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Authors: Rochelle Allison,Angel Lawson

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BOOK: For the Win
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“Anything going on between you?” His hands are crammed in his pockets as he looks straight ahead.

“Uh, no. We’re just friends.” For now, at least. Melina and I made our deal exclusive, so whatever interest I had with Veronica is off the table. “You like her?”

He shrugs. I head for the elevator while he turns left toward the stairs, going without another word.

 

Chapter 36

August 10

(Men’s Game/Women Rest)

 

 

Mitchell puts me in after the half, and I spot the chip on Dom’s shoulder. Brent and I exchange wary looks. If questioning the coach was something I was allowed to do, I’d suggest leaving me on the bench. But we all have to follow orders, so I pull my gloves on and take my position on the field. The forwards for the Nigerian team smile when they see me. The act should unnerve me—it’s supposed to— but instead it brings about an inner resolve. They don’t know about the transitions I’ve made in the last year.

The score is 2-1 in our favor when I hit the pitch, which means Coach must think I’ve got it in me to hold onto the lead. I take a deep breath and nod to the referee. It’s time to wrap this up.

 

*

 

I have an idea.

M-Yeah?

Want to get out of here?

M-Definitely.

Meet me at the gate. 6pm

M-The gate?

The front gate. At the shuttle.

M-Ok. See you then.

 

She arrives in a little sundress, straps criss-crossing over her back and shoulders. My fingers itch to touch her skin but it’s too public, too close to everyone we’re keeping this from.

“You look great,” I tell her, unable to help myself.

“I hope I’m not over dressed—I was tired of workout clothes and my mom bought me this in town. I thought it would be nice to wear—wherever it is we’re going.”

“It’s perfect,” I promise.

I follow her on the bus and we take a seat among our fellow Olympians. None that I recognize specifically—there are nearly eighteen thousand athletes staying at the Village.

“So, do you want to share where we’re going?”

“I thought maybe we could go to the festival.”

She smiles. “Sounds fun.”

The Brazilian Olympic Committee has cultural events and activities all over the city, but the big one is an ongoing street festival in the middle of Rio. Our families have been, and so have some of my teammates. “I thought maybe we could get away from the Village for a while.”

Traffic is terrible but the shuttle finally arrives, dumping us out into a congested street. Banners and street signs promoting the games hang from lampposts and buildings. The heady aroma of local street food clings to the air, and live music blares from all directions. Melina threads her fingers with mine and I hold tight, not wanting to lose her in the chaos.

We wander the busy streets, getting lost among the street performers, amorous couples and tired looking parents trailing behind exuberant children. I feel like everything I’ve ever heard about Rio is true —it’s an onslaught of the senses, bursting with color and sound...something different on every corner. I buy a beaded bracelet for Allie and a scarf for my mother. Postcards are cheap, so I buy a bunch—Edgar and the kids I used to coach will love getting those in the mail. Vendors featuring local artwork stand beside old women selling
acaraje
, fried bean patties stuffed with tomato and shrimp. Rory loves that stuff, so I slow down, pulling Melina to a stop.

“You hungry?”

              She shrugs. “Sure.”

              “Have you had this yet?”

              “No, have you?”

              “No,” I say. “But Rory said we have to try it.”

I hear Brazil’s Brahma beer is a must-try, too, but I avoid that for obvious reasons. Probably being supportive, Melina does too, opting for an acai smoothie or something. I’m not sure what’s in it, but she sure tastes good when she kisses me.

“Can I ask you something?” I’m feeling daring while we’re waiting for the shuttle back to the Village. It’s late afternoon. We both have team obligations before the night is over.

“Sure.”

“What all did you do after we broke up?”

“What all?” she asks.

“Fine,” I confess, running my hand through my hair. “Did you date anyone?”

She sits on the curb and I follow her to the ground, knees bent. She tilts her head and studies me. “You really want to know?”

“I think so.”

“Well, no one for a while. I was too angry and hurt. I pretended I was too busy, but it was more than that. Then late in my junior year I started seeing this guy, Jason. He and I worked in the library together.”

I envision a short, nerdy guy with glasses, but then I think about the things Melina and I have done and what she looked like doing them with a short, nerdy guy with glasses and push it aside. Dammit. No more imagining.

“And how did that end? I mean, I’m guessing it ended since, you know...”

“He was studying agriculture and went to Belize after graduation for a master’s program. We didn’t exactly break up as much as drift apart.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.”

She nods. “He was nice.”

I swallow and ask the question I don’t have the right to an answer. “Was he your, you know…”

Her cheeks burn but she doesn’t look embarrassed. “He was.”

“And he was nice?”

She lays her hand on my knee and squeezes it, comforting me for God’s sake. “He’s a good guy. Not the right guy, but a good guy.”

