Rhythm and the Blue Line
Chapter 1

Caution: This Romantic Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Romantic, Heterosexual, Humor, Sports,

Desc: Romantic Sex Story: Chapter 1 - Ryan is a musician, and she's not fond of sports. Brody's a hockey player, and he's not looking for anything serious. Then they meet.

"I gotta go, man," said Mark. "I told Hilary I'd meet her."

"Right." Brody grinned. "You're just mad because I was kicking your ass at Madden."

Mark rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's it. I'm so pissed about losing that I'm using my girlfriend as an excuse. Jesus, Brody."

Brody snickered. "You have been whipped since she moved in with you."

"Just get out." Mark glared at him.

"Man, I never thought I'd see the day..." Brody dodged Mark's half-hearted swing at his shoulder, grinning all the while.

"You should be so lucky." Mark managed to land one punch as Brody went to the door. They heard some thumps in the hallway, followed by a muffled voice.

"Mice?" Brody asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Nah, that's Ryan, my neighbor," Mark said. After more thumps, he said, "Come on, let's see if we can help. Ryan's got a fractured ankle. Probably needs help carrying something."

"Okay." Brody opened the door and stepped out, Mark behind him, just in time to hear a few more thumps.

Brody turned around to offer some help, and was surprised to see a woman in the hallway. She had a cast on her ankle, crutches under her arms, and he watched as she threw her purse on the floor in frustration.

"Need some help?" Brody asked.

The woman dropped her head, sighed, and looked up. "Sure," she said. "It's obviously not meant for me to do." She ran a hand through wavy auburn hair in frustration, then tried a smile. "Hi, Mark."

"Hey. Brody, this is Ryan Bancroft. Ryan, this is my teammate, Brody Lang." Mark squatted and started picking up the fallen items. "He's mostly housetrained." That got a short laugh from Ryan and a glare from Brody. Mark looked up. "How's the ankle?"

Ryan shrugged. "Okay, I guess. Not great today."

"Well, we all have bad days," Brody said. He picked up cans and boxes as he moved forward, putting them into the plastic grocery bag they'd escaped from. He took the bag, refilled with the groceries, and gestured at the little metal cart that held a few more. "Do you need any help getting that stuff in?"

"Probably." Ryan sighed and unlocked her door.

Brody followed her in and dropped his bag on the table, then went out into the hall for the cart. Mark came through with another bag and her purse, and Brody maneuvered the cart through the door and into the apartment, leaving it outside the kitchen.

"Thanks, guys." Ryan took her purse and dropped it on the counter. "I appreciate it."

Mark looked at his watch and cursed. "Ryan, I'm sorry, I'd help you put stuff away but I've gotta run."

"No problem, Mark," she assured him. "Go on. I've got it."

"I can help," Brody offered.

Ryan shrugged as if to say it was up to him.

"Sorry, Ryan," Mark said again. "I'll talk to you later. Bye, Brody." He took off.

"So, you're Ryan." Brody stared at the woman in front of him. She had on faded blue jeans, a GMU sweatshirt, and a well-worn leather jacket. Auburn hair framed a slightly angular face that had a light dusting of freckles over the cheekbones. Mischievous green eyes met his own. She was not what he had expected.

She gave him a half-smile as she made her way over to one of the bags. "You were expecting someone with a Y chromosome."

Brody felt guilty. "I, ah, yeah, I guess so. Mark said his neighbor was Ryan and I assumed it was a guy. Sorry."

She shook her head. "Don't worry. It's not the first time, won't be the last. I should change my name."

"How about using your middle name?" Brody suggested. "I have a couple of aunts who do that."

"My middle name is Riley."

"Oh." Brody wondered how far into his mouth his foot would fit.

"Thanks." She shook her head. "Sorry, I'm not trying to be difficult. You didn't know, and I am grateful for the help."

Brody was silent as Ryan leaned over the cart and began pulling the bags out. When she grabbed a chair to keep from falling, he shook his head at himself and stepped over.

"Here, let me." He set the bags on the table, began taking out the contents. "Just tell me where they go," he said.

"Look," Ryan said, shaking her head. "You don't have to do that, I can—"

"I know." He gave her a breezy smile. "I just like making myself useful to attractive women."

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"

"Yep." He held up a can of soup, gave her a questioning look, and turned to the cabinet she indicated. "I'm a sucker for a pretty face. Ask Mark, he'll tell you."

Ryan laughed. "Yeah, I guess Mark has a pretty face, when it doesn't have stitches on it."

Brody grinned. "I'll tell him you said that."

That seemed to break the tension and Ryan sat while Brody put the rest of her groceries away.

"You know, you should buy some real food sometime." Brody closed a cabinet and turned to look at her.

"I have plenty of real food." Ryan crossed her arms in front of her. "You just put it away."

"I don't think you had anything that wasn't microwavable. That's not healthy."

"I manage, thanks. Are you a chef or something?"

"No." He shrugged. "But I like to cook, and it kills me to see more fake food than real food in a person's kitchen." He arched an eyebrow at her. "Come on, not even bananas?"

