“I’m coming over,” John said. It was the first he’d heard of Meghan’s accident the night before. He was already dressed and moving toward his car, only the destination needed to change.
“It’s okay. Go to the gym. I get a rental loaner with my insurance, I’ll come right to your house as soon as I have it.”
Meghan could have guessed John’s reaction - he was ready to drop everything and ride to her rescue. Except that her rescue had already been performed by someone else, and that was hours before. When James finally left for the gym, after a heart-to-heart far too intense for any morning, Meghan had plugged in her phone. Two missed calls and a text, all from John:
John: Lonely here without you.
Meghan hadn’t even been alone.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” At heart, John was all concern. Concern for why he hadn’t known about the accident, why he hadn’t been asked for help. And who had. That part was obvious, of course. John hated the idea of James standing in where he should have been.
“I’m okay. I promise. Let me sort this out and I’ll see you at lunch.”
Meghan disconnected before she could hate herself more. James had been there for her, only to be rewarded the fact that she didn’t love him. What a funny thing that was - telling someone you did love them was supposed to be the big announcement, not the opposite. Yet she still had something even bigger to say.
John went into the gym prepared to rage. He was angry and jealous and all the things he hated, but Neal was the one not ready for a fight today. James looked tired - his mouth pressed into a hard line, the usual bravado silenced. John wondered what Meghan could have said to make James feel that way, if it wasn’t the one thing he needed to be told.
John didn’t even shower in the locker room. He made the fifteen minute drive home in ten and found his front door unlocked. “Meghan?”
“In here.” She was getting up slowly, awkwardly. His feet slowed.
“Oh my God.”
“It’s just whiplash,” she assured him. “I’m just sore.”
“Here, don’t stand.” John eased her back down to sitting, the high arm of the sofa supporting her side. Meghan wiped a hand across her face - she’d been crying. His heart thumped so hard it hurt. “Baby,” he whispered. Unable to pull her into his arms the way he wanted to, John settled for one leg tucked under so he could get as close as possible. “Do you need…..”
“I need a break, John,” she said in a rush, like she’d been holding it in. “Just a day or two, just until I can tell James. I can’t…,” the tears came back, “keep doing this.”
“Woah, what?” John’s throat tightened. He hadn’t pushed her or demanded she tell James, he was giving her time and space. Girls were supposed to want that, right? “Doing what?”
Her voice dropped. “Taking advantage of you. There’s always going to be some reason why it’s easier not to tell him. Like this cottage he got for the long weekend. I mean, he’s gonna have to go alone. Steven and Kaylynn won’t go without us.”
John forgot about her whiplash and Meghan hardly felt the pain. He moved one leg behind her and put the other over her lap, gathering her into his arms. She closed her eyes - another hug she didn’t really deserve.
John said, “I wasn’t going anyway, that’s why I didn’t tell you about it. James said, ‘Let’s bring our girls’ - and he meant you and him. That you are his girl. I almost told him myself, or punched him, or something. This has to stop.”
She looked at John in surprise. “Is this you getting mad?”
“Only if you don’t tell him,” he said sternly, before faltering. “Please, Meg. I know you’re scared. But if summer is all we get, I don’t want to run out of time to be with you.”
“John.” Her voice was thick again. He kissed her before she could cry. Every required muscle screamed in discomfort as she leaned into his lips, but Meghan didn’t care. It was good practice to stop caring about other things too.
When finally they broke apart John said, “I’m scared too. I’m scared he’s going to change your mind, that he’s going to keep getting you back until he really does get you back. Call me selfish, but I am sick of sharing you. And you should have called me last night.”
“I wish you had,” he said. “I wish I’d been there.”
Meghan looked past his furrowed brow and tight mouth, past the worry on his face, right into his dark green eyes. “Promise you’ll be here, after.”
“Promise you’ll tell him this time,” John repeated.
It was hard to watch her leave, but he hoped it was the very last time he’d ever worry she wasn’t coming back.
Meghan talked to Lucy. She talked to her mom. She really wanted to talk to Steven but it wasn’t fair for him to know before James. He’d just say what everyone else said - what she already knew. It was past time to come clean.
Friday evening, James’ car was in the driveway.
“Hey,” she said, walking in the door. James wore a baseball cap over his messy curls, plus a Penguins t-shirt and shorts. His bare feet rested on the table next to an abandoned game controller, a first-person shooter game muted on the big screen.
Meghan sat down next to him on the couch. One look said he was tired too, and sad. They were emotionally exhausting each other. James opened his arms for a hug - it would be an apology for the other morning, when he tried again to make this more than a friendship. She had to break this cycle.
“We need to talk.”
A grimace flashed across his features, the onset of pain. The last thing Meghan had said was that she wasn’t in love with him. James probably thought there was nothing left. Meghan didn’t pause or even take a breath, she just plowed right through.
