Read False Start Online

Authors: Barbara Valentin

False Start (6 page)

 "Come with me."

The two walked to the elevators with all of the solemnity of school children facing a detention after a visit to the principal's office. They descended in brooding silence as they made their way to the lifestyle section floor that held a steadily shrinking staff and one reluctant advice columnist—all of whom were under Dianne's domain.

When they reached Mattie's desk, she pointed to an extra chair.

"Have a seat."

Within the confines of her cubicle walls, she watched as he studied the pre-school artwork pinned to them. He seemed to fixate on the drawing of a Thanksgiving turkey with blue and orange feathers glued to it that her nephew had made for her.

After a very long minute, his gaze drifted to the framed photographs of her faux family.

Emitting a short laugh, Nick bit his lip, shook his head, and said, "I can't believe you're married."

Mattie started twirling her ring with her left thumb. She arched her eyebrow so high it nearly touched her hairline. "Why? Because you can't imagine anyone ever falling in love with someone like me?"

Nick stared at her and pursed his lips. Pointing to a picture on her desk, he asked, "Is that the lucky guy?"

Mattie frowned at the picture of her brother-in-law, Tom, grinning like he was indeed the luckiest guy on the planet. She had taken the shot in the bleachers at Wrigley Field on opening day twelve years before, just seconds after Claudia had agreed to marry him.

When she didn't respond, Nick prodded, "Does he have a name?"

Cool as a cucumber, Mattie suggested, "How 'bout we keep this strictly business. You coach. I write. Nothing more. Okay?"

Narrowing his eyes, Nick thought for a moment and then said, "Sure."

Eager to change the subject, she asked, "What did you want to talk about?"

Something in the pit of her stomach told her it wouldn't be complimentary.

Nick clenched his jaw and scooted his chair closer to hers. "Listen, I can't change what happened, you know,
before
."

He spoke in a voice so low, Mattie found herself leaning closer just so she could hear him, oblivious to the fact that it afforded him a generous view of her newly-exposed cleavage.

Pointing to Tom's beaming smile, Nick continued, "You've clearly moved on with your life, and I'd like to do the same. I'm willing to keep the past in the past if you are."

When he locked his eyes on hers, she felt as if he were trying to erase every memory she ever had of him always getting in the way of her quest to win Eddie's heart, all the way back to the third grade.

But there was one memory that even his smoldering gaze couldn't melt away.

As if it had just happened yesterday, she could picture herself searching the playground for Eddie, hoping for a response to a homemade Valentine's Day card she had snuck in his desk, but Nick spotted her first. Dressed as usual in a blue shirt as opposed to the red shirts Eddie always wore, Nick approached and handed her a note.

"It's from Eddie. I didn't read it. I swear."

When she tore it from his hand and unfolded it, she saw the words, "There once was a girl named Mattie who looked like a great big fatty" scrawled in pencil across the page.

Luckily for Nick, he was the only boy who could outrun her; otherwise, she would've socked him. As fate would have it, she finally got her chance twenty years later.

While Mattie was reliving the past, Nick had moved onto a different subject.

"I didn't realize you worked here. In fact, I haven't seen your byline anywhere since, well, you know."

That he had actually looked for her byline caught her quite by surprise. Just as she made up her mind to take it as a compliment, he added, "I assumed you went into hiding or something. For a while there, I assumed the worst. I mean, why else wouldn't you have returned my calls? Especially when you knew you were the only thing standing between me and a stint in jail."

He stared hard at her, but still Mattie didn't react.

So much for keeping the past in the past.

Nick leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands together, and continued, "Now I don't know what you're getting out of this little arrangement, but whatever it is, neither one of us is gonna get what we want if we don't play nice."

With his face dangerously close to hers, he raised an eyebrow and asked, "Got it?"

Mattie raised her own eyebrow. "That depends. Define 'play nice.'"

"It means you gotta trust me. Completely."

His breath smelled of cinnamon and felt warm against her parted lips.

Like hell I do.

She met his gaze. "Don't hold your breath."

