The kitchen looked like the starting gate at a race track. Jared, Marc and Jordan had taken seats closest to the food. A young woman with straight blond hair carried a dish of pasta salad to the table.
“I’m Tanya, Eric’s wife,” she said, smiling widely. “You must be Abby. Unlike the boys, I knew you were coming. It’s nice to meet you.”
Linda motioned for me to sit next to Jordan, and Tanya brought a tray of sandwiches over. The platter barely hit the table before a blur of hands rained down. I laughed and ducked under an elbow. When the dust settled, Jordan handed me one piece each of a turkey and a ham and cheese.
“Gonna have to be faster than that around here,” he laughed. “Don’t worry I won’t let my girl starve.”
Without thinking, I made a gagging noise – which made Jared almost choke. Then I remembered the game. “Thanks Jordan,” I sighed, rubbing against his side. He was not amused but still passed the lemonade. Lunch for the Staals was the entire food ration for a small country. Not so much as a crust of bread was left when we pushed back from the table. I collected the plates as the boys magically disappeared in the face of dirty dishes. Tanya piled the glasses into the dishwasher.
“So, Abby, how long have you and Jordan…,” she gave me a conspiratorial look.
“Oh, we’re uh… kind of new,” I realized I didn’t know what I was supposed to say when asked point blank.
Tanya just laughed, as if it were nerves making me stutter. “Don’t worry, Abby. I took so much shit before I joined this family, you have no idea. I’m just glad it’s finally not me!”
Join the family. I almost laughed out loud.
“Farm tour!” Jordan smooshed a thick hunting cap with earflaps over my head. He was already bundled up. I quickly pulled on my layers and teetered outside like a starfish. Jared had the garage open and was dragging out a second snowmobile, leaving behind two ATVs.
“No four wheelers?” I asked, studying the snowmobile. I’d never ridden one. It looked like a high school boy’s souped up toboggan.
“The ATVs are for trails only, they chew up the soil where the sod grows. They’re for summer. In the winter, we can ride the snowmobiles anywhere without digging the place up.” He swung his leg over like he was riding a horse then glanced behind him. “Climb on, sweetheart.”
What was left of the seat was just wide enough for my butt. I tucked my legs in behind Jordan’s and wrapped my arms around his waist. With all the layers between us I felt like I’d been inflated. Jordan slowly skirted the building, following Jared’s tracks. Once we were through the fence onto open ground, he gunned it. I whooped as we shot past Jared. The air was so crisp as to be almost sharp. My eyes watered and I used Jordan’s wide back to block the wind from my face. To either side, it seemed like miles of rolling snow-covered ground. Jared pulled up alongside us at the crest of a hill.
“550 acres,” he said.
“Looks like half of Canada from here.”
Jordan turned halfway and smiled back at me. “You don’t have to hold on when we’re stopped.”
“What if I want to?” I batted my eyelashes and he groaned. I dropped my arms from his waist and peeled myself back from his coatm then he shot the sled forward just enough to rock me back on the seat. I gasped and clutched at him again.
“Okay, okay, you can hold on to me,” he deadpanned. Good, because I did want to.
We chased Jared around the farm for what seemed like hours. My nose was cold and my arms tired from pulling against the movement of the snowmobile. By the time we got back to the house, I was frozen and exhausted.
Linda steered us into the living room with three cups of hot chocolate. The couch was as oversized as the Staal brothers – wide, long and when I sat, I sank a foot into the cushion. Jordan plopped down next to me and I nearly rolled into him like an iceberg tipping over. It took both hands pulling on the arm of the couch to right myself. I wrapped my fingers around a mug with marshmallows bobbing at the top.
“Your mom might be a wizard,” I whispered.
Jordan spoke through his hot chocolate moustache. “We are kind of a handful.”
Jared had his feet propped up on the coffee table. “So Abby, you work for the Pens. Do you travel with the team.”
“Stay in the hotels?”
I nodded. Jared lifted a heel and kicked Jordan with it.
