Meghan was nervous. Facing James the morning after the night before - what to expect? She got dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, then pulled a long sleeve shirt on like armor despite the heat. From the top of the stairs she could hear James making noise in the kitchen, as if he were calling out his presence. At least he wasn’t hiding.
She padded barefoot across the living room. From the doorway she could see his back as he moved around, making breakfast. The early morning light streaked his hair with red; hints of the flame-kissed color that grew in his mismatched beard. Beneath his RVCA t-shirt, Meghan thought James was getting a little too thin from all the working out.
“Hey,” she said quietly.
James’ heart stopped. He’d been begging for and dreading her arrival in equal measure, hoping she hadn’t moved out overnight after the stunt he’d pulled. Turning slowly did nothing to lessen the blow of seeing her now.
Meghan’s brown hair was long and loose, probably not combed since waking up. She wore a long-sleeved light blue hoodie over a white shirt with gray shorts that stopped high on her slender thighs. Nothing but smooth, tan skin all the way to the floor. He steeled himself for her face - no use. God, she was beautiful. The girl next door had somehow become the girl across the hall and at the same time, the girl of his dreams.
Meghan’s heart hurt. James’ expression was strained and his gorgeous eyes couldn’t lie, not if you knew what to watch for. She’d been watching them for over ten years. That soft, full mouth had delivered a devastating kiss - Meghan always knew it could. And she would never forget the heat of him, the weight of being handled by that body and the thick, hard throb of how badly it, and he, had wanted her for a moment. She knew James was a grown-up, because they’d grown up together. But this was the first time Meghan ever really thought of him as a man. It scared her.
“What was that last night?” she asked.
James sighed. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” Her eyes blurred with tears.
“I am. Oh God.” James flew around the kitchen island and wrapped his arms around Meghan. There was nothing sexual in this. He had always wanted to protect her from guys - guys like himself, actually. She gave in and let herself melt against James’ chest. “Please don’t leave,” he whispered.
“Why do you hate him so much?”
“I don’t,” James said, stroking her hair. “I just don’t think John’s right for you. Or anyone is. They’re not good enough.”
Meghan leaned back an inch, hyper aware that tilting her face up would put her very close to James’ mouth again. But she needed to look into his eyes. “Are you?” she asked again.
“No,” James whispered before planting a kiss on her forehead. “No baby, not even close.”
She bumped her head against his shoulder like a kitten, her voice thick. This was the person she knew James could be. “You’re not so bad.”
James looked down. “Are you trying to ask me out?”
“No way,” Meghan said, a little color coming back in her face.
“Good,” James relented. He didn’t really want to joke around right now. “I could never live with myself if I hurt you.”
Meghan hugged his tightly around the waist. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would. We all would, Meg. Two months and it’s over.”
They looked at each other for a moment. It had become a summer of not talking about John when they were clearly talking about John, of not saying his name but each knowing what the other person meant. James was warning her.
“Two months,” she echoed. It seemed cruelly short.
James could almost read her mind. “Just long enough to get left behind.”
John didn’t expect to see Meghan at the gym, but he looked for her anyway. The sight of her taut body, sweating and bending probably would have sent him over the edge. Robs tried to kill them, marginally succeeded and John was mostly dead when he dragged himself into the locker room. A careful silence had existed all day - James knew about the date, neither of them said anything.
At least I had her home at a reasonable hour, John thought. Which of course made him a dork.
He’d relived the best parts of the date a million times: the way Meghan traced his scars and called them sexy, boldly kissing her on the sidewalk, the way she clung to him during the show. But every memory ended in their conversation about James and that lacluster kiss. John shouldn’t have said anything about Neal and he never should have let her leave with less than her toes curling.
I’ll make it up to her, he promised.
Even so determined, John thought calling that day would make him look desperate. If Meghan called, well, he had a full tank of gas and could be at her place in under an hour. He checked his phone after the workout - nothing. Which is exactly what Neal said instead of goodbye.
Meghan went back to bed after James left and stared at the ceiling for an hour. This house felt like home because it was familiar. It was in their hometown. Between James and Steven it was full of people she’d always known. Even the pillows and blankets were just borrowed from her parents’ house because James had never bothered to dress a guest room. That didn’t make it her home, though. So why did she feel so attached?
