Wednesday, February 26, 2014


“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.
She met his eyes and said, “James Neal, hopeless romantic.”

Author's Note: Poor John. Eight weeks, but at least no surgery for this knee... ugh. - J

Sunday, February 16, 2014



Meghan woke up feeling better.  In fact, she felt stupid for having given Kaylynn a hard time over leaving Steven’s celebration early.  Not everyone had grown up surrounded by these guys, watched them stumble and fumble as any teenager or young adult would do.  It was easy to see them as superstars from the outside and like it or not, that’s where Kaylynn was keeping herself.  Untangling from John’s arms and legs, Meghan took her phone down to the kitchen.  It wasn’t early if you worked in the real world.

“Hey!” she said brightly when Kaylynn picked up the call.  But the answer had been softer, timid.  Meghan cursed herself for assuming Kaylynn’s schedule.  “I’m sorry - did I wake you?”

“No,” Kaylynn said, voice still low. “I’m at the office. It’s okay, though - I can talk.”

Meghan paused, holding a frying pan she’d just banged free of it’s cupboard.  “You’re at work?  How are you feeling?”

“Much better,” Kaylynn sighed.  “I took a Gravol and slept like a rock.”

“Well, good,” Meghan relaxed.  “Remember, apple juice and saltines are your best friend, Kay.”

She giggled.  “Yes, mom.”

An awkward silence fell, waiting for Meghan to get to the point.  She wished she hadn’t been so hasty the evening before.  “Look, Kay… about last night.  I’m sorry if I was rude or whatever.”

The answer came quickly.  “No, no.  I just wasn’t - ”

“Feeling well, I know,” Meghan cut in, assuring she’d heard the explanation even if she’d questioned it.  “It was probably a lot too, all those people. I sometimes forget that you haven’t grown up with all those guys, that two dozen people asking you and Steven what your plans are might be a bit much.”

Kaylynn softly replied, “Yeah.”

Meghan knew she’d hit the nail on the head.  It wasn’t anything to be suspicious about, instead she should be helping Kaylynn make this adjustment.  Footsteps caught her attention and Meghan turned to see John striding into the room, pushing a hand through his thick, dark hair.  Goddamn he is gorgeous.  She could not keep the smile off her face.  Neither could he.  John grinned and mimed talking on the phone, asking who it was.

“But don’t worry,” Meghan remembered Kaylynn was there, “you get used to it.”

“What do you mean?” Kay asked.  She sounded like she wanted specifics.

“Steven doesn’t really play into it,” Meghan shrugged.  “He’s such a normal guy, Kay - you know how it is.”

She cut an avocado in half as John passed her two plates for breakfast.  Just a nice guy doing a nice thing, much like she was sure Steven did.  The eggs were done; Meghan tipped the pan toward John’s plate then gave herself the rest.  It didn’t faze her when people recognized him, said he would be captain, Meghan didn’t look at John and see a name on a jersey - even if everyone else did.  She held out John’s plate but when he tried to take it, she pulled back.  He stepped close and they rubbed noses.

“Don’t worry, Kay,” Meghan said.  “People aren’t that crazy about him in Tampa.  Not like you are, babe.”

“I know.”  Kaylynn sounded sad, and Meghan thought she must be embarassed by the way she’d acted.  

“It’ll be okay, okay?  I promise.  See you soon?”

“Yeah,” was the answer, then the line was dead.

Meghan looked at the phone in her hand for a moment.  How odd.  The conversation had done nothing to eliminate a small knot of doubt in her stomach.  

John felt at ease at the gym for the first time since his fight with James at the cottage.  Every day since, he’d been wondering what would happen when he and Meghan were together around James.  Now he knew.  Neal had been alright at the barbeque - sober, friendly enough, snuck out pretty early.  It could not have been easy for him.  Gary made good on his promise they’d burn every calorie and more, but when he lined them up for sled drills, John bypassed the everyone’s favorite sled that somehow felt lighter and let James have it.

Afterward, Steven was in the locker room checking his phone.  Stammer’s usually beaming face was a bit off, his lips knit together anxiously.  

“Whatcha doin’ today?” John asked, concerned but not wanting to be nosy.

“Er, a… meeting.  With my agent.”

“In Mississagua?”

“Mmhmm,” Steven said absentmindedly, reaching for his bag.

“Like where I live?” John prompted.  

Steven looked up, registering John’s presence for the first time.  “Yeah.  Sorry.  Later though, at five.”

“Wanna come over when you’re done, have dinner?” John thought maybe Steven just needed an easy night after returning from camp to find his yard bursting with well-wishers and family fans.

