Leah stood in front of a larger than life Sidney Crosby photo inside the Hockey Hall of Fame. It had been her idea to come here, now she was wishing she hadn’t. Being in a restaurant with Sid was intimidating enough. This place was like a shrine in a church.
“He hates that picture,” Taylor said. In it Sid was whooping with joy at a goal scored, sweat-soaked with hair curling out the back of his helmet. Leah thought he looked perfect.
“He didn’t want it in here, since he’s not elected to the Hall of Fame yet. But they have all kinds of current stuff – Malkin, Stamkos – so it’s not like just a museum. Still, he hates it.”
Taylor had been volunteering information about Sidney all day, talking him up. Leah resisted asking about dinner the night before, or their cryptic bathroom conversation, but she felt she’d passed some kind of test by turning down James. Now Taylor knew which team she was really on. If Taylor was just being protective of her brother, Leah could not blame her for playing a little dirty.
Still as they walked, shopped and had lunch, Leah turned the conversation away from Sidney as much as possible. She really liked Taylor, who was quick and funny, without mining for details she couldn’t use anyway. There was nothing happening between her and Sidney – or at least nothing much. She was quickly becoming good friends with Taylor too. So much so, Leah was surprised when it was time to meet Sid at the hotel for their flight home.
Sid was in an alcove of the lobby, knit cap pulled low and his head resting in his hand. The day’s meetings had been beyond frustrating – it sometimes seemed like they were getting farther from an agreement. Negotiations had barely budged and all he had to show for it was a headache. He looked up as Leah walked in – that got him focused.
Leah had been checking every corner, assuming Sid would semi-hide somewhere. She wasn’t expecting his slumped posture though; he looked like he’d been through the wringer.
“Oh no,” was her immediate response.
Sid lumbered to his feet like the Frankenstein monster and did something he’d been thinking about all day: opened his arms and folded Leah into a hug. He leaned heavily against her, face to her shoulder, and let her hold him up. Leah pushed her fingers under the back of hat and rubbed his scalp until he was practically purring in her arms. She didn’t need to know what was wrong, she just wanted to absorb it.
Sid had a dangerous thought: a hug like this could make a lot of bad nights better. And hockey had a lot of bad nights. He inhaled her scent deeply and tried to memorize it, knowing that someday it would have to be enough.
He felt like a zombie riding to the airport, passing through security, waiting for their flight. Leah stayed close but never touched him, which just made him ache for an accidental brush of her shoulder. Finally on the plane he pushed the armrest up and took every inch, until his arm and leg were pressed to hers. Then he put his head back and fell asleep.
Leah looked at her hands for most of the two hour flight. She wanted to put one on Sid’s leg, or tuck it into his arm and lean on his shoulder, but she couldn’t. The flight attendant had recognized him and she passed by every ten seconds. Leah almost asked Taylor to switch but she didn’t want to be that far away. It wasn’t only an attraction thing. For the first time since meeting Sid, Leah just wanted to be there for him.
That’s what friends are for, she told her empty hands.
“I’ll drive, sleepyhead.” Leah took the keys from Sid as they rolled bags out of the airport. It wasn’t far to home, but Sid felt like he’d been woken in the dead of night. Leah hauled herself into the drivers’ seat of his SUV, Taylor in the back. The minute he hit the seat he wanted to sleep again.
Leah turned the radio down but plugged in her phone. She needed to stay awake herself. A Reckless Kelly song started to play.
My first love was a wicked, twisted road
Hit the million mile mark at seventeen years old
Never saw the rainbow, much less a pot of gold
My first love was a wicked twisted road.
Sid had never heard the song before, but Leah was mouthing the words. It was soft and acoustic, perfect for the sleepy setting. “Will you sing?” he asked quietly.
Leah glanced over – Sid looked older than she’d ever seen. The lockout was tougher on him than she’d known. Tougher than he let on. Of course, she’d only known him a few days. Leah sang:
My first love was a castle in the sky
Never thought I’d make it till I had the guts to try
Then I sat up in my tower while the whole world passed me by
My first love was a castle in the sky.
Sid smiled, eyes closed. He imagined her singing at this soft volume, alone, just to herself.
My first love was a fearless driving rain
Scared to death I thought I’d never see her face again
They said God was crying so I guess he felt my pain
My first love was a fearless driving rain.
Sid had never been in love. There had been girls and a very few girlfriends but nothing permanent. He had given that part of his life no attention, instead focusing on hockey. Then when hockey disappeared, his love life paid him back the same way. It wasn’t love but the words fit: he was scared to death he’d have to leave tomorrow and never see Leah’s face again.
My first love was an angry painful song
Wanted one so bad I went and did everything wrong
A lesson in reality would come before too long
My first love was an angry painful song.
