Happy holidays, everyone!!
(Two weeks later)
Erin put two big Wild Wings beers down on the table without being asked. Taylor gave her a narrow stare. “You giving us free stuff is how this all started, remember?”
“And to think, I didn’t even know who you were,” she leaned her elbows on the table and tilted her head in a flirty, 50’s drive-in waitress kind of way. “Now all AHL Players of the Week get beers on the house.”
“What do AHL Players of the Month get?” Jordan asked sweetly. He’d been awarded the honor that very day.
“To take the waitress home,” Erin gave his arm a squeeze. She couldn’t advertise their relationship in the bar but anyone within twenty feet must have felt the connection between them. “Especially now that the mustache is gone.”
Jordan blushed. His stache had been ugly, but at least it had been unmistakable. Ryan and Taylor could barely grown a combined peach fuzz. Now that it was gone, he had to admit he was glad. Ryan just rolled his eyes and sipped his ice tea.
November had passed quickly. Thanksgiving had been anticlimactic and Erin worked the whole day’s worth of football games. It helped that the Barons won five games in a row. Jordan, Ryan and Schultz were on the cover of The Hockey News, an almost prophetic story that hit stands at the right moment. Not any stands around OKC, though. The feature had been done before Taylor was cleared to play and he was miffed to be left out. But not as annoyed as when Jordan bested his Player of the Week award with the bigger Monthly title. With a good stretch of games under their belts and even a few awards, Jordan had to admit that Oklahoma City was starting to feel like... well, not home. But like playing in junior where you live away from home, like a college student. A double life. At present, his other life was completely on hold.
The lockout dragged on. Once or twice there was a real glimmer of hope - and fear. Every round of optimism was followed by wailing disaster sirens. Many of the players had gone to Europe, some were playing charity games and doing group workouts. Every day OKC became less about clinging to Erin and more about stability. The assignment had sounded like a prison sentence two months earlier, but Jordan was absurdly grateful for Oklahoma City now.
He also had a question to ask. When Erin came around again, he made Ryan and Taylor go to the bathroom.
“So...,” he felt stupidly nervous, “My old team back home, from when I was a kid, they want to retire my number.”
Erin raised her eyebrows is admiration. “Wow! That’s great, congratulations! The pride of Saskatchewan,” she waved one hand, “wherever that is.”
“How would you like to find out?”
In his head, it sounded smoother. Jordan had rehearsed a hundred ways to ask, and that was number one hundred a one: fresh out of the box, stumbling like a baby deer. “I mean, would you come home with me? For a couple days? Next week?” He cleared his throat, taking the question out of his voice.
“I’d like to bring you.”
If kissing your boyfriend in the dining room was frowned upon, Erin guessed that bursting into tears because he asked you on a trip was really big trouble. Still her heart was crowing like a rooster inside her chest. Jordan looked so excited, so gosh darn hopeful that she wanted to scream. Instead she just pressed her lips together, to keep from kissing him or crying, and nodded.
God I’m such a girl! she thought as her insides did the Pretty Pretty Princess dance. She had the sense to know her reaction was childish, and the sass not to care. Jordan had walked into her life and now he owned the place. That he wanted to share his life in return... yup, the crying again.
“I really want to kiss you right now,” she whispered.
Jordan felt weak enough to slide right off his stool. Erin may have been joking about Saskatchewan but it was really far from everywhere, especially here. It meant a host of things - not the least of which was Erin finally getting a glimpse of a day in the life of Jordan Eberle. The life that didn’t revolve around her. He was terrified it would chase her away. But one look at her face - proud of him, proud to be with him - said she didn’t scare so easily.
Erin headed back toward the kitchen in search of a moment to gather herself. It was just a trip, just a few days. Just Jordan’s hometown, his parents, one of his biggest accomplishments to date. Of course he wanted her there.
Of course he does.
That was the Jordan that Erin knew. The one she was afraid to believe was real, because it was too good to be true. Whatever Erin would when she got to Canada, she told herself she could handle it. He wasn’t Justin Bieber or something, with hordes of girls throwing themselves under a bus for him.
No, she thought, if anyone’s that, it’s Taylor.
She turned the corner to and nearly crashed into Ryan and Taylor. Since no one could see, Erin threw her arms around Ryan’s neck and hugged him tight.
“What’s this for?” he asked, returning the embrace.
“You’ll be Player of the Month someday, Ry.”
“She said yes,” Jordan said as soon as his mom picked up the phone.
“You sound surprised.”
“No, no, I’m just...,” he started making an excuse, then gave up. His mom always saw right through him anyway. “I’m nervous.”
