Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Four: Two Wrongs

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.”

“No.”

“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.”

“You wouldn’t.”

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.”

No.

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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Shit.”
____

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three: Good Night

“Girl, you are done for,” Christine said.

Zoe just looked at the note. Something about Mike’s messy boy handwriting made her want to wrap him in a bear hug. Something about his message made her want to scream.

She knew that it would be more than one night if she let it. There was no denying the connection she felt with Mike, the same one he’s called out in the club. Zoe hadn’t denied it because she couldn’t. But she didn’t want it, she didn’t need it. And it wouldn’t last. Guys like Mike got what they want, when they wanted. Zoe had his attention but didn’t intend to go to battle over keeping it.

And just by coming to this game, by answering Brooks’ text and agreeing to go out, Zoe had proven Mike right. She’s made this more than one night.

Told you so, the note was saying. You want me and I know it. As much as Zoe hated that he knew it, she hated that it was true. But that didn’t mean she was going to do anything about it. If Mike’s biggest problem was resisting temptation then Zoe would show him a thing or two about it.

The second period was as even as the first. You have to really like hockey to find scoreless periods exciting, but the second was just that. Everyone came close a handful of times and each team stopped a few big rushes. Mike was blocking shots and throwing his body around very effectively against the Stamkos line, keeping them off the scoresheet and Washington in the game. Every time he went down in front of a puck, Zoe winced. She always had.
____

“Whatever’s into Greenie, get it into the rest of you fucks,” Boudreau said. “He’s fucking winning battles out there in the defensive zone, so let’s see it on offense. Get in there and make ‘em pay for it!”

Brooks slapped Mike had on his way out the locker room door. “Someone should say no to you every day.”

Early in the third, the Caps got a power play goal from Semin but give it right back on an odd-man rush. It was two-two with less than five left to play. Tampa Bay took a clumsy hooking penalty and everyone in the building smelled blood. Mike set himself up at the point to quarterback the power play.

The Bolts were all over them. Mike passed across the blue line and down to the hash marks repeatedly, just to keep getting the puck back. There was no room to get inside their defense. A few tossed shots resulted in Roloson covering the puck and drawing a whistle.

Finally on the fourth faceoff of the advantage, there was a little movement. Ovi left his post at the front of the net and cycled back toward the center of the zone. Backstrom hit Mike with a drop pass and he sent it right to Ovi as the huge Russian was diving back into the fray. He carried the puck and shoved it under the Lightning goalie on sheer muscle.

The Verizon Center went nuts. Mike leapt into the celebration, nearly tackling Nicky to the ice, and allowed himself a glance at the clock. Just over two minutes left. As they skated down the bench, Mike stopped at the far end.

“I can stay, Coach,” he said.

“What the fuck is into you tonight?” Boudreau asked, waving him back toward the faceoff circle.

As soon as the puck dropped, the Bolts dumped their goalie for an extra attacker. Normally seeing Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier on the ice at the same time would make Mike feel tired. Tonight he may have growled at them. Lecavalier dug in deep, his elbows were head-high on a normal person. Mike got right in there, wedged himself against the big forward and started shoving. A shot or two got through, but every time he had Lecavalier off-balance just enough. St. Louis was circling like a shark, but he couldn’t worry about that. The clock was ticking down. A big shot from the point bounced off Hendricks and pinballed around the crowd. Mike leaned over at the waist and practically levered Lecavalier out of the crease.

“Fuck you, Green!” he yelled.

“Told you you couldn’t get the puck,” Mike shot back. With another few elbows and another few shoves, the final buzzer sounded. The Caps streamed down ice to congratulate each other and Mike found himself in the middle of their huge bromance hug.

“We’re going out!” he shouted. Everyone was in the mood to agree.
____

Zoe cheered and screamed. She’d been on the edge of her seat for twenty minutes, following Mike because Mike was the action. He was running the game. A few times he’d kept the puck out of the net by force of will. She finally let go to see them celebrating a win.

“Told you they’d win,” Christine shouted over the crowd.

They made their way to a bar right across the street from the Verizon Center. Zoe gave the bartender her ID with a shaking hand. She was more nervous for this than she’d been during the game. They talked with a few people and sipped beers self-consciously while waiting for the phone to ring. Twenty minutes later, it did.

“Hey, it’s Brooks,” he said.

“Guess you guys are buying drinks,” she tried to sound more sure than she felt.

“Mike can pay. We’re thinking about The Passenger, have you been there?”

“Yeah, I know it.”

“Well you can meet us there if you want to go now, or meet us outside and we’ll walk with you. Probably be another half hour though.”

Zoe was rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. If a shot had sounded, she’d have taken off like a sprinter. With that much pent up energy, she needed a few minutes. “We’ll meet you there.”
____

Mike took a lot of shit in the locker room for the way he dressed and styled his hair. Maybe he was a little vain. But once a chubby kid, always a chubby kid at heart. He covered it up with a little extra swagger – the jury was still out on whether or not it worked for him. It hadn’t been hard to round up the troops. After the media filed out any everyone hit the showers, Mike spent an extra minute making sure his tie was straight, his hair fixed. Brooks, who’d cut his hair so short there was no messing it up, just laughed.

“Mikey, you got a date or something?” Ovi asked, smiling at his own toothless reflection.

Mike mumbled a no and headed back toward the room to collect his stuff. His suit was charcoal gray with a bright green tie over a plain white shirt. He figured he could rock the after-hours-businessman look in the bar as well as anyone. Nicky zipped up his coat.

“Who’s the girl?” he asked.

“No one!” he said, though it would be useless the minute he got to the bar.

The blond forward laughed. “You are a bad liar. But Ovi is worse.”

“Her name is Zoe. She doesn’t like me.”

Backstrom shrugged, looking not a day older than his 23 years. “Too bad you’re not Swedish, girls love Swedes.”
____

The Passenger was a hipster dive bar that spent a fortune to look casual. It and the restaurant next door were owned by a celebrity chef, and The Passenger was pretty crowded for a Sunday night. Far enough from the arena, Zoe didn’t see any Caps jerseys. She also didn’t see the guys come in.

“Hi,” said a voice behind her. A shiver went right down Zoe’s spine like a shot of ice cold water. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she tried to turn slowly.

“Hi,” she said out loud. Inside her head a single long whistle sounded, the kind a bomb made as it fell to Earth.

Mike just smiled. His black overcoat hung open, revealing the tie he’d loosened as they came in the door. He was closer that the width of the pint glass she tried to hold up like a shield. The bar was crowded, that’s all. Not a lot of room to back up. But he didn’t touch her.

Did I really just see him last night? she thought. He seemed bigger, broader, more solid. He licked his lips. Sexier. Holy hell. Her brain jumbled up some images of rumpled sheets and bare skin… and blond hair. Jenna. Fuck.

“We got a table,” he nodded over her shoulder. Sure enough, half the Capitals team was there and the bar had made room accordingly. She’d been so busy looking at Mike she hadn’t noticed them passing. They were dumping coats and calling to the waitress. Mike looked at Zoe’s almost-empty glass.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“Brooks thought you’d have to buy all the drinks.”

Mike leaned in, pretending to get near the bar but closing the space between them to a breath.

“Just yours.”
____

I have got to do this right.

Mike was first through the door and Zoe was the first person he saw. Her hair was wavy, falling down the back of a bright blue-ish shirt with half sleeves and a v-neck. Not too revealing, but Mike would have given anything to cling to her like that. She wore jeans and boots and stood at the bar like she didn’t know everyone in the place was looking at her. Mike had been overthinking his approach all day, so he just dove in.

“Hi,” she replied.

