What if everything you see is more than what you see—
the person next to you is a warrior
and the space that appears empty is a secret door to another world?
What if something appears that shouldn't?
You either dismiss it,
or you accept that there is much more to the world than you think.
Perhaps it is really a doorway,
and if you choose to go inside,
you'll find many unexpected things.
Max Davenport was running.
Away from the press.
Away from social media.
Away from Mary Beth.
Max Davenport was running home.
The drive from Kansas City usually took five hours; today he’d made it in just over four. Four hours and fourteen minutes to be precise.
Usually, Max took his time to enjoy the trip. He appreciated the gorgeous route along the western edge of the Ozarks, down into Tulsa’s green country, and finally into the thick, lush terrain that gave Green Hills, Oklahoma, its name.
Today, however, he simply wanted to get there. To a place of peace and tranquility, where photographers didn’t chase him, and where he could enjoy the slow pace of a small town and an empty house.
He loved his life in Kansas City — he really did.
From as far back as he could remember, he’d fantasized about playing professional football. Now he got to live the dream. He’d earned the spot as the starting tight end for one of the most successful teams in the NFL. They’d won two of the last three Super Bowls, they had a talented team with great camaraderie, and they’d managed to retain a fabulous coaching staff through the boom.
It was fun, and it was fast-paced. It was also hard work, long hours, and very intense.
On top of football practices, strength and conditioning workouts, mobility and yoga sessions, film study, game prep, and meetings, there were community service projects, media engagements, and more interviews than he could keep up with.
And there was Mary Beth, a renowned restauranteur in Kansas City.
Both being rather famous in Kansas City and both being rather active in the local social scene, Max and Mary Beth had each been aware of the other, but they’d never been introduced before. In fact, they’d never even spoken in passing.
The night they’d first officially met, Max had been asked to represent the Chiefs’ organization by appearing at a fundraiser. The event took place at one of Mary Beth’s incredibly popular restaurants.
Truth be told, “restaurant” was a bit of a misnomer for this particular establishment. Josephine’s was a Prohibition-style supper club that featured jazz and big band music, singing, dancing, and phenomenal American cuisine. A lively, happening lounge with a rich, soulful ambiance, it had great energy.
Max and Mary Beth had been seated side by side at the head table They’d spent the evening talking and laughing throughout an amazing seven-course meal. He was one of the best-known bachelors in town. She was young, successful, and stunningly beautiful. People noticed.
With a plethora of photographers, journalists, and gossipmongers present, several photos were taken — both posed and candid. Whispers and speculations were running amuck by the time coffee and desserts were served.
The final piece of the night’s program was a celebrity date auction.
Max avoided these things like the plague, but tonight’s event focused on raising money and increasing education to end Alzheimer’s disease, a cause near and dear to his family. Their beloved friend and pseudo-grandmother, Sadie Jones, had been widowed by the fatal disease, and Janie Lyn, one of the boarders at her home, the Marshall Mansion, had made it her mission in life to serve families living with ALZ. Max’s sister, Maree, and Janie Lyn spent a lot of time together over the past year and had grown quite close. When he’d told them about this opportunity, they’d begged him to do it. Of course, he’d agreed.
The celebrities were being auctioned off for an evening of dinner and dancing at Josephine’s. Max was one of a group of candidates — professional athletes, a few local news anchors, the two most popular local radio deejays, one famous author, and a half-dozen A-list actors and singers who lived in Missouri and Kansas, all eager to see to whom they would go.
The whispers about Max and Mary Beth became roars when he stepped on stage and the bidding began. With a calculating look in her eye, there was no hiding that she intended to win. A few other ladies in the crowd jumped into the fray, raising their bidding cards for one thousand, two thousand, four thousand dollars. Then, seemingly tired of playing the game, Mary Beth stood, raised her card high in the air, and announced, “Twenty-five thousand dollars.”
The room went silent. A statement had been made.
Max clapped and cheered, all the while fighting an urge to tug on his collar.
