Longest chapter of the longest story, including lots of overlap with Harder Than Stone. We might just make these stories go on forever!
“It’s been what, ten hours?” Meghan lay helplessly pinned beneath half of John’s upper body. He had twisted around her in the night, as always, and ended up with his head buried in the pillow just above her shoulder. Hair fell into his eyes as he lifted his face.
“At least fifteen.”
“Liar, you ate a whole bag of Bugles playing games!”
“Oh,” he smiled sheepishly. “I thought you meant this.” John shifted his lower body and Meghan laughed out loud. He was hard, all warm and sleepy like some lucky girl’s dream. Just as he moved to kiss her, John’s stomach growled.
“I meant that. We’d better get up or there won’t be any food left,” she rolled her hip gently, pressing up against him. “Can you go a little while longer without me?”
With a groan, John threw back the covers. Getting greedy, he told himself. But it couldn’t be helped any more than their single bed accommodations.
The night’s sleep had not improved James’ mood. He’d gone to bed grumpy after a day of watching couples be couple-y. Steven’s bombshell - that he’d actually said “I love you” - had demolished what little optimism James had been nursing. He wanted his friends to be happy but he wanted the same for himself and he didn’t see how both he and Meghan could get that result from this arrangement. If Steven and Kaylynn were in love, could John and Meghan be far behind? James hoped so, but a hundred little looks and gestures between them said that hope was likely to be crushed.
Out of bed first, James poked through the kitchen for something to eat. A vision of Gary Roberts came to mind, only Gary would be going through the trash and weighing each bag of chips and can of beer like a sin on a scale. James smiled at the idea - perhaps it was the only good part about this trip. Too bad there wasn’t any bacon.
Meghan’s voice startled him. She padded barefoot into the kitchen, pulling her long dark hair into a ponytail. In a simple grey v-neck tee and bright green shorts, she looked fresh as a daisy. James would have given anything to be the only one in the house with her.
Kill me, James thought. Tavares’ deep, rumbly voice sounded like James’ conscience warning him not to think things he shouldn’t about people who didn’t belong to him. John had on board shorts and a t-shirt, rubbing a hand through his hair.
“I’m starving,” James said. He gave up easily when Meghan pushed him away from the fridge. She peered inside, surprised to see how little food was left. “Wish we had some bacon.”
“Oh God, bacon would be amazing right now.” John sat down in a stool as if he would otherwise faint.
Meghan shut the fridge and rifled through two paper bags standing on the counter. “We’re also out of juice and bread. Guess it’s beer for breakfast.”
“Almost out of that too,” James said. “Got less than a case left.”
She shook her head. “You guys are like animals stripping the land clean. That food was supposed to last us four days.”
James shrugged. He’d booked the cottage and relied on everyone else to do the rest. Flipping on the TV, he quickly found a live golf broadcast. Before he could sit down, Tavares was dropping onto the other couch. “Tiger’s havin’ a year, eh?” John asked. With that Meghan knew she had lost the boys for a while. John’s devotion to golf was beyond her - it moved so slowly, so quietly that it couldn’t be farther from hockey. She supposed that’s why they all followed it, but could not drum up interest herself except to actually play.
Checking the fridge once more and then the cooler, she saw that James was right. Beer supplies were almost lower than food. She should have over-estimated her over-estimation of what the boys would consume when off the reservation. Only John and James’ hair was visible over the backs of the couches where they’d sunk into comfort and locked onto the golf match. James might not love this fifth-wheel setup but after her worries of the night before, the boys were getting along fine. They’d be fine without her for a while.
“Oh god,” Kaylynn moaned, coming into the room and seeing the TV already on. “I can’t take another day of this kind of boredom.”
Well that’s perfect, Meghan knew. “Don’t worry - James has requested bacon for breakfast and we’re out. Want to come into town with me and pick up more supplies?”
Kaylynn looked relieved for the out and the moment of anguish on Steven’s face at the idea of his girl going away made Meghan laugh. On the couch, James breathed a little sigh of relief - the cottage was getting crowded, a few hours without the girls might just bring his tension level under control. Of course John leapt up, actually going over the back of the sofa to say goodbye.
I’m going to barf, James thought. He took the moment unnoticed to walk out onto the deck.
