The tone of his own voice made John wince. He hated sounding needy but he needed to see Meghan. It was beyond wanting.
The day before, after seeing Meghan at the gym and having lunch with everyone, she hadn’t wanted to make the drive back to Mississagua. John would’ve gladly gone to Whitby except that James was there, like a troll under a bridge, and would question everybody that passed between him and Meghan. John told himself to be cool.
“I’m helping my mom - they’re having a yard sale this weekend. I say let people in the house, whatever they can carry out is $5. She disagrees,” Meghan explained. It was the truth, but she really need all day? Maybe not. But one more day before seeing John again sounded like a good idea to Meghan’s head if not her racing heart.
“Your mom doesn’t need any help? Have anything heavy to be lifted? You should know that moms love me,” he added.
Meghan grinned to herself. If it were the 90’s she’d be twirling a phone cord around her finger. “I have no trouble believing that. How about tomorrow? Can I take you on a date tomorrow, my treat?”
John’s stomach swooped - tomorrow was not today, but at least it wasn’t the day after that. “Yes. But there’s no way I’m letting you pay.”
“Well then, Cristal for everyone in the club,” she laughed.
John would have given her that. It would certainly be easier than figuring out what else she wanted. After all, she’d been the one so worried about two months and now two whole days would pass without seeing each other. John had a lot of experience with ticking game clocks.
The summer sun was hot overhead and Meghan was very much wishing for John’s strong arms as she lugged another load of unidentified junk out of her parents’ garage. They had separated things into piles of varying importance on the driveway where her mom and dad debated every item until a filibuster set in. Finally her father won the discussion over a portable pool table that hadn’t seen a cue since James scratched it on a weekend home from junior hockey. Everything had a memory attached to it, and now quite a few of those things also had price tags.
“Want something from the market, pumpkin?” her dad asked.
Meghan ordered a lemonade. No sooner was her father’s car out of the driveway and out of earshot than her mother asked, “How’s James?”
Inwardly, Meghan groaned. Her mother always thought girl talk about erupt the moment the menfolk were off hunting or building. “Nothing is going on” was never the answer she wanted. If anything, it made Meghan’s mom think the opposite was true. Slowly it dawned on Meghan that she actually had something to say.
“Uh, he’s okay. He’s been kind of a jerk lately.”
“Oh?” Surprised at any nugget of info, her mom looked up from a box of miscellaneous kitchen items.
“He’s, uh…,” Meghan paused, mentally checking the story for anything her mom shouldn’t hear. It was all pretty tame if James’ late night exploits were erased. “He’s a little jealous, I think.”
That got attention. Her mom set the box down so quickly it thudded off the hand-me-down dresser below. “Jealous of what?”
Of what indeed, Meghan thought. It was tough to imagine hometown hero and rising NHL superstar James Neal, with his $30 million contract and own episode of NHL36 being jealous of anything. Except probably Crosby. But who wasn’t?
“Well maybe not jealous, just… James doesn’t like change. Not at home. He likes Whitby to stay Whitby, so when he comes home he is the news. You know?”
Years of waiting for a real conversation about Meghan and James had sharpened her mom’s senses until she was practically a detective. “What changed?”
Meghan sat down on the lid of a giant plastic container of winter clothes from the Dark Ages.
“Well Steven has a girlfriend now, and he’s got it bad. You should see him, Mom. Lovesick puppy extravaganza.”
Her mom smiled wistfully, thinking of little Steven Stamkos, all skinny and sharp angles, tagging along after some girl. “You checked her out?”
Meghan nodded. “Of course. I’m not letting some harpy get their hands on him.”
“Good girl,” her mom said. “So Steven’s got the love bug, but James must have other friends. What are they called? Wingmen? What about the Del Zotto kid?”
A laugh burst from Meghan’s throat. “Yes, mom. You’re very hip. James has other wingmen, including Michael. Who needs a wingman like a fish needs a bicycle. That kid grew up to be the biggest Casanova this side of the Rockies.”
“He always did have the best hair,” her mom remembered.
“Don’t let James hear you say that,” Meghan clucked. “Anyway, Steven’s acting like a grown up and James is - was - pouting like a kid.”
Her mother started pulling drawers at random, as if expecting to find something to pretend to do inside the dresser. She looked busily into each open compartment and said casually, “Well if James wants a girlfriend, why doesn’t he just ask you out?”
“Mom,” Meghan warned.
“What, Meg? You two are so….”
“Inevitable?” Meghan quipped. “Made for each other? Boring and predictable? Every NHLer marries someone from back home, and I got on the James Neal wagon first?” Her tone was sharp but her mother returned a steady stare of yes, that’s exactly what I meant.
