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.”
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.
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.