Steven sighed, bringing his attention back into check.  “Yeah man, that sounds good.  Thanks.”

“Steven’s around today, I invited him to dinner,” John said, setting two glasses of water on a small table between two pool chairs.  Meghan sat in the other, green bikini so barely tied at her hips and neck that John changed his mind, put the drinks on the ground and moved the table out of the way entirely.

Her lip twitched.  “Oh yeah?  What are you making us?”

John’s deep laugh made her smile.  He’d cooked plenty of times over the summer, fussing as he tried to impress her with some variation of chicken, rice and vegetables.  No wonder he had boring girlfriends before, Meghan had thought.  He could eat the same thing every night.  He pushed the chaise lounge flat and lay down on his back, hand reaching out to brush her thigh.

“I can cancel,” he suggested.

“No, no.  I feel like cooking.  How about salmon on the grill?”’

“You are going to be very popular on Long Island,” was his answer.

Meghan put aside her magazine and looked toward John.  He’d put on ten pounds since they met and it wasn’t from eating her food.  All that time in the gym had turned him into something of a work of art.  He’d warned her it would fade, that gym muscle was different from hockey muscle and once he got to playing and practicing every day, things would reshape themselves. It was already so late in the summer he’d been on the ice almost daily.  Regardless of definition, John looked strong and immovable.  It contrasted sharply with the Meghan’s fear of hurting him.

“You know,” she said carefully, “when I get to New York, I’m going to have a schedule to keep and everything.  I’m not sure it’s the best thing for me to be living on Long Island.”

John shaded his face with one hand.  “And?” he prompted.

“Do you think we’re moving too fast?  I know I’ve been staying here, but this isn’t real life.  We don’t work, we don’t have anywhere to be.  It’s wonderful, but when all that stuff comes back, I….”

“You don’t want to be stuck on Long Island, wondering why you did all this?”  

John had considered it too.  He wanted to live with Meghan, be with her every moment, but even with his limited experience he understood the honeymoon phase.  Someday they’d have a fight, he’d make her cry or she’d make him angry.  It was inevitable.  And it would make them a real couple, not the fantasyland version they’d been living since July.  So in a weird way John wanted that, bruises and all.

“I know why I’m doing it.”  Her tone was sure.

“Then that’s all I care about,” he said.  Meghan held his gaze and didn’t move, like she didn’t believe him.  “I want you to be happy and make friends and most of all, I want you to love it so much down there you never want to leave.  If getting a place in the city is what you want, do it.”


“Can I have a key?” John asked.  Mentally he was calculating buying an apartment for her to live in and him to visit.

“Of course.”

Then he had another idea.  “Will you have girl roommates?”

“Probably,” she said.

“Colin will terrorize them,” he warned.

Meghan grimaced.  “Maybe I’ll get guy roommates.”

John shook his head.  “I will terrorize them.”

She leaned over the side of her deck chair and kissed the grin right off his face.

Despite their conversation, Meghan was more than happy playing house with John.  She closed a baking sheet of oiled red peppers into the oven and removed the marinating salmon fillets from the fridge.  John followed, cleaning up behind her and checking the quinoa pilaf starting to heat on the stove.  He touched her every time he passed by, as if to make sure she were real.

Outside, the dog days of summer had definitely set in.  Strands of hair slipped from Meghan’s ponytail and stuck to her neck and face.  Opening the grill cover didn’t help, but she braved the warmth to flip the salmon carefully skin-side down on the lower rack.  Drops of marinade sizzled on the metal rungs, bursting citrus and spice scent in Meghan’s face.  She heard tires in the driveway and closed the grill, heading for the front door.

“Hello?” Steven was letting himself in as she rounded the corner.

Tall and rangy in a slender way, Steven’s ease of movement made Meghan jealous.  With the tan skin, blond hair and quick smile, he always looked like a ray of sunshine.  She opened her arms for a hug.  Steven squeezed her tight - and held, just for a moment longer than expected.  It might have been nothing.  Or it might have been a clue that Meghan was right last night and something was tense between him and Kaylynn.  After their phone conversation today, Meghan was still suspicious even though she still hoped to be wrong.

“Come in, come in,” she said.

Steven brandished a six pack of craft beer - the full-calorie stuff.  “Figured one last hurrah, Robs doesn’t have to know.”

Not completely buying the grin on his face, Meghan led Steven into the kitchen.  John abandoned his cleaning to greet his friend with a slap on the shoulder.
“Steven wants to get us drunk,” Meghan pointed at the beer.

John scoffed. “It’ll take a lot more than that. Remember the cottage?”

