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The Sweet Life of Stella Madison
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The Sweet Life of Stella Madison

Written by Lara M. ZeisesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lara M. Zeises

· Delacorte Books for Young Readers
· eBook · July 14, 2009 · $4.99 · 978-0-375-89266-0 (0-375-89266-4)

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-- 1 --

My boyfriend, Max, and I are lying on his twin bed, limbs tangled, foreheads pressed together, trying to catch our collective breath after a dizzying _forty-five-_minute make-out session, when he says the three most terrifying words in the English language:

"I love you."

Instinctively I recoil, my spine stiffening.

"Stella?" Max says, running his hand along the curve of my hip, pulling me back toward him. "Did you hear me?"

I mumble something along the lines of "mm-hmm" and try to paste on one of those mysterious Mona Lisa smiles.

Max scoots even closer and rolls slightly so that his mouth tickles the outside of my ear. "I said, 'I love you,' " he whispers throatily.

I respond the only way I know how: by pulling his face against mine and kissing him deeply.

Max isn't the first boy to tell me he loves me, but he is the first who seems to notice that I don't say it back. My best friend Kat would point out that this is because when most guys say "I love you," what they're really saying is "Let's get naked." She warned me about Max from the start. I thought he only asked me out because he was looking for a date to the junior prom, but Kat said I should be careful, because Max had never dated a girl for fewer than six months, not even freshman year.

That was almost nine weeks ago, and except for bringing me a single long-stemmed red rose on our "one-_monthiversary," Max has kept the sentimental stuff to a minimum. This, frankly, is fine by me. I don't "do" mushy very well.

So before Max can make any more uncomfortable declarations, I tell him we need to get going.

"Mom needs me at the Kitchen," I remind him. "You can probably stay for dinner, if you want."

"Pass," he says. "I've got basketball with the guys tonight. But thanks for asking."
After planting one final kiss on the tip of my nose, Max scoots off the foot of the bed. He fishes his rumpled "Practice Safe Lunch--Use a Condiment" T-shirt off the floor, and I admire his tanned, toned chest as he pulls it over his head.

"You checkin' me out?" he asks.

I grin. "You know it."

"It doesn't seem fair," Max says. "You always take shirts while I play skins."
I do up the last three buttons on my top. "Good thing you're shooting hoops. You'll have plenty of time to work out some of that pent-up aggression."

Max groans, but in a playful way. It's one of the things I like best about him. We're in our third month of dating, but so far he's let me set the pace in terms of fooling around. He doesn't give me crap about it, either. He drops hints here and there, and I usually have to redirect his hands once or twice, but there's no real pressure to do anything I don't want to do. Which is almost the exact opposite of my last boyfriend, Brice, who was never truly satisfied unless I let him knead one of my boobs or fondle the elastic of my underwear.

There are a lot of things I like about Max, though, that have nothing to do with Brice or any other guy I've ever dated. Like how he always opens the car door for me and waits until I'm tucked into my seat before closing it. Or how he lets me listen to WXPN when we're driving around, despite the fact that he can't stand most indie music. I like, too, that he calls me to touch base once a day--no more, no less--and doesn't mind when I make plans with my girlfriends for a Saturday night, even though I never bother to check with him first.

We don't talk much on the drive from Max's house to the Kitchen, which is another thing I like about him. He doesn't feel the need to fill the silence with a lot of meaningless chatter. I reach over and squeeze his knee in appreciation. He turns toward me and smiles, and it feels nice to know I've made him happy in some small way, even if I couldn't return the "I love you."

Max eases his VW Jetta into the parking lot of the shopping mall where the Open Kitchen is located. Before I get out I say, "So I'll see you tomorrow?"

"What's tomorrow?"

"Tuesday. Omar's party?" School has been out a little more than a week, but the never-ending string of summer parties is only just beginning.

Max shakes his head. "I totally forgot--I told Cory I'd take him to the Phillies game. But I can reschedule, if you want me to."

"No, no," I say. "Go with Cory."

"You won't be mad?"

"How can I be mad at a guy who's blowing me off to take his little brother to a ball game? Could you be more adorable?"

Max leans in for another kiss, and I relax into the warm saltiness of his mouth. When we break apart, I let my head lean against his shoulder for a second, and that's when he says it again:

"I really do love you, Stella."

On autopilot, I launch into Diversionary Tactic #2: rubbing my nose gently against the back of his ear and dropping a light kiss on the side of his neck. "And I," I say in my best sexy-girl voice, "really do love the way you smell."

Then I grab my bag and make a quick exit before he can say anything else.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from The Sweet Life of Stella Madison by Lara M. Zeises Copyright © 2009 by Lara M. Zeises. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.