I sleep late into the morning. It’s been so long since I slept deeply that I feel trapped, like I want to wake but I can’t, like I’m beneath a sheet of ice on a frozen lake. I claw my way to the surface while the warmth and comfort do their best to drag me back down. As I come to I realize it’s not warmth of comfort from my bed alone.
Riley is wrapped so tightly in my arms it’s a wonder I haven’t suffocated her. Clearly I’ve been clinging to her like a life raft in the night and I’m a little embarrassed to be so needy – and so hard. Her long, lithe body is naked, twisted into mine and my body reacts with the disbelief that I still feel in my heart.
“Morning,” she says without opening her eyes. I almost let go of her, so embarrassed to be caught out with my hard-on spearing the soft flesh of her hip. She rolls experimentally, just a few inches, and stops. Then she giggles.
But she’s sliding underneath me. Her eyes open and they’re beautiful – clear and bright. She pushes my hair back from my face in two handfuls and draws me down to kiss her lips. As she does, she parts her thighs and takes me between them. I’m trembling I’m so ready to be inside her and she doesn’t make me wait.
I realize how nervous I was last night to be with her for the first time. After everything, especially Anna standing in the doorway screaming that I’d never pleased her, it was just another chance for Riley to finally realize that I was not good enough for her. Instead it was incredible. I felt swept away and Riley was right there with me. We had made love, not just had sex, and it had changed things between us yet again.
Riley guides her body down until my tip is just teasing her slit then takes me in. I have to close my eyes against the sweet softness that presses me tight.
“Morning,” I whisper with awe in my voice. It’s another sign that she wants me as much as I want her.
“I was dreaming about you.” She breathes softly, her body stretching to make room for me. I go slowly, more because it feels so intense than wanting to draw it out. I know the minute we are done I’ll be ready to go again.
Once I’m in deep and moving, I lose track of everything but the noises she makes. My mouth is everywhere on her body that I can reach – rolling her nipple between my lips, nipping the tender skin of her neck. She slides her tongue between my lips and matches the pace of my cock inside her. Before long we’re both gasping.
I’m not scared to lose myself. I lost myself to Anna and she used it against me. Riley feels ready to lose herself to me in return. I want to make her see stars, I want to make her scream my name and keep her up for days just flooding her body with pleasure. I want to hold her in my sleep, I want to bring her home to Montreal. I want to sit with her on the couch and pretend to watch TV while I just listen to her breathe.
Kris’s gaze is so intense that I have trouble holding it on the brink of orgasm. He’s so strong, so thick and heavy that he mixes me like batter for a cake. I could have come ten times already but I’m fighting it because I want to go together.
Last night was tremendous – the best first time I’ve ever had with someone. Of course I’ve never known anyone like Kris. He could still be wandering broken through the minefield Anna left, but instead the beads of sweat on his brow say he’s enjoying himself, that he’s enjoying me. I moan without thinking as his hips roll my entire body deep into the soft sheets of his bed.
“Come with me,” I whisper. I can barely take my hands from his incredible hair to feel the flexed muscles of his shoulders and back. I’ll need a lot more nights if I’m to know his body to way I want to.
“Oui,” he says softly. He ramps up his pace, making it harder for me to hold on. I buck and shudder until I lose the fight; he cracks me open like an egg. My hands lock around his thick biceps and I arch my back off the bed. I swear I hear him laugh before it turns into a growl against my neck. He slams up hard four times, coming high and hard deep inside my eager body. When he’s still, his eyes stay open.
“Do you still have that key from last night?” he asks. He’s tossed across me so I can’t move, but just nod yes.
“Good,” he pants. “Keep it.”
Riley wraps her arms tightly around my back. There’s probably something to do or somewhere to be today, maybe even a game tonight. But I settle in as close as I can, close my eyes and drift back to sleep.
-- end --
You guys have been awesome, thank you so much for reading and commenting! It really makes writers days to see feedback. Check out some of my other stuff and something new is coming soon!
There it is, the un-question: do you want this? Will you stay?
I have harbored the fear that Riley is mostly interested in me because I am unreachable. That she knows some part of me is broken and when it’s fixed she will no longer want me. It’s unfair to her but I don’t trust my good fortune.
Then she said what she said to Anna. Not just ‘get out,’ or ‘you lose.’ She said ‘best thing you ever had’ and ‘taken your place.’ She said those things about me. And so I tell her the truth, the thing I had to tell myself in order to keep moving forward. Next time, I promised. Next time I’ll make her want to stay.
Well she’s here now, poured onto the couch like a mold that fits perfectly against me. She closes her eyes for a moment, taking in what I’ve said and everything that’s just happened. When she opens them I think she’ll smile. I worry she’ll shake her head no. Instead she slowly kisses me, her light eyes on my dark ones, and tells me without a word that she has every intention of staying.
I’m up in a second and I lift her right off the couch. She clearly didn’t think I could do that, but she’s in my arms and I carry her right down the hallway into my bedroom. New sheets, new mattress – if I have my way they’re about to get a very warm welcome. I lay Riley down and swing myself on top of her.
I would have told that bitch off last week if I’d know it would get that kind of reaction.
I giggle as I think it. In reality things have gone exactly as they should have with Kris – I believe he’s healed enough to get back in the game. And the fact that he just carried me into his bed means the game is definitely on.
My hands can’t stop from moving in his thick, dark hair. I hold it back from his face and kiss his soft lips as he settles the weight of his body all along mine. He slides his lips to my neck again then uses his fingers to slowly tug the neckline of my dress open and kiss out over my shoulder. He follows the fabric along my chest, pulls to reveal the cup of my bra then traces over the smooth, seamless material. His big thumb has my nipple hard in a second. He draws down the thin satin and puts his mouth to my skin. While he kisses and licks at me, the slightly rough tips of his fingers drag lightly over the sensitive round of my breast.
I moan quietly. Everything about Kris is hot – he’s hot to the touch, his mouth is hot on my bare skin. The room is getting really hot. I slip my hands under his shirt and up his back. There are muscles and angles I’ve never known to exist. He lifts his chest so I can pull his sweater off completely.
Mother of God. It’s not much a leap to imagine what Kris looks like shirtless but holy shit, it’s a good thing I didn’t see this before. My palms run over the bulging muscles of his arms and over his shoulders and chest. He uses the pause to peel my dress from my shoulders and arms then unsnap my bra. Now we’re even.
I make another wordless noise as Kris buries his face in my chest more urgently now. My hands are so full of his beautiful body that I am distracted and don’t think – I lift my hips into his and grind against him. His breath catches against my breast and he groans.
“Okay, ma cherie,” he laughs as he lifts away.
He stands bare-chested over me in the half-light spilling from the hallway. My dress is around my waist but not for long – I lift my hips to help as he pulls it slowly from my hips. Then I sit up and unbuckle his belt. There’s no way I’m missing my chance to do this. I run my fingers up and down the sides of his zipper and he half-laughs, half-curses. Finally I slowly draw the zipper down and push his pants toward the floor. The soft gray of his boxer-briefs is all shadows around the angles of his hardening length. Without thinking I lean in and run my mouth over the soft cotton, all along his shaft.
That gets a real curse from him.
I think I’m going to pass out. The blackness I pray for when my head aches threatens to wash over me now, but there’s no way I’m missing my chance to feel this. Riley’s breath is hot through the thin fabric of my shorts and the press of her lips to my throbbing cock. A lesser man would hold her down and run it right down her throat. I’m trying to resist the urge.
Riley has other ideas. She deftly pulls the waistband out and down, freeing me to stand at attention before her. Then she looks up at me, those light eyes shining in the dim light. And with a tiny smile she slides my tip between her soft lips.
I moan. I don’t even try to stop. The hot, wet squeeze of her mouth is nearly enough to finish me off immediately. As she works her way down, licking and sucking, I put my hands into her silky hair and whisper a plea for strength. Then my tip touches the back of her throat and the blackness is back, waiting.
“Mon dieu I can’t….” I pull her free and push her back onto the bed, climbing on top of her in one motion. She giggles. I should go slow but rather I push her knees apart and quickly kiss my way up the inside of her milky thigh. She wears black panties – a lace waistband with a solid piece running down between her legs. It’s silky beneath my tongue as I lap over the heat radiating from her.
“Kris,” she whispers. I’m going to make her say that a lot.
My fingers are clumsy as they reveal her sweet spot. Their slight callous pulls at the smooth sheen of her delicate lips. Another whisper as I take a moment to trace around her slit then I taste her. My tongue slides slightly between her folds and I may actually pass out.
She tastes of honey. She tastes the way she’s made me feel – better, lighter, intoxicated. My cock pulses hard knowing she’ll feel even better. But for now Riley is twisting her fingers in my hair, whimpering as I take my time enjoying this first taste.
“Kris,” she says again, louder. I oblige by twisting my tongue and running it right up her smooth slit into her clit.
“Oh God!” Her hips buck against my face and I lose the ability to stop – I just go at her. My finger slips deep into her pussy, followed by another, while I stay zeroed in on her button. It rolls against my tongue like a candy. I am going to make her come once, just for me, as selfish and needy as I am. I need her to feel like this for me at least once before we feel it together. She has given me that much.
Holy shit. I’d have done this the second I saw him if I knew how it would feel.
The soft burr of his beard against my feverish skin. The added tickle of his moustache as he works my pussy into a hot mess. The silky fall of his hair brushes my inner thigh with every move. Then his thick, wide fingers pump at me, searching. My abs tighten and I’m about to lose it over nothing but his tongue when he brushes the spot inside.
“Oh God,” I say right out loud. My hips jerk up, begging for more, and he slides free for a moment. Just tongue. Then his fingers, lightly this time but right on target. I buck and he teases again, just his tongue twisting and rolling against me. He does it ten, twenty, a hundred times until I’m practically dead.
“Kris, please,” I say. Such a gentleman, that’s all it takes. He presses two slightly rough fingertips to my g spot and holds, catching my clit between his lips and rolling and sucking hard. The orgasm runs me over like a train – I arch my back, twist my hands in the sheet, and come hard for him. That velvety tongue drags and sweeps as I shudder and buck, lapping me up and licking me clean. When I finally flop out, two thoughts cross my mind:
The first is: before I have to fake it my ass. Anna clearly didn’t know a thing.
The second: I want you right now.
Okay, so I said that second part out loud.
I’m completely overwhelmed by the sensation of making Riley come. I’m so hard I’m practically humping the bed as I work away at her perfect secret spot. Her moans tell me she’s enjoying it and that makes me want to work harder. When she bucks against my face I give in the game and just swing for the fence, hoping I’ve gotten it right. Because I really want to get this right. She bursts like a fruit, sweet and delicious, and I grind my lap into the mattress to keep from coming myself.
