The phone scared the crap out of me. It rang like an air raid siren somewhere to my left and my heart pounded frantically. I untangled myself from Evie – sometime in the night she’s taken over as little spoon – and swiped it off the nightstand. I didn’t look at the screen or speak, just pressed it to my ear.
“Jesus Christ, Jordan!” I yanked the phone back from my ear, temporarily deaf, and held it down for Evie.
“Is it too early?” he asked stupidly.
“No,” Evie said, her voice sultry with sleep. “I always wanted to wake up with you, Staal.”
“Sorry foxy, there is already an E Staal. Plus you’re famous and I don’t do sloppy seconds.” He was so loud I could hear every word. Evie rolled onto her back, nestling against me, and winced in the light. “So, you wanna hear what I found?”
I instinctively put my arm around Evie’s stomach. There was nothing I could do about the attention she would garner as my girlfriend and I’d been praying all along that she understood what she was signing up for. I believed she did. Still they say the first cut is the deepest.
“Okay,” she shrugged.
Jordan took a deep breath, preparing himself. Then he said, “Nothing.”
“I didn’t find anything. No one knows who you are. There are stories about Sid having a girlfriend and bringing her out, but there’s nothing at all about you.” He paused. “You know what that means, eh?”
Evie opened her gray eyes and found me looking right back at her. One eyebrow arched slightly and we spoke at the same time.
“We have to do it all over again.”
It wasn’t a surprise. We hadn’t given anyone at the bowling event any real information, certainly not the press, and it had only been one day since. If anything, I had been curious to see whether or not they could find out about Evie on their own. I wanted to test this system, see how deep its roots went. Guess they couldn’t get something out of nothing.
She quickly said goodbye to Jordan and I rolled down until my head lay almost on her shoulder. I felt heavier suddenly, like two hundred pounds of dead weight.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“You didn’t really think it was going be that easy, did you?”
I was amazed to see a smile on her face. I thought she’d want to kill me or cry. She had been nervous yesterday, more than she let on. I knew her well enough to see it, and well enough to love her for trying to hide it. We hid our nerves all the time because we had no choice. For Evie to have done it meant we really were a team. And now… well you win some, you lose some.
“You’re incredible,” I told her honestly. “I am so in love with you.”
She giggled and wrapped her legs around mine. “We’ll have to come up with something really good now.”
I already knew what it was.
Sid looked so worried I had to laugh. Not that I wanted to debut again. But I prided myself on being pretty realistic about how this was going to go. And there was no point in stressing out about it – I was already way too far in to consider turning back. I could barely get my feet around Sidney’s giant calves, but I would my legs in close and settled against his warm body. He rolled on top of me and I kissed him as deeply as I could, trying to show him that I wasn’t going to freak out and run away. I wasn’t going to let him down.
The team had a closed practice and Sidney was relieved – he could maybe avoid talking about me just yet. It would give us the afternoon the come up with a plan. He dropped me at work with a long kiss goodbye.
“Don’t let your co-workers tell anybody yet,” he reminded.
Easier said than done. I was barely though the door before people were applauding. Libby and Robbie had plastered my cubicle with stories from the newspapers about Sidney’s Mystery Date – they must have bought ten copies of each paper. They stood by my desk, waiting for me, as everyone watched. I did a slow turn and took a little bow.
“You guys are insane.”
Everyone wanted to know all about the bowling event. We could have moved into the conference room for all the people that crowded around to hear the story. This was my baby step toward what would be coming shortly with the real peanut gallery, and this audience was all on my side. There were a few people I didn’t know well who probably thought I was fanning my peacock feathers, but for the most part these were my good friends and they were excited for me, if still a little stunned.
Allison pointed to one of the newspaper photos. “Is he that hot in real life?”
It was a picture of Sid in the locker room before a game, squeezed into some very descriptive Under Armor with his hair a mess. It was his sex hair, but only I knew that. Then I blushed and apparently it told everyone.
“Oh God,” Libby said, shoving Robbie away. “No one should be that lucky.”
“So, what do you think?”
Marc and Vero sat side by side on the locker room bench, eyes and mouths wide open. Completely silent. I just waited.
“You’re… it’s so… really?” Marc stammered.
“It’s really soon. You’re sure?”
I nodded again.
“And you think she’ll….”
I kept nodding. Marc leaned back with a sigh, studying me for signs of madness. I knew he really liked Evie – that wasn’t why he questioned me. If anything, this was why I told them first. Also I needed help. We just stared at each other until I knew Flower would give up and get excited. But Vero beat him to the punch.
