Jordan straightened his tie in the hotel room mirror. Suits were required for game days, same as always. Probably not a two thousand dollar Armani suit, though. “You’re ready early,” Taylor said, coming into the room with a shopping bag. He handed Jordan a green Gatorade. “Nice suit.”
Jordan groaned in frustration and undid the tie, then started again. “I know. I feel like an asshole, but it’s all I have.”
“Eh. Don’t worry about that. Worry about scoring a few goals so Erin thinks you’re a stud.”
Jordan faltered on his re-tie. He was nervous to play in front of Erin. He was nervous about a new crowd, about the way people had been talking about him and Ryan like there were so exciting. Jordan wanted to be exciting - otherwise he’d be disappointing. He didn’t want to disappoint.
“Dude, take it easy.” Taylor pulled one end of Jordan’s tie, unraveling the half-knot. He looped it around his own neck, made a perfect windsor, then pulled the whole thing of. When Jordan reached for it, Taylor yanked it away. “What is up with you? You’re played bigger games.”
Jordan rolled his eyes. He always told Taylor everything, even if he lived to regret it. Even if he already knew what his best friend would say. “I think Erin wants to... she wants to. Like now.”
Taylor’s grin faded. Jordan made a disgusted noise; he wasn’t in the mood for a lecture. Instead, he jumped to his own defense. “What? You wanted me to do it on the first date and now you think I shouldn’t do it at all?” Rare was the moment when Taylor Hall didn’t know what to say. It scared Jordan a little - but what didn’t these days? He sat on the edge of the bed. “I like her. It’s too late for me to do anything about that.”
“I know.” Taylor could be soft-spoken and understanding when he needed to be. “I think you should. We could be here awhile, and you’d never last that long anyway.” He smiled. “I just know how you get, man. All sappy and awkward and you can’t tie your tie.” Taylor held out his hand.
Jordan dropped the loop over his head and fixed the tie perfectly into place. “Too late for that too.”
He willed Taylor not to mention Julia. It was the only weapon in Hall’s arsenal that could really undermine Jordan’s confidence. He didn’t use it often and he never used it without reason. Taylor would be sitting with the girls at the game and if he thought a word of warning might do Erin good...
“Don’t say anything tonight, please,” Jordan said.
“I won’t.” Taylor promised, then he shrugged. “Wouldn’t stop her anyway. For some incomprehensible reason she seems to like you too.” He paused. “At least till she sees that suit.”
“So this is what a hockey game looks like.” Darcy rocked on her heels, taking in the Cox Convention Center. She’d been there before - so had Erin and Amanda - but for concerts, never sports.
“Yup,” Taylor said, looking out from under the brim of his baseball cap. He wore a sweatshirt and jeans, as if in disguise. Erin got the distinct impression that a few fans recognized him anyway, but no one had yet approached. It probably didn’t encourage them by holding Amanda’s hand. They were in the last row of the lower section, backs to the wall. “Big crowd tonight, more than twice what they usually draw. They’re hoping for twelve thousand.”
“That’s only, what? Five thousand less than your place in Edmonton?” Erin asked. “Does it feel the same?”
Taylor didn’t even have to look around. “No,” he said, “but this is a lot better than we expected.” He elbowed Erin in the side, pointing discreetly down and to the left. Two high school girls in ponytails were wearing Oilers jerseys, one with Eberle on the back and the other Nugent-Hopkins. Erin smiled as a reflex but it quickly faltered. She didn’t know that Eberle; her Jordan seemed like someone else entirely. And when he was back to that, he’d be back to Edmonton.
“Think of how many allowances that girl saved to get Ryan’s name on her jersey,” Darcy said sarcastically. “He could at least make out with her, since he owes her like ninety bucks.”
The arena filled in around them. Taylor sat down, as if his size would give him away, but encouraged the girls to move down by the glass to watch the pre-game skate. Amanda stayed with him as Erin and Darcy found an empty space along the boards.
“I feel like I’m in another country, you know? I don’t speak the language, don’t really know what’s going on,” Darcy whispered.
Erin agreed, and the feeling was increasing. People here were really excited. She had barely known the Barons existed, didn’t think she knew anyone who had been to a game. Yet every inch of glass was taken, several bodies deep. The air hummed with anticipation.
“How much of this is for Ryan and Jordan?” she wondered.
“And what have you gotten yourself into?” Darcy asked back.
Suddenly everyone was cheering. Darcy squeezed Erin’s hand as players in white jerseys filed onto the ice and started whipping around the perimeter. It took two circuits before she saw Jordan, and Ryan right behind him. They stopped at the far side of the rink and people started pounding in the glass. A few signs had popped up: Lockout = Lucky for Us and Welcome Ebs & RNH! Darcy craned her neck around to see more.
