I’d arrived in Toronto forty eight hours ago, just as the snow began to fall. The League needed a photo shoot for some new TV contract they were closing. I was due in Pittsburgh tonight, for a game tomorrow afternoon. My agent had gotten me tickets on the last flight out. In a desperate attempt to keep me from getting bumped, he’d booked two first class seats.
I zipped through the First Class security line, trailing behind an airport greeter who’d been booked to help me. In most places, I didn’t bother with this stuff. If I can win the Stanley Cup, I can certainly get on a plane. But I knew today was going to be rough, so I let my agent hire some help.
I chucked my shoes into the plastic bin, and kept my head down as I took of my baseball cap. There was a real chance that someone would recognize me. Hell, there was a real chance they’d cause a stampede at security and get us all arrested by the Transport Security Authority. Luckily the airport greeter stood between me and the crowd, casually screening me from view. I passed through and followed him to the gate.
People were camped out in every space – suitcases open, clusters of new friends grouped by how long they’d been stranded. Fast food places had been giving out free waters and meal coupons since yesterday. The weary travelers looked like they’d had about all the Burger King they could handle. And still it snowed.
First class for my flight was already boarding. I just had to speak to the gate agent to be sure my boarding pass was actually going to get me on this plane.
There was only one gate agent at the counter and only one person was waiting. I couldn’t help but notice her – long legs in clingy black sweatpants, gray Converse sneakers. She had long, wavy brown hair, some of which was caught beneath the strap of her backpack. She leaned on the counter, head in her hand, as the gate agent tapped away at her keyboard.
Don’t be a perv, I told myself. You’ve been alone so long you’re turning into Max. But her body was hard to ignore – lithe, healthy, inviting.
“I’m sorry, Miss.” The agent looked up. Her sad smile was genuine but very tired. “You are very next on the standby list, but every seat on this plane has been claimed. You’ll be on the next one, I promise.” She sighed. “The first one tomorrow.”
Ouch, I thought. I half expected the girl to start yelling. Having traveled so much throughout my career, airport rage was a feeling I could certainly sympathize with. But she didn’t.
“Thank you Elizabeth,” the girl said. “I know you’re doing the best you can.” She turned away from the counter, never showing me her face.
The agent, Elizabeth, looked up wearily, like she knew there’d be nothing she could do for the next person either. She saw me, then SAW me. Her eyes got a little wider and her mouth formed a small “o” of surprise. Then she smiled.
“Can I help you, sir?” Emphasis on the ‘sir’.
“I hope so,” I smiled back. Couldn’t hurt to charm her. “I have a seat on this plane. I hope it’s still there.”
She took my boarding pass and went back to the keyboard. I noticed she didn’t check my name before she started typing.
“You do have a seat.” Click, click. “Actually, it looks like you have two seats.” She looked behind me. “Are you traveling with another passenger?”
I was stunned that both seats were still being held for me. I glanced around, at the mass of humanity waiting to leave this place. Any one of them would gladly go to Pittsburgh, even if they were really going to Arizona. Anywhere but here would free them from the storm’s reach and start them home.
There she was. First row to my left, frowning at a crossword puzzle. A few of her curls had fallen down across her lowered face. Her feet were propped on a rainbow striped rolling carry-on.
I gestured to her. “I heard you tell that girl she was next on the standby list.” Elizabeth nodded. “Can I give the seat to her?”
“Her ticket isn’t for first class, but since you actually bought two seats, I think I can do that.” She typed then smiled. “Yes. But for the purpose of the flight manifest, and to remove her other ticket from the system, she will have to be listed under your name. She’ll go on the list as Mrs. Crosby.”
I laughed out loud. “I think she’ll accept my proposal, just to get out of here.”
“Evelyn Montgomery, please see the agent at gate 45.”
I didn’t hear it. Nodding along to Ben Lee on my headphones, trying to figure out an eight-letter word for ‘like some steroids,’ I missed my name being called. Then someone tapped my foot.
“Evelyn?” It was Elizabeth. Poor Elizabeth, who looked at tired as I felt, but at least she’d slept in a bed the last two nights. I pulled out my earphones, to the most beautiful words I’d ever heard. “We have a seat for you.”
