James surveyed the dregs of the party. Most people had left, and a few others sat alongside the pool talking in low voices. One couple was making out alongside the deck - it looked like Del Zotto and one of the girls that had come with Stamkos. Her friend and Steven had left a while back. James had talked to the girl a bit, he liked her. She was certainly pretty but then Stamkos always knew how to pick them. A few other girls had hung around, maybe still hoping to hook up. James smiled to himself. The late shift.
In the middle of the yard, picking up beer cans and napkins, was Meghan in that incredible yellow dress. James knew she’d gotten it at Target and that she had no idea how good it looked. Tavares did, of course, which was why he was following her around with one bag for trash and another for recycling. James watched them - if that’s what it took to land Meghan, he definitely didn’t have the energy.
“Hey,” whats-her-face from that thing at the place said, appearing at his elbow. She was someone’s friend: Beth or Britt or Bree. “Great party.”
“Thanks,” James told his last chance to pull for the night. She seemed nice enough - her blond was natural, her clothing covered at least fifty percent of her body. Friend of a friend was more vetting than James usually did. He was about to say something charming when Meghan laughed. James lifted his head to see her running across the lawn, John hot on her heels with his hand outstretched, palm up.
Must be a spider, he thought.
He turned to the girl. “Can I call you a cab?”
Meghan was breathless, clinging to the porch railing. John had long since dropped whatever hideous bug he’d picked up with a paper towel after she wrapped her hand around the empty can it was using as a bed. It was such a childish thing to do, chase a girl with a bug, but somehow she had expected it from John. She’d been running before he was.
John sat down heavily on the wooden step. Running while drunk in a yard full of debris and a pool was not a good idea. Running after Meghan was though - the way she’d yelped and taken off, the chance of catching her - at which point he would have ditched the bug - and possibly touching her were worth the ache it caused in his head. He needed some Advil, a gallon of water and a place to crash.
“What’s your plan, dude?” James walked around in front of him.
“I’m supposed to wait for her and get us a cab to Steven’s,” John pointed toward the girl who had almost completely disappeared inside Del Zotto. “I have keys.”
“Uh, that chick is not leaving with you,” Meghan said. She needed to lean against something so she chose James. He put an arm around her shoulder and they held each other up. John didn’t even care. “She’s getting the shark story.”
“The what?” John wondered if drinking could affect his hearing.
“The shark story,” Meghan repeated. “DZ’s got a scar right here,” she pointed to a rib on her left side, just below her breast. John tried to focus. “Got cut with a skate in a game. Tells girls her was bitten by a shark.”
James laughed. “I can’t believe girls fall for that.”
“Once he’s got his shirt off, you think they care?” Meghan pinched his waist, tickling him. James flinched, then stood still and let Meghan punch him twice in the arm as payback.
“Okay, I guess Steven knows him, so if Michael kills her it won’t be on me,” John started to stand up. “I’ll cab it to his place myself.”
“Stay here,” Meghan said. James and John looked at each other then at her.
“It’s one less place for those two to do it,” Meghan told James. They all turned toward the esophagus inspection currently taking place nearby.
James shuddered. “Fucking hell.”
Meghan directed John upstairs to the second guest bedroom. She went to the kitchen, grateful for James’ addiction to blue Gatorade, and got three bottles. A stop in her bathroom yielded aspirin and she went off on her rounds.
John was flat on his back, fully dressed. The bathroom light was on so she knew that had happened. He cracked an eye when she set the juice on the bedside table. “Take these.” She handed him the pills and he swallowed them dry.
“Hopeless,” Meghan smiled, opening the Gatorade and enticing him to sit. John rolled onto one elbow and propped himself up. He took a loud gulp. His eyes were squinty and he looked about ten years old, ready to pass out. Meghan sat down next to him on the bed.
John was so guileless. She had never in her life known anyone like him. He had no idea he was hot, no idea he was sweet and funny and kind of fucking perfect. She wondered if he even knew how good he was at hockey - they could pay him millions and nominate him for trophies but John seemed like the kind of guy to shrug it off, say it was just luck and hard work and good timing. It was so much more than that and everyone else knew it. He flopped down onto his back and Meghan scooted closer. She touched the side of his face, tracing the hairline to his temple then along his jaw, where she knew his beard would end.
