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.

1 comment:

  1. Poor James! =-( He can't seem to do anything right.
    He needs to come clean to Allison before he tries to make it up to Natalie.

    Jordan is getting on my nerves. He is way to aggressive for my taste.