Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Marie was digging through her trunk when she heard the car pull up behind her and come to a stop. She closed her eyes in frustration before opening them up and turning around to wave the motorist past her. Couldn’t people see she had a flat tire?
She flipped her hair back. The late October day was unseasonably warm, and her strands of her blonde hair were sticking to the back of her neck. She probably should have taken off her black suit jacket when her she got out to assess the flat tire on her rental, but she had spilled coffee all over her white blouse this morning and the jacket was the only thing making her look like a grown up.
Throwing her hand out again, she waved the car around. When it didn’t move, she lifted the hand to shade her eyes from the sun so she could see the driver. He was pushing himself out of an old SUV. Marie sighed.
“Sorry I’m blocking the lane. The rental agency will kill me if I drive it with a flat tire,” she said, turning away to look at the front, driver-side tire. Why was it so warm and sunny? Why did she feel like a sweaty whale? And why did she have a flat tire on such a busy street? This was a horrible day. Strike that, this was a horrible trip. It’d been nothing but wall to wall bullshit since she’d arrived in D.C. four days ago.
“Need some help?”
She turned to look at him and saw a man in athletic shorts and a T-shirt. He was tall and tan with close-cropped, light brown hair. And his face was perfectly chiseled, like an Abercrombie and Fitch model. Marie gritted her teeth and pulled her hair back. She felt like shit, probably looked like shit, and now Mr. Perfect, who looked disgustingly comfortable in his skin, was standing there watching her sweat like a pig.
“No, no, I’m fine. Just waiting on the rental agency to send out their roadside assistance.”
“I’ll wait with you then,” he said, walking around her to look at the tire.
Marie felt defeated. Fuck him. Fuck him for being perfect and offering to help her when she just wanted to sit in the car and sweat and hope that she could disappear. “Really, I’m fine. Don’t waste your time. I’m sure they’ll be here in five minutes.”
He smiled warmly at her. “Then it won’t waste much of my time. You’re not from around here?”
She adjusted her jacket, wishing she could take it off without revealing the coffee stain. “No. How did you know?”
“You said this is a rental. Here on business?”
Marie leaned against the door of the car. These heels were too high, and the toes of her shoes were too pointy. Why did she do this to herself? She should have worn those ugly grandma shoes. “Yeah, I’m in town for two weeks.”
“What do you do?”
The warm breeze picked up her hair and plastered it across her sweaty forehead. Marie felt like the most unattractive person on the planet. Why did the model stop her help her? Weren’t there actual damsels in distress somewhere? Damsels that wore a size two, not sixteen. He was watching her with his blue eyes and she couldn’t help but think he looked familiar. She shook off the nagging thought and said, “Human resources for a construction company. We just got awarded a big contract in the D.C. area, and I’m here processing new hires.”
“You live in Virginia?”
“Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, actually.”
“Well, welcome to D.C. It’s not usually so warm here right before Halloween.” His hands were in his pockets, and he settled himself against the car beside her, crossing one leg casually over the other.
Marie wanted to slide away from him, but she restrained herself. He was probably feeling sorry for her and her pathetic life. God, she thought, I need to get this fucking jacket off or I’m going to burn up. “Look, you really don’t have to do this. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”
“My mom raised me better than that. I don’t have anything better to do than wait here until you’re on your way.” He was smiling at her again and her defenses were melting away. He really was so attractive that it made her sick. The slight accent was just icing on the sexy cake. She couldn’t quite place it. Maybe midwestern or Canadian.
“I was going to try and change it myself so I’m not late, but I don’t know the first thing about how to use a jack. They don’t come with instructions.”
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and pushed off her car, walking back to the trunk. “Is there a jack in here? I’ll change it for you.”
Marie laughed. “No, don’t bother. I called in and told them I’ll be late.”
He lifted the jack up and looked at her. “I bet I’m faster than roadside assistance. You’ll be on your way in ten minutes.”
She relented and watched him squat down to position the jack underneath the car. His legs were all muscle. Actually, he looked like he was a personal trainer. It just made her feel like she was a blob without any definition. “You’re too nice,” she said.
“Karma. You’ll pass it on.” He was already working on the lug nuts, twisting them off with the tire iron and showing very little strain. She’d probably fall on her face with the effort he was expending.
He looked so familiar. It was really beginning to bug her. She’d seen him somewhere. Finally, she caved and said, “You look familiar.”
“Yeah?” He looked up from the tire to catch her eye before resuming his work.
“Yeah. You’re not from Pittsburgh, are you?”
He dropped his head and chuckled. “No, I am definitely not.”
“Weird.” Marie frowned and ran her fingertips across her forehead to wipe away the beads of sweat forming there.
He pulled her tire off and traded it for the spare in the trunk. “You watch hockey?” he asked as he passed by her and dropped the spare on the ground. It bounced for a moment before he steadied it with his hands.
“Penguins?” he asked, not looking at her.
“Obviously,” she answered. “You?”
“Oh yeah. I love hockey. I play, too.”
Marie watched him fit the spare on and begin tightening the nuts to hold it in place. “Oh shit,” she said, suddenly placing his face.
He looked up at her, smiling. “What?”
“You play for the Capitals.”
His smile got bigger. “Maybe.”
“Brooks Laich, right? Goddammit.”
He laughed and finished adjusting the lug nuts. “That might be me.”
“I’m going to be sick. A Cap is changing my tire. Are you guys that hard up for fans that you’re converting people one at a time.”
Brooks stood up and dusted his hands off before bending over to pick up the tire iron and jack to return them to her trunk. “Anything for job security,” he said, closing the trunk up.
“I’m a lost cause. Penguins fan for life.”
“Damn shame,” Brooks replied, stopping just a couple feet from her. Marie had to look up because he was so much taller than her. He looked good on television, but he was even better in person.
She took and deep breath and forced a smile, trying to collect herself. “Thank you for the help. I appreciate it.”
“Even if I’m the enemy?” The corner of his mouth was lifting up and it was adorable.
“Even if you’re the enemy,” she agreed. Marie stuck her hand out, feeling awkward. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Likewise...uh...” He took her hand and raised his brows.
“Oh, Marie. My name is Marie.”
His hand was warm and dry and strong. Hers was probably sweaty and clammy. She jerked her hand back as soon as she could and gave him a nervous smile. “Thanks again.”
“Just be careful. Drive slow.”
“I will.” Marie gave him a short wave before jerking the door open and sliding inside the car. She turned the engine over and cranked the A/C up. He was still sitting behind her in his SUV. Obviously he was being the perfect gentleman and waiting for her to pull away first. Of course. Fucking Brooks Laich.
She had a bag of frozen broccoli and a box of minute rice in her basket. After a week, getting takeout got old, regardless of whether the company was picking up the tab on all her expenses during this temporary trip. Marie was beginning to miss being able to cook. The suite they had rented for two weeks had a small kitchen. All she needed for this dinner was the microwave to heat the rice and and broccoli. The chicken she was going to pick up at the deli on her way to the cash register was already cooked and ready to eat.
It had been a busy week working in the temporary office trailer on the construction site. Thankfully, the weather had cooled off and become more seasonable. Unfortunately, the blouse she had ruined with coffee a week ago was still out of commission. She should have just given it to the hotel staff to have it professionally cleaned. Instead, she had tried to do it herself and now it was crumpled up in the bathroom floor. She missed home and wanted to get the hell out of D.C.
The supermarket was quiet this late in the evening. It was nearly eight o’clock and the after work rush was long gone. Those people were home with their families, settled in front of the television to watch American Idol or The Bachelor or whatever people watched. Marie felt like a failure. She was thirty and single with no prospects on the horizon. She could stand to lose more than a few pounds and needed to stop ruining her white clothes with disgusting stains.
When she turned the corner of the aisle to find the deli, she nearly walked into someone. Pulling up short, she stuck her hand out to steady herself.
“I’m sorry,” the stranger said.
She looked up at the familiar voice. Brooks fucking Laich. Her eyes went wide and his did, too. Obviously he remembered her. Damn, she thought, how awkward.
“Hi,” Marie said out loud.
“Hi, how’s your tire?”
His question made her chuckle. “It’s tire-like. Inflated now, thankfully.”
He smiled warmly at her. “Good. I’m glad to hear that.”
“So, do you make a habit of helping women change tires?”
“Not that I know of. Why do you ask?”
Marie shifted her weight from one foot to another. “I looked you up after you changed my tire.”
“On the internet?”
“And I saw that you’re, like, the white knight of flat tires or something.”
He laughed. “You’re just my second. But maybe that can be my next career.”
She shook her head at him. “As much as it pains me to help out the Caps, I think you should stick with hockey. You’re pretty good at it.”
“You’ll take that back when we beat the Pens next time.”
“Yeah, I probably will,” she said, smiling at him. He really was a nice guy. Wholesome and handsome and completely genuine. Perfection. And it made her feel like nothing. Why was he even talking to her? “So, uh, nice to see you again. Enjoy your... shopping.” Marie winced at her choice of words. She sounded trite and stupid and awkward.
“You, too,” he replied, watching her walk past him. “Nice to see you again, Marie.”
“Bye,” she said, giving him a wave before turning around and scrunching her face up. Oh God, I hope he isn’t watching me walk away, she thought. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that he was. And when she turned her head back around she almost walked into a display of crackers. Despite avoiding that crisis, she did forget the chicken in her rush to get out of the most embarrassing grocery store trip ever. That night she settled for rice and broccoli.
“Derrick, do not embarrass me. When you start screaming at them it just makes me want to sink into the floor.”
Marie’s older brother looked at her with his innocent eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, sis.”
“You know what I’m talking about,” she replied, giving him a dirty look. Her brother was five years older than her and the biggest kid she knew. He was married with two little boys and a nice job, but he couldn’t seem to control himself when it came to hockey. Taking the game seriously was an understatement. They were seated in the corner on the first row. The Pens were shooting twice in this end which was why Derrick shelled out the money for the nice seats. His wife, Jenna, didn’t care about hockey. Marie was more than happy with that since it mean Derrick’s hockey buddy hadn’t changed since Jenna came into the picture. It was and always would be his little sister, Marie.
The players jumped onto the ice for warmups. She couldn’t help but look for Brooks Laich. It had been over a month since she’d returned to Pittsburgh after sorting things out in D.C. The crews had been hired and policies set in place in her absence. The D.C. trip was such an uncomfortable blur that she blocked out the whole thing about meeting a Caps player, not telling anyone about it.. Her brother would have shamed her for being nice to Brooks anyway.
He was there, gracefully looping around the ice, shooting pucks toward Holtby on each pass around. Marie found warmups to be calming and mesmerizing. They always did the same things–like a ritual to prepare for the game.
“Fucking Caps,” Derrick muttered under his breath. “I hope we destroy them. You know Talbot said that Ovechkin is a douche, right?”
“Yeah, he seems sleazy,” Marie agreed, trying to avert her eyes from Brooks Laich. Damn him and his easy-going, wholesome self. He belonged in a romance novel And he was probably a womanizer because no woman in her right mind could say no to that.
He skated back around the net and came to a stop just to the left of her seat, lowering himself to the ice and stretching out his legs. Marie tried to pretend she was invisible. The chances that he would remember her were slim, but on the off chance he did, she didn’t want any awkward, embarrassing moment in which he felt obligated to acknowledge her existence.
“What’s up with you?” Derrick asked, poking her arm.
“Nothing. Stop poking me.”
“You’re being weird. Are you working long hours again? Mom told you to stop that shit.”
“Fuck off, Derrick. I’m an adult.”
“With no social life.”
She glanced over and glowered at her brother. “I said to fuck off. My life is none of your biz.”
Just as she looked back up at the ice, she locked eyes with Brooks Laich and her stomach fell into her feet. It was obvious that he recognized her from the look of surprise on his face.
She dropped her eyes quickly, but it was too late. In her peripheral vision she could see his white and red jersey advancing toward the boards, and then there was a knock on the glass.
“What the fuck?” her brother said just before Marie looked up at Brooks.
“Hi,” he said loud enough to be heard through the glass.
Marie gave him a sheepish smile and waved her hand.
“Is Brooks Laich talking to you?” Derrick asked.
Marie held her hand up to tell her brother to be quiet because Brooks was talking again.
“You’re gonna break my heart if you root against me.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at his comment. Shaking her head she said, “Sorry, I’ve got to. You’re the enemy.”
Brooks hung his head dramatically and skated away. He went into the bench area to adjust his skates.
Derrick shook her arm. “Marie. What the hell? How do you know Brooks Laich?”
“He changed my flat tire when I was working in D.C. a month ago.”
“And you didn’t think I should know this kind of shit?”
“It was nothing. He was being nice.”
“My baby sister is canoodling with a Capital.”
Marie snorted. “Hardly. He’s just a nice guy.”
“He’s a Capital.”
“Yeah, I know. And he’s going to lose,” Marie replied.
It was a few minutes into the second period when a man leaned over the couple to the right of her and said, “Are you Marie?”
She furrowed her brows in confusion and nodded her head. The man held out a folded sheet of paper with her name written neatly on the outside. She automatically accepted it, but didn’t comprehend what had happened.
“What kind of spy shit is this?” Derrick asked, looking from the paper to her face.
Crosby swept around the boards and got tangled up with Joel Ward in an attempt to free the puck and get it in front of Holtby. Marie watched until the puck was knocked off to the left and then pushed down the ice by the Caps.
Marie shot Derrick a look before she unfolded the sheet of paper and stared at the stylish scrawl across the middle of the paper.
Long time, no see. Hope you enjoyed D.C. We’re here for the night and I’d appreciate advice on where I should grab some dinner. Call me? 202-410-7672 Brooks
Marie stared at the sheet and read the note several times. What was this supposed to mean? Brooks Laich was passing her notes during a game? Bizarre.
“What the fuck, Marie?” Derrick asked after he’d read the note over her shoulder like an eavesdropping big brother.
She shook her head and folded up the paper. “No idea.”
“Did you and Laich, you know... when you were in D.C.?”
She shoved her brother’s shoulder. “No! Don’t be gross, Derrick. Plus, like I’d ever tell you about my sex life.”
Brooks smashed Neal against the boards, drawing the puck away from him and skating it up the middle of the ice before he passed it off to Ribeiro. She had a difficult time reconciling the friendly, easy-going guy who changed her tire with the powerful, graceful hockey player in the ice. This shit did not happen in real life. Not to her.
"You gonna call him? " Derrick interrupted her thoughts.
"Why not? "
She snorted and shoved the paper into her purse. "He's a Capital. And it's nothing. He just wants a restaurant recommendation, and I suck at that.
"Marie, he gave you his number."
"So call him. Trust me; I'm a guy."
"Derrick, he's not interested in me. Don't be stupid."
“Why?” he demanded.
"He's perfect, and I'm..."
Derrick frowned. "You're what?"
"Not. I'm not. Just drop it. He's a nice guy, and he helped me out once. End of discussion. "
"No one is perfect. And if he's a nice guy then why aren't you calling him?"
Marie shook her head and turned back to to the game just in time to see Mike Green slap the puck from the blue line. It whizzed past Fleury and smacked into the back of the net. The entire arena groaned, including Derrick. Marie was just staring at the numbers on Brooks Laich's back as he crashed into Green for a celebratory hug.
The bathroom was packed because all the women knew it would take them no less than thirty minutes to get out of the parking lot across the street from Consol Energy Center. When she emerged, Derrick was standing a few yards away, hunched over his cell phone. He disconnected when she approached.
"You in trouble with the missus big brother?"
Derrick grinned. "I might be. I told her I'm taking you for drinks before I come home."
"No," Marie said.
"Yes. Stop being a stick in the mud. You need to get out more."
She gritted her teeth, knowing that she was at Derrick's mercy since he had driven them to the game. "I need a brother who minds his own business."
Regardless of her complaints, she went along with him and followed him into the bar area of one of their favorite restaurants. She settled into a booth along the far wall while he went to the bathroom. The drink menu was extensive, but she wasn't in the mood for anything. Really, she just wanted to go home and stare at Brooks Laich's phone number while she dreamt up a fantasy that involved her being a few pounds lighter, hair a little longer, and confidence a little higher. That hypothetical girl would have called his number.
Marie dug into her purse to find the sheet with his handwriting on it. Receipts, an old checkbook, tampons, her wallet, keys, lotion. Where the hell was the sheet? After another minute of digging she gave up. Obviously, it had fallen out in the arena. Oh well. At least the choice was taken from her. She couldn't call him even if she had the balls to.
She jerked her gaze up to see Brooks Laich and Mike Green striding across the room, making their way over to her table. Her brain shut down.
"What are you doing here?" she blurted out.
"Your brother call me and said you'd be here. And he said the fries are amazing. I haven't had fries in forever." Brooks slid into the booth beside her, forcing Marie to move over and press herself against the wall, lest she have her leg pressed against his.
"Oh." Words were failing her. She couldn't think of anything to say. This was surreal.
Brooks turned his head to look at her. "You didn't know I was coming, did you? "
"Not really," she replied, looking at Mike Green who was now seated across the table. He was smiling and looking at the drink menu.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you... did you want us to leave you alone?"
"No," both Marie and Derrick said at the same time. He had just returned from the bathrooms.
"This kills me because I'm a diehard Pens fan, but I'm Derrick." Her brother stuck his hand out to Brooks and then Mike. They both said their nice-to-meet-yous to Derrick. "Marie was too shy to call," he said by way of explanation.
She scowled at her brother as she wished the floor would open up and swallow her. This could not get any worse.
"I'm Mike," Mike said, extending his hand across the table to Marie.
She took his offered hand and forced a smile. "I know. I'm Marie Clarkson. Nice to meet you."
"You root against my team. You don't call me. I'm beginning to think you don't like me at all." Brooks was giving her a sly look with a twinkle in his eye. He could probably read her like a book and eat her alive. She was the rabbit and he was the wolf who played women. She'd watched the video with the team in which almost everyone agreed that Brooks was the biggest ladies man. Obviously, he was just toying with her. What was this? Some sort of bet on how big of a fool he could get her to make of herself?
Marie smiled sweetly at him. "I figured you weren't hard up for help finding a restaurant. I think there were a group of fans waiting outside the arena. There actually are Caps fans in Pittsburgh, despite our attempts to convert them."
Brooks laughed and grabbed the menu out of Marie's hand. "What are you drinking? It's on me."
"Jack and Coke. You change my tire. You buy me drinks. A girl will start thinking you've got ulterior motives."
Derrick made a choking noise deep in this throat. Marie looked over to see wide eyes and his jaw nearly on the table. Mike was grinning and still looking resolutely at the menu. Brooks was smiling, too.
"Will you share an order of fries with me?"
She nodded and tried to will away the flush that had crept up into her cheeks at her own brazenness.
The waiter came over and took their orders. Mike fell into a conversation with Derrick. They were talking about traveling and which hockey towns were favorites of Mike's.
Brooks looked over at her. His hands were resting on the table and all she could see were his muscular forearms and the way the crisp white dress shirt with sleeves halfway rolled up set off his perfect tan. He looked relaxed and satisfied even if they had lost to the Pens not long ago.
"Finish up your work in D.C.?" he asked.
Marie nodded. "Just for the record, this is weird. Do you do this often?"
"Give out your number to fans of rival teams so they can show you around town."
He laughed under his breath. "This is pretty weird, yeah?"
"Beyond bizarre," she agreed.
"It’s my first time, to tell you the truth. You seemed cool when I saw you those two times in D.C. I guess I was surprised to see you tonight and I felt like I should, you know, say hi or something."
"Totally weird," Marie responded with a grin.
He bumped his shoulder playfully into hers. “You found me out. I’m a weirdo.”
“Oddly enough, that’s really comforting to know. Now I don’t feel so alone.”
The waiter showed up with their drinks and food. Derrick had ordered a burger. Mike got a huge plate of pasta with grilled chicken. Marie was sharing a massive order of seasoned fried with Brooks. He adjusted the plate between them on the table and waited for her to take the first bite. She noticed, even though he was smooth about it. Marie mentally shook her head. Fucking gentleman. It was almost unbearable. Since when did guys do shit like that nowadays? Too bad he was so far out of her league that just eating dinner at the same table as him was hilarious.
“Sorry we beat you tonight. Guess you can’t win ‘em all,” Marie said, popping a fry in her mouth and washing it down with a sip of her Jack and Coke.
Brooks shook his head at her and picked up a fry. “Don’t be cocky, now. You’ll be eating crow the next time we play the Pens.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied with a roll of her eyes.
“So when are you going to start supporting the better team?”
“Already do,” she replied cheekily as she grabbed a couple more fries off the plate.
“You better take that Crosby jersey off then,” he said, plucking at the sleeve of her prized jersey.
She took a long draw off her drink before saying, “Don’t be a hater, Laich.”
Marie grinned to herself as he bent over away from her and laughed. She didn’t stand a chance with Brooks Laich so she really had nothing to lose by verbally sparring with him. She knew for a fact that he didn’t want anything beyond dinner and some conversation. He would sweep out of town tomorrow, and that would be that. The end of the odd friendship between her and Mr. Perfect.
And that’s really how the night went. They spent over two hours at the bar, picking at the plate of fries and having a few drinks. Mike bonded with her brother over their love of drums. Derrick desperately wanted to play in a local band, but when you’ve got two boys who play every sport known to man, you don’t have much time for your own hobbies.
Brooks was fun and easy-going and attentive. And he gave her a half hug with his strong arm as they wrapped up the evening. His arm around her made her feel nervous and uncomfortable in a good way. A way she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Wow, I need to go on more dates if this gets my motor running, she thought. Brooks and Mike climbed into a cab and headed back to the hotel while Marie crawled up into her brother’s oversized pickup truck.
“That was strange,” Derrick said as he started the truck.
“I know,” she agreed.
“So you and Laich, huh?”
“Fuck off, Derrick. I’m not his type.”
“Says who?” he asked as he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and shoved it inside her purse. She knew it was Brooks Laich’s note and phone number. Her brother was a meddling asshole.
“Says the world. Drive me home. I have to work tomorrow and I’m already dreading it.”
Silence blanketed the truck as he pulled out into traffic and jumped on the parkway. “They seemed pretty cool for... Crapitals.”
Marie didn’t throw the paper away. It was shoved in a desk drawer filled with junk. Old receipts and coupons and aspirin that had long since expired. Underneath it all was a personal note from Brooks Laich with his cell phone number. Marie convinced herself he had likely changed the number after giving it out to the likes of her. But she knew that Brooks wouldn’t have wasted that much thought on little old Marie Clarkson.
It’s been almost two months. She’d had a disastrous blind date three weeks ago for New Years Eve. A woman she worked with had set her up with a friend’s son. They suffered through a painful dinner before he excused himself, leaving her to find her way home alone just before the clock struck midnight. Figures, she thought. Blind dates were always a bad idea. She was one of those girls who won guys over with her witty conversation, not her good looks and killer body. Marie knew she was cute enough with layered blonde hair that fell past her shoulders and a smooth, pale complexion that was the envy of her friends. But she’d always been uncomfortable in her own skin, unhappy with her too-full stomach and too-wide hips and too-round butt. She didn’t think she’d be making the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in the next lifetime.
She sucked on a blueberry popsicle as the Penguins took to the ice at the Verizon Center. The crowd was dressed mostly in bright red jerseys to support the Capitals, and Marie was oddly excited to see Brooks play. Not that she wanted the Capitals to win, but she was allowed to watch a nice guy play a great game of hockey even if he was on the other team. Right?
The game was fast-paced and physical, which was par for the course when the Pens played the Caps. Brooks was in fine form, scoring a goal late in the second period to bring the Caps ahead by one. She cursed him while secretly congratulating him on the good play. The third period was eventless and the Penguins lost by a goal. She flipped the television off and brushed her teeth. On her way to the bedroom, she walked by the desk. The desk with the drawer that held the paper. The paper that had his phone number.
Marie shook her head and kept walking. And then she turned around and dug out the note to take it to bed with her. Once she was snuggled beneath the warm sheet and duvet, she typed out a text to him.
