Jordan didn’t have a jealous bone in his body, or he might have envied how excited his parents were to see Erin. Lisa and Darren practically threw airport security out of the way to hug her in the arrivals terminal. Then his mom tackled Taylor and Ryan in turn, alternately embracing and holding them at arms’ length to examine how they’d survived the lockout. Erin introduced Lisa to Amanda and Darcy, while Taylor and Ryan tried not to blush too hard. Darren gestured toward a luggage cart - that was already full.
“I brought everyone jackets.”
He must’ve cleaned out both of Jordan’s sisters closets and flown the lot to Edmonton, because it was at least two suitcases worth of parkas, mittens, hats and scarves. When Jordan laughed, his dad just shrugged. “You don’t make girls wear the same thing every day.”
Lisa helped hand out warmer clothes, even to the boys who hadn’t packed winter gear for Oklahoma City. “Your parents coming in, Taylor? Only a few hours drive from Calgary, eh?” Darren asked.
Taylor pulled a hunting cap over Amanda’s head, all the way down to cover her eyes. “Gotta find a place to hide this girl first.”
Darren took the bags, plus Ryan and Darcy, to drop them off at Ryan’s place on the way. Lisa drove everyone else to Taylor and Jordan’s apartment. She had come in a day early, filled the fridge with food and even freshly made both boys’ beds. When Jordan and Taylor walked into their respective rooms, they both called out, “Thank you!”
“Bet you left this place a mess,” Amanda said, examining the space Taylor had occupied before she knew him. Some clothes were tossed onto a chair. There was a bottle of cologne, a dish full of change, socks sticking out of the top drawer. Taylor mentally inventoried when he’d been there last, what he’d done - and possibly who he’d been with. Yeah, he’d need to put a few things away before Amanda really got a look around.
Erin leaned her suitcase against the wall in Jordan’s room. It would be her home too, for now. She promised herself a quick start to this new life - apartment, make some friends - before she could become too reliant on Jordan. She wanted to be part of this, not take it over.
Jordan opened the closet and slid all the hangers to one side with a big push, making plenty of space.
“Here you go, babe.”
“Wow, Ry. This is really nice!” Darcy headed straight for the high-ceilinged living room of the brand new apartment the Oilers had found for Ryan. Just like in OKC, he’d be sharing with Justin. Darcy ran her hand approvingly over the couch. “A lot nicer than Schultz’s place at home!”
He dumped his suitcase next to hers in the hallway. The place even smelled new - new carpet, new paint. The appliances probably still had price tags on them. Everything in the apartment had come with it, including the furniture. A quick look around told Ryan it bright and airy with plenty of space and a lot of decorating he and Schultz would never have bothered to do.
Darcy was down the hallway poking her nose into every door. There were two bedrooms, each with it’s own en suite bathroom. “Which one’s yours?” she called back.
Ryan was plugging in his phone charger. “Whichever one you’re in when I get over there.”
He looked up at the sound of her footsteps coming back. Darcy stopped in the hallway and leaned against the wall, shoulder-length blond hair caught in the borrowed scarf she’s hastily put on. Her jeans were tucked into high brown riding boots, making her the shortest she could possibly be. When she smiled, Ryan felt it from across the room.
“Got a few hours,” she said, batting her lashes. “We could try them both, then decide.”
Ryan was halfway out of his jacket. “You got it, goldielocks.”
He ran after her, into the middle of the first bedroom, only to find it empty. A hand grabbed his t-shirt from behind, spinning and pulling him right into her body and pinning herself between the it and the wall. Darcy wrapped her arms around Ryan’s neck and kissed him deeply, all the saved-up kisses she’d wanted to give him during the trip. All the ones she wouldn’t get to give him when ten days expired.
Ryan was more than happy to oblige. He slipped his hands inside her coat, his knee between hers and held her there. This was his place, and this was the kind of guy he was going to be now. The kind of guy who had a hot girlfriend and knew what to do with her. He just wished he wouldn’t have to start all over.
