“I have to go to Toronto, there’s a meeting tomorrow morning,” Sid said in a weary tone. He could hear it himself. The rest of New Year’s Eve had gone fine, even though every muscle in his body was tense to keep from touching Leah. By the time he got home after two o’clock, he was exhausted from the kissing and the fighting and stopping. This morning he could still taste her mouth every time he licked his damned lips. Pulling a Chapstick from his pocket, Sid did his best to erase the evidence.
Taylor nodded. “You should take us. We could go tonight and stay over.”
“Me and Leah.”
Sid laughed. The idea was so absurd and unfathomable that he actually hadn’t considered it, not even after last night. His focus was, and would stay, on the lockout and any prayer of progress that could be made. A League meeting was not the place for his sister and certainly not the place for his brand new best friend/biggest problem.
“No,” he said with a chuckle that he hoped sounded casual, “it wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Why?” Taylor challenged. “Because you might have fun? You’ve had more fun in the last week than I’ve seen you have in a year.”
Sid exhaled sharply – it was true, leave it to Taylor to say so. “I’m afraid people will see it the wrong way.” He was half-lying, as much for his defense as Leah’s. Too bad Taylor had been around that block.
“You’re afraid you’ll try to kiss her again.” His little sister leveled a stare at him. If she knew, everyone knew. Cole Harbour couldn’t keep a damned secret, but it sure could make nothing into something.
“Jesus Christ,” Sid muttered to himself.
Taylor saw she’d drawn blood. “Guess that didn’t go the way you wanted.”
“I didn’t want anything!” Sid’s voice rose, the same weak excuse he gave Leah, though he could barely get a word out through his offending lips. “It was midnight on New Year’s and I was a little drunk and it was just a kiss! Everyone was kissing someone! What is the big fucking deal?!”
Taylor could have laughed, she could have teased him. But for once in her life, his younger sister played the grown up card. “If you say it’s nothing, it’s nothing.”
Sid scoffed. “We’re just friends.”
“Then take us to Toronto.”
Sidney stared at the phone in his hand and knew there was no right way to do this. If you kiss a girl who doesn’t want to be kissed, an all-expense paid surprise trip is a hell of an apology. Even if he wasn’t sorry at all. He hit CALL because if he didn’t, Taylor would do it and she’d make it sound worse.
“Hi,” Leah answered.
The sound of her voice went right through him like a knife. “Hey. Uh… how are you?” Sid asked.
“Good,” Leah was in her room at home, thinking about him. The call came like she’d willed it into existence, except that she hadn’t. She’d hoped to have a plan for staying friends with Sidney by the time he called again. The night had been crazy and far more fun than she cared to admit. He’d kissed her. In front of a room full of people. Short of winning an Oscar, it was just about the biggest trophy a girl in Cole Harbour could get. She’d dragged him out on his ear like a mean school marm and given him hell for the very thing she’d wanted so badly to happen. They had tempted fate; only the remains of Leah’s slightly drunken wherewithal had saved them. Now as Sidney’s name showed on her phone screen, she felt the urgency of his kiss for the thousandth time.
He didn’t meant it that way, she reminded herself.
But she couldn’t leave it all hanging as if from a noose. “Did uh… did we mess up last night? Are we okay?”
Sidney, relieved to be an invisible signal length away from Leah, lied through his teeth. “I didn’t mean to kiss you, Leah. Well, I did,” he stuttered, “but the ‘Happy New Year’ kind. Not the kind the whole town will be talking about. I’m sorry,” this hurt but it was the truth, “if I made you some kind of target for gossip.”
Some friend I am, Sidney told himself.
Leah bit her lip so hard she almost forgot what the push of his mouth felt like. He was not Sidney Crosby, obnoxious superstar trying to stake his claim. He was Sidney Crosby, shy guy coming out of his shell. And she was crucifying him for it.
Some friend I am, Leah thought.