Marie: Ok fine. I’m eating crow. Stop playing so well
She read the message again and again. If he responded back to ask her who sent the message, then she’d just leave it at that. That would just mean he didn’t remember their conversation a couple months ago, and she didn’t care to debase herself to Mr. Perfect any more than she could help it.
Holding her breath, she hit the send button and sat her phone on the nightstand. She was determined not to stay up and wait for his response. Hell, the response might never come. Maybe he did change his number. She closed her eyes and let herself begin to drift off to sleep. Just as the exhaustion was pulling her under, her phone chirped and jerked her back into the waking world.
She lay still for a moment, staring at the green light on her phone as it blinked at her. It was probably her brother, complaining about the Penguins’ loss. Or her friend Sara. Yeah, she thought, it was probably Sara complaining about her husband. He worked nights and it gave Sara too much time to think up reasons why she was upset with him. Really, Marie thought her friend’s husband was a nice guy who had no idea what his wife was talking about.
Hesitantly, Marie picked up her phone and pulled up her text messages.
Brooks: Knew you’d come around
Her heart was in her throat as she read the text. It was cryptic and didn’t really tell her that he remembered who she was. She couldn’t help responding.
Marie: I bet you don’t even know who this is
Less than two minutes later and her phone chirped. She pulled up the message.
Brooks: Marie, how could I forget the girl who hoped I would lose even after I was nice enough to change her flat tire?
The sentence knocked the wind out of her. He did remember. He remembered everything, even her name. Brooks Laich thought she was important enough to occupy a space in his brain. The world was upside down. Obviously.
Before she could respond to his message, he had sent another.
Brooks: Thought you’d thrown away my number since I’m the enemy
Marie: I was saving it for a rainy day
She smiled at herself for the response, hoping that her playfulness would keep his attention, at least for a few more minutes. And she was right; it did.
Brooks: So should I send you a jersey to wear to the next game. That Crosby one was looking pretty ratty
Marie: I’ve been thinking about getting a Letang jersey
Brooks: Breaking my heart here. I have a perfectly good red number 21 jersey in my closet
She laughed and shoved her face in the pillow, and then she took a deep breath to compose herself. She was not nineteen and crushing on a boy. She was thirty and flirting with disaster. Brooks Laich was something she would never have; she had no doubt about that. It was foolish to keep this up.
Marie: Maybe you’ll get traded to the Pens and then I can get a black number 21
Brooks: Blasphemy. Don’t make me lose my appetite
Marie: Agree to disagree. Have a good night. And congrats on the great game
She sighed and waited for his response. It came only a few seconds later.
Brooks: Goodnight. Don’t be a stranger
Marie smiled and quickly shoved her phone back onto the nightstand before she texted another response. She just needed to stop.
Two days later she was pushing a cart up and down aisles at the grocery store, convinced nothing could be more depressing than this on a Thursday evening. She might as well throw in a few cans of cat food for the inevitable cat she’d be getting within the next five years. Her phone started playing Smack That by Akon. At the time she thought it had been funny and ironic to program the song as her ringtone, but in the quiet aisles of the grocery store, it was embarrassing. She fumbled for the phone and answered it without looking at the caller ID.
“You don’t call, you don’t write. I’m beginning to think you really don’t like me.”
The voice was male and familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. What man was calling her at seven o’clock on a Thursday night?
“You must have the wrong number,” she said.
“Marie, the Penguins fan?”
Brooks Laich. Her brain was screaming his name and the words “holy shit” nearly spewed out of her mouth. The silence must have stretched out far too long because Brooks cleared his throat and said, “Marie?”
“Boy, you really are on a mission to convert fans, aren’t you?” she asked.
His laughter rumbled through the phone. “I’m a team player. How have you been?”
“Are you playing a joke on me?”
Marie glanced nervously at the cereal boxes lining the shelves. “You’re being weird. Calling me and stuff. I’m nobody.”
He was silent for a moment before finally speaking up and saying, “You’re somebody, don’t be silly. Should I delete your number?”
“No,” she said quickly. “I just... Well, you’re Brooks Laich, and I’m....”
“Marie. Clarkson, right?”
“Right. Stop being perfect.”
He laughed again. “I’m not perfect.”
“Bullshit. You are. Aren’t you busy playing hockey?”
“We’re in Buffalo for the night. We play tomorrow.”
She plucked a box of Cheerios from the shelf and dropped it her cart. “And you got bored so you started going through your address book?”
“Pretty much. Except I skipped straight to the M’s first so I could rub in the last win to my favorite Penguins fan.”
Her heart was thumping in her chest. His favorite Penguins fan, indeed. The man was smooth as shit. “I bet you don’t know any other Penguins fans.”
“Busted,” he replied. They both laughed before he continued by asking, “So, what are you up to?”
“Shopping for groceries.”
“Definitely buy cereal.”
She furrowed her brows and said, “You partial to cereal?”
“I’m in the cereal aisle. Tell me what’s good.”
He hummed before saying, “Cheerios.”
“Covered. I already have a box in my cart.”
“The honey nut kind?”
“Get the honey nut kind. Way better.”
She stared at the box in her cart and then put it back on the shelf to replace it with the honey nut box. A smile was on her face, but she didn’t even notice it. “Okay, Mr. Bossy. What else?”
“Special K–the kind with fruit and yogurt.”
She spied it on the second shelf and grabbed a box. “No Fruit Loops?” she asked as she dropped it into the cart on top of the Cheerios.
“Only on special occasions,” he replied.
“You’re super weird, Brooks Laich.”
“It’s endearing, right?”
She chuckled and shook her head. “Yeah, endearing.”
“I’ll leave you to the cereal. For real, though. Don’t be a stranger. Life on a road can get pretty boring.”
She wished him a good night and hung up, trying to comprehend his strange parting remark. Did Brooks Laich want her to be his friend?
The following evening she was sitting in front of her television, watching the NHL Network. The Washington and Buffalo game was airing, and Marie had nothing better to do than watch Brooks fly across the ice. She could root for him without guilt because she didn’t care one way or another about Buffalo. The Caps won, and Brooks was awarded two assists during the course of the game.
At ten thirty, she brushed her teeth and crawled into bed. Before she went to sleep, she sent him a text congratulating him on the win. He didn’t respond back right away, and Marie ended up dozing off. At eleven-thirty her phone chirped and vibrated across the nightstand, waking her. She rubbed her eyes and read his response.
Brooks: Give in. You know you love us
She shook her head at him and smiled. What a little shit he was.
Marie: You’re okay. It’s a shame you’ll lose in two weeks
Brooks: It’s a shame you don’t know what you’re talking about. You coming to see us play the Pens then?
Marie: I might try to get tickets
Which was a total lie. She’s beg, borrow, and steal to get tickets to see him again. It was all in an effort to extend the fantasy. Plus, how many people in the arena could say they had the phone number of a player? She could. And half the women in the place would probably be jealous if they knew.
Brooks: We’ll be there the night before. Maybe you can show us around?
She sat the phone down and stared at his last message. Life was strange. She almost said no, but he was such a nice guy that she couldn’t bear to say anything but yes.
Marie was sitting at the bar in TGI Fridays. It was almost eight-thirty, and she felt like she’d done her socializing for the week. Sara had guilted her into pursuing a couple dates on an internet dating site. The only one that panned out had been a guy name Rob. Rob was a paralegal at a law firm in the North Hills. He was also the biggest dick Marie had met all month.
He showed up fifteen minutes late, gave her a once-over, and spent the next thirty minutes taking down to her. Finally, Marie called him on his bullshit, and he blew out of the restaurant, leaving her with the tab. Fucking men.
She finished her Jack and Coke, then ordered a hamburger. She needed something in her stomach if she planned on driving home after the booze. Her phone rang. No doubt it was Sara asking how the date was going. They had an agreement that Sara would call mid-way through the date in case Marie needed a reason to leave.
She accepted the call and said, “It’s fine. He dumped me after thirty minutes. I’m just going to get something to eat and go home.”
Silence stretched out across the line. When Sara didn’t say anything, Marie said, “Sara?”
“I’m not Sara.”
Brooks. She could identify that accent anywhere now. After he’d called her in the grocery store, she went through every interview of his on YouTube. Her stomach dropped. “Ignore everything I said,” Marie muttered.
“Who dumped you?”
“You’re not ignoring what I said.”
“Shouldn’t have said it then. Don’t you ever look at your caller ID?” He sounded amused.
“Don’t you ever mind your own business, twenty-one?”
He chuckled. “Never. Who dumped you?”
Marie felt her cheeks flush, and she put her forehead on the bar. “Rob something or other. I don’t remember his last name. He was my Match.com date.”
“He was an asshole?”
“Oh God, of epic proportions. Story of my life.”
“That’s a shame.”
Marie shrugged. “I’m over it. Why aren’t you scoring goals?”
“I’m saving them all for Friday when we play...”
“The Pens,” she said, interrupting him. “Cocky bastard. Don’t be trying to beat my boys.”
“You’re feisty tonight.”
She finished her drink just as the bartender slid her burger in front of her. She motioned for a glass of water. “A long day of work, a dick for a date, getting stiffed with the tab, and two strong drinks will do that to a girl.”
“I’d never stiff you with the tab.”
“That’s because you’re Mr. Perfect.”
He laughed. “I can’t live up to Mr. Perfect.”
Marie let out an unladylike snort. “Don’t worry. You already do without trying.”
“I’m blushing. Are you complimenting a Capital?”
“We call them Crapitals around here.”
“So classy,” he said. She could hear the smile in his voice.
“It’s how I roll. Happy hour and bad dates to wrap up a workday filled with tax documents. Aren’t you glad you’re a superstar athlete?”
“I thought I was a Crapital.”
“Well, you’ve gotta start somewhere, right?”
He chuckled. “I’m glad I called you tonight. You’re fun.”
“I’m slightly drunk. I had one too many when realized the mistake I made going out with Rob the jerk.”
“I hope you have a ride home,” he said, his voice serious.
Of course, Marie thought. Of course he would be concerned. Before she could censor herself she said it out loud. “Of course you would say that like the perfect concerned gentleman. You make me sick.”
He was silent for a long moment. “Sorry?”
“Ehh, it’s not your fault you’re perfect. I’ll blame your mom for doing such a good job.”
“Marie, do you have a ride home?”
“No. But I have a burger and and stool to sit on. I’ll be fine after I eat.”
“Are you going to make me call your brother?”
“You don’t have his number,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“I do. He called me that night to tell me where to meet you. It’s probably still in my history.”
“Don’t call my brother. I’m fine.”
“Are you going to promise me you’ll be careful?”
She sighed and pushed her hair back out of her face. “Yes, dad.”
“Not your dad, but I’ll take that as a promise. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt and miss my amazing skills on Friday.”
“And you promised me dinner on Thursday,” he added.
“I did not.”
“You did. I’m dragging Mike along with us. Pick someplace good.”
“I feel like a traitor. I don’t ever take any of the Pens out for dinner.”
“Well then, lucky me.”
“You’re like a spy. Infiltrating enemy territory.”
He laughed. “Are you sure you aren’t more than a little drunk.”
“I can’t hold my liquor like I used to. I should hang up before I embarrass myself further.”
“Call me when you get home so I know you’re okay,” Brooks said.
Marie opened her mouth and then shut it. “Why do you care?”
“Because I do. Promise me.”
“Promise,” she agreed before she disconnected and picked up her hamburger. Her brain was fuzzy with alcohol, and her heart was pitter-pattering over Brooks Laich sounding like he gave a shit about her and her life.
The greasy hamburger and two glasses of water worked wonders and sobered her up quickly. By the time she drove home and brushed her teeth it was a little after ten o’clock. Work was going to be not very fun. She slipped on an oversized T-shirt and called Brooks before she could talk herself out of it. He answered after the second ring.
“Find your way home safely, Penguin?”
“I did. I’m a responsible adult, despite what you may think.”
“You can’t change a flat tire.”
“Girls aren’t supposed to know how to do that,” she shot back.
He chuckled. “Noted. I’m glad you got home safely.”
“You just want the inside scoop on the best places to eat in Pittsburgh.”
“Guilty. I’ll text you when we get in on Thursday. Maybe we can meet you after work.”
They both paused, letting the moment play out. Marie didn’t know what to say other than goodnight. She wasn’t ready to hang up just yet. After a long string of shitty dates and even worse boyfriends, she was enjoying her conversations with Brooks. Even if they were going to amount to nothing.
“Sleep tight, Penguin. Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” he said softly.
She smiled at the dreamy quality of his voice. “You too, Brooksie.”
“Using my nickname now, are you?” he asked with a gentle laugh.
“Am I allowed?”
“Of course you are. Now go to sleep. I bet you have to work tomorrow.”
“So do you.”
“Which is why I’m already in bed.”
She swallowed hard. Brooks. Laich. In. Bed. Oh, yes please. “Goodnight,” she choked out before disconnecting. Why did she feel light-headed and drunk again? Did the idea of the dreamboat in bed do that to a girl?
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
“You have gotta be shitting me,” Derrick said.
Marie pulled the phone away from her ear, wincing at his booming voice coming out of the tiny speaker.
“Jesus, Derrick. Use your inside voice.”
“You are fucking Brooks Laich,” he replied as if it were a matter of fact.
“I am not!” she exclaimed. “Don’t be crude; that’s disgusting.”
“My little sister is dating a fucking Capital.”
“I am not dating anyone. He’s being nice, that’s all. It’s not even the two of us. He said he was bringing Mike Green along again. Want to do another double?”
“I wish. Jenna is at her mom’s, and I have to take the boys to hockey practice tonight. They get kicked out if they miss more than three practices a month and they’ve already missed two.”
“Bummer,” Marie said. She had been hoping to drag her brother along to alleviate the stress on herself. An evening alone with two hockey players was too much for her little heart.
“For real, though. What’s up with this Laich thing?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. I think he’s just... bored and looking for someone new to talk to. It’s friendly, nothing more. No flirting, no dates, none of that. Wholesome and shit. Brooks Laich is a gentleman; he wouldn’t engage in fucking.”
“Obviously you’ve given this some thought.”
“Fuck you, Derrick.” She paused before continuing with, “I’m a woman. Of course I’ve given it thought. His charms are lost on you.”
“Can I tell the guys at work that my sister is going out with a Capital?”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. They’d stone me to death.”
“I’m not going out with him. We’re friends.”
“Sure. You just keep telling yourself that, sis.”
She sighed and looked at herself in the full-length mirror. “I’ve got to go.”
“No kinky threesomes.”
“Oh God! You’re disgusting. I’m telling Jenna that you’re addicted to porn. Get out of my life.”
She hung up and threw the phone on the bed. The mirror version of her was wearing dark jeans and a black blouse with a draped neckline. Black was good. Black was slimming. She turned around and winced at her butt. It looked decent, but it was still wide. Maybe she should have some of the fat sucked out and injected in her boobs.
Instead of picking herself apart some more, she ran a comb through her hair and parted it on the side. Some light hairspray set it in place. Once she was in the car, she slathered on some lip gloss and texted Brooks that she’d meet him at Primanti’s in twenty minutes. She found her new favorite hockey player sitting in a corner booth with Mike Green. She stopped short when her eyes slid over and saw Alexander Ovechkin next to Mike.
Brooks saw her and waved, smiling that generous and easy smile of his. She watched him slip out of the booth and walk over to greet her. “Hey, long time, no see.” Marie felt his right arm slip around her shoulders and pull her in for a brief hug. Her entire body stiffened. She’d never been good with physical stuff, not even with boyfriends. It just made her feel awkward.
“Hi, glad to see you made it.”
“Ovie invited himself,” Brooks whispered, jerking his head over his shoulder at the booth behind them. “Hope that’s okay.”
“Uh, sure.” Meanwhile her brain was saying, “Uh, no.”
They walked over to the booth and Brooks let her slide in first so she was between him and Mike. Ovechkin’s hand was out and across the table in her face before she could even settle in and get comfortable. “Alex,” he said to her.
“I know,” she replied, shaking his hand.
“You are Marie.”
He looked at her like he was assessing the goods. It made Marie uncomfortable, so she fiddled with the napkin-wrapped silverware on the table in front of her.
“Nice to see you again,” Mike said, giving her a small smile.
Marie smiled back. “Yeah, you too.”
“Still hoping we’ll lose?” he asked.
She glanced over at Brooks, and then looked back to Mike when she answered, “Yep, sorry about that.”
“She has no love for us,” Ovechkin said, frowning slightly.
“She’s coming around,” Brooks replied, bumping his shoulder into hers playfully. Marie gritted her teeth, trying to will away the blush that was seconds from warming her cheeks.
Ovechkin’s eyes were scanning the room. When he noticed a jukebox over to the right, he slipped out of the booth and sauntered over to it.
Mike groaned and went after him.
“He’s like a caveman,” Marie said to Brooks once they were alone.
He laughed. “He’s a good guy, just different.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“How was your day?” he asked.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “The usual. How was your flight?”
“The usual. We played video games most of the way here.”
“Did you win?”
“Nope, I lost. I’m the worst at video games.”
“Not as bad as me,” she replied. All she could do was stare at his hands. They were on the table, long fingers curled into his palms. They looked tan and strong and perfect. This line of thought was a bad one to go down, though.
Back in Black by AC/DC started playing. “Oh, thank God,” Brooks said. “No Russian techno on jukeboxes.”
“People actually listen to techno?” she asked, scrunching her nose up.
Brooks looked down and laughed at her before settling back into the booth. “Surprisingly, yes.”
“Agreed,” he said.
“Drinks?” Their waiter had just walked up to the booth.
Brooks inclined his head toward Marie. She ordered a beer, and then Brooks ordered one for himself and two for his missing teammates.
When the waiter had left, she said, “What kind of music do you listen to?”
“All kinds. I love music.”
“You have to have a favorite.”
He looked up at the ceiling in thought. “Maybe classic rock. I always cycle back around to that. What about you?”
“I’ll listen to anything. I might have a weakness for trashy hip-hop or R&B.”
Brooks groaned. “Oh, no. And here I thought you were cool.”
“Hey, you can’t tell me you haven’t rocked out to a Lil Wayne song in your car before.”
She laughed. “Well don’t you just have discriminating taste in music. You too good for me now?”
He grinned and shook his head. “Naw, I just prefer Soulja Boy.”
The waiter sat their beers on the table. “I knew it,” she said after he had left them alone again. The conversation lulled as they both took drinks from their beer bottles. Marie saw Ovechkin and Mike talking to three girls at the bar. “Uh oh. Breakin’ hearts in Pittsburgh?”
Brooks rolled his eyes. “He thinks he’s a ladies man.”
“A little birdie told me that you’re the ladies man.”
“Have you been watching videos online?”
“Maybe. That’s not considered stalking, is it?”
“No,” he chuckled. “But the only reason they all said me was because I’m single.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Oh, yeah, sure.”
“Serious!” he said, leaning forward and laughing again. “I’m actually really boring.”
Marie raised her brows. “Somehow I doubt that.”
They spent three hours talking about music and eating sandwiches and fries. Mike and Ovechkin we're working the bar. Two girls had been fawning over Mike for well over an hour. Ovie was entertaining an entire group of people a couple stools over. It was like the man was holding court. Marie didn't mind so much because she got to have an actual enjoyable conversation with Brooks about music and his desire to learn how to play guitar better.
She finished off her beer during a lull in the conversation. Brooks was watching his teammates at the bar, and Marie wondered if he was getting tired of her monopolizing his time. "You can go over if you want. I should be heading home anyway."
Brooks looked over at her. His baby blue eyes were damn near enough to make her heart stop. "I'm having a good time right here. Plus," he said, gesturing toward Mike and Ovechkin, "that's not really my thing anymore."
"What isn't your thing?"
He shrugged and leaned back in the booth. His arm was resting on the bench behind her head, but wasn't touching her. "Trying to impress strangers in bars."
"You mean trying to impress women."
He shrugged again, but smiled as he glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "Yeah, I'm too old for that."
"Oh, so you're ancient like me?" she asked with a grin on her face.
"Way older. I bet I've got five years on you."
She chuckled. "I bet you're wrong. I'm 30."
"You're joking. You look about twenty-five."
"Nope. The big three-oh just like you, old man."
He shifted on the bench and she felt his knee press against her leg briefly. "So you know how tiring the... scene can get."
Marie rolled her eyes. "Don't act like you've got it tough. I bet the women in D.C. line up around the block for a chance at you."
"Yeah, only the wrong kind." He nodded his head over at Mike. Marie looked at the two women next to him. A platinum blonde and a brunette that had a paycheck's worth of extensions in her hair. They were both wearing skirts that barely covered their asses and halter tops that left nothing up top to the imagination. The six inch heels said they set trying too hard.
"I thought that's what guys like," Marie said, looking back at Brooks. "Mike seems to be enjoying their company."
"Not every guy likes that. Just a matter of taste."
"Could have fooled me. It's been my experience that most guys are looking for Bambi over there."
"I question your taste in men."
She narrowed her eyes at him. He was damn cute but he was skating on thin ice with the direction of the conversation. She knew she wasn't the best at relationships and dating, but she wasn't about to be lectured or made fun of by a hockey player from a team she didn't even like.
Brooks seemed to sense the volatility. "I'm sorry. I don't know you well enough to say that. It just feels like I've known you forever."
Her heart stopped. Surely it had just come to a grinding halt in her chest. She didn't know what to say to that. Because he was right. When they were talking–just the two of them–it did feel familiar and easy. Marie wondered if part of that simplicity was due to the lack of sexual tension. Obviously he wasn't attracted to her, and she knew she didn't stand a chance with him so she never let herself get too wrapped up in the way the corners of his mouth turned up when he smiled or the way the muscles in his arm flexed when he picked up his beer. But she damn well noticed.
"I'm an old soul," she finally said, tucking an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
Brooks smiled at her words. "I like that. It's a good way to put it."
"Sure you don't want to double team the dynamic duo over there with Mike?"
This time he rolled her eyes at her. "Not even in the slightest. I bet they listen to LMFAO."
"Hey, I love that band," Marie said with a straight face. She watched Brooks' face crumple in on itself in disappointment before she laughed and told him she was kidding.
"That wasn't funny," he warned her. "I was beginning to seriously question my choice of friends."
She raised her brows. "Slumming it much? You're calling Penguins fans friends now?"
"Just one. And only because you're on the cusp of being a Caps fan. "
Marie snorted. "Dream on, twenty-one. My loyalties run deep."
"You coming to the game tomorrow night?"
"Where are you sitting so I know where to show off my mad skills?"
"You'll have to project those mad skills because my brother and I have seats in the upper level. We hadn't planned on going until last week, and there weren't any good seats down front."
"Let me see if I can pull a rabbit out of my hat then."
"Brooks, no. That's not necessary. Our seats are fine."
He bumped his shoulder playfully against hers. "If I get you center ice seats will you wear a Caps jersey?"
"Hell no. I'd be the laughing stock of the arena."
"Guess I'll just have to be nice and get you great seats anyway."
"I have seats. Plus, this isn't your home turf. What makes you think you have any pull to get seats on the glass anyway?"
"Is that a challenge?"
She laughed and shook her head. "I should go. It's almost eleven o'clock, and I turn into a pumpkin at midnight."
"Don't you mean your car turns into a pumpkin."
Marie smiled at him. "No. I'm not Cinderella."
Brooks smiled back, but didn't respond. Instead he slid around the booth. "I'll walk you out," he finally said.
"Leaving?" Mike called out, looking over the shoulder of the blonde.
"Yeah, in five. I'm going to walk Marie to her car. Where's Ovie?"
Mike shrugged and gave Brooks a knowing look. "Bathroom."
Brooks shook his head and placed a hand lightly on Marie's lower back. They stepped outside into the chilly February air and hurried over to her car.
"Bathroom?" she asked.
"Yeah. With a girl."
Marie made a face. "You guys actually do that?"
Brooks took her keys out of her hand and unlocked her car door. "Not me. Remember, I'm too old for that shit."
"In a Primanti's bathroom? Gross."
He opened her door. "Ever tried it?"
She scrunched her nose up. "None of your business."
