“United, right?” Meghan peered at the signs marking each terminal of the airport, mindful of cars parked haphazardly and people unloading into the road.
“You might want to look into getting glasses, Meg,” Steven said. It was the first light comment she’d heard from him in days, so she rolled her eyes.
“Pffffffffffft. Not sure you should hang up your skates for open mic night, Stammer.”
Gary had cancelled Friday’s workout, but Meghan wasn’t sure that helped Steven. It just gave him another two hours of empty time to fill with thoughts of Kaylynn and anger about how it had all slipped away. Steven was always smiling, laughing. Meghan had never seen him empty the way he’d been that morning. Worried to the point of tears, she called his sister Sarah and sent her over to keep watch. He’d already been packing up his place. Sarah insisted on dragging him to their parents’ house, unwilling to leave him alone. She knew Meghan would have approved. In the morning, he took her right back to his house and put her to work stuffing his life into bags.
Now just two days later, Meghan was dropping him at the airport. She squeezed her SUV in behind a shared ride van and put it into park.
“Can you believe it?” she asked.
“What?” Steven looked like he couldn’t believe anything that had happened in the last forty-eight hours.
Meghan sighed. “That summer’s really over.”
All that build up, racing toward a date that hung over their heads like a guillotine since June, had come to this. For some of them it was everything, for others a surprise nothing in the end.
He nodded. “What a summer, eh?”
Meghan couldn’t help it - her mind wandered to John. It momentarily blocked out the other memories, like her bruised relationship with James and Steven’s own heartbreak. She was in her own little world when she said, “Best ever.”
The second the words slipped from her lips, she snapped back to attention. “Sorry, I didn’t mean….”
“It’s okay, Meghan,” Steven said quickly. He might be crushed but the last thing he wanted was to drag a happy person down with him. A lot had happened while the sun shone over Southern Ontario. Getting knocked out of the playoffs didn’t negate a season worth of hard work and Steven refused to let the summer’s bad end wipe away the amazing middle. “You’re right. Best… best ever.”
Meghan watched him carefully for a long moment. She’d known Steven a long time, almost as long as she’d known James - somehow, almost overnight, the boys she’d known had become men. Whether it was Steven having his heart ripped out, or James being told he couldn’t have everything he wanted, they were growing up - fast. Even Meghan too, as evidenced from the way she’d fallen for John so hard. She just hoped they were ready for what came next, like trusting that Steven would be okay eventually. She’d always worry about these guys - more off the ice than on it. If they could get through this summer, they could get through anything.
Steven saw Meghan’s eyes start to water. “Oh, here we go!”
“Oh, come on!” she slapped his arm, turning to open the door. “Get out of the car so I can give you a proper hug goodbye.”
He did as instructed and Meghan crushed him in a hug worthy of Gary Roberts’ workout regimen. He knew she hated the part where they all left - except this time she got to go too. Despite his own sadness, Steven was thrilled for her, even as he caught her wiping a tear.
“Aww, Meg,” he leaned back to look at her, “everyone’s gonna think I’m breaking up with you here! At least do me justice and kiss me goodbye, huh?”
She laughed, a short bark. Maybe there was life in this guy yet. “Don’t threaten me, Steven!”
His smile was her proof. “One more,” she insisted on another hug. “You take care of yourself down there, okay? Call if you need anything.”
Steven freed himself and opened the trunk to get his bags. “Yes, mom.”
“I might just call her after!” she grinned. It wouldn’t be the first time Meghan had kept one of the boys’ mothers company as they missed their sons, and Steven knew it.
“Again?” he teased. The last of his bags went on top of the luggage cart pile - finally time to go. Meghan scraped a sandal against the payment, aware of the same.
“Hey,” Steven’s voice turned serious. “Been a while since we talked about New York.”
She had been avoiding the elephant in the room - the leaving, the moving, the following John as he chased a dream she could never really share. All the things Meghan was doing that Kaylynn could not.
“It’s a city of eight million people, located on the eastern seaboard, home to several stellar sports teams…,” she shrugged.
“Meghan,” Steven growled. He would not allow her to be flip about something so important - even to protect him. She looked sheepish.
“I’m going when I get something.”
He frowned, shaking his head. “I’ve heard that before.”
“Steven,” she sighed. “This is different. John and I aren’t breaking up if I don’t find something, and New York -”
“Isn’t Tampa,” he finished. Steven understood the truth about what had fallen apart between him and Kaylynn. “Look, I get it - a job is important. Really important. But don’t let it be the only thing that keeps you here, if it means keeping you two from being together, okay?”