“No one asking Ryan to marry them,” she observed. “Or for sex. I’m still original.”
“Dear God,” Erin pretended to facepalm herself, but really she was checking if her cheeks were hot to the touch. They were. She was definitely blushing - and expected it. She’d all but made a sex date with Jordan earlier, and the hours were quickly ticking away. Now he was right there, doing something deft and dextrous with the same hands that had been on her skin. Luckily no one was looking at her. The players approached the goalie in threes on a passing drill. Jordan and Ryan were in the second trio. Ryan flicked the puck easily into the net; the crowd whooped and hollered.
“God this is weird,” Darcy said quietly. Erin nodded. Jordan seemed very focused, even when he spoke to another guy or leaned casually on his stick. He never looked around even though he knew she was there. Maybe it would be too distracting. And if he looked at her now the way he’d looked at her over breakfast, Erin knew a piece of glass wouldn’t even slow her down.
Right in front of them, one of the players dropped to the ice and started stretching his groin. Another guy lined up in dolphin pose doing what looked an awful lot like humping the ice.
“I love hockey,” Darcy announced.
“See her?” Ryan asked, looking down at his skates.
“Yup,” Jordan’s eyes were straight ahead on the goal. “Lot of people.”
“Twelve thousand sold, I heard. Record crowd.” Ryan scanned the arena, intentionally above where the girls were standing. “No pressure, right?”
Jordan had played some huge games. His first in the NHL game came to mind. Also his first with Taylor and their first with Ryan - both number one overall draft picks. He’d played in front of Julia and a few other girls he made a big deal about. He’d scored huge goals in World Juniors, played against Crosby, against Toews and Kane and the Sedins. But this was the weirdest game of his life.
He glanced at Erin, just for a second.
I can do this.
Jordan was thrilled to be playing. He’d rather play in America than Europe, and playing alongside Ryan was almost impossible good luck. Knowing Taylor would join them was beyond that. He still had his game and he still had his linemates, despite the strangest of circumstances. Maybe he could forget the anger and frustration of the lockout - he’d been doing pretty well at forgetting over the last ten days. Fear was still there, tucked like a blanket around a million things he couldn’t control. Jordan knew he was young enough to lose a year, if that’s what it came to. And a year spent playing real games with his best friends was hardly lost. He snuck another glance at Erin.
Not lost at all.
Once he focused, Jordan felt better. Back in the locker room, Ryan didn’t say anything at all. Another game to play, that’s all it was. Another chance to win.
Taylor reached over and poked Erin in the shoulder. She stuck her tongue out without turning her head. No way she was missing a moment of this. The second period had just started and she was getting the hang of this game. Taylor was between her and Amanda, quietly explaining the reason for every whistle. Sometimes, Erin guessed before he could tell them.
The other team scored. Erin gasped - it was just a few minutes into the second period but she felt like she’d been waiting forever to see it happen. It was so quick she almost missed it.
“Shit,” she said. Taylor laughed.
Jordan was good. Ryan was also good. Now that she had players to compare them too, even Erin could tell they were extremely talented. When Jordan dropped the puck past someone and picked it up on the other side, racing in for a shot at the goalie’s glove, Erin grabbed Taylor’s arm and held her breath. But it was another Baron who scored on the power play to even the game.
Erin jumped to her feet, Darcy crashing into her in a rush to do the same thing. The buzzer sounded and the music blared on, everyone celebrating. Taylor even stopped hugging Amanda long enough to crush Darcy and Erin into a joint embrace.
“Who scored that?” Darcy asked, her face mashed to Erin’s shoulder beneath Taylor’s huge arms.
“No idea. I haven’t looked at anyone but Jordan and Ryan all night,” Erin admitted. It didn’t matter who scored, as long as someone did. Unless it was someone she knew.
It turned out she wouldn’t see that tonight. The Barons kept shooting, including Ryan and Jordan, but nothing would drop. Taylor gave Erin the arm of his coat to twist, saving his own from being shredded. Darcy murdered a popcorn box. Sixteen minutes into the last period, Lake Erie scored again. Despite being on their feet shouting for the last few minutes, the Barons could not get another goal. When the final buzzer sounded, Erin leaned back in her seat. Over the last twenty minutes of play, her urge to tackle and strip Jordan on sight had swindled into an aching desire just to hug him really hard.
“Can’t win every game,” Taylor said. “Sucks though, all these people for a loss. Would’ve been nice to hook them early.”
“They’ll be back, won’t they? It’s just one game,” Darcy insisted. “I’ll definitely be back.”
