Friday, October 28, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Story!

Since they're bestie pals, I'm following my James Neal story with one about Steven Stamkos.  I hope you'll like it!

Proving Ground

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Thank you all for reading and for the wonderful comments!  I'll have a new story going pretty soon - hope to see you there.

** Two chapters today, make sure you read ten first!____


“Your place is so nice,” Natalie laughed.

I lifted my head from the bare skin of her flat stomach, looking at up at her face through the hair that fell in my eyes.  She was on her back, on the living room rug, staring at the blank ceiling.  We hadn’t make it to another room yet.  We’d barely made it in the door.

When we swung through the door at the bar holding hands, no one noticed.  I put my arm around her as we waited for drinks and still no one said anything.  As we mingled through my teammates and whoever else had joined in the first celebration of hopefully many, no one seemed to care that Natalie stood with her shoulder touching mine.  I brushed a piece of hair from her shoulder, whispered in her ear - nothing.

So as soon as their was a lull in the conversation we were having with Eggo, Johnson and his wife, I leaned in and kissed her lips.

“Oh my God we get it!” Flower shouted.  He was eight people away, smiling like an idiot.  Vero slapped him on the chest, trying to hide her face.  Everyone laughed, then went back to their drinks.  That was it.  I slipped my big hand into Natalie’s small back pocket and drained my beer in one gulp.

“Our work here is done?” she smirked.  It was a very sexy expression.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were tripping in the front door at a dead run.  I let her in, then spun her back into my body.  I was peeling off her white blouse before her suit coat hit the floor.  She had my tie off and shirt open in seconds.  Natalie rose onto her toes and kissed me hard, tugging my bottom lip between her teeth, as she pressed her hand down inside the open zipper on my pants.

“Oh God,” I said.

My pants and hers landed in a pile at our feet.  She took half a step back and looked me over, teeth sinking gently into the lush rise of her bottom lip.  

“Damn, you’re beautiful,” she whispered.

I made to move toward the bedroom but Natalie just lay right down on the rug.  A lacy white bra offered up breasts that I had dreamed about and a brain-meltingly small piece of white fabric circled her hips and disappeared between her legs.  My heart rate spiked like a strong man was trying to ring the bell at a carnival.  Long dark hair fanned out around her head and she reached for my hand.

“I cannot wait another second,” she said.

I sank down and moved over her, putting one knee between hers and laying my body out against as much of her as possible.  She caught my face and kissed me.  When my erection pressed against her stomach we both exhaled, then Natalie rolled her hips slightly and ground against my shaft.

“Fuck,” I panted.  Her throaty, almost evil giggle only made me harder.  Her mouth yielded to my kiss, and I then dragged my lips down the delicate curve her her neck.  I could have explored that hollow forever, as it was nearly always hidden by her hair. Only someone lucky enough to put his kiss here would ever know its shape.  The same was true of her collarbone, the swell of her breast and the firmness of her nipple, rolling taut against my tongue like it was begging to be licked.

Natalie’s hands explored my body like she’d been thinking about it too.  Comparing the map in her mind to the real thing, she wove fingers over the muscle I’d worked so hard to put on.  Every squat and lift and row of the summer paid off in spades as her touch traced them down my lower back and onto my thigh.  I twisted my lap against hers and growled at the sensation.

“Tease,” she whispered in a ragged breath.  

The rest would have to wait - acres and miles of her perfect body to memorize.  Natalie hooked her fingers into my waistband and pushed it from my hips.  I lifted to my knees and watched her watch me strip off the shorts.  Her eyes were dark and hungry, and it made me feel like the only man on Earth.  

Her panties were nothing in my hands.  They offered no resistance as they slipped free.  She was perfect, of course, and the sight of her most secret place nearly made me come on cue.  Then her hands were on my shoulders and I was back over top of her.

“I love you,” I said.

“Lucky me.”  And she kissed me.  A slight press and the head of my cock brushed her soft skin.  She bit down gently on my lip, marking the occasion, and I pushed a little more.  Another inch.  I could have gone right then, barely inside her, but she bit down lightly again and I got another inch.  When I opened my eyes, Natalie was looking up at me.  I heaved against the tightness and pushed myself in up to the hilt.