And there it was, in the song she’d chosen, the very reason Sidney would not act on the way he felt for Leah. It was true that he wanted one so bad, but not enough to go and do everything wrong.
Leah dropped Taylor off first. She yawned a goodbye and left without so much as a comment about the two of them heading home together. Leah was grateful. The song, while beautiful, was sad and a little too honest for the way she felt tonight. At Sidney’s she pulled into the garage next to her own car, parked inside so all of Cole Harbour didn’t think she’d spent the night here.
Sidney got Leah’s suitcase and put it into her trunk, then closed it. For a moment they just stood there.
“Will you be okay?” she asked, meaning I can stay if you want.
“Yeah,” he said, knowing he could be better if only he had the guts to ask.
Leah kissed his cheek quickly, not allowing the contact to stun her this time. She went for the driver’s door.
“Leah,” Sid said. “Thanks.”
“Anytime. Anything,” she promised.
Sid slowed his feet, forcing himself to walk a block early while he debated the plan. It was barely ten o’clock in the morning. He’d gone straight to bed last night and slept eight hours like a rock. If Leah hadn’t, he could be waking her up. Then he’d be thinking about her in bed. She’d be wearing a t-shirt and panties, in his mind. A Crosby t-shirt. Silk panties. Warm sheets, a cozy down comforter, that pile of auburn curls tossed across a fluffy pillow. He wouldn’t be able to run in that condition.
I’m not a friend. I’m a creep, Sid told himself. He hit SEND on his phone.
She picked up on the third ring. “Morning sunshine.”
“Good, I didn’t wake you.” As he said it, a car rolled by behind him.
“Are you outside?”
Leah laughed, moving toward the window. “Outside my house?”
Sid didn’t even pause. “Yeah.”
Sid didn’t even pause. “Yeah.”
She was relieved to hear him sounding normal. After two long, weird days and seeing him so defeated yesterday, Leah was having trouble keeping the version of Sid in her head and the Sid in her real life in line with each other.
“Want to come in?”
“No, I want you to come out.”
It didn’t take much convincing before Leah was pulling on her sneakers and a sweatshirt. She stepped out the front door to find Sid doing calf-stretches. He wore black track pants and a gray zip-up hoodie with another black knit cap and was in the downward dog position, ass up and arms in full flex. Even beneath those layers it was a sight to behold.
“Jesus, Crosby. They’re gonna cut me a break on rent if you keep doing that on my lawn.”
He blushed like a dork, though of course he’d been preening on purpose. Last night had been rough. He wanted Leah to like him, not pity him - even if nothing would ever come of it. “Wait till summer when they see how I mow the lawn.”
They ran easily until Leah was warm, then Sid pushed the pace a little. It was actually meant to be an off-day for him, but tension from the meetings and travel had to be worked out. Leah kept up okay, considering how often her mind wandered to watching Sid move. She marveled at the grace of his strength while wondering how it was possible to drag that big a lower body with any kind of speed. By the two mile mark, Sid was teasing her.
“No,” Leah lied.
“Stop complaining to the referee,” she said and stuck out her tongue. They made it another half mile before they were back at Leah’s street.
“Not bad.” Sid fell into a walk next to her, checking his watch. He’d done a three mile loop on the way to her house, so he was finished too. “Do you go to the gym?”
She nodded. “Supposedly it’s a good place to meet guys.”
“Really?” Sid pictured himself sweaty and panting. Apparently some girls were into that. “That ever work?”
Sid made a gagging noise and Leah punched him in the arm. “As opposed to you, picking up girls at pee wee hockey games,” she said. “Speaking of which, Jack has a game tonight. Do you want to come? He’d probably pee his shorts if you showed up.”
The scene of the crime, Sid thought. But of course he would go. “You just want another chance with me and those bleachers,” he grinned.
Leah headed up her driveway, leaving Sid on the sidewalk. “You got me! And Sid, don’t be late, I’m singing.”
About a hundred people, mostly friends and parents, were scattered among the bleachers at the rink. Last time Leah had seen this place it had been completely empty except for her and Sidney. Now she wasn’t even sure if he’d made it on time.
He’s here, she told herself, as if he wouldn’t miss her singing. As if it meant anything to him at all. She waited for the cue and walked out onto the little carpet runner between the benches. People clapped. The first words of the anthem hung in her mind and she focused on it. Then Leah sang, just like she always did, a simple and straightforward rendition of the song they all knew so well. It took two minutes. People clapped again and she turned to leave the ice.