Brooks laughed and held up his hands in surrender. "Maybe you'd like it."
"With him?" she asked, eyes wide.
"Oh God, no," Brooks replied. "Ovie is a..."
"Slut," she said, finishing his sentence.
"I wouldn't disagree with that assessment."
Scuffling at the entrance to the restaurant made them both look over. Mike was holding the door open for Ovie. The two men walked to a SUV with a Enterprise Rental logo on the back window.
"I got the tab," Mike called out.
Brooks nodded his thanks before turning back to Marie. "I'll text you about your tickets tomorrow."
"Really, it's not..."
"Hush. I want to. Have a good night."
She slid behind the driver's seat and let him shut the door behind her. She waved at him through the window and he returned it as he stepped back.
Brooks texted her that afternoon and told her to give her tickets away and pick up new ones at the box office. Derrick was still giving her a hard time about her friendship with him. Marie didn't really think of Brooks as a famous NHL star when they were talking, but was hard to ignore the fact when she was at a game and he was warming up on the ice.
Derrick navigated to their seats, and they were both surprised to find that they were sitting in the first row right behind the Capitals bench. By the time the lights dropped and the teams flooded onto the ice, Marie was well and truly impressed with Brooks' ability to find such good seats.
He was on the ice for the first shift, but when she saw his numbers hunched over on the bench in front of her, she wanted to reach out and touch him. As if sensing her eyes, he looked over his shoulder and gave her a subtle wink before turning his attention back to the game.
“Brooks Laich just winked at you.” Leave it to her brother to catch every single piece of action that occurred during the hockey game, even the shit that was off the ice. He was some sort of supernatural sports fan that didn’t miss a thing.
She pulled her hair back and tugged the sleeves of her Neal jersey down over her wrists. “He’s a nice guy.”
“Are you dating a Capital? Be real with me.”
She rolled her eyes and watched the players slide down the bench to make room for two guys that just came off the ice. Brooks was a couple yards away now. She wasn’t watching the game because her eyes were glued to the numbers on his back. Marie felt like a fool. A guy was nice to her and suddenly her brain leaked out her ears. With great effort, she tore her gaze away and tried to focus on the players on the ice. Two Caps and two Pens were bunched up near the wall on the far side, digging for a puck that didn’t want to be found.
“I’m not dating anyone. I’m going to be single the rest of my life,” she belatedly replied to Derrick in a deadpan voice.
“Not if he has anything to do with it.” Derrick pointed at Brooks’ back.
She shook her head and watched Cooke pass the puck back to a waiting Martin so they could get out of the neutral zone and into the Caps territory. “You are so wrong. We’re friends. He said so last night. Just friends.”
“I can’t believe you’re friends with an NHL player. That’s, like, my wet dream. You should ask him to introduce you to Malkin.”
Marie didn’t dignify her brother with a response. Instead, she settled in and tried to keep her eyes and mind on the game. The play was fast with few penalties. She winced every time someone got near Brooks. He was such a great guy, and she didn’t want to see him get hurt.
In the middle of the second period, he grabbed the puck on a breakaway and whipped it at Fleury. The puck scooted right along the ice and managed to get past Fleury's leg pads right before they hit the ice to block it. She almost jumped up and clapped. Derrick gave her a sidelong glance, and she looked back to the ice sheepishly.
Despite Brooks’ contribution to the scoreboard, the Pens still won three to two. The buzzer signaling the end of the third period sounded and fans immediately began filing out of their seats and up the aisles. Marie stood and gathered her coat and purse. She was about to shuffle over to the aisle when Derrick poked her in the ribs. She turned around and saw Brooks standing behind the bench, watching her through the glass. He was still wearing his gloves and holding his stick up.
She took two steps back over to stand just on the other side of the glass.
“Don’t rub it in,” he said.
Marie smiled. “I won’t say I told you so.”
“You just did.”
“Oops,” she replied.
He waved at her with a gloved hand. “See you later, penguin.” That said, he walked off toward the tunnel and back to the visiting team’s locker room.
Derrick was watching her while she watched Brooks leave. “You’ve got the hots for him,” he said.
“It’s harmless. He’s nice.”
“You keep saying that.”
After the game, she and Brooks would exchange text messages occasionally. It started out with a handful a messages every two or three days, usually about music or funny things they’d encountered during their days. By the time March rolled around, they were texting each other every day. It was all friendly, nothing to hint at any attraction or sexual tension. Marie just assumed he was looking for a friendly ear that wasn’t a teammate or a crazy fan.
She was sitting at home at eleven-thirty on a Thursday night watching episodes of Always Sunny in Philadelphia on her DVR when her cell phone rang. She snatched it off the end table and glanced at the screen. Brooks. He rarely called; it was almost always texts. She answered on the third ring.
“Hey, you.” His voice was soft, and he sounded worn out. He hadn’t played tonight, though. The Caps had played a home game the previous night, and their next game was in Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon. He should have been enjoying a couple days off before the last stretch of the season lead up to playoffs.
“Hey back. To what do I owe the pleasure of a phone call?”
“Just wondering what you’re up to.”
He sounded off, not quite himself. She frowned. “Watching TV and being boring. Are you enjoying your day off? You said you were going to work on your landscaping, didn’t you?”
“I did. This morning.”
“You sound off.”
He paused, not saying anything for a long moment. “I had one too many beers, probably.”
Her laughter was a surprise when it bubbled up and escaped her lips. “The unflappable Brooks Laich getting drunk on a Thursday night. Call the tabloids and blogs.”
“I had a date tonight.”
Despite knowing that there was nothing between them, her heart froze. That little thing that beat rhythmically in her chest day in and day out went cold and stopped. She could feel the ice crystallizing and weighing it down. Of course he went on dates. Of course. He was a handsome, successful man who every other member of the Caps claimed to be the biggest ladies man of them all. “Oh yeah?” she managed to choke out. “How was it?”
She settled into the cushions on her couch and sighed. “Want to talk about it?”
“My picker is off.”
He cleared his throat and she could hear him shifting, trying to get comfortable. “I was bored a few days ago and watched that Millionaire Matchmaker show on TV.”
She smiled. “The one with the loud brunette who yells at people?”
“Yeah. She tells people who pick bad dates that their pickers are off.”
“Do you pick bad dates?”
“I thought we established that you’re too old for the puck bunnies at the bar.”
“Her name was Ellen, and I met her at a charity dinner two weeks ago. She was involved in putting the event together.”
Marie nodded. “Sounds nice. She pretty?” Do not be jealous, she repeated over and over in her head until he spoke up to answer.
Fuck Ellen and her perfect charity dinner self. “So, what’s the problem, twenty-one?”
“She showed up in platform heels and a skin-tight dress. I tried to talk to her about her charity work, but she just turned everything back to the Caps and the contract I signed a couple years back.”
Marie scrunched up her nose in disgust. Women like that gave everyone a bad name. “I’m sorry, Brooks. That sucks.”
“I should have known better. Why didn’t I see it?”
She shrugged and then realized he couldn’t see her. “It’s not all your fault. Women can be pretty good at disguising what they want and who they are.”
“What do you want?”
His question took her off guard. This conversation was supposed to be about him and his bad date, not her. “I...” Marie started to say and then trailed off. “I guess I want...” How could you put what you wanted into a succinct sentence, melt down all the things you needed to make your heart happy and fit them into a phrase or two? “Someone to come home to after a long day,” she finally said softly.
He was quiet. So quiet that Marie thought her cell had dropped the call. Just as she opened her mouth to ask if he was still there, he said, “I like that, penguin. That’s a good way of putting it.”
She closed her eyes and listened to his light breathing on the other end of the line. He sounded as vulnerable as she was feeling right now. “So are you seeing Ellen again?”
“Nah. I dropped her off at her place and grabbed some beer on my way home. Figured I’m allowed since we’ve got tomorrow off. Morning skate is optional.”
“Twenty-one being the rebel. Drinking on a Thursday night and not going to morning skate,” she teased.
“Do you think I’m a good guy?”
“Yes,” she said immediately. She bit her tongue before she could follow it up by telling him that he was probably the best guy she’d ever met.
“Am I asking for too much? Do you think I should give Ellen another chance?”
Marie kept her mouth shut, thinking through the questions. She wanted to tell him that he deserved more than a money-hungry, fame-seeking bitch, and that he should never see her again. But that didn’t seem appropriate, and she didn’t want to come across as the jealous sidekick who secretly is in love with the hero. Even if that’s what this was turning out to be.
“I think you’re only asking for what you deserve, and I think you should stick to your guns and never settle for less.”
She could hear him shift around again, and then heard the faint clank of a beer bottle being dropped in a bin. “You make me feel better, penguin. Thanks.”
“That’s what friends are for, right?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
“So, how about you listen to my friendly advice? Go brush your teeth, drink two glasses of water with an Advil, and go to bed.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She could hear the amusement in his soft voice.
“And no more Ellens,” she added.
“Definitely not,” he agreed. After a brief pause he thanked her and wished her a goodnight.
Marie told him goodnight as well, and then she spent the rest of her night lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. This was so bad. She didn’t need to be having feelings about Brooks. She needed to keep it on the friendly and not let those tender notions infiltrate her head. It was just disaster waiting to happen because she and him were never going to happen in a million years. She wasn’t his type.
He hadn’t texted her for three days, not since the phone call. Marie felt a bit crushed. Perhaps he realized that she had feelings for him when he woke up and replayed the conversation in his head. Maybe he was letting her know he wasn’t interested. Maybe he felt sorry for her. Because of all those reasons, she couldn’t bring herself to text or call him.
After two days of not hearing from him, she caved and agreed to go on a date with a guy from another dating website who had been messaging her. He was very attractive, but something seemed off about him. She wasn’t sure why he would have ever been interested in her. With Brooks completely out of the picture, she knew she needed something to keep her mind off the stalled friendship.
Her date–Jameson–wanted to meet her on Sunday at a small, upscale bar in the Strip District. She pushed for the next weekend, but he seemed eager to meet her. Marie kept a tiny canister of pepper spray in her purse. If he was a creep, she’d burn his eyes out. He was already in a booth in the back of the bar when she arrived.
Marie had decided on a black satin skirt that fell to her knees and hugged her generous curves and a black blouse with a sweetheart neckline and three-quarter sleeves. She felt pretty with her hair slightly curled and fresh makeup on her face. The peep-toe pumps really completed the outfit, though. They were only three inches, but they gave her legs a little more definition.
Jameson was in a pair of black slacks and a white dress shirt. The shirt was unbuttoned around his neck and untucked from his pants. His dark hair was slicked back to show off his handsome face and strong jawline. His online profile said he was thirty-seven, and she thought that he looked good for that age. She was out of her league and should probably just turn around and walk out of the place. Even though she’d made it a point to post pictures that represented her accurately on the website, he’d probably ditch her when he saw her.
To her surprise, he jumped up out of his seat and opened his arms to give her a warm hug. “Marie, it’s a pleasure.”
His voice sent a shiver down her spine. He sounded pleased and brimming with excitement. Maybe she had just hit the jackpot.
“Jameson?” she asked. When he nodded, she said, “Nice to meet you as well.”
“You look lovely,” he said, letting her sit down in the booth and then sliding in to sit next to her. His thigh was pressed down hers from hip to knee, and all she could feel was how hot he was.
“Thanks,” she said shyly, dropping her face and hiding behind the fall of her hair.
They ordered cocktails and an appetizer to share before falling into an easy conversation about their jobs. He was a broker for a regional financial firm. And despite the hum-drum nature of her job, he at least had the courtesy to sound interested in what she did and whether she enjoyed it.
During a lull in the conversation, Marie busied her hands by taking a sip of her cocktail. She didn’t see his hand until it was two inches from her face. Gently, he ran his fingers through her blonde hair, pushing it behind her ear. “You’re very beautiful,” he murmured.
She tried to repress her snort. No one had ever told her that before. She was passable, cute, maybe pretty if she did a good job with her makeup and wore flattering clothes that made her look slimmer than she felt. Not beautiful, though. This guy was either trying to win a cruel bet or looking for some easy sex. Both scenarios just spelled out heartbreak for her.
Marie opened her mouth to deny the compliment, but a flash of gold on his hand as he pulled it away from her hair distracted her. She followed the hand down to the table and could easily make out the wedding ring in the dim light of the bar. Motherfucker.
Her cheeks flushed with color. “You’re married,” she blurted out.
His head pulled back slightly, as if she’d shocked him. Then he followed her gaze down to his hand resting on the table. “Oh, the ring,” Jameson said. “I could be separated.”
“Then you wouldn’t be wearing it. Or you wouldn’t be going on dates.”
He looked at her, his eyes suddenly shrewd. “Alright. I’m married.”
She moved to get up, but his hand on hers stopped her.
“I’m married, but my wife and I have an open marriage. An agreement that we may see other people.”
Marie pulled her hand away from his. “I’m not interested.”
“Marie, really. Hear me out.”
She relaxed back into the seat. They were in a public place and sitting in a booth with him really wasn’t adultery. Besides, she was curious about how he was going to justify this.
“My wife and I have been married for over ten years. We allow each other to date and have sex with other people whom we find attractive.”
She gave him a look that said she thought he was full of shit. “And you find me attractive?”
“I thought I was clear on that. I find you very attractive. The skirt you picked out this evening is very becoming on you. It shows off your curves.”
“You’re full of shit,” she said, moving to slide away again. His hand on her thigh stopped her cold.
His fingertips were pressing into the flesh of her leg, but not enough to cause pain. She felt like a rabbit, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. “You know,” he said leaning closer to her, “some men find voluptuous women to be much more desirable than a size two.” His breath smelled like mint and was hot on her cheek and neck.
“Not in my experience,” she said, preparing to throw his hand off her thigh and flee.
“Mmm, that’s a shame. When I saw your pictures, I had to meet you. You looked like you could use some... fun in your life. Let me show you what it’s like to have someone worship your body. No strings attached.”
She gawked at him. “You’re serious.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I am,” he said with a smile, sliding his hand up her thigh. His lips were less than an inch from her ear. “What do you say, Marie? The men’s room has a lock. Have you ever been taken against a wall?”
She flashed back to Primanti’s and her dinner with Brooks while Mike and Ovechkin worked the bar. She had expressed disgust over Ovie having sex in the bathroom of the restaurant. Maybe you’d like it, Brooks had told her.
Jameson’s hand was almost in her lap, and his breath was caressing her ear. Marie felt her stomach turn, and she smacked his hand away to clamor out of the booth, her purse clutched in her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.” With that said, she all but ran out of the bar and stumbled to her car. Her face felt like it was on fire.
The drive home was short because she was on auto-pilot, unable to stop replaying Jameson’s words in her head. She believed him. He was attracted to her and probably would have fucked her until the sun rose if she let him. It’d been too long since she’d had sex. Over two years. The last time was just a hookup from an internet dating site. She’d been desperate to get laid, and he was more than willing to let her take a ride on his dick. They spent a weekend screwing around, but she’d bowed out when she found out he was running the same game with other women at the same time.
She had no prospects. Maybe she should have let Jameson show her a good time. He looked like he was very capable. Other than the ring on Jameson's hand, the only thing that stopped her was Brooks. She couldn’t stomach letting another guy touch her when all she could do was think of him. Marie parked her car and pushed her hair back away from her face. She felt like crying.
With a heavy heart, she let herself in the door and walked straight to the bedroom to stand in front of the full-length mirror. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair in disarray, even if her makeup was still perfect. The blouse showed off her ample chest and the skirt showed a woman with full hips and thick thighs. She turned to the side. Maybe she wasn’t so bad when she was done up like this. I look pretty, she thought. There were probably a few guys out there that would want to give her a ride.
Brooks was not one of them, though.
She stripped off her clothes and threw on an old pair of shorts and a T-shirt before washing her face. She could have gotten laid tonight. And by a man who was as hot as an underwear model. Why did she fuck that up?
Her phone was ringing. Where was it? She walked into the living room and dug through her purse. Three rings in and the phone was in her hand. Brooks. Her stomach dropped. She accepted the call with a shaky hand.
“Hey you,” she said softly.
“Hey,” he replied. “Did you see the game today?”
“No, grocery shopping and...” She trailed off, unsure if she wanted to tell him that she had been on a date.
“I, uh, had a date tonight.”
He was silent for a long moment. “I didn’t know.”
“It was a spur of the moment thing. He asked me out on Saturday.” She left the fact that Brooks hadn’t spoken to her since Thursday night unsaid.
“Yeah, sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. I’ve had a lot of things on my mind.” He cleared his throat and affected a cheerful voice. “So, how was the date?”
Marie furrowed her brows in confusion. What was this tension between them? Usually things were so easy with him. The conversations just flowed. “It was... unusual. I left early.”
“How so?” He was fishing for details.
She wasn’t sure if she should give those details. “It just was.”
“Did you like him?”
Did she? “He was married,” she blurted out. It didn’t matter if she liked him. He was married and, open relationship or not, that meant he was off limits.
“What?” Brooks sounded genuinely surprised.
“He was married. He said he and his wife have an open relationship and they can sleep with other people.”
“Did you know this before you met him?”
“Absolutely not. I wouldn’t have gone.”
Marie snorted. “He’s in my bed sleeping it off.”
The silence was deafening.
“I’m joking,” she added.
She could hear Brooks let out a deep breath before sucking air back into this lungs. “Oh, okay.”
“He was pretty convincing, though. Laid it on thick. Why don’t single guys offer to rock my world like that?”
“Maybe they’re just intimidated.”
Marie’s laughter at his comment came out harsher than she intended. “Yeah, right.” She paused and then said, “He offered to do me against the wall in the bathroom.”
“Is that right?” Brooks’ voice sounded tight. If Marie didn’t know better she would have said he sounded furious.
“I’m too shy for that shit,” she said, chuckling to herself.
“Are you seeing him again?”
“Absolutely not.” She padded into her bedroom and slipped under the covers. “I’m on the celibacy track. Clean living and five cats to keep me company.”
He laughed lightly.
“Did you guys kick some Tampa Bay ass?”
She stuck out her lower lip in a pout. “Boo. Sorry to hear that.”
“Caps fan now?”
“Only when you’re not playing the Penguins.”
He sighed. “My goal is to have you converted by the time the season ends.”
“Better hurry. Two more weeks and March is done for.”
The project in D.C. had grown in scope. The District wasn’t aware of some serious issues with the bridge that was under construction, so work order after work order had extended the project from a six month fixer-upper to a two year overhaul. Marie got word from her boss that she would be sent back to D.C. for three to four days to sort out a second round of hiring. They needed more manpower to get the project done in the new timeframe.
She left the the meeting and texted Brooks.
Marie: Looks like I have to slum it in DC next week
It had only been six days since their phone conversation about her date. It had been... strange. She wasn’t quite sure how to take Brooks anymore. He seemed distant at times, but at others he seemed to confide things that she doubted he told many other people. The past few days their texts had stayed in neutral territory. Most of the exchanges involved song recommendations. The last text he had sent her late Tuesday night told her she needed to listen to more Dusty Springfield. He was just full of surprises.
An hour later she got a response.
Brooks: Really? How long?
Marie: Three or four days. I’m driving down on Monday and staying until Thursday or Friday
Brooks: I’ll be back late Monday night. We have a home game on Wednesday and I’m going to force you to come
Brooks: The Islanders. You can cheer for me without guilt
Marie smiled. Indeed, she could.
Brooks: Text me the address of where you’ll be staying so we can hang out on Tuesday
Marie: Don’t cancel your plans for me
Brooks: Too late. Already canceled. It’s not everyday I get to see my penguin
She sucked in a sharp breath. His penguin. The phrase made her heart flutter. It was nothing to him–just an offhand remark–but to her it was everything. She needed to get a grip on her life and actually start looking for a man in her league before she ended up alone. Pining after Brooks Laich was nice, but it was fruitless.
She was two hours from D.C., but the traffic was already heavy. It was almost six o’clock in the evening, but the sky was still light. April was just around the corner and Spring was on its way. She was looking forward to longer days and short-sleeves. Her brother’s voice boomed over the speaker of the rental car her company had given her.
“Talking while driving is dangerous, Marie.”
“I’m hands-free. This car has Bluetooth.”
“Remember to call me when you get there so I know you didn’t die in a fiery car crash.”
“You are turning into dad,” she said, rolling her eyes and merging into the right lane.
“Shut your trap,” Derrick snapped. “Hey, are you seeing your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
Derrick chuckled. “But I love that you know exactly who I’m talking about. Do you still talk to him?”
“Almost every day.” Her voice was quiet because she didn’t really want to admit that to her brother.
He was silent for a moment. “Really?”
“Can I tell you something about guys?”
She sighed. “You’re going to tell me whether I say yes or no.”
“Guys don’t text or call a girl every day unless they want something more than friendship.”
“So you’re a relationship expert now?”
“I’m a guy. I’m just giving you my opinion as a guy.” Derrick paused and then said. “I still have his number. I should call him and ask his intentions.”
Her eyes widened. “Don’t you fucking dare. I’m not his type. Don’t rock the boat.”
“Who says you’re not his type?”
“Me,” Marie replied. “I know these things.”
“You don’t know shit, baby sis.”
She was settled into her suite at the hotel. A shower had been the first order of business after the four hour drive that afternoon. She managed to catch the last bit of the Capitals game on television before she ventured out to find something for dinner. She settled on Chinese takeout and ate it on the couch of the suite while she watched the post game show and then a series of behind-the-scenes programs on the Caps. She didn’t have access to this programing regularly since she lived outside their market.
She was dozing off on the couch when her phone dinged. The display told her it was just after midnight.
Brooks: Are you in my city?
Marie smiled and texted him back.
Marie: I am
Brooks: Could I interest you in music this late at night?
Marie: What should I listen to?
Brooks: There’s some excellent music on at my house
She chewed on her lower lip and read his message ten times before she typed in a response.
Marie: I’m dead on my feet and I bet you are too
Brooks: Raincheck, penguin?
Marie: Yes, please
Brooks: Then listen to The Lumineers with me remotely
She flipped over on the couch and pulled up the music market to buy the album. It only took a moment and the songs were downloaded. They had done this before, listened to an album together but in separate places. For the most part, they didn’t talk while listening, and sometimes one of them would fall asleep during the course of the album. She pulled up the first song and texted him.
Marie: Starting now
It was folky music, stripped down and simple with vocals in the forefront. The first two songs were upbeat. The third was quirky and fun. But when the fourth started to play, it immediately grabbed her attention. She laid on the couch and stared at the ceiling with eyes wide open. Somewhere in this city he was doing the same thing. She wished she had said yes to joining him.
When the chorus of the song came around, it twisted her gut into knots.
[i]Oh, I needed somebody, I needed someone I could trust. I don't gamble, but if I did I would bet on us. Like the Dead Sea. You told me I was like the Dead Sea. You’ll never sink when you are with me.[/i]
She felt tears gather at the corners of her eyes. When the weight of them was too much, they rolled down her temples and disappeared into her hair. Reading into it was a bad idea.
She was too emotional. Obviously her period was around the corner if she was crying over a fucking song that Brooks Laich asked her to listen to. It was just a song. The fifth track came around, and it was perfect and tender and simple. And it was about love. Don’t read into it, she warned herself again. That would just lead to heartache.
The sixth song was just a haunting wisp. Almost nothing at all but a barely-there guitar and a voice.
[i]Slow it down, Angie, come back to bed. Rest your arms, and rest your legs. Don't you frown when you're feeling like that. Only love can dig you out of this. [/i]
Marie felt painfully lonely, yet so closely connected to Brooks that a sob escaped her throat. She picked the phone up off the pillow by her head and texted him.
Marie: This is beautiful
Brooks: I know. I wish you had come over to listen with me
She read his text and wiped her eyes so that fresh tears could fall down over her cheeks. He had no idea what he was putting her through.
Marie: Me too. Maybe next time
Brooks: I’ll hold you to that, penguin
She carefully sat her phone down beside her head, curled up on her side and listened to the rest of the album before falling asleep.
