Stella walked past Mac's office, resolutely not letting her eyes wander into the room. She didn't want to be reminded of the last time she had been in there, earlier that day. She had been the supportive friend; the sympathetic ear; but listening to Mac talk about choosing between Aubrey and Peyton had been torture for her on the inside. She had been so relieved when Danny interrupted with a lead on their case, but she hated herself for that.
She nearly jumped a foot in the air when Mac's voice called to her just as she had passed his windows.
Hand over her heart, she turned around and forced a smile. She really hadn't expected him to be there.
"Mac, you scared me!" She realised her nervous laughter as she spoke would assist her with concealing her true thoughts and feelings.
"Sorry," he responded with a small smile that appeared quite anxious; the same look of worry in his eyes that she had longed to be able to eradicate earlier.
"I didn't think you would be here," she told him. He had had dinner plans with Aubrey, she knew. She supposed the fact that he was in his office showed what decision he had come to that afternoon.
He nodded once and, at the same time, gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. "I didn't think you would still be here."
He had avoided explaining why he was still there and, though she was curious, she felt a sense of relief that he didn't want to talk about it.
"I decided to finish some paperwork. Such an exciting Saturday night." She added a small laugh to try to ease some of the awkwardness she could feel surrounding them. She had to get used to the idea of Mac with another woman. The fact that Peyton had returned after all this time and won him back showed that she was going to be a long term feature in Mac's life. Peyton wasn't just a passing whim. Stella knew it was time to accept that. But that didn't mean it would be easy.
Mac offered her another smile, but there was definite unease in his eyes, and Stella's love and concern for him wouldn't let her pretend that she hadn't noticed it. Bracing herself for more discomfort, in the name of friendship, she asked him, "Are you all right, Mac?"
His eyes immediately found hers and captured her gaze with an intensity that made her heart skip. She reprimanded her heart for such a reaction – as it was things like that that would make getting over Mac so difficult.
After what felt like an eternity of his mesmerising eyes on hers, Mac replied, "Yeah. I'm fine." Then he hesitated – something out of character for Mac – setting off warning bells in Stella's head: He wasn't fine. "Do you have a minute?" he asked her.
Her concern for him now triple what it had been that afternoon, she nodded and forced a supportive smile. "Sure."
He stepped aside for her to enter the office ahead of him and Stella cringed, inwardly, when that chivalrous action only served to heighten her sense of loss. Mac's gentlemanly nature was one of the many things that she loved about him – and she had been stupid enough to let someone else have him. She sighed quietly: Clearly she was going to spend a lot of time kicking herself for that before she made any progress towards getting over him.
"I wanted to… thank you for listening earlier," Mac began, as Stella turned to face him.
"You don't have to thank me – "
"I know. But I wanted to."
Stella couldn't help but smile, gratefully, at the sincerity in his words.
"… I never expected that I would be in that position," he continued, with a small laugh.
Pleased that he seemed a little less burdened than he had that afternoon, Stella responded, lightly, "Well women are like buses – you wait ages for one and then two come at once."
His lips twitched into a smile and he met her eyes again. "Three," he stated.
"Isn't the expression, 'and then three come at once'?" he clarified in response to her confusion.
Stella breathed, relieved that he wasn't telling her there was some third woman who had come along. "Ah, yes. But I amended it for the situation."
His nervousness returned to his eyes just before he said, "It fits the situation."
And Stella's heart sank again. "There's a third woman?" she asked, hoping she sounded surprised and not disappointed.
"There is," he told her, and then he seemed to be waiting for her reaction.
"Oh…" She knew that was lame, but what the hell else was she supposed to say? She was having enough trouble accepting that there had to be at least one woman in his life. "You didn't mention her this afternoon," she observed.
"No… I didn't realise until this afternoon that she was there."
He was watching her closely as they spoke and Stella found it very unnerving. She was trying her best to keep her feelings under control, but under this scrutiny she wasn't sure her mask would hold up.
"I see. Okay… Well… Yeah, I suppose that complicates things further," she mused out loud.
