A/N: Covenant - a promise within a contract for the performance or non-performance of a specified act.
I drive to the Mellon just before 8 AM. Only two cars are in the lot – Olivia’s and Kris’s. I assume Jordan stayed at hers and they rode in together, but when I reach the locker room he is nowhere to be found. Olivia straightens Kris’ tie, then steps back. I have to admit he looks good. She looks like she wants to take a bite out of him.
“It’s a good thing Staalsy’s not here to see you looking at Kris that way,” I say.
She rubs her hand over my cheek and jaw. “Hmmm, scruffy. Now I’m thinking it about both of you.”
Olivia looks a little high-fashion herself – she’s wearing ankle boots with a stiletto heel, another devastating pencil skirt and a high-necked sleeveless white blouse. I’m guessing there’s a short blazer around that goes over. Her hair is a pouf with a high ponytail – very polished, a little equestrian… it makes me wish she had a riding crop in hand. Before 8 AM she is wearing eyeliner.
“You look nice today too. Don’t want to be shown up by the boys?” I’ve got my t-shirt off and I see her look at my chest before answering.
“Just in case they need an extra for this photo shoot,” she spins on one delicate heel and sashays away.
Kris goes first, since he’s ready first. They shoot him in the brick hallway, using the long, empty corridor as a backdrop. I dress and watch as they pose him, give him cues on where to walk and turn, light the scene. Between shots, Olivia comes out a door father down and walks toward us in silhouette. Her jacket is on - I recognize her body, her outfit.
“Stop,” say the photographer. Olivia freezes, worried she’s walking into a shot. The photographer takes a few snaps of her from far away then looks at his screen. “Come closer.” She walks another five steps and he stops her, shoots again.
“Right there,” he says.
He has Kris reenact what he was doing – turning into the hallway, walking right past the camera – with Olivia in the background. Only her outline is visible: feminine shape, skirt, hair. She’s in complete darkness. The photographer fires off a ton of shots.
“Now lean your back against the wall,” he points to her. She does, and angles her head back. The line of her throat and chin makes the shape of her look delicate. On instinct, she raises a knee and presses the bottom of one shoe against the wall. Like she’s waiting for him, or maybe he’s walking away from her. Kris repeats his actions a third time.
“That’s it, got it,” the photographer says. “Perfect. New plan.” His assistant approaches Olivia as he leads me away.
My photos are in color. We use Mario’s office, with its important-looking desk and nice bookshelves. I sit, stand, lean and walk. I keep waiting for Olivia to come in – I’m angry that she’s missing this. They stop to change the lighting and she finally arrives. She’s in her sleeveless top and her hair has been loosened into that messy, bed-head knot that I love. Why does her eyeliner look darker? Why is the makeup lady chasing her?
I get it as she comes right up and stops before the photographer. He looks her up and down, like she’s a car he’s about to buy.
“Great,” he says. Then he pats the edge of the desk. “Lean right here.”
Olivia perches her butt on the corner of the desk, arranges her skirt and then looks up at me. I definitely know what the photographer is going for here: anyone looking at these photos will want to do exactly what I want to do right now. I move in close – too close, closer than I should be – and put a palm down on the desk next to her. Our bodies align. We are definitely not touching and it’s gorgeous. She’s gorgeous. The camera is snapping away, but I don’t hear anyone talking.
The apprehensive look in her eyes makes my blood boil. Olivia is tremendously sexy, confident and strong, but for the first time I see doubt behind that persona. She has been cajoled into this and does not think she belongs here. Her lips part slightly as she gathers a breath for bravery. Her dark blue eyes crease at the corners like she’s fighting back nerves. I am lost; lost in the moment and lost in the vulnerability she’s suddenly showing.
Without direction, thought or pretense, I lean in and kiss her.
The lights go out instantly, like someone put a candle snuffer over my head. All I do is feel – feel her lips, feel her warmth, feel a heady rush of adrenaline and a spear of longing. Desire rushes up in me. Certainly a physical desire, but also again the desire to protect her, help her, show her that I think she is everything this photographer thinks she is and more.
“Max. Max!” the photographer’s voice cuts through my darkness.
I pull back, the blood draining from my body. Olivia still sits before me, face tilted upwards toward mine, mouth flush from the pressure of kissing. A soft, tremulous sigh escapes as she opens her eyes.
“Woah,” he says. “We definitely got what we wanted here.”
