Nora couldn’t follow the hostess to their table, because the hostess kept slowing down, trying to drop back and talk to Claude.
“Come on, sister,” Emily said to the blond girl in her late twenties who clearly had no interest in servicing anyone else in their party. The girl pursed her lips, stepped ahead and settled for swinging her hips as she strutted across the dining room. Claude snickered so only they could hear.
Finally at their table, which she’d clearly chosen because it was the farthest away and thus the longest walk, the hostess put two menus down on one side while artfully blocking the other. Emily was first and had nowhere else to go. Once Nora was next to her, the hostess looked ready to give Claude a full rub down as he squeezed by.
“Excuse me,” Nora said unapologetically. The girl pursed her lips again, giving ground. With Nora on the wrong side, Claude dropped into the seat next to Emily. The hostess handed him the menu with a pageant smile.
“Great,” Emily grumbled. “Now she thinks you’re my date, they’ll be spitting in my food.” Claude exaggeratedly draped an arm around the back of her chair. Emily pretended to look mad, but she was blushing fire engine red.
“You two done? This is supposed to be my date with Emily,” Nora teased.
God damn his smile, she thought as Claude grinned innocently across the table.
“Girls night, eh? Do you guys pig out on wings and beer and nachos?” He looked really excited as he flipped through the menu.
“No,” Emily said. “Slows us down later, when we’re having a pillow fight in our underwear.”
Okay, now he looked really excited.
Claude was, in fact, the best third wheel they’d ever brought along - male or female. He’d put the table between himself and Nora to keep his hands off her, and the rest was easy: just have fun. No one else in the restaurant could tell he and Nora were together, including the hostess. She sat every new table as close to them as possible and all but ran her fingers through his hair on the way by. Nora just smiled at the way Claude barely seemed to notice half the diners staring at him. A table of guys sent them a round of drinks.
“Now you’re on a date with those guys,” Emily told Claude as she waved thank you, “so the hostess can spit in their food.”
Claude encouraged them to talk about “girl stuff,” asking what romantic comedies they’d seen and offering a surprisingly informed opinion on a few reality TV shows.
“We have a lot of downtime on the road,” he explained.
Nora rolled her eyes. “Yup. Nothing to do but watch Kim Kardashian zip her size ten ass into a size four dress.”
“I’d like to see you in one of those dresses,” he said with a sexy grin.
“Rule violation!” Emily declared.
“You too, Emily. Next girls night, I’m buying. Someplace fancy.”
She shrugged. “Gonna be hard to skate after your sex change, Ginger.”
The topic eventually changed to love lives, as it always did, when Emily mentioned a date she’d been on the previous weekend. Claude honed right in, wanting to know about the guy and where they went.
“Stop digging for dirt!” she smacked him with her napkin.
“What?! I’m good at gossip! What do you think a hockey team does off the ice? Like a bunch of teenage girls.”
Nora narrowed her eyes. “Do you talk about me?”
“No,” Claude deadpanned so hard it made Emily giggle. “Okay, maybe a little. But only good stuff! You’d be talking about me if I wasn’t here, right?”
They didn’t deny it.
“So spill,” he said to Emily. She explained the situation - the guy had recently broken up with someone short-term, but she got the feeling he was rebounding pretty hard. Claude asked some questions and gave her some advice, his real and honest opinion. It couldn’t hurt to have Nora hear it either, he figured, since he believed it was good advice.
“That’s exactly what Nora said before,” Emily admitted.
Claude gave Nora a look that nearly made her clothes fall off. Nora pinched the edge of the table to keep from vaulting over and tackling him. After a moment, it passed.
“Gross, you guys,” Emily said.
Claude finished another bite of pasta, one of the few left on his enormous plate. “I’m used to it. I have a sister, and my best friend from back home is a girl.”
Nora and Emily locked eyes immediately, both of their faces fixed in expressionless masks. Claude was back into his food, he didn’t notice. For all his experience with girls and gossip, he clearly had missed some things.
