Sara knew it would be hard to talk to Sylvie. She hadn’t expected that it would be hard to handle afterward. Sylvie had spoken to her like an adult, with respect, and told Sara what she probably needed to hear. It was still a heavy stone resting on her heart when she pulled up at Danny’s house.
Our house, soon enough. Not for the first time that thought scared her a little.
Danny had been nervous, inventing things to do and failing. Sylvie was so unpredictable. But the best and worst thing she could do would be to talk - really talk - with Sara. As much as he loved her, Danny knew Sara was less experienced with relationships. It’s hard to have more experience than someone married over a decade and horribly divorced. His goal would be to make sure she never felt the things he and Sylvie had felt. But he couldn’t hide their existence.
Sara opened the front door. Danny had waited for that moment to walk into the room so it wouldn’t look like he’d been pacing a cage. She took one look at him and burst into tears.
“Oh God, cherie, what?” He wrapped his arms around her, leading her toward the sofa.
Sara laughed through her tears. “I love you.”
“I love you too, so much. Why are you crying?”
“Because I have no idea how to do this right and I’m really scared of getting it wrong.” She felt a little better just saying something so terrifying out loud. Danny and Sylvie had been in love. They had been married, had kids, had everything and BAM. It didn’t just crumble. It exploded. Sara had climbed through a web of scars to get here and the idea that she could someday cause that, or have it done to her, sent panic trilling through her veins.
Danny hugged tightly and whispered in French until Sara quieted a little and curled her legs underneath. He leaned back, holding her to his chest. “Does it help if you know I’m scared too?”
Against his chest he felt her nod.
“Sylvie and I were great once, for a long time. I still don’t know how we lost it. But,” he tilted her face up, “I made sure we couldn’t get it back. I know what I did wrong and I promise that I would never, ever do that to you. Or to myself. Never again.”
Sara kissed him on the mouth. It hurt her to think badly about him, or say anything, or worry at all that someone who made her so happy could ever hurt her. But it was rational, practical and she was glad Sylvie had reminded her that Danny wasn’t perfect. Because Sara knew she wanted him anyway.
“Promise me something,” she said.
“Anything,” Danny’s heart was pounding with fear, both of the past and for the future.
“If you ever... if we ever fall apart, you’ll leave me. No cheating.”
“No cheating. God no,” Danny agreed.
Sara let her head fall to his shoulder. “Because I’d never be able to go for revenge like she did, and I’d hate myself for being so weak.”
Danny all but lifted Sara to her feet, led her upstairs and slowly undressed them both. There were tears in her eyes as they made love, as gently as they ever had. No one said a word.
A week had never gone by so quickly for Sara. School was nearing the end and her students were working on papers and tests. it was only fifth grade of course, but Cameron gave her the evil eye across the dinner table and asked why on Earth anyone would need to know how to diagram and sentence. Except he did it in French, knowing Sara couldn’t understand, and so she stuck out her tongue in reply. Not a very mature move by Dad’s future live-in girlfriend.
Game One of the second round was at three on a Sunday afternoon. Sara drove the boys to the rink, all of them in matching Briere jerseys. They were pretty damned adorable if she did say so herself. Danny had been calm and even all morning, a marvel of veteran player. Sara did her best to hide her nerves.
Once the puck dropped, all bets were off. The Devils scored first and held it to the midway point of the game, when Danny scored his 6th goal in 7 games. Sara nearly burst into tears, which would have looked very silly considering she and the boys were instantly on the Jumbotron. She looked away, hugged Caelan and breathed a sigh of relief. The Flyers got another thirty seconds later, while some of the crowd were still on their feet. But it was never easy. The Devils tied it, lost the lead to Claude’s quick hands in the third, then tied it again. One final buzzer sent it to overtime.
“He’ll get it,” a man sitting behind them promised. Sara knew he meant Danny because Danny was scoring like crazy - he really was Mr. Playoffs. She desperately wanted it to be him, of course, but any goal would do.