"I don't like bananas. There are grapes in the fridge."

"I don't believe you."

At Ryan's wave, Brody went to the fridge and opened it. He spied a small, sad container of what might have been grapes but were halfway to being raisins.

"These, Miss Bancroft, are not grapes. They are pitiful."

"I have canned peaches." She paused. "I think."

"Stop, you're killing me." Brody closed the fridge and sat across from her at the table. "So, what happened?" He gestured at her leg.

"I jumped off the Washington Monument."

Brody stared at her. That couldn't be true, but she kept her eyes on his and there was no trace of a smile on her face. He thought for a minute, then said, in a tone as serious as hers, "Where did you land?"

"The Reflecting Pool."

Her expression didn't change much, but he could see the slight grin at the corners of her mouth.

"Good call." Brody nodded. "I'd have gone for the Tidal Basin, but you'd really have to get some distance for that."

They stared for another minute, then both started laughing. Ryan shook her head.

"If only it was that interesting," she said. "No, this was the result of a 'friendly'—" she crooked her fingers in the air as she said the word "—game of touch football with my family."

"Wow." Brody looked down at the cast, then back up to her green eyes. "A little sibling rivalry at work?"

"Something like that. I'm not much on sports; I shouldn't have played. But you know how it is, it was family." Her eyes clouded and Brody suspected there was a little more to it.

"Too bad you don't like sports," he said, "I'd get you tickets to a game."

"Thanks." Ryan smiled, a genuine one, and it softened her face. "I've gone to a few; Mark's given me extra tickets. Not so many now since he has a girlfriend, but that's okay."

"Maybe you can use mine. I don't have a girlfriend. And I only live a few floors up, so delivery is no problem."

Ryan nodded. "Thanks, but it's awkward on steps with this right now. Maybe another time."

"Maybe." Brody smiled, pleased he hadn't been shut down outright. "It was nice meeting you, Ryan. You need any help with groceries again, let me know."

"I'll do that."

Later that night, Ryan lay on the couch, reading and listening to some music, her ankle propped up on a pillow. She had turned on iTunes and set it to shuffle. Some might have found it odd to hear Bad Company, then Sara Bereilles, followed by John Coltrane, but she liked it.

She put her book aside and pushed herself up, trying but failing to stifle a groan of pain and irritation as she did. She used the arm of the couch to push herself up, got her crutches, and went over to turn off the music. Normally she would have used a quiet evening to work on her own music, but the ache in her leg made it difficult to focus.

Just let it go, she told herself and took a few deep breaths. It was an accident, could have happened to anyone. Let it go.

She tried, but she was still pissed about what had happened to her leg. They'd had a family reunion two weeks ago, at her parents' house in Chantilly, and it had been fun. She'd caught up with her cousins, talked to her aunts and uncles, and had agreed—in a fit of idiocy, it seemed now—to play in the football game.

Her whole family liked sports, so the game was a tradition at most gatherings that had enough people to support two teams. Ryan had grown up on the Redskins, the Wizards (né Bullets) and Capitals. When the Nationals had come to town, the family had been stalwart in their support.

Ryan had liked sports, too—for a while. Until she realized that anything else she did never got the same respect or attention as her brothers' athletic achievements. A piano solo in the school orchestra performance? That's nice, dear. We'll make sure to record it so Dad can watch later. Top marks on the AP Chemistry test? Good job, Ryan. We'll celebrate after JT's game.

She had tried. Ryan had held her own on the track and softball teams. She had kept at it, even though she preferred music, even though her sports accomplishments never seemed to please her parents the way her brothers' did. College had been liberating as she left sports behind. Her parents didn't care, as they had her brothers to focus on. JT was a football star in his third year at University of Maryland; their younger brother, Evan, was in first year at the same school and had earned a basketball scholarship.

Get over it, she told herself irritably. You're an adult. It's over. Get on with your life.

She decided to go to bed. It was early—before ten—but the ache and fatigue in her leg tended to spread to the rest of her. She might read or watch TV for a bit, but she'd had enough of lying on the couch.

Despite her best efforts, memories of the football game surfaced while she got ready for bed.

It had started out fun, and she'd been enjoying herself, almost to her own surprise. They'd been playing for maybe half an hour when she'd caught a pass and started running for the makeshift end zone. Laughing as she dodged the attempts to tag her, she had stepped into a small gopher hole in the yard and tumbled, one of her brothers landing on top of her.

She'd gone white from the pain, but hadn't screamed or shouted as she might have expected. Her brother, JT, had taken her initial struggles as part of the game, until she had shouted at him and freed an arm to push him away.

What had made her furious was that instead of someone taking her to the ER at that point, it was decided to wait until the game was over.

"Nothing broken," her father had said, clapping her on the shoulder. "We'll finish up and someone will run you over."

So for another half an hour, Ryan had sat on a lawn chair, a picnic table bench brought over to keep her leg elevated. Her mother had brought some ice before returning to the game, but that was it. Ryan had been tempted to call an ambulance, but her purse with her cell phone was in the house and she couldn't get it, nor could she get anyone's attention to get it for her.