Tuesday went fast because she was working nonstop in the small field trailer on the construction site. It was a revolving door of men who were being processed as new employees to work on the site for the next two years. By the time five o’clock rolled around, she was knee-deep in paperwork and glancing at her watch. She’d promised Brooks she would meet him at her hotel at six o’clock. He wanted to take her to his favorite steakhouse.
She cut out just a few minutes after five and hurried back to her hotel to change into a black, high-waisted, A-line skirt that fell to her knees and a white blouse. She wanted to look nice, but getting herself gussied up too much was just a waste of time. Friends, she reminded herself. Don’t get yourself wrapped up in him.
Her ballet flats were still pristine and white because they were new and never-worn. Marie looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her hair was up with a few tendrils escaping to tickle the back of her neck. Her makeup was light and the skirt was flattering to her figure. She wasn’t a supermodel, but she didn’t look too shabby. She heard Jameson’s words in her head. Some men find voluptuous women to be much more desirable. Well, maybe she stood a chance at finding a guy who wanted to get her naked, then. It just wasn’t the guy that had been worming his way into her heart over the past few months.
Brooks was prompt. He texted her two minutes before six to tell her he was downstairs. She found him waiting by the doors in the lobby. He was in a pair of slacks and a dark red sweater. And he looked absolutely gorgeous, especially when he smiled warmly at her.
“Hi,” she said. He didn’t respond verbally, but he did wrap both his arms around her. It made her feel tiny and delicate. God, he smells delicious, she thought while her face was pressed into his chest.
“Hi,” he finally said, pulling back and holding her shoulders to give her a once over.
Marie blushed, squirming under his gaze. “You look good,” she mumbled.
“So do you. Cute skirt.” He flipped the edge of it with his hand. There were flowers embroidered in white thread. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m starving. I had to skip lunch.”
“Your chariot awaits,” he said, gesturing to the door.
He had a new vehicle. It was a gleaming, black SUV, and the inside still had the smell of a brand new car. He opened the door for her and helped her inside by holding her hand. His palm was warm and dry, and she felt incredibly awkward trying to climb into the vehicle in her skirt.
Brooks shut her door and walked around the front of his car to get into his side. This was beginning to feel like a date. Marie’s stomach flopped over.
She looked out the windshield and saw the odd way he was holding his shoulder. “What happened to your shoulder?” she asked him once he settled in behind the wheel.
He gave a short laugh under his breath. “Just a little sore,” he said, turning the engine over.
“Did you have it looked at?”
“Medical staff took a look at me after the game last night. I’ll be fine.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
He glanced over at her and smiled. His smile made her want to melt. “Don’t worry about it, penguin. I’m fine.”
She sighed and settled back into the seat. “Nice ride.”
“I can tell.”
“Are you ready for the best dinner you’re going to have all year?”
She chuckled and shook her head. “Bold claims, twenty-one. Real bold.”
“I can deliver,” he said as he pulled out of the parking lot and weaved through the busy streets of D.C. until he was in the suburbs. He was listening to a mix of classic rock on his iPod and Marie made fun of him when Bad Company’s Ready for Love started playing.
By then they were pulling into the lot of the steakhouse. “Hey, don’t knock it. This is a damn good song.”
“Hell, yeah.” That said, he levered himself out of the car, holding the arm of his shoulder close to his body.
She pushed open her door, but he was there to catch it and help her out of the taller-than-usual vehicle. With his help, she didn’t look quite so clumsy trying to get her feet on the ground.
The restaurant was obviously expecting them because the hostess ushered them toward the back. There was a table tucked away in an alcove waiting for them. “Pulling out all the stops, Brooksy?” she asked, giving a big smile.
“Wining and dining is how we usually convert fans.” He sat down across from her and picked up a menu. She couldn’t concentrate on anything but his strong hands holding up the expensive-looking menu that was in a leather folio. Why did he want to spend an evening with her? Didn’t he have Ellens to date? Platinum blondes who did yoga and wore spandex in public without looking like a fashion faux pas?
The menu looked good, so she let him order for her. Or at least that’s what she told herself. Really, her head wasn’t working quite right and she couldn’t read the menu because he was looking at her with those blue eyes.
“I have something for you in the truck,” he said when the waiter left.
“What do you have?”
“You’ll see,” he said with a smile. It reached his eyes and made them shine brilliantly.
They talked about the work she was doing in D.C. and his hometown in Canada. He tried to convince her that she would love it there, but she thought he was crazy. Even Pittsburgh got too cold for her during the winter.
Dinner was, as promised, delicious. Brooks was right about it being the best meal she’d had all year. While the waiter was running Brooks’ credit card, he convinced her to go to a local lounge with him. She made him promise he would have her back to the hotel before midnight. She had to be up by seven o’clock for work tomorrow.
When they had settled into their seats in his truck, he reached into the floor behind her seat, pulled out a small shopping bag, and sat it in her lap.
“What is this?” Marie asked, smiling at him.
“It’s for you,” he said, starting up the vehicle.
She stuck her hand inside and felt the unmistakable material of a jersey. Marie laughed lightly as she pulled out the red Capitals jersey with number 21 in white across the back and on the sleeve. “Oh boy, I guess I have to wear this tomorrow.”
“You do. It’s mine.”
“I see that.”
Brooks merged into traffic. “No, it’s mine. It’s game-worn. I washed it, though. Otherwise you would have died from the stench.”
She didn’t know what to say. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. He was giving her his personal jersey. Sure, he probably had several. But this was not what she expected. Marie brought the fabric up to her nose and all she could smell was the faint scent of laundry detergent and him. His body, his cologne, whatever it was.
“I told you I washed it,” Brooks said, glancing over at her.
“I know. It smells like you, though.”
His eyes jerked back to the road, and Marie worried that she might have gone too far. Was it weird that she was smelling his jersey? Did he think she was hitting on him? Was he uncomfortable with that kind of attention from her?
They were at the lounge in no time at all. It was an unassuming brick building with a half-empty parking lot. He helped her out of the vehicle and then fiddled with his phone as they walked toward the door.
“A couple of the guys are here,” he said, holding the door open for her and nodding at the burly bouncer.
Marie’s stomach dropped into her feet. She wasn’t ready for this. She just wanted a quiet evening with Brooks. She followed him back to the V.I.P area and saw a friendly face in Mike Green. He was on a sofa with a beer in his hand. John Carlson was sitting to the left of Mike, and a very pretty girl with striking black hair was sitting on Carlson’s lap. Oh God, she thought, I can’t do this.
“Hey, Marie!” Mike said, standing and giving her a brief hug before falling back gracefully onto the sofa. He seemed unconcerned by the woman in Carlson’s lap.
“This is Marie,” Brooks said to Carlson. Then he nodded at his teammate and told Marie his name like she didn’t already know.
“Hi, nice to meet you,” he said, leaning forward and shaking Marie’s hand. The woman on his lap remained where she was, like a doll.
Brooks sat down on a love seat to the right and motioned for Marie to join him. “What’s up with the puppet?” she asked quietly, looking over at the girl again.
“No brain cells. I think it might be caused by overuse of hair products.” He gave her a cheeky smile.
“I’m gonna grab another beer. Want anything?” Mike asked.
Brooks looked at her, and she nodded. “Get us a couple beers. You pick,” he told his teammate.
Carlson had his hand up the girl’s skirt and they were whispering to one another. Marie felt out of place and uncomfortable. This was not her native habitat.
“I’ve missed you,” Brooks said, dragging her attention away from the display in front of her.
His comment made her blush. “Aww, shucks. Why would you miss silly old me?”
“Because I like you, penguin.”
“We talk every day.”
“It’s not the same as having you close.” He tweaked her nose with his thumb and index finger. She tried to force a smile, but it was hard. He was making this hard. She needed to keep her distance, but his easy manner with her made her crave more of his attention, the kind of attention a boyfriend would give.
Mike showed up with the beers and a girl to help him carry them. He left theirs on the table in front of them and left again with the girl. Marie tracked them to the dance floor. He moved fast. Two minutes and he had a willing bedfellow.
“Is your shoulder still bothering you?” she asked, reaching out to touch his right bicep.
Brooks leaned into her touch. “A little. It’s stiff.”
“You should get a massage.”
He shook his head. “I think that hurts more than helps. It’ll be fine once I get back to practice tomorrow.”
She dropped her hand and took a long draw off the bottle of beer before sitting it down again.
“You have any more dates with creeps?” Brooks asked.
The lights were dim, and she couldn’t make out the finer details of his handsome face, but she could hear the small smile that lifted the corners of his mouth up. His leg was touching the fabric of her skirt, but not her leg. At least not yet.
“No. I told you I’m going for crazy cat lady now. I just need some cats and I’ll be set.”
“Was the guy who came onto you good-looking at least?”
She narrowed her eyes, trying to make out his expression. Where were these questions coming from? “He was out of an underwear catalog. Pretty hot.”
“And you weren’t interested?”
She frowned and took a drink of beer to buy some more time to think over her answer. “He was married. And I’m not the sex-in-the-bathroom type.”
“You weren’t tempted?”
Marie laughed nervously. “Sure. It’s been a while. I was tempted. But I think I’d like to save my next roll in the hay for someone who doesn’t have a ring on his finger.”
Brooks nodded slowly and downed half his beer in two seconds.
“Why are you so interested in my lack of a love life?” she asked, looking out at the dance floor.
He moved closer, his good arm lifting up to rest on the back of the love seat behind her head and his body turning to face her. “I want to see you happy.”
She blushed and twisted the hem of her skirt in her fingertips. “I’ll be fine. I’m happy right now.”
For a moment, she dared a glance into his eyes and saw that they were dark and serious. Woo, boy. That was intense. What had gotten into him?
“You know if you’re ever... tempted to take that guy up on his offer...”
Marie laughed and shook her head.
“Seriously,” Brooks said. “If you’re ever tempted, you give me a call.”
“So you can talk me out of it?” she asked.
“So I can take his place.”
She froze, her hand halfway to the bottle on the table in front of them. Brooks’ body was radiating heat. She could feel it through his clothes and hers, and his eyes were still staring her down. She couldn’t bear to meet them, not now. What was he offering? A turn at the Brooks Laich ride? She felt a shot of embarrassment run through her.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she mumbled.
“What?” he asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she repeated. Her embarrassment was turning into anger. “I don’t want a pity fuck.”
“I didn’t...” he started out, but she cut him off.
“I’d rather not get any than get it from someone who thinks I’m a charity case.” Her voice was clipped and furious.
Brooks grabbed her wrist as she made to stand up. “Marie, what makes you think I offered out of pity?”
She felt her lips draw out in a thin line. “Because you look like you, and I look like me. And we’re friends, nothing more.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“You’re out of my league,” Marie replied flatly. She tugged her wrist out of his grasp and stood up. “Can you take me back to my hotel?”
When she finally looked down to meet his gaze, he looked stricken. She almost felt bad for all those angry words she'd thrown out. “Yeah, sure.” He stood up and followed her out to the car.
The ride to the hotel was silent. When he pulled into the circular drive in front, he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, penguin. I was out of line.”
The hardness in her heart melted at his soft voice and the nickname he’d given her. She pressed herself back into the headrest before rolling her head over to look at him. “Don’t play with me,” she said softly.
His blue eyes were wide. “I’m sorry.”
“And don’t feel sorry for me. I’ll live.”
“I don’t feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for me. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
She didn’t understand what he meant, but his apology sounded sincere. “Can we forget all that ever happened?”
Brooks nodded. “Yes. It’s done, never happened.”
“Thanks,” she said, slipping out of the vehicle.
“Don’t forget your jersey.”
Marie grabbed the bag out of the floor and waved goodbye to Mr. Perfect.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
He could feel her eyes on him as he sat on the bench. It damn near drove him to distraction, making it hard to pay attention to the game he was currently playing. She’d been on his mind non-stop for the past two weeks, and tonight was no different. In fact, it was worse after he’d laid himself on the line last night and had it fail spectacularly.
Ovie pushed him over and down the bench. Brooks acquiesced and made room, his forearms resting on his knees as he bent over and tried to clear his head. It wasn’t working.
She had been cute and funny at first. Her reaction to a rival team’s player changing her tire had been endearing, and then she’d walked off and left him in the grocery store. Most single women who knew who he was tried to score themselves a date. When he was younger, he obliged them, but now that he had hit thirty all those dates seemed pretty empty. It didn’t help when reporters always wanted to know if you were dating someone.
Though he remembered those first two meetings with her, they were really nothing much to write home about. More like a funny story to tell his teammates before they played the Penguins. Except that all twisted around on him when he saw her on the other side of the glass. She seemed full of life, yet somehow so delicate. It was intriguing, so he’d sent her the note. He assumed she’d call him right away, and when she didn’t he was confused but not upset.
In hindsight, he was thankful her brother had called in her stead and clued Brooks in on where they would be. He hadn't gone because he’d thought she was a romantic interest; he’d went because she was cute and sweet and he was so tired of predatory women who were working an angle. It wouldn’t hurt to have a friend who happened to be a girl. Maybe she could give him some advice.
Except, the more he talked to her, the more he liked her. She had become part of his daily life through texts and the occasional phone call. Brooks wished she would reach out to him more, but she always answered when he called so he just assumed she thought he was busy. He wasn’t. He’d answer every single one of her calls. She treated him like a person, not a prize. And she listened to music with him, lying in their separate beds and hearing the same chords, the same melodies. He’d never done that before, and it felt special.
He jerked his head up and felt a hand on his back. Fuck, he was up. As Backstrom skated over to the bench, Brooks vaulted over the boards and blanked out. He had to or he’d fuck this game up. Except his brain didn’t stay blank very long. Whispers of, “I wonder if she’s watching? I hope she’s watching. Does she care about me?” ran on a loop in his head.
He hit someone against the boards. He didn’t know who. His mind wasn’t in the game, but the puck did find its way to his stick. Chimera was tearing down the center of the ice with a defenseman on his heels. He’d make it, Brooks thought. He darted to the left and passed the puck out in front of the crease. Chimera met up with it and knocked it into the goal without missing a stride. Elation took over as as he saw the puck whip back out of the net from the force of impact. The goal gave them the advantage in the game.
He smashed into Chimera, and then they both skated over to the bench. Brooks couldn’t stop himself from looking up to the glass. She was standing there in his jersey, clapping wildly and smiling.
Goddammit. He wanted her. It hadn’t been like that at the start. There had been no sexual tension, just easy-going friendship. But now there was tension, at least from his end. She was like some elusive, precious creature that he couldn’t hold, that no one could hold.
When did this start? It was new. It was Ellen, he thought. Ellen was what changed things. He’d been lonely lately, and Ellen seemed like everything he needed. Gorgeous, a social butterfly, active in the community. When he met her at the charity dinner, she was dressed in an elegant gown with her hair piled up on her head. That’s what I need, he had thought. But it was the old bait and switch. When they went out for dinner a few days later, she was just like every other puck bunny–hooker heels, tight dress, and nothing left up to the imagination. And then she’d spent the entire night building up his pedestal and obsessing over his salary.
To say it left a bad taste in his mouth was an understatement. Ellen had been surprised and upset when he’d dropped her off at her condo and wished her a good night. No kiss. No hug. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d felt like shit so he picked up some beer on his way home. Normally, he didn’t do things like that, but it was a special occasion.
He’d called his mom. A grown man, and he’d called his mom and told her that he didn’t think he’d ever find the right woman. She listened to him like she always did, letting him spill his guts over the phone line.
“You’ll find her,” she’d said once he’d quieted. “Just keep your eyes open because she might not be flashy, and she might not be trying to get your attention.”
And Marie had come to mind immediately. Marie from Pittsburgh. Marie who always answered his texts, always listened to his stories, always wanted to know about his life and his interests. Marie who had spent hours of her life listening to albums with him with hundreds of miles between them. He probably wouldn’t have called her if he hadn’t been drinking. But he had been, and she always answered. And she’d said all the right things without even knowing what she was doing.
The next day had been difficult. Hell, the next few days had been difficult. They’d had a handful of days off, and all he had done was think about her and how fucking scary it was that he she’d been there all along and he just hadn’t realized it. But the scariest thing was that she hadn’t ever given him any indication that she was interested in him. She was a nice person, genuine and caring. Those hours she spent talking to him could just be chalked up to friendship. Only friendship.
When he’d finally got up the balls to call her again, she had told him about the date, about the man who was trying to steal her, who had offered to get her naked and make her feel so good. And the way she’d talked, it had been a long while since she’d felt good. He’d been furious. So furious it was surprising. Even Mike had noticed something was wrong the next day. Brooks shrugged it off.
“Is it that girl? Marie?” Greenie had asked.
The question had hit Brooks directly in the chest. He didn’t know what to say. Was he that transparent? He hadn’t answered Greenie, but he had a feeling that his lack of an answer was an answer in and of itself.
Brooks sat down hard on the bench. She was directly behind him. He didn’t need to see; he could feel her. A glance over his shoulder showed that she’d been looking at his back. He forced a smile and stuck the tip of his tongue out at her. She grinned and responded in kind by sticking hers out too. His heart banged against his ribcage with such force that he felt like his entire body was rattling.
Her spur-of-the-moment visit to D.C. was supposed to be his chance. He was going to make his move. She’d given him no reason to believe that she was interested in him, but he knew she’d been tempted to sleep with the slime who’d propositioned her. He’d use the sex as an in. If he could get her in bed and make her feel like she should always feel, then she’d come around. She’d wear his jersey every single day and move to D.C. to be with him. Or at least that was the fantasy he’d dreamt up over the past week.
The way he had went about it was heavy-handed. In his head, he was going to be smooth and subtle, making her realize that he could make her see stars if she’d come back to his house and crawl into his bed. They could listen to an album and make out and melt those icy walls of hers before he took her, finally held his elusive little penguin. And then he could call his mom and tell her she was right and the best things in life weren’t always obvious until you took a step back and looked at the forest and not just the trees.
But he’d fucked it up. He’d propositioned her in the worst possible way, and she’d shut him down. She’d even looked hurt, calling it a pity fuck. She had no idea, and he had no clue how to tell her how he felt. He’d just fuck up more and destroy this precious friendship they had cultivated together over the past few months.
Now she was in his jersey, but not in his bed. And in a day she’d be driving two hundred fifty miles away to her own bed.
A hand on his back told him he was up. He launched over the boards again and hunted down the puck. Tampa Bay had it and they were passing it back and forth, waiting for their forward line to change. He pushed off the ice with everything he had and pressed their defenseman down the side boards. Hedman spun around, protecting the puck, but wasn’t fast enough. Brooks grabbed it with the toe of his blade and looked around for someone to pass it off to. Just as he released it to Chimera again, St. Louis slammed Brooks against the boards. His already tight shoulder popped, followed by a sharp pain. It leaked out into his collarbone and upper arm before he hit the ice.
Chimera had dumped the puck back behind the Bolt’s goal, but he need reinforcements. The hit on Brooks had been clean so the play was still going. It had only been a couple seconds. He struggled to his feet and skated over to the bench as quickly has he could. Ovie jumped out onto the ice in his place. The head of the medical staff met him at the door. Brooks knew his face was screwed up in pain. The man was talking in his ear, asking him questions, but all Brooks could do was look at Marie’s stricken face. She was standing with her hands pressed against the glass, her eyes wide and riveted to him.
She cared. Maybe there was hope for him still.
They wouldn’t let him go back to the game for the rest of the third period. Nothing was broken, but the tendon he’d damaged a couple days before had been well and truly torn now. He still needed to see the team’s head doctor, but they estimated he would be out of commission for at least three weeks, which was pretty much the rest of the regular season. Brooks was in a foul mood when he left the arena in a sling to hold his arm up.
He was sitting in his car trying to figure out how to shift gears without his right hand when his phone buzzed in his pocket. He fished it out and pulled up the text.
Marie: Are you okay?
His heart ached. She would be leaving tomorrow. He wished she would stay and take care of him, fix him breakfast every morning, even if that just meant dumping half a box of cereal in a bowl.
Brooks: Messed up my shoulder
Marie: Are you in pain?
He’d been given pain meds before leaving the arena, but they were still in his pocket. The dull ache in his shoulder was on par with the dull ache in his chest.
Brooks: A little
He knew he was fishing, trying to get her to offer to help.
Marie: Can I get you anything?
He smiled. Yes.
Brooks: My right arm is useless. Can you help with dinner?
Marie: Text me your address and I’ll be over
He sent her the street address and hurried home. He needed to throw all his dirty clothes into the closet just in case she ended up in his bedroom. The shoulder was a problem because he’d really like to use both hands on her, but he’d make do with just one if that’s all he had to work with.
She was there in less than an hour with so many bags she could barely carry them. Brooks tried to help her, but she refused and made him go sit on a stool at the island in the kitchen while she laid out the food from Boston Market–grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, steamed veggies, biscuits, everything they had to offer. He directed her to where the plates were kept and she gave him a little bit of everything on a huge plate. All Brooks could do was watch her efficient movements and the way she kept her eyes down, never looking at him fully. God, this was hard.
She fixed herself a smaller plate and scooted up onto the stool beside him. “How long are you out for?” she asked.
He swallowed the food in his mouth. “Three to six weeks. The rest of the regular season and maybe some of playoffs.” Saying it out loud made him feel like shit.
She placed her hand on his back and rubbed soothing circles. “I’m sorry. That sucks.”
Brooks shrugged and then winced when a stab of pain shot through the injured shoulder.
“Be careful,” she said softly, turning back to her food.
“I’m going to miss you when you go back to Pittsburgh.” He had to stay it. Had to put it out there, regardless of how Marie took it.
“I’ll miss you too, twenty-one. But you can always call. I do have a Batphone.” She pointed at her cell that was sitting on the countertop.
He wanted to tell her it wasn’t the same, but kept his mouth shut. That might be too much. “Thanks for taking care of me,” he said instead.
“No sweat. I’ve got your back.” Her reply sounded flippant, and he wasn’t sure if she understood how much this meant to him, how much she had come to mean to him.
Brooks drained his glass of water right after he finished his plate of food. “And I’ve got your back. Will you stay here tonight? I want that music raincheck.”
She wouldn’t look at him. It was killing Brooks. “I... I don’t know. I have to be at work tomorrow morning at eight. It’s almost midnight.”
“You can sleep in my guest room. I’ll let you borrow a toothbrush, and I’ll make sure you're back at the hotel by seven.”
Her eyes glanced up to meet his briefly. “Okay. Sold. What are we going to listen to?”
“Let me get you some clothes to sleep in and find something good.”
He grabbed an old pair of shorts and a white t-shirt out of his drawer. Good enough. She’d be wearing his clothes. His cock reacted immediately, but he tamped down the desire that coursed through his body. Not now. Not appropriate.
While she was changing in the bathroom, Brooks decided on Frank Ocean. It was relatively new and would make for good mood music–nothing too dramatic or loud. Plus, it was a solid album of progressive R&B music. She’d said she liked that ages ago when he still thought of her as just a friend.
He stood in his bedroom trying to figure out how to change himself with the sling on his arm. By the time he got the shirt unbuttoned, he saw her shadow wandering down the hall. “I’m in here,” he said, stepping out in the hallway.
She turned around, startled.
“You can have the guest room over there.” The doorway was right across the hall from him. She walked back his way and went in to arrange her pile of clothes, including his jersey that she’d just taken off, on the chair by the bed. His shorts came down to below her knees and the white t-shirt was billowy on her. But not billowy enough that he couldn’t tell she was without a bra, even in the dim light of the guest room. His cock jumped.
“How are you going to get changed with that sling on?”
He smiled sheepishly. “I have no idea.”
Her cheeks were glowing. She was embarrassed, but he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. “Here,” she finally said, stepping up to him and helping him slide his good arm out of the dress shirt. With care, she held his injured arm and slipped the sling off so that his shirt could fall away. He was naked from the waist up, and her eyes were on his chest. Do you like what you see, he wanted to ask her.
Marie put the sling back in place and made sure his arm was restrained in it. “Looks like you’re sans shirt tonight,” she said.
