Sunday, May 8, 2011

New Story!

Well all my teams are out, but that's no reason to stop writing.  Stupid Stamkos being so adorable... grr.

If Only  - featuring Nicklas Backstrom

Thursday, April 28, 2011

New Story!

Everybody wants a Nicklas Backstrom story!  And everybody else is eliminated from the playoffs, pretty much. So here goes...

If Only featuring Nicky B.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Eight: New Day (end)

Zoe woke to the sound of her phone ringing.  She looked around – it was ten o’clock.  Not an inhuman hour, so she reached for the coffee table across from the couch.

“Let us in,” Mike said.

“What?”  She was a little fuzzy from dreaming.

“It’s not nice to leave the movers standing in the hall.”  And he knocked on the door.

Zoe quick pulled a sweatshirt over her tank top and shorts combo – too short, definitely, but Mike was still knocking.  When she opened the door, his eyes went up and down her body once before he shook his head.

“No.  You can’t live with Nicky.”

“Too late, Greenie!” an accented voice came from somewhere outside.

Without knowing, Zoe wore the infamous red shorts.  They were still very short, Mike thought, and her legs were still long and shapely and… and her sweatshirt only reached her waist.  He wrapped his arms around her, trying to block her from anyone else’s view, and pushed her backwards down the hall till they were in the bathroom.

“Good mor…,” she almost said, but he was already kissing her.  Mike’s hand was flat on her bare thigh, moving down toward her knee because he really wanted to move it up toward her shorts.  Not caring if she’d brushed her teeth, Mike swirled his tongue right into her mouth for a real wake-up call.

“The morning I saw you,” he said, taking his lips to her throat, “you were wearing these shorts.”

“You mean the morning you watched me in my room like a peeping tom?”

He laughed against her skin.  “It’s your fault for wearing these.”

Zoe had her hands in his hair, keeping his face to her neck and rubbing her body against him.  This is the real way to wake up, she thought.  The way that sends you right back to bed.  “I have a green pair too.”
Mike groaned loudly and flattened her to the wall, just as someone banged on the door.

“Absolutely not,” Christine called.  “If anyone’s having sex in my bathroom, it’s me!”

“And me!” John Carlson’s voice was extra loud like he was convincing someone.

Instead of laughing, Mike and Zoe just looked at each other with their foreheads touching.  This was the farthest they’d ever gone, physically, with her leg hitched up and his hand on her thigh.  They’d said so much no that suddenly everything said yes.  Zoe got both feet on the floor and brushed his lips softy.

“Did you say something about moving?”

Mike and Nicky both had huge SUVs, and Brooks drove his Mercedes.  They piled in, Zoe and Christine now dressed, and headed for Zoe’s house.  She was reluctant to roll up on Jenna with half a hockey team in tow, but the desire to be out of there won.  But someone else had thought of that.

“I called Jenna,” Mike said.  Zoe had suspected he might have something to tell her, since everyone else had gone in another car.  “I told her I was sorry for being a dick and that we were coming over to move you out.  She said she would be gone when we got there.”

“Thank you,” Zoe sighed.  “What did she say?”

Mike smiled sadly.  “A few colorful things that were absolutely true.  Well, about me.  I don’t think they were true about you.”

Zoe had to admit that they probably were true.  She’d been no better to Jenna than Mike had been – worse even, because they were friends.  For as good as she had tried to be and as much as she’d fought herself along the way, Zoe had taken advantage of Jenna to get to Mike.  But looking at him in the driver’s seat, his chubby cheeks a little low and his pouty lips half-frowning, she knew it had been worth it.  All’s fair in love and war, right?  That didn’t make it feel good, but at least it was over.

“I did things wrong too, Mike.  But they weren’t mistakes.”

He turned toward her, the sunlight catching a two-day scruff and making him look rough-and-tumble.  “I should have come into your room that morning, helped you fold your laundry.”

“Those clothes would not have been clean for long.”  She wrapped her fingers into his.

As promised the place was empty.  Zoe silently thanked Jenna for giving her this as she dragged suitcases out.  Nicky and John popped trash bags open and started shoveling clothes inside.  Mike and Christine filled the suitcases with books and picture frames, packing just carefully enough to make it across town.  Shoes went in purses and bags, which went into more trash bags, which Brooks carried outside.  When the room was reasonably stripped and Zoe had collected her things from the rest of the house, all that was left was her bed, dresser and desk.

“Your room has furniture, but if you like to bring this stuff we can put other stuff in garage.”

There was no sentimental value in any of her Craigslist collection, so Zoe just shook her head.  “Leave it.  Make it easier to get another person in here quickly.”  Mike’s heart sang with relief - more than anything he wanted to be out of there as fast as possible.

The caravan pulled into Nicky’s house near Arlington half an hour later.  It was farther out than Zoe had ever lived in the DC-area, reminding her when they thought a cab wouldn’t bring them here on the night of Mike’s party.  Just a few days ago.  But she’d get a car or take the metro or something, it didn’t matter.

The house was nicer than Nicky had described.  It was larger than Mike’s condo – a real house, with two floors.  The small front yard was brown for the winter but the house was a welcoming gray, white and blue scheme.  A little foyer fed into a large dining room, a big red kitchen, a den and game room, plus three bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs.

“Is that a pool?!” Christine peeked through the dining room blinds.

Zoe had a bag in hand.  Nicky was passing through from the living room so she just reached out and grabbed him into a hug.  He giggled while she squeezed him as tightly as she could.  “Thank you,” she said quietly.  He kept his arm around her waist and steered her into the kitchen.

“You like it?”

It was gorgeous and brand-spanking-new.  She bet the appliances still had price tags.  Dark granite countertops matched a huge island set into the middle of the room, lined on one side with barstools.  It was clearly meant to be the central place of the house.

“Have you been starving to death living on your own?”

“No, but I eat out a lot.  In my condo it was okay, but now with a house… at home in Sweden, we always eat at home.  I miss it.”

Zoe squeezed him again.  “I’m going to be the best damned cook you’ve ever met.”

All her stuff was piled into her room at the far end of the top floor.  She simply shut the door on all the bags and ordered everyone out to lunch.  They walked a few blocks to the main street in Old Town.  Mike held her hand and pointed out all his favorite places.

“We’re leaving tomorrow for a road trip.”  I don’t want to leave you for anything.

“I know.  Six days,” she said.  Mike just leaned in and kissed the side of her head.

When they sat down to lunch, Zoe told the table, “Eat light.  Nicky and I are making everyone dinner tonight before the concert.”  Nicky’s blond head shot up, huge smile on his face.  Brooks had gotten them all tickets to a show but Zoe really wanted to get started on this, her new life of sorts, right away.  It was tonight or wait a week to see the guys again.

“Is this where I make a Swedish Chef joke?” Carlson asked.  Christine tried to stab him with her fork.

“Six-thirty,” Zoe laughed.  “iCarly, you come at eight to do dishes.”

Nicky and Mike trailed Zoe around the supermarket like they were waiting to be sent on an errand.  She stopped in front of the dairy case.  “How much do you guys eat?”

They looked at each other and shrugged.  Just as Zoe had thought.  Probably no such thing as too much food for a hockey player.

Zoe was not the greatest cook, but she had a few solid items in her arsenal.  And looking at Nicky, the way he scanned every single thing on every single shelf like he was translating into Swedish and trying to guess the equivalent, she promised herself she would learn until his house felt like home for everyone.

“We’re having lasagna,” she announced.  They piled the cart with ricotta and other cheeses, with ground beef and veggies.  In the past aisle Zoe did a little math and figured that between three of them they could make their own sauce in enough time.

“Are you two any good in the kitchen?”

Mike gave her a look like he was thinking more about the bedroom.  “I’ll do whatever you tell me to.”
Back in Nicky’s kitchen, Zoe set them up chopping vegetables and combining ingredients.  Nicky talked quietly to himself as he counted things out in Swedish.  Soon tomatoes were simmering on the stove and Zoe was showing Mike how to smash garlic.

“Cut it up until it’s not too small,” she gave the clove a few cuts, “then put the side over it and whack it.”  She brought the heel of her hand down hard against the flat of the blade.  Mike looked impressed.
“Obviously don’t cut yourself.”

He tried it once, too lightly for fear of the sharp edge.  Zoe readjusted his position and showed him again.  “Pretend it’s someone you hate,” she suggested.

Mike slammed his fist down hard, all but liquefying the garlic and Zoe at the same time.  Damn those arms, she made a mental note to put him in long sleeves before letting him to chores.  Or send Nicky out first.

He looked up for approval.  “Sorry Penguins.”

Nicky was thrilled with the amount of activity going on in his kitchen.  Every burner on the stove was going and it smelled fantastic.  Zoe had him grating cheese and pretended not to notice him tasting every other bite.  Across the counter, she was stirring the pot of sauce as it bubbled away.  A piece of hair was stuck to her forehead with the heat and tiny spots of sauce flecked her skin from when she’d leaned down to taste it.  Mike gently wiped one from her chin.

“Mmmm,” he murmured as he looked right at her and licked his finger.  She shuddered.

“Oh come on!” Nicky rolled his eyes.

They laughed and Mike took any excuse to wrap his arms around her middle and hold her in front of him, like nothing could get close to her unless he said so.  As he kissed her neck he told himself to make sure he possessed every cooking utensil in the world in case she ever wanted to spend this much time in his kitchen.

“Perfect,” Zoe said.  Nicky beamed.  She’d told them the trick of no-boil lasagna noodles and put them to work doling out layers of sauce, meat and cheese.  Nicky arranged the noodles carefully, edges perfectly overlapped and not a single corner broken.  Mike’s were a little more… rough.  Noodles were arranged like mosaic tiles, more than one broken and fitted back into its approximate place.  He elbowed Nicky.

“Stop showing off!”

Nicky protected his dish by turning his shoulder.  “Hey!  Forwards have better hands!  Everyone knows that.”

Mike covered the evidence with a round of cheese, disguising it.  “Defensemen have bigger dicks.”
At the sink, Zoe had to put a plate down to cover her face.  She expected Nicky to tell Mike to mind his manners or behave himself. Instead the Swede socked his friend in the shoulder.  “That is not true!”
Four pans of food went into the oven to bake and two trays of garlic bread sat waiting to be toasted.