His best friend is a girl, that’s fine, Nora told herself. She had a lot of close guy friends - maybe even more now if she spent a lot of time with Claude’s teammates. He could have all the friends he wanted, of any gender. Plus, this girl was a thousand miles away in Canada, how often could he see her? He’d never mentioned her.
No big deal.
“She’s coming to visit next week,” he said suddenly, blinking a few times. “Yeah. The 18th, right? That’s next week. Wow, that came up quick.”
Claude hadn’t forgotten, he’d just been a little preoccupied banging the paint off his walls with the beautiful girl across the table. He knew that alone wasn’t enough to make him forget the date. There was a lot more going on with Nora than sex. In that distracted state, the visit had slipped his mind. He looked at Nora, expecting he didn’t know what, and saw only her normal expression.
No big deal, he was relieved to see. But it did mean...
“She’s staying with me,” he added.
Nora was still back on the best-female-friend-coming-next-week to process that if Claude had other company, she probably wouldn’t be joining them for overnights.
“Oh, cool,” she managed, telling herself to get a fucking grip.
Claude gave her a sly look and said, “Which means I might have to stay with you a few nights.”
The impending visit was really only five days away. In that time, Nora spent enough time with Claude to almost forget that his best friend was coming to stay. Almost. After her second night in as many days at Claude’s house, two nights before the guest of honor was due, Nora worked up the nerve to bring her up.
“You’re friend who’s visiting - what’s her name?” Nora asked. Her head was resting in the crook of his shoulder, their naked bodies tangled intimately enough beneath the sheets that no question was off-limits.
“Genevieve,” Claude answered. He was surprised Nora would ask about anything, given that she’d just come so hard it made him see stars.
“Will I get to meet her?”
“Of course,” he rolled onto his side, facing her sprawled-out body, and brushed a bit of hair from her face. “You’ll love her. She grew up near me, we met in secondary school, and since then we’ve always been friends..”
Since then I’ve barely been home, Claude wanted to say. Genevieve had been one of the few constants in his life since he decided to fast-track to pro hockey. The rest of his extreme Northern Ontario friends had tried to go pro, but not made it. It was easier to be friends with a girl - their professional ambitions never crossed paths.
“Cool,” was all that Nora could say, hoping he was right.
“So, his best friend’s a girl.”
Emily had lasted three whole days, some kind of world record for her. Nora was laying on her back, on her couch, staring at the plain plaster ceiling when the phone rang. Eventually this conversation was bound to happen.
Nora explained what Claude had shared - he had know this girl since age twelve, had always hung out with her upon coming home when most of his guy friends were pursuing junior, college or pro hockey of their own. She was a constant.
“And she’s hideous,” Emily added.
Nora nodded, alone and to herself. “Of course. But really, it’s stupid. Why am I worried? He could have any girl he wants, anywhere. Not just someone from home.”
“They’ve probably know each other since they were kids. Some of that hometown hero made good stuff. Like a Lifetime movie.”
“Yeah,” Nora said. “But how good is good?”
Of course, Genevieve wasn’t ugly. Nora knew in her heart exactly how this would go - the meeting at the airport to pickup someone she already didn’t like. It was stupid and childish but she couldn’t help the apprehension in her stomach. Claude was smiling like a kid, waiting at the international exit into baggage claim. He had Nora’s hand firm in one grip, but she didn’t believe the heat transfer was for her. Still, she wore her game face.
Claude was excited to see Genevieve. He thought of all the times he’d come home a winner or loser from a tournament or juniors, how Gen had been there to talk to. Or his parents, but he never wanted to whine or complain to them. The Giroux family wasn’t made of money and the fact he even played hockey represented a sacrifice he never took for granted, So he couldn’t talk to teammates or parents - that left few options but the girl on his block.
She was pretty, Claude had always known that. Just as clearly as he’d known that hockey would mean non-stop travel from the age of fourteen. Maybe he’d thought about Genevieve that way once, but she’d gone to normal school with regular boys who were always around. Every time Claude was able to catch up, she’d switched boyfriends seemingly at random. Then he went to junior, and they still talked. It didn’t matter who she was keeping at home, all Claude wanted was someone to remember him.