“Looks like,” he said, staring down at her blonde hair. Finally, he turned away and tried to undo the clasp and zipper on his slacks, but his left hand was clumsy and fumbling.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Trying to get out of these damn pants and into some shorts.”
Marie walked around and saw him struggling. Oh God, Brooks thought, please do it. Please. Please. Please.
“Move your hand,” she said, playfully swatting at his fingertips.
He jerked the hand away and watched her pale fingers reach out and undo his pants. There was no skin-to-skin contact, but he almost exploded at the sight of her helping him out of his pants. There was a slight tremble to her hand as she lowered the zipper. Slowly, she pulled back and looked up at his face.
“Thank you, penguin,” he said softly. And then he fled the room and shut himself in the master bathroom. His heart was pounding and his pants were riding low on his hips, barely held up now that she’d undone them. It took him two minutes to compose himself and put on a pair of athletic shorts. He detoured to the living room and queued up the album, adjusting the sound system to play it from the speakers on the second floor only.
When he came back into the guest room she was sitting at the foot of the bed, a curious look on her face. “How did you do that?”
“The entire house is wired with speakers. Main controls are downstairs. I just tell it which speakers I want to use.”
“Are we listening in here?”
He nodded, and she scooted back into the king bed, making sure she was on her half only. He laid down on his good side and watched as she turned onto her side to face him.
The first track was short with ambient noise–voices and the sound of a door. “Frank Ocean?” she asked as the strings of the second track started.
“You like?” he asked.
She nodded and smiled at him, her beautiful face resting on the white pillow.
Part of him hoped she listened closely to the lyrics and understood them to be relevant..
*My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinkin’ ‘bout you. I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout you. I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout you. Do you think about me still? Or do you not think so far ahead? ‘Cause I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout forever.*
Her eyes were closed. He felt shut off, shut out. He wanted to reach out and pull her closer, but he didn’t dare. He knew she didn’t think she was as pretty as she should be, but she was actually gorgeous. Brooks wished he could show her.
“I love this song,” she said, opening her eyes. They were glistening, like tears were gathering.
“Me too,” he replied. They stared at each other for a long moment as the song played out and ended.
The next short song broke the mood, and she turned onto her back as finger-snaps came out of the speakers. Brooks struggled to breathe. He felt like he was falling down the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. Was this what love felt like?
The alarm on her phone woke her and Marie wasn’t quite sure where she was for a moment. The bed felt unfamiliar, and there was something warm beneath her. Brooks, her brain reminded her. You’re in his guest room. And he was in his guest room, too. In fact, he was lying on his back with his arm beneath her head. She was nestled comfortably in the crook of his good shoulder, one hand on his bare chest and her leg thrown over his rock-hard thigh.
Fuck me, she thought, trying to extract herself without waking him. The phone alarm was progressively getting louder. The last thing she remembered with both of them staring at the ceiling and listening to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. They must have fallen asleep and ended up tangled together.
She finally freed herself and grabbed the phone off the nightstand to silence the alarm. When she looked back over to him she saw the way his shorts were tented up. Jesus, she needed to get out of here. She was in bed with Brooks Lach, and he had a boner, and she hadn’t had the pleasure of touching one in two years. His was probably especially nice. Perfect, just like the rest of him.
Why did she turn down that pity fuck, anyway? It’d be the best night of her life. And it would ruin her friendship with him.
He shifted in bed and opened his eyes. She saw the disorientation in his face, and then he smiled warmly at her. “Hey, penguin.”
“Good morning,” she replied, scooting away. “How does your shoulder feel?”
He flexed it and winced. “Sore. What time is it?”
“Six-thirty. I need to get a move on if I don’t want to be late for work.”
His face went unreadable. Blank. The warmth there had disappeared. “Okay,” he replied.
She changed back into the clothes she’d worn over to his house and cleaned up the mess they’d left in his kitchen while he sat at the island eating a bowl of Cheerios. She could feel his eyes on her as she moved around. It was unnerving, like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t or wouldn’t.
When she’d tossed the last container in the trash, she turned to him. “I should be going. I had a good time last night. At the game and... after. I guess I’ll see you around?”
He stood up and followed her to the door. “You’re leaving this evening or tomorrow morning.”
“Probably this evening after I wrap up things here. I should be back home by eight or nine o’clock.”
“Will you text me so I know you’re safe?”
Marie nodded. “Of course. Take care of this,” she said, placing a hand on his injured shoulder. He was still shirtless, and his skin was radiating heat. She was reluctant to let go of him. He was gorgeous, standing there in all his glory, no shirt with his chest and stomach on display, his wide shoulders making him look intimidating and manly. He also looked sad that she was leaving. It made her feel like her heart had been scooped out of her chest and discarded.
She texted him when she got home. He asked her to listen to music with him. Despite feeling wiped out from a long day of work made even longer by the four hour drive, she agreed. Saying no to Brooks just wasn’t an ability she had anymore.
Marie lied in her bed in the dark and listened to Jeff Buckley with him. Lover You Should’ve Come Over brought tears to her eyes.
Goddamn him, she thought. If only they were listening to this because he wanted to say those words to her. She’d drop everything. She’d move to D.C. She’d wear his jersey for every fucking hockey game. She’d cross her fingers and hope the Caps won the Cup just so he could be happy.
Marie cried herself to sleep, exhaustion finally taking over. She didn’t get his last text until the next morning.
Brooks: I miss you.
Marie was sitting at her desk. She couldn’t concentrate on work. She kept looking at his message from the previous night. Giving up, she walked outside. Despite April being two days away, it was still cold. Her breath turned into a mist in front of her face. The phone rang three times.
“What’s up, sis?” Derrick answered.
“I need brotherly advice.”
“Are you calling me about Laich?”
She sighed. “Fuck you.”
“I knew it.” He seemed pleased with himself.
“I need you to tell me that I should move on with my life and get a grip.”
Derrick cleared his throat. “I can’t give advice until I know what the situation is.”
“Just repeat what I said.”
“Call him and tell him you’re in love with him.”
His words rocked her back on her heels. She sat down heavily on the wooden bench outside the office.
“Marie?” Derrick said when she didn’t respond. “I was joking, but it doesn’t sound like you are.”
“I’m not in love with him.” Her voice sounded far away, like it belonged to someone else.
“Don’t lie to me. What happened?”
“Tell me,” he insisted. “Tell me or I’ll call him and ask him why he’s driving my baby sister crazy.”
She sighed. “I saw him when I went to D.C. this week to process some new hires. We had dinner, and I went to see him play.”
“Yeah, I heard he got hurt. Upper body. Supposedly he’s out for a while. Blogs are saying four weeks.”
“I know,” she said. “I spent the night at his house.”
“What?” Derrick exclaimed. He sounded genuinely surprised, despite his recent teasing.
“Don’t,” she said. “Nothing happened. I took him dinner since his shoulder is hurt. He’s in a sling. I slept in his guest room.”
She swallowed. “No. He stayed with me, but we did not have sex, so don’t be gross.”
“You slept in a bed with Brooks Laich, but nothing happened.” Derrick didn’t sound convinced.
“We listened to music and fell asleep. He was worn out after the game.”
“Did he try anything?”
“Did he try anything the night you went to dinner?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. Marie had hoped this wouldn’t come up in conversation. “He insinuated something the night before.”
“What did he insinuate, Marie?”
“Uh, that if I needed a friends with benefits situation that he might be game.”
Derrick didn’t respond right away.
“Derrick?” she asked.
“What exactly did he say?”
She sighed. “I don’t know, Derrick. It was a blur. I told him that I didn’t want any kind of pity sex. He apologized and backed off.”
“I’m going to be really fucking grown up here, sis. I think you should probably sit down and lay it all on the table with him. Figure out what he wants and what you want.”
Marie rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t want what I want, trust me.”
“What do you want?”
She shook her head. “Forget it. I have to go. Bye.”
It was nine o’clock, and she had resisted calling him, resisted even texting him. It was dangerous because she was falling for him, but she missed him too much to stay away for long. No amount of fear was going to change that fact.
She pulled his number up on her screen and pressed the button to dial him. He answered on the second ring.
She melted onto the couch. “Hey, twenty-one. I miss you, too.”
Marie chuckled. “How is your shoulder? Derrick says the blogs are abuzz. Something about four weeks.”
“Three to six. Depends on how quickly I heal. I’m on rest for now. No workouts or strenuous activity.”
“Are you going crazy?”
“So crazy,” he agreed. “You should come visit me this weekend and keep me company.
She smiled. “I just got back from D.C.”
“I’ll book you a ticket so you don’t have to drive.”
“You will not! Don’t waste your money on that.” Really, she wanted to tell him to please waste his money on flying her out to see him.
“I waste my money on worse things. You could come feed me since all I can do is pour cereal in a bowl and dial my phone to order a pizza.”
“Maybe I’ll come visit next weekend.”
“My guest room belongs to you, penguin.” He sounded genuinely happy at her offer, and that made Marie grin. As much as she tortured herself over her feelings for Brooks, she always felt giddy when she was able to spend time with him, in person or over the phone.
“What are you up to tonight?”
“Nothing. What are you up to?”
“I’ve got a hot date,” she said.
He was silent before saying, “Oh.”
“With this hockey player on the phone,” she added.
She could hear him smiling when he responded. “Is he cute?”
“Oh boy, you don’t even know the half of it. I saw him with his shirt off once. I almost passed out.”
“What’s on the agenda?”
“Want to listen to a new album I just got?”
“Definitely,” Brooks said.
“O’Spada. Swedish band. Funkalicious eighties throwback.”
He chuckled and said, “Let me download it. Can we stay on the phone instead of texting?”
Marie felt her heart thump in her chest. This boy, this boy. He was going to make her fall in love from over two hundred miles away. Tonight she felt reckless, though. “Yes, I’d love that.”
Within five minutes he was back on the line and telling her when he was going to start the album. They were able to coordinate the start time better on the phone. She could hear the rich sounds of the production coming out of her nice speakers, but it was echoed through the tiny phone speaker.
Halfway through the second song Brooks said, “This is so you.” He sounded amused.
“Do you like it?”
“Of course I do, penguin. I love it.”
She smiled into her phone and laid herself back on the couch. “I love listening to music with you. It makes it so much... better.”
Brooks was pressuring her to agree to a visit during Easter weekend. She had Good Friday off, which would give her three days to visit him in D.C. Marie was nervous about spending such a long stretch of time in his house. Alone. With him. She would no doubt make a fool of herself, especially if he crawled into bed with her again. It was Tuesday, and she was still on the fence about the visit. Derrick was firmly in the visit camp. He thought she should go in there and tip her hand, ask Brooks what he wanted with her. Marie wasn’t about to open that can of worms because she knew the answer to that was friendship. He just seemed so lonely sometimes.
“Marie, can I talk to you?” Christine asked. The woman was in her fifties and ran the human resources department of the company. Marie had a great relationship with the older woman because Christine felt like her second mother sometimes.
“What’s up?” she asked, settling into an armchair in front of Christine’s desk.
Christine’s eyes were wide, and she drummed her fingers on the desk. “We’ve got some great news, and I wanted to talk to you first. The estimating department has put out quite a bit of quotes in the surrounding area in an attempt to drum up some more work. Upper management is pushing hard to expand. After we got that bridge job in D.C., we started flooding that area with bids.”
“Did we get another project there?” Marie was more than a little excited. Another excuse to visit Brooks.
Christine sat back in her seat. “Actually, we got three. One of them is huge. We just got word on it yesterday afternoon. The client is a private firm and they want us to start right away.”
Marie raised her eyebrows. Did this mean she was going back to D.C. for another hiring spree tomorrow?
“John is hyped up about this because he’s been thinking of opening a branch office. The market in D.C. is great, and we really think this is an amazing chance to grow the company.”
“What are you saying?”
Christine leaned forward and crossed her fingers on the desk. “I’m saying that we’re opening a D.C. area office. Exact location remains to be seen, but we’ve got a month to figure it out.”
“Wow,” Marie said. “So, I guess I won’t be going out there to hire on location in the construction trailer.”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about. We need someone to head up the H.R. department in D.C. The only person who has more seniority than you is Deb and she has three kids and a husband. How do you feel about moving to D.C. and getting a big fat promotion?” Christine was smiling at Marie, her eyes wide and excited.
Marie felt everything recede down a tunnel. All she could hear was a deafening roar in her ears. “Really?” Her voice was far away, echoing.
Christine nodded. “Really. You can think about it, of course. But it’d be a promotion, a significant raise, and you’d be your own boss. You’d only answer to me and John here in corporate. So will you think about it?”
“Yes,” Marie said.
“Yes, you’ll sleep on it?”
She swallowed. “Yes, I’ll do it. I’m in.” Simple as pie. This could be the best thing to ever happen to her. Or the worst. Brooks aside, the opportunity itself was phenomenal. She just hoped she could keep her distance and maintain their friendship while living in the same city as her hockey player.
When she walked out of Christine’s office, she kept going until she was outside. The sky was cloudy today and threatening a late-season snow. She called Brooks, expecting to get his voicemail. He answered instead.
“Hey, penguin.” Always the the term of endearment. He knew how to melt her heart with two words.
“I have weird news.”
“Good weird or bad weird?”
“Good weird, I hope.”
She could tell he was smiling at her when he replied, “Hit me.”
“Apparently, I’m moving to D.C.”
One second stretched into two, and then those two seconds doubled. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he said, “Are you serious?”
Marie faltered. What if he didn’t really want her in the same city cramping his style. Maybe their friendship was best left long distance with a few visits a year. Maybe he thought she was just going to stalk him around town and make it impossible for him to find a girlfriend. “Serious,” she said softly, feeling sick to her stomach. “The company I work for is opening a satellite office in the D.C. area. I’m getting a promotion if I agree to transfer there.”
His breath whooshed out against the mouthpiece of his phone. “Penguin, that’s great. That’s amazing.” He seemed relieved. Maybe even happy. “When are you moving?”
“The end of the April. I don’t think I’ve wrapped my head around this yet. That’s not a lot of time.”
“I’ll help you.”
“You’re busy, Brooks. You’ll be knee-deep in the playoffs by then.”
He shushed her. “I’ll make it work. Besides, my shoulder might keep me out.”
“This is scary,” she admitted.
“This is good,” Brooks replied.
Marie felt guilty after she hung up with Brooks. She’d told him before she’d told her own family. Derrick’s reaction was mixed. It was going to be difficult to be away from him; he’d been her rock for so long. But he understood this was an opportunity of a lifetime for her. Although, it did take quite a bit of convincing for Marie to make him understand this wasn’t just about Brooks.
Was it? she thought. It was about her career, not a boy. Maybe the boy factored in there somewhere, though. Or maybe she was just delusional because the boy was actually a man and the man wasn’t interested in her as anything but a friend.
Brooks texted her that evening and asked her to call him when she got home. She dutifully did.
“We need to plan your move,” he said as soon as he picked up the phone.
Marie laughed. “I need to plan my move. And I need to get rid of approximately seventy-three percent of my shit before I do so or I’ll need two U-Haul trucks.”
“Are you still coming this weekend?”
She sat down on the couch. “I don’t think so. I have a gazillion things to do here. The timeline is starting to freak me out.”
“Do you know where you’re living when you get here?”
She laughed again. He was even further along than she was in thinking about what she was going to do to make this move work. “I don’t know. I figured I’d put my furniture in storage and just rent a furnished efficiency by the week until I can get an apartment. D.C. is way more expensive than Pittsburgh.”
“Stay with me.”
She froze. “What?”
“Stay with me until you can find a place. I’ve got the extra bedroom, and you already know I’m not a murderer.”
“Brooksy, I don’t know. I don’t want to cramp your style.”
“I don’t have any style.”
She snorted. “You do so. I’ve seen those sexy Boss suits.”
“Mmm, sexy? Really?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know it, twenty-one.”
“I like to hear you say it. So, you’re staying with me until you can find a place, right?”
“It would make the move so much easier...” he said.
Marie sighed. He was right; it would make things so much easier. She could store her furniture in his garage and take her time finding an apartment that suited her. “Only if you let me pay you rent.”
He scoffed. “Dinner once a week. That’s the going rate for my guest room.”
She sighed again. “Fine. You’re the cheapest place in town. I hope you don’t have roaches.”
“Just creepy guys that will sneak into your bed at night for cuddles.”
Marie laughed and told him to stop overdosing on his pain medication before she said goodnight and hung up.
April was almost over. It had felt like the longest month of Marie’s life. She was sitting on her sofa, surrounded by boxes. The windows felt bare without curtains framing them, and she could no longer cook anything because all her dishes and cookware were carefully packed away in newspaper and cardboard. Brooks was still on injured reserve because of his shoulder, and Marie had just watched the Caps lose the first series to Boston. It stung.
She wasn’t sure when she started rooting for them, but she wasn’t about to admit it to Brooks or he’d know he had succeeded in turning her into a fan. She picked up her phone and texted him.
Marie: I’m sorry, twenty-one
Twenty minutes later, he texted her back.
Brooks: Next season
She carried the phone into the bathroom so she could brush her teeth and wash her face. After her nightly rituals were done, she crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to her chin and shoving her face into the pillow next to her. She was ashamed to admit that sometimes she imagined the pillow was Brooks. It was a poor replacement for his muscular chest and strong arms, though.
Just before midnight, her phone rang. He was the only one who called her this late.
“Hey, Brooksy,” she said softly.
“Hey, baby. Did I wake you?”
Marie opened her mouth and then closed it. She’d been drifting off to sleep, and it was possible she’d heard wrong. Did he just call her baby? “No,” she replied, finding her voice again. “I was still up. How are you doing?”
“Frustrated. I wanted to play.”
He sighed heavily. “Yeah, I know.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t be sorry, penguin.” He paused and then brightened his tone. “Hey, are you ready to move to civilization?”
“Pittsburgh is hardly the boonies.”
“D.C. is so much better. You’ll see. I have so many places I want to show you.”
She laughed at his enthusiasm. “I’m taking baby steps. First order of business is to pack the U-Haul tomorrow. I’m so nervous.”
“Don’t be nervous. It’ll be fine. Listen to an album with me since you’ll be here in a couple days.”
“Your choice. Tell me what I need.”
“Bruce Peninsula. Small Town Murder Songs.”
“Sounds scary,” she said as she pulled her computer into bed with her and searched iTunes for the album. It downloaded in seconds.
“It’s amazing,” he said.
She laid in bed in her empty room and listened to the rhythmic music driven by drums and powerful vocals. It was dark music that was laced with faith and hope, and it was absolutely, undeniably powerful.
“Good choice,” Marie said after the first three songs had played.
“I can’t wait to see you,” Brooks replied.
“Right back at you, twenty-one.”
Her alarm went off at seven-thirty. She’d been up late with Brooks on the phone, and dragging herself out of bed to play Tetris with all her worldly possessions and a U-Haul sounded like the last thing she wanted to do. Unfortunately, she was not capable of twitching her nose and making the move happen without actual effort.
After an energy bar for breakfast, she started piling boxes up by the door for easy loading. Derrick had promised to be over by nine o’clock with the U-Haul she’d rented. Luckily, the late April day was perfect for moving. The forecast was sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Dusting her hands off on her shorts, she sat down on the couch and surveyed the wreckage of her apartment. This was her last night in Pittsburgh. She was going to pack up the bed tonight and crash at Derrick’s house before heading out the next morning.
She was nervous about the move, her new position with the company, and Brooks. Looking forward to spending time with him was like being a glutton for punishment, like being dehydrated and sitting next to a glass of cold water you couldn’t touch. But it felt good, and for now that was enough. She’d live in his guest room for a couple weeks until she could find her own place.
Just before nine, a U-Haul pulled up in front of her building. She hurried over to open the door before Derrick had a chance to knock. When it swung open to reveal Brooks, she felt her jaw drop to the floor.
“Hey, penguin,” he said with a warm smile. Before she could respond, he was across the threshold and giving her the biggest hug she’d ever had. His arms were wrapped tight around her and his face was bent down and buried in her hair. Her arms had gone around his neck on instinct, which pressed her body fully against his. She couldn’t quite think straight.
“What? What are you doing here?” she asked.
Brooks pulled back and said, “To help you move.”
“How did you know where I live?”
“I called your brother. He met me at the airport this morning.”
He casually tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I wanted to help, but I didn’t know if I’d be ready to play or if we’d advance to the next series. Didn’t want to let you down by not being able to follow through on a promise, so I waited until the loss last night to buy a ticket here for early this morning.”
“Oh.” She was floored.
“This is the only good thing about being eliminated.”
Derrick walked up behind Brooks and clapped him on the back. “Surprise!” Derrick said to Marie. “I brought you some muscle.”
Marie swallowed. Muscle, indeed. That’s all Brooks was. Maybe she’d get to see him with his shirt off today. The sling was gone and he looked much more comfortable.
“You can’t lift things–your shoulder.”
Brooks shook his head and slipped inside her apartment. “I’ve been lifting weights for the past week. Nothing too heavy or strenuous, but I’m not completely out of commission. Just easing back into it. I’ll be ready for full off-season training in another couple weeks.”
While Brooks wandered around her apartment, surveying the boxes, Marie looked at her brother. He was smiling. “He’s totally in love with you, Marie,” Derrick whispered.
She was going to have a heart attack. Her heart was beating too hard, too fast. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she hissed.
Derrick shrugged. “Just sayin’. He flew out here to help you drive the U-Haul to D.C. That’s a pretty big deal.”
“He’s a nice guy,” Marie replied under her breath.
“Who’s a nice guy?”
They both turned to look at Brooks. He’d heard her. “You,” Marie responded. “Stop being such a nice guy or you’ll make me like you too much.”
Brooks smiled broadly. “Not possible, Penguin. Not possible at all.”
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
It only took them about three hours to fill the U-Haul. Marie had spent the past two weeks donating things she no longer wanted or needed to cut down on the amount of things she’d have to move. She stood in her empty apartment and looked at the bare floors and walls. It felt strange. She was going to be living with Brooks Laich. At least temporarily. That was strange too.
Looking out her living room window, she saw Brooks and Derrick talking by the U-Haul. She couldn’t hear their conversation, but they seemed to be deep in it. Brooks was talking, moving his hands occasionally. Her brother’s head was down, and he was nodding. Then Derrick looked up at Brooks and said something. Brooks nodded and continued talking. What were they discussing? The move? Her? She would kill Derrick if he told Brooks she had feelings for him.
Finally, the two men shook hands and Derrick clapped Brooks on the shoulder twice with his free hand. Marie turned away from the window and walked outside. “What’s going on out here?” she asked.
Derrick smiled at her. “Nothing. Let’s go get some lunch.”
They went to an Indian place that Marie loved. She wanted to have it one last time before she moved away and couldn’t get it whenever she liked. Afterward, Derrick and Brooks drove the U-Haul to her brother’s house while Marie followed in her car.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in Derrick’s backyard. His two boys were enamored with Brooks, despite him being a member of a rival team. They were so star-struck it didn’t matter. Brooks took it all in stride, signing just about everything that could be signed and letting the nine-year-old and eleven-year-old take pictures of and with him. Marie sat on the patio with Jenna and watch them talk Brooks’ ear off by the fire pit in the center of the back yard.
“He’s good with them,” Jenna said. She hadn’t recognized Brooks. Despite being married to a hockey fanatic and having two sons who loved the sport, Jenna knew nothing about it.
“Yeah, he is,” Marie agreed.
“Not too bad on the eyes either. It should be a crime for a guy that looks that good to have a way with kids and want to help you move.”
Marie smiled at her sister-in-law. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“Derrick thinks you’re secretly dating him, you know.”
“I’m not. I wish I was.”
As if sensing they were discussing him, Brooks looked up from the remote control monster truck the boys were showing him and smiled at Marie. She shook her head and held up her pointer finger to give him a little wave.
“You should make a move. He seems like he’d be receptive. You know he keeps watching you, right?”
“I don’t think I’m his type.”
Jenna hummed in thought. “He turn you down?”
“I never asked.”
“I don’t want to ruin what we have. I’d miss him if he wasn’t in my life.”
