It was the only time she knew like she’d rather have something other than a kiss from Nicky.
She could feel him thinking, feel the gears turning in his mind. The silence stretched out almost to discomfort; there was only one thing to talk about but no one wanted to say it first. Maybe, she worried, he had nothing else to say.
Eventually, he rolled over and snuggled his head under her arm. His voice was a mumble into the twisted sheets.
“I have to go to the rink.”
“Break-up day,” Devin said.
Nicky’s head shot up so quickly it made Devin jump. She nearly bit her tongue.
“I… I mean clean-out-your-locker-day!” she stuttered. “We call it Break-Up Day because it’s the last time we see you guys every season.”
“Oh.” Nicky’s face was pale.
Okay, then just fucking say something! But he didn’t. Instead he tromped around the bedroom getting dressed in jeans and a long-sleeve collared shirt of soft, dark green cotton. On his strapping frame it looked outdoorsy, the color of Christmas, and something about it all was very Scandanavian. Forget clean lines and minimalist design, Devin’s idea of Sweden was something very fresh and healthy.
And seriously gorgeous.
Nicky pulled a baseball cap backwards over his long hair – it was the way Devin always thought of him, though he hadn’t worn it that often since they’d met. But it was in ninety percent of the photos she’d ever seen. He caught her smiling, and did what Nickys do best – he blushed. Devin giggled and he jumped into the bed with her, catching the sheet taut and trapping her. She pretended to struggle.
“My God you’re heavy!”
Nicky lay right down on top of her like a beached whale. She whined pitifully, which made him laugh and only crushed her more. Their faces were so close together their noses touched.
As incredible as that was, it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“Love you too, Nicky.”
When he was gone, Devin dressed in the extra clothes she’d brought and drove right to Mel’s office. It wasn’t quite lunch but she barged right in.
At a cafe around the corner, armed with sandwiches and sodas, Devin steered Mel into a chair and sat down with a thump.
“Are you breaking up with me?” Mel asked, making puppy dog eyes.
“Everyone stop using that phrase! No one is breaking up!” Devin caught her breath and sighed. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Mel made a face like she was well aware that and kept chewing.
“But Nicky told me he loves me.”
She expected choking, maybe the spitting of a soda or the throwing of a tomato. But Mel just swallowed her food. “And you said duh.”
Devin gave herself a facepalm. “I’m sorry, I think you fail to appreciate the fact that a guy I’ve known for two weeks thinks he loves me!”
“But how is that possible?! He doesn’t know anything about me, he’s never seen me angry, my insane mother hasn’t tried to deconstruct his DNA to see if he has approved genetic traits for her progeny.”
Mel sipped from her straw. “Devin, he knows you. He is you. You two and your shy awkward turtle two-left-feet shit, it’s so cute I could gag. And besides, I’ve seen you fall in love with a song or a book or a sweater in less than a week.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Think of your favorite book ever. We both know it’s Pride and Prejudice because you’ve read it every six months for years. Why should that be any more permanent than the guy in your life? That gray cable knit sweater you have, the snuggly one? You’ve been wearing it every chance you get since college. It’s just clothes, but you’ve had it for years. So give Nicky the benefit of the doubt – he’s at least more interesting than a sweater. He’s going to be a long-term thing.”
“This is insane,” Devin protested, but her voice was softer.
“What did you tell him?”
She sighed. “That I love him too.”
Mel simply raised her eyebrows over an all-knowing face. “Duh.”
“How is it possible? And why do I feel like I’m going to throw up?”
Instead of answering, Mel lifted her soda can and looked meaningfully over the top. Then she started singing “Love Story” by Taylor Swift at the top of her lungs. Other diners turned. People’s conversations stopped. Devin scrambled to grab the makeshift microphone, as if it were actually projecting Mel’s voice, but she dissolved into giggles.
“Come on, Dev. You wanted a prince for your story, and you got one. Now he’ll row you away in his Viking ship and I’ll be stuck here by myself waiting for a care package of reindeer meat.”
Devin’s laugh petered out. “He, uh… he didn’t say anything about the summer.” She struggled to explain in a way that still painted Nicky in a good light – she was freaking out, but didn’t want Mel to do the same. Surely Nicky wouldn’t do this. She ended up saying it in a rush. “I don’t know if he’s staying here or leaving tonight or what is going on.”
Mel considered her sandwich for a moment. There was a tiny part of every girl’s heart that thought, no matter how great the guy, he could still get you. Could still do something heartless and pull the rug out from you, even if he loved you. That was the price of putting your heart on the line and it backfired all the time. But her friend seemed to consider the possibility and shake it off.
“Not Nicky,” Mel said.
