Wednesday, May 30, 2012


The cafe was warm and cozy, and a glass of red wine was going a long way toward calming Sara’s nerves.  Despite the wintry temperatures, sunlight poured in through the windows and skylights.  She had ditched her coat and scarf, snuggling into a corner a full thirty minutes before meeting a friend.  She just needed some time to think and get her heard around all this... nothing, all this nothing.  Spending so much time with the Brieres over the last few days had overwhelmed her ability to reason.  

She obviously had a crush on Danny.  Part of it was his sweet kind personality.  Part of it was his kids, of course.  Sara was enamoured of them just as badly.  As a teacher, students sometimes seemed like all work.  Even though Cam was in her class, the time she’d spent with the Briere boys was all fun.

And more tonight.  Which is why she needed this sit-down with her inner monologue.

Technically, Sara could date a student’s father.  There were no written rules against it, provided she graded the student fairly.  Some kids even had parents who worked in the school.  It was fifth grade.  No one was going to college based on a primary school report card.  

There were plenty of other sticking points, though.  Danny was older.  He was divorced, with custody of three adolescent kids.  He was also famous, or infamous, depending on why you asked.  He was extremely rich.  He traveled for work, sometimes weeks at a time, in an environment so high-pressure that Sara was tired just thinking about it.  The physical toll must be high too.  

On paper, Sara was no match for that.  It sounded like a lopsided relationship.  She didn’t own a house, owed money on her car and student loans.  She wasn’t ready to be a mother - not that she had to marry the guy, but spending time with kids carried powerful influence that must be wielded carefully.  With no current boyfriend, someone being away a lot didn’t sound so bad.  In reality she knew it would be harder, and lonely.  Add all the temptations hockey players must have on the road... she pictured Claude and that smile and all the trouble he could get into.  

Danny was already divorced.  Sara had few long-term relationships to speak of and only one had ended badly.  Thinking of it still hurt, and it was barely a drop in what he must have gone through.  

It would be no kindness to get in over her head.  Danny was a grown man, and though Sara felt protective of him it was nothing compared to the way she felt about his sons.  In her classes, she’d seen countless kids bounce-back from family trouble that would crush an adult.  Danny’s sons were getting on very well - she considered them strong, and Danny lucky.

She thought of the Danny’s small, strangely perfect scars.  Just the ones she could see.  And everything that sounded like a no felt more like a yes.

“Dad!” Carson shouted from the top of the stairs.  “I can’t find the shirt for Sara!”

“I already got it,” Cameron hollered back.  This was how roaring gorillas communicated.  Cam had the womens’ black hoodie tied around his waist.

Danny was glad he wouldn’t see Sara until after the game.  It would give them plenty to talk about.  Hopefully it would keep him from doing anything bizarre like touching her hair again.  That one time had kept him up past curfew last night, thinking.

Dating after a divorce is scary.  At first he’d been very casual, running a little wild.  Anti-commitment, he thought.  But he’d been married his entire adult life and part of Danny missed the stability.  Or wanted to miss it, when it wasn’t drowned under the terrible insecurity that came with a failed marriage.  Long after the marriage part was gone, the failed part stuck around.

He still thought of himself as married.  Not to Sylvie, God no.  But the “married type.”  The kids were a big part of that - he knew that his actions affected them.  With a big bank account and a high-profile name, some women saw Danny as an easy mark.  He’d gotten away with a few bad choices.  That was no excuse to take unnecessary risks.  

Still, he didn’t think of Sara as a risk.  She seemed happy and grounded - she didn’t need him.  He’d figured out early on that was one of the things he liked so much about her.  Another woman in her place might take the opportunity and... well, many had tried.  Few had succeeded, none had lasted.

“Dad,” Carson had apparently been talking to him for a while with no response.

“Yeah, Cars?”

“You look nice,” the little boy said, sounding like a little man.  “She’ll like it.”

Danny laughed.  He could never hide anything good from his kids.

Sara stepped away from the will call window with an envelope and gift bag in hand.  She was wearing the black top they’d given her - the last game had been five days before, surely she could do laundry.  Then she realized a house full of boys might not get to the washing that often. So they’d bought her another present.

“Damn it, Danny,” she said under her breath.  Using a shuttered window as a counter, she unzipped her coat and pulled the Flyers hoodie over her Flyers shirt.   It was really nice and really soft, it fit perfectly.  

This time, she found the boys devouring a bag of popcorn.  They all stood and hugged her in turn.  

“Don’t get your buttery fingers on my new sweatshirt!”

The arena was busier during pre-game than it had been on a weeknight, and nearly every person wore Flyers gear.  No business suits or leftover work clothes tonight.  When the beer guy ran past hauling a blue tub, she flagged him down.

“You guys want a beer?” she asked the boys.  

Carson persuaded Sara to move down closer to the glass to watch the pre-game skate.  With all the fans, they had to get a good spot to see much of anything.  She thought of how many people near her would have died to be at the bowling alley the night before, watching Giroux shovel down pizza or Hartnell try to find a bowling ball big enough for his hand.  At least this time she recognized more of the names and faces on the ice.  Carson explained what some of the drills were for, and admitted when he thought some were just for the chance to hit each other and horse around.

“Oh yeah?” she hip-checked him right into a seat.

Danny took the pre-game skate with no helmet on.  Sara did her best not to watch him, because she knew Carson was watching her.

For the game, Sara sat between Caelan and Cameron.  They talked about the opposing team - the Tampa Bay Lightning - as she carefully followed the puck around the ice.  When she lost it along the near boards, she kept her eyes on the bodies instead.  Her nerves were a bit steadier this time, but her heart still leapt when anyone was crunched hard enough to shake the glass.  The Flyers scored two in the first and one in the second, looking comfortable with their game.  Sara breathed more easily with a lead.

During the third period, Danny stepped onto the bench just as a TV timeout was beginning.  He swigged some water and hung his head, catching his breath after a long shift.  At a reaction from the crowd, he looked up to see a couple on the Kiss Cam.  They smooched, then a pair of silver-haired fans in Flyers jerseys got a big round of applause for their kiss.  Danny flipped off his helmet and reached for a towel, just as a stick tapped his arm and a big cheer went up.

“Danny!”  Sean was a few bodies down the bench, reaching over with one hand and pointing with the other.

Briere’s eyes shot up - sure enough, it was Cameron and Sara.  The little boy was scowling and shaking his head in embarrassment.  The crowd roared.  Sara shrugged - every male in the audience hollered their offer to kiss her instead.  The camera didn’t move.  So she grabbed Cam and kissed his cheek and the whole place cheered.

Claude skated by and biffed Danny with his glove.

“Hey Cam!” Hartnell picked Cameron up under one arm like a football.  “Or should we call you Kiss Cam now?!”

Caelan and Carson about died.  That would be the joke for ages.   The rest of the families in the lounge were laughing, but Sara caught more and more looks cutting her way.  No one had really noticed her after the last game.  And she hadn’t really noticed the stilettos and blow-outs and expensive purses on the wives and girlfriends.  Maybe they got more dressed up for Saturday night games.  More likely she’d been overwhelmed and exhausted by the tight game.  Tonight, she was seeing more of everything, including the way they looked at her.

They think I’m the nanny, she assumed.  Scott hugged her hello as a few players she hadn’t met filed into the room.  He introduced he as “Cameron’s kissing teacher” to anyone that would listen, oblivious to the extra eyebrows that raised around the room.  It only got worse.

