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.”
4 years ago