Sid growled to himself. The Penguins were on the road, finally ready to begin the delayed season with an opening game in Philadelphia. After the end of last season, both regular and playoffs, it would have been a high profile game even if they hadn’t all waited an extra three months for it. The Penguins had traveled to Philly at mid-day then had a light practice, a team meeting and a team dinner. By the time Sid finally closed himself inside a hotel room – his own, thanks to the new CBA – it was after ten o’clock.
Too late. But he called anyway.
“Pick a song!” Leah shouted. She didn’t usually keep her phone on her in a bar, nor did she normally answer it. This was anything but normal.
Sid was surprised to hear her voice. He knew she’d be at Madigan’s like every Friday night, and by the sound of loud music in the background he was right. “Ummm,” he stuttered, unprepared, “Uhhhh….”
“Well that’s helpful,” Leah laughed, the noise behind her dying as she stepped out the front door. It was freezing and she wore only short sleeves, but that didn’t matter right now. She hadn’t spoken to Sid since the night they’d left each other panting and sticky on the phone. A few messages and texts, but there wouldn’t a chance to speak to him before tomorrow’s game. “Are you excited?”
“Yeah.” Sid knew he was smiling.
“Are you ready?”
“Better be,” he said. “The Flyers would love to tear us apart.”
Leah had been thinking the same thing. “Be careful, okay? I mean, be awesome, but, you know.”
“You’re worried about me?” Sid was surprised and flattered.
“Yeah,” she said as if it were obvious. “It’s going to be harder for me to watch now.”
“But you’ll watch, right?” Sid didn’t bother being shy with the girl who’d gotten him off on the phone just a few nights ago. He needed to know she was watching.
“I have a date with Jack. He’ll be wearing the sweatshirt you left in my car.”
“Oh, um, I could send you jerseys,” Sid gushed all at once. What an idiot! He never once thought of giving Jack something, or even Leah. Further proof he’d forgotten who he was to the world around her. Knowing she was wearing his name would definitely fuel his performance on the ice, and probably send him right back to phoning her the minute they got home. Speaking of which…, “Hey, uh, about the other night.”
In the frigid air outside Madigan’s, Leah’s blood ran hot remembering how quickly their last phone conversation had turned into something much more than words.
“That’s not why I called, you know that right?”
Leah knew. Sidney Crosby didn’t have to ask for it, nor did he have to turn to the phone and twelve hundred miles of distance to get laid. But if she’d made him feel better for a minute than it was a minute more than she should probably expect.
“Like that’s not why you can to my house the night before you left?” she asked with a smile in her voice.
“I didn’t,” Sid was blushing furiously, alone in his hotel room, knowing Leah must think him such a loser for being turning back so quickly.
“So you didn’t want me to take off my clothes?”
Sid’s temperature shot up a hundred degrees and his hands balled into fists. “No, I did, I just….”
Power coursed through Leah’s veins – she liked it more than she wanted to. She didn’t want Sid to forget about her easily, though she knew he eventually would. The same way she would forget about him and move on. Someday.
“I know, Sid,” she gave in. “You are the only one of us who forgets you’re Sidney Crosby.”
And there it was, that divide Sid felt would always exist between him and a girl, but not Leah. She was already on his side of that wall and he would not let her see herself out just because he’d gone back to Pittsburgh. “It’s not that,” he shot back, suddenly serious. “I just missed you. I still do.”
Her knees wobbled a little. “I miss you too, Sid.”
A long quiet moment stretched between them. Sid wondered how he could ever get past something like Leah. Leah wondered how long it would take Sid to forget about her.
“At least I get to see you tomorrow,” she finally said.
Sid felt pouty. “It’s not the same.”
“Well, here.” Leah held the phone out and snapped a photo of herself. She waited a moment until the screen said it had been viewed.
Opening the photo was an onslaught of desire for Sidney. There was Leah, all dolled up with her makeup and hair done, trying to impress a hundred people who weren’t worthy of her in a place that couldn’t contain her. Sidney lay back on his strange bed in a strange city and missed home fiercely.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
In the Nova Scotia cold, Leah smiled. “Now we’re even. I’ll say the same thing to my TV tomorrow.”
