Read False Start Online

Authors: Barbara Valentin

False Start (10 page)

"There is no way Nick DeRosa could've written this," she tried convincing herself. The Nick DeRosa she knew, the one who was idolized by his teammates, canonized by his mother, and adored by nearly every female in the school, students and staff alike. Yet, whenever she'd walk by, he managed to look right through her like she wasn't even there. Never so much as a "hey," or "sup?" 

But that was then, and this was now, right?

 

*  *  *

 

"You're late."

Nick stood at the edge of the track with his arms folded, watching Mattie like a hawk as she winced with each step that brought her closer to him.

"You're lucky I made it here at all."

"What's the matter? Shoes too tight?" he asked, sounding a little too flip for Mattie's liking.

So as not to draw the attention of any camera phone-carrying bystanders, Mattie waited until she was directly in front of him before whispering, "No, Nick. It's not the shoes. It's my legs. I'm in serious pain."

His face brightened. "You're welcome."

Unzipping her coat to reveal the same dreadful sweats she wore the previous day, she glanced up at him. "For what?"

"The shoes. I'm glad they fit. I took a guess on the size."

"Do tell," Mattie replied, making sure he knew how little his shoe-size-guessing skills impressed her.

Before letting her coat fall to the ground, she pulled the rules list from her pocket and demanded, "Who wrote this?"

Nick frowned. "I did. Why?"

Mattie was not convinced. "Where did you get it from?"

"My notebook," Nick replied, putting his hands on his hips.

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

Mattie studied him like he was an oddity on display at a kitschy country fair before emitting a quiet, self-directed, "What do you know?"

"What's with the inquisition?" he asked as she slowly squatted down to return the list to her pocket.

Before responding, she groped for his hand so she could pull herself back up. When he didn't offer it, she grabbed at the cuffs of his jacket and pulled.

Once upright, she explained, "If I reference it in my column, I'd need to confirm the source. That's all."

As soon as the words left her mouth, she grimaced, having exposed more about her role at the paper than she intended.

Nick made no attempt to hide his surprise. "You have your own column? At the
Gazette
? Seriously?" He sounded impressed. And he was staring at her.

Not wanting to share more than she already had, Mattie glanced at her watch. "So what's the game plan for today, huh?"

In reply, he pointed to her legs. "We're not doing anything 'til you stretch those out."

He waved her over to the center of the track. As Mattie hobbled after him, she scanned the crowed of joggers and walkers for any sign of pedestrian paparazzi.

"Do what I do."

Nick turned to face her, spread his feet apart, and put his hands back on his hips. She watched as he bent his knees and started easing his lower body from right to left.

Chuckling, she pointed towards him and said, "I am not doing that."

Nick stood straight up. "Do it. Now."

After glancing quickly over her shoulders, Mattie tried mimicking his movements.

"You should feel the pull in your hips."

What I feel is completely embarrassed.

"Yep, I'm feelin' it."

She resumed her normal stance and asked, "What's next?"

"This." Nick crossed one foot in front of the other and leaned forward at the waist, resting his hands on his kneecap.

When Mattie followed suit, she stifled a grown. Her face crunched in pain.

"Now, just hold it for a minute, but don't forget to breathe."

She shut her eyes, trying to block out the feel of razor blades slicing up the backs of her legs. "Is this supposed to be helping, because if it is, it's not."

"Okay, now switch legs."

Oh, good lord.

"It'll get better. I promise," she heard him say.

"Why don't I believe you?" Mattie asked as she followed him into a very unlady-like squat with her knees resting against the insides of her elbows and her fingertips grasping her toes.

"This one's called the 'Monkey Stretch,'" Nick announced, watching as she lost her balance and toppled onto her side.

Once she righted herself, Mattie asked, "What else ya got?"

Sitting with his long legs extended into a "V" in front of him, he invited Mattie to sit facing him.

After pulling the hem of her sweatshirt down as far as it would go, she lowered herself into position.