They all start packing up to leave the office. Olivia blinks at me, drags her tongue across her lips and leaves without a word.
“How do I look?” Jordan asks, turning from the mirror as Olivia comes into the room.
She’s frazzled. She’s weak and dizzy with the taste of Max on her tongue. Her heart and body cannot process what just happened, so her brain lags behind. Eventually the problem of being photographed kissing him will surface. For a national magazine. If Olivia could think clearly about it, she’d know that the photos show what they felt. They show all the forbidden lust the photographer hoping to capture.
“Jordan,” she says shakily. “You look great.”
He does: all 6’ 4” inches of him, wrapped in expensive fabric like a fantasy Christmas present. The white tie on white shirt still works – it makes the blue of his eyes pop. He looks beachy, where the other guys looked brooding. And he’s twice their size. Jordan wants to kiss her. He feels extremely confident, dressed to the nines, shooting for a fashion magazine, all with his beautiful un-girlfriend to see it. A woman, he reminds himself. Not a girl. She’s unlike anyone he’s ever known, certainly anyone he’s ever been with. But he can’t tell her that. Because they are casual.
The photographer comes in just as Jordan is going to put his arms around her. He sees that Jordan is ready.
“Olivia, if you could, makeup has something for you to change into.”
Change into? Jordan thinks.
“Looks like I’m part of this whole shoot,” she says, shrugging. And she runs off.
What if the photographer says something?! Olivia went in there to tell Jordan, but failed. I kissed Max. Max kissed me. Max and I were photographed kissing. A million copies will be printed and for sale in every store in every town in every state.
Then the part she can’t even manage to say to herself: And I liked it.
Since she’s not saying anything, the last bit doesn’t matter. Right? Right?! I knew I liked Max. That kiss on my birthday was a warning shot. Imminent danger. But it’s not supposed to be serious. That kiss was serious.
Olivia had willed Max to kiss her. In the instant before it happened, she wished for it. Her nerves were frayed, her heart pounding. I don’t belong in this photo shoot, she was thinking. This is ridiculous. The tune changed when she got to the office, saw Max in that suit the same stormy color as his eyes. He was looking at her like she deserved to be there, like he saw her that way all the time. I don’t want Max. I don’t want to be here. I can’t do this. The voice in her head became frantic and the closer Max got, the louder it protested. Then he kissed her. And everything went silent.
Blindly, Olivia zips up the dress they’ve given her. It’s short, asymmetrical – definitely couture, not something she would have even been able to afford. The hazel color compliments her skin tone and the hair stylist spills her updo, laying sections of hair over her shoulders and spraying the lifted roots. The makeup artist dabs around her eyes and slicks gloss on her lips. Olivia wiggles away and looks in the mirror.
This is not the contextual, business-atmosphere look of the other two photos. This is a party look. A sultry, take-me-home outfit with hair and makeup to match. Olivia hardly recognizes herself.
“Umm, woah. What is the gist of this?”
The photographer stops reloading his memory cards. “I’m thinking a work theme. Before, in the hall. During, in the office. And after. We found a spot.”
Olivia is in too deep to back out now. “I thought this shoot was about the guys. I’m in all these photos and this is not what I do at work!”
His look says it all. He appreciates the fight she feels she has to put up, the point she has to make. But his face asks, ‘What woman wouldn’t love this?’
“The shoot is about the clothes. The guys make them look good. And you make the guys look good.” He puts a hand on her arm, like he’s comforting her. Olivia knows when she’s being ‘handled’ – she’s done the same thing countless times. She is ‘talent’ at this point, he can’t have her freaking out.
“The stuff looks really, really good. Especially from the office.”
Dear God in Heaven, I want to die, she thinks.
The photographer steers her through the door. “One more and it’s all over.”
My heart actually stops. Olivia walks toward us, leading the army of staff that seems to have grown throughout the shoot. She looks eight feet tall, with hair like a lion’s mane and dark, shocking eye makeup. The bronze dress she wears leaves just enough to the imagination to ensure I’ll never think about anything else again.
“Wow, Liv,” Kris says from next to me.
She smiles tightly, still uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable too, but my problems are moving down below my belt. It’s getting very hot in here. Before she has a chance to say anything they are ushering her to the set.
I want to hurry, to beat her there and see Jordan’s reaction. I can’t. Luckily, he’s still standing with his mouth open when I arrive. We’re in a hangar-like loading area that’s been cleared and swept. Overhead hangs a single bright bulb, like a streetlight at night.