I needed to know, mostly because it should have been me, and it was one more thing I took away from her—from us. Jealousy mingles with relief and when she rests her head on my shoulder I wind my fingers through her hair.

Since turnabout is fair play, I begin, “Do you want to—“

“No.”

“No?”

“Hell no. No thank you. Please do not even.”

“Fair enough.” We’re quiet for a second, but then we both start to laugh, because it’s so weird but also so us. The shuttle finally arrives with a loud exhale of air, and I stand, pulling her off the curb with me. I stop her before she reaches the steps. “I don’t know where we’ll end up, you and me, but I’m glad we have this for right now.”

She smiles and kisses me. “Me too.”

 

 

Chapter 37

August 13

(Men Game/Women Rest)

 

 

The weirdest thing happens during the next game. Only the starting players are called on the field before it begins. The rest of us hang back, taking our spots on the bench. It’s an unfamiliar role for me, but it beats sitting at home watching the game on TV.

The announcer calls out my teammates’ names and numbers:

Six…Gonzales

Nine…Pollard

Seventeen…Johnson

Twenty-three…Mendez

All eleven are called, but a murmur rolls through the crowd.

Michael, the guy next to me, looks around. “What are they saying?”

“I can’t tell.”

The jumbo-tron pans away from the players on the field and over to the commotion in the stands. Red, white and blue flags, banners and signs of all colors ripple like water. The camera stops on a kid, brown-skinned, wearing Brazilian colors. His sign has an American flag on it, with the words, “
Julian Anderson is my hero.”

“Dude.” Michael grabs my arm. “What the hell?”

The camera picks me up and I’m broadcast all over the stadium. Then the screen splits and the kid, along with who I assume is his mother, smiles widely. I have a feeling what this is all about, and a tight lump forms in my throat.

I wave at the camera, and after what seems an eternity the focus moves back to the field. Dominic trots back to the goal box. Rory takes position at center field. The Romanian players line up, building a barrier between my teammates and the opposing goal. The ref secures a nod from each goalie, signaling they’re ready, and a sharp whistle tears through the air.

We’ve got a match to win.

 

Reporter
: How does it feel earning a spot in the quarter finals?

Julian
: Amazing. Really good.

Reporter
: You didn’t play today but your team still took the win, going undefeated so far in the Olympic games. This gives you a much better seeding for the upcoming match, correct?”

Julian
: Dominic had an amazing game. Total shut-out. He should be proud. That kind of win gives us an advantage in the upcoming match. We’ll find out later today, depending on the outcomes of the other games, who we’ll play.”

Reporter
: Let’s talk about the way the crowd reacted to you today, Julian. You’ve got quite the fan following here in Rio.

Julian
: Ah, well, I think we can attribute that to some amazing film work that made me look a lot more interesting than I really am. I’m here to support my team and help us get the gold, that’s all.

Reporter
: *
flips through papers
* Modesty isn’t one of the character traits normally used to describe you.

Julian
: People change.

Reporter
: Before we go, I do have a little surprise.

Julian
: *
raises eyebrow
* A surprise?

Reporter
: I had a chance to catch up with one of your biggest fans. I think you saw him at the game today. *
Image flashes on screen of the boy holding the sign for Julian*

Julian:
I did see him. That was great.

Reporter
: That boy’s name is Daniel, and he’s 9 years old. He was diagnosed with Diabetes when he was 6 and lives here in Brazil with his family. Obviously he’s a huge fan of the national team, but as his family learned about your story and your success he has definitely switched to Team Anderson. We’ve got Daniel here, would you like to meet him?

Julian
: Sure, of course.

 

Chapter 38

 

The moratorium on celebrating has been lifted for the night, following our qualifying win. Getting into the medal round is a huge accomplishment —the opportunity to actually
win
a medal and stand on that podium is so close our team can taste it. Realizing everyone needs to blow off some steam before the next match, the coaches let us loose.

I join in with the others at the small clubhouse next to the pool. The coaches reserved the space for us, and we’re met with food, drinks, and the most relaxed atmosphere the team has experienced in weeks. I stand by the wall, watching the merriment, waiting for the tension to roll off my shoulders. The knots only tighten when I spot Veronica coming my way, though. For once, James isn’t peering over her shoulder.

She approaches with a mega-watt smile. “Thanks for doing that today. It was great.”

“No problem.” It’s snarkier than I meant for it to be. She notices.

“Was signing a shirt for a kid really that bad?”

“Of course not. I was happy to do it.”

She frowns. “Then what’s the problem?”

There’s no way to express myself without sounding like a dick, so I don’t. I shrug, eyeing the exit. Dominic’s standing there, near the door, looking as uncomfortable as I feel although I’m not sure why. He had a killer game today, but he’s got a bug up his ass that nothing seems to settle. I can relate.

