“Date night,” Mike said. Brooks had given him the number after the girls left last night, with strict instructions not to call until Friday. “Wear flat shoes.”
“Are we going to the gym?”
“I told you it’s a surprise,” Mike insisted.
“A concert? A cruise? Clown school?”
“Yes, I’m taking you on a date to clown school.”
Zoe smiled. “I hope they have a unicycle.”
Mike couldn’t get over how easily Zoe was talking to him. He cheked the phone screen to make sure he’d called the right number. She was upbeat and joking – maybe she even sounded a little excited. He didn’t want to push his luck.
“I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
She paused. “Don’t tell anybody, okay? I don’t want it getting back to her.”
“I promise. See you later.”
“I’ll be the one in the red nose,” she said.
Durrrrrrr, Zoe thought making a derp face at herself. Clown school. Shit I am nervous!
Not that she’d gotten over the Jenna issue, not at all. There was no doubt Jenna would go for Ovie if she thought it would work. But as far as Jenna knew, Mike kept calling her. Kept seeing her. She wouldn’t trade up unless she knew it was a repeat performance. Jenna was a lot of things but not an idiot.
Instead Zoe had finally done what any romantic comedy knew she would – she gave in. Halfway, she told herself. As if that mattered. Halfway up was the same was halfway down. Still, her hormones were playing Dance, Dance Revolution.
Date night with Mike Green.
She was ready early. In her best dark jeans, a gauzy gray sweater and charcoal converse low tops, she zipped into a raspberry-colored quilted jacket. Sporty, but not sloppy.
“I’m here,” Mike said when she picked up.
That was code for ‘I’m on the corner’, which they’d agreed was a safe place. Jenna wasn’t home, but as far as Zoe knew she could be walking up the block.
Mike drummed his hands on the wheel of his black SUV. No sports car tonight, though it was usually how he rolled on a date. Everything about tonight was a little unusual.
He too wore jeans, with new Adidas sneakers and a white sweater with a high collar. His black pea coat had a scarf tucked into the pocket, just in case. Three minutes after he called, he saw her. Mike had gone the long away around the park facing in her direction. Zoe’s long hair was pulled over one shoulder and a small black messenger-style bag crossed her body. Fingerless gloves wrapped around the strap, and she was smiling.
Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Mike’s brain said. She looked beautiful, natural… achievable. Gorgeous. Zoe glanced over her shoulder before getting in the car. Mike had his sunglasses on.
“Mr. Bond,” she said, reaching for the seat belt.
“Moneypenny,” he nodded.
It made her giggle. She felt… excited. Yes, everything about this was wrong, most of all the reason they were being secretive. But if she put aside the fact that Mike was a little slutty, she was definitely excited.
Just like all those dumb Bond girls.
But it didn’t match the look on his face. That was hopeful and even a little relieved.
“You’re beautiful,” he simply said before pulling into traffic. She wanted to touch his face, put her hand at the back of his neck. He wore very faint cologne, something warm and cozy.
No touching, she decided. Not safe.
“Thank you,” she said. “No Lamborghini?”
Mike smiled without turning. “Where would I put the unicycle?”
Twenty minutes later, Mike pulled to a valet stop in front of the National Portrait Gallery. They were also very close to the Verizon Center. She climbed out, turned and saw across the street: International Spy Museum.
“Since we can’t tell anyone about our date anyway....”
The granite building took up the better part of a block. It had columns out front and looked vaguely Soviet-era. Inside, Mike gave his name at the ticket counter. The girl stared at him with wide eyes. She didn’t even look at the screen, just handed him and envelope. Then she saw Zoe and quickly looked down at the desk.
“Enjoy your tour,” she blurted.
They crossed the lobby, Zoe snickering and Mike rolling his eyes. “Worst secret agent ever,” she whispered.
At another counter, a very serious looking man began piling things in front of them. “Welcome agents, to Operation Spy.” He explained the objective of the game - they’d been given a mission to discover the location of nuclear weapons at large in Washington, DC. Each clue they located would reveal the next set of vital information. He showed them how to operate a small GPS unit, and gave them penlights and a notebook.
Zoe was so engrossed in the explanation of the back story and their “mission” she didn’t realize right away that Mike had his hand casually resting on the small of her back. When she noticed, her stomach squeezed with nervousness.
