Claude just stood there. He didn’t push Genevieve away, he didn’t step back. But neither did he return the kiss she so insistently pushed to his lips. It took the better part of thirty seconds for her to realize that whatever she had been expecting, his reaction was not it.
“Claude,” she said softly, looking up him through her lashes. It was not often she was turned down. It was never while in someone’s bedroom suite, in the middle of the night, in lingerie.
“Go to bed.” His tone was even, guarded. His eyes were unreadable. “You’re drunk.”
Genevieve shook her head gently and let a smirk curl her mouth. If he wanted to play hard to get then she would run him down. “I know what I want.”
Claude was still flat-footed on the cold floor. A hundred things begged for his attention - not the least of which was an incredibly beautiful and undressed girl trying her best to talk him out of his shorts. But even louder thoughts rang, fighting inside his head: she’d been acting so strangely, she was just jealous and protective. His own failures were mixed in - he’d embarrassed Genevieve by springing Nora on her, without so much as a word. He had let this friendship down.
Her face clouded, realizing she would not have her way. Not tonight. But Genevieve didn’t hurry off in embarrassment or storm away in frustration. She gave him a challenging look, turned gracefully, and walked of his room with her hips rolling. Claude watched her every single step.
When the door closed and she was gone, he went into the darkened room and sat on the edge of the bed. He was suddenly so exhausted he could barely move. Laying back and dragging the comforter over, Claude closed his eyes and hoped to forget tonight had ever happened.
He slept like the dead and for a blissful moment on waking, didn’t remember. The image of Genevieve in the doorway came back, he pulled the blanket over his head. It was no use - she was still there, in the house. He briefly wondered if she had clothes on. Maybe she’d spent the night throwing up her embarrassment. Finding a clean pair of track pants and a t-shirt, he didn’t look in the mirror before heading to the kitchen.
If she’s in one of my shirts again...
Instead she was gone. A note on the counter said she’d walked over the bakery to have coffee with one of the WAGs she’d hung out with last night. It admonished him to go grocery shopping or they’d starve. Claude figured both women had hangovers and prayed Genevieve didn’t tell her midnight adventure story to someone else’ girlfriend. It would be worth its weight in gold among the WAGs.
Claude pulled on his sneakers, pocketed his iPod and went for a run. Sweat cleared his brain, he always said. The rhythmic pounding of the pavement drowned out the voices - the ones that said Genevieve was good or bad, that he had been right or wrong in this. By the time he’d gone three miles, Claude was thinking more clearly. And hoping.
Maybe she doesn’t remember.
Genevieve had been walking fine when she came to him, but girls were used to being drunk in four-inch heels. It was a survival skill. She hadn’t slurred her words, but he’d barely let her say any. She’d left on command and, he presumed, passed right out. All the marks of someone under the influence.
Not until mile four did he let Nora into his head. From the instant his eyes had met Genevieve’s in the mirror last night, he’d been keeping thoughts of Nora at bay. Of course, telling yourself not to think of a person is thinking of them. Now he allowed the idea of her to fill his mind and it scared the crap out of him.
She’ll know Genevieve kissed me. Or I’ll have to tell her. She’ll want Gen gone, and she’ll be right. Then I’ll have to do it. But Gen was drunk. That’s no reason to kiss me. I didn’t kiss her back. Nora won’t believe me.
Two weeks wasn’t enough time to guess how Nora would react. Not that he’d had any luck predicting someone he’d known for years. Nora had been nice to Genvieve, but that could be faked. Gen had all but admitted she didn’t like Nora.
It sent a chill down his spine to imagine losing Nora over this. He’d just gotten her, barely held her for a second. A smart girl would run from this. She would see a long-term friendship threatening to become more. She might even see a superstar millionaire athlete running around behind his girlfriend’s back. A Flyer, no less. Of course he was an asshole.
Everything she thought before she met me will be right.
Claude couldn’t allow that. Not after he’d put so much into changing her mind. He rounded the corner and slowed, walking the last two hundred yards to his front door. The exertion had helped. He felt steady and ready to make a decision.
Last night never happened.