“Sara, you’re making everyone jealous!” Claude reached an arm around her neck and pulled her into his side very familiarly.  Considering he drank half her Twizzler Coke before introducing himself, she guessed he was always like this.  But none of the other women in the room were getting the Giroux treatment, and a few looked like they really wanted it.  Razor-edged glares raked over her, and Sara shifted her weight right into Claude’s chest.

“Cam’s a lucky guy,” she said.  The little boy stuck out his tongue.

“That’s grown up kissing, Cam.  Give her a few years,” Claude joked.  Sara smacked him.

“Hey guys.”  

Danny turned up as Sara was giggling, Claude’s arm over her shoulders.  It struck him as the kind of place she belonged - with a younger guy, no commitments, nothing but an incredibly bright future that she could make even better.  Sara was a few years older than Claude but he could use that steadying influence.  Danny had once played that role, Sara would do just as well.

Then she stepped free from Claude and, still laughing, hugged Danny.  She just reached out and looped her arms around his neck, giving him a squeeze the same way she had greeted Scott.  He was so clean and scrubbed in his suit, hair pushed back, looking at her like he could never in a million years hope to understand a thing about her.  The embrace was nothing suggestive or possessive - just seeing his face right then, all Sara wanted to do was hug him.  

Haha, the nanny.  Screw you guys! she thought.  Danny’s hands rested at the small of her back, almost tentatively.

“If you can win every game by three goals, I will live a lot longer,” she said.  

“I think Cam had a better game than we did,” Danny said loudly, though it was no longer true.  The hug trumped the Kiss Cam.  Cameron groaned and shoved away from Scott, disappearing deeper into the room.  Danny let go of Sara a little reluctantly, remembering what happened the last time he forgot to focus around her.  “Are you hungry?”

Sara didn’t know what was into her.  She felt giggly and silly: leftover adrenaline from being on the Kiss Cam and watching the Flyers win, mixed with the strange defensiveness that prickled her skin under the harsh looks from the other women in the lounge.  As if she were somehow not good enough, and at just a glance.  Granted she had held both Danny and Claude’s attention.... then left with Danny, almost sad to miss the looks being shot at her back.  Sara just snickered and settled back into his passenger seat.

They went to the same pizza place and ordered the same pizza.  The boys had another go at the claw crane game, leaving Danny and Sara alone again.  If she got shy and quiet, Danny would too and they’d be stuck, staring at each other awkwardly and wishing for this night to end.  Sara definitely didn’t want it to end.  She asked about the game, a few specific things, and that lead to more conversation.  

Danny told her anything and everything.  The only thing he was careful about was not bragging.  She could look up his stats or his salary.  What she couldn’t find was how they spent their free time, what he missed about home, how he made the boys send him their homework so he’d know what they were up to.

“Cam tells you what we’re reading?”

“Yeah, and you’re good.  I’ve never read most of the stuff from this year, not even when the others were in grade five. I usually get the books online - they’re short, for Cam.  Caelen’s I just read the Cliffs Notes,” he admitted.  They didn’t have unlimited time and some of the seventh grade stuff was tiresome.

Sara thought she might die - a parent this involved was music to a teacher’s ears.  She leaned forward in her chair and put her hand on his forearm, skin-to-skin where he’d rolled up his sleeve.  They both looked at her hand for a moment but Sara was resolved not to let go.  For every argument she’d had against this, Danny had a million good reasons.

“Danny, all my students should be lucky enough to have a dad like you.”

Kiss me, he willed her for the first time to make the move he couldn’t.

God, I want to kiss him, her mind screamed in silence.

“Pizza!” the boys stormed the table like an enemy beach.

Saved by that fucking pizza. Again! Danny and Sara thought at the same time.

The food didn’t last long. Sara polished off a slice and pushed her plate away.  Danny wondered if she’d meet friends after this, maybe go out dancing or to a bar full of guys her own age with no one waiting for them at home.  It was barely eleven o’clock.  The night was young.

“If you are going out, you could call Claude.  I think they went to a club,” Danny suggested.  It made him feel hopelessly old but at least he’d know she was in good hands.

“I don’t know how they can even stand up after a game.  I’m beat,” she said.  “These guys wore me out.”

“Can we watch a movie when we get home?” Carson asked with his mouth full of cheese, looking right at Caelan.

“It’s the middle of the night!” Danny answered.

“Just till we fall asleep.  It won’t take long.  Sara could come,” Caelan picked up the idea.

It was the worst best idea Danny had ever heard.  He’d surely lose his mind with her in the house, late at night, curled on his couch watching a movie.  The vision of Cameron asleep with his head in her lap flashed through his mind.  Danny felt weak, as tired as Sara had said he should be.

“Another night, guys.  Let Sara have a life.”

“Her boyfriend is on the space station,” Cam said conversationally, as if that obviously left her free for midnight movie marathons.

Danny gave her a wry look.  “The space station?”

“I broke up with the astronaut, Cam.  Try to keep up,” she mussed his hair.  “My new boyfriend is a treasure hunter, he’s scuba diving on a pirate ship right now.”

“Right now?” Cameron asked sarcastically.  “It’s the middle of the night.”

“Not in Australia.”

Sara smiled at Danny, who managed to compose his face into a smile.  For a second there, at the word boyfriend, he was sure he’d looked quite horrified.

“Let’s get Sara home, guys.”

For all their requests, the boys were mostly asleep before Danny turned onto Sara’s street.  

“A treasure hunter, eh?”

She smiled out the window.  “Last time it was a lion tamer.  He didn’t blink at that one.  Or the astronaut.”

Danny willed her to say the words out loud - words he already knew, thanks to Claude.  Sara doesn’t have a boyfriend.  The moment would be too perfect to pass up, like she was inviting the question.  Danny would swallow his fear, Sara would practically be begging him to ask her out.  Just say it!

“What’s next?” he asked cautiously..

“Maybe a fighter pilot,” she shrugged.  Or a hockey player.

At her door, politeness was the only reason for Danny to get out.  He started to unbuckle and she stopped him, saying he didn’t have to, thanking him again for another great night and impressive win.  He couldn’t kiss her from the driver’s seat, couldn’t even get close enough for a proper hug.  And Danny was feeling it, at least for the moment.  Maybe he could do what he couldn’t say.  The boys were groggy enough that he might get the chance.

Sara had no idea what to do.  She couldn’t kiss him in a car full of his kids, and she couldn’t be near his mouth without kissing him.  Cheeks didn’t stand a chance tonight.  Even outside - if she got near him, she’d crack.  The idea of cuddling on his couch - with him, a kid, heck maybe they even had a dog - refused to leave her mind.  So she had to leave this car.

But not without something.

Sara slipped her hand into Danny’s where it lay on the center console.  His fingers twined between hers like a reflex.  Before he could really react, she squeezed once and let go.

“‘Night, Danny.”

Danny waited until she was inside before pulling away - partly to make sure she got in okay, partly hoping she’d come running back.  He was two blocks away before Caelan stirred, and his brothers followed suit.  They hadn’t been asleep at all.

“Fakers,” Danny said under his breath.

Caelan was more serious.  He patted Danny’s arm.  “Maybe next time, Dad.”

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Carson checked the hallway to make sure his father was nowhere to be found.  Then he shut his bedroom door and turned to his brothers.  He laid out his plan and they all agreed.

“Action,” Caelan said.

It had been two days since the game, and Danny had no excuse to call Sara.  He hoped that seeing Cameron every day would keep him in her mind, if in fact he was in it at all.  Still he wished there were some reason.

“Dad, can I have a birthday party this weekend?”

