Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chapter 19 - Fall

I lay awake most of the night. Kris had left the moment I asked, with just a hug. As soon as he closed the door, I rolled over and finished myself off. It took about 8 seconds and I was trembling the entire time. I didn’t form a full thought for at least another hour. When Cara returned I pretended to be asleep.

Eventually, I did sleep. At 9 AM, I woke up to the vibration of my cell phone, tucked under my pillow.

Kris: In the hall.

I pulled a sweatshirt over my pajamas and opened the door. He was outside, one knee bent and foot on the wall like James Dean. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“Sorry about last night,” Kris said, not even sure I was awake yet. “I was a little out of control.”

“We were almost very out of control,” I said. But I lifted my hand to his face. My thumb went to his lower lip, tugging it delicately downward. Soft, supple and ripe. “I wanted it too.”

“So I didn’t spoil the night?”

“No Kris. It was incredible. All of it. And thank you for the beautiful gift.”

“Will you wear it tonight?” he asked, opening his arms to me.

“Just as good as a sign,” I said, nodding sleepily into his chest.

At 2:30 PM, I was walking with Cara near the river when my phone buzzed.

Max: Lobby, 3 PM!

Cara smiled like she knew something, and we turned in the direction of the hotel.

Max came bounding from the out of the hotel bar as I unwound my scarf. He was wearing a suit, ready to head to the arena. But it was hours early.

“Kahlan, Cara! Come meet my family!” Max waved us over.

Sure enough, Max’s family was seated around a table in the bar. They all looked up expectantly – I got the distinct impression they’d just been talking about us. About me.

“Everyone, this is Jordan’s girlfriend Cara. And this is Kahlan,” he announced.

They all stood. I shook hands with Max’s two strapping brothers, Francis and Will. His mother hugged us both. Max’s father Serge smiled and kissed my cheek. The men all looked like Max – quick smiles, deep complexions, 5 o’clock shadows well before time.

“Kahlan, Max has told us all about you,” his father said.

“And we get the newspaper,” Max added. His mother smacked the back of his head, like he was a little boy.

“Please excuse my son, he has no manners,” his mother said. She stage-whispered to me, “No wonder you kissed Sidney instead.” Everyone laughed and I turned so red I was purple.

“We are about to go eat a pre-game meal, would you ladies like to join us?” His father asked. I reached for Cara’s arm, but she was already backing away, declining. Max put his arm around me and led us out.

“Cheater,” I whispered.

“I don’t have to fight fair,” Max pinched my shoulder.

We walked around the corner to an Italian restaurant. Everyone spoke English for my benefit, and they were all very friendly. Mostly they made fun of me. Max’s family was totally normal, blue-collar, hard-working… you’d never know they had a Stanley Cup-winning son. So Max mentioned it every ten minutes.

“We hear you got a job with the team,” Will said. “Is that where they keep you till you become a wife-or-girlfriend?”

I pointed my fork at him. “I see where Max learned to be a smartass.”

“Max learned everything from us,” Francis said.

“Not everything,” Serge countered, “or she wouldn’t have been kissing Crosby.”

Max put his hands up. “I told you, Sid kissed Kahlan.”

“So you taught Sid everything?” Serge replied. We all laughed. I was mortified, but I was laughing.

Cara and I had seats four rows up behind the Pens bench. I hoped we were outside the camera angle that framed the coaches. We wore regular clothes and I had on Sid’s baseball cap that I’d worn in the airport. I had purposely worn a v-neck sweater to show off Kris’ necklace.

During warm-up, the guys gave us little smiles or winks. It was hard not to yell and cheer during the game, so we whispered our commentary to each other instead. The game was tight, and the Pens ended up winning by 1 goal. We texted that we’d meet them at the airport for the private flight to Toronto.

We waited in the small airport lounge. Max came in, with his brothers in tow. “Sid’s late – a million reporters in the room tonight.” He looked right at me. “Tell her.”

Will frowned. “My girlfriend called during the game – you were on TV. The camera guy spotted you, even with your hat on.”

Uuugggghhhh. I winced. “What did they have to say?”

He laughed. “Well, they think you’re hot. Does that help?”

Sid came in fifteen minutes later. He sat next to Cara, a tired, beaten look on his face. “That was fun,” he tried to smile. “Kahlan, you are the talk of the town.”

No one thought this was funny. I felt especially bad that Max was dealing with this in front of his brothers. I was glad Sid had chosen a seat on the other side of Cara. Without knowing what Max had told his family about me, I knew this was extremely awkward for him.

“Well… what did they say?” Cara finally gushed. “Sorry, but I am dying to know.”

Sidney smiled at that. “They want to know all about you – where we met, how long we’ve known each other, when we’re getting married, what we’re naming our kids, if they’ll play Timbits. They know your name, and that you graduated, and that you’ll be working for the Pens. That went over well.

“And you were photographed… but I think you already know that,” he looked at Max’s brothers. “TV too?” They nodded. “So it’s back in the papers tomorrow.”

I hung my head. “Maybe I should go home.”

“No,” Max and Sid both said at the same time.

“Just sit in the box in Toronto, okay? With a bag on your head.”

On the plane, Cara sat with Jordan. I got on last, after saying goodbye to Max’s brothers, and sat in an empty row. Max moved from his seat into the one next to me.

“Date night tomorrow,” he said, sliding down in the seat and putting his head against my shoulder. He was asleep before the plane took off.

I stayed awake during the short ride, looking out the window. I was nervous about our date. Max was recognizable in a hockey city like Toronto, and now so was I. Because he was Max, he seemed to make himself conspicuous at all times. Mostly I didn’t want our date to be ruined by what happened between me and someone else.

Max was very warm against my side. The armrest was down, his arm over it and his hand under my forearm. He slept beautifully, with his mouth closed and his ridiculously thick eyelashes fluttering slightly.

I borrowed a new baseball hat from Flower and wore it as Cara and I walked around beautiful Toronto. We even took a quick spin through the Hockey Hall of Fame. We stopped in front of the Pens’ team photo, on the ice with the Cup, from the end of last season’s playoffs. Sid, Jordan and Geo were smack in the middle, the Cup between them. Kris and Max were on the left edge of the group. It was the happiest I had ever seen anyone.

“We should move,” Cara said after a few minutes. “Just in case.”

After lunch, we went shopping for New Year’s Eve dresses. Whatever happened, this was my trip and I wasn’t going to spend the best party night of the year hiding in a Toronto hotel.

“What are you and Max doing tonight?” Cara called from her dressing room.

“I don’t know yet,” I said, zipping up a dark teal cocktail dress. It stopped a little above my knee, and had sexy bandage-like tiers down the body. I opened the door.

“Ooh,” Cara said. “That dress is trouble.”

I pulled on a pair of sexy jeans, thinking about my promise to myself: I will choose. I buttoned my short-sleeved white satin dress shirt, and over it closed a black women’s cut suit-style vest. I twisted the loose waves I’d set into my hair. Slipping on black flats, I looked in the mirror. Not bad. But I needed something else. I knocked on Max’s door, and Jordan opened it.

“Hey minx, picking Max up for your date?” he asked.

“Actually, I need some help getting dressed.”

“Too bad, I specialize in undressing,” Max called from the bathroom.

The room was lived-in – you’d never know we’d just arrived. Clothes were everywhere, some piled, some folded. I dug through Max’s corner until I found what I was looking for. I put it on and turned as Max was coming out of the bathroom. He came right up to me, stopping just a breath away, and ran his fingers across the brim of his black pinstripe fedora, now resting on my head.

“Smooth criminal. Already in my room and we haven’t even started yet,” he purred.

I smiled. “I needed a disguise. I’ll get my coat and come back.”

Outside the hotel, Max hailed a cab. He gave an address, not the name of a place and 10 minutes later we rolled to a stop in front of a low-slung brick building.

Inside was dark, close. The walls were darkly paneled in wood, and the bar area had tables made of wine casks. Booths lined the outside of the space. Max gave the hostess his name, and she led us to a corner booth. Moments later, a bottle of champagne turned up.

“Not just champagne,” Max said. “My parents brought it. It’s a bottle I saved from the Cup celebration in the locker room.”

My mouth fell open. This was a souvenir, something to save for a lifetime and show your grandkids. Maybe for a wedding. Not for a date.

“Max, we can’t…”

He shushed me. “Either drink it, or I’ll spray it all over you.” He paused. “Well, maybe we’ll save some for that later.”

I figured it was high-end - the Pens wouldn't skimp on bubbly for the boys to pour all over each other and the floor. Max poured a flute for each of us and raised his.

“When is the right time ever right?” he asked. “I don’t believe in waiting for a better time to be with a good thing,” he clinked his glass gently against mine.

Champagne looks like it tastes - crisp, bubbly, happy. It zinged down my throat. I pictured the guys, screaming and spraying bottles everywhere. I had seen some of the locker room celebration, hiding off to a side with Vero. We’d had plenty of champagne in the days to follow.

“Want to know what the plan is for tonight?” he asked.

“A little. But also no.”

He nodded in deference, touching the bracelet he’d given me where it lay across my wrist. We sipped our champagne as Max told a story about his day with the Stanley Cup. I figured he was telling me a heavily censored, other-girl-free version. But still, his eyes were shining and the smile on his face could not be suppressed. When he said it was the best time of his life, I knew he meant it.

We finished most of the bottle. Despite eating an appetizer, I was feeling pretty giggly by the time we left. I prayed that it was the good stuff, otherwise I would have a headache later. We walked a few blocks to a warm-looking restaurant with huge windows facing the street. Inside, on the back wall, they were projecting an old, black and white movie. Jaunty jazz music played softly inside.

Max again sat next to me in the booth. He put an arm around my shoulders. “I haven’t been on a real date in a long time,” he said.

I smiled. “Been a while since you’ve taken out someone who wasn’t a slam dunk?”

He leaned in very close, and spoke into the side of my neck. I could feel him inhaling my scent. “Remember what you told me in the shower? Because it’s exactly that you did to me then, and you did it again in the kitchen.”

“What did I say?”

“Always leave them wanting more,” he whispered.

Deep breath. Max was warm and sultry and making me a little lightheaded. Maybe it was the champagne. Probably not.

“Being near you makes my heart race,” I whispered back, being honest. “No matter what happens, I don’t think that will ever change.”

“I’d be very disappointed if it did, cherie.”

A giggle bubbled out of me, courtesy of the champagne. I refused a menu and told Max to order for me. Instead I sat back, soaking in the atmosphere of the swanky restaurant and savoring Max’s physical presence. We talked and laughed through dinner. I had one more drink, then imposed prohibition on myself for at least an hour. We shared filet mignon and stuffed lobster. Max looked at his watch a few times, but I resisted the urge to ask what was next.

“What do you want from life, Kahlan? Someday, far in the future?” he asked.

I thought as I chewed. “A family, I think. I’m not desperate to have kids, but when I see happy families like yours, it makes me want that. It was different for me when my parents split. There’s security in having all those people around who care for you.”

Max looked at me deeply. “It is hard, being with a hockey player. We’re away a lot, we have no control over where we go or when.”

I laid a hand of his forearm. “Max, I know that.”

“I know you do. It’s a big part of why we’re all chasing you. We know that you won’t change your mind about us the first time you’re left home alone.”

I smiled and went back to my dinner. “I change my mind every day, it seems. But not about that.”

Max looked at his watch again as he signed the check. Bundling into our coats, he had the doorman flag a cab. “Lee’s Place,” he said. A few minutes later, we pulled up in front of a graffitied club entrance. Barricades were set up and a line of people filed in. Before I could ask, Max handed me two tickets: Butch Walker.

I gasped, then give a strangled little scream. Max had a huge smile on his face. Now that I saw the surprise, I knew he’d been bursting to tell me. I hugged him tight, almost knocking off my hat. He reached under my shoulder, locking me into him and pushing the fedora down onto my head.

“Surprise!” he said, and pressed a quick kiss to my lips.

Max walked right to the bouncer, ignoring the line. With a smile, the man lifted the velvet rope and let us in. Handstamps acquired, Max steered me to the bar. The opening act was wrapping up.

“Lucky, eh?” Max said.

