“Happy birthday to you…” Gonch starts singing as she steps onto the bus and soon it’s a chorus.
When the song ends, she takes a little bow. “Thank you, Pittsburgh!”
Crosby moves in and she drops in next to him. I knew he was saving that seat for her. She talks to Geno in front of her as Sid digs in his bag. He comes up with a yellow wrapped package.
“Happy birthday,” he says proudly.
“What on Earth? It’s ten in the morning!” She examines it like it might be suspect.
“I thought old people got up early,” he teases and gets punched.
She peels off the paper and squeals. It’s a PSP. Well done, Crosby. The box is open in ten seconds flat and he’s showing her how to load the game. At least now no one will have to be all over her just so she can play. I somehow don’t think that will stop it from happening.
The flight to Ottawa is under an hour and she’s already killed me twice.
The plan for this evening has been made – dinner, then drinks at a swanky lounge. Tomorrow is game day, but Coach has given us till Midnight to celebrate. I sneak away after practice and walk the downtown shopping district, trying to find the perfect little something to give her.
I don’t know what I’m trying to convey. I admit to myself that I like her – definitely like her. But I don’t take a lot of girls seriously so there’s little frame of reference for how I’m feeling. Possessive, certainly. Aroused, like crazy. Also protective, which is a bit of a surprise. When I saw her with those flowers, I really wanted to help her stop hurting. That kind of nurturing desire is a little new to me.
I decide against jewelry or flashy – I don’t want her to think I’m cheesy. Same goes for anything sexy. She did warn me off, at least a little. Clothes are no good unless she tries them on. Another video game would just serve to highlight Sid’s gift. Books? I’ve already given her her favorite. I must look frustrated because the shop girl puts down box of restocking and comes over.
“Can I help you find something?”
The boutique is small and filled to the ceiling with girly odds-and-ends. Stationary, handbags, some things that look like hair ties. All of them are very pretty and would make nice gifts, but they are not the one.
“I’m buying a birthday present for a girl I’m not supposed to like.”
She smiles. “But you do like her?”
I can only nod. The girl leads me around the corner of the counter, past a section of coats. She stops at a rack of scarves eight feet high.
“Get her a scarf. Highly practical, but also intimate. And some of these are absolutely beautiful.”
She’s right. They are soft and warm, protective and comforting. Silk, brocade, wool – almost too many to choose from. Then I see it. A long, wide woven fabric sash bursting with colorful paisley pattern. The material is smooth and delicious in my hand. I choose the one with the most green.
The shop girl smiles as she rings me up. “She will love it.”
“Max, I love it!” Olivia gasps. She pulls the scarf from it’s tissue paper nest, lifting her arm high over her head as it trails out. Her hand runs down the fabric before she pushes her face into it like a puppy.
“It is gorgeous. Gorgeous!” She throws it around my shoulders, pulls me in with her lasso and gives me a hug. “Thank you.”
“Happy birthday,” I say as I let go of her.
“You did not have to do this, you know. You’re the only reason I’m getting a birthday at all this year.” I wonder if that’s true. Would she really have gone all day, this whole trip, without telling us?
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I voice my thoughts.
She shrugs, wrapped in the scarf. “I don’t know what road trips are like, if you can go out and stuff. I asked Dan a little, but I think he was worried I’d have you out tearing up the town every night. So I didn’t know.”
I smile at her. “You’ll know tonight!”
It’s really wrong how much I want him to kiss me right now. Olivia’s heart sinks, frustrated and cranky.
We’re waiting in the lobby, taxi ready, when she comes out the stairwell door talking on the phone. She’s curled her hair – long waves of it frame her face and fall across her shoulders. Just a little extra makeup has her looking slightly dramatic. Her dark gray coat is buttoned over whatever she’s wearing, but her legs are bare and her feet tucked into black heels with ankle straps. My scarf is around her neck.
“I have to. Everyone is waiting… yes, I know. I will,” she laughs and rolls her eyes. “I promise… MOM! You are a pervert. I’m hanging up. I love you too. Now go rinse your mouth out with soap.”
“Your mom is a pervert?” Jordan sounds particularly intrigued.
“She just figured out how to use Google and she looked up pictures of you guys. She’ll be coming to visit any day now.” Olivia turned to Kris. “Did you do the weather on the news once?”
He nods and blushes.
“Well apparently you were, and I quote, ‘a beefcake.’ I swear she actually said that. And of course she’s right, but she’s my mom. Good Lord!”
