Nicole was halfway through a second beer, in search of settled nerves, when her phone buzzed.
Viktor: Is it crowded where you are?
Nicole: Yeah, pretty full.
Viktor: Can you meet us at Downtown Chop?
“He wants us to meet him at Downtown Chop. It’s only two blocks away,” Nicole said, reaching for her beer. Miranda slapped her hand out of the air. “I can’t finish my beer?”
Her roommate rolled her eyes. “Viktor Stalberg walks into a bar. Alone. How long you think that’s gonna last?”
Nicole left the glass where it was.
It was bitterly cold and windy, which didn’t even bear complaining about in Chicago in February. They hurried half out of anticipation and half to avoid frostbite. The steakhouse had a dining room and bar, complete with a little storm-door addition attached to the front. The girls banged through that, then the main door, exhaling pleasurably at the warmth that hugged them.
“I think we...,” Nicole looked around. Most of the seats and tables were claimed but it was not half as packed as the bar they’d just left.
“Nicole?” the hostess said. She nodded. “Right this way.”
“Guess he survived,” Nicole said out of the corner of her mouth. But Miranda was digging her nails into her palm, making a face like a five year old on Christmas morning.
“Maybe he’s not alone after all.”
The hostess crossed the dining room and pushed on a frosted glass door, revealing an alcove that could be closed off when needed. It was a fairly intimate space, just a table for ten. And there were four bodies.
“Baby Jesus in the manger,” Mirada said out loud.
Seabrook snarfed a laugh that half the restaurant probably heard. The door shut behind two pretty, dark-haired girls wrapped up in coats and scarves. One had a riot of curls piled around her shoulders - that would be Viktor’s date. The other was open-mouthed and staring.
“Smooth,” Nicole smacked Miranda with the back of her hand.
Nicole had been nervous. She’d tried to tell herself it was tension from the game, all that whooping and jumping, but the win hadn’t cured it. Her hands had bunched inside her pockets on the way over, trying to control the swarm of butterflies in her stomach.
“Hey,” Viktor stepped right up to her with open arms.
How does he do that?
Her nerves were gone, replaced instead by a kind of quiet awe. His suit was impossibly well-tailored, pressed, designed - she looked in comparison like she shopped at Goodwill. The only reason he was hugging her, aside from the obvious fact his body was built exclusively for the purpose, was that she still had her jacket zipped.
“Did you have fun?” he asked.
Viktor wanted to kiss her. He wasn’t sure if it was okay.
Nicole shook her head , clearing the stars. Then she lifted up and kissed his lips. “Amazing. It was amazing!” She hugged his waist and he nuzzled down against her like a big, comfy bear. That close to him it was impossible to feel unsteady. Instead it seemed like she’d slipped into an alternate universe, one where heroes and idols stepped of the ice and became normal, gorgeous people. People who hugged you like they meant it.
They both turned, having momentarily forgotten about their friends. Kane was leering at them, Duncan smiling and Brent had his eyebrows raised all the way into his Ken doll hair. They were all wearing the heck out of their chosen suits. Miranda was blushing furiously at no one in particular.
“This is Nicole,” Viktor said. He knew the guys were impressed.
“I hope so, or your girl’s gonna catch you looking all gooey-eyed at someone else,” Seabrook said.
“And this is Miranda,” Nicole leaned as far as she could without leaving Viktor’s side and tugged Miranda over.
“Hello Miranda,” Kane said, laughing to pretend he wasn’t really already hitting on her. Miranda smiled coyly at him. He took her hand like he might kiss it.
“She’s wearing a Keith jersey under there,” Nicole announced.
Kane almost dropped her hand, but settled for a shake. Miranda kicked Nicole in the leg. Duncan pulled her right into a hug and she squeaked in surprise, while Patrick made a barfing noise.
“I could put that on,” Keith nodded toward her women’s cut jersey, “call it game-worn.”
They all looked at her medium-sized frame. Seabrook winced. “No one wants to see you in that thing.”
Keith winked at Miranda. “Someone might.”
Miranda regained some of her sense. “Go ahead and strip, then I’ll decide.”
One the ice was broken, they ordered drinks and some food and crowded around one side of the table. Viktor pulled Nicole’s chair in close and put his arm around the back. She’d taken off her Hawks sweatshirt and wore a long-sleeve t-shirt underneath; nothing special, but clingy and v-necked enough to be very attractive. The collar and wrists had blue piping and blue patches covered her elbows.