Nicky looked around the almost empty locker room. Every time he left here for the summer, the taste of disappointment was caustic in his mouth. Superstition said you took everything, because a hundred reasons might keep you from coming back. The first thing he did was remove his nameplate, taking his name from a place it didn’t deserve to occupy anymore this year.
“Hey,” Mike mumbled. He looked worse for wear, unshaven with a knit cap pulled down very low. “Your girl wait up for you last night?”
Nicky clapped him on the shoulder as he passed. “Yeah, she was at my house.”
“You’re lucky man.” Mike sat down heavily as other people started to trickle in. “Going home to an empty place… thank God it was the middle of the night. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough today. Nice to have someone waiting for you.”
“I told her I love her.” Nicky just blurted it out, though his voice was low. He said the words more easily in a story than Mike would ever say them in his life. The defenseman’s dark head jerked up and he whistled – long and slow, the sound of a falling bomb.
“You think I am crazy?”
But Mike shook his head, smiling. “Nah, that’s great, man. I’m proud of you. You’ve known the girl two weeks and you’re turning down a lot of hot tail, but hey… more for me.” He stopped what he was doing and looked right at Nicky. “Really though, I can tell. Since whenever you started emailing with her, you’ve been different. And more awkward, which I didn’t think was possible. But you’re coming out of your shell, Nick. She’s good for you.”
Nicky ducked his head, blushing as furiously as he ever had. Mike didn’t think that way. Mike thought about bra sizes and twin sisters and notches on the bedpost. He certainly didn’t envy guys who were actively looking to give that up.
“What did she say?”
“She said she loves me too.”
“Yup,” Mike nodded. “Sounds about right. What did she say about the summer?”
This is why he came. Not for his stuff, not for the ritual although Nicky knew it was important to leave this season behind if he was going to move forward. The broken finger on his right hand throbbed – this was the first day there hadn’t been a trainer around to look at it. Nicky would have to do some things on his own this summer.
“I haven’t asked her yet.”
“Did you say anything at all about the summer?”
Nicky shook his head.
“Where did you leave her?”
Mike tilted his head, the way dogs do when you swear they can almost understand what you’re saying. “So you told a girl you love her then left her in your bed with no idea at all what’s going to happen tomorrow?”
With a groan, Nicky put his head in his hands. He’d been so worried about which summer to choose – go together, stay together – that he hasn’t considered the obvious. If he said nothing, maybe Devin thought they were doing nothing. At least not anything together.
“Shit,” he said.
Mike swiped an armload of to hair gel containers and junk off the locker shelf into his bag. “Well at least I know you still need me. Now go, fool.”
Nicky hauled up his bag, said goodbye to the guys in the room in case he didn’t see them again. Most wouldn’t leave DC for a few days and likely as not they’d be drinking together the next day. He hit the speed dial as he pulled out of the player’s parking lot.
“Hey. Where are you?”
“Home,” Devin said. He might have been imagining it, but she sounded sad. Or disappointed. Maybe that was the sound of her hating someone for playing with her emotions – he had no idea. He didn’t really know her well at all. But he knew he wanted to know her, and there was only one way to do that now.
“Be right there.”
He drove as quickly as the congested city streets would allow; an agonizing crawl. Intersections had so many pedestrians it seemed they must be boarding the Titanic around the corner. He hit every red light. And he kept thinking that if he’d given Devin a reason to doubt him, on the worst of days when she’d done so much for him, that he couldn’t fix it fast enough.
Finally he reached her neighborhood, did an illegal u-turn and begged his truck to suck in a breath and squeeze into a parking space one foot too short. He might never get out of it, but he might never need to. She opened on the first knock.
Nicky tipped her back and kissed her, like in a movie. It took a second, but she ran her arms around his neck and kissed him back. Her body relaxed and she became almost weightless. She parted her lips at his insistence, letting his tongue sweep into her mouth as if it could say all the things Nicky wanted to. But he couldn’t risk anything being lost in translation. So he very reluctantly let go of her mouth and held her face close.
“What do we do for the summer?”
The smile reached right up to her eyes. She pulled him into the house, toward the couch. But he didn’t want to be where he couldn’t hug all of her. Tugging one hand, he brought her back into his chest and held her there with brown us sparkling up.
“We stay here, or go to Sweden. You pick. Sweden is very nice,” he gave his hips a little shake and she laughed, “summer vacation…,” there were other reasons Sweden was nice, but he was kissing her again.
“Or here, if you want.”
“Don’t you have a training program for summer?”
“Yes, at home. But is only training, I can move it to DC. No problem.”
It was unfair of him to ask questions from so close, but he probably had no idea what his presence did to her – the wide shoulders, the huge arms and thick chest. Or those crooked front teeth and damned baby blue eyes. She could swear he was hypnotizing her.