Inside, he flipped Genevieve’s note over and scribbled that he had a team meeting. Then he showered in that bathroom without once looking in the mirror.
“How’s Genevieve?” Max asked as they sat down in the tape room to review some of the New York game.
“Didn’t see her this morning.” Claude wanted to tell his nosy friend to butt out, but that would only make it obvious there was something to hide. Then he realized Max had intended to take Gen home - or anywhere with a flat surface - himself. “Sorry you missed out on getting some.”
Max only moved his eyes. Perfectly still, he shifted his gaze to Claude’s and then slowly raised one eyebrow.
“What?! Who?!” Claude slapped a hand on the table. It didn’t matter if everyone heard; Max Talbot getting laid was like announcing last week’s lottery numbers - totally fucking obvious.
“Your girl’s friend, Emily. She’s a..,” Max paused for emphasis, “really big Flyers fan.”
Just when Claude thought he couldn’t be surprised by Max anymore, he put his head down on and laughed.
The TV was on when he walked through the front door. Claude had run errands and walked slowly and taken as much time as humanly possible before returning to the house, wishing away the rock lodged in the pit of his stomach. At the sound of Genevieve being home, the rock doubled in weight.
“Hey!” she called from the other room.
He stopped in the doorway. She was on the couch, legs tucked underneath herself, flipping through a magazine. The DVR played one of those singing contest game shows. Genevieve was dressed in jeans and a sweater. Claude sat on the arm of the chair. His shoulders slumped in resignation - he had hoped to ignore the whole thing, but the whole thing was still looking back at him.
“Last night got a little crazy,” he said.
“I got a little crazy!” she closed the magazine, face reddening. “I woke up and had no idea where I was! Took a minute to realize I was in Philly. I don’t remember leaving the bar.”
Claude froze. Everything in him wanted to believe that he could erase the kiss that simply - if she didn’t remember and he didn’t tell, then it was as good as gone. “Do you remember anything?”
She smiled and shook her head, laughing. “The last thing I remember is talking to Max. I didn’t, like, make out with him in front of everyone, did I? I guess I’m lucky I woke up here!”
“Uh, no. Max was... otherwise engaged.”
Genevieve rolled her eyes. “Thank God! I hope I wasn’t too bad, Claude. Are you hungover at all? Was I the only lightweight?”
“Could you also be hungry? I feel like eating a mountain of carbs right now.”
They agreed on dinner. Claude said he would call Nora - he didn’t offer an alternative, she was coming. He had to see her. He had to be with Nora in front of Genevieve to know, for sure, if he’d really dodged this bullet. On his way out, Claude looked back. He wondered if his best friend could be lying.
Nora was at her desk when Claude called.
“What are you wearing?” she answered in a low purr.
“Head to toe orange,” he replied without laughing.
“So you’re naked. Is that what you’re saying, Ginger?” She was glad to hear his voice. He sounded fun and breezy, like the smile he so often flashed. It settled any lingering nerves about him leaving with a drunk best friend. “I missed you last night.”
He chuckled. “You have no idea.”
They agreed to meet for dinner, and Nora knew that Genevieve must come. She suggested inviting Danny and the kids, and the Carles and whoever else might act as a buffer between the two women while Claude cluelessly stuffed his face. He agreed and they split the list.
Danny picked up on the second ring. “All, Nora. How are you?”
“I need your help.”
“What is it?” He sounded like he’d drop everything and run to her aide, like she’d done for Carson when he broke his arm.
“Come to dinner and keep me from killing Genevieve?”
Danny laughed, a little girlishly, and said he’d bring the troops to the battlefield. They had never openly talked about the situation but Nora knew which side Danny was on. Having already admitted enough, she simply gave him the details and said thanks.
An easy dinner with friends didn’t mean that Nora would be unarmed, of course. Genevieve had shown her up a little at the game with her hot shoes and her Giroux shirtzee. Nora left work at the stroke of five and hurried home to assess that situation. She figured it would be a good time to surprise everyone.
Nora: Can you pick me up?
Danny: Be there at 6:30.
She knew he’d be early. The Briere family SUV rolled to a stop in front of her building and Nora was waiting inside the door. The evening had gotten chilly and she wrapped herself in a long coat and hurried to the car.
