Authors: Jennifer Iacopelli
LOSING AT LOVE
An Outerbanks Tennis Academy Novel
By Jennifer Iacopelli
Palo Alto | San Fransisco
La Metropolian Hotel
Indiana Gaffney gasped, her eyes flying open and locking on the glistening object across the hotel room. It reflected the muted television behind her, the French Open final, the red of the court, blurry in the polished silver. A large, round plate, innocuous to the untrained eye, with the sizeable laser carved logo of Roland Garros at the center, was braced against the mirror hanging on the hotel room wall. The mirror reflected the match clearly, the broad steps and fierce rallies of two men battling it out for the French Open Men’s title. But those men were mere afterthoughts as her eye caught a set of shoulders stretching the material of his t-shirt thin, not a mere image from the television, but broad and warm and real. Strong hands slid down her back, fingers twining into the ends of her long blonde hair, tugging on it gently, drawing her gaze away from the mirror and back to the green eyes of the man in her bed.
He kissed her soundly, sending shivers down her spine and making her hips rock against his and her legs tighten around his waist. “It’s not gonna disappear if you take your eyes off it,” Jack Harrison muttered into the skin of her neck, nipping at it lightly with his teeth.
“Feels like it will,” she whispered back, tilting her head to give him better access. Most of her mind was focused on what he was doing with his hands and mouth, but that plate, the one that declared in no uncertain terms that she was the new French Open junior champion, would not be ignored. Not even for the guy who made her heart pound like no one else ever had before, the guy who, up until a few days ago, could barely look at her without his shoulders slumping with guilt. Their age gap hadn’t shrunk in the days full of soft kisses and nights far more intense — though perhaps not as intense as she’d like — but he wasn’t fighting their attraction anymore. She hadn’t chased him, not really, but he’d known she wanted him, almost from the moment they first met. Then he’d found out how old she was and he started treating her like a flashing red SEVENTEEN was stamped across her forehead, every year between them creating an accompanying foot of distance. In the end, the attraction had been too much, even for someone as painfully good as Jack Harrison.
“Hey, Champ, you in there?” Jack’s voice brought her back, his lips spelling out the words against her shoulder.
“Champ?” Indy hummed and smiled. “I like the sound of that.” In fact, she liked the sound of it so much she planned on winning again the next chance she got, on the grass courts at Wimbledon.
“I bet you do. Get used to it, baby,” Jack said, his whole face lighting up as he shifted his weight forward, tilting her back onto the bed. A shriek bubbled up through her throat and the giggles followed as he leaned over her, bracing himself on his elbows and then smothering her laughter with the press of his mouth. As his tongue slid against hers, she turned herself over to it, letting herself revel in the dreams of future victories and the celebrations that would follow.
Outerbanks, North Carolina
Jasmine Randazzo shifted her weight back and forth from one foot to the other, trying to appear interested in what the man in front of her was saying. He’d been talking about something to do with eligibility and options for the future, but Jasmine’s eye was drawn by the large screen over his shoulder. As was tradition, her parents were throwing a party during a Grand Slam final. The next best thing to being courtside was to rub elbows with the US’s tennis elite and make everyone feel like they weren’t missing anything, when, in fact, they weren’t watching the match at all. If they were sitting at Chatrier, they would all be silent during the points, heads whipping back and forth with the force of each groundstroke, nothing but the grunts and groans of the two men on the court echoing in the stadium.
“Do you understand what I’m trying to say, Jasmine?” the man asked, shifting into her view over his shoulder and trying to grab her eyes with his.
“Of course I do,” she said, meeting his gaze for a second. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to watch this last game.”
Alex Russell was leading Henrique Romero of Brazil in the third set and was just a few points away from victory. Any other year, Jasmine wouldn’t care at all that the best men’s player in the world was about to win yet another Grand Slam, but this year was different. He’d spent the last few months training at OBX with them after coming back from a horrific knee injury. If he won, which all signs pointed to, that trophy would be displayed in the front entry of the training facility, letting everyone know exactly the kind of athletes that trained at OBX. It would bring an influx of talent, but it would also set a new standard of expectations. OBX wouldn’t just be a training facility anymore. It would be the place you went if you wanted to be the best tennis player in the world.
Finding an unimpeded view of the screen, Jasmine focused on the court, a court she’d played on less than a week ago with her doubles partner, Indiana Gaffney. They’d faced the best doubles team in the world and after an embarrassing first set, they’d fought hard, made the final score respectable, and impressed a lot of people in the stands. Including, hopefully, the committee who’d issue wild card entries to the next Grand Slam, just a few weeks away now, in Wimbledon. That’s what she had to focus on, not the other stuff, like losing in the second round of the French Open Girls Singles while Indy had won the entire damn tournament. And not the confusing mess that was her relationship with her best friend, Teddy Harrison. And definitely not that the man she’d tried so hard to ignore for the last few minutes was a college recruiter her parents had invited to the party specifically to talk to her about waiting until after college to turn pro and spend the next few years playing NCAA tennis.
