Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chapter 3 - Kisses and Lies

The water is running when I wake – Jon’s in the shower. I stay still for a long time, trying to formulate some kind of plan to face the day. I need a way to make this work. Different scenarios run through my head as I test myself on how happy, lucky girlfriend would act. I’m almost thinking it might work when Jon opens my door.

“Again with the knocking!” I say, eyes still closed. My bed dips right as he puts his weight down on the edge. I manage to open my lashes: he’s toweling off his hair. Shirtless. I groan and roll to face the wall. He says he doesn’t want this then sits half naked on my bed. Am I reading too much into everything?

“Come on, sweet pea, time for work.”

“Sweet pea?”

We pull into the lot as Seabrook and Brouwer are getting out of their cars. They give us lewd smiles.

“You leave together, you arrive together... better not be too worn out to practice,” Brent teases. Jon looks like he has a smart remark on his tongue, but he bites it back. He’s actually blushing. The guys crack themselves up all the way to the locker room.

The United Center is a tough place to work when you’re trying not to think about Jonathan Toews. Banners, pictures, fucking mugs and license plates and those damned life-size wall stickers – they’re everywhere. I do my best to bury my head in work and never look around. At the end of the day, I’m halfway down the hall before I remember I don’t have my car.

“Shit,” I say out loud.

“What?” Kane says, carrying two sticks from the equipment room. “Get stood up?” I make a face but have to ask him for a ride home. Despite being a total frat boy, Pat’s a nice guy and he sure is a lot of fun.

“How’s Marie?” I ask as I buckle into his brand new BMW.

“Uh, she hates you. Guess I was a little too excited about your dress the other night. Oh, and I think she was using me to get to Jon.” He smiles at me, but I can tell that stings. It wouldn’t be the first time a woman attempted to climb the ranks of this team by sleeping her way to the top.

I suck in a breath through my teeth. “I’m sorry!”

“Eh. Plenty more where she came from. What’s up with you two? JT’s been all cagey today.”

I press my lips together. Can Pat be trusted? What would Jon tell him? Sure we announced to everyone that it was a joke, but we’re carrying on like it’s serious and the more people who know the truth, the more likely we are to get busted. Maybe that’s why Jon didn’t tell Pat. I think for too long.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he looks at me. “It’s actually fake?! I thought for sure when he kissed you he was really going for it. What a tool.”

His disbelief makes me vaguely hysterical. Me too! I want to shout. I start laughing and can’t stop. Pat starts laughing too. Pretty soon we’re both gasping and howling and I’m thinking he should pull over for safety.

“He wouldn’t know…,” Pat sputters, “what to do with a chick…,” snort, “if she were sleeping in the next room!”

He’s too busy cracking up to see the panic in my eyes. Could he know that I stayed at Jon’s last night? Would he honestly believe I’d slept untouched in the guest room, or would this just be fuel for the un-relationship fire?

“It’s a wonder he ever managed to seal the deal with Rachel.”

“They just broke up like three days ago!”

“Bullshit. I spent the whole summer with the guy – they might have been ‘together’,” he makes air quotes, “but they were not together. Not for a long time. And he had to remind himself to miss her.”

Pat and I are friends, but we’ve never been close. He’s too busy chasing tail to spend much time with girls who aren’t going to give it up. Mostly we’ve hung out in a group, and almost always with Jon. After the Cup win, they spent a lot of the summer together on the celebratory tour of duty. On paper, it’s the perfect odd couple.

“Did Jon have fun? Doing all the Cup stuff?”

Pat smiles, remembering. “He did. Mostly he was Jon, but a few times he… Kat, you wouldn’t have known him. A few times he really let go.”

That makes me happy. Jon’s not Captain Serious because he’s scared or nervous, and he’s certainly not boring. The quiet, shy-guy stuff is really him. Next to someone like Kaner and he can seem like a deer in the headlights, but Pat is a tough act for anyone to follow.

“I thought a little bit of it was sticking when he kissed you.”

With the charity auction over, there’s a rush to get things finalized for the Fall Ball. It’s the second weekend in November, between the team’s private Halloween party and the Christmas plans I haven’t even looked at yet. I’m paging through catering estimates and donation requests when my phone rings.

“Lunch date?” Jon asks. Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?! I want to, of course, but I also really don’t want to. My body growls and I’m pretty sure it’s not coming from my stomach.

“Okay, meet me outside.”

He wheels to a stop with the window down, his elbow crooked over the door. He’s wearing a black sweater with a high collar, unzipped at the throat and sunglasses against the afternoon glare. “Going my way?”

He parks and we walk to Miceli’s, an Italian place near the arena. I’ve eaten here with the guys or co-workers at least two hundred times and the staff knows me. They certainly know Jon. As soon as we’re in the door, one guy is calling to another and pretty soon someone is clapping, then they’re all clapping. It’s late, half past one, and the few diners in the place stare at us openly.

“Bella!” Mario, the owner, comes out to hug me. “And El Capitan,” he shakes Jon’s hand, then puts his hand on Jon’s shoulder and leans in. “You take good care of her, eh? I don’t wanna have to…,” he shakes his fist in the air. Jon promises to be good and Mario shows us to a table.

“And no garlic bread!” Mario shouts as the waiter approaches.

We talk about normal stuff during lunch and I try to act normal to match. Jon sops up bolognese sauce with a roll, but he never talks with his mouth full.

“So I flip the puck up and the guy’s stick goes under it by an inch. A millimeter. He totally whiffs and I’m already moving that way so I give him a second to flail around and then reach out and tap it….” He’s moving his hands, reliving the moment on the red and white checkered tablecloth. Excitement takes his voice up a note when he gets to the best part… I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’m watching his white teeth flash as he speaks and wondering how on Earth they can possibly be so straight. I tune back in for the end.

“Awesome,” I say. He smiles and tucks back into his food. It’s so easy, I think as I eat. We could be a real couple on a real date. It would be just like this. Of course I’d probably be paying more attention to what he says rather than the little triangle of skin at the hollow of his throat.

I’m impressed with myself by the time we’re done – Look world, I’m holding it together! I hope this crush will pass and I can deliver on my promise to Jon. I want to help him, and I really don’t want to wreck this friendship. If I can lose it over someone in two days, surely I can go back to normal in the same amount of time.

Jon pays and we get up to leave. Mario hustles out to wish us goodbye – and he’s holding a camera.

“Please, let me take a picture of you for the wall!” he spreads his arms. There are already at least three pictures of Jon, and I think I’m in the back of one group shot wearing a party hat. Jon smiles at me and drapes his arm over my shoulders.

Phwoar, my brain revs like an engine.

Quiet up there! I yell back.

Mario takes a picture, then another. “Now, give her a kiss! You’re the luckiest guy in Chicago!”

My eyes close reflexively, but I force them open. We set some kind of precedent, kissing for the cameras, and people will always ask. And Mario isn’t people, he’s our friend. If he’s convinced, he’ll convince a hundred other people. Jon’s dark gaze is full of concern and I hear his words from last night: I won’t kiss you again. He won’t break his promise unless I let him.

“Sure,” I smile. In for a penny, in for a…

Swoon. That’s all there is to it. Any progress I made during lunch goes right down the drain. Jon’s lips are soft and warm, his arm heavy and safe around my waist. He’s six inches taller than me and it’s the perfect angle. Everything about it feels right, except the words ringing in my head. We get more applause, then catcalls, before Mario pretends to pull us apart.

“Okay, okay, jeez!” he laughs. Jon laughs too. I smile tightly and wait for my stomach to stop freefalling.