The question came from nowhere in the casual manner of kids.  Cameron was opening a granola bar, his brothers pouring glasses of milk.  Danny looked at them grouped in the kitchen and thanked his luck that his sons were like a little team of their own.

“What? Your birthday’s not for weeks yet.”

“Yeah, but by then it’s the playoffs and all crazy.  Remember last year?”

There had been an incident where Danny and Claude picked up an ice cream cake on the way home from a road trip.  They stopped at the rink to drop stuff off, got caught up in a playoff tape session and the forgotten cake melted all over Giroux’s back seat.  Sticky.

“Yeah, true.  This weekend is so soon though.  What do you want to do?”

“Bowling.  And invite my whole class.”

Hmmm, thirty kids.  Probably twenty would come, plus parents.  Like teachers, Cameron’s classmates and families had a habit of popping up where they knew Danny would be.  Inviting everyone would be most fair, but it wouldn’t be focused on Cameron if everyone was paying attention to Danny.

“How about just everyone in your homeroom?” Carson suggested right on cue.  Danny didn’t see the look that passed between his sons.

Fifteen kids, that’s better.  And this weekend so not everyone will make it on short notice, Danny thought.  “Okay.  If you want to.  Friday night, because I have a game Saturday.”

“Miss Cardenne!”  Cameron whispered as loud as he could.  The classroom was empty and he hadn’t seen Sara in the hallway or cafeteria.  He knocked on the wall outside the little office at the back of her classroom.

“Hey Cam!” she wheeled into view in a rolling chair, pulling headphones from her ears.  “Sorry, I was watching a lesson video.  What’s up?”

“Do you have a date with your boyfriend on Friday night?”  His little face was all lit up.  

She gave him a very confused look, then remembered what she’d told him last time he asked that question out of left field.  “I dumped the lion tamer.  My new boyfriend is an astronaut, he’s on the space station till Monday.  Why?”

“I’m having an early birthday party before playoffs.  Dad says I can invite the whole homeroom and we can go bowling!”  He held out an envelope with careful printing in his own handwriting on the front - Miss Cardenne (Sara) - and then he took off running.

When he was gone, she closed her door and stared at the back of it.  She hadn’t talked to anyone about Danny, mostly because there was nothing to tell.  She met a student’s dad, he was nice and they had coincidentally spent some time together outside of school.  That’s all it was - coincidence.  And Danny’s generosity.  Plus, Sara was a bit of a free babysitting for an overworked single dad.

So why did it feel like a big deal to see him again?

All the kids will be there, and most of the parents will come, she knew.  On one hand it was perfect - of course their teacher would be invited to a class event.  On the other hand it was trouble.  Any hint of extracurricular activity between her and Danny would hit this place like a gossip tornado.

There’s nothing!  Sara laughed at herself, but she was blushing.  

Danny surveyed the last six lanes of the bowling alley.  It had been easy to reserve the space, even on a Friday night, and the party package was astoundingly inexpensive.  He wondered if someday his kids would ask for cars and trips and the kind of pricey presents that other, older acquaintances seemed to expect.

A handful of kids had already arrived. Their parents were friendly and surprisingly unfazed by Danny’s notoriety.  Some of the moms were even helping, rearranging the balloons to make the pizza easier to reach.  Still he wondered how many of them knew the scandal surrounding his divorce, had gossiped about him on the way over.  He could never get away from those stories but every passing day helped.  


His heart skipped even before he whipped around.  There was Sara, somehow prettier than before, wearing jeans and a white sweater with bowling shoes in one hand.

“Sara!  Hi!”  He cringed at the high pitch of his voice, exaggerated by surprise.  Why hadn’t he expected her?  Why hadn’t Cam told him?

“Hi.”  She suddenly felt very awkward.  He didn’t know she was coming.  He had not invited her, Cam had.  And Cam had either kept it a secret or, much more likely, it didn’t matter if she was there.  The butterflies in her stomach dropped like rocks.  Still, there was Danny in jeans and a black long-sleeved t-shirt that made his hair seem darker where it framed his face.  That smile, and those scars... Sara shrugged nervously.

“Oh, I, uh... I’m glad you’re here,” Danny stuttered, then stepped in and kissed her lightly on the cheek.  It was very French, something he’d been doing his whole life.  Rarely did he need to remind himself not to go for someone’s mouth.  Her skin was smooth and she smelled wonderful, like honey and vanilla.  “It’s nice to see you.”

“You too.”  She might need to lie down.

“Sar - Miss Cardenne!” Cameron yelled, barreling into her like a linebacker with his arms around her waist.  Parents turned to follow his mad flight and every one of them recognized their kids’ teacher.  She thanked heaven that Danny had already kissed her when they weren’t looking.

“Happy birthday, Cam.”  She pulled a small, flat package out of her back pocket.  It had taken her ten minutes to think of it and two days to decide if she should do it.  “Open it later.”

“Cool, thanks!  Here Dad,” he passed it to Danny and grabbed for Sara’s hand all in one breath.  “Will you be on my team?”
She let him lead her toward the group and tried to look just like every other guest at his party.  Danny, on the other hand, retreated a few steps so he could get his head on straight.  Sara was Cam’s homeroom teacher.  All her students and parents were here - in a way, her presence made perfect sense.  But he knew his kids.

“Carson!” he called. The middle boy trotted over, chewing on a mozzarella stick.  “Did you know Sara was coming?”

The boys would be good liars someday - growing up with brothers honed that skill.  But for now their poker faces needed work.  Two things flashed in Caron’s eyes - success at their plan and fear of being caught.

“You said invite everyone in Cam’s homeroom...,” he said, straight-lipped for a moment before he cracked a huge smile, ducked his father’s arm and ran away.

“Traitor!” Danny called after him.

Sara talked to every single kid and parent.  If they were surprised to see her, no one said.  Making the rounds felt like chaperoning a school trip and Sara decided that was the best way to approach this situation.  That lasted until she looked up to see Danny headed straight for her.  Panic fluttered in her stomach even as she tried to force it down.  Then Danny went right past.

“Cameron!” a voice boomed behind them.

“Yaaaaay!” fifteen kids shouted, and some of their parents.  Spinning in her seat, Sara saw another sight she had not considered tonight - a handful of the Flyers crashing a kid’s birthday party.  One of them, a huge hulk of a man with curly red hair, already had Cameron upside down by the ankles, trying to shake free any presents in his pockets.  Kids crowded around, high-fiving and causing a stir that had the rest of the bowling alley at a dead stop.

Shit!  She would be the only one who didn’t know their names.

Danny should have known when Sara arrived that Cameron’s idea of limited guests was not the same as his.  Of course Sean knew about the party, even if Danny felt bad for suggesting an 18-year old guy spend his Friday night with a pre-teen birthday crowd.  But the kids would have told Giroux, who would have told everyone.  He would never miss one of their birthday parties.  Danny greeted his teammates, asking if their names were on the list, then left them to fend off all the new faces.  They’d shown up, they could take care of themselves.

Down by one of the scoring machines, Caelan and Sara were sitting with their feet up on the ball rack, talking.  He could tell from a distance Sara was answering a question, speaking to Caelan like an adult.  Caelan was nervous - fiddling with his watch was a tell.  

Look at her.

Danny could picture Sara making the kids breakfast on a Saturday morning, then taking them all to hockey practice.  He pictured her bandaging a scraped knee, folding laundry, cooking dinner - all things he’d had to learn the hard way when he became a single parent.  It was the most dangerous fantasy Danny had these days - a woman helping raise his kids.