Nicole rubbed the fine fabric of his suit sleeve between two fingers. His hair was perfectly disheveled, giving him the appearance of always having just woken up. She pictured him sleeping. Shirtless, face down, one huge arm bent, twisted in white sheets....
Viktor asked her all about the game, knowing she was not only a big fan but a practiced observer. Mostly he wanted to hear the excitement in her voice. She replayed how some of the events had looked from the seats and demonstrated her goal-scoring dance. Miranda settled into the attention from the boys, who kept the laughter flowing. They dragged Nicole and Viktor back into the conversation whenever they threatened to space out and just stare at each other.
“It is okay, we’re here?” he asked quietly. “I didn’t know the guys would come and if we’re out at the bar people will be talking to them all night.”
“And you,” Nicole insisted. “I’d be fighting them off with a drink tray.”
He ducked down and kissed her, just for fun.
The conversation stayed loud and boisterous. Viktor quickly became glad the guys had tagged along,. It was the perfect excuse to lean close and talk privately to Nicole, and there were breaks to just sit next to her and enjoy the view. He wanted to be alone with her, of course, but wasn’t sure what alone would mean at this point. Viktor was well aware, after the drop and crash that happened with Fiona, of two things: first, he fell too easily. Second, he couldn’t always count on other people to know what they were doing. He absently ran a handful of Nicole’s stick-straight hair between his fingers and thought about their first date - her excitement, the way she’d flirted with him, that kiss at center ice. She seemed so sure.
Miranda had given up her #2 jersey, opting just for the black shirt underneath. Her chair started out a foot from Duncan’s; by the end of the second round it was six inches. Halfway through his fourth beer, the wooden arms were touching. Coming back from the restroom, she had to practically step over him - Keith grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into his lap. Kane rolled an empty pint glass across the table.
“Wah waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah,” Duncan sang.
“So,” Seabrook waved his drink toward Nicole like they were old friends. “This is your third date, eh?”
“Ooooooooooooh,” Kane hissed, shaking his head.
Viktor’s hand was on Nicole’s back; she felt the heat from his skin seep through her shirt. He felt the edges of her bra strap raised against his palm. They were both thinking it and hoping no one would notice.
“You know what that means.” Brent wiggled his very expressive eyebrows.
As if on cue, Nicole yawned. A real one that she couldn’t stop, and she couldn’t speak.
Kane burst out laughing. “Damn, gotta go right now! Don’t let us stop you leaving, Nicole!”
She was about to protest, but Viktor was on his feet and hauling her up. It hadn’t been a cue to go, but now that she was standing it seemed the perfect time to depart. Except that Miranda was perched on Duncan’s knee like she couldn’t wait to tell him what she wanted for Christmas.
“Are you...,” Nicole started.
Miranda stared back at her with sheer innocence on her face. “Am I what?”
The guys all leaned in. Nicole rolled her eyes. “Are you going home with him?”
“Why, what’s at home?” Keith asked, looking equally guileless. They even glanced at each other and shrugged. His hands though were firmly planted at Miranda’s waist.
Kane snorted. “Not me.”
Nicole stuck her tongue out and let Viktor help her into her coat. No guy had ever done that for her before. She didn’t even know it existed outside of the movies.
“Don’t worry, I’ll put her in a cab,” Duncan said.
“In the morning,” Seabrook added.
“Is that safe?” Nicole used Viktor’s shoulder to steady herself as she stood on tip-toe and looked back into the restaurant. All she could see was the closed door of their private room, behind which she imagined Miranda would probably make very good use of her private audience with three Chicago Blackhawks.
“That depends.” Viktor wrapped his arms around her waist so she was looking up at him instead. “Think that table can hold four people?”
They were both waiting for the other to suggest what to do next. Looking for a clue or a sign. Finally, Nicole blushed. “I had a really good time tonight. It was... intense watching you play. It was tougher than I expected.”
It was a common complaint among the players’ families, and some of the WAGs didn’t come to the games for that reason. Every check or bump, every scrape or high stick sent someone’s blood pressure skyrocketing. It wasn’t easier from the ice, but at least the guys could do something about it.
“And now? Feel better?” He smiled to show he still had all his teeth, good as new.
Nicole resisted the urge to joke. Maybe it was the way he leaned back as he held her like he wanted to sweep her off her feet. Instead she made an admission without elaboration because she wasn’t sure how to explain herself clearly.
“I feel the way I always feel around you.”