She handed me a boarding pass. I scrambled up, and I couldn’t help it. I threw my arms around her. “Thank you!” I squealed.
“Don’t thank me just yet,” she smiled.
“I will push the drink cart, I don’t care!”
I grabbed my bags and headed toward the jetway. It was empty – everyone was already seated. I felt a pang of annoyance – there would probably be no room for my suitcase on the plane, and I’d have to check it and wait at baggage claim. Then I laughed. Who cares, as long as it’s baggage claim in Pittsburgh!
A flight attendant met me at the door, taking my bag. “Right this way, ma’am.”
Ma’am?! Wow, two days in the airport and I must be looking pretty old. At least I’d taken a shower this morning. The airline VIP lounge had been nice enough to let me in, even though I’d never flown first class in my life. The flight attendant stopped at the third row and swung my bag into the overhead bin. I followed, but she didn’t move.
“Right here, ma’am.” She gestured to the empty seat at my left.
My eyes went wide. “Oh.” I almost laughed out loud. “Awesome.” I plopped down. The seat was wide and soft and it was actually ON an airplane. I sank to the bottom.
“Can I offer you a drink before we take off, Mrs. Crosby?”
Before I could realize who she was talking to, a huge laugh burst from the window seat beside me. I hadn’t even looked at my seatmate. His laugh was giggly - slightly higher than you’d expect from someone his size. He was a pretty strapping guy, comfortably taking up his entire seat.
I looked at the flight attendant, who had a huge grin plastered to her face. In the instant I saw that, I registered the name she’d used: Mrs. Crosby. I also recognized the out-of-place laugh coming from my neighbor. I blanched.
“Something with vodka.” She stepped away. “A double.” I called after her.
I turned and faced him. He was beet red, still gasping for breath as he tried to keep his laughter in. He waved a hand, like he planned to say something as soon as he could. Looking at him set me off too, which made him laugh more. I am giddy with fatigue, I thought, and now I’m laughing like a hyena at myself.
He drew in a huge breath then exhaled slowly. “Sorry,” he said, stifling another laugh. “That was awesome.”
Holy mother of God. He was gorgeous. Even with probable retina scarring from two days under florescent airport lights, I could see that. In my stress-induced delirium, he looked like carved statue of a young god. Dark curls poked up from beneath his baseball cap. His sweatshirt did little to conceal the bulk of his muscles as he held out his hand.
“I’m Sidney,” he said.
“I’m your wife.” I answered, taking his hand. His touch was warm, his skin a little tough. The big hand gave mine a firm shake, like he was testing me for sturdiness. “Is this some kind of new mail-order bride system?"
He smiled. “Call it an arranged marriage. Courtesy of Air Canada.”
The flight attendant turned up with my drink. She stopped expectantly at my seat. I looked around, but didn’t see a tray. “Uhh…”
Sidney nudged my arm off the armrest and flipped it open. “Let me get that for you, honey,” he smirked.
The flight attendant made sure to call me “Mrs. Crosby,” which almost set him off again.
I took a sip of my drink for fortitude. “What is going on? Did you get her to prank me?”
Sidney smiled. “I had two seats booked for this flight. I only needed one and you were next on the standby list. But since both seats were in my name, they had to give you the same name."
"Isn't that against FAA regulations? I thought they took that stuff pretty seriously."
Sidney shrugged. "Guess they just want everyone out of there. But apparently it does matter on the flight manifest if you’re male or female. Voila, Mrs. Crosby.”
“Well I’m glad the real Mrs. Crosby couldn’t make it,” I said. “Because I couldn’t spend another minute in that airport.
He blushed. “There’s no, um, real…”
“I know,” I deadpanned. “I think we’d all know if the Boy Wonder had gotten married.”
He blushed even more. “Guess you know who I am, then.”
“I am on a flight to Pittsburgh,” I pointed out. And everyone woman in that city would sell her soul for twenty minutes in a dark room with you.
It was completely impossible to live in the ‘Burgh and not know Sidney Crosby. He was the hometown hero, the poster boy. They’d have made him the mayor, if he were American. They might still do it anyway.