He could picture his mom, leaning against the kitchen counter. There would be cookies somewhere, milk in the fridge, apples in a bowl near the breadbox. It was the comfortable life that seemed to exist without trying and Jordan could never replicate it anywhere else. Certainly not in OKC. His kitchen now was home to a lonely avocado and some barbeque sauce.
Why couldn’t it be an event in Edmonton? he had wished when first considering whether or not to invite Erin. Not that Edmonton was New York or Miami, but it was a city. It had almost a million people. Jordan lived in his own place - well, with Taylor - there were some nice restaurants, bars and clubs. He felt like an adult there. It was hard to feel that way when your mom still made you oatmeal for breakfast and insisted on folding your underwear after the wash.
Still, this was a good first step. In some ways Jordan was more of a celebrity in Regina than Edmonton. A hometown hero. Lots of NHL players had come from Regina, but he was the biggest thing going at the moment. Not that he was going anywhere - but he bet more people in Regina followed the Barons than people in Oklahoma City. The Pats hockey stadium was less than half the size of Cox Convention Center and it would be packed to the rafters.
Canada, Jordan thought with a smile.
“She’s probably nervous too,” his mom pointed out.
“Nah, she’s not the type to be....”
His mom interrupted. “How long have you been dating?”
“And you’re bringing her two thousand miles to another country to meet you parents and stay in their house? To see you get a big award with thousands of people cheering for you?”
“Uhh,” Jordan had not thought of that. He’d been busy thinking about how weird it was for him, and hoping to God that Erin didn’t bolt for the airport the minute she saw his name in lights. “Crap. Mom, you are not helping!”
She laughed. “We won’t scare her away, hon, I promise. I might even like her. She’s certainly got you wrapped around her finger.”
Jordan gladly admitted that. He knew his family would do their best to embarrass him and charm Erin. They had even loved Julia at one time, and the day Jordan dumped her was the last day any of them had said her name out loud. He loved them for that. He hoped to never have to ask for such consideration again.
“Maybe she’ll like it here,” his mom said.
Erin looked out the window over Saskatchewan, but all she saw were the topside of clouds. Jordan was asleep next to her with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. It had been a few hours since they’d stopped over in Denver and he’d been out the whole time. He was a good sleeper thanks to years of team travel. Didn’t even wake up when the flight attendant came by again. Erin asked for a soda and went back to staring at the clouds.
Two thousand miles at the two month mark. Maybe it was too soon, but so was everything else about their relationship. Still, her family was just a six hour drive away in Austin and she hadn’t taken him there. Maybe she should have. Maybe her parents would make a really big deal about her bringing home a guy - especially one as nice as Jordan - and overreact wildly.
Maybe Jordan’s family was doing the same thing.
She smiled at the idea. It was hard to imagine Jordan coming from but normal. He was so even-keeled and laid-back, and he didn’t get that from playing hockey.
That was the only thing that really made her nervous. Family she could handle. Hockey... she didn’t know. During college at Oklahoma State, the football players were revered like gods. If they went to class it was only to pick up girls. Many of them graduated to the NFL. The culture was insane, and everyone bought into it because they all got something out of it. The guys performed for the entertainment of others, and were rewarded for it.
Erin tried to picture that at the NFL level. She knew the NHL wasn’t that popular in Oklahoma, or even most of America, but in Canada it might reach the stratospheric levels of football madness. Was Jordan like Tom Brady? Probably not. She knew the Oilers were “rebuilding,” as everyone called it. Was he more like Carolina’s Cam Newton, full of promise but stuck on a tough team? Or was he more of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan - talented, solid, waiting for the chance to be considered elite?
Of course, he might not be a quarterback, she reminded herself. But they were always the most famous. Erin was preparing for it just in case.
Yet when they landed, there were no screaming fans. The airport was slow and no one seemed to even recognize Jordan. They passed through customs, exited the terminal to the sidewalk outside. A silver SUV pulled to a stop two minutes later.
“Hey buddy,” a man hopped from the drivers’ side. He had a high forehead, a lighter version of Jordan’s eyebrows and a big smile. “And you must be Erin!”
“Hi, Mr. Eberle,” she said as he folded her right up in a hug.
“Darren, please. Mr. Eberle was my father,” he laughed, holding out a white ski jacket. “I thought you might need this, it’s Jordan’s sister’s, should fit you. Gets cold up here!” Jordan finished swinging their bags into the back and came around for a hug of his own. “Welcome home, kid!”
Erin bundled into the coat and resumed her post of looking out the window as they drove across town. Regina resembled a million small American cities. Other than some store names she didn’t recognize and signs in kilometers, she could have been anywhere. Darren chatted happily, but Erin sensed he was saving up questions until she got in front of the whole family.