“When did you find out he was playing here?” My brothers and I loved Butch Walker, and I probably played him a lot in the house. I’d never thought about it. For Max to pick it up, he had to be paying pretty close attention.

“Before we knew you were coming on the trip,” he said. “It’s why I suggested it.”

With a hand on my hip, I smirked at him. Sid and Kris would most definitely claim they had suggested it. Max handed me a beer, we checked our coats and wiggled our way into the crowd in front of the stage.

When Butch came on stage, Max shouted along with me. He may have even played a few of Butch’s albums when I wasn’t around, because he seemed to know some of the songs. The show was incredibly high energy. We were ordered to dance under penalty of being kicked out. So we danced. Max held my hand, or kept one at the small of my back, as he jumped around next to me. When the first few notes of my favorite song came up, Max recognized it before I did. He squeezed my hand as I yelped my approval. The haunting, pleading mid-tempo ballad “Don’t Move” brought the club to a standstill as everyone absorbed the feeling:

If I could just get your attention, I'd never let it go
Until you've felt what I am gonna say....
So baby don't move at all
Cause you're about to break my fall

Max stepped in behind me and slid his hands around my waist. I leaned back into his chest. Having his broad, strong body against mine felt like heaven – protective, sensual, understanding. I closed my eyes and he swayed me slightly to the music.

Max would always make me feel like this, like everyone in the room is jealous because he is mine. Maybe I’m projecting – if he were with someone else, I would be jealous. We would burn hot and bright, and have spectacular fights and even better make-ups. Because we are both full of mistakes, we can forgive each other. We know each other that well.

The show ended with a rousing encore. We were in the street, laughing and amped, when we realized it was very nearly curfew. We caught a cab back and Max steered me up to his room.

“Jordan’s with Cara in yours,” he said.

Flipping on the TV, I took off my vest. I sat back on the bed and stretched my legs out. My calves were sore from bouncing around at the show. I flipped around and found another of my favorite movies, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair.’ Max and I curled up to watch the art heist, the chase… and then the movie quickly became hot and heavy. We were definitely watching HBO, because soon her top was off. Suddenly the room felt a little claustrophobic.

“You know what’s sexy about this movie?” Max said, his arms around my neck, one hand twisting a strand of my hair as my head rested on his chest. His other hand was over the bracelet on my wrist. “They want each other the whole movie. It’s just a matter of time. And the longer they wait, the hotter it is.”

His hand moved from my hair, stroking down the side of my neck. Goosebumps prickled all the way to my waist. He rubbed the satin of my shirt collar between his fingers, the material shushing against his skin. Max traced the collar slowly across my chest. Then he grazed his hand back, over the rise of my breast. He was still touching visible skin, but my breathing was starting to quicken. On TV, the couple was having sex on a very large desk.

Oh boy, I thought as my heart rate picked up. Suddenly I felt drunk, delirious – and extremely turned on. My mind flashed slow-motion snaps: Max holding me against the counter, pressing up my skirt. Kissing me so hard he drew blood.

Max paused his hand at the top button of my shirt. When I didn’t move, and he opened it with a press of his thumb and forefinger. His fingers tracked further, around the swell into my cleavage. The movie showed the characters sprawled naked on a staircase, making love against the marble.

Oh my God I want him so badly, every single part of my body was bleating. My stomach muscles clenched and I sucked in a shallow breath. Don’t do this, this is not going to help you.

Max didn’t pause before popping the next button. His hand slid inside, over my bra and cupping my breast. Then his fingers were underneath, circling my nipple. I closed my eyes against the sensation, my body responding on its own. A sound rasped from deep in Max’s throat. He rolled his body, moving from under me to on top. His knee settled between mine so he was pressed over my side. He slowly licked a small line along my neck. My sense memory went into overdrive. Max on the kitchen floor, holding me down. Max making me ask, making me beg, to be taken over the edge.

“Kahlan,” he growled. His weight rested on my thigh, his arousal obvious. One hand ran down my side, playing at the sliver of skin above my jeans. “Stop me now. Or I cannot stop myself.”

I laid my head back on the bed, just a pause. But it was long enough. Max lifted his face to mine and slowly smiled.

“Good decision.” He eased off me slightly. “You should probably go. I will be thinking about you,” he winked. “But you are not quite ready for what I have in mind.” His hand brushed down my cheek as I blinked back a tear.

“Kahlan, you are a marvel. Almost as good as Kris. How do you do it? Don’t you want to be intimate? Want release? Are we not driving you mad the way you are doing to us?” He dropped down against me again. “I want to rip your clothes off and put us both out of our misery.”

I whimpered a small laugh. “Max, I can barely think. Any second I will levitate off this bed. I’m willing myself to black out so you can fuck me senseless and I can honestly claim ignorance of everything.”

“That I would do. But when you are with me, I will make sure you remember everything.”

I groaned comically. Max will still hard beneath his jeans. If I wanted this, I could still have it. But I would have to ask, I would have to move - he was forcing me to choose if I wanted something to happen. After a moment, he sat up.

“Okay, now go. I will clean up what you leave behind.”

I closed the door and leaned against it. One extra button was still open at the top of my shirt. My face was flushed and I pressed a hand against it. I could feel my pulse beating through my temple. I closed my eyes.

Stopstopstopstop... please stop, my brain begged. But my feet were moving down the hall. I banged on Sidney’s door. Cookie opened it, and started to smile.

“Hey Kay, what’s…”

“Out.” I stormed into the room. “Out!”

Cookie looked alarmed, but he didn’t hesitate. He stepped out and I shut the door behind him.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chapter 18 - Let Him

Jordan and Kris were in the lobby waiting for us in Montreal. It was still early morning, and few people were around to notice us.

“Foxy,” Jordan said to me. “Am I the ONLY guy on this team you haven’t kissed? Is it because of Cara? I could ask her, you know.”

“Salut, belle,” Kris said as I sank gratefully into his arms. He took my bag and led us upstairs. Cara was checked in and ready to go to the morning skate. When she saw Kris wheel my bag in behind me, she developed an urge for coffee and promised to meet us downstairs.

Kris stood my bag against the wall and turned to me. I couldn’t help myself. I went right up and pressed a simple, solid kiss to his mouth.

“Sorry, but I really needed that,” I said. He pulled me in close and stood there, holding me. He didn’t make a joke about needing another kiss, didn’t see it as an open invitation. Kris was serious about us, and that felt like the foundation I needed after what had just happened with Sidney.

“You looked beautiful in the newspaper photos,” he said quietly. “Sid looked like the luckiest guy on earth.” Kris had said he was fine on the phone. He clearly wasn’t feeling so strong anymore. I pulled him over to the bed and sat down.

“I’m sorry, Kris,” I repeated from the phone. “He didn’t try anything again all weekend. I promise you, nothing happened.”

He gave me a thin smile. “I believe you. I just didn’t like seeing it. Now I know why Max was so upset when I kissed you at the diner.”

I leaned my full weight against him. Kris was always taking the time to understand other people, to see where they were coming from. It was impossible to compete with his patience and acceptance.

As I was thinking, Kris lay back, taking me with him. He settled me on my back, then lifted his torso so he was looking down at me. He leaned over very slowly, looking into my eyes the whole time. He kissed me as I’d kissed him – simply, fully on the lips. It was over in a few seconds and I felt disintegrated against the bedspread.

“Sid’s little sister thinks you’re dreamy. She called you a ‘hunk’.” I managed weakly, completely agreeing with Taylor as Kris loomed above me.

He smiled, turning a little pink. “Belle, even I cannot wait that long.”

Kris boarded the bus, and most of the guys were already on board. Cara and I waited in the lobby to see Max and a few stragglers. We planned to see them off then catch a cab from the taxi stand. Coach Bylsma came back into the lobby and walked over to us.

“Kahlan, still have my entire team wrapped around your finger?”

“Only the really good looking, famous ones,” I replied.

“Then I guess you haven’t seen Talbot.” Laughing, he jerked his thumb toward the bus. “You ladies want to ride with us? Maybe that’ll hurry Max along.”

Cara went up first. Friends and family didn’t usually ride on the bus, but it wasn’t unheard of. She smiled at me then jetted to the back leaving me high and dry. Everyone knew what was coming. I climbed the stairs, and as soon as my head cleared the railing…


“Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss!”

“Oh Sidney! Kiss me again!”

“This is the best Christmas ever!”

I stopped at the front, rolled my eyes, and gave the team a little bow. They whooped and whistled. Bylsma came in behind me.

“I wanted you all to see that Kahlan is not the reason Max is late,” he said and they went crazy again. He smiled at me, and I glared back mockingly.

“Empty seat right here, Kay,” Jordan yelled, pushing Cara out of the way.

I gave him the finger and sat down next to Kris. He laced his fingers in mine. Finally Max and Cookie boarded. Bylsma must have told him we were on the bus, because he sped down the aisle and dove into the seat with me and Kris. He lay across us, feet up, and yelled for the bus to “go already!”

He righted himself, right onto my lap. “Kiss?” he said, loudly. I covered my face with the hand that wasn’t holding Kris’ and shook my head no. He kissed the back of my hand with an exaggerated “MWAH!” and sat across the aisle.

Cara and I found hot chocolate in the lounge and carried it up to the stands. I wore my Canada mittens against the chill in the empty arena.

“So, you have a date with Kris tonight,” she said. I looked alarmed with a mouthful of hot chocolate. “He’s been talking about it since yesterday. Wanna know where you’re going?”

I shook my head. “Nope, surprise.”

Cara smiled. “You’ll like it. Now the question is: do you like Kris?”

I sipped my drink. “As much as ever. Maybe more, after what happened with Sid. That was scary.” I thought about it for a minute. “Did Kris talk to you about this?”

She nodded. “He was worried. He found me as soon as I checked in yesterday.”

Wow. Kris didn’t know Cara all that well. Considering how long it had taken me to become Kris’ friend, I was a little jealous that he was opening up to Cara. I looked down at him on the ice. He must have felt like he couldn’t call me. I don’t blame him.

“Max freaked out too. He called Jordan after he heard from Sid, and asked for my number. He called me on Christmas Eve, Kay. He wanted to know if I thought you might go back to Sidney.”

My eyes flicked to Max on the ice. “He only joked with me, like it was all so funny. I bet I’m in for it later.”

“Not too bad,” she said. “He has a date with you in two days.”

Knock knock. Cara let Max in, then she left. I stood in front of the window.

“Hi Max,” I said.

“Fucking hell, Kahlan. I don’t know if I should kiss you or just walk away,” he said heavily. “Are you okay?”

I nodded. “A narrowly avoided disaster.” Max looked unconvinced. I knew he wondered if there were things I wasn’t telling him. I sat down at the end of the bed. “Max, I’m sorry,” I said without looking up.

“I don’t know what to think anymore Kahlan. I feel like you’re getting farther away since we fought in the kitchen. I know I went too far. I got mad at you over Kris, I was arrogant and stupid.” He came over and knelt down in front of me. “I know that I’m ruining this. And it’s killing me.”

“You aren’t, Max,” I said. Why is he on his knees? This is too much. My heart was fit to burst. His face was level with mine, closer than it seemed he’d been in a while. How could four days feel so long? But it been before then – since he’d called me a liar in the fight about the diner kiss. Tears were forming in my eyes. It’s been at least a week since I cried. Seems like a long time these days.

“Kay, please don’t give up on me,” he whispered. “I was lonely without you over Christmas. I don’t want that to happen again.” He tiled my chin up and tears spilled from by lashes. “Cherie…” and he kissed me. Down on his knees in my hotel room, Max kissed my lips gently. It was the sweetest, most chaste kiss Max has probably ever given anyone. And it spoke more than any other kiss.

“Now show Tanger a good time,” he said, very close to my face. “Poor kid has been mess without you.”

Stupid hair, lay flat, I scolded. I was one flat iron pass away from being ready. And then I’d be putting a hat on anyway.

Kris had told me to wear flat shoes, so I had my tall brown boots on over dark skinny jeans. A new, drapey dark brown sweater promised to keep me warm. I smoothed the last hair and pulled my white wool cap over it. I wore my winter white long dress coat, which always made me nervous. I had brown mittens today.

I will choose. I will be as good as they think I am, I repeated to myself as Kris knocked on my door at exactly 6:30 PM.

