Viktor had to stop. He didn’t want to, but he broke away from Nicole’s kiss with difficulty and was already moving toward the bench, tugging her along. Their movement was slow - less because of the ice and more because of the kiss. He made a beeline for the boards and stepped right through the gate.
“Why don’t...,” she started to say.
Viktor kissed her again. On solid footing, he pulled her right against his body and kissed her. All that dark, silky hair ran through his fingers as he tipped her head back. Nicole’s heart skipped and she gasped, then gave in and opened her mouth. The dark, smooth taste of wine was on both of their tongues. She clung to the sides of his waist as if to anchor herself.
They kissed for a long minute, losing track of time and the fact that someone could turn up at any moment and find them making out like teenagers. When she finally stopped it wasn’t because she was finished. It was because she hadn’t gotten to finish her question. Her mouth was inches away, Viktor still holding the back of her head. She moved one hand to his forearm and held on so he wouldn’t think she wanted to get away.
“Why don’t you make me nervous?” Nicole asked quietly.
The corner of his mouth twitched into a shy smile. “I don’t know.”
“But you should. You’re....” She dropped her eyes, as if to indicate the entirety of him. Her gaze caught on his broad chest, narrowed waist, powerful thighs - her head swam and Nicole lifted her eyes immediately. No easy landing there: Viktor’s eyes were blue, or maybe gray, impossible to tell. But his eyelashes were long and thick and gorgeous.
“You’re you,” she stated the obvious.
Viktor blushed. Nicole never knew because he was busy kissing her again.
He had an idea why she didn’t make him nervous: because he wasn’t competing. Granted it was only the second - okay, maybe third - time he’d ever seen Nicole and he felt a calm unmatched in almost any other aspect of his life. But everything is relative.
Viktor had pursued the last girl, Fiona, knowing that he was on Jon’s territory. He thought he deserved to win... and probably had, even though he’d lost. Still, every moment of that situation from his first move of asking her to wear his jersey to the final moment she turned up crying at his door, he’d been working against another man.
He knew almost nothing about Nicole. That should have scared him. But when he was with her Viktor was certain of one thing. It was in the sure way she moved around him: playing with Maddy, making the paper plane. It was in the silence that sometimes fell comfortably between them. When they were together, Nicole definitely wasn’t thinking about anyone else.
Viktor moved his lips from her mouth, brushing them along the curve of her jaw until he was against her ear. The flowery smell of her shampoo was intoxicating.
“You don’t make me nervous either,” he admitted. “But I thought we might fall down out there.”
She looked toward the spot at center ice where they’d been kissing just a minute before, and laughed. “Is that why you moved us?”
“I thought you were hungry.”
Their picnic was still open on the bench. They pushed the sandwiches over, taking just the wine and cups, and sat down next to each other. Viktor put his feet up on the inside of the boards, relaxed as if he lived there. Of course, he did. Nicole leaned against his side and swung her feet up too. His arm around her back held them steady.
“This is still crazy,” she said, looking up at the lights a hundred feet overhead. A slight turn had her admiring his face again. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
He kissed her forehead. “Thanks for being so impressed.”
When they’d each finished their glass of wine, Viktor stuffed everything into the backpack and swung it over one arm, then put the other around Nicole’s shoulders and led the way back through the United Center’s warren of hallways. The quiet was even more enjoyable now that he’d dome something concrete about Nicole. If she could bring stillness to this place, then he needed to know more.
“Will you come to the game tomorrow night?”
A tiny squeak came from her mouth before she could clap a hand over it. He laughed. Right through her palm, Nicole said, “Ref.”
“What was that?”
“Yes. Vancouver.” Fingers still pressed to her lips. Viktor held the exit door for her.
“Does that make you nervous?”
With wide eyes, Nicole nodded across the hood of the car. He climbed behind the wheel and waited for her to buckle in. Then he drove her home without question. She knew he would. Not that she’d mind if he didn’t. But it felt right to end such a perfect night early and alone. Especially if she’d see him again tomorrow.
Ack! She needed time to get her brain on straight for a Blackhawks game in which someone she actually knew - and cared about - would be playing. In front of her building, Viktor got out to open her door.
“I’ll leave your tickets at will call. Bring a friend.” He narrowed his eyes, “A girl.”
She batted his chest, doubting he even felt it. “No way. I don’t want any other girls noticing you.”
The sweet, strong kiss made her stomach drop like a roller coaster. He held her cheeks, made sure she knew he didn’t want to leave, then managed to leave anyway. Nicole waved goodbye as he drove off.