“What about my job?”
Nicky stood very still. “This part is hard, Devin. If you want to come to Sweden, I pay for everything. My trip. Sweden is expensive, but no rent and I already have a car. Maybe your boss give you summer off? We can get Ovi to visit her.”
Devin pictured what Ovi would have to do to get her three months off and decided that it wasn’t worth it, she’d rather starve.
“Or if not, maybe you look for new job when we come back. The team helps all the time with this. It’s… not easy for you, I know. If you want to stay in DC we stay here, I like hot summertime.”
She thought of the hundred degree days with dense humidity, the burn of air conditioning that was the only relief. Sweating as you crossed the street or unloaded the car… “Yuck.”
“If we go, you keep apartment here with Mel. So she doesn’t have to move. And you have place to… come back to, if you want. You can always come back.” His eyes turned darker, almost stormy when he said it, like it was bad luck to discuss the escape plan. But two crazy weeks needed a safety net.
“If we stay in DC, I want you to live with me. Keep apartment too, that’s okay. But please I want to try.”
I’m going to die, she thought. He is like the white light at the end of the fairy tale tunnel. She appreciated his offer to stay in DC. He would do it, and not complain. Nicky was willing to alter his life for her – would she do the same?
“Let’s go to Sweden.”
Nicky scooped her up and spun her around, crushing her with kisses. Devin squealed in delight. This is nuts! People are committed for less than this!
But who cares?
Devin loved her life, but a job was just a job. Her friends would be here in September. She’d gone away or home every summer during college and it had not changed her life. Kids out of college went backpacking around Europe all the time, right? She’d figure out the coming back when it was time. Going away was an adventure, and Nicky was so excited he looked fit to burst. Devin wanted to make him that happy all the time.
“Thank you, Devin.”
She gave him a big sloppy kiss and dragged him toward the bedroom. She stopped in front of the closet but he reminded her he was much stronger and kept on moving. Then she was underneath him on the bed, giggling.
“What do I bring?”
Nicky looked around like he couldn’t see anything he liked. “What you wear now is nice.”
He twisted to one side, lifting his chest while holding her down emphatically with his hips and everything else he was packing. His soft lips pressed to her neck, just below her ear. She hooked one leg over his, locking them together. Then he started pulling off her shirt.
“What are you doing?” she pretended to protest. He got the top off, balled it up in one big hand and tossed it right into her purse.
The first period had been an even fight. In the second, the Caps hit their stride and started clicking - they got three goals from three guys and took a 3-2 lead. Now Stamkos had tied the game just five minutes into the third.
And twenty five seconds later, Ryan Malone fired another bullet right on the mark.
“Shit,” Devin swore under her breath. Things had been going so well... but all at once they’d blown a tire. Even a tiny lead felt huge when it was gone. Then Tampa Bay dug their teeth in and held on.
“God damned one-three-one!” Mel threw herself back onto the couch during a commercial break. Devin agreed. The Caps couldn’t get an inch of space in the offensive zone, couldn’t hold onto the puck long enough to complete a pass. Mel’s cursing got more creative as the clock wore on.
“Mother fucking beach-combing shitface!” she threw a piece of pizza crust at the screen. But her invectives were powerless and fourteen minutes spiraled right down the drain.
Mel was face down on the floor in front of the television. Brooks had given her a game jersey and it pooled around her like blood. Devin tipped over till her head was resting on a throw pillow. She felt like she’d been run over by a truck.
“The Capitals now face a huge deficit against a Lightning team that has won seven games in a row.”
“Uugggghhhh,” Mel moaned. “We fucking know, you assholes!”
They lay like dead bodies while the commentators slathered all over the Lightning’s odd defensive setup and the Caps’ inability to solve it. Or the Pens’. They all but sermonized the next round opponent falling prey to it, as if this series were already over. Mel levered one arm up high enough to switch off the TV.
Devin stared at the ceiling. Her stomach felt empty despite the beer and veggie supreme they’d eaten. Every time they’d shown Nicky on screen, even just skating past, her heart lurched. By the first intermission she was sure medical attention would be necessary. But it hadn’t been a great game for him, or really for anyone, and the network focused more on guys like Ovi and Semin struggling. By the end it seemed ages since she’d seen his face.
Eventually Mel rolled onto her side. “What are you going to do?”
“What are my options? Call in a bomb threat so game four gets delayed long enough for you stuff St. Louis is your purse and head for Cuba?”
“I meant about the summer.”
Devin sighed. “I have no idea.”
