[Double post today - check Chapter 8 so you don't miss one!]
“Do it!” Max hollered from his room.
“Oui, I agree,” Kris called.
“Ugh! FINE!” I went back into my room. I pulled out the green shoes and put them on with my jeans and black top. I had to admit, they were smoking hot. But at a hockey game? I was going to fall down the stairs looking like the biggest puckbunny of all time.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Max said, standing in my doorway drying his face with a towel. “But you’re going home with two players regardless, so you might as well wear the shoes.”
“And don’t forget the dress,” Kris added, walking past.
The air in the locker room was thrumming. Everyone was riled up, ready to make up for last night’s poor performance by knocking the Flyers into next week. I was hoping to avoid the guys, I didn’t want to distract them. Vero made me go with her to wish a quick good luck to Marc. I was almost out of the room. Almost.
“What are those?!” a voice shouted. Jordan was next to me in a heartbeat. From a million miles up, he was staring down at my feet.
“If these guys aren’t what you’re looking for,” he said, leaning down, “you put those babies on and give me a call.” Max whistled loudly and I ran for the door.
“We’re winning for you tonight, Kahlan,” TK shouted.
“And your shoes!” said Jordan.
The game was rough. Hits were flying, boards were shaking. A few little scrums broke out around whistles. At the end of two periods, it was 1-1.
During the second intermission, I made my first trip up the stairs onto the concourse. I’d tried to avoid tromping around the Mellon in my hot shoes, but I couldn’t take it anymore. As I squeezed through to the end of our row in the wives & girlfriends area, I passed a pair of girls I didn’t know. I thought maybe they were season ticket seats, re-sold by their owner. Then I heard them.
“That’s her,” the short-haired one said.
“Her?” the friend said, derisively.
“She’s totally fucking both of them.”
Too bad they didn’t see Vero following behind me. “They like her to keep her shoes on in bed,” she hissed.
At the top of the stairs, I gave her a look. She shook her head at me.
“Non. Not for a second. They’d fuck anything on skates and still no one wants them. You, you are the Queen of Hearts,” she said. “I used to get shit like about Marc, when we were new here and girls thought I could be run off. I ignored them, and cheered very loud for my boyfriend.”
They don't even know the half of it. When we got back, the girls were gone.
The game was still tied with three minutes left. Vero had practically torn the arm off her seat, leaping about every time the puck came past the Pens’ hash marks. Marc was standing on his head, saving everything that came close. The action zipped back and forth.
With under 1:30 left, the Pens caught a break. Philly made a sloppy line change and one of their skaters had to pause to avoid a too-many-men penalty. Geno kicked his speed up and juggled the puck. Max sidestepped a winger on the far boards and got free. Geno timed his pass perfectly, right onto Max’s tape. Max one-timed the puck and blasted it past the Flyers’ goalie.
The Mellon went nuts. The roar was deafening and instantaneous. We screamed and hugged each other. The guys on the ice jumped all over Max. When they finally dropped the puck again, the Pens won the face off and played catch to kill the final 45 seconds. We carried on like we’d won the Cup.
Vero and I practically ran to the locker room. I knew there would be press all over the guys, but I didn’t care. This was my game. It was my climactic moment, my fireworks that had not come from finishing my last exam. I needed to celebrate.
We piled into the locker room with everyone else. Max was in the corner, lights and cameras and microphones all in his face. Marc too was getting bombarded. I saw Kris, his locker just outside the ring of press, and weaved my way over.
His back was to me. He was soaking wet and shirtless. Standing there in socks, dripping sweat on the floor, he looked like a carving fit to hold up a Grecian temple. When he turned, his face lit up. I jumped into a hug. He hesitated, then wrapped around me like a bear.
“I am so sweaty!” he laughed.
“You’re gorgeous! I’m putting my dress on anyway!” I said. I did it, I had to. I put my hands on his face and gave him our old-fashioned kiss. He didn’t try to pull me back in, he just put his forehead to mine and sighed.