“Belle, you look beautiful,” he said. He wore a long dark overcoat. I could see black pinstripe trousers and the collar of a green shirt peeking out under his scarf. He too had a wool hat over his ears. We were heading out early to be back by Kris’ curfew. We walked down a few streets, and Kris pulled out his phone.

“I have a surprise for you,” he said, pressing send. “Oui, nous sommes ici. Bien.” Two minutes later, a red car pulled up at the end of the block. A man about my height with gray haired climbed out and waved us over.

“Kahlan, this is my stepfather Gerard,” Kris said. He laughed at the look of surprise on my face.

The man took my hand and kissed it. “A votre service.”

“Enchante,” I managed. Kris opened the back door for me.

We drove about 30 minutes, crossing the river into the suburbs. My rusty high school French was a hit with Gerard, who also spoke some English. From across the water, the lights of downtown Montreal twinkled back at us.

Gerard parked in front of a darkly shingled house with white clapboard shutters. Kris again opened my door and helped me out of the car. As we walked up to the door, he didn’t let go of my hand. I could smell food. Inside, a shortish, dark-haired women rushed out of the kitchen.

“Kahlan,” she exclaimed and hugged me.

“Maman, calmez!” Kris laughed. “Kahlan, my mother Marie.”

“Bonsoir, merci pour votre hospitalite,” I said.

“You are very welcome,” she said. “My English is not perfect, but I learn more when Kris is home. He tells us you are coming, so this year I learn extra!”

Kris tossed my coat on the couch and showed me around. The living room had a roaring fire and deep pile carpet. On the mantle was a photo of Kris and his parents, holding the Stanley Cup on a sunny day. Nestled in the backyard was a diamond-shaped swimming pool.

“Ever freeze it?” I joked.

“Too small!” he said.

Kris’ mom called out that dinner would be ready in 10 minutes. He led me upstairs and opened the first door on the hallway. It looked a lot like his room in Pittsburgh, except here his mom clearly put away his clothes after he left.

“You didn’t live here when you were little,” I said, looking around. “Too bad, no baby Tanger memorabilia. I am going to have to ask your mom.”

Kris made a face. “There are some over here.”

On the far wall, three pictures were framed. One was Kris as a baby, standing up in a crib with a gummy smile on his face. In the next he was about ten years old, standing on the ice in full gear. The last was Kris in high school, with short hair, smiling uncomfortably in a suit for an awards dinner or formal dance. By then, his shoulders were broad and promised the strong, powerful physique that had developed in the six or so years since.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” I said.

He turned toward me, sliding a hand around my back. “I have two homes, and now you are part of both. Max will be jealous – his family lives 20 minutes from here.”

I smiled, flattered and honored. Standing in Kris’ room in his parents’ house was very close, very personal. In all the time I’d felt special because Kris was comfortable with me, I had never felt like this.

He leaned in and kissed me. A sweet, simple kiss and that made my knees weak.

Kris would love me forever, if I let him. If I could love him back like that, this would be it. He and I, a home of our own, feeling this safe and sure. Leaning into those broad shoulders, waking up next to that heart-melting smile. Brushing his hair from his face. Feeling like everything I could ever want is right here in this room. Kris would be forever.

Dinner with Kris’ family was wonderful. His parents were funny and polite – no one mentioned the photos of me and Sidney. Kris’ mom told embarrassing baby stories and Kris blushed a thousand times. My French was just good enough to understand when he was begging her to stop. She didn’t. Afterward, we sat in the living room. Marie brought out a small photo album and showed me some more pictures of young Kris. My favorites were the candid shots, where his real smile was caught on film.

I helped Marie take the dishes into the kitchen. “Thank you for a wonderful dinner,” I said.

“Chere, you are very important to Kris, and so to us. I hope you will visit again soon.”

Gerard drove us back over the bridge and dropped us off in a small plaza. Kris took my mitten in his gloved hand and started walking. It was brisk, but not terribly cold. We walked through Old Montreal, cafes and restaurants blazing brightly. Music flowed out whenever someone opened a door. The cobblestone streets made our route feel like a European promenade. Kris pointed out famous landmarks, I pointed out every cute little dog that tapped past on a leash. He told me about growing up here, playing outdoor hockey in the winter, trying to learn English by watching American movies. At 10 PM, church bells started ringing, and then I saw the cathedral.

“Notre Dame,” Kris said. “Well, our Notre Dame.”

A few blocks later, Kris made a left toward a white, bungalow-style building. As soon as he opened the door, the smell of chocolate and warm cake poured from the dessert parlor. Kris helped me out of my coat and hung it on the back of my chair. He pulled his chair very close to mine, so our legs were touching, then ordered in French.

The waitress brought us a huge ice cream sundae. Hot fudge dripped from the rim of the glass, ice cream and whipped cream towering over it. Kris handed me one of the two cherries on the top.

“Tie it,” he said, after I’d eaten the cherry and was holding just the stem.

“Race you,” I countered, popping the stem in my mouth.

Kris quickly ate the other cherry and put the stem in his mouth. We both worked with tongues and teeth, trying to loop the stems over themselves into knots. Finally, I used my fingers to pull the stem between my teeth and finish the knot. It was pretty centered, and definitely tied. Kris was finished right behind me. His was looser, but clearly knotted.

I picked up my spoon. “First bite goes to the winner!”

He pretended to pout, until I let him in with his spoon. The sundae was vanilla and chocolate, covered in homemade hot fudge, whipped cream and nuts. He took a particularly decadent spoonful and held it out to me. I leaned in and ate off his spoon. Scooping a tiny bit of whipped cream, I leveled it at him. When he moved to eat it, I dabbed it on the tip of his nose instead.

With all we’d eaten for dinner, the sundae was a struggle. Kris took one last bite and a drop of hot fudge ended up just below the outside corner of his mouth.

Waaaaaaiiiiiiiitttttttttttttt… my brain tried, but I was already moving. I leaned it and kissed the spot, getting the chocolate and most of Kris’ lips in the bargain. I didn’t have a chance to sit back before Kris was pressing another kiss to my lips. He tasted cold and creamy, like chocolate and ice. He smiled sweetly at me.

“Délicieux,” he whispered, reaching for my coat.

It was nearly curfew when we got back, and none of the guys were in the bar. I didn’t want to share the evening with anyone. Curfew meant Kris had to be in the hotel, preferably in his room, but he certainly wasn’t ordered to sleep at a particular time. He walked me to my room and we found a note from Cara:

Watching a movie with Jordan. Maybe two. As late as you want.

Kris dumped his coat on Cara’s bed, kicked off his shoes and took off his dress shirt. In a t-shirt, he climbed on my bed and settled back with the remote. I changed into my pajama pants and a tank top, keeping my bra on, and sat next to him. He put his arm around me and we watched the beginning of ‘National Treasure.’

“Albuquerque! Snorkel!” I called at my favorite part of the movie. Kris laughed and flipped the TV off.

“We don’t need the movie. You could act out the whole thing.” I got up and unrolled the blanket like it was the Declaration of Independence. Kris got up too, and went to the dresser. He opened the top drawer and pulled out a wrapped package.

“I haven’t given you your real Christmas present,” he said. “I was going to give it to you before, but when you gave me a date I thought it would be better tonight.” He handed it to me.

I looked back at the drawer. “Did Cara hide it for you?” He nodded.

That’s a bit of preparation, I thought as I sat on the bed. The temperature in the room went up five degrees.

He scooted up next to me and lay back on his folded arms. His t-shirt slid up, revealing a bare band of skin along his lower stomach. The directional muscles at his hipbones were pointing somewhere impossible to ignore. Another ten degrees.

The gift was the size of a shoebox, wrapped in white with a red ribbon around all four sides. A perfect red bow sat in the center. I popped the bow off and stuck it to my shoulder. Unwrapped, it was a plain white box. Inside that – another box. And another.

Inside the last was a small, square black velvet box. My heart stopped. A flash of ice-cold adrenaline ran through my body – from heart to fingers in a split second. I didn’t even breathe. Twenty more degrees.

“Wooo,” Kris laughed. “The look on your face! It’s not a ring. I said I’d only do that if you made a sign tomorrow night.”

“Kris,” I said like a small curse under my breath. “Not funny. And I can’t make a sign now – I’ve already been warned to lay low, in case someone recognizes me.”

“Good. Because I do not want to have to ask Sidney Crosby’s girlfriend to marry me in front of 20,000 people.”

He was on his side now, watching me closely. I removed the velvet box and put the other packaging aside. After a moment of staring, I opened the lid. Inside was a small drop-shaped pendant attached to a necklace. It was delicate, beautiful and it was definitely a diamond.

“Wow,” I whispered.

Kris pulled himself up next to me, reached over and pulled the necklace from its box. Separating the clasp, he laced his arms over my head. His forearms brushed my bare shoulders as he fastened it. With one finger, he traced the chain where it lay across my neck. A hundred degrees.

“Kris,” I breathed as he leaned in and kissed the side of my neck, right over the chain. Moving up toward my ear, he trailed kisses along my skin.

My eyes closed themselves and my toes curled as I drew a shallow, ragged breath. Alarm bells were sounding in my brain. Five more seconds and I’d be done. This ship was taking on water and sinking fast.

He hooked a finger in the strap of my tank top and slowly drew it down off my shoulder. His lips touched the bare skin of my shoulder blade, his hand grazing down my arm. Moving that hand over my shoulder, he ran it over my breast.

He is serious here. And I am seriously about to lose my shit. My brain was firing like a machine gun. I turned toward him and he turned, facing me now. He pressed me back to the pillow and followed my lips with his. I shoved the hair from his face and kissed him deeply. The shape of his upper body, those incredibly wide, rounded shoulders tapering into a tight waist… my body was practically weeping with desire.

He took me to his house. He has been so patient. I think if I started, this time he wouldn’t stop. If I wanted this, wanted him, I could let him take me right now. Or would I be making him take me?

“Kris,” I said again, a little louder.

“Do you want me to go?” he asked immediately, into my hair.

“Please,” I breathed. “Please, before I cannot ask you again.”

Chapter 17 - Truth

Christmas dinner was less awkward than expected. Taylor told us all about school. Her winter break was two weeks long, and I promised to go day-after-Christmas shopping with her for new clothes. Trina suggested we snowmobile around the lake the next day, as they’d been seeing a lot of deer and foxes playing on the far shore. We talked less about hockey than I would have expected, though I did tell them about my new job with the Penguins.

“So, are you two a couple?” Troy eventually asked. I had seen it on his face all night. I knew he wouldn’t make it through the meal without bringing it up.

“Dad!” Sidney said. “We already talked about this.”

“Yes, we did. But Kahlan is part of this too, and I haven’t talked to her.”

I cut in before Sid could respond. “It’s okay, Sid. No, we are not a couple. We… we thought about it.” I looked at Sid and saw surprise on his face. “There are circumstances that told us it wasn’t a good idea. But Sid is one of my best friends. In the world. I don’t want to do anything to hurt him, and I am sorry for what happened. I will do whatever you think is best to solve this problem.”

I felt Sid’s hand on my leg, squeezing my thigh. Trina gave me a little smile.

Troy relaxed. “I know. You’ve got Talbot and Tanger all wrapped up too, eh?” Then he laughed. He actually laughed at my crazy love triangle, my soap opera, the weight daily pressing my heart into a pancake. As long my evil plan for world domination didn’t involve Sidney, Troy really didn’t care.

“We’ll see what the papers say tomorrow. And please, you two, watch out. Once that’s out, the paparazzi will be climbing in the windows around here.”

I carried a stack of empty plates into the kitchen and started loading the dishwasher. Trina came in behind me with the turkey leftovers.

“It’s shame you and Sid aren’t a couple. That was well played with Troy.” She set the platter down. “Sure you won’t reconsider?”

I blushed. “Sid is too good for me, Trina. Way too good.”

She waved her hand. “Eh, I get it. Kris and Max – that’s more than one girl can handle anyway.”

“I like Tanger best,” Taylor offered all 13 years of her wisdom. She placed the empty glasses carefully on the counter. “He is a hunk. Ask him to read to you in French. He read me a newspaper article once, and I almost died.”

Trina and I both cracked up. “A hunk? Did you just land here in your time machine?” I asked.