That was a lie. She had plenty of ideas. She just didn’t know which ones might be shared by the man in question. It might feel like things were perfect but they had only know each other a week. You didn’t cancel summer over a week. You didn’t revamp a training program and stay in the States for a girl who recommended good restaurants. You didn’t quit your job and move to Sweden just because a guy blushed before he kissed you.
But she would. Of course she would. If only he would ask.
Devin moved like a zombie, assuming zombies get ready for bed. She lay in the dark like she’d laid on the couch - lifeless, eyes open but seeing nothing. Sometime around eleven o’clock, her phone rang.
“Hey,” she said without looking at the screen.
“Hi.” His voice was so small. Her heart all but broke.
“If we were home I would come over now. Here there is only Mike for hugging and he is not so pretty as you.” Nicky laughed weakly and Devin knew the strain of making even a little joke at a time like this. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Nicky.”
They talked for a little while - Devin gave him some new names to call the Lightning, courtesy of Mel’s potty mouth. She could tell he was as tired as he was frustrated and disappointed. They just couldn’t catch a break.
“You’ll win tomorrow,” she said. ____
Nicky lay in bed, Mike already snoring across the room. He didn’t want to talk about the game but his options were limited. It was either think about losing or about how much he missed Devin.
It was visceral, and that made it worse. She’d been a huge, sudden presence in his life since the first email, but the physical aspect of having her near had quadrupled his attention. He was quite literally obsessed with her and for the first time since being overwhelmed by her arrival, they were apart.
She told Nicky the Caps would win tomorrow. It made him smile for the first time since Stamkos tied the game.
“I hope so.”
“Good night, Nicky. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Either way, they were going home tomorrow. It could be the last time he went home from an away game this season. And for the first time ever, Nicky was going home to someone.
He slept like a rock and woke to blankets that had barely been moved. Mike was already up and they headed to the team meeting over breakfast in one of the hotel ballrooms. There was still really nothing to say except “Win.” But it might be the last chance Bourdreau got to tell them that.
“You guys have been in these games for forty fucking minutes. Figure out how to make that last. Because they are not winning. They are not getting lucky bounces and fluke shots. They are fucking beating us. The only way to win is to play better and you know how to do that. But you’ve gotta fucking do it tonight.”
After breakfast, Nicky went for a walk. Grateful that he’d packed a pair of shorts, Nicky walked the few blocks to the beach and wandered around some of the shops. As it had in New York, his mind drifted to Devin. He hadn’t even given her the NYU photo album yet, nor had he worn the shirt he’d bought himself. These stores were full of bikinis and sunscreen they had no need for yet in DC. But summer would be come finally, and be brutal. In a store decorated like a mermaid’s cave, Nicky picked out a bright yellow sundress with black trim he thought would look fantastic against her tanned skin, when she got a tan.
What am I going to do?
If he had a goal for every time he’d asked himself that, they wouldn’t facing elimination. From the first time he saw Devin he knew his summer would change.
His plans weren’t really plans at all, they were just what he’d always done. He went home to Sweden, trained for the coming season, hung out with his family and friends. None of the guys stayed in DC, they all had people and places to go back to. Their families - or girlfriends if they had them - went with. Some of the families stayed put in Canada for the winter, with Dad just visiting over the summer. It wasn’t ideal, but whose life ever was? At least no one ever worried where their next meal was coming from.
The sand was hot in the afternoon sun and felt luxurious between his bare toes as he walked toward the tide line. He couldn’t stay out long; aside from needing a nap, he needed sunblock. But he left footprints in the wet sand at the water’s edge for a while.
The easiest solution would be for Nicky to stay in DC. He was already set up, and his training program could be moved. The only problem was that he didn’t really no anyone who didn’t play hockey. And when they were all gone, he would only have Devin. He’d either be lonely or smother her, probably both. His initial shyness around new people would see to that.
He could travel back and forth. But a single hockey season contained a lifetime worth of traveling and Nicky knew it would quickly wear thin.
Or Devin could go to Sweden with him. His mom would have a heart attack with joy, then spend months pestering him about getting married. His grandparents would have to be lied too - there’s no way they could know Nicky was living with a girl. And they would of course live together, which meant he’d have to find a place. He’d been renting for the last few years, lacking the energy to spend his precious summers house-hunting. Maybe they could just rent something bigger, maybe Devin loved to shop for real estate.
Maybe we’ll win tonight. How about that for a fantasy?
His friends and family would love her. Sweden was beautiful and he was proud of his home country. But Devin would, in turn, give up everything. She could keep her apartment, Nicky would gladly cover the rent, but what would be the point? If they lived together in Sweden they weren’t coming back in September to live apart. And her job would have to go. The WAGs always did.
Nicky wanted her enough to make it work. But it seemed like everything had to work in his favor. There’d have to be a pretty big prize to make it worth her while. ____
“I’m going to throw up.”