Meghan’s mouth fell open slightly. She didn’t want anyone to think she’d do that to John - either blindly follow him with no prospects of her own, or let something like work keep her away. She was determined not to be either side of that coin.
Steven gave her arm a squeeze. “Tavares is crazy about you, Meg - don’t let that go to waste. Plus, you’ve finally gotten him to stop tucking his shirt in all the time. Where would we be without you?”
John was procrastinating. While Meghan took Steven to the airport days earlier than his originally scheduled departure, John was doing the opposite at home: trying to delay the end of summer.
He didn’t keep much in Mississagua that he needed in New York - clothes, appliances and toothbrushes all had duplicates. What he faced now was the memory of Meghan in and on everything in this place. From the bed they slept in to the big chair downstairs where he’d first really held her, things here had meaning they’d never had before. For the first time, John understood what James had said about Meghan making a house into a home.
Our home, he thought. She’d lived there for a month. If he had his way, they’d be living together as often as possible in New York. Meghan’s desire to have her own apartment didn’t scare John, it made him happy. He’d seen girls move for guys before - sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Meghan was moving for herself and for him. He hoped that was the secret to success.
It was hard to be in love and watch someone else’s relationship fall apart. Steven had gone first, bravely, and taken a leap that even John and Meghan hadn’t managed yet. Still here he was, alone and running back to a place where Kaylynn had never existed. John was glad Meghan had gone with Stamkos to the airport; she had a way of putting into perspective.
John packed all the clothes he wanted to take. Summer tended to linger in New York, making shorts and t-shirts indispensable. Hockey gear, workout stuff, a few odds and ends: the truth was, John didn’t need much. And what he needed he couldn’t pack. From upstairs he heard the front door open.
“I don’t want to leave,” he called out loudly in defeat.
“But I want to move to New York,” Meghan’s voice was accompanied by footsteps on the stairs. She appeared in the doorway, stopping John’s heart the way she always did. “That great big city and the only person I’ll know is Del Zotto.”
John groaned loudly. Meghan walked right up to his chest, face tilted up for a kiss.
“Come with me now,” he said. This thought had long been in his mind. “On Saturday. Visit for a while - won’t it be easier to find a job if you’re already down there?”
Meghan had considered about it too. “John, I….”
But he didn’t let her finish. He hadn’t planned to say this yet, as begging was a last resort, but the reality of his stuff in suitcases gave John cold sweats. Steven was already gone. The end was here. “I can take care of you. I know you’d hate it and everything but if you don’t find a job Meg, you can still come. Please…,” he cleared his throat, as if telling her something rather than asking, “please don’t change your mind.”
First Steven, now John. Why did everyone think she would let this get away? The end of one relationship did not signal the end of them all. John recognized the anguish on her face and arms were around her in a heartbeat, comforting.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean…,” he started. But he had meant it: don’t let what happened to them happen to us. By giving up, it seemed Kaylynn had damaged a lot more hearts that just Steven’s. Luckily Meghan had a plan for that too.
“If I don’t find a job by December 15, I’ll move down.”
John brushed the hair back from her face. “Why December 15?”
“I can only stay six months without work. December 15 to June 15,” she said. “Or around then.”
His mouth twisted, making the sexy scar above his lip more noticeable than ever. “Why June 15?”
God, he was is going to be fucking perfect. “You don’t want me to have to leave before you win the Cup,” she grinned.
John hadn’t thought of that. His six month calculations never included the playoffs, because it had never mattered before last year. Meghan was looking forward to a brighter future than even John could imagine. If going an extra three months without her was the trade for bringing the Stanley Cup to Long Island, John thought it might be the only thing in Earth worth waiting for.
I love you, he almost said for the millionth time. But if Meghan believed he could win, she had to know that already. Just like she had to know how much he wanted her all the time. His hands slid up her legs, taking her sundress with them. All that smooth, warm skin made John’s blood race south. Packing could wait. When she and winter both came to New York, he’d have to get through a lot more layers of clothing to do this. Her dress went flying into the corner.
As if to prove she felt the same way, Meghan pushed him down on the bed and climbed on top in her bra and panties. He still looked at her sometimes like he’d never seen a girl before - now she kissed the smile right off his face. They didn’t even make it to fully undressed. Meghan worked his shorts down his huge thighs, John tugged her panties aside. A lift, a lean and John groaned with pleasure as he pushed inside her.