Did I really just see her last night? Mike had thought about her non-stop all day. All that remembering had blurred her features in his mind, but here in person she was so perfectly clear. Her smile was wide and bright and if he wasn’t mistaken, she was blushing a little bit. He got as close to her as he dared, half-afraid he’d lean right in for a kiss. There were a few things he hadn’t noticed in the dark lighting of the club the night before – her eyes were dark but not brown, maybe green or navy blue. A few freckles dotted her nose and she had a tiny birthmark near her right ear. Mike wanted to brush his fingertips over it.

He angled into the bar to order drinks, knowing it brought him closer to Zoe and unable to look at her from mere inches away. Brooks rescued him.

“Loverboy, get me a beer,” he called over them, before giving Zoe a hug so big it was clearly designed to make everyone in the room jealous.

Drinks came quickly – the advantages of being semi-famous – and Brooks led them toward the table. Zoe introduced them to Christine, who’d already made friends with John Carlson and Jeff Shultz. As Mike was introducing Zoe, Nicky appeared.

“No wonder you don’t like Mike. You could do much better,” he said, shaking Zoe’s hand. Mike groaned and Nicky laughed. “At least you have good taste in hockey teams.”

Brooks took his wingman duties very seriously and introduced Zoe to everyone. If anything, they guys thought Brooks was trying to win her over. Mike watched as she made the rounds, giving her some space. John Erskine even slapped Brooks’ shoulder and tossed him an approving nod as they moved on. More than once she looked over and caught Mike’s eye.

“What’d you do wrong?” Nicky asked.

Mike sipped his beer. “Slept with her roommate. Met her the morning after.”

Nicky hissed through his teeth. “Ouch. She’s here though.”

“She was coming to the game anyway. And she wanted to meet everyone.” Zoe and Brooks were stopped, talking to Ovi, who was being his usual cartoonish self.

“I bet she comes back.”

And she did. It took a little while, but they finished their circle and returned to Mike with empty beer glasses. Brooks took both and headed for the bar in a graceful exit. Mike offered Zoe his drink, so she had a sip and handed it back. He was disappointed their fingers didn’t brush.

“Nice game,” she said. Even with all the people around, when she looked at him it was like they were alone. She had that focused gaze that made everything else disappear. Mike decided her eyes were dark green.

“Come on, it was better than that,” he teased.

She couldn’t stop her smile. “Okay, you were awesome. Show off.”

Mike laughed, instantly feeling better. At the club they’d been so open with each other – it was weird, but they were already farther along in a relationship than Mike usually got at all. He’d told Zoe he liked her. She’d told him no. But maybe she hadn’t quite meant it.

“I just needed some inspiration.”

“Eighteen thousand screaming fans isn’t enough?”

Mike shrugged. “Some nights.”

Brooks returned with fresh beers and turned the conversation elsewhere. Nicky and Christine joined them but talked more to each other. Whenever hockey came up, it was clear Zoe really knew her stuff. Mike kept his hands in his pockets or on his glass to keep from touching her. After an hour some of the guys started heading home.

“See you ladies soon?” the very-married Erskine asked. “If any of these guys give you trouble, I’ll take care of them next time.”

Mike took an empty chair. As Zoe moved toward the seat next to him, he pulled it in close so the arms were touching. She had to take two steps backward to sit. Her shoulder came to rest against his and he ached to put his arm across the back of the seat.

“Don’t,” she said quietly.

“I won’t,” he promised.  For now.
____

But I want you to, she thought. Of course she wanted him to. Everything about him was right, right now. He was nice and funny and had not once touched her all night. And Zoe would be lying if she said she wasn’t turned on by how well he played. She had to keep reminding herself what was wrong, and it made her wonder what she was even doing here. But the guys were great and they were her team – this was amazing for her. Still all she could think about was the solid body at her side. His coat was long gone, he’d opened the buttons at this throat and rolled up his sleeves. It was the forearms that killed her, revealing the tail end of the tattoo she knew went up under his bicep. And the bicep. Both of them. And the face.

Mike leaned over slowly, getting closer to her ear. So close she thought he might kiss her.

“Want to pretend we just met?” he asked quietly.

Zoe jerked her head up to look at him. But instead of a leer, he was wearing a huge smile.

She laughed. “If we just met, I’d be in your lap.” He patted his thighs, inviting her over. “And then I’d be Jenna.”

Mike took the risk and picked a small section of hair off her shoulder, twisting it gently around his finger, touching her for the first time. “You could never be Jenna.”

She decided it was time to let Mike off the hook a little. The high-and-mighty act was making her feel a little sick.

“I have been, Mike. Everyone has.”

He kept winding her curl. “So what I said last night was true. You know when it’s nothing.”

She watched as his thick fingers wrapped and spun with surprisingly deftness, like he was trying a skate lace. “That only works when both people know it’s nothing,” she insisted. Those brown puppy dog eyes flicked up to meet hers.

“And what if both people know it’s something?”

She could have kissed him then, one night stands and old flings be damned. He was so insistent that she admit to feeling something. And she did. Zoe just wasn’t sure what she felt: lust, desire, luck? She wanted to drag him outside and throw him against a wall. She wanted him to call her from road trips when he was bored and homesick. She wanted, sure, but she wanted too much.

Zoe opened her mouth – maybe to say something, maybe to kiss him. Then his phone rang. It broke the spell. She sealed her lips and sat back and inch. He pulled a black iPhone from his jacket pocket to hit ignore, but not before they both saw the caller. Only it didn’t say Jenna or even Do not answer.

The little screen read: Zoe’s roommate.
____

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Two: Focus

Mike slid behind the wheel of his car and started counting. He didn’t make it to five.

“You would,” Brooks laughed, unable to resist making fun of his friend. “You would pick the one girl out of twelve who has half-season tickets. Do you know how much those cost? She probably has to have a roommate because she spent all her money on hockey tickets.”

“But she likes hockey! That’s got to be a leg up, right? I mean, she’s even a Caps fan.”

Brooks shrugged. “I can’t decide if it’s the best thing or the worst thing.”

“How could it be bad?” Mike goosed the accelerator, annoyed, and shot through a yellow light.

“Dude, you know the reputation hockey players have. In some cases,” he pointed right at Mike’s face, “they may be right. You did fuck her roommate. Then follow her to a bar. Then try to make yourself irresistible with your white guy dance moves.”

“Shut up!”

Brooks just cracked himself up. “I’m just saying, if she was into you just because you play hockey, she wouldn’t give a shit what her roommate thinks. But you’re here with me instead of home with her, so I don’t know how well that card is going to play for you.”

“We’ll see what happens tomorrow.” Mike sighed with frustration. If he’d known going home with the blond would have caused all this, he never would have done it. He could go without sometimes. But then he never would have met Zoe, so maybe it was worth it. “Wait. Shit! Do you think she’ll bring Jenna to the game? Fuck, would she do that?”

“Jenna is busy tomorrow night, she can’t come.”

“How do you….”

“Zoe told me while she was giving me her number,” Brooks said. “You didn’t get that either, did you?”

Mike groaned. “No! Give it to me.”

“I swear your dick is bigger than your brain. And I’ve seen you naked, it’s not that impressive.” He dodged Mike’s elbow as it came up. “Easy, Greenie, that’s a suspension these days. I’m not giving you her number. You’ve done enough stalking for one night.”

Brooks continued to refuse until Mike dropped him at home. On the way to his own house, Mike realized it had been a smart move. The car was quiet, the streets were dark and he would definitely have called her. If the last twenty-four hours had proven anything it was that Mike was not good at resisting temptation. Instead he resolved to use the time to think up a plan.
____

NO, Zoe said firmly. She flopped down onto her bed, still in her dress and heels. But as she hit the soft comforter and bounced lightly on the bed, she allowed herself the thought she’d been avoiding all night: I shouldn’t be here alone.