“Who’s the tail?”  Of course it was Claude, chomping happily on a slice of pizza with no plate.  Off the ice, he never stopped smiling.  Not even to eat.

“Cam’s teacher, Sara.”

“That’s not Cam,” he pointed out, knowing well that Caelan was the most guarded of Danny’s children.  As the oldest, he’d felt the divorce most keenly.

“She’s met the kids a few times.  They really like her,” Danny said by way of explanation.

Claude gave him a shove in that direction.  “Bet they’re not the only ones.”

Instead of stopping their conversation, Sara held up a hand and whispered behind it as she and Caelan watched Danny approach.  Her bangs slipped down in front of her face.  

“You two planning something?” he asked suspiciously.

Sara was always friendly with kids, and knew that some parents were uncomfortable when their children would talk more easily to other adults.  It came from not being that much older than her students, and it didn’t work on everyone.  Her instincts told her that Danny would welcome any influence.

“World domination,” she said calmly.  

He shrugged, taking the seat across from them.  “Same as every day.  What are you drinking?”

“Twizzler Cokes,” she explained, and held her cup out to Danny.  They’d bitten the ends off of Twizzlers and pushed them through the holes in the plastic lids.

If he wanted to taste it, he would have asked Caelan.  But watching Sara’s lips press around the candy straw, then being offered the same spot - it was too good to pass up.  He took a sip, nearly closing his eyes.  

This is what it would taste like the kiss her right now, he thought of the cherry and sugar and bubbles.  

“That’s good,” he said with genuine surprise.

Sara bit her lip just on the inside and hoped he couldn’t tell.  She quickly reclaimed her straw, also thinking about a kiss.  “Told you.”

Caelan slurped the empty bottom of the cup.  He got up and walked away, Danny looking over his shoulder at his son’s back.  When he turned, Sara was watching him with soft eyes.

“He’s fine,” she said, reading his mind.  Parents worried, especially when the kids talked to teachers for too long.  Danny hadn’t known he was such an easy father to read.  

“Just nervous about ninth grade.  I said I’d give him some books to read this summer, maybe get a head start.”  Sara paused.  “If that’s okay.  I’m sorry, I should have asked you.”

“No.”  Danny put his hand her shin, it was right near his arm as she sat with her feet up.  His touch was very warm through the denim.  They both looked at his hand, then at each other.  “You’re always helping them.  I feel bad if they’re making you work all the time.”  The shape of her leg in his grip made him think how delicate Sara was.  Not small or fragile, but perfectly made of light, slender materials that were surprisingly strong, like a flower.  

His eyes were so dark, they might be black.  She was glad to be sitting back because she couldn’t move - not that her body was responding anyway.  Just glitches and sparks like a circuit board overloading.

Ask me out! Sara shouted telepathically.

This is the moment, Danny finally felt right, his hand still on her leg.

“Awww, Twizzler Coke!  I haven’t had one of those in forever!” Claude thundered down the stairs and without so much as an introduction, reached for Sara’s cup.  She gave it up.  Danny pulled his hand from her leg.

G, something with a G, she tried to remember as this strapping, smiling red-haired guy in jeans and a t-shirt sucked down half her soda.  

He finished and smacked his lips, then passed back the drink and kept his hand out.  “Claude Giroux.”

She let Claude pull her to her feet.  “Sara.  Cameron’s teacher.”

Giroux winked at Danny, who was also getting up.  The smaller man wore a stormy look that said Claude had interrupted something.  Giroux slapped him on the back.  “You gonna hog Sara all night, or let her bowl?”

Claude declared that he and Cameron were a team against Danny and Sara.  She weighed a few bowling balls in her hand and chose a purple one with white swirls.  Danny waited for her selection, then picked a ball several pounds heavier.  He didn’t want to look like a wimp - in front of Sara or the parents and kids where were watching.  Hartnell seemed to sense it and began talking animatedly to whatever grown ups he could distract.

Three frames in, Danny needn’t have worried.  They were leading by twenty already.

“You’re good!” he said honestly.  She also smelled incredible, every time she moved there was a whiff of something he wanted to curl up with and sleep.

“I thought Cam invited me because I beat you all at Skee Ball.”  

Sara could almost forget this was one permission slip shy of a school trip.  Something about the audience made her feel safe.  Her enthusiasm would be noticed, so instead of trying to hide it, Sara let it out a little.  Every time one of them made a good throw, she high-fived Danny.  He quickly got the message and started reciprocating.  Then he bumped her hip as they stood next to the ball return.  She had the urge to throw her arms around him.  Maybe he knew it, because he smiled shyly and looked down, but didn’t turn his face away.  By the last frame they were way ahead.  Sara came up against Cameron, and he stuck his tongue out at her.  She walked to the line, stopped and bent over at the waist.

“Come on!”

Cam lined up next to her and they both threw at the same time, heaving from between their knees like little kids.  The balls rolled ponderously down the lanes - Sara’s faltered and tipped into the gutter.  Cam’s went and went, and finally hit the first pin straight on.  It wobbled, fell and took out the row behind it, and so on until the last pin dropped and Cam had his only strike of the night.

“Yes!” He did a scoring dance worthy of a playoff goal.  Her fake pout was lost in laughter.

Danny’s fingers were white on the bowling ball he held.  The more he tried not to think about it, the worse it got.  At least he wasn’t alone - all the Brieres were falling for Sara.

Claude turned up at Danny’s elbow as he was throwing a load of paper plates into the trash.  Half the party guests had left and the other half were finishing games.  His kids had that bleary look that followed too much excitement and junk food.

“I’ll take the boys home if you ask her out,” Giroux said.

Danny straightened.  “No.”

“Come on. You’ve been trying not to stare at her all night.”

“I can’t.  She’s Cam’s teacher.  There must be a rule against it.”

“Just a rule?”

Danny groaned.  “I’m an old man, G.  She doesn’t want this.”

“So let her say no,” Claude said with all the confidence of someone who had never heard no from a woman in his life.  “At least she’ll know you wanted to.”

He glanced over.  Sara was on one knee, helping a student untie a knot in his shoelace.  The kids were yelling and bumping, swirling around her like chaos.  Sara looked perfectly calm.  “I can’t scare her away, the boys are crazy about her already.  I have to worry about them too.”

Claude draped an arm over Danny’s shoulder. “Those boys are worried about you.”

Danny knew it was true.  The boys were old enough and smart enough to realize their parents were never getting back together. It wasn’t their fault.  When they were younger, guilt was his constant companion.  The phrase “broken home” made him nauseous.  But in truth, he’d handled it worse than they had.  There were a few parties and pictures he wasn’t proud of, even beyond what the mainstream media had printed.  Danny chalked it up to having married so young - he was only 20 when Caelan was born.  Nothing in life had prepared him everything in his life falling apart.

The kids bounced back.  They inspired him to get his shit together and be a role model.  Danny cut the rowdiness and settled down.  He invited Giroux to move in for a season to keep his young friend from making the same mistakes.  Now the student had become the teacher.

“I don’t even know if she has a boyfriend,” Danny tried weakly.

“No boyfriend,” Claude said with conviction.  Danny narrowed his eyes.  “What? I asked her.”

“Oh my God!”

Claude just grinned.

“Well.. how old is she?”

Now Giroux rolled his eyes.  “If you have a list of specific questions, you need to give it to me in advance!  God, you’re hopeless.  Ask her yourself!”

Danny just shook his head.