Jenna took a drink of her ice tea as she watched the boys run over to their dad at the grill and then hurry back to Brooks. “You’re in love with him.”
Marie felt her shoulders slump and her body fold in on itself. “Probably.”
“Definitely,” Jenna said. “He’s being a little too nice for friends only. Flying here to help you move. Offering to drive the U-Haul back. Letting you stay in his house.”
“He’s a nice guy.”
“No guy is that nice,” Jenna said with a roll of her eyes. “Unless he wants something more than friendship out of it.”
“Mom!” Matt, the older boy, ran up to Jenna. “Brooks said we can practice with him the next time he comes back to Pittsburgh.”
Jenna laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair. “That’s great, buddy. He’ll teach you all the tricks so you can be a great player like he is.”
When Matt ran off, Jenna looked over at Marie. “The next time he comes back, huh? Sounds like he’s your boyfriend.”
“He’s a nice guy.”
“And you’re a blind fool,” her sister-in-law said.
They’d had burgers and potato chips for dinner on the patio, followed by a few beers and adult conversation once Matt and Aaron had had their fill of Brooks. Everyone went to bed at a respectable hour. Brooks took Matt’s bed and Marie slept on the couch. Matt told everyone several times about how jealous the other kids at school were going to be when they found out an NHL player had slept over.
The next morning they hooked her car up to the trailer, and Marie climbed into the U-Haul with Brooks. He insisted on driving, and she wasn’t about to tell him no. Pulling the trailer with her car on it was intimidating. He was more qualified than she was to do something like that.
Conversation during the four-hour drive to D.C. was light and fun. Brooks gave her his survival tips for the city, promising to show her around. Marie relentlessly made fun of his choice in music when he insisted on listening to the classic rock station. Really, she didn’t mind it, but she like to tease him.
They were only a couple miles from his house when she realized something important. “Don’t you go home during the summer?”
“Home?” he asked.
“Home to Canada. Most of the guys do, don’t they?”
“I think of D.C. as home now, I guess. I usually go home for two or three weeks to visit my parents, but I spend most of the summer here. If I travel, then it’s just for off-season training.”
“Oh, I was worried that I’d thrown all your plans off.”
He glanced over at her and smiled as he came to a stop at a traffic light. “Don’t worry about me, penguin. I’d stick around for you any day.”
“You’ll kick me out if I become a pest, right?”
“Never. I’m going to lock you in my room and never let you out.”
She laughed, trying to ignore the possible innuendo. “Don’t go all serial killer now.”
His phone rang, and he answered it, giving a couple short responses.
When he hung up, she said, “Hot date?”
“With three other Caps. They’re waiting for you at my house.”
“For me?” Marie’s eyes widened.
“I asked for backup. You’re not lifting a thing, but you are going to tell Greenie, Fehr, and Erskine where to put all your stuff when we get to my house.”
“Brooks,” she whined. “I don’t want to make a big deal and inconvenience these guys. You’re all tired, and I can carry my own stuff.”
“It’ll take them less than an hour. I can’t have my girl lugging her own boxes around.”
She sucked in a deep breath, pondering over the use of “my girl. ” She didn’t have long to think about it because within a minute he was pulling up to a nice house that looked brand new. She’d been there before, but it had been dark. The yard was landscaped, and the grass was green. The garage was, thankfully, huge. Three men stood out front, and she recognized each one.
Brooks was out of the U-Haul and greeting the three guys before Marie could even get her seatbelt off. Before she was ready to step into his world, he had pulled open the passenger door and offered his hand to help her out. Fucking gentleman. It was almost too much, especially with the other three guys there. They were giving him a strange look. Probably because they were wondering why he was making such a big deal out of such an average chick.
“Long time, no see,” Mike said, putting an arm around her shoulder. He smelled like expensive cologne and looked like he belonged in an edgy fashion magazine.
“Yeah, how have you been?”
“I’ve been better, but there’s always next season,” he said, letting her go. “This is Fehr and Erskine.”
Marie suppressed the blush that was forming on her cheeks. She hated being the center of attention. “Hi, nice to meet you both.” She shook their hands and then said, “For the record, I wanted to do this myself, but he snuck around behind my back and called you guys.”
“Don’t worry about it,” John Erskine said.
“They don’t have anything better to do, the bums,” Brooks said, coming up behind Marie and putting a hand on her back to let her know he was there.
He’d opened the back of the U-Haul, and the three guys filed over to start unloading. Brooks held his hand out for her keys. She handed them over so he could get her car off the trailer and park it in his driveway.
All Marie could do was stand back and answer questions about where each box went. She directed her clothes and a couple other boxes of personal items to the bedroom, but most everything was packed away in one side of his garage. True this his word, it took Brooks and his three teammates less than an hour to unload the U-Haul.
Mike and Eric Fehr offered to drop the rental off for her. She told them no, but Brooks came up behind her and snatched the paperwork out of her hands. He passed it and the keys over to Mike. “Thanks, Greenie,” he said.
While Eric and John were sweeping out the back of the U-Haul, Brooks grabbed their empty water bottles out of the cab.
“Thanks for taking it back,” Marie said to Mike.
“No problem.” He shifted on his feet. “So what’s up with you and Brooksy?”
She laughed softly. “Temporarily.”
Mike stepped closer to her and lowered his head. “He talks about you all the time, you know.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “And he’d kill me if he knew I just told you that. So don’t say anything to him.”
Marie’s eyes were wide. “I... uh, okay. I won’t say anything. What does he say about me?”
Brooks was approaching. Mike saw him and smiled at her.
“Is he bothering you?” Brooks asked.
She shook her head, still confused about what Mike had just said.
“See you around.” Mike walked off to join Eric. John Erskine yelled goodbye to everyone as he slid behind the wheel of his car.
Within a few seconds she was alone with Brooks, standing in his driveway. “I need to sit down and catch my breath,” she told him.
She’d been living with him for a week. There were no practices to go to because the season was over, and he wasn’t quite ready for his full off-season training yet. His shoulder was still a week or two shy of being cleared for whatever his trainer had in store for him. She had been working from his house half the time and from the tiny construction trailer the other half the time. It meant Brooks got to be around her more than ever.
At first, he wondered if his feelings for her would diminish once she was accessible to him all the time. He couldn’t decide if he was glad or not that he had actually grown even closer to her. She’d cooked him dinner twice over the past week, and both meals were delicious. Seeing someone use his kitchen was surreal. Bachelor no more, he thought. And it felt good. Really good.
On his way home from a Saturday morning at the gym, he called his mom to ask how she and his dad were. His mom cut to the chase.
“How are things with your new roommate?”
“Brooks, you can tell me if she’s more than just a roommate. You know that, right?”
“She’s a roommate. Or a houseguest.”
“What’s her name?”
His mom paused before asking, “Tell me about her.”
“She’s the same age as me, and she works in Human Resources for a construction company. I met her in October, but we didn’t really talk much until the beginning of the year.” When his mom didn’t say anything he continued. “She’s great, mom. You’d like her.”
“Are you going to bring her home with you when you come visit us next month?”
He swallowed. He’d love to bring her home. “She just got promoted, mom. I don’t think she can take two weeks off work.”
“So, you want to bring her home with you?”
He chuckled. “Come on, mom. You’re being nosey.”
“It’s my job. Are you in love, Brooks?”
He felt it in the pit of his stomach. That goddamn word. Love. He’d only ever said it to his first girlfriend. Hockey had been his life since then. He’d casually dated, but never gotten in deep enough for those feelings to surface. And now he’d accidentally done it. Accidentally fallen for someone.
“Brooks?” his mom said.
“She’s special to me, mom.”
“But she’s not your girlfriend?”
He sighed. “It’s complicated. She’s complicated.”
“She must know know what a catch you are.”
Her comment made him laugh softly. “I think she does, but it’s... it’s hard. I don’t know how to tell her.”
“Sweetheart, just tell her. It’s easy.”
“Yeah, mom. I’ll try.” He said goodbye and hung up just as he pulled in the driveway. He hadn’t meant that conversation to be turned into an inquisition on his lack of a relationship with the woman who was stealing his life.
When he stepped into the house, he heard thumping music. It sounded like trashy R&B. He paused in the doorway to see if he could identify what she was listening to.
I can give a fuck about the foreplay, I want it now. I’m talking straight sex. Stop fuckin’ around.
His eyes went wide. Marie was listening to this?
He walked down the hall and around the corner. She was kneeling in the kitchen floor with a bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush. Because she was facing away from him, she hadn’t noticed she wasn’t alone.
Brooks swallowed. She was in a pair of shorts that were very close to being so short they didn’t qualify as outerwear. Her ass was in the air, and the denim was stretched tight over it. She was humming to the melody of the song and scrubbing the grout between the tiles. It made her ass wiggle back and forth. Fuck, he thought. She had him at a disadvantage. This wasn’t fair.
He stood in the doorway and watched her for a full minute. She lifted herself up off her hands and wiped her forehead with her arm as she surveyed the half of the floor she’d already scrubbed. Her T-shirt was tighter than the ones she usually wore. It showed off her tits and the way her body dipped in at her waist and then flared out into hips he wanted to grab onto. The next song started and it sounded like a soundtrack for sex that would break the bed.
She dropped the brush and brought her hands up to adjust her tits in the shirt. He almost lost it and crawled up behind her. Brooks was pretty sure if he pressed her, she’d let him take her in the floor. He felt a shot of warmth in his stomach as his cock twitched to life.
This wasn’t fair. She didn’t know he was behind her developing filthy fantasies that involved stripping her clothes off and seeing how tight she was. She was probably so tight. His cock was misbehaving and he needed to leave.
She dropped to her hands and knees again and grabbed for the brush. Her ass started shaking while the brush moved against the tiles. He cleared his throat.
She squeaked in surprise and flipped the brush across the floor. It spun out and smacked into the bottom of the fridge. “Oh my God! You scared the shit out of me,” she exclaimed, pressing a hand to her chest.
He saw the moment she realized the position she was in. She stood and yanked her shorts down her legs. They weren’t covering as much of her legs as she wanted. Her arms then folded tightly over her chest, and she moved to put the island between them. She had no idea how hot she made him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I thought you were out until this afternoon.”
He walked around the island to get closer to her. She slid away from him, pulling at the tight T-shirt. “My shoulder was feeling a little strained, so I left early. Didn't want to push it too much.”
Another song had just started.
Brooks smiled. “What are you listening to?”
Her face turned red. She looked like she wanted to die, and he was loving every second of it. His little penguin needed to get laid. “This is so inappropriate,” she said.
I got my left hand on that booty, got my right hand on that pussy.
Inappropriate, indeed. The lyrics almost made him blush along with her.
“You’re the one who turned it on,” he replied.
“I thought I was alone.”
Brooks chuckled. “Is this what you listen to when you’re by yourself?”
“Conversation is over,” she said, all but running out of the room. A few seconds later the music cut off, and she was in the guest room with the door closed.
Damn, he thought.
She was scarce the rest of the weekend. They had dinner on Sunday, but she scurried off to her room right afterward. He wasn’t sure what he could do to pull her out of her shell.
On Monday night, she came home late and collapsed on the couch beside him. She was still in her work clothes–a pair of slacks and a blue satin blouse. “We moved into the new office today. I’m beat.”
“Why so tired?” he asked.
“I spent the day moving furniture around and organizing files.”
“They made you move furniture?”
She rolled her head over to look at him. “I just reorganized it; it was nothing.”
Brooks narrowed his eyes at her. They better not be making his girl move furniture. She was too good for that. His girl. The phrase made him want to laugh. She wasn’t his at all. He couldn’t even pin her down long enough to tell her that he thought he was in love with her.
“I’m going to take a shower and go to bed. My muscles ache.” With that said, she pushed herself up and trudged upstairs.
Brooks dialed Mike.
“What up, Brooksy?”
“I’m losing my touch.”
Mike laughed. “What touch?”
“She’s driving me crazy.”
“Oh, Marie, huh?”
“A couple days ago I came home early, and she was in these tight-ass clothes, on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor.”
Mike chucked. “Nice.”
“And she was listening to this nasty R&B music. The guy was singing about fucking women.”
“Really. My balls are blue.”
Mike sounded like he was bent over, laughing so hard he couldn’t catch a breath. “Make a move on her, man,” he finally said once he was able to get some air and smother the laughter.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Bullshit. Just, you know, go in for the kill. I bet she’d go for it.”
“You’re no help,” Brooks replied, hanging up on his teammate. He paced the living room and then paced the kitchen. He heard the bathroom door open upstairs, and he hurried over to flip off the lights downstairs. Cautiously, he climbed the staircase and edged down the hall. Her door was cracked open, and the lamp on the nightstand illuminated the room. She was face down on the bed in a pair of cotton shorts and an old tank top. It was tight against her body.
His eyes moved from the tips of her toes to the arches of her feet, then up her shapely legs and round ass that dipped into her waist. He knew she was self-conscious about her body because she didn’t look like a model. But in his mind she looked better than a model. All soft curves and yielding flesh. He was a fucking creep for standing out here and staring at her ass.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door and stepped inside her room. “You look like you could use a massage.”
She gasped and flipped over on her side to look at him. It gave him a view of her tits. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and the tight tank top hinted at two darker spots that had to be her nipples. “You’ve got to stop sneaking up on me like that,” she said.
“Roll over,” he demanded.
“Just roll over.” She flipped back to her stomach, and he knelt on the bed by her feet. Her entire body was tense. He lightly placed a hand on her ankle and slowly moved it up to her calf, giving a squeeze.
“What are you doing?” Her voice was muffled and nervous.
“Giving you a massage.”
“I thought you didn’t like massages.”
He smiled. “I don’t like getting them. But I don’t mind giving them, especially to girls who have had a long day at work.”
She giggled, then gasped as he threw his leg over her thighs to straddle her. From this position he was able to slide both hands up her back to work her shoulders.
“Mmm, that feels so good,” she said dreamily.
“You’re tight,” Brooks said. He winced at his choice of words. “Tense,” he clarified. But she was probably tight, too. He wouldn’t mind sliding her shorts down, pulling her hips up and finding out exactly how tight she was. The thought brought his cock to half mast.
“Oh, God. That feels like heaven,” she moaned as he dug his thumbs into her shoulder blades. “Don’t stop.”
Brooks smiled and let his hands slide down her back and then up underneath her tank top. The bare skin of her back was all creamy smoothness beneath his fingertips. When she didn’t flip out on him, he curled his fingers around her, ghosting them over the sides of her breasts as he came to the end of her torso.
He moved his hands up to her shoulders. Her shirt was just a joke by now, bunched up around her shoulders and revealing her entire back. Leaning down until his mouth was a few inches from her ear, Brooks said, “Does this feel good?”
“Yes.” Her voice was soft and breathy. He wondered if that’s what she’d sound like when he was buried deep inside her. She’s probably let him. A few quick motions, and he could have her shorts and panties off. And then it’d only take his hands pulling her hips up to find a home for his cock.
She’s probably hate him in the morning, though. He couldn’t handle that. Repressing his libido, he gently manipulated her muscles for another couple minutes before pulling her shirt down and kissing the back of her head.
“You’re too good at that,” she said softly.
He chuckled and swatted at her ass before he pushed himself off the bed. She rolled over onto her side, her inhibitions gone for the moment. He must have done something right because her eyes were dark, and she was holding herself with more confidence.
“I try,” he replied, throat suddenly dry.
“I’m kinda regretting turning down your offer in the club that night.”
Brooks raised his brows. “Which offer was that?”
“The rock-my-world offer.”
His cock jumped. “It’s still on the table, penguin. Just say the word.” Say it now, he thought. I can get these clothes off in less than three seconds and have yours off in another two. Five seconds and my face could be buried between your thighs, he wanted to say.
She blushed prettily and shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You know where to find me,” he said before turning and leaving her alone in the guest room.
Three nights she had lain in bed and thought about sneaking into his room. He’d made it clear she was welcome, and it didn’t seem that he was feeling sorry for poor little Marie who couldn’t get laid. He seemed more like a predatory animal since the incident in the kitchen. She couldn’t believe he’d found her with those ratty old clothes on, scrubbing his floor. The shorts had been way too short, and the old T-shirt had been threadbare and too tight.
The massage on Monday was just icing on the cake. Brooks’ strong hands on her skin nearly undid any composure and control she’d managed to maintain around him. A man had no business being so fucking perfect, especially a man who wanted to have sex with her. Or at least she thought he did. The way his eyes followed her when they were in the same room made Marie nervous and raised her body temperature.
Thursday was long day at work. Some unanticipated bumps along the road to opening the new office were stressing her out and all she wanted to do was go home and sit in a quiet room. Or maybe take off her clothes and crawl under his sheets. She grimaced as she walked into the house. She couldn’t take off her clothes in front of him. He was a god with a perfect body, and she was just... regular.
It was almost eight o'clock, and the house was empty and quiet. She found a note on the kitchen counter from him.
Meeting Greenie for dinner. Text me if you want me to bring you something back. Or if you want to check out my mattress.
She groaned and crumpled the note up. Cheeky bastard. She definitely wanted to check out his mattress. Her libido was out of control. Marie trudged upstairs and stripped off her clothes. The shower was calling her name.
After washing her hair and shaving her legs, her mind started wandering to Brooks. Always him. It always came back to him. If someone had told her back in October that she’d be living with him and trying to avoid having sex with him, she would have laughed in their face. Life had taken a surreal turn.
Tentatively, she propped her foot up and glided a hand down her body to stroke herself. She imagined him in the shower with her, his hands all over and his lips on her neck.
It didn’t take much to tighten her proverbial spring until she was ready to pop. She was home alone, and her moans bouncing off the bathroom walls spurred her on. So close, just a bit more. His cock was probably perfect just like the rest of him.
“Oh God, Brooks,” she sobbed as she came. One hand was between her legs and the other was clutching at the wall. Marie lowered herself to the floor of the shower and let the spray beat on her head and back. Her legs were trembling and needed a brief rest. After only a minute, she pushed herself up, turned off the shower, and dried off with a fluffy white towel.
Who was she kidding? She couldn’t go through with it. He really would feel sorry for her and her lack of bedroom skills if she ever slept with him. And it would certainly destroy this friendship.
Wrapping the towel around her body, she pulled open the bathroom door. She almost screamed when she came face to face with a broad chest. It was him, and he was standing in her way, blocking the door. One arm was resting on the wall beside the door and the other was hanging at this side. His hands were balled up into tight fists, and his eyes were blown.
“Hi,” he said through tight lips.
“Hi,” Marie squeaked. “I thought you were meeting Mike for dinner.”
“Change of plans.” He looked almost angry.
Marie tried to step around him, but he wouldn’t move. “Can I go grab some clothes?”
His flat answer shocked her. She took a step back.
“I heard you, you know.”
Oh God, she thought. She’d been pretty vocal in the shower. She’d even said his name when she came. Her face flushed. “I... uh, I...”
Before she could finish her response, he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her out of the bathroom. Within a second, she was pushed up against the wall in the hallway. The towel was loose, and the only thing holding it up with his body pressed hard against hers.
“Did you say my name, penguin?”
Marie could feel his erection pressing against her stomach. She couldn’t lie to him, not when he knew damn well she had. “Uh huh.”
Brooks’ hands were firm on her waist. One moved up so he could thread his fingers through her wet hair. He used the leverage to tilt her head back. “I want you,” he whispered.
His eyes were hot, and he was licking his lips. She wanted to beg him to take her, but she couldn’t find her voice. It had gotten lost in her throat.
Slowly, Brooks dipped his head down and pressed his lips lightly against hers. She moaned softly and kissed him back. It was all the encouragement he seemed to need because the next moment found him almost assaulting her mouth with his.
The towel was hitched up her thighs by his knee between her legs. She grabbed at his muscular biceps, trying to find support as he explored her mouth with his tongue. His hand at the back of her head made her helpless. He took her mouth again and again. When he finally pulled back, her head was spinning, and she could feel his fingertips digging into her hip. They brought her lower body flush with his. The wall was to her back, and he was everywhere else. He felt so much better than she'd imagined.
Thoughts racing, she risked a glance up into his eyes. They were dark, overtaken by his pupils. "Marie," he said. It was almost a question.
The hand tangled in her hair dropped to her chest and jerked at the towel. She squeaked and grabbed for the material before he could pull it away. "I'm taking the towel, penguin," he warned.
"Don't. I'm embarrassed."
He pressed his hips into her. "Why?"
She dropped her gaze.
Carefully, he stepped back. She held the towel tight against herself. It's over, she thought, preparing to lock herself in her room. His hand on the bottom edge of the fabric made her gasp. "Come here." With a devilish grin, he tugged on it and coaxed her a few feet down the hall and then into his bedroom.
The room was dark, lit only by the twilight through the sheer curtains. His bed looked massive and intimidating. And it wasn’t made. The duvet was piled up at the foot of it, and the white sheets were in disarray.
"Brooks," she said, stopping in the doorway.
He tugged more forcefully on the towel before wrapping her up in his arms again and kissing her. She melted into him. So much for resisting. With roaming hands and lips as a distraction, he managed to back her up to the bed. A gentle push from him tipped her back and she fell onto his mattress. Two quick bounces and she was reclined on the bed, watching him standing over her.
Her death grip on the towel was tight. He tried to pull it away again, but she won the battle. Instead of forcing the issue, he easily drew his T-shirt over his head, revealing the shadowy plains of his muscular chest and stomach. It was nothing she hadn't seen before, but it still took her breath away. Before she could recover, he was unbuckling his belt and unzipping his jeans.
"Oh my God," she moaned, averting her eyes. She looked back up when she heard him laughing.
Her faced flushed with heat. "Hey, don't laugh at me."
"You're acting like you've never done this before."
"What? Had sex with the hottest guy on the planet? No, never done that before."
Brooks smirked and let his jeans drop. "Be careful. You'll inflate my ego. How long have you refused to get naked with a guy?"
She chewed on her lower lip. "A while."
"Two," she squeaked out.
His eyes widened. "Penguin, you're definitely getting naked with me tonight. We've got two years to make up for."
Lust shot through her. "Brooks, I... "
He was crawling onto the bed like a predator, stopping once he was on top of her. His arms held him up, and somehow, of their own volition, her legs had betrayed her and spread to accommodate him. The towel and his boxers we're the only things between them now. "The room is dark. I can barely make out your face. Can I have the towel now?"
She still clutched it to her chest. He sighed and leaned closer, running the tip of his tongue down her neck and then over her collarbone.
"You smell delicious," he whispered in her ear. All she could do was whimper and shift restlessly under him. The movement rocked her hips into his.
Brooks’ breath was hot against her skin as he gently removed the towel from her hand and opened it just enough to reveal her breasts. She blushed and turned her head away when she felt his eyes on her chest. His mouth on her left nipple made her gasp in surprise.
He lifted his head. "Oh, did that feel good?" He had that mischievous look in his eyes again. He dipped down and took her right nipple between his lips, swirling his tongue around it and sucking as he pulled his head back again. "Who's your favorite hockey player?"
Marie laughed. "Crosby."
"Bullshit," he said. "Who's your favorite, baby?" He returned his mouth to his breasts.
She moaned and clutched at his short, cropped hair, unable to find purchase. "Brooks Laich."
Marie could feel his erection rubbing against her center, and she instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist. He’d somehow pulled the towel apart while she was distracted by his mouth. Brooks kissed her hard before pushing himself up to his knees and looking down at her. She wanted to pull the sheets over her body, but resisted the urge. Instead, she watched his eyes, the light from the window reflecting in them. He traced her outline on the bed. The room was too dark for him to see many imperfections.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered, letting his hands follow where his eyes had been. He was gentle and almost revert with her, ghosting his fingertips over her skin.
Marie drew a sharp breath. “Oh, please. You don’t have to say that.”
He grabbed her hands and pinned her arms over her head with one hand. She gave a small struggle, but he was strong, and he was pressing his weight into her. The other hand was running down her chest and over her stomach until he brushed his fingertips against the coarse hair between her legs and the slit that was beneath. She knew she was probably dripping wet. “I’ll say what I want because it’s true. I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time.” His voice was gravelly and rough.
