Claude shoved his backpack into the overhead bin and dropped into the wide seat of the jet with a sigh. He was exhausted and sore but happy and satisfied - much the way he felt after winning a particularly close game. The similarity made him smile and he filed it away to tell Nora someday.
Hartnell reached a paw over from the seat behind and mussed Claude’s hair. Danny took the spot next to him as the plane filled, ready to make the short trip to Buffalo. As ever, the pre-flight safety briefing was completely ignored while the guys ogled to blond attendant and considered creative uses for the seat belt she was demonstrating. The luxury of private travel meant they were taxiing toward the runway less than ten minutes later.
Claude put his head back, intending the sleep. Sometimes they played video games - another perk of flying private meant they could use in-flight wi-fi. No cell phones though, just a few old built-in handset phones that had never really been a hit with commercial airlines. But Danny was halfway through a paperback and no one seemed particularly rambunctious. Before they reached cruising altitude, he was drifting.
“Excuse me, Danny?”
Claude blinked his eyes open at the flight attendant’s voice too.
“There’s a call for you at the front.”
Danny glanced at Claude with a look that only fathers can give. There was really no other reason to reach him except in an emergency. He’d dropped the boys off at school just an hour earlier, and their nanny Alice would pick them up at the end of the day. She lived in the house while Danny was away - since Claude moved out, Danny had put her in his teammates’ former, larger room. She was very sweet and motherly - and older, not of any romantic interest to her charges’ father or his teammates. Danny disappeared into the galley for a few minutes, then came back.
“Merde. Carson fell in gym, they think his arm is broken.”
Claude hissed. “Is he at the hospital?”
“It’s just the school, they can’t get Sylvie on the phone.”
Danny’s wife had left him. All sorts of stories and rumors abounded, but Claude knew that regardless of the reasons it was still a heartbreak every time Danny had to see or talk to her. She lived nearby, to be near her kids, but Danny was their technical guardian and so he over-provided for them. Especially when he was on the road. Hockey required a lot of away time and it was one of the reasons his marriage had fallen apart. He wouldn’t give his ex-wife the satisfaction of saying he couldn’t supervise the boys because of his career.
Danny rummaged around for his phone, heading back up front. He was gone about five minutes, then Coach Laviolette joined him. When Danny came back, he had an unsure look on his face.
“Alice isn’t picking up either of her numbers, and I got voicemail for Kristen,” he said. The coach had kids of his own, they often hung out with the Brieres. Kristen Laviolette filled in as an emergency contact at home. “I don’t want to call Jessica.”
Jessica was the girl Danny was casually dating. Claude knew the problem: Jessica was hot and into being with a star hockey player, but she was a long way from wanting kids. In another situation, she might have been perfect for Danny. But she did know the boys and would do in a pinch. Until Sylvie got there, and took one look at Danny’s new girlfriend - she was not kind to her replacements, particularly any who got close to her sons.
“Call Nora.” Claude didn’t really think about it but it seemed like the right idea. She was at work - he’d delivered her right to the front of the office building wearing her clothes from the game. The clothes from his kitchen floor.
Nora had hit it off with the boys, and Claude had no doubt that she’d drop what she was doing in an emergency. Probably for a complete stranger, but definitely for him. He pulled his phone from his pocket. “She can at least go with him. He can’t wait in pain while they find Sylvie.”
“Are you sure it’s...,” Danny hated to impose on anyone.
Claude followed Danny up front and took the phone from the flight attendant, dialing the number in Nora’s contact. It only took two rings.
“Nora, it’s me,” he said. Then added, “Claude.”
“Hmm, Claude. Red hair, right?” she laughed. “I told you not to crash the plane with phone calls!”
“It’s the plane phone, don’t worry. I have a favor to ask.” Claude looked at Danny as he quickly explained the situation. Danny wore the pinched, anxious look of a worried parent. After a minute, Claude passed him the phone.
“Nora, I’m sorr...,” Danny started.
“Not at all! What’s the school?”
Danny gave her the information, thanking her profusely. When he’d promised to owe her forever, he offered a quick warning about his ex-wife’s territorial nature. Then he returned the handset to Claude.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” Claude asked. This was a big, important thing to ask and Claude thought of Danny’s kids as his little cousins. Now he was really glad he’d taken Nora there for lunch. Claude could hear Nora moving around like she was already on her way.
“Of course! Poor kid. Give my number to whoever and I can tell them when we get Carson situated.”
“You can thank me when you get home.”
Nora popped her head around the corner of the nurse’s office backroom. Danny had phoned the school and authorized her to pickup his son. The school only had permission to move kids on their own in more serious situations. The brown-haired boy looked up at her in surprise. His arm was carefully across his chest in a sling and packed in ice. His eyes were puffy from crying but he’d stopped for now.
“Hi Nora.” He sounded worn out.
“What happened, bud?”
“I suck at basketball.”
Nora laughed. She tried to stop it, so it came out as a sharp bark. Carson’s face clouded, then he cracked a smile.
