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.
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.
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.”