A private smile flickered across her lips.  Meghan remembered everything about the cottage, good and bad.  But mostly good.  She and John sharing the twin bed, the aggressiveness he showed when he couldn’t have her at will.  How, after a day on the boat, they’d run for their room and made love, standing up, barely out of their bathing suits.  And finally the way he’d defended her, made his desire and intentions public.  How surprised he’d been when she called him “boyfriend,” as if he’d won the lottery.

Steven read her expression like a book, skipping right to the end.  “You two are gross.”

Meghan sent the boys and their beers outside with a dish of food.  She followed with a spatula, took the salmon off the grill and put a filet right down on each plate.

“God, this looks so good,” Steven said.

John looked at Meghan, then at her boobs, and winked.  She laughed.  John Tavares, Master Flirt.
It was good.  While he ate, John considered how wonderful it would be if he could get one or two home cooked meals that didn’t come from another player’s wife.  They were always welcoming, but John hated to feel like the burden bachelor imposing on what limited family time his friends had.  They invited, he accepted.  Maybe now sometimes he could invite in return.


John found Meghan and Steven both giving him the eye.  He shrugged, silent.

“Right, so.  As I was saying…,” Steven went on, something about ordering a custom canvas from one of the artists they’d seen at the street fair for his place in Tampa.  She’d done shots of neighborhoods in Toronto and he found one of the coffee shop where Kaylynn had finally agreed to almost have a date with him.  At least a conversation.  He wanted to surprise her with it when she arrived in Florida, a little slice of Canada in the Sunshine State.

Again Meghan’s sixth sense was tingling.  She heard Steven’s words, but his tone seemed to be saying something else.  

“Speaking of which, I talked to Kaylynn today,” she dropped casually into the conversation.

Steven chewed, swallowed, took a sip of water.  Then very deliberately said, “Oh?”

“Yeah.  I wanted to see how she was doing, so I called to check in,” she pushed away her empty plate.  “Sounds like she’s feeling a lot better?”

Steven got a little pale and even more still.  
Or not, Meghan thought.  Even John, half lost in thought, glanced nervously at his girlfriend.  She reached out a hand to his shoulder.  “Steven?”

He looked up, registering their concern, then brushed it off.  “Yeah.  Sorry, it’s just been a long day.”

The night ended quickly after that.  Assuring them he was fine, Steven still had to get back to Markham for something.  He thanked them profusely for dinner then shook John’s hand.  His hug to Meghan was even longer than the one on arrival.  She squeezed back extra tight, letting him know she was there for anything, no matter what.  His light blue eyes said he already knew.

“Well that was weird,” John said when Steven was gone.

Meghan chuckled - if John noticed, it must have been pretty obvious.  He was leaning against the wall, red t-shirt on and hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his khaki shorts.  Meghan approached slowly and with lifted fingers brushed the hair back from his forehead.  Troubled as she was by Steven’s distance, it was no reason to waste one of the few good nights she and John had left together.

“Still want to see my boobs?” she asked.

Friday morning, Meghan woke to an empty bed and the sound of breakfast being made.  She pulled on one of John’s t-shirts and padded down to the kitchen quietly.  John was at the stove, his back turned and hair sticking up where he’d slept on it.  He pushed eggs around in a pan before stopping to put jam on an English muffin.  Meghan took the chance to move a few feet closer, until she was just across the island.

“Smells good.”

He jumped and whipped around, but the look on his face was not surprise.  Instead his thin lips twisted into a pout.

“Aw, I was gonna bring you breakfast in bed!”

Meghan titled her head, wondering if the universe was somehow kidding with all this perfection.  Then she turned and marched back upstairs.  When he appeared in the door three minutes later with a tray, she pretended to be asleep.

“I was having a good dream,” Meghan opened one eye.

John set the tray down next to her on the bed and placed a glass of juice on the nightstand.  “I told you I’d make breakfast if you stayed over more.”

Indeed he had: scrambled eggs with some cheese and bell peppers mixed in, half an avocado perfectly sliced and two halves of a muffin slathered with strawberry preserves.  He was very pleased with himself.

“Thank you,” she said.

He kissed the top of her head and stole half her muffin.  “Now I’ve just gotta figure out how to make mine at the same time.”

Meghan finished her eggs, wishing there were time to lay around and enjoy a lazy morning but, as ever, the threat of Gary Roberts hung over their heads.  Once the season started  John would have morning practices and Meghan would have to get to the gym without motivation.  Putting the tray aside and leaning back in the big, comfy bed it was hard to imagine doing that to herself.

John stuck his head in, saw her still lounging.  “Don’t get me in trouble,” he warned.

