Leah heard noise. It was the audience, going ballistic over the unplanned show they had just seen. If anyone even remembered her song, these cheers were not for it. She could have out-screamed them but with Sidney in her arms, she figured let them have their fun. He knitted his fingers into hers, gave the audience a shy, awkward wave, and ran them both off stage.
“What are you… how did you…?” she started to say but Sidney pressed her to the closest wall, in full view of everyone behind the scenes, and kissed her again. He inhaled deeply, the vanilla nad ruby red scnet of her hitting his sense like a red flag to a bull.
The kiss shot through Leah’s body like a runaway train. She wanted to tear him apart, tear herself apart to find the single atom that had doubted him and destroy it forever. The boy who couldn’t do anything had done everything, and he was still doing it. Leah had to shove him away as the temperature between them spiked.
“Sorry,” he laughed weakly, wiping their kiss from his face with the back of one hand. “I missed you.”
Before Leah could get her question out, Gina burst through the stage door at a run and gave Sidney a flying tackle. He caught her easily, spinning around.
“Took you long enough!” she said, taking a swing. He dodged it just before something else hit him in the stomach.
“Sidney!” Jake shouted.
Sid hugged the kid back, hoping that of everyone Jake was oblivious to the mess Sidney had made. If they kid had to have a hero, let it not be one who almost lets a girl like Leah get away. Travis slapped Sid on the shoulder as Jacke held on tight.
“You must be Leah’s sister,” he said to the woman nearby. She was a few years older but definitely Leah’s sister, with the same blue eyes and wide smile.
“And you must be the boy in that song,” Kate said. She introduced her husband Tommy. Sid wondered if this guy had wanted to kick his ass. On stage, performer number nine began singing.
“Folks, uh, if we could…,” the stagehand sheepishly interrupted their conversation. Leah immediately pushed them all toward the green room. She’d rather break the ‘one guest’ rule than drown out someone singing on stage. As it was, she knew Sidney would be a tough act to follow. They piled into the green room to a sea of staring faces – all the performers before her who had missed the spectacle.
“Uh, hey everybody,” Sid did his awkward wave again. A few jaws dropped. He looked at Leah, who looked at her family, who had no idea what to do. There was a fuss outside the door.
“Yeah, we’re with them!” a male voice said. James’ head popped through the door. “Can one of you guys vouch for me? This dude is not into hockey.”
Sid waved the stagehand away, smirking at Neal. “He recognized me.”
“Well you’re a show-off, that’s why.” James pushed Taylor through the door in front of him.
She ran right to Leah, who already had her arms open in a hug. Then James scooped Leah up and hugged her too.
“Hey stranger. You left something in Pittsburgh,” he said.
She laughed. “I know.”
James set her down. “Don’t worry, I brought Sid too.”
People were coming and going so fast Leah felt dizzy. Or perhaps that was from standing so close to Sidney, who hadn’t moved more than six inches away. Presently his arm was around her waist, tucked into her pocket at the far side. In her heels they were the same height and he leaned in for a kiss every chance he got. It was clear she wouldn’t get a moment to talk to him until this was over.
“So, uh, what now?” Gina finally asked.
“We have a game tomorrow. Have to be in Buffalo at noon or we’re getting benched, Crosby or no Crosby,” James said.
“Come to the game?” Sid offered then changed his tone. “Not a question. You’re all coming to the game. Jake, you wanna come to the game?”
“Yeah!” Jake said, turning to his mom. She shrugged, looking about seventy percent sure she trusted Sidney. He figured that was enough.
“We can go in the morning, fly or drive, you guys pick. I’ll get you all home from there. Probably be Monday morning though,” Sid pointed out. Everyone was fine with that. After all that had happened, it seemed like nothing to be late to work.
“Contestants to the stage in five please, we’re announcing winners,” a production assistant called. People pretending not to watch them got to their feet, lives moving forward again. Leah felt Sid’s embrace tighten. She had nearly forgotten there was a contest going on. His mouth found her ear with a soft kiss.
“Good luck,” he said, letting go of her hand for the first time.
Leah felt three thousand pairs of eyes on her. At least while performing she’d had something to do and a piano between them. Now she was in line with twelve other performers but all the attention was focused on her.