No one, she thought, had been as nice as her neighbor, Mark Gaines, and Brody Lang, a complete stranger. Who, she had to admit, she wouldn't mind seeing again. Not just because he was tall, with a great build, shaggy brown hair and gold-brown eyes, although that didn't hurt. No, he'd been fun to talk to, and she'd liked him.

You should have gotten his number, dimwit, or given him yours. She thought about that, then shrugged. She could give her number to Mark, perhaps.

She considered it again as she climbed into bed. Maybe it wasn't such a great idea. Getting involved with an athlete, given her current feelings about sports in general, probably wasn't the best way to start anything. And of course, there was no particular reason to think he wanted to get involved with her.

Still, he'd been nice.

"So, Mark, what's the story with Ryan?" Brody asked a couple of days later. They sat in the dressing room, lacing up their skates before practice.

"What?" Mark looked up. "What story?"

Brody shrugged. "She seeing anybody?"

Mark narrowed his eyes. "I don't know. Why?"

"Just curious."

"I don't think she's your type."

"My type?" Brody raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"

Mark stood and grabbed his helmet. "Her IQ is bigger than her bra size and her voice doesn't squeak."

"I like smart women."

"Since when?" This was from Drew Stamenski and drew hoots from the rest of the team. Brody's penchant for hooking up with women who weren't exactly intellectuals was a constant source of amusement to his teammates.

"Since always," Brody said. "They're more fun to talk to."

"Is that what you do?" Ray Callahan, the team's tough guy, grinned and tapped him on the leg with his stick as he walked by. "And here I thought you were getting laid all this time."

"If you spent less time thinking about what I was doing, maybe you'd get laid," Brody tossed back.

More snickers and catcalls rattled through the room, along with mocking advice for Ray on finding some post-game company. Brody grabbed his stick and helmet and headed out to the ice, eager to get a little skating in before practice started in earnest.

Ryan looked up from her endless data entry when her phone rang.

"Hello. Ryan Bancroft."

"Hey, Ryan. It's Lara."

"Oh, hey. What's up?" Ryan took advantage of the break to stretch. Lara Cohen was her best friend since high school, her roommate and the band's lead singer.

"Not much. Just checking in. I might be a couple minutes late to pick you up for practice."

"Okay, thanks. Thanks for picking up the synth and the guitar. Sorry I couldn't help load it in." Ryan felt guilty about that. Her keyboard was nominally portable, but not with her cast, so Lara had had to take it with her the night before.

"Don't worry about it. I'll meet you at the door."

"Thanks. These damn things are a pain in the ass." Ryan glared at her crutches.

"No problem."

"So, how's Trout these days?" Trout was Lara's boyfriend, and Ryan could never figure out how he'd come by his nickname. At least, she hoped it was a nickname.

"He's good." Lara sounded happy and Ryan smiled. Lara went on a little more, but Ryan let her mind wander and launched the app on her smartphone to start writing down a melody that had begun to coalesce in her mind. She was soon engrossed and it wasn't until Lara shouted her name that she realized she hadn't heard anything for the last few minutes.

"Ryan! Geez. Are listening or not?"

"Sorry. Song."

"Cool. Tell me later." It was an exchange they'd had many times before.

Ryan was silent for a moment as she got the basics of the melody down. "Okay. So, is it just Trout that makes you go on like this, or would it be any guy?" She snickered at Lara's indignant huff.

"Stop that. You know I love him."

"Ah." Ryan nodded. "I see. If love makes a person this goofy, then I'm glad I can live vicariously through you."

"You're just jealous. You'll see. When you find someone, you'll be crazy like I am."

"If you say so." Ryan let the subject drop. They talked for a few more minutes, setting up details for the evening, and then Ryan got back to work. The next two hours zipped by as she worked to get all of her data entered and fill out her work log in time to meet Lara. She finished with a few minutes to spare, grabbed her bag and crutches and got down to the door of her building around 5:15. Lara was there ten minutes later.

"So, I went on about my guy," Lara said as they pulled onto 395 South to head to Lorton. "What about you? Any prospects?"

"Don't think so." Ryan's mind was only half on the conversation. The melody that had gotten into her head at work was coming faster now and she tried to follow it as she tapped at her phone's screen. "I met a guy the other day, though."

"Who? Who?" Lara reached over to poke her in the ribs, but Ryan caught her hand and placed it back on the wheel. For once, she was grateful for the slow traffic, as it kept Lara's speed under control.

"A friend of a friend."

"Come on, you can't leave me hanging like that. What's his name?"

Ryan sighed. "Brody Lang. He's a friend of Mark's." Lara would figure it out in a minute, she thought.

"That's kind of neat." Lara hadn't processed the last statement. "You don't meet a lot of Brodys. I mean, the only one I've even heard of is the one that plays..." She gaped and stared at Ryan. "Oh, my God. You met Brody Lang? Mark's teammate?"

"Eyes front," Ryan ordered.

Lara complied but couldn't stop talking. "Ryan, that's fantastic! Did you meet him through Mark? If Mark is an example, hockey players are way cool."

