  "Much better."

            Chris raised his eyebrow and smiled as butterflies fluttered in his chest,  "Not too many girls can look tempting in an old t-shirt you know."

            "It's better than sleeping in my pants and bra." She pointed out with a smile.

            "I'll take your word for that."  Chris smiled and pulled his socks off as Maddie yawned loudly.

            "I can't believe how tired I am.  When did I get so old?"

            "Stop that train of thought right there." Chris shook his finger at her as he pulled his shirt over his head.  He felt strange just taking off his clothes while she sat there, but in a way it was comfortable for him also.

            Maddie took the remote and flipped the channels, then called down to the front desk and kidded with the clerk there.  They obviously knew each other and it sounded like she'd arranged to watch the pay-per-view movie for free.  "Gladiator?"

            "Sounds good to me." Chris shrugged and shimmied his jeans down, leaving them crumpled on the floor by the bed.  He pulled back the covers and slid underneath as Maddie did the same. 

            He didn't want to just grab her and pulled her close, the last thing he wanted to do was freak her out.  But at the same time he just wanted to feel her close to him, the warmth of her body against his even if they were just going to watch the movie.  Maddie switched off the bedside light then scooted up closer to Chris to curl in beside him.  He wrapped his arms around her and inhaled the sweet scent of her hair.

            A silent agreement was made to stay that close all night… long after the movie was over and long after they'd fallen asleep.  Chris woke several times during the night just to check the clock, a habit he'd gotten into while being on the road.  Each time he pulled Maddie closer to him and kissed her sleeping lips, as though if he let go she might not be there when the alarm went off in the morning.

 

            The alarm beside the bed woke them up just before eight in the morning.  Chris snoozed the alarm, wanting just another ten minutes with Maddie breathing hotly on his neck.  By the third time, he knew that he had to get up and get the day started.  He carefully removed Maddie's arms from around his waist and kissed her neck before he rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom.  He did his business and brushed his teeth, then went back out into the room to grab his clothes for the day.  "Hey there Sleeping Beauty, it's time to get up."  He said in a normal voice, hoping to wake Maddie that way.  "Maddie… Madeline…"

            She groaned and rolled onto her side to face him,  "Why do I have to get up?"

            "Because it's your graduation and I came all the way out here to watch you walk across the stage."  Chris sat on the bed beside her and patted her hip.  "What time do we have to be there?"

            "Eleven."

            "Then we want to leave here by like nine so we can go to your house and you can do your two hour girly get ready routine."  Chris laughed and ran his hands through his wild morning hair.

            "I don't have a two hour routine."  Maddie cracked her eyes open and smiled up at him.  "I'm very low maintenance."

            "Right on."  Chris leaned down and kissed her forehead before standing up.  "You still need to wake up."

            "I'm awake."

            "Good."  He took his clothes into the bathroom and started the shower.  He cleaned himself up and shaved, then stood at the counter in his towel to run styling gel through his hair and to slap on after-shave.

            When he was dressed and looking sharp he stepped back out into the bedroom only to find Madeline still curled up under the blankets.  "Oh… I don't think so."  He laughed and sat by her side again.  "Come on kid.  We've gotta go."

            "Chris?"

            "Hmm?"

            "You suck."  She rolled over then sat up.  "But you smell nice, what is that?"

            "Some mossy something or other the hair and make up girls use all the time."  Chris shrugged and patted her back.  "All you need to do is throw on your pants and we're ready to go.  You can shower and everything at your place."

            "Cool."  Maddie sighed and reached for her jeans and shoes piled on a nearby chair.  Chris waited as she pulled them on, then she made her way to the bathroom where she shut the door tightly.  "Hey."  She shouted through the door.

            "Hmm?"

            "This might sound odd and you don't have to say yes… but can I borrow some toothpaste?"

            "Just toothpaste?"  Chris smiled.

            "Yeah."

            "Yes, you can borrow toothpaste.  You can even borrow my toothbrush if you want."  He laughed.  "You're cooties don’t scare me anymore."

            "Thank you."  She smiled from the other side of the door and took him up on his offer.  When she came out several minutes later her hair was brushed and her breath was minty.  "I used your hair brush too."

            "Jeez."  Chris sighed and rolled his eyes, then laughed.  "Okay… let's go.  It's already after nine."

