John almost didn’t let Meghan leave. After he’d woken up twisted around her, the clothes they’d gone to sleep in lost beneath the blankets, he almost insisted that they both stay there forever and Roberts be damned. That lasted a hot second.
“He’ll kill you,” she laughed, rolling on top of him so the sheet slipped down around her waist. “You won’t be able to walk for a week.”
John considered the view hovering over him: long, dark bed-head waves, endless creamy skin and breasts that more than filled his outstretched hands. “I could live with just laying here.”
Meghan was about to make a sassy reply, punctuated by how naked they were, when her phone rang. It was on the dresser next to her purse where she’d left it last night in a daze of tears. “You should get…,” John started.
“It’s James,” she interrupted. He had his own ring tone, one he’d chosen because it was the most annoying option on her phone.
John frowned. “Then don’t.”
When he finally got downstairs, teeth brushed and gym clothes on, John found Meghan at the stove. Her back was to him, one hand on her hip. She wore just the t-shirt he’d lent her the night before - it barely reached the bottom of her backside. John sometimes forgot she was so much taller than other girls he’d known. Now with her long legs on display he knew it would be hard to ever forget. He walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Mmmmm, I could get used to real breakfast,” he said, looking at the pan full of eggs.
Meghan had been thinking since her phone rang. Was James checking up on her? Worried? Did he know she wasn’t at her parents’ or Lucy’s, though she hadn’t said where she was going? There was no voicemail. She was concerned about him, and that made her mad. James was not her boyfriend, after all. Tapping the spatula on the counter did not help. She put down the battered utensil and turned to face John.
“Could you get used to me staying over more?”
John’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?!”
Meghan’s little storm of anger disappeared just like that. He was so… perfect, she thought.
“I’d like to,” she said.
“I’d love that.”
“I’ll make breakfast,” Meghan offered.
John, grinning like a fool, moved the pan off the burner and backed away from the stove with her still in his grasp. “Nope, don’t care. Low on the list.” He continued frog-marching her out of the kitchen into the front hallway to the side table. In a silver dish, underneath his own keys, was another set on a plain green tag.
“I had these made for you.”
Meghan looked at the little ring dangling from his finger. It was like a glass slipper and she felt an embarrassing princess swoon coming on. “When?”
“Mmmmm, day we met?” he joked. She pinched his side and he flinched. “When I saw you in a bikini?” She tickled him again.
“Okay!” John pinned her arms. “The first time I came home and you were waiting outside. I told you I would.”
He had in fact promised her keys on more than one occasion, since she had a tendency to be sitting on his doorstep, like a package from Amazon. Meghan had never thought he was serious. She was learning now that unlike most guys, John meant what he said. He followed through. That brought to mind a lot of past conversations - she’d have to think back if she’d missed any other important announcements.
John waited for the kiss he knew was coming, and it was worth it. Meghan looked him squarely in the eye and pulled his mouth down to hers, holding his gaze until the first brush her her tongue zinged through his body. Her fingers knitted into his hair while John’s went shamelessly for the hem of her oversized shirt and the bare skin he found underneath. He remembered everything about the night before: waking up as they moved together, even in sleep wanting nothing more than her. Meghan was his real-life dream and now she was promising more.
“Thanks, John,” she said quietly, a blanket statement to cover everything in the last day.
He smiled. “Now what was that about breakfast?”
James guessed Meghan wasn’t coming to the gym. He’d noticed her sneakers in the front hall and called to see if he could bring her stuff. No answer. She was probably sleeping in, warm and safe in a place where she didn’t have to be near him.
It killed him that Meghan had said no - even if he’d expected her answer, James was so unsure of what he wanted that he’d doubted his expectation and kept quite a bit of hope alive. It was made worse by Meghan’s kindness. James knew guys who broke up with girls they’d dated for mere weeks with more fireworks and drama than a lifelong relationship coming apart. Those were the kinds of girls James usually met - clingy and aggressive, one wandering eye away from burning his clothes on the lawn. No wonder he wanted someone safe. But unlike those girls, Meghan wasn’t an all-or-nothing deal. Even after a no, she was coming back and he’d have to settle for that.
James didn’t lose well. And he certainly didn’t give up. He’d never have made it to the NHL that way. There were still things he could do - the right things, ones Meghan also happened to want. If they just so happened to sway Meghan’s opinion, well he’d certainly be willing to let her reconsider.
James got out of his car at the gym and saw John crossing the lot. Tavares confused him - he’d come so close, so easily to being with Meghan. It was totally unexpected. But John was just a kid and so square, James thought. Maybe that was why he’d rebounded easily; he was naive and optimistic enough to think he’d find another girl like Meghan.
