Leah thought it might happen in the lounge after the game, but it didn’t. Her hands were so empty leaving Consol that she put them in her pockets. Circling around to the passenger seat of his Range Rover, she thought maybe then. Still nothing. She climbed inside and closed the door behind her, shutting out the sound of 20,000 people, of nosy teammates and new friends, of curious onlookers and whispers waiting to be spread. In the dark, in the car, it was just her and Sidney.
I love you. The words were there, bursting from her heart but she couldn’t say them. They seemed too small in the face of all she’d seen that night: the lights, the crowd, the pressure – that’s who Sidney was here. To know he faced that every day and was still the same Sidney she knew only impressed Leah more. It also terrified her. If he was a wall, she was nothing but a little flag waving from the top, the first thing to be shot down.
Sidney didn’t want to buckle his seat belt, he didn’t want to go to Diesel or share Leah with anyone. He wanted to go home and lock them away from the daily madness she’d handled with such ease and show her that life here – his life – was more than hockey. And it was also so much less.
I love you. But if he’d had the guts for that he’d have said it a long time ago.
He drove to the club, telling himself that the guys could help win Leah over. Look how many great friends he had in Pittsburgh, look how much fun. Wouldn’t she want that? After a hundred Friday nights at the same Cole Harbour bar, Sid hoped she might see a glimpse of home in a sea of new here. At least she’d see him being normal – after all she was the one who had told him not to hide away.
In the passenger seat, she was doing something with her arms and her long-sleeved sweater. Sid turned and saw bare stomach and a flash of black bra against her white skin. He instantly looked forward, guilty – then remembered he had seen all that before. And it was his car. So he watched from the corner of his eye as Leah struggled into a new top and finally pulled the black sweater away. Now she wore gold, the exact shade of Penguins gold, in a gauzy sleeveless top with sparkles sewn in. It draped against her slender torso so suggestively that Sid coughed, sputtering.
“Nice move,” he said, trying to cover.
Leah laughed. “I’ve changed on a lot of co-ed sports buses.”
“I’ve seen you naked, remember?” Sid remembered. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“Yeah, but the rest of Pittsburgh hasn’t.” She gestured out the window at passing cars.
Rolling up in front of the club on a Saturday night was the high point for some of his teammates, but it made Sid feel like a jackass. He politely handed his keys to the valet and made it three steps onto the curb before someone shouted his name. A bouncer already had the door open – Sid kept one hand on Leah’s back as they dashed inside.
Leah was smiling. All those people wondering why Crosby was with that girl, when she barely knew herself. Still his palm was warm through her shirt, strongly steering toward what she assumed was the VIP section. Otherwise he’d be swallowed up by this crowd in minutes. Luckily the VIP bouncer saw them coming; the velvet rope was up and then it was closed behind them.
So many people, she thought. Inside the club, inside VIP. Big guys in dark suits, tiny girls in smaller dresses and shoes so high they qualified as Cirque du Soleil acts. Leah checked her own standard jeans and heels, boring by comparison. Then Sidney was at her side.
Right. I brought this instead, she thought.
Sid leaned in much closer than necessary, his voice passing across her skin. “Drink?”
Leah nodded and followed him to the bar.
“There she is!”
An arm slipped around Leah’s waist, turning her from Sid’s path and curling her in to another broad, solid body. Of course it was James, looking like he had before the game, only a hundred times sexier because his dress shirt was open at the collar and shoved up over his forearms. Leah took a small step backward – imperceptible, except James noticed.
He moved back in, really close. “Where’s your boyfriend?” Leah rolled her eyes. James’ hand squeezed her side once before falling away. “I’d never leave you alone with these animals,” he purred.
Matt Niskanen stepped in, rescuing her with his dorky smile and Midwestern manners. He introduced his girlfriend. Tyler Kennedy arrived with a well-timed dirty remark and soon they were laughing together. Matt finished his drink, and saw Leah’s empty hands.
“Can I get you something?”
Sid tapped his foot impatiently. Who do you have to be to get a drink around here, Sidney Crosby? Too bad a pack of his teammates were bellied up to the bar and they’d beaten him there. Smiling apologetically at a girl in a tight striped dress, Sid shouldered his way in next to Paul Martin.
“So,” Paul glanced back, looking for his captain’s companion. “Am I hallucinating or are you in a club with a date?”
Sid made a guilty face.
“Who is she?”
“Friend from home.”
Paul nodded wisely, his glasses completing the effect. “Friend.”
“Yup,” Sid said because that’s what it was right now. Give him till tomorrow.