At that, Nick leaned back in the chair and shrugged. "Suit yourself. We can do this the hard way."

Standing up, he continued, "Meet me at our old field house at six tomorrow morning. We have a lot to go over, and," his gaze dropped to the hole in her dress, "I'm gonna have to assess you, so don't be late."

With a quick wink, he turned and left Mattie alone in her cubicle, pondering the directive.

Whatever you say, Coach.

CHAPTER THREE

 

"Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn't illegal."

– Voltaire

 

Later that evening, Mattie rushed to an urgent care facility located just off of Chicago's Magnificent Mile for a fast physical. The doctor's parting words rang in her ears all the way home.

The funny little man with a curious, indiscernible accent looked at her over his reading glasses when he told her, "Your BMI should not exceed your age. I can recommend a good nutritionist."

 "Just sign the form," she retorted.

He begrudgingly pulled a pen from the pocket in his white lab coat and made an undecipherable scribble. "Take better care of yourself, Mathilde, and you'll live a nice long life."

As soon as his pen left the paper, she grabbed the form from him and headed for the door. At Dianne's urging, she stepped into an upscale sporting goods store down the block. Her eyes widened as she stepped through the doors. Bright lights, lots of chrome, and every color of the rainbow on the racks of clothes and shoes.

She stood agape, wondering where to start when a middle-aged man, looking like he could bench press a semitrailer truck, approached her.

"Can I help you?"

Mattie stared at him, waiting for the words to form in her brain. "Running clothes."

The man looked amused. "Yeah?"

Her eyes scanned his nametag. "Tell me,
Roy
. Do you work on commission at this store?"

A cautious grin spread across his pockmarked face. "You betcha."

"Oh good. I'll be sure to find someone else to help me then." She slipped away, leaving the clueless Roy in her wake.

Unable to tell the men's section from the women's, she instead went in search of hot pink pieces of clothing and found a rack of long-sleeved shirts. After an exhaustive search for an extra large, she realized she was in over her head and decided, against her better judgment, to call Claudia.

She worked her way to a less populated area of the store and dialed her number. As soon as her sister picked up, Mattie regretted her decision.

"What? I can barely hear you. Why in the world are you shopping for running clothes?"

"I got a new assignment, Claud."

"Uh-huh. And what about a raise? Did you ask about that?"

Mattie let out an exasperated sigh before responding, "Yes, I did. I'll get it when I complete the assignment."

"Which is…?" Claudia pried.

Standing up straight, Mattie took another deep breath and announced louder than she intended so as to be heard over the store's booming stereo system, "I'm going to run the Chicago Marathon."

She held the phone away from her ear and waited for her sister to stop laughing.

"Are you finished?" she asked as she began accosting a stack of running tights.

Ignoring her question, Claudia instead asked one of her own. "This is a joke, right? Do you remember when you tried out for track in high school?"

Mattie turned to a display of running shoes. Inspecting a purple pair, she looked at the price tag and dropped them like they were hot coals.

"Vaguely," she lied. She had no intention of indulging Claudia who, on occasion, could be somewhat sadistic to her only sibling.

This prompted another bout of giggles from the other end of the line. Firing out phrases between gasps for air, Claudia did her best to recapture the pivotal moment in Mattie's brief affair with sustained aerobic activity.

"You barely finished the workout. Next day, you couldn't move, couldn't climb stairs, and couldn't get out of your chair."

Mattie's hamstrings ached at the memory.

"Oh, Claud," she growled into the phone. "Be serious. What choice do I have? I royally screwed over my career. If this is my only shot at redemption, I have to go through with it, and I don't think I can if you're not in my corner."

Not wanting to add gasoline to the fire, she carefully avoided any mention of her coach's name. Instead, she listened as her sister took in several deep breaths.

"All right, Mat, but are you really sure this is a good idea?"

"Claud, please. I need advice, not doubt. I need proper running clothes and haven't a clue what to get."

"Okay, okay," Claudia relented. Then, with resignation, added, "Don't wear black. I know everyone says it's slimming, but with your coloring, it'll just wash you out."

