Sorry this took so long - I get superstitious about the playoffs and I don't want to mess anything up! - J
Sid stood in the doorway of his bedroom, considering what a lifetime worth of discipline had earned him. A number one draft pick, Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal, team captaincy, face of the NHL, brand ambassador… was he forgetting anything?
Oh yeah. A lot of chances not taken.
Leah was across the hall, her suitcase open on a bed he had no intention of letting her sleep in tonight. But as always, there were things he had to do before he could do the things he wanted. It was time for his pre-game nap. Sidney was beyond superstitious: he was devout in his routine. It calmed him and blocked out the world of distractions. The biggest distraction in ages was so close and he didn’t want to block out anything at all.
“How’s this?” She came into the hall displaying a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved black sweater. Sid was sure he’d seen her wear it before, and loved it. It would have the same effect on twenty thousand people tonight. Leah glanced at her outfit unsurely then gave him a hopeful smile.
“Perfect,” he said. Her smile widened. The sparkle in her eyes was a fuse burning right down to his crotch. His arms ached to hold her but Sid told himself: Later.
Leah was hardly listening. There wasn’t much to like or dislike about the outfit, but it didn’t matter because she wouldn’t be wearing it to sing. She had a surprise up her sleeve. Right now she was preoccupied with the way Sid’s shirt stretched across his broad chest as he leaned against the door jamb. In contrast the narrowest part of his body, his waist, drew her eye right down to the top of his jeans.
She could not mess this up. Sid’s OCD was legendary and Leah was terrified to alter even the slightest detail of his game day schedule. She would not have him regret bringing her here. The idea of him sleeping in that big, cozy bed, wearing that thin t-shirt and his long eyelashes closed against those cheekbones – no door would stop her. So Leah held out her open palm.
His eyes were the color of hot fudge and something of the same decadence. Leah steeled herself. “Don’t you need to nap?”
Not more than I need to…. “Yeah. I do,” Sid hated the words as they rolled off his tongue.
“You won’t sleep well if I’m here.”
I can think of a million ways you can keep me awake…. “Probably not,” he admitted.
“Then I’ll go get lost in Pittsburgh for a few hours while you rest. I’m expecting big things out of you tonight, Crosby.” Leah tried not to smile at the innuendo.
No luck for Sid – his pillowy lips twitched into a smile. “Don’t get too lost.”
Was it her imagination, or did Sid look a little disappointed? Leah shook the keys. “Sweet dreams, Sid.”
Sid slept without dreaming, thanks to years of hockey programming. He was surprised to wake automatically two hours later, well rested. The moment he woke he was listening for footsteps in the house.
Leah could still be out, probably singing along with the radio in his car. Or she could be downstairs, watching TV on the couch, little feet tucked up under her legs. Sid remembered the night she fell asleep on his couch, how he practically begged her to stay over. It was finally the beginning of something… only to end a few hours later when the lockout did. That’s when he and Leah had really started.
Instead of footsteps, he heard music. And he smelled food. Sid got up, checked his reflection in the mirror and did what he could with his messy hair. Leah had seen worse. His t-shirt and shorts might give her some ideas, so he didn’t bother getting dressed before going to the kitchen.
Leah had her back to the door, stirring a pot on the stove. She’d plugged her iPod into the speaker dock and put City and Color on low. It stopped Sid in his tracks – but for the view out the window, he could have been at home. He’d maybe never felt so at home anywhere else. Humming along, Leah didn’t hear him coming.
“Hey,” he came right up behind, all warm from bed, and looked over her shoulder. Leah waited a moment for Sid’s arms to slide around her waist but they didn’t. Instead his hands reached the counter on either side, effectively trapping her without really touching. She smiled – just enough, that was a Sid move for sure.
“I found the grocery store.”
A dish of marinara sauce was simmering next to a boiling pot of pasta and a smaller one with a lid on that smelled like broccoli. Sid breathed in deep and put his chin against her shoulder, close enough to breath in that subtle, intoxicating scent of vanilla and ruby red. He wanted to hold her and the moment was screaming for it. But then he would kiss her and he would take her upstairs and sometime right before breaking every ritual in his book, he would say he loved her. He could not do one without the others and the others were not right, not right now. The domino effect would take them all down with it. So he kept his hands at bay and an inch or two between their bodies.