“Well, that was quite a show,” the emcee joked. Leah looked at the floor. “A tough act to follow, for sure, but we’ve still got our first place, ten thousand dollar prize to award! Thanks to all the contestants today, we know some of you traveled quite far to be on this stage today.” He gave the audience a deadpan look. “Some of you almost didn’t make it in time.”
Everyone laughed. Somewhere in the back Leah knew Sid was trying to melt into a wall.
“Finishing in third place today, with an overall score of nine-point-two and winning a prize of three thousand dollars, is Keller Dunn!”
One of the singers Leah had missed stepped forward. She was glad to see someone after her win something, meaning Sid’s appearance hadn’t totally thrown the competition into a tizz. Keller got a check and a trophy and a big round of applause.
“Today’s second place winner, taking home five thousand dollars and a final score of nine-point-four… Leah Hanlon.”
She almost put a hand over her face, resisting only at the last moment. Already afraid of having disrespected the event, Leah didn’t want to see like she wasn’t grateful for the prize. If anything she was embarrassed – people must be thinking she hardly needed the money now, with Crosby climbing stages to get to her. Still, nine-point-four was a fantastic score. She had earned that. The emcee made a joke about her score beating an eight-point-seven and the audience roared. She accepted the check and trophy, smiled for a photo and stepped back into place.
“Today’s first place winner, winner of the 2013 Soundcast Performance Contest for all of Canada and our ten thousand dollar grand prize, is Grace Hale!”
The girl with the guitar won it all. Leah was happy for her – she’d put on a great show. Watching her claim her prize, tears in her eyes, Leah clapped loudly. The scores had been close. Leah was glad Grace came out on top. The emcee had them all take a bow then the curtain was closing.
“Congratulations,” Grace said.
“You too, you were great,” Leah replied.
Grace nodded toward the wing of the stage behind Leah. “I think I’d rather have your prize.”
Leah turned and there was Sidney. He’d never left the stage at all, but watched from the side as Leah’s name was called. That perfect, megawatt smile seemed permanently attached to his face. Trophy in hand she went right for him.
He caught her and squeezed as hard as he could, until she groaned. Sid didn’t think this could be real. He and Leah had been trying so hard to get over or around each other, refusing to see there was no way but through. Holding her felt beyond right, it felt like relief. Sid tilted her back far enough to look in his eyes. “I love you.”
She smirked. Sid’s heart thumped – Leah wouldn’t give him an easy time, even now. And he didn’t want one. “So I heard,” she said.
“So did everyone else,” he pointed out.
“Is that okay?” For her part, Leah was worried that Sid’s grand gesture might have come without thought of the consequences. She wanted him to act and now he finally had; she needed his act of faith to be worth whatever came next.
“If you can handle it, I can handle it,” he said. “And I know you can handle it.”
Leah kissed his softly, knowing a clothes-ripping, furniture-breaking, mirror-fogging make-out session was boiling to the surface. Not here, obviously. She thought about it though, and pressed those thoughts to his lips. Sidney squeezed again, acknowledging the transmission.
He broke free from her mouth and put his lips to her ear. “When I said I’d get everyone home from Buffalo, I didn’t mean you. You’re coming with me.”
“I have school,” Leah’s tone wasn’t even remotely serious.
“Sorry kids, you’ll have to guide yourselves for a day or two,” he grinned. There was no way Sidney was letting Leah out of his sight until he had a few days to say and do everything he needed to prove himself. That started now.
“I hear Jake wants to go to the Hall of Fame.”
“I promised to take him,” Leah winced. She didn’t want to break plans but she didn’t want to leave Sidney, not for a minute. One of many obstacles to conquer. Or maybe not.
“Then let’s take him,” Sid said.
Kate caught Leah’s sleeve, tugging her out of step with Sidney and to the back of their little group. The hotel loomed ahead, where they planned to let Leah chance and hit the Hockey Hall of Fame before it got too late in the day.
“He doesn’t have to do this,” Kate said. “Jake would understand if we went to a movie or something, I don’t….”
Leah reached an arm around Kate’s shoulders and pulled her in for half a hug. All of a sudden, the older sister who had been worried about Sid breaking her heart was worried about Sid getting in trouble. It was amazing what family could do – protect one minute, accept the next.