The moment we turn the corner, Jon starts apologizing. I know there’s no sense in it –as long as people think we’re together, we’ll have to act the part. Sometimes it will be easy, other times will require more of a show. The concern in his voice is like a tiny needle driving itself again and again into my skin, tattooing his words from last night – asking too much from me, I’m the only friend who can do this, he needs me, he’s sorry.

Anything to make him stop apologizing.

“Kiss me,” I say, stopping in mid-stride. “Right now.”

There’s no one around. It’s almost creepy, like Vanilla Sky; this downtown street is momentarily silent and still. The city and the team are becoming a stage, but now we’re off camera. We have absolutely no reason to be kissing.

“Kat, wh…”

I kiss him. For the first time I take his mouth, like a chess move you never saw coming, a miscalculation on the game board. He tastes like spaghetti sauce and smells like clean laundry. The tension in his body says he’s surprised, so I hold my lips against his until he relaxes. When he does, he leans in ever so slightly, bringing his chest into the mix. I could almost imagine he’s kissing me back. In a tremendous show of resolve, I break away first.

“See? Not the end of the world,” I say. His hand burns at my hip. “You have to stop worrying, Jon. About me, about this. It’s supposed to help not make things worse.”

The shock of the kiss is wearing off. He wants to argue but he doesn’t. We start walking again and I let him be quiet, figuring out what he wants to say. “So you’re okay?” he finally asks as we reach his car, both hope and skepticism in his voice.

“I won’t let the team down, captain.” I smile a real smile and that sells it. Relief floods into his eyes. He squeezes me goodbye and jumps in his car. I stand in the parking lot long after he’s gone.

I sit in front of my closet feeling fat and annoyed. I always go right from work to the games and haven’t missed a home game in two years. After all that time I suddenly have nothing to wear. Are boots too much? Are these jeans too light? I must be stomping around because Steph barges in.

“Does no one ever knock?!” I flop over onto a pile of discarded sweaters. Steph helps herself to the drawer full of jeans, but apparently doesn’t find anything she likes.

“You need…,” she skips off to her room and comes back with a park of dark indigo jeans. “These.” They’re skinny. Really skinny. I have to pull them up my calves like stockings and roll the bottom over my foot. I feel like an upside down umbrella.

“Now boots,” Steph directs. I pull on my black heeled boots that hit just below the knee. I kind of see it – from the boot upward, the jeans are hugging my body like a car on the road. I know where she’s going with this.

“Nice,” she approves, taking the vintage Hawks t-shirt that I’ve had forever from another drawer. “Now this.”

There’s a lot going on for an outfit that’s really just jeans and a t-shirt. It’s a girl-cut shirt, slightly long so it falls mid-pocket at my hips. Two years in the wash have shrunken it to a perfectly fitted fit. On top of the stretchy, clingy jeans, it looks like a lot of action.

“That’s it,” Steph declares. “Let’s see the Twittererererers have a field day with you looking hot.” She pulls the ponytail out of my hair and it falls over my shoulders in dark twists. I reach for the brush.

“No, no brushing,”” she instructs. Her fingers twist through the ends, separating them into chunky sections. She parts it on the left and pulls some of it down close to my face. She steps back to admire her work. It’s not a big change, it’s just more dramatic. A little more fun, a little sexy.

“That’ll do it. Don’t keep going to games like you’re working. The other WAGs spend all day getting ready, so you have to look like you can keep up with them,” she says wisely.

I hadn’t really thought of that. Of course the women dress nicely – they’re loaded and most of them don’t work. I see them all the time and haven’t really consider that my new starring role might require a costume change. I can hear Dave now, busting on me for looking like a WAG. This is the last game before the road trip and I vow to take myself shopping while they’re gone. I compromise a long-sleeved white shirt under my dark tee because it’s cold in there, then I pack it all and dress for work.

The day flies by as we lock in pieces of the Fall Ball. We’re working with the Greater Chicago Food Program to raise money for the Thanksgiving meals they’ll provide all over the city on the holiday. Most of the guys will make soup kitchen appearances as part of the deal. Our event will be black tie and tables are selling fast. It’s already 5:30 PM when my phone beeps.

Jon: Come to the room before 6

I rush to the bathroom, struggle into Steph’s jeans and pull on my boots. Fingers and a head flip suffice for hair, plus a little eyeliner and some lip gloss – it’s pretty convincing. I look a little rock and roll. At 5:50 I’m in the elevator.

“Key Ka… woah,” Duncan Keith spins around on his way out the door. “Nice jeans.”

The guys are all half-dressed and gear is everywhere. They’re due on the ice in 15 minutes for the pre-game skate. Already the arena is rocking. People say hello as I weave my way through a couple of reporters. Brent Seabrook looks up as I’m stepping over a pile of his pads.

“Girlfriend alert!” he hollers. I snatch up a pad and wing it at him, hitting Bolland in the next stall. A couple gloves are launched in my direction and I try evasive maneuvers in my heels. I duck behind Jon before a balled-up sock narrowly misses my head.

“Surrender! I surrender!” I’m on my knees on the seat, curled up in defensive position. Giggling, I look up at Jon to find him staring at me. “What?” I right myself onto the bench. His wearing Under Armor and a baseball cap, which makes him look both more muscular and younger at the same time. My brain gets a little fuzzy at the sight of his upper body wrapped so tightly and I thank God he’s already got his shorts and pads on the bottom half.

“You… you look great. Wow Kat.” The look on his face is the same as after lunch, at the moment he maybe kissed me back.

Damn fucking right I do, I think. But I just smile. Maybe Steph’s plan to battle the bitchy gossip can be deployed on two fronts. Maybe there’s an idea forming here. “Thanks, Jon,” I say as I slowly uncross my legs and stand up, my heels making me a full three inches taller and putting my mouth almost level with his. “Can’t have all of Chicago thinking their captain dates a fashion disaster.”

“Is that a kids’ shirt? What size is that thing?” Keith is back in the room, still looking at me funny. A couple of the guys add in comments about my wardrobe change.

“Ha!” I scoff at them and return my attention to Jon. “Did you need something before the game?”

Seabrook answers for him, “I need something after the game, Kat. Maybe twice.”

Jon throws a shin guard without looking in his direction. “I was going to give you a jersey to wear, but you definitely should not wear it. This is better.” His gaze rolls up my legs, stomach and lingers just a moment at the logo on my shirt. Anyone in this room who thought we were faking it has probably been convinced.

I give him a peck on the cheek, his skin baby soft against mine and imagine that his breath catches just a little. “Good luck.” Then to everyone, “Have fun out there!” I dodge a cart of jerseys and I’m almost to the door when Kane steps out, blocking my way just a little.

His face is serious for once, if a little sarcastic. “That did not look fake,” he says quietly.

Jon and Pat each get a goal in the first period. As we cheer and scream, I feel better than I have in a few days. Maybe it makes me a bitch, but I enjoyed Jon’s reaction. And everyone else's. If this is going to be tough for me, maybe I can make it a little bit rough, playfully so, for him too. I’m even feeling good in our seats, instead of wishing we were hidden in a luxury box. It’s more fun to be out here with the fans in the thick of the cheering.

“Bathroom?” I ask Kelly at the first intermission.

“Bodyguard time,” Ashley stands up too.