“Happy graduation,” he said.
And don’t ever go, he almost said out loud.
Kris went off to the showers and I looked for Sid. He always had to do interviews, even tonight when he wasn’t on the scoreboard. He was sitting, surrounded. The baseball cap on his head was so used that a white ring of salt was visible around the crown where the sweat of a million games had absorbed. He looked like he always did when talking to the press – guarded, a little bored. I wished I could make him laugh, but they were finally finished and clearing out.
He didn’t stand – instead he pulled me down onto his lap like Santa Claus. He still had his hockey pants on.
“All done?!” he asked.
“All done,” I shouted.
“Then I guess it’s time for this,” someone said behind me. I looked, and everyone was gathering up in the middle of the room. Various pieces of equipment were still on, a couple of guys were in towels. Max squeezed through them, followed by Kris and then Mario.
“Kahlan,” Mario said with mock grandeur, “on this, your last day of college, we’d like to make you an offer for the first day of the rest of your life.” He handed me a folder. Inside was my transcript – hell, this was ALL my grades. Even for the test I’d taken today. I looked up at him.
“I know people,” he whispered loudly. The he motioned for me to keep flipping. I turned to a page with Penguins letterhead. Three lines down the page, I gasped.
“Kahlan, would you like to come and work in our front office? I believe your dad left a job opening for you. It’ll be part time through the end of the season, since we had a contract employee in for the year. But you can learn, and then start for real in August with training camp.”
I screamed, launched myself off Sid’s lap and threw my arms around Mario. Everyone cheered.
“Now that’s the kind of yes I like from a woman,” Max said.
I was floating when we rolled up to the back entrance at Diesel. Joey was at the back door. He didn’t say anything, he just held a glass of champagne out to me and winked. Must be the shoes.
The club was packed. Max put a hand on my arm and turned me toward the downstairs bar. Everyone else continued up to the VIP room. We moved into as quiet a corner as we could find.
“I have something for you.”
He pulled a long, black velvet box from his coat pocket. He snapped up the lid, and my mouth fell open. Lying in the case was an emerald and diamond bracelet. Not too flashy, not too big, but sparkling like a thousand points of light.
“Max…” I breathed.
“I thought, now since you’re a grown up, you should have a grown up accessory,” he lifted the bracelet and closed the box. “Like a bracelet. Or a boyfriend.” He draped the jeweled band it over my wrist, and leaned in.
“You’re not saying anything by wearing this,” he said. “But I am saying that I am proud of you.” He finished fastening it. “And that I love you.”
I looked into his liquid eyes. He had a serene look on his face, like he’d said what he came to say and felt at peace. I didn’t say a word. I grabbed onto his tie, pulled him close, and kissed him on the mouth.
The kiss could have gone somewhere. I felt it in my whole body. It could have gone right back to my bedroom. But I stopped it. We have a long night ahead of us, I reminded myself.
Instead I said, “Max, I love you too.”
How much? Max wondered. Enough?
I reached the top of the stairs to the VIP area and cheer went up. There were balloons everywhere and trays of champagne glasses set out. On the wall above a small table was a sign: CONGRATULATIONS KAHLAN! It had the Pens logo in the middle, and people were taking turns writing on it. There was even a cake with a picture of a graduation cap on it in blue icing.
“Who did all this?” I asked.
“We did it for you,” Kris took my empty glass and handed me another. His eyes caught my wrist. “I see Max gave you his gift.”
I couldn’t help but smile, “It’s beautiful.”
He nodded. “I have something for you too. But later.” He put a hand to my back and drew me into the crowd.
I talked to every single person in the place that night. All the players congratulated me, and welcomed me to the organization. I was so relieved not to have to answer any questions about what I was going to do with myself now that school was over. I had a job! In Pittsburgh! Possibly the best job ever, by the way. What more could I say?
Vero held out a box. I handed Sidney my glass so I could open it. Inside was a leather datebook with a small Penguins logo and my name embossed on the cover.