“Perfect pre-game meal.”
“There’s chicken too.”
“Amazing,” he said quietly, without specifying what.
It wasn’t the heat from the cook top or Sid’s body that made Leah blush. She picked up a piece of paper from the side of the range. “Well I thought this might be a hint.”
It was a list of pre-game meal options, published by the Penguins’ Director of Sports Performance. Sid kept it on the fridge so he didn’t have to think about options when he called somewhere for delivery. Never once had someone cooked a meal from that list in this kitchen.
“Ha! It wasn’t, but I’m glad it worked.”
Leah gave Sid the task of setting the table, if only to get him away. It had been bad enough to know he was sleeping upstairs when she came back. The urge to slide in next to him the way he’d once done to her was so palpable she could taste it. The food had been something to do instead. Now she drained and plated and sliced and carried two dishes to the table.
Sidney had set the two corner spots on the dining room table – another space he never used. This way he could sit near Leah and look at her without being so obvious.
There had been times at home, like after the New Year’s kiss, when Sid just wanted to be with Leah and know that everything felt normal. Of course it also felt crazy – the racing pulse, accidentally touch her on purpose, trying to make her laugh. But it was comfortable crazy. She took the seat next to him and Sid felt it was right where she belonged.
Leah dug into her pasta. It was a good meal – basic, easy – but she got the impression Sid appreciated the small gesture very much. He always had. It was tough to reconcile a guy who had everything from a nice car and this big house with someone that thought she was great for boiling water.
Dinner was a topic of conversation both Sid and Leah needed it. It took the edge off the pressure of trying not to say – what are we really doing here? Instead they talked about restaurants they’d been to, what Leah liked to cook, if Sid was allowed to eat junk food during the season.
“I burn like ten thousand calories a day. I can have an Oreo,” he said.
Leah made a face. “Who eats one Oreo?”
It still felt weird going into a guest room at Sid’s house, but Leah had her clothes strewn across the bed. She knew what she was going to wear on the outside. Now she was staring at a pile of underwear Gina had picked out and wondering what to wear inside.
Nothing’s going to happen, she told herself. Sid had been… Sid. Perfect. Charming. That kiss hello had curled her toes but since then, he’d given no indication this trip was more than a friendly visit. The lingerie before her was more for a roundtrip booty call.
Or he’s going to bust through that door any second and find me naked, then I won’t need any of these underwear. The idea made her a little faint.
In the end, Leah went for fun and flirty, not slutty. She chose a pair of cheeky bright blue panties with hot pink stripes across the backside and a matching hot pink bra. They weren’t even a set, but looked enough like one that a guy would never notice. If he got to see them. If they lasted long enough once he did.
Stop, Leah laughed at herself. She pulled on jeans, boots and her long-sleeved sweater. In the bottom corner of her bag was a surprise she’d packed that was even better than the sexy underthings. It went into her oversized purse.
In his room across the hall, Sid straightened his tie. His hair was gelled, his belt was fastened, his wallet, watch, phone and keys were all in their assigned game day places. He know the superstitions were crazy but they worked even more today – he felt calmer just going through the motions, not having to think.
All night and day his thoughts had led to Leah. Now she was really here, everything was confirmed. He had not imagined the way she bossed him around, or the way she smiled or the way she smelled. He certainly had not embellished the spark between them when they kissed. He still felt it in his belly, burning like an ember that could suddenly ignite.
“I’m ready!” she called from the hallway and her footsteps bounced down the stairs. Sid buttoned his suit coat and followed.
“Wow,” she said from the bottom of the stairs, taking in his dark gray pinstripe suit with blue shirt and tie. It was a little too long on him – designer but not tailored, if she had to guess. Sidney Crosby did not have an off-the-rack body. Still he looked all shiny and polished, like he was ready for a date. “So handsome.”
“It’s kind of a waste, since we change at the rink right away.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “A hot guy in a suit is never wasted.”
The closer they got to the arena, the more nervous Leah felt. The anthem here would make her entire performance history look like singing in the shower, but she was ready for that. In a way, having only one day to prepare was better because she couldn’t psych herself out.
