“It’ll work, I promise” Taylor said, laying sprawled out on his bed in the hotel room. “But go to her place, I don’t want you waking me up.”
I threw the nearest piece of clothing at him. He snickered, the way he always laughed at me.
“I’m serious, Jordan! Give her the sob story. ‘We’re locked out and all I want to do is live my dream of playing hockey. I don’t know how long I’ll be staying here, but I didn’t want to miss out on meeting you.’” He did an impression of my voice. “Drop your new contract in there and BAM. Pants off dance off.”
I rolled my eyes at my reflection in the mirror. We were just going to dinner, and even that had me nervous as hell. Erin had asked for my number, but she hadn’t called me. She said yes to a date but had no idea who, or what, I was. Jordan Eberle, American college student. Jordan Eberle, random guy in a bar. It was incognito, like a secret identity. I liked it. Now if only I didn’t look like a grade ten nerd on school picture day. Pulling off my shirt, I reached back for another one. That was better. Black v-neck sweater, light enough for the early fall, with dark jeans. Casual but expensive, and Erin would be able to see that I did a lot of working out.
Taylor wolf-whistled. “Get it tonight, Ebs. With your fucking luck, the lockout will end early just to keep you from getting laid.”
I GPSed my rental car to the address she had sent me. Her apartment was on the second floor, over a laundromat. I called her from the car just as she was walking out the door.
I had only seen Erin once. There had been work clothes and ponytails and I’d still been a blithering idiot. Now I was really in trouble. She wore dark skinny jeans with a pale teal colored top that had ruffles down the center where buttons would have gone. A gray blazer was buttoned over it, and matching gray ballet flats on her feet. Her long hair was down, all waves and twists, pulled into a little twist at the front and falling over her shoulders and back.
“Right on time,” she said, swinging into the passenger seat.
“Uurrrrduhhhhhrrrr,” I replied. Well not really. But it took a moment for me to say, “I wouldn’t keep you waiting.”
Erin declined the GPS and gave me directions to the restaurant she had chosen because I didn’t know any places in town. I was glad to have something to talk about, while I conserved my few coherent resources for when I’d actually have to look at her. Fifteen minutes later we pulled up in front of a restaurant.
“I hope you like steak.”
“Definitely.” I’d have liked a mud pie if she wanted to eat in a swamp.
I parked and got out; Erin was waiting in front of the car. The top of her head came up to my nose - she was the perfect height to wrap my arms around. The thought made me laugh nervously, which I turned into a sputtered cough. She led the way inside.
We had a table in the middle of the room. In certain places, that would make me very uncomfortable - I was trying to be cool, not be recognized. But it was clear that no one had any idea who I was, nor would not have cared. I could be anonymous in any American city, except I was usually walking into a place with twenty four other big, strapping guys. We were clearly somebody. Here I was just a guy. And still very lucky, because I was the guy with Erin.
I looked at her, then the table, the menu, the room. Back at Erin. She smiled. I stuck my head into my menu. Her soft laugh said she knew exactly what I was doing. Then Erin’s fingers closed over the top of my menu and slowly lowered it to the table.
“Stop being so cute,” she said.
Or we aren’t going to make it through this meal, I thought. Jordan alternated between flashing that gap-toothed grin and trying to focus on anything but me. Trying to keep a straight face made his jaw clench, which made the muscles in his neck flex and ripple right down inside the collar of that v-neck sweater. The body between his neck and his waist was nothing but a surprise; he obviously enjoyed the gym and I was obviously enjoying him. I doubted that Jordan would notice if I checked him out - he was too busy searching the menu for hidden codes or something.
That grin again. GAH! I pretended to glare at him.
“What are lamb fries?” he asked, studying the menu while still blushing.
“Don’t ask, and don’t order them.”
When he questioned something, those perfect eyebrows scrunched together in the middle. “Why not? It says they’re a specialty.”
“It’s lamb... parts. Boy parts.” I rolled my eyes. This was awkward enough without anyone ordering testicles as an appetizer.
