Three days later, on a game-free Tuesday night, Brody whistled as he flipped a zucchini pancake over.
Mark eyed the contents of the pan warily. "What is that?"
"A zucchini pancake with angel hair pasta and a few other things. It's like a frittata." Brody sprinkled some salt and pepper on it, flipped it again.
"How the hell do you come up with stuff like that?"
"Saw it in a magazine." Brody shrugged. "Looked good, thought I'd try it. Come on, when have I ever let you down with food?"
"When you tried to mix red peppers and sauerkraut." Mark shuddered at the memory. "I can't eat either of those things now without flashbacks, thanks to you."
"Not every experiment works. We learn from our failures."
Mark snorted. "Anyway, I'm not trying that, whatever it is."
"Fine, it's not for you anyway, you wuss. It's for Ryan."
"What is it with you and cooking for her? Every time I turn around you guys are eating together."
"I can't cook for my girlfriend?"
"No, you can cook for whoever—what?" Mark walked over and poked him in the shoulder. "When did she become your girlfriend? On the bus to Philly you said you weren't going out with her."
"And at the time, I wasn't." Brody turned the heat down on the stove. "Things change, man. That was almost two weeks ago. You need to keep up."
"Why are you going out with her?"
"Are you seriously asking me that?" When Mark didn't answer, Brody shrugged. "I bet Hilary loves it when you get all big brother. Anyway, I wanted to. I asked, she said yes, so we're going out. Very simple."
Mark looked about to say something, then turned his head and paced into the living room. Brody ignored him for a few minutes, then turned around. "What is the problem here?"
"I don't know. I like Ryan. And I know you and how you are with women."
Brody raised an eyebrow. "How I am?"
"Oh, please. You've been commitment averse since I've known you, to say the least. And I don't think Ryan is like that. I don't want you doing anything to hurt her."
"Yeah, because I'm such a monster. Because I've left a trail of broken hearts in my wake. Christ, Gainer." Brody turned back to the stove. "Look, I asked her. She said yes. We're just going out. Relax."
"Fine." Mark went to the door. "But you can't tell me the first time she tries making plans more than a week in advance, you won't freak."
"We're both busy enough that plans are made on the fly. With her band, she's probably busier than I am a lot of the time. And besides, my freaking limit on plans is more like two weeks."
"Okay, fine." Mark had to chuckle. "Just, seriously, man, don't mess with her."
"Jesus, you really are
a big brother." Brody made a shooing motion. "Go away."
Mark left and Brody shook his head as he dumped his knife and cutting board in the sink. Ryan was an adult, for God's sake, he thought. He hadn't blackmailed her into going out with him. True, he hadn't been, and still wasn't, looking for the long-term stuff, as he'd told Baxter. Someday, that'd be fine; some day, after
his NHL career, when he was done with road trips, potential trades, and all of that.
There was no point in having something derailed when it was avoidable. Ryan, he figured, had to feel much the same. She was busy with her band, and was working to get busier. He doubted she was looking for the picket fence either. More likely, she was looking for a tour bus.
The knock at the door drew him out of his thoughts, and he went to answer it with a sense of anticipation that surprised him.
"Hey there." He smiled at her when he opened the door.
"Hi." She looked up with bright eyes, a little breathless. "Sorry I'm late."
"Not a problem." He stood back and gestured her in, then closed the door behind her. He watched as she strode in and rested her guitar case against side of the couch, then draped her coast over the arm. He had to admit, he liked that walk; it was confident and not just a little sexy.
She put her hands on her hips and took a breath, then turned back to him and smiled. "Hi."
"Hi." He came over and faced her for a moment, then leaned down to kiss her. "How are you?"
"Good." She leaned into him for a moment, then pulled back. "Hey, something smells good."
"Thanks." He tugged her towards the kitchen. "You're a guinea pig tonight. I decided to try something new."
"Hmmm." Ryan pretended skepticism. "Maybe I should go back for my ramen noodles."
He raised an eyebrow. "Tell me you at least added some meat and vegetables to it."
"Um, no, can't say we did." Ryan had the grace to look embarrassed.
"I don't know how you've lived this long," he said, but couldn't help a chuckle.
"But if I hadn't done that, how could I appreciate you now?"
"There's something to be said for appreciation," he allowed. "Now, sit. It's almost ready."
Ryan smiled as she sat back in the chair. She'd had a busy day, been late for rehearsal, and had come right from her ride with Lara up to Brody's apartment, not even stopping to drop off her guitar. In the elevator she'd laughed at herself, so anxious to see her boyfriend. Not that she hadn't had boyfriends before, but she couldn't recall looking forward to seeing any of them like this.