"He's fine. And you don't even like sports." Ryan tried to deflect the conversation. Lara, however, was a guided missile.

"I like sports just fine," Lara countered. "Trout's a big sports fan, we watch a lot of games. You're the one hating on sports. Anyway, what was he like? What did you say?"

"You're going to miss the exit."

"I am not. Now, talk. Or I'll make you talk in front of the guys." Lara turned on her blinker and slid into the right lane.

Ryan decided to talk in the car. The band was great. Except for the guitarist, they'd all known each other for a few years now, having met and formed the band in college. Still, Ryan had no desire to have this discussion in front of them, and she doubted they would want it either.

"Okay. The other day I came home from shopping, and of course I dropped everything. I ran into Mark, and Brody was there. Mark introduced us, and they helped get my stuff inside. Brody even put stuff away." She couldn't suppress a smile at that. "We talked a little, then he left. That's it."

"Ryan, you're hopeless." Lara shook her head. "You didn't get his number? Or give him yours?"

"It never came up."

"Did he seem interested?"

"I think so," Ryan admitted. "We were both ... testing the waters, maybe."

"Think you'll see him again?" Lara pulled into Mitch's driveway.

"Maybe. I see him come and go. He lives in our building, a few floors up." She didn't say that she'd considered giving Mark her number so he could pass it on. "You'd know him, too, if you didn't spend all your time at Trout's. Why do you even pay rent on our place?"

"Okay, Ryan." Lara ignored the last part. She turned off the car, released her seatbelt, and turned to face her friend. "That was an opportunity. Maybe you both missed it, that happens. But don't let it happen again."

"Yes, ma'am." Ryan saluted and laughed at Lara's frustrated glare.

Brody whistled as he walked to the lobby to check his mail. He nodded at a few of the other tenants that he knew, and was about to turn around to go back up when he saw Ryan and another woman outside the door. Ryan was still on her crutches, and had a laptop bag on one shoulder and a guitar over the other, while the other woman had her own bag and was pulling a large rectangular case behind her.

"Here, I've got it," he said. Ryan looked up with a small but grateful smile and he wondered why his stomach took a sudden lurch.


He held the door back as she shuffled in, and kept a hand on it as her friend followed. Once inside, Ryan leaned against the wall and sighed in relief. Her friend did likewise.

"Thanks," Ryan said again. "That was so much easier. Brody, this is my best friend, Lara Cohen. Lara, this is Brody Lang."

"Hi. Nice to meet you." Lara smiled and shook his hand.

Brody gestured at their bags. "Hi. You look loaded down. Can I take something?"

"Absolutely!" Lara handed him the handle of the case with an exaggerated sigh. "Ryan, you really need a smaller instrument. Like a piccolo." She shook out her arms.

"What is this?" Brody asked.

"My keyboard." Ryan shifted the bags on her shoulders and pushed away from the wall, then balanced on her crutches. She turned to Lara. "Thanks. I'll make it up to you, I promise."

"You better." Lara pretended to scowl, then smiled. "Are you good here? I was going to head to Trout's, but I could help you get that upstairs."

Ryan turned to Brody. "Would you mind taking that up to my place? If you have the time, I mean."

"No problem. I can get the guitar, too, if you want."

"Thanks." She slid it off her shoulder, handed it to him and turned to Lara. "Looks like you're free to go fishing."

"Oh, you're hilarious, Ryan." Lara shook her head, then blew blond curls out of her face. "Nice to meet you, Brody, really. Ryan's told me a lot about you." Ryan glared but Lara ignored her.

"No kidding?" Brody looked from one to the other, and decided to say no more.

"No kidding." Lara laughed. "Take it easy, Ryan. I'll talk to you tomorrow." She went back out the door as Ryan waved.

"Never mind her," Ryan told him as they walked to the elevator. "She just likes to put me on the spot. It's a best-friend thing."

"Guys do that, too, but it usually involves beer first."

Ryan laughed as the elevator doors open. Brody stood aside to let her in first, then pressed the button for her floor.

"So," he asked, "what's in there?" He gestured at her laptop bag.

Ryan stared down for a moment, then looked back up. "How melodramatic does it sound if I say it's my hopes and dreams? My passion?"

"Sounds cool, actually," Brody said. He held the door open as Ryan shuffled into the hallway, then grabbed the keyboard case handle again and followed her out. "You pack them very efficiently."

Ryan laughed. "It's just a laptop, but that laptop has my life's work on it."

"Well, now I have to ask: what's your life's work?"

She gave him a half-smile as she unlocked her door. "My music, my songs. I want to see my name in lights, play Carnegie Hall, all of that stuff. Well, Madison Square Garden anyway." She pushed the door open and swung herself inside.

Brody followed, taking time to look around. He'd barely noticed anything about her apartment when he'd helped her with the groceries almost a week ago. Now he saw the vacant keyboard stand in the living room and an acoustic guitar propped up in one corner, along with a small amplifier and an empty guitar stand. There were guitar strings in packages and broken ones strewn on the counter, and he saw some cables in a pile on the floor.