Viktor made it all the way to the corner before doing his goal-scoring celebration dance.
“Hey!” Abby hopped out Patrick’s truck in the player’s parking lot as Viktor was fishing his bag out of the back seat. “How’d it go?”
Viktor couldn’t keep the smile off his face. “It was perfect. Excellent first date.”
Sharp shook his head, coming around the front. “I had to keep her from calling you last night to check in.”
Abby squealed and threw her arms around Viktor’s waist - it was all she could reach. Her pint size body had all but recovered from pregnancy with double the energy. Patrick rolled his eyes.
Viktor knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret anyway, not from everyone. “She’s coming today, we’re going out after the game.”
“Can I meet her?!” Abby gasped.
“Abby! You’re gonna scare the poor girl off!” Patrick tried to intervene.
“What?! I’m nice! I’m normal. People love me, you moron.” She stuck out her tongue.
“She’s probably nervous,” Patrick put his hands up defensively. “It’s a second date, not an engagement party.”
“Well I bet she’d like to have a friend around here,” Abby said, just shy of adding ‘hmmphh’ at the end.
Viktor laughed at the easy, familiar banter of one of the best married couples he had ever known. Abby had been around a long time and been hugely supportive of her husband’s rise to fame on the ice and also to plenty of media attention, including a few “sexiest” and “most beautiful” awards.
Patrick glanced at Viktor before speaking, as if to apologize for what he was about to say. “Ab, I don’t think Viktor’s new girl needs to sit next to Fiona at her first game.”
“We... oh. OH.” Abby’s eye widened. “Oops, I’m sorry!” She blushed, looking apologetically at Viktor. “I forgot.”
Viktor hugged her into his side. “It’s okay. Give us a few days, and I promise you’ll get to meet her.”
Nicole dropped into her seat - end of the row, twelve rows back from center ice. A few hundred people were scattered around the United Center and some were congregating near the glass and tunnel, securing spots for the pre-game skate. Nicole didn’t see any of that, she had tunnel vision.
“Right there, huh?” Monica was stuffing her jacket down behind her. They were both looking at the red dot at center ice, the sight of The Kiss.
“YEAH.” Nicole got goosebumps just thinking about it.
At least I didn’t have to stress about what to wear, she thought. Jeans and a red vintage-style Blackhawks hooded sweatshirt with a laced-up v at the neck were pretty much her only option. She worshipped Jonathan Toews but wasn’t about to break out that number 19 again. She had fixed her hair into a little lift at the front, put on a touch more makeup and hoop earrings. Sports chic, she thought with a last look in the mirror. Monica sported a Duncan Keith t-shirt over long white sleeves.
During warmup, they stayed in their seats. Fans were piled five and six deep at the glass, but the view from twelve rows up was perfect, if not that close. Nicole smiled to herself, knowing she’d seen Viktor closer than she would have ever anticipated. Instead of battling the crowd, they watched the team drill while searching the view for Stalberg jerseys.
“There’s another, that’s four,” Monica pointed toward a man three sections over watching the Canucks warmup. It was early, but Nicole knew there would only be a smattering of jerseys showing anything but 19, 88, 10 and 2. A fair number of 7s and some 81s, but that was about it. “They’ll catch on.”
The game flew by. The first period had no score, but shots were fast and furious at both ends. Every time Viktor took the ice, Nicole’s heart rate revved like an engine. He was out half the time with Toews and Kane, and together they had some solid chances. By the intermission, she was a little jittery. Monica insisted on a lap of the concourse and two more beers.
The Canucks scored two minutes into the second period. It felt like a slap in the face, come out of nowhere. The crowd flared and then flickered, grumbling to themselves. The energy ebbed noticeably from both the players and fans. Nicole had never felt so plugged into the atmosphere before. At the halfway mark, Hjalmarsson took a bad penalty. But on the power play, the Canucks made a lazy line change without anticipating a burst of speed from Patrick Kane. He got past the blue line with only one man back, then crossed into the Vancouver zone at the same moment he deked the defenseman out of his blue shorts. The puck sailed in high, glove side.
Everyone was out of their seat like a rocket. Chelsea Dagger blared at top volume and struggled to be heard over the screaming. Nicole and Monica were on their feet before the puck touched the twine at the back of the net.
The rest of the game was like that. Vancouver got another, Chicago got it back. Vancouver converted on a power play. Chicago got it back. There was a fight in the third - Jamal Meyers and Kevin Bieksa throwing hooks at each other against the boards. Nicole stomach rolled. The fight ended in a draw, each guy wiping a smear of blood from his face.