“Danny,” Claude was much taller and could be deadly serious when he wanted to be.  “A beautiful girl who likes your kids?  Come on, you’re halfway there!”

Sara was waving goodbye to students and families, standing next to Sean.  As she turned and tossed some cups into the trash, she looked every inch the hostess of this party.  Danny couldn’t  believe he was thinking that way - he’d let her in so far already, without even noticing.  It was all just in his head.  A few friendly words, a couple of coincidental nights out and those three times he’d kissed her cheek.  It was a far cry from inviting a young woman into a grown-up life.

“I can’t,” he repeated, mostly to himself.

Claude groaned and pushed him away.  “Hey Sara!” he said loudly, as there were no families left to hear.  “You coming to the game tomorrow night?”

Danny covered his face with one hand.  At full volume Claude made plans for Sara to take the boys to Saturday night’s game.  Coutourier seconded the idea.  She agreed so quickly he wished he’d done it himself.

Date night, Danny thought sarcastically.  With my kids and twenty thousand other people.

Five minutes and a plan for the next day later, it was time to leave.  Danny approached as everyone was zipping up their coats.

“Hey.”  Sara’s smile was so big he felt weak.  In the last half hour of the party he’d stayed clear of her, almost afraid he’d do the wrong thing and be embarrassed, or worse, turned down.  “That was really fun.”

“You always say that when you hang out with us.”  He could score playoff overtime goals but couldn’t calm his nerves.

“So far, so good,” she said.  “See how you do tomorrow night.”

Danny wanted to say he’d planned to ask her to the game, Claude simply beat him to it.  But he wasn’t sure it was true.  He wasn’t sure about anything other than tremendous relief to know he’d be seeing her again the next night.  It just took him a few moments of standing there, looking at her to realize it.

“Hello? We have a curfew!” Claude playfully grabbed Sara around the shoulders.  Caelan punched him in the side, Giroux let go of Sara and grabbed the kid in a headlock.

“Gerrrooofffmmmmeeee!” Caelan twisted and failed right out the door into the parking lot.

“Shotgun!” Carson hollered and took off running. Cameron went after him, then skidded to a stop and came right back.

“Bye Sara!” He hugged her for a nanosecond and resumed the chase for the front seat.  He didn’t win, but it didn’t matter.  Darting around the far side of the SUV, Cameron found his brothers and Claude huddled up, peeking through the windows to where Danny and Sara walked toward the car.  What they saw looked like a date.  Claude high-fived the boys and made for his own ride home.

“Six-thirty again tomorrow?” Sara asked.

Danny nodded.  The boys would go with him well before game time.  “I’ll leave your ticket at will call.  Do you want to bring a friend?”

He looked into the middle distance as he asked.  Sara got a clear impression from his body language that he hoped she would say no.  As if she could say yes - how to explain to someone she was feeling something over nothing?  Danny practically lived on a different planet, no matter how what the bubbles in her bloodstream said.  

That’s probably why he doesn’t want anyone else coming.  Doesn’t want rumors starting when there’s nothing going on.  Poor guy has been through enough of that already.

“Just me.”

Her car was first, and Sara stopped.  Danny did too.  Neither of them said anything.  Sara could see her breath in the early night air and for a second, she was overwhelmed with certainty that Danny was going to kiss her.  Her heart thumped stupidly, like a dog wagging its tail too hard.  

Danny pressed his lips together.  He didn’t trust himself to speak or smile or he’d kiss her for sure.  Every thought in his head said he shouldn’t, everything in front of him said he should.  Somewhere behind him, as always, were his sons.

“Bye, Sara,” was the best he could do.  But as Danny leaned in to kiss her cheek, his body rebelled.  His far hand came up on the other side and cupped her face, tilting it to his - so unplanned that he missed her mouth by a fraction of an inch.  Instead, his lips brushed gently across her skin and his fingers passed into the soft fall of her hair.

It was over almost before it happened.  Sara might have imagined his fingers on her bare skin, except for the goosebumps that spilled down her back.  If she didn’t gasp out loud, she was certainly thinking it.

They were apart in an instant.  Danny was mortified at himself for getting carried away - he turned with a quick goodbye and made straight for his car.  That hand balled into a fist, equal parts frustrated and not wanting the feel of her to escape.

Sara barely noticed, suddenly fumbling at keys with fingers that wouldn’t respond.  When finally she was in, her car zipped from the parking lot before it could see any other strange encounters.

The boys were loud as ever in the SUV, and for once their din actually slowed Danny’s heart rate.  They hadn’t seen anything.  Because nothing had happened.  An errant touch - just like Sara touching the scar on his jaw in the restaurant.  A mistake narrowly avoided.  He glanced in the rear view.

I have to be more careful.

As he shifted the car into gear, something in his back pocket poked him.  Danny fished out the flat wrapped package.  “Hey Cam, you forgot Sara’s present.”

For anyone nearly eleven years old, those were the most exciting words on Earth.  Cam snatched the gift and shredded the paper.  “YES!”

“What?!”  Carson and Caelan both tried to grab it.

“Laser tag!  It says, ‘Dear Cam, sorry you have to share your present, but this wouldn’t be much fun alone.’  It’s good for five people.”

“Bring me! Bring me!” Carson pleaded.

“Duh,” Cam said.  “Us four and Sara.”

Monday, May 21, 2012


Forgot to turn on anon comments for Chapter One - sorry if I cut you out! They're on now, so comment away. - Juliet

“I really can’t thank you enough....”

Danny and Sara were at the bar, standing close in the post-happy hour crowd, switching the adult beverages.  He had already paid for dinner but the boys wanted to wear themselves out.  Sara stayed too - she was pretty good at air hockey, to the boys dismay.  Danny still felt she was doing them a favor, like babysitting.  

“Danny, stop.  I’m having fun,” Sara said for what seemed like the hundredth time, beginning to feel like an intern or a volunteer.  “I didn’t have any plans anyway.  Is it okay if I hang out?”

“Oui, of course,” he was a little surprised that she was so adamant.

Sara took the drink he’d ordered for her.  “Good.  Because there’s no beer at parent-teacher conferences, so don’t get me in trouble!”

He blushed a little, and Sara knew she either needed to not drink or get some space between them, or both, and quickly.  Otherwise she was going to kiss him - another thing not allowed at parent-teacher conferences.

What am I doing?  She led the way, winding around the bodies, Danny following.  He was so nice and his kids were sweet - she was actually having fun.  A lot more fun than watching a movie at home or talking on the phone.  The boys had given her a run for her money at air hockey, and they’d exploited her weakness for basketball free throws.  Every game they played, Danny played too.  He was like a grown up kid.

He’s a great dad.  And that was Sara’s true weakness.  Over five years of teaching, she had seen every kind of parent and family.  Based on her first meeting with Danny she would have ranked him high on the list.  Now having watched him interact with his kids for nearly two hours, he was only moving up.  He was also moving closer to her, she was fairly sure of it.  A few times he’d touched her, just innocently, and she had done the same.  But it didn’t feel innocent.  It felt like she wanted to keep doing it and so should stop, immediately.

The boys were playing a race car game in three seats lined up next to each other.  Sara took the fourth and fired up a red hot rod.

Danny stayed just far enough away.  The pint glass was to anchor his hand so he wouldn’t forget this wasn’t a date and accidentally touch Sara’s hair or put his arm around her.  Good thing he was driving, because two beers and he’d have been doing that and more.  She was beautiful and she was good with kids.  But specifically she was good with his kids - reading them, talking to them like adults.  The way she had reasoned with Cam, instead of just telling him what not to do, earned her a shower of gold stars in Danny’s book.  She would be a great mom someday.