Mike Green is touching me. Mike Green is touching me and I didn’t even notice. If a Tin Man and a Scarecrow had wandered up, she could not have claimed surprise. Instead she turned back in to the guide’s speech and simply enjoyed the warm weight of his touch.
When the instructions were over, Mike offered her the GPS unit or the notebook. “How are you with directions?”
“Good because I suck. I’ll read the mission.”
The first part of the mission took them out of the museum and down a few blocks. They had to locate a book in a building lobby that looked like a library. It was after-hours on a Friday, but the lobby had 24-hour guard service. The game instructed them to “act like you belong.” Mike sat on a chair and Zoe pretended to ask him about all the books she found.
“Honey, have you read Carter’s Anthology of Birds?” she asked.
“No, dear,” Mike smiled.
“Shame, real page-turner.” She kept going, playing along even though the man barely looked up from his desk. Finally, they gave in and pawed through shelves attempting to locate the volume. They moved back and forth, almost touching as they passed each other and leaning in comically close to peer at the spines. When they found it, there was a code written inside. Mike copied it down – he had little boy handwriting that made Zoe sigh.
It’s going to be a long night, she thought. But the code was easy if you’d seen National Treasure – it corresponded with pages, lines and letters in the book.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” Mike asked, trying not to be intimidated by how quickly she’d recognized the puzzle. She may have known it from a movie, but Mike was sensitive to being seen as a dumb jock. “Like what you actually do for a living?”
“I work in a bank.”
He laughed. “That’s what the girl on Alias did too, right?”
The code gave them part of a phrase and led them another few blocks. As they walked, Mike told Zoe more about the long season and how his life was dictated by the game. Not that he minded. The way he talked about his teammates, even when telling stories where someone had been a moron, Zoe could tell they were his best friends. She couldn’t imagine who else would understand as well.
They found the encoded address – a wall 10 feet high made of gray stone blocks. “Covert search” was the heading for this obstacle. Some of the blocks were smooth, some rough, and one had a symbol carved on it. Zoe passed Mike a penlight and they set to work searching. It would have made sense to split up, but they went side-by-side without discussing it. Mike took the high bricks and Zoe squatted down to search the low ones. Nothing on the front side, so they rounded the end of the monument. Ten more minutes and they found nothing. Then Mike had the idea to check the sides.
“I found it!” He felt stupid for feeling so proud.
The clue was a tiny map of the world, GPS coordinates and a single word. Zoe tapped it in and led them on a very convoluted path to Navy Plaza. Downtown DC had never felt dangerous to Zoe, but she was glad to have Mike at her side to wander around in the twilight looking lost.
“The pressure is the hardest part. And the last two years… well, you watched the playoffs,” he said. Zoe had watched, had seen them fall from grace in something resembling a cannonball into a swimming pool. As a fan it had been hard but she’d obviously recovered. Mike had carried it with him all summer.
“I saw a sports psychologist.” His steps slowed. Mike wanted to show Zoe there was really something tangible to his actions. Not just the pro athlete who got what he wanted and cried when he didn’t win. He had been working on some real things. “It was… helpful. She helped me get some space in my head and actually relax.”
Zoe was like a kitten in a tree – helpless. If this was Mike’s game then he was very, very good at it. Vulnerable, hopefully honest… damn it. She slid her free hand into Mike’s and held because it felt like the right thing to do.
Mike bit his lip, a nervous habit he hated. Zoe’s hand was small, a study in contrasts where the soft fabric of her glove stopped at the base of her smooth fingers. Go on, tell her, he prompted himself. “We talked about girls too.”
She didn’t push or ask, just let Mike take a moment to decide exactly what he wanted to share.
“That’s how I knew that you were different from Jenna. That she’s not what I really need.”
“What do you think you need?”
“Someone honest. The psychologist – God that makes me sound crazy, doesn’t it? She pointed out all the people in my life who just say yes. Even when I am an asshole, they are along for the ride. Really it’s just my parents and a couple of the guys, like Brooks, who call me on my shit. And for a while there… well, there was a lot of it.” He adjusted his hand in hers, mostly to remind himself it was still there. “It made me mad at first, thinking none of my friends were real friends, but she pointed out that maybe they were just worried. Didn’t want to add stress when I was already not handling the pressure well. “
Zoe’s throat was closing up as she fought the urge to kiss him.
