“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.
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.
3 years ago