He stood at the airport, grateful for Nora’s presence. She made him feel accomplished. More than the hockey, which he could always do, or the awards, which he had not yet won, Nora was a sign of a normal, full life that Claude could be proud to show. He was always going to have hockey, he figured, but not always this.
Nora fidgeted unnoticed by her new boyfriend’s side. Boyfriend, she thought, wondering if Claude ever thought of himself that way. They’d spent most nights together, enough for her to know he’d been honest about not seeing anyone else. But as he dropped her hand and threw open his arms to greet someone on the flight from Ottawa to Philly, Nora knew she couldn’t be quite sure.
“Bonjour! Ca va?”
The question came from the thinnest, blondest woman in the crowd. She wore designer jeans like they’d been Photoshopped onto her body, cute booties with high spike heels and a clingy white sweater. Claude picked her up in a bear hug, careful to set her down on her stilettos.
“This is my girlfriend, Nora,” he said.
Nora reeled instantly - Claude had never called her that before. It stopped her a little stupid. Then her eyes met Genevieve’s.
A guy would miss it. The surprise, the singular fury. A guy would see the sparkle in her eyes and imagine only warmth. Another woman would see the spark that sets a jealous fire burning.
“Girlfriend,” Genevieve slid her tiny, slender hand into Nora’s, cold and limp enough to be a snake. “Enchante,” she purred.
Nora stood stock still, shoulders back to full height like a predator trying to convince her prey to lay down and die. “Nice to meet you,” she replied to cold, hard blue eyes.
Nora graciously gave Genevieve the front seat in Claude’s car, folding herself into the back of the Camaro. Thank God the thing had a trunk, Claude had to carry her big suitcase. Before they were out of the lot, Genevieve was talking animatedly - in French. Nora looked out the window, telling herself to relax and be kind. The girl was probably just surprised. Things had been moving really fast with Claude and he probably hadn’t mentioned a girlfriend. Not a big deal. That just proved he didn’t really talk to Genenvieve all that often.
Nothing to worry about, she repeated in her head.
Up front, they were laughing. Claude glanced in the mirror and caught Nora’s eye.
“Hey, sorry babe. We’ll speak English.”
Genevieve looked pointedly away.
“It’s okay, you guys have a lot to catch up on,” Nora waved it away. One second later, Genevieve was back to her native tongue. Nora thought it sounded like the little blond was growling out her r’s and being particularly breathy, the way Claude did when he whispered in French, in bed.
I wonder if Genevieve knows that, Nora couldn’t help thinking.
Claude suggested dinner they go straight to dinner. Genevieve began to say she was a bit tired but he didn’t give her much chance. Instead he steered them toward a barbeque place he’d once mentioned to Nora was a favorite of the teams’ on off days. He hoped the fun, low-key atmosphere would give Nora and Genevieve a chance to get to know each other. And it would give him a little extra time with Nora, as this would be their first night apart all week.
He smiled. It had been a good week.
The restaurant was more like a low-roofed barn, all but gutted inside, with picnic tables and rolls of paper towels. They ordered one of the family platters and a round of beers. Genevieve sat first, sliding in from the end of a bench for Claude to sit next to her. He’d had enough of that at girls’ night and took the place next to Nora, slipping his arm around her waist.
“Nora, tell me how you two met,” Genevieve asked. Her voice carried the brittle note of forced enthusiasm, Claude didn’t notice.
“Claude spilled his drink on me.”
“You crashed into me!” Claude yelped.
“Only because you were practically running toward me!” Nora gave him a sassy half-smile that she knew from experience made him think dirty thoughts. She got raised eyebrows in return.
“At the Flyers casino night,” she clarified. “We just hit it off.”
Claude stroked his fingers against her side. “Something like that.”
“That’s pretty recent, yes?” Genevieve asked innocently. Claude was clearly blind to anything passing between the two women. Nora felt it like a tightness in her muscles, forcing her to sit straighter. He was just carelessly feeding the fire.
“We’ve packed a lot into a few weeks,” he said, pressing a kiss to Nora’s temple. “Trying to make her a Flyers fan.”