We climb the stairs to the concourse and I know not everyone is looking at us. They are making their own snack runs, letting people past, buying souvenirs. Most of them don’t care about us at all, until we get to the ladies’ room. Of course there’s a line. We could take the elevator up to the club level and use those, or go downstairs near my office, but we’re already here. And I’m looking good, so I suggest we stick it out with a little nod. Kelly gives me a look like it’s your funeral. We chat and inch closer to the sinks and mirrors. Once inside, the bathroom opens up and there are at least 25 people. One girl catches my eye in the mirror, looks down, then looks again with complete recognition on her face. Her friend sees me, then Ashley and does the same. Steadily the conversation falls off until we’re trying not to look at people trying not to look at us. A couple of younger girls bowl their way in to the sinks, bypassing the line, shrieking with laughter. One has #19 painted on her cheek, the other is wearing a #19 shirtzee.

“Oh my God!” the one with the face paint yells when she sees me in the mirror. The older woman in front of me starts laughing silently, her shoulders bobbing, like she was waiting for that to happen.

“You’re Toews’ girlfriend! Omigod. You are like the luckiest girl alive,” she’s talking really fast, like she’ll hyperventilate soon. “He is so…”

“He is SO HOT,” her friend in the shirtzee interrupts. “He is like Justin Beiber times a million.”

I have to laugh at that. “I’ll tell him you said that. He’ll be really flattered.”

Their mouths and eyes go wide, like me telling Jon something they said is the greatest thing that could ever happen. They start squealing and giggling, opening it for the whole bathroom to laugh too. With a shriek they run out the door.

Ashley’s hand is on my arm. “They’re so nice when they’re young,” she whispers.

The Hawks win 5-3. We all go out to eat after the game, to a steakhouse downtown where someone has called ahead for the back room. I ride with Jon since he has to go back past the arena, and my car, to get home. I’m admiring his navy blue pinstripe suite from the passenger seat as I answer my phone.

“It worked!” Steph declares. “It was on FSN and they’re much more fun than NBC. They showed you a couple times, including one shot of you standing up looking hot in those jeans. You can keep them, by the way, but I want a pool house on your estate when you get married. The internet is a little better too, although now the people who called you plain are calling you a skank. But they admit you look good.”

I sigh, “I guess there are worse things. See you in a bit.” I relay the story to Jon, including the pool house request. When I get to the part about being called a skank, he scowls a little. It’s a little boy face on a man’s body.

“Why are they so mean?”

“They all want you for themselves, stud,” I’m in a joking mood, so I decide to go for it. “You’re gorgeous and perfect and they’re infatuated with you. I’m just some girl who’s got what they want. Or doesn’t, but they don’t know that. That means it’s working.”

He whines a little. “They don’t even know you or me.”

I put my hand on his where it rests between us. He’s only half-joking too. All these people, all these assumptions. It’s easy to feel like you can’t live up to their imaginations.

“It would be worse if they did. You’re even cuter up close.” I squeeze his fingers. I may be tripping and stumbling into a crush, but this part was true last week before we ever stole a kiss or told a lie. Jonathan Toews is pretty fucking amazing, world. And you don’t know the half of it.

Dinner is like lunch - easy as soon as I turn off my hormones. We sit next to each other, share food, laugh with everyone. It’s like it was before the auction, when we were just friends. But at the same time, if I look from left instead of right, I can almost believe we’re a happy couple. Especially when he takes two bites of desert and lets me eat the rest.

“Easy on the sundae, Kat, I’m getting used to seeing you in those jeans,” Kane calls from a few seats down. Jon is between us, then Ashley. She rolls her eyes while a few people snicker. Pat’s giving me a look like what are you going to do about it? He loves to mess with people and now that he knows the truth about me and Jon, I am a prime target. I thought he’d the one to blab our secret, but maybe there’s something I can do here. I’ve got the look down, maybe I’m gaining some power over my situation. Truth or dare.

I take a healthy spoonful of dessert – warm brownie sundae with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, nuts and chocolate sauce – and stare at him as I slowly, so slowly, tug the spoon out of my mouth and run the cold surface over my bottom lip. A feel a tiny rise on the metal and know I’m dragging a swipe of chocolate onto my skin. I slide my tongue over the spot, curling it back into my mouth with a hint of fudge on the tip.

Pat blinks twice like I just punched him, and opens his mouth to speak. But I don’t hear because Jon kisses me, hard and sudden. His skin tastes of ice cream and my brain blinks off like a blown light bulb.

“You missed a spot,” he pants, pulling away. But his face is serious, his dark eyes hooded. I’m not the only one that kiss surprised. The table erupts in whistles and catcalls. I look down, stunned, and see my dish. Be cool, I think as I pluck the cherry from the heap of cream and dangle it on the stem.

“Pat, you want my cherry?”

People are still laughing when we leave, giving me fist bumps and compliments for sassing Pat into silence. He’s looking at me appreciatively from the far side of the room. I make my way over and give him a hug, our first, which seems to surprise him still. If there’s one way to becoming Pat’s real friend, it’s to give him a run for his money.

“If he’s kissing you in public and not taking you home every night, he’s even more retarded than I thought,” he says into my ear. Then he swats my ass and goes.

I make it to the car before my heart rate starts to rise again. For someone who wasn’t going to kiss me, that was totally out of left field. I’m pretty sure Jon didn’t plan that. Being around everyone made it easy to laugh off, but just the two of us alone and close in the Jeep – there is fluttering going on inside.

“So you leave tomorrow,” I say brightly, like he should be excited. I want to be near him, but I really think I should have some time away. My evil little plan of hot pants and flirting may have actually worked too well – I want him to want me. I don’t want him to think I’m putting on a show too. Well, at least in theory. Three brain-melting kisses in one day, for whatever reason, is not really the worst scenario. The first kiss was for the show. The second was me. But the third was all him, and possibly all real. My stomach swings like a pendulum – I want to talk about it, but only if I get the right answer.

“Yeah,” he clears his throat. “Six days, three games. Guess I should pack, eh?”

“What am I going to do while you’re gone? Boyfriend leaves town, guess I’ll have my normal life back,” I tease.

“That must be nice,” he says, not looking at me.

Okay, first test. I consider for a moment how to tread carefully. If that last kiss wasn’t real, he won’t care what I say. “Eh. I like it better when you’re here,” I shrug like I’m nonchalant about it. “But I am going to buy some new clothes so I don’t embarrass you when I’m on TV.”

He grins. “Buy ten pairs of those jeans and I’ll pay for them.” We pull up next to my car in the deserted parking lot – every light is on and it looks like the surface of the moon. It’s almost midnight, I have to be back here soon. He puts the Jeep in park. By the time I’m around the side, he’s leaning against my car. Second test. I stand next to him, just out of reach.

“Next weekend is the Halloween Party,” he says. “Will you go with me?” The collar on his coat is up, he looks like the debonair heartbreaker from a movie.

“Of course, it’s the best party of the year. And I have an idea, Captain Boyfriend. We should wear a couples costume. Something hilarious.”

His face perks up: I wonder if it’s the nickname or the prospect of our outfits. “What should we be?”

Third test, turn it up a little. “If you score at least three points on this road trip, one for each game, I will let you decide. Anything you want.” The words roll of my tongue, like I’m making a scandalous promise. “If you don’t, then I get to pick. Anything I want.”

I’m making this up as I go along because it’s working. His expression says he can’t tell if I’m serious, if I’m really flirting with him. Confusing, isn’t it? Welcome to my life. I lean against the car next to him. I could kiss him now and he would know how I feel. There’s not a single person around – it’s Vanilla Sky again – but I’ve already played that card. He would kiss me back, no doubt, but would it be real? Or a game? I want to know what he’s thinking before I give anything else away.

