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.”
3 years ago