Meghan scooted into the bedroom. Her purse and all the real life things it contained sat unmoved in the same spot she’d left it Friday night. She heard Kaylynn and Steven heading out to the driveway. Hurrying to catch up, Meghan turned and bumped into John in the hallway. He closed right in: hands on her hips, sliding around her lower back. She giggled as John’s lips nipped her neck. They’d barely so much as kissed all morning - a world record of restraint - assuming they would have all day together. It would just have to wait a little more.
“How long will you be gone?’” he mumbled, mouth against her skin.
John had seen James leave and Steven follow Kaylynn to the car, so he didn’t hesitate to push Meghan against the wall outside their room. She welcomed it as he pressed strongly against her from head to toe, melting into each other. It made the playful rub he’d given her in bed look positively PG rated. Meghan ground back, passing John enough friction to spike his heart rate. He captured her mouth and kissed her hard, their bodies suggesting a list of more intimate things they’d like to do to each other.
Halfway through the sliding glass door, James froze. He hadn’t gone far. Voices in the driveway made him think it was safe to return but here were John and Meghan, caught in an private moment that was much racier than James would have given Tavares credit for. He had his girl pasted to the wall, kissing her goodbye for all it was worth. Meghan’s slender thigh cheated up between John’s legs, the kind of move a hundred girls had given James in a club to say they were ready to leave. To say “take me home, I’m yours.” A painful ache stabbed through James’ body, right to that spot, and took his breath away.
Meghan broke the kiss and James stepped back, crossing over the threshold but not out of earshot.
“Two hours, tops. Can you live without me for that long?”
Tavares’ baritone was barely audible. “Only if you promise two hours of making it up to me.”
James turned and disappeared. Outside, nothing in his view could take him far enough away. He still heard voices, a door closing, the engine starting. With no alternative for escape, he whipped off his t-shirt and dove headfirst into the lake.
It hurt. He could hardly breathe on land so there was little difference, but the echo of James’ heart in his own head was deafening beneath the water. He pushed his long, conditioned body hard, clawing for every last inch, before he surfaced. The dock was twenty meters away. Not far enough.
He swam until his limbs felt like lead, then rolled onto his back and did his best not to sink. The surface played around his ears, giving him sound then silence, as he looked at the huge blue sky. No clouds. Perfect day.
For someone else.
James knew it would be hard. He’d admitted as much to Steven, though the words were no easier to say. Those had been big steps. Coming up here - and getting everyone to come with him! - had felt like a moral victory. Now James found himself back at the bottom of a rickety ladder, legs and spirit broken.
They’re so… he growled and pushed his head underwater, exhaling frustration in bubbles. Meghan and John were so good. That pissed him off more than anything. They’d been good at hiding and this weekend they’d been good at keeping distance. That kiss was not meant to be seen. It wasn’t meant to give James hallucinations of what it meant they were doing behind closed doors, or of how much Meghan was into it. Because she was. This was no case of a hot girl being kind to a dorky guy. They had heat. James had felt it from across the room.
He knew the feeling because he and Meghan had it too, just for a moment. That first time he kissed her, pushed against another door in another house he’d also paid for, there had been a moment of consuming fire. Sure she’d shoved him off and stormed out, not talked to him for days. Anger was her right. But she had to be surprised by the ferocity of what kiss felt like.
Or so James had thought. It had certainly surprised him. For all the women he’d kissed - and he shuddered to even consider the number - never once had it produced that effect. Never had he been at the same time willing to risk everything and so desperate to keep it.
Meghan was lost. James had been telling his heart that, but this was like being hit by a truck. He repeated the words, talking himself down, until his ears were full of water and his fingers pruned. Only then did he head back toward the cottage. The water seemed to thicken as he swam closer, making him work harder to get there. As if it were any match for what he had to face on land.
Meghan giggled and pushed John just far enough to slip from beneath his chest. He swiped playfully at the open air, hoping to catch her. Darting outside, she raking her hair into place after John’s eagerness had messed it up. Steven grinned at her as she passed, obviously knowing the drill.
“Jeeezzzz,” Kaylynn teased.
Meghan reached the Mini Cooper, convertible top still down, and whipped open the driver’s door. “Hush. You two are ones to talk.”
Steven’s smile only got wider. “Let me remind you, Meg, that public indecency is a crime. You girls have fun!”