“Hiya boys,” she said, climbing in. They all said ‘Hi Nora!’ like she was a teacher in a movie.
Danny gave her an extra glance. “You hair looks good.”
She’d straightened it, something she almost never bothered to do. It was now a bob that fell right to her chin, sleek and edgier than her usual look. In fact, with the straight brown locks, she looked a lot like a Briere.
They’d picked an Italian place on the outskirts of town. It had a few old time arcade games tucked into the waiting area in case the boys got bored, which allowed Danny to enjoy his dinner without needing a babysitter. Nora had been once when her parents visited Philly. This time, the hostess met them at the door.
“You can hang your jacket, if you like.”
Nora slipped the long winter jacket from her shoulders. Along one wall was a simple rack with hangers, no attendant or coat check. She guessed that none of the WAGs would leave their expensive stuff here.
“Merde,” Danny said as she walked back toward the entrance. He looked her over, obviously impressed. She wore slim black pants, a bright green silk top with just the right mix of flow and show that left her arms bare. The neck was wide, so the line where her dark hair fell against her fair skin drew the eye to the curve of her neck. On her feet, the same heels from Casino Night. They made her an inch taller than Danny.
He just said, “Somebody’s in trouble.”
In the back of the restaurant, Scott Hartnell was alone at a long table, looking gigantic with his paw around a water glass. The boys ran up to accost him, and he stood to give Nora a hug.
“Too bad G saw you first,” he complimented her.
Nora rolled her eyes. “Too bad you’re all still Flyers!”
Max arrived next, surprisingly alone. He looked her right in the eyes and smiled, teasing by not looking at her ensemble, and held out his hand. “I need your phone.”
“To see if your friend talked about me today. Texts are best. Really brings out the detail.”
Nora’s mouth fell open like an elevator dropping down a shaft. Yes, she’d left Emily alone with Max in the wee hours of the morning. But there had been no report of seismic activity that morning so Nora assumed nothing had happened. Perhaps she should have assumed it hadn’t finished yet.
“WHAT?!” she squealed and dug into her purse. In full view of Max, she texted Emily.
Nora: Did you fail to mention that you slept with Max Talbot last night?!
She and Max watched the phone, and each other, until it beeped.
Emily: My hands and every other part of me are worn out.
Nora shrieked. Max smiled proudly. With a wicked smirk she typed:
Nora: On a scale of one to the best ever, how was it?
Max was zero percent nervous about the answer.
Emily: Let’s just say he had to tell me to Shhhhhhhhhh.
Nora yelped, handed the phone to Max and ran away to die in a quiet corner somewhere. Really she just went to the bar and ordered a glass of wine. If this was going to be a while, she needed a drink. Carson wandered over to keep her company and they sat at the bar, talking.
“Not to interrupt your date Carson, but have you seen my girlfriend?”
Carson spun around at the sound of Claude’s voice and blushed, looking a little alarmed.
“Carson was just telling me about when you lived with them, and all the girls you used to bring home,” Nora met Claude’s eye and smiled.
“I was not! I swear!” Carson punched Nora in the leg. She tried to dodge but her barstool just spun slowly. The little boy jumped down, punched Claude in the arm for good measure, and ran away.
“He’s a little young for me, but I like him,” she said.
Claude pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her waist. She felt that familiar sizzle pass between them, like turning up the heat on her thermometer. He wore a soft, dark purple shirt - for a redhead, he sure loved color. His hair was soft beneath her fingers as she pressed a wine-scented kiss to his lips. A little private moment went a long way toward making her feel better.
“You look beautiful.” He took in her different hair, the dressy clothes. It reminded him of the first time he’d seen her at Casino Night - a fancier version of herself. “You are trying to make me miss you more.”
She could really lose herself in the hazel color of his eyes. “If I wanted you to miss me, I’d tell you all about what Max and Emily did that night. You’d miss me right home to your bed.”
“I could miss you right into the bathroom now.”
Nora laughed. “Stay classy, Philadelphia.”
