Zoe stared at the wall near her desk and crunched the cold salad. Of course Mike had been a lunch. Mike was everywhere. And somehow he managed to be a little better every time. Well, except for the kissing. That had been the best and worst part, all at once. But today - awkward, funny, apologetic, estrogen-boiling.
Noooooooooot faaaaaaaaaiiirr, she whined to herself. Later at the game, as the Caps took an easy 5-1 win from Atlanta, Zoe felt detached even from the roaring crowd. Watching guys she sort of knew made the game different for her, like she was standing closer than the other spectators. Like she was the glass, between real life and the game, and you could see right through her. More than once she caught herself spacing out, her eyes usually following Mike without realizing she’d been watching at all. Like an overloaded power grid, her brain was protecting itself with mental brown-outs. As the buzzer sounded, she shook away the hazy cobwebs and pulled out her phone. Time for some action.
“Jenna, hey. I’m in for tomorrow night,” Zoe said. Maybe one of Jenna’s nights out was just what she needed. A little something male-oriented to get her mind off the guy she couldn’t let herself have.
Zoe should have known something was off when Jenna volunteered to drive. The blond waved it away, explaining it was a house party and a little out of the way, it would just be easier.
“And if I don’t come home,” she smiled like a snake, “you can drive yourself.”
Having promised herself she would make an effort to keep up with the Jennas tonight, Zoe wore a dressy fitted tank top with a ruffled front and a pattern in tones of sea green, blue and black. A gauzy cardigan with no buttons went over it, and dark skinny jeans were zipped inside heeled black boots. Her hair was loose and wavy, and she wore dark eyeliner with a little flash of eyeshadow at the corner of her lids to match the brightest shade of her shirt.
In the car, Jenna said, “How was the hockey game last night?”
Ugh, Zoe thought as her stomach squeezed and she physically pushed away the thought of Mike. “It was good, big win.”
“And the other night you got to meet some more of the guys, right?”
Again with being oblivious, Zoe assumed Jenna was mining for details about Mike. It was the absolute last thing she wanted to talk about. “Yeah, Brooks asked me and Christine to go out with them, we had a few drinks with some of the players.” She allowed herself to smile and be honest. “It was pretty awesome, actually. I mean....” But Jenna wasn’t listening.
“I knew it! I could tell in the club! I mean, he’s totally hot, Zo. And so nice. He just wanted to keep dancing to every song. I thought he was a little jealous, but I knew that Mike was talking to you and ....”
“What?” Zoe asked.
Jenna glanced to the side. “Brooks. Right? You obviously like him, you were about climbing out of your skin at Marie’s party. And I saw you give him your number.”
It took all the will Zoe could muster not to put her head back and close her eyes. “Yes, Brooks. Definitely.”
Jenna nodded like it was obvious. “And he was definitely into you too.”
Zoe just looked out the window. Are we there yet?
And then they were. Reading off the address they rolled to a stop in front of a two story condo in a ritzy Virginia development. Jenna had been right about one thing - they’d never have gotten a cab to take them out here. A handful of nice cars were parked along the sidewalks, whether party guests or condo owners they couldn’t tell. The building was dark maroon, with every light on and music playing.
Jenna didn’t bother knocking. Zoe, took a deep breath, followed through the front door and smiled at the first face she saw.
“Zoe!” Nicklas Backstrom said.
She froze. Fuck. Nick, in all his impossible blond cuteness, broke away from a small group and made his way over. Behind her, Jenna laughed like this was a great surprise when she didn’t really know the half of it.
“I didn’t think we’d see you aga...,” Nick was saying quite loudly.
“Don’t say anything about Mike,” Zoe hissed into his ear, wrapping her arms around him to get close enough to whisper.
“What?” he said at full volume. But Jenna was already upon them.
“Nick, this is my roommate,” Zoe emphasized. Understanding dawned on his face - he had been at the club the first night, probably even met Jenna. Definitely had seen Mike with her. Jenna clearly didn’t remember as she reached out to shake his hand. Nick shot Zoe a quick look of apology. He was barely through saying hello when Ovi rolled up, drawn by the smell of blond in the water.
“I know you,” he said to Zoe, though he kept looking past her.
“Alex, did you meet my roommate?” She stepped aside to let Alex get closer to Jenna, who he was appraising like he wanted to bid on her at an auction. Shaking her head, Zoe looked past him to see Brooks coming around the corner.
He caught her eye, then he backed up the way he’d come.
“She’s here,” Brooks said to Mike, who was cutting a lemon at the counter. The open-plan condo kitchen was separated from the living room by a suspended wall of smoked glass that was really more of a screen.. Mike looked up mid-slice and saw a shadow approaching.
