DREAM RUNNER

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I'm Moving!

 

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ISBN: 1585713171

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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PROLOGUE

Los Angeles, 1984

Marlea Kellogg was eight going on nine years old the sunny afternoon she and her mother climbed off the cross-town bus to stand outside the Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles.

Cyndra Kellogg had already explained why they wouldn’t be going in—tickets cost too much for a single mother raising two growing kids in Watts, and I could be puttin’ that money into shoes . . . But standing outside was free. A kid should be able to dream, and just the idea of being close . . . so close to the best athletes in the world was exciting for both of them. Cyndra held onto the damp hand Marlea slipped beneath her palm.

Marlea was fairly dancing, and hadn’t been able to keep still since she had talked Cyndra into bringing her here. “This is the Olympic Stadium,” the girl breathed. “Valerie Brisco-Hooks is going to be in there. So is Evelyn Ashford. You know she can run the hundred in under eleven seconds? That girl is for sure fast.”

“Fast,” Cyndra agreed, trying to remember a time when she got that excited over anything. How many lifetimes ago was that?

“Yeah, fast,” Marlea echoed, bouncing from foot to foot, watching people with tickets heading for the stadium. “I wish we could go, but I know . . .” Twisting to watch the lucky ticketed ones line up for entry, she sighed a little. “You know, tonight is just the opening ceremony, but later on, when they get ready to run . . . watch out! That lady from Jamaica? The one they’ve been talking about so much, Merlene Ottey-Page? Humph! They say she’s so fast, but she ain’t gonna see nothin’ but dust when my team takes the track.”

An’ she oughta know, Cyndra thought. Marlea collected sports magazines and cut up the sports pages for her scrapbook the way other young girls collected fashion magazines and make-up tips. The girl was in love with the track and field women, called them ‘fly sisters,’ but loved them because they had goals and did so much more than just look good. With their strong bodies, fast feet, and focused eyes, they were different from the few singers and actresses that she had pinned to her bedroom walls— different even from Janet Jackson. These runners were the young sisters who defined womanhood for Marlea. They were about more than just rump shakin’ and glamorous clothes. Janet Jackson, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston? Marlea would tell you right fast, none of them could compete in a run for the gold.

“One day, I will, though,” Marlea was always quick to promise herself, and anybody else who would listen. “One day.”

Determined little thing, Cyndra noted, looking sideways at Marlea. She was a tall and slender young womanin-training. Almost nine and already dang near as tall as me. No hips or butt to speak of, though. Thank goodness.

She’s a good girl, but I don’t know what I’d do if she was like one of those fast little womanish things down the block from us. Or like her mother . . .

Cyndra refused to let the thought go any further. She had already spent years banning such thoughts from her mind: down that road lay bitter tears and madness. Down that road lay the story of a pretty baby sister and a charismatic wild man. It was the story of a man who had enough music in him to make a good girl turn away from a grandmother’s powerful teachings. A man who had enough will to knock up a pretty girl, but not enough to stay out of petty card games that he couldn’t win. Cyndra sighed, and tried not to remember, but she did. She remembered honey-skinned Marlon Carlyle with his curly eyelashes and sweet Cupid’s bow lips; too good-looking, and no good for any woman around him. Certainly, he was no good for Leah, never married her, but Leah swore she would die without him. As it was, Leah died because of him.

An’ she left me Marlea for my own, made me a mother even as my own son was being born. Not that it mattered; Cyndra loved her niece every bit as much as she did her own son, Joshua. She called Marlea her daughter for the girl’s entire life, and she meant it every time. When she bought shoes or toys for Josh, she bought them for Marlea, too. A single parent, Cyndra never made a difference between the two children. She couldn’t.

I look in Marlea’s face and see my sister. She’s the spittin’ image of her mother, with those big ol’ sparkly eyes and dimples. Thank God, she hasn’t got her mother’s ways. A boy don’t mean nothin’ to her. All she wants to do is run and run, and run faster still. Thankful for the child’s tomboy bent, Cyndra enjoyed the sight of the coltish legs revealed by Marlea’s denim shorts. Long brown legs and that need to run seemed to define the girl’s body and her life. Seems like she’s been runnin’ from day one. Guess it’s a good thing though; it keeps her out of trouble.

Marlea slipped her arm around her mother’s waist, and leaned against her shoulder. “They say American women don’t take the 400, but they’re wrong.”

Cyndra leaned her head against the girl’s, enjoying the closeness. “Who is ‘they’?”

“‘They’ is people who don’t know me . . . And if I keep on runnin’, keep on trainin’, then Coach says I can do anything, go anywhere.” Marlea looked at her mother, eyes wide with the innocence of youth. “An’ I can show them that American women really can run the 400. Maybe I could start with a PAC10 school in college. You think I could maybe get a scholarship? For running? Maybe go to college?”

“College? I never thought about college.” I guess I was too busy tryin’ to feed y’all. “What would you study in college, Marlea?”

“I would be a teacher, maybe work with the special kids. You know, the ones who don’t always get enough attention. The kind of kids who need me.”

“I can see you now,” Cyndra smiled. “You would make a good teacher.”

 

Marlea’s eyes went across the parking lot that separated them from the stadium. “Yeah, Ma. After college, maybe the Olympics?”

 “Maybe.” Her mother smiled and stuffed work-roughened fingers into the pockets of her white work uniform. Do they give girls running scholarships? I ain’t never heard of one, but if they do . . . Cyndra’s breast swelled with pride. Wouldn’t that be something? Just the best thing? My Running Baby in college. Get a good education and have a real career! Would never have to worry about mopping no floors and cleanin’ up other folks’ nastiness. Have her own money, make her own way. No leftover, second-hand nothin’ for my baby. No more. “Maybe . . .”

“Run in the Olympics. Run. That’s what I’m gonna do.”

 

CHAPTER ONE

 St. Louis, Missouri:

 

In the “zone,” Marlea Kellogg closed her eyes and let the breath settle through her body. Exhaling slowly, she counted eight beats, then sucked in another big breath and let it course through her long, lean frame. She visualized herself heading for lane four and bending to the blocks, concentrating on what it would feel like to release the power and run, to feel the slap and push of her feet against the track.

