I'm so sorry for the delay! I've moved, started in a new office and spent the weekend in Pittsburgh for my first-ever Pens home game and open practice. It was awesome, of course. But I haven't had time to eat or sleep, much less write. Things are better now, I promise!
They looked from the phone to each other, quickly, frozen. Jenna’s call was still ringing in his hand but all Mike could think of was how close he’d been, for a second there. He’d said the right thing and she was leaning in and… this.
Mike was vaguely aware the sound of the phone had gotten the attention of the five or so people left at the table – Christine, Nicky, Brooks. Semin and Ovi had stopped speaking to each other in Russian. As if two people staring at each other over a ringing phone were so unusual. Zoe began to push her chair back.
Mike did the only thing. The worst thing. He grabbed Zoe’s arm, pulled her close and kissed her.
It lasted a few seconds, their lips planted firmly as the weight of her body rocked forward against his mouth. As soon as she regained her balance, she stood. Mike steeled himself for a slap, or maybe a scream. But Zoe just looked at him, her dark green eyes hard.
“Nice to meet you guys,” She scooped up her coat and sailed out the door.
Everyone exchanged surprised glances. Christine pried herself out from between the seats.
“Guess that’s my ride.”
“I could drive you,” Nicky said. It may have been an honest offer – he was too blond to be anything but innocent. Still, the atmosphere had changed.
“I’m sure you could,” Christine said with a tiny smile.
Four pairs of eyes locked on Mike. He just palmed his face and ran that hand up through his hair.
I didn’t mean to do that. I said I wouldn’t do that. For a second, I thought she was going to do it. But then I lost it and I tried to steal it back.
“What. The fuck. Was that.” Ovi said instead of asking.
“That was Mike, being smooth.” Brooks exhaled loudly as he reached for his coat. “And that’s the end of tonight. Green, you colossal ass, do you want a ride?”
Zoe walked so hard her flat-soled boots sounded like high heels. It was all she could do not to run the few blocks back toward the car. Christine was probably behind her, presumably she would follow, but it didn’t really matter. Zoe didn’t have anywhere to go. She just had to get out of there.
I was going to kiss him, she pretty much screamed at herself. I was almost definitely probably going to kiss him. What the fuck is wrong with me?
If she’d been in a cartoon, two little figures would have appeared at her shoulders to speak her inner monologue. He’s Mike Green, the little red one said. The only thing wrong is that you left.
He’s just a guy. Jenna’s guy. Or nobody’s guy. Not yours, the little white one said in a motherly tone.
The arguments bounced around in her brain. If he’s just some guy and it’s nothing, what’s the big deal? That could be argued from both sides: Why bother? Why not? But she knew that no argument could make Mike into just another guy. Not to her. And if she dipped one toe into that pool she would go under, fast.
By the time she reached the parking garage, Zoe had a headache. She dropped in behind the wheel and shut the door, savoring the complete silence. Without thinking she licked her lip.
He was there. The kiss had lasted merely seconds but the taste on Zoe’s lips was foreign. It was hoppy and almost effervescent, like beer mixed with surprise. Impossibly, it tasted like the way being warm feels: somehow physical and emotional, refining softness, depth and heat into something all-encompassing. She jumped as Christine opened the passenger side door.
“Wouldn’t have pegged him as a bad kisser,” Christine said.
“Just fucking say it.”
Brooks opted to ask instead. “Who called?”
“Who do you think?” Mike said.
Mike had drank one or two more beers than usual, just for something to do with his hands. And if he had half a glass the night couldn’t end, right? Zoe had been laughing and she’d even flirted with him. I did not imagine that, he knew. She all but said she liked him, at least a little, and her eyes had said more than that.
“Was it really so bad?” he grumbled almost under his breath. “Just a kiss.”
The question was rhetorical, but Brooks answered. “What did you think would happen? She says no, so you take what you want. Just assume she wants to kiss you. Which she does, by the way, or she did until you went too far. You were doing great there for a while. But you scared her off by treating her like every other slut you know.”
“You should have a sex change, you’re such a woman,” Mike said to the window.
Brooks chuckled. “I wouldn’t date you.”
He dropped Mike at home to spend the next hour shuffling around the house aimlessly. Every time he tried to reason out what he’d done, he saw the look in her eyes: anger, maybe even hate and a little bit of fear. More than anything he’d never meant to scare her.
“Fuck,” he said to the empty bedroom. “It was a good kiss.”
Zoe started laughing. It bubbled over into slightly hysterical giggles. Mike Green kissed me. And I left. What fucking alternate universe is this?
“It wasn’t a bad kiss,” Zoe felt required to say. She was only going to get one, her panicked reaction had seen to that. She’d be damned if it went into the books as a bad experience.
“Oh so you liked it?” Christine needled. She always knew how to diffuse a situation.
“No! I mean... Jenna was right there on the phone! And he only did it because he was desperate – it was his last ditch effort, like I’d forget he fucked my roommate and faint into his lap with one kiss. Like he’s Prince fucking Charming. I told him no and he couldn’t respect that.”
Christine shrugged. “You said no, but you were looking like a yes there, Zo. I’m just saying.”
Zoe growled at herself. She had nearly been a yes, and she would have put exclamation points on it. That’s why I can’t do this, she reminded herself. One lousy five second kiss and I’m unglued.
Only it hadn’t been lousy.