"Wow, you're serious about it, aren't you?" He set the case he was carrying down by the keyboard stand at Ryan's direction and set the guitar case in the corner.

"I try to be." Ryan set her purse down. She wobbled as she tried to struggle out of her jacket and put the laptop bag down at the same time and gave Brody a grateful smile when he took the bag and set it down. He put it on the table gingerly, seized by the odd feeling that her dreams might break.

"What kind of music do you play?" he asked.

"Think of The Hold Steady meets Veruca Salt."

"That sounds really cool."

"We hope so. Here, I can clear off a spot for you." She glanced back as she made her way to the sofa. "Sorry it's a mess. Lara spends a lot of time at her boyfriend's and I get busy and forget to straighten up."

"That would be ... Trout?" Brody recalled the earlier conversation.

"Yep. No idea how he got the name, but that's her boyfriend." Ryan shook her head. "He's a nice guy, really, but I just give her a hard time. I figure it's only fair, since I have to hear about all the drama. And there's plenty of that."

"Drama has its fun aspects."

"No thanks."

"Well, takes all kinds."

Ryan laughed and gave Brody an apologetic smile as her phone rang and she answered it. He shook his head in silent understanding and started to look through some CDs that lay on the coffee table.

"Hi, Mom," Ryan said.

"Hi, sweetie. How are you? I've been worried about you. Maybe you should come home while you heal up."

"I'm fine, Mom. Really, I'm fine. I promise." Ryan stared at the ceiling. "The insurance is covering it. I can come off the crutches this week, and they'll give me a soft cast for a week or so."

"I called you last night but you didn't answer. Were you all right?"

"I was fine. I was with the band last night. I didn't hear my phone and when I checked messages it was too late to call back." Mentally, Ryan sighed; she knew she'd left at least two messages telling her mom where she'd be.

"All right, hon, so long as you're okay. Did you have fun?"

"Yeah, we got a lot accomplished." Ryan hated the way her parents dismissed the band as a hobby, as something to pass the time. They had no idea, she thought, of how hard she and the others were working. "In fact," Ryan continued, "I was going to call you later. Lara's been working hard and it's paid off. We're going to be headlining at the 9:30 Club in a couple of months."

"What day will that be?"

"I'll have to double check with Lara but I'll let you know," Ryan said. She steeled herself against what was probably coming and wondered why she'd bothered to hope it would be different.

"I don't know, hon." Her mom tsked. "JT might be playing that night, especially if it's a weekend. I'm never sure of his schedule, and you know how your dad wants to go to the away games. Still, someone will probably record it, right? You can show us later, at home. It'll be so much calmer."

"Mom, this really means a lot to me." Ryan forced her voice to be even. "We have new material that I think will go over well, and like I said, Lara's been trying like crazy to get us this booking."

"I'm sure she has, Ryan. You know how much it means to JT, though, to have us there, and how your father enjoys it."

"It will be in December," Ryan said through gritted teeth. "JT's season will be over." Why? she thought, furious. Why does sports always trump anything else?

"Now, Ryan, you know how your father and I feel about those places you play. We're not comfortable there."

Ryan sighed. "Mom, you could sit with friends of mine that you know. No one would make you feel uncomfortable."

"Ryan," her mother said in a voice that was both soothing yet distant, "we wish we could go to everything you and the boys do, but that's just not possible."

"Right." Ryan dropped her head. She was angry but tired and didn't want to talk anymore. "Look, Mom, I have to go. I'll talk to you tomorrow." She waited—just barely—until her mother said good-bye, then clicked the phone shut.

Why do I do this to myself, she wondered as she stood resting on the crutches. She stared at the wall as though the answer might appear in the eggshell paint. It was useless and she knew it. Hadn't years of the same thing taught her anything? Hadn't she learned over the past twenty-three years what the answer would be? She stared at the phone in her hand. Apparently not.

"You'd come if I had a dick and was hitting some stupid ball." She glared at the phone. When she heard a noise behind her, she started and turned to see Brody stifling a laugh.

Ryan gaped; she had forgotten Brody was there. It hit her that he'd heard not only the conversation, but her last comment as well. She felt the blush start at her toes and race to her face with lightning speed.

"Oh. Oh, my God." Ryan bit her lip. "I am so sorry. I forgot ... I didn't realize ... oh, crap." She dropped the crutches to the floor and leaned against the wall. "Shit."

"It's not that bad," she heard him say around a chuckle. "I used to argue with my parents all the time."

Ryan looked at the floor, lost for words. She wanted to curl up on the couch and be mortified in private. Later, when she felt up to it, she'd hammer out some awful song on the keyboard to get it out of her system. After that, she could go back to more productive music. In a few days, she might even be able to look at him again.

"Look," she said when she managed to find her voice again, "I'm sorry, really. Thanks for everything, but..." She pushed herself off the wall and leaned down for her crutches, nearly falling in the process.

"Whoa, whoa." Brody caught her around the waist and she grabbed at his shoulders on a reflex. "Are you all right?" he asked when she had her balance.

"I'm fine. I am!" she protested when he gave her a skeptical glance. "It's just family drama, that's all. It's a cycle, I'm used to it. I'll get over it. I just need some comfort food and a nice dark movie and I'll be good."