“You’re on.” His arms are crossed over his chest, making him seem broader, thicker. He’s looking at me from the corner of his eye. “I am going to score ten points and pick the best costume ever.”

“Easy Gretzky, worry about getting the three first.”

He bends forward, his back peeling slowly off the window as he gets to his feet. I stay where I am. The dynamic between our bodies gives him all the control – he’s taller, wider, standing over me and the next move is his. I wait. Do something, Jon.

“I’ll call you after my hat trick in the first game.” He moves in close, straddling my feet, and leans down over me. One hand goes to my neck, under my hair. He kisses me on the cheek lightly, slowly. That should be it but he stutters, almost stops, then moves two inches and presses his lips down right at the corner of my mouth. So close.

“Bye Kat,” he says, moving away.

I stifle a scream, hoping to last until he’s gone. My skin prickles where his hand rested and my stomach is on the pavement beneath my boots.

“Miss you, Jon.” That much is true.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chapter 2 - The Friendship Test

The party is almost over and no one really notices that Jon has gone. I talk to a few people, just saying that Jon is “here somewhere” until almost everyone leaves. We direct some of the clean-up and collect all the things that need to go back to the office. My head is spinning – our agreement, our kiss, Jon taking off like that and me not stopping him. I guess I’m too quiet.

“Okay Kat? Where’s Jon?”

“He left,” I say, trying to brush it off. “This part isn’t his responsibility.”

Dave nods. “Well you did great tonight, thank you. It looked like you guys were having fun and everyone was talking about what a great couple you make.”

I shake my like that’s unbelievable, but my heart pounds.

I’m stuffing goodie bags with Hawks merchandise at 8:30 AM when there’s a knock on the conference room door. My blood goes cold – I think it’s going to be Jon. Instead it’s Ashley Sharp, doing her wives-and-girlfriends duty volunteering to help with the Hawks Kids Club visit this morning.

“Hey Kat,” she says, joining in my effort. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I shrug. “Their bus will be here in half an hour, we’re almost finished.”

Ashley nods and I know that wasn’t her real question. “So… you and Jon?”

“We’re not dating. He and Rachel broke up for good and I was literally the only person to fill in last night. We couldn’t send him out there alone.” I try to laugh.

“Right, I know what Dave said. But that kiss…,” she prompts. “I saw his face, Kat. Your eyes were closed but we were watching him kiss you like he meant it.”

“Decoy. Jon asked if I would be his decoy girlfriend for a while, since everyone already knows me from last night. Then when he’s over the Rachel thing, we’ll fake break up and move on.” It sounds like a decent plan as I say it out loud. I’ve taken it apart in my head so often it seems like swiss cheese.

“If you ask me, he’s been over Rachel for a long time,” she offers. “And I never saw him kiss her like that.”

You should have seen the real kiss, I think sadly. It was definitely real. And then it was definitely over.

“I don’t know if we’re even doing the decoy thing anymore, it might not work,” I tell her. Jon hadn’t called last night and I didn’t call him. He wasn’t even here yet this morning. I knew he was embarrassed for getting carried away, and I was embarrassed for wanting him to. Why did I tell him I didn’t hear the question? As soon as his lips touched mine I knew what he’d asked, knew what I’d agreed to. My answer would have been the same if I really had heard. Why did I throw that in his face like he did something wrong?

“Decoy what?” Dave Bolland’s girlfriend Joanna walks into the room. She’s definitely dressed for a kids’ visit: three inch heeled boots and a sweater that would have made the 1950s jealous. “You don’t think anyone’s buying that fake-girlfriend stuff, do you? Except Kaner, because he hasn’t nailed you yet.”
I close my eyes. Joanna’s got a mouth on her like a truck driver and she tells it like it is.

“Toews was looking at you last night like you were a Timbits-flavored stripper. I swear he asked Kane for condoms,” Joanna waves a little stuffed Hawks mascot doll. “You did look fucking hot in that dress. Don’t suppose you kept it on all night?” She raises her eyebrows at the stuffed animal and makes it cover its ears like its hearing something dirty.

I toss another full bag into the plastic bin. “We did not leave the party together.”

“Good thing,” Tommy Hawk nods at me with Joanna’s voice. “Because you know Kaner never gives away his condoms.”

Dave comes into the conference room as we’re cleaning up the last of the leftover items. He tosses a copy of the Chicago Tribune onto the table. “Showtime, ladies.”

Blackhawks: Champs for Charity – Page 3,“ reads the front page. There were about ten photos from the night, group shots and action shots from the stage during the auction. A color photo of Ashley and Patrick is tagged with a tiny graphic of bells and the words “Just Married.” In the left margin, largest of all the photos, is a shot of me and Jon kissing.

“Whooo,” Joanna says, almost under her breath.

I have to admit it’s a great photo. The background stage lights make it look like we were in a music video and Jon seems causal cool and looks like a million bucks in that dark, fitted suit. My pink dress pops on paper and my shoes really are fun. I’d shaken my hair back over my shoulders so it fell down my back. Jon’s hand was around my waist and mine on his arm.

“Captain Not-So-Serious: Hawks captain Jonathan Toews too busy to smile for cameras last night at the Hawks first charity event of the season.”

“Fuck,” I say out loud.

Twenty five third graders have their noses pressed to the glass. The Hawks are practicing three-on-two drills and every once in a while someone shoots a puck into the boards, making the kids scream and jump back. Before practice is over, we climb the stairs and circle around to the ice. I go down the hallway to make sure the guys have stopped shooting pucks before we bring the kids to the bench.

“Whooop!” Kane shouts when he sees me. “Somebody’s famous this morning!”

A few other guys make comments or laugh, Bolland applauds sarcastically, extra loud and slow. I don’t bother looking around the ice for Jon, I don’t want to see him with all these people watching. Instead I motion for the kids to follow and they file in behind the boards. All the guys skate over and start saying hello while I make my way to the far end and lean against the glass. Two seconds later, Jon turns up.

“Hi,” he says. We’re not looking at each other.

“Hey,” is the best I can do.

“Kat, I…”

“WOAH! Jonathan Toews!” one of the little boys shouts, drawing the five kids next to him into a huddle around us. I step back and let the kids freak out over Jon. He has his helmet off, his hair dark with sweat and plastered to his head. The helmet goes into a pile with his gloves so he can sign autographs. They ask a million questions at high speed. Behind the boisterous boys, two little girls stand shyly.

“Jon.” He looks up and suddenly I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. His eyes are the color of hot chocolate, his fair skin is flushed with the exertion of practice. Half a smile tugs at his lips, the kind of smile that asks forgiveness. One of the little girls is totally on to us. She pulls on the leg of my pants and stares at me expectantly.

I point down near my waist. “I think you have some more fans back here.”

He moves the boys aside and gets the girls up to the boards. Then he squats down till he’s even with them and starts talking. They are wide-eyed like he’s an exotic animal in the zoo and one girl chews the end of her pigtail. “Boys, do you know these girls?” The boys nod, noses in the air like they’re too good to hang out with girls. “Do you think girls like hockey as much as boys?”

“No way!” they chorus.

“What about Kat here? She likes hockey so much she works here. Girls, you like hockey that much?” They both nod enthusiastically. “Want to work here someday?” They agree again. “And boys, maybe someday you’ll play hockey, and you guys will be friends when you’re grownups.” He’s talking to them, but he’s looking at me.

“Ew, girls have cooties. I’m not gonna be friends with any girls when I grow up,” a little blondie in a Hawks t-shirt promises.