“Glad you came?” he broke away, a little breathless.
Darcy arched one eyebrow. “You’re about to be.”
A few hours later they were back at the airport, having worn out every flat surface in that first bedroom - bed, floor, desk, wall. They never made it to the second room, just ended up in a heap of blankets looking out the window at freshly falling snow.
Now Darcy sat on a bench, watching Ryan read the overhead arrivals sign. She’d never seen him so bundled, except for hockey gear, and was picturing how his lanky frame would fill out over the next few years. There were some things only maturity could bring. By the time he was twenty-two, Jordan’s age, Darcy thought Ryan would be without question the best-looking hockey player in history. Her two months watching only the AHL clearly qualified her to make that statement. Right now he had his hands in his pockets and a baseball cap pulled down over his head, but Darcy would have recognized him from a mile away. She was waiting for someone else to do the same.
“You’re staring at me,” he said, not turning around.
“I’m about to ask for your autograph.”
That got a glance over his shoulder, a little smile. “Where do you want me to sign?”
One slot on the board changed to read ARRIVED. They stayed back from the small crowd clustered around the international arrivals gate, watching the people. Ryan hoped no one would approach him, mostly because he had no idea what Darcy would do. Run and hide? Should he introduce her, and as what? This is my old sort-of girlfriend but we’re still totally doing it? He tugged his hat lower and looked at the floor. Darcy, pretty good at reading his body language, let her fingers play along the hairline at the back of his neck.
Finally a guy wheeling a luggage cart piled high with hockey bags and taped sticks balanced on top, emerged from the sliding doors. Darcy left Ryan sitting, went over and waved.
“What, no Cowboys cheerleader outfit? What kind of welcome is this?” Justin gave her a one-armed hug. Ryan joined them walking toward the exit, trying to minimize the number of people who saw hockey equipment and him and the two together. A few heads turned anyway.
Schultz glanced at the curious people. “Tell ‘em Darcy’s my girlfriend,” he suggested. “She’s too cute for you anyway.”
Ryan pulled his collar up and didn’t miss a beat. “Well she already had sex in your new bed....”
“Uh... night!” Erin called out. Amanda and Taylor were on the couch, watching TV, cuddling like they were back in OKC. Erin was glad they could have a few more days - leaving sucked either way, what could it hurt? She padded back to Jordan’s room in socked feet. He flipped back the covers for her and let his arm fall over her as she turned into his chest. He was the same warm, comforting shape Erin felt like she’d known forever. With the lights out it didn’t matter what country they were in, it was just them. Jordan pressed a kiss to her forehead.
“Welcome to Canada,” he said quietly.
“You mean welcome back,” Erin returned his soft kiss and felt him grin against her lips. “I just left.”
“Yeah, but now you live here.”
She pushed him onto his back, till she was perched against his side, looking down at him. “Then you’re supposed to say, welcome home.”
The look on his face was the same as the night they met, when he followed her across the restaurant to give her a tip. The moment that he almost asked her out but didn’t, the moment that everything almost got away. This time Jordan knew an opportunity when he saw it.
“I love you,” he said.
“Love you too, Moose.”
Days passed too quickly. The boys went right into practice, meetings, and what seemed liked all-day conditioning sessions. Being in the AHL gave them a big leg up on most players who’d simply been training, but the shortened NHL season promised to be even more grueling than normal. They woke up aching and sore no matter how much ‘stretching’ they talked the girls into helping with at night.
Erin got lost every time she left the house. Jordan and Taylor lived within walking distance of some restaurants, bars and shopping, so she, Amanda and Darcy explored that area then branched out. Getting in the car without a tour guide was even worse.
“At least it’s flat,” Darcy pointed out about the landscape, attempting to navigate them to yet another apartment open house.
“Flat everywhere! If there were one hill, we’d know which way we were going,” Amanda insisted. “I think it’s that street.”
