Friday, September 30, 2011


I woke up to a ringing phone on my bedside table.  “Hello?”

“Do you have any orange juice?” Emily asked.

“Are you calling from the living room?”

Pause.  “No.”

“If there’s none in the fridge, then no.”

Pause.  “Is there any in the fridge?”

“You didn’t even look?  Are you calling from the couch?”

A sudden knock banged once on my bedroom door.  On the next knock the door opened and in walked Jordan, holding up a bag of bagels and carton of juice.

“Morning sunshine!”

“Omigod!”  I dove back under the covers, pulling them right over my head.  It was way too early in the morning to think, let alone consider the shitslide that had covered my love life last night.  Not that anyone could think in the presence of Jordan Staal anyway.

“Whatcha wearin’?” he asked, sitting heavily on the bed and trying to peel down the covers.

“Stop!” I popped my head out and kept the blankets up to my chin.  I was actually fine in a t-shirt and shorts, but there was no reason to share that information.  He wore dark jeans and a long-sleeved gray Steelers shirt that looked really soft.  

“What are you doing here?”

He shook the bag and gave me a dazzling, I-get-away-with-murder smile.

“How do you know where I live?!”

Jordan put breakfast on the desk.  “I made Orpik call the office and say you left your phone last night.  They gave him your address.”

“Is Brooks here?” I tried to look out the door but it was all hallway.

“Nope.” Jordan swung his legs up and laid back then rolled to face me.  One huge bicep curled under his head and he lay there like we talked in bed every morning.  His body was the widest, heaviest thing this mattress had ever held.  Possibly that I’d ever seen.  Everything in the room pulled toward him like magnets.  “But everyone trusts Brooks.  No one in their right mind would tell me where you live.”

I covered my smile by pulling the blanket back up.  

“Kris is here though, in the living room with your half-naked friends.  I knew they’d let him in,” he admitted.  That got me out from undercover quickly and we both listened for a moment.

“I don’t hear any screaming,” Jordan said.

“That only means they’ve covered his mouth.”

He settled deeper into the mattress, closing his eyes.  I kept mine open and wondered what alternate fucking universe I had slipped into overnight.  Not only was there a large, warm, devastating guy on my bed but it wasn’t even James.  This was not the way Pittsburgh had worked in my mind.  Height and hockey skills aside, Jordan and James couldn’t have been more different - Staal had probably never been quiet a day in his life, never been shy or passed something he wanted without making a grab.  James was... ugh.

The bliss of sleep had made me forget just how mad I was at James.  That girl and those eyes and then that lie, the one where I told him it was just a kiss.  Because that’s all it had been to him, no matter what he said.

I wanted to talk to someone about it, but not Jordan.  I couldn’t do that to James even if it frustrated me that I still wanted to protect him.  He was obviously fitting in fine and didn’t need a stupid, gullible girl to protect him.  He hadn’t protected me, not from anything.

After a few minutes of silence, Jordan looked at me.  “It seems we have two options here.”

“And they are...?” I tried to keep my smile small.

“We could take this breakfast to your friends and see if there’s anything left of Kris,” he said in a light voice used only for frivolous ideas.  With a push of his arm, he lifted up onto one elbow and leaned over me slightly.  “Or we could close the door and let them starve.”

I blushed, which made Jordan chuckle.  Not that he backed away at all.  If anything it drew him closer; blood in the water to a circling shark.

Damn this guy was good.  He knew exactly the effect he had and how to dole it out slowly so a girl got addicted without overdosing.  It wouldn’t take much - just a taste, just a tiny lift of my shoulders would put me right over the edge into his whirlpool.  But I didn’t feel threatened... he was like a vampire.  All safe and warm until he bit you.

“Breakfast,”  I heard myself say.

He clicked his tongue like I’d made the wrong decision.  Unfolding his legs, Jordan got to his feet... and yanked the blanket off me.

I shrieked, instinctively curling into a ball.  Jordan looked down over my old blue college shirt and Target shorts with little whales on them, topped off with white socks.  He gave me sarcastic look.

“We’re going to have to do something about this before next time.”

Waking up felt worse than falling asleep.  It was still dark in my room, thanks to some blackout curtains.  If only they could black out last night.