“Well I just thought, that since you moved in there this summer, maybe you guys would finally figure out you’re both adults and your lives are moving fast now. Either you’ll get together or you’re going to get away from each other very quickly.” Her mother put her hands on hips. “I don’t want you to figure that out when it’s too late.”
Exasperated, Meghan pushed a hand through her hair. Half her ponytail came out with it. “We both figure it out too late, or I figure it out too late when James is off to his trophy WAG in their mansion?”
“That’s not what I meant,” her mom said, half-lying.
“Well it’s what everyone thinks. I’m gonna miss that bus, my meal ticket is going to get away and then I’ll be stuck here in Whitby talking about the good old days when I could have made the NHL like everybody else left in town.”
“Meghan,” her mom tried.
“Sorry, Mom. I know what you mean but that’s not what happened. I met a guy. A great one. And now I think James is jealous because he missed out on me.”
Her mom dropped the topic of James like a rock. “You met a guy?”
Meghan huffed. “Through James, even, a guy he works out with every damned day. James saw us hitting it off and freaked out, started getting all possessive and marking his territory and acting like an ass.”
Waving a hand at the now-inconsequential James, her mom said, “Back up. A guy who works out with James every day? Another hockey player?”
“And not Stamkos? Hmmmm,” her mom thought for a second. “You said Del Zotto was a slut….”
“Mom!” Meghan gasped.
Another wave. “Subban? Honey, your dad will die if you date a Hab.”
“No.” Eye roll.
“Not Skinner. Is it one of James’ teammates? Oh my…,” her mom’s voice trailed off and her eyes got big.
Meghan instantly recognized potential hysteria and practically shouted. “Not Crosby!”
Her mom’s face fell. “Damn.”
Meghan laughed ruefully. “Gross, Mom.”
Hopes sufficiently crushed, Meghan’s mother hopped up onto the edge of the dresser and sat. “Who then?”
“No one ever thinks of him,” Meghan said almost to herself. “John Tavares.”
A common knowledge of hockey stars was required for most Canadians. Her mom had grown up in Southern Ontario and probably known more hockey players than Meghan in her life. Still no mental image of John came immediately to mind. Instead of describing him, Meghan palmed her phone and tapped John’s name into the Google search. She picked a photo of him off-ice, at a press conference, his hair short and his face clean-shaven.
“Oh Meghan, he’s gorgeous.”
“I know, right?” Meghan scrolled to the next photo: a close up of John from an old All-Star Game media day. His eyes looked very green now that she knew they were. Longer, shaggy hair fell across his forehead and around his ears. Meghan wondered if she could ask him to grow it out again.
“So,” her mom straightened up, “where is he now? Shouldn’t he be trying to impress me by carrying all this stuff around?”
“He offered, I promise. He’s the most polite person on Earth. But we’re keeping it low key for now. James was really giving everyone a hard time, and we both have to be with him every day, so we kinda pretended to break up.”
Her mom lifted a skeptical eyebrow.
“Okay we did break up. For like five minutes. Then we got back together and we agreed not to rub anyone’s face in it.”
“James doesn’t know,” Meghan finally admitted.
“Oh honey.” As only moms can do, her mom understood everything all at once.
Meghan was glad to know someone saw her point. Her mom had no better advice than sympathy. It didn’t hurt that she called John “gorgeous” either - Meghan was starting to think she was the only one who saw John that way. She offered up a hug that her mom quickly accepted, just an acknowledgement of a tough time without any words to be said.
Until her dad pulled up to the curb. Hauling a bag of treats and a drink carrier, he was no sooner out of the car before her mom yelled, “Hey Ben, what do you think of John Tavares?”
Being quizzed on the attributes of random hockey players and one’s opinions thereof was a regular occurrence in Southern Ontario. Meghan’s dad thought for a second before saying, “Great hands. Scoring touch. He’ll make a perfect captain.”
Her mom tsk-ed. “Well your daughter wants to date him.”
He frowned, the first reaction of any father. It only lasted a moment while he ran back through his mental Tavares folder to form an opinion then he shrugged. “Seems like a dork.”
Meghan had already started to say something, then stopped to laugh at her dad’s completely correct assessment. Dorkiness was exactly what she liked about John. Well, that and his smile. And his eyes. And politeness and scars and his arms and…. “Did you say captain?”
“Isles traded theirs. Naming a new one before the season, I presume. Oughta be your boy,” her dad said. “He plays like a captain.”