"What kind of comfort food?"

Ryan studied him, looking for any signs of a joke, but found none. His golden-brown eyes were serious. Or, she amended, as serious as Brody Lang was likely to get.



Ryan noticed that he still had his hands on her waist. Not sure just what she thought about that, she stayed still.

"Yes, sushi." She gave him a wry grin. "No one else in my family can stand it, so I guess it's my way of getting back at them. When I get ticked off at my family, I go get sushi."

"All right." Brody nodded and stepped back. He made sure she was steady, then leaned down and picked up her crutches. "So, where are we going?"

"Excuse me? We?"

"Why not?" Brody flashed her a lazy, sexy grin that unsettled her just a little. "You look like you could use a little time to cool down, and I haven't had dinner. I'd make something, but I already know you don't keep real food around here."

"Are you hitting on me?" Ryan asked as she got her crutches under her. "Because if you are, you picked a bad time. I'm not great company right now." She made her way to the kitchen, where she'd left her purse.

"Well, if I'm seeing you at your worst, then it can only get better." He stepped in front of her and caught her eyes. "This is your worst, right?"

She scoffed. "You're lucky that was just a phone call."

Ryan eyed the pile of ginger Brody had piled on top of his sushi roll. "You're going to destroy your sinuses with that," she said, gesturing at the pink strips.

"Nah." Brody grinned. "Ginger's nothing compared to the smelling salts we use during games." He took a bit of wasabi and placed it on top of the ginger. "Well," he said in response to Ryan's skeptical look, "if you're going to eat it, you might as well do it right."

"I'd prefer to keep my taste buds intact." Ryan shook her head. She picked up a roll with her chopsticks, dipped it in the soy sauce and placed it in her mouth.

"So, tell me about your band," Brody said. "I think that's so cool. I am completely musically un-inclined. I couldn't even play the triangle."

"What do you want to know?"

"How about the name? Seems like a good place to start."

"Well, we thought about Fugitive Vampires, but that just sounded too pretentious." She looked at him, concerned as he coughed. "You okay? Want some water? I told you that was too much ginger."

He took the water and after a deep breath, took a careful drink. "Thanks," he said. "Sorry, I wasn't expecting that. You don't look like the Fugitive Vampires type."

"Oh, no?" Ryan raised an eyebrow. "You never saw me during my Goth phase."

"You never had a Goth phase."

"Want to bet?" She tapped her earlobes. "That's where the piercings came from. I left my hair alone, but I did the black clothes, the black nail polish. It lasted about a month. Too much trouble to maintain."

"Good decision." Brody started to load up another sushi roll. "Anyway, you're distracting me. You guys must have a name."

She smiled. "Imaginary Grace."

He paused, considering, then nodded. "I like it."

"Thanks. So do I. Lara, our singer, she has a thing for eighties' music. You may not know it, but it's from 'Melt with You' by Modern English."

"Oh, hey, I know that song." Brody grinned. "From the Taco Bell commercial."

Ryan laughed. "That's the one." She shook her head. "It took a long time to settle on that. When we first started in college Lara came up with a new one almost every day."

"What were some of the others?"

"Oh, God, I can hardly remember. I tried not to let them stick in my head. Pink Pandas was one, I think; she'd just been to the zoo for some breast cancer event and tried to combine them." She smiled at the memory. "I didn't even need to offer an opinion on that. The guys pretty much keeled over when they heard it."

"I think I can understand. That's ... pretty bad." Brody ate some more sushi. "How long have you been at it?"

Ryan laughed. "Forever? No, not quite. Lara and I have been friends since high school, and when we did a music project for a class, we found we worked well together. So we kept at it. We wanted to be in a band, though, not just the two of us. One day we were talking about it in our psych class in college, and Nate—he's our bassist—heard us talking. Anyway, he said he was interested. It kind of went from there."

"How many of you are there in the band?" Brody took a drink of the sake.

Ryan sat back. "Five. We have a drummer, Mitch; he was Nate's roommate in college. Our first guitarist was a friend of Nate's, but that guy went to grad school, and we haven't had a steady one since then. But guitarists are a dime a dozen."

He stared at her. "Really?"

"No." She shook her head and smiled. "Not really. But there are a lot of them out there and most of them think they're the next Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix. Jason's okay."

"You guys all get along? I mean, it's a team effort, right?"

"Most times." Ryan took another sushi roll. "It's not always easy. Jason's still ... working on fitting in."

Brody nodded but didn't say anything more, wanting to keep things light while they ate. Ryan seemed to be a lot more relaxed than when they'd left.

He hadn't planned on asking Ryan out, especially after that phone call. Brody knew a lot of people preferred to be alone when they were angry; he was a prime example. Ryan, though, had looked more hurt and sad than angry. Brody knew he wasn't the most perceptive guy, but he'd seen her expression and hadn't been able to just leave.

And you think she's cute, he told himself. Well, perhaps not exactly "cute." She was attractive, no question, but had a little bit of an edge that made cute seem too soft a word.