“Nice, Jordo. You got your girl to go!” Jared gave a thumbs-up and Jordan choked on his hot chocolate as I laughed out loud.
“That is not in my job description!” I said.
“So what you’re saying is… Jordan pays you extra?” Jordan winged a throw pillow, nearly taking out Jared’s mug. Jared leaped up and ran from the room.
“I like your family,” I smiled. “May you should pay me for all this work I’m doing.”
“You’d have to do a LOT more to earn money,” he said, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “I already took you in at Christmas, little orphan Abby. I think that deserves some kind of thank you.” He leaned in like he was going to kiss me. We were both laughing, but I suddenly felt like he might really do it. His lips were inches from mine, one thick, heavy arm around my back as his weight rolled me toward him on the couch. One degree more and I’d tip right onto his lips.
“Sorry!” his mom shouted, appearing from nowhere, suddenly waving her hands in front of her face. She must’ve walked in just as Jordan was leaning over. Now she was gone. I scrambled backward. Jordan’s eyes and mouth went equally wide, staring at the doorway his mom had just vacated.
“Ha!” He slapped his hand on the back of the sofa. “Yes! She’ll be telling everyone about that right now.” I gave myself a facepalm. “Hey, you’re the one who said you’d make everyone think you were my girlfriend.”
“You’re the one who almost just kissed me!” I taunted him.
“I think you liked it,” he teased back.
“What will you tell them after I leave?”
He shrugged pompously like that would never come. “That you broke my heart and devastated me….”
“… when I left you for Crosby?” I suggested.
“You would never!” He feigned shock.
“Movin’ on up!” I sang. He hit me with a pillow.
“Devastated! Honestly there could be tears. But,” he said grandly, “we got caught kissing. No turning back now!” He pulled me to my feet.
“Ha ha ha. It doesn’t count if there’s no kiss! And don’t forget the challenge.” We were almost to the kitchen door when I whispered, “I will make you pay for this.”
I was coming from the bathroom when Linda topped the stairs.
“Is your room okay, Abby? All settled?”
“It’s perfect,” I said, walking in. “Thank you again for having me, especially at Christmas.”
“We’re happy to have you. Especially Jordan. I haven’t seen him but on a button down shirt for dinner in this house in twenty years.”
Marc knocked on my door for dinner. “Got caught kissing, eh?”
I pretended to sock him in the stomach. He was really quite good looking – I wondered if there was something in the water on this farm that bred strapping, gorgeous men with the personalities of 12-year old boys.
The kitchen table was set with red and white checked placemats. Heaping platters of sweet potatoes, ham, rolls and stuffing were wedged in between green bean casserole and salad. Short candles in red jars flickered happily among the dishes. It was a perfect scene and smelled just as good. Jordan stood from his seat and pulled out the chair next to him. I narrowed my eyes in a wary look as I sat.
“Nice shirt,” I said, stroking the back of his neck. A smile flicked across his mom’s face.
Henry said grace then poured wine. We talked and joked, the guys swapping stories of great plays and gossip about other teams as they put away copious amounts of food.
“Don’t be shy,” Tanya said, passing me the beans. “It’s like Wild Kingdom at this table.”
Jordan grabbed the bowl before it reached me. “Jeez, Abby! Leave some for the rest of us.” Then he scooped a spoonful onto my plate.
“So Abby, how do you like Thunder Bay?” Eric said.
I smiled. “Just like I thought it would be. Lots of snow and there are hockey players everywhere. Now I just need to see a moose and I can go home happy. Ooh, and maybe a Mountie on a horse.”
Jordan looked up from pretending to write my wish list on his hand. “I can ride a horse,” he offered.
“And he has some tight pants,” Marc finished.
Before Jordan could retaliate I asked, “Can I see the barn tomorrow? The one from the TV segment?”
Eric put his wine glass down. “That depends. How’s your slapshot?”
