Jon dropped Nicole’s arm and turned away. She was shaking from a rush of adrenaline. She knew there were less than five seconds to get it together.
“Here you go,” Viktor said four seconds later. He had a perfectly frosty beer for her, and held up his own glass for a toast. Nicole was slow to react but then she took the drink, lifted onto her toes and kissed Viktor square on the lips.
“Cheers,” she smiled.
Nicole was glad for Viktor’s comforting presence by her side. As always, he seemed slow things down - in this case it was her blood rushing. Still a bit of her wished he’d go off to the bathroom so she could punch Jon in the face.
Instead she stuck close to her boyfriend and put on a good performance that everything was fine. Because Nicole had seen a flicker of fear in Jon’s eyes - he didn’t really know what he was doing either. He was trying to cover it with bluster and action. They both just knew he was fucking up. That was something she could handle.
Not messing with the team, or with his relationship, she told herself with a measure of new-found confidence. I got this.
Then she glanced at Fiona. Sorry, girl.
When the night was over, Nicole gave Fiona their biggest hug yet - and this time she meant it. Fiona may have been unkind to Viktor but no one deserved what Jon was doing. She hoped Jon would get his head on straight before he lost Fiona too.
“Did you have fun?” Viktor asked when they were safely into the car. His voice was hesitant.
“I did.” If Nicole were going to say something, now was the time. But she opted for simply, “I don’t know about Jonathan though, he’s a little too much for me.”
He chuckled. “He’s a little too much for everyone.”
Viktor and Nicole fell into a routine - he practiced or played, she worked, and they spent most of the rest of their time together. He looked up new places to take her. She asked him come to the store and help with the St. Patrick’s Day window display, much to the delight of her co-worker Jenny and any woman walking by outside. Two even recognized him and ducked inside for an autograph. It made him blush that Nicole looked so proud.
“We should just put you in the window,” Nicole suggested, admiring the shape of his silhouette and the inch of his underwear that showed above his jeans every time he lifted those big arms. “Live mannequin. You could wear a green shirt.”
Viktor struck a Zoolander-style pose, which wasn’t even funny because he was so damned hot.
“We’d sell this place out in an hour,” she decided.
For more than a week Nicole had managed to avoid Jon. She sat with Abby and Fiona at two games, and the more time she spent with Fiona the more she liked her. The Irish girl clearly had no designs on trying to get Viktor back - at least not now, but she clearly didn’t know about Jon’s attempts to stray either. Still, Nicole knew that was between Fiona and Jone. She wasn’t going to be the girl he cheated with, nor would she be the girl who told. After all she couldn’t be sure her denial hadn’t been the end of it.
Luckily Jon was always in demand by the media. After both games Viktor was dressed and ready to leave before there was any sign of Toews.
As they were finishing the window display, Viktor’s phone buzzed. “Bolland wants to have us over later for a barbecue. He doesn’t care if it’s freezing, he wants to grill. He says we can eat inside if we’re wimps. Wanna go?”
She couldn’t avoid it forever, and f she had to see Jon it should happen while Viktor was nearby. Not that she needed an excuse to stick close to her six feet three inches of absolute perfection all night.
“Okay, sounds good.”
Viktor leaned against the wall in Nicole’s room and watched her root through her closet. The nearby bed was still the mess they’d left it that morning, and it looked so small. When he was laying there it seemed too big. He always wanted her closer. She pulled her work shirt off and dragged his attention from the rumpled sheets. Nicole tugged a striped blue and white sweater over her head, then unzipped her pants. Without acknowledging that Viktor was watching, she slowly shimmied her hips and dragged the jeans down, revealing inch by inch the panties stretched across the firm curve of her ass. As they slipped low, she leaned forward slightly and arched her back.
“Okay!” He gave up and grabbed her from behind, rubbing one big hand over her backside. She laughed and let him stand her up, cheating his fingers under the silky fabric where it disappeared between her legs.
Viktor nuzzled his face into her neck before releasing her. “Don’t tease me.”
Nicole did a graceful but sudden bend, pushing her jeans down and wiggling her ass again for just a second. Then she was changing pants.
“I have no idea what you mean,” she smirked.