Nothing Anna said was true. I can do this. I can take care of Riley the way she’s taken care of me. I’m not broken and Riley believes me.
When I’m searching for any last drop, telling myself to be calm and make sure I’ve taken care of her, I hear Riley say:
“I want you right now.”
I go on blind instinct. I slide up her body, catching the way her eyes get slightly wide as they see the flex of my arms and shoulders. Then she’s under me, kissing me, and the pulsing tip of my dick finds its way right to her slit. I’m dizzy with anticipation. She’s right there with me.
“Kris, I want you,” she says. I slide inside her and press slowly against her tight little pussy. The pressure is exquisite and I push forever until I feel her ass against my thighs. We both sigh with pleasure.
“Wow,” she says quietly. I open my eyes and she’s biting her lip, eyelids half closed and fluttering. My lips find her neck, right at her pulse point, and confirm that she’s running at full speed too. The hot, wet squeeze of her body is making me sweat.
I stroke slowly, testing that I can survive the first few pulls and pushes. She’s more confident than I am – because she can’t tell how incredible she feels – and twists her hips against mine. I groan into her neck. She arches her head back with a gasp as I return the favor. That sound is more than I can take. I go. She goes. We pump and thrust and I’m stroking into her while trying to run power play drills in my mind to keep from coming. It’s not working. There is nothing on Earth that can block out the feel of Riley beneath me, around me. I’m way too close way too soon.
Riley’s hand press down my sides and she digs her nails into my ass. “Oh God, Kris,” she sobs. I feel a telltale flutter in her hips, lean forward and feel it in her stomach too. My pace slows – her body is clenching and it’s tougher to push and pull. But it feels even better and I work hard to maintain. Riley moans, low and soft.
“Come for me, Riley,” I whisper. It’s a very forward statement for me, something I would never have been comfortable saying to Anna. Too intimate, too obviously a warning that I’m not going to make it. Anna would have ridiculed me. But I feel like telling Riley she’s amazing, incredible, unbelievable. “You feel amazing,” I tell her.
She whispers my name. Just my name. “Kris.”
Then she comes. It’s like a little star going supernova – her sweetness bursts like it did in my mouth, only the sensation is heightened by how tightly I’m held, how deeply I’m buried. She moans and squeaks as I carefully do exactly what I was doing when she went. My name is said again, “Oh God, Kris.”
I’m right there with her. The extra warm wetness that fills her coats me, transferring even more electricity between our bodies. I bite down gently on her soft shoulder and let myself come.
Her skin fails to bury my cry. It’s half-grunt, half- shout as I burst inside her. Relief comes with release – actual, real relief of tension and fear and pain and the release of anything else I was holding onto. The release of Anna. My cock pulses, beating itself out inside her tight snatch and everything that I was holding onto pours away. Her lips find mine and I know she can feel it too.
It’s embarrassing but I can’t help it. I stay buried inside her, willing it to stop, but a tear leaks from the corner of my eye. Great, now I really am the loser, crying after sex. My face is pressed to her cheek but she knows it anyway.
“Shhh,” she barely says. Her thumb draws lightly across my cheek. And that’s it – she doesn’t make it a big deal. She simply brushes it away like it’s over and I believe her.
I have barely caught my breath before Kris comes, taking it from me again. The sound he makes is almost like an animal – it’s a cry for help and a threat at the same time, like he’s wounded but not giving up. The stimulation of having him buried inside me is so much that I could cry.
I’m not surprised that he does, just one tear that I see. The guy has been through a lot and I’d worry if he didn’t feel it. Normally something like telling another girl off would affect me for days, but I’ve been distracted by Kris. I hope I have provided the same for him. So I brush away the tear and kiss him again. Because all that stuff is over.
“Riley.” It’s soft and there’s shame in his voice.
“You are amazing,” I tell him honestly because I have just had the night of my life. And I want to do it again soon so I can’t risk losing him now.
“Please stay tonight,” he says.
I stretch my arm out and scrunch up the blanket in one hand, then fold it over our half of the bed. We don’t need it with our own heat but it’s comforting nonetheless. I’m not going anywhere. It takes less than five minutes and I don’t know which one of us falls asleep first.
I'm so sorry for being AWOL! I'm changing jobs and moving and this week just got away from me. I will make it up to you, I promise.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she says.
She’s prettier than I expect, this girl who tore Kris to shreds. Blond hair and light eyes – next to him she must have looked like a ray of sunshine. Boots, leggings, layers, scarf, jewelry: she’s put together in that effortless way I could never hope to achieve.
But her face is hard. I register her the same time she registers me: intruders in each other’s undefined space. There’s a flash of something soft, like maybe she came here to beg forgiveness or win him back. When she sees someone else where his arms, she gets mean. “This whole time you’ve been seeing someone else. All that sad puppy dog bullshit and here you’ve got some other girl too. Jesus, Kris, I almost felt bad about you.”
I watch him decide what to do. The clenched fist wants to tell her to go fuck herself. The slumped shoulder wants to explain that he would never do cheat. The closed eyes just want this whole thing to be over.
Of course I’m already mad. Anna could meet the business end of my boot and land somewhere around the stop sign on the corner. But Kris needs to fight his own battles. I need to see if he can.
“Get out, Anna,” he says.
No explanation, no apology. Just GTFO. Good man, I think.
“I came for my stuff.”
“I dropped it at Maureen’s. All of it.” Kris’ hand is still on my arm. He squeezes down now.
Anna tilts her head, mocking. “Well I don’t live there anymore.”
“But that’s where you got the spare key, right? Because you sure as hell didn’t go to Sidney’s for the other one. Maureen couldn’t find it when I brought your stuff over; now we know why.”
Like a kid caught stealing, Anna recoils. “Fuck you, Kris. Acting like you’re better than me when you’re really just a better liar. I should have fucked your friends when they all tried to pick me up.” Then she turns to me. “Take my advice honey, and land a teammate. Unless you’re into holding hands and crying before you have to fake it.” She looks me up and down with pursed lips, judging. “They’re not picky, I’m sure one of them would fuck you.”
Kris’ hand is so tight on my arm he’s touching bone. He’s either fighting the urge to kill her or asking me not to. That perfect jaw line is locked and his teeth grind audibly. The idea of this hard, horrible girl with beautiful, gentle Kris churns bile in my stomach. There’s no instinct to defend myself – I don’t give two shits what she says about me. I wish Kris would stand up for himself but he looks so exhausted. My instinct is to protect him.
“Get out, Anna,” he repeats like it’s all he can manage. She huffs shortly, she’s not done arguing.
“Or maybe they already have.” Now she’s trying to goad me into a fight. “Is that what you were doing while he was with me, fucking your way down the food chain till you ended up here? Sid’s sloppy seconds keeping you warm at night now, Kris?”
She’s kicking him while he’s down. I can’t stop myself.
“What are you doing here if it was so bad? Did you run out of other guys to fuck? No one wants your sorry ass anymore, nowhere to go, and so you’re back to get for the best thing you ever had. Well too late, bitch. Someone smarter has taken your place.” I stand up – even in Kris’ socks I have a few inches on Anna. I get close enough to throw a punch but instead hold out my open hand.
“And now I’ll take that key.”
I am wobbly. My weight seems to double and the couch threatens to swallow me as Anna stands there spitting insults. She’s so hawkish, so brittle and festering that I wonder how I could have ever loved her. How I could ever have seen anything but ambition in her eyes.
The words she says are meaningless, so false as to be almost comical. I was loyal as a puppy to her and my teammates never liked her, would never do that to me. Max or Jordan might do it to each other, TK would take whatever he could get, Crosby could have anything he wanted. But they know I couldn’t survive such a hit. Even so they didn’t want Anna – if anything they wished I were rid of her long ago.
Riley bristles visibly, her posture straightening with each lie Anna tells like her vertebrae are clicking into place. I should throw Anna across the street, defend myself and show some self respect. But I’m so tired. Two minutes ago I felt invincible, stopping my smile only long enough to kiss Riley again. Now I feel deflated and resigned but that doesn’t mean I am defeated.
“Get out, Anna.”
Despite everything, Anna knows when my mind is made up. I hope this will be enough but she turns on Riley. If she can’t make me take her back, maybe she can make Riley leave. I’m no good at being alone – if she can separate us, I’ll be an easier victim to hunt.
I almost laugh. Anna wouldn’t stand a chance against Riley. A part of me wants to tell her I’ve only known Riley a few days. To say that Riley has gotten in deeper, has given me more, has been a better person in a week than Anna ever was. I want Anna to know she’s been bested by the new girl. But Riley does that herself.
“Someone smarter has taken your place.”
Anna looks back to me once more, unable to believe she’s actually losing a fight in this house. She was the undisputed heavyweight champion for a long time. But she sees no mercy in me and a seasoned boxer knows when they cannot win.
“And now I’ll take that key.” Riley’s voice is cold as ice.
It may be only favor Anna has ever done for me: she drops the silver key into Riley’s hand and slams the door hard enough to knock a picture off the wall. I should have known Anna wasn’t done with me, that she’d never go quietly. It was just luck she showed up when I wasn’t alone.
“Sorry,” I tell Riley. “You shouldn’t have had to be part of that.”
She presses her lips together in a tight smile. I can still feel them against mine, taste the ice cream we shared. Minutes ago I was kissing her and all she got for it was slandered and shouted at.
Riley looks down at the silver in her hand then turns the key until it’s between her thumb and forefinger. She holds it out to me. I take her wrist and pull her and the key into my lap. With a surprised squeak she lands on me, right where I wanted her to be before Anna barged in. My arms fall around her waist and hold her close.
“I’m sorry,” I repeat softly. “She tries to ruin everything.”
Riley rubs the tip of her nose against mine like we’re Eskimos. “All she ruined was our ice cream.”
“There’s more in the kitchen.” I’d get her a scoopful from the North Pole if she asked, but she just smiles.
“I don’t think we need it.”
Riley slides her hands into my hair and kisses me deeply, the way she was about to before the door opened. Her lips scrub away the angry words I didn’t say to Anna. I didn’t need them; only this can really help.
At some point in the evening I was being gentlemanly but it’s a distant memory as I tip Riley backward onto the couch and she goes down willingly beneath me. Her legs twist in mine, allowing me the deep comfort of full-body contact that has been reserved for our hugs. She fits against me just as perfectly this way. I get my arms under her shoulders so I can squeeze her at the same time.
The reserve Kris has shown is gone. Whatever part was tentative and maybe a little scared has clocked out early and he is kissing me for all he’s worth. He still tastes of ice cream and fudge. The scent of clean, strong boy and the weight of his thick, broad body overwhelm me until I’m melting faster than dessert. There’s no sense of time as we kiss for what seems like a week.