Paul took a beer from the bartender and stepped back, allowing Sid more room to order. With a grin, Paul said, “So she’s fair game?”
Sid didn’t even react. The guys would never. Certainly not Paul of all people. Wherever Leah was in the pack of bodies now, Sid hoped that Nisky was near her, or Duper. Equal or less distance that Neal, but even that tool wouldn’t try anything. He knew better. Sid ordered a vodka tonic and a Newcastle, watched the bartender hurry to provide. Where was this guy five minutes ago? When the drinks were done, Sid tipped the bartender a twenty. Last time he’d have to wait for drinks all night.
He wove between people, saying hello, holding Leah’s cocktail as if it were a clear sign that he had someone where to be. The VIP area wasn’t that big, and in the center a space had cleared. Sid spotted Leah talking to Nisky’s girlfriend and Kunitz, Neal hovering a few feet away like her bodyguard. Time to tell him he’s off duty for the night. Sid saw Kuni nod in his direction, and they all turned to look.
A body first: small, strangely familiar. Then a mouth. On his. It happened all at once – he was walking right toward Leah then someone was kissing him. A full second passed before he realized it wasn’t Leah.
“Hey,” said a voice in front of him. Sid, still holding a drink in each hand, looked right down into the eyes of the girl whose bed he’d woken up in the day before.
The memory punched the panic button in his brain, setting his internal alarm to DEFCON ONE. Sid swore he saw red lights flashing. This girl, she was here. He’d told her to come here, to meet him. How could he forget that?! That was before the anthem and inviting Leah and bringing her here and… and kissing someone else right in front of her. Too late Sidney realized the girl was talking.
“Great game! I’m so glad you wanted to meet up tonight, we can really celebrate.” She slunk in close, oblivious to the extra drink Sidney carried, and rubbed up against him. Her face tilted up for another kiss.
Fight or flight scenarios whipped through Sidney’s mind. He could say he didn’t know her – but there was a blurry memory of his friends pulling them apart, of telling them to go to hell just before he took her home. One look at her tight, slinky dress, rack pouring out the top, dark blond hair salon-finished and there was no question what they’d done once they got there.
“Tuh… Theresa. Hi. Hey.” He backpedaled. “How, uh, how are you?”
A flicker in her eye was all Sidney needed to see. He’d been borderline rude to this girl in her bedroom, in his birthday suit, and played the PR card to smooth it over. Only to end up in a much more compromising position. In front of everyone he knew, and a few hundred he didn’t, Sid was staring at a duel.
“Good,” she said, playing coy. “Better now, you got here kinda late tonight.”
Because I was trying to tell the girl of my dreams I’m in love with her and chickening out in front of all the same people watching us now. Including her. Sid’s eyes flicked up to Leah – she was completely still, like the eye of a hurricane – flashing lights didn’t touch her, he bet it was even silent where she stood looking at him like she’d never seen something so small. Almost imperceptibly, she moved toward James.
“This is my friend Amber,” Theresa said, pulling over another blond in an equally risqué dress. “You said some of your friends might want to hang out.”
My friends, he remembered. The plan was to pawn this girl off on one of his teammates so she’d leave happy and with someone else. Now the guys most likely to accept a charitable donation were watching him like it was an episode of 1000 Ways to Die.
Leah was in a state of suspended animation. Sid had taken a long time at the bar but he was striding toward her, suit jacket open like he was Clark Kent with a drink in his hand and some really tight underwear underneath. Then out of nowhere, a tiny octopus of a Wet Seal dress was hanging off his chest. Off his mouth – the mouth that had just been whispering to her. That she’d wanted to kiss. Now Miss Bebe Outlet Store was copping a feel while her friend watched nervously, as if waiting to meet her arranged marriage.
It was a mistake, right? This kind of psycho girl shit happened to famous guys all the time. Hell, Leah could have kissed Sid on first sight too, except it would have been in a cap and parka instead of cage sandals and AquaNet. But her gut told her otherwise – guys only knew a girl like this for one reason. Leah felt James move closer behind her. James was either going to have to catch her when she fainted or hold her earrings while she kicked somebody’s ass. The tension in his posture seemed ready for either one.
Sid looked up and it was all over his face.
Leah stared back.
Send her off and I’ll never ask, she tried to tell him without speaking.
Sid got the message. He knew the right thing to do – and knew it was the wrong thing. Not here. Not in front of everyone. Not with this girl; he couldn’t trust her, couldn’t risk what she might do. Leah would never, ever do something to publicly hurt or humiliate him, Sidney was sure of that. He loved her for it.