Two minutes into OT, it was him. Carson jumped on her like a flying squirrel. A moment later the din was silenced by a play under review. Video ran overhead three times... and Sara hated to admit that it did look like Danny had kicked the puck into the net. The fans and players protested admirably, but as quickly as Danny had ended the game, it was back on.
On the ice, Danny was furious. He knew he’d kicked it. He also knew he could have taken a split second and put it in another way, made an extra inch of room, and ended this game for real. Furious with himself and frustrated with the Devils’ refusal to show any cracks, Danny took a full minute on the bench to shake it off. Then Coach cuffed him on the shoulder and he knew his line would be up shortly.
When it came, he was nowhere near the net. He cycled out above the circle, got a strange pass back to the blueline. From there he couldn’t have kicked it in if he were David Beckham. But he could shoot it, which he did, through a seam in the Devils defense. It was a long way to go without being touched but the puck somehow found the back of the net.
Sara didn’t even scream. She was on her feet, one hand over her pounding heart, before Danny’s teammates could reach him on the ice. Three kids hung off her like monkey bars, twenty thousand people were losing their minds and she was just stapled to the floor by how much she loved that little guy with the pointy ears.
She couldn’t say how they got to the lounge, but the minute they were inside people were hugging her as if she’d been the one to score two goals in a single sudden-death OT period. She hoped the players were hurrying through their media appearances, knowing Danny would be the biggest draw. Like a little mind reader, Cameron brought her a cookie so she’d have something to do with her hands.
Claude came in and made right for Sara, picked her up without a word and swung her around.
“You are completely orange out there, head to toe,” she rubbed his bushy, neon-colored beard. “I can’t tell where you jersey stops and your face starts.”
“Nora is calling me ‘Elmo’ these days. What kind of name is that for your boyfriend?”
“Elmo’s cute. He’s everyone’s favorite character, you know. Are you...?” And she tried to tickle him. Claude got her in a headlock, dragged her over the Caelan and presented her like a prisoner transfer. They were all spastic with excess energy.
The lounge was so crowded, everyone was waiting for Danny. Players came in but no one left. Finally, after two cookies and what seemed like two hours, the door opened and Sara couldn’t see anyone over all the tall bodies. That could only be Danny. A cheer went up, she bobbed and weaved her way to the front pushing Carson ahead of her. He ran smack into his dad and she was right behind. With Carson sandwiched between then, Sara kissed Danny because she couldn’t think of anything to say.
When they left the arena, it was barely dinnertime. Claude turned up with Nora under one arm, Caelan under the other and suggested they all go out. “Can we go to Dave & Buster’s?” Caelan asked.
It was the perfect choice. Some of the guys came along - Scott, Wayne, Max - and they stopped traffic on their way in the door. The game had just been on every screen in the place. Danny got a nice cheer from the remaining fans and a few autographs were signed. He was relieved when they were shown to a table as far as possible from the bar. Sara dropped in next to him, sliding right up to his side.
“Just like last time we were here,” she smiled, moving her hand up his thigh. It had only been a few months since their first non-date right in that room.
“Because I’m still thinking about taking you home,” he said so only she could hear.
A spot of color formed high in her cheek. Sara had taken off her Briere jersey - with Giroux and Hartnell around, the Flyers hardly needed to be announced. Now she wore a simple long-sleeved white t-shirt with a v-neck. Danny was glad to see he could still make her blush.
“I was thinking the same thing that day.” She kissed his cheek softly. It was intoxicating to know that she could touch him now, kiss him any time. That first day she’d been so busy telling herself no.
Danny got her back with a kiss on the lips. “I recall you’re pretty good at air hockey.”