 Zoe went to her new room, surveyed the stack of bags they’d dumped and pulled one from the middle of the pile.  Mike lingered in the doorway.

“I have to go home to change.”

Zoe had been thinking the same thing.  She wanted to go with him, she didn’t want to be away from him for a second.  They’d barely known each other two weeks and she knew the next six days would be rough without him.  All alone in this big, empty house….  Is it worse because we haven’t done anything, or will it be worse when we have?

She wanted to, no question.  And she didn’t plan to wait six days.  Mike was having the same thoughts as he came close to her and put his hands on her arms.

“Come with me then we’ll come back for dinner.”

She didn’t think about it, she just went.

Mike parked inside his garage.  As he unlocked the side door he wondered if he should give Zoe a set of keys.  It was barely fifteen minutes from Nicky’s house to his and no matter what he told his friend, he intended to take as much of Zoe’s time as possible.  Then he almost laughed.  It’s been like two weeks.

He steered her through the living room and right into the bedroom.  She took a seat on the edge of the mattress, leaned forward on one elbow and watched him sort through his closet.  He showed her a few shirts and she chose a dark gray t-shirt with some distressed detailing across the front.  Mike pulled a pair of dark jeans from the shelf, tossed them onto the bed next to her and started stripping.

Zoe screamed.  She rolled right over, pressing her stomach and face into the blanket, and squealed.

“What?  Is this inappropriate?” he asked as he put one knee between hers and lowered his mostly naked body onto her back.  She squealed again as he settled his weight against her.  Mike gently kissed her neck.

I’m dead.  And if this is what being dead is like, then I was very good girl while I was alive.

He was warm, solid and heavy – that bulky, masculine feeling of someone simply overpowering you.  She knew without looking that he wore boxer briefs and that if she looked, he wouldn’t be wearing them for long.

“Zoe,” he whispered.  Everything he’d seen in her, from the first time when she was folding laundry to the blush on her face when he made a joke about defensemen packing bigger sticks, said that she wanted him.  He knew it from her kiss, her touch, the way she’d felt bad about hurting Jenna but had done it anyway to be with him.  There was still a small part of Mike that couldn’t believe it.  Most girls wanted his money or his fame and they’d use sex to get it.  Zoe had done the exact opposite and now he was lying across her, in his underwear, hoping to be right that she at least wanted to be with him.

“Stop,” she laughed.

“Want me to get dressed?”

“No!” and she rolled onto her back, dumping him next to her.

Zoe tried to look at his face.  That sweet, heartbreaking face that she knew she’d do anything for.  But below it… oh for fuck’s sake she thought as she let her eyes travel south and take in the sight of him lying next to her in bed.  She traced a finger along the tattoo inside his bicep, right to where his hand rested near her forehead.  He watched her, unmoving.

“You’re so beautiful,” she said.  In her fantasies, both before and after meeting Mike, she really hadn’t don’t him justice.  He wasn’t perfect and in that he was perfect.

Mike pulled her in and kissed her.  His top leg looped over hers, trapping her close as his arms wound around her back.  She responded strongly, getting as close to him as possible.

This really isn’t happening, she thought.

This is what I’ve been chasing, he knew.

They could easily have stayed there all night, or gone for it quickly before heading out.  But despite the various states of undress, the heat of Mike’s skin and the curve of his bare shoulder, Zoe broke away.  Mike had been waiting for her to stop first.  For so much waiting, this should be done right.

“Will you stay here tonight?” he asked.

She stroked the waistband of his shorts, very careful not to look inside.  “I owe you breakfast.”

Nicky stood in the kitchen, looking over the waiting pans of food with a smile on his face.  Zoe bustled in like she owned the place, which she practically did inside of a day.  He knew he’d love living with someone - he was really far from home, after all.  His family visited as often as they could but the team was his daily family.  And now he’d have someone else.

“Thanks, Zoe.”

She handed him two pot holders.  “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

They carried everything out at the same time, knowing once it hit the table it wouldn’t last long.  Brooks poured everyone a glass of wine, Carlson stared at the lasagna like he’d never eaten before.  Christine took a bite of Mike’s garlic bread and put it right back on his plate while he watched Zoe.

Five minutes of complete silence were broken only by the ting of silverware and sighs of pleasure.  Zoe was amazed at the amount of food the guys had already put away - one who pan was scraped clean and a second was nearly empty.  She would have to recalculate her menus if she’d be feeding these wild animals all the time.

“Wwwiiwww wwooo mmmmmrrrr mmmeeee?” John said through a mouthful of food.  The blank stares made him chew quickly and swallow.

“Will you marry me?” he repeated clearly.

Zoe laughed.  “That was easy.  I’ll think about it.”

Mike put his fork down and turned melodramatically toward her.  “No, you won’t.”

“Shouldn’t have told me about defensemen,” she smirked.  Nicky choked on a bite of pasta.

When everyone was fat and happy, Brooks reminded them the night was not over.  He’d missed out on a Little Wayne concert a few weeks before, and wanted to make up for it with a Jimmy Eat World show tonight.  It had been no trouble getting a couple of extra tickets for the girls, and Ovi and Semin were meeting them at the club.  Zoe made John and Brooks load the dishwasher while she and Christine changed quickly.  After all, everything she owned was upstairs.

Nicky offered to take Christine and John, Mike would take Brooks because they lived only a block apart.  Brooks wiped the table down, tossed the towel into the sink and headed down the stairs.

“I thought you had the SUV?” he asked, leaning into the door of Mike’s black Maserati.  “Where’s Zoe?”

 She poked her head out between the seats - he hadn’t even thought this car had a back seats.  “Hi Brooks!” she yelled though she’d just seen him give seconds ago.  Something about being in the back seat of Mike’s car was... making her a little excited.

“Hi Zo!” Brooks shouted back.  If it was okay with her it was okay with him.

The VIP area was pretty full, but they got a round of drinks and settled into one side of the bar.  The opening act had been on for two songs.  Mike stood with an arm around Zoe’s waist and spoke right into her ear.

“Thanks for dinner.”

She kissed him through a smile.  It was only dinner!  For all their money, these guys just wanted someone to care enough to take care of them.  Zoe had been taking care of herself for so long she wondered if she’d even notice.  Except for how much they eat.

“I told you, just wait till breakfast.”

It was hard to drink on such full stomachs.  They headed out into the crowd while the stage crew turned the place over.  Zoe felt people looking at the guys - some glancing, some openly staring.  If she’d seen them in a club two weeks ago, she’d definitely have stared.  If not for Mike holding her tight to his chest, hands knitted together at her belly button, she’d probably be staring now.  Even Ovi must not be in the mood, she thought, seeing the huge Russian had one arm casually around Christine’s shoulders while she talked to Nicky on the other side.  Brooks was on Mike’s left, tapping one foot and peeling the label from his bottle.

“Hey,” Zoe said, “Thanks for inviting me.”

The forward smiled.  He really was absurdly good-looking and Zoe was glad to know he didn’t have to be everyone’s father.  At least not now.  Maybe he could have more fun tonight at a band he liked, not having to hold the lid on this pot.

The band came on, loud and rocking.  Zoe usually danced at shows but was more than content to bob along while staying wrapped in Mike’s arms.  His broad chest rose and fell against her back, his breath softly tickling her neck.  Every so often he punctuated it with a kiss.  When a slower, broody song came on, he pressed his nose to her cheek.

“I wish we could leave,” he said.  I wish I could stay here this week.

In the darkness, Zoe blushed.  She wanted to leave too.  She wanted to throw him on the floor and not stop till she saw what was under those shorts.  And part of her wanted to stay there all night, Mike holding her for all the world to see because there was nothing to hide.  She glanced around.

“Where’s Brooks?”

“He went to the bar.  Hasn’t come back.”

Zoe raised an eyebrow.  “I hope he met a girl.”

Mike bit her earlobe gently.  “Then I hope he’s thinking what I’m thinking.”

But Zoe was a fan of the band and something about prolonging their wait was delicious in its denial, so they waited.  Nicky did a little Swedish shoulder dance and half the girls in the place watched him more than the band.  Christine seemed happily tucked in against Ovi’s side - he wasn’t making a move, and maybe she was glad that no one else could.  Brooks eventually returned right before the end, his hair mussed and grinning.

“Uh, did you...,” Zoe started to ask.  Mike clapped a hand over her mouth and turned her away.

“If you say did he get some backstage, you’re going to get some backstage.  Is this show over yet or what?” But he was laughing.  And so was Brooks.

At the end of the show, they filed through the VIP exit where the valet had their cars waiting.  Twenty minutes later, Brooks was home and Zoe was sliding carefully from the back into the front of the Maserati.  Mike was ready and waiting, his hand moving right up her thigh before her butt was in the seat.  Then he peeled out of Brooks’ driveway.

I’m nervous, Zoe thought.

Please don’t let me fuck this up, Mike said to himself.

They came in from the garage, dropping keys and coats on the island in the kitchen.  Zoe was thinking about getting herself a glass of water, but it never happened.  Her bag had barely touched the counter when Mike was pushing her against it.  His hands on her hips were strong and firm, holding her right where he could kiss her best.  She opened her mouth beneath his and found something else to drink.
Not real, this is not real, Zoe reminded herself.

Mike wasn’t thinking anything clearly.

He broke away from the kiss, her hand already in his, and led her straight to the bedroom.  No pretense this time - Mike made short work of the slinky top she wore and filled his hands with the silken cups of her bra.  Zoe tugged up his shirt at the back, making him left his arms overhead so she could toss it away.  Then her mouth went right to the design inked along the crest of his collarbone.  Thick fingertips slipped inside her bra, her nipples instantly hard at the slightly rough surface of his skin.

She murmured appreciation as the curves and hollows of his muscled body passed beneath her palms.  No number of drinks could produce this tipsy feeling, the giddiness and nerves that accompanied the heft of his body against hers.  Those hands moved toward her waist and Zoe was already wishing her pants away.  Mike paused, a cautious look in his eyes.

“Are you sure?”

“I want you, and I want this,” she said.  “I’m sorry I made you doubt that.”

