“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.
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.