They were almost back to Jordan and Taylor’s place, having made a big circle around the city. This place was maybe half a mile away. Erin parked, and the three girls walked into another available furnished one-bedroom apartment. There had been a few Erin liked, a few she hated, and at least one where the previous owner had ten cats. Her purse was stuffed with applications and every realtor or renter told them to hurry, this one wouldn’t last.
The doorway opened directly into the living room. Cream colored paint complimented the pale carpet and the light tones made the room seem larger. One wall held a rectangular mirror which served the same purpose. It was decorated nicely, a step or two below the photos in a catalog. To the right, a counter with seating separated the kitchen. It was pale blue with slate gray countertops, all shined and ready. The cabinets had glass and wood fronts, like little windows into each one.
“Ooh, this is cute!” Darcy said under her breath.
Across the living room, a sliding glass door opened and three people stepped in.
“Hello ladies,” the realtor said. “Be right with you.” A young couple followed her, talking quietly and nodding. Erin could tell by their body language they liked the place too.
A short hallway led to the only bedroom. It was smaller than the living room, but more than big enough for her. One dresser sat waiting, a nightstand with a lap was next to the bed. Amanda opened the closet and whooped.
“Walk-in!” she stage-whispered loudly.
Erin stuck her head into the bathroom - fake marble countertop in black veined with white, gold and brown, frosted light bulbs like a Hollywood dressing room around the mirror, a bathtub big enough to actually take a bath in. She caught Darcy’s eyes in the mirror.
“I love it,” they said in unison.
“Ladies, welcome. How are you? I see you’ve found the walk-in closet,” the realtor laughed at Amanda’s thumbs-up. “The apartment also has a garbage disposal, central heat and air, free laundry facilities on the ground floor and comes with an assignment covered parking space in the garage. Have you seen the balcony?”
Beyond the sliding glass door was a six by ten foot tiled balcony, almost square, that occupied the very corner of the fourth floor. It didn’t look out at much - other buildings, streets - but it was big enough for a table and a few summer chairs, maybe a small grill. A few plants and it would be a little slice of park right outside the door.
“Can I fill out an application?” Erin asked.
The woman’s smile faltered. “You’re American.”
Erin nodded. “Yes....”
“I must ask, are you working here? Sponsored? The credit check requires employment verification and references from previous landlords. With the demand quite high, you may need a Canadian citizen to co-sign the application to meet the criteria. Do you have anyone Canadian who might qualify?”
Darcy leaned back against the railing, elbows bent like she was just hanging out. She asked the woman, “How do you feel about the Oilers?”
Erin filled out the application, listing Jordan just as a reference. It might be enough to get her to the top of the stack, at least. She used her own phone number for him though, for privacy’s sake. The realtor took it and Erin shuffled everyone out before she could read to the bottom. Let her check Erin’s financials and call, she didn’t want to answer twenty questions unless it was going to help her get the place.
“Are we done?” Darcy asked, climbing into the car.
“Why, you miss Ryan already?” Amanda teased. “Anything left you haven’t taught him?”
With a flick of her hair, Darcy smiled. “He’s learned. Just helping him study for the final exam.”
“So?” Ryan asked eagerly from his seat at Jordan & Taylor’s kitchen island. He was plowing through a bowl of cereal when Ein, Amanda and Darcy came in the front door.
“How’d it go?” Jordan leaned in and gave Erin a kiss.
“Good! I saw a bunch of one-bedrooms, some really nice buildings,” Erin said. The girls were peeling off their many layers of borrowed winter clothes.
Taylor closed the fridge and looked over at Ryan, then very casually asked, “Did they have two bedrooms?”
“Then you could have people visit,” Ryan added, looking nonchalantly at his food.
She started to remind them that she didn’t have a job yet - in fact, couldn’t get one because she wasn’t even Canadian. Like the credit application, that was going to be the next issue. “They did, but they’re around $300 more and I don’t even....”