Finally on the road, each girl was lost in her own thoughts as Meghan headed for the main road. Kaylynn flipped through the dial twice without finding a suitable radio station. She didn’t even pause at the country ones. That’ll change, Meghan knew. Steven’s love for country music rivaled her own and Stammer would wear Kaylynn down on that front as surely as he had on every other. Speaking of which….
“So?” she asked.
Kaylynn arched a perfect eyebrow. “So?”
“You gonna spill, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?” Meghan glanced both ways before turning onto a larger street.
Kaylynn laughed. “I could say the same thing about you!”
“Nuh uh,” Meghan insisted. “You first.”
“I told Steven I love him.”
Meghan nearly drove off the road. She turned her head and the wheel toward Kaylynn so quickly the other girl grabbed the center console and yelped. Quickly she balanced them back into the right hand lane.
She… they… Steven… woah.
“Holy shit,” she exhaled slowly, forcing sounds together to make meaning. “Okay, full details. Start from the beginning.”
As Kaylynn told the story - she and Steven in the lake, just two days ago, getting a little fresh until all of a sudden BOOM, words were said - Meghan’s mind frantically skipped over a hundred almost-moments with John. All the times she felt their connection strengthen, like a rope pulling tight. Did he want to say it? Could he possibly, after only a month, feel that way? Could she? Would she know if she did?
Fuck, Meghan thought. I think I know.
It was different than when James had said he loved her: those words had been full of fear, so they’d run false. They should be words for hope. Meghan had known immediately that James wasn’t sure - the same way she knew John would be.
Kaylynn continued, admitting she had said it first and almost without meaning to, but she did mean it. Steven said it back so fast it left no doubt he felt the same. Meghan thought it would go the opposite for her - John would say it first, because he would be ready first. But he’d make a plan and tell her when the time was right.
Like when it’s time to leave for New York.
Meghan squealed. Kaylynn grabbed her leg. That was it, end of story. They were in love. Bringing her attention back to the very happy girl in the passenger seat, Meghan’s heart grew three sizes like The Grinch.
“Oh my gahhhdd,” she exclaimed, nearly missing the turn for the grocery story. “I knew it!!”
Kaylynn scrunched her face. “Knew what?”
“That he’s been in love with you for months, silly,” Meghan said. Now that she thought about it the whole thing was so clear. “He’s just been a boy about telling you - or completely oblivious about noticing it in the first place.”
Kaylynn sighed heavily, slumping in her seat. Perhaps it had not been quite so clear to everyone. But Meghan was sure she was right and now it had been proven. She headed for the store, eager to return Kaylynn to Steven and bacon to all.
“You coming?” she called back at the car. It took a moment but soon Kaylynn was beside her, market basket in one hand and some maple bacon in the other. Meghan picked up things at random - the boys would eat it regardless - while she turned the consequences of Kaylynn’s confession over in her mind. Might as well ask.
“So, now that you and Stammer are all loved up, does that mean...”
“Ugh,” Kaylynn said immediately and emphatically. “You sound like my girlfriends.”
“What do you mean?”
Kaylynn stopped, kicking one foot along floor. “This doesn’t change the fact that if I go with Steven, I have all this stuff to figure out - like a job, getting a visa, leaving behind my entire life here. If anything, this just complicates things even more.”
So it wasn’t all cupcakes and rainbows. Meghan had expected as much. She would face the same decision when the time came and no three words could make it easier. Reaching out, she squeezed Kaylynn’s arm. “Hey. I just meant that things between you and Steven seemed… settled. Whatever happens at the end of summer, right here, right now? It feels like you guys are happier than ever.”
Kaylynn raked a handful of wavy hair from her face. “Fuuuuuuuck.”
“What?” Meghan giggled.
“You’re just like him,” Kaylynn turned toward the checkout. “Steven - always saying the right thing.”
Meghan could imagine Steven doing that. John definitely did. It was infuriating when it wasn’t actually perfect and that could be exhausting. They unloaded baskets at the register and Meghan bagged while Kaylynn paid. Once back in the car, Kaylynn turned the tables.
“Alright, now you.”
“What about me?” Meghan grinned, intentionally avoiding eyes as she worked the car out of the lot.
Kaylynn pinched Meghan’s arm like a little sister. “Oh, please. I’m not one of those morons back at the cottage you can avoid! Come on - spill!”