The television was on mute so as not to disturb the conversations going on around her, but the closed captioning was on and a shot zoomed in on Alex Russell, tall, blond, and British, barely looking like he’d broken a sweat under the Paris sun. The black boxes and white lettering scrolled across the bottom of the screen:
Alex Russell, the man who everyone counted out just a few months ago, will serve for the championship and prove all of us wrong.
“Come on, Alex,” Jasmine muttered under her breath. People were counting her out too and one day, when she is standing on a court like that, just a game away from a championship, those people are going to eat their words.
Philipe Chatrier Court
Penny Harrison reached down, her fingers skimming the top of the walking boot encasing her foot. The strength of the sun, combined with the body heat of nearly fifteen thousand people, was pressing down upon the court and a rivulet of sweat slipped down from the back of her knee, making her skin itch where the plastic rubbed against it.
Though she stayed seated, her ankle protesting against carrying any weight at all, the crowd around her was on its feet, applauding and shouting, letting their appreciation be known not only for the championship match but also for two weeks of tennis at its highest level played on the red clay baking under the new summer sun.
“S'il vous plaît, Mesdames et Messieurs.
Merci.” The chair umpire's voice boomed through the speakers, his words implicitly demanding and receiving silence or as close to silence as possible before such an important point. Everyone settled back into their seats, the cheers morphing into a buzz, electrifying the moment, the last one in Paris until next year.
Alex stood at the far end of the court, as far away from the player’s box as he could be, trying to use the shadow cast by the court’s walls for some relief. He was just a point away from another championship and proving to the world that he was back at the top of his game. Penny scratched at her irritated skin again, twisting her mouth into a frown. Maybe in a month that would be her, standing on the grass courts at Wimbledon, back from an injury and celebrating a championship at a Grand Slam. It would be the first in her career, compared with what had become routine for Alex.
"Come on, Alex," she whispered, knowing that even if he couldn't hear her, he'd feel her support across the court. Her fingers caught on the chain of her necklace, a large old-fashioned penny dangling from the end, Alex's good luck charm and his gift to her before the tournament. Now clutching it in her fist, she took a deep breath as he went out to serve the final point.
Alex bounced the ball beneath his racket onto the clay, a complete mess after three sets of hard-fought tennis, especially down at the baseline. Romero was opposite him; bent over at the waist, shifting back and forth, ready to receive the serve. One last fan let his voice be heard, a deep British accent from somewhere in the crowd bellowing, “C’mon Russell!” A few anxious people shhh’d him, but Alex didn’t even glance up. He coiled his body down, building power through his legs before tossing the ball high and, with a lightning fast stroke, attacking the bit of green fluff. He sent a low-lying laser beam across the court, skidding off the white T on the other side of the net and then past the outstretched racket of his opponent. The crowd erupted and Penny lost sight of him as everyone leapt to their feet, screaming, totally drowning out the umpire’s call of, “Game. Set. Match.” He came into view again as he was shaking Romero’s hand at the net, then he looked up into the stands, his eyes finding her immediately. She blew him a kiss, but he smiled and shook his head. Jogging over to the stands and climbing in, passing rows and rows of people who patted him on the back before he reached her, covered in sweat and mud, he leaned over the wall surrounding the player’s box and slid one hand into her hair, the other caught her hand and pulled her up against him, getting red clay all over her white eyelet dress as they embraced.
“I love you,” she whispered against the whisker-roughened skin of his cheek.
It was the first time she’d said those words to him and they just slipped out. Panic shot through her for a moment before he pulled her closer, held her even tighter and said, “I love you too.”
Outerbanks Tennis Academy, North Carolina
The rough terrycloth of her wristband soaked up the sweat at her brow as Indiana Gaffney swiped it across her forehead. Grass stains on her elbows, a gigantic bruise blooming on her knee, cheeks red from exertion; she turned to her doubles partner, Jasmine Randazzo, with a wild smile. The breeze off the ocean whipped over her, cooling her overheated skin as she raised her hand in the air and Jasmine clapped hers against it. Her chest rose and fell heavily as her lungs tried to pull in as much of the salty air as they could, the effort from that last rally catching up with her, but not nearly as bad as it used to, her conditioning finally at an acceptable level after her year away from the game. Of course, acceptable for most people was vastly different than acceptable for a professional tennis player, especially one coached by Dom Kingston.