            They left the hotel in their own cars and drove across town to Maddie's little condo in a small tree lined community.  "This is nice."  Chris smiled as they walked from the street up her little walkway.

            "Thanks."  She smiled and let him into her condo then immediately apologized for the mess.

            "This is nothing, this is clean."  He shook his head and took in the whole room that smelled like vanilla and cinnamon.

            "I'll go get ready, make yourself at home."  She flipped on the light in the kitchen then pulled open the drapes in the little living room to let in more light.  "If you're hungry there's stuff in the fridge, or whatever."

            "I'm okay."  Chris nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets.

            "Okay… I'll just be a few minutes."  She rushed through the house and shut the bedroom door.  He heard the shower go on a few minutes later as he sat on the bright blue futon couch and took a magazine from the coffee table.

            He busied himself with the lives of several Hollywood celebrities featured in the latest People magazine while he waited, and was halfway through Macauly Culkin's odd marriage when she stepped out into the living room.

            "Wow, look at you."  Chris dropped the magazine as he stood up.  "You look great."  He smiled and looked her over in her plaid skirt and plain white blouse.

            "Thank you."  She checked her watch;  "Damn I'm good.  It's only a quarter after ten so we've got time to spare."

            "Cool."  Chris reached for her hand and pulled her close to kiss her, letting his hand smooth down her honey colored hair.

"Of course, parking will probably be a bitch so we should go."

            "Good idea."  Chris nodded and grabbed the keys off her kitchen counter.  Maddie locked up and they drove over to the campus where they had to separate.  Madeline had to go to the library to pick up her cap and gown and get in line for the procession, while Chris needed to find a seat in the north side of the bleachers.

 

            The ceremony started right on time, but Maddie was right, he did have to sit in the hot sun for a few hours before it was her time to walk across the narrow stage.  Sweat soaked through his dress shirt and glimmered off his cheeks as his sunglasses slid down his nose.

            He used the program to fan himself, but ended up heading for the shade as soon as her group was completed.  When it was done he headed to the field with the other family members to congratulate all of the new graduates.

            "I made it!"  Maddie giggled and did a little dance in her flowing robe as she ran over with a carnation in her hand.  "Ugh, I can't believe it's finally over."  She threw her arms around Chris' neck and hugged him close.

            "Congratulations."  He smiled and patted her back;  "You're official."

            "Yeah I am."  She took a step back and smiled up at him as she glowed.  "Man, I need a vacation now."  She sighed and took her cap off to run her fingers through her hair.

            "I know what you mean."  Chris trailed his hand down to hers and held it tight.  "Do you have to do anything right now?  I mean, is there a thing or whatever?"

            "Nope.  I have to go return my cap and gown over in the library then I'm free to go."

            "Do you want to find your friends or whatever?"

            "Nah, I've seen them today already."  Maddie laughed and squeezed his hand.  "Come with me to return these then we can take off, the library is on our way back to the car."

            "Okay."  Chris nodded, then paused to lean in to kiss her.  "I'm really proud of you."  He said softly.

            "Thank you."  She whispered as she kissed him back.  They walked up the stairs to the main concourse and out to the campus green.  Maddie lead the way to the library where they waited in line to return the borrowed black cap and gown she wore.

            "Well kid, I don't know about you, but I'm hungry."  Chris placed his free hand on his stomach.

            "Me too.  I was too nervous to eat this morning so I'm running on about three sticks of gum and a bottle of water."  She laughed and swung his hand.

            "Oh wait."  Chris stopped and reached into his pocket,  "Here, I got you a little something."  Chris gave her a small smile and a narrow gift box.

            "Chris… you didn't have to get me anything."  She shook her head but smiled broadly.

            "I wanted to.  This is a big day and stuff." 

            "Well thank you."  She smiled and nodded as she ran her finger down the silver wrapping paper.  "Should I open it now?"

            "If you want."  He shrugged.

            "Ooo, I do."  She giggled like a schoolgirl and sat on a nearby bench.  She crossed her legs and tucked her hair behind her ear as she reached for the end.  The wrapping fell away easily and she grinned down at the deep red box in her hand.  Her heart raced as she tried her hardest not to imagine what was inside.  It was shaped like a pen set, which would make sense, that was a logical gift for a college graduate.  But this was Chris she was dealing with and she had no idea what to expect.