“Ohmygod,” she gasped.  Her back arched, meeting my stroke with angled hips that gave me every ounce of space inside her.  I tried another and was rewarded with the same reaction.  For someone who I’d imagined being with a million times, who had been the object of nearly every fantasy for years, she was so much better in reality.  Her soft, smooth core clutched at me as I sank into her.  She was tight enough that I could almost believe I was the only one.  She was hot and wet enough that I was confident Natalie knew exactly what she wanted.

I stroked into her, the pressure exquisite; she bucked against me, making me go harder, faster.  I fought for control as her breath hummed in my ear and her hands clutched handfuls of my ass.

“You feel so good,” I said against her ear.  

“James,” she breathed.  That was all I needed to thrust so hard I lifted her back off the floor.  Her moan was nearly lost against my throat.  There was so much to learn that I’d need forever to coax every possible combination from her body.  For this first time I’d have to settle.  I thrust again and bottomed out, Natalie fighting to hold onto me.  Again, and again, I lost touch with everything but the way she rode deep into my lap and begged for me every time.

“James.”  When she said it again, I had my victory.  Natalie’s body twisted hard then went soft, her chest heaving against mine and head rolling back.  I held her hips down hard and pumped right through her orgasm, the extra friction and sounds from her lips bringing me so close to the edge.  


That did it.  When Natalie called me something other than my name, something other than what they put on the scoreboard, I fell apart.  Two years of longing burst so hard I nearly fainted.  Hot desire and frustration poured out of me and Natalie, perfect inevitable Natalie, got the best and worst of me all at once.  So much waiting, so much working.  Not enough fun.  Well my fun had arrived.

I collapsed on top of her.  Natalie played with my long hair, twisting it and tucking it behind my ears.  Her small fingertips traced the hairline around my temple and ear while I watched my labored breath lift the strands from her head.  After a minute she turned her face to mine.

“I love you.”

I smiled.  “Lucky me.”



I couldn’t nap.  After forty minutes of staring at the ceiling and imaginary conversations with Natalie that ended, alternately, in tangled sheets or white dresses, I gave up and put on a suit.

The equipment guys were still stocking lockers when I came in, so I walked up the zamboni entrance and looked around the empty arena.  The only other places I’d ever been that was so high and silent was a church.

I wanted so badly for things to work here.  The end of last season had been erased by a good, productive summer.  I would never be Stamkos, no matter how much time I spent with the guy, but my game had come back through hard work and focus.  Confidence came with it.  The only thing I couldn’t force into being was chemistry and I might have just ruined my only chance at that.  But I’d get a chance today to skate and play and Natalie would be there - she had to watch, she couldn’t avoid my presence anymore than I could avoid hers.  

I heard the locker room door close - the equipment crew must have finished.  One last look around and I headed back.

Jordan was hanging his jacket in his stall across the semi-circle from mine.  Otherwise the room was empty.  He looked up as I came in, then carried on unbuttoning his dress shirt without a word.  I started to undress too.  I heard a zipper, then him sit down on the bench.

“Two years, eh?”

I closed my eyes and sighed - all this confrontation was really wearing me out.  But better now than later, in a room full of guys who would probably hate me too.

“Yeah, I guess so.  I never knew.”

“She didn’t know about you either.”

That made me turn.  “Know what about me?”

Jordan tilted his head like I was being deliberately dumb.  “That you liked her for a long time too.”

So Jordan knew, probably from the first second.  Knocking over all those sticks didn’t help keep my secret.  

“Did you tell her?”

“No.”  A sharp, short answer.  “I am not going to bat for you.”

“But you’ll try to take my place.”  It was out before I could think - images of that fight came to mind: Jordan knocking me out with one swing.  Oh well, I was in it now.  “You went for her and you don’t even know her!  She’s not just another thing for you to fuck Jordan.  I won’t let you make her nothing.”

“You won’t let me?” He didn’t bother to stand.  The tone of his voice was a warning.  

“No.”  I had no idea how I would back that up if it came to action.  But Jordan just shook his head.

“I can’t take your place, Neal.  Believe me, if I thought I could she’d never so much as look at you again.  I’d love to try.  But she’s... I don’t know.  Talk to her.”

I was stunned.  Jordan Staal was giving up?  On a girl?  This was the Twilight Zone.  Maybe she turned him down - the thought made my heart race.  Either way, I would only get one chance.  I spun around and rifled into my jacket for my phone.

“She’s here,” he said.  Then he looked at me, all shoulders and arms as he sat in his stall.  “I drove her in.”