From his other side, Amanda’s voice rang out. “Somebody warn Ryan.”
Jordan did not have a moment between the ice and the media. There was nowhere to go. He wasn’t even out of his shorts before they were allowed into the locker room. This would be the most press they’d see all year, until playoffs came around. He put on his face.
Twenty minutes later, they were done. It was nothing like home - fewer people, new faces, some probably pulled off major sports and attending their first Barons game. He’d been honest - he wanted to win in front of his new home crowd - and optimistic about tomorrow’s game against the same team. They didn’t get to play back-to-backs often in the NHL and he’d love another chance to beat these guys. His game had been strong, though a few goals would certainly have been nice. When the reporters cleared out, Jordan shucked out of his gear and hurried toward the shower. If anyone thought he was in a hurry to leave, they were wrong.
He was in a hurry to be alone.
Losing sucked. Losing in front of a record crowd when he was supposed to be a big deal sucked even more. He’d lost Erin’s first-ever hockey game too. Not that she’d care - Jordan knew she’d have a smile for him anyway. She couldn’t possibly understand.
Jordan hadn’t been disappointing. Instead, he was a little disappointed.
The game had felt different and he struggled for a word to define the difference between this hockey and what he was used to. The best he could do was: small. It felt small. The arena was smaller, the fans were fewer. He knew some were die hard hockey followers but most were not. Winning them over would be the kind of hard work he’d never faced before. It wasn’t reality for him - it was Phoenix. Or Columbus. It was an uphill climb and Jordan felt responsible for getting the Barons up, if not to the top. If he was here long enough to help at all.
They hadn’t even won the game. Just another reminder how far away Edmonton was.
He allowed himself a few minutes of soap and shampoo pity party. People were waiting for him, as always. Only this time they weren’t seasoned hockey family and they would not forgive him moping over a game that hadn’t even been bad. Jordan toweled off and got dressed. The guys would know, that would be enough. They’d be counting on him to be cool. And if Erin had been truthful in her teasing, she might still be expecting a lot more.
He got his tie right on the first try.
The arena didn’t really have a lounge for friends and family, just a green room used for some of the larger productions that came through town. Taylor was instantly descended on by the families of his future teammates - he was a celebrity here. Amanda shot a look at Darcy and Erin as Taylor pulled her along by the hand. They were swallowed up by the waiting parents and girlfriends.
“Think they come to every game?” Erin asked, taking a cookie off a bakery tray.
“Maybe they just came to meet the guys. Must be cool for them, getting to play with guys from the pros,” Darcy said. “Did you get the feeling, a little bit, like Ryan and Jordan were at the zoo? Everyone here to see the exotic animals?”
Erin nodded - it was exactly how she’d felt. “Then you watch the pandas for a while and nothing exciting happens, so you go for snacks.”
“Weird,” Darcy said for the tenth time that night.
Players started to arrive. They were mostly in their early twenties, looking scrubbed in their suits. Moms and dads and sisters quickly claimed each guy, though they never moved far from where Taylor was. He greeted each of the players like he’d known them for a while. Their parents smiled to see their sons friendly with someone like Taylor Hall.
“He’s good,” Amanda said, having slipped free to grab a bottle of water. “He barely knows these guys yet. Made me quiz him on their names before.”
“Before what? Before taking his pants off? Before untying you from the bedpost?” Erin asked pointedly. It was their first moment alone with Amanda since discovering she hadn’t been home last night.
Amanda tossed her dark blond hair back. “Nonsense. I couldn’t have texted Darcy if I were tied up.”
They dissolved into giggles. No one paid them any attention except Taylor, who was soundly ignored. He hoped they were saying good things about him but the amount of laughter worried him.
“Later, later later later!” Amanda shushed them. “I promise. Besides, from what I hear, you might have some stories of your own after tonight, young lady.” She and Darcy gave Erin their death stares.
“I... I don’t know! Will he want to you, after losing? I mean, I know it’s not the NHL but he might....”
The door swung open just in time for Erin to stop talking. Otherwise the family of every Barons player would have heard her say “...not want to have sex with me” a second before Jordan walked into the room. As it was, every eye was on him. His eyes were on Erin.
“Hey,” was all he said.
Erin’s knees got weak. What a stupid reaction to someone saying hello, she thought, even as she shifted her weight to keep from falling. Jordan’s brow was slightly creased, exaggerating the perfection of his eyebrows. A slight frown covered his gap teeth, and those blue eyes were a little sad. The rest of him was fucking perfect.
