As a professional athlete, Kelley O’Hara can’t count the number of things she’d change about her league. But as a person, she wouldn’t change a damn thing about her team. Every year is different—turnover is unavoidable when the salary cap is as low as it is, and in major tournament years Kelley barely spends half the season with her team—but on the off years, like this one, there’s time to enjoy the team culture and form relationships with people and establish traditions.
This year, Kelley’s favorite tradition is one that the rest of her teammates barely tolerate. Every time they go out, they go to a bar called The Brown Stone. On home game weekends, they even bring members of the opposing team along once the game is over and they’re allowed to be friends again, but most of the time their outings are Thursday-night ventures when there’s nothing better to do and they don’t have an early training the next day. There are plenty of better bars in town, a fact Kelley’s teammates never tire of telling her, especially when they’re begrudgingly ordering Ubers from the locker room or Kelley’s house.
“If you guys want to start hosting pregames, be my guest,” Kelley always says, knowing full well that her house, nicknamed the “Frat House” is the only one suitable for hosting more than four people at a time, a direct result of her being the only national team member, making six figures easily thanks to a handful of sponsorships. It’s nothing compared to some of her national teammates, of course, but it’s a whole hell of a lot compared to her club teammates. The epicenter of Sky Blue team bonding activities is Christie’s massive house, but she also has two young children, so the strongest drink at most of those events is red wine.
Luckily, the other girls tend to stop arguing Kelley’s choice of bar once they have a few drinks in them, because really the bar isn’t any worse than the others.
“I don’t get why Kelley’s so attached to this place,” Taylor complains when she walks through the door. Rachel raises an eyebrow. “What?”
“Kelley likes it for the same reason all these guys do,” Rachel laughs. “The bar isn’t packed because they pour stronger drinks or make better food. It’s packed because of that girl Kelley is in love with.”
They enjoy their “meal” at the bar just as shifts are changing. Their first server is a gruff-looking guy with a huge beard and tattoos, but Kelley charms his pants off in no time, getting him to throw in an extra order of mozzarella sticks off a bet she makes about her ability to catch five peanuts in her mouth in a row. What he doesn’t know is that she’s been training for that her whole life.
Kelley’s in the middle of a story when the new bartender shows up, but as soon as Kelley notices her, she loses any semblance of a train of thought.
Her hair is chestnut brown and falls over one shoulder like she’d rather it weren’t there at all, and Kelley notices the hair tie she keeps fidgeting with on her right wrist as if it’s only a matter of time before she ties it back. Her eyes are the kind of blue that no colored contacts could ever dream of achieving. One eye crinkles slightly more than the other when Kelley sees her smile for the first time as she slides menus toward a couple that just sat down.
She seems almost too tall to be behind the bar, but Kelley doesn’t mind because her outfit—a clearly bar-issued number made up of a tight-fitting black T-shirt and low-rise jeans—shows just enough of the skin on her hip for Kelley to see the top of a tattoo that she only wants to see more of.
“Hey ladies, I’m Alex,” she says, smiling. “I’ll be taking care of you the rest of the night, but don’t worry, your tips will still go to Randy.”
Kelley smirks playfully. “What if we want them to go to you?”
“I guess you’ll just have to close out and start another tab,” Alex suggests, her right eye crinkling a little bit more.
When the bar starts filling up with men of all ages, Kelley realizes it’s probably not the first time Alex has ever gotten that question. She spends the rest of the meal barely contributing to her teammates’ rousing conversation about kinesiotape, instead watching Alex work her magic.
Kelley insists they come back, despite the fact that they don’t have any coupons left over, but nobody complains, mostly because the nachos were so delicious and nobody would ever say no to an excuse to go drinking with teammates (or so they think before Kelley starts doing this weekly).
She isn’t a great bartender, but nobody cares, least of all Kelley. She gets too caught up in conversation with one of the dozens of people practically drooling over her, so she can’t possibly take care of everyone at the bar at all times, but it’s almost a game between the guys to see who can get her to stay the longest, thus depriving everyone else of her attention.
Kelley loves games, so she joins in naturally, catching glimpses of the men in her peripheral vision, smirking when they start seething. Everyone can tell she’d rather be speaking to Kelley than any of them, but it’s clear that none of them see her as a threat. And with every passing week, Kelley convinces herself that Alex doesn’t either.
