Devin had a momentary space-time slow down, standing against Nicky while the two of them just laughed at Mike. She thought that if this worked out they’d spend a lot of time doing that.
Then she realized Mel had been unattended in the same room as Brooks Laich for at least thirty seconds. She hadn’t heard any screaming but that only meant she’d probably eaten her prey whole. Devin practically jumped away from Nicky, looking past him.
And there was Mel, with one hand on Brooks’ forearm, laughing casually like she’d just come off her yacht in the South of France to find that silly chauffeur had brought the Rolls instead of the Bentley again. Mel touched her long hair and Brooks’ eyes followed through the soft locks.
Oh boy, Devin thought.
Nicky watched Devin watching her friend. Mike went over to introduce himself, since he wasn’t about to let Brooks stake a claim that easily. It gave Nicky and Devin a moment nearly alone. In person. He now knew her hair smelled like flowers and her silky blouse felt like water beneath his fingers. He knew she was taller than he’d expected and even more beautiful. He’s said hi. The hardest part was over, right?
Devin pinched her lips together to cover a smile as Mike barged into the other conversation like a screen door snapping open in the wind. “Is he always like that?” she asked.
Nicky, absurdly grateful to not have to think of the next thing to say, replied, “Always.”
That full, flashing smile lit up her face. “Seems about right.”
She moved back toward him, just close enough for the hairs on his arms to stand up. He started to ask her if she’d like a drink when the rest of the team burst in. The maitre’d, unable to stem the tide, tried to announce them. But John Carlson already had Devin by the waist from behind and was spinning her around. She hooted in surprised, hair tossing across her face as he set her down on her feet.
“Hi, I’m John,” he said with exaggerated politeness, extending one hand very formally. “Been eating your food for days, love your work.”
Ovi was next. “I am Alex. You must be internet girlfriend.”
Devin glanced at Nicky, laughing. He cursed himself for blushing. She extended her hand to shake as John had done, but Ovi looked at it like she was passing a dead fish.
“Why we no hug? Friends is always hugging.” He wrapped her up like a bear, then pushed her right to Alex Semin. “This one Alex, call him Sasha. He is also for hugging. Not so much English but he understand everything you say so be careful.”
Devin went down the line getting a hug from eight or nine of the guys. DJ King dipped her almost to the floor before she finally finished. Brooks introduced Mel around and pretended not to see the grimace she made when Ovi hugged her. Or that she accidentally hugged Semin twice.
Thank God we won, Nicky thought.
Devin’s brain was in the blender. Hockey overload mixed with the euphoria of winning and the strong arms of way too many good looking guys. Even the ones who weren’t good looking were built like jungle gyms and she felt like a monkey dying to climb something. Nicky offered her a chair and three guys tried to grab the one on her other side. They would be relentless to him no matter where they sat. Devin inched her chair close to his and saw he was already blushing. She leaned over and bumped his shoulder. The little smile spread as he tried to hide behind his hair. It wasn’t long enough and they both shook their heads, laughing.
It gave her a second to catch her breath. There was a lot going on in that room. Being so near to Nicky was not helping but she couldn’t move away. The size of him – taking up his chair and a little bit of hers too – was an incredibly pleasant surprise. She’d never considered the actual math of how they might fit together and now it was very obvious that if it happened, she would finish out the small piece of space he left.
“Would you like a drink?” the waitress was suddenly behind her, starting with the only girl she could find.
“A Sam Adams, please,” Devin said. Nicky ordered the same and the woman circled away. John Carlson had won the seat on Devin’s other side and he talked loudly to Michael Neuvirth like young goalie might be deaf instead of Czech.
“I’m glad we win for you,” Nicky said almost quietly. Everyone around them was rowdy and not listening, though Devin would have bet a few were watching their shy teammate try his luck with a girl.
“Me too. Thank you for the tickets, it was so much more intense than a regular season game.”