Palms flat against the cool tile wall of the field house, her eyes moved behind her closed lids, tracking, seeing herself flashing past the others. Though her feet were still, Marlea could almost feel her body crashing the finish line, and she blew out hard when she imagined the kind

of exhilaration that only a win could bring.

“Yeah,” she whispered, sliding her hands over her sleek head. Ponytail intact, she almost laughed out loud. “Libby was right; this mind/body thing has got me so revved up, I can outrun anything and anybody on the track.”

She had proven that in the trials. Moving as though she was the only one on the track, Marlea Kellogg kicked it. She had blown past the two girls from Cal State as if they were standing still, never mind that they were from her alma mater. Marlea had done what she had to do, showing them the way it was supposed to be done. Her time on the 400-meter run was an effortless 49.75 seconds. Libby, restricted to trackside with the other coaches and trainers, had gone wild. Six years as Marlea’s coach, and she had never seen her protégé come so close to a record time.

“It was a fluke,” Marlea said, when Libby finally reached her side. “I’ve always loved the 400, and this time it just loved me back.”

“Shut your mouth, girl! Be humble with somebody who doesn’t know you. Honey, you ran the hell out of that track and you know it as well as I do. And you can do it again if you just get your head right.”

So Marlea took another deep breath and concentrated on the sound of her heartbeat and the rush of her blood. Opening her eyes, slowly grounding herself, she knew Libby was right. This run, this race, they belonged to her, and nothing about them could be called fluke. Marlea bent into a lunge, felt the balance, shifted her legs, and knew the truth. “This is my destiny.”

Raising her arms high over her head when she stood, continuing to stretch as she walked the path back to the track, Marlea struggled to keep her feet on the ground. “This time is gonna be different.”

“Talking to yourself?” Libby Belcher spotted Marlea the second she stepped onto the cinder path leading to the track and pushed past other runners to get closer. “All I’ve got to say is, go on out there and do what you came here to do: run.”

Above her head, the tinny loud speaker blared, “400meter contestants to the staging area, please. 400-meter contestants, please.” And Marlea knew it was time to move forward. She felt the edge of her red spandex top separating from her brief shorts and tugged it down. A moment of panic made her drop her hand to check for her hip number. It was there; her fingers found it right where it was supposed to be. No panic, no fear, she reminded herself. “Time to run.”

Libby raised both hands in victory. “Do your thing, girl.”

“No doubt,” Marlea winked. It would have been a privilege to have run in the first heat, but she knew those were for elite runners, runners with higher lifetime marks, but that was okay. She had run in the second heat, and that was okay, too, because her time put her in the finals, easy. They have to face me now. Now they have to run my race, my way.

 

Eyes sweeping the stands, Marlea saw the crowd as one great blur, and loved the busy low roar it made. She heard the final call for the 400-meter run and her blood stirred. Orgasmic anticipation trembled through her, and she looked around to see if anyone had noticed. Not that it mattered; she knew with undeniable certainty what the outcome of this race would be.

Runners, take your mark . . .

Shaking off anything that had nothing to do with the run, she approached the start. Coiling her body, she folded low to fit herself into position. Pressing her heel against the block, she silently called on Jesus and dropped her head.

Get set . . .

Breathe . . . find the rhythm.

. . . go!

The sound of the gunshot was almost a cliché, but Marlea was more than ready for it as her body broke free. Long legs working with hydraulic precision, her feet found their flawless path. Never good at shorter distances, Marlea had no time to worry about it. Knowing that she had enough distance to build, she felt the speed pump through her muscled thighs as she passed someone at 100 meters. Passing the fast-talking Jamaican woman at 200 meters, all Marlea could hear was her own breathing. Rising on the wind, flying the only way a woman can without wings, she barely saw the competition, scarcely felt the break of the ribbon across her chest, and almost cried when she realized her 400-meter dance was done.

Her feet, trained for more years than she could count, continued to run, carrying her another 25 meters before the adrenaline began a slow ebb through her hot-fired body. Her breath pulled tight through her nose and rushed out past her open lips. Her mouth was dry and her lips parched, but her legs felt like she could run for an eternity. As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.

“You did it! You did it!” Libby Belcher screamed, running toward Marlea. Six years together and every win still made the trainer spastic. Libby’s short, dark hair stood on end, and her arms flailed the air in delight as she ran toward the fence separating the stands from the track.

Marlea, high on adrenaline, couldn’t hear Libby. The sound of the crowd and the slap of her slowing feet filled her ears. Breast rising fast, eyes on the time clock, she feared the seconds might not be enough, might not buy the dream she had wanted for so very long. What was taking them so long to…

In lane four . . . Marlea Kellogg . . .

Her knees turned buttery, and her head ached with the effort of trying to hear.

. . . track record . . . time of . . .

“What time?”

. . . 48:52 . . .

“You made it!” The Jamaican runner slapped her back, and Marlea remembered to breathe. Libby finally made it to Marlea’s side just as the roar of the crowd confirmed what the runner cherished with her own eyes as her time was posted.

“I qualify,” Marlea whispered. “Team trials, and then the Olympics. I qualify.” Her eyes closed on the tears she had promised herself she would never shed. She had made that promise back when the “cute” girls teased her for racing boys, and foolishly beating them. And she had promised the tears would never fall back when her back and legs were sore from pounding out the miles, and she still had to make it in to her job at McDonald’s, a job that she had to keep to pay for her running shoes.

“I qualify.” I’m finally good enough, she didn’t say, not daring to give voice to the hope that dared to creep around the disappointment she had learned to live with back when she was beaten out of a spot on the 1996 team in Barcelona. Gwen Torrance had blown by her like a force of nature. Marlea had bitten down hard on the hurt back in 2000 when she shortened her distance to 100 meters. The shorter run was nothing like her beloved 400, and all she ever saw of glorious Gail Devers was the back of the girl’s head hurdling toward 100 meter glory—and she missed the U.S. team again.