“There were some of both, some real friends, some not. Took a while to figure them out. And I… I hadn’t really gotten to girls yet. Not that there was much to figure out – I treated some nice people pretty badly, and then there were others more like Jenna.”
“She’s not a bad person, Mike.”
“I know,” he slowed. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant. I was the bad person, or at least my fair share. But Jenna’s not going to tell me to go to hell if I act like a shithead.”
Zoe nodded slowly, but that wasn’t the heart of the problem. “You could just stop acting like a shithead.”
Mike squeezed her fingers. “I’m working on it.”
They came to Navy Plaza, which was lit from above to reveal a map of the world. They had a GPS clue which Zoe entered and located as Minsk, Russia. Their instructions were for someone to keep lookout, so Mike stood next to a pillar along the perimeter and Zoe went to the map. As she searched the engraving, a man in a trench coat and fedora stepped from behind a pillar on the other side and approached her. For a second Mike thought it might be real then he realized it was probably setup. Zoe half-stood and the man passed close.
When he was gone, Mike came into the light. “Was that part of the game?”
Zoe held up a folded slip of paper. “Unless he gave me his number.”
Mike unfolded the square. What color was my jacket? Zoe shrugged, she hadn’t really seen him well. But Mike had noticed as the man had gotten close to Zoe, in the most light, that his coat was not black but actually dark brown.
“Pretty clever,” Zoe said. She had the coordinates listed on the map, which had been a small inscription under the marked city. They were off again, following the blinking dot, till they ended up in front of the Fairmont Hotel. She looked at Mike.
“Not me,” he smiled. But if they had an available room he would rent it for a month and stay there eating room service and listening to Zoe laugh.
They had no instructions, so they wandered into the lobby and circled the high-ceilinged, elegant space. When they rounded a corner into the bar area, Zoe actually gasped. Five men in trench coats and hats were seated strategically far apart at various tables. All wore dark colors – black, navy blue, burgundy, forest green and dark brown.
“That’s him,” Mike said. He stepped toward, but the man made a small shake of his head. He dug into his pocket, placed something on the table next to an empty pint glass and left. Zoe had her hand around Mike’s forearm and thought she could stand there all night, just feeling how solid he was. Thirty seconds later, she let go.
On the backside of the receipt for his beer, the man had written: 47th floor.
The elevator was glass and as they rose above the lobby, actually scaling the outside of the building. An endless carpet of bright lights rolled out. The sensation of moving up over empty space made Zoe a little dizzy and she used the excuse to hold on to Mike again. He put one arm around her waist.
“Afraid of heights?”
She looked at him instead of out the window. The view was just as good. “Just hurtling through space in glass spheres. It doesn’t come up often.” But he held her steady anyway. Zoe wished her quilted jacket were thinner, or unzipped, or maybe on the floor under the rest of her clothes. Two inches on tiptoes and she’d be kissing him.
Mike chuckled at the momentarily disappointed look on Zoe’s face. He felt a surge of pride – he was doing really well, he was winning her over. They stepped into the restaurant on the 47th floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows surrounded the place, the low lighting making the city below seem even brighter. A long copper bar snaked away to the right. On the first barstool hung the dark brown coat and the fedora sat atop the bar.
Mike felt like this was the part of the movie where the man knew exactly what to do. He motioned to the bartender. “I’ll have what he’s having,” and pointed to the empty jacket. With a nod, the bartender produced a plain manila envelope. Then he began making two cocktails in tall martini glasses with delicately twisted stems.
“If those are shaken, not stirred, I will die,” Zoe said.
Inside the envelope was a folder marked “Eyes Only” that contained a secret communiqué from the arms dealer who had stolen the nuclear weapon. It gave instructions for completing the purchase of the device. A moment later, the GPS unit in Zoe’s pocket beeped.
“Please scan document and send via secure channel,” it read. Sure enough, the last page of the communiqué had a bar code. Zoe zapped it, the handheld beeped and the bartender cleared his throat behind them.
“Your mission is accomplished. You’ve done your country a great service.”
Zoe gave him the GPS unit and the penlights. With the tiniest of appreciative nods, he left them alone at the end of the bar.
“That was fun!” Zoe took the cocktail Mike offered. Martinis weren’t her thing, but when in Rome… she clinked her glass against his.
“Cheers. And thanks for finally giving in to going out with me.” Mike took a tiny sip of the sharp drink.