Hand-in-hand they walked back to the table. Matt and Clancy Carle had arrived, Danny and Scott were entertaining the boys with their drivers license photos. Nora had almost forgotten Genevieve was coming. In jeans and a sweater, looking a little tired after her drunken exit from the club, Genevieve took one look at Nora’s nice outfit and sneered.
Nora tucked herself into Claude’s side with a grin. Game on, bitch.
Claude pushed his plate away when he was full. Everyone had been talking over each other and laughing for an hour. On his left, he rested one hand on Nora’s leg. She and Scott were debating which actor to play James Bond had been the best. Genevieve was across from him, chatting with Clancy. To his relief, Gen had hardly required any of his attention all night. She’d given Nora a few glares, but Claude chose to ignore them. If he started a fight, he’d have to bring up last night.
“Stay over,” he said in a low voice to Nora. “I want you in my bed tonight.”
Nora looked at him over her shoulder, and tipped her head toward their audience. “What about her?”
“Nothing about her. She’s my guest, you’re my girl. It’s my house.” He rubbed his fingers along the base of her neck.
Nora cocked an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
Claude leaned in a whispered a warm breath across her skin. “I bet you’re sexy when you’re mad.”
She fought the smile, but it reached her eyes and Claude saw it plain as day. He smiled back.
Nora shook her head and said, “You French guys think you’re so smooth.”
Genevieve wore a stony expression and didn’t bat an eyelash when Nora hugged the Briere’s goodbye and headed for Claude’s car instead. Nora foolishly hoped she might get off easy, that Genevieve would behave for Claude’s sake. At his place, Nora excused herself upstairs to change. She came back down quietly - Claude and Genevieve were in the kitchen, Nora stepped softly until she was almost at the doorway. Her timing was perfect.
“It just seems unusual for two weeks,” Genevieve was saying.
“Almost three weeks now. And I don’t think it’s unusual, she’s really friendly.”
From the hallway, Nora could practically hear Genevieve raise her eyebrows sarcastically and stick out one hip. “How friendly?”
“No, Gen,” Claude’s tone dropped.
“She leaves with him at night, shows up with him at dinner, his kids follow her around like she’s their mother, Claude.”
Nora’s whole body froze, except for her hammering heart. She was hearing the absolute lowest possible blow. Someone put something down on the counter, feet shuffled on the floor.
“Nora and Danny are not...”
Genevieve cut him off. “She’s obviously talking to him when you’re not around. Did you even see them hug after the game? It was like....”
They were moving inside the kitchen, just on the other side of the wall where Nora waited. Or at least Genevieve was moving. As much as Nora heard it, she felt Genevieve putting herself into an inappropriate position.
She dipped her head and peeked around the corner, hoping Genevieve would be completely occupied by selling the demonstration. What Nora saw nearly made her choke - Genevieve had her arms around Claude’s neck, her hips and chest pressed tight and her face tilted up as if for a kiss. It was nothing at all like the way she’d hugged Danny - it was a full-on seduction maneuver. A lot like the way Genevieve had hugged Claude after the game, except now his arms were flat and motionless against his sides.
I can’t fucking believe.... Nora almost stepped into the kitchen.
But Genevieve wasn’t done. She pushed up onto her toes, her lips moving barely an inch from his face. “He was whispering in her ear,” Genevieve did what she accused Nora of doing. “They were laughing at you.”
Claude’s posture changed. Genevieve leaned back, her arms still around him. The corner of his eyes and mouth pinched slightly downward. It wasn’t defeat, but her words had hit some kind of nerve. Claude was starting to doubt, starting to wonder if his girlfriend could maybe be cheating on him with his best friend. Like a tiny crack in a sheet of ice, Nora felt him weaken. She turned fully into the doorway, opening her mouth to tell this bitch to go straight to hell, no matter how long they’d been friends.
Before Nora’s foot touched the ground, Genevieve’s lips crushed against Claude’s. It was like a bolt of lightning spearing straight into the ground - it cracked loud, the floor rocked, and both Nora and Claude jumped back.
“Genevieve! Stop!” he cried so loudly Nora would have heard it upstairs.