Alex flirts back, but Kelley isn’t sure if she even knows she’s flirting or if she’s just trying to rob Kelley blind, knowing the outrageous tips she’ll leave. Every time Alex winks or rolls her eyes conspiratorily at Kelley before attending to another customer, her tip goes up five percent, whether Kelley knows it or not.
But tonight, when Kelley and her crew walk in, Alex lights up, motioning for them to come to the far side of the bar where there are still some seats available. There aren’t enough for everyone, though, so Kelley approaches the bar alone while the rest of the girls sit at a table.
“I was starting to think you’d forgotten about me,” Alex says, hands on her hips, annoyingly covering up the sliver of tattoo Kelley has grown accustomed to seeing.
“Never,” Kelley grins, her cheeks turning pink. “We just came off a long road trip. Three away games in a row.”
“I hope you won them all,” Alex smirks, pouring the beer Kelley always asks for and always gets, even when it’s not supposed to be on the menu.
Kelley cringes. “Tied two, lost one.”
“Damn,” Alex says. “Sorry I asked.”
Kelley shrugs. “It’s a building year,” she says, repeating the same thing she tells every journalist who grills her on their less-than-perfect season. She glances over her shoulder at the table, where an empty chair waits for her. “I guess I should close out with you and join them.”
“It’s on me,” Alex says. “As long as you promise to come back and talk to me later. I need a break from… all of this.” She nods toward the rest of the bar, rolling her eyes playfully.
“And you’ve missed me,” Kelley teases.
“Maybe I’ve missed your generosity just a little bit.”
“They don’t like me very much, do they?” Alex asks, sliding her a beer and looking past Kelley at her friends.
“They don’t love the bar,” Kelley confesses. “They like you. Everyone likes you.”
“It probably doesn’t help that you ignore them to entertain me,” Alex laughs.
“Please,” Kelley scoffs. “You have plenty of entertainment. Look at all these guys.”
Alex scrunches up her nose, a favorite habit of hers that Kelley appreciates because it deepens the adorable dent in her nose. “They’re not as interesting as you are. None of them are professional athletes.”
“That’s far from the most interesting thing about me.”
“Oh yeah?” Alex asks, raising an eyebrow. “Tell me something more interesting.”
“Have I ever told you about the time I went to Brazil and almost got attacked by bulls?”
“I can’t say I’ve heard that one,” Alex laughs. “Let me go refill that guy’s drink and I’ll be ready to listen.”
The rest of Kelley’s teammates leave for the next bar just as Kelley gets to the story about swimming to an island in Hawaii (to which Alex responds “you sure do almost die quite a bit”), but Kelley can’t stop, and she’s starting to think Alex doesn’t want her to.
She gets confirmation of that after confidently blabbing away for another two hours (allowing a story or two from Alex) when it’s almost closing time and the bar finally clears out.
“I have to close up soon, but thank you for keeping me company,” Alex says, wiping down the sticky bar with a cloth. “It’s always nice having someone to talk to who doesn’t just want to get in my pants.”
Kelley’s heart catches in her throat, and she laughs, shifting uncomfortably.
“You really don’t have to drag your friends out here all the time, though,” Alex says. “You could just text me sometime, we could hang out or whatever.”
“Wha—oh, yeah,” Kelley says, fumbling for her phone. She’s been sipping the same cocktail (too sweet, but she wouldn’t dare tell Alex that) for the past hour and a half, so her tipsy haze is lifted, but she still struggles to pull up the screen that will allow her to add a new contact.
“Here,” Alex laughs, taking the phone. She taps her information in and hands it back. “Text me so I have yours.”
It’s such a casual interaction that Kelley can’t believe she was ever scared to ask, especially if Alex doesn’t think Kelley’s interested in her like that. After typing out a quick “Heyyyy it’s Kelley!” she spends the Uber ride home getting used to the idea of actually being friends with Alex, figuring out if it’s something she could do.