Nicole said a silent thank you that Viktor wasn’t a fighter.
The ref clicked on his mic. Five minute majors for both guys, plus a two minute instigator penalty for Bieksa. The crowd went crazy. Six minutes were left on the clock - close enough to try to end this.
RIght off the face off, the puck dropped back to the point, Keith and Seabrook went side to side for twenty seconds. Toews skittered around in front of Luongo. Keith passed to Viktor, he went across to Kane. Kane sent it back to the point. And everyone moved.
It was a set play. Seabrook pinched in from the point, Toews moved into the high slot. Seabrook’s pass looked intended for Jonathan, and the Canucks defense reacted. But Jon lifted his stick at the last moment and ten feet behind, Viktor was waiting. He got off a one-timer that deflected off a leg, Kane redirected it right into the goal.
Pandemonium. The players crashed into each other, hugging at high speed. Random strangers in the stands threw their arms around each other. Nicole jumped on Miranda, screaming.
The next five and a half minutes felt like a lifetime. Every time the puck left a Blackhawks stick, Nicole felt like she wanted to throw up. They came close, but not enough. The horn sounded and Chicago won.
“Jesus,” Nicole moved out of the way so people in their row could exit. There was no way she could make it up the stairs at that moment. She leaned against the railing as the announcer called the Three Stars. Seabrook, Toews and first star, Kane. He wheeled around the ice to a thunderous ovation. Miranda fanned herself.
“He said it would be about half an hour.”
They went to a nearby bar, invisible in their Hawks gear, and found two stools in a corner to claim. Nicole put her phone in her pocket so she’d feel it vibrate. Miranda started reliving the game and Nicole had to tune out.
Her heart was still pounding. That was one of the reasons she loved hockey - so much adrenaline. Games felt intimate, if you could share something intimate with 20,000 people, because they were smaller arenas, closed in to hold the sound. You could hear skates scraping and players shouting to each other. Even from the front row at a baseball game, you were a long way from the action. At a hockey game, only a piece of plexiglass kept the players out of the fans’ laps. It fired her up. She hadn’t lied to Viktor when she said it made her nervous.
“Hey, Nic.” Miranda was waving a hand in front of her face. “Yes, Viktor is probably in the shower somewhere right now. But I’m talking.”
“Sorry,” Nicole laughed. “I’m sorry.”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “Liar. He’s in the shower with Toews, you know that right? And probably Keith. Jesus H. I’d be gay in a heartbeat if I were a hockey player. I mean, you’re sexy,” she waved in Nicole’s direction, “but I doubt you’re hiding anything under that hoody to rival naked Jonathan Toews.”
Nicole narrowed her eyes. “I happen to be very sexy. Especially in the shower.”
“Well then you’d better go to Stalberg’s house because he’s not going to fit in our shower.”
Viktor was in the shower. Then he was dressed. No one had said anything about going out, but after a big win - especially against the Canucks - they almost always did. He was trying to sneak out before the plan was announced. Viktor rubbed a little bit of gel through his hair. He wore a gray suit with a very faint plaid pattern and hints of light red stripes. The tailor had said it worked with his olive skin tone, Viktor just knew he liked the vest. It was buttoned over a white dress shirt, complete with light red tie that he straightened in the mirror.
The game had been exhilarating, more so than usual because he knew Nicole was there. Twice he’d managed to sneak a glance at her and both times she’d been completely engrossed in the game.
Viktor: Be there in five.
He headed for his locker to grab his coat. When he turned the corner, Kane, Seabrook and Keith were all dressed and jacketed, with hats on and hands in their pockets, right in front of his stall.
Pat smirked. “We’re coming on your date.”
A laugh behind him made Viktor turn around. Patrick Sharp was buttoning his own overcoat. “Abby told them. I tried to kill her, but she’s so little and fast.”
“Are you coming?” Viktor asked.
“No way. If I go you might as well bring Abby, because she’ll be pestering me to film the whole thing with my phone.”
Viktor turned back to his friends. The conspicuous absence was Toews, but he didn’t often join them out on the town. Especially not when he had someone waiting for him at home. Viktor thought briefly of Fiona, of everything, and squared his shoulders. Like Sharp, maybe Toews was doing him a favor by not being around to spy.
“Well she’s bringing a friend, so let’s go.”
Kane looked up at the two huge defensemen. “Just one friend? What are these monkeys gonna do all night?”