"Put the bottom of your shoes against mine," he instructed before holding his hands out to her.

Looking as if she had just sniffed sour milk, she observed, "This is couples stretching. I've seen it on TV."

Nick shook his head. "It's instructional stretching, just until you're comfortable doing it on your own."

When still she hesitated, he urged, "Come on, Mattie. Ya gotta trust me."

She pressed her size five shoes against his. As she leaned forward, holding out her hands, she felt his shoes press back.

When Nick grabbed a hold of her fingers and enveloped them in his grasp, tingles traveled up the length of her arms, and she let out an involuntary gasp.

Eddie had rarely laid a finger on Mattie, and when he did, tingles were not the result. Maybe because any intentional physical contact on his part always seemed so forced, so obligatory. Even after they were engaged, the only time Eddie had agreed to sleep with her was after he had downed nearly half a bottle of one hundred-year-old cognac. While she had spent much of her young life looking forward to the magical moment when she would finally lose her virginity to the man of her dreams, the experience was, at best, awkward and, for lack of a better word, platonic.

Such a schmuck.

"Breathe," Nick coaxed as he studied her face. "You're not breathing."

Mattie winced. "Easy for you to say."

"Just a couple of more seconds. You can do it. Just relax."

"This isn't helping, Nick. It's making it worse."

Frowning, he eased her back a bit.

"All right. This ought to do the trick. Lay on your back."

"Excuse me?"

Nick put his hand on her shoulder and nudged her backwards. "You heard me. Lay down."

When she was flat on her back, he knelt next to her and grabbed the heel of her right foot.

"What are you doing?"

"Making it all better. Straighten your leg."

He slowly lifted her foot. By the time her leg was perpendicular to the ground, she was arching her back and digging her nails into the track's rubber surface.

"Uncle!"

"You're not breathing. Breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth."

Mattie gritted her teeth while Nick knelt idly by, holding her foot mid-air. "Come on Mattie. I don't have all day."

No raise is worth this.

Taking a deep breath in through her nose and exhaling through her mouth, she felt something happen. The tightness in her muscles actually started to dissipate. She did it again. Even better. Her eyes popped opened, and she flashed a smile at the vaulted ceiling of the field house.

Nick eased her leg back to the ground and started raising the other one. After a quiet moment, he said, "This would all go much easier if you'd stop fighting me."

Mattie considered her options. She could continue to be aloof, whiny, and uncooperative for weeks, just to be difficult, but what would that prove except perhaps that Nick was right to advise his brother against marrying her?

She looked at him. "Do you promise never to make me this sore again?"

Nick thought for a minute then shook his head. "No."

He dropped her foot to the floor.

Coach one, Mattie zip.

Flinging an arm across her face, she mumbled, "Fine."

"Excuse me?"

She pulled herself into a sitting position and looked at Nick.

"You heard me. I surrender."

He reached down and extended his hand to her. "Good. Now let's get to work. We'll take it nice and easy today. Come on."

While Mattie shuffled along, sweating and panting, Nick walked next to her, talking the entire time.

"I want you to think about setting some goals for yourself..."

I'd like to not jiggle when I jump up and down.

"…For motivation…"

I'd like to be light enough for the man of my dreams to sweep me off my feet.

"…Like 5ks, 10ks, and a half marathon."

Oh.

"I checked around. There's a 5k in February. You should be ready for that by then."

"A 5k?" Mattie huffed. "How far is that?"

"Three point two miles. Piece of cake."

To put her mind in a happier place, she pictured a large piece of three-layered red velvet cake with loads of frothy cream cheese frosting
.

"In April, there's a 10k along the lakefront. That's just over six miles."

 Mattie began to feel as if an elephant had parked on her chest. "Do you know CPR?"

"Yep, I'm certified. Let's see. There's a half on the Fourth of July."

"Half?" Mattie asked, hoping for the best.

"A half marathon. Thirteen miles."

"You're a sadist," she managed between gasps for air.

Wiping her forehead with her sleeve, she announced, 'There's no way I'll be able to do all that."