They played and ate. Sara insisted on designated driving because everyone wanted to buy Danny a drink. He stopped after two - games left him dehydrated despite all the Gatorade in the world. By the bottom of the second pint he was feeling a little fuzzy. Sara and Cameron were engaged in a pinball duel, Danny leaning against the wall as if he wasn’t watching his girlfriend and his son act like best friends.
Danny was thinking about what might have been if he’d never brought Sara out that first night. If Cam had never gotten in that fight. He’d probably be in the same place, with all the same people, minus Sara. Even having scored a career-highlight goal hours before, he knew the day would have paled in comparison to what he was getting now. Claude appeared with two glasses and handed on to Danny; they were both water. He followed Danny’s gaze toward the arcade game.
“I’m going to ask her to marry me,” Danny didn’t even know he was going to say it until it was out there. His younger friend was surprisingly insightful and Claude had been a close ally during the worst of the divorce. There were few opinions that Danny valued more. Of course that neon beard broke into a huge smile.
“Do you think she’ll be surprised?” Claude asked.
Danny caught him off guard with another question. “Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“Of course she will. Sara loves you, Danny.”
Danny knew that was true. She’d shown it in a million ways - a million and one, as she took on Caelan as reigning pinball champ. “She talked to Sylvie the other day. I don’t know exactly what they said but Sara came home and cried. I...,” he looked for the right phrasing and failed, “I think it scared her to know what I did.”
Claude frowned. Danny had always been honest about his transgressions, albeit after the fact. He’d done the right thing in ending his marriage, but did it the wrong way. Danny admitted mistakes as a way to punish himself, though Claude thought that Sylvie punished him plenty. He put an arm around Danny’s shoulders.
“Danny. She put her career on the line for you. She’s been in the press, been with your kids, even confronted your ex-wife. I don’t know what else you need to see, but I know that Sara doesn’t scare easily.”
Danny thought about it after they lost Game Two, with Sara asleep against his side. He thought about it in his hotel room, after scoring the tying goal in Game Three but being unable to repeat his overtime miracle. Maybe if Sara were here, Danny said to himself, as if she were some kind of magic. After another loss in Game Four, the world was on the brink. Every trick they’d used in the first round was failing the Flyers. The Devils refused to take any bait, played with a control and determination that Philly couldn’t match. Instead the Flyers were like marbles - scattered around the ice, rolling along with no set course. He couldn’t get home fast enough.
That night, as Sara lay in his arms, Danny dreamed his arms were tired. They were heavy and weak, getting more useless every moment. Then when he couldn’t hold on, Sara slipped free. As she fell she turned into the Stanley Cup, then back into Sara. He didn’t have the strength to reach for either of them.
“Hey.” Again the sound came. “Hey, Danny, you okay?”
He blinked into darkness, not sure if his eyes were open or closed. Something shifted next to him.
“Honey? You were having a nightmare, I think.”
Sara was still there, still almost naked and tangled in Danny’s arms and bedsheets and his heart and life. He gathered her in close - promising himself he would not lose to one prize he already had.
It happened in a way she couldn’t have imagined.
Sara knew it was bad luck to think about losing, but she couldn’t help herself. With a heart full of worry for Danny and the other guys, Sara had envisioned every scenario that ended with the Flyers losing in the second round. She wanted to practice being the strong one if the need arose.
Game Five in Philly should have been a lock. After taking the one-nothing lead on Danny’s two overtime goals, the Flyers had dropped three games in a row. They looked scattered and skittish. It was not the team that had played in the previous series against Pittsburgh. Surely there was still time for things to turn around.
That time ran out in the first period of Game Five. The Devils took a 2-1 lead and the Flyers could not recover. Sara watched the last two periods like she was looking up into the eye of a hurricane, waiting for the house to fall on her. Even the boys were quiet, without a piece of food between them.
Please please please, she prayed. No one answered. Now she knew why the guys were superstitious.