            "You take forever, just open it already."  Chris sat beside her and reached over to remove the lid.  Inside was a white plastic ballpoint pen with a blue cap that looked like it had been chewed in a previous life.  It had a red satin ribbon tied around it with a silver charm in the shape of a graduation cap hanging from it.

            Maddie smiled with half of her mouth and looked at Chris.  "Well the guy at the store said that a pen was a good gift for graduation, but all they had there were those fancy pens that no one really writes with and will end up getting lost anyways."  He shrugged.  "So that's the pen I had handy… you know, in case you feel the need to write something or whatever."

            "I… it's lovely."

            "And then that there is a charm to go on your charm bracelet to mark all of the important steps in your life."  He pointed to the little charm shimmering in the box.

            "Chris I don't have a charm bracelet."  She said softly as she leaned closer to him.

            "See?  I thought of that too."  He reached into his pocket and pulled a small charm bracelet out,  "I'm on the ball today, I've got all my bases covered."

            "You really do."  Her smile grew as he unclasped the bracelet and held it out for her to place her arm on.

            Chris closed it around her wrist then brought her hand to his lips,  "Happy graduation day."  He smiled and dropped their hands to his lap where he laced his fingers through hers,  "So what's the plan now?"

            "I uh… I don't know."  Maddie shrugged, still slightly in shock from the gifts he'd given her.  "I want to put the charm on there though, so I don't lose it."

            "Okay."  Chris reached for the box that was still in her other hand and removed the pen with the ribbon and the charm.  He freed his hand and worked the charm free.  "Let's see if I can figure this out now."  He sighed and held the tiny charm between his fingers.  After a few minutes of maneuvering and almost dropping the charm, he had it fastened on her bracelet.  "There, perfect."

            "Yes, it is."  Madeline smiled and shook her wrist gently.  "I'm going to have to work on getting more charms for it now though."

            "Yep…"  Chris nodded; they sure would.

 

            They spent the evening at a fancy restaurant for dinner where both of them had hamburgers,  "You know, we could have just gone to Burger King and gotten a whopper."  Maddie whispered over the candle in the middle of their table.

            "Yeah, but you wanted to go somewhere nice."

            "No I didn't."

            "Yeah you did, you said you wanted a nice dinner."

            "Which could have been you making macaroni and cheese at my house."  She laughed lightly.

            "Well you should have told me that before I went and spent twenty dollars for a quarter pounder."  He laughed and wiped the corner of his mouth.

            "I never expected you to take me out."

            "Well this is better though because you can't get wine at a fast food restaurant."

            "Nope."

            "And we can have an outrageously priced desert here too."

            "We can share it, I wouldn't be able to eat anything after this."  She eyed her plate and wondered if she'd even be able to finish what she had.  "But can we go home after this?  I mean…"  She paused and blushed, "I mean can you take me home after this?  I'm exhausted."

            "Sure."  Chris nodded and tried not to smile as her cheeks continued to deepen their pinkness.  "Do you have to work tomorrow?"

            "No, not till Monday."

            "Cool."

            "How long are you here for?"

            Chris shrugged,  "As long as I want to be I guess."

            "Aren't you tired of LA?"

            "Of LA?  Sure… I guess so.  But I'm not tired of you."  He smiled and took her hand.  "When do you think you'll be able to come out?"

            "I can probably make it next week."

            "Okay."

            "How uh… how long…"  She pursed her lips and tried to harness her growing blush before it spread to her ears.

            "You can stay as long as you want."  He smiled.

            "Okay."  She smiled and thought about that for a minute.  "When I go in on Monday, I'll let them know then that I'll be gone the rest of the week.  Is that okay?"

            "That's fine."  Chris nodded and thought of his home back in Florida.  "I'll uh, I'll have to leave tomorrow then so I can get home and pick up a little.  I live like a bum."

            "Lovely, I can hardly wait to see that."  She laughed and rolled her eyes.

            "It's not that bad, but… you know…"

            "I know."  She smiled and took another bite of her burger before she placed her napkin on the table to signify that she was done.

            "Do you want dessert?"  Chris asked a minute later.

            "If you want to share one, sure."

            "I think I can do that."  He nodded and waved the waiter over.  Chris ordered an extremely rich sounding chocolate cheesecake then sat back in his seat,  "So how do you feel now that you've graduated college?"

