The only Nora was sure of: that she wanted to kiss Claude again. Now. So when he brought his face close to hers, those hazel eyes soft with worry, she just bit her lip and nodded.
It wasn’t like her to be quiet, or to resist urges. But it wasn’t like her to be making out with someone who wore an orange sweater for a living, so a lot of things were out the window. Claude had left a large bill on the restaurant table and they’d left without finishing their drinks. Now the elevator door opened just in time to prevent another kiss.
They stepped off to find the lobby mostly empty, the bulk of the party guests still inside the ballroom. Only a small group of women were coming in from outside, slipping cigarettes back into their purses. Claude’s hand tightened around Nora’s.
“Ugh.” He stopped but they had already been seen by the four women with salon hair in various high end cocktail dresses. He turned Nora aside, as if to physically protect her.
“Wives and girlfriends.” Quick glance over his shoulder. “And not the nice ones.”
Nora’s heart sank. You weren’t a lifelong female hockey fan without know that the players wives and girlfriends were an out-of-reach sorority that resembled the Desperate Housewives of Canada. Or at least that was the assumption. These women looked normal enough, though Nora could tell from a distance that each of them was carrying a bag worth more than her car.
They were watching, rather unapologetically, as Claude and Nora slunk off the hotel elevator in the middle of a mandatory team event. His tie was loose, his collar open. Nora tried to remember if Claude’s hands had been in her hair while they kissed. She glanced at him - his hair always looked like bed head.
It could only have been worse if her Boston friends, the crazy ones like Caroline, had spotted her doing the walk of shame. She’d be branded with a big red P to wear on her chest.
The plan had been for her to wait in the lobby while he said a quick goodbye to whomever he needed. Nora wanted a moment to get her thoughts together before he came back anyway... they were obviously leaving together, but for where? And for what?
Now his fingers were twisted tightly between hers.
“They’re waiting to see if I leave you here.”
Claude knew if he left, the WAGs would come over to make fake nice with Nora and dig for gossip. As it was, the story would be team-wide before practice in the morning. Not that his teammates cared if he pulled a hot girl and disappeared for ten minutes of misconduct. They’d be impressed. But outside the locker room was like the moat surrounding a castle: everything had a big mouth and sharp teeth.
It would be easier if Nora came inside. Four WAGs vs. two hundred fans and strangers - no contest. But he wasn’t sure he could ask that yet.
Nora looked past him. Her eyes were steady, as if judging an enemy’s battle strategy. A strand of unruly hair curled out behind her ear - Claude had been the one to shake it loose. His hand twitched to brush it back into place. But he wouldn’t be able to stop there.
He wasn’t sure what he’d tell his coach, the management, or Danny. Well Danny knew. And, “I’m leaving early with a goddess in a short dress” was not exactly breaking news around the team. But he still had to tell someone.
“I’ll go with you,” Nora adjusted her hand in his and squared her shoulders. “Is that okay?”
He almost kissed her in front of everyone.
It took Nora a single, unsteady moment to decide. Claude’s concern made her worry. But when she looked back at the WAGs, all she saw were women who had probably been just like her once. Maybe they were cool. Maybe they were worried for Claude, that he’d get taken by some psycho goldigger, or maybe they were psycho goldiggers. Maybe they wanted Claude for themselves. Whatever else they were, there were one thing.
Flyers fans. And she’d be damned before they made her feel uncomfortable.
Claude held her hand and walked right through the door. People turned, areas of crowd parted to let him pass, voices called out hello. Their eyes went from Claude’s face, down his arm to the hand in his, then up to Bridget. Some of the glances were surprised, or challenging, most were approving. It was mostly guys.
Claude had thought about ldropping her hand - he didn’t want to make her a spectacle or a target. But once they were inside he couldn’t make himself let go. That slight current of warm electricity was too good to give up.
“Hey, Danny,” he said in English. “This is Nora.”
To her credit, Nora smiled. Claude knew there was a part of her that wanted to punch every member of his team in the jaw, and he liked to watch her fight it.
“Pleasure,” Briere said, giving Nora a very genuine smile. She nearly rolled her eyes.
I will not be liking two Flyers in one night, buddy.
“You two leaving?”
Claude made a brief excuse about a late dinner that no one believed. Danny went with them toward a few other suits to say goodbye. His presence somehow made Nora feel more legitimate, like she’d maybe been dating Claude and met his friends before tonight. This time she really did roll her eyes.
Now I’m going to have to thank him!
There was only one stop left to make. Danny gave Nora a nod of encouragement, knowing he was being a wise-ass.
“Coach, this is Nora,” Claude said. “We we’re going to grab a late dinner if it’s alright with you.”