“Wow,” Erin managed. He had walked out of a magazine and into the Cox Convention Center. The dark gray suit had subtle pinstripes over a white shirt and jewel blue tie the same color as his eyes. Some tailor had cut that those pants until they were the luckiest piece of fabric in the world. She suddenly felt small in her skinny jeans with gray boots, white sweater and everyone in the room watching.
Erin couldn't kiss Jordan at work. It was bad for business. He was thinking about it too as he reached around the back of her neck and pulled her against his lips.
Zing! Right in the ladybusiness.
"Nice game," she said, laughing nervously as they parted.
"Sorry we lost."
Erin waved it away, aware that everyone was watching them. "I had fun."
Ryan came in and as one the whole room turned to look at him. By process of elimination, some came back to Darcy in expectation of another little show. Ryan just raked a hand through his straight hair and smiled. "Hey everybody," he said, trying to be cool.
People started approaching, being friendly. Ryan took in stride, being charmingly adorable when some mother producer a younger sister and whatever player she belonged to cried, "Mom!" They laughed. Five minutes later it happened again. Jordan kept Erin's hand in his left, shaking hello with his right. He introduced Erin as just "this is Erin" to everyone. She smiled and nodded like the First Lady on Inauguration Day. Somewhere in the middle, he whispered, "Dinner after this?"
Sometimes Erin could not hold her tongue. Like around talented, famous boys with dorky smiles and fancy suits who still had sad looks on their faces. "Breakfast after that?" she countered.
The crowd started to break up as tired players reminded them of the early game the next day. Still a few lingered, getting a few extra minutes with the new star players.
Finally they reached the exit in a small group. Amanda grabbed Ryan's collar to keep him from being carried off by an eager matchmaking parent.
Erin's hand was tucked firmly between Jordan's arm and his body. He had that fresh from the shower boy smell and she leaned in close. Between teasing him so openly that morning and wanting to comfort him over the game, desire was knocking around her stomach like a tetherball. He called good bye to the last of the families and turned toward Erin.
They left their friends standing in the parking lot, staring after the tail lights of Jordan’s car.
Erin took them to the first place that popped into her mind that she knew would be open on a Monday. It was a cozy little Italian place, not fancy, but when the waitress showed them to a both toward the back, it didn't matter. Jordan went to slide into the other side of the booth.
"Ahem," she cleared her throat. He stopped, confused. She patted the bench next to her. "Haven't you been on a date before?" she joked.
Jordan blushed. "Not that many." He slid over, then farther, until he had her up against the inside wall. Erin felt the flex of his bicep and thigh as he held her there easily. He finally gave her the smile that had faltered in the post-game lounge. "I might forget to eat over here."
She meant to give him a quick little kiss. It stuck like a magnet. Then her hand found itself working up up that strong leg in the smooth fabric and Jordan grabbed a hold of her wrist.
He looked like he wanted to say something. Maybe she's embarrassed him with her PDA. She couldn't help it if she was a little turned on by watching him sweat for two hours. Now his strong grip was around her wrist like he could do make her do whatever he wanted. But the happy face she had gotten used to was still shaded with hesitation.
“You okay?” she asked.
He let go of her arm but stayed close. The way he dropped his chin made her heart dip too. Erin’s impulse to hug came roaring back.
Not tonight, she thought, not like this.
“Imagine if you had a really bad day at work,” Jordan finally said. “Like you were working hard but the kitchen was taking forever and food was coming out wrong and cold and you couldn’t do anything about it.”
She nodded, following.
“That’s how losing feels.”
Her fingers twisted into his, under the table, their menus ignored. If he needed to say this then she’d sit there all night and listen. Erin didn’t know Jordan that well - but then, she didn’t know hockey. According to the internet, the Oilers lost pretty often. Maybe this was Jordan and she didn’t really know him either.
After a moment, he shook his head. “Sorry. It’s just one game. I’m just being a brat.”
“What does winning feel like?” she asked.
Those blue eyes met hers and held for a moment, as if he needed to be looking at her to think of the answer. “That night when you asked for my number. Winning feels like that.”
Erin made a scandalized face, even though she could feel herself blushing. “I merely suggested that you give me something other than money. I don’t believe I actually asked for your number.”
Jordan gave her a cocky grin. “Oh you did.”
“Well I didn’t call you.”
“Yes,” he nodded, “you did.”
“Taylor made me!”
Jordan shrugged. “You used your phone and your fingers. That’s you calling me.”
“Hmmm,” she narrowed her eyes. “Maybe I should have played hard to get.”
With that boyish face and his innocent expression, Jordan looked right at her and said, “It took you three days. Where I come from, that is hard to get.”
Yes, I am taking FOREVER to get to the good part! This chapter was getting really long, so consider it a midweek bonus. I'll make you blush soon, promise. -Juliet