Nicky paused, like he was going to say something more. At his lap he twisted one finger into a napkin over and over. Devin wanted to sigh – he was still nervous. Maybe even more nervous than before. The idea of someone like him being that excited about someone like her… well it made her want to kiss him, frankly.
Probably not the time, she laughed to herself. Instead she shared his menu, though hers was perfectly fine, and talked about what they liked to eat. He was more of a steak person, she went for pasta. As they debated the merits of various side dishes, Devin marveled at the size of his hands. Without thinking she ran her finger along the length of his right thumb. It was slightly discolored and swollen – there was obviously something wrong with it. Her skin barely touched his but it felt hot.
“Is this bad?” she asked in a low voice. No protective dress meant he was trying to act normal and maybe the other guys didn’t even know.
It’s better when you touch it, he almost said. In truth it throbbed angrily but he’d stuck to Advil for the sake of this date. If you could even call it that. His teammates talked to Devin from other ends of the room, calling out questions and embarrassing him, but she just rolled into it like she was dancing with them. As happy as he was to have them breaking the tension, Nicky was both more interested and more apprehensive than ever to be alone with her.
Then she touched him, skin to skin. The merest hint of contact. His stomach flipped and for the first time since hugging her, he didn’t feel any pain at all.
“Broken,” he whispered back.
She was quiet for a second. Then she laid her hand gently on his wrist and held it there. Like she understood what an injury meant at this point in the season, with no time to heal and no option but to play through the pain. It told him that she knew why he wore no splint and would never, ever tell the guys how much it hurt. It was probably also why he hadn’t scored in so long that he felt he might never score again. But in the playoffs, reasons are just excuses and there’s no room for whining.
In that second Nicky knew he was going to fall, and fall hard.
Devin didn’t know what to say. You’re my hero seemed a bit much for a makeshift first date. But he was – they all were – because she felt how much they loved the game. Coming off a series win you could probably see their mood glowing from space. But one win was a drop in the bucket. Athletes gave everything in a way that normal people are rarely asked to do and the idea made Devin immensely proud of the boy sitting next to her.
So she just touched him; a tiny hug she hoped to deliver in full-size later. She was thinking about later when Carlson ordered twelve shots of vodka.
“Just bring bottle,” Ovi called.
Across the table, Devin caught Mike looking at her. He raised an eyebrow. She smirked back. He tipped his head to the right, where Mel sat next to him. She was turned away, talking to Brooks. Devin shook her head slightly. Mike barely nodded back. Devin shook her head again. Then Mike slowly lifted one arm and extended it across the back of Mel’s chair. She didn’t stop talking, but Devin could see on her face that she noticed. Brooks noticed too. He looked at the rogue hand that had appeared between them, then very calmly swatted Mike’s arm so it fell away. Mike made an angry little boy face and stuck his nose in the air.
Drinks arrived, along with the promised bottle of vodka and a whole tray of shot glasses. Sasha poured one half and one full, gave the half to Nicky and the full to Devin with a big grin on his face. She stuck out her tongue and switched them. Even as a Caps fan, she’d rarely if ever heard Semin speak. It cracked her up to find he was such a joker.
“Okay. Good win today, boys,” Ovi called, raising his glass. “Now we say hope the Penguins win so we can kick their ass next.” Everyone cheered. Devin clinked her drink to Nicky’s, tossed it back and winced.
“Yuck,” Nicky agreed.
Food arrived, and more drinks. Devin thought there were countries that ate less than this single table. She talked with Nicky and John, and Mike across from them. A couple times people took digs at Nicky but overall, they seemed to accept her presence and whatever she was doing there. With the exception of a wedding, it was the happiest party Devin had ever been to. More shots were poured – this time Sasha gave her a full one – and more toasts made.
I hope they win it all, Devin said as she gave a cheers.
It was barely 8PM when they had eaten every last bite of food in the restaurant. The promise of a party carried through - no one was drunk yet, but plenty of people were headed that way. They just weren’t going to do it downtown.
“Do you want to go to Arlington? If not, I can stay here. No problem,” Nicky offered.