Zoe did the same. She had managed to forget about Jenna, forget about her preconceived notions and just enjoy Mike’s company. But it’s not like I made the bad stuff up.
Oh shut it, she told herself. They took seats at the bar and suddenly Zoe felt like she was very much on a date.
“Hungry?” Mike asked. They both were. “I know a good place nearby. Unless you’d rather stay in the hotel.” He looked away primly, but couldn’t hide a smile.
Would I ever, she wished she could say. There was one thing she could not do tonight and that was sleep with Mike. It went without saying that by now she really, really wanted to. But Zoe had already done every single thing she said she wouldn’t, and the moral high ground was quickly slipping away. If she wanted to have any integrity left they had to keep this PG. So she accepted the joke.
“Easy, double-oh seven.”
Mike left a big tip on the bar and they headed back the way they’d come. This time in the elevator, Zoe stood with her back to the glass and Mike faced her, looking out over her shoulder at the cityscape fast approaching. Unable to resist, Zoe put her cheek against his shoulder, looking in toward his body. It felt heady to be so close but easier than looking at him – she was losing the battle against that puppy dog face.
He really wanted to put his arms around her, hold her like they were dancing. But he wouldn’t make the first move. Just thinking about the comfort of holding her to his chest made him ache, and he was afraid it would be the one drop that spilled this bucket over. Dinner was going to be rough in the place he was planning.
It was nearly a relief when the elevator reached the ground floor. This time he took her hand – it was fair game, she had done it earlier – as they walked back toward the museum. Partway there, he veered left and headed for a small blue awning spilling warm light onto the sidewalk.
The Greek restaurant was tiny. A row of cozy booths for two took up one whitewashed wall, and no tables were bigger than four. Most of them were occupied. Mike spoke briefly to the hostess and they followed her to the back. In the farthest booth, he took Zoe’s coat as she tucked herself in. When he sat across, their knees touched under the table. Without ordering, a carafe of red wine was delivered to the table.
“Bring all your dates here?” Zoe said, pouring.
“Bring Brooks here though, right? You two are such a bromance.”
Mike had to laugh. “I have been here with Brooks. We don’t sit in a booth though.”
They ordered a handful of dishes to share, and they began arriving quickly. Over flaky spanikopita and zingy tzatzki, Zoe told Mike about her job at the bank.
“So you’re probably a whiz with investments and stuff?”
She shrugged. “I only do my own, but I do pretty well. We have a whole department for it so I get some really good advice. It’s enough to buy hockey tickets. But you guys cost enough to make me wish I lived in Phoenix.”
You will never pay for another ticket, Mike wanted to say. But he figured her independent streak would not want to hear that. Better to wait until he’d earned the right to give her a gift.
“Wait till you see your seats for tomorrow.”
Zoe shook her head. “Not too close, please. I can’t… I have trouble now, watching you guys. Now that I know you. Before I don’t think I worried so much except it would keep someone out of the lineup. Now, I’m a mess.” And I want to climb the glass and tackle you in your gear, she didn’t add.
But it was enough. Mike put his empty hand over hers, next to her wine glass. It was warm and snug in the café, the candle on their little table flickering valiantly. If he leaned forward, and she did too, he could probably kiss her. Instead she rubbed her thumb into the center of his palm and sent a big stab of desire bulls-eye into his lap.
“The guys will insist I put you close. They’re all crazy about you. Brooks, obviously, he threatened to kill me if I screwed this up. And Nicky – he usually doesn’t talk that much, you know. Not to girls.”
Zoe blushed. “I might have to start the Capitals dating service, setting your teammates up with my friends.”
Mike squeezed her hand. “Only the good ones, I don’t want Ovi screwing this up for me.”
They went back to eating, quiet for a moment while they ignored the obvious fact that Ovi could be with Jenna right now. They’d been cozy at the party last night, but not enough to be a sure thing. Jenna would never change teams that quickly unless she could hit it out of the park. The waitress brought a plate of marinated lamb with eggplant salad, and they dug in. Talk changed to anything they could think of besides relationship issues. Dessert came on a tiny square plate – squares of baklava piled up and dusted with powdered sugar.
“Mmmm.” Zoe swiped a drip of honey from the corner of her lip and licked her finger. Mike clenched his napkin to keep from reaching for her.
She tastes like honey, he thought.
He totally tastes like honey now, Zoe had the same idea.
Collectively they managed not to groan.