“Cooties, eh? I bet you’ll change your mind. I think girls are pretty great. I think you should be really nice to these girls in case one day you decide they are awesome and you really want to be friends with them and never mess it up.” They look like they might think about it later, when their moms make them eat their broccoli. The girls stare at Jon like he fell from Heaven.

“Miss,” the one with the pigtail in her mouth says, “our teacher says you’re his girlfriend. She says it was in the newspaper. Are you?”

“Yeah, are you?” the blonde boy asks, narrowing his eyes at me suspiciously.

I wonder if Jon can read my face. He’s talking about friends and never messing it up, they’re talking about boyfriends and girlfriends. When did the line between the two disappear? How can I say yes when I don’t understand the question? Last night our misunderstanding led to some serious kissing and serious running away, I don’t know if I can handle another.

“When his cooties aren’t too bad,” I say before moving down the bench to make sure all the kids are having fun. I can feel his eyes on me but I don’t turn around. When we’re finished, the kids pile back onto their school bus. Dave and I wave goodbye from the doorway, then he clears his throat. Jon’s standing behind us, dressed to head home in jeans and a Hawks hoodie. Dave’s exit is almost graceful, as if he can sense that something strange has happened and hopes it isn’t really his fault.

“Kat,” Jon starts then stops. I let him hang there for a moment. “I’m sorry about last night.”

“Sorry that you kissed me or sorry that you fled in terror?” It’s not fair for me to treat him this way, since I was confused and surprised too. But I’m hurt, thinking that he really had no interest in me outside the heat of the moment. As if I’d had any interest in him before.

He looks down at the floor. “Both, I guess. I got carried away. Can you give me another few weeks of fake company before we pretend to break up? Or are you too mad? I promise, I won’t kiss you again. This isn’t important enough to ruin our friendship. If you want to stop right now, fine and I don’t care if people think I’m a loser who gets dumped every day.”

I won’t kiss you again. It’s amazing how much it hurts to hear him say that, when 24 hours ago I would never have had him kiss me in the first place. It’s true what they say: you can’t lose what you never had. Now I’d had it, for a second, and it was gone. He ran off last night and today he’s talking about our kiss like it was a big mistake. What can I say to that?

“It okay, Jon. “

He smiles with such relief that I think he’s going to hug me. He even takes half a step in before he stops. Instead he just says goodbye and goes out into the lot, the door locking behind him.

The phone on my desk rings at 3:45 PM and I am summoned to the Communications Department. Dan is there when I arrive. “So, I heard about your little plan with Toews,” the Communications Director, Paul, says. “Surprisingly it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. And the photos certainly got a lot of play.” A version of the same picture had run in all the major local papers, eight or ten local websites, about forty hockey blogs and three TV news broadcasts. “So people are watching. We’re going to have to make this very convincing.”

They both look at me expectantly, but I have no idea what to do next.

“I think you should drive home and let Jon pick you up for the game. You can be seen arriving with him through the players’ entrance, the fans will like that.”

“The fans will try to kill me,” I point out. Some of our very best puckbunnies had their sights set on Jon.

“And,” Paul ignores my protest, “you should sit with the wives and girlfriends tonight.”
My brain and my stomach hurt in equal measure. I knew this would be big, but it could have also been fun. We’d share a secret, have a few laughs and get to spend more time together. Now the prospect of all this seems like salt in a wound. How did I manage to get so messed up in twelve hours?

“Okay,” I say weakly.

By the time Jon beeps in my driveway I have convinced myself that I am going to be fine. I have a little crush on him, nothing major, over two kisses. No one comes unraveled over two kisses, right? And he’s on the rebound, I don’t want that guy. I get dressed with care, figuring that if the fur is going to fly at least I can look the part. On the way out the door, I remind myself to smile.

“You really pick up your girlfriends by honking?” I ask as I climbed into his Jeep. “How romantic.”

He smiles, seemingly glad that I am making a joke. “Next time I will come up and carry you.” Today his suit is black and his tie striped. My heart does a tiny backflip at the sight of his face.

We are two blocks from the arena before he broaches the subject of tonight. “Paul said you’re sitting with the wives and girlfriends. Thanks for doing that.”

“No worries. Joanna and Ashley are there. And there’s free snacks.”

His hand is on the center console and I really want to hold it. It’s the kind of thing I would have done before yesterday, so I bite the bullet and put my fingers into his. “Are you okay?” I ask. “We never really got to talk.”

“I was too busy kissing you,” he says.

He means it as a joke, something to break the tension that keeps rising between us. Instead it’s like a kick to the stomach and I instinctively pull my hand away.

“Kat, sorry, I…” he smacks that same hand on the steering wheel. “Shit. Why can’t I talk to you anymore? Yesterday we were fine and then I fucked everything up.”

Despite my best efforts I am inches away from tears. “No, Jon….”

“I cannot lose you Kat, not over this. I know things were shit with Rachel for a long time, but she was still a big part of my life. Now that she’s gone, I can’t let anybody else get away.”

Jon’s rise to fame had left him surprised at his isolation. He’s too young, rich, famous and hot for his own good. Everyone wants something. And he’s is usually too nice to say no. He values his friends highly because there aren’t as many of them as he might like.

Pull it together, Kat. “I’m not going anywhere, don’t worry.”

He drives into the players’ entrance, past a handful of fans. Recognition lights up their faces when they see me. His spot is down close to the door in pretty plain sight of anyone watching. Instead of getting out, he leans back in his seat. “I’m doing okay, thank you. Honestly we’d been over for a long time and it feels, I don’t know… lighter now that we’re really done. I don’t know why we kept it up for so long, we should have ended it last season. Stupid me, I kept trying. Now I just need to get my head around the idea of being alone. It’s a good thing I have you.” He turns to look at me. “They’re all watching us, you know.”

My sarcasm surfaces. “Yup. Waiting to Tweet about how fat I am or my ugly jeans.”

He cranes his neck around. “Not all of them, there are some guys and kids. And you look fantastic. Better than I deserve.” He pulls me in and kisses my cheek, sending a shower of fireworks through my system and those tears right back to my eyes. From outside, it surely looks like we’re kissing on the lips. My heart drops like a roller coaster.

“Ready, rookie?” he asks.

I fall into a seat next to Joanna on the end of a row. The attendant for our section rushes over. I order a beer, though I’m probably not supposed to, and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar. Marion Hossa’s wife leans down from two rows behind us. “I knew it, I knew it was not a joke,” she says proudly like she introduced us. “Good for you Kat. And you two sure can keep a secret!”

Knowing the other WAGs were convinced lets me relax a little. I’ve sworn Ashley and Joanna to secrecy about our arrangement, but they don’t really seem to buy it either. When the team takes the ice for pre-game skate, I cheer as loudly as everyone else. The drills always amuse me, and the way they interact with fans despite the glass separating them. A couple of the guys toss pucks to little kids, except Kane who throws them to the girls with the biggest racks. I’m halfway through my ice cream when Jon catches my eye. He almost smiles, but shakes his head slightly. I’m confused.

By the time the skate ends, the stands are filling up for the sell out game. Most of the people near our section are season ticket holders and they’ve all seen the newspapers. I’m pretending not to feel their stares when my phone beeps.

Jon: No more ice cream.

Me: Why?

Jon: You eat it like a porn star. What will the press say? ;)

Me: Right, like you’ve watched a porn.

I want to punch him but instead I laugh. Maybe if I can have a little fun with this it will help me feel better. God help me I’m at the point where I crave any kind of attention from him. Already? That’s like step five on the crush scale.

During the first period my phone buzzes again. It’s my roommate.