After failing to make the team in Sacramento, she had watched Marion Jones’s bright smile televised live from Australia and tried to smile back. Swallowing the bitter taste of ashes, she ignored Jones’s flashy speed suit and accumulated medals from 2004. Knowing it was time to get on with her life, Marlea told herself that running didn’t matter, but her heart had been promised Olympic gold, and her soul wouldn’t rest without it.

When Libby and Hal Belcher decided to move to Atlanta to be close to aging parents, Marlea packed up her special ed degree and followed, as there was nothing left to hold her in Los Angeles. Not a bad move, all things considered. She settled in Marietta, just north of the city, and found a place on the staff of the Runyon Day School. Small and private, Runyon gave her a chance to work with the children she loved, and time to run.

At Runyon, Marlea met the kind of children she longed to teach. Diagnosed autistic, dyslexic, troubled, and otherwise learning disabled, they were children of wealth, privilege, and circumstance. They came from old aristocratic and new money families, and they were of diverse racial backgrounds. But they shared one thing: they all loved their teacher. In part, that love might have come from the fact that she expected the best from each of them and went out of her way to draw out their best efforts.

Her kids were especially proud of her running. There had never been a teacher quite like Marlea at Runyon. Her students thought she was a superhero, kind of like Wonder Woman or something. In each of her races, she had worn something they made for her, and she had won every time. Those gifts were the closest things to good luck charms Marlea Kellogg had ever owned. Today, she wore a band of bright braided thread around her right ankle, a gift from the kids.

And now she had a special gift for them. “I qualify,” she said again, just loving the sound of the words.

“Not quite,” her coach said. “You’re only a couple of points short. A good local race and you’re in. This is your year, babe. There’s no denying you. Just hit a solid 10K, pick up the points you need, and you’re good to go.”

“The Peachtree,” Marlea said without hesitation. She had already spent a lot of her off time working with her kids and their families on 2, 5, and 10K runs during the school year. Her children, labeled and sometimes limited by their learning disabilities, loved to run. And having them run with her sometimes gave her an advantage in the classroom. A 10K was a longer distance than she preferred to run, but Marlea knew it was absolutely doable.

“If I gotta run one more, then that’s a good one.” She stopped there. No need telling Libby that she would run through hell in gasoline drawers if it would help get that Olympic gold. One final race to run to qualify for the Olympic Trials and it’s the Peachtree Road Race—a piece of cake. Fourth of July in Atlanta would be one hot piece of cake.

Wind sprints were the most irritating thing in the world but . . . if they kept a brother fast enough to stay in the NFL, then he would run wind sprints until he couldn’t move. A running back, AJ Yarborough knew he had outlasted a lot of the best, but he also knew that a knee, blown two years earlier, still took some pampering.

“I take care of you, and you take care of me,” he bargained with his right knee. “It takes two, you know.” The knee didn’t make an audible reply, but AJ felt it twinge, and slowed to a jog. “No need overdoin’ it,” he cautioned himself. Four months out of surgery and a contract up for review—this was no time to jam up your knee, especially with new kids out there every year making it harder and harder to compete, particularly when you looked at players like LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, and Shaun Alexander.

“The new guys are all so damned young, and not in a refreshing way like the guys who came along with me.” True enough, most of those who started with him were done; except for the rare ones like Ahman Green or Warrick Dunn, most of them were retired warhorses. But these young ones, they were fire-eaters. The boys weren’t just young and fast, they were smart, and learning more every time out. They were the competition, the contenders. They were the future.

The future. “Humph, that used to sound like, ‘once upon a time’ to me. Now it sounds like a deadline.” Truth be told, coming back from injury, it sounded like the end of a lifelong passion. At thirty-four, AJ knew the career wouldn’t last forever—but that didn’t stop him from wishing and hoping for the best. So he ran harder. Liking the solid sound of his feet against the road, he sniffed cool air and ignored the tiny electrical jolt in his knee. “Doc said I’d feel a little somethin’ there,” he recalled. “Least I know that my knee is working now.”

The click in his knee paced his run and made him analyze his whole body. Taking inventory as he ran, he was pretty sure that everything seemed to work right, but he could practically hear his knee. The surgical reminder sounded almost mechanical to AJ’s ear. “A machine,” he complimented himself, looking for the silver lining and enjoying the free flow of his healthy body as he ran. “This man is a machine.”

Following the rolling hills of his southwest Atlanta property, that was easy enough to say, but he sure hadn’t felt like a machine during that last game. That was the one where he had been close enough to taste the rushing record. Instead, he had taken the hit—a hard one, right at the knees. It sent him airborne and he had to be helped from the field in anguish.

Still running, he heard the steps of another runner. The pace had a distinctive rhythm, one foot slightly lagging. A hard-breathing man from the sound of it, probably his on-again, off-again house guest. He turned to see who it was. Sure enough, Dench Traylor slugged along,

steadily pickin’ ‘em up and puttin’ ‘em down. Struggling, the man pulled even with AJ when the bigger man slowed to accommodate him. Puffing, he put out a hand, entreating.

AJ was surprised. Dench had always hated running and he had never made any secret of his dislike for recreational running—not even during their days of scholarship-enforced athletics. Traylor, now a Miami assistant special-team coach, wasn’t in bad shape, just not NFL prime. “You running today?”

“Tryin’,” Dench puffed.

The player slowed, then stopped. “You might as well know it now, Rissa’s not out here with me,” he teased. Marissa Yarborough was about the only person in the world that Dench would willingly run behind.

“This is not about your sister, man.”

AJ grinned when Dench stopped and sucked wind. AJ circled him, letting his cooling muscles wind themselves down. Dench Traylor shook his lowered head and held out a white envelope. “Whatcha got?” AJ grinned, slitting the envelope’s flap with a long thick finger.

“Read it.”

Pulling the typewritten sheet from the envelope, AJ was confused by the stiff formal paper. Didn’t that make whatever was written official? The letterhead sheet featured his team logo, and for a blank half second, he wondered why anyone from the Miami-based team would be sending him mail. Baffled, he shook the letter completely open and read it. He had to read it twice to make sure of the contents. “They’re letting me go? Just like that?” He read it again. “Just like that?”

