Read False Start Online

Authors: Barbara Valentin

False Start (3 page)

He heard Lester chuckle beside him. "Man, oh man. If you could do for some of these folks what you've done for the guys on the team—and charge them for the privilege—you'd have enough cash to wipe out the national debt. Why, I bet-"

"No offense, but I've had my fill of adults bent on making stupid decisions."

The image of a particular auburn-haired woman with a fierce left hook emerged from a remote corner in his mind.

Before Lester could reply, Nick announced, "Here they come."

After recording the boys' splits, they made their way to the finish line. There, amid all of the screaming bystanders, Lester yelled, "Care to make a wager?"

Nick's eyes widened. "You know that's against the rules."

Lester laughed. "No, not on the meet. On you."

Narrowing his eyes, Nick replied, "I'm listening."

Looking as if he was about to sell black market plutonium to a third world arms dealer, Lester checked to make sure no one was eavesdropping on their conversation. When he was satisfied, he motioned for Nick to lean down, and spoke into his ear. "You take an unfit adult, of my choosing, and train them to run in the Chicago Marathon next October. If they finish, I'll cut you a check that will be more than enough to get you back on your feet again.

Nick stood up straight and frowned. "I don't follow."

Lester smiled, spread his hands out before him like a game show host and announced, "Nick DeRosa, personal running coach."

Nick narrowed his eyes and asked, "What's the catch?"

"No catch. Just lots of free publicity." Under his breath, Lester murmured, "And a boost in revenue for the paper."

As the boys started appearing over the last rise before the final approach, Nick, still not entirely convinced, mulled the proposal. He himself had run a number of marathons, but training someone to do it? It was all he could do to get high school boys to train for three-mile races.

The crowd's excitement grew in intensity as the boys began to appear in the distance. The slow rise of the last stretch was always the most demanding. If one teammate ran out of steam now, the whole team would suffer. When Nick was in their spiked and muddied shoes, this was his favorite part of the race. Adrenaline would start pulsing through his veins, and he'd surge through the crowd of weary runners, crossing the finish line on a hidden reserve of power known as "the kick."

It was hard to teach this concept to other runners. Either you had it or you didn't. Some races you had it, others you didn't. But, no matter how far back Nick had gotten during the course of the race, he always managed to come back from behind and carry his team to victory.

The Gazette was the first to dub him the "Comeback Kid" when he carried his team to the State finals for the first of three consecutive championships. It was the best time of his life. Nick knew the Gazette followed his every move. His mother had collected scrapbooks full of clippings to prove it. But the last time he made the papers, the Gazette used his unofficial title to magnify his disgrace: "Comeback Kid Jailed."

God, I hate reporters.

After the team roared across the finish line with times good enough to garner fifth place, Lester pressed a business card into Nick's hand and said, "Think it over then come see me.

 

*  *  *

 

Where's Claudia?

Mattie expected her sensible, happily wedded sister to stop by any minute. Ten years older with an "I told you so" always at the ready, Claudia was the last person she wanted to see on her day off. Still, Mattie knew she was her only trusted source for all things married and maternal. Besides, her column on gift ideas for kids' athletic coaches was not going to write itself.

While she waited, she read the label of a rather large chocolate bar from Benziger's, a local chocolate maker. A glowing endorsement from Mattie in column on holiday gift ideas had saved the struggling company from bankruptcy. To show their appreciation, they enrolled her in their bar-of-the-month club.

This is so much better than a slow cooker.

"Deliciously smooth chocolate flavor that melts into the crunch of sweet caramel highlighted by bursts of savory sea salt."

She picked it up and inhaled. A small groan escaped her lips. Then, in a practiced move, she flipped it over and read the calorie count. Four hundred and twelve.

Hello, dinner.

She closed her eyes and held the bar to her forehead, but the tick of the clock invaded her senses. The plain round wall-mounted fixture was identical to the one in the bridal room at St. Matthias. Both clocks moved unnervingly slow and emitted an annoying tick-tock.

Mattie sat frozen in her chair, defenseless, as the Technicolor images came flashing back. The beautiful blue sky, the deep green leaves on the mature trees in front of the church unfurled in the afternoon sun. Claudia, in a periwinkle taffeta tea-length dress, was followed by Mattie's nephew, itching to get out of his size six-X black ring bearer's tuxedo. Her own gown making her feel like a movie star.

She had eaten nothing but radishes and hummus for weeks, but it was so worth it. For the first time in her life, she felt beautiful. It was unfortunate that her satisfaction was so short-lived.

Putting the chocolate bar down with a resolute slam, she pressed her fingers to her temples and gritted her teeth, but the memories kept coming.

"Such an idiot," she whispered, feeling the same panic and self-loathing that set in as the big hand on the clock kept ticking off the minutes despite the groom's absence. With each tick that tocked by, she felt the same nagging doubt that used to wash over her whenever Eddie cancelled a date at the last minute or forgot to make a promised phone call.

A loud buzz brought her back to the present.

Mattie sprang up, pushed the button on her intercom, and, with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, sang out, "Who is it?"

"It's a little early for martinis, isn't it?"

Mattie checked her watch and said, "Um, no Claud, not really. It's four o'clock. Come on up."

She assessed the condition of her apartment. Situated on the top floor of a two-story house, she knew she only had a few harried moments to pick up. After stacking the cookbooks she had left scattered on her living room floor and hiding her Michael Bolton CDs, she darted into the tiny kitchen. The garbage can, overstuffed with a pizza box, an empty bottle of cheap Merlot, and used tissues, had to go. Deciding that she didn't have enough time to run it down the back stairwell to the dumpster, she zipped into her bedroom, shoved it into her walk-in closet and closed the door just in time to hear her sister's knock.