Preparing to see Sidney this way was different. She knew about the famous, on-ice, super human version of his as well as anyone but it was so different from the version currently driving them across town. This one had a stray curl of hair sticking out by his ear and squinted because he’d forgotten his sunglasses. Superheroes didn’t squint.
A Penguins banner hung from the front of the building. Leah saw a sixty foot tall Sid as they passed, and closed her eyes.
They was early. Sid wanted to show Leah around, maybe catch a few of his teammates before the crowd really arrived. By five o’clock he’d have to be in game mode. He parked in the mostly empty player and staff lot and took Leah in the side door. She was quieter than usual. He walked her through a warren of hallways, right past the locker room and down the Zamboni tunnel.
There it was. Ten times the size, a hundred times brighter, and almost as empty as the rink in Cole Harbour where they’d stood on the night they first met. Sid considered that night their first date. By that count this would be about their twentieth. Leah’s face was turned up to where every single seat would be filled tonight. He slipped his hand into hers.
Leah smiled at the feel of his fingers knitting between her own.
“Fuck, this place is huge,” she said.
“Yup. Good news is they are putting the words on the dasher screens, around the arena. Turns out they plan on that for new people, just in case.”
“Do they have a plan for when I throw up?” she laughed.
Sid squeezed her hand. “You’re going to be perfect. Like every other time.”
“This is nothing like any other time.”
Sid was so used to the size, the noise and the crowd that he could block it all out. Standing down here in the quiet, he knew that seemed impossible. Leah just needed something to focus on. “I’ll be here. Right out there,” he pointed toward the blue line, roughly 65 feet from where she’d be standing. “You can just sing to me.”
She wanted to kiss him so badly, just crash her lips onto his and stop him from always saying something that made him more perfect. If they were alone, she might have. Leah understood that even holding her hand in this place was a really big risk for Sid, and the most he could do for her.
“They always show you during the anthem and you’re never listening,” she said.
He gave her that heart-stopping grin. “Then I won’t know if you mess up.”
Sid called to his teammate from far down the hall. He could tell each Penguin by their walk, since he was that used to identifying them on the ice by their skating stride. Leah had just gotten the VIP tour of Consol Energy Center and they were headed for the last stop: the locker room.
Pascal completely ignored Sid on his approach. “You must be Leah. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Leah’s heart did a combination of pirouette and swan dive. Sid was telling people about her. Dupuis seemed like a nice, upstanding Penguin but she knew this was a boys club. Sid could have told him anything.
Sid remembered telling Pascal that he was in love with Leah. So, the truth.
“All good things, I hope.”
Pascal smiled. “Well, I can see why Sid was so grumpy coming back from the lockout.”
They headed for the locker room. Voices rang inside and Sid knew he was walking Leah into a potential minefield of horny, entitled manwhores, but what could he do? This was his life. They entered and Sid counted maybe six bodies moving around: Nisknanen, Orpik, Engellend, Kuntiz, Cooke….
“James!” Leah squeaked as he ran over and scooped her up in his arms. He was stronger than that long, tall body looked. He was also scruffier than when they’d met in Toronto and it suited him even more in real life than on TV. So close to his face, with his body all over hers, Leah briefly recalled the moment she’d turned down his offer to go out, just the two of them.
“You missed me so much you couldn’t stay away,” James put her down but didn’t let go. “Don’t be ashamed, it happens a lot.”
Leah did not doubt that at all. She put her palm against his two-day beard. “I wanted to see this up close. Very nice.”
James leaned down and rubbed his face against her cheek, making her giggle. Sid growled internally and felt his hands curl into fists. Neal was so….
Effective, he thought sarcastically. If not for Sid, James would have Leah face down and screaming his name his minutes.
Skeezy, the other side of Sid’s brain shot back. The lame lines and the arrogance – did girls really go for that stuff? Judging from how close he was to kissing Leah right now in front of everyone, apparently it did.
Leah pawed James away and then gave him an extra shove for good measure, still giggling. He was just trying to get a rise out of Sidney; anyone could see it. A quick glance told Leah it had worked – Sid’s jaw was set hard and his glare extra-dark. She reached out a hand to him.
“Will you please introduce me to a teammate with some manners?!”