I refused to think of what that meant - if she’d been napping (or not napping) with him, if he’d been with her since this morning.  It didn’t matter.  In my Under Armor and basketball shorts, I moved toward the door.

“Neal.”  Jordan’s voice was almost a growl.  I turned slowly, expecting to find him charging me like a bull.  Instead is voice had a forced evenness.  “If you fuck up, I’m taking her home.  My home.  And I’ll make sure she doesn’t even remember your name.”  

Jordan offered to pick me up on his way to the rink.  Kate and Emily would drive my car over later, after outfitting it to kidnap Kris.  I felt like I owed Jordan a few minutes alone.

I hadn’t counted on his suit - dove gray with a crisp white shirt.  Or his cologne, or the way he’d styled his hair even though he was going to put a helmet over it.  He may have backed off but he wasn’t going quietly.

We rode in easy silence, having said everything earlier.  It felt like we could be friends even after this.  Thank God, because I didn’t know anyone here but Jordan and James - and what a messed up trio we made.  I couldn’t count Kris in case he didn’t want to see me after Emily and Kate were through.  So Jordan drove and I watched and when we got to the rink, he turned to me and smiled.

“Last chance,” he said.

“For what?”

Those killer blue eyes again.  “That kiss you were after last night.”

I didn’t say anything, but he watched my gaze drop to his mouth for just a second.  No one would ever know if I kissed him.  Only I would know if it felt the same as when James kissed me.  Maybe it would tell me if I was doing the right thing or making a mistake, maybe one kiss knew everything - it certainly had up until now.

“No,” I said softly, after a minute.

He pursed his lips like he’d expected nothing less.  “I’ll save it, just in case.”

Jordan went to the locker room and I went to my office.  It was still early, the place quiet.  I closed my office door and thought about nothing.  Not even ten minutes passed before someone knocked.

“Jordan, you...,” I stopped.

“Hi,” James said.  He put one strong hand flat on the door, in case I tried to slam it in his face.  But I was too close, we were both in the way.  Words of all kinds caught in my throat.  For once, the quiet kid had more to say than I did.  He took a quick breath, steadying himself; he’d been practicing whatever came next.

“Every day, since the first day I saw you, I have meant to kiss you.”

James stopped.  The words floated like leaves to the floor between our feet - we just stared at each other while they fell.  

“Every day,” he finally said again.

“You never....”

“You never either.”  And he was right.  He stepped in closer by half.  Tall and broad in his own right, James was surprisingly big even compared to my recent company.  It had the same effect - my body ached to be held, supported, absorbed.  

So I highlighted everything in my brain and hit delete.  The page went blank.  I threw my mouth against James’ and kissed him hard.  His hands wasted no time finding my back and those solid arms closed around my sides.  He opened his mouth beneath my insistence and the soft burr of his tongue dragged over mine.  Every nerve ending in my body lit up like a runway; he followed it to land, coming to rest against every part of my body.  James held me up and I kissed him for everything I was worth.  

Finally, gasping, he took his lips just centimeters from mine.  “It’s over.  And I’m so sorry,” he promised.  I didn’t need to hear her name.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen.”  I had stormed in and tossed his life around like a burglar.  Things were emptied and broken and missing.

“I don’t care,” he whispered.  Another inch erased between us.  “It can’t be worse than before.  Not with you here.”

There it was, that kick to the stomach I’d felt every time James shot and didn’t score last season.  Every shift he didn’t shoot, every penalty he took out of frustration.  A vicious cycle dragging him down.

“It will be better, I promise.”  And I meant it.

He smile that dazzling, butterfly-inducing, sigh-wringing smile that changed his whole face and threatened to break my heart.  The smile I’d worked so hard to get in Dallas.

“You never knew?” I couldn’t help but ask.  James had one side of my waist in each hand, his fingers touching across the small of my back.

He shook his head.  “Never would have believed it.”

I lifted up onto my top toes and as I leaned in, James leaned in too.  No more one person kissing the other.  This time his lips met mine in the middle, gave in at the same and gave us something shared right down the middle.

Why are preseason games so long?  Can’t we play seven innings instead of nine, like tee ball?  I had an assist, we were winning by three and there were places I’d rather be.

Natalie and I spent half an hour making out on the couch in her office.  The moment I realized this was actually happening I was so afraid to mess it up that I didn’t want to say another word.  I pulled her down onto the loveseat, drew her legs across my lap, leaned her back and kissed her.  It didn’t quite make up for two years but it was a good start.