"Come on in."

Claudia burst into the living room, pulled off her scarf and gave her sister a quick hug. "What did I tell you about leaving your door unlocked?" 

 "Please. I knew you were coming," Mattie explained. "And I always keep the outside entrance locked. That's why I gave you a key, remember? Besides, with Mrs. Driscoll downstairs, nobody's gonna mess with me. I think she's a retired warden from Stateville penitentiary."

"Well, if you ask me, she looks like Mrs. Claus."

"Yeah, Mrs. Claus packing heat," Mattie retorted.

Laughing, Claudia surveyed the bar of chocolate on the kitchen table.

"Tell me that's not your dinner. When are you going to learn that all the chocolate in the world is not going to make what Eddie did
"

Mattie pointed a finger at her. "Let's not say
that
name again."

"Sorry. I forgot."

"Whatever."

Mattie loved her sister despite her occasional verbal lapses and the fact that, even after giving birth to three children in four years, she was still thin as a rail.

Settling onto the floral-print overstuffed couch, Claudia leaned back, closed her eyes and asked, "Okay, what is the Plate Spinner covering this time? Getting a gift for your kid's coach?"

"Yep. Hang on a sec." Mattie sat back down at her table and, hands poised over her laptop keyboard, said, "OK, shoot."

"Well for starters, plan ahead. Don't wait until the last minute like I did. Today was the last day of the fall soccer season, and, since no one else volunteered to take up a collection for the coach, Tom and I had to ask all of the other parents if they wanted to contribute. Then during half time, I flew over to Malcolm's—you know that new steak place on Walnut—to get him a gift card. Only they don't open until 11, so I decided to zip over to the sporting goods store on the other side of the street, and who did I see but…"

Eyes bright, Claudia sat up before she continued. "Come on. Ask me. You'll never guess."

Mattie looked up from her laptop and shook her head. "I have no idea."

Claudia started giving her hints. "Tall, good-looking, dark hair, wearing a—oh what do you call those things?" She started pantomiming as if she had something dangling from her neck.

Mattie stared at her, shrugged her shoulders, and said, "Necktie, police whistle…really, I have no idea."

Undeterred, Claudia continued, "I still say he was sweet on you."

Mattie forced a nervous laugh. "Oh, like that narrows it down."

Pulling out all the stops, Claudia leaned toward her and delivered her final clue. "You can barely see the scar anymore."

Slapping on her best poker face, Mattie felt her heart drop into her stomach and her throat begin to tighten.

Pity.

She started twirling her married-with-kids costume accessory under the table.

Claudia let out an exasperated sigh and sank back into the couch. "Forget it. I don't know why I even bother."

"Can we keep going, please? You left off at the sporting goods store. Did you get the kids' coach a gift card there? What happened next? Did the team give it to him or the parents?"

But Claudia wasn't ready to move on. "It wasn't Nick's fault you-know-who did what he did. He was just the messenger. And you decked him for it."

Mattie bit her lip. She could still hear the sound of her buttons ricocheting off of the walls, the windows, and mirror in the bridal room at St. Matthias's when her fist made contact with his chin.

Hell hath no fury…

"He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," she replied with a shrug.

Narrowing her eyes, Claudia studied her sister. "I still think you're pinning the blame on the wrong DeRosa."

"Claud, I am not going through this with you again." But she couldn't help herself. "I'm not saying Eddie—well, you know what?" Mattie held up both hands in the air before continuing, "I've wasted enough breath on that man."

"Halleluiah," Claudia sang out.

"But Nick?" Mattie continued, "I'm not letting him off so easy. I mean, the night before our wedding, I overheard him ask Eddie 'what do you want to marry a girl like that for?'"

She looked at her sister with both eyebrows raised. "Who does that? I don't care if the guy made it to the Olympics. He had no right to put me down like that. He doesn't even know me. Our whole lives, he always looked right through me like I wasn't even there."

Taking a deep breath, she continued. "Then when Eddie didn't show up for the wedding—I can only assume he had second thoughts. Why else would Nick, of all people, go out of his way to deliver the news to me personally? Talk about smug. He's lucky I just punched him in the face."

Claudia leaned forward. "I'm sorry, kiddo. You never heard from either of them again, did you?"

Do you mean besides the message Nick left, asking that I vouch for him with the Cook County Sheriff's department?

"No. And to hell with them both." Mattie tried focusing on the draft of her column before mumbling, "I can fix this up later."

Eager for a change of subject, she continued, "Hey, how are the kids? Sorry I missed trick-or-treating with them. Their costumes looked great, though. That picture was a big hit with my readers."

"They're fine. You're the one I'm worried about."

Mattie waved her off.

 "I just want you to be happy."

"I'm fine."

"Right. Let's see. You live alone, if you ask me, you drink too much and the only vegetables you ever eat are on the top of a pizza. Yet, at work, you're passing yourself off as this successful career woman who is happily married with kids. This isn't healthy. You're hiding behind the column. And that ring." She pointed to Mattie's hand in disgust.

"I'm happy. I am. Deliriously. I love my job, where I live…"

Claudia ignored her. "It's been almost two years, Mat. It's time to move on. You're still young. You've got to start living your own life on your terms. There's plenty of fish in the sea."

Considering her sister's uncanny ability to channel their deceased mother, Mattie almost expected her to add, "Why a pretty girl like you, you could have any man you wanted if you just slimmed down a bit."

In response, Mattie shut her laptop with a little more force than she intended. Unfazed, Claudia continued with her rant.

"Besides, what do you think is going to happen if the paper gets wind of the fact that their latest 'Plate Spinner' is just a fabrication? I'm not sure, but I think what you've been doing for the past couple of years here, Mat, is fraud."

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