Niskanen swooped in and introduced himself. Sid had mentioned a girl from home, Matt must have figured this was the one. It gave him a second to bring his jealousy under control, for now.
“Guys, this is Leah, my friend from home. She’s singing the anthem tonight.”
“Do you need a jersey to wear?” Neal called from his locker. Sid opened his mouth to say no, Leah could hear one of his but she beat him to an answer.
“I’m all set, thanks.”
Leah knew all the guys’ names and recognized their faces, so it was easy to make fast friends. She noticed a few not-sly looks going Sidney’s way, just confirming what she already knew: he never brought girls here and he didn’t really have a lot of friends outside this room.
Before long, Leah could tell Sidney was getting antsy. She excused herself from everyone and they promised to listen when she sang. “Okay,” she told Sid, “get me out of here so you can do your left sock, left elbow, right sock, right elbow thing.”
He winced. “That’s not how it goes.”
“Well I don’t want to be around when that lucky old jock strap comes out, so point me to wherever I’m supposed to go.”
Sid walked her toward the events office, where she could hang out for a few hours before game time. He tried to give her his keys, but she said at most she’d walk to someplace nearby and get dinner. They turned the corner into a hallway that was empty for the moment. Instinct slowed both of their feet.
“I’m nervous,” she said quietly.
Sid gave in to his ache and to the jealousy that had flared while watching his teammates all vie for Leah’s attention. He put his hands to her cheeks and held her face so she looked right into his eyes.
“I’m nervous to play in front of you,” he said.
Leah laughed, a sound so perfect it was sure to draw attention. Sid had to be quick.
“Just look for me out there and you’ll be great.” He kissed her gently, briefly on the lips. It zinged all the way to his toes, hot enough to set the carpet on fire. “I know where you’re sitting, so I’ll look for you.”
Stunned from the kiss, Leah forced just enough air into her lungs to say, “Good luck, Sid.”
Love you, he thought.
But he said, “You too.”
He wasn’t back in the locker room two minutes before it started.
“WHO IS YOUR GIRLFRIEND?!” Tyler Kennedy shouted, upset that he’d missed meeting Leah and seeing what everyone else was talking about.
“Not my girlfriend!” Sid sang back.
“Then can I have her? She’s foxy,” Orpik said with a lopsided grin.
“She’s a friend from home, someone dropped out of the anthem and she’s really good.” Sid wasn’t technically lying, even though Nisky was shaking his head.
Never one to pull a punch, Neal said, “The anthem’s the only way Sid can make her sing.”
Swallowing a mouthful of curses and insults that would only reveal how right James was, Sid went to his locker and started changing. He hung his suit carefully, intending to wear it out after the game to celebrate with Leah. After the reaction of his teammates to meeting her, they’d probably want to come along too. Sid needed a win tonight, he needed her to see this wasn’t all hype or hyperbole, and so he needed this team.
“She’s nice,” Duper said in a low voice, taking the seat next to him. Guys carried on at a volume that made their conversation almost private.
“Yeah,” Sid said.
“But not that nice.”
He turned just his head. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Pascal said, taping on a sock. “That she’s not so nice she couldn’t handle this.”
Sid glanced around the room at his teammates roughhousing and chirping, all kids on a big playground. Leah would let them run until they needed to be put in their place. “I’m not worried about this, in here. I’m worried about that, out there.”
Out there were twenty thousand people who all wanted Sid’s best, every minute of every day. Beyond the arena walls were hundreds of thousands more – all with Twitter accounts and blogs, some with radio shows and newspaper columns. The pressure on him was enough already – even if he was used to carrying it, the thing was still heavy. Being with Leah would mean putting that pressure on her too. Sid wanted to think of it as a burden to share, to lighten the load, but he couldn’t. He was only more afraid he’d drop it and crush them both.
“I wouldn’t want to be with me, Dupes.”
“She’s not you,” Pascal said.
The arena was full. Leah had been in bigger stadiums but never had one seemed so packed to the rafters. Of course she’d never been about to step in front of them all and sing, either. At her side, a girl from the events office was listening to her radio headset.
“Two minutes,” she patted Leah’s shoulder.
The teams had just taken the ice. Lights were flashing and swirling, music blaring. A montage played on the Jumbotron. Her eyes watched as players whisked by the Zamboni door, white numbers on black sweaters. She saw 87 once then he was gone.