Devin sensed that they still needed people around and a little more time to get comfortable with each other. And that Nicky really wanted to celebrate with his team - hell, she did too. It was worth more than the crazy cab fare home.
They headed to the players parking area, which made Devin a little giddy. Mel was lost somewhere in the group of large bodies but Devin trusted she wouldn’t let herself be left behind. Instead she took a deep breath to prepare for being alone with Nicky in his SUV. He opened her door, then climbed in his side and shut the door.
The both sighed softly. The silence inside the car was blissful.
“I love to play at Verizon Center, but sometimes even we get headaches,” Nicky said.
“I couldn’t hear the crowd over Mel screaming in my ear.”
Nicky gently shifted the car into reverse, favoring his hand. Devin slid down into the comfy leather seat and tried not to watch him from the corner of her eye.
It was like they knew the Caps were coming. Saturday night was jumping and there was no hiding a mass of hockey players rolling into a bar. Not that they tried. Various friends and family were there, having been called ahead, and the VIP area was half full already. Nicky was one of the last cars in - he might have taken the long way over to get a few extra minutes with Devin.
Not that he talked much. She asked about the area, where he lived and if he liked it. It was easy to tell her things, but when it came time to ask something he was at a loss. Everything seemed too personal or clumsy: Do you know Swedish fish aren’t Swedish? How is it possible that you’re single? What kind of cereal do you like for breakfast?
As they made their way toward the back and the crowd closed in around them, the DJ congratulated the Caps over the microphone. Everyone started cheering. Nicky instinctively turned, carving out space with his wide shoulders and reached back for Devin’s hand.
She froze. He stopped. She looked at his hand, then at him. For a long moment, they just stood there staring at each other. Nicky had trouble processing the surprising development that she didn’t want to hold his hand. He wasn’t presumptuous, but he had obviously read the entire situation very wrong. As he was thinking, she said something.
“What?” he asked.
He had to look to be sure - but he was holding out his broken thumb side. How could I forget?! he asked himself. Devin motioned for the other, non-injured side and slipped her small hand into his big one. Their fingers twined together and Nicky smiled at the feeling.
He wanted to keep holding her hand, but there was no way to do it while also holding a drink and trying not to get his hand jostled in the crowd. So he settled for standing next to her in close quarters and listening to her make his friends laugh. Carlson leaned between them and ditched an empty bottle on the table.
“Come on, Internet Girlfriend.” With one tug he had Devin halfway to the dance floor.
“I like her,” Mike said, stepping in next to him. They watched John clowning around with Devin, who gave as good as she got.
“Me too,” Nicky told him. No sense denying it, Mike would know anyway.
“So go dance with her.”
Nicky sipped his beer. “You know I dance bad.”
“Worse than that?” Carlson was winging her around the floor in a waltz, almost a menace to other people respectably trying to dry hump each other. Devin just cracked up.
“I’m not funny.”
Mike rolled his eyes and took a full beer from Nicky’s hand. “Fine. Let the master show you how it’s done.”
Green pushed his way in and tapped John on the shoulder like an old-fashioned cut-in, then handed Devin the extra drink. She curtsied. The song was something made for grinding but Mike kept a little distance and hid his face alongside Devin’s ear so Nicky couldn’t see him talking.
“Yup,” was all she said.
“Taking it easy on my boy?”
Devin laughed, trying to cover the nervous giggle that rattled around in her brain. It was one thing to be here. It was another thing to kind of be on a date. It was something else entirely to pretend Usher and Enrique weren’t singing about sex on the dance floor while being half wrapped up in Mike Green.
Mike swung her around - the blush on her face would give away their conversation to anyone watching. And of course Nicky was watching.
“Not too easy, eh? He might need a little... encouragement.”
“I might need to stop drinking,” she unlaced her arms from around his neck to take a sip. Mike just laughed, took a swig from his own bottle and pulled her back in. With friends like these..., she thought. No wonder Nicky was shy. No wonder he was talking to girls on the internet. But they were good friends to him, and boys will be boys. Devin gave Nicky credit for keeping up with them and knew that somewhere inside he wasn’t so shy after all.