The final buzzer closed a game that had been over for some time. She stood with the rest of the fans and watched her team shake hands with the victors. They raised their sticks to the crowd in appreciation. Her voice was lost in the huge cheer of support, almost as loud as the noise for any goal they’d scored since the playoffs began.
Cameron slipped his hand into Sara’s and said, “Let’s go home.”
Back at Danny’s house, the kids got themselves ready for bed. She made their lunches for the next day and lined them up carefully in the fridge. It only took ten minutes. After that she had no idea what to do, how long Danny would be or what would happen when he got home. Sara wondered if she should have stayed at her own place that night, though she hardly ever did anymore. Danny had left her in charge of the kids, right? Perhaps he’d been that confident of a win.
She found herself sitting on the couch, fully dressed, waiting. But the first set of footsteps came from behind her. Carson padded in, sat down and curled right up into her lap. Hot tears burned in Sara’s eyes. He didn’t say anything, just lay there and let her pet his hair.
He was asleep when Danny came home. Sara couldn’t move without disturbing him and was grateful for it, because she had no idea what to do anyway. She sat very still, telling herself that she could hold it together for Danny, for all of them.
Danny came in, shrugging off his suit coat. He felt as if he’d been wrung out and had no energy, no emotion left to give. It was the worst kind of heartbreak - a desire so one-sided but full of teasing and the promise of another chance. He knew it would heal and that he would chase that promise all the way to another chance at crushing defeat.
Sara met his eyes bravely, tears glittering in her lashes. Her hands rested protectively over his sleeping son. Danny brushed Sara’s hair back and kissed her forehead. Then he gently woke Carson and they went silently upstairs.
Danny thought he should know better. After so many seasons of hockey, he should be prepared for another chapter ending. Instead it was like he spent the season walking across a frozen lake, knowing there was a 29-out-of-30 chance he would fall through the ice. Yet every time he hit that frigid water, it still knocked the breath right out of him.
He put sleepy Carson in bed with a hug and checked on the other boys. Back in his room, Sara was already under the covers. Everything seemed sharp - he’d brought her into this, made her care, and delivered a disappointment. Yet another thing to feel shitty about. Danny dropped his suit into a pile on the floor, climbed into bed and closed his eyes against the rush of everything at once. Even breathing was difficult when you’ve been completely flattened by defeat.
“Sorry, baby,” she whispered.
It had been a few years since Danny had brought a playoff loss home to friendly territory. His last with Sylvie had been the Stanley Cup Final loss - by far the worst because he was losing his marriage too. That night she’d been kind, they’d been close despite everything. She understood. The next year he wasn’t really alone because Claude lived with them, but he had been alone in the proverbial sense. The loss had been bad and his behavior around that time was no better.
Now the arms around him felt cathartic. After a few minutes, his breathing eased a bit. Sara put her face into his neck and lay still, as if she could soak up some of the blood pouring from his open wound. Danny feared the end of each season as he feared the eventual end of his career - one season closer now: that it might come without success. For all his accomplishments, a king with no crown. But now it was different. He had Sara. He had his kids, as always, and plenty to look forward to over the summer and beyond. Even if he was closer to his last season than his first, he was starting something new. Something he hoped would last forever. It helped a little and that was all Danny could ask for at a time like this.
“I love you,” he said.
“Love you too, Danny.”
EPILOGUE - Three and a half months later
“Ready?” he asked. The boys were running around, getting into their spots and straightening their shirts. It was late August, they’d been back in New Jersey just a few days. The long, sun-soaked summer had been full of visits to grandparents and days at the lake, the five of them together like a family. Sara was due back at school in a week, the boys in two. But first, the moment Danny had been planning all summer.
Sara had spent the day back-to-school shopping with Nora. It was common for teachers to buy some of their own materials - the schools never seemed to have enough - and Danny had insisted she get whatever she wanted for the coming year, even though she’d taught the last of his sons. Nora offered to make it fun by including some clothes and cocktails. They’d been gone for hours.