            "Accomplished."  Maddie smiled.  "I feel like I've done something real with my life." 

            "That's cool."

            "But I also feel like, 'okay what's next?' you know what I mean?"

            "Well next you're coming to Florida.  You're taking a well deserved vacation to the beautiful Atlantic coast to sunbathe and sleep your way through the day."

            "You live on the coast?"

            "Uh, no."  Chris shook his head.  "But I have a pool… and I can always get some sand if you want a beach."  He laughed and drummed his fingers on the table between them.

            "No, I don't think sand is necessary."  Maddie laughed quietly and squinted at Chris, letting the light from the candle halo his head.  "You have two dogs, right?"

            "Two pugs."  He nodded.  "Busta and Korea."

            "Are the full grown, or puppies?"

            "Um, pretty much full grown.  Busta's like, three years old I think and Korea is about a year and a half, almost two."  He nodded.  "They're small though, so it's not like they'll be knocking you over or anything."

            "No that's okay, I like dogs."  She smiled.  "I was just wondering."

            "Do you have pets?"

            "Nope, I can't."  She shook her head.  "But growing up we always had big dogs.  We had a St. Bernard, a Great Dane, a German Shepherd, a Husky… then out of no where my parents got two miniature daschunds."  She laughed.  "So that's what they have now, two little ankle biters."

            "Pugs are ankle biters too."

            "No, these dogs are about… six or eight pounds each, and about three inches off the ground."  She laughed and tucked her hair behind her ear.  "They're cute and everything, it's just weird to go to such small dogs after having dogs the size of horses all my life."

            "These are my first dogs ever.  I think my mom had one when I was born but I uh… I don't remember that, of course."

            "It was so long ago…"  Maddie laughed.

            "I was so young."  He smirked.  "Hey you're not too far behind me in age, just remember that."

            "I know."  She smiled as the piece of cheesecake was set between them with two forks.  "Man that looks good."

            "I thought you weren't that hungry."  Chris took a fork and twirled it between his fingers.

            "I lied."

            "Is that something I have to get used to?"

            "Me lying about how hungry I am when it comes to chocolate cheesecake?"  Maddie raised her eyebrow and took a bite.  He nodded as he put the bite of cheesecake in his mouth, trailing chocolate lines on his lips as he removed the fork.  "Yes.  Anytime I say I'm not hungry when you order chocolate cheesecake, I'm lying." 

            "Okay."  He swallowed and nodded.  "I'll remember that."

            "Okay."  She laughed and reached for another bite.

            "Guess what?"

            "What?"

            "You're gonna come see me in Florida."  Chris said softly as he ran his fork through the fudge sauce on the plate.

            "I know."  She whispered.

            "That's really cool."  He looked up at her and gave her a half smile; she really had no idea what it meant to him to have her out to visit.  That was a huge step for Chris, and he couldn't wait to take it.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Chris flew home the next day and spent two days picking up the house and preparing it for Maddie.  He made three trips to the grocery store to make sure he had actual food in the refrigerator, as well as sodas, wines and beer… just in case.  He called in a team of house cleaners to do the inside and a gardening team to make sure his backyard was as presentable as the day he had it completed.  The pool was cleaned and the bar-b-que polished up and ready to go.  He even had the dogs groomed so that they would smell more like baby powder than wet dog when she showed up on Tuesday.

 

            Maddie arrived several days later intending to stay for a week of sun and relaxation, but the week turned into two and two began to turn into three.  By the end of the second week she called into her work to resign, saying that she needed more time to focus on her job search in the field that she was educated in.

            "So that's it.  I'm officially jobless."  Maddie sighed and hung up the phone.

            "Yay!  Me too!"  Chris grabbed her hands and spun her around.

            "You're not jobless, in another couple weeks you're going to be heading back on tour here with a job."  She frowned, suddenly unsure of the decision she'd just made.

            "Yeah but right now we're both jobless.  We can just sit around in our bathing suits all day and play with the dogs and walk up to the 7-11 for slurpees three times a day."

            "No, see jobless people have no money."

            "I have money."

            "You're not jobless."  She shook her head.

            "I kind of am."

            "Chris… honey, you're not jobless.  I am jobless.  When I go home I'm going to have to live on my savings until I find a job."