Hitting the speed limit, a breeze whipped through the convertible. It was a perfect summer day - sunshine, gossip, a new friend. Meghan relented. “Fine - what do you want to know?”
“Well, he seems pretty damn perfect,” Kaylynn said.
“Who - Steven?”
“Nooooooooo. Your boyfriend, Meg.”
Boyfriend. The one word that came before the three other words, but didn’t necessarily lead to them. Meghan had never called John that and wasn’t sure what it meant, for them and for their future. But she could not call him anything else, especially not after the last few nights.
Kaylynn felt a rush of camaraderie tempered with sympathy. “Yeah, thought so. John’s so….”
“Genuine? Adorable? Bootylicious?” Meghan smiled as she threw out adjectives to describe John. “Dorky?”
“I was going to say ‘emotionally available.’ I can’t believe some girl hasn’t taken advantage of that,” Kaylynn said.
“I know,” Meghan laughed drily. “And I don’t want to be that girl. That’s why I have to go where a job takes me. If it’s New York, that’s great but I want that decision to be independent. I don’t want to take advantage of John and just go to New York like he’s my meal ticket.”
Kaylynn swallowed a lump of pride in her throat. “Is that what you think I’d be doing?”
“Oh honey,” Meghan quickly said, realizing that while similar their situations were not the same. “Not for a second. In fact, I have never seen someone try so hard not to go out with Steven Stamkos.”
They fell silent with separate versions of the same thoughts. Kaylynn finally found something tolerable on the radio and the girls filled the car with lyrics instead of words. Forty minutes later, they were belting out Katy Perry when they pulled into the cottage drive.
John was sprawled out on the couch. Tiger Woods had birdied the fifth hole and now Phil Mickelson was lining up a putt. Steven knocked around in the kitchen, trying to remember his Scouts survival skills and get them through the next two hours in tact. He managed to find a few granola bars and some oatmeal cookies.
“Didn’t even think of breakfast when I shopped for this trip,” he admitted.
“Packed your L-bomb though, so you came prepared.” John gave his friend a smile. Saying ‘I love you’ took guts, even if you didn’t say it first. Of course getting head-over-heels for a girl you might have to leave in a month was no easy feat either.
Stamkos looked at the TV, but his face narrowed. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No, man. I think it’s great. And Kaylynn’s great too. I was kinda surprised last night, I didn’t get to say congratulations.”
Turning to his friend, Steven could not keep the smile away. “Thanks. I know it’s crazy but it feels good, you know?”
“Does it mean she’s going with you?” John was very keen to hear how someone else might have locked up that next giant step in their relationship.
“Nah, unfortunately. Kaylynn makes up her own mind. Kinda like someone else I know.”
John chewed his bottom lip. Was he in love with Meghan? Almost certainly yes. Would he be the one to say if first? Definitely. But would Meghan have the same reply - not just the words, but the enthusiasm, the must-get-it-out that Steven had? That could make all the difference. He shrugged, “You’re telling me.”
The sliding door opened and James walked in, shirtless and dripping. He yanked a beach towel off the back of a chair, flicked his eyes to the TV then back to where John was laid out like roadkill.
“Guess you can’t live two hours without her,” he sneered.
John, confused at the apparent middle of a conversation he hadn’t started, stared at James. “What?”
Neal was already returning to the deck. “Good luck getting through eight fucking months when you leave.” He stopped outside the door. “Guess it’s one good thing about not making the playoffs.”
He slammed the door as much as a sliding door could close hard. John bolted upright in his seat. Steven’s mouth was open.
“Let me,” Steven scrambled to his feet, reflexes going into red alert. He was still too slow. John dodged the League’s top scorer like only a Hart nominee could and wrenched the door open.
“What the fuck is your problem?” he called at Neal’s back. James was halfway down the dock, which suddenly seemed a lot shorter.
“Your problem now, bro,” James stopped and turned. His tank was empty and he had no patience left for this. He wasn’t the only guy at this cottage who’d missed what was right in front of him. “I already got dumped. You want to line up for a bigger hit, suit yourself.”