And he used her for it.
“Why don’t, uh, you both come meet some people?” Sidney herded the girls toward the bar, where maybe a few of his teammates had missed the spectacle. Or they didn’t care. He just needed a minute to deposit Theresa safely somewhere. Sid glanced at Leah, but she had already turned her back.
Leah steeled herself for the taunting look in James’ eyes, but to her surprise it wasn’t there. He just looked worried.
“Take me home?” she said quietly.
They left immediately. Matt squeezed her arm and TK shook his head. Their sympathy made it worse – why were they being nice to her? They didn’t even know her. Sidney was supposed to be nice.
James’ Mercedes arrived from the valet in record time, as if the universe knew she could only hold it together for a minute. Dropping into the low, sleek car, Leah put her head back and breathed slowly through her nose. James regarded her quietly for a moment then put the car into drive.
“She’s gone,” Duper said. Sid was wild-eyed, searching every corner of the VIP area. He hadn’t seen Leah, and he hadn’t seen James.
“Neal?” he demanded.
“Drove her,” Pascal nodded.
“If he so much as…,” Sid growled.
“What?” Pascal challenged. It wasn’t like him to push the captain’s buttons but he said older, more responsible things when they were needed. “If he so much as takes a girl home from this club, fucks her and forgets entirely about it, you’ll what? Tell him to meet you here tomorrow?”
Sid pushed a hand through his once-carefully styled hair. There was no sympathy from Dupuis, and judging from the sideways looks all around, Sidney wouldn’t be hearing it from anyone.
“FUCK.” His shoulders slumped and his voice got smaller. “What do I do?”
Sidney thanked God for the suburbs as he blew the last two stop signs on the way to Neal’s. It was taking way too long – anything could be happening in that house. His tires crunched to a stop outside and Sid was up the walk before his door even closed.
It was James. “She doesn’t want to see you.”
“Well she doesn’t want to fucking sleep with you so I don’t know what the fuck you’re thinking bringing her here!” Sid stomped his foot for effect.
James gave him a look like he could eat shit and die, but crossed onto the porch and shut the door behind him. Sidney might have been a bull but James had four inches of reach on his captain and a lot more practice fighting.
“Did you expect her to go home with you? And that girl? For fuck’s sake, Sid, did you tell that girl to meet you tonight? She looked like you were picking her up at the prom, she couldn’t wait to suck your dick in the limo.”
“I…,” Sid’s rage was random, misfiring. “I forgot, okay? I was gonna dump her one of you guys so she’d be fine with it.”
Any trace of bro-sympathy left James’ face. “Dump her on one of us? What are we, your trash heap? You are the dumbest asshole I’ve ever met. If it’s not hockey, you don’t know what the fuck to do with your life. Get out of here.”
James stepped into the doorway then paused. “Oh, and don’t forget where you dumped Leah tonight.”
He slammed the door in Sid’s face.
Upstairs at the window, standing in the dark, Leah heard every word. Part of her was happy that it was a mistake; Sid hadn’t meant for that girl to be there tonight. The rest of her said that was pathetic and sick. Just because that girl wasn’t there tonight didn’t mean she, or her friend, or someone else with their babymaker flashing and their tits on display wasn’t there every other night of Sidney’s life. Leah had no illusions about his opportunities. Yet she’d somehow fooled herself into thinking he didn’t take them.
Now she stood in the middle of James’ guest room, scowling at the bed. She had not intended to be sleeping in a hockey player’s guest bedroom tonight. The heat of her own anger surprised her – she had no claim to Sidney, no matter what she thought she’d felt. He hadn’t done anything but what she told him: Go out. Get a life. Have fun. Oh, and call me sometime, eh? But he’d only called her because of the anthem. Otherwise, Sidney’s life here wasn’t empty at all, he’d just been filling it with the kind you don’t usually show to company.
Leah told herself that if only Sid had mentioned Theresa, she wouldn’t feel so betrayed. It rang false in her head, but she clung to it. Any port in a storm. Speaking of which….
James opened his bedroom door, freshly changed into dark sweatpants and a thin v-neck shirt that looked worn soft. His five o’clock shadow was well past six, and darker for the shadow thrown by the light behind him. He was so much taller than Sid. There was sadness in his blue-green eyes that Leah could not handle right then.
“Can I borrow a t-shirt?”
He chuckled. “You were planning on sleeping naked at Sid’s?”
She glared at him. “If I slept at all.”