Thursday morning, John was into the gym practically at first light. Well, not really -twenty minutes before Gary’s call time felt early, but he couldn’t wait anymore. John hadn’t called or texted Meghan since seeing her Tuesday. He wanted to play it cool, when in reality he’d just watched the minutes tick away. Already in his workout gear, John pretended to examine the products for sale at the front of the gym.
Neal’s car pulled in and a brunette ponytail swing out of the passenger seat. John checked his reflection in the mirror.
As good as it ever is, he thought sullenly.
He didn’t just miss Meghan - that was manageable - he also harbored a panicky fear about being away from her. Would she change her mind? Forget whatever it was she liked about him? Worse, any time she spent away from John was probably spent with Neal. That created a whole new set of things to worry about.
Fingers pinched at either side of his waist, making John whip around. He’d been too lost in thought to realize Meghan was right behind him.
She could have picked out John’s shoulders from a lineup. James didn’t see him though, and went straight through. Meghan said hello to every employee in the place until James disappeared obliviously into the locker room. Then she resisted the urge to jump on John’s back.
“Hi,” he said. Those color-changing eyes of his quickly scanned the room, looking for a challenge. Seeing nothing they dropped back to Meghan. She was smiling, face tilted up as if for a kiss and well within John’s personal space. Desire whomped through his body like a bomb , forcing him a half-step back.
“Sorry,” she giggled, retreating a bit herself. “Still on for tonight?”
“Yeah, of course.” John felt stupid for being relieved that she remembered. She would remember. She had asked him out.
“Okay. We’re doing something fun, then dinner. Don’t wear flip flops,” she said. John’s forehead creased skeptically. Meghan swatted him lightly on the chest. “Fun, remember? I promised you fun.”
Her little smirk was dazzling. John had known girls and he’d had plenty of fun, but the two didn’t always go together. He briefly hoped that Meghan wouldn’t be too much fun for him, then quickly banished that thought. He’d just have to learn to keep up.
“I’ll pick you up at six.”
“Okay.” John quickly took in the rest of Meghan. She wore tight gray shorts and a long white tank top that skimmed every curve in her body, including all those he hadn’t even touched yet. The idea of her bending and flexing and panting in that outfit in a room full of other guys made his adrenaline race. “Are you, uh, are you working out?”
“Class,” Meghan said. She didn’t want to kill the poor guy.
Without hesitation, John said, “Thank God.”
She blushed a little at the appreciation. “Maybe I’ll skip class and wear this tonight.”
As promised, Meghan didn’t see John again at the gym. As soon as James was ready they headed out, stopped to pick up salads for lunch and carried them right to James’ back porch. Meghan cranked open the umbrella over the table, still wearing her gym clothes.
“Do you want to shower first? I can wait,” James offered, seeing her workout clothes.
She shook her head. Date night showers were more of a production and Meghan didn’t want to rush. Her class had been a moderate yoga so she wasn’t too sweaty. If anything she felt warm and drowsy and flexible and none of those were states in which she should be thinking about John with James so nearby.
James shrugged. “Good, I like that outfit.”
Meghan rolled her eyes. That had been the tone lately - light, funny, the way things used to be. James flirted with her and she shot him down, like they were a Vaudeville show. Meanwhile his hair had grown even longer and his limbs thinner. She’d insisted he get chicken on his salad and even snuck an extra piece of bread into their bag. He seemed happy, though.
James chewed a bite of food, thinking. He’d been thinking a lot lately, mostly before he spoke. It seemed to be working. He considered trying it before, or even during, drinking and possibly even applying thinking to girls. What a wild idea. In truth he was applying it to Meghan already - apologizing for bringing Becki home had been a good first step. He really wanted to apologize for what Steven called “vomit-inducing PDA” at the party, but couldn’t think of a way to bring it up. Shame was another new concept on his list.
He considered not bringing girls home for a while and not hooking up so publicly. If that’s what it took to keep from hurting Meghan, James would do it. But she hadn’t seem too hurt about Becki. Maybe she really didn’t care. James wasn’t the type to give something up without getting something else in return. While Becki, and girls like her, were no fair trade for Meghan, a small part of James still thought they were better than nothing.
But they’d never be here, at his house in the full light of day, eating lunch and hanging out like friends. James watched as Meghan tipped her salad bowl up to catch an errant bean, the pink tip of her tongue pressing the corner of her lip in concentration. Girls like Becki would never look at James like he was more than money, fame and a ticket out of Whitby. And they’d never, ever smile happily and hold up a bean on the end of their forks in a victory salute.
“Got it,” she said.
“Hey, uh,” James didn’t even know what he was going to say until the words were coming out. “When I leave, if you don’t have a job yet you’re welcome to stay here. Even all winter.”