He picked her up and dumped them both backward onto the low platform bed.  Her thighs parted, allowing his to press against the cleft between her legs.  She returned the favor by rolling her hip against his crotch.  He groaned.

Quickly rolling to one side, Mike popped the button on Zoe’s jeans while she reached for his.  It was almost a race - not frantic, but not a second wasted as they pushed down denim and kicked off shoes getting to each other.  Finally Zoe lay sprawled out in nothing but black lace bikini bottoms.  Mike traced the patterned ridges with his wrist, feeling there was something he should say.

I’m crazy about you; too much.  I have been dreaming about this; too creepy.  I want you; too casual and crude.

“Thank you,” he finally decided.

Zoe grazed her fingertip along his hairline above one ear.  His earnest, almost sad face was such a contrast with the hunk of muscle radiating heat down her side.  Those dark brown eyes were very sure.

“Thanks for not letting me give up.”

He kissed her sweetly.  That didn’t last long before they were tangles together by tongue and body.  Mike slowly dragged a hand up her thigh.  The first friction of her panties made him groan and seconds later his hand was pressed against her slit.  Zoe gasped.  Mike paused, then began to move.
I’m going to lose my mind to this girl, he knew.

She was wet and more than ready.  This far along, Mike may as well have been playing a guitar string wound too tightly.  Her hands slipped inside his waist band and she rolled her fist into place along his shaft.

Holy shit, she thought.  It’s exactly what Mike was thinking.

After that there was no waiting.  It may have to wait a few days but they wouldn’t find all the time they wanted to explore each other.  The first time was about making it real, taking everything they’d been through and signing on the dotted line.  It didn’t take much for Mike to be on top of Zoe, the tip of his cock nudging itself inside her like iron to a magnet.

Taking every ounce of focus to get a moment’s respite, Mike looked straight into Zoe’s eyes.  He needed to confess before taking the newest, most perfect sin.  “I’m going to get this right.  Us,” he promised.

Halfway between a simmer and boil, Zoe’s body was ready to roll.  “I trust you, Mike.  Forget all that other stuff.”

Relief was obvious on his face.  “Well, not the red shorts.”

“No, not the shorts.”

He sank into her like quicksand.  Zoe’s breath hitched as Mike pressed slowly, taking his time and every breath of space inside her body.  Her long fingers dug into his lower back, urging him on even as she needed him to wait.  When he finally felt the soft round of her ass against his thighs, he realized he’d been holding his breath.  Zoe opened her eyes and kissed him.

Mike stared right back at her and began to move.  His vision swam a little, but never enough to make him forget how close he’d come to missing all this.

Zoe was melting like snow.  All the things she’d been so sure of, the rules and assumptions she’d held for so long were running down the same angle Mike was pushing up.  Her eyes drifted closed because it was the only way to keep everything she was feeling inside, where she could savor it.

No one’s perfect, she told herself.  But he’s pretty damned close.


Thank you all so much for reading this one!  My campaign for Mike Green World Domination continues.  It was hard for me not being able to update as often as I wanted, but real life gets  in the way.  I had a lot of fun with this and it might get a sequel someday.  At least a Nicky Backstrom story... I could write myself into such a crush on Greenie's sidekick.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Seven: Fight Night

“Shit,” Zoe said. She couldn’t move from Mike’s lap, she was wedged in against him in a way that seconds ago seemed fantastic. He put his forehead against her cheek.

“Sorry,” he whispered. She was still locked in his arms. “I’ll go in with you.”

“No, I’ll do this.” Zoe tried to move back toward her seat, but Mike held tight.

“But this is my fault. I should never have used her to get to you.”

She made it to the center console. “It only worked because I wanted it to. You said it yourself, if you’d snuck out that would have been the end. No big deal. But I made this a big deal.”

“Zo, I did everything wrong. At least let me apologize to her.”

“After. Right now she’s just mad, and it’s all at me.”

His pouty lips and deep brown eyes were a hang dog expression, one that looks like sadness feels, like a knot in the put of your stomach. Now I’ve fucked this up too, Zoe thought. She kissed him softly.

“I want to see you again.”

Mike couldn’t help his face lighting up. This thing with Jenna was always going to be a shit time but they had been dodging it long enough. Soon it would be over. And whatever it took to get there, a single date with Zoe had proven it would all be worth it.

“Call me later, please? I’ll come back, or if you don’t want to stay here… I’m so sorry, Zoe.”

She allowed herself one more swift kiss. “Go home and focus on your big game tomorrow. I’ll be fine.”

He made a face. “I’d rather think about you than Crosby. Especially in bed.”

His smile made it worth the fight she was walking into.

Mike drove home slowly, every corner making him want to turn back. He felt bad for the twinge of relief in his heart: it was finally out in the open. Zoe would handle it best. He’d never been good with angry women. Or crying. The idea made him shiver; no wonder he never stuck around that long. But the idea of it being Zoe in tears over something he’d done… well, he’d simply have to not make that mistake. New Mike didn’t do things like that.

Except that I did, even tonight. Out having a great time with Zoe while I’m doing exactly something like that to Jenna. Shit.

He’d wait an hour then text Zoe. No, he’d call. He’d only had one night to start fixing this and now it was falling apart all over again.

Zoe steeled herself and pushed through the front door. Jenna hadn’t bothered to lock it as she stormed back into the house. It was silent.

“Jenna,” Zoe called, “come out and talk to me.”

She knew Jenna hated being mad. She hated feeling anything enough to upset her, that’s why she stayed on the surface of things. But it didn’t really work – Jenna felt fear all the time: fear of rejection, of losing the one appeal she was sure she had. It made Zoe remember a song that said, “I feel like I’m the worst so I always act like I’m the best.” Jenna didn’t take it that far, but she battled the fear of not being good enough with every weapon she had.

And look what I did to her.

Jenna’s door opened. Her long blond hair was beautiful but her face a mess – she’d been crying through all that makeup she always wore. It was Friday night and Zoe didn’t know where Jenna had been earlier.

“Well done, Zoe,” Jenna said in a voice that made it clear she meant nothing of the sort. “Of all my friends, you are the last person I would have expected to stab me in the back.”

Zoe knew she had done that, in a twisted way, and she regretted the circumstance that made it happen. “I’m sorry, Jenna. It wasn’t….”

“It wasn’t what? Your fault? You fucking bitch. If you expect me to believe that you didn’t want him from the first fucking second that is bullshit. Oh they’re hockey players, so all bets are off. Turns out the high-and-mighty Zoe, with her nose in the air judging everyone, is just like the rest of us. Show her the one thing she wants and she’ll do anything to get it. Anything.” She spit the last word like she knew exactly what she was referring to.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“Liar! I know what you think of me, Zoe. I swear you fucking count up my sins like you’re going to send me a bill. But you’re jealous – guys like that would never notice you,” she sneered at Zoe’s date outfit as if she were wearing a potato sack. “You sit around as if you’re waiting for something worth your time, but we all know. At a club you’d be crying because the guy you fantasize about is taking me home.”

That hurt. It might even be true. Zoe had wondered if she’d been in the club, would Mike have talked to her. Would he have even seen her? For all the boobs and booze and blonds, there had been nights where Zoe felt invisible. Maybe she was lying to herself, saying she wanted it that way. The impartial observer. They say that those who can’t play, coach.

Then she thought of the second night, when Mike turned up at the bachelorette party. There had been plenty of other girls. She’d been in costume but not in character – she told him no, sent him away. And he kept coming back. If she was going to do this: be with him, actually get out there and try something, she had to believe that Jenna was wrong. She had to fight this fight.

“So there’s one guy I want. That makes me a bad person? At least I pick one, instead of taking home the first guy who talks to me. Whoever wins the race to the bar wins the race to your bed, Jenna.”

Jenna’s nostrils flared. “One guy?! You have to have the one I had? Do you want to know what Mike’s like in bed? How big he is, the sounds he makes, what it feels like when he comes inside you? Do you want to go lie in my bed and think about him being ten yards from you fucking someone else?!”

Whatever remnants of restraint Zoe had just disappeared. “Can you even remember which one he was? All those guys, are they so different in the dark?”

Jenna stepped back like she was inviting Zoe to get into the ring. “You think you’re so much better than I am. Well you’re no different, Zoe, you just picked a different poison. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t fuck that whole team. Slap a number on his back and skates on his feet and suddenly you’re just another slut.”

“That’s not what this is about!” Zoe yelled.

Jenna laughed out loud. “You’re such a child. You really think Mike – or any of them - wants anything more than to fuck you? Think you’re going to fall in love and have little hockey babies and spend your life doing bake sales? That’s pathetic.”

“This is not about sex.”

“It would have been if I hadn’t banged on that window. Bet he’s home jerking off to the thought of us fighting. They live for this shit! More pussy, less responsibility. I know plenty of guys like him.”

There was a time when Zoe would have agreed with her. Now it got her back up wanting to defend him. “You don’t know Mike at all.”

“And you don’t even know yourself. Go to sleep, Zoe. Your little hockey life dream is over and he’s not going to call you back. You were like a fucking landing strip: flashing lights and radio broadcasts – pay attention to me, fuck me! Well you didn’t even get that far, did you? Couldn’t even seal the deal with my sloppy seconds.”

“He picked me!” That was it, Zoe was furious. She let it come right out knowing it would bring the worst part of the story to light. “And I didn’t even have to fuck him first.”

The room fell quiet. Jenna’s mouth fell slightly open and she froze, realizing that she didn’t know the truth about anything between the kitchen that first morning and the car tonight. “When?”

“At Marie’s bachelorette party. He came because he wanted to see me. I turned him down that night.”

You turned him down,” Jenna said caustically, as if no such thing were possible.

“I did.”

“But you went out with them after the hockey game – with Brooks. And then Mike invited me to his party… he told me to surprise you with the party at his house…,” she slowed, putting the pieces together, “so you wouldn’t be nervous.”

Zoe nodded.

“Fuck,” Jenna whispered, somehow worse than when she was shouting. “Last night, you pushed me toward Alex to get me away from Mike. You’re not into Brooks at all.”

Jenna seemed to shrink in size. Realizing that it was Mike specifically, and not just anyone in a hockey sweater, made it worse. Zoe really had gone for the one guy Jenna had. She’d taken the one thing Jenna saw as achievable and put it right back out of reach.

