Nora tugged at the hem of her strapless silver cocktail dress - not nervous, just fidgeting. A waiter slitered by carrying a tray of canapes, followed by another with champagne flutes. Nora lifted one clear and sipped the bubbling sweetness. It did nothing to settle her stomach.
The hotel ballroom was full of people, laughter and voices. Groups congregated around tables and threw down bets. The Philadelphia Flyers Casino Night charity function was in full swing while Nora stood next to a fake potted fern and tried to blend into the leaves.
Should have worn green.
She could have also dispensed with the four inch stilettos and the smoky eye makeup, but if you were going to hell you might as well be dressed for a party.
“Okay, ready?” Emily sidled up, unconsciously rubbing her lips together for maximum shine. She’d just been to the bathroom for the second time in an hour. Nora tipped her champagne glass toward the crowd and followed Emily in.
“I hate these things,” Claude whispered to Danny in French as he turned from the table, having rolled craps.
“You only hate them because you’re the star now,” the older man laughed in his girlish voice.
Claude tugged at the collar of his shirt. Maybe Briere was right - he didn’t mind the event, didn’t mind meeting people. It was just so... casual. So uncontrolled. He preferred an autograph signing with a table in between and a line of people waiting. It moved them along. Claude’s natural shyness made him anxious when he had to entertain strangers.
“Come on, let’s get a drink.”
Danny smiled at people but didn’t stop until he reached the bar. There was one Flyer for every twenty or so fans and supporters who’d shelled out two hundred bucks to attend the soiree. The least they could do was be nice. He ordered two whiskeys and two waters.
“Maybe you’ll do better at blackjack.” Danny held one of the glasses... toward empty space. Claude had stopped a few steps short and was looking in the other direction.
“Did you see that girl?”
Danny peered around his friend but shook his head. Claude took the drink and walked away without another word.
“Rude,” Danny rolled his eyes.
“Yes, absolutely,” Nora nodded. She pressed the red straw of her second cocktail between her lips to keep from laughing. As promised, the Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was an armchair philosopher with a tenuous grasp on the English language and all the enthusiasm of a jumping bean. He was telling Nora about his son’s recent birthday party. He hired a clown and neither of his two kids had ever seen anything so bizarre.
“He made the animals from balloons! I love that. I want to learn that. Maybe this summer, I hire the clown and he teach whole family. The kids laugh and laugh, they love him.”
Bryzgalov’s wife arrived and steered him away with an apologetic look. Nora wanted to tell her it had been the highlight of the evening. Alone again, she went back to watching over Emily’s shoulder as she laid bets at the roulette table and tried to rub up against Scott Hartnell’s arm.
The wheel spun, the ball bounced and one or both of them hit the money. The whole table cheered, Scott gave Emily a congratulatory squeeze. Nora had to turn away.
She stepped back at the sound of the voice, but not before momentum carried her right into the man wielding it. The liquid in her glass sloshed dangerously and she quickly held it away from them, waiting for the drink to settle.
“I am so sorry.” The owner of the slightly accented voice reached out and took the glass from her hand, as if she might still lose her grip. He gently laid one hand on her arm to make sure.
“No, I’m sorry,” Nora composed herself. “I wasn’t looking.”
Claude was. He was headed right for her. He just hadn’t expected her to do the same.
“Please, let me get you another drink.” His hand still on her elbow, Claude used the moment to guide her in the direction of the bar - once the first step was accomplished, politeness dictated they continue.
Nora was slow on the uptake. So grateful not to have dumped her drink all over the sharp gray suit of the man she’s nearly bulldozed, she hadn’t realized who he was. She saw him now for the first time.
You’re kidding me.
They were the same height, thanks to the heels she wore. The dove gray suit was so much more... wow. She’d have expected him in that hideous navy blue plaid thing he wore all the time. This suit was very expensive, very tailored and still his arm bulged within the sleeve. His scruffy jaw set as he guided them between people and around obstacles. A few times he answered as someone called out hello. Nora realized he was trying to keep anyone from stopping them.
She also knew the glass he’d taken from her hand was nearly full. No need to replace it.
One end of the bar was mercifully empty and Claude parked them right at the mahogany edge. It had been maybe thirty seconds since she’d crashed into him. The bartender practically dropped his shaker in the rush to reach the Flyers’ star forward.