“Dude,” Dench said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” AJ was hard pressed to know whether it was a comment or a criticism. He crushed the letter in his meaty hand and glared at the assistant coach.

Finally able to breathe, Dench stood straighter and stared at the ground. “I thought you ought to know,” he said. Ought to know that his career was over? Know that his numbers were as high as they were ever going to go? That he would never earn a Super Bowl ring to call his own?

Eyes on the sky, it took AJ long seconds to reply.

“Yeah, but I thought that when it got to be this time . . .” What? They would throw me some kind of special big hints? An “over the hill” party? What? That last play of his last game unwound itself in his head again. The memory was

so vivid, he almost felt the searing rip hack its way through his knee when he went down. He could hear the muted voices, as if they thought he couldn’t hear . . .

He’s had a long run . . .

Could be career ending . . .

More than a setback . . .

What if this time . . .

What could anybody say that would make it any easier? He could go back to his agent, get her to find another team. That was the beauty of hiring your kid sister as your agent. She could ask for some kind of waiver that would give him . . . a Super Bowl ring? That rushing record I’ve run my whole life for? Or maybe I should just shut my eyes on the game, the only thing in life that has truly given me pleasure, and move on. Suck it up.

“I didn’t want this to come as any more of a shock than it already is. They won’t make the announcement for another couple of weeks, but I wanted you to be ready when it came out.” Dench watched AJ circle him, and knew the thoughts that must be running through his mind. He had come so close over the years. Been traded twice, always up, but traded all the same. Every team promised but none fully delivered. AJ was always left hungry.

“I always knew this wouldn’t last forever . . .” Even as he said it, AJ couldn’t stop himself. A lot of what he thought tended to spill from his lips. It was a bad habit, talking to himself, but it was one he had never been quite able to shake.

Dench crossed his arms over his solid barrel of a chest. “We’ve been together a long time, man. I know the hurt you’re feelin’, but this doesn’t have to be the end. You’ve still got power. You can still run.”

“An’ I’m a thirty-four year old runner in a game played like war by twenty-two year olds. Lasting ‘til you reach thirty is a good stretch for a runner. The irony is not lost on me.”

“But it’s not the only thing you know. You’ve got other things going for you,” Dench suggested. Antoine Jacob Yarborough Jr. was a smart man, smart in a lot of ways. Not a lot of the men gifted enough to play in the NFL had his kind of savvy—even if he did talk to himself.

AJ might truly hate his given name, but he was smart enough to have finished the education degree as he had promised his folks. He had gone on to complete the master’s degree that got him into physical therapy school during the off-seasons. It’s not like he’ll ever be hurtin’ for money, his friend thought, realizing where the real pain would always come from.

“So, ah, AJ? You got any plans?”

“Not yet,” the now ex-player said, pacing. “Maybe I’ll go ahead and set up a PT practice on my own. The Lord knows I’ll sure have time for it now.” Stopping midstep, he looked back the way he had come, then turned and stared out at the road ahead of him. His eyes narrowed, and he wiped his big hands against his sweatpants. “Besides that, I don’t know, but I gotta go forward. Got to.”

“How you gonna do that, AJ?”

The player began a steady jog up the road. “Only way I know how.” He picked up speed, forcing the other man to run harder. “I’m gonna run.”

Back To The Fitwryter?

CHAPTER TWO

 July 4th, Peachtree Road Race

         Standing in the middle of Peachtree Street, Marlea glanced over at the Westin Hotel, then back over her shoulder. For as far as she could see, past the stretch of Lenox Mall and down the hill, there were wall-to-wall people, six lanes of die-hard runners decked out in holiday-themed running gear. Lots of red, white, and blue, with more than a sprinkling of Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty outfits. Good thing the weather’s cool this morning, she thought, watching the runners line up around and mostly behind her.

Spectators had been stopped and rerouted a mile back. From where Marlea stood, she could see the seeded runners, those with highly competitive amateur time records in the time group behind hers. You’ll be in the first group, Libby had fussed. Even though you’re running with the elite runners, I don’t want you taking any chances. Don’t push any harder than you have to, a six-minute mile is good enough to get you in—anything else is gravy.

Libby’s words were like music to her ears, and Marlea’s face changed, lit by her inner smile. Elite runner, that’s what they call the people this far up in the crowd. That’s what I am, and though this race is outside my usual class, I’m going to prove it. Libby caught the smile. Just don’t get hurt out there, you don’t have to prove anything. And keep your feet dry, she had added as an afterthought.

“Right, right, right,” Marlea had agreed to get the trainer to move on. “Everything’s going to be great. I’ll see you in the park.”

Not convinced, Libby reached for Marlea’s race number and flipped it over. “You didn’t fill it in. You left all the emergency information blank. What were you thinking?”

“That I’m a healthy, capable adult?”

“Here.” Libby pushed a black ink pen into Marlea’s hand. “I don’t believe you, 55,000 people out there, and you want to take a chance like that . . .” The coach’s voice was as dry as her expression. “Be sure to put my name and home and cellphone numbers on there. Just in case . . . just in case.”

“Just in case,” Marlea mimicked, dutifully writing. Finished, she accepted safety pins from Libby and pinned the number to her shirt. “Satisfied?”

“Very.” Libby sucked water from the bottle draped over her shoulder, and looked around. “This is a sharp group,” she noted, watching the runners headed for the starting lineup. “I think I know him from the Colorado training center,” she said, pointing, then waving, at a tall blonde runner who noticed her and waved back.

“I want you to go out there and do what you came to do, Marlea, but have some fun, too. Don’t think of this as work.”

“Running is never work for me, but don’t you need to head for the train if you’re going to make it back to Piedmont Park in time to catch my finish?”

 “Oh, you’re going to run that fast?” Libby raised a brow and tipped her head when Marlea stopped and crossed her arms. “I’m just saying. You might meet somebody nice during the run—if you let yourself. Somebody you might want to get to know better. It happens.”

“It happens,” Libby repeated.