You shouldn’t be hunting on Jenna’s property either, she reminded herself. Of course she believed Mike when he said he didn’t care about Jenna. And Jenna didn’t care about him either – she wanted him yes, like a trophy. She’d get the benefits without having to do all that work every time she went out. Jenna was tired of starting over every time.

I feel that, Zoe almost smiled.

Zoe’s last relationship had started like Jenna and Mike. Minus the roommate. She met a guy in a bar, totally hit it off and took it way too far on the first night. She let her hormones and blood alcohol level make decisions then woke up in an empty bed expecting to never hear from the guy again. A minute later he came back into the room, two cups of coffee and a bottle of Advil in hand. Zoe fell for him right then.

And after a while it fell apart. They didn’t really fight, because that requires connection. Fire. They had fun going out and had fun staying in, but it never turned into anything more. He seemed happy to keep it simple, stupid. It left Zoe feeling like a leased car – something with a built-in end date. She didn’t want to do that again.

Mike Green. Say anything too many times and it starts to sound like nonsense that’s spelled wrong.

After Mike left the club, Zoe remembered little of the rest of the night. A few more drinks, a few more dances. The girls were in good spirits. Jenna was bouncing with drunken delight and Zoe almost wished for her to blackout so she’d forget Mike had even been there. Unlikely, but still.

Zoe hauled herself up and hung her new dress on the back of her closet door, covering her Caps hat.
____

“Morning!”

Fuck, Zoe thought. Jenna was not only awake, but perky. Which meant she thought she’d had a great night.

“Last night was so fun, huh? Marie had a blast. And I still can’t believe Mike was there. I half think I’m going to run into him at the store or something next!”

“That would be crazy,” Zoe agreed.

Jenna poured herself coffee. “I’m so bummed I can’t go to the game tonight. I don’t want to not see him. You know how guys are, he might get distracted by some other girl if I’m not around.”

Zoe put her head down on the table.

“Oooh honey, do you have a hangover? Here, let me get you coffee.”

Jenna mothered Zoe through breakfast then went off whatever it was Jenna did on Sundays. Her unbreakable plans were dinner with her wealthy aunt and uncle who lived in Virginia – it was a monthly commitment and Zoe suspected they helped keep Jenna in the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. Zoe wondered if her own plans should include anything more than the typical hockey game she went to once a week. She dug her phone out of her bag from the night before.

“Are you alive after last night?” she asked when the line picked up.

“Are you in bed with a naked Mike Green after last night?” her best friend Christine asked in a sleepy voice. Then she started laughing. Zoe groaned and lay down. Her room was a disaster of pre- and post-party supplies.

“No! You saw him leave the club.”

“Thought he might have climbed in your window. He does know where you live. He probably left the bar to go sift through your underwear drawer while you stayed out dancing.”

“I swear to God, Chris. This morning Jenna was talking about ‘I don’t want him to get distracted by some other girl and forget about me!’ She’ll come back from her aunt’s with a new boob job and extensions if she thinks it’ll work.” Christine just laughed. Zoe covered her face with an arm. “What am I supposed to do? He knows we’re coming to the game tonight. You are still coming, right?”

“Does he have any more friends who look like the guy from last night?” Christine asked.

“Yes, he does. A whole team full.”

“Then yes, I am.”

Beep beep. The sound of an incoming text cut off Christine’s last word. Zoe asked her to hang on and opened the phone’s main screen.

Morning Zoe, it’s Brooks. Since you won’t go out with Mike, would you like come out with a bunch of us after the game?

“Oh my God.” Zoe gave herself a facepalm for good measure, but she knew one thing for sure. She couldn’t say no. Holding out on Mike was the absolute extent of her restraint. But the rest of the team? Her team? There was no way in hell she was missing that chance. Yesterday, the idea of a text from Brooks Laich would have sent her in a fangirl meltdown. Funny how things had changed.

Do it for Christine, she told herself. Yeah right.

“Whatwhathwhat?” Christine was whining.

“I got you a date with the rest of the team.” Zoe said. Two seconds of silence. Then screaming.
____

“You have to share your girl with the rest of the team tonight,” Brooks announced, slapping Mike’s shoulder. The morning skate had been light, followed by a team meeting and some physio for those who needed it. The locker room had mostly emptied out.

“You talked to her?”

“Texted. I’m trying not to get us both on restraining orders,” Brooks said. Mike sat on the bench and looked down at his feet. His pouty lips and chubby cheeks made his sad face especially effective. “Oh come on, bro. It’s not that bad. She’s coming to the game, she said she’d come out with us after.”

“What if we lose?” Mike asked.

Brooks laughed. “You two are alike. Here’s what she said…,” he opened his phone. “’What happens if you lose?’ and I said, ‘If we lose, you buy the drinks.’ She said, ‘Okay, I’m bringing a friend to split the bill.’ and I said, ‘Just don’t bring a guy. Mike’s slap fights are embarrassing.’”

Mike gave his friend a dirty look. More laughter.

“Then Zoe said, ‘It’s a girl. You let her feel your bicep last night. Apparently size does matter.’”

That got a smile from Mike. And he kept on smiling, knowing that he would see Zoe tonight without Jenna around. It was his chance to start fresh. And while Zoe might not be falling over Mike just because he played hockey, he knew any true Caps fan would be at least a little impressed by hanging out with most of the team. He’d probably have to pay the entire tab, but he’d turn the boys out in force if it meant getting an advantage with the girl in the red shorts.
____

Zoe stood in front of the mirror in her bathroom feeling stupid. She just stared at her reflection trying to convince herself that nothing was going on. Nothing out of the ordinary except going out for a post-game (hopefully) celebration with her favorite hockey team. Yup, perfectly normal.

She’d been through ten outfits. Usually she wore jeans and sneakers with a Caps sweatshirt or t-shirt over long sleeves. Anything more than that seemed like she was trying too hard – like the girls she saw in high heels and low cut party tops clacking around the arena. That’s what Jenna would wear. But tonight wasn’t just a game and she knew it. So she went simple, layering a bright teal v-neck shirt with three-quarter sleeves under her sweatshirt. It was dressy enough to be in a bar, but not out of place during daylight hours. The jeans stayed the same and were compromised with a pair of knee-high, flat-soled riding boots.

Just because I’m not going to do anything doesn’t mean I can’t look good. She ran through the team’s roster in her head: Brooks, Backstrom, Semin, even little John Carlson was cute a hell. Those were obviously no-fly zones – she had no intention of being horrible to Mike. Under other circumstances, this story would be completely different. But still…

Mike had seen Zoe at her least prepared on the morning they met – obviously something about that had worked. But he’d also seen her in full effect, or as full effect as she got. And he hadn’t been disappointed. Somewhere down the middle, Zoe thought. She let her hair fall in its natural waves but went for eyeliner and mascara to at least look like she was trying.

Trying for what?! she screamed at herself for the thousandth. I don’t want him. I don’t want this. Zoe gave herself a stern glare. A single day of not even knowing him had been more potential problems than anything she was willing to get involved in. A smart person would walk away, leave it as a great story to tell on girls night out. If she found all new girls who didn’t know Jenna.

Without permission from her brain, Zoe’s eyes rolled themselves. She could ignore the obvious but that didn’t make it go away.

Mike Green. Her inner monologue sounded like a cat mewling. Fucking A.
____

“Where are her seats?” Mike hadn’t been at the arena ten minutes but he’d found a pen and paper and Brooks. Who just shook his head.