Meghan froze, bean halfway to her mouth. James looked up through his impossibly long eyelashes. His eyes were color-changing also, but lighter than John’s. More blue than green, like the ocean far away from any land. She’d seen them so many times that occasionally Meghan forgot how beautiful they were.
“If you want,” James mumbled, suddenly shy, realizing he’d just offered to make their living arrangement into something more permanent. If that evolved, could their friendship become something else too?
“Thanks,” she said quietly. It should have been a weight off her shoulders: if she didn’t find work, she could still live for free. In an amazing house. No worry about rent or moving back in with parents, no bills to pay. It was freedom of a sort. But it was also a trap.
Winter would be great, then summer would come again. She could never bring a guy here while James was around. Even if she dated openly, James would always know. Meghan thought now of her desire to invite John over to hang out, to avoid driving two hours round trip just to see him. Any kind of privacy would disappear and there was always the chance, even as James seemed to be less territorial, that he did have feelings for her. Living here together would be giving him hope for something that wasn’t going to happen.
Unless it did. Meghan didn’t want James, not like that. Not now. But ten-plus years of friendship had already changed a lot in a few weeks. Who was she to be sure it wouldn’t change again?
“We’ll see how it goes,” she added.
James titled his face down so she wouldn’t see him close his eyes. “Cool.”
Meghan stepped under the hot water rainfall of her shower, forcing James’ offer to the back of her mind. Maybe she’d find a job right away and not need it. Maybe it gave her an extra eight months of summer vacation. Regardless, it was two months away and Meghan planned to make good use of that time. She conditioned her hair twice and shaved her legs, wondering if John had a fancy glass-walled shower stall in his bathroom, and if the windows fogged all the way when he stayed in too long. Probably not, she thought. He probably didn’t like to waste water.
After drying her hair most of the way, Meghan braided the slightly damp sections into thick plaits that looked ridiculous. She put on a layer of super moisturizing lotion, then sniffed every scented lotion and perfume in her stash for one John would like. Finally she did her makeup - a hint of bronzer on her cheeks, a stain of light pink on her lips. One finely applied line of bright glittery blue liner that took twice to get right on her left eye. That was covered by an even finer line of back that left the faintest hint of sparkly blue along it’s top edge. She curled her lashes, cursing boys for their luck in that department. Finally Meghan hit her braids with another two minutes of hair dryer, then unwound them and ran her fingers through.
Please with the result, she considered her outfit for the hundredth time. Something fun, something fun.
Meghan: Can I wear these on a date?
Lucy: If you want him to think about copping a feel all night.
The white shorts had short layers of lace tiered down, giving it the illusion of a skirt if she stood just right, but allowing her to move freely. Meghan had seen them all over Pinterest and on at least one NHL player’s girlfriend during the Stanley Cup festivities. She bought them on a whim.
By four thirty she was killing time in her room to keep from being asked too many questions. Meghan didn’t want to lie to James, but unless she made a bedsheet ladder and went out the window, he’d see her all dressed up. It would be an ongoing problem. She decided just to leave early and get it over with.
James was playing a video game in the living room, yelling into the Ventrilo mic on his headphones. Meghan rolled her shoulders back and put on a smile.
“Stop!” He said as she walked into sight.
Meghan did. So did whoever James was playing the game with - two animated men in fatigues stopped running. A bullet whizzed by one of their CGI heads.
“Sorry Nisky, hang on.” James pulled off his headset. His heart thumped and his hand fumbled at the kill switch for the audio to make their conversation provide. Everything between him and Meghan should be private, starting now and ending with a total ruin of what she’d just walked into the living room looking like. A sudden and overwhelming urge of desire crashed over his head.
“Wh… where ya going?” he asked stupidly.
“The city. Lucy’s work has a teambuilding thing then a dinner, she asked me to keep from her killing herself.” Meghan gave a half-truth, but the important part was the lie.
“Oh.” James felt a little woozy, like he’d been blindsided. The tension didn’t disappear right away. It’s just Lucy’s work, he told himself.
“You look great,” he finally managed. “Really beautiful.”
Meghan’s heart and mind were already out the door, headed for John, dragging her dimwitted mortal self behind. At James’ words the momentum stopped, boomeraged around and whipped back into Meghan like a rubber band snapping on itself.
“Thanks, James,” she said honestly, feeling extra bad for lying. She walked over and kissed him on the top of his head.
James wrapped an arm behind Meghan’s knees in a sort of half-hug, careful not to touch her skin with his hand. That hand could not be trusted. “Home tonight?”
She repeated the words she’d used when talking about staying in the house with him.
“We’ll see how it goes.”____