“I’m not sure how much of it’s for Jake, and how much is for himself,” Leah replied.
Kate looked back at her a serene expression. “I think it’s for you.”
When they reached the hotel, Leah shot Sid a quick glance: stay here. Of course, everyone saw it – Tommy even laughed. If Sid went upstairs with Leah, they’d be gone for good. Sid had the grace to blush even as he smiled. Leah grabbed Taylor’s arm and headed up to the room. They weren’t gone a moment before Gina was pulling Sid into a corner, away from the group.
She was beautiful, Sidney thought. The kind of girl guys would go crazy for, the way boys had back in Cole Harbour when they were kids. Gina had a devil-may-care vibe about her that would appeal to his teammates. He’d already caught Neal looking a little too long. Gina was used to that – if she or Travis cared, they hadn’t showed it. Now she stood across from him, thinking.
“I…,” she stopped.
“You…,” Gina halted again, shifting her weight in frustration. Sid waited. Finally, Gina sighed and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Sorry I tried to punch you.”
“It’s okay,” Sid laughed. “It won’t happen again.”
Gina gave him a level stare, the kind that could turn good or bad in a heartbeat. “Good, because I don’t miss twice.”
Leah waited until she and Taylor were in the elevator on their way to the 17th floor. The doors closed and she said, “How did you know?”
“My dad saw it in the paper.”
Leah groaned. “Oh my God, your dad.”
“He was impressed,” Taylor said. “Well, for a second anyway. Wait till he finds out what Sid did. Then we’re all dead.”
Leah felt a genuine fear. She knew Troy Crosby was a crazy sports parent, always pushing, always driving Sidney to perform. It as local a legend as Cole Harbour had. They’d always laughed about it but Leah suddenly felt the weight of it on her chest, the realization that if she and Sidney were a thing, then his family was kind of her family too. Good and bad. Except she had all the good on her side.
Taylor, who’d been drive to no less a degree for being female, read the concern on Leah’s face. “Don’t worry. Sid got here, he got you, he can get around my dad.”
Leah lifted her eyebrows in question.
“Probably.” Taylor shrugged.
Leah hurried to dress. It wasn’t what she’d have chosen for a first date but Sidney had seen her in worse. And better. And less and more. He’d seen so much now… heard so much. Beyond a confession, the song was every ounce of love and confusion and waiting and flat out adoration she felt for Sidney. There were other feelings: anger and hurt. She was frustrated that he’d waited so long and put them both through all this only to arrive back where they started: standing in a pool of light, each surprised the to see the other waiting.
Only this time, Sid said he loved her. Maybe there was nothing else to say.
Zipping into soft skinny jeans, Leah pulled on her high black winter boots. Above that she wore a white v-neck tee under a mustard yellow cardigan and twisted a yellow, blue and gray patterned scarf around her neck. The same old green parka and hat she’d been wearing the night she met Sidney went on top. With her makeup and hair done up for the performance, Leah looked as good as a girl could hope to look when Sidney Crosby showed up with a surprise ‘I love you.’
They took the elevator down. The moment Leah turned toward the lobby her eyes immediately found Sidney. It wasn’t some connection between them, it was just his size and presence that seemed to draw every eye; the way she’d found him in another Toronto hotel lobby after the lockout meetings, pulling attention like a magnet. People with no idea who Sidney was glanced in his direction. But he was looking right back at her, and then he was smiling. Leah blushed like a grade schooler.
Sid gave up lurking in a corner and walked right to her. Leah slowed her step; Sid didn’t. In a hotel lobby, no more or less full than any other time or place, he kissed her softly on the lips. He was also thinking of that last trip to Toronto and all trouble he could have saved them if he’d had the guts to do this months ago. Now he took his time, holding the lid on the pot by keeping his mouth closed against her soft, warm lips. Sparks trilled down the line where their bodies pressed together.
“Hi,” he said. The whole group was watching them.
“Hi,” Leah managed.
“You ready for this?”
She shook her head no. Sid took her hand and turned toward the door anyway.