They did eventually make it to the Bolland’s house, their hair maybe a little messed up. Nicole headed to the kitchen to drop off the brownies they’d bought and found Julia and Abby making salad. Janka Hossa was opening bags of chips and the girl Duncan had brought to the Valentine’s Day lunch was fitting beers into the fridge. Nicole pointed to her back and made a surprised face, Abby gave her a thumbs up. She loved to see the guys shacked up.
“Hey, I’m Nicole,” she said as the girl emptied the case and stood up.
“Oh yeah, Viktor’s girlfriend. I remember you.”
Nicole’s heart did a happy little squeeze. It was the first time anyone had ever called her Viktor’s girlfriend, even if she’d been adopted by the WAGs very quickly. Behind her, Abby clicked her tongue approvingly. It also thrilled Nicole to be treated like she’d been around forever: she was no longer the new girl. She made a mental promise to help this girl feel welcome.
“It’s Tabitha, right? Nice to meet you.”
Nicole plated the brownies and moved into the living room and den. A bunch of players were there, plenty of girls she knew pretty well by now. She did a full lap, even sticking her head outside where Bolland and Patrick Kane were playing cavemen at the grill.
“Bring any friends?” Kane asked brightly.
“You never even say hi to me! You just want my friends!” Nicole complained.
“Oh, sorry cupcake. Here, come here.” Kane benevolently hugged her like a squid. Behind his back, Bolland gave her a fist bump while Kane was still wrapped around. Nicole laughed - she really liked these guys. Untangling herself, she returned inside to check the last room.
No sign of Jon or Fiona.
Nicole went right back to the kitchen and grabbed herself a beer.
Two hours later, she put her empty plate on top of Viktor’s at the table. Plenty of grilled steak and barbecue chicken were piled on the table; most of the Blackhaws were still eating. She knew there would be nothing left when they were done. She leaned her head on Viktor’s shoulder.
“You need another beer,” he smiled down at her.
“I don’t,” she answered, but she wanted one. That happy, tipsy glow had spread through her body and the good food had only served to make her a little sleepy. Another beer would be her fourth? Fifth? She should definitely have another.
“My lady,” Patrick Kane appeared at her elbow with a freshly opened bottle, and one for himself.
“Thanks Pat. You’re sweet.”
He tilted his beer in her direction. “Tell your friends.”
Nicole was not the only one having a few more beers that usual. Abby was giggling at something Julia whispered, watching Dave ignore them from across the table. Seabrook carried in a six pack and put it in the middle of the table - it was empty a second later. People moved into the living room. The front door opened and Nicole hoped it wasn’t the sound of someone leaving so early.
“You know what I’d love right now?” Viktor said in a husky voice that made her imagine a lot of things she’d love to give him. “Brownies.”
“Brownies!” she yelped, having forgotten all about them. A few heads turned excitedly. She hurried toward the kitchen.
Woah. On her feet, Nicole was a little more drunk than she’d thought. Probably shouldn’t move that fast, she told herself, changing direction toward the bathroom down the hallway. Without knocking, she just pushed the door open.
She’d walked right in... on Jon.
She froze. He was washing his hands, wearing a navy blue sweater with a high collar. Everything from the sight of him to the bright light reflecting in the mirror had her momentarily stunned. Jon reached around her and shut the door, closing them inside. As he did, Nicole got a whiff of liquor, something dark and smoky like bourbon, coming from him.
She stepped back till she was pressed against the door. Jon moved in slow-motion; he was a little drunk too. His hand slipped onto her waist.
Without saying another word, he leaned in and kissed her. It was nothing more than a press of his closed lips; a firm, sleepy kiss. The single moment seemed to last forever, like falling into a bottomless pit. Every detail had time to register - his lips, more full and straight than Viktor’s; the tapered shape of his upper body; even the smoothness of that baby face. A racy vision played in her head, start-to-finish, like her life flashing before her eyes: clothes on the floor, bodies on the counter, more of that mouth on more of her skin.
“Stop!” Nicole recoiled with a quickness she didn’t know worked after five beers. She pushed hard against Jon’s chest. “Stop it!”
He blinked once, then smiled like she was just playing hard to get.