John felt his anger rise like a wave. There had been so much since the first time Meghan said James had a problem with them dating. John had wanted to hit Neal and solve this problem the old fashioned way but Meghan wouldn’t have stood for it. She didn’t want that guy - she didn’t want Neal. John had to be different, better. And he was. But that resentment didn’t just disappear and sometimes it needed out. If James wanted to do this now, John would go.
“What hit is that?” he demanded, giving Neal rope and almost hoping he’d hang himself.
“Don’t be a dipshit. She’s not going with you.”
Snap. James obliged.
“You can shack up all summer, follow her around like a fucking puppy but Meghan doesn’t need you, okay? She doesn’t need anything,” James hissed. He couldn’t believe anyone thought Meghan was dependent. “She’s gonna get some big time job because she’s smart, work in a building full of rich guys who want to fuck her and not give a single one of them the time of day. So why would she bother with you?”
The words were fast and furious. Without the girls around, the cottage turned into an NHL locker room where nothing was off-limits and barbs quickly turned to bullets.
John crossed his arms over his chest. “She doesn’t seem bothered. Not every night, or every morning for that matter.”
James closed the distance another step. “Yeah, I saw your little dry-humping in the hall before. Big fucking deal. You can get that in any fucking bar... that is, if anyone’s ever heard of your hockey team.”
There it was - the macho bullshit that made Meghan turn James down. John couldn’t resist using it against him once more. “Has Meghan heard of your team? Because I’m pretty sure she told you to fuck off more than once then moved out of your house. While you’re pulling pucks in bars, remember whose bed she sleeps in every night.”
James’ anger boiled over. Once girls in bars had been what he wanted. Now it was probably the best he could do. Bile rose in his throat to think of some slut panting his name and moaning the place down in another WAG audition. He didn’t want that. He’d be lucky to get it. Without thinking, he lunged at John. John read the clumsy move easily; he jumped left, James stumbled and caught himself. Steven pushed in but John batted his friend’s arm away. This had been a long time coming.
“Meghan and I are together. Get it through your fucking head.”
“You’re together till she says you’re not,” James spat.
That brought John up short. The two stood almost toe-to-toe, words heavy in the air between them. James had assumed he and Meghan were together. Big mistake. John wondered if he was making the same mistake assuming he and Meghan would be together when summer ended, no matter what. Just because he felt one way didn’t make it universal. James was proof of that. Still John was sure he had the upper hand.
“Difference is, I asked her to be with me. And she said yes.”
That moment of surprise, quiet like the eye of a storm, passed and another gust of anger sent James stepping toward John again. “You are a pussy piece of shit and she’ll be over you by Christmas. Quicker if you take her to that hell hole of a team. A girl with half the NHL at her door and you think she’ll go to the fucking Islanders.”
“I don’t care if she comes to New York.”
James laughed, a hard, sharp note that caught in his throat like a stone. “You think you’ll be able to sleep in Edmonton wondering where she is at night? Anaheim? She’s hundreds of miles away while you’re home alone? That’s fucking sad, even for you.”
“You’d know all about it, eh?” John shot back “Whitby to Pittsburgh’s what, four hundred miles? London’s even further - didn’t stop her going though. And you can’t stop her this time.”
“You can’t take her!” James lunged again, but better timing served him ill. John threw a right hook at Neal’s incoming face. James ducked, just missing the punch and colliding with John’s shoulder. Steven shoved between them, pushing whatever he could grab as John cocked back for another swing at James. This one connected with Neal’s ribs and the air whooshed from his lungs.
Suddenly the hands forcing both guys apart were smaller, sharper and pushing even harder.
“What the fucking hell are you doing?” Meghan got a knee up, her back to John’s chest and forced James off like the lid of a can. He staggered back, holding his side where John’s fist had landed. Steven let Meghan take his spot; Kaylynn rushed up and pulled him toward the cottage.
Defeated and irredeemable, James didn’t bother to stop digging his own grave. “Yup, rescue your little puppy, Meg. Take care of your hobby.”
Meghan thought a month of patience and kindness toward James had paid off when he insisted she and John come on this trip. Now it ripped off like a band-aid, leaving fresh blood running underneath.
“You want this bag of milk, fine” he said. ”But don’t make me fucking watch you waste yourself.”
Her posture changed so quickly John almost missed grabbing her arms and holding her in place. She was between the guys like a mother bear guarding her cub. Normally John would insist on protecting her but James was right. There were things Meghan didn’t need from someone else.