“No,” she straightened up in her seat on the bed. “I don’t care what people say, Sid. I just… I’m sorry I got mad. I got nervous. It’s just… shit.” She had no idea which of the words in her head and heart made sense anymore. “Are we still friends?”
“Of course,” Sid said with relief. “And I called to ask if, as friends, you want to go to Toronto tonight. With Taylor and me. I have a meeting tomorrow and you guys can do whatever you want. I’m buying, of course.”
Hotel rooms and hallways crossed Leah’s mind, and Sidney’s, as he spoke. Sleeping within feet of each other; inches away from being alone together behind closed doors. They both silently agreed Taylor was there to prevent anything.
“Uh, tonight? I guess I could,” Leah tried to sound normal while her heart raced away like a cartoon horse dragging an upside down chariot, bumping and spinning in the dirt.
Sid felt like a jerk for implying it was all for Leah to hang out with Taylor. “I’d love if you did,” he confessed. “The meeting will probably go nowhere, so having you guys there will keep the trip from being a total disaster.”
Like last night, he thought, still feeling the full curve of her bottom lip.
Leah knew the only disaster in this relationship was her. Like the girls she’d made fun of, Leah couldn’t keep it together when it came to Sidney Crosby. When it came to the thing he needed most - friendship. “I’ll go,” she said. “Sounds fun.”
Leah stood in line at the airport Tim Horton’s. On a Tuesday afternoon not many people were flying out of Halifax. Sidney and Taylor were in a corner of the terminal with their backs to the waiting room. Or so Leah thought.
“Hey,” Taylor turned up at her elbow. “I don’t want to ruin dinner but I need a donut.” She peered at the display, examining her choices. “So, I hear my Casanova of a brother kissed you last night.” Leah’s blood went cold, the color drained from her face.
Taylor glanced back over her shoulder. “Yup. Same reaction Sid had.”
“Did he tell you?” If that was the case, Leah was going to have to interrogate this poor girl on the spot.
“Nah. Heard it from a friend who knew someone who was there.” Taylor cut Leah in line and ordered a glazed maple twist. “He should be smarter.”
Leah hated that she agreed, and so said nothing.
Taylor just shrugged. “Unless you like him stupid.”
Sid risked turning his face just to confirm his fears – Taylor was talking to Leah. Alone. She was a wild card, his sister, and the one person who could always see right through him.
Well, one of two lately.
The hotel receptionist laid three room keys on the counter: 601, 611, 619.
Sid just wanted things to feel normal. The plane ride had been fine but he needed a few more hours with Leah, in a relaxed setting, to make sure he hadn’t done any real damage with his stupid kiss. The one his mind still wandered to every time she bit her lip, reached for gloss, spoke or event breathed. He’d been next to her on the plane, the knit of her gray sweater soft against his arm. Her jeans were a shade darker than his and he’d studied the difference to keep from looking at her up close.
Mentally rolling his eyes at the futility of it, Sid did it anyway. “Taylor, you’re six-nineteen,” he handed her the key.
Leah got off the elevator first and stopped at her door. Somehow she knew Sid would stop right behind her. Was it coincidence or intentional? Oh shut up, she told her brain. Everything was fine between them – he hadn’t even fallen asleep on her during the flight. The trip was just one night, something fun. Back to normal.
Taylor pushed between them, tromping on down the hall. “I’ve gotta meet my friend, he’s coming to dinner. We’ll meet you guys there.”
Leah looked back just as Sid was glancing up. Their eyes met, both thinking the same thing: Friend? He? Did dinner just become a double date?
“Ready?” Leah asked. She had taken a few extra minutes to put herself together, despite the voices in her head. If she didn’t want to be kissed she shouldn’t look kissable. But Sidney always looked that way, so she needed to level the playing field.