“Mike was just another guy to you. You wouldn’t have thought twice if he didn’t have money. God knows you never would have brought him home.” Zoe knew she was pushing it, but some things needed to be said and she never wanted to talk about this again.

“You’ve been playing me this whole time. Using me to get to each other. You let some guy, who you know is into one night stands, string me along because you wanted to keep seeing him?! I was so excited, going on about… God, you’re such an asshole!”

“I’m sorry Jenna, I really didn’t mean for this to happen.”

Jenna squared herself. “Except you didn’t stop it and you didn’t tell me. So you seem to have gotten what you wanted. Well, part of it. Maybe he’ll drive you around the block again, give you that pity fuck in the back of his SUV and make all your dreams come true. Then you’ll finally find out no matter who he is, he’s really no big deal.”

Jenna spun on a heel and marched back into her room. Zoe sank to the floor and sat cross-legged for a few minutes, considering what the venom in Jenna’s words covered. Hurt, obviously, at getting excited over someone then being passed up. At being betrayed by a friend. Once again ending up alone with nothing to show for her troubles.

Zoe hadn’t thought of all those things. For all the heartache she’d given herself about liking Mike, she never really stopped to consider that she was being worse to Jenna than he was.

Scooping herself off the floor, Zoe packed an overnight bag and drove to Christine’s without calling. Christine putt her at the counter, gave her a glass of wine and sat down to hear the story. Zoe spared herself no excuses – she laid out exactly what had happened since Mike kissed her at the bar. Every thought process, every time she willfully ignored screwing Jenna over. When she was done, she was drained.

“Jenna would have done it to you,” Christine said. “You’re lucky she didn’t figure it out sooner. If she thought the end of the story was her and Mike, she’d have killed you in your sleep to keep you out of the way.”

Zoe was about to shoot that theory down when her phone rang quietly.

“You okay?” Mike asked.

“Yeah. It went… like I expected. I’m at Christine’s.”

Mike’s heart hurt knowing that Zoe had gone through this because of him. “If you need a place to stay, I can come get you. My offer for a bubble bath still stands.”

Zoe said a tiny little prayer that this not end quickly with Mike. Please let it be worth this, she thought.

“Can I take you to breakfast? I have to be at the rink early, but I could pick you up at ten and bring you home before the game.”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”



“Everything’s gonna be okay.”

When Zoe finally fell asleep, it was blissful ignorance of the world at large. She dreamed of nothing and didn’t roll around. One moment she was closing her eyes, the next her alarm was ringing. Christine barely cracked an eyelid as Zoe rummaged through her closet and found a clean pair of jeans and a v-neck sweater with green and white stripes. She texted Mike the address and he arrived at ten sharp in his black Maserati.

Zoe sank into the passenger seat, grateful for the way it curled around her body. Mike wore a black hoodie and sunglasses pushed up into his hair. Just seeing his face made her feel better about the night before. Wrestling with the embrace of the aerodynamic seat, Zoe got as close as she could and kissed his lips. Mike ran the pads of his thumb across her cheek bone. The dark color of her eyes, the messy cloud of her long hair… he kissed her back, hard.

At a nearby diner, Mike sat next to Zoe in the booth and shared an omelette and pancakes between them. They talked very little, just being settled in each other’s company. Zoe dreaded the end because she’d have to go home to where Jenna was. Sensing her reluctance, Mike ate very slowly. But still the time came.

He opened her car door and this time, when she brushed close to him, Mike caught her and held. Zoe’s arms looped around his neck and she melted against his chest. They stood hugging for quite some time while Mike thought of the appropriate thing to say.

A week ago, Zoe thought Mike was a scumbag. Now she’d given up her roommate’s friendship and probably her place to live to be with him. He had no idea how to repay that, except to know that he would find a way. No matter what. He would be worth it.

“I want this, Zoe. I’m not going to mess it up.”

He was rewarded with a kiss on the mouth then Zoe met his eyes and said, “I trust you.”

When Zoe got home, Jenna was gone. Thank God.  She showered, dressed, threw an overnight bag into her trunk and went to the bookstore to kill time. So much time that she felt compelled to buy the book she started because she’d read so much. At four o’clock she drove downtown and met Christine at a Starbucks.

“Guess I need to look for a new place to live,” she admitted.

Christine had her laptop out and they spent an hour browsing studio and roommate listings. Christine had just moved into a one-bedroom but it was rent-controlled and there were no units available. There were some promising roommate situations and even two studios that Zoe could afford, so she sent some emails to make appointments for the next day. It wasn’t a task she relished, but better not to dwell on it. The quicker she was out of her place, the better.

“I want to be able to see Mike and not worry about Jenna.” Plus Jenna’s probably home putting Drano in my orange juice and rat poison in my underwear drawer.

Mike dropped his bag into his stall and started changing into Under Armor. Not too many of the guys were here yet, but he’d had an idea in the car. Something he could do for Zoe to show he was serious.

“Nicky, I’ve got a big question for you. Any chance you’d take on a roommate?”

Backstrom had just bought a house, nice and big, and had complained about having to decorate on his own and come home to an empty place after road trips. Please please please, Mike thought.

“Did you get Zoe thrown out of her place?” Brooks asked, coming in.

Mike shrugged. “Jenna caught us kissing last night, they had a blowout. I don’t want Zoe to have to live like that.”

“Did you ask her if she wants to be moved? I have room too, if she doesn’t want to settle,” Brooks said.

“No,” Mike laughed. “You two are enough trouble when you’re together, I can’t take you living together.”

“Zoe live with me?” Nicky shrugged like it was no big deal. “Okay. I like her. But… you visit her, visit me cool. No sex. I don’t want to hear you.”

“Thanks Nicky,” Mike clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Hopefully she’ll just stay at my house all the time.”

“Not all the time! I like to live with roommate, we can do cooking and stuff. Maybe I stay in Washington for the summer this year. Zoe can be my wingman for meeting girls.”

Mike wrapped an arm around Nicky’s neck in a man-hug. “Maybe she’ll find you one just like her.”
It was after six when Zoe and Christine reached the Verizon Center. Seeing the huge crowds decked out in red and white never failed to get Zoe excited for a game. Already they were riled up, chanting “Crosby sucks” on the streets for no reason. The will call attendant handed Zoe an envelope.

“Oh God.” Mike had put them six rows up behind the bench.

“Wooooooooot, window shopping!” Christine shouted.

The seats were insane. They could see the veins bulging in Boudreau’s bald head as he yelled out line combinations. Players’ voices carried as they called for pucks and argued with refs. A shot flying over the glass could easily knock out their teeth.

The teams obviously hated each other. Elbows were up, sticks were swinging and the boards rocked with collision after collision. Zoe had to keep covering her face and her stomach ached so badly she abandoned her beer. Halfway through the third, the Caps got a tying goal to make it 3-3. But it wasn’t enough – the Pens scored with two minutes left and won by one goal. It had been a great game, but the Caps just couldn’t quite get there.

Zoe and Christine went to the same bar as the last time – before they’d met Mike and company, before he’d kissed her without permission. It seemed like a hundred years ago. This time, there would be no party. It was forty minutes before Mike, Brooks and Nicky came across the street.

“Hey,” Mike kissed her, full on the mouth, as if to remind everyone he was allowed to do that now. They ordered another round of beers and pulled up stools.

“So Zoe, Mike says he ruined your life and you need a new place to live. I want you to be my roommate,” Nicky announced.

Zoe started to protest. “I can’t just…”

“I want you to. I have a new house but it’s too big for me. And I like having a roommate, for watching TV and making dinner and stuff. We can have parties!” He was getting into it, smiling that little elfin grin that revealed his crooked front teeth.

“Did Mike put you up to this?”

Nicky nodded, guileless. “Yes, it’s his idea. But I tell him he can’t come over all the time, because you are my roommate and we have time for hanging out too.”

Mike’s arm was around her waist, heavy and comforting. Here he was with a solution to her biggest problem. And she liked Nicky – he was so sweet and probably quiet, he looked clean – he could be the best roommate ever. A big new house, probably had a lot of toys….

“Take it,” Mike whispered.

“Okay, but I’m paying rent.”

The grin on Nicky’s face went ear-to-ear. “Yes, you pay for the cable.”

“No, I’m paying real rent.”

“Is real rent. I have all the channels.”

Brooks cut in. “Make him pay for the porn though.”

Nicky blushed so hard he was purple. Zoe bought a round of drinks and they made a pint glass agreement that she could move in whenever she wanted. Even tonight. But when it was time to go, Mike insisted she join him for a nightcap at the wine bar around the corner.

It was packed on a Saturday night. Zoe felt underdressed next to Mike in his suit, but they had to stand so close to talk that he couldn’t even see her clothes. Not that he cared. Two goblet-sized glasses of red wine in hand, they tucked themselves into a corner.

“I hope I didn’t embarrass you with the Nicky’s house thing. But I had to do something. He was complaining about living alone, I thought it would be a good solution.”

Zoe savored a sip of full-bodied wine. “It’s perfect. And thank you, I can cancel the appointments I made tomorrow to look at new places.”

“Well it is my fault you have to move.” His broad chest and shoulders about blocked the room from view. Not that she was looking anywhere else anyway.

“It’s my fault. You didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do.”

They both sipped, wondering what the other wanted to do right now. It had been a very rough twenty-four hours and Mike knew that getting Zoe alone and sliding into her arms would fix everything that was wrong with the world.

But that’s how I fix all my problems, he thought.

Zoe was emotionally and physically drained. She had barely gotten to worry about apartments before the situation had been resolved, but even that seemed to sap her energy. The heavy wine, the warmth of the crowd and the nearness to Mike’s soft mouth conspired to make her woozy. Red alert, red alert.

“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered.

They went to her car. Mike let someone at Verizon know he’d be leaving his overnight and got behind the wheel. Then he drove toward Christine’s house. Zoe barely even noticed until they were pulling to a stop. Mike went around and practically had to lift her out of the seat.

“I thought we were going to your house,” she said.

Ping! A little bolt of lightning ripped from the sky, right into the pit of Mike’s stomach. “I think you’re too tired to visit me tonight.”