Allison slept on her stomach, hair splayed and one hand under my side.  I’d gotten her up the stairs and out of her plaid shirt, but left the jeans and tank top.  She was asleep before I laid her down.  At least she was small, leaving me three quarters of the bed on which to contemplate my fuckery.

Absolutely everything had gone wrong.  From the bad idea of even showing up last night to the worse idea of staying until the bitter end.  All I got for my trouble was shot down by the girl of my dreams and sent home with another girl I planned to dump as soon as she stopped snoring.

And then there was Jordan.  Mister-fucking-Personality.  Everyone’s best friend and comic relief and Golden Child of the NHL Dynasty.  Of course it had to be him.  No one ordinary could ever compete for Natalie’s attention.

Which is where I fell, at the end of the day.  Ultimately ordinary.  I had known her before, shared a moment with her only to lose my advantage to fear.  Just trying to be nice to Allison, not ruin Kelsey’s party and keep the new friends I’d waited so long to have cost me whatever chance I had with Natalie.

It wasn’t worth it.  I should have done the opposite.

In the darkness of my room, where I was always more confident, I thought I could just tell her that.  I could just confess that in trying to keep everyone else happy I’d let my own happiness get away.  She would listen.  At least the version of her I’d been living with these last two years would listen.  I was sure of it.

I got out of bed, careful not to disturb Allison.  A pile of laundry yielded clean jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt.  I threw the clothes on, scribbled “getting breakfast” on a piece of paper and left.

“Hey Andy, it’s James Neal.”

Andy was an assistant director in the Player Personnel department.  He was the first call you made if you got a speeding ticket or caught by an angry boyfriend - he fixed things and kept secrets.  And the first person you asked for a favor.

“The new girl in Communications, Natalie Crawford?  She left her phone at the restaurant last night.  Could you give me her address?  I’ll drop it off later on my way in.”

“Hmmm, yeah, I guess I can give it to you.  Natalie lives at... .”  A keyboard clicked in the background.  “She’s at 1699 Fountain... apartment two.”

“Thanks, dude. I owe you one.”

“I think Natalie owes me,” he said cryptically.  “She loses her phone a lot.”

With the help of GPS, it took me twenty two minutes to get to her address.  Every minute dragged - I had to turn to music way up to quiet my mind.  If I thought too much I’d talk myself right out of it.  I expected an apartment building, but it was a cute, low-slung duplex.  Number two was on the right.  There was just enough space at the curb behind a black SUV.  Without so much as a deep breath I made my move.

And was halfway across the lawn when the door opened.  

“We’re still hungry!” Emily yelled as I closed my bedroom door.  I was dressed in jeans and a sweater, sneakers and thirty seconds of grooming.  It wasn’t much but an improvement on the half-awake vision Jordan had walked in on ten minutes ago.  The coffee table was strewn with plates and crumbs.

“You ate everything?”

Kris finished chewing.  “It was only half a dozen.”

The girls pulled clothes out of their bags and looked longingly at Kris as I ordered them into my room to change.  He batted his eyelashes like they’d get another chance.  To my surprise, Jordan rounded up the dishes and half-full cream cheese container and took them into the kitchen.

“You clean too?” I ask, following him.  Jordan held the fridge open and let me lean in for a bottle of water.

“Just trying to impress you.”

He didn’t have to try.  The boy was a twenty foot tall heat lamp who smelled like clean laundry and sleep.  I bet he was careful not to tear the door off the hinges every time he came in the house.

“Impress me by picking a good place to eat.”

He gave me that lop-sided, panty-dropping grin.  “Impress the whole team I I tell them I bought you breakfast.”

I had to run.  Luckily everyone was ready to go.  I grabbed my keys and purse, hit the light switch and stepped onto the small porch on my side of the house.  Someone had attached a take-out brochure to the iron railing with a rubber band - it distracted me so long I didn’t see a person coming toward us.

“Nealer,” Jordan said from behind me.  Right behind me.  It didn’t sound anything like a greeting but my head snapped up in surprise.