Sidney couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t a great sign for the night before the first game of a season that promised to be faster and more furious than any before. At midnight, he gave up and took the stairs down, intending to do a lap of the hotel to wear himself out.
In the lobby, he ran into Pascal Dupuis.
“Can’t sleep without me, I see,” Duper said. He’d been Sid’s roommate since his rookie year.
“I’m worried about you.” Pascal was in his early thirties with a wife and kids, he always tried to steer the younger Penguins out of trouble and into a stable life despite their money and fame. “You gonna tell me who she is?”
Of course he knows, Sid thought. Pascal had endured the best and worst of Sidney’s NHL growing pains and could read his young captain’s face like a book. Right now, every line of text was about Leah and Sidney was tired of hiding it from sight. They walked toward the longest ground floor hallway.
“I met a girl at home.”
“Her name is Leah.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m in love with her.”
The words came out in a rush, bright red like blood from a wound. They slipped the skin and poured free, slapping wetly off the ground between the two men. Sidney had never, ever said anything like that out loud. He’d barely even thought it. But saying something had a way of showing it was true.
“She doesn’t feel the same?” Duper asked.
“She, uh… she likes me.” Even that was hard for Sid to admit. “But what can I do? Things were great for a while, then the lockout ended and all of a sudden I’m gone. I can’t control it. I just left her there like nothing ever happened, disappeared like that.” He snapped his fingers. It was how quickly his entire time with Leah had passed.
“And she won’t wait?”
Sid stopped walking. “Wait for what? For an entire season to end before I get back to Cole Harbour? To be invaded by the media and eviscerated by everyone else? She’s so… she’s perfect, Duper. She’s such a spitfire she’d be telling all these people to fuck themselves and they would never, ever forgive her for being with me. They would never leave her alone.”
“Like you did.”
Sid closed his eyes. That was it. He’d left Leah alone, abandoned her in fact, for hockey. For something so inevitable she knew about it before she knew about him. Before Leah ever took him into her life, she knew she would always come last in his.
“She deserves better.”
Dupuis stopped walking. “What do you deserve? You give your whole life to this game and you never ask for anything you don’t earn. All you do is work hard and get shit on for it. Don’t you think it’s time you got something for yourself?”
“I can’t ask her go through all this.”
The older man looked at Sidney with much more than the wisdom of seven years in his eyes. He was a husband, a father, a partner. He might not be a famous name but Pascal knew what was on the line. “You’re afraid she’ll say yes.”
Sidney shook his head. He was truly terrified that Leah would say no, even though she did care for him. Sid could not handle someone as strong and caring as Leah turning him down, it meant he’d never find anyone to say yes. “It’s not that easy. She’s not like that.”
“You’re not some kind of weakness, Sid. No matter how many girls act that way.”
“I don’t want her to give up her whole life for me, because I couldn’t give up mine for her. That’s not fair.”
Dupuis shrugged. “Love’s never fair, Sid. Even for regular people.”
They were back at the elevators, riding up. Pascal clapped Sidney on the shoulder at the door to his room, and Sid continued down the hall. It was late - half past midnight - but still well before last call. He dug out his iPod and paged through the song list before dialing the phone.
“Hey!” Leah shouted against the blasting music in the background. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“Need you now.”
It was like the noise behind Leah died all at once, replaced by her heartbeat thumping like a helicopter. She pressed phone closer to her ear. “What?”
“The song: Need You Now. It’s a duet, like the first night,” Sid said. The first night they were out together, his first night in public with a girl even if she wasn’t his. Leah had surprised the heck out of him singing a Jason Aldean/Kelly Clarkson duet. She’d be perfect for another one.
“Oh,” Leah’s heart skipped out across the nearby lake like a stone. “Yeah. I know it.”
“That’s what you should sing.” The song lyrics would be as true as the first night too, when she’d sang about wanting to stay there a little while, wanting to fall asleep with her at night. If Sid wasn’t there to hear them, would some other guy think she was singing to him?
She looked out over the packed dance floor at Madigan’s, the happy couples moving to the opening notes of the song played by the band. They didn’t wait for her voice. They knew the words.
Picture perfect memories, scattered all around the floor
Reaching for the phone ‘cause I can’t fight it anymore.
And I wonder if I ever cross your mind
For me it happens all the time.
