"For someone pregnant, you sure are quick on that ice," Derek remarked in amusement, gulping down his water bottle as we took a break from our game of pond hockey.
"You should've seen her play in high school. She was a fireball- scoring hat tricks and leading the girls' team to state championships year after year," Justin said proudly, ruffling my hair.
"Oh really?" Derek arched a brow, his eyes twinkling with curiosity.
"My brother's exaggerating. I wasn't that good," I muttered, trying to switch the subject. Unlike Justin, I hated being praised to high heavens. I'd much rather keep my accomplishments to myself.
"She got a scholarship to play D1 hockey at the University of Minnesota her senior year," Justin countered with a bold grin.
"Damn, that's incredible. Didn't Nick play hockey there, too?", Derek asked me.
Justin's eyes quickly darted to mine, trying to read my emotions as I grew still, the feeling of grief and pain fresh in my mind. Ever since we arrived in Minnesota two days ago, I'd thought of my best friend frequently.
The drive downtown yesterday had been especially painful, reminding me of when I'd taken that same route nearly four years ago to see Nick at the hospital before he died.
Tomorrow, I planned to visit both his grave and my dad's after having lunch with the Schneiders'. People always said it'd get easier as time went by, but I had a feeling that wouldn't be the case for me.
"Claire? Where'd you go?", Derek's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"Huh? Oh, I was just thinking for a bit," I mumbled distractedly. "And yes, Nick played hockey for the U."
"Are you alright, sweetheart?", he asked worriedly, reaching out to caress my cheek with his palm.
"I'm fine. Let's go play some more hockey." I stood up on my skates, giving him a look of reassurance.
Derek seemed hesitant for a moment, but then he got up as well, slipping on his helmet. Lauren threw him a hockey stick, and I was about to skate after them when Justin grabbed my elbow.
"What?", I asked him.
"Your husband knows about Nick?"
"Yes. We tell each other everything." I managed a smile then skated towards center ice.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friends, Becca and Ellie, from high school approaching, and immediately, I dropped my stick, rushing straight at them.
"Claire!", they squealed, opening their arms as the three of us collapsed onto the ice in a huge bear hug.
"Oh my god, I missed you guys so much," I spoke through tears of joy.
"You've been gone for so long! Hell, it's so great to finally see you again." Ellie pulled away to take in my appearance and just like expected, her green eyes drifted down to my stomach. "Girl, you're pregnant?!"
"Almost ten weeks now," I said happily.
"Your body still looks amazing, though," Ellie chirped.
"Who's the baby daddy?," Becca asked with a playful smirk.
"That big ol' klutz." I motioned my head towards Derek, who was trying to score a goal but ended up falling on his ass. We started laughing, and he gave us the finger.
Ellie and Becca both got to their feet, offering a hand to help me up, and as they were putting on their skates, I remembered the moments we spent getting ready for a big game in our locker rooms. Our coach would tell us that no win or loss could define who we were. It was our bond as a team that mattered most.
In fact, I still kept in touch with all of my teammates. Coach Keri would've been proud.
Sunlight had finally broken through the thick clouds, and several other young teenagers began joining us on the ice. Pond hockey was a very popular activity in Minnesota, and I was so happy that Derek got to experience it on this trip as well.
"Well, who do we have here?", he asked as the girls and I skated towards him, Justin, and Lauren.
"Derek, these are my best friends from high school- Becca and Ellie," I introduced.
The moment he took off his helmet, Ellie's eyes popped out of her head, and Becca licked her lips in appreciation.
"It's nice to meet you, girls." He shook both their hands, grinning ear-to-ear.
Derek gave me a knowing glance, pretending to roll his eyes, and we both laughed.
"Let's split into our teams now, shall we ladies?" Justin ushered the girls towards the opposite end, and I gave Derek a quick peck on the lips before skating after them.
The hours flew by as the six of us played pond hockey, alternating positions and squeezing in some rounds of penalty shootouts, too. Afterwards, we ate dinner at Crave, one of my favorite restaurants of all time, then decided to crash at Justin's huge estate on Lake Minnetonka for the night.
"How are you liking Minnesota so far?", I asked Derek as we were brushing our teeth.
"I love it. And thanks to your brother, I now know why you have such stamina in bed. Man, I really should've dated more hockey girls in the past." He gave me a cheeky grin, and I slapped him on the arm, blushing furiously.
"They'd crush you."
"I wouldn't mind. Men love when women are in control during sex."
"What on earth am I going to do with you?" I muttered, shaking my head in mock disapproval. He chuckled then resumed brushing his teeth.