“Mon Dieu, it’s so romantic!” She stood up in a blur and hugged me tightly. “It’s crazy and it’s perfect. If you feel it, do it.” Then she slowly turned, one arm still around my shoulder, and gave Marc a hawk-eyed look. “Maybe your enthusiasm will rub off on your teammates.”
Marc looked sheepish and agreed with Vero’s decision to support me. And so we hatched a little plan and an hour later, Marc and I were in the private customer gallery at the only Tiffany’s in town. A fussy older man in a sharp suit laid out every single engagement ring in the place on a padded velvet table. When I had shown Vero the picture of the ring I designed, she was adamant they would have something almost exactly matched in the store. Apparently I was very traditional in my tastes. Vero was only mad she couldn’t be there to help choose it, lest she ruin the ruse.
“These,” Marc pointed to the tray farthest to the left. They were simple bands with single diamond settings in every imaginable shape. What I thought had looked square was actually a variety of almost-square cuts: asscher, princess and radiant. The salesman explained the options and settings and clarities but I wasn’t listening.
It was there. Vero had been right. There was an assher-cut stone mounted on a white gold band. On either side of the stone, at top and bottom, the setting was an extension of the band, holding the diamond as if it were a flower supported by its petals. The lines were graceful and delicate, the light refracting like a prism from the surface of the stone. It wasn’t the biggest diamond on the table, but I thought it was by far the most beautiful.
“This one,” I said. Flower immediately put down the diamond he’d been studying and climbed over me to look. He let out a low whistle.
“You think she’ll like that one?”
“She’ll love it.” I knew beyond a doubt that she would.
The salesman lifted it carefully from the display. I almost hissed as he touched it – that was Evie’s ring now, my ring for her. I didn’t want anyone else touching it. My palm opened wide and I swear the ring was hot against my skin. I felt pins and needles as the blood rushed to my hand, demanding physical attention to something so important. I must have looked beatific because I could the salesman studying me strangely.
“Get this one,” I shook it off and presented the ring to Marc. But he was distracted – holding another ring in his fingers. It was also white gold, with an oval cut diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds that trailed away over the top of the band. It was a little flashier than Evie’s, more modern but undeniably beautiful. Marc turned to me, moving only his neck as if the rest of him were frozen in place.
“What about this one?” he said. His meaning was unmistakable and I’m sure my mouth fell open.
“That one… too? Both rings?”
Marc nodded, looking just as surprised as I did. I hope the salesman gave up trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Marc’s fingertips were white were he pinched the band in his enormous grip. Surely an optical illusion, the diamond seemed to radiate its own light.
“Yes. Yes get both.”
“Two rings?” the salesman asked, his voice rising in excitement.
I snatched Evie’s ring back from a distracted Marc and nodded at the man. “Yes, he’ll take both.”
It seemed to take forever to get out of the shop. Nathalie’s favorite Christmas movie was Love Actually and I’d seen it a hundred times. The part where Mr. Bean spends hours wrapping the necklace, while Professor Snape is trying to hide it from his wife? This was worse. Between the sizing and the shining it was ages. And I was never sure if the salesman knew who we were – he didn’t blink at the name on Marc’s card and he didn’t seem to look at me more than normal. Either our ruse was working or he was well paid for being discreet.
“Good luck, gentlemen,” he said as goodbye.
When Marc finally climbed into the car, he curled shaking hands around the steering wheel and looked straight ahead. “I can’t believe I just did that.”
He was in shock. I knew he was thrilled, excited, scared – all the things I was feeling. Only he’d been with Vero since they were kids and there was zero question they were soul mates. Yet he seemed more scared that I was.
“She’ll be so excited,” I tried.
He finally looked at me, blinking away the terror. “I know. I am excited. I have been thinking about it forever and… I don’t know. If you can be so brave with Evie then what am I waiting for? Of course I will marry her. She knows this. But what if she worries? What if she thinks I am not sure, or I don’t love her as much as you love Evie? I can’t let her think that.”
“She doesn’t,” I assured him.
He nodded once. “Not anymore.”
I waited for the call. Work went on around me and I even accomplished a few tasks, all the while expecting the phone to ring with a reporter on the other end. For a squad of badge-wearing journalists to bum rush my desk. To find someone suspended from a grappling hook, peering in the window with a spy camera.
“You okay?” Libby said. She handed me an open can of Coke – I never drank soda, but I needed something to settle my stomach. “You look a little pale.”