She sang, knowing every word was true right down to the time of night in the song. Wondering if Sidney knew when he picked the it.
It’s a quarter after one,
I’m all alone and I need you now
Said I wouldn’t call
But I’ve lost all control and I need you now
And I don’t know how to I can do without, I just need you now.
In his hotel room, Sidney allowed himself exactly three minutes and fifty seven seconds to wallow. He was aware it was slightly longer than he’d let himself lay in the ruined guest room, smelling Leah on the sheets, the morning after she’d left him alone in bed. But things were not getting better.
I don’t know how I can do without
I just need you now.
Two nights later, Sidney waited until he was closed inside his house, his hockey bag and suitcase emptied and a load of laundry in the wash before he called Leah. He had nothing to personally show for the Penguins season opener, even though he’d won. Try as he might, he couldn’t score during the second game in New York. Nor could he wait any longer.
“Let me get this straight,” she said by way of greeting. Sid loved how she never said hello. It was always right to the heart of a conversation with Leah. “Neal has three goals. You have none.”
“He also has better hair,” Sid laughed.
“Not true. Though his beard is surprisingly ginger, and that’s pretty devastating,” Leah admitted.
“I could grow a beard.”
They both winced.
“And cover up your face? What a sin.” Leah curled up on the very couch where she and Sidney had made a stop during their sex tour of her apartment on his last night in Cole Harbour. She wondered if he thought of that when he thought of home, if he ever thought of home at all. Clearly he was thinking about her though. “Just wait till you play at home,” she said. “Girls’ll be throwing their panties on the ice.”
Sid wanted to ask her to be there, as if she could drop everything and fly to Pittsburgh on a Wednesday. As if he were the kind of guy that expected a girl to be at his beck and call like that. Still, having her there would be the icing on the post-lockout, return-to-hockey cake. Sid wasn’t ready to let Leah see his life in action yet – not until he had one.
“That doesn’t happen.”
“It better not,” she laughed. “How will I explain it to Jack?”
Leah was sure it happened though, if not literally than in a thousand figurative ways that added up to it. Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh must be like Magic Mike, live and in 3D. Everywhere he went, everything he did… no wonder he didn’t go out much. Leah hoped he would side-step it and manage some kind of life anyway.
“Don’t let Neal have all the fun, okay?”
Somewhere in Pittsburgh, on a Sunday night after a two-goal game, James was probably having the time of his – and at least one girl’s – life, while Sid was home in his house alone.
“I’ll try,” Sid said.”
Sidney checked his tie in the mirror, thinking it was a bad idea to be going out so close to the home opener. What would the press think when they inevitably found out?
There’s no game for two days, Sidney told himself. He pretended not to hear the rest of the thought: The only date that takes two days to get over is one with Leah.
Matt Niskanen and his girlfriend Kelly had insisted on setting Sid up a second time. This new girl did not know the last girl. She was “completely different,” Kelly said, as if there were tangible things about the previous date Sid had not liked. It had been so much less exact than that. Still Sid was dressed and ready twenty minutes before he was supposed to meet them.
The scene repeated itself as he walked into the restaurant, scared the hostess shitless and was shown to a table where Matt, Kelly and a new girl were sitting. She stood to introduce herself – Brooke, with shoulder-length straight brown hair and side-swept bangs. Her makeup was much more subdued, just a swish of purple highlighting very green eyes. She had a slight tan and glossy lips. Silver hoop earrings grazed her slender neck as she tossed her hair back and grinned at him. Another great smile. This one wore a little black dress with a halter top and a v-neck deep enough to catch him checking out her cleavage before they even sat down.
Smooth, Sid grimaced.
Brooke was funny. She steered the conversation away from hockey, as if the subject had already been exhausted. Sidney found himself offering a funny story or two when the topic came close enough to something he had experienced. Otherwise he just laughed a lot.
Better, he admitted to himself before they were done with entrees. Brooke hadn’t tried to touch him all night – in fact it was like she was out with three friends instead of two friends and a blind date. Sidney wasn’t actively trying to impress her and she wasn’t acting impressed by nothing. Just nice. And pretty – Brooke had full lips that pursed sexily just before she laughed. Her sunshaded skin all but sparkled in the low dining room light.
“Where’d you get so tan?” Sid asked, expecting a trip to the Caribbean or Hawaii.