There was no excuse for this. She’d given him the benefit of the doubt, been as nice as she could. He kept coming. Nicole had even protected him by not telling Viktor - she was willing to put it behind them. But Jon had crossed that line. Anything less would be lying now, and still her message was not getting through. Nicole took a step toward Jon, his smirk tilted even more.
She punched him.
Not a slap. One right hook, thrown hard; it made a dull, thudding sound. She wasn’t a big girl or particularly strong, but it caught them both by surprise. Her small fist connected with his temple with more than enough force to make her point.
Jon’s hand flew to his face. Nicole gasped. That was two firsts on the day: someone had called her Viktor’s girlfriend and now she’d decked the guy who was trying to break it up.
“Ow!” Jon said.
Her hand throbbed deeply, sending jolts of pain up her arm. All of a sudden Nicole was very sober.
“Ow!” she shook her hand. “What is wrong with you?!”
“You fucking punched me!” Jon sounded more surprised than hurt.
“You kissed me, asshole!” Nicole shoved him again.
“I thought you wanted it!”
He still had bluster. Nicole imagined he was immediately sober too, and Lord knew he’d taken plenty of punches - hers would barely register. But at least now he was listening.
“Are you really so full of yourself?! I don’t want you to kiss me. I have a boyfriend!”
“You never told him,” he accused.
“I can’t! I can’t tell him you’re doing it again, that the girl you took from him isn’t enough for you. Do you even want Fiona? Or was it just because he did?”
Jon’s shoulders slumped and his face fell. He said nothing. Nicole knew she’d hit home and she kept on coming..
“That’s the only reason you want me, Jon, and this time the answer is no. Even if you don’t care about her, you have a team to run. What the fuck are you doing?!” She turned to leave. He caught her arm, then dropped it just as quickly.
“Are you going to tell him now?”
Nicole drew a steadying breath - she couldn’t believe it. Jon looked beaten and defeated, she almost felt bad for him. Just another manipulation tactic! He had them in spades and she’d refused to play his game. It made her sad to know that her hero was really such a mess.
“Why should I protect you, Jon? You hurt him once, I won’t let you do it again. But he still has to see you every damned day.”
Jon shrugged as if maybe he deserved it. “I don’t care.”
“That’s the worst part, Jon.” She twisted the doorknob. This was the last minute she ever planned to spend alone with Jonathan Toews. “I care more about this team than you do.”
Viktor stood in the dark, filling a glass of water from the slot on his fridge. He didn’t bother to turn on a light or put on any clothes, he was going right back to bed. They’d come home from the Bollands’ house - Nicole had driven, she was surprisingly sober. Then she claimed a headache and took them right to bed.
Now Viktor’s buzz had worn off and he’d woken up thirsty. In the clarity of thought, he knew something was off about the night.
He heard that Jon had been at the party - Shaw and Mayers had seen him come in, but no one had seen him leave. Most people hadn’t seen Toews at all. Nicole had gone for brownies and come back with just a glass of water, then asked Viktor to go back for the treats. Then she sat close and never let go of his hand.
Viktor sipped from his glass. He’d see in the morning if it still felt like something to ask.
But when he got back to bed, she was awake. Rolling to face him, Nicole waited for him to get comfortable before she fit herself in against him.
“What’s wrong?” His voice was quiet. It was a question he’d never had to ask her before.
Nicole had been waiting for him to ask. She didn’t want to volunteer the information but she wouldn’t lie, like being questioned in court.
You don’t lie to people you care about, and she no longer thought Jon deserved her protection. Only Viktor did, and maybe Fiona. So she spoke carefully.
“At the party, Jon made a pass at me.”
Viktor went rigid.
“He was drunk, but I think he meant it.”
Very slowly, Viktor untangled himself and looked down at Nicole. Her dark eyes were wide, the corners pinched with worry. Viktor promised himself that no matter what he felt, Jon would pay for having scared her.
“What happened?” he asked, not really wanting to know.
“He kissed me. And I....”
She hesitated. Viktor’s heart raced, his mind madly calculating. How long had she been gone from the table? Long enough for something serious to happen? Was she about to tell him that she’d slept with Toews?