Not as surprised as James looked, standing in my yard.  The breeze ruffled his hair and the hood of his grey sweatshirt.  He stopped short.  I stopped short too

Jordan bumped into me, big hands closed over my shoulders as if to steady us.  But it was a possessive gesture, maybe protective - I didn’t bother to think.  I just moved half a step to the left, out of his grasp.

James was so sensitive.  He’d always worn every emotion clearly while playing.  No game face, the guys used to joke.  Well it was true now - shock, hurt, and something that looked like disappointment all tumbled across his face.  Those broad shoulders slumped and he instinctively shoved his hands into his pockets.  

Emily, Kris and Kate all railroaded into Jordan’s back trying to get out the door.  They bumbled and laughed until Emily saw James standing fifteen feet away.

“Oh.”  Her tone of voice said it all.  Someone gasped.

“Hey Neal,” Kris said, untangling himself from the traffic jam.  Bless him from trying to act normal.  He went right down the stairs, slapped James on the shoulder and kept going toward the car.  It was a clear sign for the girls to follow.

Jordan stayed.  He didn’t reach for me again but he made no move.  The three of of stood there for a painfully long moment before Kris called Jordan’s name.

“Keys!” Kris demanded.  I thought Jordan might throw them.  With a sigh that was almost a grunt, he walked right past James.  I watched until they had all climbed into Jordan’s SUV and closed the doors.

“Hi,” I said quietly.  There was no sense in asking what he was doing here.

“I came to apologize.  Guess I’m too late.”  He was angry, those seconds of staring down Jordan and waiting for me to grant him a private audience had changed his demeanor.  There was a mocking tilt to his head, the start of a sneer on his lips.

“So that’s it?  Two years in Dallas you don’t date anyone and you only make Jordan wait two days?”

“I’m not dating Jordan.”

“Sleeping with Jordan, then.  I was trying to give you some class, Natalie.”

“Is that what you had last night?  Or better yet, Thursday at work?  You were working on classy when you threw me up against that wall?  I bet your girlfriend loves that move.”

James’ eyes flashed.  “I told you she’s not my girlfriend.”

“And I asked if you’d told her that.  You obviously hadn’t last night.  In fact, judging from the shape she was in I bet she still doesn’t know.”

I was angry too.  Angry at being wrong and being judged and being in a situation that looked a  lot worse than what it was.  Maybe I wasn’t a responsible adult, maybe I did need my dad around to look out for me.  Because this sure as hell would never have happened in Dallas.  I took two steps down to the ground, surrendering my height advantage on the wager that being close to me had some effect on James.  Because I was not about to surrender the moral high ground in this argument.

It worked.  He took half a step back as I moved close enough to touch him.  I was much shorter but rage made me feel huge.

“You want to cheat on someone, have girls on the side like every other asshole hockey player on every other team?  I’m not the girl you pull that shit on, James!”  I took another step, right up near his chest.  

“When you kiss me you’d better fucking mean it.”

“You kissed me once,” he hissed, like he was reminding me of a crime I’d committed.  Those big hazel eyes were dark and pinched in the corners.  At this range, no one else could have heard him.

“I have meant that kiss every single day for the last two years.  Aren't I the fool?”

I stormed away without another look.  My anger was white-hot and I welcomed it, letting it cloud all my judgements.  Now he knew all my secrets.  He knew why I was more than two day worth of angry.  More than the six months since he’d left.  James had killed two years worth of longing; he’d broken something without knowing the price.  I couldn’t watch him take that in - for fear he really had meant something by the kiss.  And fear that he hadn’t.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I followed Jordan to the bar, let him get in front of me and then pressed myself against his back just so I could hide my face in his shirt.  A hundred emotions needed their moment and I couldn’t let anyone else see them.

No one know about me and James.  Not even my friends.  And certainly not his teammates or his girlfriend.

Girlfriend.  I nearly growled.

Apparently I had misjudged James.  Sure I showed up here and surprised the shit out of him but yesterday – just yesterday! – he had kissed me.  He’d erased six months in a moment.  Why would he do that if he had already had someone here?  He was fitting in just fine, thank you very much, and I knew fuck all about anyone.  His intentions were clear though: have your cake and eat it too.