Noises in the hall had probably been going for some time before we heard them.  People were rolling carts and calling out while we were running out of ways to kiss that involved keeping all our clothes on.  Natalie slid her hand up the back of my neck, into my hair, and turned those incredible green eyes on me.

“I love you,” I said instantly, like she’s hypnotized me into telling the truth.

She smiled shyly.  “I’m scared.  What if I’m not as good as you think I am?”

My hand was beneath her lower back, her body deep in my arms.  With a flick of my wrist, I got it underneath her shirt and pressed to her smooth, warm skin.

“You can’t be any worse than I just was.”

Natalie brought her lips to mine again, softly enough to seem hesitant.  She really was worried.

“Natalie Crawford, I have been in love with you for two years.  You’re that good.”

She shook her head slightly.  “I love you too, James Neal.”

I could have thrown her into the air like a cheerleader, but instead I squeeze as tightly as I could around her and kissed the lips that had just spoken.    

“And I’m scared too,” I admitted.  “Of a lot of things.  But mostly telling your dad.”

Natalie barked a laugh that caught us both by surprise.  She threw her head back and I put mine right to her chest, ear to her heart, and laughed at the idea of breaking the one rule that had dictated our separate lives.  

“I can’t wait.  Let’s call him now.”  I reached for my phone.

“What?  Are you crazy?  He’s going to kill you.”

“Not me, you.”  I still had his number in my phone - probably saved it just in case this moment ever came.  I hit send and pressed the phone to Natalie’s ear.

“Uh, hi Dad,” she wrinkled her nose like she was going to wring my neck when she finished.  “Good, how are you?  I don’t know if that’s a good score in golf.  Oh, nice!  I’m very proud of you.  Hey listen... uh, good.  Pittsburgh is really good.  In fact, I called to tell you something.  You know James Neal plays here.”  

Natalie gave me a stare that dared me to do something, anything.  Then she hit the speakerphone button.

“Dad, you’re on speaker.  James is here.”

“Hi Coach.”  I hoped my voice sounded manly.

“James, hello. How’s the team treating you?”

“It’s, uh, it’s looking better for this year.  Especially now that Natalie’s here.”

Her father’s voice got sarcastic, a tone we’d known so well as his players.  “Uh oh.”

“Coach,” I could never think of him as anything else, “I’m in love with your daughter.”

Natalie smiled so widely that I had to kiss her, just a quick one I hoped he couldn’t hear.  Her eyes were glittering with tears and I wished to go back in time and do exactly this a year or more ago.  I had missed so much.  In my mind, this was always the part where Coach told me I was traded to the Islanders, don’t let the door hit me in the ass.  But he surprised me too.

“You always were, Neal.”

“What?!” Natalie shrieked.

“I suppose since you’re calling me together, that Natalie finally told you the same thing?”

“Uh, yes sir,” I stammered.  

“WHAT?!” Natalie yelled again, her face incredulous.  “You knew all along?  And you didn’t tell me?  What kind of father are you?”  She was laughing now.

He was laughing too.  “Nat, honey, if you think I’d ever tell you that some twenty-one year old guy looks at you like I look at your mother, you’re out of your mind.  Don’t get me wrong, James is a nice guy....”

“Thanks Coach,” I said uselessly.

“... but I think you should be a nun or a feminist or something.  I guess there’s no chance of that now?”

“I’m telling mom you held out on me.  You’re in so much trouble!”

“Neal, you sure you want to do this?  They gang up on you, that’s how they work.  It’s like the Broadstreet Bullies.”

We were all laughing now, the adrenaline easing out of our systems.

“Did Natalie tell you about the night you were traded?  She called me up screaming that I always trade away the best looking guys?  I thought she was going to ask for your address and beat down your door.”

Natalie covered her face.  “Oh my God, Dad!”

“Well Coach, I almost called you for her address that night.”

Pause.  “Yeah, that would not have been a good idea,” he agreed.  We laughed again.

“Listen.  James you’re a great kid and a fantastic hockey player.  I knew Natalie would end up with one of you guys sooner or later, and I’m glad it’s you.”  Natalie put her head against my shoulder as he spoke.  “And I’m glad it’s not my team so I don’t have to worry about it.  Now go give Bylsma a heart attack for a change.  And Natalie... I love you, honey.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

“Bye coach.”