Sure, it could happen—in my dreams, Marlea thought, ignoring the smile from the lean, dark man wearing number seven as she bent to stretch her hamstrings. He offered a brief two-fingered salute, but she pretended not to see. She heard Libby’s voice again.

“Here I am ignoring him—as if he’s about to ask me for a date or something.” And if he did, then what? Marlea shook her head and changed legs, knowing she would laugh the invitation off. Not because he wasn’t handsome, because he was; and certainly not because he wouldn’t be able to understand her physical discipline, because his number seven said he himself was disciplined.

Olympic gold and men don’t mix. Marlea still had a laugh from time to time when she remembered the first time that she had heard that line, though her mother had been talking about a boy and not a grown man. It had been years ago, while she was still in high school. A thoroughly pissed-off Cyndra caught Marlea kissing an excited and happily adventurous Robert Jennings in the back hallway of the old house on Grand. Both teens had been thoroughly embarrassed. Robert got sent home and threatened with a report to his parents. Sixteen-year old Marlea’s suffering hadn’t been nearly so brief.

A boy can experiment in a lot of ways a girl can’t, Cyndra had lectured, shaking a stern finger under the girl’s nose. A boy having sex will never get pregnant. It’s always a girl’s baby and a boy’s maybe. You are not a boy, and you are going to have to make them respect you, in every way, if you want anything out of this life. So let me tell you something, little girl. You go on experimentin’, an’ if you bring home a baby, girl, you are going to have to raise it. Your runnin’ days will be over for the next eighteen years. Eighteen years. Do you hear me? Eighteen years!

Loud and clear, Marlea recalled. Relationships are never easy, and everybody isn’t blessed to fall in love with a Bob Kersee. What I want takes sacrifice, and I know it. World-class runners have to make a plan and then stick to it, and that’s what I’ve done. I get gold, then I’ll get a man. She looked around at the two Kenyan women stretching on either side of her. They looked as determined as she felt.

Loudspeakers blared, and runners shifted like cattle at the start of a roundup when volunteers toting flags and barriers moved her group forward. Marlea moved, too, stopping where the line held across the street. Funny how the start of almost any race set her pulse pounding. She closed her eyes and visualized the finish line, saw herself crossing the line ahead of the pack. And then the gun sounded.

AJ Yarborough felt more than saw the start of the Peachtree Road Race. Swept along by the wave of runners, his run began with shambling steps, almost a hobble. Morning air, cool for Atlanta, took on a sudden humidity, almost as though it resented being moved by so many bodies. In the distance, behind him, he could hear a steadily growing roar of other runners.

Local TV and radio stations were out in force. A reporter, complete with remote microphone, jogged at the edge of the crowd. Runners, intent on getting to Piedmont Park and that coveted tee shirt, smiled and stepped around the reporter. AJ pulled his Braves cap lower over his eyes and headed for the center of the street. “No need getting noticed and winding up in a conversation I don’t want to have.”

Still not ready to discuss his release from the team, he wasn’t sure of what he might say if asked about it. “Besides,” he muttered, “football was good to me, and this ain’t the place to share that.” Enjoying the light jog, he kept his head low as the crowd pace picked up. He could afford to start out slow, knowing that he had a little over six miles to pick it up.

Overhead, a pair of Black Hawk helicopters maneuvered in salute to the racers, and a small airplane pulled an Atlanta Braves banner across white clouds in a china blue sky. It was immeasurably different from every other kind of race he had ever run. “Like being out for a run with 50,000 of my closest friends.”

            The first four or five minutes of the run allowed the runners to shift and find their own places along the width of Peachtree Street, and AJ wondered how many people were behind him. “If I’m wearing number 107, wonder what number the last person in this crowd has?”

“Don’t even think about it,” the long-legged redhead in a cutoff 1999 Peachtree tee shirt said, winking an emerald green eye. She shook back the curling mop of shimmering hair and grinned. “I know you,” she said, “you’re that football player, aren’t you? Yeah, you are.” She jogged faster, matching AJ’s steps. “I belong to the Atlanta Track Club, and nobody told me you were going to be running this year. Is this your first time with us?”

“Yeah.” Uncomfortable with the attention, AJ almost wished he had taken Dench’s advice and skipped the race. The baseball cap wasn’t a very effective disguise when your face had been on the evening sports shows for the past week. His feet moved faster.

“You tryin’ to outrun me, big fella?” The redhead’s laugh was a lilting giggle. “You might want to know I hold the club record for women in this race.”

“That’s, uh, nice.” AJ was sincerely grateful for the dark-haired woman who pushed through the crowd to intercept his self-appointed buddy. Clearly angered by the intervention, the redhead stopped running, forcing traffic to flow around her and the dark-haired woman.

The narrow escape made AJ shake his head. “Point is, if I want a woman, I want to find her. I want to just happen up on her, spend time with her, know that we share some things in common. Not just have her drop out of the sky and try to take over. That one back there, she was too aggressive for my taste. Man, and I’ve seen aggressive.”

Bianca Coltrane came immediately to mind. “Now, that was an aggressive woman.” At the start of it, Bianca wasn’t all that different from the redhead. She, too, claimed legs that went all the way up to her ears and had clear, chiming laugh. Like the redhead, Bianca was more than pretty; she was beautiful, and she knew how to make the most of it—and AJ had been more tempted by her than he had ever been by any woman before or since.

But Bianca’s exotic sexual tastes and limitless wanton hungers were beyond anything AJ had anticipated, and what might have been died before it was truly born. Not that she had been less than exuberant and imaginative in her efforts. “If I tried to keep track of her tricks, I’d run out of fingers and toes for counting,” AJ muttered, his thoughts riddled with her last kisses.

 

They had parted at a cabstand outside JFK a year ago. She was twirling her paisley silk umbrella and he was leaning on a cane. She said something about life moving on, and AJ kept hearing echoed conversations—echoes of conversations with several, now former, teammates.

AJ recalled the words, the speculation on who and what Bianca had done. Personally unwilling to think the worst, he had bowed out of a lot of the conversations, but not before he learned that she kept a list and rated men on their performances. When he had asked her about it, she had unwrapped her white silk blouse, stretched it wide, flashing him. “What would be the problem?” she had smiled.