“Oh... OH. Oh,” he looked away. Then I lost it and laughed. He laughed too, and we were like middle school kids in sex ed class. Except that he kept doing that thing with his jaw and that wasn’t the kind of sexy just anyone could learn.
“Yeah, skip it this time,” I advised. He went for the wine list and asked what I like, carefully selecting something. The place wasn’t that fancy, but they had some higher end wines. When the waitress came, we ordered steaks and a bottle of red. Then there was nothing for us to do but look at each other. Not that I minded.
I’m going to kiss him, my brain announced. Thankfully it was inside my head, and soundproofed. My stomach acknowledged with a little swoop. I told everyone to at least let me get through dinner first.
“What’s your story, Jordan?”
When he looked at the table this time, it wasn’t embarrassed or coy. A very serious set made him look older, like he was considering something important. The boyishness disappeared for a moment. I wasn’t expecting anything serious so it scared me a little. What could he possibly be worried about? We he married or something? Too young. And I’d met his friend, it was unlikely either he or Taylor had survived prison. Too pretty. Other ideas popped into my head at random: he was terminally ill, he was being deployed to Afghanistan, he had been a child TV star.
“I play hockey,” he finally said.
“Hockey.” It came out more surprised than I intended.
“Yeah. The Barons? They’re an AHL team, minor league. But I really play in Edmonton. Alberta. In Canada, that’s where I live.”
This was Jordan’s regular face, the one he wore with friends or other guys, when he wasn’t nervous to be on a first date with a new girl. He was just talking now. He really was handsome in a young superhero kind of way.
“Yeah. I play in the NHL - that’s the National Hockey League, the pro....”
“Jordan.” I reached over and put my hand on his forearm. He was warm to the touch. “I know what the NHL is.”
“Oh, okay. I just... I mean, it’s not that big a deal here.”
"So you're here but your team is in Canada?" I could hear the relief in my own voice. No jail.
"We're locked out. Like a strike, but the owners are keeping us from playing until there's a new contract." Jordan was telling me he was an elite athlete. A professional, paid athlete in the big leagues. All I heard was...
"So what happens when there is a new contract?"
"We go back," he paused. "I go back. Immediately.”
It wasn’t jail, but it was still something I didn’t want to hear. Especially considering my brain still insisted there would be kissing. Judging by Jordan's slumped shoulders, he was caught somewhere in between too. Now that thought made me smile: big time pro athlete, stuck in the sticks where no one cared, and he looked a little sad over me.
"Is this a line?" I let the corner of my mouth curl suspiciously. Jordan didn't seem the type, but....
"No," he said emphatically.
"So you're not trying to butter me up, get a little sympathy action?"
"No," Jordan repeated. I nodded, saying nothing. He blurted out, "Wait. Was it working?"
I put my head in my hands, shaking it at the same time. Jordan laughed and I heard him lean back, relieved. "Is Taylor on your team?"
"Yeah. He's injured though, he won't play here."
"I thought you were going to tell me you guys are a couple."
Jordan rolled his eyes, laughing theatrically. I guess he'd heard that before. "Hallsy - that's Taylor, Taylor Hall - is my roommate at home."
"Aww, you live together, you both have girl's names AND you have pet names for each other! So cute!" I hit him with my napkin as he stuttered some sports-related explanation. "What does he call you?"
"Ebs. My last name is Eberle."
"Ebs," I tried it out. "It suits you. And for the record, I like the name Jordan for a guy."
"Erin could be a guy's named, changed a little. Sounds the same," he countered.
"Only if you sound Canadian."
It was easier after that. I still wanted to kiss him, but my urge to Google him was a close second. I knew next to nothing about the NHL or hockey. Any kind of pro athlete sounded impressive though, and maybe at home Jordan was a really big deal. I felt strange asking - I'd find out for myself later. He was more at ease talking about other things anyway. Our food was almost as good as the conversation, and there was plenty of it.