We both stared at the phone, screen blank in her hand.  How different things could have been if one person had said one thing all that time ago.  But would they be better?  Too many circumstances to consider.  I put my arm around Natalie’s shoulders and pulled her into my side.

“We can wait to tell them,” I said, meaning the team.  Meaning Jordan.  I knew Natalie might like a moment to tell him herself and I owed them both that.

So I was on the bench, waiting for both my next shift and the final buzzer.  For the first pre-season game, with a handful of guys out and some brand new faces around, we were clicking pretty nicely.  It was all experimentation at this point, but I was on a line with Malkin and that was the kind of science project I wanted to be this season.  The dangerous kind.

The game wasn’t perfect, but when it was over we had won by two goals.  An auspicious start.  Everyone was happy and joking.

“Hey man, you okay?” TK asked, dumping his sweater into the hamper.  “Got your message.”

“Yeah, thanks.  Did uh, Kelsey say anything?”

Tyler shrugged.  “Probably.  But if it’s not right it’s not right, right?”

The media started filing in.  We both looked back toward the door until the pack had entered, and Natalie was right behind them.  She wore a black pants suit for her first game, and looked like she could have any guy in the place.  Then her eyes caught mine and she smiled.

“Dude, I knew you were lying,” TK laughed, watching me get all mooney at Natalie’s glance.  “You two good?  What about Staal?”

I clapped him on the shoulder like we were best friends, comfortable enough to let things roll off our backs.  “It’s good man, I’m good.”

The post-game locker room was an assault on the sense.  Heaven to the eyes - half-naked professional athletes everywhere, breathing hard and glistening.  Hell to the nose - if gym socks took a shit, that shit would smell like a locker room full of gear.  I would never get used to it.

So I looked for James, only to find him and TK watching me.  My heart did a little pirouette and he smiled, blushing.  TK rolled his eyes like he had been right all along.  Guess we were fine on that front.

Then I turned toward Jordan’s locker.  He’d scored two goals with bursts of speed and a couple punishing hits.  It was obvious he couldn’t wait to get back to hockeyt.  Like a big, hyperactive puppy, he needed lots of space to run.

When the media started wrapping up, I retreated to the hallway.  Guys nodded to me and said hi as they left.  Kris stopped, wet hair pushed back from his face, and grinned.

“Emily and Kate are across the street, if you want to meet us.”

Jordan was a minute later.  He didn’t stop, just took my elbow and steered me into a nearby empty office.  From up so high, his blue eyes looked like they already knew all the answers.  And he was a little sad about them.

“Jordan, you are....”

He moved so quickly that his mouth was pressed to mine before I realized he was going to kiss me.  One big hand held my neck and his soft lips moved, asking permission.  Without a thought I let him in, his tongue twisting into mine urgently.  My hands fought for a place to hold on.  It was a toe-curling, pulse-racing complete surprise of a kiss.  After what would not have been long enough in any other circumstance, Jordan barely broke the kiss.

“Just so you know,” he said quietly, “what you’re missing.”

I smiled back, feeling weak and woozy but also relieved that he already knew about me and James.  And this was not a desperate last-ditch effort.  It was a promise that he’d be here if I needed him.

“Just so I know that you are really good at it,” I managed to reply.

Jordan kissed my forehead and let go of me.  We both waited a second to see if I would collapse.  Then his eyes narrowed.

“The new girls always have boyfriends.” He mocked the words Tyler had used right after James and I saw each other, as he spilled all the equipment.  I guess TK had been right all along.

James was waiting in the hall.  This time he didn’t look worried that Jordan was following me out from behind closed doors.  He just nodded to his bigger, blonder teammate.  Jordan squeezed my arm, then fist-bumped James on the shoulder.

“See you tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away.  Just like that.

James and I were alone in the hall.  “Kris and the girls are across the street.  Want to get a drink with them?”

He smiled down at me.  “Actually most of the team is there.  Kris invited everyone.”

I thought about walking in there with James’ arm around my shoulders or his hand in mine.  How easy it would be to let everyone know we were together, and how this early in the season was the perfect time to do it.  

We walked from the rink, fingers twisted together, talking about the game.  It felt like practice for the way we might leave the same place a hundred more times this season.  Through the window, the bar was crowded and happy noise spilled onto the sidewalk.  James slowed.

“What did Jordan say?”

“He said the new girls always have boyfriends.”