And AJ knew it was over—if it had ever been anything more than mindless, release-driven sex. The thought that his name, among others, might be on such a list was unbearable. “And those dudes didn’t seem to have any problem with it.”

Breaking up with Bianca was a kind of oxymoron. To break up with someone, you kind of had to be going with her, you had to have a specifically singular relationship with that person, didn’t you? And if your woman was trying to set world records as a sexual athlete, what happened to that “singular” relationship? For AJ Yarborough, the answer was nothing—not even a birthday or Christmas card.

On Peachtree Street, AJ kept running past spectators shouting encouragement and holding signs. His speed was faster, and the sun was stronger and climbing quickly. Passing a water station, he accepted a cup from a boy of about twelve and winked when the boy gave him a thumbs up. He tossed the water down in a single gulp and returned the gesture.

From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the redhead and picked up his pace. “Chicks like that—the reason I don’t do Buckhead.” It was a known party district, and AJ made it a rule to give Buckhead a wide berth for anything outside of restaurants and shopping. Don’t go lookin’ for trouble and you won’t find it, his father liked to say. It was one of the few things about which he agreed with Antoine Jacob Yarborough, Senior.

Funny about Bianca, though. Nothing ever came of their time together, brief as it had been, but she always had a kind of hold on him. “Maybe it was because she came along around the same time my knees started to go,” he speculated. Or maybe it was because when he had looked into her oval face with its beautifully matched features, he had wondered what their children would look like. Listening to her voice, soft in conversation or husky with passion, he had wondered what her ‘mommy’ voice would sound like to a child with a skinned knee.

He had shared the questions with Dench and looked sheepish when he laughed. “Man,” Traylor said laughing, “you sound like your biological clock is ticking. I think you just need to get laid.”

“I took his advice, and it ain’t workin’ yet.” AJ smiled when he thought of the last woman he had slept with. Dark-haired and dark-skinned, she possessed the kind of curves that could only have been carved by the hand of a gracious god. She was elegant to the point of appearing almost feline in her grace. “She was also dumb as a rock.” His smile widened when he thought of the conversations the beautiful woman was at an absolute loss to follow. “Dench ain’t never settin’ me up again. And I told him so, too.”

Dench Traylor had sat across the table in AJ’s broad-windowed breakfast room and laughed the morning after, swearing that the hunt wasn’t always about capture. Sometimes, he insisted, it was just about the hunt. “I’m not just about the hunt,” AJ had told him. “It’s sure not that I don’t like women; it’s that I want to fall ass over teakettle for the right one and have her be a part of my life forever.”

Dench just laughed. But the thing of it was that AJ knew and believed in his heart that every woman passing through his life had left something behind. Every one of them had left him knowing just a little more of what he did and didn’t want. They left him knowing just a little bit more of who he was, what kind of man he really was.

Looking down, at his feet moving along Peachtree Street, he knew that every lover in his past had been a way station to completion—a stop on the way to where he knew he was meant to be.

“That sounds damned self-involved, if I do say so myself.” He cast a fleeting look over his shoulder. The carpet of running, jogging, walking humans seemed to stretch for miles behind him. “Many folks as there are out here, wouldn’t it be nice to just run up on the right one?”

Peachtree Street had always seemed like a series of curves to Marlea, but the climb to mile four of the race route was known as “Cardiac Hill” and, even in training, it was a challenge. Her face tightened and her arms pumped when she heard the timer beep on the monitor she wore on her left wrist. “I slow down, and I drop my time,” she reminded herself, inhaling deeply. Lifting her head, she looked past the bulk of Piedmont Hospital, fixed her eyes on a cloud, and pushed to the top of the hill.

“Don’t worry,” a woman screamed, waving her flag frantically, “mile four is downhill!”

            Thank you, Lord! Marlea exalted and ran on.

            “In and out of this city all my life and it’s never felt this hot.” AJ slipped the cap from his head and swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He jammed the cap back on as he noted the peach-shaped marker for mile five. Another hill. He almost cursed. A steep half-mile climb and a sharp half-mile descent had him sweating just almost as hard as he had when he was part of the back line. It felt good.

            “Almost there,” a white-haired man in a Peachtree volunteer tee shirt called out, urging the racers forward. “Almost there.”

Almost there, and ahead of him, the crowd of runners had thinned considerably. No more than twenty people moved to speeds and rhythms of their own determination. Chancing a glance over his shoulder, AJ saw that like those ahead of him, he had far outdistanced the pack. These frontrunners, he realized, were the ones who had set the pace for the Peachtree. These were the class of the bunch. “And I’m up here with ‘em.”

Not thinking, he picked up his pace and grinned at the man next to him, who struggled to stay even. Seeing challenge in the man’s eye, AJ pushed a little more. When the man fell steps behind, AJ cranked it up another notch and passed two women. “Well, this ain’t too shabby for a brother with a bunged-up knee.” No, it wasn’t too shabby for a brother who held state records in high school and national speed records in college. The speed was part of what took him to the pros—a big part. AJ sucked air, shifted his run into higher gear, and relived his glory days. Then he couldn’t help himself. He went for broke. “Wouldn’t it be somethin’ if . . .”

Marlea could almost feel the push of time against her hot skin as she made the turn, passing a man with gritted teeth, and a woman who screamed, “Noooo!” at her back. “Been there, done that, and never again,” Marlea swore, tightening her resolve and leveling her gaze on the Nike-shirted back in front of her. A tiny piece of her heart bent for the screaming woman. She recognized the agony that came with seeing a rival runner pass you without so much as a backward glance. Her monitor sounded again as her feet pounded the path through Piedmont Park. Shielded by ancient oak trees, Marlea could see the finish line. The monitor beeped again, five seconds ahead of the mark . . .