Of course, it could never be level. He was a fresh sheet of ice and she was a sinkhole in the dirt. Or at least that’s how it felt when he opened the door. He wore a bright blue v-neck sweater, accentuating the muscles in his neck and shoulders. The sleeves were pushed up in case she forgot his strong hands. Add perfect teeth, perfect hair, those color-changing eyes and that was Sid. He smiled and her stomach rolled.
Sid’s smile barely covered his nerves. One look at Leah and whatever normal they’d reclaimed went right out the window. She wore a gauzy white top, which he guessed was sleeveless, under a black blazer rolled at the cuffs to show the black and white striped lining. A tangle of silver chains ended just above the swell of her breasts. Skinny jeans and black high heels he’d never seen rounded out the look. Her curls had been glossed and her makeup sharpened – she looked as good as she had for New Year’s Eve. Sid felt more than ever like this was a date.
Please don’t let Taylor be plotting something, they both prayed silently.
“You look great,” he said lamely.
Leah could have pushed him right back into the room and locked them both inside. “And you would be hard to miss, Sid.”
The restaurant wasn’t fancy, just a trendy place nearby. As they walked Sidney told Leah about the meeting the next day. “It probably won’t fix anything, they never do,” he said. “They just want me here to say there’s nothing to say.”
“You’re very diplomatic, probably more level-headed than most hockey players.”
“Well I’m going to stop coming. I’m just another player and this needs to be about everyone. This is my last meeting,” he said, convincing himself with every word.
Leah bumped against his shoulder. “Maybe there won’t be any more after this.”
From outside they could tell the restaurant was busy for a Tuesday night. Taylor had made the reservation – just as well, since Sidney’s name sent people into fits here too. Leah approached the hostess and Sid kept his head down they followed her - it was always all the way across the room.
“Oh shit,” Leah whispered suddenly. Sidney, trying to be inconspicuous, bumped right into her. His head shot up and he saw what she saw.
“Hey guys.” James Neal was sliding out of the booth, unfurling his long body. Taylor scooted out of the same side – she’d been sitting next to him – and smiled brightly.
“You must be Leah,” James extended his arm. Autopilot kicked in and Leah felt his huge, warm hand close around hers. It was bigger than Sidney’s but not as strong. The x-rated innuendo in that thought alone made the blood rush to her head.
“Nice to meet you,” she gulped.
Sid stepped right between them, shaking hands too. “What’s up, Nealer? How did you guys…?”
“Taylor called me, said you were here for the meeting. I was close so I drove up. Good to see you, man.”
Leah took a deep breath. As with meeting Sid for the first time, she had to hold it together. She was just meeting a hockey player she had a crush on while out with another hockey player she had a crush on, the one who had kissed her and practically slept on top of her. The one who had consumed her thoughts and life for the last week.
Sid guided Leah toward the booth with a squeeze to her arm. It was meant to both steady her and reminder her that he was there. He didn’t like to look she’d given James, and he definitely didn’t like the look James gave her. Now he slid in next to her, nice and close. The urge to put his hand on her leg under the table was so strong that he made a fist against it.
“Should I be worried that Taylor has your number?” Sid asked in his big brother tone.
“I got it from Dad,” Taylor waved the idea away.
Sidney’s father, who sometimes fancied himself GM of the Penguins, seemed to have every piece of information on the team. Sid figured Mario shared it just to stop him from asking. He didn’t realize Taylor could access it.
“Well now you have to worry about my dad,” Sid said to James. “Good luck with that.” James made a face like he’d rather run screaming. Taylor promised to get a number 18 jersey to wear around the house.
Leah just watched James, as she had on TV a hundred times. She’s always found him very attractive – he had a quick, unguarded smile and the easy grace of someone confident without being cocky. But after a week-long battle against the Power of Crosby, Leah had to admit that James’s gorgeous face was still no match Sid’s flawless skin or lantern jaw. His rangy build lacked the coiled, promised power of Sidney’s stocky form. And Sid’s lips… Leah shuddered. She’d gotten a life-ruining sample of what those lips could do.