When the song ended, she caught Nicky’s eye and winked at him. He blushed for the hundred-thousandth time. Devin spun free of Mike. “I’m going to check on Mel.”
“She’s, uh...,” he started but she was already gone.
Devin knew exactly where her best friend was. She’d been making out with Brooks since they walked in the floor. Looping the long way around VIP, all Devin could see where Mel’s feet sticking up over the back of a couch. Looks like she’s doing just fine.
She turned outside, crossing the patio in the cool night air to lean against the railing. It came back to her how unreal the whole day had been: the game, dinner... she’d been flirting with Nicky all night and he was, she was pretty sure, doing his best to flirt back. The sharp air also made it clear her edges were getting blurry – she hadn’t been kidding about the drinking. Between the warmth inside and the thumping bass that made everything sway, she was a little woozy.
Not the time to lose my composure, Devin thought. Or maybe it is.
With a last deep breath, she headed back inside. As she crossed toward the VIP section, she saw Nicky doing the same from another angle. She’d been away maybe five minutes but the sight of him was all new overload – mussed hair, shirt sleeves rolled up over his forearms, buttons open at his throat. He caught her eye and instantly changed course toward her. His walk was confident.
But as he got close, he slowed and smiled like he’d been all night – happy, but reserved. Timid. They came together just off the side of the dance floor as a new song started.
Stop, Devin told herself.
Her brain simply replied: No.
Careful to take his left hand, it didn’t take much convincing to get Nicky on the dance floor. He slid his arms around her waist and fit her into his space like a key. The beat was quick but sultry and she couldn’t help touching him as they moved. So near to his wide body, she felt even more drunk.
“This singer is Swedish,” he said. “Robyn.”
Devin knew that, but Nicky’s voice vibrated softly against her ear as he leaned in to talk. His breath was barely warmer than their bodies. She nodded, but his baby blue eyes still showed hesitation. So close, but so far away. Devin willed herself to be calm. Nicky dropped his poker face and bit hit lip.
Too soon, she repeated. But it’s just a kiss. And now she wanted it more than anything.
I should kiss her, Nicky thought. The time was right. There were alone in a crowd, lost amid people who had already gone much farther tonight with someone they’d just met. He was a little tipsy. He felt a little bold and all this second guessing was wearing him out. A beautiful girl who clearly liked him was pressed to his chest and he might not get another chance this good. Hell if he took much longer he might never get a chance at all.
Devin shifted against him, his hand slipped up her back and under her hair to cup her neck. Her face turned up, lips so close. He was really going to do it.
“Hey, we gotta…,” Mike pushed in. He stopped short, realized he’d interrupted something good. “No, no, go ahead.” He waved for them to carry on and stood there watching.
Devin laughed. Nicky wanted to punch Mike but was busy with the beautiful woman burying her face in his chest, her thick soft hair between his fingers. Mike tapped his foot like he didn’t have all night.
“What?” Nicky asked.
“Photo for some promoter. They paid the bar tab.”
Nicky looked down at Devin who shrugged and said, “Sounds worth it.”
He made sure to have a good grip on her hand before following Mike through the rolling crowd. He felt hollow, having barely had time to remember how it felt to hold her. He’d almost done it. Fucking Mike, if he’d waited ten seconds they would have changed everything. All that nerve worked up for nothing and now he had to start over again.
Who says? he challenged himself.
They climbed the two steps up to VIP, past the nodding bouncer. All the guys were grouped near the far wall and cameras flashed, snapping candid photos. It was such a bustle with people trying to get clear of the picture that Nicky felt as good as invisible.
Devin dropped his hand so he could join his teammates posing. He only went two steps.
Nicky turned around, covered the space in a single stride and before he could psych himself out, leaned down and kissed Devin’s soft, surprised lips.