“I’m sorry! I shouldn’t laugh, I once broke my nose by running into the pole that holds up the backboard.” Nora mimed faceplanting into her palm.
“Where’s my mom?”
Nora took a seat on the cot across from him. “She didn’t answer, and they didn’t you want you wait. Is it okay if I go to the hospital with you? I’m sure you mom will come as soon as she gets the message.”
Carson nodded like it was no big deal. He was twelve, he’d been through a divorce and his dad was away a lot - Nora figured Carson was probably stronger than she was. After a quick word, the nurse helped Carson sit up then get to his feet. Another attendant called ahead to the emergency room to try to speed the check-in process. They gently loaded Carson into the front seat of Nora’s car.
“Okay?” she asked.
The hospital was only ten minutes away. Luckily it was pretty empty. Once they were sitting in the waiting room and the forms were filled out, Carson asked Nora to reach into his jacket pocket.
“Of course you have an iPhone, you’re cooler than I am.” She turned it on and he quickly showed her how to email Danny. With his right arm in a sling, he couldn’t do much.
“My dad can get email on the planes, just no calls.”
At the ER with Carson, they’re going to x-ray him in a few minutes. We’ll let you know what they say. He’s okay now, calm but it hurts. - Nora
“He’ll email back in ten seconds. He always does,” Carson bet. He was right.
Thank you so much. Sylvie should be there soon. Carson, you okay?
Carson had Nora reply that he was fine, and they were summoned into an exam room. She entertained him with stories of the times she’d been to the hospital as a kid.
“My brother got our soccer ball caught in a tree, and I fell trying to get it and broke my hand. I played catcher on a softball team, and a really big girl tried to knock the ball away by landing on me. She broke my rib but I held onto the ball and she was out!”
A technician took them to the x-ray room. Carson sucked in a sharp breath as his sling was unwound, and Nora found herself stroking his hair to try to keep him calm. A few tears slipped free when they gingerly arranged his arm to be photographed, but mostly Carson chewed his lip and tried to stay quiet.
“You’re pretty tough,” Nora said honestly.
It was another half an hour back in the exam room, watching TV on the overhead monitor and Nora reading to Carson from an issue of National Geographic. When the doctor came in, he was carrying x-ray films.
“Carson? I’m Doctor Preston.” He shook the boy’s hand, then turned to Nora. “Mom, nice to meet you.”
“She’s my friend,” Carson corrected. “Not my mom.”
If it was possible to nod condescendingly, the doctor did it as he let his eyes roll down Nora’s body. “Of course.”
Nora almost laughed. This guy saw Briere on the chart and thinks I’m Danny’s girlfriend. I was eleven years old when Carson was born.
Dr. Preston slid the film into the lightbox and showed them where Caron’s arm was broken in two places. They were clean breaks and already set, so it would require only a tiny adjustment and a plaster cast. A nurse came in and assisted as Dr. Preston gave Carson’s arm a small twist. He yelped in pain but it quickly subsided. Nora closed her eyes.
A nurse wheeled in the plaster cart with everything needed to produce the cast. She showed Carson a book of colors that he could choose for the outermost layer of bandages.
“Orange,” Carson said, then turned to Nora. “My dad says you don’t like the Flyers.”
“Your dad is right.”
“But you like Claude.” He just laid it out there, so like a kid.
Nora nodded. “Right again.”
The nurse started her work, wrapping a bandage, and Carson winced at the cold of the plaster paste.
“He lived with us, did you know?” Carson smiled. “It was fun, he likes to play video games more than my dad. And he’s good at kickball.”
Nora could picture Claude in the yard running the boys ragged with day camp games and sports. It sounded fun. She didn’t say anything, hoping that Carson might just continue with stories...
I’m mining a child for information. A broken child.
But Carson delivered. “He only brought one girlfriend over. She wasn’t as nice as you.”
“Aw, thanks Carson.”
He shrugged just his uninjured side. “But she liked the Flyers.”
Nora reached over and ruffled his hair as best she could without disturbing the nurse. There was a flurry of footsteps in the hall and the door opened. A round-faced woman with straight, short brown hair about ten years her senior burst in.
“Carson, mon dieu!”
Nora stepped aside as Sylvie Briere fluttered around her son, speaking in rapid-fire French and examining his as best she could. Carson told her what the doctor said and the nurse filled in some more. Sylvie kissed her son’s forehead, squeezing him into half a hug. The doctor must have been notified because he appeared at that moment, re-answering all of Sylvie’s questions and fawning over Carson. Nora saw his eyes drift to her once, as if to compare Danny’s ex with his current woman.
Nora turned away to keep from sticking out her tongue.
It was time to set the angle of Carson’s arm for the sling and ensure the cast would be comfortable before the final layers were applied. The doctor moved in and Sylvie backed away, finally acknowledging Nora. She crossed over to where Nora had moved to give the hospital staff room.