“I didn’t get that. Remember, I’m trying not to get you arrested.”

“Text her,” Mike suggested. Okay, commanded.

“No. You’ll be out there all night staring into the crowd. You fall down enough as it is.” Brooks’ blue eyes were perfectly calm; he was a man who spoke sense. Mike grumbled something about being cock-blocked and waved the piece of paper.

“I’ll make you a deal. I write a note. You get the seats, tell Jimmy the security guy not to tell me. He can deliver it.”

Brooks considered the option, frowning. “No bribing him. No ‘I’ll let you drive my Lamborghini’ bullshit.”

Mike even made a cross-my-heart motion before he started writing. Without allowing himself a chance to re-read or change it, he folded the paper, tore a notch to keep it sort of sealed and gave it to Brooks. His friend wouldn’t read it. Then he couldn’t be complicit in any crime. The Mike sat down to get his head in the game. He wanted to play really well tonight and he needed a win.
____

Zoe looked down into her plate of food like it might hold the answer to Christine’s question. Nothing came, though, and so she was quiet too long.

“You’d better put on a game face tonight. If Mike sees you like this he’ll just throw you over his shoulder and carry you away.”

“I am not going out with him. I am not having anything to do with him,” Zoe said adamantly. Then she paused. “ And it would help if you could stop talking about his shoulders!”

“Okay, I’m sorry. I’ll stick to talking about his forearms. And his ass. Jesus, he was wearing the shit out of those jeans last night.”

Zoe threw a cashew across the table.
____

Coach Boudreau made his usual pre-game speech, which sounded like fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck for five full minutes if you’d listened to enough of them. Mike didn’t need to be psyched up – his heart was already pounding. Zoe might not be rolling over because he wore skates, and honestly he didn’t want her to. More than anything he wanted Zoe to want all of him. Otherwise she’d be nothing more than Jenna. But he could make her remember just how great it felt to see your team win. As Coach stormed out in his customary waddle, Mike caught Brooks’ eye. His friend just nodded – the note was on its way. Nothing anyone could do now but play.

Mike had learned a long time ago that he couldn’t force goals. The more he tried to score, the more he focused on getting points, the less productive he was. And since being snubbed for the 2010 Olympics for not being “defensive” enough, Mike had been concentrating on that aspect of his game. His point totals were down, but there were many who said the Caps couldn’t win without him. Tampa Bay was fast and they had huge offensive power – he’d have his hands full today.

The roar of the home crowd always helped settle his mind. Today it worked on the butterflies in his stomach as well. He closed his eyes for the National Anthem and was glad to be playing an American team; two whole songs and he might have gotten nervous again. But the magic of the game quickly took over. The puck dropped and it was like a tunnel lowered over them: you could only go forward, no point in looking up.

Ten tight, scoreless minutes passed before Stamkos struck. It was never a question of if, just when. Mike felt like a bait fish to a shark whenever the young forward was on the ice – and he was always on the ice with the Stamkos line. But this one couldn’t be stopped: a wrister from the point that seemed intent on getting past Nuevirth. One-nothing Lightning.

“Step it up, D! Not like you’ve never seen that little shit before!” Boudreau screamed.

On the next shift, Mike got a lead on St. Louis trying to break down the wing. The guy was like a ninja – little, fast, crafty. Mike waited for Stamkos to make a pass, then shoved St. Louis hard into the boards and kicked the puck along to Backstrom.

“That’s it, Greenie! Kill that fucking midget!” Boudreau yelled.

On the next shift, Lecavalier gave Mike a full body slam to the ice. “Pick on someone your own size.”

“You’ll see me if you ever get the puck, asshole,” Mike replied.
____

Zoe felt like she’s taken a whole bottle of caffeine pills. Her heart raced unevenly and her hands were cold. It wasn’t the nerves she felt during every game, wasn’t the adrenaline fueled by the screaming crowd. In fact it wasn’t anything she was doing differently at all.

Shit. Shitshitshit.

“What?” Christine asked. Zoe was pretty sure she hadn’t spoken out loud. Her friend nodded down at the shredded napkin littering the floor. “So much for your game face.”

Zoe exhaled loudly. The problem was nothing had changed. Sure she followed the puck and the game, but without thinking or trying she was mostly following Mike. And realized that’s what she always did. Every game, twenty-plus games a year plus television. With a big swig of beer, she forcibly turned her attention on the puck. Focus, Zo.

By intermission she was feeling a little better – she’d mostly been able to keep her eyes off Mike on shift changes and play stoppages. And she hadn’t missed the few big checks he’d thrown, or the ones he’d received. Maybe she’d winced a little harder than usual when all 6’ 4” of Lecavalier came down hard on top of him. Shaking it off like she’d been hit herself, Zoe stood to go downstairs.

“Miss?” A guy in a black Verizon Center uniform pullover waved in her direction. He stepped over the people at the end of her row, holding something out to her. “Are you Zoe?” She took the piece of paper and turned it over in her hand. Just a piece of lined notepaper, creased in half and sealed with a torn strip folded down at the center. Christine laughed.

“I swear to God if that says, ‘Do you like me? Circle yes or no.’ I will pee my pants.”

“Maybe it’s the plan for tonight. Maybe it’s from Brooks.”

“Maybe it’s from Harry Potter saying you’re the last horcrux.”

Zoe bared her teeth at her friend then gently lifted the little clasp. She had in fact passed notes like this in class, talking about cute boys or some girls’ hairdo. It was awkward and adorable. Fuck. The arrogant, womanizing player Zoe could fend off, even if it was Mike Green. But awkward, dorky Mike Green with his metrosexual scarves and hugging everyone all the time? That would be another story. If he figured that out…

“Fucking open it!” Christine yelled. Zoe jumped back to reality, nearly tearing the paper. She peeled down the tab.

Told you this was more than one night. - Mike
____

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

One: Red Shorts

He was sneaking out when he saw her.

He’d gone out with the guys, had a few drinks and woken up next to a blond head of hair. A blond girl’s face was pressed against his shoulder, turned toward the mattress so he couldn’t see her face.  Janet? Jessica?  It wouldn’t matter.  He extracted himself from the twisted bedsheets, found his pants and shoes and pulled the door almost shut behind him.  

Then he heard a noise.  It sounded like a clothes dryer door shutting.  He pressed himself into the doorway as a girl came around the corner carrying a laundry basket.  He saw brown hair and a white hamper, and maybe – hopefully – the wire of headphones in between.  She went into a room down the hall but didn’t close the door.

He really didn’t want a run-in with the roommate.  It was impossible and unnecessary to explain why he was creeping from a stranger’s apartment at 10 AM on a Saturday.  If the girls were best friends, she’d kill him.  If they hated each other, she’d never let her roommate live it down.  He softly stepped closer to her room until he froze.  She was singing.
Yes, iPod!  He peeked around the corner.  Her back was turned as she folded an item from the pile she’d poured onto the bed.  Instantly he wished he had just kept his head down and made a run for it.

She wore red shorts with white trim, the 80’s-style cotton kind that were very short.  A gray t-shirt clung to her shoulders and hung a bit loose over her trim waist.  Brown hair bounced at her shoulders as she shook her body to the music in her headphones.  In fact, she was dancing pretty good.  And singing along.  It would have been cute if her legs hadn’t been so shapely, calf muscles flexing as she shifted her weight.  Her ass in those shorts was almost criminal – high, firm and rocking back and worth to an unheard beat.  She lifted her arms to fold a towel and he got a glimpse of the shape of her breasts.