Zoe rounded the corner and just stopped.
Whomp. It felt like it sounded as it punched Mike in the gut. Between the dark eyeliner and bright shadow, her eyes were flashing. Her pile of dark waves looked soft as silk twisting down her back. And no thin cardigan was a match for hiding the toned shape of her body. One hand on her hip didn’t help either.
Brooks slowly raised his hands in front of him like he was being robbed, though he stepped forward. “Not my idea.”
She was irked. Not quite mad but she definitely wasn’t laughing either. He got the distinct impression that Zoe did not like someone getting the better of her. Once, like surprising her in the club, got a free pass. But a second time would not be forgiven so easily.
“You could have warned me.”
“But I wanted to see you.” He approached slowly like a cat judging friend or foe. When she stayed still, Brooks leaned in and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
“You guys!” Jenna bustled in behind them, bumping Zoe’s hip so she stumbled right into Brooks’ chest. He caught her with a quick flex and righted her back to her feet just as Mike went deer-in-the-headlights and Jenna kissed him right on the mouth.
Mike cursed himself for slow reflexes. What kind of athlete can’t dodge a girl in 4 inch heels? But he’d been too slow and let Jenna kiss him. Damn Zoe for looking so distractingly good. Jenna gave his arm a squeeze too and by the time he extricated himself, Zoe was nowhere to be seen. He fixed Jenna a drink from the bar to busy himself. Clearly this Jenna thing was not going away on it’s own. He knew inviting her was inviting trouble, but it had seemed worth it at the time to get near Zoe. Now he was hearing her prattle on about a summer house in Rehobeth while Zoe was somewhere else with someone else.
“That sounds great. I head back to Canada for the summer. Calgary. We’re pretty far out there, but I really like it. Clears my head for the season, you know? My coaches pretty much insist on it.” He passed her a vodka cocktail.
Jenna smiled indulgently, as if Mike were being quirky. “Well you must visit. I mean, this is your house!”
Mike shrugged. “It’s nice to get away, too.” Far, far away.
He steered her out into the living room. A good handful of the players had turned up, with various wives and girlfriends in tow. A couple guys from the local sports TV station, two from the skateboard shop where Mike bought the “art” he hung around the condo. It was a young, good-looking crowd. He hoped it would swallow Jenna right up.
“Alex! Jenna was just telling me about a beach house she went to last year. Weren’t you looking for a summer place in the States?” Mike said. Ovi gave a noncommittal eyebrow raise but it was good enough. He placed Jenna next to the huge Russian. “Tell him where the best places are.”
Safe for now, Mike wound his way through the groups and furniture toward the game room. He’d tried calling it the den, but that sounded so old. And it housed one of his favorite possession - a foosball table. On which Zoe was currently destroying John Carlson.
“ICarly!” she shouted, spinning the grip hard and nailing home another goal. “I’m telling BB your hand-eye coordination needs a lot of work.” Brooks and Nick made “oooooooo” sounds like he’d just been burned. Carlson pulled the kind of face only a 21-year old could make: part disgust, part delight.
“If you’re so good with your hands, why don’t we go upstairs and you can teach me something?”
Mike stopped in mid-stride, briefly wondering if he’d be benched for punching a teammate. But Zoe didn’t miss a beat. She just tapped her open hand on the grip of the foosball handle.
“Sorry, iCarly, it has to be at least this big or I can’t even hold onto it.”
His idiot friends collapsed into howls. Carlson turned five shades of red as Zoe smirked coyly, then they both lost it too. She apologized and he told her to stop by the locker room anytime if she wanted to find out how wrong she was. Mike was right next to her before anyone noticed him.
“Ah Greenie, your girl here is making me look bad. I’m going back near Neuvy where I can be cool again.” Carlson tapped his beer bottle against Zoe’s and strutted away.
“What’s an iCarly?” Mike asked.
Brooks and Nick answered together, clearly having asked the same thing. “A show on the Disney Channel!”
“Jeez, don’t you know anything, Mike?” Zoe wiggled her eyebrows at him.
More people arrived and Mike was forced to entertain his guests. He caught sight of Zoe talking to different people, making plenty of friends. Nick stayed near her, but he’d always been a little shy. He liked to pick one person and let them do the heavy lifting. Usually it was Mike, but from the way he was talking so much it seemed Zoe also fit the bill.
Jenna however could not stay away. She popped up again and again, circulating herself by going to where she knew Mike would be next. He would arrive, she would stay a minute then move on, playing hard to get. If he’d been after her, it would have worked. He finally ended up near the fridge with an empty bottle in his hand.
“She’s outside,” Brooks said, holding his hand out for a fresh beer. “I showed her the balcony.”