One of James’ eyebrows popped up in surprise, or maybe he was impressed. Either way he disappeared for a moment and came back with a black tee emblazoned with a 412 logo. She took it without a word. James closed his door and leaned against it. Leah shouldn’t have been in his house. He hoped that was the last he’d have to see of her until daylight, when he could always think a little more clearly.
No such luck. He walked into the kitchen a few minutes later to find her pouring a glass of water. Wearing only his t-shirt.
And hopefully something underneath, he thought. The irony of wishing more clothes onto a beautiful girl was not lost on him. He felt bad about what just happened, both at the bar and on his doorstep. James had no doubt Leah heard every word – Sid’s feeble excuse, James’ possessive response. Had he meant it? Was it meant for her, or just to piss off his captain? She didn’t turn around, but lifted one foot and rubbed it slowly along the back of her other calf, caressing the soft skin of her leg.
“Leah, don’t,” James said gruffly.
Leah smiled. She was fired up and it needed out. If Sid was with some other girl, moving on and showing off, shouldn’t she do the same? Prove to them all that Sidney Crosby was the past? James was watching her carefully from ten feet away. She turned toward him and leaned back against the counter, elongating her body. “Don’t what?”
Definitely no bra. James scratched at his hair. “Don’t make me do something we’ll all regret.”
BAM, her scowl was back. “So you would regret me too?”
“No!” James could not explain why his feet were moving toward her, this was not the time to be getting closer. “That’s not what I mean. And Sid doesn’t either, you know that.”
“Yes,” James exhaled. He would not fight Crosby’s battles for him. But James was losing patience as quickly as resistance – he didn’t want to be a bad guy here either. “Leah, whatever warning Sid gave you about me, it’s true.”
“When I do the wrong thing, it’s usually on purpose. Sid, he just doesn’t know any better.”
“Well I was the wrong girl tonight!” Leah shook her head. Sid was with another girl, James was defending him: clearly hell had frozen over.
James felt as if his chest was churning cement. “You were the right girl. And he’s fucking furious that you’re here.”
She took a slow step toward him, like a cat stalking prey. A turn of her head spilled that long, wavy auburn hair over one shoulder, baring the side of her throat. Those big blue eyes didn’t even blink. “Why?”
No wonder Sid was crazy about her – that fool could never withstand something like this. Her breasts lifted beneath the thin cotton shirt and James’ body twitched in response.
Involuntarily, he licked his lips. “Because I am not a nice guy.”
Leah sighed, almost sadly. She knew Sid was mad because he was scared – she felt the same way. Maybe even mad enough to do something about it. It was exactly the worst time for James to grow a conscience – she couldn’t even throw herself at someone properly.
“Liar,” Leah said softly. “You’re just like him. Heart of fucking gold.”
James promised himself it would be the only time he touched her. His hand wrapped around her upper arm and slipped beneath the oversized sleeve. It hurt knowing something of his was all over her. Friction prickled between them.
“If I were him, no way in hell would I ever let someone else take you home.”
Leah laughed sarcastically, but the tension in her face eased. She ached to rest against James’ chest, to have his arms fold around her and block out the world so she would forget there was really somewhere else she wanted to be - somewhere so close. With someone else.
James leaned in quickly and kissed her forehead. “Goodnight.”
His body silently rioted at walking away from an easy mark, but his heart knew Leah was more than that. Crosby was messed up with good reason. James was now staring off that same cliff. He backed up into the doorway, a safe distance. Still her vulnerability was tantalizing.
She met his eyes.
“If you still want to have rough, angry revenge sex, you know which door is mine.”
A smile shot across her face, the first in hours. It was beautiful and uncontrolled and James liked it as much as Leah hated it.
“I’m not tired,” he said, hands up like he was keeping her at bay.
He continued moving away. “Like at all.”
James lost sight of her behind a wall. “I can go all night!” he called.
Sidney stormed through the front door of his house, slamming it hard. No one cared – no one even heard. He looked for something to throw - there were only sunglasses, a magazine, two remotes. Hardly adequate when he felt like flipping a car. The big empty house mocked him all the way to his room.
He had no missed calls or texts, so he messaged Leah:
I’m sorry. Let me explain. Call me.
He stared at the phone, telling himself he was an arrogant bastard though all the while he expected it to ring. Or at least buzz. The longer it was silent the heavier the stone in Sidney’s chest grew. He sent another text.
Still nothing. He brushed his teeth and changed, turned off every single light and considered leaving the door open in case she decided to return in the middle of the night. He stood with his hand on the alarm pad for a good minute, thinking. Then he left the system unarmed, went back to his room and crawled into bed before sending one last text.
Please come home.