To her own kids.  He guessed she was twenty-eight but couldn’t figure out how to bring it up.  She wore no rings.  He’d asked where she lived but there was no indication if she lived alone.  Of course, she’d had no plans tonight but maybe her boyfriend was a brain surgeon on shift or a Navy SEAL on deployment.  Whatever it was, there had to be something.  So Danny sipped his beer and watched them play.

“They let you drive a real car?!” Carson hollered as Sara plowed her avatar into a set of bleachers on the virtual race track.

“You’re not driving us home!” Caelan agreed, his own car skidding wildly left and landing in a fountain.

“Just you wait! I’m going to be your Driver’s Ed teacher and you’ll never pass!” She laughed like the evil queen from a cartoon and resumed the race.  In the end, she finished third just above Caelan, whose car limped across dripping.

A few more rounds of Skee Ball and the boys started to fade.  Sara had finished her beer and declined another, knowing Danny wouldn’t have one either.  They collected their stuff and headed for the door.  Danny had valeted his black SUV.

“I’m parked down here,” Sara pointed along the street.

“Can we give you a ride?”  Danny sounded absurdly hopeful, but she lifted her keychain and ten cars down, lights flashed.  The boys chorused their goodbyes.  Cameron looked quickly at his brothers, judged there was no threat and wrapped his arms around Sara’s waist.  

She hugged him back and mussed his hair.  “Good date, Cam.”  That got some ‘ooohs’ from the other boys.  The valet arrived and they scrambled to sit up front.

“Can I say thank you once more?” Danny stepped a little closer once his sons were occupied.  He didn’t have much of a plan but it was time to do something.

“No, because I had a really good time.”  Sara told him, aware three sets of suspicious, adolescent eyes were watching.

“You’re great with them. Cam’s lucky to have you as his teacher,” Danny said honestly.  “Can I at least repay you with that hockey game?”

A hot blush was rising in her face.  “I’d love to.  The boys can teach me a thing or two.”

“They always do,” Danny admitted.  Then he moved a little closer and, all at once, kissed Sara on the cheek.  He didn’t dare put his arms around her or he’d kiss her for real.  She tilted her face up slightly in surprise.

“Pick a game, eh?  I’ll be back in twelve days.”

Sara was smiling so hard her face hurt, except for the spot where Danny’s lips had touched her skin.
“Good luck on your trip.”

“‘Night, Sara.”

She turned away and finally broke character, her expression one of complete disbelief.  The night had gone from unusual to unreal.  It had been the best un-date of her life.  And Sara was left with butterflies in her stomach and an undeniable crush on Danny Briere.

Danny didn’t watch Sara walk away.  He was afraid each step would only double his desire to call her back.  Belted into the driver’s seat, he had barely pulled away from the curb when the boys busted out.


“You are so embarrassing!”

“Oh my God, kiss her already!!”

They were in hysterics, squealing and flailing in their seats.  Danny reached over and biffed Carson.  In the rear view mirror he saw Cameron and Calen’s faces red from laughing.  Every rule Danny had made that night, about what not to think and not to do, came down at the sight of his sons calling him out over a girl.  “She likes you guys, not me!”

“Wrong!” Caelan announced.  “She kept touching her hair and smiling and stuff.  I mean, not as much as you were.”  He mimed Danny’s habit of tucking his hair behind his ears.

“Yeah Dad, you don’t know anything about girls,” Cam added with the wisdom of ten years.

“I’m not letting you take Sara to a game if you’re going to give her a hard time!”

“Ooooh, Sara!” they all sang.  Danny put his head back against the seat.  This was going to be impossible.

At the house, Caelan waited for his father to go to the kitchen, then darted upstairs into Cameron’s room.  He called for Carson to join them.  A plan was hatched.

“All in favor?” Caelan asked.  His brothers both raised their hands.

“How?” Cameron was all for the plan but not really how this sort of grown-up thing worked.

“FIrst thing we have to do is....”

“Hi, Miss Cardenne,” Cameron said brightly as he walked up to her desk the next morning.

“Hey, Cameron.”  I spent the whole night mooning over your dad, she didn’t add.  

He fished into his bag and dug out a Flyers’ pocket schedule.  “I circled the home games when my dad is back.  The first one is against Pittsburgh, we should go to that because we hate those guys the most.”

Sara nodded, trying not to grin like an idiot.  Of course she wanted to go to the first possible game.  Could Cameron tell?  She’d die if her twelve-year old student knew she was crushing on his father.  Maybe it was just a coincidence.  Danny would be back in twelve days and the game was only two days later.  “That sounds good.”

Cameron raised his eyebrows.  “You don’t have a date with your boyfriend or anything that night?”

Oh dear God.  Sara almost gave herself a facepalm.  Either this kid was a comedian or he was on to her.  “My boyfriend is a lion tamer in the traveling circus, so he’s busy.  You said you’d be my date, remember?”

Over the next twelve days, Sara watched all four Flyers games on their road trip - they won three and Danny had two goals.  Alone in her apartment, her crush was not getting any better.  One game the Flyers lost badly.  She winced to see the players’ dejected faces as the clock wound down.  No one had played well, including Danny.  She discussed all the games with Cameron, who always seemed to be five minutes early for the homeroom bell since that night at Dave & Busters.  He revealed little pieces of information - the boys were staying with their mom while Danny was away, but on short trips they had a nanny live-in for a few days.  

“I talked to my dad, we got the tickets,” Cameron said as he took a seat in the front row.  “You look nice today.”

“Thanks, Cam.”  Sara almost laughed.  He was such a little grown-up sometimes, and she wondered if he was just like Danny.

“You can call him, if you want,” he suggested, scribbling busily in his notebook.  “They’re not busy on road trips except for game days.”

Dear God.  Was this some kind of planned attack?  “I only have to call your dad if you do something bad.”

Cam looked up at her.  He and his brothers had ranked this among the last resorts.

Sara shook her head.  “Don’t even think about it.”

Danny went straight home from the airport.  Sylvie dropped the boys off and as usual, did not come inside.  They weren’t in the house twenty minutes before they were all over Danny.

“Sara doesn’t have any Flyers stuff.  You should give her a present to wear at the game.”  Cameron was now the authority on Sara, and on women in general.  “I think she would wear a medium.”

“Oh yeah?”  Danny was laughing but it was a good idea.  He had spent plenty of the last two weeks thinking about Sara - there wasn’t much else to do on the road.  He did not assume she had been thinking about him; other than having Cam in class, who was probably pestering her constantly.  It wouldn’t hurt to show her that she’d been on his mind at least a little while he was gone.  “Get your brothers.”  

He went upstairs and knocked on the guest room door, where Flyer rookie Sean Coutourier was living with them for the season.  “We’re going shopping, wanna come?”

Sean shook his head and Danny couldn’t blame him.  Sean loved living with them, but a moment of peace in their chaotic house was worth it’s weight in gold, especially after a long road trip.  Sean looked excited to have the place to himself for a few minutes.  Danny was relieved he wouldn’t have to explain to Sean why they were buying presents for a woman - not yet, at least.

The Wells Fargo Center was open early for a 76ers game that night and they used the store entrance from the street.  His sons immediately made for the Flyers’ section and the wall of women’s merchandise.

Back when Danny had first come to Philly, he’d brought home tons of stuff for his wife.  She had never really been the team colors type but he always tried anyway.  More than half of that stuff had gone, unworn, to the Goodwill when Sylvie left.  Since then he had steered clear of buying Flyers gear for his girlfriends.

