Friday, December 17, 2010


Smiley face.

Halley was figuring out the load-in for next week’s Bon Jovi concert when her desk phone rang. “Halley Jackson.”

“I had to call the main operator and ask for your extension,” Mike said. “Because I can’t walk upstairs in my skates. Come watch us practice.”

She looked at the piles of paper awaiting her attention, glanced at the ten unopened emails on her screen. It was almost Noon. “Mike, I…”

“Don’t make me come up there.”

She definitely didn’t want that, not two days in a row. She was already a water cooler topic. “Okay, I’ll bring my lunch.”

She took a seat near the hallway leading off the bench and broke out a sandwich and a Snapple. It was unlikely anyone from her office would come down. In fact, not a single other person was in the stands and Halley felt like a giant spotlight was shining on her as she chewed her turkey on wheat. Mike skated off and came right into the causeway.

“That’s your idea of lunch? We’re done in an hour, want to get some real food?”

“I can’t, I have a ton of work to do. Stupid Bon Jovi.”

A shadow passed over Mike’s face – he was not used to people putting their plans before him. “How about later? We leave tomorrow for a while.”

Halley had been thinking about the road trip – Mike didn’t even have her phone number. If she hadn’t seen him today, it would have been five days before he was even back in town. Probably the way he always operates, someone waiting at home for him. But she was thinking about the kiss, and the rest of what he’d wanted, and wondering if he could just leave town with all that on the table. Not my type, she’d been repeating. Then he’d called her desk.

“What time?” Halley said.

Good thing they’re going away, I don’t have enough cute work clothes for this. Just before the end of the day, she added a little bit of eyeliner and brushed out her hair. She’d worn charcoal gray trousers and a blue silk short-sleeved button-down top just in case. When she got downstairs, Mike was waiting with his SUV.

“I’m starting to think you’re going to welsh on our bet. Haven’t seen that car since,” she said, buckling up.

“This is another non-Lamborghini location.” He drive across town and as he exited the highway, he reached into the center console and handed Halley a pair of white tube socks. Then he turned into a bowling alley.

“Are you some kind of bowling ringer? Bringing me here to show off your skills?” she laughed.

“Maybe I’m just looking for something I can actually win.”

Halley sat on a plastic chair and kicked off her heels. A little smile crossed Mike’s face when he saw the bright reddish pink paint of her toenails – he always loved the little surprises women had. He wondered what else Halley was hiding under her business-casual attire. Even the idea of her wearing his socks was a turn-on, it led to ideas of her wearing other pieces of his clothing. He laughed as she weighed every ball in the place before choosing one with an orange swirl.

Mike put their names into the computer and they showed overhead on the scoreboard: “Rainboots” and “Smileyface.” Halley turned out to be a pretty bad bowler, but she howled and cheered. Mike was decent and score piled up nicely while hers moved by single digits. He started to worry he was embarrassing her, but when he accidentally rolled a gutter ball she said, “Don’t throw the game for me. I can take a loss.”

So he didn’t. Instead he ordered a bucket of beers and some pizza from the sketchy bowling alley kitchen. Halley dove right in, scarfing down a slice. “I know, very ladylike. But you were right about my lame lunch.”

Mike didn’t mind. He was enthralled. She cracked two beers, handed him one and promptly bowled her only strike of the night.

“Woohoo!” She spun around. Her outburst had drawn a few eyeballs, and a moment later, two boys about twelve years old came running over.

“Are you Mike Green?!?” they asked, almost jumping out of their bowling shoes. “Will you sign our napkins?!”

Mike didn’t look at Halley. He knew from their short time together that she could read his face, if not his mind. And right now, he felt like the absolute mack daddy, making some kids’ days and being all famous. He was sure she would laugh or run away, so he kept his head down as he chatted with the boys.

I want to hate this, Halley said to herself. But she didn’t. These kids were genuinely flipping out and Mike was being really, really cute. He also wouldn’t look at her, so she knew that he knew it.

“How about these instead?” Halley appeared at his elbow. She held out two big, round Washington Capitals logo magnets.

“Where you get those?” Mike asked as the boys snatched from her hands.

She patted the purse she was holding. “Work. I’ve got all kinds of stuff in here.”

Halley watched Mike sign. He smiled and talked to them the way he talked to her, like they were all the same age. Guys are just overgrown boys, she thought with a smile. These three probably spend their free time the same way: X-Box, comic books, bowling alleys. Frankly, it was adorable and she had the urge to pinch Mike’s cheeks. Dear God, I’m swooning over junior high fans.

The boys bolted off, waving their autographs. Mike tried to cover how psyched he was with a joke. “I planted them here so you’d think I was cool.”

Halley tried to wipe the look off her face, the one that said it was kind of working. “Only two? Eh. I bet Ovi gets hundreds.” She moved back toward the rack, needing something to do, and reached down for her orange bowling ball. When she stood, Mike was right behind her. Almost touching.

“You’re never going to give me a chance, are you?”