When we were both finished, I crawled into bed next to him. It was slightly chilly being in the basement, but the the heat radiating from his body kept me warm.
"Hey, sweetheart?", he murmured.
"You never showed me your bedroom when you gave me that tour of your house. I'm curious to see what little Claire and teenaged Claire were like."
It was true. I'd intentionally left out my bedroom during our house tour two days ago because I wasn't ready to face my past. There were too many photos of Nick and my father on the walls and shelves- all of which I knew would hurt to look at. But, sooner or later, I'd have to. Sleeping in the guest bedroom just didn't feel right.
"Tomorrow, I'll show you. I promise," I told him with a smile.
"I'm looking forward to it."
He kissed me tenderly on the lips, and then I buried my face in the crook of his neck, savoring the feel of his arms wrapped around me as we both fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
The next day, my mom, Justin, Derek, and I drove over to the Schneiders' at noon. We brought a homemade French silk pie and bottle of wine. Buddy, Nick's dog, greeted us at the front porch when we arrived, and he leaped into my arms, lapping at my cheek.
"Aww, he remembers you," Derek remarked.
"Of course he would. I practically lived here as a kid," I said with a smile, nuzzling Buddy's neck. "I missed you too, Buddy-poo."
Before Justin could ring the bell, the door flew open and Nick's mother, Stephanie, stepped out to greet us, wrapping me into a warm embrace.
"Oh, Claire, you're back." Her body shook as tears of joy fell down her cheeks.
The first thing I noticed was how much weight she'd lost since her son's death. Her once glowing skin was now pale, and the familiar sparkle in her hazel eyes had vanished as well. Nick had been an only child, so I couldn't even begin to imagine what she'd gone through.
"And you must be Derek. I've heard wonderful things about you from your mother-in-law. My husband and I have stayed at a couple of your hotels, too," Mrs. Schneider said with a smile, giving him a hug.
"Is that so? Well next time, I can give you a discount." He winked at her, and she glanced over at my mom.
"He's definitely a keeper," she quipped then ushered us inside her home.
I set the bottle of wine and pie on the dining table and went to greet Nick's dad in the living room. He looked just like his son, except his eyes were brown instead of hazel. Like Stephanie, he'd aged dramatically over the years.
At first, we talked about my life in California, both before and after college, and then the subject of the conversation shifted to Nick.
"Did you know that they renamed the Gophers' hockey facility to the Nicholas A. Schneider Arena?"
"Oh, really? When?"
"Two years ago. You were in college at the time."
"That's incredible. It must've meant a lot to you and your wife."
He nodded solemnly, his eyes brimming with tears, and I fought back my own as well, but the moment I saw the picture of Nick hanging by the fireplace, I nearly lost all control of my emotions.
It was the last picture his family ever took of him at the NHL Draft. In it, he was carrying me on his back, and we both wore Blackhawks jerseys with matching smiles on our faces.
"He loved you a lot you know. You were like the daughter we never had." Mr. Schneider gave me a sad smile, looking at the same picture I was.
"I know. I loved him, too. It's crazy what life throws at us, huh?"
"Life isn't fair, but it's still worth living. Anyways, enough of all this moping around. Let's go have ourselves a nice meal now. I'm getting hungry." He stood up, patting his belly.
I smiled and together, we walked over to the dining room. Derek was having a conversation with my mom and Nick's, and they were both laughing at something he'd said.
"What's so funny?", I asked, wrapping my arms around his waist from behind.
"We were talking about how you gave Ashley a taste of her own medicine last month."
My eyes widened in complete mortification, and that only made them all laugh harder.
"What the hell, Derek? Are you trying to get me disowned or something?" I was furious, but most of all, utterly embarrassed.
"Relax, dear. I would've done the same thing. When someone tries to befoul your name, you bitch-slap the daylight out of them," my mom said boldly.
"You add that to your Parenting 101 guidebook, Derek," Stephanie added.
"Will do, Mrs. Schneider," he acquiesced, shooting me a playful grin.
I hate you, I mouthed to him. He simply laughed. I had to admit, he was getting along so well with everyone, especially my mom.
I wondered if they had secret gossip sessions about me on the phone.
Lunch was absolutely delicious, and not surprisingly, I ate the most out of all of us. Mrs. Schneider knew about my increasing appetite due to pregnancy, so she kept spooning extra servings onto my plate. I hadn't minded it at all.
We spent time afterwards looking through old family albums in the living room- most of which contained pictures of Nick and me. Occasionally, I'd glance over at Derek to see how he was feeling, and for the most part, he seemed happy. But at the same time, I could also detect a hint of sadness and longing in his eyes.