“I’ll pay it!” Ryan and Taylor both blurted out. Everyone laughed. Ryan reached out and pulled Darcy into his lap.
“My apartment is not a brothel!” Erin smacked Taylor, on the arm.
He scoffed. “Hell, I’m not paying for the whole thing.”
Ryan chimed in, beaming now. “You do need a job, Er.”
As predicted, her phone rang an hour later from a Canadian number. Jordan answered very formally and winked at Erin as he stepped into the bedroom to talk. When he came out, he was frowning.
“Sorry babe, you didn’t get it. The one you saw already had an application in and they got it.”
Darcy and Amanda instantly started saying it wasn’t that nice anyway, they’d seen a few others and could keep looking tomorrow. Erin just stood there, head slightly tilted, giving Jordan a completely even look. He lasted ten seconds, then busted into a smile.
“You got a two-bedroom. Bigger balcony too,” he said. The girls shrieked and Jordan ducked as a throw pillow whizzed past his head. “How did you know?!”
Erin put her hands on her hips. “You’re Jordan Eberle! If you can’t even get me an apartment then I have seriously overestimated how important you are! What did you tell them?”
He gave an exaggerated shrug. “That maybe I’d know some other guys looking for apartments, you know, with the lockout ending and trades and stuff, and maybe I’d recommend this building, or others from the company. Maybe I’d stop by their office with tickets someday. Like tomorrow, when you sign your lease.”
The Oilers first game rolled in like a tide. Tension built as their days ticked away, and they started spending less time together as a group. On the ninth evening, the last free night before the season really started, Taylor stood in his room straightening his tie in the mirror. He’d always been good at ties but tonight he couldn’t get it right. The sound of Amanda getting ready in the bathroom distracted him.
“Zip me up?” she appeared at his side. The dress was new, he’d insisted she buy it that day so he could take her out to the nicest place in town. Being an Oiler in Edmonton had it’s advantages - he could always get a reservation. Black with white piping and cap sleeves, the dress fit her in a way that would make every other man in the place jealous. He hoped she never wore it when he wasn’t around.
The restaurant had white linen tablecloths and low lighting. He’d asked for as private a table as possible - he was used to people glancing at him all night, but didn’t want Amanda to be uncomfortable on their last night alone together. Plus he had something important to ask - he’d rather the whole place not watch if she said no.
They ordered food and wine. Amanda admired Taylor, sitting across from her like a grown-up instead of the casual young guy she’d come to know well. The dinner was a lovely gesture, but part of her wished they were spending this last night home cuddled up on the couch. She wondered if this version of Taylor was what he prefered the Edmonton public to see - mature, responsible, adult. He didn’t seem very comfortable doing it.
“Hey,” she put her fork down alongside lobster risotto and reached for his hand, “you okay?”
“Yeah, sorry.” Taylor shook his head as if to clear it.
“It’s okay. Nervous for tomorrow?”
Something sooner, Taylor thought. He turned his hand and, laced his fingers into hers. There was not going to be a better time than now. Or a worse time. If nothing else, the next thirty-six hours depended entirely on this.
Taylor looked up. Amanda gave him an encouraging little smile, willing him to say whatever he needed to say. She’d guessed there was something behind this dinner, some ‘thanks for everything’ speech so he wouldn’t have to do it tomorrow, in case they lost their first game. Losses with the Barons had bummed him out, this must be times a thousand.
“I want to be your boyfriend,” Taylor said.
Amanda’s face went completely blank. Taylor did not let go of her hand. He’d been thinking that sentence for nearly a week, maybe longer, but in his head it was a question. Would she be his girlfriend? Did she want to be? How would that work and did he even care?
“You don’t have to move here,” he added. “But we could do the long-distance thing, for a while. If you want.”
Almost coming home to Edmonton alone had scared Taylor. He’d been so relieved to ask Amanda on the trip, if only to ease the transition back into this life. Now that he was here, worrying about things like getting recognized in restaurants, he remembered how exhausting that life was. He saw how much she was worth.