“Hey, John!” James jogged a few steps to catch up.
Ugh, John thought. He didn’t want to like James but he couldn’t help feeling bad, knowing everything. And Neal could be cool when he wasn’t being a douche, which lately was much more often. Neal came closer, his long hair flopping beneath his Blue Jays cap.
“Congrats on Olympic camp,” James said.
“Yeah, you too.” John offered a handshake. “Know what this means, right?”
Neal nodded. “Yup. Robs is going to kill us.”
Gary certainly tried. Between bouts of gasping and wishing for the stillness of death, John kept an eye on James. He was a little quieter than usual, maybe, but that could be the inverse push-ups and weighted hip thrusts. Stamkos had his head down too, getting through drills. John wondered if Steven thought about Kaylynn during workouts. And lunch and driving and movies and showers too. Definitely showers. Was it normal to think about a girl as much as he thought about Meghan?
“DUDE!” Neal barked. John blinked back to real time and found two current NHLers and one retired staring at him like the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys.
“Are we boring you?” Gary asked patiently.
“Nope.” John leapt into place beside the boys. “Sorry.”
Roberts smiled. “Not yet you’re not.”
Meghan heard keys in the door and flinched, nearly spilling the lemonade in her hand. She had showered and dressed, trying to be normal, then waited for James to walk through the door and decide what life in this house would be like from now on. There was a tumult in the hallway, followed by a loud thump. She approached the noise and found a big, James-shaped heap on the floor.
“He is evil,” a low, pitiful voice said.
James rolled onto his back, feeling for all the world like he’d been hit by a truck. An upside-down Meghan came into view. She looked great from this angle - all exaggerated curves in a snug t-shirt, hair falling forward like a 3D movie. He’d been dreading the moment when he saw her again, saw his foolishness and failure in those lovely green eyes. At least like this there was no seriousness in their meeting.
“That gym is a human rights violation.”
Meghan could have melted. Every muscle in her body was releasing in order of importance, from her neck down her spine to the pit of her stomach. They’d all been braced for the impact of James’ arrival, only he hadn’t come back swinging. Instead he was a pile of curls and clothes with sneakers sticking out the bottom.
“Think of all the goals you’ll score. The screaming fans and intermission interviews and calendars with puppies you’ll sell,” she gave him a lopsided grin. James returned the favor, reminding Meghan that he really was gorgeous enough to get into trouble without her.
“You say that to all the boys.”
She helped him up, grateful for the effort he was making to smooth this over. It was a one hundred eighty degree turn from the scene leaving this very room last night and Meghan knew it took a lot on James’ part to be selfless, when he was used to being selfish. His hat had fallen off - he pushed a hand through the unruly mop.
“I’m gonna go to Quebec for a couple days - Subban’s got a golf thing he invited me to.”
“Oh, uh….” Meghan was taken aback. She hadn’t heard about a golf trip, which meant James hadn’t made plans before today. Before last night.
You don’t have to go, she almost said - it was the right response. But maybe James disagreed. Maybe he didn’t want to have to see her every day right after she rejected him, and this effort was all he had in him. A wave of nausea rolled through her stomach. If he left, he’d have time to get over it. She’d have time to get brave. And she would be able to see John.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “I can go to my….”
“No, no, it’s fine. I want to go. Really.” James was not lying. He needed to be away from his life in Whitby to see it clearly. There were things he wanted to examine - things that made girls like Meghan not want guys like him for a boyfriend. And there was Meghan, herself. James needed to figure out if he wanted her or not. He couldn’t decide that with her showering and changing and sleeping in the next room. Maybe he’d get over this crazy, brand new, out of nowhere idea that he was in love with her. Or maybe he’d figure out how to change her mind.
Meghan had been reading James’ eyes for years, since they so often said what his mouth would not. She saw honesty there, and fatigue, and a little bit of the emotional wreckage from the night before.
“You hold down the fort here,” he said.
“Okay.” Meghan knew she wouldn’t spend a single night here once he left.
James sighed with relief. She stepped aside and he moved past, each afraid to touch the other.
“Wait, did you tell Robs?” she asked. “Because I’m not doing that.”
James looked over his shoulder. “Oh you’re standing in for me at workouts. Don’t worry. Stamkos’ll beat you, but Tavares is kind of a pussy.”
Meghan rolled her eyes at James’ back, her pity already evaporating.
“Honey, I’m home!” Meghan called, peeking around the side of John’s front door. It was sensationally weird to let herself into his house, especially when he was home. Every light was on and she could hear the TV. He walked into the entryway wearing a t-shirt and shorts, barefoot on the hardwood floor. Those thin lips she liked so well were trying not to smile.
“Hi.” Meghan carefully shut the door behind her.