Glancing down at her own outfit she knew she’d made the right choice. It felt like a suit of armor now.
The starting lineups were announced: Fleury, Letang, Orpik, Kunitz, Dupuis and Crosby, all bodies that would be on the ice with her. The crowd screamed and the video faded and the events office girl was ushering her to the threshold where the ice met the boards.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise, remove your caps and join us as we salute the United States of America with our national anthem. To lead us tonight please welcome, all the way from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Leah Hanlon.”
The mention of Cole Harbour nearly brought the house down. Leah barely heard her own name – she was sure no one else had. The lights came up all at once: thousands of people, row upon row from large to small, as far as the eye could see. Most of the crowd roared again when they saw what she was wearing.
The pint-sized hockey jersey actually fit her pretty well. It was mustard yellow with TIM HORTONS scripted across the front. The back said TIMBITS above a number 8. Sid’s name was nowhere on it, nor was the infamous 87, but everyone here had seen the TV commercial and print ads and knew it was his.
She could see the real 87 now, big as a billboard on his back, up at the blue line as promised. Sid had his head down but she knew he was listening. She focused on the name across his shoulders, took a deep breath, and sang.
Sid kept his eyes closed until the last word was out of her mouth. He’d been singing along in his head, willing her to get every word and note and of course she had. She didn’t need him for that. Leah nailed the anthem like a pro and the Pens fans showed their appreciation.
She did it, he thought. She came here and the sky didn’t fall and the Earth didn’t quake and she walked out onto this ice – my ice – and she took part of it for herself.
As soon as was acceptable, Sid spun around toward where she’d been. It was just in time to see TIMBITS 8 walking away.
A second later, Dupuis brushed past him. “I told you so.”
Leah stowed the borrowed Jersey back in her bag and took the elevator up to the main concourse. The events office girl lead her to an usher who led her to an empty seat next to a bright-eyed girl with long brown hair.
“Allo!” Leah got a big hug before she got a name. “That was magnifique! And we do not use that word lightly around here! I am Vero, Mac-Andre’s wife. And I am…,” she gestured to her round belly, “pregnant. Obviously. Sit, sit, they are starting!”
Leah was hauled into her seat by her new friend just as the puck dropped to start the game. Vero’s hand was on her arm.
“I am so glad to meet you. Sidney told me you came only today, to sing? I wish you could come yesterday, we could have met sooner!”
“He, uh, didn’t know till yesterday. I was still at work when he called – good thing it’s Saturday, so I’m off.”
Vero started to speak, then leaned in and lowered her voice. There were still a lot of exclamation marks, only quieter. “He is so happy you are here! And he is nervous, I never see that he is nervous for a game!”
A body crunched boards on the ice and a whistle blew. Leah looked up.
“He’s just saying that because I was nervous to sing.”
“Well you did it perfectly and so now we wait for Sidney to do the same. Okay? You need a drink, I think, or maybe I do but I cannot so you will have it for me.” Vero waved to a vendor.
The seats were about twelve rows up, behind the Penguins bench and one section over. Pit was the perfect view… of a zillion Crosby jerseys. Every other person was wearing one, maybe more. Leah ran her eyes along the bench, checking names, looking for the real Sid. He was one in from the end, having just come off a shift. The curls at the back of his neck poked out from under his helmet and he practically glowed with energy. For Leah it was like watching TV, only in 3D. Around him the game swirled, faster than the eye could keep up. James went whizzing by with the puck, Niskanen got hit at the blue line, the Hurricanes came back, were turned around, got possession again. Leah felt it when Sidney stepped onto the ice.
He skated beautifully. Everyone said so. He was fast but even more powerful, stopping on a dime, turning like a figure skater, always with momentum and intention. His focus was palpable, as if he were moving not my muscle and sinew but by sheer force of will. Everything else faded around the edges.
Leah had been to a zillion hockey games, professional included, but it was a good ten minutes before her head was in this one. The Penguins were playing well, getting good changes. With four minutes left in the first, Neal got lose in the slot and wristed one over the Canes goalie. Leah was close enough to see his face light up.