“I’ve been seeing John.”
He flinched - eyes got a fraction wider, his jaw tighter. She could see his teeth grinding as the tension spread down his neck into his shoulders, James fighting whatever reaction welled inside.
“I didn’t know how to tell you.”
James felt like he’d just shot the puck. As long as he kept it on his stick, there was potential. There was a chance. Once it was away, it was gone for good. Hit or miss, that opportunity was spent. Meghan had turned him down so many ways but she was still here. That had been hope - until now.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said.
“How long?” he asked robotically.
“Canada Day. Before that, we did stop. The first time.”
“But not this time.” It was half-statement, half-question. The message was just sinking in. James was asking without saying the words: is this time for real? Is this time worth it?
“Not this time,” Meghan affirmed.
He barely heard. James’ mind was busy scrolling back through a month of days - and nights - where he had or hadn’t seen Meghan, John or them together. Had they been stealing moments at the gym? Right in front of him? Those nights James couldn’t ask where she’d been, had she been with John?
“Since Canada Day? I’ve been spilling my heart to you, trying to be with you, you’ve been with him?”
She could only nod her guilt.
“I introduced you! I started that joke in the gym - and you fucking kissed him! Just like that,” he snapped, “When you haven’t kissed me since school. So what, you knew then? After thirty seconds you knew I’d never have a chance?”
Meghan steadied herself. “No, I didn’t. I was just playing that day. And you didn’t want a chance then, James. You didn’t want me until I wanted John.”
“Well I didn’t realize it was a race.”
“It’s not like that,” she said slowly. “It wasn’t him or you.”
“What was it then?”
“It was just him.”
James was stunned. He’d tried and failed so many times but to have the option taken away was something else. A hail mary went up without thinking.
“I love you,” he said suddenly. It was so stupid, just three little words. Fewer than she’d needed to say she didn’t feel the same. Fewer than she’d needed to finally tell him there was someone else.
Meghan’s voice faltered. “No, you don’t.”
Panic was setting in, dousing the fire of James’ initial reaction to steam. That heat rose in his face. “What if I was first? If it was just you and me like always and I said I love you, would you still say no?”
“You don’t love me,” she repeated.
James lost it. “I want to, Meghan! I have been trying to figure out where to start. You’re so fucking happy all the time and I want to be like that. You make this place a home I want to live in but you’re not just happy, are you? You’re a liar.”
Meghan took the blow she knew she deserved. “I did lie and I’m sorry. I was scared. You keep saying you want things back the way they were, but we were never like this. You’re putting so much pressure on us to be something we’re not.”
“I know!” He said too loudly. “I didn’t… expect to feel this way about you. But that’s not an option now, is it? You’re giving that chance to someone else.”
“I really like him, James.”
“And what, everyone knows? Stammer? He probably loves this. Del - fuck! Del Zotto knew the second he saw you and told me as much! Goddamn it, Meghan. Are you really making me the asshole, last one to know?”
“Steven doesn’t know. You’ve done enough damage with him. You can hate me for this but I am still your friend - I’m your family, James. Steven is another story. You’re close to going out there.”
“Don’t start worrying about me now,” he sneered.
“I do,” she shot right back. “This is why I didn’t tell you. You’re going to blame it on me, on John, on whatever but you won’t look at yourself. I’ve said this a million times - you’re never going to find a girl and you won’t have any friends left if you don’t grow the hell up and start respecting relationships.”
“Like you respected our relationship?”
“I tried,” Meghan said, and burst into tears.
James closed his eyes. He’d been a shit so many times lately he was becoming immune, but now he’d managed to make Meghan cry. He was supposed to be making her fall in love. Instead she felt the need to hide things for fear of his reaction and to protect his fragile ego. She was right about his friends - how many knew about her and John? And how many had come back with that information, just looking out for their friend Neal? Zero. Zero fucking people.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The the air went right out of his lungs. sagging his shoulders and slumping his posture. “God, I am such a fuck up.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Meghan replied. “I was so busy trying to protect you that I forgot to trust you. It would have been better if you’d known before.”
He turned toward her fully, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Just tell me one thing. Was there ever a chance for this? A real chance?”
“Maybe back when you kissed me in high school,” she said.
“If Tavares hadn’t come along, you’d rather be alone than be with me?”
“It’s not that. I’d rather wait for the right thing than take the easy thing, James. You should too.”
He laughed drily. This had been anything but easy. James had tried a hundred ways to forget her, to try someone new. His old methods failed and other girls were not the distraction he needed. How many had he been with this summer, just since he started feeling strongly about Meghan? A handful? It was fewer than usual for him but huge in terms of how disappointing they’d all been when James had something better in mind. The idea of losing Meghan was not new. The idea of losing her to another guy was something else.