I was angry at him and angry at myself for assuming this was some fairy tale, one-that-got-away story.  Of course James had a girlfriend – he’s gorgeous and he plays for a team that is worshipped by this city.  And me, I was just a fool.  It stung like I’d been smacked and I wasn’t keep to take another hit.  So when Jordan handed me a drink, I wrapped my hand into the front of his shirt and pulled his face down to mine.

“I’m not so easy, Staal.”

Instead of looking surprised or offended, Jordan laughed.  He really had an amazing smile.  I was such a sucker.

“No, but you are sooooooooooooo mad right now.”

My jaw fell open.  Those blue eyes twinkled with victory and I cursed under my breath.  Jordan reached around my waist and pulled me into a legitimate hug.  I tried my hardest not to, but I ended up laughing in his arms.  It probably looked like we were having a hell of a time.

“I thought it was just Nealer hiding a boner every time he saw you.  I didn’t realize that it was you too.”

“It’s nothing.”  I squared up a little, trying to steady the lie. I had let James’ eyes, his smile and his kiss lie to me.  Surely I could tell one of my own.  Right?

Jordan gave me a deadpan look.  “Then I’m going to kiss you.”

The hug that had been friendly and almost comforting suddenly got heated.  The solid mass of his body, so full of bulges and indentations sculpted into the muscle, was practically a rock climbing wall.  He was holding me really tight.

“Don’t!” I whispered sharply.

“I’m good at it,” he promised, squeezing my side. “Really good at it.”

That massive hand slid up between my shoulder blades and trapped me so I could see only his face.  He put his mouth to my ear and whispered down my neck.

“Everyone is looking at us,” he said quietly.

My fingers didn’t make it halfway around his bicep but I tried to gain some control.  “Jordan. Stop.”

He held me there, powerless.  He could do whatever he wanted.  Well, not that I didn’t want it.  My body was like a blender with no top, flinging hormones at high speed.  I had put a lot of imagining into me and James and now there was just a smear, as if someone had tried to erase it from a chalk board.  Jordan slowly released his arm.  He sipped from his drink but those blue eyes never left mine.

Finally he said, “You’re a bad liar.”

“I am not lying!”

Small smile.  “Should have let me kiss you.  Would have sold your story.”

“Jordan, if I made out with every hockey player who ever hit on me I’d be in the Hall of Fame by now.”

The corner of his mouth curled – he knew that I knew what I was talking about.

“So what now?” He glanced over my head to where James was probably still standing with his girlfriend, terrified I was telling Radio Jordan all the nothing that ever happened between us.  Jordan’s brow drew together in the middle, like he was actually a little bit worried for me.

“Now we’re going to dance,” I replied.  “Get Kris.  I’ll show you how to sell a story.”

I didn’t even pretend I wasn’t watching Jordan clutch Natalie by the bar.  His fingers stopped at the waist of her dark jeans, she lifted onto the toes of her light brown boots to talk.  He whispered and smiled and I couldn’t see her face because he was a fucking giant with arms like a bear.  More than once he caught my eye, but never reacted – just went right back to holding her.

Fuck.  Fuck fuck fuck.

Kelsey came for Allison – I stepped away and let them head for the dance floor.  Flower watched me watching Natalie and gave a quizzical look.  I just shook my head: it was nothing.  Or at least it was now.

Natalie came toward us, hand-in-hand with Staal.  Without so much as a glance at me, she rounded up her friends, grabbed Kris and headed down the steps.  They didn’t stop till they’d joined Allison and the rest of the girls.

Now I turned away.  I couldn’t watch Jordan get to second base with her and call it dancing.  The song blared a heavy, rolling beat and I pictured her shaking that ass right into Staal’s lap.

“Thought the new girl wasn’t into hockey players?” Flower said, turning up next to me.

“Guess things change,” I shrugged.

He clapped me on the shoulder, like old friends.  “Mon ami, you should borrow my mask before you start lying.”

People came and went from our table.  I declined all the dancing but Allison was too drunk to care.  Only Natalie never came back – she stayed on the floor so long there was nothing to do but watch her dance.  Occasionally someone brought her a beer but, like me, she seemed to be sipping instead of chugging.  Kris moved in close behind her for a song then Flower got a two-stepping lesson.  Everyone danced with everyone, and all together – nothing scandalous was going on.  Except Jordan took every turn he could get, and spent his off-duty moments staring down any non-Penguin who looked like they might approach.