“I think I’m just tired,” I finally say. “It’s been a long day.”

“You have tomorrow off. Maybe you can sleep in.”

I laugh. I don’t think she understands what the ‘day off’ for an Olympian consists of, so I don’t burst her bubble. Again, I glance over at Dominic, wondering if I can help him ease his troubles. “He was asking me about you.”

A line forms on her forehead. “Who?”

“Dom.”

“Oh yeah?”

I nod. “He wanted to know if there was something going on between us. You know, code for ‘is she available’.”

“What did you say?” There’s enough interest in her tone to let me know I’m close to stepping in a hornet’s nest.

“I told him we were friends—you know I’ve sworn off women.”

“Ah right, the celibacy thing.” She glances at Dominic, who happens to be looking at us. He nods back when she smiles. “I’m not really into the athlete thing.”

“No?”

“You guys are too busy. I mean, I’m busy too. I don’t really have time for a relationship.”

I push off the wall. “Who said anything about a relationship?”

She tilts her head. “Excuse me?”

“Remember, what happens in The Village stays in The Village.”

Her eyes widen, but a small smile touches her mouth.

 

*

 

I’m on the way back to my room when I hear a laugh ripple down the sidewalk. I’d know it anywhere; it’s as identifiable as my own. Turning, I search the area for my sister.

Her laughter turns to low talking. I’m about to turn the corner of the building when I hear, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

I stop and turn to see Melina with her nose scrunched. She’s got a ball tucked under her arm, and turf shoes on her feet, so I’m guessing she’s on her way to practice.

“Why not?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Some things you can’t unsee.”

Around the corner the low talking turns to something else. “God really? Who?”

“You don’t want to know.” The expression on her face convinces me to trust her.

“You’re going to the practice field? Now?” I ask. It’s nearly dark.

“Just wanted to take some shots—stretch my legs.”

I glance down at her legs, brown and muscular. “You need a goalie?”

“Yeah, that’d be nice. Keep me from chasing balls all night.”

Fighting the smile creeping over my lips, I lunge forward, knocking the soccer ball out of her grasp. I quickly snatch it up with my hands, smirking. “Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

 

*

 

By the time the lights from the surrounding buildings brighten the field, we’re both drenched in sweat. There’s not another player in the world that can challenge a goalie like Melina. Accurate and powerful, she has this incredible self-awareness that makes her lethal on the field. She puts me through the test and we’re both breathing hard when I roll the ball back into the crook of her foot.

She’s cocky after getting three out of the last five past me, and carries the ball just out of my reach. Her feet move in rapid mind-tricking movements. But just as Melina is the highest scoring female in the Olympics right now, I am arguably the best defensive keeper in Brazil. Dominic and some of the others from competing teams may have height and weight on me, but none are as fearless.

That’s what staring down death at seven-years-old does to you. It makes you fearless.

I lunge for the ball, knocking it from between Melina’s feet. She spins to retrieve it, but I swipe the back of her knees while wrapping my arms around her body. We crash to the ground, and I cradle her to my chest, rolling so the weight lands on my side and back.

I grunt, expelling air from Melina jabbing me in the chest with her shoulder. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m intrigued when she straddles my hips and pushes my chest down with her hands.

“Foul much?”

“Only when I’m out of options.”

She looks over my head at the goal. “It sucks when you’re out of your league and you have to make desperate choices.”

I run my hand up her side, feeling the side of her breast, the lean curve of her back. Her thighs tighten around my hips, and she leans forward, her chest rising and falling from exertion.

“Is that what this is about?” I ask. “Desperation?” Because I’ve been feeling something like that for days. On and off the field; with and without Melina. A loss of control, something I’d worked so hard for over the last year. With every layer exposed by the documentary, every concession to McDowell, and every minute this woman’s body is pressed against mine, I feel more overwhelmed.

To my surprise she shakes her head. “Desperation? No. Exhilaration, maybe. The games are one thing—thrilling, I guess.”

“And this?” I ask, because I have to know.

She bites down on her lip. “It’s helping. Gives me somewhere to place all my excess energy.”

Leaning down, she kisses me. I run my hands over her curves, feeling the tingle of electricity between us. We’re both slick with sweat, and I suck the salt off her shoulder. I’m already hard—God, I’m always hard around her and she’s sure to think I’ve got a problem. I grimace and mutter, “Sorry about that.”

I can’t help but to think about how out in the open we are—how it breaks our rules, but she just laughs and says, “It’s not the worst thing.” I lift an eyebrow, not sure I follow. “You know, to be wanted.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever had a lack of interest from guys.” That makes her blush, which probably only makes me harder, and I point out, “Tyson Rickman has been sniffing around you since training camp.”