Claude’s trance was broken, the flicker of doubt gone. Genevieve’s careful trap had sprung too soon, before her prey had truly taken the bait. Now, with complete shock on her face, she’d caught only herself.
It knocked the breath from Nora’s lungs to see this woman throwing herself at her best friend. For all the benefit Nora had tried to give Genevieve, as nice as she’d tried to be, this was her payment. She’d been more than right all along.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Nora asked in a calm, dark voice.
They both went white. Genevieve had been about to protest but the words died on her tongue. Claude’s eyes went wide and he scrambled back a few more steps, putting distance between himself and the offending kisser.
Genevieve composed herself with alarming quickness. “Here she is. We can ask her. How’s Danny, Nora? Missing your company tonight?”
Nora felt herself growing taller, like the Hulk. With the rage boiling inside, she laughed. “That’s the best you can do? Me and Danny? Give me a fucking break. If I wanted Danny, why would I be here?”
Genevieve looked at Claude, then back to Nora with an expression like it was the dumbest question she’d ever heard.
“Why, Genevieve?” Nora pressed, taking a small step forward with every demand. “Because Claude’s more famous? Scores more goals? Because he makes more money?!”
Genevieve gave ground as the taller woman closed in.
“That last one’s not even true,” Nora said. “Bad news, if that’s why you’re here.”
Behind them, Claude approached in case he had to break up a fight. Nora glanced over her shoulder with a look like he’d better not or he’d get punched himself. Claude retreated.
“I’m not here for money!” Genevieve found her courage and shouted in Nora’s face. “It has always been me and him. You’re nothing. No one will even remember you.”
“Does he remember you? All season long, all those road trips and so many fans who’d give him anything he wants... does he remember you then? This whole city at his feet and you’re a million miles away,” Nora shook her head. “He almost forgot to tell me you were coming. Doesn’t sound like he remembers you much at all.”
“Nora,” Claude cut in, hoping to end this before it got worse.
“Did he forget to tell you about last night?”
Genevieve’s words fell like bombs and whistled their way toward impact with the Earth. Nora rounded on Claude, her expression fixed in a glare that said he’d better not have forgotten anything.
“I guess he forgot to tell you that we kissed. That we were upstairs in his bathroom, neither of us in many clothes, and the only reason it didn’t go farther was all that partying.” Genevieve found solid footing and straightened up. “A few drinks stopped us, Nora. Not you. Not forever.”
Nora heard what it with her gaze was fixed on Claude. She’d looked at him so much in three weeks together, she’d almost forgotten the first thing she ever saw in his eyes: surprise.
That first night, he’d been surprised to find himself face to face with Nora, holding her drink, apologizing for spilling it. Even with the rush of desiring her, Claude hadn’t expected anything in return. Typical clueless guy - he had no idea she wanted him as much as he wanted her. Nora had found it endearing, as if Claude didn’t comprehend his own power.
Now he was caught just as off guard. Despite all the signs, Claude never actually thought that Genevieve might be in love with him. All the coming and going, he never once considered that he was leaving her behind. Suddenly she had arrived with years of expectations, only to find Claude with his own plans involving someone else.
Nora saw at once his shock was genuine. Her heart heaved a sigh of relief and she turned back to ending this once and for all.
Through a smirk Nora told Genevieve, “I know you’ve been waiting a long time for him, but that was no kiss. I’m guessing last night’s wasn’t either. Because when he and I kiss, no one forgets. And you can bet your ass he never tells me to stop.”
Claude slipped his hand into Nora’s and squeezed quickly. “Can I have a minute?”
Nora stormed out of the kitchen without another look for either of them.
“Gen, I’m sorry.” He felt genuinely bad, both for her unrequited feelings and the fact he’d let it come to this. “I wish you’d just told me.”
His newly-former best friend was crying now, pushing a hand through her hair as angry tears welled up. “You’re so stupid, Claude. You never saw me, not once! All this time I thought you were just getting it out of your system. The fame, the girls...”
She pushed past him, furious and humiliated. He grabbed her and held on as she twisted and flailed, until she screamed.
“I’m done waiting for you.”
Genevieve flew out of his grasp and out of the kitchen. Seconds later a door slammed, stunning the house into silence.