When we finally come up for air, Kris can’t keep the smile off his face. We’re twined together and I couldn’t move if I wanted to. Which I don’t.
“Thank you,” he says.
This isn’t the same gratitude that made me uncomfortable before. I have actually done something this time and feel proud of it. I kiss my answer onto his soft lips and that sets us off again. Within minutes I’m fighting back a whimper. He’s shifting his weight like maybe his lap is getting uncomfortable. We come apart panting.
“We don’t have to rush this,” I say before he can. His gorgeous brown eyes flicker. There’s no mistaking the way my body arches up to meet his, the heat we’re generating or the fact that his knee is firmly planted between my thighs. It’s obvious we want each other but it doesn’t have to be right now. The encounter with Anna and the sudden increase in our speed has probably taken a lot out of him.
He frees one arm to gently brush the hair behind my ear. Then he leans down and whispers something in French – I don’t understand, but it is the single sexiest thing I have ever heard. His breath tickles my skin and he follows it with his lips against my neck.
A swarm of butterflies dive through my stomach. I actually shudder. Kris waits for the moment I quiver and strongly, deliberately rolls his hips firmly down into mine. I gasp at the thrust and an elfin smile crosses his face.
“Do you know what I said?” His lips are inches from mine as I shake my head no. He tips his head down and whispers again. “That last time you left here I made myself a promise: if I got you here again, I’d make you want to stay.”
After skiing or roller skating, when you lay down, it still feels like you’re moving. For hours after a boat ride, the solid ground beneath your feet seems to pitch and roll. That’s how I felt after Kris.
I lay awake in the dark, replaying every kiss, remembering the silky fall of his hair and the downy brush of his beard. If you move a sparkler quickly enough, you can leave a trail of bright fire in the sky. The imprint tonight reads Kris’ name.
I wonder if he’s thinking of me. I wonder if he compares me to her, the girl who left wounds still fresh and stinging. Maybe I’m a stitch meant to seal, maybe I’m just a salve to ease the pain. Everything about Kris says that he is deeply invested in us already. But I have never known someone so sensitive, so open about his own vulnerability. Perhaps this is simply Kris’ way to being, if it were possible to make the entire world fall madly in love with you. Tomorrow’s date cannot come fast enough.
The next day I have a message after my noon appointment. Kris is done with practice and wants to know if he can pick me up at six. I dial his number.
“Hi Kris. I got your message. Six tonight is great.”
“Is there anything you don’t like? I was thinking about Italian food.”
“That sounds perfect.”
My hands shake as I snap my phone shut. The afternoon drags on, my mind wanders through the story of last night then spills into predicting tonight’s events: tt goes well, then badly, then another good scenario. I’m making myself crazy. By five thirty I’m laughing at myself in front of the bathroom mirror. I choose a cute black dress with boots and a chunky necklace of green beads. There’s even time for half a glass of wine before my phone rings and Kris is here.
He stands at the passenger side of his car waiting for me. His hair is pushed back and he wears dark slacks under a long jacket with a red scarf. He looks like the mysterious love interest in a foreign movie.
“You look beautiful.” His voice has no edges, just waves and curls.
“Thank you.” I gather my bearings before kissing his cheek, but that only lasts only a second. We both turn and our lips connect gently, melting into a real kiss. Everything I have goes toward not opening my mouth and fully making out with him on the sidewalk. My next job will be training the Army to withstand torture.
His hand closes around my wrist – not body contact, surely we couldn’t handle that, but the imperative that he wants me to keep kissing him. In reality I can’t or I will lose my mind. I press my lips together and smile, his cheek still touching my nose. He laughs softly and licks his lips.
“You taste like berries.”
I could climb this building like Spider-Man and have his clothes off faster than a paramedic in an emergency. Instead I press one more short kiss to his lips and lower myself into his sexy car.
We talk a little on the way to dinner. If hormones were liquid this car would fill and we’d both drown. By the time we reach the tiny Italian restaurant I am gasping for air. Our table is for an intimate two-some, so small that sitting across from each other is like sitting on each others’ laps. The low lighting makes everyone look beautiful, and thus turns Kris’ already perfect face into something resembling the white light you walk toward when it’s time to ascend to Heaven.
Gorgeous dark hair falls into his face so that I almost miss it. He breaks a piece of bread, looking down at the dish of oil and vinegar mixed on the table. There’s surely garlic in it. A shy little smile crosses his lips before he dunks the bread and eats it. Now I can have some too, and still kiss him later.
“Tell me about growing up in Montreal.”
Kris recounts his childhood, playing hockey on any available surface like all the other kids. He is an only child, so hand-me-down equipment came from neighbors and that embarrassed him. Still he says everyone had cast off jerseys with duct taped rips and battered, scuffed helmets. It wasn’t until he got to juniors that he ever played with anything new. He talks about his mother and step father traveling to games, waking up before dawn to drive to the ends of the frozen north. Their support obviously meant a lot to him. I picture this soft-spoken kid, gangly in the way that only teen boys can be, searching the stands in some windswept town for his parents’ faces.
The first course arrives and it’s delicious antipasti, accompanied by a glass of red wine. When the food is gone but the wine isn’t, Kris reaches across the table for my hand. He tells me about being drafted in the third round and how hard it was to sit and wait, feeling like he’d been punched every time the name called wasn’t his.
“No one drafted before you was the number one All-Star vote-getting defenseman in the NHL this year,” I point out. It makes him smile.
Riley is a really good listener. I usually don’t tell too much of this to girls I’d dated – it wasn’t a sad growing up at all, it just wasn’t flashy. Probably my childhood was like everyone else’s – not very sexy. More than anything I worry girls will find me boring. Of course when I ask about them, they tell me what they had for lunch every day in grade eight and the license place of every car they’ve ever driven.
Over entrees of pasta and cream sauce and other things I shouldn’t be eating, she tells me about growing up in New Jersey and going to college in California. She studied English but got into massage therapy there and pursued that education later. Her light eyes seem darker in the sultry lighting and her skin is smooth where I circle my thumb over hers.
“I missed the winters, so I moved home. But it was too much like high school – most people never left, still the same stupid fights and stories. I visited Pittsburgh for a wedding and decided it was the place for me. Massage therapy is not the highest-paying job there is, but it goes a pretty long way here.”
I’m struck by an urge I never get – to tell her about my best friend Luc who was killed in a motorcycle accident. This story is sad but it’s important to me and I feel at this point I’d be keeping it from her. So I start the short version, the one I can get through without crying. As always, the mention of his name makes the tattoo on my arm tingle like the needles are etching my skin again. Her fingers tighten around mine.
“I know some of this, about him. If you don’t want to talk about it.”
I lean over the tiny table and kiss her. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about Luc and Riley has already seen me vulnerable. But I really don’t want to tell a sad story on our first real date, when we should be having fun together. I’ve been a downer since we met, with the exception of last night in the bar, and I know she’ll quickly tire of me moping around. So I catch her soft lips to mine with relief.
“Someday,” she says, making it clear she’s ready to hear when I’m ready to talk.
I order another round of wine and tell her gossip from the team. She knows a few stories about Marc, apparently he tries out some of his pranks on Vero before perfecting them. Max and Jordan are a source of endless hilarity as well – not just their drunken carousing, but some of their stunts are so highly organized she is amazed.
“Once on a high school field trip, the guys in my class wrestled this girl Megan into a chair and taped her to it. Like mummified her with tape. She couldn’t touch the floor. Then they put the chair in the elevator and just left her sitting there. It was a good twenty minutes before someone pushed her out into the lobby, but then it was even more hilarious.”
I start thinking… and she cuts me off. “You guys could get Conner, maybe. He’s little.”
When the dessert menu comes, Riley suggests we go somewhere else for a treat. I’m warm and happy here but once the dinner is over, the night is over. Probably. I’ll do anything to make it last longer – hopefully she wants to have desert in Washington, DC. She lets me help her into her coat, and I sneak my hand across the soft, inviting skin of her arm. We could wait inside, but as we stand on the sidewalk she nestles in close to my side. Totally worth the temperature drop.
“I have two ideas for dessert,” I announce. I simply cannot take the waiting anymore and I need to know where this is going tonight before I lose my mind. “There’s a great ice cream sundae place nearby, or we could go to the market and make our own sundaes.”
That’s right, I just invited myself over. Kris weighs the options like he might be trying to save me from myself.
“Market,” he says.
In the most unladylike move of the night, I laugh.
Kris drives in the direction I recognize to be toward his house. Maybe it’s because he knows where the grocery stores are. Maybe he thinks coming over to my place would be too presumptuous. Maybe maybe maybe. Damn. We’re out of place in the 24-hour supermarket, me in my high heels and Kris in his fancy coat. I settle on Neopolitan ice cream while he loads up on hot fudge and whipped cream. On second thought, this is probably a bad idea. When he adds a jar of Maraschino cherries I almost whimper. He’s gotten infinitely more playful and confident as the night has gone on, which I hope means he’s having fun. I want him to feel comfortable and safe around me.
The checkout clerk is sixteen, female and I think she gets her first orgasm the moment she sees Kris. I want to tell her I know how she feels – no one should look that good under florescent lighting. Oblivious to his own powers, Kris just swipes his card. When we get to his house, I feel awkward stomping around in my high heels. I place them inside the door, lined up next to some of Kris’ shoes and boots, and walk barefoot into the kitchen. I have the stuff all lined up on the counter before he comes back.
“So your feet aren’t cold,” he says, holding out a pair of white tube socks. I pull the socks on, slouch them down and know with absolute certainty that I have met the nicest guy in the world. I busy myself warming the hot fudge so he’ll scoop the ice cream, just a blatant excuse to watch him flex. He lines up two bowls, I spoon chocolate onto them and he shakes the whipped cream. Then he holds it upside down, in the air, toward my face.
“You want to,” he says. I let him put it right into my mouth. It’s delicious and cold and ridiculously suggestive. This is Kris coming out of his shell. When he’s done and we’re both laughing, he brings his thumb up to wipe a smear from my bottom lip then licks his own finger.
Riley is testing me. I left her alone last night and she’s dying to know if I’ll do it again. If I’m even capable of it. For all I know Vero or the boys have told her a million stories of hockey players behaving badly – some of them could have been about me, and few of them may have even been true. But I don’t sense that she’s afraid of being loved and left. If anything, she might think I’m afraid to get that close.
I’m not afraid. I’m not even hesitant. Getting to know Riley, as much as one date will allow, has confirmed everything I couldn’t believe I felt before.