“Smart guy.”

James pulled me into his chest and kissed me.  It was a sweet, easy kiss full of promise and apology.  It wasn’t an epic kiss - but we didn’t need those so much anymore.  We could have any kind of kiss any time we wanted.  That was epic.

“An hour,” I said.  I wanted people to see us, and I wanted to see my friends, but more importantly I wanted to be alone with James for the first real time ever and unwrap this present we’d just bought for each other.

“I was thinking forty minutes,” James replied, his face close to mine.  The full billion-watts of his smile turned on all at once and I nearly swooned.

“I won’t make it thirty minutes,” I confessed.

James slid his hand down my back and squeezed a handful of my ass.  I squeaked.

“One drink,” he declared.  We hurried inside.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


“Uh, what the fuck was that about?” Emily asked.

I’d been in the backseat next to Kate for about sixty seconds when the question came.  Jordan met my eyes in the rear view mirror but his face was expressionless.  I can only imagine what they’d been saying inside while James and I were fighting outside.

I just shook my head - this was not an explanation for mixed company.  Emily wanted to ask more but Kate put a hand to her knee.  International girl sign language for ‘not now.’

Jordan drove to a restaurant I’d never been to.  Everyone piled out and headed for the door - it was Saturday morning and pretty busy.  Jordan lagged behind and waited for me.

“You okay?”

I wanted to kiss him right then.  I wanted to say fuck everything and just kiss this gorgeous man with the genuine concern on his face.  He was probably manipulating me into sleeping with him but at least I knew it.  And God damn if I didn’t want to.  Just to get the taste of James off my lips and the idea of him out of my head.

The toe of my sneaker scuffed along the pavement.  “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Jordan gave up, threw his arm around my shoulder and matched my slow steps.  We walked into breakfast like we were, in fact, dating.

I was still on Natalie’s lawn when she drove away with Jordan.  Her words rang inside my head like bells - loud, endless, disorienting.  Nothing could happen until the sound of his tires faded and I was left behind, just a dead body from a hit and run.

There was a lot of information to process.  She wasn’t sleeping with Jordan - I believed her despite what it looked like.  That meant she was holding him off, because no way would Jordan wait voluntarily.  There were a hundred reasons she might not want to sleep with a star player her first week on the job, but I chose to believe the only one she’s actually admitted:

Natalie wanted me.  She had wanted me for two the better part of two years.

I wanted to curl up and die.  Her lawn was a bad spot for that - Jordan would at least have to drive them home, though he was probably talking Natalie into sharing his pre-game nap and eating chocolate body paint for lunch.  So I dragged myself into the car and drove back the way I had come.

Two years.

It was one thing when I’d spent two years with Natalie on my mind.  That time had been spent building my NHL career, moving to a promising new team... I had not wasted it.  Or so I thought.  But if she’d been thinking about me all along, if the possibility of her and I had even existed during that the last two years then I had in fact wasted way too much time.

There were no answers in the driveway of my house, no matter how long I stared out the windshield.  No one was coming here to get me.  Just like everything else: if I wanted it I would have to go get it.

“Allison?” I called, walking into the living room.  No answer so I ditched my sneakers and went for the bedroom, hoping she wouldn’t still be asleep in my sheets.  I had never been good with confrontations or much use with girls.  My palms prickled with sweat as I anticipated her seeing everything on my face.

“In here.”  Her voice came from behind me.  I tracked back into the kitchen, where she was eating an apple over the newspaper.  At least she was dressed in last night’s clothes.  She looked up with puffy, tired eyes.  “I feel like ass.”

“You were having a really good time last night.”

“Fucking Kelsey’s parties always leave me with a two day hangover.”  She tossed the apple core into the trash.  “How about you?”

I leaned against the counter, hands in my pockets.  “I didn’t drink much.”

“Didn’t dance much either,” she lifted one eyebrow.  “Didn’t look like you were having fun at all, really.”

Automatically, an apology sprang to my lips.  It was always my fault when I wasn’t right up there with everyone else, doing the right thing a second before someone else did.  Not that I’d ever been the life of a party, but I’d been part of the pack.  At least as far as Allison knew.  But apologizing for last night seemed like a moot point.

“I need to tell you something.  I... I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

My words dropped like anvils on the hardwood floor.

Her eyes got wide, suddenly.  “Why?  Did I do something that night?”

“No, not at all.  It’s ....”