He was mesmerized – full on watching a stranger in her own house.  He had to know her.  And there was only one way that would ever happen.

He crept back to the blonde's room, shed his clothing and climbed back into the ruined bed to wait for her to wake up.
____

“Morning,” he said.  The blond came around with a soft breath of defeat that morning had bested her sleep again.  She looked surprised to see him, making him groan internally.  
Should have left!  Damned red shorts and dancing around.  She recovered quickly and coiled around him.

“Morning handsome.”  Her fingers worked the flesh of his side, suddenly anxious for round two.  Probably looking to earn another date – they often tried, hence his inclination to leave before they got the chance.  He caught his arms around her to stop her hands.

“Any chance of breakfast?” he rocked like he was hugging her.

“We could go to the…,” she tried.

“Let’s stay here.  I’ll cook.”

He stirred the bowl with a fork, beating eggs.  His date sat at the table, leaning back against the wall and watching him off the rim of her coffee cup.  He still didn’t know her name.  The eggs sizzled in the frying pan and he pressed the toast down.  
Where is this other girl?  He hoped the smell of food would at least make her curious.

There was orange juice so he helped himself.  As he turned from the fridge, the brunette finally appeared in the doorway.

“Hey, I… oops.  Sorry!” She stopped quickly, then recovered with a smile like she’d come across something very interested.  “Good morning everyone.”

Her smile was dazzling, slightly crooked with dimples flashing.  Her smile knew something you didn’t, she was up to something and you wouldn’t find out till it was too late.  He took advantage of her moment of surprise to confirm that her t-shirt was filled out rather tightly across her chest and her shorts were in fact as short as he remembered.

WHATTHEWHAT?! MIKE GREEN? Her brain was screaming.

“Hi, I’m Mike.”  He reached out to shake.

“Zoe,” she put her soft hand into his big one.  
No fucking kidding!!!!!

“Hungry?” he asked.

The blond tutted like this was not an open invitation but Mike ignored her.  He wasn’t that hungry anyway.  He added another plate, scooped out eggs for all of them and added toast.  Zoe moved past him to get herself some orange juice, willing herself to be calm:
Deeeeeeeep breath.
How can I possibly play this? Mike thought.  Waking up with one roommate was no way to get with the other.  He glanced over and caught her smiling at him from the corner of her eye.  As she swung the door closed, Mike could swear she bumped his hip on purpose.

“So Jenna, what’s the deal for tonight?” Zoe asked.

“Oh, uh…,” the blond looked at Mike like she was reluctant.

“Come on, Jen.  I’m sure Mike here has a pretty good idea what goes on at a bachelorette party.”
Oh my God, Zoe is getting married.  No, this other girl I just slept with.  I was just someone’s last fling.

“Our downstairs neighbor Marie is getting married next month,” Zoe explained for Mike’s benefit.  His heart stopped pounding like someone had pulled the plug.  “Jenna is in charge of tonight’s festivities.”

“Marie used to be my roommate.  She and her fiancĂ© moved downstairs when they moved in together.”

Mike ate slowly, unsatisfied with the amount of information he’d gathered and trying to drag out his time.  “Sounds fun.  Where are you guys going?”

Jenna told them about her booking at a local club, where they’d gotten the VIP room and bottle service for twelve girls.  They had a few SUVs booked and a big table for dinner at a local four-star restaurant beforehand.  After the club…

“Whatever happens, happens,” she said.  Under the table, she ran her foot up Mike’s calf.  He nearly choked on his toast.

After they finished, Mike excused himself.  He gave Jenna his phone number just in case his plan didn’t work out.  But he knew where Zoe would be later, and there wasn’t a VIP room in DC he couldn’t waltz into.  It would take some stealth maneuvering to avoid the blond, but Mike would be seeing the brunette again.

“I had a great time last night,” Jenna cooed, snuggling up and pressing her breasts to his chest.  Mike dodged her kiss and planted one on her cheek instead.

“Thanks for breakfast.”
____
 
What the what? Zoe paced inside her closed room.  Mike Green.  Of all people!  Fucking Jenna, she could be a grade A slut when the mood struck.  She heard the front door close.

“Omigod!” Jenna shrieked throwing open Zoe’s door without asking.  “Holy shit, Zo.  Do you know who he is?  He is a professional hockey player.  You know him right?  He’s like famous and stuff?”

Zoe resisted the urge to hit her roommate with the Washington Capitals hat that hung on the back of her closet door.  “Yes, Jenna.  Well done, Mike Green is a star.”

“Green.  Mike Green.  Got it.  Eeeeeeeeeee!”  She threw herself facedown on the bed and kicked her feet.  “We were all out and Natalie got us into the VIP section somehow and then there was bottle service and all these guys – guys everywhere!  One of them had like ten girls on him, but I got to Mike first.  Had to fend off some bitches too.  He was pretty drunk but, I mean, he was here this morning.  That says something, right?”

“Yes, it definitely does,” Zoe agreed.
 But what?
____

The more Zoe tried not to think about it, the more she did.  Like something you’re not supposed to look at but you just can’t help yourself.  Mike Green.  Good God.

Of course it had been Jenna, with her blond hair and big boobs, her little dresses and charming giggle.  She was a big-money catcher and most of the guys she went out with were lobbyists or string-pullers in the inner sanctums of Washington’s power politics.  They weren’t looking for smart – they got smart people all day long.  They were looking for gorgeous and uncomplicated.  Jenna was certainly both.
 
Would I?  That was the real question Zoe asked herself all day.  She’d gone out before with Jenna and her fashionista friends, to a place they couldn’t afford but they didn’t plan on paying for anything anyway.  And they never did.  So smooth it was almost professional, Zoe had held on for the ride while these girls worked some kind of invisible gravity system that Zoe must have missed learning about in school.  They hadn’t been in the door twenty minutes before they were in VIP, and another twenty minutes later other women were leaving because all the attention had been captured.  Zoe stood to the side, marveled then went home alone and early.  She could hold her own with these guys no problem – or actually, that was the problem.  She was no political harpy, but she read newspapers and had opinions.  Two strikes already. 

Would I have made a play for Mike?  If it had worked, would I have seen it through?  Zoe laughed at herself for even asking.  Of course she would have.  If she had a weakness, it was hockey players.  Or so she thought – she’d never actually met one before.  But she’d thought about it.  It was impossible not to, especially at a game with all the sweating and hitting and wrestling that went on.  Hockey was like some kind of ancient test of strength – and not just one strength: hitting a ball, running fastest, catching something.  It required all the attributes of other sports and then some.  If a guy was skilled at all of those, Zoe had often wondered if there was anything he couldn’t do.

To walk into the kitchen that morning and see him in last night’s clothes, hair a mess with a little grin on his face, Zoe could have fainted.  He looked and probably smelled like sex and she was disgusted with herself for finding him beautiful.  He’d just been with Jenna, for Christ’s sake.  Jenna wasn’t exactly choosy with her favors.

But Mike had been friendly.  That was different.  Most of Jenna’s dates took her to their places and were discreet if they ever saw her again.  Not the type to parade around the stove in a rumpled t-shirt making everyone scrambled eggs.  Zoe was confused, but pleasantly surprised.
Mike Green.  Fucking A.
____

“Bro.  Need your help tonight,” Mike talked out loud to an empty SUV as he drove through suburban Virginia.

“No can do, bud.  Got a poker night,” his friend and partner-in-crime Brooks Laich’s voice came through the speakers on Bluetooth.

“Well I’ve got a bachelorette party.”

It didn’t take a second.  “Poker cancelled.”