She felt a finger tentatively slip between her lower lips. “Brooks,” she begged, shifting her hips. He’d barely touched her there, and she was ready to explode.
“Do you want me?”
Marie’s head was swimming. Did she want him? What was he talking about? “Yes, yes, yes. I want you so bad.”
He let go of her hands and shucked his boxers. It must have been a hidden talent because she wasn’t even sure how he’d gotten them off. The dimness of the room prevented her from seeing anything more than a crude outline of his erection.
Brooks was on her again, settling between her legs and pinning her arms above her head again. He kissed her mouth and then moved his lips to her neck and chest. His right hand guided his cock into her. He went slow, but her breath still caught in her throat over the fullness of having him inside her. The slight pain dulled as he finished pressing into her, and then it blossomed again when he pulled out for the first stroke.
“Damn, you’re so tight,” he whispered in her ear through gritted teeth.
“It’s been a while,” she answered, biting her lip and squeezing her eyes shut. The second stroke was easier and the third was even better. By the time he developed a rhythm, she was awkwardly lifting her hips to meet his thrusts. The pain was gone and all she felt was a fluttering sensation in her core, her pleasure building.
Brooks let go of her hands and grabbed her hips. Digging his fingertips into her flesh, he helped her move with him instead of against him. Sex had never been something she felt was in her bag of tricks. She knew how to spread her legs and moan, but she’d never enjoyed it as much as some of her friends in college had. Maybe I just didn’t have the right person, she thought. Because Brooks’ slow strokes and hands guiding her hips were enough to make her head fall back in undeniable pleasure.
He spread the fingers on his right hand and ran it up her stomach and chest, palming her tits as he went. He grabbed her shoulder and slammed into her a bit harder. The forcefulness drew a ragged moan out of Marie. He did it again and again, and then he placed the fingertips of his hand on her lips. She could smell her own musky scent on them.
His hips were moving faster and harder. And she could feel herself get wetter and wetter. She parted her lips and licked his fingertips with the tip of her tongue. Brooks growled and slipped his middle finger into her mouth. Marie closed her lips and sucked his finger, swirling her tongue over the tip.
“Fuck, Marie,” he grunted. “I’m so close.”
His admission almost sent her flying off into outer space, but when he pulled his hand away from her mouth and shoved it between their bodies to thumb her clit, she really did explode into the stars. The violence of her orgasm shocked them both. She could hear a sharp keening noise, but didn’t realize immediately that it was coming from her throat.
He was bearing down on her hard and forceful. Another minute of this and she’d break apart again. She was already too sensitive to stand his delicious assault on her body. Brooks didn’t last another minute, though. Two strokes later and he had his face buried in her neck while he pumped himself into her.
She ran her fingers through his short hair as he came down. His labored breathing in her ear was one of the sexiest things she’d heard in her life. Marie felt him collapse a little more into her, pushing her deeper into the mattress. Gently, she ran her hands over his shoulders, arms and back.
“I’m crushing you,” he murmured.
“No, you’re fine.” She wanted to hold onto him and keep him exactly where he was. He could stay like that forever for all she cared.
He chuckled. “Good. Because I can’t move.”
Marie shifted her hips to get more comfortable and the muscles of her pussy clenched onto his softening cock.
Brooks gasped. “Oh God, don’t do that. I’ll get hard again and we’ll never get out of this bed.”
She smiled. That would be just fine with her.
The room was still dark when she woke up. She was still in Brook’s king-size bed. But instead of sheets covering her body, there was a hard, muscled man. He was flipping her nipples with his tongue as he guided himself inside her.
She’d never woken up this way before–a man sheathing himself inside her before she was even fully aware of what was going on.
“Brooks,” she whispered softly.
He kissed her, sliding his tongue in and out to mimic the thrust of his cock. Finally, he pulled away and pressed his lips to her ear. His breathing was heavy. “I couldn’t help myself, penguin. You feel so good.”
Her eyes rolled back in her head as he threw one of her legs over his shoulder. The position let him go deeper, hitting spots he hadn’t before.
Marie moaned. “You’re gonna make me come.”
“Come for me, baby. Please.” He rubbed her clit, moving his thumb up and down, then left and right. She moaned louder when he went left and right. He caught on in no time and continued the motion, letting her pleasure build until she felt like she was on the top of a skyscraper and leaning over the edge.
“Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop,” she chanted as she chased down her orgasm. Finally, she felt the sharp burst and the way it leaked out in waves to warm her abdomen and legs. He was right behind her, jerking his hips and spilling into her.
It wasn’t until they were lying in a sweaty heap of arms and legs that Marie realized they hadn’t used condoms. She was clean and would be surprised if Mr. Health Nut wasn’t, too. She’d been on the pill since she was twenty, even if it was just for the sake of regulating her period.
“We’re bad,” she whispered into his ear.
“Because we had great sex? Twice?”
She felt his body tense. “Shit. I... I forgot.”
“I’m okay if you are.”
He pressed a kiss to her neck and moved his lips along her jawbone. Finally, he ended the trip by kissing her mouth gently. “I’m okay,” he whispered against her lips. “But I can’t believe I did that. You’re a terrible influence.”
Marie laughed before asking, “What time is it?”
Brooks rolled off her, and Marie had to restrain herself. She wanted to reach over and pull him back on top. “Just after midnight,” he said, looking at the display on his phone. “Go back to sleep. I promise I’ll let you rest. At least for a couple hours.”
She grinned as he pulled her tight against him and threw the sheet over their bodies.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Marie slipped out of his bed just after seven o’clock and showered. She didn’t have much time to get to work, so she just threw her hair in a clip and pulled on a pair of black slacks and a white blouse. Plain black pumps completed the look. Before she left, she stood in his doorway and watched the rise and fall of his bare chest. The sheet was providing some modesty by covering him from the waist down, but the strong lines of his jaw and neck stirred something in her abdomen. He was absolutely too sexy.
The drive to work took longer than she would have liked, and she spent the entire ride thinking about all the ways what had happened last night could fuck up their friendship. Work was blissfully slow because she’d already processed payroll for the D.C. branch the day before. It made her Friday much easier and opened up the hours to thinking about Brooks Laich and his talented tongue.
At nine o’clock her phone beeped at her. She snatched it off the desk and checked her messages.
Brooks: So disappointed. I was ready for round three.
She tried to smother her smile, but it spread over her face anyway.
Marie: Me too. This work thing is a drag. Too bad I’m not a sexy hockey player who gets the summer off.
Brooks: Hey, I work hard for this hot body. You, me, dinner at six?
Marie: Are you cooking?
Brooks: If you’re naked.
She blushed and blacked out the screen on her phone. Her heart was beating a million miles a minute, and the work day was going to take forever.
Marie wiped her sweaty palms on her pants before she got out of the car and walked up to the door of his house. Her hands were shaking as she tried to fit the key in the lock. Anticipation and fear were having a battle in her brain. Anticipation was winning.
Before she could get the door unlocked, Brooks jerked it open and flashed her a smile. He grabbed Marie and pulled her inside the house. She laughed and pulled away from his eager hands. “Woah, boy. Can I get out of these gross work clothes?”
“Mmm, hmm,” he said, cornering her against a wall. “I’ll help.”
She held her hands out. “I meant to ask if I can get out of these clothes and into something more flattering for dinner.”
“I’m willing to go nude for dinner,” he teased.
She felt the blood drain out of her face. “No way. I’m not sitting in the kitchen without clothes on.” Deftly, she side-stepped his hands and hurried up the stairs. She stopped halfway and looked down at him. “But I wouldn’t mind seeing you naked in the kitchen.”
He jerked forward as if he planned on chasing her down. She squealed and hurried up the steps. After ten minutes of debating, she decided on a black and silver satin dress she’d bought a year ago and had never worn. It hugged her like a second skin, and she’d never had the nerve to wear it in public. Brooks had put his hands all over her last night, so there was nothing she had to hide from him any longer.
The dress fell to mid-thigh and it was sleeveless. She had to put on her strapless bra to pull it off. A pair of black heels were the last touch.
Marie found him in the kitchen. A pizza was on the island countertop. She put her hands on her hips and looked at him. “You didn’t cook, you cheat.”
He swept his eyes up her body and then back down. “I was distracted. The pizza is good, though. I swear.”
Marie walked past the stove and grabbed a glass out of the cupboard. It only took him three long strides before he was on top of her. Brooks spun her around and lifted her up onto the stovetop. It was a smooth, glass surface with the heating elements indicated with paint. Thankfully, it wasn’t on.
She gasped in surprise as her ass hit the stove and he stepped between her knees, forcing the satin dress further up her thighs. “You look so sexy in this dress,” he whispered before kissing her full on the mouth. She moaned as he snaked his tongue between her lips and then sucked her tongue into his mouth.
When he released her to pepper little kisses along her jawbone, she said, “You’re lucky this stove isn’t on.”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “I’d never put an ass I’m so fond of in danger of injury.”
Marie looked away and blushed.
“You’re adorable,” he said.
“Stop making me blush.”
Brooks grinned and kissed her again. “But it’s so easy,” he replied. “You know I’m going to fuck you on this stove, right?”
His words shot straight down south, and she was sure she’d just flooded her panties.
He was chuckling. “See, you’re blushing again.”
“How am I not supposed to blush when you say stuff like that?” she asked.
His eyes flashed with mischief. “Let’s see if I can really make you blush.” She sucked in a sharp breath as pulled her up against him and jerked the skirt of her dress up until it was around her waist. Before she could say a word, he’d hooked his fingers in the hips of her black panties and jerked them down her legs.
“Brooks, what are you...?” she asked, grabbing his shoulders for support. They weren’t there to help steady her for long because he had bent over and thrown her legs over his shoulders. His lips were moving up the inside of her left thigh. “Oh my god...” she whispered, her entire body tense, heels digging into his back.
“You’re so wet,” he marveled, licking at her.
“I had the best sex of my life last night. My body is pretty excited for a repeat.”
He didn’t respond because his face was buried between her legs, sucking and licking at her slit and then lavishing attention on the little nub of sensitive flesh that was now protruding from it’s protective hood. All Marie could do was lean back and prop herself up with her hands behind her while he dipped his tongue inside her pussy.
She moaned when he pressed two fingers into her and moved the tip of his tongue back up to her clit. “You’re so goddamn tight,” he growled, his mouth still firmly on her.
Marie felt like she was on fire. Every stroke of his tongue and fingers lit up her body. “You’re so goddamn good at this,” she replied between heavy breaths.
He pulled her closer to the edge of the stove and sucked her clit between his lips. The pressure sent her off the cliff and careening down into pleasure. Marie cried out his name. Before she had a chance to come down from the high, he was standing in front of her and wrapping her legs around his waist. His shorts were pushed down and he was lining his cock up.
Marie gasped in shock and pleasure has he sheathed himself in her in one long stroke. His hands were on her hips, helping her move to his rhythm. She was still holding herself up with her hands pressing into the stovetop behind her.
“You’re so beautiful like this,” he said, looking up at her face and then back down to where they were joined together. She glanced down and saw his thick cock slide out before he pushed it all the way back in. Her vision blurred.
Marie moved one hand to rub herself. She gathered the juices that were flowing around him and spread them on her clit.
His strokes were getting erratic, and he moved his right hand up to join with hers as they both worked at getting her off. “You’re. Going. To. Kill. Me.” He punctuated each word with a stroke. “We. Might. Not. Leave. The. House. This. Weekend.”
An entire weekend of amazing sex in his bed. As if his touch wasn’t enough to set her off, the idea of having him take her again and again did the trick. She came hard, convulsing around his cock. The sensation undid Brooks, and he grunted her name as he slammed into her one last time.
“You’re making me nervous,” she said as she brought a slice of pizza to her mouth. She was sitting on a stool beside him, and they were eating cold pizza for dinner. After he’d lifted her off the stove, she had pulled her dress down and slid up on the stool. He’d wrecked her; she couldn’t even stand for very long without her weak legs getting wobbly. Her nice satin dress was probably wet with the evidence of their orgasms. She’d have to wash it by hand.
“Why am I making you nervous?” he asked as he took a bite of pizza, never taking his eyes off her.
Marie shifted and felt the wetness between her legs. She really needed a shower, but the idea that she was sitting there after what they’d done sent a thrill of excitement through her. “You’re watching me.”
Brooks grinned. “I’m making plans for the rest of our night; I need inspiration.”
Oh boy, she thought. Could she get any more aroused? Two slices of pizza, twenty minutes of rest, and she was ready for round two on the floor of the kitchen. “You’re bad,” she said before taking another bite of pizza.
Marie giggled. “You’re better than good. Stop being so modest.” Her cheeks burned with the blush that crept over them. She hated that shit. Why did her body always have to betray her when she was trying to be cool.
He stood up and held his hand out to her. “Come here.”
She took it, but warned him, “I can’t walk very far right now. My legs feel like jelly.”
Brooks smiled and pulled her off the stool. “Good. That means I did my job.”
They ended up in an oversized chair in his living room. He sat down and pulled her into his lap. Marie squealed and tried to resist, but Brooks was stronger and faster. She ended up sideways with her legs hanging over the arm of the chair.
Immediately, she rested her cheek on his shoulder, sighing in contentment. He brought his hand up to run his fingers through her tangled hair, smoothing it out and giving her goosebumps. Slowly, Brooks dipped his head down and kissed her lips chastely. Marie couldn’t help but open her mouth and kiss him back.
After several long minutes of exploring his mouth and feeling his hands move up and down the contours of her body, she could feel his erection pressing against her backside. What? Was he Superman or something, she thought. Give him less than an hour and he was ready to go again. She’d be sore by the time Saturday morning rolled around.
His kisses were getting more insistent, and she could feel the tension building in his body. Marie pulled her face back from his. “Shower?”
His eyes lit up, and he stood so fast that she almost crashed into the floor. “Good idea,” he agreed, pulling her up the stairs to the master bath. The shower was a cube with glass walls on two sides. He was pushing her toward it as he unzipped her dress.
She laughed and turned around to kiss him. Brooks slipped his arms around her and obliged. Then he let go so he could turn the water on and adjust the temperature. Marie pushed her dress down over her hips and unhooked her bra. Her panties and shoes were somewhere on the kitchen floor. It wasn't until then that she realized the bathroom was fully lit and Brooks had never really seen her body, just felt it.
Instinctively, she grabbed for a towel, holding it in front of herself. “I hope you like hot showers,” he said, turning around to find her. His brows furrowed when he saw her holding the towel like a security blanket in front of her. “Oh, no,” Brooks said. “We’re not doing the towel thing again. I want to see you.”
“I’m shy,” she replied.
His eyes flashed and he stepped into her body. “I just fucked you on the stove. You’re not allowed to be shy anymore.”
“Oh, boy...” she mumbled, feeling that familiar flush on her cheeks.
He pulled the towel away and let it drop to the floor. “I love your body, penguin. Do you know how many times I’ve come for you in the past twenty-four hours?” When she didn’t answer, he let his hands roam up and down her sides, tracing the swell of her breasts, her waist, her hips, down to her thighs and then back up the center of her body to curl his hands over her shoulders. “Four times,” he mumbled, moving his hands behind her and letting them slide over the dip at the small of her back that sloped out into her ass.
She did the math in her head, trying to ignore the way his hands were manipulating her. Twice last night and once in the kitchen. “Three,” she corrected.
He kissed her. “Mmm, four,” Brooks replied, pulling back and opening the shower door. “I got off to my imaginary you this morning when I woke up and you weren’t in bed with me.”
Lacing his fingers with hers, he pulled her toward the shower. Before they stepped inside, he shucked his boxers. She stared. His cock was, as she suspected, perfect. It came as no surprise since she’d had the pleasure of feeling it inside her.
“Now you’re staring,” he said.
Marie met his gaze with her wide eyes. “Wow,” she said.
Brooks laughed. “You’re going to give me a god complex, baby. Get in the shower.”
She followed him and moved under the spray to wet her hair. Brooks was already dumping shampoo into his palm and lathering it up. Marie turned her back to him and let him work it through her hair. He was gentle and took his time. Once he had finished, she turned to rinse it out and made him tilt his head down so she could wash his hair.
The body gel in the shower was just used as an excuse to touch each other. She especially liked to run her hands over his hard chest, wide shoulders, and muscular arms. Finally, Marie slipped around him and moved him so his back was to the spray, blocking the water from her for the most part.
Marie dropped to her knees and saw his hands clench into fists. He knew what was coming, and she intended to give him the most enthusiastic blow job she’d ever given in her entire life.
Slowly, she ran her tongue underneath from the base to the tip and then let the head of his cock slide into her mouth. She tightened her lips around him and sucked while her tongue circled his tip.
"Marie," he said, laying his hand on the crown of her head. "Baby."
She had the upper hand for once and was relishing it. Pulling away for a moment, she said, "I thought I was your penguin."
He smiled down at her. "You are. But I think you're also a little more than that now."
She flicked her tongue out at the sensitive spot just at the bottom of his tip, and she tried not to think too hard about what he'd just said. What were they now? Friends? Lovers? Friends with benefits? A couple? She pushed it all out of her mind and concentrated on his cock and how he liked her to work it. He moaned louder when she wrapped her fingers around the base and twisted her hand slightly as she moved it up to follow her mouth. When she took him all the way in and let him hit the back of her throat, his hand moved down to cup the base of her skull.
She almost growled in triumph. Now she had his number. Every other stroke was deep enough to trigger her gag reflex. She repressed it and concentrated on sucking him, creating the wet, tight pressure that had him making little noises of pleasure. It didn't take long for him to try to pull her head away.
"Baby, I'm close," he said.
She knew. And she wanted to taste him.
"I want you," he begged, trying to pull out of her mouth.
Marie let up, but kept her fist firmly around his cock. "You just had me. And you can have me later." That said, she parted her lips and took him into her mouth again
Brooks made a strangled sound deep in his throat. He grabbed her head again and rocked his hips into her face. Two, three pumps and he spilled into her mouth with a deep grunt.
She remained kneeling while she swallowed and watched his chest rise and fall rapidly. It only took him a few seconds to recover. When he did, he grabbed her arm and hauled her up to her feet.
"That was mean," he said.
Marie grinned and licked her lips suggestively. "I thought that was pretty nice."
Brooks used his body to press hers against the shower wall. His right hand was between her thighs so he could pump two fingers in and out of her. "You know what I meant," he replied. She had. He wanted to come inside her, not in her mouth.
"Don’t complain if I like to blow you," Marie told him between gasping breaths.
His lips rubbed over the wet skin of her throat. "Oh, I'm not complaining, penguin. But you're going to get it so hard later tonight that you might not be able to walk tomorrow."
She curled her fingers around his upper arms and lifted one of her legs to better accommodate his hand between her legs. He must have been taking notes the last few times because every thrust and twist of his fingers was just right. She came hard, pressing her face into his chest.
She woke up to hands running up and down her body, squeezing her tits and then moving down to grab her ass. Marie was on her side with a sheet thrown over her. It only took her a moment to remember that she was in Brooks’ bed. His hands were confident and gentle and felt like heaven
“What time is it?” she mumbled, opening her eyes to find herself only a few inches from her gorgeous face.
“Almost two in the morning,” he answered, gliding a hand over her thigh and hip.
“Did we really fall asleep at eight o’clock like old people?”
He chuckled and swatted at her ass. “I’m useless after great sex. I just need to sleep.”
“Obviously, I have that problem, too.”
Brooks dug his fingers into the flesh of her ass, making Marie gasp and arch her body into his. “Mmm, but it’s a good problem to have,” he whispered in her ear. She shivered at his hot breath caressing the shell of her ear and the length of her neck.
He kissed her slowly, gently at first. And then when she started writhing against him like a bitch in heat, he became more insistent and forceful. Marie moaned his name when he pulled away for a moment.
“I promised you something before we went to bed,” Brooks said.
She scratched her fingernails lightly across his chest. “What?”
“That I was going to fuck you so hard you’d have a hard time walking tomorrow.”
She wiggled against him, rubbing her thighs together to get some friction going downstairs.
“That’s what you get for making me come before I was ready,” he warned her.
He lifted himself up and rolled Marie onto her stomach. She squealed and pushed herself to her elbows so she could get up. Brooks was on top of her by then, kneeling behind her and pulling her hips off the bed with one hand, pushing her shoulders down with the other.
“Oh my God,” Marie moaned when she realized he was going to take her from behind. She wiggled her ass in anticipation.
“So needy,” he teased, smacking her ass playfully.
“I was trying to be welcoming.”
He chuckled. “You look very welcoming from his position,” Brook said before sheathing himself fully in her. The sudden movement tore a shocked gasp from Marie. He was hard as a rock and deep inside her.
As he began thrusting, she pressed her face into the mattress. The position allowed him to hit new spots. He felt so much bigger and deeper, and she couldn’t hold a simple thought in her head while he slammed into her from behind. Both his hands were helping guide her back onto his cock by holding her hips. She picked up the rhythm in no time and continued throwing herself back against him with all her force.
One of his hands glided up the middle of her back and then grabbed her shoulder. She lifted up on her hands so he could lean himself over her body. “You’re so fucking beautiful,” he whispered in her ear. His hand on her shoulder slid down to her waist and then moved between her legs so he could finger her clit. He pitched it lightly before gathering her juices and rubbing her back and forth until she was worked up into a frenzy.
“Coming?” he asked when she didn’t finished her sentence. “Come all over me, baby.”
She did. His words and the way he was matching his strokes with the pressure on her clit sent her flying off into pleasure
His hips sped up, and he slammed into her harder. The headboard of the bed banged against the wall over and over and over until he growled and convulsed. She knew he’d come when his body draped over hers. Her arms gave out, and she collapsed onto the mattress. He followed her down, but rolled to the side so he wouldn’t crush her.
“I might not be able to walk for a week,” she teased, rolling over onto her side to face him again.
Brooks laughed and pulled her closer while he threw a sheet over their naked bodies. “Stay here then. I’m so glad you’re here.”
Brooks was fast asleep when she woke up a few minutes past eight. He was on his stomach with his arm thrown over her body. It felt good to wake up with someone. It felt better to have that someone want to be close to you. If you added Brooks Laich into the equation, then Marie was pretty sure she was the luckiest girl in the world.
Hoping to surprise him with breakfast when he woke, she slipped out from under his arm. The sheet was covering his ass. Unable to resist, she lifted it up and took a peek. Damn, she thought. His ass was muscular and tight and perfectly round. She would have been upset that he had a better ass than her, but the fact that he had a better ass than everyone in the world took the sting out of it.
Marie tiptoed into the guest bedroom and threw on a pair of jeans and an old T-shirt. There was a coffee shop less than a mile away. She could pick something up and be back in fifteen minutes.
The place was busier than she anticipated with a line that started a few feet from the entrance. While she stood there and thought about how much she was head over heels for the man whose bed she’d just left, the door opened with a jingle. Marie glanced over her shoulder and saw a familiar face–the girl who'd been sitting on John Carlson’s lap at the club so many weeks ago.
The dark-haired woman was with a tall blonde who was just as striking. Marie briefly caught the eye of Carlson's girlfriend, or whoever she was to him. Giving a tight smile, Marie prepared to make small talk, but it was obvious that the woman didn't remember her. Deciding it'd be best to just play dumb, Marie turned to look ahead and let her mind drift back to Brooks.
"I caught him screwing around last week. So, boom, Coach purse."
Marie jerked her head around to glance at the two women behind her. Carlson's girl had said that, and she was holding up an expensive-looking purse. Marie watched from the corner of her eye as the woman continued.
"It's like hitting the jackpot. Great sex and I get to guilt him into buying me whatever I want when he fucks around. Plus, he's gone half the time so I can do whatever I want, too."
"Ovie bought me my Lexus when he fucked that bitch at Kai," the blonde replied.
The black-haired girl laughed. "Shit, I should go big next time. I have enough purses. A new car would do the trick. I asked Kirsten to give me the deets on what he does next month while he's, like, away training in Cali. I'll use it as ammunition to get that sexy Escalade."