The house was a two-story blue clapboard with white shutters and a front porch. The lawn would have been gorgeous in summer; now scraggly under a light dusting of snow. Every light was blazing.
“I’ll get the bags!” Darren called, urging them inside. He looked half afraid Erin would freeze to death before he got her through the door. Jordan reached for her hand.
“Last chance to run away,” he said with a smile, but his blue eyes held a little hesitation.
She laced her fingers into his. “No way! I haven’t even seen a moose yet!”
At the front door, Jordan gave her hand a little squeeze. Then he flung it open and shouted, “Mom, we’re home!”
She came around the corner before the words were out of his mouth. About Erin’s height, with short dark hair and a big smile, Jordan’s mom hugged him so tightly that Erin heard his ribs creak. Then she grabbed his cheeks and kissed each one.
“Mom, this is Erin,” Jordan said he untangled himself.
“Come on in, honey. It’s nice to meet you!” Lisa grabbed Erin and hugged her too. “Does that jacket fit? Jordan coulda sent us a picture of you or something, so I’d know. Anyway,” she held Erin at arm’s length, examining her, “he said you were pretty. Got that part right at least. Now come in!”
Jordan just shook his head. So much for hoping his family liked Erin. She hadn’t said a word and he could already hear bells ringing in his mother’s head. They followed into the kitchen where Lisa took the reins and introduced Erin to Jordan’s older sisters, Ashley and Whitney. While they were saying hello, Lisa poured apple cider for everyone. Jordan knew she couldn’t wait to start grilling Erin on everything about the rest of her life, which would obviously include Jordan, because Lisa had that look in her eye: the one she had all summer at those parties, trying to set him up on the sly with every girl in town. If she had her way, hir mother would have them married by the end of the week.
For once I might be okay with that, he thought.
The front door opened again and footsteps stomped in their direction. Erin did a double take as a younger version of Jordan walked into the room. Same height, same bushy eyebrows, just on a smaller body. He was maybe three inches and twenty five pounds less, like a miniature Jordan.
“Hey, Jordan,” the boy said.
“Dustin, good to see you!” Jordan gave him a man-hug and swung him toward the table. “This is Erin, my girlfriend.”
“Hi, Erin. It’s nice to meet you,” Dustin offered his hand very politely, and smiled. No gap between his teeth. Still Erin was gaping a little.
“Hi, wow. You’re so...,” she managed.
“I know,” Dustin rolled his eyes. “We get that all the time.”
“I was going to say ‘so much cuter than your brother,’ and I bet you do get that a lot,” she finished. Dustin blushed and everyone laughed. Darren got himself an apple cider and suggested they move to the living room.
“Let Erin get comfortable before you interrogate her,” he joked.
Jordan sat close to Erin, then moved even a little closer. He put his arm around her shoulders casually, as if bringing a girl home to his family was something he did everyday. They asked Erin about OKC and work and where she’d gone to school, what she liked to eat, had she ever seen snow, why had she never been to Canada. Jordan had told his mom all this, and doubtless she’d told anyone who would listen, but Erin seemed relaxed talking to them. She asked her own questions, digging her elbow into Jordan’s side when someone gave a revealing answer. Only that kept Jordan anchored to the conversation. He was miles away, thinking about a million things.
“So, what’s hockey like in Oklahoma City?” his dad asked, pulling Jordan’s mind back.
“Oh, Jordan can tell you better. They’re the only games I’ve ever been to. I know they’re small - I mean, not a lot of people come. And I feel bad, because these guys are really good. They won, well, you know they won five games in a row this month. But people there just aren’t about hockey. Neither was I, till now.”
His mother was beaming so hard her smile could be seen from space. The conversation continued - Erin and Whitney were the same age, all three girls had a lot in common. Jordan kept watching and Lisa went right on grinning until it was time for dinner.
“We’re going out. Didn’t want to be cooking when we could be getting to know Erin instead!” his mom announced. “Ten minutes!”
Jordan led Erin to Whitney’s room. It was a time capsule from a few years before when she’d last lived at home full-time, before college and moving out. Now she shared an apartment with Ashley, closer to downtown, and worked at a bank. Erin set her suitcase by the bed. “Can I see your room?”
Jordan’s room was more of a trophy case; he just hadn’t won anything in the last few years to add to the collection. Someday he hoped there would be a picture of his team, sweaty and teary-eyed, crowded around the Stanley Cup.
Not this year, he thought.
Erin reached behind him and shut the door. Her arm came down around his neck, followed by the other, followed quickly by her mouth against his. She parted her lips and slipped her tongue, melting into his chest. He held her tight, marveling in the way she always fit perfectly into his arms. Kissing her made Regina feel like Oklahoma City, or made Oklahoma City feel like home. Maybe it was home. Or maybe it was just Erin who belonged, and it didn’t matter where. She rubbed against him and Jordan groaned softly.