Two months. The words echoed in her head. Even before meeting John there was ticking clock set on every summer. This year was worse: Meghan would have to rejoin the real world, find a job and decide where to take her life. She’d given herself this finite time to have fun, be stress free and charge up her batteries to face whatever came next.
John. John had come next into her life and she faced the possibility of losing all those other things. At first it had seemed easy and harmless, but now James was upset. He had no call to be, which never stopped Neal from doing anything. It was part of what Meghan loved about James - he was headstrong to a fault. Only that stubbornness had never been working against her. James would say it wasn’t against her now, but rather looking out for her. In two months a lot could happen.
This wasn’t what she wanted. Fighting with her roommate in the middle of the night, waking up to make up - that was just more stress. Beyond that, she’d be worried about what happened when she wasn’t around. If James gave John a hard time, they would both suffer for her.
She also didn’t want to give up John because of James. He had no right to demand that. He did have a right to his feelings though, and to make the perfectly good point that in two months, this show was over. The hockey season would start like a curtain falling and cut them all off from the glow of summer’s lights. By then, who knew what kind of shape she or John or James would be in? Best case scenario, they were all friends and went back to work with promises of next summer to look forward to. Worse case scenario, everyone she loved left.
Love - that was a crazy thing to think. It was only two months. John seemed the type to fall in love in two weeks. James would take two lifetimes, but that was about as long as Meghan had known him. She didn’t love him, not like that. But if he had feelings for her, she owed it to a lifetime of their friendship to tread carefully.
Still her mind wandered back to John. He’d be a great boyfriend. He’d be a great everything and probably just needed someone to show him the ropes. But he deserved full attention and Meghan couldn’t give him that with James breathing down her neck.
In the end, it was a risk-reward situation. The risks were James making things hard and the fact they were leaving in just two months. The reward was John - Meghan knew that was something special. And that she could very well ruin it in the process.
Her phone didn’t ring and she didn’t make any calls. Saturday ended and with it, whatever she’d flirting with for summer.
Sunday morning John lay in bed wondering if Meghan golfed and what she was doing today and how good she would look driving the cart while wearing little shorts and sipping a cold beer. The thought kept John in bed so long he barely made it downstairs before tires were pulling into his driveway.
“Hey man,” Sam Gagner called from the passenger seat of his Jeep. He and John had been best friends since they were kids, living five minutes apart and growing up playing hockey together. Now Sam lived two miles away, except when he lived in Edmonton during the season. He’d been back in Alberta for a few week, signing a three year deal with the Oilers and putting the finishing touches on the house he’d actually get to live in thanks to it.
John dumped his clubs in the trunk and belted himself into the front seat. The Jeep’s top was off, the windows down - it was a perfect day. They were working their way outward from the city, playing every golf course. Today it was a thirty minute drive before Sam parked in a gravel lot under a huge shade tree. They carried their bags into the clubhouse, checked in and were shown to a cart.
“I met a girl,” John blurted out before Sam even had the key in the ignition.
Sam’s hand fell away from the wheel and he turned slowly. Gagner knew his best friend too well. John was no good at keeping secrets or hiding his emotions. The fact he’d made it thirty minutes was impressive - and probably due to the wind and radio through the open top Jeep. “How long have you been trying not to say that?”
“Since yesterday.” John laughed at himself, so he was laughing with Sam.
“We’ve got eighteen holes,” Sam started the cart. “You can tell me all about her.”
John stepped up to the first tee. Golf was like meditation - the game slow and quiet, deliberate and meticulous. It had the precision of hockey but none of the violence; it was serene, even as it frustrated. John figured that’s why so many players enjoyed golf in their downtime. He took a few practice swings, lined up his club and promptly shanked the ball way off to the left.
“Can you stop thinking about her long enough to stay on the fairway?” Sam budged past John, who was still staring in surprise in the direction of his lost ball. “Just in case you ever want to leave here and see her again.”