“I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru with some friends over Christmas. It was incredible, and probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Meanwhile the local porters are running up the side of this mountain in flip flops carrying all my stuff while I have first world problems like altitude sickness. It was very humbling.”
Now he was impressed and definitely intrigued. When Kelly made fun of Matt for yawning before dessert menus arrived, Sid took a deep breath and bit the bullet.
“Don’t bring your tired ass to the game Wednesday,” he told Matt, then turned to Brooke and asked, “Would you want to get coffee somewhere?”
At the door, Kelly gave Sidney a ‘go get ‘em, tiger!’ look. Sid wasn’t sure he was up for anything of the sort but this was definitely going more easily than his setup with Rebecca. He showed Brooke to his car, opening her door like a gentleman. Five minutes later he pulled into a small cafe where he’d been on a previous date in a brief and failed relationship attempt. He remembered their coffee more than he remembered that girl.
They chose a spot in the back, just two seats across from each other over a very small table. Sidney’s nerves had risen slightly, but the place was nearly empty.
“What would you like?” he asked.
“I’ll go,” Brooke offered. She pointed to the seat with its back to the room. “You sit there.”
Sidney watched over his shoulder as she ordered at the counter, admiring the way her simple dress hugged shapely curves. The male barista flirted with her, never once glancing toward the table she’d come from. Sidney wondered how he’d react if he’d seen her date.
This is a date, he knew. Honest to goodness, he was on a date. And he was having fun.
“Yours,” Brooke said as she passed him a tall regular coffee. She’d gotten something with whipped cream accompanied by a thin slice of chocolate cake on a glass plate. Once everything was set between them like a little wall, Brooke leveled her green eyes at Sidney.
“So. Blind date.”
“This is the first one I’ve ever been on.” She clipped the edge off the cake.
“It’s my second,” he admitted, carefully watching the fork slide between her lips.
“Can I be honest with you about something?” Brooke asked.
“Sure.” Sid braced himself for the compliments, the disbelief that she’d been set up with Pittsburgh’s most eligible bachelor. Maybe she felt like she was cheating because she already knew all about him. He prepared his standard statement to put that down.
“There’s someone else.”
“What?” he asked stupidly.
Brooke laid her fork down carefully. Her bangs slipped toward her face and she pushed them behind one ear. “I’m flattered that you wanted to hang out – Kelly said that didn’t happen last time. And I should be flipping because you’re Sidney Crosby but honestly, there’s this guy who I… can’t shake. Even now. Even for you.”
“Oh.” That was a first. Usually women were offering to leave their boyfriends and husbands for him.
Brooke frowned. “I can’t really believe it myself.”
“Well, should we….”
“Stay,” she said and pushed the plate of cake toward him. “Share this.”
Sidney didn’t eat sweets, but her fork was in his hand and a bite of chocolate decadence on his tongue before he could say anything stupid to further embarrass himself. He had assumed that she was into it just because he was. It stung to be wrong.
“Who is he?”
“We work together. I’m really trying not to do the office romance, so I asked Kelly if she knew any guys. And boy did she ever.” Brooke let her eyes go wide. “This guy better turn out to be my future husband now.”
Sid took another big bite of cake, feeling reckless in the face of this small rejection. “Want me to call him?”
“Haha, he’d just ask for his own date. He’s a huge Pens fans.”
It was a bad idea and Sid knew it, but right then he didn’t care. If he wasn’t good enough for anyone then what the hell reputation was he so desperate to protect?
“Take a picture. I’ll look all sad ‘cause you turned me down.”
“Hell no, look happy like it was the best date of your life!”
Sid slid his chair around to Brooke’s side of the table, nice and close, and smiled as she held her phone out in front of them. He didn’t like a photo and made her take another. They were giggling for real by the time the third photo snapped.
“That’s good. Put it on Facebook.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Nope,” Sid said with conviction. “Not at all.”
The instant message from Gina said: Don’t click this link.
So Leah clicked it.
Now she was staring a photo of Sid with another girl – cute too – laughing and smiling while taking a selfie in fancy dress with darkness outside the window behind them. It was a date if she’d ever seen one. Not that she needed to guess.
The caption read: Is it a blind date if it turns out to be this guy?