She sits next to me on the couch, feet tucked up underneath her in my bright white socks. I allow myself a single victorious thought – Anna would never have done that. She’d have changed her whole outfit or frozen to death before she wore tube socks with a dress, even around me. Then the thought is gone from my mind because Riley is making me jealous of a spoon.
“This is really good,” she says. The warm chocolate is amazing on the ice cream, and I also taste vanilla and strawberry. Three flavors plus all the toppings and whipped cream – there’s a lot going on one my tongue right now. Riley makes a face like it’s the taste of pure joy and I have to know, right then, if it’s the same for her as me. I toss her bowl onto the coffee table and kiss her.
Warm and cold, the soft chocolate and the sharp bite of strawberry plus the velvety surface of her tongue – the taste is even better on Riley. Her surprise lasts a moment before she’s kissing me back. It would be so easy to pull her into my lap or throw her down on sofa, but instead I stay still and just lose myself in the kiss. There was simply no way it could have been as good as I remembered from last night. Not just sweet or sexy, the way kissing a beautiful woman should feel, but honest and fun and sure. I hadn’t had fun or been sure in a long time.
“Sorry,” I say when we come up for air, handing Riley back her dessert. “I had to see if….”
She waves her spoon. “Wait, let me get ready again.”
We laugh, but as soon as she’s gotten two bites I’m kissing her again. This time I bring her toward me until her knees rest atop my thigh, leaving enough room between us for some good decision making. Maybe. Still my hand sneaks up the smooth curve of her arm.
It’s like a car wash inside my brain. A high pressure rinse of a dingy room - suddenly there are colors I remember, places so long covered by dust I had forgotten their existence. Spring cleaning maybe; clearing the doubt that lingers after you are well and truly defeated.
I’m so lost in the kiss that I don’t register familiar sounds. A hundred cars have pulled into my driveway, and thousand people climbed the steps. Even the jingle of keys doesn’t break my reverie.
Until the door opens and Anna is standing there.
It’s exactly like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Riley gasps, her mouth open slightly so she steals the breath from my lungs. Her lips are soft and the sharp light of pain goes out behind my eyes. There’s nothing else but this kiss. She doesn’t pull away, doesn’t turn or run. It takes a long moment but she leans slowly forward and secures her mouth to mine.
We don’t move, nothing more than our lips touching and the feel of breathing together. I could stay there in the dark kissing her forever. I don’t even register time passing – until the door opens, throwing light against the wall. We nearly fall off the bench jumping apart. I crack an eyelid in panic and am relieved the light doesn’t sear into my brain.
“Guess you’re alright then?” Coach chuckles. He wants to be mad or at least stern but the strain of trying not to laugh shows on his face. “You two done playing doctor?”
“Oh my God,” Riley says, putting her head onto my shoulder. Then she jerks backward, her face twisted, finally registering the smell of my gear. Coach loses it and laughs out loud.
“Come on, Tanger.” He leaves, but the door stays open.
I turn toward Riley. She’s biting her lip sheepishly, wondering if we’re in trouble, wondering what just happened between us. But I know for sure. I kiss her again, more squarely this time. Her eyelids flutter closed for a second. I put my hand to her cheek and move my lips to her forehead.
“Thank you,” I say. I’m grateful for so many things.
She smiles. “Be careful.”
Kris hustles from the room, not slowing under the blazing hallway lights. I guess he feels okay. I feel like a Sno-Cone in the machine: bright blue and red, whipping around and yet somehow frozen at the same time.
He pulled me in hard. It was a confident move and surprised me more than the kiss itself. Then his lips were smooth, holding still and simply asking permission to keep devastating me. My mouth replied eagerly.
And then he thanked me. I should be thanking him.
I climb down from the table and test my legs. I would fail a sobriety field test for sure, but I manage to trip along the route I took to get here. The stairs down to our seats are tougher, but I see Vero searching for me.
“What?” Her face is close, her eyes narrowed as she searches mine. I open my mouth but nothing comes out, gaping like a fish. Finally I find my breath.
“He kissed me.”
Vero about faints with relief. She actually lets her knees bend and slumps down into midair. Then she’s back up, pulling me by the hand toward the concourse. Right through the teeming crowd of snack-and-beer buyers, we tuck into a far corner against the wall.
“WHAT?!” A couple of people turn at her shriek and I’m very glad she didn’t do that at the seats. We’d have to tell the whole section. Without waiting for my answer, she throws her arms around me then suddenly freezes. “Wait. Did you kiss him back? I mean, did you… do you want to?” Again no words will come so I just nod. Now she hugs me like a squid. I tell her the whole story, stopping so she can squee loudly and often. Her hand beats at my arm. By the time I’m done, she’s vibrating so hard she’s blurry.
Deep breath. “Riley,” she says, “you are good for him. I know you have doubts but I know Kris. I wouldn’t support this unless I was sure. And he can be so good for you, he will be. He doesn’t know how to be bad.”
Screaming erupts from the arena as the Pens take the ice for the third period. I know Kris will be there and I feel magnetized to the ice – I must see him. More than knowing he’s really okay, I have to know he’s even real. Vero keeps her hand on my arm throughout the period. Kris takes a few shifts but the Pens are up and his presence is less obligatory. I wish away the final four minutes then cheer madly at the buzzer to dispel some of my nervous energy.
I can’t get off the ice quickly enough. I hardly played in the period, just to be sure I wasn’t hurt. We’re thrilled with the win and two points, but I have some unfinished business to take care of. Coach talks as we strip off our gear and as soon as he’s done, I’m in the shower then into a suit.
“Buchanan’s?” Jordan suggests a local bar. It’ll be slow on a Monday but the boys want to celebrate. I catch Marc staring at me – he can always tell when something is going on.
“Let me check with Vero,” he bails me out.
They’re next door in the lounge. They have to be. I am afraid to go in there in case I maul her in front of everyone. What will she think if I don’t? I already did that once tonight. What will she think if I do, that I assume she’s as into this as I am? Maybe she just didn’t want to shoot me down in the middle of a game. After all I was practically helpless already. There’s still a chance she’s going to let me down easy and walk away, sending me back to my empty house feeling as lonely as it ever did. The thought anchors itself in my mind and I slow, fixing my tie needlessly and fiddling with my bag.
“Mon ami, ready?” Flower asks. His perma-smile only makes me send up a wish that I am not wrong. I follow him out like a man awaiting trial. The lounge is loud and crowded after a good win and Vero’s head bobs above the others, then she moves and I see Riley. My fears evaporate immediately. She’s got the sleeves of my sweater twisted into her fists and she chews her lip uncertainly, pretending to listen. Her mind is somewhere else but when she catches me staring, I know that I’m the place.
I really like her. I really want her. Seeing her here, surrounded by the people Anna feared and envied, I know that Riley is different. And I think that maybe because of her I can be different too.
Without so much as a tiny falter of step, Riley dodges the bodies between us. Her palms press the cuffs of the oversized sweater to my cheeks. That’s where she hesitates – unsure if I want to do it again, if I want everyone to know. My shyness has been a plague lately. But now… I feel new. And so I kiss her squarely on the lips. It only lasts a moment but it nails me to the floor.
“You okay?” she asks.
I don’t say anything to Marc or Vero. I just grab Riley’s hand and lead her away from the lounge, past the locker room. By the time we’re in the hall we’re running. She doesn’t bother to put her coat on, we just jog through the lot and I open my car with the remote. Before we’ve stopped sliding across our respective seats, we’re kissing again.
If Kris turns on this seat warmer, I will have an orgasm. His hands are in my hair, holding me close as if I ever intend to stop kissing him. His surprisingly strong tongue is velvety in my mouth as we paw at each other over the center console. He only breaks the contact to speak.
“Riley, I’m sorr…,” he starts.
“Don’t. Don’t apologize for what someone else did to you. You have every right to be hurt and sad and I don’t want to rush yo….”
He puts his fingers over my mouth. “I was going to say that I’m sorry I waited so long to kiss you. You deserved to know before now.”
I go all one-dimensional as the tension and nerves and blood drain out of my body and leave me shellacked to the seat. I speak into his hand. “It’s only been five days.”
“And I should have known on the first one.” He pulls his fingers from my lips and draws me in gently for another kiss. I sigh like a Mouseketeer. “Do you want to go out with the guys?”
I want to rip the steering wheel out and throw it through the sun roof so I can climb into his lap. But that’s not the way this should be – we’re going slow, for each other. It seemed to take a lifetime to get where we are now. We’re not firmly in the track yet, we shouldn’t be moving at high speed no matter how much my mind is racing into the red.
He can’t hold my hand and drive the standard transmission, so he places it softly back in my lap like he’s sad to see it go. For the first time since we met I stare openly at his profile – the strong jaw fuzzed over with beard, the upturned point of his nose. His eyes slide toward me, catching me and he smiles.
We’re the first ones to the bar. Maybe Kris planned it that way. All I know is he takes a space at the far end of the lot, kills the lights and kisses me again. His hair, his lips, his smell – everyone about him is so soft. Well maybe not everything, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I push the thought away as my hands twist into his gorgeous locks. He has one hand on the back of my neck and the other on my cheek, again holding me close against the threat of running away.
I fly up like it’s an ejector seat. Max and Jordan grin down wolfishly through the glass outside my window, waving like idiots. Kris chuckles and pushes his hair from his face.
“Are you okay with this? That everyone knows? I should have asked you, before I just kissed you where they could all see.”
“Kris, I’m happy.”
Relief quickly washes over his features, followed by that tiny glimmer of gratitude I’ve seen in his eyes. I’m certainly not doing him any favors and I don’t like the uneven footing we seem to always be on. I catch his arm before he can open the door to leave.
“Hey,” I say and he turns. Then I kiss him, hard and sure, to the sound of Max and Jordan howling outside. It surprises him but he quickly eases into it. For twenty or thirty seconds, I try my best to convey a message without words. When we break apart I say it anyway, just in case. “I want this too.”
She must be reading my mind. I don’t question the spark between us, the connection that I have felt since I met her. But if I can’t be the guy for her, someone else will. One of my teammates will want her – hell, they all want her. But one or two of them are actually good people and I wouldn’t want to take her away from something that could make her happy.
“I want this too,” she says.
She wants me. The words coat like medicine as they travel down my nervous system. Jordan practically lifts her from the car and hugs her, then passes her to Max. They’re beaming like idiots – Riley will think I’ve never had any luck with girls before the way these two carry on. But she teases them back and when I come near, reaches for my hand. Jordan whistles like he’s seem something impressive.
“Lucky bastard,” he bumps against me, knocking me into Riley.
I squeeze her hand and let myself get cheesy for a second. “I know.”