“What is your real name?” He asked.
My turn to put him on the spot. I shook my head. “I haven’t even gotten used to my new one yet.” He raised an eyebrow, asking if I was challenging him. I primly looked away.
“I can’t call my own wife ‘Mrs. Crosby.’”
“Maybe I’ll tell you later. Before you introduce me to my in-laws.”
He shrugged his shoulders in surrender. “Guess we know who wears the pants in this relationship.”
This girl is good, I thought. She’d been flustered at first, but now my joke had turned into a little game and she seemed to relish it. She was certainly witty. I was surprised to find myself actually working to keep pace with her. And she won’t tell me her name. I was going to need that, hopefully. For now, I took to thinking of her as ‘my wife.’
We talked easily. She didn’t seem star struck, which was a huge relief. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about her flying to Pittsburgh. Of course she’d know who I was. I’m such an ass, she probably thought that was some lame fake modesty on my part.
The situation got even better when it turned out she loved hockey. Not just liked it. She knew the sport, followed it. She was a big fan of the game. She admitted to being a Penguins fan, so I knew she at least appreciated me. But am I have favorite player? My mind threw up an image of her in the stands, wearing a #25 jersey, her curls bouncing off the name on the shoulders: Talbot. Sitting behind the bench, cheering loudest when the announcer called “Evgeni Malkin.” Coming to a meet & greet and heading straight for Jordan Staal. She leaned closer to me and I blinked those away.
“Hey athlete. What is an eight letter word for ‘like some steroids’?”
“Anabolic,” I answered. She filled in her puzzle then completed a few clues around it. “Perfect.”
She was only half-working on the crossword, and it gave me a chance to really look at her. She had bright hazel eyes that laughed before her mouth did. Her lips were soft and almost full, like if I bit them they would swell just slightly. Her teeth were really straight. Such a hockey player, of course I’d notice that. She was only a few inches shorter than me, and the legs I’d spotted at the airport counter were definitely great. When she moved her head, I could smell her citrusy shampoo.
“Okay, I give up.” She folded the newspaper. “I’m hungry.”
I pushed my call button, and the attendant came over. She could see the joke had worked, and continued to call us “Mr. and Mrs. Crosby.” I asked to see a menu.
“A menu?!” My wife asked. “In coach it’s warm Coke and peanuts.” She’d never been bumped up on a flight before. The attendant handed us each a menu, then handed my wife an extra envelope.
“Miss, since the airlines are so backed up with the storm, they’re refunding any unused flights. I was able to speed this up for you.”
My wife opened the envelope. It was instructions on how to claim a refund, with a one-time use code included. I could see the price of her ticket had been $345.
She gasped. “But that’s my whole flight, not just this leg.” The attendant came back for our orders. “I’m sorry, but this is a mistake. They’ve refunded my whole roundtrip flight. And, I mean, I’m ON this plane. I used my ticket.”
“Actually, you didn’t. You used his ticket.” She gestured to me.
My wife turned. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry! I had no idea I was taking something you could get refunded! No one even asked me, they just called my name.”
“It was going to go empty anyway,” I said, waving off her concern. “Or be given to someone else.”
“He’s right. The first class tickets were non-refundable,” the flight attendant added. “Only yours.”
“Are you SURE?” she asked me. “Are you sure this is okay? I could give you this.” She offered me the paper.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
This could be tricky, I knew. I had plenty of money. And girls were either after it, or it scared the crap out of them. Ninety percent of the girls I met wanted my wallet out before I even said hello. The others, well… there were so few, I hardly knew. But I’d met a couple who were desperate not to be seen like the other ninety percent. So they refused and fought and freaked out if I tried to buy them lunch.
I wasn’t flippant about money. I was actually quite good with it. No Lamborghinis, like some of my teammates. But a plane ticket or a dinner was not a big decision for me. I tried to remember that it might be for this girl I’d just met.
“Please,” I asked. “Take it as a good turn of the universe in your favor. Serendipity.”
She hesitated for a moment, then smiled. “Woo hoo!” she said softly. “A free trip home.”