Steph: You’re on TV. Like right now. Hair looks good.

Me: Fuuuuuuck.

Steph: Suck it up, Yoko Ono.

During the first intermission I don’t leave my seat. I really don’t want to wander around the concourse full of people just waiting to say bitchy things about me. It doesn’t help that Steph texts me every 5 minutes with another highlight from the Twitterverse:

She’s kinda plain, guess JT wants to be the best looking one in that relationship.

Toews’ girlfriend can’t even wear a jersey to the game? Too cool for school.

But she sends me a few nice ones too:

Stop hating on Jon’s girl – she’s cute and she’s way luckier than any of you bitches.

Toews’ GF is in my kickboxing class. She def works hard. 24HR Fitness on Michigan, Tues at 12 PM.

I shut it off completely, wondering if I’m going to have to give up my gym membership. The attendant brings us another round of drinks as the second period starts. Jon gets an assist on the first goal of the game and Joanna grabs my arm like I should be on cloud nine – instead I’m feeling tired and crankly. I cheer and wave, then sit down the instant it’s socially acceptable. I remain in place through the next intermission despite really having to pee. Sharp scores in the third, giving us a 2-0 lead and then the game ends with the typical early-season fanfare as we hustle from the stands. When we reach the locker room level, I’m practically running for the bathroom. I’m going to have to give up drinking or grow enough spine to leave my seat.

Tons of people I don’t know are waiting in the lounge and I feel conspicuous. Whispers fall quiet as I pass to tuck myself in next to Joanna at the end of a couch.

“You did it,” she smiles.

“Nothing to do,” I shrug.

Players start to trickle out of the locker room, picking up their girls or their families and friends. Jon is among the last, since he’s always giving the most interviews. I don’t relish the prospect of hearing his take on our un-relationship on Sportscenter.

“Ready?” is all he says. I follow him down the hallway, trying to keep my head up. The suit he wears hangs from his shoulders so perfectly, like he’s one of those presents you paid someone to wrap. He walks with authority. A security guard opens the door for us and fans at the top of the parking ramp start screaming. He gives them a wave and follows me around to the passenger side.

“Seriously?” I ask.

“You made fun of me for honking,” he smiles as he opens my door. “Should we give them something to yell about?”

If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was making a pass at me. That he was using the excuse because he actually wanted to kiss me. But he’s so casual, almost flippant, and that is not the Jon I know. Instead this is a game – one I am losing again as I nod silently and let his lips touch mine. The spark is there, the sizzle through my stomach like a lit fuse as my brain plays the Mission Impossible theme. I try my best not to let it bubble over like champagne.

“You okay?” he asks, his dark eyes searching mine. Spotty overhead lighting throws weird shadows across our faces. I nod again, apparently mute for life, and climb into the car.

He gets on the highway and drives right past my exit. I bet he thinks it’s weird that I don’t protest or question, I just let him go wherever he wants as I stare out the window, trying to look into apartments. It’s twenty-five minutes to his house and we don’t say a single thing. He pulls into the garage and for a moment I consider simply staying in the car all night. Until he opens my door again. I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. He goes upstairs and I find myself wishing I could follow, wishing that I knew at all what to do now. When he returns, he’s wearing sweats and a t-shirt and carrying another set for me.

I’m clearly sleeping over. This would not have been weird before, I’ve stayed here a few times when I was way less accountable for my actions than I am now. As I put on his clothes, folding the waistband over a few times to account for the inches between our heights, I can’t help it. The heels of my hands press to my eyes like tears are tangible and I can physically hold them back.

Have I lost all of this? Somewhere inside I know I’m going crazy. I’ve lost touch with the reality that used to keep all this in proportion – friends with famous people, friends with hot guys. It was all okay when ‘friends’ was the key word. Now I can’t stop thinking about how hot he is and I feel his fame like a noose around my neck. Thirty seconds pass before I feel steady enough to go back to the living room.

Jon’s on the couch with a glass of water in hand. His huge TV is muted on ESPN. In the corner, his acoustic guitar stands below a picture of his family. I sit, fold my knees and force myself to look at him.

“Now you can tell me,” he says.

“Tell you what?”

“Whatever is wrong.” He looks at me like he’s ready to sit there all night. I know that he would, if I could think of anything to say. When I don’t, he starts.

“I thought it would be fun – we could hang out more and laugh about all of this. But it doesn’t feel funny now. It feels like I’ve asked too much from you.”

You haven’t asked enough, I think.

“So I don’t have a girlfriend. As long as we play well, what difference does it make? Paul always says that half these women need to believe they have a chance with me anyway, to keep them buying tickets. And I’m sorry that I kissed you. I… I don’t have any explanation for that.”

I do, I think. He bites his lips when he’s nervous. He never does it on the ice, but in real life Jon has no poker face. Knowing that is a privilege and seeing it now kills me. I feel myself falling. Or maybe I’m jumping.

“It’s okay, I just need to get used to all this. It’s not easy, pretending to be your girlfriend.” That may be the only honest thing I’ve said all night.

He puts his arm along the back of the couch, his fingers reaching my arm. “So you don’t want to stop?”

I shake my head. I definitely don’t want to stop. I want more, not less. I want anything. God I’m pathetic.

“Really? Thank God. To have done all that for nothing… whew. You are the best friend ever, Kat. There is no one who could do this but you,” he squeezes my shoulder. “Let’s see how everyone else did today.” He turns toward the television and hits the sound. His long eyelashes cast shadows down his cheeks in the flickering light of the sports highlights as I pretend not to look at him. When the broadcast ends, he says it’s bed time and I do what I’m told.

In the guest room, I cry myself to sleep silently.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chapter 1 - The Backup Plan

“Where’s Rachel? She’s late.”

He looks a little helpless. “She’s not coming.”

“What do you… what?” My question turns into a sharp whisper. “Why?”

He lowers his eyes. “Finished. Finally.”

I put my head back and look at the ceiling. These two have been ending for months and it’s been hard to watch. He was gone for most of the summer, celebrating all over the country and fulfilling the kind of NHL obligations hat only a freshly-minted Cup champion can. But they were in trouble long before then.

“Shit, Jon. What are we gonna do?”

He gives me a shrug, like he doesn’t really even care anymore. I feel so bad for him that I just wrap my arms around his neck. He sags a little, hands resting at the small of my back. We must look like we’re slow dancing in the backstage hallway. I honestly wonder if Jon is about to cry.

“You two had better be ready,” Dave, my boss, says as he swings through the door. “Where’s Rachel?”

“She’s not coming,” I answer so Jon doesn’t have to. “We need another plan.”

Dave opens his mouth to panic, then shuts it quickly. Jon doesn’t look at him. I hear my boss draw a deep breath, the kind required when a single detail is about the derail months of hard work. Gears turn in his brain, running over the handful of potential backup plans.

“We don’t have another plan,” he admits. And it’s the truth.

In ten minutes, the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks will take part in their first official charity event of the 2010-2011 season. The guys have been scattered all summer, doing their own events and dragging the Cup around the globe. For the first time since they lifted it on the ice, the whole team is here. Well, the new team anyway. No one is really used to the summer’s changes, so they’re clinging to the guys who delivered back in June. Guys like Jon.

“Kat, you’ll have to do it,” Dave announces.

“WHAT?!” I hadn’t thought of that. I would never think of that. Because I would never do it. “I can’t do it. I need to do a million other things - cues and lineup and all the bid counting and…”

Dave is giving me that look. “What difference does any of that make if Jon isn’t on stage?”