Alex is beautiful, and Kelley knows she mostly paid attention to her to begin with because she is attractive, but as they’ve talked and gotten to know each other (well, as much as you can given the circumstances), Kelley has grown to like Alex for more than her looks. She’s charming, of course, but she’s also clever and funny. And besides, Kelley has been friends with people she’s had crushes on before. This isn’t even that bad, she decides eventually.
Kelley wakes up to a reply from Alex. “Hi,” she replies with a smiley emoji. “Hope you got home alright. And that your roommates weren’t too mad about you ditching them.”
“Nah, they were too drunk last night to notice,” Kelley says. “And too hungover this morning to say anything.”
Alex is a quick and easy conversationalist, even via text, but Kelley is careful not to text her too much for fear of appearing overeager. Even if they are just going to be friends, Kelley is nervous about scaring her away.
“How cute is this?” Christen gushes, following Kelley to the bar. Kelley nods, but she doesn’t see Alex anywhere, so she frowns as she slides onto a barstool. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re still mad about not getting that penalty,” Christen laughs.
“It was in the box!” Kelley snaps, but she loses the chilly exterior when Alex emerges from the back, her hair tied in a ponytail, a tell-tale sign that it’s been a rough night so far.
“Hey stranger,” Alex grins when she sees her. “Oh, and actual stranger!”
“This is Christen,” Kelley says. “Chris, Alex. I have to buy her a drink because her team won tonight.”
“Congrats,” Alex says. “What are you drinking?”
“A mojito?” Christen shrugs. “Might as well go a little crazy.”
“Yeah, crazy,” Kelley laughs.
“The usual for you, Kel?”
Kelley smiles and nods, trying to hide her excitement that she has a “usual” and that Alex knows it—oh, and that she called her Kel.
“You know, I thought giving you my number would mean I’d see more of you, not less,” Alex muses as she mixes Christen’s drink first.
Kelley blushes. “Sorry, life has been crazy. It’s that time of the season where things really pick up.”
“I’ll try not to take it personally,” Alex says with a teasing smile, sliding their drinks across the bar. “Are you two eating or just drinking?”
“Just a drink,” Christen says. “I have an early flight, unfortunately.”
“Boo,” Kelley groans. “We’ll have the nachos.”
“You bet,” Alex says with a wink, practically sauntering back toward the kitchen.
“She’s cute,” Christen murmurs as if Alex is still standing there.
“I saw her first.”
“Just making a comment!” Christen insists. “She was totally flirting.”
“Was not,” Kelley retorts. “She’s… not interested.”
Christen rolls her eyes. “You’re literally the last person in the world to ever think someone isn’t interested in you. She said she gave you her number.”
“Yeah, but like as friends,” Kelley says. “Trust me, I’ve spent a long time coming to terms with that. Don’t fuck with my head.”
“Okay, okay,” Christen concedes, backing down. “We can’t talk about the game and we can’t talk about her, so what’s left?”
“Politics? Religion?” Kelley suggests with a smirk. “Or we could talk about who you’re really flying out in the morning to see, because I know for a fact your team doesn’t leave till late afternoon.”
Christen turns bright red, but it doesn’t take too long to break her down and get her to spill her guts about her top-secret dating life, which Kelley has had her suspicions about for a while. It feels good to catch up with her, and Kelley gets so wrapped up in conversation she can almost pretend she isn’t constantly aware of Alex moving around in the corner of her eye.
When Christen gets to the end of her drink, she pouts as if she really truly wants to hang out longer, but Kelley knows she wants her eight hours of sleep way more, so she doesn’t even attempt to lure her into another drink (because she’s sure Alex didn’t pour the first nearly strong enough).
“Fine, go,” Kelley grumbles. “Have fun with your lover. I’ll see you at camp in a couple weeks.”
“Love you,” Christen says, getting up. “Want to split the Uber? I think my hotel is on the way to your place.”
“I’m going to finish the nachos and maybe get another drink,” Kelley says, shaking her head.
Christen just glances at Alex and gives Kelley a knowing smile before hugging her and heading out the door.
In seconds, Alex is at Kelley’s seat. “You aren’t going with her?”
“Nah, I’ll have another drink,” Kelley says. “Surprise me.”
“Okay,” Alex says slowly, looking at the options in front of her.
Kelley already regrets asking, her face puckering at the very thought of what concoction Alex might come up with. “You know what? A gin and tonic is fine.”