"So," Ryan said, "My turn. What's it like playing hockey for a living?"

Brody had to grin. "It's fantastic. I absolutely love it. I don't think I ever wanted to do anything else, and so to get to the NHL ... sometimes I still can't believe it."

"Your parents must be proud."

"I hope so." He nodded. "They did a lot for me, taking me to practices, paying for equipment, anything I needed. They can't get to many games—they live in rural Michigan and I have younger siblings—but they watch. They were really supportive. You can't get to this level without that support, at least not most times."

"That's great." Ryan's tone was neutral and she stared past him.

Brody wondered if he'd said anything wrong, but couldn't think what.

"Sorry." Ryan gave him a rueful half-smile. "Told you I wasn't the best company tonight."

"That's okay." They ate in silence for a while, and then Brody asked, "So, what movie are we watching?"

"We again?" Ryan sipped at her sake. "I'm not sure I recall inviting you."

"I'm not sure you're ready to be left alone yet," Brody said. "Besides, I like movies."

"You don't know what kind of movies I like," Ryan pointed out.

"Let me think." Brody made a show of studying her. "Well, let's see. You said a dark movie, didn't you? I'm thinking something with Schwarzenegger and a lot of explosions. Or maybe something like 28 Days Later, that was pretty dark."

"You think so?" Ryan rested her chin in her hand. Her eyes glinted. "You willing to take a chance? What if I like some surreal, Lars von Trier type of stuff?"

Brody raised an eyebrow. "You asking me to see a movie?"

"You have no idea who von Trier is, do you?"

"Nope, but it doesn't matter. Question still stands."

Ryan leaned back and tapped her fingers on the table. "Sure, why not? Think you can handle it?"

"Ooooh, a dare." Brody widened his eyes. "I can't back down now. Tell you what: if I absolutely can't stand the movie and leave, I'll take you out for sushi some time. If I make it through the whole thing, you have to play me one of your songs."

"Hey, wait," Ryan said, startled. "I don't remember offering to make any bets."



"Then what?" Brody asked. He couldn't help it; it was fun to see her get a little shaken up.

"Why can't the bet be that I take you out?" she countered.

"Doesn't work that way." Brody shook his head. "if I have to take a chance, so do you." He grinned. "If you don't like playing in front of people, that should make your gig next month interesting."

"I'm fine in front of people." Ryan nodded. "Fine, you've got a bet."

"Cool." Brody reached over and squeezed her hand, surprising both of them. To cover his discomfort, he stood and gave her a sly smile. "Now, how about that movie?"

Brody stared at the screen. "This is what you watch when you're upset?"

"I warned you." Ryan reached into the bag of chips. "You're the one who wanted to make the bet."

"You are ... different," Brody said. "I mean, most girls I know, they'd be sniffling through The Notebook or something. Eating a gallon of ice cream and watching Titanic. When you said dark, I figured some horror movie or something."

"I didn't break up with a boyfriend," Ryan told him, "and I don't like sappy films like The Notebook. Titanic was an overlong piece of dreckK. I was angry, and when I'm angry, I prefer darker things. I told you."

"No kidding." Brody watched as an unarmed Brandon Lee, in harlequin face paint, faced off with a man in a black leather coat who prided himself on his skills with knives. There was no contest, and soon Lee was wearing the leather coat.

"It's cool, you have to admit." Ryan looked up at him. "The cinematography is great, and the music is awesome."

"But The Crow?" He shook his head. "Do all musicians harbor dreams of violent revenge?"

Ryan couldn't help it; she giggled. "Only after phone calls from family."

Brody gave her a sidelong glance. "Want to talk about it?"

"No, thanks." Ryan's laughter fled and she kept her gaze fixed on the screen. After a moment, she softened and looked at him. "Thanks, but not now."

Brody nodded, slid down a little on the couch and put an arm around Ryan's shoulders. She debated for a moment, then shifted so her leg was propped up on the table, and rested her head on his shoulder.

As the credits began to roll, Brody looked down at her. "Okay, I stayed. Your turn."

Ryan pushed herself up to sitting. "I don't know. You liked the movie, that might invalidate the terms."

"You trying to welsh on the bet?"

Ryan lifted her chin. "Absolutely not. Do you want me to play, or to hear one of the demos on the computer?

"Are you kidding? A choice of a live performance versus tape? I'll take live any day."

"Okay. You asked for it."

"Do you have a preference? Keyboards or guitar?"

"You can play both?" Brody gave a low whistle. "I'm impressed."

"I started on the piano, then moved to guitar. I play both for the band. We have songs with two guitars, though, and I didn't want to give those up by giving up the keyboards." She tapped a few more keys on the computer. "That's why I didn't just take over as lead guitarist in the band, and why we seem to keep looking for new guitarists."

"Gotcha. Can I go with the keyboard?" Brody helped her up and she made her way over to the synth case.

"Sure. Could you give me a hand?" Ryan gestured at the case. "Sorry, it's a pain to get that out by myself right now."

"No problem." Brody nodded and helped her get her synth set up, then handed her the laptop bag at her request.

