“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.