He looked almost hurt and Halley instantly felt bad. She’d taken a mean dig at his ego, deflating him harshly when she knew he was probably feeling on top of the world. Overcompensating for her own presumptions about him, carrying on her own inner monologue instead of treating Mike like a real person. A person who had asked her out three times, gone out of his way to see her and had, if only briefly, kissed her socks off.

“I’m not easy, Mike.”

“I have figured that out,” he said, looking for all the world like he wanted to say “duh.”

“But I haven’t figured you out. Three dates in three days?”

He looked like he couldn’t win. “You kept saying yes. I thought that meant you wanted to.”

“I did. I do. Surprisingly,” she admitted. “But I don’t want you to think that three kisses means I’m going home with you.” They were very close, his head tilted slightly down to talk to her from his height.

“We’ve only had two kisse…”

Halley put her mouth on his before he could finish speaking. This time she didn’t hesitate, didn’t fight for resolve she knew wouldn’t last. Their lips came together and they kissed with real heat, Mike’s hand snaking around her waist. Halley’s stomach fluttered, adrenaline kicking in at the same time surrender pulled the floor away. A moment later she realized they were still standing in public.

“That’s three,” she said as she broke away. “Sorry I was mean. Just nervous.”

Mike gave her a squeeze. “Don’t ever apologize for kissing me.”

They bowled another round but their scores were abysmal. Every time they came near each other they touched – Mike brushed his hand across her back at the scoring computer, Halley needed his arm to steady herself when getting up. Everywhere there was contact a little tingle rose, like a fly buzzing the skin. When the frame ended, they both laughed at their scores.

“Good thing we didn’t make any bets,” Mike said of their double-digit tallies.

He drove her home early. Even more nervous that before, Halley didn’t say anything until he pulled up in front of her apartment. Then she drew a big breath for strength.

“Mike, I…” she started.

“Can I call you from the road?” he asked, cutting her off. He put her number in his phone and hit send. Before Halley’s brain could register what he was doing, her phone started to ring – playing “Smack That” by Akon.

Halley screamed and grabbed for it. Mike burst out laughing in big, goofy guffaws and put his head down on the steering wheel. It took him a full minute to regain his composure, as Halley pressed herself into the passenger seat and hoped for death. He sighed theatrically when she couldn’t look at him.

“At least I know you were thinking about me. Does that play for everyone?” he wheezed. She just closed her eyes and laughed.

“Not anymore.”

“Goodnight, Halley.” He came halfway and she met his lips, this kiss as real as the last but more sure, more purposeful. Last time there were sparklers, this time fireworks. Mike slipped his tongue into her mouth and she threw in her last towel, running her hands up his neck, into his hair, and kissing him for all she was worth. They parted, both panting slightly.

“You should go,” he said, though his eyes were begging her to stay.

“Safe trip,” she managed. “Be good.”

“I think you just kissed all the bad right out of me,” he smiled.

She made a face. “I meant on the ice, superstar.” Then she smiled back and shut the door.

Mike was lying in a pool chair outside their Atlanta hotel. It was too cold inside, colder than the arena, and it was too hot outside. He felt whiny. “What are you doing?”

“Deciding where Jon Bon Jovi is allowed to jump into the audience,” Halley said into the phone. “It should be nowhere. All these forty-something women are going to tear him apart.”

“And you wouldn’t?”

She laughed. “He’s like 5’7”. I could pick him up and run, but what would I do with him? Trade hairstyling tips?”
“Good, because I’ll be home before he comes to town. I don’t want to have to kill the pride of New Jersey.”

He called her twice during the road trip. That was some careful math – he didn’t want to call too much – but there was a lot of downtime on the road and he found himself thinking about her on the flights and before games. And he was afraid she’d forget that she wanted to kiss him and go back to sniping then he’d have to start all over again.

Every time Mike called, Halley found herself smiling. She watched or listened to the away games at work, and thought of things to tell him. It was easy to forget that he tried too hard, that he wasn’t as cool as he tried to be. When she watched him play, he wasn’t faking it.

“Are you busy tomorrow night? We’re back at 5.”

“Work till 6, then I could meet you somewhere,” she offered. Mike frowned a little – if he didn’t pick her up, it was harder to take her home. He wondered if she was doing that on purpose.

Drive yourself, she thought as her mind quoted Jerry Maguire: “Shave your legs but don’t let it make you a slut.”

The next day, she met Mike at a bar and grill near the arena. To her surprise, some of the other Capitals players were with him. They all knew her name and made her feel welcome, causing her wonder what Mike had told them. Eric Fehr poured her a beer from a pitcher and Brooks Laich hung her coat nearby. Nicklas Backstrom’s girlfriend was there, so Halley wasn’t totally alone. Mike introduced her to everyone before pulling his chair in close.

“Hey,” he said when she sat down. It was suddenly weird – he didn’t feel he should kiss her, thought he wanted to, but he hadn’t hugged her hello or anything. Halley looked down like she felt a bit uncomfortable too.