Normally, Brooks would have been out with Mike on a night like the one he met Jenna.  But Brooks had taken a heavy hit during the Capitals game and been ordered home to sleep it of lest it become a stiff muscle issue.  So Mike had gone with some of the other guys – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Fehr – to a swanky downtown hotspot.  And the night played out the way it always did.

They went to the VIP section, recognized by bouncers and bar staff trained to spot professional athletes in their street clothes.  Mike always thought they just recognized money.  And maybe Ovi.  Bottles, music, girls – the usual suspects piled up.  Mike didn’t remember at what point he’d paired off with the blond, but he knew a few of her friends had also not gone home alone.  That type worked in a pack and usually caught their prey.

She’d been nice enough, if a little dim, and she was definitely hot.  But it was club-hot, dark room-hot, late night groping in the back of a taxi-hot.  In the morning, Mike thought she’d looked more than tired.  Ragged was the word he was looking for.  No number of manicures, highlights or facials could hide the fatigue in her eyes.

Her roommate on the other hand – she was his type.  His real type.  Sporty and sassy probably much smarter than he was.  Mike liked a challenge, both on and off the ice, but it had been a while since he’d gone for anything but the easy goal.

“Who’s the lucky bride?” Brooks asked.

“Don’t know.  I…,” Mike almost hesitated then laughed.  He and Brooks had done way worse than this.  “I went home with this girl last night.  She was alright.  Went to sneak out this morning and I see her roommate – Brooks, this girl is amazing.  But I can’t think of a way to meet her other than to sneak back into her roommate’s bed, wake her up and make everyone breakfast.  It’s their friends’ party tonight.”

The Bluetooth channel only carried sound one way, so it wasn’t till Mike stopped talking that he heard Brooks laughing hysterically.  A full minute later, Mike was almost home and Brooks was still cracking up.

“So we’re going to a party to avoid a girl you already banged so you can try to bang her roommate?”

“I don’t want to bang this girl – I want to know her.  She’s… different.”

Again with the laughter.  “You are so gay.”

“Just come to the party.  The other girls are hot too.”

“I said I would.  Let’s do dinner first.  Should we bring anyone else?”

Mike had thought about that, but he didn’t want to roll too big.  “No, let’s keep it on the quiet.”

Brooks caught him immediately.  “Dude, were we invited to this party?”  When Mike didn’t answer, Brooks howled.  “You’re stalking this girl.  You boned her roommate, made happy family breakfast and now you’re going to show up at a party she told you about.  That is bold, my friend.”

There was nothing Mike could say for it.  “That’s the plan.”
____

Zoe had been looking forward to Marie’s bachelorette party all week.  Between the two of them and Jenna, they had a very diverse group of friends who all knew each other.  It would be a great mix of people and undoubtedly a night to remember.  She straightened her hair until it was a pile of silky dark strands that swished when she shook her head to an imaginary beat.  Dance hair, she thought.  Music video hair.  She shook her new dress from its bag – a dark blue band top with a muted teal skirt that stopped mid-thigh and looked like something from the lost city of Atlantis.  High heels in the same teal color with tiny jewels finished off the outfit, leaving Zoe a good 4 inches taller than usual and feeling like a rock star.

The SUVs picked them up first.  Jenna wore a black wrap dress that left nothing but her social security number to the imagination.  Marie was slightly more modest in a red halter dress with a pageant sash advertising “Bachelorette.”  She’d declined a veil of condoms or any of the other typical accoutrements – they were going classy, not trashy.  At least until they were drunk enough and that line blurred away.  They rounded up nine other girls between the two cars, descended on a restaurant and the night began exactly the way Zoe had anticipated.  Every table of men in the place sent them a round of cocktails or a bottle of champagne.

“Good start,” Zoe’s best friend Christine whispered.  She wore a purple bandage dress and had a rack you could appreciate from space.  They covered Marie’s meal, split the bill and poured themselves back into the cars.  They were already half in the bag and it was barely 10:30 PM.  

“To the club!” Marie shouted, opening another bottle of bubbly in the back of the car.  It ran dry just as they rolled to a stop in front of a line of people waiting behind a velvet rope.  The bouncer grandly let the ladies pass right through.

The VIP section was off to the left, taking them straight across the middle of the space to be seen before disappearing.  A big booth – almost three quarters of a circle – had been reserved for them.  Bottles of vodka, rum and gin were displayed in racks with mixers, ice and glasses.  In the middle was a huge magnum of champagne with a note to Marie from her fiance.  

“Sigh,” Jenna said.  “If only we could all find a guy so sweet.”

Another girl, Jane from Marie’s office, chimed in.  “If only we could all find a guy so rich!”

The club filled in and the party rolled on.  By 11 PM, the dance floor was packed and the girls right in the middle.  Any number of guys surrounded them, waiting for a chance to break in on 12 drunk girls pressing themselves together and shaking it for all to see.  Zoe smiled to see them all laughing and cutting loose – it was exactly what she’d been hoping for.
____

“Mr. Green,” the valet said as he opened the door of Mike’s white Lamborghini.  There were not a lot of these cars in town, even if Mike hadn’t been to this club before.  Another valet let Brooks out and they nodded their way past the growing line of hopeful partygoers outside.

“A table in the VIP room, gentlemen?” a club host asked.  Mike had never noticed a club host before he started spending money in places like this.  They made things happen as a built-in service for high rolling clientele.  Usually it was a reserved table magically appearing though you’d made no reservation or a bottle of something exotic.  A few of their Capitals teammates could tell you that other, more interesting items were also available.

“Sure, thanks.”  They followed to the VIP section, past a huge empty booth with half-full bottles of everything, including a giant bottle of champagne.  “Looks like a party,” Mike said to the host, motioning in that direction.

“Bachelorette.  Beautiful girls,” the host smiled, showing them to a small banquette table.  They ordered a round of scotch, neat.

“That’s them, eh?” Brooks braised his glass toward the booth.  It looked like they’d disappeared in the middle of a great time.  “They must be on the dance floor.”  

The VIP room was elevated slightly, looking out over the seething mass of people moving to the bass that bumped through the floor.  It was like standing on a giant speaker.  Mike scanned the crowd, but finding only two faces would be impossible.  If he even remembered what the blond looked like.   So they waited for the girls to come back to home base.  It didn’t take long.

“Woooooooooooot!” a female voice shouted, announcing her arrival.  The group behind her piled into the round booth and tipped every bottle within arm’s reach.  The last girl in dropped onto the edge of the seat and leaned her head back, exposing a pale, graceful neck as she laughed.

“That’s her,” Mike elbowed Brooks.  Her legs were a mile long in those sexy high heels, and the dress showed a lot of thigh.  Dark hair was tousled from dancing shone in the flashing lights.  “Zoe.”  

Brooks clinked his nearly-empty glass against Mike’s.  “Bro, you have not led me astray.  One for you, ten for me.  The girl you got with last night will have to shop elsewhere.  Which one is she?”

Jenna was three people in from Zoe.  She was dressed to the nines – hair and makeup all done up like a photoshoot.  She looked good, Mike could see why he’d have chatted her up.  But her beauty seemed forced next to some of the more natural-looking girls at the table.  Not that there was anything natural about the short dresses and fuck-me shoes they all wore, but some of them actually let their real faces be seen.  Like Zoe.

“Your new girl’s a fox, Greenie.”  Brooks was right.  Zoe’s smile flashed as she turned her head toward the bar.  Mike instinctively ducked away to avoid her swept up in her gaze.  Laich gave him a cuff on the shoulder.  “You gotta talk to her.  What’s the play?”

“Wait till the roommate is gone.  I gotta go with fancy-meeting-you-here.”  Mike had no other options.