Nora smiled to cover the growl rising in her throat.
“You’re not a hockey fan?” The blond girl just blinked at her.
I wish I could say yes, Nora thought. Yes would be easier. Yes would take away from the argument that Nora imagined was forming in Genevieve’s head: you’re just after his money, his fame. Even in Philly, where hockey ruled, it’s not like Claude was Brad Pitt. Fame was relative and it was easy to be completely unaware of hockey even if you lived in a hockey town.
“Ooh,” he chuckled like it was all fucking hysterical. “Nora is a Bruins fan.”
Genevieve didn’t even try to hide the look on her face. A hard, ugly glare marred her pretty features, twisting them into something older and harsher. Nora dug her elbow into Claude’s side but he just tried to kiss her again..
“Biggest fan. She hates us, actually.”
“Hmmm,” was all Genevieve said.
Nora was about to offer an explanation in defense of herself, but never got the chance.
“Claude!” a young voice called.
“Shhh!” came right after.
They spun on their picnic bench to see all four Briere boys headed their way, little Cameron in the lead making a beeline toward their table. Danny reached for him and missed, Cameron crashed into Claude’s back with his arms open. Nora ruffled his hair, and to her surprise Cameron turned and threw his arms around her too.
“It’s cool what you did on Carson’s cast,” he said.
“Thanks. Don’t go breaking your arm though, okay?”
His brothers each hugged Claude, and then Nora too. Danny gave up trying to herd them together when Carson climbed onto the bench next to Nora, as if they were obviously sitting with their friends. There was enough room for four more.
“Do you guys remember Genevieve?” Claude asked. “She visited when I lived with you.”
“Yeah,” Caelan said. “Hi again.”
It was so spectacularly unenthusiastic that Nora had the urge to hug him again. Danny greeted Genevieve very warmly as if to make up for his fickle children. She pretty much purred in response.
She visited when Claude lived with them? Nora’s mind was racing. Carson had mentioned that Claude had one girlfriend, and that she liked the Flyers. Could it have been Genevieve? And did he really know the difference between girls who were friends and girlfriends?
She looked at Carson, but he was oblivious. So much for my twelve year old partner in crime.
Stop! the logical part of her brain screamed. Stop crucifying this girl. She’s just caught off guard by her best friend failing to mention his girlfriend. You would be too, hypocrite.
Nora knew it was true. She promised to play nice, at least for the time being. Mostly because the Briere boys obviously loved her and she’d already won this round. Once the company was mixed, they had a good time at dinner. Claude quietly teased her about Carson having a crush. The kids put away almost as much food as their dad and Claude, Nora loved the short ribs and Genevieve daintily ate her barbecue chicken with a knife and fork.
Danny caught Nora’s eye as they were piling up their plates at the end of the table. He had a kind, almost elfin face and the permanent hint of a smile. He simply raised his eyebrows and she shrugged, then nodded.
When they were finished and bundled into their coats, Danny asked, “Nora, would you like a ride home?”
“Sure,” she said. Claude gave her a confused look, so she hung back as the boys led the way outside.
“You don’t want a ride?” Claude stopped just inside the door. They wore enough layers and collars that she doubted anyone recognized him here.
“Genevieve wants to spend time with you, not me.” She smiled as she said it.
Claude reached for her waist. “She’s here all week.”
Don’t remind me, Nora wanted to say. But instead, “I’m not going anywhere either. But if I’m getting in the backseat of your car again, you’d better be there too.” She planted a saucy kiss on his perfect mouth, the kind she knew would leave him wanting more. This was the first night in many that he wouldn’t be able to get it.
Not from me, she thought. So he’d better not get it at all.
Claude returned her kiss as much as he dared, being that they were still in public.
“I’ll miss you,” he said quietly. Everyone outside would be waiting for them by now.
“Hope so,” Nora whispered. Then she walked out and climbed into Danny’s SUV like she had all the confidence in the world. The kids were buckled into the back, already playing or fighting or whatever. The moment the door closed behind her, Nora sank into the bucket seat.
She nodded, still thinking about it.
“Don’t worry,” Danny said. “Not about him.”