To watch them you’d think they’d all been friends forever, while I stood far away and sulked.  Midnight came and went.  In two hours, Natalie had done what I failed to do for six months: she’d made friends.

It wasn’t long before Allison was back, her drunkenness fading to fatigue.  But I could not leave before Natalie, not without seeing when she left and with whom.  I propped Allison up and pretended Flower didn’t know exactly what I was doing.

We didn’t have to wait long.  TK and Kelsey came back, Amanda and Brooks headed for a taxi.  Natalie’s friends were laughing and pawing at Letang, who did absolutely nothing to dissuade them.  Jordan started leading everyone off the dance floor.

“I am spent,” Emily said as she dropped into a chair.  Kris fell in next and pulled Emily’s legs over his lap.  Kate put her head down on the table.

Natalie leaned against the railing, her white tank top blazing in the low light.  She sighed tiredly but her eyes were clear and bright.  Jordan finished off a beer and spun the bottle away.  Everyone was waiting for someone else to do something.

“Eh, time to go home.  Ladies, it was very nice to meet you,” Marc gave a gallant wave.  “You fuckfaces were sober when I left, that’s the story I will tell.  See you tomorrow.”  Vero went with him, Eggo and his wife followed along.

“Let’s go girls.  Time for bed.”  Natalie stood up straight.  She didn’t look at Jordan even though he was looking at her.  Instead she pried Emily away from Kris and helped her up.

Allison took the hint.  “Bathroom, then we go.”

The moment she was gone, Natalie and Jordan shared a look that I probably wasn’t meant to see.  He roused Kate from her nap.

“Come on, I’ll get cabs.”  And he took her friends, leaving Natalie and me alone.

She didn’t move. The music was still loud and the lights down – it would be last call any minute.  Her outfit was a contrast to the darkness, outlining her shape to perfection.  I ached from spending all night watching other guys hold her.

“Natalie, I’m sorry.”

Hurt: those fantastic green eyes were full of it.  I expected anger or disgust or death rays but instead there was only pain.

“Allison is not my girlfriend.  It’s not serious.”

She tilted her head slightly.  “Has anyone told her that?”

Obviously not.  “I didn’t know how to break it off without ruining Kelsey’s party – there was no time!  I didn’t even know you were coming here.  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“And say what, James?”

Even now, in the middle of an argument, the sound of her saying my name made my knees weak.

“Call out of nowhere and say ‘Remember when I kissed you out of nowhere a hundred years ago when the world was a different place then never talked to you again?  Remember when I hardly even knew you?’”  Her voice was forced, trying not to rise in pitch or volume.  She wasn’t drunk, but she’d had enough that emotions were getting the better of her.

“I didn’t know if it was anything!” she said.

“It was something.  It is something.”  It felt so good to say that out loud.  I took a step forward.

But Natalie’s eyes shifted and she shook her head.  The words came out softly, like she didn’t want anyone to hear them.  Maybe I’m the one who didn’t want to hear them.

“It was just a kiss.”

At that moment, Allison’s hand found my shoulder and she leaned all her weight on me.  I nearly stumbled.  Natalie gave Allison a tight little smile, almost sad, and headed for the door.  I dragged along behind.

Outside, Jordan had two cabs waiting.  Kris was leaning into one door, talking to Natalie’s friends.  Natalie went toward Jordan and the second car.

If they tried to leave together I would have to do something.  Staal wasn’t drunk either and the fight would go down just as I envisioned: him hitting me, me hitting the ground.  Then he’d take her home anyway, over my dead body.

“Bonne nuit!” Kris said, smacking the roof of the cab without getting in.  Natalie opened her arms and Jordan stepped into a hug.  His mouth moved but I couldn’t hear, she just rocked in his arms.  The she hugged Kris, glanced over her shoulder at me and left without a word.

Another cab pulled up immediately.  I lowered Allison into the backseat and stood behind the open door.

Jordan pinched his mouth together and shrugged, like I’d made my own bed.  Now I had to sleep in it with my very drunk un-girlfriend.  But he wasn’t sorry.  He was winning.