“Wow,” he said, sitting back down at their table. “You’ve already done so much to make tonight a huge success — that was a very gracious donation.”
“All for a good cause,” she responded. “Besides, I feel certain you’re worth it.”
Again, his fingers itched to loosen the top button of his shirt. He needed air.
One of the administrators from the local Alzheimer’s Association came to congratulate Max and thank Mary Beth. With her busy in conversation, he had an easy escape from the table. He circulated around the room, visiting with teammates and friends, dancing with a few of the players’ and coaches’ wives, and smiling for lots of pictures.
When the band announced their final set, Max scanned the room, looking for Mary Beth. No reason to put off the inevitable. Honestly, why all the effort to resist?
Mary Beth was amazing. Tall, lean, and lithe, she looked like the college track star she’d been at Kansas State. Her eyes were the deepest, darkest brown, and her skin resembled caramel velvet. Tonight, she had her hair out, and it was something to behold. With her shoulders back confidently and her smile dazzling the room, she resembled a royal African princess adored by all her subjects.
He could admit that while he felt a little intimidated, he also felt a little smitten. She was smart, accomplished, and kind. The auction date would be fun; in fact, he knew that the auction results could have turned out much, much worse.
Their date took place that same week, and they’d had a wonderful time.
The food was again fantastic, the Duke Ellington tribute band playing that evening had been incredible, and their conversation flowed easily and naturally. He’d been worried for no reason at all. Mary Beth wasn’t looking for anything more than Max was wanting out of a new friendship. And that’s all it needed to be: a friendship.
When he’d taken her home after their “date,” there hadn’t been an awkward moment. Mary Beth, relaxed as always, reached out to give him a brief hug and brushed a slight kiss on his cheek, thanking him for a fun date. He’d genuinely enjoyed himself and had offered to meet her for lunch whenever she had a day off. She’d said that sounded good, and he’d said, “Good night.”
Max had felt like he was on top of the world.
He’d driven to his townhouse, changed out of his suit, and let his dog, Hank, out in the back courtyard to do his thing. Everything was great.
Until he’d opened his phone.
It lit up like the Fourth of July. He’d been tagged in numerous posts, tweets, and photos of his evening with Mary Beth. They were being touted as a “power couple” and “the face of new love.” What??
Max felt sick.
He’d been so careful through the years, making absolutely sure that he didn’t — even accidentally — lead on the girls he dated. He wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship. He didn’t want to be half of a couple; nor did he want to be the face of any kind of love. He wanted to play football, spend time with his dog, and hang out with his family.
But the internet wasn’t having any part of that.
Within a couple of days, more photos from the fundraiser surfaced. One photo gave the impression Max whispered sweet nothings into Mary Beth’s ear, when in reality, he’d turned his head around to answer a question from the waiter standing behind them. Another zoomed in to his hand on her lower back, above the low V of her open-back dress, while he guided her to the table after the auction. The caption read, “A lover’s touch, as soft as silk.”
With each new “report,” Max felt more and more hunted, exposed for something imagined and unreal.
When he and Mary Beth met for lunch, Max hoped they could nip this thing in the bud. Instead, his hopes were dashed when Mary Beth confessed that she agreed with the paparazzi. She thought they looked great together, had fun together, and should give it a shot.
He sat dumbfounded as she chattered on about attending a tennis match together on Saturday morning, another fundraiser they should be seen at Saturday night, and brunch at Josephine’s on Sunday.
“We’ve never even had a real date,” he stammered.
“Oh, Max, we fit like a glove,” she said, waving away his objection.
She enjoyed being caught up in the limelight, and he couldn’t breathe.
He had to get out of there.
He had to go home.
“I never should have done that auction,” he repeated to himself over and over as he sped toward Green Hills.