“What about Max, Taylor? He’d be really jealous if you didn’t think he was cute,” Trina said.

“Oh, Max is cute. But he’s so corny. He’s always showing off his muscles and making kissing faces. All the girls like him. You should pick the one that less girls like. Less trouble.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Taylor, what about Sid? More girls like Sid that all the other guys in the world put together.”

“I know, but ewwwwww.” She paused. “Wait. If you liked Sid, that would be okay. That would be awesome.”

Trina looked at me. “I was just saying the same thing.”

Snow slid down inside my boots. I plunged on anyway, taking moon-man steps across the yard. I was wearing Taylor’s too-small snow boots, her ski pants, ski jacket and borrowed hat and gloves. Sidney was already in the yard, digging out the space underneath their tree swing. I got close and flopped down into the snow. I could see Sid’s breath. It was crystal clear and freezing cold. The sky was a perfectly even midnight blue scattered with a billion stars.

“We’re really out here, huh?”

He looked up too. “You can always see stars here. It’s kind of sad in the cities, missing out on that.” He tossed a shovelful of snow onto my stomach. I balled it up and threw it back.

“Sorry about my dad at dinner. You handled it well,” he said. He finished, sat and swung freely in his four foot circle.

“He’s just looking out for you.”

“Did you mean what you said?” he asked.

“Of course. I don’t want anything bad to happen because of me.”

He got up from the swing and sat down next to me. He looked like a little boy in his snow pants and gloves, with his coat zipped all the way up. He pressed his chin down over the collar so I could see his face.

“I meant when you said you had thought about us being a couple,” he said.

I lay there in the snow. “Didn’t you think about it?” You certainly told me you liked me and that you wanted to kiss me and then we did more than that.

“Obviously. But I didn’t know if you did. I mean, really thought about it.” He wasn’t looking at me, instead making little peaks and valleys in the snow between us.

I sat up. “Sidney, I thought about it. I’m still thinking about it.” It’s true, I was. I didn’t want to bring more trouble upon myself, but Sid was something so different from what I had with Max or Kris. At least had been before today. I knew that down this road, he was just as messy and probably more. We’d already caused a disaster and were just waiting for the debris to rain down. “And I still don’t think it’s a good idea.”

He put his arm around me and pulled me back, laying both of us in the drift.

“I know,” he said. “I’m just glad you thought about it. I thought I might have ruined it with the pre-game meal. And you were just too nice to shut me down. Then today…”

I rolled on my side, his arm between my face and the snow. “I thought what you did today was adorable. I’ve kinda always wanted someone to do that to me.” I was smiling. “I’m sorry we got caught.”

“I’m not, really,” he said. “They were bound to catch me doing something sooner or later. And whatever shit storm it stirs up was always going to happen anyway. I think I’m relieved. So I was kissing my beautiful best friend. So she’s not my girlfriend. There are worse things.”

“I like it when you call me that.”

“What? Beautiful? Or not my girlfriend?” he asked.

“No, your best friend,” I cuddled into his side.

He turned toward me, rolling in, and kissed my forehead. “You are my best friend. And now you are my partner in crime.”

The back door opened and Taylor shouted out. “Are you guys kissing again? Because Dad is gonna have a heart attack!”

Christmas morning with the Crosbys was lovely. We deliberately avoided the news or the paper, though I had the distinct feeling that Troy and Trina had already checked the damage. Still, it was put aside as we sat in front of the tree.

Taylor tore through her gifts. Clothes, CDs, hockey gear. I gave her an iPod Shuffle loaded with my favorite workout songs for when she trained for hockey. I knew some of the guys wore the little gadgets under their gear during endurance skates. Sidney gave her a ticket to visit us in Pittsburgh later in January. I gave Troy and Trina a bottle of wine and a sundial for their yard that Sidney had picked out. He gave his mother a pair of beautiful pearl earrings and his father a new watch.

“Kahlan, this is for you,” Trina passed me a beautifully wrapped square package.

Inside was a gorgeous silver picture frame with etched scrollwork sides. The photo was a blown-up copy from the Lemieux’s house the previous winter. It showed Max, Kris, Sidney, Marc, Vero, Jordan, Taylor and me all laying in a heap in the snow on their back porch in the aftermath of a snowball fight.

“I love it,” I said honestly.

“This is for you too,” Sid held out a small flat box. It wasn’t deep enough to hold any other boxes, but I still gave him a suspicious look as I opened it. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I bought the same thing for everyone in that picture. Except Taylor.” She scoffed out loud. It wasn’t a box at all, but an elaborate Christmas card. I folded open the top layer:

Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho and a bottle of…
Love, Sidney

Beneath that was a plane ticket to Jamaica for the 4th of July week.

“Sidney! This is amazing!” He wore a huge smile and I have him a big hug. “Now my present seems so lame!” I handed him a tiny little flat square, 2 x 2 inches.

He eyed me as he thumbed open the tape and folded open the paper in his hand. It was a clear plastic case holding a computer flash drive. Inside the case was a piece of paper. He opened it, read a few lines, and burst out laughing.

“What is it?” Taylor looked over his shoulder.

“It’s our song list. Every song that Kahlan and I love to sing at the top of our lungs while we’re driving. Songs I am too embarrassed to have on my iPod.”

“Now you have them for the road, in secret,” I explained. “They are ranked. #1 is where we sound the worst. By #25 or so, an innocent bystander might live to tell the tale.”

He shuffled over on his knees and gave me a hug. “It’s perfect,” he said.

“You guys are totally weird,” Taylor announced.

I helped Taylor carry her gifts upstairs to her room. “Taylor, can you do me a favor? Ask Sid to come up here.”

“Ew, there is NO kissing in my room, Kahlan!”

“Taylor!” I hissed and she skipped off downstairs, laughing. Just in case, I did leave her room to wait on the landing.

“What’s up?” Sidney came around the corner.

“That wasn’t your real present,” I said.

He pretended to look over his shoulder. “Well my parents are right downstairs, but what the hell, let’s go,” he said, trying to pick me up and move toward the guest bedroom. I slapped his arm and he put me down, but didn’t move away. I held up a large, parchment paper envelope like the ones I’d given Kris and Max. It is only fair, I told myself. Especially now.

Good for one date – Ottawa, January 2010

He looked down at me. “Am I the last one?”

I nodded. He always knew everything. He snaked a thick arm around behind my back.

“You know what’s supposed to happen on the third date….”

Somewhere, in an etiquette book, it’s written that you shouldn’t call people before 10 AM on Christmas. Because at 10 AM, the Crosby’s phone started ringing off the hook. As soon as it did, I whimpered.

“I was hoping everyone forgot,” Sid said. His cell phone rang almost immediately. Then mine went too.

“Mom?” I said, picking up the phone. “Merry Christmas! How is Paris?”

“Why am I getting emails from everyone at home saying there’s a picture of you kissing Sidney in the paper?”

“Actually, he’s kissing me. But whatever. It’s something stupid, don’t worry about it. People are emailing you on Christmas morning?”

She tutted. “It’s 4 in the afternoon here, Kay. Is there anything else I should know?”

“No mom, it’s fine. I’m at the Crosbys’ now and we’re just about to see how bad this all looks.”

“Well fine,” she said. “Have fun. And Kahlan, in case I have never told you, that boy is a stone cold fox. Go get him.”

“MOM!” I shouted as she gave holiday greetings and hung up on me. Sidney eyed me from the couch. “My mom thinks you’re hot.”

He gave me a cheesy thumbs-up. “Cougars!”

Troy came through the front door, stomping snow from his booths. He had a pile of newspapers under his arm. He was not smiling. “This is ridiculous,” he said. He called Trina in. Sid and I sat on the couch like prisoners awaiting execution.

“Shall we go from the biggest?” He said, tossing to Toronto Star on the table. Front page sidebar, full color. ‘Sid’s Christmas Kiss’ was the headline in red and white type.

Seeing the photo, I exhaled. Sid had dropped his shoulder and his face was clearly visible. My hair was behind my ear, but my head was tilted to the right of his nose, shielding my face a little. His hand was on my waist. The photo cut off at mid-thigh, but it was obvious he was pressed against me.

I pointed to my hand, which was resting on his upper arm. “I don’t remember doing that,” I said.

“That is what you’re thinking about?” He laughed. “It does make it look like you’re kissing me back.”

“I was kissing you back!” Then I looked at his parents. “Sorry. Oh God.” I sank back into the couch and rolled down as far as I could.

“It would look much worse if you weren’t kissing him back,” Trina said, picking it up and looking more closely. “I think it’s actually a good picture.”

If you were dating!” Troy said, and Trina shot him a look. “You two are a mess.”

He flipped the paper open. Inside was a full page spread. The camera click that I’d heard was clearly not the first. There was a series of photos, like a little flip book. Sid leaning in close and smiling at me, three of the kiss (I had moved my head from left to right during the kiss, apparently), one of us breaking apart and another of Sid holding my hand and pulling me into security.

‘Who’s the Lucky Lady?’ this headline asked. They’d taken the clearest shot of my face and enlarged it. It was right after the kiss, when Sidney said “Bummer.” I was smiling, about to laugh – it was a good photo. I looked like I was in love. Below the photos was a single paragraph:

Hockey superstar Sidney Crosby let his guard down in the Pittsburgh airport on Christmas Eve. Crosby was photographed kissing a mystery brunette before they passed through security, presumably to travel to Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia for the holidays. Airport security declined to comment on the woman’s identity and airline representatives could not be reached for comment.

Taylor took the paper and held it at arm’s length. “Gross. Kahlan, I have lost all respect for you.”

“Ha! Taylor, yesterday you wanted us to get married!” I said.

“True. But I never planned to watch you actually kiss him.”

Troy ran us through the other headlines, all with some version of the photo on their covers:
Toronto Globe & Mail – ‘Kid’s Christmas Comes Early’
Toronto Sun – ‘Sid Plays Another Kind of Hockey’
Montreal Gazette – ‘Baiser le Capitaine!’

Sid squeezed my leg at that one. It’s what Max and Kris would see this morning. There were more, all the same. I wondered what the Pittsburgh paper looked like.

“The headline here is ‘No Mistletoe Necessary’,” Mario said on speaker phone. “And someone was able to identify you, Kahlan. It must have been added late, because no other papers seem to have your name.”

I looked at Sid. “Sorry,” he mouthed. I shook my head. Even with my name out there, this was most awkward for him. I looked like the luckiest girl in the world. He would be endlessly asked why he was kissing someone he wasn’t even dating, why he wasn’t dating, when he would, who she would be, where he would find her, if he wanted the reporter’s daughter’s phone number… endless.

“We just have to be careful going forward, for a little while,” Mario said. “People will try to photograph you Kahlan, so keep that in mind. And maybe stay away from Max.”

We all laughed, mostly because he wasn’t kidding.

Later in the day the local movie theatre agreed to let us sneak in through the back after the lights were down. We sat in the corner of the top row with Taylor.

“No kissing,” she warned before the movie started.

Partway through, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Sid felt it against his leg too. I flipped it open – there was no one to bother back there.

Max: I want one of those when I see you. 3 days.

Sid shook his head.

After Christmas dinner with the Crosbys, we went back to Sid’s to watch my favorite movie, ‘A Christmas Story’. The phones had finally stopped ringing. I planned to avoid the internet for the rest of my life.

“You okay?” Sid asked as the credits rolled.

I nodded. “I think so. You?”

He leaned forward, pulling me with him, to put the popcorn bowl on the table. “I’m glad it was you. Someone else might have freaked out. I’m just really frustrated. That’s how it’s always going to be for me – makes me feel like I never want to bother.”

“They’ll get over it eventually, when you’re with someone for a while. They did with Mario, and Gretzky.”

“But what girl wants to put up with that? Unless she’s a famewhore, then I don’t want her.” He sighed. “Sorry. I’m sorry this happened. And I… Kahlan, I am not going to do anything else. Please don’t be scared around me. See what it got me? Doing something I said I wouldn’t do?”

If Sid had made a move… well the damage was already done, in a sense. We were out there. He was halfway over the cliff he’d always been terrified of falling from. For him, this aftermath of initial exposure was the best opportunity he’d had to move forward in his life. I closed my eyes, so relieved. My willpower tank was empty – if I even had one anymore.