“My imagination is running away with me. I knew it wouldn’t be over after last night, but this waiting might be worse. I’m not a surprise anymore; I’m like a rebel base to be located and destroyed.”
Libby looked meaningfully at the newspaper photo of Sid still taped to my cabinet. “Wah waaaaaaaaaaah.”
The day ended with no ambushes or telephoto lenses. I hadn’t heard from Sidney yet so I hitched a ride home with Allison and trudged up the stairs. If my neighbors had seen the TV clip they might have recognized me, but no one was in the hallway.
“Hey Beth, I…,” and I stopped. There was music on. My first thought was Beth had a guy here, probably Kris, and I might be about to get an eyeful of sex hair in action. I practically threw open the door.
It wasn’t Beth.
Sidney was leaning against the far wall and a tiny smile came to his face. He wore dark jeans and a soft-looking black sweater. Sleeves were pushed up his forearms, revealing the big watch that always looked so manly across his wide wrist. Next to him, my rainbow striped suitcase sat like it had somewhere to go.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I answered slowly. I may have only known Sid for a few weeks but this was not his typical date night vibe.
“Don’t take off your coat.” He pulled on his own jacket and grabbed the handle on my suitcase, then came right to where I stood and pressed a kiss to my lips. He was a giant – between his body and the doorway I felt miniscule. He pushed me back into the hallway with his chest.
“Where are we going?”
Now I got a full smile. “It’s a surprise.”
“But, I… you… you have practice tomorrow.”
He just shrugged. That definitely was not the Sidney I knew. He was halfway down the stairs before I moved to follow. “Wait, what is going on?”
He looked up at me, now a full flight below. “We’re going to miss our flight.”
I blew him a raspberry and stomped after him down the stairs. His car was around the corner and I peered over the seat to see his small overnight bag in the back. Okay, I can go with this, I told myself. So I didn’t ask again but just leaned back in my seat. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sid trying to sneak looks at me. Finally, I broke down and laughed.
“I love surprises!”
We parked in the short term lot and trundled into the Air Canada check in. Sidney had his customary hat pulled down over his brow but I was sure everyone recognized the size of his body and the way he moved. I would have known him from space. There was no line at the first class counter and the agent, a thirty-something blond woman, didn’t look surprised to see us. That should have been my first clue.
“Mr. and Mrs. Crosby, nice to see you.”
He giggled as I slapped his arm. The agent looked at my ID, with my real last name, and simply batted her lashes and confirmed me for the flight. The perma-smile never left her face as she closed the tickets into an envelope and handed it right to Sidney without ever mentioning where we were going. I tried to peek as we stopped for the security desk, but the bored agent looked at my license, face and presumably my real name on the boarding pass and waved us through.
“You are good,” I admitted. Sidney just kept his head down and tried not to get spotted in line. Luckily it was pretty empty and we were hiding in the Air Canada lounge within minutes. We ordered ice teas and looked out at the planes on the runway. Sidney reached across the chair and twisted his fingers into mine.
“Is this really okay?” he asked.
Of course it was. The last few weeks had been a complete head-long rush into something that felt totally right. What could be weird about a surprise trip to a mystery destination? It was practically the one-line description of our entire relationship.
“I’m kind of excited!” I told him. His uncontrolled, mile-wide goofy grin was my favorite, where he just lost that measure of control he always exercised and let the world in close for a change. We ignored the issue and talked about nothing.
It was quite a while before Sidney stood. “Ready?”
There were eight gates in our part of the circular-shaped terminal. Four flights were taking off within the hour: Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and New York. They would be the last flights out for the day.
“Which one?” he asked. I had no idea – they were all quick trips, and if we were coming back tomorrow all possible. I’d peeked in my bag and seen a few sweaters and some gloves, no help for four cold locations. As I shrugged, the PA crackled to life and announced final boarding for the flight to Toronto.
With a smile, Sidney went that way.
It could have been the same plane we met on. First class was just a few rows and we were in the same seats: 3A and 3B. Before I was even belted in I knew the flight attendant would be calling me “Mrs. Crosby.” It still made Sidney laugh when she did.
“Something with vodka,” I ordered as I had the first day. It seemed like ages ago, like I’d known Sidney forever, but the sense-memory of the plane was strong. I had been so relieved to get a flight, then so surprised and flustered by Sidney. And turned on. I saw now that he filled his entire seat with that broad, solid body just the way I’d first noticed. Dark curls poked from beneath his hat, begging to be twirled between my fingers.
The attendant delivered my drink. “Enjoy the flight, Mrs. Crosby.”