I am okay with this, I said to myself, needing a little extra convincing. This is just REALLY good luck. I thought Sidney looked relieved when I didn’t fight the ticket. “That’s really nice of you,” I told him. “We could consider this a dowry for our arranged marriage.”
He laughed, genuinely, and I could see the hint of fear was gone from his eyes. “I don’t get any sheep? Goats or quilts or something?”
“My dad will get you a penguin,” I offered. “It can live in your bathroom.”
“I shall call him ‘Snowstorm’,” Sidney said.
The attendant brought our food – complete with silverware and another round of drinks. It was almost real food too. I never wanted to see another BK Original Chicken Sandwich as long as I lived.
I leaned over to Sidney and whispered, “I thought they weren’t supposed to give us knives on planes anymore.” Sure it was a butter knife, but still.
He was sawing at a piece of chicken rather hopelessly. “They assume that everyone in first class is too classy for to misbehave.” Then he speared his chicken like a caveman, picked it up and bit off a piece.
He’s got an answer for everything. I smiled inwardly. I was a total smartass, no question about it. Stifling that quality had never been my strong suit, and flaunting it had gotten me in trouble before. Sidney matched me comment for comment. I like that, I thought.
“You didn’t have a game in Toronto, did you? Why are you here in the middle of the season?” I asked. He finished his meal and pushed the tray away.
“Photo shoot for a new TV deal the League is doing,” he didn’t look at me.
Oooh, pretty boy soft spot. Guess that’s understandable. Crosby got a lot of shit for being “the face of the NHL.” Some went so far as to say the League stacked referees and calls in his favor just to promote itself. I didn’t buy it. The last few seasons had been amazing, no doubt: Stanley Cup, Rocket Richard trophy and a whole hell of a lot of points so far this year. I hated other people disparaging my team as soft and favored when they were kicking serious ass.
“Got any of the photos?” I asked. He looked at me slowly, like he was considering. Then he reached around the tray and fished out his phone.
“Make sure the transmitter is off. I didn’t wait two days for this plane just to crash into Upstate New York.”
He smiled and handed me the iPhone. I tapped on the first photo in the display and it enlarged. I snarfed a laugh.
Sidney was shirtless, doing a pushup. An RBK logo was clearly visible above the hem of his shorts. But I was not looking at his shorts. His arms were flexed and his body was halfway to the ground. The barest hint of strain showed on his face, but he wasn’t sweating. I bet they photographed the first pushup. Why does he seem like he’s working really hard to do a single pushup? Then I gasped.
I gave him a scandalous look and covered my mouth. Once you knew that to look for it was obvious. Along his side, the curve of every single abdominal muscle was clearly etched into his body. Forget a six-pack, I think he had eight or ten in there.
“You’re flexing!” I whispered exaggeratedly.
He blushed, started to speak and then lost it to a laugh. Shaking his head, he gave up.
“No one’s abs look like that! You are showing off,” I was laughing too now. What he was showing off was definitely working. I was suddenly a little warm, wondering how close to reality that picture of Sidney’s half-naked body really was.
“The photographer makes you do it,” he said uselessly.
“Ppppfffffttt,” I replied.
I scrolled through the pictures. In most he had his shirt on. There were more workout shots, some of him skating and shooting. There were even a couple of him in street clothes, carrying his equipment bag with the big Penguins logo on the side.
The last photo stopped me. Sidney wore a simply colored plaid button down shirt open at the neck. The inside of the shirt’s collar had a different pattern in the same colors. The sleeves were rolled and then pushed up over some fantastic forearms. It must have been between poses, because he was smiling genuinely. His soft brown curls were tousled perfectly, his skin flawless, eyes flashing. I turned the phone to him.
“This looks like an ad for J Crew.”
He smiled and looked at it more closely. “That’s actually my shirt. That’s the beginning of the day – I didn’t realize he was taking pictures then.”
I rolled my eyes. “You looked like that when you got there?”
He nodded, looking cagey.
“No wonder they pay you for this,” I said, tapping on the screen. I chose the photo, then chose email, then started typing.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Emailing this to myself. Otherwise no one is going to believe I flew first class.”