Peter Laviolette looked pointedly at Claude’s loose tie, then gave Nora a once-over glance, from their clasped hands to her stiletto heels, like he’d seen it all before. She bristled a little.
“I haven’t found any good Italian food since I moved from Boston,” she said through a perfect smile. “Claude thinks he has, but we’ll see.”
Laviolette raised his eyebrows. “Boston, eh?”
“My favorite was a little place right by the Garden. Oh, sorry, TD Banknorth,” she all but winked. “It’s tough to replace your favorites.”
Everyone held their breath a beat, then Laviolette laughed. He clapped a hand over Claude’s shoulder, sending him away at the same time.
“Good luck with that one!” he called after them.
They were still laughing when the tumbled out of the crowd, landing in front of the same coat check girl who’d given Nora a snotty look earlier in the evening. Now that she really was leaving with Claude, she just smiled back like the cat who’d gotten the cream. Danny turned in his ticket too.
“If you can leave, so can I.” He helped Nora into her long winter dress coat while Claude gave the bratty girl an absurd tip. “I hope to see you again, Nora.”
She hoped her smile was enigmatic. Really she hoped to see him again too, because that would mean this was more than just tonight. But counting on that would make her a fool among the flowers.
I hope to see more of a Flyer, she thought. The irony would be bitter if she didn’t see him again.
Danny leaned in conspiratorially. “Knowing G, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Nora’s eyes went wide. So much for being cool. Danny gave her a grin, slapped Claude on the back and disappeared.
God damn it, that’s two Flyers!
It wasn’t until Claude gave his ticket to the valet that Nora wondered if Emily was still inside. Emily probably had a spidey-sense to tell her when one of her friends was disappearing into the night with a member of her favorite hockey team. Nora quickly texted her.
Nora: Still here? I’m leaving. With G.
Claude discreetly pretended not to try to read over her shoulder.
Emily: Now?!?! Where’d you go before?
Nora: Upstairs bar.
Emily: A minibar that is also upstairs is not the upstairs bar, slut.
Nora laughed out loud. Claude was so busy staring a hole into the middle distance that she just handed him the phone. He blushed to the tips of his ears and Nora had the urge to run her fingertip over the delicate curve.
The valet pulled around and held the passenger door of a gray Camaro open for Nora. She was barely outside long enough to register the damp winter cold before the blasting heat of the car welcomed her.
“Not the ride I was expecting,” she admitted, admiring the American-made muscle car. It wasn’t hard to imagine the top of the line version costing as much as a BMW, but it seemed less flashy.
“I always wanted one, since I was a kid.” Claude ran his hand over the leather steering wheel cover with a degree of reverence. “If you had this car where I grew up, you were the coolest guy in town.”
“Get all the girls?” she asked.
“Any one you wanted.” He fought a smile.
Nora leaned back and slid down into the leather seat, letting it mold against her. There was plenty of room to stretch out her legs below the curved, space-age dashboard. It was a sexy machine.
“And now that you have it, you don’t even need it.”
Claude waited for Nora to ask where they were going, but she didn’t. She stretched out against the low-slung, ergonomic passenger seat like she might just recline it all the way back till she was laying down. If that happened he’d pull off the road, no question. But despite a single, incredible, almost desperate kiss, Claude didn’t think Nora was that kind of girl.
I’d be okay with it, if she were, he assured the voices in his head.
He drove toward Old Town Philly, where he lived and was more familiar with the bars and restaurants. It was barely ten o’clock. He wondered if the the next kiss he’d get would be goodnight, and if he could wait that long. There was a spot open at the curb just before the destination he had in mind. He jumped out of the car quickly to go around the other side.
“Such manners for a Philadelphia boy,” Nora said as he helped her from the car. The current between them had dropped to a steady tremble, as if they’d depleted it’s power by holding hands so long. It would recharge. It was the promise of surprises to come.
Claude had chosen his favorite Italian restaurant, turning his earlier lie into something of a ruse instead. The hostess greeting him with a nod, not by name - he came here pretty often but didn’t want Nora to think he was showing off. She didn’t comment as they were shown to a cozy, two-person booth away from the windows. Another reason he’d chosen the place: they could only sit across from each other. He didn’t trust himself to sit next to her right now.
Nora put her chin in one hand and just looked at him across the narrow table. His tie was still undone. His soft hair curled loosely in any way it pleased and she wanted to run her fingers through it. He had the almost astonishing healthy glow of someone who worked out all day, every day. And an easy smile that was almost shy now.
Nora shook her head no.
This is crazy, she thought. But she didn’t stop looking.
He started asking questions. He wanted to know everything about her so he could figure out her weaknesses and make her fall in love with him.