Devin insisted on sitting on the floor for the game. The night before she’d been on the couch and they’d lost. Mel got the drift and switched. They even traded clothes so as not to retain any negative injury - Devin wore Brooks’ jersey, the sleeves balled into her fists.
At first, it wasn’t bad. Twenty solid minutes took them to the locker room tied at one. Devin’s heart rate was manageable, though she did shred an entire copy of The Washington Post into confetti. Her fingers were black with the ink.
The Caps played a solid second, but ended up down by a goal. It just isn’t fair, Devin wanted to scream. They played well and they were still losing. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Between their efforts and her wishing, something should be going right. But she was a long way from giving up. In the first few games, the Caps had really fallen apart after forty minutes and the Lightning had just picked up the pieces. Everyone held their breath to see what would happen tonight.
But the story was the same. The Lightning scored just five minutes in. For one of the most offensively talented teams in the League, a 2 goal deficit seemed insurmountable. They started getting ragged on the edges. Some players, including Nicky, were ineffective at every turn. Others like Ovi were everywhere, doing to much, trying to force things. Both tactics failed. The Lightning got another, the Caps couldn’t come back and the Bolts poured onto the ice to celebrate their series victory.
Devin hadn’t moved in almost an hour. Even Carlson’s goal late in the third hadn’t roused her. She focused all her energy on believing and supporting, but by then she knew the curtain had come down.
“Kill me. Please just let me die,” Mel mumbled, curled into the fetal position.
Devin wanted to crawl under the rug. She wanted to pull it over her head, block the light, and let walk all over her. One foot was asleep and those pins and needles were the only thing she felt at all.
The teams lined up for the handshake, reminding Devin of when the Penguins had not at the Winter Classic. Even in defeat her boys were still classy. But the looks on their faces told a different story - they were ruined. Devastated. They’d been rolled over by the Tampa Bay Express. Lives on the line and they’d barely even managed to fight back. The camera followed Ovi, the Neuvy, then Boudreau. It panned out and caught Mike, who hadn’t played due to hip injury, wearing his Eeyore face with a dark suit and bringing up the rear. When he finished the line, he circled toward a Caps jersey: Nicky.
Devin’s breath caught. It was hardly a moment of TV time but Nicky’s expression broke her heart. He looked in that second like his heart was broken.
She got up. Moving with purpose for the first time in days, Devin threw some clothes into a bag and kissed Mel’s forehead. Then she drove to Nicky’s house and let herself in. She stripped off her clothes, pulled a clean t-shirt from his drawer and got into his bed like she owned the place. It would be hours before he was home, but she’d be right there. ____
The silence of the car engulfed him. It had been quiet on the plane, though everyone was awake, as the entire team started out the window in shock. They’d barely said goodbye to each other, knowing that a day or two would give them back their words. Nicky slid behind the wheel because he couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
It was after one in the morning, Devin would be sleeping. He didn’t know what he was going to say anyway, now that the time had come, so he just hoped her dreams were better than reality and left her alone till morning. Until he saw her car in his driveway.
There was nothing left. The season had run him over, backed up and done it again more times than he could count. Playing hockey was like being in an abusive relationship - it beat you and degraded you and still you came back every day, asking for it’s prize. Somewhere beyond all that Nicky found the energy to run up the stairs.
His suit littered his path through the house. The bedroom door was ajar, and he leaned an elbow against the jamb. She was fast asleep on his side of the bed, wearing one of his t-shirts. Her hair was a twisted mess - she’d obviously been tossing and turning. Nicky shed his socks and t-shirt and climbed right in next to her.
He hadn’t intended to wake her. But his 200-plus pound frame was hard to ignore. He slid one arm under her, turned her toward him and reached around her back until he was holding her as close as possible. She half-woke, moving with him, and blinked her eyes open.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered as the first tear fell.
Nicky pulled her right up onto his chest. Her body shook with tiny sobs and he couldn’t help when a tear rolled from his own eye. A million emotions ran though his heart about the season, but one stood alone.
“I love you,” he said.
Insane. Obvious. True. It was all of those things and more. The second the words were off his lips he felt a tiny bit better.
“You’re crazy,” Devin answered, lifting her head to see him. “And I love you too.”
Those were the last words they shared that night. Nicky kissed the wet tracks her tears had left, made sure she was comfortable in his arms and fell asleep like he’d been knocked out.
He woke to Devin moving. Her back was still to his chest but she was stretching toward the bedside table. Then she was opening her phone.
“Hey,” she whispered, thinking Nicky was still sleeping. “I... yeah. I can’t. Thanks.”
She was back in sleeping position before he spoke. “Okay?”