"Your son must've been a wonderful man. Very handsome, too," he said to Nick's mom when we flipped through high school pictures.
"He was. He inherited his dad's looks." She smiled at her husband, squeezing his hand.
Derek stopped on a picture of me and Nick taken during prom, and there was no denying we would've made an amazing couple. He'd worn a black suit and gold tie to match my dress that night.
"You looked absolutely breathtaking," Derek murmured in my ear.
"Thanks." I smiled at him.
"Any girl would've been so lucky to marry Nick. He was the most down-to-earth, selfless guy I'd ever met. I honestly thought he'd be my brother-in-law one day. You two were perfect for each other, Claire," Justin remarked, taking a swig of his beer.
I shot him a hard look, and to my disappointment, saw Derek get up from the couch. His expression was impassive, and I mentally slapped my brother in the face.
"Hey, where are you going bro?", Justin asked.
"Outside. I need to make an important phone call real quick. For work," he replied with a distant tone.
"Derek-," I called, about to follow him when the front door burst open and my friends, Ellie and Becca, walked in. He slipped past them and headed outside.
"Ready to go shopping now?", Becca asked me excitedly. "Oh, hi Mr. and Mrs. Schneider."
"Hello girls," Stephanie greeted with with a smile.
"I was about to leave pretty soon. You guys didn't have to drive here," I said.
"Well, Nick's house is on the way to the mall so we thought it'd be more convenient to just pick you up here," Ellie spoke, flipping her blonde hair over her shoulder.
"Alright then. Let me grab my purse."
I hugged Nick's parents good-bye, and when we headed outside, I couldn't see Derek anywhere. My heart was aching for him, knowing how difficult it must've been for him to sit through all of the pictures and stories of me and Nick.
Believe me, I'd been in his position before.
Justin had always been honest and spoke whatever was on his mind, but I wished he hadn't said a word back in the living room. Now, Derek was probably jealous and hurt. I'd definitely talk to him as soon as I got home later. God knows how much he meant to me. Nothing could ever rival the love I felt for him.
Putting my worries aside, I got into Becca's car, excited to spend some quality time with my friends. During the drive to Mall of America, we belted out our favorite songs on Ellie's phone and played the "Fuck, Kill, Marry" game, laughing so hard we cried. It honestly felt as if I'd never graduated high school.
When we arrived at the mall, the first thing Ellie did was drag us into the nail salon to get manis and pedis. Then, we visited all of our favorite stores, but I came out empty-handed each time. My closet back home was absolutely stuffed, and the last thing I needed was clothes. I did, however, buy a Wild hockey jersey for Derek as a souvenir.
Our last hour at the mall consisted of stuffing ourselves with crêpes and going on the Log Chute- a popular ride at Nickelodeon Universe. The highlight was seeing Becca outwardly flirt with one of the college guys that stood in line with us.
And yes, she'd even used a pick-up line.
Fortunately, she managed to get his number, and the two of them planned to hook up on campus next week. I wasn't surprised- Becca Davison was drop dead gorgeous and could get any guy she wanted.
"So, where to next?", Ellie asked when we were back in the car.
"Can we stop somewhere to buy flowers real quick? I want to visit the cemetery," I replied.
"Of course. We'll go with you, too." Ellie smiled, and I sighed with relief. It probably wouldn't be so bad if the girls were with me.
"I appreciate it."
"Anytime. Nick was our best friend too."
Becca nodded her head in agreement.
It was around seven when we arrived at the cemetery. The trees were bare, and a thin layer of snow covered the hard ground. Next to me, Becca was shivering from the chilly air, her expression desolate- mirroring mine.
"Crap, my little brother just called. He says he's having trouble breathing," Ellie announced worriedly.
"Oh no, is he home alone?", I asked, remembering that he had asthma.
"Yeah. Both my parents are at work."
"You should go make sure he's ok."
"But what about you? We can't just leave you alone," Becca spoke.
"I'll be fine. I can call Justin to pick me up. He knows I'm here," I reassured.
We all hugged, and I promised to hang out with them again before returning home. As soon as they left, I walked towards my dad's grave, wrapping my sweater tight around my body to block out the cold air.
My heart felt heavy with grief as I knelt on the ground, staring at the words engraved on his headstone.
"I'm finally home again, dad. It doesn't feel the same though, because you're not here," I said out loud as tears began falling down my cheeks.
"But guess, what? In just a few months, you're going to be a grandpa. Isn't that crazy? We don't know if we're having a boy or girl yet, but I know for sure our child will have your kind heart.