She shakes her head. “He’s just a friend.”

“Is he gay?”

“What? Why?”

“Unless he’s gay, he’s definitely looking to be more than friends.” I tickle her ribs because the conversation is so weird. She and I both know Tyson isn’t gay and I know for certain his interests go beyond platonic. “Maybe friends with benefits.”

“Uh, I think I’ve already got one of those.”

I brush strands of sticky hair off her cheek. “So now we’re friends?”

I want to hear her say it for some reason, but she leans over and presses her lips to mine. My hands wander and her hips move, riling my body up again. I brush my thumbs over the peaks of her nipples, feeling them harden. She’s right, it is nice to be wanted like that. I repeat the move and she arches her back, inhaling sharply.

Suddenly we’re sixteen again, outside in the elements, groping one another like we’d never get the chance again. She must have thought the same thing because she says, “Remember back in the woods, how we’d get off nearly looking at one another, nothing but furious, desperate rubbing. It felt so good, you know?”

I swallow. “Yeah.”

“I had no idea how messy it all was back then, how you’d have to walk back to the apartments. God, sorry about that.”

“Yep, I sacrificed a couple pairs of shorts in your honor for sure.” We’re facing one another now, each leaning on an elbow on the grass. Her nipples are still hard, cleavage round and full from this angle and nothing about her story is turning me off. I bring her mouth down to mine and slide my hand between her legs, not caring about prying eyes or sticky shorts or the fact I am way too old to be dry-humping in the penalty box.

Melina’s eyes widen as I dip my fingers beneath her thin shorts, her jaw going slack as she exhales. She reaches for me,
finally
, and I know it won’t take long.

We lean into one another and there’s nothing but the sound of our panting breath. My balls ache painfully beneath the fabric, and I nearly explode when I hear her whisper my name.

“Jules…” she says in a rush, her back going limp. I clamp my hand over hers, guiding her along until I’m riding the wave of my own release.  I feel the sticky fluid in my shorts and make a face.

“Here,” she says, stripping off her tank. I move quickly, light headed and blissed, cleaning myself off.

“Thanks.”

“We’re way past the walk of shame. Least I could do.”

I drop the soiled shirt to the ground and lay on my back, looking at the stars. To my surprise Melina rests her head on my chest, snuggling in, wearing just her sports bra.

“I know this sounds like a dickheaded cliché, but I really needed that,” I say. “Things have been a little crazy lately. Being close to someone I trust makes it a little easier.

“Despite the, uh, juvenileness of just now, I want you to know I’ve seen the changes in you. Like today. You did a good thing with that kid at the game. You gave him something you would have died for at his age.”

“Right.” She has no idea but that was
not
the right thing to say at this very moment. Intuitive as always, she picks up on it right away.

“Did you seriously have a problem with that?”

“No. It was fine—I was happy to meet him. It’s just the cameras and the motivation behind it all. It wasn’t for that kid, it was for McDowell and his marketing machine.”

She frowns. “The documentary?”

“That and…” I wave her off. Suddenly I’m very tired of being close to someone yet so very far away.

“Classic,” she mumbles.

“What?”

“You. Shutting me out. It’s so completely typical. I feel like I’m in some stupid romance novel where the two main characters fight over easily fixable problems if they’d only just talk. But there’s a reason for those books. People like you.”

“I literally have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You bottle everything in, Julian. That’s how you get in so much trouble. You’re either holed up in a van by yourself or partying yourself numb. They’re both just ways of you avoiding living a full, balanced life.”

“I’m not avoiding life,” I say. A ripple of anger rolls through my veins that is in direct conflict with the peace and tranquility of a moment before. “I’m here, aren’t I? I’m doing everything that’s asked of me. What McDowell wants. What Allie and my mother want. I’m sharing my shitty life story, no matter how embarrassing or humiliating it is, like Veronica wants. I’m holding Dominic’s hand so he doesn’t lose it on and off the field. So he gets the win he deserves.” I blink away the look on her face. “I’m here with you, helping you get the most of these Games. I’m keeping you safe. Keeping you focused. I am doing absolutely everything I can for the win.”

Her hand moves to my face, but I turn away, pushing her gently off my lap. Walking back to the goal, I bend to get my bag.

“Jules, hold up. Don’t walk away like that.”

I toss my backpack over my shoulder, but the weight throws me off-balance. Steadying myself on the goal post, I glance over at Melina. Her face has a blurry sheen.

“Shit. I uh,” I start to say. Her eyebrows furrow and she says something that muddles in my ears. I try again. “My uh…”

My knees buckle, and my bag drops to the ground. The field is hard under my back but the sky over Melina’s head twinkles with stars. I close my eyes and the world turns black.

BOOK: For the Win
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