“Welcome home,” she made a little face. It broke the tension and Mike laughed, sliding his hand onto her thigh. Awkward, they both thought simultaneously.

Halley had a great time with the guys, but every laugh made her wonder more and more what Mike had told them about her. They had clearly expected her and while Mike wasn’t showing off, he wasn’t exactly being secret about touching her. Most of the guys claimed to have seen Halley around the rink, though she’d never met them. Alex Ovechkin came in late, causing at least half the heads in the restaurant to turn. He was a giant presence if not actually a giant himself. He wasn’t that much bigger than Mike, Halley noted, but he seemed to take up a lot more space. He took an empty seat across from her and reached over the table. His hand was massive, swallowing hers up to the wrist and he pronounced her name like “Holly.”

“I see you at practice,” he said. “But not before. Otherwise, you not go out with Mike.”

Halley raised her eyebrows and looked at Mike. Okay flash, you have got nothing on this guy. Is this caveman thing for real? she filed away to ask him later. Mike rolled his eyes and poured Alex a beer. The big Russian spoke good English, easily joking with everyone. Every so often Halley felt his gaze and caught him looking at her. He never turned away.

When the guys had eaten every last morsel from the kitchen, they called it a night. John Carlson had lost some kind of game on the plane and picked up the tab. Halley traded numbers with Backstrom’s girlfriend Anya so they could meet up at the arena. Mike went to the restroom and Alex approached.

“You come to game tomorrow?” he asked Halley. This close to him she felt like a Who standing in front of Horton. His cologne was a little too strong, his presence a little too large. She backed up half a step. He bit back a smile – he knew exactly the effect he had on women, using his size to his advantage. They almost all wanted him and the ones who didn’t could usually be persuaded.

“Yeah. One of my job perks – season tickets. Or seats anyway, pretty much wherever I want them.”

“Sit by bench so we can see you.” It sounded like an order.

Halley nodded and smiled, feeling just the tiniest bit uncomfortable. If he looked at her as much during the game as he had during dinner, he wouldn’t be playing any hockey. Again, she inched away from him – right into Mike’s arm.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

They bid Alex goodnight and walked slowly to Halley’s car. By the time they got across the lot, the guys had all left. Halley hadn’t even reached for her keys before Mike was kissing her, up against the side of the car. It had been eleven days and suddenly felt like a hundred years. He rolled his tongue into her mouth. Standing up, like in the bowling alley when she had kissed him, was so different than in the car. They kissed with their whole bodies, Mike’s solid thighs against hers and his arm around her back. She could picture how they looked, making out like teenagers in a parking lot after dark. The smile could not be stopped.

“What are you smiling about?” Mike asked, though he wore one to match.

“So much for me playing hard to get,” she shrugged.

“That was not playing. You really didn’t like me. But I have won you over, at least a little. You can’t fight the Green Life, Halley,” he joked, referring to his website. Just the idea of the homepage photo – Mike in a black wifebeater and aviator shades, hockey stick across his shoulders and tattooed biceps on full display, make her laugh out loud.

“I never asked! Please tell me you know that’s funny.” Her hands were dangerously close to his back pockets and she wasn’t sure what she’d do if he said no.

“Halley,” he said like she was five years old. “Are you serious? Did you really think I was that guy?”

“Uhhhh,” she got the deer-in-headlights face.

He stepped back, arms out is disbelief. “Jesus, no wonder you didn’t like me. It’s a joke, Hale. The whole thing is meant to be funny. Well, not the car, I really love the car. But my God, do people think I’m like that?”

Halley’s mouth was open but no words came. She just shrugged – maybe she had thought that? Maybe she hadn’t really given it a chance to be funny. She’d just assumed that the car and the Cribs and the Mohawk all added up to something, and the rest was just icing on the cake. “I thought it was funny! I just didn’t know if I was laughing at you or with you. I guess I never really thought that much about it before I met you.”

Mike was standing three feet away from her, looking like he might run away. “For someone with a great sense of humor, you’re pretty slow to get a joke. Now I know why you didn’t want to get in my car in the rain. You probably thought I’d roofie you.”

Halley put her hands into her coat. “I did not! I But I did think you were going to be a douchebag. I stand corrected – I was wrong about you, Mike. ”

He took one step closer. “Well not totally wrong, I did ask you to sleep over on the second date. I actually thought you might, so I was wrong about some things too. Now are we even?” He moved another stride.

“Yes, Except that I know all about you and you know nothing about me. I even know what your house looks like. Should there really be pictures of your bedroom on the internet? Do your obsessed fans need to see where you sleep?”

“Were you stalking me on Google?” he made a faux-shocked face.

Halley scoffed. “I was researching. If you don’t want me to know what color your sheets are, don’t put it online.”

He closed the last step and put his hands on her hips. “Oh I want you to know, but you have to see them in person. The photos don’t do them justice.” Halley hesitated and Mike laughed, planting a kiss on her cheek. “Okay, Miss Hard-to-Get. I’ll just go home and watch my highlight reel and think about what you’re missing.”

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