“I punched him.”
He laughed suddenly, like a bark. She broke into giggles.
“I did,” she said weakly. “It hurt too, and hurt my hand.”
She flexed her hand against his bare thigh, so he dug it from beneath the covers and pulled it up to his mouth. The skin was soft as ever beneath his lips. Pressing a kiss to her knuckles helped keep down the rage building in his chest.
“I’m so sorry, baby.”
“I’m sorry,” Nicole insisted. “I didn’t want to tell you. After everything with Fiona, and he’s your captain. I’m sorry.”
Viktor nudged with his chin, tipping her head up to look at him. “Hey. Don’t do that. Fiona made her choice, and I can handle Jon. Don’t worry about me.”
She smiled thinly. “I hate that anyone hurt you, ever.”
Jon had hit Viktor once, in front of the entire locker room. Hehad slipped another rung that day, giving up the moral high ground in the battle for Fiona. Still Viktor had ended up alone. Now he was in another fight and he had no intention of losing this one.
He grinned back. “I bet you punch harder than Jon.”
“It was pretty good,” Nicole admitted shyly, laughing again. “I hope he has a black eye tomorrow!”
Viktor wrapped her in tight, though it was clear he couldn’t protect her from everything. Maybe he didn’t need to - Nicole seemed able to take care of herself. He just had one other thing to take care of.
The next day’s practice was optional, and Viktor stayed in bed with Nicole way past start time. Jon would be there, of course. He never missed a practice. But Viktor hadn’t decided yet how to handle that situation and he certainly didn’t want to do it in front of the whole team. Let Jon explain his bruised face. He might brag about a conquest but he would never admit defeat, not at the hands of a girl. Viktor took Nicole to work, then turned in the opposite direction.
A confident stride and nod carried him right past the doorman. He’d been there often enough. Viktor walked in like he owned the place, right to the elevator.
Jon opened his door without looking through the peephole. An angry boyfriend had never made it that far before.
Viktor had been sure he was in control. But when he saw Jon’s face he slipped a little, let go of some self-preservation. Before the door was fully open, Viktor shoved his teammate and captain up against the wall inside his own apartment. It knocked the wind out of Jon - the surprise, the force of his back hitting the wall flat. Viktor’s forearm pressed high on his chest, almost at his throat.
“Fuck off!” Jon shoved hard, sending Viktor back a step and freeing himself. He battled big guys for a living and Jonathan Toews did not get intimidated.
Adrenaline flooded Viktor’s system and his hand balled into a fist. Sure he’d barged in here and confronted Jon but Viktor was really acting in self defense. It was time to solve this problem for good.
Then he saw it.
“Oh shit.” His fist released.
Jon’s face was bruised. Along the top of the his left cheekbone was a deepening yellow stain already tinged black where it stretched toward his nose. By tomorrow it would be a black eye.
This isn’t why I came here, Viktor told himself even though it would feel so good to unload on the ungrateful piece of shit who had tried twice to break his heart.
Jon’s blood boiled. He was caught out and knew it, but the physical evidence was most embarrassing. He got roughed up all the time on the ice. Not off.
“The fuck do you want?” Jon bumped Viktor hard as he pushed past. It wasn’t an invitation. “Come here to throw a punch of your own?”
They were both thinking about the last time that happened, when Viktor was on the receiving end. That punch had been a mistake though Jon didn’t see it until after. Viktor had known it then and would not be making the same mistake - there’s more than one way to win a fight.
“I want to,” he stomped after Jon into the kitchen. “But then everyone will know something happened with Nicole. I won’t have her name smeared around here.”
Like Fiona’s, they both thought. Jon didn’t care; his own reputation was far worse. To Viktor it meant something that people know Nicole was a good person.
“So what am I supposed to tell them?” Jon’s voice was low.
Viktor took half a step closer. “That you chased the wrong girl. Believe me, no one will be surprised.”
For the first time, Jon’s expression faltered. Jon couldn’t say anything like that. If he hit on Nicole it was bad, if she turned him down it was worse. To the tune of a black eye it was humiliating - and he definitely had something to lose.
Viktor was ready for it. As much as he wanted to protect Fiona, she had chosen her side. “Fiona chased the wrong guy. She’s your responsibility.”