I had to walk away from James.  Even if Allison hadn’t been approaching from behind, weaving stumbled footsteps toward the table, I would have left.  Because I’d already proven once tonight I wasn’t much of a liar.

“It was just a kiss.”

Technically true, but then why did my stomach hurt?  Why did he have so much effect on me?  I’d crack under another second of those big, sad eyes.  My boots shuffled right out the door, right toward Jordan.

Jordan was my partner in crime, my safe zone.  Of course he’d have me screaming down the heavens in the back of a taxi without so much as a ‘yes please,’ but tonight I trusted him.  He was the only person who knew.

“Okay?” he asked softly.  I nodded even though he could see it all over my face.  Then he looked toward the door and I knew James was following.  Jordan kept answering all my questions before I had to ask.  

“Call me if you need anything,” he said, arms around my waist.  “Like a back massage.”

I laughed weakly.

“Foot massage?”

I shook my head.  Why was I egging him on?  He took the bait and curled down low.  His breath lifted the hair from my temple, tickling my ear.

“Holding out for that kiss, eh?”

I banged my forehead once against his shoulder.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


“Hey, it’s James.  Give me a call when you get this.”

I’d called enough times that I was officially stalking Allison.  Last night I left her at Tyler’s and she’s been silent all morning. Now it was nearly two and I was starting to run out of time.

“Nealer!” TK shouted as he picked up the phone.  “You wearing your spurs tonight?”

“Ass-less chaps, dude.  They’re standard in Texas.  Hey, do you know if Allison’s out with Kelsey?”

“Yeah man.  Whole girls day – salon, spa, whatever else chicks do and then dinner.  We’re meeting them at 10 at the Whiskey.”

The Whiskey was a lively country bar a little outside the city to give it that authentic feel.  And it didn’t do a bad job, really.  I’d been there a few times and weekends were known to rock with a live band a DJ.  One thing I definitely had in common with a lot of my teammates wherever I’d played was a love for country music.

But tonight I was trying to get out of something instead of into it.  If I couldn’t talk to Allison I was handcuffed.  Half the team would be there.  I was expected and probably couldn’t afford to take a step backward.  Of course dumping Allison right before Kelsey’s birthday party was probably a shitty move too.  It would be worse if I let it linger.  The longer the guys knew Natalie, the more they’d see right through me.

“You won’t see her till later, but she’ll be looking hot tonight,” TK promised.

“Great.  That’s great.”

Today had seemed like the longest day ever – the players had an off day and the coaching staff worked quietly in their offices.  We wrote game notes for tomorrow’s first preseason game and got all our information in order.  I was happy to find the system was much the same as Dallas, so while I was new at least I was capable.  Being Daddy’s Little Girl wasn’t buying me anything here that I didn’t earn for myself.

“Where is this girl’s night taking place?” Emily shouted down the hall from the second bathroom.

“Dinner, then a country bar.  You can wear your pigtails!”

She applauded my pronouncement and went back to blow-drying her hair.  Kate was digging through her bag on the floor in front of my full-length mirror.

“All these guys and no one to put together your furniture?” She pointed toward the DIY dresser box leaning against the far wall, behind a row of open boxes strewn with clothes.

“I met the team two days ago!”

Kate rolled her eyes.  “I fear you are losing your touch.”

For dinner we went to a mid-range seafood place downtown and ordered beers and platters.  It was just like college – too much drinking, inappropriate jokes and hysterical laughter.  I was so happy to be closer to my friends and have them ring in my new life in Pittsburgh.  For the first time since my dad lost his job, I felt something approaching stability.

I nearly told them about James ten times.  But every time I opened my mouth to start the story, I realized there was no middle.  We had a beginning – maybe two beginnings, the new one better than the last.  But we were nothing more than moments of weakness so far.  As exciting as that was, as many bubbles fizzed in my stomach at the thought of him smiling, there was really nothing yet to tell.

And if they knew the start, they would try to write the end.  Especially Kate.  She’d roll right up to James at the game tomorrow and tell him to fucking hurry up and build my furniture so he could empty out my underwear drawer. 