His eyes fluttered open. “You’re pretty.”
“I like you,” he said.
Meghan stopped, her hand just shy of his chin. The hint of a smile played on John’s lips so she leaned down and kissed him, even more slowly and softly than the kiss at the gym. Maybe she imagined it, but the smile got a little wider. Then he was out.
“‘Night John,” she whispered.
James was scrubbing his face with a washcloth when she came in. He was so tall and lanky, he took up the entire bathroom mirror. She leaned against the door, considering that Neal was a pretty fine specimen himself. Of course he knew it, and cultivated it, but that didn’t make it any less effective. He watched her in the reflection.
“You lock Michael out?”
“Nah,” she shook her head. “I blocked the stairs though. You’re probably gonna need a new couch.”
James grimaced. “Maybe they’ll do it on the lawn.”
“I hope I’m drunk enough to sleep through it,” she said. “Here.”
Meghan put two Advil and a Gatorade on the counter. James studied them for a minute, thinking.
This was the time to bring up the fight. They were being quiet and honest and fair. The probable object of the argument was snoring in the next room. James turned to look at Meghan and they both knew this was the opportunity to put it behind them, but someone had to start. Which meant someone had to say what was happening: she liked John. James was jealous. Things were changing.
Neither of them was ready. Meghan gave James a tight smile.
He felt a heavy sadness in letting her go - but James wasn’t quite sure he wanted to keep her either.
Snoring. Meghan woke to a chorus of snoring, a symphony of horns all trying to outplay each other. Her bedside table said it was ten o’clock. No one had workouts today so they boys could sleep for hours. But she couldn’t, not with this noise.
Her head didn’t hurt, a testament to the time-honored remedy she’d given out the night before. Hopefully it had worked on everyone. In her t-shirt and shorts, she tiptoed into the hallway and opened James’ door. He was on his back, one arm over his face to block the light from a window he hadn’t closed. She crept across the room and pulled the curtains shut. James huffed in his sleep; she took it as a thank you and left.
The next room was a question mark. Meghan didn’t feel right intruding on John’s privacy but she just wanted to check on him. The snoring indicated she couldn’t wake him if she tried. Carefully turning the knob, she stuck her head inside. John lay on his side, curled into a ball. She almost awwwww-ed at the sight. Sometime in the night he’d knocked his pillow onto the floor so Meghan picked it up.
“Lift your head,” she whispered. The power of suggestion always seemed to work. John tilted his head slightly, subconsciously, and she slipped the pillow underneath. He shifted slightly. Meghan knew her kiss was still on those lips.
Downstairs was a different story from the adorable, comfortably passed out boys upstairs. Michael Del Zotto was sprawled out, face down in his underwear on the biggest couch in the living room. It was bright as day and he was wearing some very inspirational boxer briefs. Meghan was glad he wasn’t face-up, she wasn’t sure it was safe to see the rest of him without a trained medical professional nearby. That mop of hair was a mess and he more inhaling the sofa cushion than he was snoring. The floor shook. Meghan glanced around - no sign of the girl. She checked the bathroom - empty too. Then she noticed a note on the coffee table.
Until next time... watch out for sharks.
She laughed, putting the note back. Heaven help them if Michael found a girl anything like himself.
In the kitchen, Meghan made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of juice. When that was done she loaded the dishwasher, cleaned up what was left of the mess in the yard and left all the full bags and boxes for the boys to carry out. After a shower, she pulled on emerald green shorts and white tank top. The snoring continued. She carried her book outside, brought a chair into the shade and relaxed.
Or tried. How was she supposed to relax with these guys sleeping nearby? The snoring was contained - barely - by the walls of the house but that didn’t change the fact that three of Canada’s most desirable bachelors were asleep in various states of undress within mere meters of where she now sat. It was like a game show where every decision was a bad idea but would make for great television.
Michael was the bad boy with the heart of gold, the one girls loved despite the warnings. He would never make promises but in that way, he would never lie. What you saw was what you got and any girl knew that boy was a bargain at twice the price.
James was more difficult. He cared more than Michael and so he worked harder against it. Sometimes people got hurt. Inside he was a good guy and a good friend. That lead girls to believe he’d be a good boyfriend and James Neal was anything else. Selfish, a little egotistical - hey, he had the goods to back it up. Just his sales pitch needed some work.