John shook his head. It wasn’t like him to be off his game - any game. Focus usually came so easily, because there was nothing to distract him. No 5’ 9” brunette with smooth skin and soft lips who was currently spending her lazy Sunday in the company of another NHL star. No, John hadn’t forgotten the way he and Meghan had parted, her upset over James’ confrontation and the awkward, tense goodbye kiss. He never would have thought a kiss from Meghan could feel so unsatisfying.
“Ahem!” Sam said, leaning one elbow on his driver like he had all the time in the world.
“Sorry,” John headed for the cart.
“Guess I’d better let you spill it, eh?”
John held on as they bumped along the paved path, headed where his ball had veered off. “Her name is Meghan.”
Sam waited a long moment for more. When it didn’t come, he said, “Okay then. Good talk.”
“I’m thinking!” John slugged him in the arm.
Sam veered theatrically into the rough. “Don’t hit the driver! You’re the one who can’t remember past her name!”
“She is....” John fished his phone out as Sam slowed the cart. He pulled up a photo he’d taken of them at Fall Out Boy. Before it was even declared a date, Meghan was standing in front of him, against his chest, as he extended his arms out and took a selfie of them both with the stage in the background. Her eyes were wide and clear, her smile bright as any flash. Sam took the phone right out of his hand.
“Wow. Well done, bro! Where’d you meet her? Got one for me?”
“Uh, well, I met her at the gym.”
“Robs setting his players up with girls. You pay extra for that?”
“Ha ha. She works out there with her friends,” John said.
“Hot friends?” Sam asked.
“Guy friends. Neal and Stamkos.” He tried not to wince saying it. Sam’s hand went dead, phone still in it. John scrambled to explain. “She grew up with them, with Neal. She’s his roommate now. They’re not together - never were.”
Sam had round eyes and ears that tended to make him look like a cartoon mouse when he was confused. This was one of those times. “This girl,” he showed the phone, “lives with James Neal. And he’s not interested in her?”
I didn’t say that, John thought. He could not say that without lying.
“Does she have a humpback? Six toes? Laugh like a donkey? No wait, he hangs with Crosby. Not an issue,” Sam snickered at his own joke. “Seriously. Why isn’t he into her?”
“She isn’t into him,” John said defensively.
Sam considered that. It was entirely possible that a girl who knew Neal’s ways with women would not want to be among those women. A notch in the bedpost, especially if that bedpost were in her own house. Still the idea was risky. “You trust him?”
John shrugged. He knew James should like Meghan - every guy should, she was amazing. Just because James hadn’t liked her before, well, wouldn’t he pick now to fall for her and fuck everything up? After the way Neal reacted to their first date and to Meghan staying out overnight, it was no secret he had feelings for Meghan. But what kind of feelings?
“He’s like her brother,” John answered cryptically.
“So he wants to kill you for ever touching her?” Sam thought of his own younger sister. “That’s what I do to Jess’ boyfriends.”
John quickly corrected him. “I’m not her boyfriend.”
Sam shrugged and handed back the phone. “Neither is he.”
It took John five minutes to find his ball, thinking about James’ aggression and Meghan’s anger afterward. She had suspected James of being upset - hell, she had to drag it out of John by asking just the right questions. But she certainly hadn’t expected to James to pick a fight. Did it mean James had never done it before? Surely Meghan had dated. James couldn’t have liked those guys either. Unless he hadn’t cared then - which meant he cared now. But why? John thought of himself as a nice guy - trustworthy, honest, not that exciting really but he made up for it with stability and reliability. That was what girls wanted, right?
That’s why they all want me, he thought sarcastically, whacking through the weeds with a seven iron. Every doubt he’d ever had about why Meghan would be interested in him, instead of someone like James, loomed back in his mind. When he finally located the ball, he took the penalty stroke and tossed it overhand onto the fairway.
Sam pulled the cart up close. “I bet she’s really great, John,” he said encouragingly.
He lined up a shot, swung once and thwacked the ball perfectly down the middle of the field toward the green. “She is.”
“You ask her out?”
“Twice,” John said. He watched Sam look surprised before his expression turned to impressed. “I took her to see Fall Out Boy then we went to a Second City show Friday night.”
John leaned his head back, examining the inside of the cart roof. He had to tell Sam everything - that’s how they’d always operated. “And Neal only tried to fight me once.”