Zoe blinked up at him innocently. “We could just sleep.”

Yeah fucking right, she thought. And he knew it too. She was about to collapse. Mike slipped his finger beneath the neck of her shirt and traced the ridge of her collarbone.

“Make no mistake,” he whispered at her ear. “I am going to have sex with you the first time you give me even the slightest chance.” His finger moved up around the delicate outline of her earlobe. “I’m going to keep you so long Nicky will forget he has a roommate. Work will report you missing.”

Zoe purred like a cat. She had that heady, devil-may-care feeling that would have dropped into bed with Mike inside of a heartbeat. But what he promised sounded better than what she could deliver. All she could do was breathe in the scent of his skin.

“Good thing I’ve got money left over for the porn channels,” she said.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Six: Date Night

“Date night,” Mike said. Brooks had given him the number after the girls left last night, with strict instructions not to call until Friday. “Wear flat shoes.”

“Are we going to the gym?”

“And pants.”


“I told you it’s a surprise,” Mike insisted.

“A concert? A cruise? Clown school?”

“Yes, I’m taking you on a date to clown school.”

Zoe smiled. “I hope they have a unicycle.”

Mike couldn’t get over how easily Zoe was talking to him. He cheked the phone screen to make sure he’d called the right number. She was upbeat and joking – maybe she even sounded a little excited. He didn’t want to push his luck.

“I’m looking forward to seeing that.”

She paused. “Don’t tell anybody, okay? I don’t want it getting back to her.”

“I promise. See you later.”

“I’ll be the one in the red nose,” she said.

Durrrrrrr, Zoe thought making a derp face at herself. Clown school. Shit I am nervous!

Not that she’d gotten over the Jenna issue, not at all. There was no doubt Jenna would go for Ovie if she thought it would work. But as far as Jenna knew, Mike kept calling her. Kept seeing her. She wouldn’t trade up unless she knew it was a repeat performance. Jenna was a lot of things but not an idiot.

Instead Zoe had finally done what any romantic comedy knew she would – she gave in. Halfway, she told herself. As if that mattered. Halfway up was the same was halfway down. Still, her hormones were playing Dance, Dance Revolution.

Date night with Mike Green.

She was ready early. In her best dark jeans, a gauzy gray sweater and charcoal converse low tops, she zipped into a raspberry-colored quilted jacket. Sporty, but not sloppy.

“I’m here,” Mike said when she picked up.

That was code for ‘I’m on the corner’, which they’d agreed was a safe place. Jenna wasn’t home, but as far as Zoe knew she could be walking up the block.

Mike drummed his hands on the wheel of his black SUV. No sports car tonight, though it was usually how he rolled on a date. Everything about tonight was a little unusual.

He too wore jeans, with new Adidas sneakers and a white sweater with a high collar. His black pea coat had a scarf tucked into the pocket, just in case. Three minutes after he called, he saw her. Mike had gone the long away around the park facing in her direction. Zoe’s long hair was pulled over one shoulder and a small black messenger-style bag crossed her body. Fingerless gloves wrapped around the strap, and she was smiling.

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Mike’s brain said. She looked beautiful, natural… achievable. Gorgeous. Zoe glanced over her shoulder before getting in the car. Mike had his sunglasses on.

“Mr. Bond,” she said, reaching for the seat belt.

“Moneypenny,” he nodded.

It made her giggle. She felt… excited. Yes, everything about this was wrong, most of all the reason they were being secretive. But if she put aside the fact that Mike was a little slutty, she was definitely excited.

Just like all those dumb Bond girls.

But it didn’t match the look on his face. That was hopeful and even a little relieved.

“You’re beautiful,” he simply said before pulling into traffic. She wanted to touch his face, put her hand at the back of his neck. He wore very faint cologne, something warm and cozy.

No touching, she decided. Not safe.

“Thank you,” she said. “No Lamborghini?”

Mike smiled without turning. “Where would I put the unicycle?”

Twenty minutes later, Mike pulled to a valet stop in front of the National Portrait Gallery. They were also very close to the Verizon Center. She climbed out, turned and saw across the street: International Spy Museum.

“You’re kidding.”

“Since we can’t tell anyone about our date anyway....”

The granite building took up the better part of a block. It had columns out front and looked vaguely Soviet-era. Inside, Mike gave his name at the ticket counter. The girl stared at him with wide eyes. She didn’t even look at the screen, just handed him and envelope. Then she saw Zoe and quickly looked down at the desk.

“Enjoy your tour,” she blurted.

They crossed the lobby, Zoe snickering and Mike rolling his eyes. “Worst secret agent ever,” she whispered.

At another counter, a very serious looking man began piling things in front of them. “Welcome agents, to Operation Spy.” He explained the objective of the game - they’d been given a mission to discover the location of nuclear weapons at large in Washington, DC. Each clue they located would reveal the next set of vital information. He showed them how to operate a small GPS unit, and gave them penlights and a notebook.

Zoe was so engrossed in the explanation of the back story and their “mission” she didn’t realize right away that Mike had his hand casually resting on the small of her back. When she noticed, her stomach squeezed with nervousness.

Mike Green is touching me. Mike Green is touching me and I didn’t even notice. If a Tin Man and a Scarecrow had wandered up, she could not have claimed surprise. Instead she turned back in to the guide’s speech and simply enjoyed the warm weight of his touch.

When the instructions were over, Mike offered her the GPS unit or the notebook. “How are you with directions?”

“Pretty solid.”

“Good because I suck. I’ll read the mission.”

The first part of the mission took them out of the museum and down a few blocks. They had to locate a book in a building lobby that looked like a library. It was after-hours on a Friday, but the lobby had 24-hour guard service. The game instructed them to “act like you belong.” Mike sat on a chair and Zoe pretended to ask him about all the books she found.

“Honey, have you read Carter’s Anthology of Birds?” she asked.

“No, dear,” Mike smiled.

“Shame, real page-turner.” She kept going, playing along even though the man barely looked up from his desk. Finally, they gave in and pawed through shelves attempting to locate the volume. They moved back and forth, almost touching as they passed each other and leaning in comically close to peer at the spines. When they found it, there was a code written inside. Mike copied it down – he had little boy handwriting that made Zoe sigh.

It’s going to be a long night, she thought. But the code was easy if you’d seen National Treasure – it corresponded with pages, lines and letters in the book.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” Mike asked, trying not to be intimidated by how quickly she’d recognized the puzzle. She may have known it from a movie, but Mike was sensitive to being seen as a dumb jock. “Like what you actually do for a living?”

“I work in a bank.”

He laughed. “That’s what the girl on Alias did too, right?”

The code gave them part of a phrase and led them another few blocks. As they walked, Mike told Zoe more about the long season and how his life was dictated by the game. Not that he minded. The way he talked about his teammates, even when telling stories where someone had been a moron, Zoe could tell they were his best friends. She couldn’t imagine who else would understand as well.

They found the encoded address – a wall 10 feet high made of gray stone blocks. “Covert search” was the heading for this obstacle. Some of the blocks were smooth, some rough, and one had a symbol carved on it. Zoe passed Mike a penlight and they set to work searching. It would have made sense to split up, but they went side-by-side without discussing it. Mike took the high bricks and Zoe squatted down to search the low ones. Nothing on the front side, so they rounded the end of the monument. Ten more minutes and they found nothing. Then Mike had the idea to check the sides.

“I found it!” He felt stupid for feeling so proud.

The clue was a tiny map of the world, GPS coordinates and a single word. Zoe tapped it in and led them on a very convoluted path to Navy Plaza. Downtown DC had never felt dangerous to Zoe, but she was glad to have Mike at her side to wander around in the twilight looking lost.

“The pressure is the hardest part. And the last two years… well, you watched the playoffs,” he said. Zoe had watched, had seen them fall from grace in something resembling a cannonball into a swimming pool. As a fan it had been hard but she’d obviously recovered. Mike had carried it with him all summer.

“I saw a sports psychologist.” His steps slowed. Mike wanted to show Zoe there was really something tangible to his actions. Not just the pro athlete who got what he wanted and cried when he didn’t win. He had been working on some real things. “It was… helpful. She helped me get some space in my head and actually relax.”

Zoe was like a kitten in a tree – helpless. If this was Mike’s game then he was very, very good at it. Vulnerable, hopefully honest… damn it. She slid her free hand into Mike’s and held because it felt like the right thing to do.

Mike bit his lip, a nervous habit he hated. Zoe’s hand was small, a study in contrasts where the soft fabric of her glove stopped at the base of her smooth fingers. Go on, tell her, he prompted himself. “We talked about girls too.”

She didn’t push or ask, just let Mike take a moment to decide exactly what he wanted to share.

“That’s how I knew that you were different from Jenna. That she’s not what I really need.”

“What do you think you need?”

“Someone honest. The psychologist – God that makes me sound crazy, doesn’t it? She pointed out all the people in my life who just say yes. Even when I am an asshole, they are along for the ride. Really it’s just my parents and a couple of the guys, like Brooks, who call me on my shit. And for a while there… well, there was a lot of it.” He adjusted his hand in hers, mostly to remind himself it was still there. “It made me mad at first, thinking none of my friends were real friends, but she pointed out that maybe they were just worried. Didn’t want to add stress when I was already not handling the pressure well. “

Zoe’s throat was closing up as she fought the urge to kiss him.

“There were some of both, some real friends, some not. Took a while to figure them out. And I… I hadn’t really gotten to girls yet. Not that there was much to figure out – I treated some nice people pretty badly, and then there were others more like Jenna.”

“She’s not a bad person, Mike.”

“I know,” he slowed. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant. I was the bad person, or at least my fair share. But Jenna’s not going to tell me to go to hell if I act like a shithead.”

Zoe nodded slowly, but that wasn’t the heart of the problem. “You could just stop acting like a shithead.”

Mike squeezed her fingers. “I’m working on it.”

They came to Navy Plaza, which was lit from above to reveal a map of the world. They had a GPS clue which Zoe entered and located as Minsk, Russia. Their instructions were for someone to keep lookout, so Mike stood next to a pillar along the perimeter and Zoe went to the map. As she searched the engraving, a man in a trench coat and fedora stepped from behind a pillar on the other side and approached her. For a second Mike thought it might be real then he realized it was probably setup. Zoe half-stood and the man passed close.