“Huh?” she said stupidly, since they were all looking at her.
“Sid says you’re a great singer.” James’ grin almost changed her mind. “I suggested you come to Pittsburgh and sing the anthem.”
“Oh God, do they put the words on the scoreboard? I can never remember the American one,” Leah said. James laughed, another flash of smile. Sid cleared his throat. Hormones and tension had been high before, but this was unfair. She’d have to be superhuman to make it through dinner.
Sid gave Taylor the death stare. His little sister ignored it as well as ever.
They ordered and were served. Leah didn’t notice how close Sidney was sitting until she had to reach for her wine. Their thighs touched below the table. His proximity seemed defensive, though his conversation was easy and friendly as if he’d invited James himself. But when James made the girls laugh, Sid scooted a fraction of an inch closer.
Insecure, Leah realized. Sidney Crosby is insecure. She couldn’t tell him there was nothing to worry about – that James as a hard nine but Sid was a ten-plus easily, and that was before he’d kissed her. So she just pushed her leg playfully against his.
Sid thought about putting his arm across the back of the booth, behind Leah without touching her, but didn’t want to make things worse. Neal knew him well enough to get the hint. Even off the ice and off the season, Sid was still the captain. Even if they weren’t a couple, Leah was his girl in this situation. His friend. That possessive instinct to mark his territory flared in Sid’s gut. As if reading his mind, Neal gave him a slight nod… then went right back to talking his way into Leah’s pants.
After their salads had been cleared, Taylor put down her napkin. “Excuse me, James, I have to get out.” She was looking right at Leah when she said it, tipping her head encouragingly. Leah didn’t even have to move to nudge Sid, he was so close.
Once the girls were , Nealer dropped back into his seat. “I knew something was up when you sister called. What’s going on with Leah?”
Sid shook his head. “Nothing.”
“As in you’re getting nothing or you’re saying nothing?”
“Nothing,” Sid repeated.
James shrugged. “Right, getting nothing. Why?”
“We’re just friends.” Sid looked at James as if to back up his own story, but Neal just shook his head.
“You don’t sit that close to Flower.”
Sid rolled his eyes.
“But then, Flower wouldn’t look as good sucking your dick.”
Sid recoiled, hand coming up like he might launch across the table and cave Neal’s face in. James just rocked back, safe in his seat and laughing. The crass comment was just the test Sid’s reaction, which had proven James right.
“Don’t act like you haven’t thought about it,” Neal said.
Chirping was part of more than hockey, it was a part of life on a hockey team. Sid knew he’d have to take more of it about his personal life in his quest to be a normal guy. He shredded a packet of Sweet-N-Low and simply said, “Fuck you.”
“Well I don’t like guys, but if she’s into threesomes I could be persuaded.”
Sid glared at James, who just shook his head like he’d found a lost puppy. That’s how Sid felt, now more than ever: like he should make a play for Leah. If he didn’t, some other guy would. Some other guy would live out the few fantasies Sid had allowed himself, including the one James had mentioned. James was probably thinking about it right now.
“Your sister looks good,” James added. Sid went rage-red and it set Neal off laughing again. “I’m just giving you shit! You’re so easy. Leah seems great, so what is your problem?”
“She is great,” Sid answered. “That’s the problem. I don’t want to start something I can’t finish.” He meant that he didn’t want to drop Leah when the lockout ended. But she wouldn’t be the only one hurt by his sudden departure, and dragging a broken heart back to Pittsburgh was no way to start what would be left of this season. “I could be leaving tomorrow,” he reminded James.
James shrugged. “All the more reason to make tonight count.”
Leah washed her hands until they were alone in the bathroom. “What are you doing, Taylor?”
The younger Crosby smiled wickedly into the mirror. “I thought you liked him.”
“James? I… I do,” Leah stuttered.
Taylor tipped her head. “So you say.”
Leah put her hands on her hips. “What does that mean?”