It was thirty-nine degrees and ready to rain. Mike braced himself for the blast as he slid the door closed behind him. Zoe had her coat on but open, just looking out over the neighborhood lights. A hot tub took up one end of the balcony, next to a grill and some low, modern outdoor furniture.
“Nice place,” she said without turning around.
“Nice view,” he agreed as he looked at her.
Zoe shook her head slightly. “You got me again.”
“You could have just given me your number.”
She faced him now, and he felt that same physical punch as when he’d first seen her tonight in the kitchen. From the few songs they’d danced at the club, he knew the shape of her body against his was a match. He knew her lips were soft and would, if kissed long enough, eventually give themselves up to him. He’d almost been there before.
“You really can’t take no for an answer, can you?”
“I think it was more of a maybe,” Mike suggested.
The words were halfway out of her mouth: You wish, yeah right, in your dreams. But they died on her tongue and no sound came out. Mike watched her try again but the best she could do was, “Damn it, Mike.”
“I knew it!”
“No.” Zoe found her voice. “I can’t do this. Jenna just kissed you inside! She thinks she’s your date and that I’m here because I like Brooks. Which I should, by the way.” She pointed right at Mike’s chest. “You shouldn’t hang out with him if you’re going to be such an ass..”
Mike put his hand on the railing, closing the space between them just a shade. He was between Zoe and the door, shutting out the party behind them. It wasn’t so cold that he couldn’t stay out in short sleeves if it meant being alone with her. “You wouldn’t be here if not for Brooks,” he smiled.
Unfortunately, Zoe could see over his shoulder. “Neither would she.”
The door slid open as Zoe dodged around Mike. She slipped past Jenna, mumbling something about Canadians and winter, and left Mike to fend for himself.
The kitchen was overly warm after coming in, so Zoe shed her coat and cardigan. A little tower of chips balanced in one hand and a beer in the other, she leaned against the counter and looked around Mike’s kitchen. She could understand why Jenna chased a life like this - it would be especially nice if you didn’t have to work for it. Mike had shiny new appliances and every gadget you could think of. The place was modern, but cozy. It wasn’t a total bachelor pad - someone definitely had a life there.
She imagined Mike making himself breakfast. Was he a cereal eater? Eggs and bacon? As she tried to decide what he would make, she also decided he probably walked around the house in his underwear. No, sweatpants.
No, she almost laughed. He’s probably fully dressed all the time. Mike might be a little arrogant about his fame or money, but he wasn’t conceited. Zoe could tell he was still a chubby dork at heart.
Stop, she told herself. Stop making him into something that you like. To help, she started imagining all the different women who’d woken up in this condo. If they’d stayed for breakfast, if Mike had made the same eggs he’d scrambled that morning in her apartment. If he’d remembered their names.
“You’re still here.”
She was startled back to the party by Brooks joining her in the kitchen. He wore a sky blue t-shirt the same color as his eyes. This was not a man who had trouble getting women, Zoe knew. He might not be the first Capital everyone thought of, but like a surprise in your cereal box, he was the real prize.
“Jenna drove,” Zoe said.
“I could give you a ride home,” he offered. Zoe shrugged, as he’d known she would.
“I didn’t think so. You know, Zoe,” he cracked a beer and leaned against the island opposite her. “Mike’s not a bad guy. A bit of a blockhead, obviously, but I’ve never seen him stalk someone before.”
She laughed. “How romantic.”
“He probably could be if...,” he started.
“If you helped him,” she finished.
Brooks gave her the look a librarian gives to rowdy kids. “I was going to say ‘if you let him.’”
“Just let him have whatever he wants, that’s the way this works, right?” They were finally down to the heart of the matter, and she felt she could actually talk to Brooks about this. “If I were going to do that, I’d have done it already.”
He put his hands up again, that defensive pose. “I’m glad you didn’t. Mike needs a kick in the ass. He’s... well, we’ve all been known to indulge in the life. Most guys grow out of it. But at first... look at it this way. You could have any guy at this party.” Zoe started to protest, but Brooks wouldn’t stop. “No really, you could. I can’t promise they’d all call you again, but maybe you don’t want that. Maybe you think you can’t handle it. Anyway, imagine you show up here, you like the attention, it makes you feel like a big deal, right? And there’s no pressure. You get pressure at work, at home, everywhere but here, where it’s just fun and then it’s over. Right?”
Zoe wore a hard, annoyed look, but she nodded.
“So what do you do? Who do you pick?”
She knew that he knew what she would say. If she were being honest. But hypothetical situations were always so much clearer. Zoe looked right into those blue eyes
“You,” she said.
That made him smile. “No way. You’ve got Mike Green written all over you.”
“What does that mean?”