They roll in ahead of us and tell everyone, so when I hold the door open for Riley it’s like we’re being announced at our wedding reception. If our reception were ten people in an otherwise empty bar with a sad Johnny Cash song on the jukebox. But my friends are smiling and more than a few look relieved. Vero doesn’t even wait for me to drop Riley’s hand: she hugs me tight and I feel how my pain has hurt her. She’s like the mother bear to our little group of cubs and when we’re in trouble, she gets defensive. I return her hug, adding it to the list of things I’m thankful for.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If Riley and I are even a couple, it’s been exactly two hours and ten minutes. Hardly time to cut the cake. After the initial excitement, and aside from the fact that Riley’s legs are pressed against mine under the table, things go quickly back to the way they’ve always been. Max hits on the waitress, Jordan hits on the waitress, Kelsey makes fun of TK when he tries to hit on the waitress. We laugh and talk and hockey comes up every five seconds. I hook my foot around Riley’s, order her another drink, and for the first time in ages, just relax.
It ends to soon, the way things always do when you’re trying to remember them. I hope that someday this will be The Night. The night we got together, the night we kissed. I’m looking forward to looking back on this day.
“Can I take you out tomorrow? On a date?” I ask, leaning in far closer than is necessary and breathing the clean, fruity scent of her hair. She left my jersey in the car but didn’t change – she just wears a plain black long-sleeved t-shirt. A silver hoop earring taps against my jaw as I speak.
“A first date? I’m kinda nervous,” she says. Her lips are so close it’s a miracle she gets a word out at all. Everyone pretends they’re still talking but I feel them watching.
“Me too,” I admit. She nods and it all goes sideways – I push my lips to hers and get a whole second before someone starts clinking glasses together. She lifts one hand and slowly, almost gracefully gives them the finger. TK calls for another round.
We leave the bar to a chorus of “wear a rubber” and “pulling out doesn’t work!” I blush hotly and realize there might be a decision to make. Any other guy would have taken her straight home from the rink. But I want to do this right. I wanted to take her out to slow things down a bit. If we race right to the end there may be nothing left to wake up to.
“Where do you live?” I ask when I’m safely behind the wheel.
The low, smooth ride of the car feels sexy as I glance at her, watching the world slide past by the lights of dash. She twists her long neck, illuminated in the faint glow, and I almost groan. I want so badly to kiss her, love her, take her home and make her my prisoner. She see me in the reflection.
“I knew you’d take me home.”
It catches me off guard. “I… uh, do you want to….”
“No,” she smiles honestly. “This feels right.”
I brush the back of my hand up her thigh before returning it to shift gears. Riley turns her shoulders and angles toward me. “It’s not that I don’t want….” Want to what? Tear your clothes off? Hear you moan my name and map your ticklish spots and wipe sweat from your brow? I clear my mind by clearing my throat. “This isn’t easy,” I confess.
“Worse for me,” she shrugs.
Hardly! But I don’t yell. I simply ask, “How’s that?”
Again she looks out the window. “I’ve seen you almost naked.”
Deryk Engelland thought I need some more inspiration, so he challenged Kris to a playfight at practice for the second day in row. Only this time he stripped his jersey, pads and shirt off. The best moment is at 5:40, when Kris tries twice to put it back on before giving up. EPIC.
She can see my car from the lobby so I pull slowly out of the parking lot. I can’t really read the street signs and I’m color blind to the lights. For a few minute there I was alright – I said goodbye, I even touched her. Then as she stepped into my arms and pressed her body against mine, I knew there was more of that positive energy, that healing power I’d felt from her hands. My lips brushed her cheek on their own, I didn’t plan that. It left me breathless and shaken, like shock setting in.
I get home in a haze, pull into the garage and sit thinking of how she’d been there the night before. Those steps, that door. Riley had come right into my life. In four days she had done more for me than Anna had done in months.
Anna. It’s the first time I’ve thought of her all day.
It should be midnight, but it’s not even dark. I occupy myself all afternoon by turning the idea of Riley over in my mind. Her smile, her laugh: little things that seem to mean so much when you’re first learning someone. Her touch – well, I think about that too much and have to take myself to the shower before I can finish. But mostly I just roll around in the feeling of something good and positive. It feels like a warm new coat.
Around dinnertime the euphoria starts to wear off. She is all the things I’ve been thinking, deserves all the things I’ve been imagining. But as my clothes rub away the feel of her hands, I remember that I’m not the guy to give her any of that. I’m broken, damaged. A few days worth of feeling can’t make up for months of numbness. Infatuation is the easy part – by the time you get to the real stuff, I’m obviously not cut out for it. And by then it’s too late. Now I’m onto this, feeding myself a boring dinner like punishment as I argue myself back to where I belong. Then my phone buzzes. Fuck, this is a conspiracy.
Riley: How are you feeling?
Call her, I tell myself. Don’t wuss out and text, listen to her voice. If you’re going to get past the possibility of her and you, you have to man up. She’s a good person, be nice, be friends. Just friends.
“Hey Kris.” The sound of her voice makes my stomach drop. “Feeling okay?”
The massage released toxins from my cramped muscles into my bloodstream. I feel them now – unsettled, unbalanced. Her concerned tone makes me want to cry. “Oui, I am good. I feel good.”
“Well don’t forget to drink a lot of water. You had a lot going on there – if it doesn’t get out of your body it can make you sick.”
The beer I have with dinner glares at me from the counter. “You give good advice.”
“Tell me that tomorrow when you’re feeling like a new man.”
Why are you texting him? I ask as I hit the send button. Because I have been un-texting him for hours: tapping out a message, deleting it, writing another. There are only a thousand ways to ask someone how they’re doing and I’m on nine hundred ninety-nine. I have to do something or I’m going to explode.
I drifted through my last client of the day, not remembering anything about the session except the stiffness in my hands brought to mind the sense memory of Kris’ body. He was such a mess, so vulnerable, so grateful. For once I actually had really done something for him and it felt great.
I settle on the simplest version of the message and send it off. A minute later my phone rings. Aw crap.
“Oui, I am good. I feel good.” He sounds a little hesitant, or maybe he’s just tired. After all I don’t know him that well. And beyond my text I can’t think of anything to say, so I give him some lame advice about water.
“Tell me that tomorrow when you’re feeling like a new man.” I sound like a Hallmark card but he surprises me.
“Come early again, eh? Five thirty like last time? Or we won’t get to say hello before the game.”
When he’s off, I already know it is twenty-two hours until five-thirty tomorrow and they will pass with agonizing slowness. I stare at the phone and wonder what the hell I’m going to do now that I have totally fallen for this brokenhearted guy.
The time inches by – I can’t sleep long enough to make a dent, work is slow. I even finish my book and have to leave lunch early. By four o’clock I’m practically pacing my room, Kris’ jersey hung over the footboard and all my clothing strewn across the floor. Finally I settle on jeans and boots and stuff a nicer top into my bag in case we go out.
Out. In case we go out.
I’m losing it.
Vero arrives just in time to keep me from biting my nails. “Penguins taxi service!”
I don’t want to tell her that her plan has worked. I don’t want to admit how much I feel something that is obviously not going to happen. Kris has made no secrets about being hurt and fragile. This is no time to be taking advantage of someone’s weakness. I put on a calm face that lasts across town and through the locker room door.
“Riley!” TK yells. He is like a puppy that ate Pixie Stix. It makes me smile to see him so happy – he’s been playing really well lately. Jordan greets me with a hug and then Max as well, reminding me how easy it is to be friends with these guys.
“Someone will be glad you’re here,” Max doesn’t bother to whisper. We both look up as Kris comes in from the equipment room. He’s wearing a t-shirt over small spandex shorts. Very small. One glimpse of those thighs and the thought of my hands on them – my vision blurs.
“Bonjour, Riley.” He puts his skates down and stands in front of me. One of his hands goes into my hair and he kisses me on one cheek then the other. I stand still as a toy solider and equally open-mouthed. His breath is soft against my ear as he whispers. “Don’t tell the other guys you do massage, okay? You will never get a moment’s peace.”
“Okay.” It gives me something to do with my face: a smile. We chat with everyone for a few minutes and Marc asks me to test his pads by kicking them as hard as I can. Coach walks in while I’m wailing away on Marc’s legs like Jackie Chan.
“Interesting technique,” he says with a raised eyebrow. “You must be Riley.”
“How do you know that?” I shake his hand.
He shrugs. “Heard someone around here was wearing Tanger’s number.”
That’s our cue to leave. We wish everyone luck and I give Kris what I hope is an extra little wave. He gives me an extra smile. In the lounge, Vero throws herself down on an empty couch.
“Oh my God he loves you.”
“Oh shut up, he does not.”
She sits up very tall. “What were you two whispering about?”
Jesus, she could double as a spy satellite. She’d been all the way over talking to Crosby when that happened. And now there is absolutely no way out of telling her the truth.
“I told you I got Kris an appointment at the studio yesterday, because his neck is so messed up. Well that therapist couldn’t make it. So I did it.”
Her mouth falls open like a cartoon character, several flights of stairs down to her chin. And before she can even think of something incredulous to say she bursts out laughing. Her arms go around me and she rocks us back and forth in hysterics. I catch the giggles and we go to laughland, wheezing and gasping until we are spent.
“Oh Riley,” she wipes at her eyes. “You are too much! I bring you to dinner, you go to his house. I bring you to a game, you wear his sweater. And now you’re just doing it on your own! Girl, I feel useless!”
“No, it’s not like that. It was an accident. And it was nice, I mean, I actually did something for him. Instead of him looking all thankful when I hadn’t lifted a finger.”
“I told you, he just needs someone to take care of him a little.”
I have to shake my head at that. It would be easy to ignore it because I want to, but not fair. “I have taken it as far as I can, V. I’m trained for physical therapy, I know what I’m doing. The rest of what he needs… that part is not coming from me.”
“You’re wrong,” she says. “He doesn’t need someone with all the answers. Just someone who’s willing to try. Give him time, he’ll come around. Maybe sooner than you think.”
I look right at her because this is important. “I don’t want to hurt him again.”
“That’s why you won’t.”
That was hard. I sit in my stall and pretend to examine my skates, but I think about Riley. She was here, bright as day, wearing my jersey again like it was the easiest thing in the world. Something that used to weigh a ton is now lighter than a feather. I knew she would wear it but the sight of her made me feel ten feet tall.
I really like her. It’s too much, too soon and I’m rebounding like a basketball, but there is no denying the punch to the gut I felt when I saw her tonight. The soft scent of her skin when I kissed her cheeks – both cheeks, so greedy – and the softness of her hair in my hand. I asked her not to tell the guys because they’ll all want her touch and I can’t handle that.
I spent last night trying to figure out a way this could work, a way that I deserve to have her in my life. I couldn’t come up with any but my mind has not stopped trying. Every time I roll my shoulders and actually get 360 degrees, I feel her hands on my skin.