The Hockey Hall of Fame was only a few blocks away. The chilly whip of early March wind gave Leah an excuse to press against Sidney’s bulky shape. He put an arm around her shoulders and kept her close, kept their feet moving. Sid was on a roll – already he’d put himself out there. He was vulnerable like never before. At least Leah hadn’t slapped his face and run off stage. Instead, she said loved him too. Sid felt like he could do anything and so he would.
Before long the imposing façade of the Hall of Fame loomed along their left side. Housed in a former bank, it was all stone with soaring, sharply capped windows overhead. The place looked more like a museum than a modern Hall of Fame, and in truth it was both. At the front door, he looked at Leah and pulled off his baseball cap. A megawatt grin spread across his perfect face and threatened to stop her heart. He was really going for this, daring her to come along. Leah didn’t know what was into Sid today, but she reached up to fix his hair. It was soft between her fingers, a little longer than she rememebred. Well it had been a while since she ran her hands through it. The next time she got the chance she would….
Involuntarily Sidney’s brown eyes darkened with a flash of lust and he leaned forward to kiss her… until Tommy coughed. Loudly. Leah and Sid both snapped back like they’d touched something hot, a breath away from making out on the street in front of hockey’s most public institution.
Shaking it off, Sid counted heads – they were nine total. No, eight.
“Where’s James?” Sid asked, hating himself for directing the question at Taylor.
“Talking your PR department off a ledge.” She smirked, acknowledging the insinutation. “No really, he thought you might get through better without both of you attracting attention. This way if anyone asks why you’re here, you can say it’s a family thing.”
Sid made a face like he was impressed with Neal’s consideration. Taylor took the opening.
“Imagine if he were here and you said that. People would know all about me and him.”
Sid swiped his hat at Taylor, biffing her before she could duck. She whacked him with a mitten. He was laughing that high-pitched giggle as they rolled through the front door and went right for the admission window.
“I’ll get…,” Tommy tried to say, but Sid was too quick.
“Seven adults and one child, please.”
The girl behind the glass stared at him like some kind of reverse zoo exhibit where the exotic, impossible creature was on the outside. Sid, a little drunk on his tiny rebellion, gave her a big smile. The girl wobbled. Her chair wobbbled. Canada wobbled in general.
“Seh… seven? And a child?” She stammered, punching keys at random and earning a chorus of protesting beeps. Quickly clearing the transaction, she started again and managed to come up with a total for eight admissions. Then she looked back at Sid.
“I think you get in free.”
“I’ll pay, it’s okay.”
“No, I mean, you’re, um… okay. Six and a child. That’s one hundred sixteen dollars.”
Sid put his credit card on the counter and the girl blinked at it, as if she expected Phil Pritchard to run out with his white Stanley Cup gloves to handle it. After a moment, she gingerly picked it up and swiped it through the reader then passed it back to him, careful not to touch. The receipt printed noisily.
Gina leaned in behind Leah and Taylor and whispered, “Imagine when he goes to buy you a ring.”
Taylor snorted, trying to catch the laugh in her throat, and spun away coughing. The joke died for Leah at the word ‘ring.’ Of course that’s what people would think, and what they would start asking the minute Sidney told anyone they were together.
Well, that minute has passed, she thought. Leah closed her eyes, wondering if all of Cole Harbour had been alerted yet. If Pittsburgh was sounding alarms. If Canada’s stock market suddenly rose or crashed on the evidence that Sidney Crosby has actually kissed a girl.
When she opened her eyes the world was still there, in this very unnatural state where Sidney, bare-headed and not trying to hide, was autographing a credit card receipt. A handful of people had gathered in the corners of the room, a few other employees. Sid gave them all a smile as he headed right back toward her.
Sidney caught the look on Leah’s face – disblief, melted over the hard part of her heart that had written that song. He’d have to ask her for the lyrics later. After he stopped kissing her.
Maybe never, Sid smiled to himself. He’d heard the important words anyway. Keeping his eyes on Leah, Sid grabbed Jake around the waist and picked him up under one arm like a football. The little boy squealed with delight. Sid made a face at Leah and turned toward the entrance.
“This is girl porn,” Gina said quietly.
“Gross, that is my brother!” Taylor hissed.
“No, she’s right,” Kate said, stepping into line alongside them. They watched as Sidney, on his knees in front of a small goal, tried to keep Jake from scoring. Jake had a short plastic hockey stick, a hollow puck and oversized gloves. The little scoreboard said he’d gotten three past Crosby.