“What can I get for you?” The bartender looked at Giroux. He looked at Nora. She looked back at him and momentarily forgot to breathe.
“Uhh, um, a Stoli O and soda. Please.” She said without even seeing the bartender.
“‘Allo,” Claude smiled, a little surprised she was looking at him like she’d never seen him before. She was here. She had to know who he was, right? “I’m Claude.”
He took his hand from her elbow in order to shake. Only when it moved did Nora realize how warm his touch had been.
“Uh, Nora. I’m Nora,” she stuttered. “Hi.”
The first thing she noticed was he had his false tooth in. Only with a hockey player, she thought. The gap-toothed grin he sported on the ice was cleaned up to fit the suit. Without moving her eyes from his face, Nora noted that his build was surprisingly slender compared to the other players she’d seen around the ballroom. He had maybe thirty, forty pounds on her. And he was in fact ginger. Up close it was more of a rust color, caught between brown and blond.
A lot less Weasley than I expected.
“Nora.” He rolled the ‘r’ and she felt it go right down her spine.
I wasn’t going to talk to her.
It wasn’t something Claude usually did. He didn’t approach people cold. Danny was his wingman, or one of the other guys, or women approached him. Now that was more often the case. But when Nora had collided with him, Claude thought maybe he’d somehow made it happen just from wishing.
She had freckles on her nose. That’s what he saw as she blinked back, inches from his face and even closer to his chest, before she caught her balance and saved her drink. Her short brown hair had nothing on her brown eyes, which were wide and framed by thick lashes. It was hard to focus on her face with the bare, creamy skin of her shoulders just inches away. The silver dress he’d seen from across the room was in fact sparkling in the dimmed lighting.
Tall. She was so tall he risked a glance at her feet and was relieved to see high heels. Claude was plenty intimidated without her looking him straight in the eye all the time. He wasn’t a big guy, not like some of his teammates. Having a few inches over a woman made him feel strong.
But it usually didn’t make him forward, which is why he couldn’t believe he’d pulled her along to the bar like that.
Now he was openly staring at her: at the tiny beauty mark where her laugh line would crease, at the curve of dewy lip. It was as if she’d just licked them. He ached to do the same. The bartender arrived with her drink and fresh one of whatever Giroux had ordered last. A moment’s silence became five moments, then became awkward.
“I’m sorry, I, uh, sorry I ran into you,” she finally said.
“Not at all. It was my fault.”
“No really, I’m so clumsy,” she protested. Claude searched his mind for something, anything else to talk about before this got away from him.
“Are you having fun? Winning any bets?”
Nora laughed. It was a clear, lovely sound that made him blush at his own small triumph. A drink in one hand, he buried the other in his pocket to keep from touching her.
“I’m not much of a gambler. I just came to....”
Right on cue a tiny brunette nearly took them both down together. She stopped like a torpedo just short of blowing out a ship’s hull. Her shoes could have left skid marks on the carpet.
“Hi!” Emily said brightly. She looked wide-eyed at Giroux, but even more so at her friend. Claude thought that was odd. Emily didn’t wait to be introduced. “I’m Emily. I’m sure Nora mentioned me. Probably whining on about me dragging her to this thing and....”
Claude flicked his gaze up to meet Nora’s just as hint of shock crossed behind her expression.
Nora wanted to dig her stiletto heel into Emily’s foot, but knew that wouldn’t shut her up. Her friend was hyperactive on days that didn’t involve direct access to her favorite thing in the world: her hockey team. But she’d managed to shoot Nora right through the heart in her first sentence; that was some kind of marksmanship.
“You don’t like hockey?” he asked in that velvety voice. The accent was just a trace, begging her to lean in to hear it.
“What?!” Emily squealed. “Did you actually tell him that?”
“I, uh....” Nothing came.
“Nora is the Worlds. Biggest. Bruins Fan. I thought she was going to burn up like a vampire in the sun walking in here.” Emily went on, it didn’t get prettier. Nora barely heard her amid the wishing and praying for it to stop.
“Em, EM!” Finally she cut through her friend’s nervous monologue. “Why don’t you get a drink?”