“Where are you sitting?” I ask Vero quietly. She cuts her eyes toward Riley, obviously knowing I don’t want her to repeat this. She tells me the seat numbers and ‘I told you so.’
The game starts well and I really feel good. We roll into a 2-0 lead, then it’s 3-0 just into the second. I glance toward their seats a few times but it’s tough to make out who’s who in the sea of bodies. Tampa Bay keeps rolling at us and I’m watching Stamkos like a hawk. They come flying down the ice on a rush, wrap it around and set up at the near point. I get into position as Lecavalier lines up a slap shot.
And that’s the last thing I see before I’m flat on my back, blinded by the overhead arena lighting.
“Tanger! Tanger!” It’s the trainer, kneeling next to me. I didn’t pass out but I am dazed. I focus on him and he sighs loudly. A stick taps my thigh: Sidney leaning over with a worried look on his face.
The trainer helps me sit up, asking me to move my head and neck. Apparently the puck deflected off a stick In front and rode up into the side of my helmet. The bounce took some of the momentum but it still knocked me off my feet. They haul me up and Sid skates me to the bench with the trainer under my other side. I get my feet in the hallway and start walking, no balance problems. But I am worried – I’ll certainly have a headache and that can easily trigger a migraine. The pulse of fear beats through my body as I waddle toward the trainer’s room. I know how bad a migraine can be and there’s nothing worse than waiting for it to arrive.
The trainer knows too. He checks me out quickly: light to the eyes, moving my head around. All things I won’t be able to bear if a migraine comes. Dehydration is a trigger, and by this time in a game I am always fighting it. He gives me a full water bottle, two pills and tells me to stay still. The pills are strong migraine paid medication that often cause my muscles to spasm. Obviously I can’t play like that, so I almost never take them.
I have played with headaches before; all but the worst and I can endure. It seems a lousy reason to let the team down, because it can’t be explained or controlled. I sit quietly and feel one building. My helmet is gone but my pads and sweater stay on – if it’s not that bad, I’ll go back out.
The first thing is my neck starts to cramp. They warned me I’d have whiplash from the shot to the head. It twitches then coils, winding itself down. Behind my eyes a little point of pain begins to form. It could still go either way. The trainer comes back in and I know exactly what I need.
“Can you get my friend Riley? She’s in 118, Row K seat 2. With Vero.”
Kris goes down like a bag of bricks. I nearly jump out of my boots. Vero wraps her hand in mind and holds fast until he is on his feet and skating toward the bench. Just knocked for a loop, we assure each other. Saying “concussion” out loud is worse than telling an actor good luck before he goes on stage. I know that trauma can trigger a migraine and hope the hit was looked worse than it felt. The game goes on and I fail to concentrate. Ten minutes later, a hand appears on my shoulder.
“Riley?” It’s a man in a Pens coaching staff uniform. “He’s okay. But could you come with me?”
I give Vero a look and follow the man up the stairs.
My neck already hurts like a bitch but that white spot of pain hasn’t grown into a flare. The lights are out anyway, they can trigger an episode just as easily as the pain. As it is, the migraine won’t be too bad. I know because the sharp tapping sound moving down the hallway doesn’t stab me like a knife. It’s Riley and, bless her heart, she’s running.
“Close your eyes,” she whispers as she slides in and shuts the door. It’s near complete darkness. “Where are you?”
“Ten steps left.”
I can picture her short-stepping with her hands stretched out in front. She shuffles and giggles. “Sorry.” I reach out and hit her arm then grab it and pull her over.
“Hi,” she whispers, feeling around. I make a little room for her to sit on the edge. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I don’t think a bad one is coming. But my neck hurts. Do you think you could….”
“Roll onto your side.”
She feels her way up to my neck and I know that I’m a sweaty mess. My hair is soaked but it doesn’t stop her, she presses her thumbs into the points at the base of my skull that feel like stones. I make a pathetic noise. Her hands move down over the inflamed tendons. It’s actually painful but I know it’s better than waking up stiff as a board tomorrow. That will definitely give me a migraine. I hiss as she digs below the collar of my jersey.
“Shhh,” she says absentmindedly. She’s busy working, finding the spots that need the most help. “Is the trainer jealous you wouldn’t let him do this?”
I almost laugh. “I told you, they’re mean. It hurts enough already.”
As if I were asking her to stop, she simply holds her hand over the back of my neck. It’s a simple thing and very effective. My injured muscles throb but the rest of me begins to relax. Then she puts her other hand on my cheek and runs it up through my hair.
“I’m so sweaty,” I say sheepishly.
“You were playing a great game.”
“I think I’m okay.” I start to sit up on the table, giving her more room near my bent knees. The next test is to turn on a light but not yet. She’s so close to me, touching my bare skin in the dark. In here I can be anyone, I can be healed and ready and brave. She came running when I needed her – that is beyond any caring I have known in a long time.
“Should I try a light?”
“One second,” I say. I need to decide right now.
“Wait till you’re ready.” Riley has no idea what question she is answering. Her hand slides from the back of my neck as I get into a sitting position. We’re facing each other but I’m not sure where she is. I catch her hand as it moves down my sweater, pull her close in the complete darkness, and kiss her.
I’m scared. Vero’s seen a thousand hockey games and a million minor injuries but I heal people for a living. The idea of someone I care about hurt gives me stomach pains. When the guy came for me, I was so relieved to have something to do.
Kris is alone in the dark – I imagine it’s a metaphor for what his life has felt like. But maybe not anymore. He makes room for me and I feel the angry, swollen muscles in his neck pulsing with blood that tries desperately to minimize the damage. Hisses and curses sneak from his lips as I try my best not to hurt him any worse. That’s what I’m really afraid of after all.
He’s a trooper. He wants to go out and play, pain or no. Kris is resilient in a way that doesn’t apply to normal people and I think maybe, maybe he’s got it in him to bounce back from his broken relationship. If he wants to.
And I guess he does. Because in that dark room, on the little bench wearing his soaked hockey gear, Kris pulls me close and kisses me.
“You did what?!” Vero screams into the phone. I hear something fall in the background – probably Marc reacting to her shriek. It’s Sunday morning and I have probably interrupted their breakfast.
“I had dinner at Kris’ last night. I ran into him at the supermarket and….”
“Woohoo!” She’s off dancing and I wait. I can hear her telling Marc in the background; it’s two full minutes before she comes back on the line. “Okay, tell me exactly everything.”
I called her to do just that. Not only am I anxious to talk it through with someone, but Vero lives for this stuff. She says she’s over the hill and boring because she’s nearly-married to Marc. It is her goal in life to see his friends happily paired off so she’ll have other women to grow old with.
“I ran into him at the store, and he was buying like a single serving dinner. It was so sad, V. I had cart full of food of course, because I am a huge pig, and it must have made him feel so alone. He invited me over – yes, he asked me – and I said I would cook.” I can hear her grinding her teeth, trying not to interrupt. “So we cooked and ate and it was… he seemed really… I’m not explaining this well. He seemed really grateful, V. Like he thought I was doing him a favor by letting him scrub mushrooms.”
“Did you have a good time?” Her question is less hyper, more introspective than I expect.
“It was nice. He’s really nice. Just really sad.”
I’d thought about it all night. All In our few days of knowing, what I’d seen most from Kris was gratitude. I wore his jersey, I let him pay for groceries, I showed him how to make dinner. It was extremely lopsided – I hadn’t actually done anything. Not anything worth the look in his eyes. I felt like a fraud, claiming credit I didn’t deserve.
“I said I’d set him up with an appointment at my studio – he’s a mess physically too. No wonder you were worried about him.”
“He just needs someone who can take better care of him.”
I shake my head as if she can see it. “I can barely take care of myself.”
“Riley, you’re already helping.”
We hang up and I consider the phone in my hand. Normally I wouldn’t pair a male friend with a male massage therapist, just because some guys thought it was weird. But the Penguins trainers are all guys, so it would be normal for Kris. I tell myself that a male therapist is stronger and Kris really needs someone capable of deep tissue work. But really I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some other girl put her hands all over his nearly-naked body.
“Calm down,” I growl at myself. I really want to do it. But of course I can’t. So I dial Danny, our resident sports specialist, and ask a favor. Sunday is the busiest day at the studio, but Danny only works half-days. He gives me a little shit before agreeing to stay late and take Kris’ appointment this afternoon. With a deep breath, I dial Kris’ phone number.
“’Ello, Riley,” he says in that voice you can feel like silk on your skin.
“Hi Kris,” I croak.
“Thanks again for dinner last night.”
“I had fun. And I made you a massage appointment – can you go today? Our best sports guy had a time open at three o’clock.” Please please please, I think. It makes no sense to get so worked up but I really want to help Kris. And if I can’t do it with my hands at least I can get someone else to.
“That’s perfect. I’ll sleep very well for the game tomorrow. Are you working today?”
I nearly sigh with satisfaction. “Yeah, I have to go in now. But I should be around at 3 when you get there. I’ll try to say hi.” I give him the studio address and phone.
“Thank you, Riley. You’re… really nice to do this.”
“It’s nothing, Kris. I just hope it works.”
I want to tell Riley that she’s really different, that she’s the kind of person everyone wants in their lives. She’s kind and considerate and I wish I were in a place to do something about it. If this massage can help me physically as much as she’s already helped me mentally, I know I’ll have another thing to be grateful for.
At two thirty I head to the studio. It’s early, but I would like to see her between appointments. One other young guy sits in the waiting room and I hope he’s not her next client – he’s good-looking and the thought of her touching him like she was touching me makes my heart race with jealousy. The receptionist is talks in hushed tones into the phone. She tells us it will be just another few minutes before she slips into the hallway.
“WHAT?” I say in a whisper so loud it’s nearly a shout.
“One of Danny’s regulars just called in with an emergency appointment – he threw his back out playing racquetball.” Eileen says. She acts as receptionist on Sundays because they’re so busy, but she’s majority owner of the studio and our boss.
“Tell him Danny is busy!”
“Riley, this is a once-a-week standing appointment. He knows Danny usually finishes at three – this is important. He’s a VIP client.”
I point toward the waiting area where I know Kris is sitting, knit cap pulled down over his hair and hands pressed between his knees. “Do you know who that is? Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins? That’s VIP, Eileen. I was doing him a favor.”
“Well now you can really do it, because I’m giving your three o’clock to Jessica.”
“Give Kris to Jessica.” As I say it I know it’s stupid. Jessica is new and she’s pretty good, but needs experience. And a sports-related session is going to be well beyond her current capability. Oh my God. This is getting away from me really fast.