We both look at Jon, whose shoulders drop another inch. He thinks this is his fault. He has to be here, be out there, and he knows it. After all, he showed up. The superstar captain, the poster boy, needs to be part of this event for it to be worth having. And we’ve worked so hard.

“What’s the problem?” Dave prompts when we’re both frozen. “You were just hugging. That’s close enough to better half for me.” He leaves before I can protest again.

Jon finally lifts his eyes. “Sorry Kat.” It’s barely above a whisper.

I pull him into an empty dressing room so no one else will interrupt us. “I need to know if you can do this. You’re here, that’s heroic. But out on that stage. Please tell me now how much of this I will have to handle.”

“I can do it, I’ll be fine. Can you do this for me?”

I take a slow breath. My stomach is starting to flutter with tiny, panicked butterflies begging for escape. I’m probably sweating already. “Yes, Jon. Of course. But my God it’s gonna be so embarrassing – everyone knows I’m not your girlfriend. They are going to give you so much shit. This is like taking your sister to the prom.”

He laughs at that, a tiny little smile flickering across his face. It falls away after a moment, but he slides his hand into mine. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

I’m in wardrobe when they start the show. A poor stylist is losing the battle against my curls as they call the first name.

“Ashley and Patrick Sharp.”

I know just what it looks like. Ashley’s wearing the smallest Sharp jersey we could find and it’s still a tent on her. She’s walking down the catwalk and taking her place stage left. Patrick is fifteen steps behind her, doing his best to strut convincingly across the stage in a brown pinstripe John Varvatos suit with leather shoes and a monochromatic tie. The audience is already screaming.

I close my eyes under a hail of hairspray as the bidding begins. The emcee jokes with Ashley as the price rises to be her husband’s personal guest at the upcoming Blackhawks Fall Ball. Ashley will be there too, of course, so it’s more like paying to be a third wheel. But as expected, people are eating it up.

“Honey, time for makeup,” the hairdresser says, pushing me away.

The guys go in order that I created – not least-to-most famous, not worst-to-best looking, I made sure of that. The perfect mix of big ticket items and things for the more discerning shopper. We put Sharp first after he was voted Chicago’s Hottest Athlete by Victoria’s Secret, but every single item up for auction tonight will go for an impressive price.

I close my eyes for a flurry of brushes and swipes. The protocol for this is ‘dressy classy,’ so it shouldn’t matter that they don’t have a ton of time to work on me. Partway through, I have to step aside and answer some questions for Dan about the parts of the show I designed.

“See, you need me,” I hiss.

“Not as much as he does.”

Ugh. It’s true. Poor JT cannot show up here really single or the entire city of Chicago will riot. As it is, eighty percent of the audience is probably planning to kidnap him. If it’s over my dead body, I doubt any of them will care. I surrender to the makeup once again as they call Marion Hossa’s name.

Finally the artist untucks the tissue from my neck and proclaims me finished. I’m surprised to see in the mirror that I look good – great, even – with my hair tamed into a pile of loose curls and my eyes accentuated nicely by liner that I can never seem to wield on my own.

“Kat, you’re almost up.”

Only a few women are left in line. I adjust Jon’s jersey on my shoulders and take my place at the end. Patrick Kane’s date is in front of me – the one we made him ask. There would have been too many choices if we’d just told him to bring someone he’d made out with during the last eight months. Her name is Marie and she gasps when she sees me.

“When did that happen? Guess I missed a lot this summer,” she giggles like she cannot believe her eyes.

“It didn’t happen. I’m just filling in,” I assume her, but she continues to stare until they finally call her name. Kaner gets a huge cheer and the bid price quickly flies into the four-digits.

Dave is at the stage door, looking at me hopefully. “Thanks for doing this, kid. Sorry to cut you out of the show-running stuff, I know you love it.”

“I hate you,” I smile.

Kane goes for double the price of the person before him, then the crowd gets silent in anticipation. Of course Jon will be last and of course he’ll go for the most. Or so we think. There are also a lot of people out there wondering just who Captain Serious will bring as his first public date to anything.

Dear God, I think as my name is called.

“Katherine Banning and Jonathan Toews!”

There’s a moment of complete, dead silence as I take my first step onto the runway. The rest of the team is there – guys lined up stage right and their better halves at stage left. Every one of them is staring at me, some with mouths agape, as I make my way down. The whole team knows about Rachel and how badly it’s gone since last spring. Now half of the women are assuming that I’m the reason they broke up. And half the guys are assuming Jon’s been keeping a very big secret all along.

No one in the audience has ever seen so much as a grainy tabloid photo of Jon with a girl. To them, I’m as good as anyone I suppose. At least I look like a normal girl, when they were probably expecting a supermodel. Apparently the idea that my average appearance appeals to Captain Toews makes him an even bigger hero. I get a cheer to rival Kaner’s and I try to remember to smile.

Jon finally comes onstage. The crowd goes ballistic, almost taking the roof right off the venue. At the bottom of the runway, I turn and see why. He’s wearing a charcoal gray suit with a white shirt open at the throat. His pocket square is bright, bright blue and his black wingtip shoes are shined perfectly. It looks like he just ran his fingers through his blonder-than-usual hair before he swaggered out here. When he smiles, it’s all ‘come and get it ladies’ and I instantly realize how hard he is trying. It makes me want to cry. He stops next to me and puts his arm around my waist, the way all the guys have done. His fingers squeeze my side so hard that I know I’ll be bruised tomorrow.

I step aside and let the ladies of Chicago bid themselves broke on Jonathan Toews. He seems happy, friendly and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t look so good that I might almost pay for a date with him.

You’re getting paid for this date, my brain says. And that’s true, I’m still working.

Jon sells for $8,500 to a woman in a diamond ring that cost at least that much. I hope she’s spending her husband’s money on a date with JT, that will give us the giggles for months. All the players and better halves join hands to take a bow when the auction comes to a close. As we turn to exit, Jon doesn’t let go.

Everyone files into a ballroom backstage. The women have to change, then there’s a cocktail reception to follow. As we come off stage, Dave stops us. “Nice one kids, that looked great. Now Kat, you have to do the reception. Don’t suppose you have a dress?”

I look at him then Jon. “No! I didn’t bring anything but my work clothes.” One of the makeup artists hustles through the hallway with an armful of colors.

“Okay, here’s what the stylist had in her car,” she looks me up and down. “These are samples, but at least one should fit you.”

Call me fat, lady, and I’ll drop my gloves. Dave takes the piles and pushes me and Jon into the same empty dressing room we talked in before.

“Pick something, and hurry. Jon, wait for her,” he shuts the door.

Jon goes up to his elbows in dresses. “This one’s nice,” he pulls a green halter. “Oh, but it’s long.”

“I’m wearing black shoes, pick something that matches,” I say tossing aside a multicolored blue thing. I’m flipping labels and there are a lot of size 0s and 2s. “And I need a 6, these little ones won’t fit me.”

He rolls his eyes like he has no idea about girls’ clothing, but holds up a dry cleaning bag. “This one.”

It’s bright pink, strapless and short with an asymmetrical hemline on the skirt. It’s definitely fun, a little too flashy, but something I might have actually tried on in a store. Best of all, it’s my size. We’re at the bottom of the pile and we have only one other option: a dusky orange spaghetti strap tea-length dress with brown piping.

“Okay, you win! Now turnaround and close your eyes.”

I try not to massacre my hair as I pull of his jersey. My work shirt is button down and quickly gone, along with my pants. I pull the dress on, thanking God that I wore cute shoes and a thong. I tuck my bra straps down under my arms and stand before the mirror.