Not finding even a simple sweatband in her price range, Mattie left the store two hours later, empty-handed and beyond discouraged. Her train ride home did little to lift her spirits.

She watched as a young family boarded—a husband and wife with a little boy whose snowflake-patterned mittens were so big they looked like oven mitts. His mother snuggled him close, and his father sat with his arm protectively around them both. She pulled her eyes away from the familial cocoon and looked out the window.

It used to be enough that she was the favorite aunt to her sister's kids. It used to be enough to dole out parenting advice to entitled parents who took their blessings completely for granted. Looking at her reflection in the frost-edged glass, she realized that, at the tender age of twenty-eight, it wasn't enough. Not anymore.

When she got home, she made a box of macaroni and cheese, ate it all in one sitting, and washed it down with the remnants of a room temperature bottle of Pinot Grigio.

She had just started diving into her mess of a closet, looking for anything that would pass for workout clothes, when her phone rang.

Holding it to her ear with one hand, she rifled through her clothes with the other. "I still can't believe it, Dianne. I went in for a raise and I came out with a," she contorted her face before spewing, "coach."

She stopped accosting the hangers and put her hand on her forehead. "And it's Nick DeRosa, of all people," she moaned. "How did this happen?"

"Nick DeRosa? Why does that name sound familiar?"

Not wanting to go into too much detail, Mattie replied, "I may have mentioned his name. He's the identical twin of a guy I was engaged to. A long time ago."

Dianne was quiet for an unnerving moment. "No, that's not it."

Mattie pulled a sweatshirt down from her closet shelf. "Oh, then you might know him as the Comeback Kid. Remember? About two or three years ago?"

"Yep. That's it. Whatever happened to him? Didn't he go to jail for something?"

Inspecting the sweatshirt, Mattie tossed it on her bed and lied, "I don't remember what it was for, but he was cleared of all charges." Her Aunt Vivienne, who still lived down the street from the DeRosas, actually went to the party they threw for Nick when he got out. Mattie never opened her invitation.

"Well, they say the world just keeps getting smaller, don't they?" Dianne replied, sounding rather distracted.

Mattie inspected a pair of sweat pants she found that were tucked between two old pairs of jeans that no longer fit and asked, "Is everything OK? You sound funny."

"Me? No. It's just—well, never mind."

"It's just what?" Mattie pressed.

"Well, I know it won't be easy having to look at a clone of your 'ex' everyday for the next ten months, but you need to think this through. There's a lot at stake. Like our jobs."

"I have to do a lot more than just look at him, Dianne. I have to
submit
to his will," Mattie exclaimed, "and that's so much worse."

"Calm down," Dianne sang out. "Just look at it as a business partnership. Nothing more."

Regaining her composure, Mattie continued. "I just wish they weren't so damn good-looking."

Dianne paused before coaxing, "Well, good thing you're a quote-unquote married woman, right?"

"Yes, I am, and quite happily, too. Thanks for reminding me."

"Anytime, doll," Dianne replied. "Now is not the time to blow your cover. The paper is treading water, and this would be just the kind of ammo the
Gazette
could use to fire us both."

God forbid you lose funding for your shoe fetish.

Mattie held her hand up to admire her ring, sparkling under the closet light bulb. If push came to shove, she could pawn it for one month's rent, tops.

"Just focus on that fat bonus Lester promised, and this assignment will be behind you in no time."

Goosebumps spread across Mattie's forearms—a sure sign that her internalized radar system had intercepted an unidentified lying object.

She held the phone away from her ear and stared at it a moment. "Did I tell you he promised me a
fat
bonus? Because I'm pretty sure I would've used a better word to describe it."

Not skipping a beat, Dianne answered her question with another. "Why else would you do it, sweetie? Now, tell me. When do you start?"

Appeased for the moment, Mattie's goose bumps subsided. "We officially start tomorrow. I'm meeting him at six so he can assess me. Whatever that means."

"In the morning? Good lord. Are you even out of bed at that hour?"

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