Ryan smiled but kept her eyes down as she scrolled through her files. She didn't know why she was so unsettled. She ran things by the band all the time, and sometimes by some other friends uninvolved in music so that she could get a more objective opinion. Choosing something now seemed like an impossible task, even though she knew this was half a joke. At last she found something and settled herself on the seat.

"Okay, but I have to tell you—Lara writes the lyrics and sings, I write the music. So I don't have any words for this one. But I'll play the vocal melody with my right hand." She played a quick scale to warm up.

Brody nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Ryan sat, took a deep breath, stared at the keys and pretended no one else was there. She wasn't sure she'd manage otherwise, which annoyed her but she ignored that, too. She'd played in front of people countless times. Then she realized she wanted him to like it. That bothered her enough that she forgot to be nervous and began playing. At the moment, it was a mid-tempo song, but that might change with Lara's input.

When she was done, she forced herself to look up. "So, what did you think?"

He was staring at her and she couldn't interpret his expression.

"Ah, okay." Ryan turned on the bench and started to haul herself upright. "I wasn't sure about it, anyway. You don't have to keep staring at me like that." It was unnerving and she wanted him to stop. She tried giving him a grin. "See, you shouldn't have made that bet."

"You wrote that."

She nodded, unsure if he was asking or not. His eyes were fixed on her and it was an effort to keep moving. As she tried to take a hopping step towards the couch, she stumbled and Brody caught her.

"Sorry," she said, then cleared her throat. Why am I so nervous? "I seem to do that a lot."

"Ryan, that was ... that was amazing." Brody grinned and she relaxed. "I mean, I listen to music. I know people write notes and lyrics, but I've never, you know, seen it in action."

"It's still a work in progress." She felt better that Brody liked the song, but she didn't know quite what to say.

"Well then, I can't wait to hear the finished product."

"Okay. Um, cool. Do you mind if I sit down now?"

"What? Oh, sorry." Brody helped her over to an empty chair.

"Thanks, I've got it." Ryan looked up when he kept his hands around her waist. "What?"

"I want to kiss you, and it'd be easier if you were standing."

Alarms went off in Ryan's head, and she put her hands on his arms, applying enough pressure that he stepped back, although he didn't let go.

She cleared her throat. "That's flattering, Brody, but I don't think that's a good idea."

"No?" He thought. "Hmmm. You're a hard sell. Let's move to the bedroom where I can make a better pitch."

Ryan couldn't help but laugh. "Whoa, there, tiger. I didn't have that much sake."

Brody grinned. "We could get more."

She smiled but shook her head, regretting the words as they came out but knowing she had to say them. "I'm serious, Brody. I appreciate everything you did—going out, keeping me from getting too angry, listening to my music. It was really sweet. But ... okay, I might be assuming here, but I'm not looking for anything else."

She hoped she hadn't assumed too much. For all she knew, he'd wanted a friendly peck on the cheek. However, she didn't think she was that inept at reading a guy's signals and so had guessed he'd wanted a bit more. She couldn't tell if he looked disappointed or not as he studied her.

"Hmmm." His non-reply didn't calm her nerves.

"And what does that mean?" She tried to keep her tone light.

"Nothing. Just means I'll have to find a new plan." Brody shrugged and helped her sit, then sat himself on the couch opposite. "You're not the usual girl I meet."

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "Is that a compliment?" It was a relief to sit, as her ankle was throbbing.

"An observation, but not an insult, I promise." Brody paused, then flashed a grin once more. "You sure you don't want to try a kiss? I'm told I'm pretty good."

Ryan snorted. "Brody, trust me when I say that telling a woman you've had a lot of experience with other women is not necessarily a good selling point."

"Ouch!" Brody put a hand over his chest.

Once again, Ryan couldn't stifle a laugh. "I'm sure you'll recover. But you'll recover alone." She emphasized the last word as he was about to speak, sure that another half-serious proposition was on the way. "Thanks again, Brody."

"You're welcome." He reached over and squeezed her arm. "I had a good time, really. And thanks for the song. That was so cool."

Ryan warmed at the remark. "Thanks, I'm glad you liked it."

"Okay, I'm out of here." He stood and helped her as she got out of the chair and grabbed her crutches. "We have a game tomorrow in New York. You going to watch?"

"I'll try." Ryan walked with him to the door. "We're rehearsing tomorrow. But I'll check in, at least."

"Good enough. Take it easy, Ryan."

"You too, and good luck tomorrow."

She locked the door behind him and yawned as she made her way around, turning out lights. One advantage to Lara spending so much time with Trout was that Ryan wasn't tied to anyone else's schedule and so could sleep, or not, as she liked. Tonight she was beat, and bed beckoned.

Her mind replayed the night's events as she got ready for bed. Lara, she knew, would flip when she found out that Ryan had rejected Brody's advances. Well, that could be fun, Ryan thought. She could string Lara along a bit before telling her how it turned out. It was fun to wind her friend up like that, and it wasn't like Lara didn't do the same.

He's nice, thought Ryan, but there's just too much stuff in the way.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Consensual / Romantic / Heterosexual / Humor / Sports /