“Liv, you look…,” he doesn’t know what to say because there are no words. She looks like a goddess, something from Maxim, if Maxim were slightly classy. She walked straight out of Vogue. Not that I read Vogue. I know in that instant that Jordan feels very strongly for Olivia. The pretense of casual is gone from his eyes, his body language. She would never look like this every day – none of us would want her too. It’s too much. But the idea of it, knowing that she could, sparks a possession instinct that I have never experienced before. This is mine, I want to say. No one would hear me over Jordan.
Olivia puts on a brave face. What I saw in the office – the fear, the doubt, the apprehension – it’s still there, but she’s masking it. She’s playing along. Her laugh is a little wrong, her feet unsteady. But only I got to see the real vulnerability.
That’s what I really want, I know. That’s real. This is just an incredible bonus.
The photographer positions her under the light and checks the meter. Then Jordan joins her. It’s a scene from a movie – two lovers, clandestine meeting. He puts an arm around her, they’re directed to stand far enough apart so light reaches between their bodies. An assistant positions them closer, then farther, now facing each other, then looking down. The scene is beautiful – her dress catches just enough light to throw a hint of color into the photo. Jordan’s debonair suit reeks of class. The photographer shoots them close up and from a distance. For the last shot, he asks them to say ‘goodbye.’ Olivia lifts up onto her toes, stiletto heels off the ground, and puts her arms around Jordan’s neck. She presses a soft, almost chaste kiss to his lips, then to his cheek.
The photographer takes a minute to page through his photos on the camera screen. He smiles a few times, then says, “That’s a wrap.”
Olivia lets go of Jordan immediately, uncomfortable again. Everyone mills around, cleaning up. I wait for them to catch up before we head to the locker room. The whole team is inside – we can hear them talking and laughing. Olivia stops in the hallway.
“My clothes are in the back. Could you get them for me?” I assume she’s asking Jordan, so I go right in.
“If they miss seeing you like this, they’ll kill me,” Jordan says, tugging Olivia toward the room.
“Please Jordan, I really don’t want to. I’m not comfortable like this,” she pleads.
“Olivia, you look amazing. Like perfect 10, supermodel, drop-dead gorgeous amazing. I have never, ever seen a more beautiful woman in my life.” He wraps an arm around her. This is dangerous – they’re in the hallway, anyone could see them. “Not since you woke up this morning, at least.”
I’m fine, I’m fine, she repeats to herself. Jordan hit the nail on the head – Olivia feels like an overdone slut in this outfit. It’s too much for normal life. But if he thinks she’s beautiful when she wakes up…
“I looked better this morning than I do now?” she tests.
He laughs, his arms still around her. “Not better. But you looked like you. This is like fantasy, comic-book you. I like them both.” He goes for it, nuzzling into her hair. “I like them both a lot.” He opens the door with his back and pulls her into the room.
A single, quiet beat passes through the room, like waiting to see if someone’s heart will beat after using a defibrillator. The moment it does, the crowd goes wild.
“Holy shit!” TK yells.
Jordan lets go and twirls Olivia around for everyone to see. She’s smiling a little now, flattered by his words and the attention.
“Wow. Olivia, you are wow,” Geno says, coming close like he can’t believe it’s really her. He even touches her hair.
“Olivia was part of our photo shoot this morning. Wait until you see it – everyone will be talking about our photo,” Jordan brags.
I don’t think so. Max and Olivia catch each other’s eye and know they’re thinking the same thing. Just the sight of him makes her stomach flip. She feels tipsy and maybe oxygen deprived. He’s looking at her like he’s the snake and she’s the apple. This garden isn’t big enough for everyone.
Olivia closes herself in her office during the morning skate. While she brushes the hairspray loose, tears come to her eyes, then track makeup down her face. She’s embarrassed, scared, overwhelmed. How did I let that happen? I’m supposed to be in charge of NOT letting that happen.
It had been fun at first – you couldn’t really see her in Kris’ photos anyway. When the photographer asked her to be in Max’s, she agreed. Then he explained the concept. She tried to back out but he wouldn’t hear it. The real reason might have saved her, but she couldn’t bring herself to say ‘I am afraid of Max.’ And fear it was. Fear of what she felt around him, what she could feel if she let herself. Fear of what happened last time she’d done exactly that. Also there was fear of Jordan, knowing that she liked being with him and liked where they were. Don’t rock the boat, baby.