“We knew you would say yes, bien sur,” Marc said.
I hugged and toasted with everyone. Finally, I had to maneuver my heels down the steps to the ladies room. As I was in there, girl after girl came in squealing about Sidney Crosby. It seemed like forty women were piled into the bathroom. When I managed to push my way out, Sidney was waiting for me in the hall.
“You can’t stand out here!” I said. “Every girl in the club is going in there to walk past you. It’s like a clown car.”
“I did think that suddenly everyone had to pee,” he laughed, then waved over my shoulder. I turned to see the girls had given up pretense and opened the door to watch us. As Sid slid his arm around my waist and led me away, I heard a collective “Ooohhhh.”
“Bastard,” I chided him. He steered me outside onto the deck.
“How are things going with Max and Kris?” he asked.
“Weird,” I sighed. “They’re like some kind of tag team now, partners in crime. Making me feel really awkward. But in a nice way, you know. Did they tell you they took me to Hyehold?”
Sid nodded. “They’re both dying to know if the other one kissed you that night. They had some kind of truce, but they don’t entirely trust each other.”
I had to smile at that. I was surprised they hadn’t tried to get it out of me. “Neither one kissed me.”
“Impressive,” Sid said. “We already know I’ve failed that test.”
I punched him in the arm. It was back to normal with us, and it felt great. I didn’t hold back from flirting with Sid, from the way we’d always been. Sure, once in a while I had an unbidden flash of being pinned beneath his body, panting his name and twisting my hands in his sheets. But mostly I was okay. Mostly.
“I think about it too,” he whispered. I blushed. Imagine what the look on my face had been, thinking about it right in front of him.
“I wanted to give you something,” Sid said, “just in case this all gets too much and you ever find you still need me.” He took my hand, pressed something into my palm and folded my fingers over.
I opened my hand… it was a key to his car. I smiled uncertainly.
“Maybe Max and Kris don’t like your singing. But I do.” He kissed me on the temple, and pulled me back into the club.
I closed my eyes and leaned my head onto the seat. Cake had been served, last call had come and gone and we were headed home. My feet ached, but I didn’t care. It had been one of the best nights of my life. I climbed down from the car with my shoes in my hand and walked barefoot up the freezing driveway. Max let us in and Kris shut the door behind me. We headed to our rooms with barely a word.
Once my dress was hanging in the closet, I went into the bathroom. Kris was brushing his teeth and I stood there in my pajamas, taking off my makeup. When I finished, he was looking at me.
“This is how I like you best,” he said. “No one sees this but us.” He handed me the toothpaste.
I went to Max’s room and knocked on the door. It swung open as I did. He was sitting on his bed, reading something. I went to the end and flopped down on my back.
“Today was perfect,” I said.
He stretched out his foot and ran it along my bare calf. “Almost perfect,” he said.
“Thank you for the bracelet. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever had,” I told him.
“I was thinking the same thing about you,” he replied. I smiled at him, the crawled up next to him. He laid back, one arm bent behind his head so I could rest my cheek on it. “And now I’m thinking about butter.”
“Goodnight, Max,” I laughed and slid off the bed.
I crossed the hall to Kris’ room. He was sitting on his bed, looking like he was waiting for me.
His room was dark. His bed was pushed into the corner, so you could only get in and out on one side. A pile of clothes were draped over the back of his desk chair. His sneakers stuck out from under the dresser. The whole place smelled like him. I sat next to him, leaned against the wall and curled my legs up underneath me. He put an arm across my thighs, his hand hanging over the other side of me. I snuggled against his arm.
“Would you like your gift now?”
I shook my head against his shoulder. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“I didn’t,” he said. “But I still have something for you.” He reached his other arm out, toward the desk and came back with a piece of paper. It was folded flat, like it had been folded for a long time.