Then there was John. Meghan had no idea how John Tavares ended up being John Tavares in this world. He was like a kid in a fairy tale, following a trail of gumdrops through the woods and accidentally defeating evil at every turn. The idea made her smile. She didn’t really know him yet; he was probably even more perfect.
Last night in the garage she thought he was going to kiss her. Add that to the time in the pool and the time in the bar - at least three possible kisses had been missed. In the meantime she had given him two - one at the gym and one last night, which he wouldn’t remember. Meghan counted it still. There was an imbalance here. Every sign seemed to say John liked her, but she was the one who kept kissing him.
“Morning.” James opened the screen door, glassy-eyes and wild-haired.
“Fine. See Michael?”
James made a face. “So much of Michael.”
Meghan giggled. “The girl left a note.”
“Fucking sharks,” James grumbled.
He dragged another chair into the shade and sat down. James had not showered or eaten or done anything constructive. Meghan hadn’t left much to do. That was the thing about living with her: things seemed to be done, by themselves, all the time. He was getting very used to it.
“Thanks for cleaning up,” he said.
“No problem.” Meghan figured that James basically paid her hundreds of dollars a month in free rent to do very little around here. If the party had been at someone else’s house she would likely have done the same anyway.
“Tavares still here?”
Meghan nodded. She tried not to smile at the memory of his little boy face - either last night or this morning. James was watching her carefully though, and he saw the twitch of a smile. It sank in his heart like a stone. He might not be sure he wanted Meghan, but James sure didn’t want to see her with someone else. He didn’t want to lose one of the few things he could keep, when he threw everything else away like so much shiny trash.
“Snores like a motherfucker,” she said. “You all do.”
“I do not,” James scoffed. Meghan looked at him like he’d just said the sky was green. “Well no one has ever complained!” he said.
Meghan shook her head. “I’m sure they don’t have anything else to complain about.”
They sat for a while, each of them thinking about the thing they weren’t saying. Just like the night before. It wasn’t too long before that thing appeared in the doorway.
“Hey guys,” John said. He had shed his button up in favor of a t-shirt that Meghan had not realized he was wearing a shirt underneath it. That’s how far up it had been buttoned.
Unbelieveable, she thought. John raked one big hand through his bed head and sighed. “Got anymore Gatorade?”
James told him to help himself. John examined the fridge, considering the other inhabitants for anything that his body might want: cheese, eggs, milk, veggies. It all sounded gross. He was weighing the pros and cons of cereal when Meghan let herself in.
“Hungover?” she asked quietly. John hated to admit it when she and James were obviously fine, but he did feel like the dirt under someone’s fingernails.
Meghan wanted to hug him, but this was not the place - and not the time if there was a chance he was going to be sick. That would kill any romantic feelings she might be harboring. Instead she took a Gatorade and steered him back upstairs, following. John went obediently into his room, concerned when Meghan didn’t follow. She came back a few seconds later with the bottle of Advil.
“Drink that,” she said, like this was Alice in Wonderland and John wanted to fit down the rabbit hole. He chugged most of the Gatorade. She held out two aspirin and he tossed them back, chasing them with the last of the sports drink. His head throbbed.
“Lay down,” Meghan instructed.
John did. The room swam a little as his equilibrium fought for control. Meghan sat down next to him and turned him on his side. Then she started rubbing his back. After a minute, the dizziness went away.
“Better?” she asked.
The pressure of her hand was soothing, like an anchor keeping him in place against the roll and current of everything in his head. Why did he drink so much? Why could everyone else handle it? Just another way in which they were cool and he was not. Awesome. Exactly what he wanted Meghan to see.
Meghan felt John’s shoulder blades beneath her palm; the hollow of his spine, the span of his rib cage. His eyes were closed, mouth knit into a hard line. She shifted a little closer, as much sitting next to him as she was holding him up. Hangovers were the worst.
“Sleep for half an hour, you’ll feel much better,” she said quietly.
John fell asleep to her whispering in his ear.
Meghan wanted so badly to lie down behind John and wrap her arm around him. She too was exhausted and even though she wasn’t sick, she was drained. The guest bed was big and firm, taunting her like a cloud. Plus there was John. He was adorable in his neediness, valiant as he tried to act normal. She’d seen right through it to the beaten guy inside. Luckily John was not afraid of being told what to do.