“Damn,” AJ said, his breath low and hoarse, “this was easier than I thought.” He passed another man, and sited on the woman just ahead. Her head was high, her shoulders level, her hips tight. She had a nice long stride, the rhythm setting her ponytail swinging, and she seemed determined to finish fast. Her kick was high, and AJ felt his knee twinge when he tried to match it, but he did. Drawing even with her and pushing hard, he chanced a glance, then grimaced when his knee folded beneath his weight.

            What the . . . Marlea had no words for what was happening. Pain in her foot and ankle, and the sudden slide of the whole world. Gravel bit into her knees and her palms as the ground rushed toward her. Something hard and heavy and . . . manly? crashed into her body, flattening her on the ground. She could hear cheers, cries of “aww,” and a sonorous beeping that she finally recognized as her chronometer.

The time: My time!

Dazed, Marlea shook her head at the race volunteers who rushed toward her with outstretched hands. Waving them off, digging the toes of her shoes into the gravel, Marlea nearly gained her feet when the . . . was that a man? moved beneath her foot. Her eyes widened when they met his, and he wrenched his big body to one knee. Feeling trapped in time, Marlea couldn’t stop the disaster she saw coming and he crashed against her shins, bringing her down again.

The chronograph still sounded against her wrist and Marlea realized she had lost all track of time. Planting her hands against the ground, pushing herself up, she finally managed to untangle her body from the man’s. Stepping over him, she sprinted for the finish line, eyes searching for the time clock. Unable to find it, she circled back toward the finish line. “Time?” she asked the nearest volunteer. “Where can I find my time?”

“Over there.” The volunteer waved an arm in the general direction of the official podium. Marlea ran toward the high wooden bandstand in the center of the vast green space.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine.” On his feet, AJ dusted his hands against his shorts and shook his head. “See? That’s how we got cut,” he scolded his knees. When they didn’t respond, he stood straighter and looked down at the medical volunteer staring anxiously up at him.

“I’m okay,” he told the short, white-shirted man. The hand he passed over his head told him he had lost his cap somewhere in his tumble with that long-legged runner. “Wonder where it went?” he mumbled, looking at the path around him. He saw the cap, muddy and obviously beyond repair, flop beneath the feet of a running quartet. “Poor hat.”

“You took quite a tumble,” the volunteer insisted, his blue eyes intense and bulging behind thick prescription lenses. “Why don’t you . . . Hey, I know you! You’re that guy . . . the football player . . . the one on TV who . . . I swear, I been watchin’ you since before you took the Heisman trophy back in ‘92. An’ that last game against New York, when you rushed for . . . Are you sure I can’t help you?”

The man raised his bushy black brows, and AJ raised a hand. “Really, I’m fine. Can you tell me which way the lady went? The lady I, uh, inadvertently tripped.”

Awed, the little man grinned sloppily and hunched his shoulders. AJ left him on his own.

Crossing the finish line, AJ raised his hand to greet clapping spectators, glad that they were happy to applaud any human body finishing the run. One little guy, about six years old, ran along the sidelines giving high fives to every runner he could reach. When AJ held his palm out, the kid slapped and grinned. Something about the boy’s smile with its missing teeth made him feel better. Maybe the woman would smile, too, when he found her.

Still at a slow jog, he tried to remember what she looked like, but it wasn’t easy. He had a distinct impression that she was tall and pretty, long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing pretty much standard running gear: a white Nike shirt and bright shorts. “And she was serious about her running.”

For the first time since the race started, Marlea was having trouble breathing. Instead of her usual rhythmic exhalation, she was panting. Anxiety, she decided, fingering drops of sweat from her face. Sighting the official time station, Marlea angled her run in that direction. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she could hear Libby’s voice: Relax. Calm down. If this is meant for you, it’s yours. All those platitudes—what the hell did Libby know, anyway?

            AJ finally spotted her running across the open green field toward the time officials. “Least I can do is own up to what I did and apologize,” he figured, jogging toward her. “If I’m lucky, maybe she’ll let me buy her dinner to make up for it.”

“Excuse me.” The end of the stage was so high that Marlea had to stand on her toes to see over it. Her fingers tapped the splintered edge. “Excuse me.”

“Yes, dear?” Middle-aged with weathered skin and fading blonde curls, the woman in the light green red-lettered shirt pressed her clipboard to her thighs and peered down at Marlea. “How can I help you?”

“I . . .” Marlea pressed her lips together and tried not to think of the time she had lost while tangled up with a no-name spoiler. “My name is Marlea Kellogg. I’m a runner. I’m . . . I was in . . . Is there any way to get my time? I need to know.”

            “Sure, honey,” the woman drawled. Taking her time, she adjusted her white sun visor and shifted her clipboard to a better angle. Squinting, she traced her finger down the list of times. “Kellogg?” she asked. Marlea nodded. “Kellogg? Kellogg? Ah, here it is . . . time is 40:11.”

“No,” Marlea said, disbelieving. “No, not 40:11. I was on track for less than thirty minutes for the whole race.” Her shoulders dropped, and she closed her eyes. “I need thirty-six or less to qualify. Can you check again? That can’t be right.”

The woman knelt and looked into Marlea’s eyes. “You were seeded, right?” Marlea nodded. “Let me see your number.” Marlea held it up and watched as the woman ran her fingers over it. “Your time registered because of the microchip. It’s right here,” she ran her thumb over a thin bump beneath the paper. “Unless you can prove some sort of computer malfunction, I’m afraid we’re going to have to go with the time your chip registered.” Her eyes touched Marlea’s. “I’m sorry, Ms. Kellogg. I’m very sorry.”

“Sorry,” Marlea echoed, reaching for her race number. “Thank you for checking.”

“Your time still puts you high in the standings.”

“Thank you.” Numb and not caring where her feet carried her, Marlea moved away from the stand. Wending her way between triumphant race finishers, she didn’t want to hear where she had placed among the runners. She knew it wasn’t first.

“Excuse me, miss; I don’t know your name . . .” The man’s hand was light but firm on her bare shoulder, and Marlea hesitated. “I want to apologize for what happened out there . . . I wanted to, uh, say . . .”

She turned slowly, and her mouth dropped. “What? You want my DNA now? What do you think you have to say to me that’s going to make your clumsiness go away? Where the hell did you come from, anyway? You had no business hauling your big . . .”