“I kind of hoped, when we came up here… that you might decide you were interested in me after all,” he said. “I might have had a little plan in my head. But now I see it was crazy. I just… it would be so easy if it were you.”

I put my arms around his neck and give him as big a hug as I could while sitting down. “Sidney Crosby, someone is going to fall madly in love with you. And you with her. And neither of you will care about those cameras.”

Sad eyes. “Can you ask her to hurry?”

Troy pulled up to the airport. We’d avoided public like the plague for four days. It hadn’t taken the photographers much to figure out Sid had a game tomorrow and would like fly out sometime today. I got out first and made my way in alone, hat pulled low, while Troy circled the block with Sidney. I passed through security, then stood on my toes and tried to watch as Sid came in. One person spotted him and it was a rush. He smiled thinly, said nothing, and pressed his way into the terminal. It was impossible not to see the small mob, and pretty soon everyone in the airport knew he had arrived. I suddenly felt very conspicuous.

An older woman rolled her bag up next to me at the security table. She was putting things back in her pockets. She smiled at me then caught the commotion outside the line. After a moment, she looked back at me.

“That’s your boyfriend, eh?” she smiled. I was about to say something, anything, but she continued. “Is he worth all this?”

I stopped, then smiled. “Definitely.”

“Stick with him, girl. He’ll need you.” And she rolled away.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Chapter 16 - Consequence

At 7 AM, I ducked into Max’s room and climbed on his bed. I put my face right to his and kissed his sleeping cheek. He woke halfway, which is all Max needs. Without cracking any eyelid he pulled me in and kissed me on the mouth.

“Ugh, morning breath,” I said.

He smiled, eyes still closed. “Less noticeable when I’m naked.”

I shut his door and opened Kris'. He was propped up on an elbow, waiting for me.

“Sorry I woke you,” I made my way in and lay down next to him.

“Sorry you’re not coming home with me.” He leaned down kissed my cheek. I wrapped my arms around him and gave him a bear hug. He laughed.

“Miss you, Tanger.” And I left.

A town car glided to a stop at the end of our driveway. Sid hopped out of the backseat and took my suitcase.

“It gets a little weird at the airport,” he said, climbing in beside me. “Better if I don’t drive us.”

“Do we go in the regular way?” I asked. It was easy for me to forget that Sidney was incredibly famous in the right places. Of course, Pittsburgh was such a place. But I was used to being with a lot of the team, or seeing them at Pens functions where it was all officially sanctioned. And girls in a club didn’t count, I was used to that too. We were careful where we went in public and were pretty good at avoiding a scene.

“We do. Someone will meet us at the curb and take us through security, to the airline lounge. Once we’re in there we should be okay.” He paused. “It’s just tough at the holidays, because the airports are so crowded. One person can turn into a hundred people very quickly. So let’s try not to get scoped, okay?”

I nodded. “Luckily, I am incognito. They’d all assume you’d be with someone much hotter.” I held up my hands, in Max’s Canada mittens. “Will these give me away?”

He snickered. “Kay, if they see us together, you are dead meat.”

A United Airlines greeter opened my door curbside and our bags were whisked away. Sid pulled the collar of his jacket up and his baseball cap down low. He was wearing jeans and sneakers, like most other travelers. Still, with his amazing size and shape, the powerful way he walked, I thought he looked like neon sign flashing #87.

“If you wanted to hide, you should have worn something to cover that ass,” I said under my breath.

Sidney snorted a laugh, hurrying past the check-in desks. “I’m told, by some girls, that some other girls somewhere like my ass.”

I slapped his arm. “That’s my point. Every girl everywhere likes your ass.”

He turned, slowing, a sarcastic grin on his face. “I’m only interested in one girl,” he said.

We were partway across the packed terminal when I saw the TV camera crew. Sid saw them at the same moment. We were totally in the open, our airport rep twenty paces ahead of us. Sid stopped and looked quickly around. A solid wall of people were between us and security. He stepped into me, backing me up. We moved quickly into a corner where the outside wall of a bookstore met the concourse. There were people absolutely everywhere. The camera crew moved to the middle of the terminal, between us and security, looking for the best place to set up a shot and film the hundreds of travelers before them.

Turning his back to them, Sidney shielded both himself and me from the lens. People poured past, shopping and wandering. If they spotted him it would be chaos. He looked unfazed. In fact, he was staring right down into my eyes. I could see, behind him, the camera crew moving in our direction. They would pass right by us.

“Don’t turn,” I said quietly.

He just smiled. “I’ve always wanted to try this.” And he kissed me.

Hat, collar and turned back hid his face from view, and his body totally hid mine. He pressed into me, holding me against the wall. His mouth was soft and warm. He put a hand high on my waist, almost on my stomach, careful to keep his back to the outside. My brain sputtered and buzzed, but refused to start. I got a little dizzy from the insistent pressure of his lips against mine. It hardly took a second for me to give in and give up to the kiss. I opened my mouth and that was it. Sidney Crosby was kissing me in public. Dimly, my brain wondered what happened to that camera crew.

Thirty seconds later, he stopped. But he didn’t move. I didn’t look anywhere but in his eyes. And I said, “Shit.”

That cracked his face into a smile. “Gotcha,” he whispered. “That always works in the movies.”

I stood on my toes. He dropped his shoulder so I could peek over. The crew had set up on the other side and swiveled the camera away from us.

“All clear.” I met his gaze again. Sid was still against me, not having moved. He didn’t turn, just looked at me.

“Bummer,” he said.

At that moment, our airport rep reappeared. He cleared his throat. “Security line is clear, sir, they’ll let you right through.”

Sid detached his body from mine, grabbed my hand and turned to follow. I heard it like a crack of lightning.

SNAP. A camera shutter. An ice cold flash of adrenaline slammed through my system. He clamped painfully hard onto my fingers.

“Sid! Sid!” Someone close by us called. A voice or two joined in. He didn’t stop, just pulled me into the first class security line behind him. The officer at the podium took one look at Sidney’s face and waved him through. He barely glanced at my passport before letting me past.

Once inside the security area, whoever had called his name couldn’t get to us. They kept shouting, hoping he’d turn around. But the only people turning were all the others in the regular security line.

The airport rep stood behind us, shielding us as much as possible. We threw our shoes and bags onto the conveyer belt. Sid wrestled his laptop out of his bag. The x-ray screener was looking at Sid when our bags went through – he didn’t look at the screen once.

Shoes on and laptop collected, the greeter steered us quickly left. People past security hadn’t heard Sid’s name called, so we anonymously climbed a flight of stairs into the United Airlines lounge. Sid held my hand every possible second. Pittsburgh isn’t a big city, but the small lounge was nicely appointed. The rep steered us to a table near the window, partially hidden from the room by the circular shape of the bar. Sid dropped into a chair.

“Shit, Kay.” Still holding my hand. I had barely processed what happened.

“Do you think they got us?”

“They got something,” he leaned back. “I didn’t hear the camera before the greeter came back. With any luck, they didn’t see us kissing. Kissing! What was I doing?! I am so, so sorry.” He turned his whole body to face me, our knees touching. “Kay, I am sorry. What am I playing at?”

I put my hands on the outsides of his legs. “Sid, stop. I thought it was funny too. Well, funny and I almost fainted.”

He barked a laugh. “I am in big trouble if they got us kissing. Huge. Either way we’ll be in the paper tomorrow.” He dug out his phone. “I have to call my dad and Mario. You should call them.”

Uuuggghhhh. I was so surprised and worried about Sid and cameras and his image that I hadn’t even thought of Kris and Max. Fuck fuck fuck.

“Wait,” Sid said. “Don’t. I will call them first.” He thumbed through his contacts and pressed Send. Voicemail picked right up.

“Max, it’s Sid. I was an asshole and goofing around in the airport and I kissed Kahlan. And I think someone got a photo of it. I did it all, she didn’t do anything and now I might have caused an enormous problem. You will probably see it in the paper. Please don’t be mad at her – I did it all and she wants to kill me. Sorry bro. I’ll call you later.” He left the same message for Kris, then hung up.

He actually smiled. “I think that was worse than having to tell my dad.”

I wrung my hands. “Sidney, are your parents going to freak? Should I go home right now?” We were still in Pittsburgh, after all.

“No. Well, yes. They will freak out. But you cannot leave. I did this and I will fix it.” He stopped. “Or my dad will make us get married tomorrow. Much easier if you’re actually there.” Sid took his phone around the other side of the bar.

I closed my eyes, but I had to laugh. I’d met Sidney’s parents before. His mother was an absolute sweetheart. His father, a bear of a man, was a bit brusque at our first meeting, but eventually warmed up and I’d liked him. Sid later told me that Mario had vouched for me, assuring Mr. Crosby that I presented no threat to his son’s reputation. So much for that.

The airport greeter came back first, waving our boarding passes. Our flight was taking off in 25 minutes. Sidney wrapped up his call.

He looked at me. “Marriage it is.”

I was sweating by the time the plane reached cruising altitude. We were in the second row of first class, Sid against the window. I still thought everyone was looking at him, at me – was I someone? Was I the Kid’s girl? If they remembered my face, they’d know by morning. Sid scrolled through the movies on our individual TVs, frowned and fished out his laptop. “You said you missed these,” he brought up a few episodes of Doctor Who that he’d bought from iTunes.

“My favorite!” We had to sit with our heads touching to share the earphones.

As the show’s main titles played, he turned toward me. “I’m so sorry, Kay.”

I didn’t turn, I couldn’t turn without putting my face right to his. I didn’t want anyone to think we were kissing on the plane. I just shook his apology away. Underneath the tray, he took my hand in his.

We had a layover in New York. Sid could be pretty anonymous here, at least until it was time to board the plane to Halifax. We took a booth at TGI Fridays. At 10 AM, we both ordered beers. Sid listened to his phone, then held it out to me.

Max’s voice came on: “You are fucking killing me, Kid. If I see tongue in this picture I really will kill you.”

I closed his phone and showed him mine. Max: Try to keep your pants on.

“So, my dad is furious. We are staying at my house, not theirs, which is better. Still, I should go talk to them before you come over. Is that okay?” He asked. I nodded, scared of ruining their whole Christmas.

“Don’t worry, he’ll get over it. He’s mad at me, not at you,” he smiled. “Well, maybe a little bit at you. But just for being so hot that I can’t control myself.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “He thinks I can’t control myself, you mean.”

“My mom knows about Max and Kris and you, and all that. Well, a little of it. I had to tell her when I invited you up, or there really would have been a wedding waiting for us. So she’s talking my dad down.”

“Jesus, Sid! If your mom tells him that, your dad will think I’m getting it on with the whole damned team! For fuck’s sake, I practically am! Oh my God.”

He touched his beer glass to mine. “Billy G has never looked at you twice. I’ll call him if I need backup.”

Sid opened the door to his house. I was on the couch, flipping through a magazine.

“Well, that could have gone worse,” he said, taking the recliner next to me. “Mario got a call – the photographer was from the Post-Gazette. He did in fact get us kissing. Mario is trying to kill that photo and get them to run just us standing close or holding hands or whatever else they got. Honestly, he doesn’t think it’ll work.” I groaned. “The editor told Mario the photo is ‘electric,’ whatever that means. Apparently if I were a bad kisser, they’d bury it.” He tried to laugh.

“And the pictures are up on their wire service, so even if they killed the kissing photo in the ‘Burgh, it’ll definitely run up here.”

“So what exactly could have gone worse?” I asked.

“My mom was pretty good with my dad. And I explained that the whole thing was my fault, just fooling around. He was really upset, but he knows there’s nothing he can do about it. He even pointed out that you’ve been around forever, so it’s not like the papers can I say I picked up some puckbunny.”

Sid turned to me. “Mario was surprised. He knows you’ve stayed over a few times. He mercifully did not mention that to my parents.”

“We didn’t even do anything when I slept over!” I threw my hands up. “Thank God they don’t know about pre-game meal!”

We parked Sid’s ‘Canada car’ and walked up his parents’ front steps. I took a very deep breath as he opened the front door.

“Kahlan!” Sid’s younger sister Taylor ran into the foyer and hugged me. “You guys are SO busted! I’m gonna buy a hundred copies of the paper tomorrow.”