“My mom is listening, I guarantee it. She probably has this place wiretapped,” Jordan said quietly, more as an excuse to keep close.
“I think she likes me,” Erin whispered.
“She loves you. I should’ve warned you, she’s crazy. When you said you didn’t even like hockey before you met me....”
“She’s used to all the girls throwing themselves at her baby because he’s rich and famous,” Erin teased. “I just did it ‘cause you’re hot. I can’t believe I get brownie points for having the lowest standards.”
Jordan held Erin’s hand in the living room, in the car, walking to the restaurant. It wasn’t until they reached the booth in the dining room that he remembered. Everyone stopped before the table. No one slid into the seat. For an awkward moment, Erin just looked around.
“You want the inside, Jordan?” his dad asked, swinging his arm like an invitation.
Jordan blinked. “Oh. Oh yeah.” Of course he did. He always wanted - no, needed - the inside. He piled in all the way to the wall. Erin was next to him and Whitney on the end. Everyone else sat across, and his dad got a chair at the head of the table.
Too bad it was still Regina.
“Huh... hi,” the waitress took one look down the table and stuttered. She was about eighteen, with glasses and bangs. Her eyes locked on Jordan and her pencil just hovered over the little green pad of paper. She said nothing.
“I’ll have a Coke,” Dustin said, breaking the silence.
“Me too,” Ashley added.
“Coffee for me, dear,” Lisa said encouragingly. “Maybe you should write this down.”
“Uh, uh huh. Yeah. Coffee. Cokes. Okay...,” she stared at the paper like it would tell her their order. Darren asked for an ice tea, Whitney a water and Erin a Sprite.
“Just a water,” Jordan finally said. The girl snapped her pencil lead right off at the sound of his voice. She muttered something, bobbed something like a half-curtsey, and practically ran from the table.
Erin could feel everyone except Jordan looking at her. That poor girl probably had an Eberle poster over her bed and Oilers #14 shirts in home and away colors. Maybe she even had tickets to the jersey ceremony. Maybe he’s just famous, Erin told herself. She didn’t own any Ben Affleck movies, but she’d probably choke if she ever saw him in Wild Wings.
“So,” Erin said conversationally. “That’s only going to get weirder, isn’t it?”
Whitney flipped open her menu. “Just wait till you meet the screamers.”
Erin leaned against Jordan’s door frame. She wore more pajamas than he’s ever seen on her - stretchy black pants and a t-shirt - but it didn’t matter. He’d been under those clothes so many times he might as well have x-ray vision. Sleeping across the hall for a few days would be torture, but at least she was here.
“You okay?” he asked. She nodded and wandered in, examining the many photos and certificates, ribbons and trophies that decorated his childhood bedroom. He gave his mom a hard time about turning it into a shrine, but he couldn’t be mad that she was so proud. Now Erin was leaning close to pick him out of an old Pats’ team photo.
“You were so cute,” she said, touching the glass. Then with a step back she looked around. “All this hockey. I knew you’d played forever but this is a whole life, babe. And you’re only twenty two.”
“It just seems that way,” he tried to sound like he’d had a normal childhood. “Just instead of three sports seasons, it was only one.”
“Plus summer,” she said.
Jordan knew his attempt was lame. “Yeah. Off-season stuff.”
Erin turned away from his wall of accomplishments and climbed up next to him on the bed. He’d made sure to sit on top of the covers while she was in the room. It wouldn’t be smart to try anything with his parents around, not when they already liked Erin so much. There was only so much temptation he could resist.
If I can go this long without the NHL, I can go without Erin for a few days, he told himself. More than once. Now she was leaning against the pillow, facing him, and he was beginning to sweat.
“Do you love it?” she asked quietly.
It was a loaded question. Erin wanted to be sure that Jordan was happy. It was silly to think he’d given his life to a game, but it was true. Just as childish and capricious as that sounded, now the game had been taken away, at least to an extent. This room represented a world of things Erin could not begin to fathom. He’d always been chasing this. She’d never worked so hard, or wanted anything so badly, in her entire life.
Looking at Jordan, in a plain t-shirt with his Clark Kent hairline and his thick brows furrowed, she thought, rather crazily: Until now.
“I love it,” he said with complete conviction. Jordan had never questioned his devotion to hockey. He gave, he got and he enjoyed every moment. For a guy that always fell in love too fast, hockey was one of the few constants that never let him down. Even now, locked out and playing to mostly empty arenas, he still had the game. He’d have it when he had nothing else.
Of course, now there was Erin. So there was something else.