Eileen gives me her patented no-bullshit look. What follows will not be a question, because if you get it wrong you’re getting fired. “Are you trying to tell me you will have a problem being professional with this client?”
“No!” Again with the whisper-shouting. “No, Eileen. I just… he’s my friend.”
She puts a hand on my arm. “Riley, you’re the best person we have for sports-related after Danny. If he’s VIP I would give him to you anyway. If he’s your friend, help him out.”
I step into the massage room and close the door. It’s ready to go – low lighting, scented candle, earthy music, 700-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. There’s a table full of oils and lotions and… oh God. I take a deep breath, try to think of Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day and head for the lobby. He looks up the second I walk in.
“Hi Riley,” he stands, wiping his hands on his jeans. “How are you?”
“I’m good, how’s your neck?” Ask someone that and they will always roll their head around to check. He does it now and I can tell he’s stiff by the limited range of motion.
“Okay,” he lies.
I glance out the window to break the gaze of his liquid dark eyes. His car is there, with its seat warmers and supple leather…. “Well the therapist you were supposed to see got called out on emergency, so you’re with me today.”
Those bottomless brown eyes go slightly wide and my heart kicks like a horse. His lips part like words have spring to mind, then he swallows them. “Is it okay?” His voice is soft, like he knows I don’t have a say in the matter.
“Yes. And I don’t even have to ask what’s wrong.” I give him a single nod, hoping it seems resolute and lead him down the hall. The room is just as enticing as I left it, one red lampshade away from being a boudoir. I’ll never be able to look at it the same way again. “You’ve done this before, right?”
He has and so I show him where to hang his clothes on the back of the door. In the dim light his eyes are black. His hair and scruffy bear seem dyed with ink and I want to touch them to see if it runs. We’re close together in the small room and I think of hugging him, of fitting against his body like a key in a lock.
“There’s a blanket on the shelf if you’re cold, then just lay on your stomach and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I nearly slam the door in my hurry to get outside.
The string of French expletives that runs through my head would make Max proud. I stare at the soft-looking sheets and inhale the scent of lavender. I’m either in or I’m out… and I’m already in the room. Merde. I kick off my shoes and start to undress. I wished for this – well not this specifically, because I do not have a death wish. But I want her hands on me, her fingers to work the same magic I felt last night when she massaged my neck. At least I wore nice shorts. Now if I can concentrate on not ruining them when she touches my skin… knock knock.
Riley pokes her head around the door before coming in. “All set?”
I’m on the table with my face turned toward her. She wears yoga pants and a t-shirt that don’t do a lot to keep my heart rate in check. So instead I look at her shy smile, relieved that she’s uncomfortable too.
“You sure this is okay?” I ask again.
She puts a hand on my back, her skin burning hot through the sheet. “Don’t worry about it.”
I put my face into the cradle and close my eyes. I can hear her moving around, then the plastic noise of the plunger being pressed on the oil bottle and her rubbing it between her hands. Despite the soft cushioned table and warm sheets trying to make me drowsy, my pulse is racing. Again Riley presses her hand over the sheet, then draws it down to expose my back. She stands at the top of my head, leans forward and runs both hands down the sides of my spine.
I groan involuntarily. Her touch is firm and strong, the oil heating with the friction of her skin on mine. The pressure releases pain like a wave, strongest at my neck and shoulders, less across my ribs. As she moves over my lower back, I feel tension again.
“Tell me if I press too hard,” she says. “And it’s okay if you want to fall asleep.”
I mumble a response as every molecule in my body is trained on the feel of her fingers. She kneads out my upper back, testing for tender. There are more than a few. Each one earns a little exploratory work then she moves on like she’s mapping me. When she has the scene in mind, she sets about releasing tension with a variety of strokes. It feels dizzying – stabs of pain mixed with swirls of pleasure. I can already tell she’s very, very good at this. She grasps my bicep and lifts, activating my shoulder blade so she can work underneath it. I hiss as she hits a spot.
Riley holds her hand flat to the place like a compress. “Okay?” Her voice is soft – everything is soft: the sheets, the music, her skin. I nod against the headrest. She moves down my back, using her forearms across my ribs and her fingers at my spine. The sheet is warm over my back as she replaces it before moving on to my leg.
I take a deep breath, like I’m preparing us both for the fact that she’ll be touching my thighs and working right up against my shorts. I pray that I can keep it together and meditate on the healing energy of her touch. It’s very erotic and hard to ignore. Riley tucks the sheet right up under the edge of my shorts, her fingernails brushing the skin of my backside. She works my foot and ankle, finds the ticklish spot behind my knee and pushes the heels of her hands hard up my outer thigh. It feels so good.
“God you’re strong,” she whispers, almost laughing.
“You too,” I say. I’m not the biggest guy but I am very well-muscled. Riley is really getting a lot out of me. She continues to find problems I didn’t even know I had. Only once, as her fingers slip over the inside of my thigh, does my brain ring the fire alarm. Otherwise I am remarkably calm and collected. She starts on the other leg, hitting the ticklish spot on purpose and giggling softly. Then she sets herself to work.
I will never be able to give another massage. Kris is pretty much ruining my professional life, laid out on this table like a pile of clay begging to be molded and folded into perfection. His skin is baby soft, his muscles hard and pronounced and the injuries numerous. Bruises, knots, pulls… his body is a war zone. No wonder he’s had such a bad time; the body focuses on physical healing before mental. Maybe I can help speed the process.
I cover his leg, pushing away thoughts of what will happen when he rolls over so I can massage the front. His arm is wrapped in a huge tattoo. As I stroke at the incredibly defined tricep and bicep muscles, I admire the work. His forearms are rock solid, but he moans softly as I press my fingers into the soft underside. That’s a favorite of office workers with mild carpal tunnel syndrome.
“That feels amazing,” he says quietly. I usually only do it twice, but I give Kris a few extra passes.
He is impossibly beautiful. He also has a lot of legitimate musculature issues that fascinate me – a normal person would cry until they were hospitalized only over a few of these aches. Kris has a bucketful and still trains daily. I know hockey players are tough but this is a whole new world. I start on his other arm.
“Someday, can I meet one of your trainers? I’d love to find out how they handle all these injuries.”
“No. You are better. Don’t learn from them.”
I laugh and squeeze down on that tendon that makes him moan again. My favorite massage to receive is a hand massage, so I try it out on Kris’ big paws. As I hook my pinkies around his fingers and spread his palm wide, I get a little woozy at the thought of that hand touching me. He’s putty by this point.
“If I lift the blanket up this way, can you roll over?”
It’s a real question. I’m pretty hot-and-bothered; I wouldn’t want to get into a car accident on the way home because I’m definitely not wearing clean underwear. I don’t know if Kris is doing any better. But he consents and I resist the urge to accidentally drop the sheet and look at him in his boxer briefs. He shimmies down the table. I lift his head to detach the headrest, running my hand through his hair. It’s as soft and sexy as advertised. He smiles, eyes closed.
“I’ve wanted to do that since I met you,” I admit, smiling at myself.
I massage the front of his biceps – one arm then the other. My work on his upper thighs might leave something to be desired, but I’m genuinely nervous. I swear each ridge of my fingerprints drags slowly across his skin for maximum friction. I have never seen quadriceps like his and I need my elbows and forearms to get any kind of purchase. When I finish his other leg, I reward myself with his biceps and shoulders; they are safer territory but no less mind-scrambling. Thank God I know him, I think, or I’d have to find a new career after this. If a regular client ever got to me like this I would make him my last. And that’s why you don’t work on guys you know.
Riley uses her knuckles along my deltoids and I bite my lip to keep from crying out. They are tight like a sail full of wind, solid and immobile. She tries to find a way in, eventually nicking a weak spot and working her way beneath the strained muscle. The pain burns hot then floods with warm relaxation. It won’t last forever but she’s granting me a reprieve. She lifts my head, turns it to one side and rubs her thumbs along the exposed tendons. Before going to the other side, she circles my earlobes between her fingers.
“Do you want me to do your chest? I don’t always, but you might find it helpful.”
I do want her to. I’ve had a chest massage before, usually by a trainer when I’ve strained a pectoral or a rib. This is somewhere between maintenance and bliss and the thought of her running her hands over my chest is probably too much to contemplate unless I want my feelings to become very obvious. I wonder if that’s what she’s worried about.
Her hands still knead at my neck. “When someone’s had a rough time emotionally, it can affect the body physically. Especially the chest. I noticed that you round your shoulders a little – could be your pecs pulling inward.”
It is that and more. It’s my body trying to curl into a ball and protect itself. It’s my stomach guarding against a punch. “Okay,” I say.
She leans over me, the blades of her hands going together down toward my sternum. Working over my chest, she targets the area just inside my shoulders at the top of my chest. As soon as she touches it I realize how tender I am. I’ve been mistreating those muscles for weeks and they are not happy. Her even breathing soothes me even as she lights up trails of sensation across my body.
“Ugh,” I breathe out as she hits a sore spot that runs down under my arm. Instead of stopping she does it again, and again until I no longer feel the little trail of fire. Her fingers drag across my chest and find the same pain on the other side. Eventually she returns to my neck. My chest is sore, but in a new way.
There’s already less tension in my neck, even I can feel it. Her hands get more muscle, her strokes get more depth. Already I know I’m in for the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages. Riley massages my scalp and runs her hands through my long hair a few times. I wonder if they teach that in school. When she’s finished, she puts her hands on my shoulders and looks down at me.
“That was amazing.” I want to tell her I’m glad the other person was called away, but can’t figure out how to make it sound okay.
“I’ll be outside.”
I’m a little weak in the knees when I try to stand. I want to cry, to sleep, to wrap myself around her and see if she has any of that healing energy leftover that I could absorb.
The waiting room is empty. I could really use a seat but he should be out in a minute. When he’s gone I can pass out on the floor. I flex my hands, stretching the battered muscles that just got the workout of their life.
His winter coat is army green with his knit cap sticking out of one cargo pocket. Now that I know the silky feel of his hair, I almost wish he were wearing it instead. I can barely take looking at his hair without being able to touch.
“Are you okay?” He catches me wiggling the feeling back into my fingers.
“Yeah. I’m not used to working on someone so strong,” I say. He takes my hand in his and puts his thumbs into the palm the way I did inside. I suck in a breath – the pain is sudden but passes after an instant. Kris rubs the base of each finger in a small circle.
“You’re a quick learner,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” he says in a low voice. We are alone but massage always leaves people feeling a little quiet. “For this. I feel better already.” He switches to my other hand, holding it in his giant one.
“Should get you to the game tomorrow at least.”
He looks up from my palm. “You’re still coming, right?”
“Yup. Still have your sweater.”