“Taylor!” Sid swatted at her.

“Your fault, stupid,” she stuck her tongue out and pulled me into the kitchen.

Sid’s mom was stirring something on the stove. The house smelled like turkey and gravy. The kitchen was big and square, with a large island in the middle and one wall of windows with the shutters all open. Natural light poured in, reflecting off the copper pots and pans hanging above.

“Hello Kahlan, Merry Christmas!” Trina put down her spoon and hugged me. Into my ear she said, “Don’t worry about anything.” She squeezed my shoulders.

I heard footsteps as Sid’s father, Troy, came into the room. It was a moment before a smile came to his face, like he needed to remind himself not to be upset. He dutifully came over and gave me a hug.

“Nice to see you Kahlan,” he said.

“You too. And I am really sorry about today.” I had to say something. I felt Sid tense up across the island.

Troy nodded. “Not the best situation, but we’ll work it out.” I could feel the effort it took for him to say that, instead of whatever he was really thinking. “At least Sidney has good taste.” That sounded more genuine. The elephant was at least smaller, if not completely out of the room.

Just before dinner, I snuck upstairs to with my phone.

“Belle,” Kris said. “What happened?”

“We were hiding from a TV camera, and Sid was clowning around, and he kissed me. There was a photographer from the Pittsburgh paper. They got the picture, and they’re running it tomorrow. Mario tried but he couldn’t stop them. They’ve also sold it to other papers.”

He let out a big breath. “It will run here in Quebec, for sure.”

“Kris, I am sorry.” I wished I could see him.

“It’s okay, Kay. Sid told me about it. I’m sorry you were photographed, and now it’s a big deal.”

I sat down on the bed. “Kris, you will see in the photo that I am kissing him back. I was so surprised, I didn’t even know what was going on.”

“Belle, I said don’t worry. I know what it’s like to kiss you, I can’t blame him. I am not mad. What about Sid’s father?”

I groaned. “He hates me, obviously, but he is being nice. Sid’s mom made him. He’ll probably sneak into Sid’s house and kill me in my sleep.”

Kris was quiet, and I knew he was thinking about me sleeping in Sid’s house. After this, after kissing, after causing a scandal. I couldn’t think of anything to say that might not be rendered a lie by the next insane turn of whatever was happening to us. In the aftermath of the airport, I knew deep down that Sid had not only been goofing around. We hadn’t been alone together 30 minutes – if you can call an airport at Christmas alone – and he was all over me. Sure, ending up in the tabloids might dampen his spirit, but whatever reason he had for kissing me still existed. Especially alone together, 1200 miles from home.

A horrible part of me also knew that I really liked kissing Sidney. Yes I loved Kris and Max. Yes I felt more strongly for them than for Sidney. Which is exactly why kissing Sidney felt so good – it wasn’t an overwhelming tangle of emotion and jealousy and guilt. It was sexy, fun and somehow seemed to always exist beyond my control. But now, now it was an epic disaster. I hoped we could get through the holiday without anymore carnage.

A snippet of song came to mind, something I’d never really understood before. From Darren Hayes’ “I Like the Way”:

The decadence of giving in to desire
Creates such entropy within

It’s why you don’t do what Sidney and I had done. Why you don’t give in. Don’t fall off the wagon. Because the first time makes the second time so much easier.

“Kris, I didn’t mean for this to happen,” I whisper. “I don’t want you to see this, to be hurt by this.”

“I will be fine. And I have our date to look forward to,” he said.

I can do this. I can hold out, I can wait. He has waited for me. “I’m looking forward to it too,” I said honestly.

I disconnected and dialed Max. Max was always easier. He had made a joke replying to Sid’s message, and one to me. Just like he’d made a joke about our first kiss, then our kiss before his road trip and about me being with Sid. He put me at ease, even when neither of us felt anything of the sort.

“Kissing Factory, Monsieur Talbot speaking,” he answered. “Ah, Kahlan. Our best customer. I believe you have several orders on layaway with us.”

I laughed, and Max continued. “There are a few of our models you haven’t tried, if you’re interested in something new. We have one very tall, one Russian. But I think you have already selected your favorites. Now mademoiselle, forgive me for saying, but you are not meant to test drive everything without buying anything.”

“Ouch, Talbs,” I shook my head. “You got me.”

“It looks like Sid’s got you, actually. Day one of four and he’s got you right where he wants you.”

“And where is that? His father hates me and wants to kill us both. His mother had to intervene to even get me invited to Christmas Eve dinner. I may not live to see Montreal.”

“Shall I ride in and rescue you? I could call the papers on the way, have them photograph our daring escape?”

Another laugh. “Great Max, then Canada would never let me back in.”

“Fine, cherie. You can fend for yourself.” His tone turned serious. “Are you really okay there for three more days?”

I started to speak, but he kept going. “Kahlan, I want to tell you something. You are the first time in a long time that I have felt involved with someone. I know the difference between lust and love, and I know how good it can feel to do something easy. I am worried that’s where you are now. You’re with easy, and from over there we look very difficult.”

I flopped back onto the bed. “Max, how come you always know everything?”

He chuckled. “There is nothing you could do that I did not invent.”

“So what do I do?” I asked.

“Are you asking for my advice or my permission?” he said seriously.

I didn’t know. I couldn’t have seen what would happen today, and God knows what could happen tomorrow. Or tonight.

“Both, I think.”

He sighed. “Just be careful. Sid is probably scared shitless and trying to hide it. He will likely stay miles away from you. But he doesn’t want to.”

“Max. I wish I were more like you,” I admitted. “I wish I saw myself clearly, wish I could recognize and admit what I want, even when I’m not proud of it.”

I thought I could hear him smile. “One Superstar is enough for this world. We just need more of you.”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Chapter 15 - Comfort

I woke shielding my eyes from the light. The snow-covered yard was now a giant reflecting dish, pouring the early morning sun into the room. Kris was lying still, in the same spot. My arms had been around him all night, and my feet warmly tucked under his legs. He was like a living electric blanket.

“I got to sleep next to you all night,” he said, surprising me by being awake.

“And all you did was sleep,” Max said, walking in. “What a waste!” He was wearing his dress pants and a borrowed sweatshirt. “Now you’ve overslept everyone and Jordan is eating your breakfast.”

Sid had three kinds of toothpaste in his bathroom. Who does that? I picked the whitening version and went to work. Looking in the mirror, I met Max’s eyes as he came in behind me.

“I hoped you might come see me last night,” he said.

I finished rinsing. “Max…”

He held up a hand, gently. “It’s okay. We all know that I probably wouldn’t be a gentleman about it.” He dropped his hand with a shrug. “Just jealous. That’s quality snuggle time I missed.”

“Max Talbot loves to cuddle,” I pointed at him with the toothbrush. “That would ruin your reputation, Casanova.”

A small smile crossed his face. “No one would believe it. But I’ll let you make it up to me later.” He watched me put the toothbrush down and turn to leave.

“Ew, cherie. Ew.” He said.

“Sid, do you know Kahlan uses your toothbrush?” Max said, walking into the kitchen. He grabbed the orange juice and started pouring a glass.

“Well I’m not kissing her if she has morning breath,” he said without turning away from the stove. Jordan coughed, choking on his eggs as he laughed. A beat later, Geno smiled as he got the joke.

“I would.” Max handed me the juice and looked me right in the eye.

A huge half-empty plate of scrambled eggs, half a loaf of toast, jelly, butter and ketchup were on the table. Sid was making another batch of eggs. I put blackberry jam on some toast and went around his side.

“I would if you were naked,” Sid told me, and everyone.

Turning to everyone, “The cars are plowed out, and we have to be at the Mellon in an hour. Kay, maybe you and Cara can take Jordan’s car and I’ll drive him home after?”

Jordan gave us a ten minute speech on being careful with his car. Cara listened closely, then promised to drive the whole way in reverse while eating a burrito.

As soon as we were in the car, she squealed, “I’m coming on the New Years trip!”

“You are?!” I gasped. “Yay!” I leaned over and hugged her.

“Jordan asked me last night. Sid mentioned their plan, and since you were going… Jordan wanted me to be there too. Isn’t that sweet?” She was clearly thrilled, twisting her hands in her sweater.

“Hmmm, Staal’s getting serious,” I raised my eyebrows at her and she giggled.

I’d been kicking around an idea since the night before, when I first saw Mario & Nathalie’s house. Cara took a detour to the Christmas Tree Shoppe. I bought a tree – well, a fake tree that folded into a perfect coil. A pole went up the middle, hanging the spiral down around itself. The metal was wrapped in green tinsel – instant Christmas tree! We bought lights, ornaments and a little Santa hat for the top. I got three stockings and some paint to put names on them. Cara bought a 12” tall table-top tree, and a maple leaf ornament for Jordan. For Kris I got a snowflake and for Max a star. I got Sid an ornament shaped like an old-fashioned key.

I put the tree up, hung the lights and decorations. Thankfully the guys had short names which easily fit on their stockings. At the bottom of a box of old CDs I found a holiday album.

When the guys walked in the door, they both stopped dead. The living room was decked out – lights sparkling in the tree, flashing off the tinsel. I had my Santa hat on, and I’d lit a cookie-scented candle.

“Our Christmas is tomorrow night, Tuesday,” I announced. “No game, and I’ll make dinner.” The guys had one game on Wednesday, then the break started on Christmas Eve.

The guys lost to Vancouver that night, but Kris and Max seemed fine after the game. Some of the press suggested the team was already mentally breaking for the holiday. I suspected they might be half right. Four days was longer than usual between games over the holidays. We went to sleep with the lights of the tree burning brightly in the darkness.

Tuesday morning, I went to the mall when the guys went to practice. Now that I’d pushed Christmas up, I had to think of gifts. A couple of regular things and maybe one special thing for each of them. The stores were packed, Christmas music played and it was impossible not to feel the holiday spirit. I bought a gingerbread cookie and wandered the festive hallways.

My first purchase was a sponge for Max. Just in case we ever needed it again. I chose the softest, most luxurious one I could find and tracked down some of his deliciously-scented body wash to go with it. At the bookstore, I found a cookbook dedicated entirely to making different kinds of chicken parm. I also found a little manual on giving cranial-sacral, or head and scalp, massages. I bought some other stuff – a cute fedora for Max, two new ties to replace a couple of Kris’ that I hated. A deep blue scarf made me think of Max, and I found a pair of really cozy slipper socks that I thought Kris might put on his perpetually bare feet. Now I needed something special.

I thought about how each of the guys made me feel. For Max, the instant reaction was something sexy. But I didn’t know how to do that without it being a come-on. Every option seemed too provocative, held a promise that I wasn’t sure I could fulfill. I wandered through the mens sections at Macy’s and Nordstrom, and even through Victoria’s Secret.

What a waste, I thought as I ran a set of beautiful silk underthings through my hands. Can’t wear any of this stuff. As I left the store, my phone buzzed.

Max: Did I just see you near Victoria’s Secret?

Me: Just buying Sid’s Christmas present. Don’t follow me!

Avoiding the direction he was probably headed, I tried thinking of Kris. Something sweet, warm, patient, loyal. No, do not go near the pet store. I’d absolutely go home with an adorable little puppy to completely fall in love with.

The search was frustrating me. Hours passed and I was finally giving up. My last stop was a stationary store, for cards. I picked a drawing of a baseball pitcher throwing snowballs for Kris. They don’t make toast and butter Christmas cards, so Max got one with a buff Santa flexing on the cover. As I walked to the counter, I saw it.

A small table displayed all kinds of fill-in-the-blank gift certificates. ‘Good for one massage’ and ‘Good for one house cleaning’ were the store examples. I knew immediately. I want to spend time with them, I want to show that I’m not freaking out and scared to be around them. I want them to know they are important to me. I picked pieces of the parchment paper with different colored writing. I bought a calligraphy pen and beautiful large envelopes. Satisfied, I went home.

Kris must have been out shopping as well. I wrapped all the presents and arranged them under the tree, then went back out for groceries. It was nearing 6 PM and I had one thing left to do before starting dinner.