“Just that I don’t really see it out there. Of course, with my brother trying to hump your leg it might be tough to flirt with his teammate.” Taylor gave Leah a perfectly sweet and innocent look. “I wonder what that’s about.”
She escaped so quickly that Leah didn’t catch up till they were nearly at the table and the time to cross-examine Taylor was gone. What was what about? Sid sitting close? Leah knew he felt threatened by James’ presence – she did too, honestly. It threatened the little house of lies she’d built in her head: Sid was a friend, just another guy. Because James was much more than another guy… yet as clearly as she saw them both standing by the table, Leah knew that James had nothing on Sid. Not even a little bit, not even at all.
Leah moved in and Sid sat down. This time she was the one to move closer.
“It was nice to meet you,” James folded Leah into a hug on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. “Don’t suppose you’d be up for a drink or something? I know Sid has an early meeting.”
Sid stared daggers at James, since Leah was busy being wrapped up in his broad upper body. James winked back.
Bastard, Sid thought.
Leah declined, blaming fatigue left over from New Year’s Eve. She couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth, essentially “No thanks, James Neal, I don’t want to spend time alone with you and alcohol and the key to my hotel room.” But she was tired physically and tired of whatever weird game was going on over dinner. James didn’t ask Taylor to go out. They parted ways, turning back toward the hotel.
Sid was quiet. He was thinking about killing Taylor in her sleep. Leah was quiet, wondering how one guy had changed so many things in her life without actually doing anything. Taylor was quiet, considering options to sneak out and meet up with James.
They each went to their separate rooms, waited five minutes, and decided to act.
Taylor was texting James when there was a knock. Sidney pushed the door out of her hand and let himself in. “What’s up, bro?”
“What was that all about?”
“You need a kick in the pants,” she said openly. “Just admit that you like Leah.”
“I don’t!” he cried.
Taylor scoffed. “I thought you were going to pee on her like a fire hydrant, Sid, because another dog tried to walk on your yard.”
“I just don’t want my friends having one night stands with my teammates!”
Taylor’s phone beeped. They both looked at it, then each other. Sid’s jaw dropped open. Taylor slid it into her pocket without checking the screen and smiled. “What about your sister?”
Sid stormed out. James would never, not if he wanted to live. He stomped into the hallway and stopped. Leah was at his door, hand lifted like she’d just knocked. She still wore her skinny jeans only now she was barefoot with a green t-shirt on. The sleeves were long enough to ball in her fists.
“Hey,” he forced calm into his voice.
“Oh, hey,” she smiled at the sight of him. His cheeks were flushed - he’d probably been giving Taylor hell. “I just wanted to say goodnight.”
I just wanted you to invite me in, she thought. She had no idea what she’d do once she got there, but two doors and twenty feet between them all night seemed like way too much. After the New Year’s party and the airport, then dinner and James, Leah was drained from the constant worry about people watching and judging them. She just wanted to be alone with Sid.
Less than 24 hours ago I kissed you, he wanted to say. He’d done something kind of brave, kind of ballsy and it had nearly cost him. Now he’d spent the night watching another guy want Leah. If Taylor meant that to kick him in the pants, it had. But not in the ass. Sid felt powerless.
“You guys have fun tomorrow,” he said as he neared the door. She had not moved.
“Good luck at your meeting.” Leah felt the air between them become solid as a wall. She reached out and rubbed Sid’s arm – a casual gesture, but it felt wrong. Weak. That would never get through this tension piling up. So she stepped in and kissed his cheek, as slowly as the night they went to Madigan’s, the first time they were in public together. It had not gotten easier since.
Sid almost turned his head. He barely resisted the urge to capture her mouth with his own and kiss her for the second time in a day. There was no one to see and nowhere to run. It would make or break them for good, a single kiss. Too bad he was more afraid of the break. Her soft skin slid against his, then disappeared.
“Night, Sid,” Leah said through tingling lips.