“So you’re fucking my ex-husband.”
Sylvie’s voice was lowered, but not enough to hide the growl behind her words. Like a mother bear seeing her cub threatened, she was angry at not being there for Carson from the start. And she didn’t like the sight of a slimmer, younger version of herself looking back. With her short mop of dark hair and big brown eyes, Nora was an edgier and warmer approximation of the former Mrs. Briere. A cold burst of adrenaline flashed though Nora’s veins, even as she knew she should have expected nothing less.
Hell hath no fury...
“I’m Nora. And I’m with Claude.”
Sylvie scoffed, giving Nora another once over. “I should have known, the puck bunnies have moved on these days.”
Nora had no idea what happened between the Brieres, but clearly it was bad. And still fresh. She wasn’t the type to be goaded into a confrontation, so Nora knew it was time to leave immediately. But she wasn’t going without some kind of self-defense.
“Well your kids are charming. I see they didn’t get it from you.” She brushed by Sylvie, passing alongside Carson and the doctor on her way out of the room.
“Nora!” Carson called, pointing to the bright orange layer the nurse was cementing into place. Nora scrunched her nose like she smelled something bad.
“Thank you,” Carson said.
“I can’t wait to sign your cast.”
Later that night, Nora was halfway through a Reese Witherspoon movie and bag of popcorn with Emily sprawled across the other side of the couch. Some sequence involving a loose puppy running through a park with hilarious consequences took place on screen while Nora’s mind was elsewhere.
Emily had told the condensed, tabloid gossip version of the Briere divorce story - allegedly involving porn stars and naked pictures and lots of accusations and denials. It gave Nora the shivers to think about, though Emily was sure the sordid stuff was bullshit and even the Flyers had officially commented to that effect.
No wonder Sylvie hated me, Nora thought. She didn’t feel bad for the ex-wife because it was never okay to treat anyone that way, but the woman had been through some things. Even if they turned out to be false. Her phone rang.
“Bowchickabowwow,” Emily sang without turning from the movie.
“How do you know it’s him?”
“Only two people call you, and I’m the one who’s not Claude Giroux.”
She was right. Nora found her phone.
“Hi gorgeous,” she said loudly, leaning over the back of the couch into Emily’s face.
“She sleeps in a Seguin shirt!” Emily hollered.
Claude laughed at the other end. “Not in my bed.”
“Uh, you okay?” Claude asked.
Nora deadpanned. “I just walked into the wall.”
When she was safely sprawled out atop her own bed, no Bruins shirts in sight, she told Claude about the trip the the hospital. Danny had talked to Carson, who was home and resting, and he’d said that Nora was really nice.
“You are really nice,” Claude agreed.
“I wasn’t really nice to Danny’s wife. But she took one look at me and assumed I was sleeping with him.”
Claude groaned. Sylvie Briere was a woman who thought she’d been wronged and would never get past it, at least where the Flyers were concerned. Claude had experienced the two year breakup process and all the other gossip that had surrounded the Flyers - players accused of cheating with their teammates’ wives, drinking and partying instead of playing.
“Wow,” Nora said as Claude spilled some of the details. “It’s the Real Housewives of Broad Street. And you wonder why people don’t like the Flyers!”
Even he had to laugh at that. “We’re not all bad.”
“You sure? I told Sylvie I was with you, she called me a puck bunny.”
Silence. Claude was stunned.
“I’m sorry,” he said eventually. “She’s such a bitch. I’m not seeing anyone else, Nora.”
In her room, she smiled. “It’s okay, we just met!”
“No, it’s not okay. Sylvie has no right to say I’m picking up a different girl after every game. I’m no saint but if you can’t trust me then....”
“Hey,” Nora interrupted, the topic getting tense. “Hey. I’m not so innocent. I once picked up a guy at a casino night and let him take me home. Total stranger, scruffy looking dude, from the wrong side of the tracks. Could have been a serial killer. I’m probably lucky to be alive.”
Claude gritted his teeth and forced the argument about Sylvie from his mind. Some women believed whatever you told them, some wouldn’t believe a word. It made it hard to do the right thing. But Nora didn’t seem like that kind of girl.
“Lucky I let you leave,” he countered. Then seriously, “I’m not seeing anyone else.”
“Okay,” she accepted. But she didn’t elaborate. As much as Claude didn’t want to sound pathetic and pry, he had to know.
“Are you?” he asked quietly.
Nora’s heart squeezed. As if she’d have eyes, or the energy, for anyone else. Claude had turned her world upside down in less than a week.
“Just Seguin. But he’s young, he’ll rebound.”
Claude was still smiling when he hung up.
I’m in trouble.
But it sounded pretty good to him.
Nora tossed the phone to the other side of the bed, put her face into the pillow and allowed herself a ten second giggle-fest.
God, maybe I am a puck bunny.
Note: I'm not at all a Flyers fan. Excuse any of these team history details I'm getting wrong as I use Google for research. :)