            "Aww, don't worry babe, you'll find a job as soon as you get back."  Chris pulled her in for a hug and kissed her ear through her hair;  "You can even start calling around from here to see if anyone back in LA is hiring or whatever."

            "I'm just worried now."  She tugged on her lip in concentration.

            "So call them back.  Say you made a mistake and you'll be into work tomorrow."  Chris shrugged as he mentally wanted to choke himself.  "Jeez, can you try a little harder to sound like you want her to leave?"  He asked himself.

            "No, I don't want to do that."  Maddie smiled and shook her head.  "I can do this, I'll be fine.  I'm just glad my rent and phone bills and stuff are set up on my bill pay thing through my bank, or I'd be jobless and homeless."  She laughed lightly as the nervousness seemed to alleviate.  "I don't want to work at the salon any more.  I want to work with or for a doctor, a psychologist."

            "Then go for it.  You've got your degree, you've got your lucky bracelet, you've got me… the supportive guy, Mr. Supportive if you're nasty."  He crinkled his nose and laughed.

            "I know."  Maddie gave him a half smile and sighed.  "I just quit my job though, I've never quit a job before I had another one lined up.  It’s just weird.”

            “Well you know what you need to do?”  Chris sounded serious as he leaned forward to tilt her chin up.

            “What?”

            “You need to go skinny dipping in my pool.”

            “I do not.”  She laughed and blushed.

            “Yeah you do.”

            “I’m not going skinny dipping in your pool.”

            “You’re no fun.”  Chris sighed.  “If I go will you go?”

            “I’m not going.”  She shook her head and turned her face away from Chris,  “You’re nuts, this is a big thing Chris, I just quit my job.”

            “A job you didn’t like anyway.  You were going to quit when you got back, right?”

            “Yeah.”

            “So what’s the big deal?”

            “I should be looking for a job, not lounging by a pool.”

            “You think too much.”

            “It’s called being a grown up.”  She raised her eyebrow and looked up at him.

            Chris’ eyes flickered away for a second as he had a Dayna flashback,  “It’s called being a stick in the mud.  What’s done is done now let’s have fun.  Sitting here sweating about not having a job isn’t going to help anything, is it?”  He asked.  She shook her head in response as he continued,  “Rad, then lets go in the pool.”  He pulled her to her feet and dragged her outside toward the pool.

            “Chris… come on.”

            “You started sounding like Dayna back there so I need to snap you out of that.”  He said, hating to compare her to an ex girlfriend.

            “I don’t – “  She started to defend herself only to be cut off mid-sentence by Chris lifting her off her feet and dropping her in the pool.  "Chris!"  She screeched as she surfaced a moment later.

            "See what happens when you get too serious?"

            "You ruin my leather sandals?"

            "I'll buy you new ones."  Chris shrugged and knelt by the poolside.  "You're beautiful when you're soaking wet."

            "I look like a drowned rat."  Maddie shook her head, but smiled as she waded into the shallow end.  She climbed out of the pool and wrung out her shirt over the walkway while the dogs yapped at her feet.  "Please don't compare me to Dayna."  Maddie said as she walked over to Chris. 

            She bent to unstrap her sandals, as Chris sighed, "Then don't act like her."

            "Comparing the current girlfriend to an ex-girlfriend is the kiss of death."  She used his shoulder for balance then dropped her sandals by the little table.  "You're lucky she's such a cool person or you'd have those sandals someplace you don’t even wanna think about." 

            "You needed to chill.  See?  You're chilled, now you can relax and stop stressing about your work situation."  Chris smiled.

            Maddie nodded then wrapped her arms around him, making sure he got soaked in the process.  Water dripped from the cuffs of her shorts onto his shoes as he cringed,  "Yes, I am chilled… and yes I needed that, but really… that's not a phrase you should get too comfortable using."  She kissed him quickly then took a step back.

            "You're really staying?"  Chris changed the topic suddenly to save himself from digging a deeper hole.

            "Yep.  You're stuck with me now."

            "Promise?"

            "I promise."  Maddie nodded as she pulled her dripping shirt away from her body.

            "Good."  Chris smiled as he squinted into the sun,  "I kinda like being stuck with you."  He raised his hand to block the sun.

            "I kinda like being stuck with you too."  She laughed and followed the dogs into the house, leaving Chris to watch with a smug and almost giddy smile on his face.

 

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Copyright � 2001, Amy Lynn