Maybe tomorrow, I thought.  I’d get at least a moment with James, even with other people around, and it could offer some small clue.  The first question had been answered: this thing was definitely something.  But what?

“So, what do you think of your new home?” Emily asked.

I smiled away the knot in my stomach.  “So far, so good.”

We had another round of beachy-looking cocktails bearing fruit and fun straws instead of dessert then declared ten o’clock prime time to keep this party rolling.  The cab driver looked thrilled when I gave him the out-of-the-way address of our destination.  Kate tipped him big and told him to come back at last call.

The place was packed.  One of our college pleasures had been a faux-Western bar where Emily ended up cocktail waitressing and Kate and I ended up closing every Saturday night.  In Dallas, my cowboy phase had reached critical mass.   Now as we waded through jeans and plaid shirts, I knew it might not be Texas but this would do just fine.

“Yeehaw!” Tyler yelled before tossing back a shot and chasing it with a kiss from Kelsey.  She whooped too, drained her own shot and we all followed suit.  I needed ten more to shut up my brain.

As advertised, the girls looked fantastic: professional hair and makeup, all new clothes and big, silly grins.  Allison wore jeans and a plaid shirt rolled to the elbow, open two buttons too low with the good spilling out.  I felt so cold for not wanting her now, when she was especially gorgeous and happy.  It wasn’t fair, not tonight when we were meant to be celebrating.  So I put one hand on her hip and slugged my beer back with the other.

“I love this place,” Jordan declared.  Kelsey had a handful of girlfriends with her who stared at Staalsy like they’d just turned up under the Eiffel Tower.  But we’d met them all before and Jordan had done what fishing he was going to do.  So he, Tanger and the other guys kept their heads on a swivel to browse the merchandise. 

The bar had a sunken dance floor, so you could stand around the railings and watch the band and people shaking it.  It was packed tonight and the band knew every song on the radio.  Kelsey dragged Tyler off to dance, Flower and Eggo danced with their girls.  Jordan ordered more drinks and shots were ordered – I’d had a few already and needed to pace myself because I needed to watch myself.  Nothing could be said tonight, nothing could be done.  Waiting was hard enough, but impossible when drunk.  While Allison and Amanda were setting up tequilas, I stood at the bannister watching the crowd seethe.  A huge cheer went up as the song started: Jason Aldean’s “My Kind of Party.”

“Woohoo!” Jordan crowed, having spotted something appearling.  “Fuckin’ right!”  He gave me a huge grin and charged down toward the dance floor with a target in sight.

I looked in the same general direction.  A girl threw her hands up for the new song and caught my eye.  The slower, more sultry beat changed the motion of the place – everyone got sexy, moved like water.  Especially three girls in a little knot in the middle of the crowd.  They danced like they didn’t care who saw – close and touching just enough to make mouths go dry with beer still in them.  They were also only paying attention to each other, dancing like it was clear they didn’t want to be interrupted.  And guys love a challenge.

Slowly a few guys on the dance floor edged in.  One tried to fit himself in between two of the girls, but they simply turned shoulders and boxed him out.  The third moved in tight, sliding between her friends like a battle formation.  Then she threw her had back and laughed.


Her long dark hair swung over one shoulder.  She wore a white tank top and moved with her friends in a way that stopped just short of scandalous.  Light caught her earrings, her lip gloss, soft skin where it plunged down into the promise of cleavage.  It felt like the whole world should stop, but aside from the few guys circling and me watching from above, Natalie and her friends were lost in the crowd.  In the confined space, she didn’t need much room.   Moving like water, she ran her hands over her sides and hips and down toward her thighs as the song begged for a one-night rodeo. 

I shook away the shock of it just in time to see Jordan toss some people aside on his way to her.

God I love to dance.  I forgot how good it felt to just let go and pretend you’re home, in your room in some shorts on laundry day pretending it’s a music video.  Funny how pounding base and a handful of drinks will bring that right back.  Kate, Emily and I had danced so many nights away that it was like climbing into a time machine.  We were showing off a little, sure – but we looked good and besides, no one cared.  People were humping and groping all over the floor; what difference could a few girls make?