Kris has his face covered and Olivia hooks her arm into his elbow. “All your drinks are on her tonight.”
The lights are low and the atmosphere oddly date-like in the private room at a local steakhouse. The hostess takes Olivia’s coat, revealing a sassy black cocktail dress with no straps and a slit up one thigh. Tasteful, but very sexy. I’m sure I hear Jordan’s head hit the table as he loses consciousness.
She takes a seat at the center of the table and drapes one arm over the back of the chair next to her. Sidney comes in a moment later, on that side of the table, and moves toward her before I can get over there.
“Sorry, Max is sitting here,” she tells him.
Butterflies run like bulls through my stomach. Really? Butterflies? Next thing you know I’ll be watching Twilight and wearing a Team Edward t-shirt. But when I sit down, thankful there’s not much room at the table and pulling my chair in close, I feel them again. And they feel good.
“Thanks again, Max,” she says quietly, giving me a small, private smile. Tonight she smells like honeysuckle again – it’s one of my favorites. I want to lick her bare shoulder and see if she tastes just as good.
Jordan is on her other side, and he keeps refilling her wine glass from the bottle of red on the table. She holds it delicately by the stem, tipping it way up to sip. The curve of her neck spills her hair down her back, over her chair. After every time, she smiles. He leans in to say something quietly to her and I hear wine in her laughter.
“What did your mom say about me?” Sidney asks.
“’The one with the lips? I bet he could bench press you. He’s wearing shorts in one of these pictures that should be illegal.’” The voice is almost not her own, and now I cannot wait to meet her mother. Sidney cracks up at himself, along with everyone else. He really does laugh like a girl.
“What about me?” Jordan says with his mouth full.
“She apologized that I did not get to grow up next door to a family like yours. All those brothers…,” she trails off. Duper makes a comment about Staal’s brothers being farmboys and Jordan makes a frog joke that sets Marc off….
“Did your mom say anything about me?” I ask at less-than-full volume.
Olivia arches her eyebrows like she can’t believe something. “That’s why I called her a perv. Apparently the other guys are not half-naked or kissing someone in their pictures,” she’s smiling deviously. “And there is allegedly a photo of you mooning the camera.”
I should be laughing, but I’m pretty mortified. Of course that’s what is on the internet. The kissing photo is particularly gross – very close up and you can see tongue. I couldn’t have told you that girl’s name when the picture was taken, much less now. Fucking Facebook.
“She said you look like the most fun. And you have a fantastic ass.” Olivia leans back, like she’s looking down at my butt in the chair. “Going to have to look up that photo, I think.”
We pile into the reserved section at the classy lounge. Sultry electronic music plays and the seating is low couches arranged around a table. A bottle of vodka and a rack of mixers almost glows in the dimness, but Olivia orders a bottle of wine.
“Wine before liquor, never been sicker,” she defends herself, letting the waitress give the testing glass to Geno. He approves.
“You let the Russian try the wine while the French guys drink vodka?” Kris drains his glass.
Olivia sits back on the white furniture and crosses one thigh over the other. Now I realize why Jordan sat across from her, leaving the space next to her for me. I resolve to punch him later. She brushes one hand through her curly mane of hair, cascading it over the couch. Her eyes are smiling, but sleepy. Someone’s had a little too much wine.
Guys are dispersing around the bar, finding available women to talk to. Or unavailable, if you’re TK. He drags Kris toward what looks like a girls’ night out, then comes back for Cookie. Two girls stop Sidney on his way back from the bathroom, and Marc goes to see if he needs a rescue or a wingman.
I’m watching the action unfold when I feel her fingers on the collar at the back of my neck. She doesn’t touch me, just my shirt. But the nearness of her skin is electric just the same. Tracing along the edge, one of her fingertips brushes the skin at the edge. She gives us and runs that finger along the bottom of my hairline where it’s straight across my neck. A trail of fire burns it’s way after her.
If she kissed me, she might put her hands in my hair. Probably would. If she puts her hands in my hair now I will be on top of her before my drink reaches the table. But she takes her hand away instead and I feel empty.
She’s wearing that mild-or-wild look of a very happy alcohol buzz. The next two hours could go either way. Spectacularly bad decisions are made when that look is on duty. After a few drinks, having more drinks is a brilliant idea that’s impossible to resist. Knowing she’s already tipsy, knowing that she’s supposed to be working, and knowing that she feels really grateful toward me and was just touching my neck, I pour her another glass of wine.