John stayed put, ten feet away. He had never seen Meghan uncomfortable. Sure she’d been nervous to meet his parents and awkward when Neal was around, but those were outside forces. This was a place she’d been plenty of times and he was the only one here. Still she set her keys down carefully on the table and her duffel bag underneath.
Big bag, he thought.
Meghan saw him looking at her suitcase and felt sheepish. She hadn’t exactly explained the situation. “You said I could.”
“Yeah, of course.”
But that wasn’t all. “James went away for a few days. I thought I might test your hospitality.”
The idea of a few days together had not seemed weird until she was walking John’s the place like she owned it. That was the very problem with James’ house: she lived there. Right now he could not live with her, so he had to leave. It made Meghan unsteady; in truth, she had no place of her own. Her parents would welcome her back but that seemed like defeat to a college-educated woman who’d lived overseas for a year. Instead Meghan felt like she should earn her spot and had done so over fifteen years of friendship with James. Only that was in question now.
“A few days?” John’s voice pitched up at the end, more than a question. It sounded a lot like a slot machine dropping into place - one, two, three, JACKPOT!
Meghan pressed her lips together and nodded.
John jumped on her like a puppy. Meghan’s knees sagged - he’d just caught her, now he was holding her up. She laughed weakly; he found her mouth and silenced it. John kissed her until she felt steady in his arms again.
“Stay as long as you like,” he said, trying not to whoop.
“I can only make a few kinds of breakfast,” she warned.
John pulled her toward the living room. “That is a few more kinds than me.”
They went right for the giant chair, the one where they’d spent that precious first hour of their unofficial relationship kissing. John settled in next to Meghan, one arm around her shoulders. She curled in and put her head against this arm.
This is what couples do, John thought. They didn’t run to the bedroom for sex because someone had to leave, or act in public like they weren’t together. For all the things Meghan had given him, this was the one thing he’d never really had with her: time.
They watched some TV. Sam called. John gave Meghan a look, she nodded. Ten minutes later, Sam rang the bell.
“Hey… John.” he said when she opened the door.
“You’re much prettier than I remember.”
She laughed. “Thanks.”
“And smaller. Is it gonna be weird now if I ask to sleep over?”
“Stop hitting on my roommate!” John yelled from inside.
Sam put a six pack of beer in the fridge while John made a salad. They ate dinner to an episode of Breaking Bad then played a few rounds of Halo 4, at which Meghan was terrible. Sam suggested strip video gaming. John promised to teach Meghan how to play.
Before she knew it, it was after eleven o’clock. Sam yawned. It made him look like a mouse, as did most things.
“Can I get that golf book from you?” he asked. When John went upstairs in search, Sam turned to Meghan. “He told me what happened.”
“Oh,” she said. Of course guys talked about girls. John probably told Sam more than he told her. He probably told his friend everything.
“OH SHIT!” She shot out of her seat, running into the hall.
“What?!” Sam called after her.
Meghan ripped the phone from her purse - no missed calls. She punched up the contacts, scrolled for a second and hit send. “Answer, answer, answer….”
She sagged against the wall at the sound of PK Subban’s voice. He was too cheery for anything to have happened. “Hey, is James there yet?”
“Yeah, he’s taking a shower. We’re going out in a bit. You wanna come? Break some speed limits, you could make it.”
“No, thanks. I just, um - remember that picture I sent you? Me and John?”
“Tavares? Yeah, I remember,” he said loudly. “That lucky fool.”
“Don’t tell James, okay? He doesn’t know.”
Silence. Then a sigh. “Why do I get the feeling I’m going to regret this?”
“Please, PK.” Her heart thumped so loudly it took the volume from her voice.
“Okay, Meg. I got you. I’ll handle Nealer.”
“You can owe me one. And tell Tavares I said ‘don’t fuck it up.’”
Meghan disconnected and looked up. Sam stood in front of her with a glum expression on his kind face, shaking his head. “As the best friend, this is the part where I tell you that John is worth it.”
“I know,” she said.
“And he really likes you,” Sam added. “A lot. Maybe too much. Like you’ll crush him if you change your mind.”
Every word was a little knife driving into Meghan’s stomach. Trying to be kind to James was making her a coward to everyone else. Maybe her balance was tipped the wrong way - shouldn’t John be the most important person here? More important than herself?
“I won’t,” she whispered.
Sam reached out and rubbed her shoulder. “That’s what he said.”
John’s footsteps sounded; Sam and Meghan stepped apart and shook it off. With the borrowed golf back in hand, Sam headed out to his car. John locked the front door and turned around. The look on his face was so happy it kicked Meghan in the gut.
“Just us,” he said.
She smiled back. “Finally.”____