I knew what it was the second I saw it. I ran my fingers over the creases. Opening it, my eyes blurred a little with tears. It was the menu, all in Italian, from the restaurant Kris had taken me to a year and a half ago. The dinner I wasn’t sure had been a date.
“Kris,” I whispered.
“I should have told you then,” he said softly. “Things might be different now.” He moved his arm behind my back.
“All this time?” I was still shocked.
He nodded. “Every day.”
I was crying for real as I looked up at him. “I didn’t know. I never knew. Oh Kris, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I have been hanging all over you, flirting with you, for Christ’s sake I kiss you on a regular basis!” I looked back at the menu. “And this whole time I’ve been hurting you.”
He pulled me in close. “No, belle. You were giving me so much that I didn’t have the courage to ask for. Just giving it to me because you cared about me, because you liked being around me. It was more than I could hope for until I got brave enough.” He shrugged. “I am trying to be brave now.”
The look in his eyes was truth. He was laying it out there, admitting something he’d been holding on to for ages. I thought of all the things we’d done, all the nights we’d been alone in our rooms two doors apart. All the times he could have done something, anything, to let me know. The times he probably cared too much about me to make this about him.
“What about that night we all played strip poker?” I asked. We’d been at Jordan’s house and started with 12 people. By the end, it was down to me and Kris. I was wearing my underwear, a t-shirt and someone’s cowboy hat. Kris was wearing one sock, his boxer briefs and a ski glove. I’d won with a pair of nines.
“I folded with three Jacks,” he laughed. “I couldn’t take it! The idea of you naked… I was almost inappropriate to be in that room with everyone. I also didn’t want anyone else to see you.”
“All this time I thought I beat you!” I smacked his leg.
“Rematch, anytime,” he said.
“What about that day with the puppy?”
“That was the best day,” he smiled. Right after I moved in during August, we’d woken up one morning to barking. A lost puppy had found his way onto our lawn, and he was cowering under the hedge. Kris and I lured his out with some bacon, only to find he was covered in very thick mud. So we put on shorts, filled a garbage can lid with soapy water, and attempted to wash him off. The puppy thought this was the best game ever, and jumped and splashed and ran around. Soon all three of us were rolling in the grass, covered in soap and dog hair, howling.
That is love, I thought.
“You cried when those people claimed their dog,” he remembered.
I leaded my head back again. “Kris,” I said. “There must have been a million times that I was totally careless with you.”
“Don’t apologize. Don’t change,” he told me, and turned to look at me. He bought his hand up and touched my cheek with the back of his fingers. Carefully, he kissed me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“I don’t want to hurt you anymore,” I whispered. He kept right on kissing me.
I thought I might cry. I thought I might collapse and disappear. Kris seemed to sense that I was sinking and he put his arm around my back, tying us together. I was starting to let go under the pressure of his mouth. My brain and my body were storming off in opposite directions, screaming at each other. I was starting to kiss him back.
“Kris,” I said again.
He opened his eyes, right above mine. “I love it when you say my name.”
I must have said it a hundred times after that. He laid me back on his bed and kissed me softly, slowly, like after 18 months he had all the time in the world. His lips trailed down my neck, along my collarbone. He pulled the strap of my tank top aside and kissed my shoulder. Down my chest, over my shirt, across my stomach. He pressed his palm to my belly and slid the fabric up. My skin tingled where his kisses traced the outline of my ribs.
He tracked back up by body. When his lips touched mine I felt that fire, the heat I’d known when he’d kissed me before. Once we were there, we were all the way. Nothing could stop that. He held his hand behind my neck. I was completely at his mercy. The will to fight, to think, to do anything but be with him had left me.
“Kahlan,” he breathed. “I will wait for you.”
Back in my bed, alone, I was shell-shocked. I felt numb. Kris had saved me from something, I was sure of that. 18 months of waiting had made him a saint, and he had done something tremendous for both of us. I wasn’t ready to choose or I would have already chosen. He wasn’t ready to give in, to have something that wasn’t truly his. Not yet.
3 years ago