Alex nods, obviously relieved. “So, um,” she says, avoiding eye contact while she pours. “Is she your, like, girlfriend?”
Kelley practically chokes on her chip. “No. Not at all.”
“Hm,” Alex murmurs, giving Kelley the glass without meeting her eyes.
“Alex…” Kelley says warningly.
Alex looks up, crossing her arms across her chest, pointedly ignoring the calls from down the bar for drinks and refills. “When were you planning on asking me out?”
Kelley finds herself glad she stopped drinking for a moment, knowing full well she would have been even more of a sputtering mess if she had. “Wait, what?”
Alex tosses her head toward the rest of the patrons, her ponytail swishing with the movement. “I get at least ten date proposals every night,” she says. “I always tell them I never mix business with pleasure, but if I actually liked any of them I’d totally go for it. I’m a bartender, not a lawyer.”
“I gave you my number because I thought maybe you didn’t want to do it here,” Alex says. “Then you barely even use it, and when you finally come back, you bring her and ignore me all night. Either you’re really into the chase and getting my number was enough for you or you just haven’t worked up the nerve to ask me out yet.”
“You said—” Kelley starts, not believing her ears. “You said you liked talking to me because I don’t want to have sex with you.”
“I said because you don’t just want to have sex with me,” Alex says. “Big difference. None of them have ever asked me my birthday or my middle name.”
July 2. Patricia. Kelley doesn’t even have to try to remember.
“Unless you aren’t interested at all, in which case I’ll wait for the ground to open up and swallow me whole.”
“I’m not—” Kelley starts. “I am. Very interested. In asking you out. I just—”
“I have a break in two minutes as soon as I finish refilling everyone’s drinks,” Alex whispers, leaning forward on her elbows. “Meet me out back. We’ll talk.”
“Hey,” Alex says.
Alex pulls the elastic out of her hair and shakes it out, running her fingers through the locks. “Tonight has been absolute chaos.”
“For you and me both.”
Alex raises an eyebrow. “Whatever you say.”
“We lost 2-1 and I should have gotten a penalty kick for being fouled,” Kelley says, and Alex bites back a laugh. “Then I come to this bar to see this cute girl I have a crush on and she freaks me out completely by calling me on it.”
“Should I fight her?” Alex teases.
“You’re killing me.”
“So I was right,” Alex says softly, stepping toward Kelley and playing with the hair tie between her fingers. “You do like me.”
“Guilty,” Kelley says, cheeks heating up. Alex reaches for her hair to tie it up again, but Kelley grabs her wrist. “Leave it.”
Alex drops her right hand to her side, the other one still frozen in Kelley’s grasp.
“I really want to kiss you right now,” Kelley murmurs.
“Well I’ve really been wanting you to kiss me for a lot longer than that,” Alex says, her breath catching when Kelley places her other hand on her chin, pulling her face down to cut off Alex’s sentence with her lips.
Kelley drops Alex’s wrist and brings both hands to Alex’s hair, threading her fingers through the fine strands, which feel just as soft and smooth as she realizes now she’s been imagining for months. Her lips, the one part of her face usually untouched by makeup, feel even softer, but Kelley can now taste the cherry lip balm that she must apply behind the scenes.
Alex’s hands find Kelley’s hips, which she seems to be grasping for dear life, as if she’d float away if she let go. Kelley understands her concern.
“I take it the feeling’s mutual?” Kelley asks once she finally collects her breath.
Alex smirks. “Are you going to ask me out or not?”
“I don’t know,” Kelley says. “I’ve seen the tips you make. If anyone is taking anyone on a date, I think it has to be you.”
“Okay, bigshot soccer player,” Alex teases. “Even though a good percentage of my income comes straight from your wallet, let me take you out.”
“Whenever you’re free.”
“Where do you like?”
Kelley bites her lip, trying to stop the grin that’s threatening to expose itself. “Well, I’m kind of a creature of habit, so the only place I know I like is here.”
Alex rolls her eyes. “That’s pathetic,” she says. “Our food isn’t even that good.”
“No,” Kelley says, stepping forward again so her chest is pressed against Alex’s body, her hands on Alex’s neck. “But the service is great.”