During intermission, she and Vero did a lap around the concourse level. More than a few eyes landed on the goalie’s wife, recognizing both her and her condition. Vero was practiced at pretending not to notice, chatting happily. Leah’s eyes lingered on every single image of Sidney they passed, from the silent auction table to the gift shop to the montage celebrating Penguins history. There he was, sketchy mustache and all, lifting the Cup over his head. She thought back to the Hockey Hall of Fame, standing in front of a ten foot tall picture of Sid. Taylor said he hated it because he hadn’t earned a place there yet.
Well he’s certainly earned it here, she thought. He’d earned all of this – including a part of the team, their success and even this shiny new arena.
“Sidney wanted to put us in a suite, but I told him this was more fun. You can get a feel for it here. The suites, they are stuffy. And up there,” Vero touched Leah’s arm, “people ask more questions.”
“You mean people will ask who I am?” Leah prompted. She couldn’t resist curiosity and everything she knew about Sid’s life here was an educated guess.
“Oui, of course.” Vero shrugged.
“What did the last girl say?”
Vero laughed unexpectedly. “Leah, there was no last girl.”
“That can’t be, Vero. Honestly. I’m not his girlfriend, I’m not… anything. Please tell me the truth. I worry about him.”
The pretty French girl’s smile was almost sad. “Me too, ma chere.”
Sid felt good. He’d spotted Leah before the first faceoff, talking with Vero and not looking at all like she wanted to throw up or run for the hills. Considering he’d seen his own face staring back from a screen or sign a thousand times already tonight, that was a positive result.
He was relieved when James scored, even if it had to be James. They were leading. Now Sid could concentrate on getting one of his own, or he – and Leah – would be hearing it from Nealer all night.
It didn’t happen till the third period, and Sid saw it coming from a mile away. Orpik had the puck behind the Pens net, both their forwards and the Canes defense were changing. Sid was in the prime spot, closer to the opposing goal. Brooks’ head came up, Sid felt the eye contact. He came over the boards high, just short of the blue line and the puck hit his stick just as his skates hit the ice. The Carolina defense tried to catch up but not luck. Sid was gone, streaking down the right, cutting across the slot. A little flick, lift and the puck was in the net.
He skated past the bench, glove up for a high five. Nealer leaned over with a grin and shouted, “Asshole!”
The Canes stayed in the game, sneaking one past Flower at the ten minute mark and getting within a goal. Chances came often but the Pens couldn’t get one to drop. Coach was trying everything looking for an insurance goal.
“Sid, you go with 18, 71!”
Sid didn’t even need that much info – he hopped the boards and went north. Carolina failed to clear, Niskanen held it in at the point. Sid charged right to the crease in time to retrieve Matt’s rink-around pass. Geno was out front, Sid put it on his tape. Ellis made a stop, rebound landing right back on Geno’s stick. With the goalie down in front of him, Geno looked wide to where Sid had stepped outside the paint. Pass, wrist, goal.
“I fucking hate you!” Neal shouted, whooping and laughing, as he grabbed Sid in a bear hug. Geno was right behind with his octopus arms. The crowd went crazy and somewhere in that mess, Leah was screaming his name.
At the final buzzer, Leah collapsed into her seat. Vero stayed on her feet, still clapping over the perfect bubble of her belly.
“Too exciting!” Leah said. It had been perfect, not really a nail-biter but close enough to require every ounce of her attention. A goal for James and two for Sid - she imagined that was a little game of showoff between the two guys, for her benefit. How flattering. Now there was nothing to do but change her shirt again and celebrate. Vero lead her back down to the bottom of the arena, into a family lounge. Some wives and girlfriends were there, a few kinds running about. It didn’t seem that every player’s family came to every game – they had their own lives, she knew. It still seemed a little sad. Leah wouldn’t ever want to miss one.
Unlike in the standss, where Leah had been on the Jumbotron one minute and anonymous the next, every woman in the lounge recognized her. She’d been announced as from Sidney’s hometown and walked onto the ice wearing one of his childhood jerseys. Surely that meant something that might matter. Which is precisely why Leah hadn’t worn the jersey during the game. As Vero had said, certain people asked more questions.
“So, you’re Sid’s friend from home?” a blond woman with bangs and the biggest diamond ring Leah had ever seen asked. She introduced herself as Melissa Engelland. Vero joined the conversation, so Leah assumed it was safe.