“I’m not going to work.”
Nicky knew that he’d dropped the L-bomb the night before. Devin had seemed like the only thing in his life that was working right and he wanted to be sure she knew how important she was. And now, she was putting him before herself. Everyone loved a day off work, but this was something different. It was more than crazy. But in the early hours of the morning after, it was still true.
“I love you,” he said.
Devin rolled onto her back, looking up at him with those deep brown eyes, and gave him the full wattage of her brilliant smile.
“I love you, Nicky.”
If ever a moment were perfect, that was it. The opening was right there for him to ask her anything and get the answer he wanted. Come with me. Stay with me. Go with me. Whatever was going to happen next was happening now, all he had to do was tell her.
He kissed her instead. It was the only time he would ever think that sharing a kiss with Devin was not quite what he meant to do. __
"Ready?" Nicky asked. Devin smiled - it was that or throw up.
How does he do it? Nicky was already in the zone for game one vs Tampa Bay. His adorable little serious face was hard to take with his slightly crooked teeth and baby face. She wanted to squeeze him and kiss him and tell him everything would be okay. But the brick-sized knot in her stomach said otherwise.
It was five o'clock on game day. She'd left work early and come by the locker room. In a little hallway alcove, Nicky kissed her quickly.
"I'm glad you are here."
Her ankles melted like butter. Good thing he was holding her up. Devin kissed him back, bit her lip and waved goodbye. As she turned to leave, Mike rounded the corner and crashed right into her.
"Oh, hey. Sorry Dev. You look great."
She was wearing the same jeans and Backstrom t-shirt as the other day, nothing special, but the compliment made her heart squeeze.
Please please please, she pleaded silently to no one.
She hugged Mike hard, and without hesitation he returned the strong grip. There was a lot on the line and no one needed to say it.
"Luck!" she said, practically running away.
Four hours and three beers later, Devin and Mel sat as quietly as the rest of the Verizon Center crowd. After a deafening roar that threatened to collapse the building and some back-and-forth scoring, the Caps fell apart in the third. TB was up by one but it might have been ten for how poorly the Caps were playing. When the buzzer finally sounded, all she felt was relief.
She and Mel headed home. Devin was desperate to console Nicky but doubted her ability to be what he needed after a game like that. She didn't know him well enough to help and didn't want to do the wrong thing. But she wasn't home an hour when the phone rang.
"Can I come over?"
"Of course!" Devin's voice cracked like she might cry.
He knocked on the door twenty minutes later and Devin dragged him right to her room, onto the bed and wrapped herself around him. Nicky sagged into her arms like he weighed a hundred extra pounds.
I can't do this, she suddenly thought.
Her heart pounded with frustration and ached with fear. It was just one game. She couldn't handle a whole series - forget a whole season! - of this. Nicky rolled his face into her neck. He had not played well.
From her twisted position, Devin unlaced his tie and and peeled off his jacket. His baseball cap hit the wall with a thwack. Dress shirt buttons were quick in her hands and within moments he was in shorts and a t-shirt, Devin standing over him. Then she undressed to match and pulled the comforter around them. They lay awake but not talking, curled up together, for a long time. Eventually she drifted off to sleep. ____
Nicky knew sleep wouldn’t come. It never did after bad games, even when he left everything he had on the ice. Being awake was a punishment and the darkness would not take it away.
Devin slumbered and Nicky never moved. He held her like she was made of spun sugar, just sweetness and air, something that couldn’t possibly stand up to the terrible conditions of everyday life. A treasure to be admired but one you surely couldn’t touch.
There would be more of this, he knew. Even if they won, even if they went all the way - well, he never let himself think about that. Dream, yes, and maybe daydream in the off season. But during the run, thoughts about the Cup were as off-limits as touching it. You had to get it first. But before that could happen, bad games and defeats, anxiety and terror would be monsters under their bed.
Their bed. He hadn’t spent a night away from her since they met and ideally, he never would. But Nicky was a realist. And Devin’s reaction to today’s game had told him the truth - she really cared. If not about him just yet, then about the game. She understood. And people near the boards always got hit hardest.
A few nights before he’d lost control and been so aggressive with Devin, been so demanding and forceful. He’d felt strong. Now he felt as tired as he ever had, eighty seven games deep with only more work to be done. And still sleep would not come.
She turned, burrowing closer to him. He brushed hair from her forehead and settled into a new position to wait for morning.
At some point Nicky must have fallen asleep, because he woke in an empty bed.
Devin’s side was cold and the shorts she’d been wearing were tossed on top of the sheets. The clock said he had two hours before a practice that would be more like a trip to the principal’s office. He lay there, considering any manner of excuse not to go, until Devin came back. A rep Caps hoodie he’d never seen before was zipped around her chest.