Meghan flipped the edge of the blanket back to reveal a bare hip and leg.  “I’ll make it worth your while.”

He groaned dramatically, gripping the doorknob so hard it almost snapped off in his hand.  Good thing she’s coming to New York, John thought, or he might have had to risk it.

James looked at Gary.  Gary looked at James. Neal had to smile - this never happened.  Not only was he first to the gym, but it was two minutes to ten and he was the only guy there.  Of course the other two were probably getting laid - a cruel irony considering that was the area where James usually outperformed - but this summer, Neal was taking accomplishments where he could find them.

Gary did not look amused.

With thirty seconds to spare, Meghan came trotting through the door with John on her heels.  James tried not to register the purple tank top hugging her curves or the black workout capris wrapped tightly around her thighs.  They did a quick kiss-and-backpack-transfer, Meghan taking John’s so he didn’t need to stop.  Tavares hit the line right on time.

“Close one,” Gary said.

With an amazingly straight face, John said, “Worth it.”

James snickered.  This guy had Meghan written all over him.  At ten sharp they started, no sign of Steven.  Gary put them on treadmills to get their heart rates moving.  Every two minutes he upped the pace until they were ten minutes in, going at a 6 mph clip that required concentration.  They were both surprised when Gary called, “Stammer!”

Head down guiltily, Steven didn’t even bother hustling into the cardio area.  

“Nice of you to finally join us.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Steven mumbled.  Already in shorts and sneakers, he went to pass Robs for the nearest open treadmill.

“Wait a second, hold up,” Gary caught Steven by the shoulder.  “What’s going on?  You’re never late.”

John slowed his treadmill without permission; James took that as permission and did the same.  They both hopped off to hear the conversation.  Steven lifted his head - eyes red, chin stubbled.  Creases folded between his brows.

“It’s nothing,” he tried to push past. “Slept in, I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Looks like me after a rough night, James thought.  He did his best to break the tension, pulling the tag of Steven’s Nike workout shirt.  “Dude, what the fuck?  Your shirt’s inside out. Kaylynn keep you up all night so you can’t even dress yourself in the morning?”

Instantly James knew his humor was misplaced, he’d read the situation wrong.  As usual.  Steven buried his face in one hand and everyone paused, unsure what they were seeing.  Finally Stamkos raked the hat off his head.  

“Kaylynn left me,” Steven said quietly, barely meeting their eyes. “We broke up.”

John’s blood went cold.  His heart stopped and a hundred questions sprung to mind.  Why?  When?  How had this happened and how had Meghan known something was off so long before anyone else, including Steven?  

James just said, “Fuck.”  He took the words right out of John’s mouth.

“Stammer,” Gary said in the softest voice he’d ever used.

John’s reaction was to look for Meghan.  He scanned the room, spotted her running on the same elliptical she’d been using the day they met.  Like that day, James gave him a shove in her direction.

Meghan was rocking out to some Britney Spears when John appeared at her elbow.

“Hey,” she smiled but John did not return it.

“We need you.”

“What?” She stopped immediately, head swiveling around.  Usually they just wanted her to judge a race or something, but John’s expression was grave.

“Kaylynn dumped Steven.”

What?!” she hissed.  Her feet hit the floor and she took off toward the small group that was James, Steven and Gary without bothering to wipe the sweat from her face.  John knew she had a protective streak but he’d never really seen it in action.  Now he rushed to catch up.

“Where is she?” Meghan demanded before she even reached them. “I will kill her.”

Steven tipped his head, leading them outside.  He could not trust himself to keep it together and the gym was no place for a scene.  Already hot tears burned behind his eyes.  His lungs felt lined with lead, heavy and unable to draw breath.  A collapse was inevitable and so he hurried.  Outside, the bright sunshine made him squint.  It pushed the verge of tears back a fraction of an inch.  

“What happened?” Meghan asked immediately. “When?  Are you okay?  Is this about Tampa?”

John caught her from behind.  “Baby,” he whispered in her ear, “give him a second.  Let Steven explain.”

Stamkos sat down like a puppet with his strings cut.  His strong, wiry body looked weak all of a sudden, unable to support itself.  Meghan sat next to him and put a hand on his back while he spoke.

He told them everything.  It started when Kaylynn didn’t pick him up at the airport on return from Calgary.  Meghan caught John’s eye - they’d had quite the reunion, oblivious to their friend feeling jilted.  Then Kaylynn had left the party early.  “She wasn’t even sick,” Steven said miserably, looking at Meghan.  “You were right, and she lied.”  He explained how he’d waited all day for Kaylynn’s call but heard nothing, even when she’d taken Meghan’s call.  Through dinner at John’s he’d done his best to be optimistic.  Then he went home and walked into a fight.