With drinks refilled, the girls got up en masse to return to the dance floor.  Zoe stepped aside as they all filed out, giving the bachelorette in her red dress a big hug before waiting to go last.  She took two steps to follow her friends, then turned on a heel and walked right over to Mike and Brooks.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she said, striking a little pose in front of their table.  From their seated position, she looked about twelve feet tall and ten of those were all endless, sculpted legs.  Hands on her hips accentuated the curve of her waist and the corner of her mouth curled in anticipation.  Mike’s mouth went dry despite the liquor.

“Hey, I thought that was you,” he managed to say.

She smiled skeptically like she didn’t buy that crap.  Mike wore a dark button down shirt open at the collar and rolled up over his forearms.  It stretched over his broad frame and looked expensive with his dark jeans.  His hair was styled perfectly and that tiny smirk played across his puppy dog face.  If she hadn’t seen him post-coital this morning Zoe might have jumped right into his lap he looked so good.

Brooks waited to be sure they were done sizing each other up before jumping in.  “Hey, I’m Brooks,” he extended his hand without standing.  “I was just going to the bar.  Can I get you something?”  Zoe nodded at his obvious exit.  

“Rum and coke, thanks.”

Mike patted the vacated spot.  “Join me.”

Zoe could have laughed.  She lowered herself onto the seat, turned toward Mike.  Past a thousand smells of dancers and booze she thought she detected a hint of dark and manly cologne.   With as much drama as she could manage, she crossed her outside leg over the inside knee.

“Did Jenna invite you?”

Mike shook his head.  “I thought maybe you were inviting me by talking about it this morning.”

Zoe arched an eyebrow at him.  “I think maybe I used her full name because you didn’t remember it this morning.”

He opened his mouth to speak but there was no point in denying it.  “Thanks.”

“Her happiness is in my best interest.  And she was excited about you,” Zoe said.  But she was thinking:
Why am I doing this?  I should be straddling him and kissing those pouty lips right off his face.  No doubt that’s what Jenna would do if she saw something she wanted, no matter who he’d woken up with just hours ago.  But it gave Zoe a case of the cringes.

“I’m surprised she remembers anything about me.”  Mike wasn’t sure where to go with this.  Zoe had seen right through him this morning – he didn’t know the name of the girl he’d spent the night with.  It’s hard to recover from a douchebag move like that.  Could there be a way to turn this around?

“Here you go,” Brooks returned, pulling up a chair across from them.  “So Zoe, have you ever been to a hockey game?”

Mike didn’t know whether to punch Brooks or hug him.  He knew he’d told Jenna he was a pro athlete, probably talked a lot about hockey because he always did when he got drunk.  With any luck Jenna hadn’t remembered that part.  It made Mike an even bigger target for her attention and he wanted only to escape.

“I have one of those twenty game ticket packs,” Zoe said innocently, taking a sip from her drink.  Brooks laughed suddenly, nearly choking on his drink.  Mike suppressed the urge to put his head back and groan.  “So imagine my surprise when I found Game Over here in his socks making eggs this morning.”

Mike would kill Brooks the moment they were out of sight for the way he put his head into his hands and just cracked up.  He was defenseless.  “Is Jenna a fan?” he asked.  
Please say no, please please say no.

Zoe tipped her head to the side, trying not to grin.  “She is now.”

Behind Brooks, the girls came back to the VIP area like a herd approaching a watering hole.  They were all drunk – giggling and squealing and pouring doubles.  A few guys followed them this time, each attached to a girl.  The bachelorette signaled the server for another bottle of something.  Zoe put her hand on Mike’s knee as she was about to excuse herself.

“Omigod!” Jenna shouted.  She shuffled over to them in what she hoped looked like a graceful strut.  “I mean, wow, hi!  What a coincidence!”  Ignoring Brooks and even Zoe, she squeezed herself in on Mike’s other side and wrapped her arms around him like tentacles.  “Hi Mike!  I can’t believe you’re here!  This is the best party ever.”  She turned his head and kissed his lips.  Zoe saw the corner of his eyes crinkle as he winced.  She scooted back a few inches.

“Zoe!  Where did you find him?” Jenna gasped.

“Right here, must have just missed us before.  I was just telling Mike that you’ve recently become interested in hockey.”

Jenna nodded, tongue-kissing the straw in her vodka tonic.  “Zoe goes like ALL the time and always has it on TV and one day I just thought, Hey, this is really fun and interesting and I was going to ask Zoe if I could go with her to a game.  Soon.”

The look on Jenna’s face was so earnest – the kind of drunk where you think to yourself “I sound totally fine, totally normal, totally” and so you know you don’t, not at all.  Part of Zoe wanted to laugh but the other felt a little bad for her friend.  They weren’t that close, but she should be humiliated.  Jenna had no idea that Mike hadn’t remembered her name.  That he had stayed for breakfast to… why HAD he stayed for breakfast?  He didn’t seem particularly interested in getting reacquainted with Jenna right now, his eyes glued to Zoe like her next words could sink or save him.  Yet he was here, where he’d know they would be.

“Jenna, this is Brooks.  He plays hockey too.  Very famous,” Zoe said.  Jenna cooed appreciatively, reaching out to squeeze Brooke’s bare forearm.  “And I was just about to ask him to dance.”

Zoe watched Brooks and Mike exchange a look but she couldn’t read it.  Brooks stood, hand to her back and followed her toward the dance floor.  The tumultuous crowd bobbed to the new Lady Gaga song.  Zoe headed away from the nearest speakers and stopped at the edge of the floor.

In truth, Brooks was really good looking himself.  His face was angular where Mike’s was round, his hair lighter and his smile goofier.  He was a little taller and a little leaner.  He put a hand on Zoe’s hip as they started to move to the music, grinning at her like they were both in on a joke.  She wasted no time.

“What is going on?”

He simply raised his eyebrows.  “How drunk are you?”

“Will this make more sense if I have another cocktail?”

Brooks nodded and they abandoned the dance floor.  He pulled her to the bar and ordered rum and coke, a scotch and two shots of vodka.  He handed Zoe the icy glass and a slice of lemon.  “Trust me,” he said, clinking their shots together.  It was so cold it tasted like nothing but burning.  The lemon helped.  Zoe took a swig of her cocktail and shook it off.  

“Wooo.  Okay, I’m ready.”

There was apology written all over his face before he even started talking.  “Mike wants to ask you out.”

Zoe laughed.  It was a gut reaction to surprise and probably nerves.  
Mike Green wants to ask me out.  She was unsure if that should be finished with exclamation points or question marks.  Excitement, disgust and surprise all arrived at the same time.

“And that’s why he hasn’t yet,” Brooks indicated her laughter.  She covered her mouth.

“The same Mike who is currently being humped by my roommate on a couch in the back?”

Brooks shrugged.  “That was not the plan tonight.”

Curiosity would kill them all.  “There was a plan?” she asked.

“Not a good one, I admit.  But he knew you would be here and thought he might catch you alone.  Then he did.  It was going okay there for a while.”

“You left out the part where twenty hours ago he was in my apartment having sex with someone who was not me.  Why didn’t he sneak out?”

Brooks looked into his drink like it would reveal answers.  “Were you, at some point this morning, dancing around your room folding laundry?”

Zoe nearly fainted.  Her hand came up to cover her entire face.  “Oh my God.”

He put his hand on her arm in case she was going to lose it.  “He didn’t want to run into you and have to explain why he was sneaking out.  Plus, sneaking out is shitty.  So he stayed.  But he isn’t interested in Jenna, they were just a… thing.”  What could he say?  They were just a one night stand, but he kind of likes you?  Unless you’re into going home with him tonight, in which case let me call the car?