Wow, I think. I actually look good. I also look like someone on their way to a hip-hop club on a Friday night, instead of a cocktail party where I’m supposed to be working. But at least I’m a little tan, and the strappy black heels I’d been hiding under my trousers are appropriately fun for this dress. This very short dress.

“Wow, Kat,” Jon says.

“Who told you to turn around!?” I pull it down an inch, but it doesn’t stay.

He just whistles. “We are going to have some explaining to do.” A knock pounds on the door, then Dave opens it without waiting.

“Jesus!” I shout. “What is with you guys?!”

Dave makes a surprised face at my dress. “Making out for authenticity? Let’s go, the natives are getting restless.”

He hustles us across the hall into the ballroom. Almost everyone is done changing, just milling around waiting for the cue that the audience has had a round of drinks and is mingling happily before the players are introduced. Dave shuts the door with a slam and every head in the room turns toward us. It’s not till I go to throw my hands up in surrender that I realize Jon’s fingers are again twined into mine. A flash of surprise crosses my face, but only the Sharpes are close enough to see it.

“Shit Kat,” Patrick Kane yells. “I was going to stop hitting on you now that you’re shacked up, but not in that dress!”

Jon looks at me, his smile genuine for the first time that night. Then he pulls my hand up like I’ve won something and shouts, “Surprise!”

“You ass!” I yell back.

He’s laughing out loud. “Only kidding guys. Kat and I are not dating, she’s just being extremely awesome and not making me do this alone.”

At that, Kane whoops in victory. His own date looks a little annoyed that he’s making a big deal about another girl. She’ll never last if she’s that sensitive, I think. The room goes back to normal, a few people giving us smart-ass comments and at least two more complimenting my dress.

“Okay, okay, the secret is out,” Dave says, everyone quieting down. “But please, for tonight, don’t say anything. Jon wouldn’t survive ten minutes out there if they knew he was unattached. As you can see, we put Kat in a rap video costume just to deter competition but she will still need your help.”

“You all heard it, I want a raise,” I bite back.

“Spend your boyfriend’s money, Toews is loaded,” Kane answers for him.

“Is it too early in our relationship to say I love you?” Jon whispers as we’re standing near the bar. Every person in the party has come by the meet him, some nervously shuffling off and others talking for way too long. He has been holding my hand in his left all night, shaking hello with his right. My other hand holds a series of drinks.

“Tell me again tomorrow, when all these people are saying mean shit about me online,” I deadpan.

“Mean?! You’re doing great.”

That gets a smile. Sometimes he really is so naive. “They love you, JT. I am nothing but in the way.”

Dave comes over, looking relaxed for the first time in two months and carrying a half-empty beer. “It’s time for photos, you two ready?”

I want to argue but I knew this was coming. I set it up. Some of the guys are to be photographed with their better halves for a few gossip blogs, and then the regular newspapers and online outlets will get their chance. “I made a deal with the devil, eh?” Dave just nods.

Marie and Kane ham it up for their photos: she lays on the edge of the stage and he stands in front, pretending to lift her like the Stanley Cup. The guys take a few together and I have to admit they look really good. Their suits are all tailored and styled and everyone looks relaxed from the happy summer. In another month, scars and bruises will set off wrinkled brows and tired eyes on everyone’s faces.

“You realize you’re going to have to tell them later that we broke up?” I say quietly as the Sharpes pose like they did in their wedding photos.

“I was thinking that maybe you could stay my decoy girlfriend,” he says without looking at me. But he’s smiling. “Cat’s already out of the bag, the worst is over. You know, just for a while until things are better.” Now he turns. “Until I’m ready.”

I’ve been so nervous and the party’s been so overwhelming that I nearly forgot he’s just broken up with Rachel. I sense he’s relieved – their rocky relationship was no way to care about someone – and a little glad it’s finally over. What a trooper, I think, reminding myself to give him credit for sticking this out in good spirits.

“Jonathan Toews, are you asking me not to go out with you?”

He pulls me into his side. It’s the kind of friendly thing he’s always done, but now I see how it works as an act, how we wouldn’t have to change much to sell the idea of ourselves as a couple. If we spent more time together in public, anyone would buy it.

“I’m asking you to be the woman in my life for now,” he answers. “Or until you find someone – you might go first.”

I laugh. “No one is paying $8500 for date with me.”

“You’ll be on that date, remember,” he reminds me. “And when we’re done we can auction you off to the NHL – your decoy girlfriend services would be very popular.”

“Hmmm,” I put a finger to my chin like I’m plotting world domination. “Toews’ girl leaves him for Crosby. I like the sound of that.”

And that’s it – we are the un-couple. How many girls would kill to be me right now, and the whole thing is a sham, I think as we step in front of the photographers. Still I know we’ll have fun together –we already do. I’m smiling, my mind running away, when a shift in Jon’s body brings me back to attention.

“Okay?” he asks. I don’t know the question. Bright lights bathe us as photographers call out prompts and requests. Jon’s brown eyes are locked on mine like this is important, so I just nod.

He kisses me. In real time it’s cute and modest, probably lasting ten seconds while flash bulbs burst around us. In my mind it’s like standing at the bottom of a cliff when a dam opens to pour a waterfall that drops a hundred feet onto your head. I close my hand around his bicep so tightly I can hear the fabric of his suit rustle against my palm.

Then it’s over. He turns us both forward and I smile stupidly, dazed, while everyone finishes snapping. Dave pushes us out of the way for another couple. Jon holds my hand like he knows I’ll fall over if he lets go and leads us out of the party, back to the empty ballroom. I’m still seeing stars, which makes it hard to walk. He closes the door behind us.

“What was…,” I almost have a complete thought before he’s kissing me again. A real kiss – our mouths are open, tongues dancing. His hands are in my hair, lifting it from my neck as he presses our lips together. I am mostly unconscious with surprise but my mouth is holding its own.

“Jon,” I gasp, breaking away. I’ve probably been holding my breath since the first kiss and I’m starting to get tunnel vision. “What are you doing?”

“Woah. Sorry Kat. I didn’t…,” he spins away from me, like the needs physical space to gather his thoughts. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

We’re alone in a locked room, away from a party we’ve just left. “You didn’t mean to run out of the reception, across the hallway and into the one place you knew we’d be alone?” What is going on? my brain screams. This isn’t what I agreed to. This isn’t supposed to happen.

“I didn’t mean to really kiss you,” he looks as scared as I feel. “I haven’t kissed anyone but Rachel in so long, I got overwhelmed. I forgot what it’s like. I’m sorry.”

“Now I don’t know what we’re doing. If I’m a decoy, we need boundaries and rules. And you have to stick to them, Jon. I’m gonna be in the paper tomorrow looking for all the world like your girlfriend. I need to know how this is going to work.”

“We could… forget it.”

“Forget what? That you just kissed my face off?” It’s dim in this ballroom, especially after all the flashing cameras. I can’t read his expression.

“You kissed me back.”

“I know! I was so surprised. Is that what you asked me inside? I didn’t even hear your question, I just nodded and then suddenly you were kissing me.”

A little black cloud crosses his face. His open collar and suit jacket are rumpled from where I think I was pawing at him when we were making out. Fuck, why are you so hot? Why did that have to feel so incredible?

“So you didn’t want to kiss me? I ran in here because I thought you wanted it. Oh my God, I have to go,” he marches over to a chair and grabs his coat. I hear his car keys rattling. “I’m so sorry, Kat.”

He’s out the door before I can say anything. And what would I say? I did want it. I did feel it. Don’t go.