The night is a success. She slows down on the wine a little, and shines in the way that only truly beautiful women can. Olivia is funny and witty and sassy and she knows her shit about hockey. When she talks about the game I almost forget that I want to put her ankles behind her head and make her scream my name. Almost. But every time she moves, that slit in her skirt cleaves into my brain.
“Can I ask you an honest question, Liv?” Billy G has had a few beers too. “You are not impressed with us. We are kinda famous – at least some of us – and it does not phase you. Yet you love hockey. How is that?”
I’d wondered that. I hadn’t asked because I was afraid than answer was simple – we just weren’t that impressive in real life.
“I was a celebrity publicist in New York. Movie stars, musicians. You do that for a few years and you get over the fame real quick. Plus, a lot of those people were not cool. I’m just happy I actually want to hang out with you guys.” She laughs. “I don’t know anyone else in Pittsburgh! If not for you guys, I’d have to do a lot more work, or spend my free time home alone with a dozen cats and the Lifetime Channel.”
“So we are actually quite impressive? I mean, we’re not movie stars but we’re pretty awesome, right?” Jordan is gearing up to flex again.
“You guys are awesome,” she nods honestly.
Jordan scoops her up and pulls her back down on his lap. She giggles as she almost tips over backward. He passes her glass up and settles into his seat. One of his hands is resting on her hip, his other arm across her thighs. She looks small in his arms.
Jailbait! Jordan was ten years old when you went to college. Jordan can’t even be in this bar, actually. The wine makes all these reasons tough to remember. And he’s awfully comfortable to sit on.
I need a break. I take a lap around the bar and find Sidney and Marc talking to the same two girls. Marc appears to have found someone who actually does not want to get in his pants. She’s telling a story with her hands and he is laughing. Sid is leaning into the girl he’s talking to, but there’s a little bit of a guarded look on his face. He really doesn’t trust anyone.
TK’s sitting in the middle of the couch of women. Kris has warmed up and taken the arm of a chair next to a very pretty dark-haired girl. Cookie’s talking to one of them standing and Gogo and Kunitz look ready to pounce on any open space. No room for me there.
When I come around the other side, I see that everyone has left the reserved area except Olivia and Jordan. She’s still sitting on his lap with one arm around his back. If she’s touching his hair, I may throw punches. Instead her head comes back and I hear her laughing. She slaps Jordan’s shoulder. Now I feel I can’t go back there either. So I take a seat at the bar and order myself a drink. Billy G appears with his glass already full.
“I gather no one has yet told Olivia that rule is a farce. I’m surprised Vero hasn’t.”
“There’s a chance Vero doesn’t know about it. We haven’t had many women actually work with us, not women like Olivia anyway.” Vero would tell her if she knew.
“Well don’t make a fool of her. No one wants to be the last to know something important,” he’s got on the fatherly look he uses when he doesn’t like our shit.
“She’ll find out soon enough. Give her some time to get to know everyone before they’re all making a play for her.” It’s a little lame, as reasons go, but it’s easier than telling him I’m scared.
Billy knocks the ice around in his drink. “Little late. I think Staal’s about to tell her with his tongue down her throat. So if you don’t want that to happen….”
His words get lost as I’m on my way back to the booth. They are talking now, almost seriously. His hands are joined around her waist. I bust right into their conversation.
“So, birthday girl, did you make a wish?” I ask, sitting down.
I imagine I see relief in her eyes, the damsel in distress thanking her grateful rescuer. But really it’s just surprise. She’s forgotten.
“How much time do I have?” Thirty minutes till curfew, till her birthday is over.
Jordan pushes her off and stands them both up. He gives me a little dirty look, like I’ve sabotaged his plan, but he still wants to be the hero. So he heads straight for the service door, as if he’s going to bake a cake himself inside half an hour. I trust he’ll find something. I’m too busy to worry about him. For now, she is mine alone.
“Come sit with me,” I pat the couch, where she’d been sitting before. She takes it and sits back. Then she tilts slightly as she leans into me.
“I’m drunk,” she whispers. “And I like it.”
Her face is turned slightly toward me and her eyes are closed. The corners of her lips are smiling. The wine has made her body languid and loose. I cannot help myself. With my back to the club and almost certainly no one watching us, I lean over and press a quick, small kiss to her lips.