He curled around her, setting his chin on the top of her head and looking out at the brightly lit city.
“Yeah,” he said, “it’s better.”
Nicole reveled in Viktor’s size and strength for as long as she could. It was easier to ask a question with her face pressed to his coat anyway. “”Whhhsshhddwwwdoooo?”
He didn’t need to understand her. “I can take you home. Or I can take you not home.”
She sighed. “Nnttt hmmmm.”
Nicole wandered around Viktor’s cozy condo, pushing her socked feet along the hardwood floors like she was polishing. It was a lovely place - not too big, not too expensive, everything upscale and new-ish. Someone successful lived there, not someone boastful. The windows offered a nice view of downtown Chicago.
Viktor changed out of his suit, envying Nicole’s comfy-looking jeans. He opted for jeans and a sweater though he would have loved to put on sweatpants after the tough game. Nicole probably wouldn’t care, but Viktor was still very much on a date. He came back to the living room to find her standing in front of the framed Vermont Catamounts jersey on the wall.
“How come you didn’t go to the draft?”
He sat down on the arm of the couch, facing her, less than a foot away. “How come you know so much about me?”
Viktor easily reached her as he slid down into the sofa seat. Nicole ended up in his lap, her feet dangling over the arm. One of his hands was under her back, the other he placed carefully on her knee. “Do you Google all your dates?”
Nicole knew laughing as a bad idea, her backside being somewhat wedged into Viktor’s lap. But she couldn’t help herself. “If I can’t find them on Facebook. You’re the first one who ever had a Wikipedia page.”
“Oooh,” he sounded impressed. “Well I got approached by an agent my freshman year of college. A lot of hockey players go pro early. For me, if I didn’t make the NHL I would have eventually gone home to Sweden, and an American diploma doesn’t help me much there so I didn’t want to wait. When the offer came, I took it.”
Nicole ran her hand up over his bicep as he spoke. “Makes sense.”
“Now you know everything. I’m just a helpless guy who needs rescuing in a coffee shop.”
“Lucky for you, I only help guys with borrowed babies who are clearly trying to pick up girls.”
He blushed, shaking his head. Those long eyelashes fluttered closed and Nicole almost forgot what she was saying. Viktor had no defense, so he easily moved her up the couch, squeezed in alongside and kissed her. Nicole twisted her fingers into Viktor’s collar and pulled him close, till he was more on top of her than next to her. His thick, heavy arms wound around, lifting her from the cushions and arching her back. She returned his kiss deeply.
He could have kissed her forever, save for the incessant, anxious twitch in his body that wanted to do more than kiss. Viktor might be a nice guy, but he was still a guy. The last time he’d been with a woman had been Fiona - a fantastic scene in a movie that ended unhappily. Or maybe he was revising the ending now, with someone better suited to the role. Either way, he’d moved a little too quickly before. Been opportunistic. And he wasn’t going to risk that again. So Viktor kept his hands on top of her clothes and well away from any danger zones.
Beneath him, Nicole was about dead. Her brain screamed for oxygen but she refused to stop kissing long enough to breathe. As a result, the edges got fuzzy and she started to slip. Everything about Viktor’s presence calmed her, except now. Now she just wanted him to rip her fucking clothes off.
She broke away gently, panting a little. He gave her that superhero smile. She hoped it meant he was fighting the forces of evil just as much; now they had to decide if they were going to team up.
“It’s late,” she said, knowing it was after one in the morning.
“Do you want to stay?” He traced the back of one finger along her jaw. Nicole nodded. Untangling himself from their very compromising position, Viktor helped her up and showed her into the guest bedroom. He fetched a t-shirt and shorts, plus a sweatshirt and socks in case she got cold - he knew he’d be cold in bed without her. Nicole closed the door only to change, then opened it again. Across the hall Viktor’s door was also open.
Good thing he kept his street clothes on, she thought. No way she could handle seeing his pajamas. If he even wore any.
His room was fairly large, with a private bath and another great view. Bookshelves were half-full, some folded clothes had never made it to their drawers. In the center was a bed with a navy blue duvet and two pillows that looked like small buoys adrift on a very wide sea. Nicole didn’t venture inside.
“Goodnight,” Viktor said, meeting her in the hallway.
He could tell she was thinking about it - reconsidering her resolve. And the smirk on Nicole’s face said she knew he was too. So she kissed him quickly and ducked into her room.
Viktor stood still, listening. She didn’t lock the door.