He gave Sam the whole story, including the indelicate beginning where Meghan had been in on a mean joke, apologizing even as she took part in the prank. At least it had resulted in a kiss. From then, John spoke about hanging around James’ house and the party where he’d drank too much and hated Del Zotto. Between golf swings, Gagner nodded like he understood. John confessed to buying Fall Out Boy tickets after seeing her Facebook and to not knowing it was a date until they kissed goodnight.
“She stayed over her parents’ one night and didn’t tell Neal. He flipped because he thought she was sleeping at my place.”
“Sleeping with you at your place, you mean,” Sam interrupted. John shrugged. “As opposed to sleeping at his place, where she does not sleep with him.”
“She doesn’t,” John reiterated testily.
Sam put his hands up. “Hey, I heard you. I’m just saying. He cares where she sleeps, enough to go after the guy she’s sleeping with.”
“But she wasn’t! We aren’t! And when I told him that, he apologized,” John pointed out.
“Okay, alright. Maybe he’s just overprotective. What did Meghan say about it?”
John could see her face in his mind, the crease of her brow when he mentioned the argument. He’d been trying to protect her and it backfired; John knew that the moment Meghan’s kissable mouth turned down at the corners. If their situation was a rainstorm, he’d unwittingly thrown a window wide open.
“She was upset,” he admitted. Upset enough to ruin that kiss. “But I guess she didn’t seem that surprised.”
Sam teed up his next shot. “Sounds like a smart girl.”
The first hole was not the only where John lost a shot thinking about Meghan. His mind wandered to the night of James’ party, when he’d wanted to push Meghan up against the fridge in the garage and just go at it. The ball landed in the sand trap and Sam clapped proudly. Another unsteady swing put him in the water hazard; fitting because he’d been thinking about Meghan swimming in her tiny bikini.
“Tenth hole and you’re already buying lunch,” Sam said. “By eighteen I might make you buy dinner too.”
In the end John got away with lunch. They each packed away a pound of salmon with a lot of lemon and no butter plus some brown rice and veggies. The waitress kept trying to give them bread - she’d put it down on one side and John would pass it right back as she circled the table. He wondered if she was a secret agent for Gary Roberts trying to bust him for cheating.
It was nearly three when Sam turned the corner onto John’s street. John was thinking about Meghan - if he could call her now, since they’d had two dates. Did that make the required waiting period shorter? He was tallying the hours when Sam pointed over the steering wheel.
“Somebody you know?”
It was Meghan’s car. John’s heart chugged hard. Sam wheeled into the drive and there she was, getting up from his front step. Her long hair was braided loosely over one shoulder. In a pair of denim shorts and a fitted tank top with green and white stripes, she looked so good that Sam whistled under his breath.
“Yowza,” he said. John was thinking the same thing.
Meghan dusted off her back pockets to keep her hands from shaking. It had never once occurred to her than John would not be alone. In fact she’d expected to find him at home, though her visit was a surprise, but no one answered the doorbell despite his car being in the garage. Figuring he’d gone for a run, Meghan plopped down in front of his door to wait. Funny how quickly time passed while she was thinking.
“Hi!” John called. The smile on his face went right through her heart. If she were a vampire, she’d have died. He wore a blue polo shirt, tucked in with a belt, plus black shorts and black shoes. Inwardly Meghan cringed - what was it with guys and black shoes?
He practically jogged over. “What are you doing here?”
Meghan didn’t get a chance to answer. Sam popped up next to John, making him stop short. He had kind of been going in for a kiss, looking for a sign it was okay, and stutter-stepped a little. Meghan was busy recognizing Gagner.
“Hey, I’m Sam.”
Gosh you’re cute, Meghan wanted to say, but caught herself just in time. “Sam Gagner, yeah. I’m Meghan.”
“Oh I’ve heard all about you,” Sam grinned ear-to-ear. Behind his back, John whacked him in the kidney. Sam woofed out a breath, turning it into a cough at the last minute.
“What’s up?” John asked. “You could have called. We were just at lunch.”
“I, uh, was hoping I could talk to you.” Meghan looked for a hint of suspicion but John’s expression didn’t change. Sam, on the other hand, shifted his weight like a reflex the moment Meghan said ‘talk.’