Jake took an awkard one-armed swipe and sent the puck rolling into Sidney’s knee. As Sid leaned to block it, Jake ran up and threw a second puck over Sid’s shoulder. His glove went with it, both landing in the back of the net. Sid snared him and leapt to his feet, Jake’s sneakers dangling in mid-air.
“God my ovaries hurt,” Gina concluded.
Next to her, Travis said, “Mine too.”
They’d made it through most of the exhibits, albeit slowly as Sidney stopped for a picture and autograph with everyone who asked. And some who didn’t. He had a friendly, efficient manner about him, paying attention to each person just long enough before moving on. Leah watched him work the place like a pro, knowing everyone who met him would go away glowing. It was especailly impressive because he seemed to mean it. A few people asked what he was in Toronto for and, as Taylor suggested, Sid said, “Family stuff.” No one pressed for details. Still Sidney had kept his hands to himself – not touching or kissing Leah. She was glad for that; this place felt sacred, somehow.
When they reached the interactive games part of the museum, Sid went right for the net.
Now he was dusting off his knees and setting Jake back down. That gray crewneck sweater did little to hide the ease of motion in his strong, practiced body. Between that and playing sports games with kids, Leah knew what Gina meant about a kick to the girlparts. Sid draped his coat over one arm. He’d been looking at her all afternoon, always with a hint of impatience. She knew what he meant. The clock couldn’t tick fast enough until she could get him alone.
The Hall of Fame tour ran out in front of the climactic display: The Stanley Cup. They all stopped in front of the silver trophy. Behind it was a Hall of Fame logo and on either side, a collage of photos printed larger than life and plastered to the wall: recent winners, lifting the Cup iconically overhead. Second to the left was Sidney from 2009.
“God that mustache is hideous,” Taylor announced without mercy. Everyone laughed.
Sid giggled, knowing his sister was right. But the sight of the Cup always made him sigh. This was the Presentation Cup that toured the country, spending a day with each of the players. It was the Cup he had lifted and drank from and ridden around the lake with on his Jet Ski. It wast the Cup he’d famously laid in bed with, only to be photographed by Jordan Staal. The memory made Sidney smile – not just of winning, but that team and those friends and that summer. He hoped it wasn’t a once in a lifetime thing.
The Cup sat on a table with room for people to gather around for a photo. Without saying a word their group all stayed well back. Finally Jake asked, “Can you touch it? ‘Cause you won it?”
“Er, no,” Sid said. This wasn’t even one of his crazy personal superstitions, so he wasn’t embarassed to say so. “Only when you win it. Once the next season starts, it’s not yours anymore. Gotta wait till you win again.” He guided Jake toward the table. “You can, though.”
“No, no,” Jake pushed back against Sid’s hand, stopping his progress. “I can wait till you win again too.”
They all laughed at the way kids say the darndest things. Travis ruffled Jake’s hair. “You could win it yourself someday, then you can lift it over your head.”
Jake regarded the trophy, which looked about as the size and weight of his own body from atop it’s perch. He shrugged. “It looks kinda heavy.”
Sid had gone the entire tour without touching Leah. He wanted to give her that much space at least – after all, she hadn’t asked him to climb on stage and kiss her in front of the world like he was planting a flag. Even if she wanted it – which he was relieved to find she did – he still wanted to take it easy in public. Things would get crazy soon enough. But standing in front of the Cup, he knew that wasn’t the only prize he wanted. And it certainly wasn’t the only one he’d had to chase, messing up and falling short along the way, embarassing himself with frustrations and false starts. He stepped closer to Leah and slid his arm through hers, linking elbows like they were in an old movie.
If she wanted him, it meant she agreed to this crazy hockey life. The Cup was the prize they’d both be chasing now.
Sid figured there were people behind him and in the wings and probably in the security office watching on closed circuit TV. He turned Leah in and kissed her briefly. Let them see. She looked up at him in surprise.
“Gotta kiss something. I mean it’s right there!” he whispered.