This is fine then, because she’s not your girlfriend!

Danny was almost nervous to see Sara.  He’d made this whole thing into something else in his mind.  No matter what the boys said, she was Cam’s teacher and she was just being nice.  Friends, maybe.  But he wasn’t going to take three boys’ word for a woman being interested in him.

“We like this,” Carson ran up, holding a black hooded sweatshirt with FLYERS written in orange across the front.

“Or this.”  Cameron had selected a black vintage-style long-sleeved t-shirt with a Flyers logo at the center.

“No orange?”

“Not till the second date,” Carson grinned.

“You guys!” Danny cried.  But he grabbed both shirts and headed for the register.  Back in the car, the boys were on to other topics and no one mentioned Sara until they were home.

“You have to call her, Dad,” Caelan popped his head into the fridge and took out the milk.  “Is she picking us up tomorrow or what?”

Danny had been thinking the same thing - and putting it off because he was nervous.  How stupid!  But that didn’t make it untrue.  Not wanting to be overheard by the Super Spy Squad, he went to his bedroom and closed the door.

Sara was in her room, also thinking about what she should wear.  Not a single piece of orange clothing was anywhere in her wardrobe.  Instead she’d settled on skinny jeans, flat boots and a black sweater.  Simple enough, right?

Her phone rang - and her heart stopped.  Just for a second.  Sara waited a moment for it to resume beating before she answered.  “Hi Danny.”

“Sara, ‘allo.  How are you?”

“Good.  You played a few nice games there.”

He was glad she couldn’t see his red face.  “Has Cam been talking your ear off?  I swear, you must think my children are wild animals.”

“No, I watched them.  You.  On TV.”  Sara winced.  Where else would she have watched them?  In her crystal ball?  Talking to Danny was making her brain fail.  I watched you?  Nice and creepy, she thought.

“Well then I’m even more sorry we lost one.”

He smiled.  She smiled.  The silence was really awkward.

“You’re still up for tomorrow’s game?”

“Yes, I’m excited.  Cam has been going on about that.  He really hates this Crosby guy.”

Danny laughed.  “Well, yeah....  If you want, I can have the boys meet you at the arena.  I can get them a ride there after school.”

Sara wasn’t anyone’s parent or guardian, nor was she on the list of people approved to pick up the Briere boys.  Danny would have added her, but they were both silently considering the rumors that would create at Sara’s job.

“Okay.  I’ll be there at what?  Six thirty?” Sara asked.

“Perfect.  Don’t eat first, they’ll make you try every snack in the place.  And we usually go for pizza after.  It’s just a place on the way, nothing fancy, and I could drive you home.  If you want.”

“So I will get to see you off the ice?”  Sara was relieved - and now twice as nervous.  She expected to have a great time with the boys, but there was the chance Danny didn’t intend to see her because absolutely nothing was going on between them.  Obviously.  If the boys got to the arena and home on their own, she’d have no excuse.

“Otherwise I won’t get to see you at all,” Danny pointed out.  That was completely unacceptable.

“Well you’ll hear me cheering first.  Good luck, Danny.”  She hung up the phone, put her face into a pillow and did a practice scream until her windows shook.

Danny sank onto his own bed and lay still for a minute, his heart racing.  From a phone call.  God I’m sad, he thought.  And again, this is going to be very unfair when she’s not interested in me.

Sara got coffee from the teachers’ lounge and went back to her classroom fifteen minutes before homeroom.  The halls were filling up, but her room was empty except for a white gift bag on the desk.  Inside was an envelope that said “See you tonight!” - it wasn’t Cameron’s handwriting.  The ticket was for the 100-level.  At the bottom of the bag she found a long-sleeved black shirt with a faded Flyers logo on the front, in her size.

Well there’s my outfit.

Just before the bell, Cameron scooted into the room with a group of classmates and didn’t look up at her once.

Sara spotted the boys from the top of the stairway inside the arena: three dark heads crowded around a tray of nachos.  They only looked up when she dropped into the seat next to them.

“Hey, nice shirt,” Caelan said.

“One of Santa’s elves left it on my desk this morning,” she squeezed Cameron’s shoulder.  “Very sneaky.”

He shrugged.  “I didn’t want anyone to know.”

Sara had figured as much.  It would look weird for a student to bring her a present, especially sports gear from his famous father’s sports team.  There had already been one instance of kids giving him a hard time over Danny.  Cameron had also inadvertently saved Sara some explaining of her own.  The bag had gone under her desk, unnoticed by nosy colleagues.

Carson insisted on getting Sara something to eat, and paying in cash when she ordered a pretzel and a soda - apparently his father had insisted.  She wanted to die from the cuteness.  They snacked until the teams took the ice for the warm-up skate.  At the other end of the rink, fans were booing the Penguins.  The boys wanted to drag her down to the glass but Sara stayed back a few rows to watch the Flyers work out.

She recognized some of the players, having watched the recent road games pretty closely.  Danny was out there of course, looking small next to his hulking teammates.  She wondered if he got pushed around even though he seemed to be a perfectly normal size in regular life.  They acted relaxed and ready to play, a contrast to Sara’s nervous energy.  The game couldn’t start quickly enough, she needed an excuse to let it out.

Danny never looked for Sara or his sons.  He knew better than to let it distract him, and it was more important that he play well in front of them than find their faces in the crowd.  Still he wondered how she looked in that shirt he’d bought.

The game was tight.  She could easily tell who the most skilled players were, and the fastest.  It didn’t surprise her that Danny was in both of those categories.  He seemed to play larger than his size - which seemed small compared to the other team too.  She’d have to look again later, but he had never seemed small to her off the ice.  Sara booed when the boys did and they answered all her questions about rules and penalties.  It turned out she knew more about hockey than she thought.  Each team had a goal and the boys had more snacks.

“Save room for pizza, guys,” she said.

“You’re coming to pizza too?” Carson’s mouth formed a little ‘o’ of surprise.

Caelan laughed.  “Good one, Dad.”

During the second intermission, Sara went to the bathroom and returned to the seats to find only Cameron.  “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Is it cheating if you help me with my homework?  Because I don’t get the story we’re reading.”

“No, Cam. I can help you.”  She fished into the purse she’d brought from school and came up with a slim volume of O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief.  “Tell me what you think it’s about.”  Cam almost had the story right, he was just missing the irony of the twist ending.  She explained it in another way, he made a face.

“That’s it?”

She nodded.  “That’s it, smartypants.  You can teach class tomorrow.”

The third period was rougher, more desperate.  Danny’s teammates were throwing their bodies all over the place.  Two guys crushed each other into the glass near the Penguins bench, then pinwheeled toward center ice where they dropped their gloves and proceeded to pound each other.  Everyone was on their feet, Cameron was standing on his chair.  He caught her watching.  

The little boy blushed.  “Sorry, I know!  No fighting!”

Sara laughed as the brawling players tumbled to the ice.

With only three minutes left to play, the arena was breathless.  Sara was as caught up in the game as anyone, carefully following the puck now that she’d gotten used to how quickly everything moved.  Her eyes drifted when Danny came on the ice - she was grateful for the orange sweater, you could see his name and number from space.  He got free at the far side of the goal and just as the puck was reaching him, one of the Pittsburgh players ran him over like a train.

“Ooooh!” said twenty thousand people at once.

Sara’s hands flew to her mouth, like when a kid fell off the monkey bars at recess.  But Danny popped back up, skates already moving, getting open again closer to the circle.  Cameron pulled her hands down.