Nick started jogging backwards so he could face her. "You know, it's exactly that kind of thinking that will cause you to fail. This isn't about anything other than what you think you're capable of."

No selling yourself short.

She was doing it again. Defeating herself before she even started. And he saw right through her. To make matters worse, with him jogging backwards in front of her, it created the illusion in her caffeine-starved brain that she was chasing him. The thought made her stomach lurch.

She gave her head a quick shake, but it didn't help. Nick was still talking. And she was still chasing him.

"You've got to get over whatever it is that's holding you back. It'll trip you up every time."

Mattie tried waving him off like he was a pesky mosquito. "You know so much, you tell me," she panted. "What's holding me back?"

Nick resumed his position beside her, doing little more than jogging in place to keep up with her.

"I've known you for a long time, Mattie, but I gotta tell ya, I could never understand why you always settled for less than you deserved."

"What?" If she sounded annoyed by the accusation, she didn't care. His observation was spot on, and it unnerved her. She started running through the list of lies she had designed to keep herself from getting hurt again.

I'm happily married. I love my job. I love my life. I couldn't be happier.

But Nick wouldn't let up.

"So tell me. What are you afraid of? What's holding you back from demanding the very best for yourself?"

This is so much worse than a tape measure.

"I'm not afraid of anything."

"Sure you are. And the sooner we get it out of the way, the better."

He not only touched a nerve, but he was dancing right on top of it. As she chugged along, images of her father storming out the door for the last time, her classmates faces as they teased her, and Claudia confirming that Eddie had indeed stood her up on their wedding day flashed before her. She pressed her sweat-soaked sleeve across her face hoping to catch the drops from her eyes and drips from her nose in one swipe.

"I'm not…" She tried, but couldn't verbalize the rest:
…ever gonna be loved.

"You can't let fear cheat you out of being the best person you can be, Mattie. Don't you think you deserve better than that?"

Nick was facing her again. He jogged backwards a few steps before stopping.

"Look at you. Is this you not being afraid?"

"Shut up," she panted.

She never hated anyone as much as she hated Nick DeRosa at that very moment. Too worn out to slug him, she tried slogging right passed him, but he caught her by the shoulders and said matter-of-factly, "Congratulations. You just ran half a mile."

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

"I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage."

– Erma Bombeck

 

Nick was sitting in Miss O'Dell's third grade class, minding his own business, when the girl sitting behind him yanked his shirt collar back and stuffed a folded up piece of paper in his hand.

"Don't read it," Mathilde Ross, the new girl, hissed. "Give it to Eddie for me, OK?" Nick didn't know much about her. He had only heard a rumor about her not having a dad, but he didn't know why. The one thing he did know was that she only had eyes for his brother. It was as if he didn't even exist.

When Nick gave Eddie the note, he read it, scribbled a reply, and handed it back. "Give it to her," Eddie ordered.

Nick wouldn't take it. He held up his hands and said, "I ain't givin' it to her. You give it to her. She likes you, not me."

But Eddie persisted. "Give it to her, or I'll tell Mom you were the one who spilled grape juice on the rug."

"Go ahead. She knows I'd fess up if I did it."

"Fine." Eddie sneered at his twin. "But don't blame me when you get arrested."

"What?"

Nick spun around and saw four uniformed police officers with guns drawn. "You have the right to remain silent," one began.

Panicking, Nick, now an adult, laughed nervously. "Hey, wait. Don't I get a phone call?"

"What for?" another officer asked. "She won't answer. She doesn't even know you exist."

Nick awoke to a knock on his door and a harsh, "Everything ok in there?"

It sounded like his neighbor Frank, a trombone player who frequented many of Chicago's legendary blues clubs.

Rubbing his hands over his face, Nick threw his blankets back and trudged barefoot across the cold hardwood floor of his oversized studio apartment. Wearing only pajama bottoms, he opened his door just a crack and squinted at the bright light streaming in from the hallway.

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