“Come on in! We can...,” John went for the doorknob and Meghan cut her gaze to Sam. The smile on his face flickered. He got it. John was talking while Sam and Meghan had a private, silent conversation. Once the door was open and John was leading toward the kitchen, Sam went the other way.
“I’m gonna catch a quick shower. Be down in a few,” Sam said. Meghan looked back at him, saw that deceptively young face set into a hard, indiscernible mask. She followed John.
“Do you want a beer?” he was asking, opening the fridge. With two bottles in hand he turned toward her.
Meghan wanted to cave. She wanted to sit on a stool in John’s kitchen and drink John’s beer and talk to John’s friend, while John sat by her side and said things in John’s deep voice. But she hadn’t come here for that. Meghan had come here to say something she wouldn’t get to say anywhere else. Even now, Meghan and John were never really alone.
“I think we should stop seeing either other,” she said quickly.
John froze. He had one beer open, the glass cold against his palm as he got ready to pass it to Meghan. His Meghan. His someday maybe future girlfriend, or at least the person he planned on dedicating the second most energy to this summer. He’d even do push-ups if she wanted, then she’d jump past Gary on that list.
“What?” The word sounded dumb.
Meghan pushed a hand through the front of her hair, pulling some wavy pieces loose around her face. John wanted to touch them - he wanted to wrap them idly around his finger while pretending to watch TV with Meghan curled up against him on that huge chair in the living room. Not this.
“I like you, John, and I had a lot of fun but...,” she’d been struggling with how to say this for two days, “things are getting messy. I didn’t plan on that.”
John placed the bottle down carefully on the counter. He could see the strain pinching her featres. She had a nervous habit too, like John’s head tilt - she bit at the left corner of her bottom lip, denting the soft rise of pink skin and marking the exact spot John wanted to put his mouth.
“Is this about James?”
“Yes and no.”
John just looked at her. Meghan had not expected to get off that easily.
“James is being difficult, yes. But he’s really looking out for me. I know,” she put her hands up, “he goes about it the wrong way. He can be a colossal jerk. But... he’s right, John. In two months you’re all leaving. Whatever this is goes with it.”
“But we don’t know what this is,” John protested, thinking he knew very well what it could be. Especially if Meghan would just let him push those pieces of hair out of her face and try to convince her.
“It’s fun, John. You’re fun. But it stops being fun when James is an asshole. And he will continue to be - to both of us - as long as this goes on.”
John felt his stomach churn. Meghan was calling James out at the same time she was taking his side. She was supposed to be - very firmly - on John’s side.
Meghan had to look away, anywhere but his gorgeous, sad face. Down wasn’t better - he looked so sturdy, so heavy and strong like he could stand up in a hurricane. Maybe he was strong enough for this but Meghan doubted her own ability to weather the storm. Her voice was quiet.
“It also stops being fun if two months isn’t long enough.”
There it was, the argument John couldn’t argue against because maybe he wanted it to be true. He wanted to imagine that Meghan could fall for him, that things could be so great at the end of the summer and that it wouldn’t have to end at all. He just hadn’t thought that part through, and it was coming fast.
All he could do was tell the simple truth. “I don’t want to stop seeing you.”
This is right, this is easier, Meghan told herself. “I’m sorry.”
“And I especially don’t want to stop because of James.”
“John.” She risked taking a step closer - he flinched, but didn’t back away. They were a foot apart now, close enough for her to see the hints of dark blue and gray in his eyes. “It’s not for him. Yeah he can be a dick all summer, make your life and mine really rough. Then you have to go with him to Calgary for camp? More torture.
“But really, it’s for us.” She reached tentatively toward his forearm, feeling the heat of his body well before her hand touched his skin. “I want to have fun. I took this summer off to relax. You need that too - I know hockey players, remember? We can’t relax like this. And I don’t want to start something we can’t finish.”
John thought of how tense things had been at the gym, how he hadn’t hung out with Stamkos and Neal outside the gym in a while. Not since before his first date with Meghan. It had been the silent treatment or worse, the threat of a fight, with Neal.