"Americans eat a ton!" he said, pushing his plate away. Then his gaze snapped up, "I mean, not you. You're gorgeous."
I stopped a full fork halfway to my mouth.
"I'm sorry. Keep eating! You look amazing."
"Jordan!" Now I was blushing.
"Sorry," he made a pouty face. "If my trainer saw this he would die."
Trainer. Bonus. I made sure he saw me look appreciatively at his upper body. He sat up a little straighter. "We have to eat out a lot now, or move I guess. If we're going to be here awhile." There was just a tiny bit of traitorous hope in his voice.
"An apartment. Someplace with a kitchen."
"You're living in a hotel? For how long?"
He counted back mentally. "Got here the day I met you. Four days ago. We're used to it - always hotels on road trips. This one is a suite, has a living room and stuff."
"You share with Tayl, um, Hallsy?" I said dramatically and earned a smile.
"For now. Our teammate Ryan gets here soon." Jordan explained that they were still on rookie contracts and had been assigned to the Barons before the lockout. They'd be here until they weren't here anymore, whenever that was.
We finished dinner and Jordan paid. I wondered how much money NHL players made, I might have to choose a nicer restaurant next time. In the car, I gave a few directions before he realized we weren't going to my house.
To Jordan's credit, he didn't ask again. I took us thirty minutes away, out of town, to where the highway reached the empty land between Oklahoma City and whatever was next. We took an exit and pulled into an empty field with a big rectangular white wall standing at one end, pieces peeling and falling away.
"This used to be a drive-in, when I was little," i said.
Jordan parked up front next to a short pole that once held speakers. What had been parking lot was now growing tufts of grass through the hardscrabble. Jordan turned off the headlights and followed me out of the car. Overhead the moon was more than bright enough, though there was little ambient light this far from the town nearby. I faced him and reached for both of his hands. They were warm and a little rough.
"Look." I tilted my head all the way back and looked at the sky. Jordan gave a happy little wow that made me want to rest my cheek against his shoulder. There were easily a thousand stars.
"Beautiful," he said. When I lowered my chin he wasn't watching the sky anymore. He was inches from me, holding my hands in the dark. That crinkle formed again between his eyebrows, working up to something.
"I had to tell you, upfront, that I might leave," he finally said. "Taylor wanted me to play the sympathy card, since anything could happen tomorrow."
"What did Taylor think the sympathy card would get you?" I stepped closer, our bodies grazing each other. Jordan just smiled, ducking his head. "And if anything could happen tomorrow, then what happens tonight?"
Jordan's eyes went round as saucers. Poor guy was in for a disappointment if he thought he was getting lucky at a pity party. But my brain was winning half the battle, it tipped my face up. He hesitated just a second before his lips met mine.
Jordan kissed like he smiled - kind of shy the first time, as if you might not like the gap in his teeth. I very much liked the press of his soft, warm mouth and the heavy feel of his body molding against mine. Our fingers were twisted together and I squeezed. It was a Jordan kind of kiss - sweet and spine-tingling.
"Was that a sympathy kiss?" he asked, one eye open.
I rubbed my thumbs into each of his palms. "Are you sorry?"
"No!" he said too loudly. "Not at all. Just wondering that Hallsy's advice would have gotten me."
"You'll never know."
Well, maybe he knew a little when I kissed him again.
It wasn't fair to be in the car with Erin after only two kisses. For starters I wanted two hundred more kisses. And since we'd been holding hands I wasn't sure where I could touch her now. Was her leg fair territory? A slender thigh in dark denim was right there looking built to fit my palm. I kept my hands on the wheel till we were at her house.
"When does your friend Ryan get here?"
"Okay. The next night - Friday - be here at eight. Bring the boys. Bring the whole team."
I said yes just to increase my likelihood of another kiss. "Okay. What are we doing?"
Erin pushed up in the seat until she was pushing our mouths together. My body roared to grab a hold and kiss her back, to feel her tongue against mine and kiss her like I meant business. Too slow.
"Party," she said, then she was gone.