It had been a few days, she reminded herself; she hadn't seen him since the previous Friday. Five days, she thought wryly; it had been less than a week, and here she'd been in such a hurry she'd dragged her guitar along with her.
Brody brought over the plates, each with a piece of some odd pizza-looking thing. Ryan looked from him to the food as he set glasses of water on the table.
"What is that?"
"Zucchini pancake with angel hair pasta. Don't judge, just eat it."
Ryan did, with some trepidation, but nodded in approval. "Not bad. Not bad at all."
"Well, thank you for that glowing review." Brody shot her a look and she laughed. "So, anyway, sorry I missed your show at Maryland. How did it go?"
"Pretty good." Ryan cut another piece of the food. "Jason only ran over on two songs." She rolled her eyes. "At least it was songs where he'd done it before, so we could cover. I let him have it afterwards, but I doubt it'll help."
She shrugged. "I'm trying to let it go, for now anyway. And I did get to see my brother, Evan. He's the youngest. Plays basketball."
"And your other brother is . . .?"
"JT. Football. At Maryland, in fact." She stabbed at the pancake. "Just like Dad."
"I'm sensing a little hostility."
Ryan gave him a half-smile. "Sorry. It's kind of automatic."
He reached over and squeezed her hand. "It's okay."
"No, no it's not. It's stupid to get upset about it." She shook her head. "It's been that way my whole life and I should be used to it—I am used to it, really."
"Yes, I can see that." Brody gave her a somber nod, which made her huff out a laugh.
"I could bore you with the reasons why, but I don't want to ruin a nice dinner. So let's just forget about it. I'll start over. The show was fine, I let Jason have it about the songs, and I got to see Evan, so that was fun." She took a deep breath. "There, see? Now, I watched the Buffalo game and some of the one on Sunday. You guys looked good. That was a stupid call in the Buffalo game that cost that guy . . . what's his name? The Russian guy?"
"No, the other one."
"Oh, Tolya Strelkov." Brody grinned. "Yeah, he was pretty pissed about that goal being disallowed. But he'll get another one."
"You got one." Ryan smiled at him.
"I did indeed. It was a great feeling, let me tell you. I was on the verge of a slump. Well, a slump for me."
They talked a little more, then cleared the table when they finished eating. Ryan offered to help with the dishes, but Brody waved her off. Instead, he took her hand and pulled her out to the living room. She laughed as he yanked her down to the couch, half on top of him.
"So, what do we do now?" Ryan asked. "Watch more Iron Chef?"
"If you want." Brody smiled. "I actually didn't have a plan."
"Okay." She covered a yawn. "Why don't you tell me about your family? I like hearing about families where everyone gets along."
He laughed at that. "Well, we get along most times, I guess."
Ryan shifted to get more comfortable and laid her head on his shoulder. "Go on, tell me. My family problems annoy me. You have, like, a dozen siblings, right?"
"I don't think five kids is any kind of horde," he said, "but it did make for a crowded house. We're all experts at the five-minute shower. Except my sister, Lana."
"Lana? No, you can't be serious." Ryan lifted her head. "You have a sister named Lana Lang?"
"What's wrong with that?" Brody widened his eyes, all innocence.
"Your parents did not
name your sister after a character in Superman comics. Tell me they didn't."
"Okay, no, they didn't." He laughed as Ryan dropped her head in relief. "Seriously, my oldest brother is named Rick, then there's my sister Carla, then me, then Josh, and my youngest sister is Eileen. My mom's name, though, is Lois, so they had some fun with that."
Ryan chuckled. "I bet. So, what do they all do? Anyone else play hockey, or another sport?"
Brody paused, trying to remember everything. "Well, we all played sports at some point, but I was the only who got serious about it. Rick works in construction, and Carla is a teacher. Second grade, more power to her. Josh is a computer programmer, and Eileen is in her last year of college. I forget what she's majoring in; she changes all the time. Last I talked to her, she was talking about joining the Peace Corps or something."
"That sounds neat. Did you all get along?"
"Oh, pretty much. There was the usual sibling rivalry. Frogs were strategically placed in dresser drawers, things like that." He paused. "Usually it was rubber frogs, or spiders, but once Josh found a real frog and man, Carla almost broke the windows when she screamed."
"Nice." Ryan laughed.
"Well, my sisters were no slouches in about getting us back, let me tell you." Brody chuckled and absently rubbed her arm. "They were sneakier, too. They liked to take my hockey equipment and hide it. They'd fill my skates with dad's shaving cream." He made a face. "I can't tell you how weird that felt."
Ryan smiled. "I should have thought of doing that to my brothers." Her eyes drifted closed; between the warmth of his body and the softness of the couch, she could feel herself on the verge of dozing. She made herself wake up. "Are any of them married?"