His eyes are soft and dark lashes fringe a sleepy puppy look. Already I can see the tiny hint of sadness coming with it, creeping in on the edge of fatigue. Any help I provide won’t last that long. Apparently I have no instinct for self-preservation because I draw Kris into a hug.
His body is dead weight, but the limp kind that comes with relaxation. More than anything he could say, the feel of him says I have done good work today. Across my back his arms fall together and I think he could sleep right here, standing up. We smell of the same oil, the scent blurring the line between where he ends and I begin.
“Go sleep. See you tomorrow,” I say into his ear. Then I kiss his scruffy cheek. As he pulls away, Kris slowly brushes his lips against my smooth skin.
Saved by the bell. I have to get out of that living room before Kris even starts thinking in French. There is only so much a girl can really take. As it is I catch him looking at me in a tired, hopeful way. His eyebrows raise a little and his eyes just follow me around the kitchen. With two towels wrapped around his hands, he takes the roasting pan from the over and prods the carrots with a fork.
“Done?” he asks. He just tasted one, he knows the answer. Poor guy doesn’t even trust himself to make dinner.
There’s an actual dining room, but Kris puts plates on the kitchen table. It’s cozy in here with the warmth of cooking. He transfers the meat, potatoes and veggies to a dish then watches as I strain the leftover juices into a bowl and pour them over the food. He won’t let me carry anything, though the roast weighs less than four pounds. Instead I get us another round of beers.
He pulls out my chair like an awkward first date, then pushes me in close to the table without so much as grazing my back.
“Thank you, Riley.” He says my name a lot, more than people usual do. I like the way it sounds with the r rolling softly around on his tongue before sliding into the rest of my name. But then I think he’s probably reminding himself that I’m not her.
“Thank you for inviting me over.”
He dips his head; that fall of hair covering one cheek. “Not so nice when I make you cook your own dinner.”
I pass him the carving knife. “You did half the work.”
We were doing okay, and now I want to cry. His dark brown eyes are wide and soft, like he wants me to repeat what I just said. Like a kid earning praise from a parent when all he wants to do is make them proud. It’s just dinner, I feel like saying. It’s obviously more than that to Kris.
And as dinners go, it’s pretty great. We compliment the food repeatedly as we search for other things to talk about. I ask about Quebec and he tells me about summer. He asks about college and I tell him about California. Distracted by the food, conversation seems to come more easily to him. We talk about movies and books and places we’ve visited. He goes to the fridge for drinks and when he comes back, he inches his chair closer to mine at the corner of the table.
Finally we finish. It’ll be a while before there’s room for dessert and the moment he realizes that, a hard shell of worry forms on his face like ice on water. More time, no set plan. I know he’s having a hard time of it but I’m getting pretty tired of seeing him panic at the idea of having to hang out with me. Suddenly I feel as if I’ve overstayed my welcome.
“You can eat the dessert tomorrow, I’m so full.” I start to collect dishes from the table, piling them. This has probably been a really big day for him and I want to be sympathetic. It’s tough when he looks at me like I’m a savior one moment and a leper the next. I make it to the sink with an armload of plates before his chair scrapes across the floor.
I’ve never seen a man standing look so small. His shoulders are rounded, his head hangs just enough so he can still see me through eyes looking up. Even his knees seem to bend a little, like he’s holding up something heavy.
I know it’s a bad idea and I don’t care. I take three steps and wrap my arms around him.
He exhales loudly. It’s not a sigh, it’s a forced breath like I punched him in the gut. But really he’s just making room. Every part of him is heavy as it anchors itself to me. I put my face into his neck this time and let one hand stroke his long hair.
“I’m sorr…,” he starts.
“Shhh.” I don’t want him to apologize for the way he feels. I just want him to feel better. He relaxes another inch, separating his hands from around my waist and pressing each one flat to my back. We stand there forever, just hugging it out. Some of the tension in his body eases and his breathing softens to a normal rate.
“Riley,” he says quietly. That’s it.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to think, standing her holding her like I have the right to be this close to anyone right now. This is the third time she’s been in my arms and the third time I’ve felt like I should never let go. Pressed against me, Riley feels the way honey tastes: warm, sweet, slow.
I tell myself again what Vero said: “Take it slow.” I don’t think that included Riley rushing to hug me. I must have looked as bad as I felt to inspire that reaction. Not that I’m complaining.
No words come to mind, not that I’d share. Weakness for letting it go this far, sadness that if she comes to care about me she’ll just end up hurt. I hate myself already for not being able to stop this. Her fingers rake through my hair, making me tingle from head to toe.
“I know you had a bad time,” she finally says. Her back pushes against my hands and looks me in the eye. “Vero told me.”
I knew V would have and I’m glad. I may be spineless but at least I’m not a liar. Riley’s not done though, and her words surprise me.
“I’m so sorry, Kris. No one should ever have to feel like that.”
I wonder what she thinks I feel – what she sees on my face every time her brow knits and she looks ready to. I wonder which emotion from my arsenal Vero chose to highlight. My hands rest at the small of Riley’s back as she stays close.
“Unwanted,” I say out loud. I don’t mean to share it with her, but it just comes out. It sums up just about everything, including how pathetic I feel confessing to a stranger at nine o’clock on a Saturday night. Next I’ll start crying and then we sign each other’s yearbooks. Riley doesn’t say anything else. She just slips back into my chest and rests her face against my collarbone. The tip of her nose touches the pulse in my throat. If I tipped my head down I could kiss her lips. To my credit, I simply stay still and hold her.
It lasts a long time. Riley rubs her fingers into my neck, gently massaging the tightness. The individual knots in my muscles begin to soften, pulsing as blood flow returns reaches to the long-dead spots above my heart. I moan a little.
“Come here,” she slips free and takes my hand. In the living room, she sits on the couch and puts a pillow on the floor between her feet. “Sit.” I definitely passed puppy obedience class because I don’t even ask why. Seconds later, her thumbs are pressed hard against the tendons at the base of my skull. I suck in a breath.
“Relax,” she urges. Her other fingers join in, pressing along the sides of my neck. It’s like the combination to a lock – the sides force the muscles in the back to cave. Soon her fingers are sliding deeper as she finds purchase among the tension. She rolls her wrists, making my neck circle.
“Mon dieu,” I whisper.
“Do you get migraines?”
I do. They’re awful. As I get older they have lessened – they were worst during junior hockey and my first few years with the Pens. But every once in a while I find myself crippled by a headache I’m powerless to fight.
“How can you tell?”
“Either that or you’re a swimmer. These muscles are really overdeveloped, right here.” I hiss sharply as she hooks her fingers into my skin. “That happens to people who carry tension all the time, like those who get migraines.”
“Do you get them?” That would be too much – someone who understands the pain and fear of an illness that targets your brain and which science cannot explain.
“No, but a lot of my clients do.” Riley moves her hands from my neck to the points where my shoulders start to rise. With a single pinch and press combination, she sends a searing pain through my shoulder. Then just as quickly, it’s gone. The pressure point beneath her fingers throbs dully.
“You’re a masseuse,” I realize out loud.
She puts her face down next to mine and I can feel she’s smiling. “And you are a mess.”
Normally this would be a very clinical experience for me. When I work on a client, I try to send positive energy their way while really working from a detached, anatomical standpoint. The musculature of the human body is like a puzzle and there are ways to help the pieces fit together.
But now I’m just torturing myself. Kris’ physical reaction is s blissful reward and I know I’m really helping him, maybe even more that I did by just being nice. But it changes our dynamic. Massage is very physical for the recipient, and as the practitioner I’m trained to keep it cerebral. Yet Kris’ skin threatens to sear my fingertips through his shirt and all I want him to do is kiss them. I work on his trapezius muscles for a minute – they’re so hard my fingers start to cramp.
“Are you seeing a physical therapist?” I ask, taking a break to flex my hands.
He shakes his head. “It isn’t usually this bad. Just since….”
Ah, the elephant in the room. Only now we’re touching and there is heavy breathing and physical release being shared. Just not that kind.
“You should see a trainer at least. If you get too tight, it could trigger another migraine.”
“I know,” he says quietly. I realize he’s been trying to decide what’s worse – the emotional pain or the physical. Then he turns slightly, pulling a handful of hair from his face. “You’re very good. Our trainer is a little… meaner.” His wide shoulders are between my knees and he looks up with those bottomless eyes. A hint of elfin smile plays on his lips.
“There are a few great people at my studio. I could make you an appointment.”
“Okay. You’re right, I should go.” He sighs, then pauses for a second. “You don’t….”
I don’t take clients who are friends, especially guys. Especially guys who look like they inspire French lingerie designs and late-night trysts. Especially guys who look at me the way Kris is – wounded, confused, desperate. I’d love to say I see lust in his eyes but I think it’s just the blood flow returning to his brain.
“Not people I know,” I tell him.
He sits up beside me on the couch, still lolling his neck and enjoying the freedom of movement. I think quickly of dessert and wish Kris were on the menu. But he’s a little out-of-season right now. Instead I decide to be grateful I could help him in another way, in any way at all.
We eat dessert in the kitchen, spooning ice cream and strawberries into the pound cake rounds and layering them up. The balsamic marinade goes over the top. Kris keeps the spoon in his mouth as he lets the first bite melt on his tongue.
“Delicious,” he says. I wish he were talking about me.
A few layers of ice between us have been broken. We’ve been alone together for hours with only a few two-alarm fires. We finally mentioned the issue looming over us; his recent heartbreak is almost a topic of conversation. He told me his migraine secret and I told him my job secret. And I touched him without burning up. Maybe we’re going to be okay after all.
When dessert is gone and we’ve licked our silverware, I help Kris load the dishwasher. He soaps up my roasting pan and the other cookware I brought, dries it carefully and finds a bag to transport it. I straighten things slowly as we both try to drag the night out. I think he might ask me to hang around, watch a movie or something, but I hope he doesn’t. I’ll say yes and it’s not a good idea and then who knows what. But I’ll lose him right here tonight if I don’t take a step back.
I want her to stay. More than anything on God’s Earth I want her hands back on my skin, releasing me from the prison of pain I’ve been trapped inside. Already my body feels new and lithe. I will sleep through tonight, the first time in weeks. Riley has barely been here and yet she’s changed everything.
Of course I know it would be a mistake. I refuse to take advantage of her kindness, because that would not be kindness returned. Right now the kindest thing I can do I load up her car and watch her drive away.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” I admit. But it sounds wrong, somehow bulky when I mean to speak aerodynamically. “I had a good time tonight.”
Riley’s full smile is enough to make my body tense again. “Me too. See you Tuesday, Kris.”
I stay on the landing in the garage as she backs out carefully. When she reaches the road, it’s the first time she goes in the same direction I would go.