She drank a bottle of water before using a whole pack of makeup remover wipes to clean her eyes. They were puffy, but scrubbed. A knock sounded at her door.
I have to see her. I have to know.
I knock on Olivia’s door. The second I see her face, I know. She’s been crying. Her makeup is gone and her eyes are swollen.
“More beautiful now,” I say. I can’t help it. Tears well back up in her eyes and I go right around the desk. She lets me lift her up, wrap my arms around her and settle against the edge, her body leaning into mine. I put a hand to the back of her head and press it into my shoulder, shushing her softly in French. Without permission, I kiss her again. I taste salt on her lips, tears in her throat. I taste what I saw in her eyes earlier – fear, uncertainty, self-consciousness. She melts into me and for the first time, in real privacy, lets me kiss her.
“Max, I can’t do this,” she breathes when I pull away. Her blue eyes look hyper-colored with the sparkle of tears. “I’m too scared, I’m not ready. This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon.”
“Nothing’s ever supposed to happen. Please don’t fight me, Olivia.” She sighs, pressed her forehead to my neck. I’m still holding her.
“When you kiss me, I… I lose it. Okay? I lose what little composure I have anymore. It’s different with you.” She gathers her nerve and looks me right in the eye. “This is serious, Max. You feel serious.”
“I am serious. I have never pretended. I didn’t mean to kiss you before but I know you felt it too. I want to make you happy, protect you. I’m just asking you to let me.” I can’t even listen to myself, begging for an inch of rope. I’ll probably hang myself with it. But my heart is not my own and I would do it gladly for her.
“I still need time. I want those things too. But I have to be ready, and I have to know you are ready too.” She breaks my embrace. “When is the last time you couldn’t have everything what you wanted?”
In life, probably yesterday. From a woman… I cannot answer. I don’t often get turned down. But I don’t often choose women who may be out of my league. When I take too long, she speaks.
“See? You get everything easy then you don’t want it anymore. I can’t risk that. Let me get myself together. And you can worry about starting something that maybe you can’t finish.”
“And what about Jordan? What is it you plan to finish with him?” It’s ugly when I say it. I am fully jealous now and letting it run away with me. She’s saying she wants me, cares about me, but she’s with someone else. Someone I know. He likes her more than she thinks, but I cannot bring myself to say that. Jordan is my friend after all, and I will not spill his secrets. Maybe when she finds out her plan for casual has backfired, she’ll come to me.
She presses her lips together until they’re white. “Jordan is different. I need to re-learn myself. You don’t go right to the top of the mountain.”
“So Jordan is the bunny slope?” I almost laugh. “Jordan is training wheels?”
Her expression is hard, she does not appreciate my joke. “Jordan is important to me. I like him. He makes me happy and he doesn’t pressure me. Jordan is in my life.” I’m being warned now too.
I want to say that I don’t know how long I can wait. That I don’t like her stringing me along, keeping me on the line until she tires of Jordan. I want to say that I won’t share her, it’s my way or the highway, love it or leave it. But I don’t, because it’s not true. I will wait, I will watch and I will pray for the day Olivia finds whatever she’s looking for. But I won’t like it.
To show my displeasure with her decision, I kiss her again. Sparks shoot through my stomach, into my crotch, down my legs and out of my feet. My brain rings like a bell and I know she feels it too. This is my weapon. Fire all guns.
“Come home with me now,” I say. I mean it, but it’s mostly a test.
“Max…,” she growls.
“Just so you’re clear on what I want,” I answer. In an act of self-control not seen ever in my history, I peel myself from her body and leave.
Olivia leaves the locker room as soon as the post-game media does. Her phone rings on the way home.
“You left without saying goodbye,” Jordan says.
“Sorry, I don’t feel that well.” It’s true, but not how it sounds.
“Want me to come over and make you soup?” He’s so sincere, she can’t help but smile.
“I just need to sleep. Someone’s been wearing me out lately.”
He laughs. “I thought this was your peak! Twelve years to go, baby!”
I lay awake and think of her. Not like I usually do, though I have ammunition now to last me a long time. Instead I think of what we’d be like together. Things I would do for her: where I’d take her on vacation, what part of the closet I’d clean out for her. Things she’d do for me, like make my house a home to come back to after days on the road. What we’d do in the off-season.
I promise myself that I won’t give up. My gut tells me that I won’t have to wait very long. I resolve not to make any mistakes or push too hard, just stay in the picture and bide my time. Who am I kidding?