“Fuck off, James.”
“Now it’s ‘Fuck off, James.’ Is that how you really feel? Because you’ve told me a lot of lies this summer: you’re not with John, you care about me, we’re always going to be friends. If any of that were true, I was practically your boyfriend.”
“YOU ARE NOT MY BOYFRIEND!” Meghan screamed. It was so loud James took a step back.
“You are not my boyfriend,” she repeated. “And you are not even my friend if you can’t be happy for me that I have an amazing boyfriend.”
Meghan’s eyes moved to John - she’d said exactly what she’d been thinking about in the car. Boyfriend. His dark green eyes were wide with surprise.
John’s heart kicked at hearing it for the first time. “I’m your boyfriend?”
Forgetting James and suddenly feeling bashful, she rocked back onto her heels. “Uh, do you want to be?”
“Well, yeah,” John grinned.
“OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE!” James’ shout brought them all back to the matter at hand.
Just like that Meghan didn’t want to fight anymore. She turned to James with a cold voice and said, “I almost gave him up to stay friends with you. What a mistake that would have been.”
She wheeled around and marched into the cottage. James and John stared at each other for a moment before John followed Meghan. James stormed back toward the water.
Meghan flew past Kaylynn and Steven, milling around the living room as if they hadn’t been listening at the window. In the bedroom she whipped open her bag and scooped clothes and toiletries inside with shaking hands. She was shoving it in when the door shut and John’s arms closed around her from behind. He held her tight, forcing her to be still for a moment. The embrace was as warm and strong as ever, solid as if their peace hadn’t just come apart outside. And he’d taken the brunt of it.
“It’s okay,” he said, pressing his face into the curve of her neck.
“It’s not okay, John.” She wiggled for an inch of room and turned to him. John’s dark eyes were worried. The crease in his brow deepened and the way his mouth twitched to the right was worse when he was upset. It could have broken her heart. “I’m not staying here while he disrespects this relationship. I have done enough of that myself and it stops now. You are my boyfriend, I am lucky to have you and not another minute goes by when I don’t tell people or hold your hand or kiss you because I’m worried about how someone else feels.”
The corner of his lip turned up, almost a smile. It was enough. Meghan kissed him swifty. “Let’s go.”
James sat at the end of the dock. He heard doors close, a car start, tires crunch over gravel all without turning around. He didn’t need to see Meghan drive away to know what had really driven her. He’d taken something cracked and made sure it was broken beyond repair. It matched how he felt now: all jagged edges and missing pieces.
Alone, he thought. He sat with his feet in the water, mind racing and yet thinking about nothing. Time passed without notice until finally light footsteps approached and a beer appeared in front of his face. Guess breakfast had come and gone. James hoped Steven ate some of that bacon.
“Bet you could use one of these,” Kaylynn said.
And now the pity party begins, he thought. The first sip of beer spread like frost inside his chest - crisp against the heat he’d soaked up sitting there so long. Kaylynn took the spot next to him and extended her painted toenails toward the water. Afraid of saying much, James tipped his beer toward Kaylynn in a cheers.
“To…?” she asked.
To not leaving me out here forever, he wanted to say, or leaving me to walk back to Whitby. It was all pathetic. Kaylynn was giving him a chance though to turn this conversation his own way. James went with, “To schooling me at making s’mores.”
She smiled. “I’m telling ya, it’s all about letting the marshmallow warm the chocolate.”
“You were right,” James admitted sullenly. “A lot of people were right about a lot of things.” He didn’t want to talk about Meghan. He certainly didn’t want to talk to Steven, who’d given him shit all month for fucking it up. James could not handle an ‘I told you so’ right now. “Look, I just… thanks,” he finally said. “For before.”
“With Steven,” he explained.
Kaylynn assured him, “It was nothing.”
A lie, and they both knew it. Taking Stamkos away from the argument had been morning’s only prudent move. James had no doubt Steven would’ve let Tavares hit him for some of the things he said - rightfully so. Sure Steven and Kaylynn heard all the words but it helped a little that two fewer people had actually witnessed James’ inevitable ego meltdown. He glanced toward Kaylynn who was studying the scenery. She was beautiful, lively and kind - a lot like Meghan.
“Steven’s lucky,” he said quietly.