“I can handle it,” he said firmly anyway, aware of just how long Meghan’s eyelashes were as they swept her cheeks every time she blinked.
“You shouldn’t have to,” she said softly. “And when it’s over, you shouldn’t have to worry about leaving something behind.”
Her words made sense and John hated them. He looked at her hand, small but not fragile, where it lay against his slightly darker skin. If he went with this he wouldn’t get to touch her anymore, when he’d barely even gotten started. The idea of Meghan still sent a whizz of bubbles through John’s bloodstream. Maybe she was right. He wanted her to be wrong. Either way, it was no longer up to him.
Meghan knew this was one-sided. She felt bad for relying on John’s nice guy personality to make this easier than she deserved. Even after only two weeks, Meghan felt she should have to pay a price for what little time they’d spent.
“I guess I don’t get a choice,” he said, trying to keep the pout from his voice.
“You get to choose if you want to still be my friend.”
He looked into her big green eyes. Of course he’d rather have something than nothing. He’d been willing to take two months as a couple, instead of the much longer time he figured he’d really want. Now he would take the option that let him see her, be near her and spend time with her, even if it meant none of the other things he’d so been looking forward to doing.
Except the falling for her part - that was up to him. John was pretty sure he’d be doing that anyway.
“Of course I do.”
Instead of feeling better, Meghan felt she’d swallowed a lead weight and it was slowly dragging her body into the floor. “I’m sorry, John. I should have thought more about this before. You kinda caught me by surprise.”
Despite just being dumped, the idea still made John happy. And skeptical. “You were flirting with me, remember?” he said, feeling the life come back into his tone.
Meghan moved her hand up his arm one more time, slipping under the edge of his sleeve and feeling his thick solid bicep. All that strength and she was still worried about him getting hurt.
“Oh I remember,” she laughed. “I just wasn’t expecting you to flirt back.”
Sam rounded the corner, rubbing a hand through his wet hair. He’d taking his time changing into shorts and flip-flops. On his way down the stairs, he considered that no voices might mean John and Meghan were making out in the kitchen. He had to see that. Instead what he saw was John sitting alone with two beers in front of him. The look on his face was unmistakable.
“Guess you were right about Neal.” John tilted the bottle and twisted it, the ridges along the bottom edge clinking against the countertop.
“She’s picking him?”
“No,” John took a sip. “She’s picking nobody. Says it’s easier that way, and when summer’s over no one has to leave anything behind.”
Sam took the second beer - it was a little warm, it had clearly been intended for someone else. “Except that she knows Neal is coming back.”
John shrugged. It sucked anyway he thought about it. James didn’t deserve Meghan, but maybe he’d get her anyway. The world was full of people not getting what they deserved.
Tires crunched in the driveway. Meghan got up off the couch, flipped the remote off, and went to her room. She was under the covers when she heard James come in the front door.
She didn’t want to see him, or anyone. She didn’t even want to be in the house but her parents had company and that meant a night of endless questions about “that Neal boy” she was always hanging around with. The other option was Lucy and a bottle of wine - maybe several bottles - but Meghan wasn’t up for a pity party. She was still trying to feel like what she’d done was right.
James’ feet climbed the stairs, slowed outside her door. The lights were off. He paused but didn’t knock, then moved on. Meghan would not have answered anyway.
She lay back against the pillows and wondered if you could really be too smart for your own good.
Usually she loved long summer nights - nothing to wake up for, just time to lay there and let thoughts wander as far and wide as the endless inky sky outside. Tonight her thoughts refused to go farther than the room across the hall. What about James? It would sound crazy to any woman and half the men on Earth but Meghan had never thought of James as anything more than a brother. Sure he was hot, but even that had been a long time coming. Back in the day he was all teeth and gums and porcupine hair. She watched him go from a boy to a man, but he was no more comfortable in his skin now. He just hid it better.
Meghan could not fathom that James had feelings for her beyond friendship. Hell they were practically family. He found her attractive but that was hardly a criteria for action with James. Meghan never understood his running around - she thought he was better than that. James was just showing off, always something to prove about how cool and unattached he was. Except he was attached to this place and this life and, ultimately, to her. For the first time, one of those things was threatened. So for the first time, James was freaking out.____