Sid stood in the bench area, right behind Jack. Leah had walked right past him to get to the ice. All the little boys were looking back but Sid was looking forward, admiring Leah’s shape and hair and presence even in a dinky small town rink. She could sing the house down at CONSOL and Neal had been right to suggest it. Not that Sid would ever give him credit. When she finished, he put his fingers to his mouth and whistled as loudly as he could. Her eyes snapped toward the sound, and she found him there grinning. She rolled her eyes, but her stomach dropped like a roller coaster.
“Okay guys, good luck!” Sid shouted to the boys.
“Thanks Coach!” some smartass yelled.
Sid jogged three steps to catch up with Leah, in her deep blue turtleneck sweater, black jeans and slouchy boots. “That was great, Leah.”
“Thanks. I just need to grab my coat and we can go up. Where’s your stuff?” She realized that he probably hadn’t come to the game in just the black hoodie and jeans he had on.
“Upstairs. I, uh, called Ricky before and a couple of those guys. They’re here.”
Leah turned and stopped, suitably impressed. “Look at you, hanging out with friends.”
Sid rubbed his hair awkwardly. “Well, I told them the rink was a good place to meet girls.”
They joined the guys, all of whom Leah knew, and a few other people in the bleachers. Sid sat as close to Leah as he dared in mixed company. It was a social outing with occasional cheering about something on the ice. The kids were disorganized, bunching up and following only the puck, but they were clearly having fun. Leah tried not to laugh every time someone fell down.
Sid went to the bathroom and came back to find another guy in his seat, talking to Leah. When he went to get waters a different guy claimed the spot. Sid knew them all a little and they immediately fled upon his arrival; no one wanted to challenge him. But Sid could tell the attention was really about Leah. During the second intermission, he was dying from curiosity and went to get snacks with Ricky.
“So, Leah sings here all the time?” he asked casually.
“Yep. Really the only reason to come to a game, if you know what I mean,” Ricky said, then suddenly caught himself. “I mean, she’s really good. Not like… that’s not why I’m here.”
“It’s cool. We’re just friends.”
Ricky nodded like he felt Sid’s pain. “Yeah, well, I gotta tell you that makes me feel better. She’s not into you, none of the guys here ever had a prayer.”
Sid paid for the food, hoping kept Ricky from noticing the tightness creeping up his neck. “She’s hot though, eh? I mean, these guys must be trying to get with her all the time.”
Ricky shrugged. “Wouldn’t you?”
Leah had told Sid the pickings were slim in Cole Harbour, and the same was true for guys looking to meet girls. It explained why these same guys hit on her every time she saw them. Unless Gina was around, then they threw themselves at her feet. Usually right in front of Travis – they didn’t care. It was harmless and good-natured, if exhausting.
Tonight was different. When Sid was there, the guys were on best behavior. When he left, it seemed to be a race to talk to her. Then Sid would come back and it was Sunday at church again. Leah had to laugh. If she was good enough for Sid, these guys wanted her too.
“You should tell him to use a shorter stick.”
“Huh?” Leah said. Her mind had been wandering.
“I think Jack’s stick is too big for him. He’s got a good shot, could shoot harder if it were shorter,” Sid said.
“You tell him. He’d use a plastic spoon if you told him too.”
Sid smiled. “Like here, watch how he…” Jack got the puck in the air from the inside of the circle and put it right under the goalie’s arm. The horn sounded. Leah jumped to her feet.
“What was that, Coach?” she bumped his hip as he stood up.
“Nevermind.” Sid said, clapping.
Jack’s team won. Both Sid and Leah declined Ricky’s invitation to hit a bar with the rest of the group. He caught Sid’s eye with a knowing look – no way did he believe what Sid said about just being friends with Leah. It was easier to assume the big time star got the hottest girl, and that’s why she wasn’t with you. He all but winked as he shook Sid’s hand and followed his friends away.
“You can go out, if you want,” Leah said, still sitting next to him. “I have a ride home.”
Sid stretched his arm up theatrically, putting it down around Leah’s shoulders. “I finally got you in the bleachers, no way I’m leaving now.”
Leah let her head fall onto his shoulder, laughing. If anyone saw them, let them see what they wanted.
“What if we had, that night?” she asked. The words were out before she could stop them, her inner monologue spilling all over. Being here made it impossible not to wonder. She just hadn’t meant to say it out loud. But Leah wanted reassurance that the decision she made that night – and every night since – had been the right one. It certainly wasn’t the easy one. It felt safe and familiar to be back at the rink with Sid, like neutral territory. She didn’t elaborate on what they might have done – kissed? More? Leah was pretty sure she wouldn’t have stopped, even though the bleachers were cold and hard. Logistics didn’t matter in fantasy land.