“I hate this. I wish I didn’t know.”
Meghan took a chance and reached for James’ hand. He let her take it but didn’t help - she had to uncurl the first and open the fingers to slide her own in between. They sat for a few minutes without talking. What else was there to say? There was no right way out. Every turn had someone getting hurt and it was only July. They were a long way from the end of the road.
“Are you moving to New York for him?”
“If I go to New York,” she said carefully, “it will be for myself.”
James looked at their entwined hands. “Are you going to him now?”
Meghan hadn’t thought about it until she answered. “No. I’ll go to Lucy’s tonight.”
“All this time, Tavares never said a word,” James shook his head. “I guess that’s the difference between us. I’d kill someone if they kept you from me.”
“John did it because I asked him to.”
James laughed sarcastically. “Make that two differences.”
Meghan packed a few nights worth of clothes. James was waiting by the door. With a duffel over her shoulder, she gave him a quick, hard hug. “Go easy on John tomorrow, please. This was my choice.”
James was too hollow to muster any anger at the moment. About tomorrow he could not be sure. “What could I do that would be worse than taking you away?”
John had been ready to pounce since Meghan left his house nearly two days earlier. Every time his phone rang he answered on the first ring. This was the first time he saw her name pop up.
“Meghan?” he asked. All he heard was crying. “Where are you? I’m coming to get you.”
“No,” Meghan said. “I’m at Lucy’s. I just wanted to tell you I did it.”
John’s relief at finally hearing those words was quickly drowned by the disgust he felt over Meghan’s unhappiness. How had it gone, what had Neal said: questions swirled in his mind. He bit them back.
“Are you okay? Did he flip out?”
“No,” Meghan whispered. Her throat was closing. “I… I can’t even make him mad. I waited so long - he hates me, John.”
“He doesn’t, baby. I promise,” John assured her. That relief was back - Neal hadn’t acted out against Meghan. Based on his previous behavior at the gym, John was not sure he could expect the same for himself tomorrow. But that didn’t matter. This was about him and Meghan now, they way it should have been. She sniffled again.
“I wish I could see you,” he said softly.
“Not very pretty,” Meghan joked. She was curled up in Lucy’s bed, half a box of tissues spent and another half to go.
“Not why I like you.”
“I’m going to go to sleep. Tomorrow, can I come over after the gym?”
John felt a huge smile light up his face. “Might be the only thing that gets me through.”
James almost didn’t go. Especially not when he found out that Stamkos had worked out super early so he could take his girlfriend to Niagra on a surprise weekend trip. He couldn’t say which bothered him more - Steven not showing up for work or Steven having a girlfriend. It was a combined kick in the balls. But there was no backing down from Tavares. James didn’t feel he owed John anything, but he needed to make some things up to Meghan. It would help to start with her new guy.
John was early. Without Stamkos, there would be no buffer between him and Neal. A necessary evil, but John was anxious to get this over with and get back to Meghan. James didn’t deserve a girl like her and hopefully he finally knew that.
Neal walked into the locker room. John barely looked up from tying his shoe. It took considerable effort not to ignore him, but James said, “Hey.”
Okay, he’s not going to make this easy, James thought. Neither would I.
“So you and Meghan.”
John stood and squared himself, as he did when challenged on the ice. “Yup.”
“You could’ve told me, you know. It’s a dick move to go behind a guy’s back.”
“We told you the first time. Your mistake is thinking you get to tell her what to do.”
“I wasn’t…,” James stopped his traitorous tongue. He did not need to explain his wrongs to Tavares, only get past them. That would be the price of keeping Meghan in his life. “I don’t.”
John felt that itch of sympathy. He’d also been an accomplice to something he didn’t really like. “Me neither, man. It was her call.”
James could hardly argue when he’d have done anything Meghan asked. He wasn’t much he could do at all now but go through the motions. “If you hurt her, I’ll kill you.”
John shook his head. He wasn’t about to be threatened by someone he’d just beaten in the only way that really mattered.
“I don’t treat women like shit, Neal. You should be glad she ended up with me.”
With that, James was alone in the empty locker room, with an empty locker and his almost-empty life. He fought the urge to scream, flexing his useless fists instead. By the time James dressed he was nearly late.
“Working on your hair, Neal?” Robs said acidly. He knew when one of his charges was out of line and right now, James looked like shit. That called for a big day to burn it off. He started with sled pushes - side by side, racing back and forth down the length of the gym.
James tried to win. He tried not to imagine John with Meghan - Tavares’ braying laugh and terrible clothes so out of sync with the sexy idea of Meghan in his head. But James couldn’t shake it. Tavares grabbed a weight, James saw his hand on Meghan’s arm. He did a push up and James saw him on top of her. John all but collapsed onto the mat after a drill and James saw Meghan tangled up with him, breathing hard, smiling with satisfaction. This guy got to touch her, kiss her, got to lay in bed and watch her walk around in panties - a specific fantasy James had always harbored. All of the things he imagined about Meghan, from the was she would feel to the sound she made when she came, were real in some form. And this was the guy who got to know them.