"Mom and Justin are doing well, and it makes me happy. I wish we all lived together, though. Oh, and one more thing, dad. I want to thank you. For bringing Derek into my life." I smiled through my tears.
"Without him, I don't know where I'd be. He saved me, and for that, I'll always love him."
I set down the white carnations I'd brought for him then stood up to my feet just as a few snowflakes began to fall.
"I love you, dad, and I can't wait til the day I see you again," I whispered, touching his headstone with my fingertips.
At that moment, I felt completely and utterly alone, missing my father so much it hurt. When I made it to Nick's grave on the other side of the cemetery, I fought to keep my emotions at bay, inhaling deep breaths.
"Missed me, Schneider?", I spoke quietly. Almost as if he could hear me, the trees nearby started to rustle.
"It's been nearly four years already, and I'm still angry at God for taking you away from your family...and me. We were supposed to jump into a freezing lake on our 21st birthday, travel to Europe after graduating college, go skydiving..."
Depleted of all my strength, I sank down to the ground, overwhelmed with devastation and pain. The zinnias I'd brought for Nick fell out of my hand as I buried my face in my knees and cried, releasing every emotion I'd kept bottled up the past two days.
Coming here tonight definitely hadn't felt easier than the previous times.
Just when I thought I was going to mourn the entire night at Nick's graveside, I heard the sound of a twig snap behind me, and before I could turn around to see what it was, I felt a large hand on my shoulder.
"Claire?", a male voice spoke.
I was about to scream when the figure came into view, and immediately, I could distinguish the face through my tears.
"Oh, thank goodness you're here." I stood up to his height, flinging my arms around his neck.
"What's wrong, baby?" His brows were knitted in concern as he tilted my chin up, wiping away my tears with his thumb.
"I-I miss my father. And Nick. Everywhere I go, I think of h-him. And being at his house didn't help either," I choked through my sobs.
I heard Derek release a deep breath and then his arms were wrapped around me, holding me to his chest. He pressed a kiss to my forehead as he brushed the snowflakes from my hair.
"Just let it all out, sweetheart. It's ok," he soothed, running his hand up and down my back. "Jesus, you're shivering."
I'd been so busy crying, I hadn't even realized how cold I was. Derek shrugged out of his jacket and put it on for me over my sweater. Right away, I felt ten times warmer.
"How'd you know I was here?", I asked.
"Justin told me. But why are you all alone like this? Where the hell are your friends?" He frowned, his eyes roaming the entire cemetery.
"Ellie's brother was having trouble breathing...b-but at least you're with me now." I clung to his shoulders, and he hugged me tight, absorbing my pain and loss as he kissed the tears away.
"I should take you home now before you catch a cold," he murmured.
I nodded solemnly, glancing one last time at Nick's headstone before letting him lead me out of the cemetery.
As soon as we got inside my mom's Jeep, Derek turned the heat on full blast, making sure I was as warm as possible. Having him by my side definitely eased the pain, and when he reached across the console to hold my hand, I couldn't help but smile.
"That was my first time in a cemetery, you know," he remarked.
"Oh, really? Have you ever attended a funeral before?"
"Nope. I consider myself lucky. But anyway, I hung out with your mom while you were gone. She's an amazing woman, Claire- everything my mom never was- and you're lucky to have her in your life," Derek said, a hint of remorse in his tone.
Every time I was reminded of his terrible childhood, my heart ached for him. He had lacked love during the most crucial part of his life, and as long as I lived, I would love him the way he'd always deserved to be loved, with every fiber of my being.
I only hoped he knew that.
"Can I ask you a question, Derek?"
"Anything." He brought my hand up to his lips, pressing a soft kiss on the backs of my knuckles.
"Earlier today, when we were at Nick's...why did you leave?"
His expression tightened, and he released my hand, staring at the dark road ahead. The air instantly grew silent between us as I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, turning to face the window.
Since it was obvious Derek wouldn't respond anytime soon, I began to talk.
"I'm sorry for what Justin said. That's the reason you left, isn't it?"
"You have nothing to be sorry for, Claire. If anything, I should be the one apologizing."
"For what?" I was confused.
"Everything." His voice was a pained whisper.
I took his hand, resting it on my thigh as I turned to look at him.
"What's wrong? Talk to me, Derek," I demanded worriedly.
"You want the truth? The entire time we were at Nick's...I felt like complete shit. Hearing all those stories about the two of you growing up, how great a guy he was...it struck me like a bullet to the chest."
His blue eyes were piercing through mine, and they were filled with so much hurt, I wanted to just make whatever pain he was feeling go away.