“I wish you could have seen yourself in the club that night, all dressed up looking like a million dollars. You about climbed into Mike’s lap the second you saw him. You were teasing him, you wanted him to want you. Revenge, I guess, showing him he picked the wrong roommate. But he already knew that.” Brooks finished his beer, got another round for both of them. “You were playing the same game, Zoe. Only you’re better at it than Mike, and you won. Now what are you going to do with it?”
“Nothing,” she said flatly.
He barked a laugh. “Liar.”
“How do you know?”
“You’re still here,” he said again.
Mike had been slowly giving Jenna less and less of his attention. As he hoped, introducing her to teammates worked like a charm. Ovechkin was giving her the eye, like he did to anything with tits, and Mike willed him to seal the deal. The Capitals players lost girls to Ovechkin like they lost socks in the dryer - pretty much fifty percent of the time. The party was winding down and time was running out.
Come on, Ovi, he thought. He hadn’t seen Zoe in forever, but he needed to find her. Something Jenna had said, verified by a quick iPhone search, and given him a brilliant idea.
He found her in the game room with Nicky, going through Mike’s DVD collection, laughing as Nick did impressions of all the characters. Her waves were loosening and he knew she’d been running her fingers through her long hair. He flexed his fingers with the urge to do the same. Nicky was delivering lines from Borat and Zoe had tears in her eyes.
They saw Mike and slowly stopped their game. He almost hated to interrupt them - Zoe never laughed like that with him. Well, he hadn’t had many chances. But it made him jealous to see his friends making progress where he couldn’t, all because he wanted to be more than her friend.
“Time for a new drink,” Nicky said, making his exit.
The remains of a smile stayed on her lips as she replaced the DVD. Mike knew he’d put his last coin in the jukebox tonight - he couldn’t trick her again. This would be his last real chance.
“So the game on Saturday is a big one,” he began.
“Yeah, Pittsburgh,” She was watching him carefully, but he couldn’t meet her eye.
“Too bad it’s not in your ticket plan.”
Zoe shrugged. Mike sighed with relief - he’d been right. Jenna had been fairly sure Zoe wasn’t going. He hid in his room, checking the Caps website for a list of games included in the package. No Pittsburgh. And from the way she wasn’t looking at him, he knew she was dying to go.
“If you knew someone, you could just ask.”
Zoe leaned against the edge of the foosball table, hands behind her back. It was the perfect position for Mike to stand between her knees, lean down and kiss her into next week. But he stayed where he was.
“I thought about asking Brooks.”
Mike shook his head. “He’s not really very nice, no one likes him.”
“His English is so bad, he couldn’t really ask.”
“Or even Ovi.”
Mike shook his head. “Ovi would definitely want something in return.”
Zoe gave up the game. “And you don’t?”
Mike hooked his thumbs into his pockets nervously. He glanced toward the living room but no one was watching, so he took one step closer. “A date. Just one date. Tomorrow.”
Just one date. Zoe would have laughed if her heart wasn’t pounding. She’d known Mike for a week and been nervous as shit the entire time. More nervous that she’d been for any old date in her life. It was draining and exhausting and... and it means something, she knew. Everything Brooks had said was true. Zoe could have gotten away from all this if she’d really wanted to. But whether it was curiosity, flattery or whatever inexplicable thing about Mike that seemed to keep pulling her back... Brooks had been right: she was still here.
“One date? Where I actually know you’re going to be there?”
“And I get to come to the game on Saturday?”
Mike almost fainted with relief.
“But! But, if the date is good, and... well, whatever happens... you have to tell Jenna. Or I’m bringing her to the game with me and telling her it was your idea.”
If the date is good, Mike thought, and... she said and. And and and.
Zoe stood up, only a step and half away. For all the nervous hope on Mike’s face she knew there were two options: leave right now or kiss him. She’d agreed to the date. Her conscience, in the alarmingly attractive form of Brooks Laich, had convinced her she wanted the date. But she couldn’t let it all go - let Mike think she was easy. So there would be no kissing.
“I have to go,” she said. Like right fucking now before I throw you on that couch.
He followed her into the living room. Jenna was being attended by Ovi, but looked a little unsure of how to play this hand. If she was anything, it was too smart to give up a sugar daddy without a definite replacement. So she gave Mike a quick kiss on the cheek, trying to keep them both on the line. Zoe nodded to Brooks.
“Not till tomorrow,” she told him. Then she too gave Mike a short, quick kiss on the cheek. His skin was soft, warm to the touch and his cheek was far, far too close to those perfect, pillow lips she knew were soft and delicious. The two girls hurried to the car, rushing for different reasons, and it took Zoe the whole ride home to catch her breath.
4 years ago