I laid out the gift certificates and the calligraphy pen. There were nights off night between games on the New Years’ trip – the 28th in Montreal, the 30th in Toronto. Then New Years’ Eve in would be in Ottawa, off day Jan 1st and a game on the 2nd. This is good. It’s fun and personal, but it’s safe. We’re all in the same hotel. They have roommates and I am with Cara. Boundaries are good.

Max got the blue certificate. I wrote: Good for one date – Toronto, December 2009

Green for Kris: Good for one date – Montreal, December 2009

I will decide. I will choose. I will concentrate, and I will stop this nonsense of bouncing back and forth, hurting everyone, risking whatever they see in me as worthy. I will choose.

I folded them into their ornate envelopes and scripted their names across the fronts.

At 7 PM, the door opened but whoever it was went straight to his room. I heard plastic bags jostling together.

“Can I use your wrapping paper?” Max called, coming into the kitchen. He peeked over my shoulder and found me mashing potatoes. He inhaled and said, “Needs more butter.” Swatting my butt, he left.

Dinner was nearly ready when Kris came in carrying a bottle of wine. Without being asked, he poured me a glass and went about setting the table. I laid out pork chops with apple chutney, mashed potatoes, asparagus and fresh rolls with honeyed butter. Max pulled my chair out for me, then sat across and poured wine for himself and Kris.

The dinner was delicious, if I did say so myself. For desert, I’d made bread pudding with maple syrup and brown sugar. I scooped vanilla bean ice cream on to the hot dish, and the boys polished them off quickly. I licked my spoon, sat back and smiled. The kitchen cozy with us at the table. Warm, fresh food smells drifted around. I was full and a little fuzzy from the wine. I snuggled in my khaki green turtleneck sweater.

“That was incredible,” Max said, actually rubbing his stomach. He pushed back. “Don’t move, I need 5 minutes to get everything ready.”

Kris stood and kissed my cheek. “Superb. Merci.” Then he followed Max out.

The boys never left leftovers, so I just piled the dishes in the sink. I opened a second bottle of wine and sipped it until Max called me into the living room. I grabbed the two envelopes from my room. They’d piled presents around, and someone had put one of those live-action burning log DVDs on the TV. I sat down between them, on the floor in front of the tree.

“Me first!” Kris said, handing me a flat package neatly wrapped in green and white striped paper. He had not wrapped this himself. I peeled it open and flipped it over: A book entitled How to Win at Strip Poker. Inside, the pages had a cutout space where a deck of semi-racy playing cards was stored.

“Tanger, the idea is for her to lose at strip poker,” Max admonished. He handed me a small box. Inside were a pair of really cute knitted mittens with little Canadian flags on the thumbs. “For your trip!” He smiled.

We exchanged back and forth. Max offered to let me try to the sponge out right away. Kris started picking out his favorite chicken parm recipes. He gave me some delicious perfume that smelled of sandalwood and jasmine. Max presented me with a gorgeous briefcase for my new job. I gave Kris his ties, both of which he put on at the same time, and Max also wore his fedora and scarf.

We sat amidst the littered wrapping paper, sipping wine. I put my Canada mittens on and tried to hold my glass. Everyone told a childhood Christmas story, then one embarrassing childhood story. Finally, I broke out my final gift.

“I wanted to get each of you something special. I know we’ve been having a rough time lately, and nothing I found seemed to be right. So I came up with these. You’re both getting the same thing, sort of. And it’s meant to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’ and ‘This is crazy’ all at the same time.” I handed them each an envelope.

As they read the certificates, they looked at each other and smiled.

“Do we get to pick what the date is?” Kris asked. I nodded.

A huge smile flashed across Max’s face. “Game on.”

The Pens shellacked the Senators 8-2 in the last game before Christmas. Everyone headed home quickly, anxious to get on the road the next day.

“Pick you up at 7 AM, lady,” Sidney said as we headed to our cars.

I had packed every warm thing I owned, and some nice outfits. Against my better judgment and without really considering why, I packed some sexy underwear. If airport security decides to search my bag in front of the guys, I am screwed.

I knocked on Max’s door. He was zipping up his own suitcase.

“Cherie, I will miss you.” He wrapped me in a hug. I promised to miss him too, and to call on Christmas Day. “My family will want to know why you’re with Sidney and not with me.”

“Because you won’t let me use your toothbrush,” I said, face pressed to his chest.

Max stood back to face me, and his smile slowly faded. “Behave yourself with the Kid. He’ll take an opportunity if you give it to him.”

“Max, I won’t,” I said, wondering again why I had packed that lingerie. I hugged him again and left.

Kris’ door was open, so I tossed myself down on his bed. His suitcase was full but open, and nothing inside was folded.

“Are you bringing home dirty clothes?”

“Oui. I love when my mom does my laundry.” He sat next to me.

“I’ll miss you Kris. Merry Christmas.”

He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “You too, belle. And please…” he looked away and did not finish his sentence.

“I won’t fall in love with Sidney,” I promised.

Kris smiled, and I knew I’d guessed right. “Sometimes I think he’s the closest of us all.”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chapter 14 - Breakeven

I opened the door. My hair was a flat, sleepy mess and I still wore Sid’s sweatshirt. Max looked like he’d been waiting up for me. It seemed like ages since Max and I really talked. Not since the phone call, when he whispered in the dark. He gave me a sad little smile. I went over and sat on the couch, halfway down from him. It was the same place Kris had been when he’d come home after finding out about me and Max. I thought of karma and mentally gave her the finger.

“I’m sorry,” was all he said. He voice broke a little.

I rolled my head to one side. “Me too.”

When he looked at me, there were tears in his eyes. “Kahlan, I wish I could take back what I said. I didn’t mean it. You have to believe me. I got so mad, I flipped out. He… he kissed you. In front of everyone! I never thought about it…” he trailed off, opening and clenching his fist. “That should be me, Kay. That’s all I could think of. I should get to kiss you in front of everyone. I should get to be the one.” He brought his closed fist down onto his knee. “Same old arrogant asshole, putting my claim on you like I own you. I didn’t realize till after.”

He took a deep breath. “When I said maybe you’re not worth it… Kahlan, please forgive me.” His stormy eyes were swimming. A crease marked his forehead, and I reached up and smoothed it with my thumb. He closed his eyes as I did, and a tear rolled down along his nose.

“I said the same thing about you.” My voice was liquid in my throat. “I didn’t mean it either. Forgive me.”

He pressed his face into my hand. “I don’t care if something happened with Kris. He’s right – I acted like I was better, but I’m not. You have both called me out and been completely right.”

“And…” he continued. “And Kris defended you. I was screaming at you and Kris was trying to hold your hand. He really is a better guy than me. It’s so obvious that I am screwed up. I keep screwing this up! But Kris is just there for you every second of every day. He means what he says and keeps his word.

“I know you didn’t sleep with him. Kris does not lie. How he manages it… to be near you… there’s no way I could do that.”

Max put his hand to my cheek.

“Kahlan, I think you should be with Kris. I love you and I want you so badly, but I am going to mess this up a million times. I am trouble. You should save yourself from that. Kris already knows how to take care of you.”

I closed my eyes. Here was my out. It may have been a crying, begging, opposite-of-a-fight moment, but it would hold up in the daylight. If I took this chance, Max would stand by it tomorrow. And maybe he’d even be happy for me, eventually.

“Max, do you know why I can’t choose between you and Kris? Do you know how I can actually be in love with both of you at the same time?”

He shook his head.

“Because I can’t give up on either of you. I keep waiting for something to show itself, some colossal character flaw, some betrayal, something, anything. But I already know you both too well. I know all your flaws, Max,” I touched his throat, just inside the collar of his shirt. “And I still think you’re perfect.”

Max laid his head against the couch. I lifted myself onto a knee, leaned over and kissed the side of his head. Then I went to bed.

I woke up to a noise in my room. Still half-asleep, I rolled over. Kris was sitting in my desk chair, feet propped at the end of the bed. He was in sweats and a t-shirt, probably his pajamas. It was still dark in my room, but I could see slivers of light under the curtains.

“Salut, belle,” he said.

I sat up. “How long have you been here?”

“A while.”

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. A little late, I checked to see that I’d gone to sleep with a top on. Luckily a blue tank was covering most of me. I caught Kris smiling at my wardrobe check. I patted the bed next to where I sat. Kris in the chair made me feel like I was in the principal’s office. Not that I should be inviting him into my bed. I wasn’t. I hoped. He settled in, propped against the headboard.

“Kris…” I didn’t really have anything to say. “Kris.”

He laughed softly. “You know I like it when you say my name.” He shifted in his seat. “I will go first. I am sorry for yelling at you at the diner. I wanted to tell you those things, but not like that. Let me try to tell you now, and you can decide if you are still mad at me.

“I liked what happened between us. At first, I wanted to prove something. To prove to myself that I could compete with Max. To prove to you that I want you as much as he does. But then… I forgot about all that. And I just wanted you. You didn’t do anything, but you didn’t push me away.”

He wasn’t looking at me. It was like before, when we’d talked in his bed, both of us staring into space just to get the words out. Looking at each other would have made that impossible.

“Tell me, Kay. Tell me you didn’t want that. You didn’t stop me, but now I see that doesn’t mean you were saying yes.”

I leaned forward. “I told you today, I wanted it.”

“Well we were yelling in a parking lot. I just wanted to make sure I heard you right.”

He slid down on the bed. Turning toward me, he put his head on the pillow and pulled his knees up a little. I took a deep breath and did the same. It was an extra moment before I could open my eyes.

“Thank you for sticking up for me,” I said. In the midst of all that screaming and crying, Kris’ words had stuck with me. He had been mad at me too, probably furious. “It means a lot to defend someone even when you know they are wrong.”

“I think you’re trying to scare us away. You’re hoping that at least one of us will really stop. Every time you do something crazy, or beat yourself up about it, you’re pushing us away.” He paused. “It’s not working.”

I smiled ruefully and pressed my face to the pillow. “You sound like Crosby,” I told him. “He keeps pointing out everyone’s craziness and then explaining it away.” I pulled the comforter up, tucking it higher under my arm. Kris slid his hand up and rested his head on his arm. His expression was serious.

“I know about you guys,” he said quietly.

If I’d had anything left – any energy, any dignity – I might have reacted. But I was spent. And a little relieved. I didn’t want to keep it from him, but I couldn’t explain it. There was nothing to say in my defense, and it was a while before Kris spoke again.

“Okay, now I really know,” he said, almost smiling. “I think I knew that day. Remember I asked you about it in the parking lot? I was ready to be mad. But then I would be like Max – saying what you were allowed to do. And… well, I don’t like it, but it seems to have worked. I know you need someone besides me and Max, and I am glad it is Sidney. He would protect you if I couldn’t.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. Stop forgiving me so easily. For everything.

“Another reason I won’t have you until you are mine.” He put his hand on my arm, in the space between our bodies. “But you are making it very hard for me to wait.” He smiled a little, willing me to smile back. I finally did.

“I can’t do anything right. I’m sorry for screwing all this up so much, Kris,” I said. It felt good not to be mad, or afraid. Just the confused feeling I’d actually become accustomed to.

He sat up next to me. “Will you come to the game tonight?” I nodded. “I like to know you are there.”

I made myself scarce all day, afraid of ruining the delicate peace we’d momentarily established. Before the game, I snuck down and found Jordan in the equipment room.

“Hello, minx,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows at me. Jordan Staal was never mad a day his life. “Nice runner you did. I would’ve had $50 off Crosby if I’d found you first.”

“I need a favor. Do you have a jersey I can wear tonight? I don’t want to play favorites.”

He ducked into the locker room and came back with two black jerseys - #11 and #29. “They’re even clean,” he said. I took his #11, held it up and even he laughed at the size. I handed it back and pulled Flower’s jersey over my head.

“I see you’ve finally chosen a real man,” Vero said as I sat down next to her in the wives and girlfriends section. Most of the women never wore jerseys or Pens gear. They were mostly decked out in stylish, expensive street clothes. I was not in the mood today. I looked around, but Vero shook her head.

“Those girls are not here,” she examined her fingernails. “Too bad really, I think the boys would like to see you in a fight.”

The Pens had lost the last two games, and I knew the guys were anxious to get a W and break any kind of streak that might be forming. They always played better in front of the home crowd. During warm-up, a girl about 15 years old in a Letang jersey was bouncing around by the glass, trying to catch’s Kris’ attention. TK finally bumped him and pointed over. I could see he wanted to smile. He skated to the glass and waved to her, then tossed a puck over. She caught it and grinned enormously. Vero and I clapped.