Before she can kiss me back or throw me off, I’m done. Every synapse in my brain is firing, ordering me to press my mouth against hers and never stop. My fingers tingle where they would touch her arms. A heart beat this fast is usually associated with medical emergencies.
“Woah,” she says, opening her eyes a little.
Saved by the cupcake. Barely. Olivia’s mood is dangerous.
Jordan appears holding a cupcake with a burning candle stuck in the top. He might have run to the nearest store he looks so proud of himself. Half the team is right behind him.
“No singing!” she declares.
“One…,” Jordan stars.
“Two… three… happy birthday!” Everyone yells as she blows out the candle. Jordan unwraps the cupcake, breaks it in half and holds a piece out to her. Instead of biting it, she grabs the half and smushes it into his mouth. He tries to eat as much of it as he can, but ends up with frosting on his face. As he laughs, she takes the other half and eats it herself.
I kissed her. Just for a second. But I kissed her.
I can’t stop thinking about it on the way home. She’s in the backseat of the van between Crosby and Kris, half asleep with her head on Tanger’s shoulder. Jordan’s in the front – he’s too tall for the way back, and he didn’t look happy about it.
I should tell her about the rule. Just let her decide if she wants to be with one of us. She might not. But she might choose Jordan. Or Crosby. Or… nope, too risky.
When the van stops, Jordan is out first. Crosby helps her out from behind, his hand obviously right on her ass. Jordan steps her down from the car, then scoops her into his arms and carries her inside. I haven’t even paid yet. By the time I do, they’re nowhere to be found.
I want to say goodnight, but I’m afraid to knock on her door. I swear to God if Jordan answers it I will martyr myself when I try to fight him. He’d just toss me off the balcony and go back to whatever I interrupted. She looked awfully tired, so I just have to hope she went to sleep and will appear unsullied in the morning. As I climb into bed my own buzz dulls the worry and I start to drift off. I don’t have a dirty daydream about her tonight.
Sometime later, my phone beeps.
Her: Come out here right now please.
A thin liquor fog made worse by sleep hangs over me. I pull on a t-shirt and open the door. She’s down the hall in front of her door in a t-shirt and shorts. Her makeup is still on and she’s not wearing a bra. Instead of walking toward me, Olivia waves me down toward her room.
“Is the rule true? Or is it bullshit?”
Shit. Staal. I’ll fucking kill you.
She’s almost angry. I know she will be when I tell her the truth. Which I have to do in order to find out exactly how she already knows.
“It’s more of a guideline. The front office always means it, but it almost never holds. I have never heard of someone losing their job because they broke it.”
She purses her lips, those lips I almost tasted before. “And by ‘someone’ you mean the girl, because it’s not like they’d trade a player because he couldn’t keep his pants on.”
She’s right. It sucks. I nod.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She doesn’t seem drunk right now. I wonder how long I was asleep.
“I didn’t want you to have to choose someone. What if you didn’t want any of us? The whole situation is overwhelming and I didn’t want to put you in that position. I knew eventually you’d find out. Maybe you’d know us by then. Maybe you’d know what you wanted.”
Her hands are on her hips. “So you were buying me time? Or you were waiting for someone else to tell me?”
“I wanted to tell you. But then you wouldn’t have come to my house. You wouldn’t have worn my jersey or told me about the guy who sent the flowers. You wouldn’t have even saved me a seat at dinner because it would have ‘meant’ something. Telling you would have cost me the chance to get to know you without all that bullshit hanging over our heads.”
Her face softens a little, but she is not at the end of her story. “Is it bullshit? Did you have me over for dinner? Did you take the early slot of media day to hang out with me? Did you, or did you not, kiss me last night at the bar?”
Last night? Shit, what time is it?
“I did all of those things. I hoped that when you found out the rule was phony you might already have me in mind.” It was as honest as I could be. I hadn’t formed anything more specific, but this much was true. “I wanted to tell you, Olivia.”
I wanted to tell you that I want you. I wanted you to want me first, so I would know, so I would have already won. I wanted to be sure, not put myself on the line. Because I’m Max Talbot. I don’t chase women. As I think it, I know it’s hollow and I’m an asshole.
She bites her lip and closes her eyes with weary frustration. A long moment stretches silently between us.
“You should have told me.”
When she opens her door, I see it’s daylight through her window. And a large male foot is sticking off the end of her bed. The door closes in my face.