When he was gone, Mike came into the light. “Was that part of the game?”

Zoe held up a folded slip of paper. “Unless he gave me his number.”

Mike unfolded the square. What color was my jacket? Zoe shrugged, she hadn’t really seen him well. But Mike had noticed as the man had gotten close to Zoe, in the most light, that his coat was not black but actually dark brown.

“Pretty clever,” Zoe said. She had the coordinates listed on the map, which had been a small inscription under the marked city. They were off again, following the blinking dot, till they ended up in front of the Fairmont Hotel. She looked at Mike.

“Not me,” he smiled. But if they had an available room he would rent it for a month and stay there eating room service and listening to Zoe laugh.

They had no instructions, so they wandered into the lobby and circled the high-ceilinged, elegant space. When they rounded a corner into the bar area, Zoe actually gasped. Five men in trench coats and hats were seated strategically far apart at various tables. All wore dark colors – black, navy blue, burgundy, forest green and dark brown.

“That’s him,” Mike said. He stepped toward, but the man made a small shake of his head. He dug into his pocket, placed something on the table next to an empty pint glass and left. Zoe had her hand around Mike’s forearm and thought she could stand there all night, just feeling how solid he was. Thirty seconds later, she let go.

On the backside of the receipt for his beer, the man had written: 47th floor.

The elevator was glass and as they rose above the lobby, actually scaling the outside of the building. An endless carpet of bright lights rolled out. The sensation of moving up over empty space made Zoe a little dizzy and she used the excuse to hold on to Mike again. He put one arm around her waist.

“Afraid of heights?”

She looked at him instead of out the window. The view was just as good. “Just hurtling through space in glass spheres. It doesn’t come up often.” But he held her steady anyway. Zoe wished her quilted jacket were thinner, or unzipped, or maybe on the floor under the rest of her clothes. Two inches on tiptoes and she’d be kissing him.


Mike chuckled at the momentarily disappointed look on Zoe’s face. He felt a surge of pride – he was doing really well, he was winning her over. They stepped into the restaurant on the 47th floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows surrounded the place, the low lighting making the city below seem even brighter. A long copper bar snaked away to the right. On the first barstool hung the dark brown coat and the fedora sat atop the bar.

Mike felt like this was the part of the movie where the man knew exactly what to do. He motioned to the bartender. “I’ll have what he’s having,” and pointed to the empty jacket. With a nod, the bartender produced a plain manila envelope. Then he began making two cocktails in tall martini glasses with delicately twisted stems.

“If those are shaken, not stirred, I will die,” Zoe said.

Inside the envelope was a folder marked “Eyes Only” that contained a secret communiqué from the arms dealer who had stolen the nuclear weapon. It gave instructions for completing the purchase of the device. A moment later, the GPS unit in Zoe’s pocket beeped.

“Please scan document and send via secure channel,” it read. Sure enough, the last page of the communiqué had a bar code. Zoe zapped it, the handheld beeped and the bartender cleared his throat behind them.

“Your mission is accomplished. You’ve done your country a great service.”

Zoe gave him the GPS unit and the penlights. With the tiniest of appreciative nods, he left them alone at the end of the bar.

“That was fun!” Zoe took the cocktail Mike offered. Martinis weren’t her thing, but when in Rome… she clinked her glass against his.

“Cheers. And thanks for finally giving in to going out with me.” Mike took a tiny sip of the sharp drink.

Zoe did the same. She had managed to forget about Jenna, forget about her preconceived notions and just enjoy Mike’s company. But it’s not like I made the bad stuff up.

Oh shut it, she told herself. They took seats at the bar and suddenly Zoe felt like she was very much on a date.

“Hungry?” Mike asked. They both were. “I know a good place nearby. Unless you’d rather stay in the hotel.” He looked away primly, but couldn’t hide a smile.

Would I ever, she wished she could say. There was one thing she could not do tonight and that was sleep with Mike. It went without saying that by now she really, really wanted to. But Zoe had already done every single thing she said she wouldn’t, and the moral high ground was quickly slipping away. If she wanted to have any integrity left they had to keep this PG. So she accepted the joke.

“Easy, double-oh seven.”

Mike left a big tip on the bar and they headed back the way they’d come. This time in the elevator, Zoe stood with her back to the glass and Mike faced her, looking out over her shoulder at the cityscape fast approaching. Unable to resist, Zoe put her cheek against his shoulder, looking in toward his body. It felt heady to be so close but easier than looking at him – she was losing the battle against that puppy dog face.

He really wanted to put his arms around her, hold her like they were dancing. But he wouldn’t make the first move. Just thinking about the comfort of holding her to his chest made him ache, and he was afraid it would be the one drop that spilled this bucket over. Dinner was going to be rough in the place he was planning.

It was nearly a relief when the elevator reached the ground floor. This time he took her hand – it was fair game, she had done it earlier – as they walked back toward the museum. Partway there, he veered left and headed for a small blue awning spilling warm light onto the sidewalk.

The Greek restaurant was tiny. A row of cozy booths for two took up one whitewashed wall, and no tables were bigger than four. Most of them were occupied. Mike spoke briefly to the hostess and they followed her to the back. In the farthest booth, he took Zoe’s coat as she tucked herself in. When he sat across, their knees touched under the table. Without ordering, a carafe of red wine was delivered to the table.

“Bring all your dates here?” Zoe said, pouring.


“Bring Brooks here though, right? You two are such a bromance.”

Mike had to laugh. “I have been here with Brooks. We don’t sit in a booth though.”

They ordered a handful of dishes to share, and they began arriving quickly. Over flaky spanikopita and zingy tzatzki, Zoe told Mike about her job at the bank.

“So you’re probably a whiz with investments and stuff?”

She shrugged. “I only do my own, but I do pretty well. We have a whole department for it so I get some really good advice. It’s enough to buy hockey tickets. But you guys cost enough to make me wish I lived in Phoenix.”

You will never pay for another ticket, Mike wanted to say. But he figured her independent streak would not want to hear that. Better to wait until he’d earned the right to give her a gift.

“Wait till you see your seats for tomorrow.”

Zoe shook her head. “Not too close, please. I can’t… I have trouble now, watching you guys. Now that I know you. Before I don’t think I worried so much except it would keep someone out of the lineup. Now, I’m a mess.” And I want to climb the glass and tackle you in your gear, she didn’t add.

But it was enough. Mike put his empty hand over hers, next to her wine glass. It was warm and snug in the café, the candle on their little table flickering valiantly. If he leaned forward, and she did too, he could probably kiss her. Instead she rubbed her thumb into the center of his palm and sent a big stab of desire bulls-eye into his lap.

“The guys will insist I put you close. They’re all crazy about you. Brooks, obviously, he threatened to kill me if I screwed this up. And Nicky – he usually doesn’t talk that much, you know. Not to girls.”

Zoe blushed. “I might have to start the Capitals dating service, setting your teammates up with my friends.”

Mike squeezed her hand. “Only the good ones, I don’t want Ovi screwing this up for me.”

They went back to eating, quiet for a moment while they ignored the obvious fact that Ovi could be with Jenna right now. They’d been cozy at the party last night, but not enough to be a sure thing. Jenna would never change teams that quickly unless she could hit it out of the park. The waitress brought a plate of marinated lamb with eggplant salad, and they dug in. Talk changed to anything they could think of besides relationship issues. Dessert came on a tiny square plate – squares of baklava piled up and dusted with powdered sugar.

“Mmmm.” Zoe swiped a drip of honey from the corner of her lip and licked her finger. Mike clenched his napkin to keep from reaching for her.

She tastes like honey, he thought.

He totally tastes like honey now, Zoe had the same idea.

Collectively they managed not to groan.

Back on the street, Zoe wrapped her hands around Mike’s arm and walked close by his side. They took their time strolling back to the car. He has to know I’m not going home with him, she thought though she wasn’t quite sure herself.

Mike did know, hence the reason he was walking so slow they were almost going backward. It was dark and cold, fully nighttime and she was deliciously warm. But he wouldn’t risk tonight for anything. Time to address the elephant in the room.

“So, how did I do?”

The corner of Zoe’s lips curled as she watched their feet move across the pavement in perfect sync. He’d called her honest, said that’s why he liked her. So honest she would be.

“You should tell Jenna. Because I really want to pickup when you call after tomorrow’s game.”

He nodded once. He would tell Jenna a hundred times if it meant Zoe would answer the phone. But it wasn’t so much that he was worried about. “You still have to live with her.”

“Let me worry about that,” she said because there was nothing Mike could do about it. In the end, Mike didn’t owe Jenna anything. But Zoe probably did. She’d face that problem when she got to it.

In the parking garage, Mike opened Zoe’s door for her. She had to brush against him to climb into her seat – it seemed to happen in slow motion, like they were sticking together and having to pull apart. Old Mike would have thrown her against the car and kissed her. New Mike nearly dented the metal door where he held on.

The only thing between Zoe and a puddle on the floor was the seatbelt.

Driving home, the tension was like the charge in a static electricity ball; touch it and your hair would stand on end. Zoe hummed along to the radio, trying not to think about how soft his lips had been the one and only time he’d stolen a kiss. Mike tapped on the wheel trying not to wonder if she still tasted like honey. What seemed like a hundred years later, he pulled to a stop in front of their house.

Too late he realized that he hadn’t needed to ask which one it was, he just drove right there. It wasn’t lost on Zoe that he’d driven here before for another girl.

Then she decided she didn’t care. She liked him. He’d been working hard and it was working on her. If he was going to do the right thing and tell Jenna, he deserved some effort on her part. Currently that effort was tied up in not dragging him into the backseat and stripping him naked.

“See you tomorrow?”

“I’ll call you in the morning. After,” he said without elaborating. After I talk to Jenna. They sat awkwardly for a moment, Mike feeling like he should apologize again.

“Okay. Thanks for tonight,” Zoe prompted.

“My pleasure.” Mike was frozen. Performance anxiety, maybe.

“I really had a good time.” Fucking lean over here already! she tried to communicate.