But that had not been an option. Maree might have been disappointed, and he definitely couldn’t have let Janie Lyn down. The quiet, mysterious girl had been quite an asset to him since she’d arrived at Miss Sadie’s last year. Besides placing her deep accent in the South, Maree didn’t know where she’d come from, or even how old she was, but his sister liked and respected Janie Lyn very much.
Through her volunteer work at the local memory care facility, Janie Lyn had proven herself to be a champion of those who could no longer speak for themselves. She might look eighteen years old in her braids and thrift-shop overalls, but she had a keen mind for logistics. She’d organized several Alzheimer’s awareness events in town, helped Maree with a quilt collection for fundraising, and started hosting support group meetings for community members faced with the struggles of caregiving.
Not only had she made a huge impact on Green Hills, but she’d also been integral to the completion of the remodel work of Max’s house there. A 1930s Craftsman-style home, it had three bedrooms, three full baths, a huge wraparound porch, a brick porte-cochere, and a carriage house that would someday be turned into a detached garage with an apartment over it.
When Max found it a few years ago, the entire property had been in bad shape. The floors required refinishing, the masonry needed new mortar, all the appliances were inoperable, and the wall coverings were atrocious. Worst of all, the hand-carved trim throughout the house — the intricate designs formed by hours and hours of skilled labor — was covered in coat after coat of thick paint, which muted its beauty and the craftsmanship that made the structure so unique.
Max did as much of the work as he could during the off-season. He loved researching a technique and learning about how the house would have originally been built. He wanted to preserve the warm feeling of home that he’d felt the first time he walked into it. So far, Max was pleased with the progress. He liked how he’d paired the best of the home’s history with modern amenities that fit the look, feel, and theme of the property and his neighborhood.
After stepping in to assist Maree one time when the painters needed access to the house, Janie Lyn had essentially become his project manager. No one had ever given her that title; they’d never even officially discussed that she’d take over the scheduling and tracking of contractors. It had happened organically, and Max no longer knew how he’d managed without her help.
No, he hadn’t had an option when it came to that fundraising event. He owed Janie Lyn way too much to disappoint her by declining an opportunity to support the cause she cared so much about. He’d had no choice, but now things were totally out of control.
Hence the reason he’d run.
Max pulled into the drive, parked, turned off the ignition to his truck, and let out a deep exhale. It felt good to be home.
He grabbed his bag from the back seat, unlocked the side door of the house, and opened the fridge, looking for something to drink. His day turned up another notch when he saw that someone had been at the house and left an almost-full pitcher of sweet tea. He grabbed an insulated cup, filled it with ice, and poured tea to the rim. He took a long, deep drink, then refilled the tumbler and set the lid in place.
He planned to hop through the shower, grab some swim trunks, and hit his new pool. He’d helped design it last winter, but he’d not yet seen the project finished. Janie Lyn had a landscape architect finishing the green spaces, but the pool was ready. Max could not wait to jump in.
Feeling refreshed from his shower, he put on the shorts, grabbed his tea and his sunglasses, and walked toward the wall of glass windows and doors looking from his living room into the backyard.
Max was shocked to find someone already out there. Not just someone, but some woman!
She stood on the edge of the pool with her back to the house. Her one-piece swimsuit was a deep shade of orange that reminded Max of the poppies planted in the front flower beds. It looked like something straight out of an Esther Williams movie that he remembered watching with his mom, many years ago. Strapless and gathered, it showed off a pair of strong legs, muscular shoulders, and a perfect tan. Thick dark hair hung in cascading waves down her back.
When she dove in, Max slid open the door and walked toward the pool, stunned but very interested.
She swam to the back wall and performed a precise kick turn without breaking stride. She swam to her starting point, reached for the edge of the rock coping, and hoisted herself up to the deck in one smooth motion.
“Janie Lyn?” Max asked, astonished. This was not the young girl who wore nothing but old t-shirts, overalls, and Chuck Taylor Converse. She was voluptuous. Grown-up. And gorgeous.
“Oh!” Her head snapped up in surprise. “Maxwell,” she breathed his full name. “You’re home.”