“Yeah, I’m from Cole Harbour. But we just met, over Christmas. We didn’t know each other back then.”
“He left so young,” Vero added, as if he obviously would have met and been friends – or more – with Leah if only he’d stayed in Nova Scotia long enough to be interested in girls.
“We had no idea you’d be singing. You were great, by the way. Some of the other girls will be sorry they missed it,” Melissa said.
Sorry they missed me, Leah read between the lines. Crosby brought a girl to a game and they didn’t get to gawk. It was a little unfair, but the Crosby microscope obviously wasn’t limited to the public areas of Consol.
Melissa patted her arm, “Next time you visit, maybe.”
“Maybe,” Leah nodded.
The door opened and the first of the players arrived – Chris Kunitz, hair dripping water, scooped up a little blond boy in one arm and a sandy-haired girl in another. Leah helped herself to a cookie and tried to blend, but caught a few people glancing her way. Vero was a good lead – she had clearly steered a few new girls around this crowd before. For the most part, Leah thought everyone was politely curious as if she were a new but reasonably cute animal at the zoo. She did notice that while people came into the lounge, no one left.
She was almost relieved when it was James, not Sid, who arrived first. He moved like a high school quarterback, confidently strutting and a head taller than even most of his teammates. There was no lucky lady waiting for Neal in the lounge, so he zeroed in on Leah and made a beeline right for her. She gave him a sarcastic look.
Instead of another big, showy hug, James stalked right up to her and stopped.
“Alone at last.” His eyes were sparkling.
Leah rolled her eyes toward the room full of people all pretending not to watch. “With an audience.”
He smirked like that’s exactly what he had meant. “Welcome to Pittsburgh.”
Vero brought Tyler Kennedy over, then Niskanen joined them. As a group they seemed a lot like the guys she knew at home, which made sense. Boys were pretty much the same everywhere, even if these boys had a lot more money. They talked about going out like it was a done deal and Leah assumed that Sid was in on that plan too.
“Hey.” Sid’s voice was behind her, surprisingly close. Leah had been busy talking and missed his approach. That struck her as a shame – he walked so nicely in that suit.
She turned and he was right there. His hair was freshly gelled and his tie secured like he was brand new, but Leah saw tiny clues of the game on his face. The plump curve of his lower lip had been scraped – she wanted to smooth the rough spot with her thumb. Sidney’s skin glowed the way only a good hard workout could provide. His eyes were golden, not brown tonight, and he looked pretty damned proud of himself. Leah felt a hundred eyes watching her, watching him. She locked her arms at her sides, hands in fists, to keep from jumping on him.
“What, no hug?” he said, breaking into the biggest Sid smile she’d ever seen.
“Eeeeeeeeeep!” Or something like that. Leah gave him a flying tackle and he didn’t budge. Just caught her and held her, arms around her waist and his face buried in her hair. For a long second they were the only people in the room.
“You were awesome,” he said.
“You were awesome! Way more awesome than Neal!” She shot James a look and he cackled, midway through eating a cookie.
“Where did you get that Timbits jersey?”
“Uh, it might be, er, missing from a display… at the Post Office?” she made a face.
Sid felt dizzy. Not concussion dizzy, but a sensation he specifically associated with her: Leah dizzy. He’d felt it when he first met her, and when he first kissed her and the first time in his guest room bed when she reached her arms around his neck and give him silent permission to make them into something unforgettable. He’d felt it when he came inside her and when he woke beside her and when he left her standing outside the airport on the freezing winter day he thought would be the last time he was ever allowed to love her. Now she was here, in his life and she wasn’t scared. She was brave and beautiful and possibly wanted for a felony robbery of a government facility just to get her hands on something that had once been his.
Kiss her, he thought.
Kiss me, she almost said.
The whole room – hell, the whole world – was waiting for it. Sid took a deep breath, leaned in… and hugged her again. His lips brushed her cheek: a fraction of what he wanted but the best he could do. She folded into his chest, warm and small and aching to be told she was as important as hockey or money or scoring or any of the things she’d seen tonight. Sidney pressed his face into her hair, that incredible smell reaching down into his body and strangling his heart.
“Thank you,” he whispered.