Amanda’s heart was racing - she had been expecting the wrong speech. “Wow, I....”
Taylor leaned forward, eliminating some of the table-wide distance between them. “It sucks, I know, but I’m away so much anyway. I will miss you like crazy, only now I could call you and it wouldn’t be weird,” he took a deep breath, stopping himself. It wasn’t only about him. “Do you like me?”
“Yes,” she admitted. Of course she did. She’d just never let herself like him too much because he was leaving.
“Then please, be my girlfriend. I don’t want to find someone here, Amanda. I just want you.”
Ryan leaned back against the arm of the couch. Darcy’s feet were in his lap, he was rubbing her toes through socks. She was sprawled out, arms overhead, watching a movie on TV. He was just watching her. A t-shirt was stretched across her chest, no bra, and each breath defined the shape of her breasts against the thin cotton. He gulped. It was impossible that after weeks together these simple, intimate moments still made his blood boil. His hand slid up her calf.
Darcy smiled without turning her head. “That move worked for you once before.”
Ryan squeezed her leg. “What move?” he asked innocently.
The night Ryan took a puck to the face in Oklahoma City was the first night Darcy had ever stayed over. She’d rushed to his side in the trainer’s room while he was still bleeding, then taken him home and sat next to him in bed. He couldn’t kiss her, though he wanted to desperately, so he settled for pushing the leg of her pajama pants up and holding her calf. It was the first time he touched her bare skin while they were both sober. She shared his bed that night, and had nearly every night since.
Darcy drew her hands down under her head and gave up on the show. She’d get enough TV at home when it was the only way to see Ryan. Since he was here now, all sharp-featured and fox-faced, it was a shame to waste time looking at anything else.
“I’m going to miss you,” she said honestly.
“I’ll miss you too,” he said. “You’re not going to get a new boyfriend, are you? Not right away?”
Darcy smiled tightly. “No.”
“Good,” he pressed his thumb along the edge of her shin. “Then I won’t feel so bad if I don’t find someone.”
She levered herself to sitting, scooting down until her knees were bent across Ryan’s lap. The corners of his mouth turned down hard enough to make his dimples show. He looked at her leg in his hand, even when she leaned in close.
“Remember when you said I wouldn’t like you here?”
“Well it’s been nine days and I still like you.”
“Not enough to stay,” he said sullenly. Ryan wanted to bite his lip to keep from speaking. He’d worked so hard for Darcy to see him as more than a kid and now he was ruining it, getting petulant and bratty right before she left. At this rate she’d be running to the airport.
He hadn’t actually asked her to stay. Darcy would have said no anyway. But as much as it was the right decision, it still hurt her. Ryan had become a confident and capable boyfriend. It was easy to forget the nervous new guy she’d met months ago, since he’d turned into a man. She cupped his cheek and turned his face. Ryan reluctantly looked her in the eye.
“Make me a promise,” she said.
“That you’ll try. That you’ll meet some girls and show them you’re more than famous. You’re sexy and smart and funny. Promise me that you’ll be my Ryan, even when I’m not here.”
He shrugged unconvincingly. “Okay.”
“And if it doesn’t work,” she made him meet her gaze again, “I’ll come back for Valentine’s Day.”
Ryan’s face lit up. He might as well have stabbed Darcy in the heart for all the excitement in his eyes. Those dimples flashed for real this time and she groaned in defeat, falling back against the couch seat. A split second later, Ryan was on top of her.
“That’s in six weeks,” he said, lips an inch from her mouth. Then all of a sudden, he sat up. Surprise plastered across his face.
“I’m not supposed to have sex the night before a game.” His voice was full of awe. “And tomorrow is a game. I’m not supposed to do this.”
Darcy narrowed her eyes, confused. “Why is that good?”
“That rule has never applied to me before!” He flopped back down on top of her, mouth even closer this time. “And I already can’t wait to break it.”