“Me too.” His mind was racing through a hundred post-date scenarios where he’d done exactly what he wanted to do now – grab a handful of her hair and kiss her face off – that had been exactly wrong. Or turned out to be nothing. It had never felt so right but Mike didn’t trust himself.

Zoe rocked in her seat. “Mike?”

“Mmhmm?” He finally turned a little.

“Are you going to kiss me or not?”

He giggled nervously. She smiled like it was charming and titled herself toward him. Mike met her halfway; slowly, gently. Last time he’d gone too fast. This time he slowly pushed his mouth against hers, soft lips giving way beneath the pressure of his approach. He was almost still until her hand came up to settle on his neck.

Zoe had been dying to touch his neck all night. Now she knew why – his pulse beat beneath the tender skin, skipping against her fingertips. She could feel Mike viscerally; he was real flesh and blood in her hand. And then there was the kiss.

It felt like fireworks in a tin can: bouncing, ricocheting, shrapnel flying in every direction. Zoe opened her mouth at Mike’s insistence and was rewarded with the taste of honey on his tongue. His huge arms wrapped around and pulled her in, right up onto the center console. Another tug and she was halfway into his lap, wedged against the steering wheel and not giving a shit if it left a bruise on her back. Now she could get both hands on him. Her thumbs settled along the edges of his jaw and she held his face close.

Mike couldn’t get her near enough. She was tipped sort of sideways, falling across him if not for the confined space. He felt drunk on the sweet taste of her mouth.

They kissed for a day, a year, a decade. It was probably really ten minutes but it left them both breathless and aching. Zoe briefly wondered how she would ever untangle herself to get out of the car, then decided she didn’t care. She was busy enjoying the soft prickle of his hair as it brushed her cheek, his lips making their way down her neck. Maybe she was even going to open her eyes.

A banging, very close, scared them apart. Zoe would have been jolted from his lap if there had been space. Their heads snapped up and there she was – Jenna, banging on the passenger side window, face twisted in anger.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Five: Surprise Party

Zoe stared at the wall near her desk and crunched the cold salad. Of course Mike had been a lunch. Mike was everywhere. And somehow he managed to be a little better every time. Well, except for the kissing. That had been the best and worst part, all at once. But today - awkward, funny, apologetic, estrogen-boiling.

Noooooooooot faaaaaaaaaiiirr, she whined to herself. Later at the game, as the Caps took an easy 5-1 win from Atlanta, Zoe felt detached even from the roaring crowd. Watching guys she sort of knew made the game different for her, like she was standing closer than the other spectators. Like she was the glass, between real life and the game, and you could see right through her. More than once she caught herself spacing out, her eyes usually following Mike without realizing she’d been watching at all. Like an overloaded power grid, her brain was protecting itself with mental brown-outs. As the buzzer sounded, she shook away the hazy cobwebs and pulled out her phone. Time for some action.

“Jenna, hey. I’m in for tomorrow night,” Zoe said. Maybe one of Jenna’s nights out was just what she needed. A little something male-oriented to get her mind off the guy she couldn’t let herself have.

Zoe should have known something was off when Jenna volunteered to drive. The blond waved it away, explaining it was a house party and a little out of the way, it would just be easier.

“And if I don’t come home,” she smiled like a snake, “you can drive yourself.”

Having promised herself she would make an effort to keep up with the Jennas tonight, Zoe wore a dressy fitted tank top with a ruffled front and a pattern in tones of sea green, blue and black. A gauzy cardigan with no buttons went over it, and dark skinny jeans were zipped inside heeled black boots. Her hair was loose and wavy, and she wore dark eyeliner with a little flash of eyeshadow at the corner of her lids to match the brightest shade of her shirt.

In the car, Jenna said, “How was the hockey game last night?”

Ugh, Zoe thought as her stomach squeezed and she physically pushed away the thought of Mike. “It was good, big win.”

“And the other night you got to meet some more of the guys, right?”

Again with being oblivious, Zoe assumed Jenna was mining for details about Mike. It was the absolute last thing she wanted to talk about. “Yeah, Brooks asked me and Christine to go out with them, we had a few drinks with some of the players.” She allowed herself to smile and be honest. “It was pretty awesome, actually. I mean....” But Jenna wasn’t listening.

“I knew it! I could tell in the club! I mean, he’s totally hot, Zo. And so nice. He just wanted to keep dancing to every song. I thought he was a little jealous, but I knew that Mike was talking to you and ....”

“What?” Zoe asked.

Jenna glanced to the side. “Brooks. Right? You obviously like him, you were about climbing out of your skin at Marie’s party. And I saw you give him your number.”

It took all the will Zoe could muster not to put her head back and close her eyes. “Yes, Brooks. Definitely.”

Jenna nodded like it was obvious. “And he was definitely into you too.”

Zoe just looked out the window. Are we there yet?

And then they were. Reading off the address they rolled to a stop in front of a two story condo in a ritzy Virginia development. Jenna had been right about one thing - they’d never have gotten a cab to take them out here. A handful of nice cars were parked along the sidewalks, whether party guests or condo owners they couldn’t tell. The building was dark maroon, with every light on and music playing.

Jenna didn’t bother knocking. Zoe, took a deep breath, followed through the front door and smiled at the first face she saw.

“Zoe!” Nicklas Backstrom said.

She froze. Fuck. Nick, in all his impossible blond cuteness, broke away from a small group and made his way over. Behind her, Jenna laughed like this was a great surprise when she didn’t really know the half of it.

“I didn’t think we’d see you aga...,” Nick was saying quite loudly.

“Don’t say anything about Mike,” Zoe hissed into his ear, wrapping her arms around him to get close enough to whisper.

“What?” he said at full volume. But Jenna was already upon them.

“Nick, this is my roommate,” Zoe emphasized. Understanding dawned on his face - he had been at the club the first night, probably even met Jenna. Definitely had seen Mike with her. Jenna clearly didn’t remember as she reached out to shake his hand. Nick shot Zoe a quick look of apology. He was barely through saying hello when Ovi rolled up, drawn by the smell of blond in the water.

“I know you,” he said to Zoe, though he kept looking past her.

“Alex, did you meet my roommate?” She stepped aside to let Alex get closer to Jenna, who he was appraising like he wanted to bid on her at an auction. Shaking her head, Zoe looked past him to see Brooks coming around the corner.

He caught her eye, then he backed up the way he’d come.

“She’s here,” Brooks said to Mike, who was cutting a lemon at the counter. The open-plan condo kitchen was separated from the living room by a suspended wall of smoked glass that was really more of a screen.. Mike looked up mid-slice and saw a shadow approaching.

Zoe rounded the corner and just stopped.

Whomp. It felt like it sounded as it punched Mike in the gut. Between the dark eyeliner and bright shadow, her eyes were flashing. Her pile of dark waves looked soft as silk twisting down her back. And no thin cardigan was a match for hiding the toned shape of her body. One hand on her hip didn’t help either.

Brooks slowly raised his hands in front of him like he was being robbed, though he stepped forward. “Not my idea.”

She was irked. Not quite mad but she definitely wasn’t laughing either. He got the distinct impression that Zoe did not like someone getting the better of her. Once, like surprising her in the club, got a free pass. But a second time would not be forgiven so easily.

“You could have warned me.”

“But I wanted to see you.” He approached slowly like a cat judging friend or foe. When she stayed still, Brooks leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek.

“You guys!” Jenna bustled in behind them, bumping Zoe’s hip so she stumbled right into Brooks’ chest. He caught her with a quick flex and righted her back to her feet just as Mike went deer-in-the-headlights and Jenna kissed him right on the mouth.

Mike cursed himself for slow reflexes. What kind of athlete can’t dodge a girl in 4 inch heels? But he’d been too slow and let Jenna kiss him. Damn Zoe for looking so distractingly good. Jenna gave his arm a squeeze too and by the time he extricated himself, Zoe was nowhere to be seen. He fixed Jenna a drink from the bar to busy himself. Clearly this Jenna thing was not going away on it’s own. He knew inviting her was inviting trouble, but it had seemed worth it at the time to get near Zoe. Now he was hearing her prattle on about a summer house in Rehobeth while Zoe was somewhere else with someone else.

“That sounds great. I head back to Canada for the summer. Calgary. We’re pretty far out there, but I really like it. Clears my head for the season, you know? My coaches pretty much insist on it.” He passed her a vodka cocktail.

Jenna smiled indulgently, as if Mike were being quirky. “Well you must visit. I mean, this is your house!”

Mike shrugged. “It’s nice to get away, too.” Far, far away.

He steered her out into the living room. A good handful of the players had turned up, with various wives and girlfriends in tow. A couple guys from the local sports TV station, two from the skateboard shop where Mike bought the “art” he hung around the condo. It was a young, good-looking crowd. He hoped it would swallow Jenna right up.

“Alex! Jenna was just telling me about a beach house she went to last year. Weren’t you looking for a summer place in the States?” Mike said. Ovi gave a noncommittal eyebrow raise but it was good enough. He placed Jenna next to the huge Russian. “Tell him where the best places are.”

Safe for now, Mike wound his way through the groups and furniture toward the game room. He’d tried calling it the den, but that sounded so old. And it housed one of his favorite possession - a foosball table. On which Zoe was currently destroying John Carlson.

“ICarly!” she shouted, spinning the grip hard and nailing home another goal. “I’m telling BB your hand-eye coordination needs a lot of work.” Brooks and Nick made “oooooooo” sounds like he’d just been burned. Carlson pulled the kind of face only a 21-year old could make: part disgust, part delight.

“If you’re so good with your hands, why don’t we go upstairs and you can teach me something?”

Mike stopped in mid-stride, briefly wondering if he’d be benched for punching a teammate. But Zoe didn’t miss a beat. She just tapped her open hand on the grip of the foosball handle.

“Sorry, iCarly, it has to be at least this big or I can’t even hold onto it.”

His idiot friends collapsed into howls. Carlson turned five shades of red as Zoe smirked coyly, then they both lost it too. She apologized and he told her to stop by the locker room anytime if she wanted to find out how wrong she was. Mike was right next to her before anyone noticed him.

“Ah Greenie, your girl here is making me look bad. I’m going back near Neuvy where I can be cool again.” Carlson tapped his beer bottle against Zoe’s and strutted away.