The talent at the Whiskey was not bad.  A few of these gents had only seen cowboys in movies and were practically in costume.  Others were just guys on the make, same as every club in every city.  Only the music changes.  As “My Kind of Party” came on, we just closed out the creepers and went for it ourselves.  If anyone was watching us, they were soon forgotten in the sound of the song.

Until I was lifted off the floor, arm around my stomach, and swung into space that hadn’t existed a moment ago.  Someone whooped in my ear and I prepared to unleash the fury of my sophomore year one-credit self-defense class on some clown in a ten gallon hat.

“Hey gorgeous.”

Face to fucking face with Jordan Staal.  No wonder I was six inches off the ground.  He was holding me up easily and smiling like the Cheshire Cat.  His eyes were navy blue in the low light and a little bloodshot from drinking.  But the leer was gone from yesterday, replaced with something less threatening.  His slightly crooked smile over slightly messy teeth, it was disarming instead of dangerous.  For a second I wondered what it would feel like to kiss Jordan, instead of be kissed by him.  There’s a big difference.

“Huh… hi,” I stuttered.  He set me gently on my feet but didn’t back away.  Is towering frame made it clear who was calling the shots.

“I’m Kate!” yelled a voice behind me.  Without looking, I knew Kate was counting how many condoms she’d stuffed into her suitcase.  It wouldn’t enough if Jordan got a hold of her.  He gave her the eye and shook her hand, then proceeded to undress Emily in a similar fashion.  They just gaped.

“Drinks on me.  Come on, the guys are here.”

With my small wrist in his huge paw, Jordan parted the crowd like a battering ram and dragged me right up the five steps.

“Look who I found!” he announced proudly, catching my shoulder and pulling me under his arm like a hug.

TK cheered and the brunette next to him hiccupped a giggle.  Fleury flashed me the million-dollar smile.  Letang arched an eyebrow and Emily fell down the stairs.  And right next to him, over a table full of empty shot glasses, was James.  He wore an orange, brown and yellow checked cowboy shirt, all the colors of fall that brew in his wide eyes.  It was rolled up over his strong arms.  Arms that were currently around the waist of a cute blond with her rack on display and her fingers hooked into the back of his belt. They were just coming up from a kiss.

The color drained from my face like a cup spilling milk.

I had watched Jordan bomb through the crowd and sweep Natalie off her feet, literally.  My eyes were glued to them as they were glued to each other, Jordan’s mouth inches from hers.  If he kissed her I’d have torn the bannister free and thrown it like a javelin.  But just as he was lowering her too slowly down the slab of his chest, Allison wriggled in next to me and sighed.

“Having fun?” she giggled.  Her hand snaked around my waist and hooked into my belt.  “This is the best night.”  Then she pulled me in for a kiss, and I was too slow to stop it.  I couldn’t stop for fear of everything happening around me.  My senses were blurred by the music and my reflexes dulled by drink.  Allison pressed her lips to mine, then her chest and her hips.  My body responded the way guys do.  Goddamn evolution.

By the time Jordan’s voice boomed out, it was too late.  Natalie was right there, under Jordan’s arm, and my lips were still on Allison’s.

I straightened up like I’d been shocked.  Allison was too drunk to notice.  But the way Natalie’s eyes flashed, even in the club lights, told me I was caught.  Her stare froze over solid, like something cold and sharp, and stabbed right into my stomach.

“Natalie works in the Pens communications office,” Jordan explained for the girls.  She collected herself with a small throat clear and introduced herself, then her friends. 

“This is James’ girlfriend, Alyssa,” Jordan said helpfully.  Natalie looked right at me like I could eat shit and die.

“Allison,” corrected Allison.  Just the name, not the “girlfriend.”  Then she reached out and shook the hand of the girl I’d just lost forever.

Jordan knew.  He at least knew that I had a thing for Natalie, even if he didn’t know the extent.  And the wolfish look he wore said he planned to do nothing but make my worst fears come true, preferably while I watched from the arms of a girl whose name he couldn’t even remember.

“Drink?” he turned Natalie her toward his massive chest.

Her eyes were slow to peel away from mine then she tilted her chin up like she’d never seen anything so amazing as Jordan Staal.

“Yes.  Definitely.”