“Don’t worry, he’s okay!”

She closed her eyes for just a second.  This was her friend.  Tonight was not a date.  And she was giving all her secrets away to a trio of very observant kids who saw right through her.  Sara would have to be more careful.

The buzzer sounded, ending the game.  Overtime seemed to last thirty breathless seconds.  Four on four was far too much open ice for Sara’s liking.  When it was done, she slumped back in her seat.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Caelan snickered.  Sara threw a wadded napkin at him.

The Penguins went first in the shootout - their guy scored and everyone booed.  Giroux came up for the Flyers, got stopped and everyone booed again.  Crosby was next for Pittsburgh - the booing quadrupled, then exploded into cheers when he missed.

“For Philadelphia, Daniel Briere.”

“Oh God,” Sara said right out loud.  Everyone was on their feet and Cameron slipped his hand into hers like they were crossing the street.  She squeezed his little fingers.  Danny went right at the goalie, cut left and scooped it into the top of the net.

The noise was deafening, so much that Sara couldn’t hear herself screaming.  The boys high-fived anyone within reach of their short arms.  Danny passed in front of the bench, fist-bumping his teammates and then just as quickly the last Penguins shooter was being announced: he skated up the ice in absolute silence, went five-hole, and was stopped.

“If we score now, we win!” Cameron yelled to her over the din.  She nodded dumbly.  Surely this was what the apocalypse would sound like.

“For Philadelphia, Jaromir Jagr.”

Sara closed her eyes.  Ten seconds later, the place erupted.  As she opened her eyes, Cameron threw his arms around her waist and jumped up and down.  She joined in the celebration.

Danny didn’t remember what he said to the media, and had a little trouble knotting his tie. He laughed to be so lost in thought.  Finally he got the light blue windsor straight, smoothed the lapels of his grey suit and pushed his wet hair back from his face.

Thank God we won.

The family lounge was full of people.  He spotted Caelan first, on the arm of a couch, then Cameron and right next to him, Sara.

Danny had a habit of exaggerating things in his memory.  Goals, wins - he supposed it was good for a hockey player to recall every play as the best play ever.  Then he could draw on it for inspiration.  As Sara got to her feet, he thought if anything he’d underestimated her.  The long brown hair was loose tonight, her bangs still pushed to one side and tucked behind her ear.  She wore the Flyers shirt they’d bought her with jeans, boots and a smile.

The first thought that came to his mind was, I’m in trouble.

“Nice game, Dad!”  The boys descended on him with hugs and high fives.  Sara let them huddle.  After a moment, his sons dropped away and stepped back - watching like hawks.  Danny’s steps faltered.

“Hi Sara.”  Okay, he was still smiling like an idiot.

The boys looked from Danny to Sara as if they were a tennis match.  Sara felt them pushing her with the combined force of three adolescent minds.  It made her want to hug them, almost as much as she wanted to hug Danny.

Oh hell, she thought.  Two steps later her arms were around his neck, her cheek pressed to his.  Danny’s arms looped around her back instantly.  Sara held still for a moment, appreciating how much strength was packed into him.

“Nice game,” she echoed, drawing back and looking into his soft brown eyes.  It was the kissing pose, and dangerously so in a crowded room with more than just Brieres watching.  Making matters worse, Danny pinched his lips together, fighting a smile like he was suddenly shy.  Sara let go of him before she accidentally let go of herself.

Danny released her.  Whatever he said next - did they have fun, how were the seats - was a robotic response.  He was a goner.  He would hold her again if it was the last thing he ever did.

“Did the boys take good care of you?”

Danny was driving toward the pizza place.  He’d extracted them as quickly as possible from the arena before any of his teammates caught on to Sara’s presence and either gave him a hard time or tried to steal her away.  He could hear them now: Danny’s hot for teacher.

“It was fantastic.  Did you guys have fun?” Sara craned her head around to see them in the back of the SUV.

“Ask Cam,” Carson taunted.  “He was doing homework.  At a game!”

Cameron stuck his tongue out at his brother.  Danny looked for Sara’s eyes in the mirror but she was busy giving Cam a fist bump.  When the pulled into the restaurant, the boys streaked for the door.  Danny fell into step next to Sara.  “Homework?”

“A story we’re reading.  He had it, just doubted himself.”

Danny wondered if those words applied to anyone else in the Briere family tonight.

Inside, the kids had already ordered their usual monster deep dish with the works.  Caelan grabbed waters from the reach-in cooler.  Once the drinks and paper plates were on the table, Caelan produced a five-dollar bill and challenged his brothers to a game of the pick-up claw machine.  They were instantly mesmerized.

“You must think video games are raising my kids,” Danny said.

Sara watched their first attempt.  “I think your kids are fantastic, Danny.  They were good teachers tonight.”

“You can come any time.”  His heart climbed a little into his throat as he offered.  As she turned to face him, her bangs slipped free and she pushed them back in a handful.  Her eyes were not brown, as he’d first thought.  In the bright light of the restaurant, he saw they were dark green or dark blue.  And he was staring.

Sara examined his face.  It was so different in real life than photos, which she’d been guilty of browsing over the last two weeks.  Where Danny’s size was less delicate in person, his features were more so.  Even after the beating she had seen him take on the ice, his smile was almost like that of his sons.

“You....” Without thinking she reached out and touched her thumb to the left side of his jaw, a little way back from his mouth.  The contact startled her and she dropped it just as quickly.  She mumbled a flustered, “Sorry.”

“What?” He lifted his own hand to the spot.

Sara wanted the floor to open and swallow her.  What a careless thing to do, but her mind had wandered just enough to forget she was not on a date.  “You have a scar there, I didn’t see it before.”

Danny knew the one she meant.  “I have them everywhere.  My face is a mess of scars.”  He touched another directly beneath his mouth, the one he thought most visible along with a half-moon shaped scar outside his right eye. It had long since stopped making him self-conscious, except that it made him look older.  He only cared about that because of Sara.

She spent the last four hours with your kids, fool.  She knows you’re old.  

Her expression was soft.  “I like them.”

Kiss her, Danny thought.

Kiss me, Sara wished.

“Pizza!” The boys yelled, barrelling up like a herd of elephants as the big tray arrived.  Sara looked at Danny across the now-crowded table.  Elbows pushed and arms reached, cheese stretched toward plates.  She smiled.  He smiled back.

Danny couldn’t think of a way.  He tried every scenario in his head but they all ended the same: a car full of boys watching their dad get shot down by a beautiful woman.

He wasn’t sure Sara was interested.  There was a spark, or so he felt, but three meetings weren’t enough to really read her.  So she’d touched his face - a reflex, nothing more.  Danny really didn’t want to make a mistake, not like this.  His sons were already involved.  Cameron had been bullied because of stories about his father, and those stories didn’t even involve a teacher at his school.  

Then he glanced at Sara in the passenger seat, nearly pulled the car over and kissed her right there.

When they rolled to a stop in front of Sara’s building, the boys were half-asleep in the back.  She touched Danny’s arm.  “Thank you.”

“I should be thanking you.”  The weight of her hand through his jacket was almost nothing, but it felt incredible.

Sara squeezed gently.  “You’ll think of something.”

Sara leaned against the inside of her door and closed her eyes.  Not a date, she reminded herself.

Then why is my heart racing?

I can’t see him again.  With the kids in the picture, this is too weird.  I won’t.  Then she laughed out loud to her empty apartment and went to bed.