“She’s just so scared,” he said angrily, “and she won’t let me help.  I can’t help her get a job, I can’t pay for anything, I can’t wait long enough or ask enough times, I can’t do anything!”  

Meghan rubbed a circle between his shoulderblades until he sighed.

“I’ve been fighting for her all summer, and when I woke up this morning she was gone.”

John watched Meghan’s face instead of Steven’s, recording her reactions to Kaylynn’s actions.  John had never seen Meghan hurt for someone else.  Maybe James, as he’d self-destructed so spectacularly, but that involved Meghan herself.  She had tried to help James, even at the expense of what she wanted.  Even when it had been a mistake.  Steven and Kaylynn’s relationship was out of Meghan’s control - if anything, John thought that made her feel worse.  Her face fell as Steven described waking up to an empty house, the key he’d given her left behind.

Steven went on, the story getting worse.  He’d followed Kaylynn to her parents’ house, found her hiding out.  “Yet again, she’s running and I’m chasing.  I’m just so tired of this.”

He looked up at his friends.  They’d all been through a lot this summer, but it was never easy for an athlete to admit defeat.  It wasn’t easy to break down in front of the boys.  But Steven had lost his pride in this, his heart too, and figured let them look.  After all, there wasn’t much left of him for anyone to see.
Neal simply hung his head, his blue-green eyes full of understanding he would not have had two months ago.  “Sorry, bro,” he said sadly.

John sighed, shaking his head.  If anything he’d believed in Kaylynn for his own sake, that these fairy tale romances could translate into real life.  John had put himself out there as much as Steven had, he knew how risk felt.
For Meghan though, the fight didn’t go easy.  She got up, nervous fury driving her feet back and forth across the paved sidewalk.  “The key, Steven,” she hissed.  “I can’t believe she just left the key like that.”

She would need time to think this through.  As a woman, Meghan had tried to understand Kaylynn.  She’d even gone back and apologized for failing to be sympathetic.  They shared the same life-altering decision but could not have approached it more differently: Meghan saw an opportunity, Kaylynn saw an obstacle.  

Meghan had almost given up John to keep her friendship with James.  She’d come close to sabotaging the best thing in her life for the sake of something else.  Now James was here, listening to the same bad news, hurting for his friend the same way Meghan was.  They hadn’t lost each other, just defined themselves more clearly.  Not every fight had a loser.  Now Meghan could not imagine allowing herself to lose John over anything.

“How did you end it?” she asked, even now looking for a glimmer of hope.

Steven’s blue eyes were weary as he frowned. He leaned onto his knees, rolling a bottle of water between his hands.  “Told her I wouldn’t beg her to be with me,” he said quietly.

John felt it like a knife.  Even James flinched.  In the end Steven’s shred of pride had been the final straw.  Meghan flew back into her spot at Steven’s side and wrapped her arms around his upper body.  He didn’t move.  

When they finally left, John drove.  Meghan said nothing.  She went into the house and straight upstairs.  John didn’t follow, didn’t want to crowd her now.  He brought a glass of water to the deck, sat in the full sunshine, and tried to imagine Steven bouncing back from this like’d he’d recovered from every other injury in the past.

After a while, John heard movement inside.  Meghan was in the living room, showered and changed, sitting in the oversize chair with her face turned away.  But instead of taking up the whole seat, she left half open and John figured that was an invitation.  Easing himself in next to her, Meghan immediately curled in his direction.  Her legs went over his lap, arms around his neck and he held her close.

“I told him she would go,” she said.

John brushed the hair back from her temple.  “You couldn’t have known.”

“I knew I wanted to go with you.  I just thought Kaylynn would want the same thing.”

“She did.  Maybe she still does.  You’re very independent, Meg, and adventurous.  Not everyone’s that brave.”

“I’m not brave,” she said.  “I was scared of getting involved with you, scared of James’ reaction, now I’m just more scared of losing you than anything else.”

John chewed the inside of his lip.  He wanted to tell Meghan not to be scared, but that was a lie.  He was scared too: of losing her, of what he’d seen today.  More than ever he wanted to say he loved her, though it might not be worth anything right now.  Steven and Kaylynn had said it.  They’d believed it.  Now they were nothing but a gaping hole in the ground and John wasn’t about to jump in after them.  He and Meghan hadn’t really fought yet, hadn’t really lived in their relationship the way long term couples did.  But they could survive this together and be stronger when those other things came.

“That’s what brave is, baby,” John said.  “Doing something even when you’re scared.”