"You know what I felt when your brother said those words? I felt nothing but anger and hatred towards myself. Because Justin was right. Nick never would've put you through any of the pain and shit I did at the beginning of our marriage. It hurt like hell to admit, but you would've been better off with him."
"I know the circumstances surrounding our marriage weren't ideal, and you had to leave your family in Minnesota. But as selfish as it sounds, if your father didn't die, I might never have gotten the chance to meet you. Because know this, Claire- falling in love with you was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and I don't regret any of it."
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I absorbed everything Derek was saying. He had just let all his walls down and left his heart stripped bare- not holding anything back. In that moment, I looked at the man I married and saw nothing but selflessness, love, and devotion.
"I know I'll never be the man Nick was. I know you'll never love me the way you loved him. But know that as long as I live, I'll never stop loving you."
A tear trickled down his cheek as he squeezed my hand, and then I completely died inside.
Luckily, we were arriving at my house, and the moment he put the car in park, I took off my seat-belt and crawled over the console, sitting down on his lap.
"Derek, look at me," I breathed, holding his face in my hands. His sad blue eyes slowly lifted to meet mine, and I rested my forehead against his. "I want you to promise me something."
He sighed heavily.
"Promise me you'll never compare yourself to Nick ever again. I did love him once when we were teenagers, but the love I feel for you now...it's so much more.
I held his hand over my heart.
"As long as you can feel this...know that you're the reason it's beating," I whispered.
And then, his lips were on mine as I melted against his body, letting go of all the pain. With each stroke and caress of his tongue, I could taste the saltiness of our tears combined with a slight trace of peppermint, and it left my head spinning.
I ran my fingers through his hair, eliciting a groan from deep in his throat, and the sound was like heaven to my ears. Just when I thought I couldn't get enough, he brought my tongue into his mouth, sucking on it as I let out a quiet moan.
As much as I wanted him at that moment, I wasn't going to do it in the back of my mom's car. So, with reluctance, I pulled away before we could go too far.
My chest was rapidly rising and falling as I straddled Derek's lap, ignoring the obvious erection growing in his pants- I'd deal with it later. He placed one last chaste kiss on my lips, and then we both got out of the car, feeling a whole lot better than we had before.
The snow had stopped falling, and above us, the stars were twinkling brightly against the blanket of the night sky. I knew that Nick and my father would always be up there to watch over me, and in that sense, it was like they'd never left this earth.
With that belief in mind, I went inside the house with Derek, trying to make as little noise as possible in case my mom was asleep.
"I could sure go for some hot chocolate right now. You?", he asked.
"You know I can't resist chocolate."
"Alright then. You go take a nice, warm shower, and I'll make us some hot chocolate. With marshmallows."
"Sounds perfect." I smiled. "Oh and before I forget, I got you something at the mall today."
I dug into my large purse and pulled out the Zach Parise jersey for Derek. He thanked me and then I headed downstairs to take a shower, changing into my favorite cotton pajamas and plush robe afterwards.
The hot chocolate was already on the coffee table when I finished blow-drying my hair, and Derek sat on the couch, sipping from his mug. He'd changed into a tshirt and pajama bottoms as well.
"Come here." He smiled, patting the empty space next to him. I grabbed the blanket at the end of the couch and draped it over our bodies.
"Ooh, this is nice," I commented, noticing that the lights were dimmed. He'd also turned on both the fireplace and speaker system.
"I tried." He gave me a boyish grin, and I leaned in to kiss his cheek.
For a while, we just sat there drinking our hot chocolate, simply relaxing and enjoying each other's company. Then, Carrie Underwood's Heartbeat began playing through the speakers, and I immediately stood up.
"Derek, I love this song. Like really love it. It's so beautiful," I said with a gentle sigh, clasping my hands together. "Dance with me?"
Derek chuckled, his eyes shining with mirth and adoration as he stood up and reached for my hand.
"I'd be honored to, Mrs. Weston."
He led me to the open area by the fireplace and wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me close to him. With my arms around his neck, we began to sway to the music. During the refrain, Sam Hunt's vocals blended perfectly with Carrie's, just like how perfect it felt being in Derek's arms.
"I love you, Claire," he murmured, brushing his lips against my hair.
"I love you, too, Derek. More than you'll ever know."
I laid my head on his chest, and like high school lovers, we danced in the night to the rhythm of his heartbeat.
A/N- Hey guys, I'm finally back! Hope this chapter made up for the long wait. I've been busy the past couple of months with school, but I was able to fit in some time to write this week. And in case anyone was wondering, there's a lot of unexpected situations in store for Derek and Claire, so be prepared. As usual, remember to comment and like!