Back on the street, Zoe wrapped her hands around Mike’s arm and walked close by his side. They took their time strolling back to the car. He has to know I’m not going home with him, she thought though she wasn’t quite sure herself.
Mike did know, hence the reason he was walking so slow they were almost going backward. It was dark and cold, fully nighttime and she was deliciously warm. But he wouldn’t risk tonight for anything. Time to address the elephant in the room.
“So, how did I do?”
The corner of Zoe’s lips curled as she watched their feet move across the pavement in perfect sync. He’d called her honest, said that’s why he liked her. So honest she would be.
“You should tell Jenna. Because I really want to pickup when you call after tomorrow’s game.”
He nodded once. He would tell Jenna a hundred times if it meant Zoe would answer the phone. But it wasn’t so much that he was worried about. “You still have to live with her.”
“Let me worry about that,” she said because there was nothing Mike could do about it. In the end, Mike didn’t owe Jenna anything. But Zoe probably did. She’d face that problem when she got to it.
In the parking garage, Mike opened Zoe’s door for her. She had to brush against him to climb into her seat – it seemed to happen in slow motion, like they were sticking together and having to pull apart. Old Mike would have thrown her against the car and kissed her. New Mike nearly dented the metal door where he held on.
The only thing between Zoe and a puddle on the floor was the seatbelt.
Driving home, the tension was like the charge in a static electricity ball; touch it and your hair would stand on end. Zoe hummed along to the radio, trying not to think about how soft his lips had been the one and only time he’d stolen a kiss. Mike tapped on the wheel trying not to wonder if she still tasted like honey. What seemed like a hundred years later, he pulled to a stop in front of their house.
Too late he realized that he hadn’t needed to ask which one it was, he just drove right there. It wasn’t lost on Zoe that he’d driven here before for another girl.
Then she decided she didn’t care. She liked him. He’d been working hard and it was working on her. If he was going to do the right thing and tell Jenna, he deserved some effort on her part. Currently that effort was tied up in not dragging him into the backseat and stripping him naked.
“See you tomorrow?”
“I’ll call you in the morning. After,” he said without elaborating. After I talk to Jenna. They sat awkwardly for a moment, Mike feeling like he should apologize again.
“Okay. Thanks for tonight,” Zoe prompted.
“My pleasure.” Mike was frozen. Performance anxiety, maybe.
“I really had a good time.” Fucking lean over here already! she tried to communicate.
“Me too.” His mind was racing through a hundred post-date scenarios where he’d done exactly what he wanted to do now – grab a handful of her hair and kiss her face off – that had been exactly wrong. Or turned out to be nothing. It had never felt so right but Mike didn’t trust himself.
Zoe rocked in her seat. “Mike?”
“Mmhmm?” He finally turned a little.
“Are you going to kiss me or not?”
He giggled nervously. She smiled like it was charming and titled herself toward him. Mike met her halfway; slowly, gently. Last time he’d gone too fast. This time he slowly pushed his mouth against hers, soft lips giving way beneath the pressure of his approach. He was almost still until her hand came up to settle on his neck.
Zoe had been dying to touch his neck all night. Now she knew why – his pulse beat beneath the tender skin, skipping against her fingertips. She could feel Mike viscerally; he was real flesh and blood in her hand. And then there was the kiss.
It felt like fireworks in a tin can: bouncing, ricocheting, shrapnel flying in every direction. Zoe opened her mouth at Mike’s insistence and was rewarded with the taste of honey on his tongue. His huge arms wrapped around and pulled her in, right up onto the center console. Another tug and she was halfway into his lap, wedged against the steering wheel and not giving a shit if it left a bruise on her back. Now she could get both hands on him. Her thumbs settled along the edges of his jaw and she held his face close.
Mike couldn’t get her near enough. She was tipped sort of sideways, falling across him if not for the confined space. He felt drunk on the sweet taste of her mouth.
They kissed for a day, a year, a decade. It was probably really ten minutes but it left them both breathless and aching. Zoe briefly wondered how she would ever untangle herself to get out of the car, then decided she didn’t care. She was busy enjoying the soft prickle of his hair as it brushed her cheek, his lips making their way down her neck. Maybe she was even going to open her eyes.
A banging, very close, scared them apart. Zoe would have been jolted from his lap if there had been space. Their heads snapped up and there she was – Jenna, banging on the passenger side window, face twisted in anger.
4 years ago