Okay, slow down, he told himself. But athletes need goals.
They ordered dinner and wine while Nora told him about moving from Boston two years earlier, when her company downsized. Her financial planning job was eliminated but someone in Philly opted to take the severance, and Nora got the position. After being born and raised in Boston, it was her first time living away from her family.
“It was weird at first, having to make all new friends. But it’s good now. You must be used to that.”
Claude shrugged. He’d lived and played in and around Ontario his entire life and the minor and junior hockey worlds were actually quite small.
“After I was drafted, when I came here and played in the AHL, it was the first time I ever lived somewhere that most people didn’t speak French. Some of my teammates did, and I spoke English, but not as much. Not without thinking. By Christmas I was with the Flyers and it was a little easier. The team does so much for rookies - place to live, everything. And by then I was used to thinking in English. Then last year I lived with Danny. Briere.” He paused. “Who you met.”
Nora gave him a sarcastic look.
“He liked you, I could tell. He doesn’t like everyone. Just because you gave Coach a hard time,” Claude admitted. He read her smile as a green light to turn her hand over on the table and hold it in his. Touching her was like touching a speaker, vibrating slightly with pent-up energy.
“He has three sons and his wife left... he needed some help. Not that I’m much help.”
Nora imagined Danny, who she had also never bothered to think about as a person, with three sons. She could see it, having only met him once. And she could tell by the way Claude spoke of Danny that they were not only friends. Claude respected Danny tremendously.
“That must be hard.”
Claude nodded. “It’s only ten years between me and his oldest. I was more like a cousin or something, and I had no authority. It was funny, really. They’re good kids. They’re doing okay.”
He watched their hands as he spoke, as if he were a little embarrassed. She knew he’d taken a lot of chirping - both good-natured and not - about moving in with another grown man and his kids. Add it to the list of things she had never considered. Nora rubbed her thumb into the palm of Claude’s open hand.
Claude felt like he’d only been there five minutes when his food arrived. The casino event had seemed to pass with excruciating slowness, then the moment Nora crashed into him sent everything into hyperdrive. Two bites in he had to remind himself to taste the food, not just eat it and watch her talk.
“This is good,” she said, offering him a bite of her fettuccine. He slid a piece of his lasagna onto her place.
“Better than Boston?”
She smirked at her dish. “Don’t get carried away, Giroux.”
He laughed to hear her use his last name. Claude thought of it as his ‘hockey name,’ something he was called maybe more often than his first name. It always sounded official, like he was being awarded a point or charged a penalty. Coming from Nora it was the sound of a sly smile.
The food gave them each something to do with their hands, which freed their minds from concentrating on not touching each other too much. Conversation got easier. Claude told a few funny stories from the road with mild behavior. Nora countered with some pretty outrageous ones of her own.
“Right, you guys just watch Grey’s Anatomy reruns till you fall asleep every night.” She didn’t believe that for a second. Not after guys like Mike Richards and Jeff Carter partied so hard they got shipped off to other teams.
“We have a curfew.”
“Every night? Or just before game nights?”
“Before game nights,” he admitted.
“So every third or fourth night you have to be in early? I have a curfew too, it’s called a liver.”
She was just giving him a hard time. Nothing about Claude said he was closing down clubs and taking home dancers every night on the road, or at home. He seemed like the type who’d wait for someone to approach him - which probably resulted in a stiletto-heeled footrace every time he went out in public.
Which is exactly what I did tonight, she knew.
When they were done, Claude looked impressed at Nora’s empty plate. She started right back and licked her lips like she was still hungry.
“Stop!” he laughed. But he didn’t want her to. He wanted her to climb into his lap and magically produce a curtain to draw over the booth,so they could make out through the rest of their bottle of wine. He opened her palm and absently traced the lines with his fingers.
He handed the waiter his credit card without looking at the check. Nora drained her wineglass and let him help her into her coat. This time there was no valet, no awkward moment of silence where they both wondered if the other person would ask where they were going. Instead it was a brazen walk to the car, holding hands, waiting for someone to bring up what might happen next.
Claude beeped the remote, but didn’t open the passenger door. He just pulled Nora close. The open collar of her coat invited his hands, which he pressed over the cool bare skin of her neck. Nora shivered as the icy air snuck in, quickly chased away by his warm, strong touch. She was leaning in to kiss him almost before her feet stopped moving.
Well it’s been at least an hour, Nora thought by way of an excuse, as the velvety slip of his tongue pushed the world of its axis. The trembling connection between them cracked and sparked like a live wire.
“Can I...,” he said against her lips.
“Yes.” She didn’t care. Anything.