She thought about James, how sensitive he was. More than once she’d nursed him back from a hangover worse than this, worse than death. Then she wasn’t even living with him. By comparison John was tame and manageable and required much less effort. That deserved a hug. Instead she sat there, rubbing small circles against his back until well after he was asleep.
James knew instantly the footsteps approaching were not Meghan’s. Unless she’s turned into a yeti.
“Dude,” Michael said. James was relieved to see he’d gotten at least half-dressed though DZ’s t-shirt was still missing. That girl had probably ripped it off, or maybe he’d flexed right out of it. He looked capable.
“You owe me a new couch,” James shot back.
“Eh, I think you just need a mop a bit of floor. Where’s Megan?”
“Putting Tavares back to bed.”
Michael nodded, taking Meghan’s empty chair. James added it to the list of things he’d have to replace.
“You alright with that?”
“With what?” James asked.
So everyone knew. Or at least they had noticed. Of every potential couple at the party, JOhn and meghan had flirted the least. They’d stopped before anything happened - and that made them stand out. Of course Michael would catch on - he had radar keeping tabs on every hot girl in a hundred meter radius.
James shrugged. “I’d rather not have to be.”
“You could always do something about it yourself,” Michael suggested. He never understood why one of them hadn’t locked it up with that girl a long time ago.
“I’d rather not have to do that either,” James said.
Meghan returned, having stopped in the kitchen to make a big plate of toast slathered with jam. She pulled up another chair as James and Michael gratefully dove into the carb fest.
“I saw your love note,” Meghan said to Michael.
He mumbled, mouth full. “That story works every time.”
John’s first thought was that he felt better. His second was that he was a total rookie geek who couldn’t party with the big kids. Ugh. For as nice as she had been, Meghan must think he was a loser. He rolled himself out of bed, washed his face and rinsed his mouth out. A little water helped tame his hair. There was nothing he could do about the clothes. He followed the sound of voices back out onto the deck
“Feel better?” Meghan asked, shielding her face against the encroaching sun.
“A lot better, yeah. Thanks.”
“Told you.” She patted the arms of her chair. “We were just talking about lunch. Wanna go eat something that would make Roberts cry?”
They drove into town and headed for Starr Burger. The breeze from the open car window felt good on John’s face; he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His hand lay open on his thigh, turned up, so Meghan reached over and squeezed it. He squeezed back.
The place was crowded for lunch, but Michael flashed his smile around and got them seated rather quickly. Word must have passed that hockey players walked in because their waitress turned up a hot second later at a run.
“Hi, I’m Katie,” she said with a half-giggle, like she was already flattered by their attention. She was about eighteen with stick-straight hair pulled into a tight, bouncy ponytail and too much mascara for mid-day. Her eyes moved from Michael to James to Meghan then John, then back to Meghan and around the whole group again. That smile darkened as she tried to figure out which one of these young men was not on the menu.
Meghan was used to this. Walk into a place with some strapping hunks and instantly girls wanted to kill you with their stares. She knew how to play along.
Katie fixed her happy mask of a face and said coyly, “How are you today?”
She obviously wanted one of the boys to say they were lonely and would meet her out back in ten minutes. They didn’t get the chance.
“I for one had an amazing night. I can hardly walk this morning!” Meghan said pertly. Michael snarfed a laugh and tried to recover by coughing. James slapped him on the back. John stared at the table, knowing he’d crack up if he so much as caught an eye.
Meghan never broke. “Can I have a cheeseburger, medium, a coke and fries with gravy?” They all ordered some equally calorie-tastic dish and Katie left, looking disappointed not to have been propositioned by any of her customers.
“You are evil,” James said.
“She’s still going to give you her number,” Meghan replied.
Sure enough, when their plates were clean, their drinks empty and everyone felt much more solid, Katie slipped the check right under the corner of James’ glass.
Hope to see you again soon - Katie and her number. And a smiley face. Michael grabbed the check, ripped off the portion with the number and stuck it in his pocket. Then he handed the bill back to James and walked out of the restaurant.___
Timed to go along with Chapter 5 of Harder Than Stone. Enjoy! - J