She turned. ‘Huh?”
“You guys are in love, right?”
The idea was still new and scary and it showed in Kaylynn’s expression. She wanted to be thrilled but she was worried too. James felt for her. They were all in over their heads. He hoped she’d choose the happy ending.
“Then don’t be fool like I was. Don’t piss it all away because you’re too proud, too stubborn.” He shook his head - who wanted advice from a loser? James gave it anyway.
“Don’t do something you’ll both regret.”
He stood, wet feet slapping against the planks of the dock as he made for the cottage.
“Thanks for the beer.”
John drove Meghan’s rental car the way he did everything else: carefully. Using the GPS he navigated them to the highway without so much as a word from the passenger seat. Meghan stared out the window, her ponytail whipping over the convertible’s headrest. Finally John reached town and pulled into a parking lot. Meghan had things to ask, she just hadn’t wanted to shout them over the wind.
“Are you okay?”
“Me?” John replied. “I’m fine.” She pursed her lips and John thought she might burst into tears. That was the last thing he needed. “Hey. Guys fight all the time in hockey. Teammates, other teams, everybody. It’s… I know it’s hard in real life. But we’re used to this, okay? Talking shit doesn’t have the same effect on us.”
“I can only imagine what he said to make you hit him.”
That had not been a great moment for John - he didn’t like losing control of his emotions. Of course that’s all he’d done every day since meeting Meghan. Reaching for her hand, he admitted, “It wasn’t all untrue.”
“John,” Meghan said sharply.
“He’s an asshole, baby, but he’s not stupid. He said you don’t need me - you don’t need anyone, you can do anything you want on your own. I know that. And he said you probably don’t want to come to the Islanders because we’re not always good. I worry about that too. It’s not fun to lose all the time. I hope this year will be different but I can’t give you the kind of success and excitement that any of these guys can.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“You might,” John shrugged.
She ran her thumb over the backs of his fingers. “If anything that makes me want to be there more. If you’re unhappy, I want to help.”
He smiled a little. “I am willing to play that card, Meghan. I can be really sad if it gets you to New York.”
She made a face in response to John’s brattiness and they both laughed. It felt good to talk about some of these fears that were very real to John. While he was at it, one thing James brought up was potentially devastating.
“He also said that you and I are together until you say we’re not. That’s definitely true. I am in this until you kick me out.”
Tears instantly burned Megan’s eyes. The words Kaylynn had chosen raced to mind: emotionally available. Most guys were not like this. But then again, no guys were like John.
“You know I am in this too, John.” She joked to keep her voice steady. “I mean, I almost punched a guy today.”
He leaned over the center console and pulled her the rest of the way. “That was really sexy, you all mad and wild.” They giggled, lips finding each other in a gentle kiss.
“Thank you for standing up for me,” Meghan said.
“Thank you, too.” John looked into her eyes. “And remind me never to make you that mad.”
Feeling confident the fight hadn’t ruined the weekend, John tossed out any plan B and just drove to his house. Meghan carried her hastily packed bag inside and unpacked it just as quickly, turning it upside down into one of the empty drawers John had given her. She rooted through, changed into her bathing suit and found John in the kitchen.
“I still need to work on my tan.” She held out a tube of sunscreen. “Help a girl out?”
Later that night, after a potluck dinner made from whatever John had in his kitchen, he and Meghan curled up on the couch. He scrolled through the In Demand menu and picked a comedy - Red 2 - since the day had been okay after all. Meghan wound around his waist and settled in close.
Before hitting play, John asked, “Remember what I said about getting you to New York?”
“How about a sneak preview? I have to go Wednesday for the Stadium Series press conference. I was going to surprise you and whisk you away for a few days but honestly, I’m a little scared of you now.”
“John!” she pinched his side and he flinched, going for one of her many sensitive spots. They reached and rolled until they were wrestling. Finally John’s strength prevailed and Meghan ended up pinned under John’s thick, heavy body. Very conscious of his ability to manhandle her, John tried not to get too riled up just yet. He settled for a kiss.
“No really, I was thinking about this cottage weekend so much that it snuck up on me. The press conference is Thursday - we can go a day early and fly back Friday. Come with me.”
Those words would be said a lot in the coming months.
“Okay,” Meghan answered. “I’d love to.”