“You know I get stuff for free.”
She chucked her sneakers and climbed onto the bed, offering him a bagel with cream cheese from a paper bag. “Brooks bought it. Well, Mel did, but if he didn’t report his wallet stolen then she had permission.”
“I can get for you, anything you want.” Devin leaned up onto her knees and he stopped chewing so she could kiss his lips. “I was cold. If you’d been there, I would have just asked for a hug.”
He watched her get ready for work, pulling on slacks and a sweater, slipping into high heels. He knew the guys in her office must be in love, and they didn’t even know what her lacy thong looked like underneath. As she brushed her hair, Nicky hoped she could be stronger than he was. Shyness had been his problem, now weakness would take its place.
She presented herself for approval, Nicky applauded and started to get up. “You can stay, if you want. Just lock the door when you leave.”
He blinked at her like he’d forgotten English.
“You’re almost to Verizon, why go all the way home?” she asked.
It was true, he didn’t need to. Except to kill time, which he’d do by watching TV or surfing the internet, both of which he could easily do at Devin’s. But he’d be alone in her space. Was that weird? She didn’t seem to think so.
“Is that okay?”
Devin put the last of her things into her purse. “If you steal anything, I’ll just buy a new one with Brooks’ credit card.” ____
Devin kissed Nicky goodbye at the front door like they were on Leave it to Beaver, only the roles were reversed. She had woken a few times in the night to him tossing and turning - even when he slept it was poorly. Maybe he’d take an extra hour and face practice with some strength.
Maybe not, she knew. He’d taken the loss about as hard as she’d expected, but it was still a lot to handle. You could see a car accident, even just a fender bender, and drive away. It was different when you felt the impact.
It left her feeling useless. Nicky had asked to come over, so he craved something but Devin didn’t know what. He hadn’t slept, hadn’t felt better - she’d clearly failed. Knowing the practice would be rough, she didn’t want to ask any more from him by making plans for that night. But they had yet to spend a night apart. So she left him at her apartment, hoping that would make him want to come back.
“So...,” Bryan said as she came in.
Devin just put her head down on her desk and prayed for five o’clock.
It was the first day that no one mentioned Nicky to her. No one made a joke or a kissing noise. Just yesterday, Devin had wished they’d get over it already. Today she wished for it back. When the end of the day finally rolled around and she hadn’t heard from Nicky, Devin wasn’t surprised to find Mel on the couch in her sweats.
“Well that sucked,” her friend pronounced. Mel looked like her normal self. Brooks must have kept his live bites under her clothes. “Guess it’s girls’ night in.”
Over take out and a bottle of wine, Devin became more intimately acquainted with Brooks than with some guys she’d actually had sex with herself. Mel spared no details, good or bad, about what had apparently been a three day lock down at his condo. They had ordered groceries and condoms from Safeway delivery.
“And I swear to God, Dev, he is ready to go every twenty minutes. If you could plug your phone into him your battery would never die. And he likes to talk. Some of the things he says would have Nicky making the sign of the cross.”
Devin smiled over a bite of Thai food. “Well, Nicky is not all that vanilla,” and she told Mel about being held off the floor inside the door and nailed to the wall like a picture. Mel nearly choked.
“Stop! You’re ruining my image of him! Tell me he cried after, or asked you to adopt a manatee or something.”
“He, uh... he told the press I was his girlfriend.” Devin expected a shriek from Mel, maybe some jumping, but no. Mel just rolled her eyes.
“Ugh, you married people are so gross.”
A few hundred x-rated details later, Devin hauled herself upstairs. Nicky hadn’t called. She didn’t want to disturb him. But she had tickets, and her Backstrom t-shirt was ready to go.
I can go one night without him, she told herself. But an hour later she was still awake when her phone rang.
“I can’t sleep,” he said in a small voice.
Nicky sighed. “Come let me in?” ____
Devin got downstairs so quickly that Nicky checked for a fireman’s pole. She threw open the door wearing just a green t-shirt and white panties. His sweatshirt and duffel bag made him feel inflated as she hugged him so hard her arms popped. He quickly ditched his heavy shoes to avoid making noise.
“Are you allowed to be here?” Devin whispered.
“Bruce can’t hear you,” Nicky whispered back, already feeling better for seeing her face. And her underwear. She slapped his arm.
“Fine! Get in trouble!”
He pulled her in for another hug. “Curfew is eleven. I have ten minutes to be in bed.”
“It doesn’t matter whose bed?
Upstairs, a floorboard creaked. They both froze.
“No sex before games!” Mel shouted.
With minutes to spare, Nicky had his eyes closed in a dark room with the girl of his dreams tucked under one arm. She wore pants just in case.
