Maura stared at me innocently and shrugged. Her blond hair was pulled into pigtails with hunter green ribbons tied at the top, and she was wearing a Minnesota Wild T-shirt, layered over a white long-sleeved shirt.
“Are you excited to go to the hockey game, baby girl?”
She nodded. “I want popcorn.”
“You’ll get popcorn.” I giggled before calling out, “Matthew, are you almost ready?”
“Just a minute!” he called back.
A few second later, he came running down the hall and jumped into my doorway, putting his hands proudly on his hips and puffing his chest out.
“Oh. Wow.” I stared down at him. He was wearing a Wild T-shirt and jeans, but his blond hair was spiked up with way too much hair gel and he had messy eye black under his eyes, something hockey players never wear, but apparently Matthew didn’t know that. “You look super tough. Where did you get the stuff for under your eyes?”
“Your bathroom,” he said nonchalantly as he climbed into my bed.
“Yeah, the bag on the counter. I took the pencil to my room and drew it on.”
“You mean my eyeliner?”
He nodded. “I used it all. Sorry.”
I sighed and checked myself out one last time in the mirror. “Okay. You guys ready to hit the road?”
Viper had left the house a few hours before, and I don’t think I’d ever seen him so nervous. He’d been medically cleared and it was his first game back, but it might as well have been the first game of his whole career. His hands had been shaking and I could feel his heart racing through his jersey when he’d hugged me good-bye. I’d known he was nervous the night before and when we woke up that morning, I’d dipped my head under the covers and did my best to relieve his stress, but it had only helped a little . . . and only for about two minutes.
Nonetheless, the kids and I piled into the car and headed over to pick up Gam. Then we were all on our way to the arena.
The stadium was buzzing. There had been a few stories on the news in the morning about Viper’s return, and the kids and I had watched him and Coach Collins do a big press conference the day before. The fans were excited to see Viper back out on the ice, and so were we. Viper was able to secure us some extra tickets to pass out, so I tried to pack the stands with everyone I could think of to come watch his return.
The usher directed us to our seats, which were right in front of Kacie and the girls. They waved at us excitedly as we made our way down the concrete steps.
Kacie stepped into the aisle and took Gam’s hand, leading her into her seat carefully, then she came back and hugged me. “Are you excited?”
I nodded. “Excited. Terrified. Nervous. It’s been a while.”
She tilted her head to the side and smiled at me. “He’ll do great.”
The kids and I took our seats just as Andy walked up with enough popcorn to feed a small army. “I hear we have some hungry kids over here!” he called out playfully.
All of their arms shot up and he began passing out boxes.
As soon as our eyes met, we gave each other the exact same anxious look. “Did you see him yet?”
“Yeah, I was in the locker room a little bit ago.” He paused and licked butter off his thumb.
He shrugged. “And he’s great. Nervous as hell, but I think after a few minutes, it’ll disappear. Coach Collins did tell him he might not play long periods of time just yet, but that all depends on how his knee feels.”
“Good. I don’t want him to push himself too much.”
“Please.” Andy rolled his eyes. “This is Viper we’re talking about. His knee could swell to the size of a basketball and he’d still insist he was fine.”
“True,” I said with a laugh.
The usher walked up behind Andy and waved at me to catch my attention. With him was a large man with dark, grayish hair, dark green and white polka-dotted sweatpants, and a huge smile on his face. I didn’t even have to ask who he was. I already knew.
“You must be Sherman.” I stepped past Andy and opened my arms wide. “It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
He gave me one of the warmest, most comforting hugs I’d ever received in my whole life. “Nice to meet you, Michelle. I feel like I already know so much about you through that pain in the ass of yours, but it’s great to finally put a face to the name.”
“I feel the same about you. We both put up with a lot from him, don’t we?”
He leaned in close. “That’s an understatement.”
I let out a quick laugh. “Here, come sit by me.” I introduced him to everyone else and within a minute, the guys took the ice and the crowd started cheering.
I stood up and scanned the white and green jerseys, looking for my guy, who was skating straight for us. He came over and banged on the glass, grinning like a proud little kid. Matthew stood on the seat and pumped his little arms in the air, while Maura ran up to the glass and blew him kisses. Finally Viper looked over and shot me a quick wink. I raised both hands and pointed next to me. His eyes slid to Sherman and practically bulged out of his head as his mouth dropped open.
“I didn’t know you were gonna be here!” he yelled, though we barely heard him over the glass and the crowd.
Sherman pointed to me with him thumb. “She did!” he shouted back.
Viper’s eyes drifted back to mine and he pulled his brows down low, giving me a sweet, thankful smile.
“I love you!” he shouted as loud as he could.
“Love you, too!” I mouthed back quietly.
He winked at me one more time, punched the glass playfully, and skated away.
The game moved, fast and intense. The Wild won and Viper even scored one of their three goals. As soon as he shot the puck and the red light turned on, the place erupted and I jumped out of my seat. Poor Maura covered her ears and started sobbing, but Kacie scooped her up and let me have my moment. Viper hugged and high-fived his teammates before skating over to us and giving Matthew a thumbs-up. Matthew, so proud of his Viper, started cheering and high-fiving complete strangers in the aisle.
“Matthew, get back here.” I giggled, waving him back to me.
“Hang on, Mom. I’m telling them that my dad just scored a goal.” He beamed proudly.