"Think he'll take the bait?" the blonde asked.
"Of course. He can't help himself. Some slut struts by, and he's got his dick out. He'll give me whatever I want so I'll stick around in D.C. and sleep with him when he's in town."
The blonde laughed. "They're all like that. A shitload of presents if they think you're gonna cut and run when they fuck up."
"As long as he keeps paying my rent, I'm sticking around."
Marie felt sick. The two women were laughing, but nothing they had said was funny. Not in the least. Blindly, she pushed past them and out of the shop. She got back into her car and gripped the steering wheel tight. They're all like that, the blonde had said. All of them, and Brooks was one of them.
Was she his easy lay at home? The sex was fantastic, but he'd never asked her for monogamy or said he loved her. Hadn't even said he had feelings for her. She'd just assumed things were going in that direction, but maybe they weren't. Maybe she was a willing body to warm his bed while he fucked around with whoever he wanted. Did he think she'd just lie back and accept gifts to repay her? Obviously other women did.
All of them are like that. She felt panic rising in her chest. He'd been so nice, so sweet, so patient with her. But his life was so different than anything she was used to, and she'd never really thought she stood a chance with him. Letting the sex go to her head and entertaining notions of a real relationship was stupid. So stupid. What if she was just the bed warmer while he was on the prowl for a real girlfriend? A girlfriend that modeled for Victoria’s Secret and could differentiate between Coach and Prada.
Her stomach was in knots, and she felt like she could throw up. She shoved open the door of the car and leaned over, dry-heaving. Nothing came out, and she felt worse than ever. She sat in the parking lot for twenty minutes before deciding that she needed to get out of his house. It was too good to be true, and she should have known better. She should have been more careful about who she let share her bed and who she let into her heart. Fucking men. Fucking hockey players. Fucking Capitals.
Marie’s heart ached as she drove back to his house and let herself in. She hurried quietly through the house and started shoving clothes into a duffle bag.
“Hey, baby. What are you doing?” Brooks was standing in the doorway in his boxers. He absently rubbed his short hair with a hand while he watched her. He looked confused.
Marie shook her head. “I, uh, I’ve got to go.”
He took two steps into the room. “What happened?”
“I’ve just got to go. I can’t be here right now.”
When she dared a quick glance up, he looked so confused. He probably didn’t get turned down often. Or ever.
“Penguin, what are you talking about? Come back to bed.” Brooks walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. Marie froze and then threw her elbows back, ducking away from him and spinning to the side. She snatched the bag off the bed. “Marie, what did I do?” he asked. He sounded so goddamn concerned that it almost broke her, almost made her stop and talk to him.
But talking wouldn’t get them anywhere. They’d done that for months. And now he was going to have his cake and eat it too, but not with her. She couldn’t be there for him if he was going to be like every other hockey player, if he was just going to fuck around like Ovechkin or Carlson or Green. They probably all did it; she just hadn’t wanted to believe it. Especially about him. She’d thought Brooks was different.
“I can’t do this. I’m not going to be your standby fuck,” she said, practically running out of the bedroom and down the stairs.
“Marie!” He was on her heels. He grabbed her arm right as she opened the front door. “Talk to me, please. I don’t understand.”
“I realized what this is, Brooks. And I’m going to get hurt. You don’t care about me; you just want someone to be here when you’re bored and horny.” She jerked her arm out of his hand.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he demanded.
She was halfway to her car. Brooks was standing on the front stoop. Marie turned around and looked at him. There were tears in her eyes now, for the first time since the bottom had dropped out of her fantasy. “I can’t,” she told him.
“I can’t,” she repeated, jumping into her car and backing out of the driveway. She almost hit the curb in her hurry to get away.
He’d called her fifteen times. Fifteen times in six hours. She had four voicemails, but she couldn’t listen to them. They would hurt too much. Instead, she sat in her car at the far end of an empty grocery store parking lot over thirty miles from his house. She’d been there for most of the day, trying to make herself believe she should have seen this coming from a mile away and that she would be fine without Brooks. She didn’t need him. He’d only been in her life for three or four months. She’d find an apartment and then hire movers to get her shit out of his house. She wouldn’t even have to see him.
Her stomach rumbled, demanding food, but she had no appetite. It felt like she’d never have an appetite again. The last time she’d broken up with a boyfriend, she’d lost ten pounds in two weeks. Marie smiled wryly. This trauma was worth at least twenty pounds, easy. Who needed diets when you could get your heart destroyed by Mr. Perfect to kickstart your weight loss?
Amy Winehouse was on rotation. Tears Dry On Their Own had been repeated many times since she’d been sitting in the parking lot, trying to think of what her next move was. Now the demo of Love is a Losing Game was on rotation, and she felt her heart breaking all of over again. Marie folded her body up and pressed her forehead to the console between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Sobs racked her as Amy’s soulful, vulnerable voice cut through the stuffy air of the car.
The song ended and the car went silent. It was the end of the album, and she hadn’t set it to repeat. She’d told herself that when it ended she would finally make a decision about finding a hotel to spend the night. At least it was a weekend and she wouldn’t have to go into work in the morning.
Instead of searching for hotels, she looked at the screen of her phone. Four messages. With a deep and bracing breath, she typed in her code and turned on the speaker. The machine told her the details and then allowed Brooks to plead his case.
Message received on May thirteenth at eight-fifty-seven AM:
“Marie, please call me. I don’t know what you think, but you’re wrong.”
Message received on May thirteenth at nine-seventeen AM:
“Penguin. Come on. I... I need you to call me. Tell me what’s wrong. Call me.”
Message received on May thirteenth at eleven-twenty-two AM:
“It’s me. Please. Call me.”
Message received on May thirteenth at two-thirty-five PM:
“Penguin, call your brother. Ask him what I said to him when we packed up your U-Haul. Please, just do that one thing.”
He sounded as torn up as she felt. For a moment, she wondered if he was being sincere, if he really was different. And then she realized that if it’s too good to be true , then it usually is. Marie covered her face and sobbed into her hands. Finally, with shaking hands, she deleted all four voicemails and turned her phone off. Her entire chest hurt.
She drove in circles for two hours and then got a burger from a fast food place that had a drive-thru. She couldn’t taste it and ended up throwing half away. Another hour of aimless driving brought her to a Hampton Inn near the interstate. She rented a room and hung the do not disturb sign on the door.
It was after seven o’clock, and she felt exhausted and unable to even take a shower. She forced herself to do it anyway. He was still all over her; she could smell the scent of his skin on herself, especially when she made a sudden movement. It made her want to start crying again.
He’d asked her to call Derrick, but he could have just as easily called Derrick and asked him to tell her a white lie so she would forgive him. What could Derrick say now that would make the situation any different, any better? It was what it was. The hockey world was dog eat dog, and she just wasn’t cut out for the games. Her heart always got involved, and this was way too dangerous. He was way too dangerous.
Lying in bed, she dialed her brother’s number. Jenna answered.
“Jenna, can you do me a favor?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Do you know where Derrick’s cell phone is?”
“On the kitchen table. Why?”
Marie swallowed. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Can you look at the call history and tell me if Brooks called him today?”
Marie waited while her sister-in-law looked.
“Nope. No calls today.”
“Does he know how to delete them?”
Jenna laughed. “Are you kidding me? This is your brother we’re talking about. He has a flip phone, Marie.”
Marie pulled in a shaky breath. “Yeah. Uh, did anyone call the house today?”
“A telemarketer trying to sell us Fios internet and Aaron’s hockey coach telling us that practice is at two instead of four tomorrow. Why? What’s going on?”
“No one else?”
“No. Marie, what’s wrong?”
Jenna sounded so concerned. The softness of it broke Marie down. She could feel the tears leaking out of her eyes again. “I fucked up,” she said, her voice sounded thick and muffled.
“I slept with him.”
“Holy shit,” Jenna whispered. “And?”
“How was it?”
Marie laughed through her tears. “The best two nights of my entire life.”
“So, what did you fuck up?”
“I think he’s just using me. I, I went into a coffee shop this morning and ran into a girl I saw with another player on Brooks’ team. She was with a woman that knows another team member. I overheard them talking about how all the guys like to keep a girl on the hook at home, but they fuck around with other women all the time when they’re on the road. And that the girls at home stick around because the guys feel guilty and buy them expensive presents.”
“Were they talking about Brooks?” Jenna asked.
“No, they didn’t say him, but... but it’s probably true. I mean, why else would he mess around with me? He probably thinks I’m easy to keep on the hook. He’s out of my league. Hell, he probably thinks he wouldn’t even have to buy me shit; I’d just be happy to be sleeping in his bed a couple nights a week.”
Jenna was silent for a long moment. Finally, she said, “Marie, are you sure these aren’t your own hang-ups about guys?”
“Guys are assholes,” Marie said, sniffing and wiping at her nose.
“Not every guy. Don’t just assume this shit about him. Ask him to be honest with you.”
“I can’t now! I stormed out. I’m in a hotel. I can’t see him because it’ll kill me.”
“Marie, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy. I can see a bullshitter a mile off, and he wasn’t a bullshitter.”
“Then why did he want me?”
“Honey,” Jenna said, her voice soft, “maybe he cares about you. You two were friends for months before anything happened. The way he watched you–that wasn’t just lust.”
Marie didn’t have anything to say to that. She sniffed again and used the edge of her shirt to wipe away the salty tears on her face.
Jenna spoke up again. “Why did you ask me about Derrick’s phone?”
“Because Brooks left me a message that I should call my brother and ask Derrick what they talked about when they were loading my U-Haul a couple weeks ago.”
“Did they talk?”
Marie could still see it. Her brother and Derrick standing by the truck. Brooks was talking while Derrick stared at the ground, and then her brother looked up and said something. Brooks nodded and continued talking. They had shaken hands afterward. Derrick had even clapped Brooks on the back twice, like they were buddies.
“Yeah,” she said. “I saw them, but I didn’t hear anything.”
“Then you need to talk to your brother. Hold on.”
Marie waited while the phone was shuffled around. She could hear muffled talking. Jenna’s voice and then her brother’s. Finally Derrick said, “Marie, what’s wrong?”
“Brooks told me to ask you what he said to you when you two were loading the U-Haul.”
“What? Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. What did he say?”
Derrick was quiet. “Look, Marie. I really think you should be asking him this question. It’s kind of personal.”
She sniffed again. “You’re my goddamn brother. Tell me what he said.”
“Are you crying?”
His question started the waterworks all over again. She felt like a fucking mess. “Things got complicated. I... slept with him. And then I found out that he’s probably just using me for easy sex when he’s bored.”
“Wow, uh, this is above my pay grade,” Derrick said. “What makes you think he’s using you.”
Marie snorted. “Because that’s what all hockey players do. Carlson and Ovechkin do it. I overheard their fuck buddies talking this morning.”
“And how do you know Laich does it?”
“Why else would he want me?”
Derrick sighed. “Jesus, Marie. You’re better than this.”
“You’re damn right I am. I left. I checked into a hotel. But his last voicemail told me to call you. So I’m calling, big brother. What did he say to you?”
“No, Marie. You’re too good to think that no one would want you. Don’t be fucking stupid. He told me he was in love you with. He said that some things that had happened recently made him realize he needed you in his life. And he told me he would take care of you, that I wouldn’t have to worry.”
“What?” she said, her vision blurred by the tears. Everything seemed far away.
“He’s in love with you, you idiot.”
Love. The word echoed in her brain. “Did you believe him?”
“Yes.” Derrick’s voice was flat. “I believed him.”
“Oh.” Love. In love. With her. Why would he say that? Especially to her brother.
Derrick said, “Look, Marie. You need to suck it up and be an adult. Go over there and talk to him about this.”
“I, I’ll think about it.” She felt numb now. It was too much.
“Look, you better do it. Because Matt and Aaron are telling everyone on their hockey team that they’re in spitting distance of having an uncle that plays for the NHL. You better not disappoint them.”
Marie hung up. She couldn’t even say goodbye. Her brother had been trying to lighten the mood by making a joke, but it was too raw. She couldn’t joke.
In love with her.
It had been twelve hours since she’d left. He’d called her more times than he cared to count. He’d left desperate messages that probably made him look like a fool. And he’d driven himself crazy. Running five miles on the treadmill didn’t help. Running ten more didn’t help. He kept hoping she’d come home and tell him what happened, but she was nowhere to be found.
At nine o’clock, he called his mom. She answered the phone warmly, asking him how he was and how things were with The Girl.
“I think I messed it up, mom,” he said softly.
“What did you do?”
“I don’t know. One minute she was here and I was...” He paused. He very well couldn’t tell his mom that he was planning on waking her up with some fantastic morning sex. “I was thinking that she and I were going to be something. Something substantial. That I was going to introduce her to you.”
“And then she left. She said I was using her. I don’t know what happened.”
“Sweetheart, she’ll come around. If she’s worth it, she’ll come around. Does she know how you feel about her?”
He hadn’t told her he loved her. That was a mistake. “I don’t know. I don’t want to...” The words got caught in his throat. What didn’t he want to do? Lose her? Life without her seemed stale and empty. He’d had a taste of what it could be like, and now he didn’t want to go back to casual dates with women who were so full of themselves that he couldn’t stand to see them open their mouths. “Lose her,” he finally said.
“I know, honey,” his mom said.
She told him to come home next week instead of waiting for the planned visit in June. If Marie was gone, really gone, then maybe getting out of town and driving to his parents’ place would do him good.
The clock ticked over to nine-fifteen. She obviously didn’t call her brother. Or her brother didn’t say anything about their heart-to-heart before Marie moved to D.C. Maybe if he gave her a day or two, then she’d answer her phone.
Just then his cell phone lit up and the display showed a four-one-two area code. A Pittsburgh area code. Did she leave? Go home?
“Baby?” he asked.
“Uh, it’s Derrick.”
Brooks grimaced. Awkward. “Hey, man. Have you talked to your sister?”
“Yeah, I just hung up with her a few minutes ago. She’s, uh, messed up.”
“What did I do?”
Derrick laughed. “Shit, man, I don’t know. She’s not had the best luck with guys. I think this one is on her, not you.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“She said she ran into a couple girls at a coffee shop this morning–girls that know Carlson and Ovechkin.”
Brooks shook his head. Those girls. They were nothing but trouble.
“She overheard them talking about how all you guys have a girl at home to fuck around with when you’re in town, but that you sleep around when you’re on the road or out at clubs. Those chicks were saying shit about how they get presents–cars, designer purses, whatever–when their guy gets caught messing around.”
“She thinks I’d do that to her?”
Derrick sighed. “Yeah. Look, she’s got her own problems to work out. She’s my sister, and I love her. If you do too, then don’t give up on her. Okay?”
“Can you ask her to at least call me? I want to talk to her.” Brooks felt like shit. His name had been smeared and dragged through the mud when he’d never in his life even been interested in the kind of relationships some of the guys led. They were too tumultuous and too distracting. And too cheap. Those girls were nothing but whores paid in designer clothes and swanky apartments.
“I’ll try,” Derrick said. “Hey, give me a call in a couple days if you don’t hear from her. I’ll come drag her ass over there if I have to.”
Brooks thanked her brother and hung up. He was crushed that she’d think he’d do that to her, and he was furious at the yapping mouths of those bitches. They didn’t even deserve to be in the same room as Marie.
The conversation this morning when she ran out all fell into place. Everything made much more sense.
He poured a couple fingers of scotch into a glass and sipped it slowly. He normally didn’t drink much, but he needed something to take the edge off tonight. He’d gone from incredibly happy to absolute despair today.
He sat down at the island in the kitchen, where he’d sat with her the previous night after they’d had sex on the stove. His chest felt tight. She was the one, he could feel it in his bones. Things with her were too easy, too right. He didn’t have to try, and all he wanted to do was make her happy. She wanted to be with him, not number twenty-one.
The house was so silent he heard the front door open at twenty after ten. His first instinct was to jump up and run to see if it was her. It had to be her. And if it wasn’t, then it was probably a burglar.
He sat the glass down on the countertop, loud enough for her to hear it. He could just imagine her standing in the foyer, listening for him.
A few seconds later, she came around the corner. Her eyes were red and her face was blotchy. Her clothes were rumpled and her hair was a tangled mess. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, though.
“Hi,” she whispered, nervously meeting his gaze with her own.
“Hi, penguin,” he answered softly. With care, he stood up and took a couple steps toward her. “I’m glad you came home.”
She took three swift steps and slammed into his arms. He wrapped her up and held her tightly against him as she clutched at his T-shirt. “I think I made a mistake,” she mumbled, her face pressed to his chest.
“Baby, it’s okay. Your brother called me. He told me what happened in the coffee shop.”
She held onto him tighter. Brooks ran fingers through her hair, soothing her and kissing the top of her head.
“What you heard–that’s not me. Some of the guys live like that, and it's their choice. That’s never been me and never will be. You call Greenie and ask him how many times I’ve said what those guys do is bullshit. And those girls don’t know anything at all. They only know what involves them.”
Marie sniffed and tilted her head up to him. “I’m sorry I believed it. About you. I... I shouldn’t have.”
He took a deep breath. It was now or never. “Did your brother tell you that I’m in love with you?”
He say a shot of pure emotion flash in her eyes. He could see that Derrick had told her. She didn’t seem surprised at the words, but surprised that he would come out and say it to her just like that.
"Why would you say that?" Her little voice was barely a whisper. He'd wondered from the very beginning if she had self esteem problems, if she thought she wasn't worth much.
Brooks grabbed her shoulders with his hands and held her away so he could look at her. "Because it's the truth. That night you listened to The Lumineers with me, the night when you were in town but wouldn't come over to my house?"
She nodded. There were tears rimming her eyes.
"I was lying there and realized I want you in my life. For the rest of my life. And if that's not love then what is, right?" Brooks gently laid a hand on her cheek. She looked so vulnerable, and he needed her to know she was safe with him.
"I feel the same way." Her voice was so soft.
"Yeah?" he asked, pushing her hair out of her face. "Do you believe me when I say I love you?"
"I'll prove it, penguin. Every single day. You deserve that and don't ever think you don't."
The tears were running down her cheeks. He wiped them away and kissed her sweetly on the lips.
"I love you," she said softly when he pulled back to look at her face.
Brooks felt the tension in his chest release, and he pulled her close again. Her hair smelled like fruit. "I'll buy you presents, but only because I love you back. Never because I feel guilty or because I think they will make up for bad behavior. I'm all yours, baby."
"I'm sorry I ever thought that about you. It was stupid of me."
"I didn't do this right," he said. "But I'm about to fix that."
Marie tilted her head in question. Brooks took her hand in his and gently coaxed her out of the kitchen and down the hall.
"What are you going to fix?"
His heart was beating hard in his chest. He'd laid it all out, and she was still with him, still following him as he led her upstairs to his bedroom.
"We've been having sex. That was wrong," he said as the stepped into the bedroom.
Her eyes went wide. "But I liked that part. That was a good part."
Brooks grinned, trying not to laugh at the disappointment on her face. Finally taking mercy on her, he stepped into her body and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I should have made love to you first," he whispered before kissing her softly.
She was clutching onto him, her little fingers wound tight in the fabric of his shirt. When he pulled back, her eyes were dark pools he could almost see himself reflected in. "You're perfect and don't you deny it," she said.
He chuckled and kissed her again, sliding his hands up her back. "Nuh uh," he teased.
"Make love to me?" she asked, her lips turned up in a grin. "What normal, non-perfect guy says shit like that? None. Just romance novel guys that are too sexy for their own good. "
He laughed and pushed her back toward the bed. "Are you trying to tell me I'm sexy?"
"I'm trying to tell you that you're the man of my dreams, and I can't believe you're real and that you want me back."
Brooks felt his heart swell at her words. "I want you to come home with me to visit my parents. My mom wants to meet you."
Marie fell back on the bed when he gave her a little push. She looked shocked, not so much at being pushed onto the bed, but at his words. "Your mom knows about me?"
"Of course. I'm in love with you." He crawled onto the bed and laid down beside her so they could kiss. Slowly, he started removing their clothes. Her shirt went first, and then her bra. She fumbled with the drawstring on his shorts before he helped her slide them down his legs. Her jeans and sandals went next.
He sighed as she slipped her hands beneath his shirt and pushed it up around his shoulders. Marie dragged her nails across his chest, making him shiver. "I don't think I can keep my hands off you long enough. You mom will think I'm a hussy," she whispered in his ear.
Brooks chuckled and rolled her over onto her back. "My mom will love you."
He pulled her panties down her legs. She pushed at his shirt impatiently, so he helped her lift it over his head. His boxers followed soon after, leaving them both naked on top of his sheets.
Brooks closed his eyes as he settled himself between her legs. This is what he'd been missing. Marie in his bed. Every single night. And when the season started again, they would find a way to make this work. Because she was too important for it to not work.
Her hands were on his shoulders and her beautiful eyes were wide and watching him when he opened his to look down at her. He kissed her swollen, pink lips and guided himself inside her. "I love you, penguin."
She gasped as he entered her. Brooks almost purred when she ran her hands over his head, ruffling his short hair before pulling him down for another kiss. "I love you, twenty-one," she replied.
Her legs were around his waist, and Brooks took his time as he rocked into her sweet body, drawing out the pleasure of being so close to her until he couldn't take it any longer. He felt like he knew her body so well already. A flick of his thumb, and she was coming all over him as he looked into her eyes. He let go and followed her down, spending himself and then wrapping around her so they could sink into the mattress.
He rolled onto his side and pulled her into him so there was no space between their bodies. Marie's eyes were wet with tears. The sight tugged at his heart.
"What's wrong, baby?" he whispered, pushing her hair back from her face.
"Nothing," she replied with a smile. "I'm just happy. You make me so happy."
He felt proud and protective. She was his. He could make sure she was always happy. "You make me happy, too," he said, giving her forehead a kiss.
Marie stretched as she stepped out of Brooks' vehicle. It has been a long drive, but not unenjoyable since she'd spent it with him. He was rounding the hood of the car to help her pull her bag out of the backseat.
"I'm sore," she said under her breath when he got closer.
Brooks grinned. "Oh, yeah? Wonder why?"
"Rest stop bathroom about a hundred miles ago. Ring a bell?"
He laughed quietly. "I couldn't wait, penguin. And from what I remember you loved it up against the wall."
She slipped a hand behind his head as he leaned down to kiss her. "I did," she agreed. "But now I'm nervous."
"Don't be. My parents are going to love you almost as much as I love you."
"Sweetheart, you're home!" Marie looked over to find a petite woman with short, graying hair emerge from the front door of the unassuming house.
Brooks turned to his mom and gave her a hug. "Hey, mom."
She released him and turned her eyes on Marie. "This must be Marie."
"Yes ma'am," she replied, smiling shyly at his mother. The smile dissolved into slack-jawed shock when the woman pulled her into a hug.
"Brooks has told be so much about you," she told Marie.
"Come on, mom. Let her breathe," Brooks said.
His mother pulled back and met Marie's gaze. The two women looked at each other for a long moment before Brooks' mom let go and ushered them both up the walk to the front door. "Dinner's almost ready," she said. "Your dad is grilling vegetables and steaks."
“I’m starving,” Brooks said.
She followed him into the house and upstairs to his old bedroom. Hockey posters covered the walls and it looked like it hadn’t been touched since he was seventeen. The bed just had a full-sized mattress. She opened her mouth to ask if she’d be sleeping downstairs.
Before she could get a word out, he’d grabbed her around the waist and tossed her onto the bed. In a second, he was on top of her. “You’re going to have to sleep real close to me tonight with a bed so small,” he whispered in her ear.
Marie felt her body respond. It was like he’d conditioned her. His hands on her and that sexy voice in her ear and she was already wet. A month together and it never failed. “We’ll be sleeping on top of each other,” she replied.
“Mmm, I can’t wait.” He flashed her a devious smile and pushed himself off the bed.
She groaned and let him help her up. “If we get caught having sex, then your mom is going to hate me.”
“We’ll be really quiet,” he said. “And my mom won’t hate you. She’ll love you because I love you.”
“I love you, too, twenty-one.”