Whatever progress James hoped to achieve faded into rage. One step forward and he wanted so badly to throw a punch and take ten steps back. Instead James threw the last weight into the rack with a clang and stormed toward the locker room. John did not follow.
“Let me guess, you finally got his girl,” Gary said. John’s mouth fell open in surprise. The older trainer just laughed. “I thought so. You boys all look at her, but she only looks at you.”
Meghan hadn’t slept well. She forced herself into the shower, a dress and some makeup because it wasn’t fair to John that she be upset over James. She’d finally done what was necessary to be here, in John’s house, and the whole world could know about it.
She curled up John’s giant chair and promptly fell asleep.
“Hi,” John said, gently shaking her shoulder. He’d found the door unlocked, heart skipping like a stone. There she was as beautiful as ever, napping like a kitten in the sunshine in his favorite spot. Her favorite spot.
“Hey,” she blinked her eyes open. He brushed hair from her face and pulled her lips right to his. The kiss was sweet and pure - the first innocent kiss they’d shared since they started hiding everything. John could hardly bear to break away, but he took her hand.
He didn’t mean it that way, though it had been a few days and the sight of her slender form in a sundress give him all kinds of ideas. She sat on the mattress and John pulled off her sandals before moving her up the bed. He opened the curtains wide, summer sunshine pouring in, and lay down facing her.
Meghan nodded. She felt better in his presence, reminded of what all this was for. Reminded too of how fleeting it was - nearly August, no plan for the future, the clock was ticking faster. Any time missed with John was too much. His hair was too short to be messy, but clearly had dried on the drive home. The white v-neck shirt he wore was a sure sign he’d planned to see her. She wrapped her arms around his neck, bringing them together. Parts of her still ached from the accident but it was manageable now that her body had better things to do. Her leg slipped between John’s and she rolled onto top of him, firmly against his crotch as she pushed down.
“Hmmmm, miss me?” he joked. The straps of her dress were already sliding, taking bra straps with them. John grabbed her waist and brought her breasts down to his mouth. Meghan giggled as he licked and kissed her nipples quickly taut, busying his hands bunching her dress up around her waist. Twisting to reach, she popped the button on his fly in one motion and opened his zipper in the next.
He was hot to the touch, stiffening in her hand. John quickly raced to the cleft between her legs, his once-shy fingers working quickly along her slit. Seconds later he was pulling the material aside and she was sitting back, the tip of his cock parting her folds. Then they were moving. Clothes on, window open, Meghan groaned in pleasure as John fit inside her up to the hilt.
“God,” he gasped. She was so right, the perfect shape both inside and out. Her long hair tossed back, bouncing the breasts he’d tugged free of their cups. She bucked hard, matching his urgency and desire. As much as John loved the sight of his dick disappearing into her body, he needed more.
Meghan was flipped onto her back. Before the squeak of surprise could be heard, John was buried deep inside her. The noise turned to moan. His skin slapped against hers a second time, a third and his mouth came down hard. It followed her neck up to the ear, his breath hot against her skin.
“Like this,” she said, bending her right knee. John caught it under his arm and leaned forward again, folding her leg high against her chest. The next stroke he bottomed out and they both saw stars.
“Fuck,” Meghan breathed. John changed his angle slightly, taking all the room from the side she’d given him. He was grateful for the direction - no question he was close to orgasm, but he needed her to get there first. With a superhuman effort, John pulled himself free and moved down the bed.
“John, you… ohhhhhhhhhhhh!” Meghan cried in surprise. His mouth found her clit, tongue snaking around hard and drawing the little pearl between his lips. As strongly as he’d been taking her from the inside, John now moved on the outside. Meghan’s hips lifted off the bed, grinding into his mouth. He growled. His erection throbbed painfully against the bedcovers as he tried not to overdo the friction down below. Meghan was the top priority. Blood surged to his confused cock and John doubled the effort with his tongue.
“Ohmy, ohmygod,” Meghan wasn’t sure she was speaking or even breathing. Everything was collecting between her hips. She writhed against the pleasure but had no way to slow it down. All she could do was gasp as she came hard, as John just took it right from her.
He knew he’d done it, and with just moments to spare. A warm, sweet spill of honey met his tongue, different from anything he’d known of Meghan this far. There would be more time to explore. Now he was back on top of her in a heartbeat, pushing right through the soft mess he’d created. Her body was heaven. Three strokes of the real thing and John groaned in surrender. She held him tight until it passed.
“You’re staying, right?” he asked weakly.
She already had her eyes closed. “I’m all yours.”