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.”
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.
“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.
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.