Jon blinked once, as if to reprocess what he’d heard. “You won’t tell her?”
“Tell her what?” Viktor glared at Jon, fighting the urge to turn his darkening eye into a hole in the side of his skull. It wasn’t worth it. He still had to play alongside this guy every game. “Nothing happened. Nothing ever will. You think you beat me once but I will fight for Nicole. So back the fuck off my girlfriend.”
The hard, level stare in Viktor’s eyes was perfectly composed fury. Jon felt himself shrink an inch in the larger man’s presence.
“You really like her,” Toews said, a twinge of sadness in his voice.
Viktor gestured toward Jon’s busted face. “I think I love her now.”
He stormed out of Jon’s apartment, letting the door slam closed behind him. The elevator was slow and infuriating. Viktor needed to leave before he could turn around and turn Jon into a stain on the carpet. At the lobby he rushed out.
Viktor stopped short, nearly crashing into Fiona. She lived in the building too, or she was going to Jon’s.
Her eyes narrowed in confusion. “What are you doing here?”
Viktor’s heart squeezed in his chest at the sight of her lovely eyes and fair skin. Then it faded to grey - she was his friend, but he didn’t care about her the way he once could have. Someone had filled that space. He stepped around her.
“Just making sure Jon got a message.”
Nicole was in her living room folding laundry when her phone chimed. A minute later, Viktor was standing in her doorway with a rouge’s smile on his face. She examined him quickly for evidence of a fight.
“So?” She would be stunned if he’d done nothing, after being so tense in the night.
He pointed at the heap of clothes. “Pack. We’re going away.”
“For how long?”
Viktor wrapped his arms around her and tipped her backward just enough to render her helpless. As if she’d ever want to go anywhere else. “Just tonight,” he said softly against her ear.
Why am I arguing?! Nicole thought. She’d follow him right off a cliff if he felt like going. She reached over her laundry and snagged a red lace g-string from the pile of underwear, twirled it tantalizingly around one finger and stuffed it deep into the front pocket of Viktor’s jeans. Very deep.
It was evening, nearly dark. They were in the car ten minutes before Viktor made two quick lefts and pulled into the valet lane at the Peninsula Hotel. Nicole just laughed and followed him into the lobby. The hotel was beyond luxurious, it was opulent. Like a palace every surface gleamed in the warm, buttery light. Viktor stopped at the front desk then pulled her toward the elevator.
She went right to the window of the suite he’d rented. It had floor-to-ceiling windows in the living area - the lights of Chicago sparkled below them. The last of the dusk light was disappearing behind a skyline of tall buildings. Nicole stood close enough that her breath fogged the glass.
It was a lot like Toews’ apartment, Viktor knew. If Nicole had ever gone there she’d think this view was old news. Jon always had the nicest things but it didn’t matter. Viktor knew better how to take care of them. He slipped his arms around her waist and she leaned back into his chest.
“I wanted to be where no one could find us.”
Nicole put her arms on top of his. “Because you’re hiding from the police?”
“I didn’t kill him. I didn’t even have to hit him, he already had a black eye.”
Viktor turned Nicole to face him. Her dark eyes never failed to meet his, like she had nothing in the world to hide.
Who kissed who first - they’re be arguing about that for years. Viktor picked her up and carried her to the bed, setting her carefully down. They were stripped and under the covers in no time, coming together without hurry or hesitation. Nicole rolled onto her back, pulling Viktor on top and reveling in the weight of him pressed down on top of her.
Viktor slipped himself into position, then kissed her deeply as he pushed up and in. Her breath caught in a perfect little gasp.
“Baby,” he whispered. Nicole’s eyes fluttered open almost sleepily. “I know you can take care of yourself,” he chose his words carefully, “but next time let me help, okay? I want you to need me, just a little.”
Nicole could have died. The soft curve of Viktor’s lip, the honesty in his gray-green eyes - not to mention how it felt when he moved inside her - it was too much. And here he was saying that he needed her.
“I do need you. More than a little.” She moved her mouth so close they were almost kissing. “And worry, I won’t be throwing any more punches.”
Not quite the end...