He had to see her. Had to apologize, explain himself. One little kiss could not be allowed to undermine his whole plan of attack. How Mike had made it through the night was a mystery.
“Give me her number.”
“Then call her yourself.”
Brooks put down the stick he was taping and turned to face his friend. “No. She can get in touch with you if she wants.”
“I could go to her house,” Mike countered.
“Only if you make a date with the roommate,” Brooks shot back. Then stopped again. “Don’t.”
“Then give me her number.”
Mike pulled his phone from the shelf in his locker, tapped a few times and held it to his ear. “No, but I would do this… Hi Jenna, it’s Mike. Good, how are you? I’m having some people on Thursday night, do you want to come? Yeah, that’s great. Bring your roommate, I think she’d like to see the guys again. But Jenn, don’t tell her, okay? Surprise her. I don’t want her to be nervous.”
Brooks stood there with his mouth open. He had half a mind to rip the phone from Mike’s hand. When the damage had been done, he threw an elbow pad hard at his friend. Mike dodged it and just smiled tightly.
“This is your fault,” Mike said.
Zoe was in the kitchen half-assing dinner when Jenna came home from work and announced they were going out Thursday night.
Ugh, Zoe thought. The last thing she wanted was to see Jenna in action again, knowing Mike didn’t really mean a thing to her but she stood in the way regardless. Watch her mix and mingle, work whatever magic had worked on Mike the first night and ruined whatever maybe could have been something.
Oh it would have been something, alright.
Maybe Jenna would meet someone new, someone to take her mind off Mike. What were the chances of a senator being at this party? Was Leonardo DiCaprio invited? Considering the guest list options, Zoe figured it was unlikely this party would turn anything in her favor. And even if it did, then what?
“I’ll see if I can,” she answered, no intention of actually doing so.
The next day was game day again. Zoe worked near Dupont Circle, just a few Metro stops from the Caps arena. She took an early lunch to beat the crowds at the salad bar place down the block. So much for global warming, she thought as she knotted a scarf around her neck and pulled a wool hat down over her ears. It was under forty degrees even at midday.
The cafe was filling up, mostly with take out orders but even the tables were getting crowded. Zoe hated eating at her desk - there was nothing to break up the day. She piled some salad, a few pieces of sushi and a hard boiled egg into her tray, weighed and paid before stopping by the soda fountain to fill up her drink.
As she reached for the iced tea, the person next to her said, “It’s empty.”
But of course it was. Before she even turned she knew full well a pair of deep brown eyes and pouty lips would be looking back at her. It was like getting kicked by a horse, almost knocking the wind out of her. Last time she’d seen those shoulders, she’d been leaning against them. Last time she’d seen that mouth, she’d been kissing it. He was perfectly imperfect, completely disarming and impossibly gorgeous. The only relief was also seeing surprise on his face.
“Zoe!” Mike couldn’t help but smile. Then he immediately felt like a moron and stopped. “They’re getting a refill,” he gestured toward the dispenser. “I already asked.”
Zoe held her empty cup uselessly. Mike also wore a scarf high around his neck and a black winter hat. If she hadn’t heard his voice, she would not have noticed him. Apparently, he hadn’t recognized her either.
Holy shit, Mike thought the instant her saw her face. She was so, so pretty, so fresh-faced and appealing that it sent an ache of longing through his still-empty stomach. How could I ever have liked Jenna? Or anyone like that? Looking at this perfectly normal, perfectly beautiful girl, Mike knew he wouldn’t be able to go back to the way he’d been. Sure he could take home a girl from a club. But now he’d be thinking about what he was missing.
A second later, it dawned on him that he’d now unexpectedly turned up in Zoe’s presence three times: in the kitchen, at the club and at lunch.
“I was here first,” he blurted out.
It took a second. Then Zoe laughed. She just busted out giggling, holding a plastic container of food, bundled up for the outside. It was infectious and soon Mike was laughing too.
“I was here first,” she imitated him in a low voice.
Maybe she’s not mad. Maybe she’ll give me another chance. Mike took the only opportunity he might get. “Zoe, I’m sorry about the other night. I shouldn’t have... done that.” Kissed you, but he couldn’t say it. Her laughter died out and she just shrugged, like it wasn’t okay but she wasn’t going to fight him on it. “Are you coming to the game tonight?”
“Yeah.” The employee finally arrived with a new barrel of iced tea and started installing it.
“Let me get you great seats. A suite or something.”
“Thanks, but I’m good. I like my seats.” Zoe didn’t want him doing things for her. She didn’t want to let him be nice. It would only make it harder when she had to keep saying no. Her cup was almost filled.
“Okay. If you change your....”
Zoe popped the lid on. “Thanks. I... uh, I have to go.” Mike concentrated on keeping his puppy dog face in a respectable state. The opening he’d sensed was closing quickly. He wanted to say something, anything...
“Good luck,” she said, turning half a step back toward him. Then she was gone.
Mike found Brooks shaping the blade of a stick in the equipment room. He was hunched over a table, leaning his weight down onto the reinforced wood, trying to perfect the forced curve.
“I saw Zoe at lunch.”
“Did she punch you?”
“Did you ask her to move in?”
“Ass. I just apologized.”
Brooks put his task down and stood up straight. “Apologized for kissing her, or for tricking her into coming over tomorrow night?”
In truth, Mike had almost forgotten about that.
3 years ago