“I always do.”
My heart was pounding. The entire afternoon had been one long sugar high, twisting my stomach until I felt like I always had to pee. Marc had called Kris, who called Beth. We were going to tell her it was a surprise trip just to get me into the apartment, but I needed a little more information and so I had to tell Beth the truth. She was crying before I finished. Then I called Evie’s boss, Allison, and asked if she could have the next day off. Allison agreed immediately and even offered to drive Evie home.
I stood in front of her closet feeling like an intruder. I had slept in that room, told her I love her in that room and yet there were a million things I’d never seen, a million things about Evie I didn’t yet have the privilege of knowing. Faced with all that, I almost called it off. Clearly Evie had lived a great life before me and she had been happy before me. But I took a deep breath and reached for something I knew – the gauzy top she’d borrowed from Vero the first night we went out. The night we kissed, the night we made love. It hung from the footboard like a flag reminding me that we had formed an alliance. I decided all the unknowns were just a lifetime of things to learn.
The ring was in my pocket. There was a scary moment when I had to switch it to my bag to go through security, I was afraid she’d see me making the switch. But she was busy putting her shoes on and I felt better with the weight of that tiny box against my side.
Evie didn’t ask why we were going. She had barely asked where. Whether she trusted me or was just up for an adventure, Evie was not nervous to let me lead. Hopefully she’d feel the same when I popped the question. We shared a Sky Mall magazine, picking out gifts for the guys. Max and Kris got most of them, as the Sky Mall had a lot of gadgets for really hairy people. We also adopted an imaginary dog and gave it a ramp so it could climb onto our couch and a gnome statue to play with in the yard. Before I knew it we were standing in the Toronto airport.
Two gates over, I steered Evie toward the check-in desk at another gate. It was nearly 11 PM and there was no flight leaving from here soon – the desk was dark and the chairs empty. I stopped in front of the seats closest to the counter.
“That’s where you were sitting.”
“The night we met, you were talking to the agent when I got here. Then you sat down right there, with this.” I indicated her suitcase. She looked around and decided I was right.
“This place was a refugee camp that weekend. I might have a wartime flashback.” But she looked fine as she considered how clean and non-threatening the terminal looked now.
“You were beautiful.” Evie’s smile caught on her face, the way it did when I said something really sweet. But it was true. “You had on those stretchy pants and…,” I let her laugh, “and you were really nice to the agent. I could hear you telling her it was okay that you’d been bumped again.”
“Oh, Elizabeth! I felt so bad for her… worst job ever.”
“She was the one who made you Mrs. Crosby.” As I spoke, I reached into my pocket. Evie didn’t seem to notice. I’d taken the ring from its box in the airplane bathroom and tucked it into the key pocket of my jeans. Now it slid onto the tip of my finger. “I told her you’d accept my proposal just to get out of here.”
Evie’s gray eyes sparkled at my self-deprication. They really were the color of the sky at dusk, between white and darkest blue. “You were right.”
“I… I hope you might do it again,” I said. It took a heartbeat for her to hear me and another to process what I’d said. By then I was halfway to one knee. Her eyes went wide and darted around, but no one was watching us. When she looked back I was holding up the ring.
“Evie, it was no accident that you were stuck and I had an extra seat. Everything happens for a reason, and I know that you are my reason. I’m in love with you. Once you agreed to be my wife because you had to. Will you do me the honor now of making me your choice? Will you marry me?”
She was looking at me. Not the ring, not the prize; she was looking right at me with tears in her eyes. Her lips were parted in disbelief but the corners of her mouth turned up in amazement. Slowly she started to nod.
It was a whisper, barely a breath from her lungs but it felt like a shout. A marching band parade of lights with open-topped bus floats could not have said it better.
I had to pull her hand from her face to slide the ring onto her finger. It fit perfectly and stayed there, sparkling madly, as we both stared at it for a second. Then I looked at her.
“I know it’s crazy. We don’t have to do it soon. But I wanted you to know there will never be another Mrs. Crosby.” She practically melted in my arms as I tasted the salt of tears on her lips. There may have been a few of my own. Evie’s left hand cupped the back of my neck and I could feel the cool band of the ring pressed to my skin.
“I love you,” she said simply. She always said it best.
Once we were firmly engaged and the moment had settled over us, she looked at her suitcase. “Are we going home now?”
I would have brought her all the way here just to propose. But there was something else, probably just as important, that we probably should have done first. Oh well, nothing had ever gone in order for us.
“No, I got a car. We are going to meet your parents.”