"Rick is, and he has two kids, two boys. Carla got married last summer, no kids yet. Josh was seeing someone but I think they broke up. I think; they were kind of on and off a lot. Eileen always says she's too busy, and she probably is."
"Wow. I don't know how you keep up on all that."
"Mom has an amazing recall, and we use Facebook. And that doesn’t count any cousins, aunts, uncles, second cousins . . . ."
Ryan laughed, then covered another yawn. "Sorry. It's not the company."
"Oh, sort of. Mostly I was up late. Couldn't sleep."
"Working on some music?"
"Yeah, some." Ryan shifted against him so that his arm was around her shoulders. That drowsy feeling crept up on her again. "I'm a little stressed about the show at the 9:30 Club."
He chuckled. "Isn't that still over two weeks away?"
"Well, yes, but I can't help it."
"Ryan, you really need to relax."
"Please? At this time of year?" She raised a hand began ticking off points. "First, Thanksgiving, then our gig, then Christmas. All of which means the pace at work increases to get things done for the holidays and people taking off. Not to mention buying presents, which with my family is the definition of 'exercise in futility.' None of that adds up to relaxation."
"Yes, but you have one thing this year you didn't before."
"Me." He grinned. "I'm good at relaxing, and helping people relax."
Ryan raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"It is. And since I'm your boyfriend, doesn’t it make sense to take advantage of me?"
She laughed. "Well, if you put it like that . . . ."
"Get your mind out of the gutter. Geez. Musicians." Brody sat up and gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes while Ryan kept laughing. "Come on, come on, sit up."
Ryan pushed herself up and yelped when Brody tickled her sides. "Hey! That's not helping!"
"Okay, okay." Brody got serious and directed her to the floor and then sat on the floor behind her and began to massage her shoulders.
Ryan remained tense for a minute, then gave in. "Thanks. That feels great."
They were quiet for a while, and Ryan felt herself drifting again. "I guess I should go. I didn't realize I was so tired." She yawned and sat back, leaning against Brody's chest. Which, she thought to herself, was not a bad thing.
"You can't keep this up, you know," Brody told her.
He shifted her so that he was half-holding her. "This pace. The stress levels. You've got to find a way to relax. Take a night off or something."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that."
He gave her a wry grin and smoothed her hair back. "You look beat."
"I am." She shrugged. "I'll get over it. Not much I can do about it now."
"I think you need a new relaxation technique." Brody wiggled his eyebrows.
"Is that so?" Ryan laughed. "I've tried yoga. Lara made me, but it didn't take. What do you suggest? Pilates? Aromatherapy?"
"No, too new agey. I like the tried and tested methods." Brody grinned and leaned down to kiss her.
Not bad as far as relaxation techniques went, Ryan thought. She shifted in his arms, turning towards him as his lips moved against hers. She let him coax her lips apart and deepen the kiss, sliding his tongue against hers. His free hand stroked her arm, then moved lower and ran up and down her side. She put a hand on his shoulder, then raised it to toy with his hair, pleased when he made an approving sound.
Ryan relaxed, enjoying the physical contact. It had been a while since she'd dated, and she hadn't realized how much she'd missed this aspect of being with someone. Not just kissing—although she wasn't complaining—but just being next to someone, or holding hands.
"We could take this somewhere more comfortable." Brody slid his hand under her shirt.
"We could, but I think I'd better go." She smiled. "Lots of work to do and all that."
"You sure?" Brody kissed her again. "Because you seem a lot more relaxed now. Maybe we should do this for a while longer."
Ryan laughed and rubbed his arm. "I am, much more. You were right, you're very good at relaxing people."
"I've barely gotten started."
"Well, then, I'll have something to look forward to." Ryan realized what she said but it was too late to change it, so she just grinned at him.
"You mean it, don't you?" Brody feigned hurt. "You really want to go. I must be losing my touch."
"Your touch is just fine. But . . . well, this is about all the touching I'm up for right now." Ryan sat up and faced him. "If it helps, it's not you, it's me."
Brody laughed and stood, then offered her a hand and pulled her up. "That has to be the worst line invented, ever." He pulled her into a hug, gave her one more kiss, and then stood back. "Okay, rock star, you better go, then."
"Thanks, Brody." Ryan picked up her coat and guitar. "For dinner, and everything else."
"I should have made you play me a song." He nodded at the guitar as he walked her to the door. "Music goes so well with food."
"Next time." She stepped through the doorway and turned around. "Thanks again, really."
"You're welcome. Get some sleep." He reached out and put a hand against her cheek for a moment. "Go on. I'll call you tomorrow."
"All right. Thanks. 'Night."
"Good night." Brody watched her until she got on the elevator, gave one last wave and closed the door.
He dealt with the dishes and decided it was time for bed. First, though, he needed a shower. Cold.
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