“What’s an iCarly?” Mike asked.

Brooks and Nick answered together, clearly having asked the same thing. “A show on the Disney Channel!”

“Jeez, don’t you know anything, Mike?” Zoe wiggled her eyebrows at him.

More people arrived and Mike was forced to entertain his guests. He caught sight of Zoe talking to different people, making plenty of friends. Nick stayed near her, but he’d always been a little shy. He liked to pick one person and let them do the heavy lifting. Usually it was Mike, but from the way he was talking so much it seemed Zoe also fit the bill.

Jenna however could not stay away. She popped up again and again, circulating herself by going to where she knew Mike would be next. He would arrive, she would stay a minute then move on, playing hard to get. If he’d been after her, it would have worked. He finally ended up near the fridge with an empty bottle in his hand.

“She’s outside,” Brooks said, holding his hand out for a fresh beer. “I showed her the balcony.”

It was thirty-nine degrees and ready to rain. Mike braced himself for the blast as he slid the door closed behind him. Zoe had her coat on but open, just looking out over the neighborhood lights. A hot tub took up one end of the balcony, next to a grill and some low, modern outdoor furniture.

“Nice place,” she said without turning around.

“Nice view,” he agreed as he looked at her.

Zoe shook her head slightly. “You got me again.”

“You could have just given me your number.”

She faced him now, and he felt that same physical punch as when he’d first seen her tonight in the kitchen. From the few songs they’d danced at the club, he knew the shape of her body against his was a match. He knew her lips were soft and would, if kissed long enough, eventually give themselves up to him. He’d almost been there before.

“You really can’t take no for an answer, can you?”

“I think it was more of a maybe,” Mike suggested.

The words were halfway out of her mouth: You wish, yeah right, in your dreams. But they died on her tongue and no sound came out. Mike watched her try again but the best she could do was, “Damn it, Mike.”

“I knew it!”

“No.” Zoe found her voice. “I can’t do this. Jenna just kissed you inside! She thinks she’s your date and that I’m here because I like Brooks. Which I should, by the way.” She pointed right at Mike’s chest. “You shouldn’t hang out with him if you’re going to be such an ass..”

Mike put his hand on the railing, closing the space between them just a shade. He was between Zoe and the door, shutting out the party behind them. It wasn’t so cold that he couldn’t stay out in short sleeves if it meant being alone with her. “You wouldn’t be here if not for Brooks,” he smiled.

Unfortunately, Zoe could see over his shoulder. “Neither would she.”

The door slid open as Zoe dodged around Mike. She slipped past Jenna, mumbling something about Canadians and winter, and left Mike to fend for himself.

The kitchen was overly warm after coming in, so Zoe shed her coat and cardigan. A little tower of chips balanced in one hand and a beer in the other, she leaned against the counter and looked around Mike’s kitchen. She could understand why Jenna chased a life like this - it would be especially nice if you didn’t have to work for it. Mike had shiny new appliances and every gadget you could think of. The place was modern, but cozy. It wasn’t a total bachelor pad - someone definitely had a life there.

She imagined Mike making himself breakfast. Was he a cereal eater? Eggs and bacon? As she tried to decide what he would make, she also decided he probably walked around the house in his underwear. No, sweatpants.

No, she almost laughed. He’s probably fully dressed all the time. Mike might be a little arrogant about his fame or money, but he wasn’t conceited. Zoe could tell he was still a chubby dork at heart.

Stop, she told herself. Stop making him into something that you like. To help, she started imagining all the different women who’d woken up in this condo. If they’d stayed for breakfast, if Mike had made the same eggs he’d scrambled that morning in her apartment. If he’d remembered their names.

“You’re still here.”

She was startled back to the party by Brooks joining her in the kitchen. He wore a sky blue t-shirt the same color as his eyes. This was not a man who had trouble getting women, Zoe knew. He might not be the first Capital everyone thought of, but like a surprise in your cereal box, he was the real prize.

“Jenna drove,” Zoe said.

“I could give you a ride home,” he offered. Zoe shrugged, as he’d known she would.

“I didn’t think so. You know, Zoe,” he cracked a beer and leaned against the island opposite her. “Mike’s not a bad guy. A bit of a blockhead, obviously, but I’ve never seen him stalk someone before.”

She laughed. “How romantic.”

“He probably could be if...,” he started.

“If you helped him,” she finished.

Brooks gave her the look a librarian gives to rowdy kids. “I was going to say ‘if you let him.’”

“Just let him have whatever he wants, that’s the way this works, right?” They were finally down to the heart of the matter, and she felt she could actually talk to Brooks about this. “If I were going to do that, I’d have done it already.”

He put his hands up again, that defensive pose. “I’m glad you didn’t. Mike needs a kick in the ass. He’s... well, we’ve all been known to indulge in the life. Most guys grow out of it. But at first... look at it this way. You could have any guy at this party.” Zoe started to protest, but Brooks wouldn’t stop. “No really, you could. I can’t promise they’d all call you again, but maybe you don’t want that. Maybe you think you can’t handle it. Anyway, imagine you show up here, you like the attention, it makes you feel like a big deal, right? And there’s no pressure. You get pressure at work, at home, everywhere but here, where it’s just fun and then it’s over. Right?”

Zoe wore a hard, annoyed look, but she nodded.

“So what do you do? Who do you pick?”

She knew that he knew what she would say. If she were being honest. But hypothetical situations were always so much clearer. Zoe looked right into those blue eyes

“You,” she said.

That made him smile. “No way. You’ve got Mike Green written all over you.”

“What does that mean?”

“I wish you could have seen yourself in the club that night, all dressed up looking like a million dollars. You about climbed into Mike’s lap the second you saw him. You were teasing him, you wanted him to want you. Revenge, I guess, showing him he picked the wrong roommate. But he already knew that.” Brooks finished his beer, got another round for both of them. “You were playing the same game, Zoe. Only you’re better at it than Mike, and you won. Now what are you going to do with it?”

“Nothing,” she said flatly.

He barked a laugh. “Liar.”

“How do you know?”

“You’re still here,” he said again.

Mike had been slowly giving Jenna less and less of his attention. As he hoped, introducing her to teammates worked like a charm. Ovechkin was giving her the eye, like he did to anything with tits, and Mike willed him to seal the deal. The Capitals players lost girls to Ovechkin like they lost socks in the dryer - pretty much fifty percent of the time. The party was winding down and time was running out.

Come on, Ovi, he thought. He hadn’t seen Zoe in forever, but he needed to find her. Something Jenna had said, verified by a quick iPhone search, and given him a brilliant idea.

He found her in the game room with Nicky, going through Mike’s DVD collection, laughing as Nick did impressions of all the characters. Her waves were loosening and he knew she’d been running her fingers through her long hair. He flexed his fingers with the urge to do the same. Nicky was delivering lines from Borat and Zoe had tears in her eyes.

They saw Mike and slowly stopped their game. He almost hated to interrupt them - Zoe never laughed like that with him. Well, he hadn’t had many chances. But it made him jealous to see his friends making progress where he couldn’t, all because he wanted to be more than her friend.

“Time for a new drink,” Nicky said, making his exit.

The remains of a smile stayed on her lips as she replaced the DVD. Mike knew he’d put his last coin in the jukebox tonight - he couldn’t trick her again. This would be his last real chance.

“So the game on Saturday is a big one,” he began.

“Yeah, Pittsburgh,” She was watching him carefully, but he couldn’t meet her eye.

“Too bad it’s not in your ticket plan.”

Zoe shrugged. Mike sighed with relief - he’d been right. Jenna had been fairly sure Zoe wasn’t going. He hid in his room, checking the Caps website for a list of games included in the package. No Pittsburgh. And from the way she wasn’t looking at him, he knew she was dying to go.

“If you knew someone, you could just ask.”

Zoe leaned against the edge of the foosball table, hands behind her back. It was the perfect position for Mike to stand between her knees, lean down and kiss her into next week. But he stayed where he was.

“I thought about asking Brooks.”

Mike shook his head. “He’s not really very nice, no one likes him.”

“Or Nicky.”

“His English is so bad, he couldn’t really ask.”

“Or even Ovi.”

Mike shook his head. “Ovi would definitely want something in return.”

Zoe gave up the game. “And you don’t?”

Mike hooked his thumbs into his pockets nervously. He glanced toward the living room but no one was watching, so he took one step closer. “A date. Just one date. Tomorrow.”

Just one date. Zoe would have laughed if her heart wasn’t pounding. She’d known Mike for a week and been nervous as shit the entire time. More nervous that she’d been for any old date in her life. It was draining and exhausting and... and it means something, she knew. Everything Brooks had said was true. Zoe could have gotten away from all this if she’d really wanted to. But whether it was curiosity, flattery or whatever inexplicable thing about Mike that seemed to keep pulling her back... Brooks had been right: she was still here.

“One date? Where I actually know you’re going to be there?”

Mike nodded.

“And I get to come to the game on Saturday?”

Again, nod.


Mike almost fainted with relief.

“But! But, if the date is good, and... well, whatever happens... you have to tell Jenna. Or I’m bringing her to the game with me and telling her it was your idea.”

If the date is good, Mike thought, and... she said and. And and and.

“I promise.”

Zoe stood up, only a step and half away. For all the nervous hope on Mike’s face she knew there were two options: leave right now or kiss him. She’d agreed to the date. Her conscience, in the alarmingly attractive form of Brooks Laich, had convinced her she wanted the date. But she couldn’t let it all go - let Mike think she was easy. So there would be no kissing.

“I have to go,” she said. Like right fucking now before I throw you on that couch.

He followed her into the living room. Jenna was being attended by Ovi, but looked a little unsure of how to play this hand. If she was anything, it was too smart to give up a sugar daddy without a definite replacement. So she gave Mike a quick kiss on the cheek, trying to keep them both on the line. Zoe nodded to Brooks.

“Not till tomorrow,” she told him. Then she too gave Mike a short, quick kiss on the cheek. His skin was soft, warm to the touch and his cheek was far, far too close to those perfect, pillow lips she knew were soft and delicious. The two girls hurried to the car, rushing for different reasons, and it took Zoe the whole ride home to catch her breath.