“Looks like you’ve got competition,” she said.

I looked at myself in the mirror – winter white loose-neck sweater, dark skinny jeans, high brown boots. I put a red Santa cap over my flat-ironed hair and prayed for no static. I picked up my coat.

Kris was wearing dark slacks with black shoes and a red shirt. His hair was getting longer – it was a full handful now when he brushed it from his face. Max had chosen a deep blue button down that warmed his olive-toned skin. He was carrying two bottles of wine.

We pulled onto the Lemieux’s street and parked on the side of the road. There were a lot of cars, and most had already collected an inch of snow. I thanked my boots for being flat as we walked up to the house. Lights blazed from every window. The tree in the yard was wrapped in twinkling white bulbs. With the snow falling, it looked like Christmas card come to life. Through the living room window, I could see a huge Christmas tree festooned with decorations.

Sidney opened the door as we reached the steps. “Merry Christmas!” he shouted.

The Lemieux’s annual Christmas party was just under extravagant. Tables piled with food were everywhere. Waiters with trays circled appetizers among the many rooms of the bottom floor. Someone was playing the piano. Kris handed me a glass of wine from a passing tray.

I wandered through the foyer, made my way into the game room, and almost bumped into Cara. Behind her, some of the guys were seated around a poker table. I waved hello to TK, Geno and Billy G. Kris held up his stack of chips for me to admire. The room had dark wood paneling and the poker table looked to be regulation. The walls were covered with framed photos – highlights from Mario’s career and the Penguins since. Above the fireplace, also encased, was the stick Mario had used in his very last NHL game.

Cara and I headed for the food, loading plates with ham, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole and rolls. We found seats in the dining room, where a waiter brought us fresh glasses of wine.

“Hello ladies,” a voice said behind us. I looked up to see Jordan, leaning over the back of my chair. He wore a headband with a fake stick attached – the kind the dog wears in ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas.’ At the end of the stick, he’d tied a sprig of mistletoe.

“Care for a go under the hat, Kay?” he leaned down.

Max pulled out the chair next to me. “Dressing as a dog to get girls now, Gronk?”

“You know the dog in the movie is named Max,” Cara offered. Jordan gave her a fist bump.

The dessert table was almost embarrassing. Éclairs, pastries, cakes, pies… I could not decide. Pumpkin pie, my perennial favorite, or a cannoli?

“You’ve been standing here for 10 minutes,” Max said, reaching past me for a star-shaped sugar cookie. “Just take one of everything.”

I surrendered to the cannoli, and put a chocolate covered strawberry on my plate for good measure. We walked over to the tree. Little Nutcrackers, ballerinas, elves, sleighs, snowflakes – every decoration known to man hung between the lights. Far above our heads, a white angel graced the top.

“Two years ago, I met you in this room,” Max said.

I hadn’t thought of where. The party was always significant to me, a way to mark the time that had passed since I’d wandered into this little family. And Max was right, it had been here in the living room where Mario had introduced us.

“I didn’t follow Mario’s advice,” I pointed out.

“I knew you’d never last,” he smiled. “It was what, three weeks before you let me kiss you? Hard to get, Kahlan.”

I laughed, and I blushed. At the time, that kiss had come from left field for me. Now that I knew Max, I wondered if he’d ever gone that long around a girl without trying something.

“Must be a world record holdout for you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be wearing Jordo’s kissing hat by the end of the night.”

We walked back to the game room, where poker had become an all-team event. Sidney had put on a green plastic visor and was shuffling. He called me over to cut the cards. Kris stood, saying he was out. Max took his place before the next hand was dealt.

“How many desserts have you had?” Kris asked.

I put on a shocked look. “Only two.”

“Room for one more then,” he took my arm and steered me away.

The party was getting a little closer. Wine was flowing and designated drivers were having one, figuring they’d never get out in this snow anyway. The caterers were clearing away food stations and replacing them with poinsettia arrangements.

This time, I had a slice of pumpkin pie. Kris put a big spoonful of whipped cream on it, then on top of his apple pie. He walked into the back room, really just another living room on the back of the house, and claimed an empty loveseat. A waiter quickly appeared with more wine.

“No one is going to make it home at this rate,” I said.

“They’ll be sleeping in the snow banks.” Kris raised his glass to the picture window.

Outside, in the Lemieux’s back yard, fat snowflakes were dropping fast. The ground was covered, and the edges of the window ledge were starting to fill up. A single electric candle was glowing in the middle of the sill.

Kris moved his glass in my direction. “Happy anniversary,” he said, as he tapped the rim. “Two years.”

The same night as Max, I thought, but I said, “You were so shy around me then.”

He shrugged. “I was shy around everyone then. And I was scared of you.” He looked at me. “A new girl, in this place, with these guys? Everyone was watching everyone that night, all the guys trying to chat you up. I was out of my league. Even without my terrible English.

“You were really nice to me. Using your school French,” he smiled. “And so pretty, that made my English even harder to remember.”

I smiled with a mouthful of pie. “I thought you couldn’t wait to get away from me! I remember being worried you might not have anyone to talk to. Then I realized that of course everyone here speaks French. Except me.” He laughed at that. “You scored two shootout goals that week, right before we met. Do you remember?”

He nodded. “My first two shootout goals ever.”

“That’s how I knew who you were,” I took another sip of my wine. “Cute guy, great hair, soft hands… easy to remember.”

He blushed a little. “You thought I was cute?”

“You were ridiculously cute. I was really nervous – and awkward, following my dad around all night. I didn’t know who half the guys were without their numbers on. But you didn’t scare me. Maybe because you were shy.” I put my empty wine glass down and Kris followed suit.

“Now you make all the guys nervous, not just me,” he said, standing up. “Let’s dance.”

The man at the piano had cued some backup music and was tinkling out old jazz standards. A lot of couples were dancing, thanks to the wine. I danced with Kris then Max cut in. The song changed to ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ and Sid tapped Max on the shoulder.

“The girl with the full dance card,” he said. He was better at slow, easy dancing than dancing in a club. And he really was strong, leading without even meaning to. “You guys are staying here tonight, we’ve got room for everybody. And I have a surprise for you. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before!”

He handed me an envelope and I pulled out a plane ticket. Confusion passed over my face – I already the last one he’d given me, we were going to Nova Scotia in 10 days. Flipping it open, I saw the surprise.

“Pittsburg to Halifax to Montreal. Then you can come to the games in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, and be with us for New Year’s!” He was beaming. “You can fly with us the rest of the way.”

I was a loss for words. I hadn’t even thought beyond Christmas. The guys had a road trip after the break and wouldn’t be back till January 2. I threw my arms around his neck.

He hugged me back. “It was all my idea,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Kris and Max were not jealous at all that I get to spend Christmas with you, then we’re away for New Year’s. They thought it was fine if you sat home alone in the ‘Burgh.”

“Merry Christmas, Sidney.” I kissed his cheek and he pushed me in the direction of the game room. Max was still at poker, and looked to be doing pretty well. Geno hadn’t moved and Jordan had been dealt in. Duper and Cookie were also seated, and Mario was dealing. I walked over, leaned down, and planted a big kiss on Max’s cheek.

“Hey!” was the general consensus.

“Where is mine? I had the hat all night!” Jordan called as I skipped away.

Going room to room, I could not find Kris. I was about to go upstairs when I saw him, sitting on the deck. He’d put on his coat and scarf and dumped the snow from a chair. I grabbed the nearest coat – it looked like one Mario used for shoveling.

“What are you doing out here?” I stepped over the drift forming against the door. All the chairs were fairly buried, so I sat on his lap. He wrapped his arms around my waist, giving me some extra warmth.

“Thanks for New Year’s. For the plane ticket, and the games,” I said, my face pressed to the top of his head.

“You’re welcome, belle,” he mumbled into the front of my coat.

“I’m really excited!” I was. And I had an idea. “Can I make a sign for you at one of the games? ‘Kisses for Kris’? ‘Marry me, Kris Letang’? What if I write it in French?”

“If you do that, I will ask you to marry me. Right on the ice, in front of 20,000 people. You won’t be able to say no then,” he taunted me.

He might, I knew, he really might. Maybe I would too.

I had that amazing feeling that several glasses of wine causes – I wanted to laugh and cuddle and kiss everything in sight. Somewhere in the back of my brain I knew this was not the best place to feel giddy. But it was also the only place.

“I can’t sleep with Geno,” I whispered. “He snores.”

Sid was standing at his closet, pulling an extra blanket from the top shelf. We’d already made a pile of pillows and bedding from the linen closet in the hall. I really wanted to fall on top of the pile and sleep for days.

“Jordan and Cara are in the far room. So it’s Kris, Max or Geno. Or me.” He smiled, holding the blanket. He looked a little tipsy himself. I wanted to mess up his hair and tickle him to death.

“Ugh, Crosby,” I pouted. I was ready to lie on the ground and just laugh until I closed my eyes. “What kind of place only has four guest rooms? It’s like a third world country.”

“There’s a room on Mario and Natalie’s side, but there might be someone in it. And plus, if Tanger or Max tries to sneak in there later, Mario will think he’s going for Lauren’s room and will actually kill him. Blood and everything.” He tossed the blanket on the pile. “For safety’s sake, choose one.”

I spun on my heel and went to the first door off the hallway. Max was already under the covers, but the lights were still on.

“Need someplace to sleep?” he asked.

The bed looked awfully comfy. And warm. I was wearing Sid’s sweatpants, tied as tightly as possible around my waist. Some old t-shirt too. Max was bare-chested, I could see his shoulders. Without saying anything, I went next door.

Kris was wearing a t-shirt, mercifully, because he was sitting in bed playing with his phone. His bed looked very inviting too, and I was really, really tired. I could only see half his face beneath his hair, but he was smiling. My phone buzzed in my purse.

Kris: Viens ici!

I laughed, made a face at him and went back into Sid’s room.

“Move over,” I said, climbing in next to him.

He rolled over to one side of the bed, and moved a pillow onto mine. I slipped under the covers. His body heat had made the middle of the bed warm, and I moved into it. Our sides were touching, and he turned out the light. I drifted off to sleep, but not for long.

When I woke, Sidney was breathing low and evenly. It was dark and silent – the whole house was sleeping. I was still buzzed, a little giddy, but felt that waning. I would fall asleep again soon. I could hear Geno snoring faintly. I pulled on a pair of socks to muffle my feet and cracked open the door.

“Traitor,” Sid mumbled. I hissed and slipped from the room.

Standing in the hallway, I suddenly had no idea what I was doing. Where am I going? I actually turned from one door to the other, Max’s to Kris’, but didn’t reach for a doorknob. I felt so good and I really wanted to cuddle with someone. But either way was dangerous. We had some cease-fire going and I didn’t want to risk it. Finally I gave up and went to the rec room at the end of the hallway.

The snow was feet high now, rounding the landscape and reflecting the moonlight. I stood at the window, my feet tucked under the baseboard heater, and hugged myself. It was absolutely still and absolutely beautiful.

“I wake up every time you leave your room at home,” Kris said, shuffling in behind me. He was rubbing his eyes with his fists, like a little boy. He came up behind me and put his chin on my shoulder. We stood there, not really touching, looking out the window.

“How did you know it was me?”

I felt, rather than saw, him smile. “I know what you sound like. And Sid sounds like an elephant.”

Kris propped his elbows on my shoulders and joined his hands over my head. The weight on my shoulder muscles felt incredible, like a pressure point massage. He didn’t even realize he was doing it.

We watched the snow fall for a while, neither of us speaking. As predicted, my buzz had bottomed out and I was suddenly very sleepy. I reclined against the arm of the couch and Kris leaned his back against me. I put my arms over his shoulders and played with his hair. The blanket from the back of the couch went over both of us.

“Belle,” he murmured, “that feels good.” Almost out.

I traced my finger along his hairline and down around his ear. His eyes fluttered closed and his head turned as he fell asleep. I stayed there for a while, just holding his head in my hands, feeling his breath rise and fall. Counting snowflakes, I slowly drifted off to sleep too.