In that time, the Briere backyard had been transformed. Fairy lights were strung overhead, twinkling in the dusk. The sky was streaked with pink and blue. A table was set in the middle of the deck, complete with candles and white linen and a bottle of champagne on ice. The boys wore nice shirts and ties they’d insisted on knotting themselves, with varying degrees of success. Danny took one last look over the scene and turned back inside. The living room looked as it always did, save for the huge arrangement of two dozen red roses on the coffee table.
“They’re almost here,” Claude said. “You ready?”
Danny’s smile trembled a little, but Cameron shouted, “Yes!” loudly from behind the couch.
Nora’s tired rolled into the driveway. Claude gave Danny a silent hug and went out. They heard him pass Sara, say he couldn’t stay and goodnight. Then the front door was opening. She swept in as she had a million times - long hair swinging over one shoulder, bangs tucked behind her ear. The perfect size of her and the way Danny knew exactly how it fit against him. In jeans and short-sleeves, she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Hey, sweetie, how are....” Sara’s eyes moved along Danny’s nicer-than-a-Wednesday-night shirt and slacks outfit, then over to the flowers on the table. “What’s this?”
Danny wiped his damp palms and reached for her hand. “We’re having a family meeting,” he said, the first words a little shaky. “And we wanted to ask you something.”
Sara raised her eyebrows. “Where are the....” On cue, the boys all stood up from behind the couch, wearing ear to ear grins. Danny took his place at the end of the line. Waiting for him, facedown, was a piece of white paper.
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and we wanted to know...,” Danny began.
Caelan held up his piece of paper and said, “Will....”
Carson was next, quickly. “You....”
Sara’s purse slipped from her fingers landed on the floor. Her eyes got wide but didn’t move from the signs. Cameron looked fit to burst.
“Marry...,” he said.
Danny went last. He turned his word and read it out loud. “Us?”
One hand came up to cover her mouth. Danny picked up the tiny black box that had been underneath his sign, stepped forward and got down on one knee. She breathed so hard he could see her chest move. It was an emerald cut diamond on a white gold band, with two smaller square diamonds on each side.
“I love you so much, Sara. Will you marry me?” he said. Then smiled. “Marry us?”
“Yes.” Sara felt her mouth form the word but barely heard it over her thundering heart. It was a surprise - a wonderful, amazing surprise - and the perfect proposal. Danny slipped the ring onto her finger. She pressed the palm to his cheek as he stood up, then bear-hugged him as hard as she could. Tears came. The boys whooped and hollered and latched on until they were all clinging together like a little boat in a storm.
“Do you like it?” Carson asked, tugging her hand.
“Of course, it’s beautiful. God,” she titled her hand side to side. “It’s really beautiful. Danny, I....”
“We picked it out! There’s one diamond for each of us, and the big one is for you!” Cameron said.
Danny had tears in his eyes too. He couldn’t stop smiling. He and Sara were a matching pair, all love-struck and blushing while the boys fizzed like shaken cans of soda. He pulled her in and kissed her, square and sure. Her ringed left hand dropped down and squeezed his ass. They were laughing when Caelan started dragging them outside.
Sara gasped again at the yard - it was straight out of a movie. Tiny white points of light seemed to float like stars in a low sky. There were a lot of candles - on railings and stairs and everywhere. At the center sat a table with five chairs.
The boys dashed back inside the get the first course of the dinner that was part of the grand plan. Danny and Sara were alone for a moment.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” he looked her straight in the eye. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to fall in love again.”
She knitted her fingers behind his neck, catching two together over her new ring. “Lucky me. I fell in love four times all at once.”
Thanks for all your comments on this story, everyone. It took by far the longest of any story I've ever written and I really appreciate those who stuck it through to the end! I'm going to try something new for my next story - write it most of the way through before posting. I think it will speed up the process and also allow me to do more with it. I haven't chosen the leading man yet, so suggestions are welcome!