Leah wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold out. They had gone to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Sid had his hat back on, sitting next to her in a chair that seemed far too small for him. Maybe it was because he’d pulled it so close to her side. His arm bumped hers with every movement of the fork but neither of them moved away. James was at her right, having warned Bylsma about Sidney’s kamikaze mission to the Hall of Fame. Sid still had his phone off; Leah could feel the outline of it’s shape in the pocket of his jeans when he shifted his weight.
Jake chatten happily about the day’s adventures while Leah caught the sidelong glances of everyone else at the table. They had decided to drive to Buffalo in two cars, then Sidney and James would join the team while everyone else drove back to Toronto before return flights to Cole Harbour. In the Hall of Fame gift shop, Leah had bought Jake a kids’ size shirt with an 87 on it.
“No eighteens, eh?” Taylor had asked loudly enough for Sidney to pointedly ignore.
Leah cleared her plate of chicken and pasta in record time. It reminded her of making pre-game meal for Sidney in Pittsburgh, before the night that had turned out much differently than either of them planned. That would not happen again. Leah carbo-loaded knowing nothing could stop her from burning it off tonight. Judging by the way Sid polished off his steak and potatoes before mopping the plate with a piece of bread, he had the same idea. Gina looked wistfully at their plates, empty before anyone else was halfway done, and kicked Leah under the table.
“Oh my God, go!” Kate finally said.
Sidney’s chair scraped the floor as he stood up in a rush. He handed Taylor a credit card. With the half-embarassed smile of a man carrying off his conquest, Sid passed Leah her coat, said goodnight and nearly ran for the door.
Leah dug her heels into the lobby carpet. Trying to stop Sidney was like trying to stop a runaway train – h e was partway to the elevators before he realized his hand was empty. He turned; Leah was laughing at him from ten meters away.
“I was sharing with Jake. I don’t have my own room,” she said.
“Oh.” Sid had not thought of that.
“Where were you going to stay?”
“Ummm….” Sid had not thought of that either. “With you?”
“Well I didn’t know, I mean we just flew up here and….”
Leah steered him toward the front desk. “Hope that wasn’t your only credit card, Kid.”
The man behind the desk recognized Sidney immediately. His eyes cut to Leah, then back to Sid, then back to Leah. Tic, Tac, Toe. A practiced look of omission passed across his features.
“Hi. I need a room for tonight,” Sidney said, knowing how this must look. Which was exactly how it was. “Whatever you have.”
“Hooggaahhh,” Leah coughed. Sid gave her a curious look as the man tapped his keyboard. She made a face like he should be understanding something, and coughed again.
Sid’s eyebrows shot up. Okay, that was not how this should be looking. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came to mind.
“Babe,” Leah said the word pointedly, “my family is on seventeen. Maybe we could be on that floor?”
The receptionist looked up like a shot, from Leah to Sid. Sid nodded enthusiastically and the man’s face fell. Leah figured he was back there posting this to Facebook instead of trying to find them a room. He said something about a suite and zipped two keys through the magnetic encoder. Sid signed, head down, and hurried away.
He didn’t relax until they were waiting for the elevator. “What kind of hooker wears a parka?”
“Are you saying I’m not pretty enough to be a hooker?” Leah made a scandalized face.
“If you were naked under that,” he nodded at her enormous jacket.
“I am naked under this,” she patted her many layers. “All of this.”
The elevator doors dinged open and Sidney felt his blood surge. He was so close. Leah was so close: right against his side, slipping her hand into his and pressing her thumb in a small circle against his palm. An older couple followed them into the elevator. Just as well, Sid could see the security camera overhead. No one needed a live feed of what he planned to do next. Each floor passed with a soft ding that rattled his skittish nerves. Leah traced another circle, her skin hot on his, as if to calm him.
At seventeen, both they and the older couple got off. Sidney’s key was for 1754. They started down a long hallway, aware of the other couple behind them. It was a long hallway. At the turn, Sidney knew they were too close to privacy for him to lose his cool and throw her up against the wall. A shuffle sounded – the older couple was still behind them.
“Fifty, fifty-one,” Leah whispered.
Finally, they reached their door. For a second the stood in the hall just looking at it. It had been a long time since they were alone together, even longer since being alone had yielded the kind of encounter they both really wanted.
“Weird,” Leah said out of nowhere.
She looked at the 54 on the door. “It’s been 54 days since you left Cole Harbour.”