I shuffled down the hallway in a little t-shirt, cute sweatpants and some big socks I’d found in a drawer. Jordan’s room was open, so I sat on his bed. He came in wearing only sweatpants and toweling off his hair. There was so much of Jordan: tall, wide, broad… you could look for hours and maybe not see all of him. It was hard to think of Jordan platonically while he was half naked like some Greek god. His sweats were frayed at where the drawstrings tied in a bow.
“Don’t like your room?” he raised an eyebrow at me, unsure if this was part of the game I was supposed to be winning.
“Shutup, Staal.” I peeled my eyes from his body and managed to look around his room. This was definitely where he’d lived as a kid. School trophies topped the dresser, hockey pucks from memorable games were piled among them. Team photos, family photos. Some of the drawers were so full of clothes they would barely shut.
“How did your mom tell which clothes whose clothes were whose?” I grabbed a t-shirt from the back of the chair and held it up to him.
“Never really bothered, I guess. Once we were all about the same size, everything was communal. Except jerseys. Everyone had their own jerseys, and if you got a pro one as a gift or something those were totally off-limits.” His abs flexed as he lifted his arms over his head, outlining what looked like more than six defined muscles. I was almost sad when he pulled the shirt down to his waist, but I couldn’t take another second of him half-naked. Then he fished through a couple of drawers and came up holding out a jersey. It was white with maroon trim and a circular logo on the front: Petes.
“You can wear this tomorrow when we play in the barn,” he said, handing me the sweater. It was enormous, of course. I ran my fingers over his name and number on the back.
“How old were you when you wore this?”
He plopped down next to me and twisted the sleeve between his fingers. “16 or so.”
“Show me a picture.”
Without standing, he reached on long arm out over the desk and snatched a photo from the wall. It was a team photo: Peterborough Petes – 1996. Jordan pointed out his face, wedged in among the others and mostly hidden beneath a helmet.
“Same smile,” I pointed out. A mile-wide grin shone on his younger face. Present day Jordan leaned in and looked closely, then gave me the real life version. I gave him back the photo.
“Thanks for bringing me here, Jordan.”
He put the photo down and scooted back till he was sitting almost behind me. “I was not about to let you spend Christmas by yourself. It’s too sad! Plus, we never get to hang out. You’re always working around the rink, like you’re nervous someone’s going to spot you goofing off.”
I moved across the blanket, turning my crossed legs toward him. “I am, a little. I only get to travel because Jim has to stay home with his wife. At first they really didn’t want to let me do it. So I don’t want to mess it up or I’ll be grounded for life.”
“You’re doing a good job. The guys all like you.”
“It’s impossible not to like this team. And I do have a lot of fun. Plus I get to watch all the games and I don’t consider that part working.”
“You could have more fun. We all do, we don’t get in trouble.”
“Okay, hotshot. I am not a power forward who came into the league at 8-years old and broke records his rookie season. I’m a 23-year old girl and everyone seems to think I’ll someday be more trouble than I’m worth.”
He flopped back on the bed, flexing his arms impressively to tuck his hands behind his head and smiling mischievously. “What kind of trouble?”
I lay down next to him on my stomach, almost close enough to put my head on his bicep. I knew my bare lower back was visible. “The kind that looks like you. Or Kris, or Max or, God forbid, Sidney. It wouldn’t take much and I’d be out on my ass before you can say penalty box.”
“We’d stick up for you, you know.”
“I don’t think even you could save me, Jordan.”
We talked a long time, maybe hours. He was as funny and sweet as I knew he would be. If I’d closed my eyes I’d have woken up there in the morning and really given his brothers something to think about. As it was his fingers played with the edge of my t-shirt and I had given him a fauxhawk.
“Time for bed,” I finally said.
“Mmmmm,” he reached those long arms right around my waist, cinched me in and pretended to snore.
“My own bed, Jordan. Though you are very warm.”
He opened one eye. “Body heat saves energy, Abby. Fight global warming. Don’t you want cute little seals to have a place to live? If you loved baby animals you would stay here.”
I leaned in carefully, still laughing. I would only get one chance to get this right. My kiss pressed to his cheek for a moment before I wiggled free. Any closer to his lips and I’d never leave that room again.
4 years ago