“And Seguin this and Lucic... oh, oh! You’re right. That’s what I was doing before I saw you.”
In truth, the nearly empty glass in Emily’s hand was shaking just a little. She’d been a bundle of excitement all day and it had worn down to anxiety as the party neared. Emily was, after all, the Worlds. Biggest. Flyers fan. With a breath to steady herself, Emily headed to the bar.
Claude was still there, staring back at Nora. His eyes were some kind of hazel color impossible to decipher in the low light, only now they were crinkled at the corners like he was about to laugh.
Nora thought the floor might open and swallow her whole. The windsor knot in his tie was slightly crooked like he’d been pulling at it in discomfort. Like he couldn’t wait to take it off. Followed by that flawless jacket and the shirt underneath, which would involve a montage of slow-motion unbuttoning and....
“Yeah. Bruins.” She finally said.
He smiled. “Figures.”
Well at least she knows who I am.
That saved the awkward ‘I’m a multi-millionaire athlete phenom’ conversation. He’d had that a time or two. But this was entirely new, like a fresh sheet of ice that might be full of soft spots waiting to trip you up. Claude was about to ask what she was doing in the City of Brotherly Love when the emcee called everyone’s attention to a small stage at the front of the room and invited all the players to join him.
The room seemed to shrink as people moved toward the middle. The bar crowd even abandoned their posts and pressed in to see the check presentation. Claude took a tiny step, all the space between them, so her upper arm brushed his chest.
“Wait for me,” he said quietly, aware that curious ears were now closer than ever. His hand slipped across the small of her back, making just enough space for him to pass behind. Before stepping away he whispered, “I won’t tell Seguin.”
Claude made his way to the front, resisting the urge to look back and see if Nora bolted. The players gathered in front of the stage, some remarks were made and applause gathered. Flashbulbs popped as they held a giant check promising lots of money to a local children’s charity. This was the kind of public appearance Claude was good at - easy, uninvolved. Low pressure. He preferred to leave all that on the ice.
He fell into step next to Briere, shaking hands and smiling for a few photos with VIP donors and charity representatives. As a father of three, Danny was used to constant noise and attention. Claude had almost gotten used to it while living in Briere’s spare room. Now his own place seemed so quiet.
Claude couldn’t see over everyone’s heads. He hoped Nora would stay and he could steal away from the spotlight quickly, his obligations fulfilled. Danny sensed his unease.
“Go on, go ahead.” Danny double his enthusiasm for the people he was meeting and used his shoulder to hide Claude’s escape. One of two people called out ‘Giroux!’ as they’d been hoping for a picture. He didn’t stop.
Nora ran a hand through the thick layers of her short hair, pushing her long bangs back over her forehead. The charity leader speaker was telling a funny story and a few Flyers’ heads were visible over the crowd as they lined up in front of the podium. Emily wiggled into the space next to her.
“What the hell was that?!” she whispered sharply. The only charity case Emily cared about was Nora.
“What? You were busy trying to hump Hartnell’s leg and I nearly knocked Claude over try to get away from the sight.”
“Claude,” Emily made a sing-song voice and a stupid face. “First name basis?”
“This isn’t ESPN. I’m not calling him Giroux to his face. Or Gingeroux. Or G.” She shivered visibly.
“I thought you’d call him get-the-fuck-outta-here. In fact, I remember you saying that on the way over. Instead he’s staring at you like you’re a rack of ribs and he can’t wait to get sauce all over his face.”
Her hand came down in a quick slap to Emily’s arm. “Shut up!”
Emily just laughed evilly. “You like him!”
“He’s...,” Nora struggled for the right word to describe Claude, “better looking than I expected.”
Emily raised an eyebrow, scoffing. “Better looking. Right.. As in ‘you’d look better tied to my bed with a Tim Thomas jersey.’”
Nora’s protest died on her tongue. A dark pink flush rose up her neck so fast the heat threatened to make her faint. She dropped her face to hide it but Emily was shorter and it was only more obvious. “I was just surprised, that’s all. He’s so....”
“Back. He’s back.”
Nora’s head shot up to see Claude’s autumn-colored hair weaving through the room. The blush in her cheeks flared again. Emily grabbed Nora’s arm and gave her a stern look.
“Take a week’s worth of birth control and call me in the morning.”