"Actually it made everything simple."
That reply was certainly not what Stella had been expecting. "It did?" she asked, brow furrowed deeply, confusion rapidly pushing aside her power of logical thought.
He nodded. "It did… Because I realised that I don't want to be with Aubrey, and I don't want to go back to Peyton."
Stella couldn't believe that she was back in this situation; she felt as if someone was actually standing on her heart and crushing it. It was a cruel irony that it was her love for Mac that made her want to run rather than hear this; and that same love that made her stay to listen, despite her own pain.
"You want to be with this other woman?" she asked, to show that she was understanding what he was saying. She just hoped her distress was not evident in her voice. She was aware, however, that her hand was now grasping the back of a chair, to the side of her, as she used it to assist her balance.
Mac laughed, nervously, as he said, "I'm not doing very well here…" And he stepped towards her.
Stella found that her instinct was to step back – away from him. It wasn't fear; she didn't feel threatened, but it was too hard to be close to him with her emotions running so close to the surface. She fought the inclination, though, planting her feet firmly so she wouldn't move. Instead she just tilted her head to keep her eyes on his as he moved even closer.
His hand closed over hers on the chair and her heart fluttered.
"… The third woman is you."
Now Stella thought she must be hearing things – or maybe dreaming. It was completely plausible that she had fallen asleep at her desk while doing her 'exciting' Saturday night paperwork.
Mac was smiling at her, his eyes sparkling with amusement, though Stella didn't see what was funny. But her mind was competing with her heart now for which could race the fastest, so she accepted that she didn't really understand what was happening.
"What?" she whispered, unable to get any more power to her voice.
"Stella, after you left, this afternoon, all I could think about was you. You sat in here listening to everything I said, but there was something in your eyes that looked like pain. And then you look so relieved when Danny came in… After you'd gone I couldn't think about anything else. I hated myself for hurting you, and I just wanted to figure out what I'd done and fix it. – "
"Mac, you didn't – "
His other hand took hold of hers, where it hung loosely by her side.
"I replayed our entire conversation in my head and eventually I came up with a theory. And once I had that, suddenly everything else clicked into place. I understood why I was hesitating to choose between Aubrey and Peyton; why it didn't feel right to picture my life with either of them…" His voice lowered and he leaned even closer to Stella. "I don't want to picture my life with anyone but you."
Stella tightened her grip on the chair, her head spinning. Mac obviously felt her imbalance and the hand by her side moved to her waist for support.
"I'm sorry it's taken me so long to realise it," he whispered.
Stella still wasn't sure that it was really happening. Her heart was overjoyed, beating rapidly, echoing loudly in her ears. Her mind was torn between letting her heart lead the way and establishing whether or not this was a dream before she allowed herself to be too excited.
"Am I dreaming?" she breathed when she finally found the ability to speak.
Mac's laughed response seemed relieved, and Stella realised her silence must have been worrying him. "I don't think so," he replied, smiling at her in a way that made her stomach somersault.
Finally, she let her exhilaration show. She smiled back. "Good." And her smile widened, uncontrollably. "If I was dreaming, you wouldn't kiss me now."
Mac seemed surprised by her statement, his eyes widened and eyebrows rose before he smirked. "I wouldn't?"
Stella shook her head, her lips pursed, and a playful glint in her eyes.
"And you'd like me to prove that you're not dreaming?"
She nodded now and stood up to her full height, bringing her face closer to his. "I would," she told him, adding more softly, "Because I have wanted this for so long, and I will be so angry at myself if it's all a dream."
Mac moved his other hand to the other side of her waist, and looked deeply into her eyes. "Are you sure?"
"I am. If you are."
"I am," he told her, without hesitation. "I'm sorry I – "
Stella put her hand against Mac's chest in a gesture to stop him. "Mac, you don't owe me any apology, or explanation. We're here now. That's all that matters… You do owe me a kiss though."
"You're impatient," he teased, even as he lowered his head to close the gap between them.
"We've waited long enough," she whispered just before his lips made contact with hers.