Practice had been just a team meeting. Some things had to be said out loud, though everyone knew them. Thankfully their coach was a no-bullshit kind of guy. He read them the riot act and sent them away.
Nicky had paced his house for an hour, then the supermarket for nearly another hour. A light workout did nothing to calm him, but he needed to conserve energy. So he went to a movie, didn’t bother to follow it, and went home all while Devin was still at work.
She’d seen him low last night. When she didn’t call, he worried she must think less of him. He wanted her to think he could handle it so he didn’t call either. During daylight it had been manageable but once night fell he started going stir crazy. Thinking too much about the game was a bad formula but it was the only other place his mind would go. So he gave up.
It’s late. You didn’t invite me. I’m really scared. Very manly, Nicky thought. But judging by the reception, Devin was just plain old happy to see him. And mercifully, sleep came quickly that night.
In the morning, he snuggled as much as he dared without getting too riled up. No sex before games definitely meant the morning of. Devin understood. But when it was time for him to leave, she kneeled on the bed and held his face, kissing him as hard as she could.
“Good luck,” she said, squeezing his non-broken hand tightly.
“See you tonight.” Because either way he knew he’d need to. ____
Devin stared at her hands.
The Caps had been down almost the whole third period. When Ovi scored with just over a minute left, Devin’s knees actually buckled. She’d barely been able to stand and cheer. But just six minutes into the overtime, Lecavalier beat Neuvy with the game-winner.
“I’m never getting laid again,” Mel said. She tried to smile but it wouldn’t come. The arena was eerily silent at 18,000 shocked people filed slowly outside. Devin never turned her head.
The silver key in her palm shone under the bright lights. It had been delivered by a staffer, right to her seat during the first period.
See you tonight. Nicky
Even his writing looked Swedish.
Devin went home with Mel, got her car and some clothes, and drove herself to Nicky’s. It was the first time she’d gone there alone. She flipped on the living room light and immediately saw a single hot pink daisy in a vase on the bar. Leaning against the base was a note: Be home soon.
When he’d written that, he thought they’d win. When he’d left her the key, bought her a flower, he hoped to be taking a tied series to Tampa. Now that wasn’t true and it twisted Devin’s heart.
She flitted around nervously under she heard his car in the drive, but his place was bigger and she didn’t make it to the door first. His overcoat was open, his hat pulled down so that blond hair showed only along his neck. She waited for him to close the door.
“Sorry,” she said.
Nicky walked right into her arms and knew that if he could do that every time they lost he’d have a better life.
Truthfully he wanted to cry. Game one had been awful but tonight had been so even. They could have won. But at the end of the night it didn’t matter how close you’d come. Tomorrow they would leave to face the hottest team in hockey on home ice.
He made a couple of turkey sandwiches and Devin sliced some apples. They didn’t talk much, just sat close together on the couch and munched, sharing the last glass of milk in the house. Then Nicky watched her brush her teeth and from where he lay against the pillows.
“Want to come to Florida?” he asked as she lifted her side of the blanket.
Devin looked at him for a moment, her lips pursed in a small half-frown. She shook her head no. He made a similar face and nodded.
“Be here when I get back?”
To that, she smiled. ____
Nicky thought he might never wake up early again. His body, his brain and definitely below his waist wanted to stay in bed with Devin forever. Feeling sluggish and sore, he still climbed on top of her half-sleep and woke her up the old-fashioned way.
“I thought you were supposed to be nice,” she whined as he kissed his way down her neck.
“I can be very nice.”
She laughed. Sometimes when he talked she swore she heard Mike’s voice.
They took their time. More than once they paused to catch their breath, nowhere to go with all day to get there. Nicky took shelter in her body, in the way her tight squeeze drove everything else from his mind. He escaped into her. Devin basked in the way Nicky was all she could take, all she could want. It overwhelmed her to feel him move inside. When they were slow and easy with each other, she could literally forget everything.
He liked it best when she came this way, when she shuddered in his arms and gasped at the wave of pleasure he pushed onto her shore. Her deep brown eyes never left his as he went over too, moaning softly but without hesitation, letting her know how good it felt to be him.
“I will miss you,” he said after, her head on his chest.
“I’ll miss you too. It’s only three days.”
They would play back to back games, then return home very late the last night. Win or lose it would be the same amount of time before they saw each other again.
“You can stay here if you like,” he offered. The key was hers to keep.
“Maybe. But my bed smells like you too.”
Nicky kissed her for a long time before surrendering to the process of the day. He tried to memorize exactly what it was like so he could replay how it felt to be congratulated or comforted. One of the two would be very important.
Please don’t let this end, he thought, meaning everything. ____