He hoped he would never get used to this. Meghan’s soft hair fell around them, her hands gripped greedily at his shoulders as she moved. Just the roll of her hips was enough to make John gasp. The view was something else entirely: all of Meghan, their bodies coming together, her breasts bouncing with every stroke. The curtains were open, nothing but sunlight and the woods to see them. John could not believe he’d become the kind of person that something like this happened to. Something like her. He grabbed her waist and steered her harder, faster, knowing after two months exactly what Meghan liked. It was a race, as usual - John holding on and holding out. When he felt her body tighten, just before it could go soft, he rolled her onto her back and drove deep one more time. She came hard. Then John closed his eyes and did the same.
The next few days followed that script - workout, pack, get distracted and fool around, maybe take a nap. Meghan joked that she never wanted a job if this was how she could spend her days. John said that was fine with him.
On Tuesday though, she was up bright and early and shouting into the phone.
At the other end of the line, James laughed sleepily. “You’re a lunatic.”
“Are you at the gym today? I have something for you.”
“Let me guess,” James said. “A cupcake.”
Meghan laughed. “Well I was going to get you a Lamborghini, but you already have one.”
She had been bringing James a cupcake on his birthday every year since who remembered when. Grade seven or so. With a birthday in early September, he was usually still around Whitby at the time. When they couldn’t connect, she always called and described, in detail, how delicious the cupcake had been when she ate it herself.
James rolled over in bed and checked the clock - just after nine. “It’s still the middle of the night. And I’m off from Robs’ today.”
He did not say that he was done for the summer, almost entirely packed and ready to go. Pittsburgh had been glowing in the distance for a while now, since James began admitting to himself that his life needed a lot of work.
“But we’re going to the Tap tonight. You should come.”
Meghan drummed her fingers against the counter in John’s kitchen. She and James may not be what they’d been, but it hurt to know he’d made birthday plans and not invited her until now. If she hadn’t called, would he have asked her at all?
Be a big girl, she told herself. Maybe James just didn’t want to see her and John together any more than he had to.
“Okay. What time?”
Plans for James’ party were a different story when it came to John. Meghan left the topic until afternoon, when they’d squared away a few more of John’s things and were lounging by the pool. “It’s James’ birthday today,” she said casually.
John lifted one eyebrow behind the Prada sunglasses she always teased him about. “Are the age he is and the age he acts any closer to matching?”
“John,” she scolded.
He smirked. “He’s going to need a lot of candles if he plans to wish for you.”
Meghan glared at him, half-serious. He shrugged those big shoulders.
“He invited us to the Tap.”
John said nothing. Meghan couldn’t help but smile. She’d really done wonders for John’s confidence - and sometimes that worked against her. If she wanted something to do with James she was going to have to come out and ask for it.
“Do you want to go?”
“Do you want me to go?” he countered.
"Do you mind if I go without you?” she asked.
That was all the acknowledgement John wanted. He smiled. “Nope. Tell him I said happy birthday. It can be my gift that he gets you alone for a while.”
She groaned. “There will be other people there, you know.”
John spun his legs off the pool chair, sitting up and facing Meghan. It was not her fault some other guy fell in love with her. After a summer of battling James, John was just impressed that Meghan still saw so much in him to save.
“Because we all know how much Neal loves to share you.”
The Tap was the local go-to, which made it strange that Meghan hadn’t gone there much this summer at all. A few places near John’s house seemed more familiar than the old wood-and-dank decor of Whitby’s finest. There had been plenty of good times in this place though, mostly with the faces Meghan was looking for now.
“Uh, hey guys,” she said as if it were a question. She spotted the Neal brothers from a mile away, matching heights and builds crowded around a small table on the patio outside. That James, Mike and Pete were together was no surprise, that they were alone confused her.
“Meghan!” James stood up quickly, beer teetering precariously as he put it down. “Hi.”
She hugged him as a reflex, pulling him in and squeezing him tightly. They’d been doing it for so long. “Happy birthday! Where is everyone?”
“Just us tonight,” Mike said, getting up for his turn in the hug. He was a younger, larger-featured version of James with the same hedgehog hair.