“What’s wrong, James?”  Her voice got soft, that made it worse.

“I’m just....”  I’m struggling, that’s what I’m doing.  “This isn’t working for me.  I’m sorry.”

Her expression hardened, her eyes tightening like someone had focused a camera lens to the perfect sharpness.  “You mean I’m not working for you.”

“That’s not it...  You’ve been so great but I can’t be great for you.  I’m not in this, Allison.  I can’t keep it up.”

“So that’s it?  For no reason at all.”

My chest felt like it was splitting open, but it wasn’t my heart breaking.  My stomach roiled because I was doing something shitty to someone who didn’t deserve it.  Because I was hurting someone on purpose to benefit myself.  I wanted to tell her that last night I did the opposite and it got fucked up too.  Everything was wrong and this was the only way out.  I sighed in defeat.

“I just want something else.”

Allison heaved a handful of hair back from her face.  Like a jolt of adrenaline, my surprise announcement had made her dangerously alert.  All traces of that hangover were gone.  We both knew there was in fact a reason, but only I knew what it was.  She was guessing.

“Something else, huh?  Maybe someONE else?  You think you can do better, because this season you’re going to be a big time goal scorer.”

“I didn’t mean....” But I did mean someone else.  The rest was irrelevant.  Now she was on a roll.

“NHL superstar James Neal?  Finally fulfilling all that promise, making his trade worthwhile.  You’re going to be a big fucking deal and there’s no room for anything but your once-in-a-lifetime hockey talent?”

I let her fire all guns.  At least I looked her in the eye.

“You’re just waiting for Crosby to come back,” she said.  “All these people talking you up, you’re going to be a top line winger magician’s assistant when Crosby comes back.  When Crosby comes back you’re going to the Finals.  When Crosby comes back you’ll win the Cup.”

“Just go, Allison.”

She got to her feet.

“Well James,” she spat my name, “when Crosby comes back, you’d better hope he sends you his leftovers.  Because that’s the only fucking you’ll do besides fucking disappointing people.”

If she’d punched me if couldn’t have hurt worse.  But then again I wasn’t exactly fighting fair.  There were no rules of engagement.  Allison’s words kicked me in the balls because I was so afraid of them being true.

She rammed the chair in under the table and ran from the room.  Her purse was the only thing of hers in my house.  With as much force as possible, she shoved it over her shoulder, stomped out the door and slammed it as hard as she could.  A picture she’d picked out - a line sketch of a maple leaf I’d always thought was really pretty - slipped off it’s nail and shattered on the floor.

For the second time that morning, I wanted to lay down and cry.  Allison’s fury filled the house like poison gas and I felt woozy.  Suffocation would come quickly.  So I grabbed a baseball cap and headed out, walking in the opposite direction she had gone, with my phone.

“TK, it’s Neal.  Hey, sorry you’re probably still sleeping.  I uh, I wanted to tell you that I broke up with Allison.  Just so... you know.  Yeah.  Okay, see you later.”

Thank God for his voicemail.  Kelsey was probably still with him and Allison would be screaming down the phone and cursing my name.  At least I could warn the guy, maybe buy myself some points in the team-bonding department.  Because I was thinking about that too.  

“Asshole,” I said out loud to myself.

I tried my best to participate in the social event that became our breakfast.  Kris and the girls were cracking each other up.  A few people approached for autographs - I was used to it from traveling with the Stars but it make Emily and Kate feel really special to be seen out in such company.  Jordan did a better job of being in the conversation, but still kept a watchful eye on me.  My french toast got the worst of it.

It was after eleven when Jordan claimed the same parking space in front of my building.  The girls had been sharing looks and were out of the car the moment we stopped.  Kris leaped out after them, leaving me and Jordan alone.  He turned his huge body as much as possible toward where I sat behind the passenger seat.  His gorgeous blue eyes studied me as he put the side of his head against the headrest.

“Want to tell me what happened?”

I sighed.  I did want to tell him.  It wasn’t protecting James anymore; showing up at my house kind of tipped his hand.  And Jordan’s imagination was probably a lot more active than my real life.

“The night James got traded here, before he left Dallas, I kissed him.”

Jordan said nothing.

“Out of nowhere, in the middle of Target.”

It sounded so childish, I waited for Jordan to ask what else had happened.  But instead he asked the million-dollar question.


I looked away, a coward even now.  “Because I had a crush on him for a year and a half.  The whole time I was in Dallas.”  