Sid almost choked on his tongue. What if we had? What if we still do? It wasn’t as if we were over the urge. The first line of defense was to joke that he’d have ruined her for all other men, but Sid just spent two hours with those other men and knew they were not good enough anyway. Whether he was in Cole Harbour or not, Leah deserved something better than what he’d seen. There had to be one nice, cool guy she could date. Of course Sid would want to kill him anyway.
I’m supposed to find someone like her in Pittsburgh, Sid reminded himself. That was the plan. But he’d spend as much or more time worrying about who she found here.
“Uh, we probably wouldn’t have become friends,” he said honestly. There were hook ups and there were friends. Mixing the two made a girlfriend, and Sid couldn’t do that right now.
Leah scoffed nervously. “Yeah. I mean, you’re not that good of a kisser.”
“WHAT?!” Sid sat up, dumping her playfully onto the bench. “You don’t know that!”
“I do, remember?”
“That was not a kiss! It was like a preview of a kiss. The cover of a book.” He was actually a little hurt. “And I thought it was a good kiss, actually. You said I was hot.”
“Sid! Of course it was a good kiss. I’m kidding! But it was not better than being friends with you. No kiss could be that.”
Leah’s heart was racing. Joking about this was dangerously close to being too honest, to admitting that she wanted to kiss him again, and still be friends, and have her cake and eat it too. She wanted everything from him when she was supposed to be giving, supposed to be his friend.
Sid was not letting her off that easily. If he kissed her for real, she’d know it. “There’s plenty more where that came from,” he said.
Jack was beside himself with excitement after the game. He ran headlong into Sid’s midsection and managed to get half of Sid’s body in a hug. Sid signed autographs for the team and took pictures, ensuring Jack would be the coolest kid in town for years to come. Leah had ridden over with her sister, but Sid offered to give her a ride home.
For once, Leah didn’t want to take it. She wanted all the time she could get with Sid, knowing he’d leave soon, but now tonight felt weird. Talking about the kiss had her out of sorts – did she hurt his feelings? Go too far? So she took the ride home, and waited till they pulled out of the lot before speaking.
“I didn’t mean it about the kiss, before. It was a good kiss.” It was a toe-curling, spine-tingling, panty-dropping kiss and it was only half a kiss if that. A whole one would kill me.
Sid turned, surprise on his face. “I’m not mad. I knew you were joking.”
“Oh,” Leah felt dumb now. “Good. I just didn’t want you to think I… sorry.”
Sid pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. It was a surprise move – he hadn’t even thought before doing it. Now they were parked. He unbuckled his seat belt and turned toward her. Leah’s eyes got wide. For a long, heavy moment, they were both sure he was going to kiss her again.
“Nope,” he said.
“What were you going to say?”
On the night they’d met, Leah called him out. She refused to move till he finished talking, forcing him to say that he didn’t have friends at home. Those words had killed any hope of hooking up in the bleachers, but they sparked everything that happened since. Now Sid was doing the same thing to her. Leah blinked back at him.
“I’m not leaving here until you tell me what you were going to say.”
A smile curled the corner of her lip. “You jerk.”
He smiled shamelessly. Leah was trapped – she should have just let it go, before it became a private moment between them in the dark. Her heart pounded.
“I didn’t want you to think I stopped the kiss because it was bad, or that’s why I wanted to be friends instead of… something else.” She pushed a hand through her hair. “You probably don’t haul off and kiss somebody that often, but you could. I mean, you can. It would work… on someone.” She was stuttering. “That’s it.”
If ever there were an opening, this was it. Like the doors of a bank vault full of money, asking you to come in and take whatever you could carry. But Leah had managed to identify in one phrase exactly why Sid felt the way he did - she put a name on the thing he’d been turning over in his head all week. The thing he’d have to find in Pittsburgh.
I don’t want someone I can get with one kiss. I want someone I can’t.
She looked mortified, so Sid squeezed her hand and gave her a modified version of the truth. “Leah, I know it works. But I like you more because it didn’t work.”
They were quiet the rest of the way home. If Leah got a second chance at that kiss, she’d show him just how well it worked and make damned sure he still liked her for it. It was all Sid could do to keep from biting his lip, feeling the ghost of her mouth pressed to his. He had to get away from her. They rolled to a stop outside her house.
By the lights of the dashboard Leah could see that hungry look in his eyes. If she kissed him now, he’d never make it home tonight. Then they’d never make it through another day together. Or she’d never make it through him leaving. Right now the bleachers, the kiss, even their jokes were just drops of water seeping through a damn. Another kiss would break it wide open and samp them both. Sidney looked like a man who was pretty sure he could swim. Leah had no such confidence.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said.
Sid smirked. “Eh. You’re probably not that good a kisser anyway.”