“And they’re back there right now.”

“Yup.”  Brooks felt bad for leaving Mike with the other girl, but this was going nowhere if it wasn’t cleared up quickly.

“I have to get Jenna.”  Zoe whirled around and rushed in that direction, Brooks hot on her heels.
___

Mike and Jenna were still at the small table – at least she hadn’t pulled him into the group at the booth.  Zoe gave Mike a look that said
I’m not doing this for you.  She peeled Jenna back a little.  “Jenna, I have to pee.  Will you come with me?”

Jenna looked like she didn’t want to leave the part of Mike’s thigh she’d wrapped herself around, but no girl could refuse the potty party call of a friend.  She patted his leg and promised to be right back.  Zoe rolled her eyes as they left.

“Dude, what?”

Brooks dropped into his seat.  “I told her.”

Mike had and hadn’t wanted that to be the answer.  “And?”

“Dunno.  She might be telling her friend right now.”
____

She wasn’t.  Instead Zoe was steering Jenna toward a little bench in the bathroom where she was sure countless of girls had gossiped and possibly puked.  “I can’t believe he’s here,” Jenna was saying.

“Jenna, don’t forget Marie and her party, okay?  We can’t abandon them.”

“I won’t.  I’m just surprised to see him again so soon – do you think he came because he knew we’d be here?  Do you think he wanted to see me?  I mean, he gave me his number last night.  I was thinking about calling, but a day is too soon, right?  Too soon to call him?  But he’s here, so it’s not too soon to take him home again!”  She was swanning.  It was gross.

“I don’t know, Jenna.  He might have just been out.  I wouldn’t read too much into it, okay?”

“Okay.  o, you’re so smart.  You’re right.  But if he wants to tonight…,” she rolled her wrist like things could go on and on.

“Then go for it,” Zoe said.

Back at the table, the girls had gone to the dance floor.  Jenna brought Mike over to the big booth and Brooks followed.  They were both looking at Zoe for help.  Jenna fixed herself a fresh drink just as the music changed.  “Omigod!” she shrieked.  It was her favorite song, one by Usher.  Judging from the reaction of the crowd, it was their favorite too.  “Mike, let’s dance!”

“I can’t.  Sorry Jenna.  Hockey injury,” he said with such a straight face that Zoe almost laughed.  

“I feel the sudden urge to dance,” Brooks announced.  Jenna shrugged and took his hand.  They weren’t even out of VIP before Mike slid over to Zoe.

“This is weird,” he admitted.

“Jenna thinks you like her.  She thinks you stayed for breakfast because you like her, and you’re here because you like her.  And probably letting her climb all over you is making her think you like her.”  Zoe said evenly, like she was reporting the news.  She didn’t want to be mad.

“Jenna is sweet.  But she… she doesn’t like me.  She likes my money.”  He bit his lip and met her eyes.
 
Fuckingshitbastardfuck.  Mike Green is sitting too close in a loud, dark club and I’ve had like twelve drinks.  This is not fair.  He’s worrying those pillowy lips and I know the taste of him would be better than the taste of soda going flat on my tongue.

“And what is it you think
I might like?”

Mike shrugged.  “I think you already know me better than she does.”

“She doesn’t know you at all, and you don’t know her.”

“Would I like her if I did?” He asked unfairly.

Zoe huffed.  “Maybe.  She’s nice and she’s fun but she’s a goldigging airhead who wants to be seen in the right places wearing the right thing and then go back to spending someone else’s money.  Is that the kind of girl you like?”

“No.  But it is the type of girl I seem to meet.”

“You mean the type of girl you wake up next to and don’t remember her name?”  It was out, and Zoe meant it.  

Mike hung his head.  “Nothing I can say.  I had a one night stand with someone.”

Zoe’s voice was softer when she spoke again. “You stayed for breakfast.”

“Not for breakfast with her,” Mike said honestly.  Zoe sighed.  This whole thing was such a clusterfuck but it didn’t change the fact that she was dazzled by him.  He was gorgeous.  Her mom would have called him “one of your idols,” back when that word referred to someone that you fantasized about rather than someone you wanted to be.  There was no denying Zoe had fantasized about Mike.

“Any chance you want to get out of here?” he asked.  Zoe snapped her head quickly.  “Not to… I don’t mean go home, I just… shit.  Do you want to go somewhere else?”

“No, Mike.  I’m not stealing you from my roommate and running out the back.  I’m not sure I want to go anywhere with you – if you’re after two girls in two nights or some kind of threesome, I’m not your girl.”

He put a hand on her arm to see if she’d shake him off.  She didn’t.  “Last night was not meant to be serious.  One night, no harm.  If I’d snuck out, she’d never think of me again.  Suddenly I’m important to her?  That’s bullshit and you know it.”

“You stayed for breakfast, Mike.  You changed the rules.  And I’m not like Jenna in that way – she has a lot of fun.  I’m more… complicated.  Something I’m sure you don’t need.”
I’m more complicated because I’m half-fucking-in-love with you already.

“I can do complicated,” Mike countered.

“Off to a poor start,” she replied.  It stung.  “Just because I’m wearing this dress and these shoes doesn’t mean I’m easy, Mike.  This does not mean open for business, no matter what you’re used to seeing.”

“Zoe, I don’t think you’re....”

“You do, Mike.  Or at least you want to.”

Some of the girls came back up the stairs.  Zoe scooted out and Mike followed, giving them back the space.  He could see Brooks and Jenna, not far away.

“Dance with me,” he said quickly, desperately before Zoe could get too far away.

“Mike...,” she started.  He grabbed her hand anyway and pulled her away from where Brooks and Jenna were dancing.

Nonononononokay.  Damn drinks.  His hand was big and warm and when he drew her close, hemmed in by the crowd, she knew his body was too.  One arm went around her waist and his chin hovered above her shoulder.  Mike moved well, swaying his hips to the beat.  Sultry was the word that came to mind.  Zoe told her mind to shut up.

“Don’t,” she said.

“I won’t,” his lips were at her ear.  “Promise.”

He didn’t.  One song ended and another began, they kept dancing.  If Zoe had just met Mike, she’d be thinking the night was shaping up quite well.  He didn’t move his hand, didn’t move his face.  He didn’t even look at her.  It took a lot of willpower on his part.  When the third song ended and she was still there in his arms, Mike knew it was time.

“Tell me honestly that you have never had a one night stand,” his voice was barely above a whisper, barely audible over the music.  “Tell me you don’t know the difference between that and this.”

“What is this?” Zoe looked in his eyes, which put their mouths in dangerous proximity.

“I think it’s more than one night,” he answered.  “I know you’re different Zoe, and I’ll prove it to you.  I’m going home.”

She wanted to ask if he was going alone, wanted to needle him some more and keep fighting this.  Instead she just closed her eyes.  Mike’s fingers laced into hers and lead the way toward the booth.  A few of her friends looked nearly asleep.  The bachelorette and Jenna were taking turns feeling Brooks’ bicep.

“Greenie,” Laich said.  “We should, um, go.”

Mike turned to Zoe.  “Come to the game tomorrow.”

“I’m coming anyway.”

Mike smiled.  “Because you want to see me.”

“So help me I will cheer for the Flyers,” she said, her expression stormy.
“You wouldn’t.”

She tried not to laugh.  “God no.  I don’t have anyone that much.”

Mike pulled her in - no hug, just full body contact.  He whispered into her ear, “You don’t hate me.”

She flicked her eyes up without moving away.  “Maybe I should.”
_____