“Wow.  He never knew.”  It wasn’t a question.

“No, and I never even talked to him after that.  Until three days ago at the rink.”

Jordan knew I was holding something back.  All this story was kindling but there had to be a spark, something to light the fuse now ticking toward an explosion.  He waited for me to continue.

“Then this Thursday, also out of nowhere, James kissed me.”

Jordan closed his eyes for a second, as if replaying what had happened since Thursday.  Which was everything.  How could two days seem so damned long?

“It wasn’t out of nowhere, Natalie.  He liked you from the first second.  He drooled at you that entire meeting.”  

I shook my head.  I had been way too caught up in my own reaction to really notice James’.  Maybe boys saw things girls didn’t.  I knew he looked at me with desire, maybe even hunger, in his eyes.  Anything else I saw was my wishful thinking.

“But he has a girlfriend!  What is wrong with you people?” My voice was too loud in the confines of the car.  “How can he like me if he likes someone else?  Someone who knows everyone and gets along great and... it’s stupid.  I’m stupid.  I thought he was this poor lost cause and he’s been just fucking fine.”

“He wasn’t.”  Jordan paused like he wasn’t sure he wanted to correct me.  But he went on anyway.  “James had a really hard time last year.  Even worse than it looked.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  Hot tears pricked at my eyes to know James had gone through all of that - damn it, why was I still worried about him?  I looked at my hands, twisting together in my lap.  I didn’t want to cry like some pathetic Disney princess whose prince turned out to be a frog.

“Why are you defending him?”

Jordan leaned forward, out of his seat belt, and got as close to me as the car would allow.  I was grateful it wasn’t an closer: there was already a lot going on that I couldn’t handle.  If he got his arms around me...

“I’m not defending him.  But he’s my teammate, Natalie.  We have a long way to go this season and we need James to fit in.”  Jordan reached out and put his hand over mine, making them still.  I had to look at him.  “I had to know why he was here.  Now it seems like a pretty good reason.”  

His eyes sparkled over that crooked half-smile.  His long, thick fingers worked their way into my hands and held on.  “You asked how he can like you if he likes someone else.  It’s easy - he likes you more than her.  Same way you like James more than me.”

My heart skipped a beat, dropping my body temperature violently and sending a shudder coursing after it.  “Jordan, I....”

“Stop.” He squeezed my fist.  “You suck at lying.”

I closed both of my hands around his - it was so warm, I had to push out thoughts of it running over the rest of my body.  Hearing him say it hurt.  Knowing it was true hurt even worse.  But Jordan seemed sure he was right.

“How do you know he likes me?”

Jordan twisted his perfectly kissable mouth into a tight little line and thought for a moment.  Then he straightened up.  “Get out.”


But he was already outside, shutting his door and opening mine.  I slid across the seat, climbed dow.  Every one of Jordan’s six-feet-four-inches was planted before me.  He was like a sponge - strength leeched out of my body, I wanted to fold myself into him and let him do the holding up.  Instead I set my arm into the space between his wrist and where his hand was in his pocket, like a little shelf.  Jordan got closer, leaned against the car and smiled.

“I gotta have some kind of advantage here.”

I laughed weakly and settled my side to the car too. Jordan certainly knew what he was doing.  He brushed a piece of hair from my face - a gentle touch that made my knees wobble.

“Nat, you’re killing me.  I’m not supposed to be helping some other guy get what I want.  But I don’t want to be a jerk when I’ve only known you for three days.  I hear you hate guys who do that.”

Stop, I thought.  Stop making this so hard.

“Listen.  James came here this morning after a fight.  He tracked down your address and just showed up - what kind of creepy stalker does that?”  Jordan paused so I could try not to laugh.  “And he must have thought I had ruined you for all other men.  Because I would.”

Jordan touched my face again, punctuating his joke that wasn’t a joke at all because it was probably true.  My body throbbed at the idea.

“But he stayed.  He must have really thought there was something worth fighting for here.  I wouldn’t have stayed, Natalie.”  Now his giant warm hand was at the back of my neck.  “I’m a pretty shitty boyfriend, to be honest.”

I met his eyes sharply.  “I would trust you.”  I did trust him, needed to trust him for this to be true.  And because he wasn’t going anywhere.

Jordan leaned in and kissed my forehead.  “Don’t tell anyone, but you may have found the one thing that James is better at.”