“Oh,” Meghan said casually. She had never – ever – known James to miss an excuse to party or to be the center of attention. Birthday were for both. Even the patio was only half-full, people spoiled so rotten by a summer of gorgeous weather that a warm, breezy evening was no special reason to be out. She took the last open seat next to James.
James locked eyes with Mike and gave him a stare. Without trying to hide his annoyance, Mike grabbed Peter’s arm. “We’re going to… stand over there,” he said, getting up. “Later.”
Meghan snickered. Brothers might defend each other from the outside world, but inside the eldest would always be in charge. James had a few years and a lot of NHL games on his younger siblings.
“So,” she said, sliding a small box in front of him, “I brought you this.”
A month ago, the smile on his face would have broken Meghan’s heart. It spoke of everything they’d been to each other for as long as either could remember. With his hair short again James had returned to the way she always pictured him. He wore a white v-neck shirt with camo cargo shorts, his body toned and tanned from the summer’s work and play. Those blue-green eyes lifted from the box to her face.
James didn’t need to open it. He didn’t need to see a single chocolate cupcake to know Meghan had meant what she said on the phone that morning. Though the cupcake had become a standing order, James considered himself lucky to get one this year.
Looking at her wasn’t necessary either, since every inch of her was pressed into his memory like the mold of a statue. The sun had lightened the front of her hair and sprinkled freckles across her nose. A sparkly, silvery tank top hung from that perfect frame, above the same white shorts she always wore. Add long legs, painted toes, strappy sandals; he could have drawn her into the scene.
“You always do,” he replied.
Meghan flagged down a waitress to order a beer and a fork. She wasn’t sure where to begin with James, so she started at the same end where she’d begun with Steven before he left.
“I guess summer’s really over.”
“Yup,” James said. “I’m almost glad.”
Her mouth pressed into a sad, straight line. James could still feel those few, brief kisses he’d stolen. It was hard to look at her lips now and know they belonged to someone else, someone who wanted Meghan in the way James had never wanted anyone else.
But if he was honest, James wasn’t quite cut out for that yet. “Talked to Stammer today,” he said.
“How is he?” Meghan’s green eyes shone in the dim outdoor lighting.
“Eh, I can’t tell. Says he’s okay. Probably tell you he’s falling apart.”
“I hate what happened.” Meghan’s beer arrived, she took a sip but left the fork on the table.
Watching both of his closest friends fall in love had been hard on James, but seeing one get destroyed by it was easily worse. James had never wanted a serious relationship until this summer with Meghan. Now he knew that huge leap of faith could be the same as jumping off a cliff. Still seeing Meghan always made him feel better. She was happy – happier than he could have made her. Even if it hurt to admit that.
“Me too,” he said. “Just when I was starting to believe in this true love crap.”
Meghan’s smile flickered back to life just as she landed a loud slap on his arm. He tried to grab her, but she picked up the fork and threatened to stab him. In surrender, James pushed the cupcake box in front of her. Meghan flipped the lid and speared a lump of frosting.
“You’re gonna find it.” She examined the chocolate for a moment. “Some girl’s going to come out of nowhere and for once you might actually know what do.”
That was the Meghan he loved, always believing in him. James swallowed a piece of cake with his pride and said, “You know I’m happy for you, right?”
Meghan nodded. James rarely offered so much honesty.
He wanted to apologize for the way he’d acted – kissing her, controlling her, fighting over her like she was something to be owned. The thoughts were in mind but James couldn’t make words form. He’d just have to trust Meghan knew that as well as she knew everything else about him.
“And if Tavares ever hurts you I will kill him.”
She made a face.
“I’ll get away with it too. I watch a lot of crime shows.”
“James!” Meghan wielded the fork again.
“Okay, okay. I know he loves you,” James took the utensil from her hand.
“You…,” her voice caught. Of all the people to be having this conversation with, James was the least likely but most important. “You really think he loves me?”
The words were tiny armor-piercing arrows, shredding the defenses James had built around his heart. He guessed Meghan would always have the power to do that – and she might be the only one. For all his self-doubt this summer, she would have fixed it. To see her doubt herself made him ache to be the one who fixed that for her.
“Yes,” he said, almost wishing he could lie. “And if he doesn’t do it right, I know someone who would.”
Meghan blinked, willing tears away. Of everything that happened over the summer, maybe James had grown up the most. It was hard to see a guy who’d done what she asked and still tell him it was too little, too late. For her, at least.
Author's Note: Poor John. Eight weeks, but at least no surgery for this knee... ugh. - J