“Whoa!” AJ held up both hands, his conciliatory smile dangling loosely from his lips. “Wait a minute. Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”

“To what? Your clumsiness or your stupidity?” Marlea swung her fist, narrowly missing him. “Do you even know what you just cost me? No! No, there’s no way you could. I’ve worked all my life to get to Olympic gold, and all I needed was to finish the Peachtree, and then you and your big ol’ Bozo feet come along. You had no business . . .”

“Ma’am, I’m just tryin’ to be courteous here. I said I was sorry. What happened between us was an accident, pure and simple . . .”

            “Simple?” she flared, stepping closer.

            “Well, yes. It’s actually funny, if you let yourself think of it that way. Kind of like what happened to Mary Decker and Zola Budd in the 800 meters. You remember? In the Olympics, back in . . .”

“1984. Yeah, and Mary’s career is over, too!” Marlea swung again, then kicked at him when he blocked her punch.

“I really am sorry; will you let me at least offer to buy you dinner? To make up for . . .”

            “What you’ve done to my life? No, I don’t think so.” Marlea snatched her hand from the big man’s grasp and turned her back to him. Her steps went from a march to a jog, to a flat-out run across the park. Running down Tenth Street, she heard and ignored the questions about the mystery design on the treasured tee shirt. She ignored calls from the people running for fun. She was too busy trying to outrun her rage.

Nearly blinded by tears, Marlea managed to find her way back to the lot where she and Libby had parked her silver Accord. Dropping to her scraped knee, Marlea snatched and pulled at her shoe, finally fumbling her car key free of her knotted shoelace. Still kneeling, she jammed the key into the door, then pulled herself upright when it opened. Falling behind the wheel, she realized she was still wearing her race number.

“Libby said I would need this in case of an accident. Well, I guess I had an accident.” Without closing her eyes, Marlea could still see him—the accident. I’ll never forget him. I could pick him out of a lineup if I had to. Caramel skin, closely barbered dark hair and a neat mustache over a nice . . . no, nothing about him was nice, the big, sweaty oaf!

Even features and broad shoulders, and feet the size of Texas! He was tall, but Marlea still wished she had connected on at least one of those swings she had thrown at him. Probably would have broken my hand, but at least I would have had some satisfaction. As it is . . . I have nothing.

Lips pushed together, she pictured him again. Tall, probably more than six feet, because he had towered over her five feet and eight inches, he had barreled into her, knocking her flat. He was heavy, too. Heavy, but not fat, she suddenly remembered that. When her body was tangled with his, he seemed all broad shoulders and long, strong-muscled legs.

Yeah, tangled is a good word for it. Every time I tried to free myself from him, some part of his body was pressed all up against me. Not only did he screw up my time, but I’ll probably be black and blue tomorrow. Her finger poked at the scrape on her thigh. It was bleeding now, blood running down her leg, and she remembered shouting something about his taking her DNA. Guess he got that, too, she thought bitterly.

Her shoulders heaved, and all the hurt Marlea Kellogg had ever denied rose to the surface, and she slashed at the tears that finally fell from her eyes. Disowning the grief, she turned the key in the ignition and steered her car from the parking slot.

“I should have known better. It was going too well. Nothing is ever that easy.” The car slid neatly into traffic as Marlea made the turn that would take her to the highway. Her cellphone chimed, startling her. Her eyes danced between the traffic framed in her windshield and the narrow flip phone. It was Libby; she knew it without answering or looking at the phone.

Marlea swore, her voice low, though she felt like screaming. “I don’t need this. She’s looking for me in the park. By now, she knows what happened, and she’s going to tell me that she told me so. I swear I don’t need this.” Her right hand swept the phone from the car seat, sending it skittering across the floor on the passenger side. Breathing heavily, tears still sliding down her face, Marlea watched the battery snap free of the phone—no more ringing. “Good enough.”

Wrenching the steering wheel, she turned off Fourteenth Street onto the entry ramp for I-75 and her apartment. “At least if I go home, I can lock my door and turn off the phone and just . . .” Do what? Go home and forget that I’ve spent my whole life running and reaching for a dream I’ll never realize now? Holiday traffic was light but fast, and Marlea pressed her foot to the accelerator.

Looking for distraction, she pressed the button for her radio, letting song rise against the hum of the highway. . . .I’ll always love my mama . . . Some old-school group named The Intruders singing some old-school song, something so old that the recording was scratchy over the airways. Marlea wanted nothing more than to dismiss it, but the words hit home and tore at her heart.

Marlea felt something break in her chest and knew it was her heart. Mama. It had to have been that one word. “I promised her.” Marlea sucked back a salty tear, remembering the day she and Cyndra stood outside the stadium in LA. I promised her, and this was my last chance to keep the promise. After this, I’ll be too old to even train for the next Olympic trials. Always coming up short, and now, knowing that there would be no other races before the August deadline, all Marlea could smell was the stench of failure.

“So what next?” Marlea slammed both hands against the steering wheel, and the Accord rocked against the asphalt. “What else can go wrong?”

Back To The Fitwryter?

CHAPTER 3

Hungover, running late, and suffering still fermenting anger, Parker Reynolds paused in the marble and gold-appointed foyer of his home. The place was palatial and had been featured in four different architectural and design magazines. The furnishings were the best his mother’s pet designer could find, all carefully chosen to reflect his taste and temperament. It was his home. Pursing his lips, he narrowed his eyes and corrected himself. The place used to feel like home—until she came along.

            “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he fumed, wishing for a drink and knowing that he would be calling Mark Teasley first thing tomorrow to sort the whole mess out. The problem with making that call was simply that Teasley, like any good attorney, had already warned him about her. “Parker, you’ve got to put some thought into the women you invite into your life.”

“Pity is, hindsight is twenty-twenty,” Parker muttered, debating the possible harm of going back for a bit of ‘the hair of the dog.’ Not really a good choice, he realized, knowing the possibility of his having to work before the day was out. Trauma surgery was problematic enough without alcohol thrumming through his veins.

“Okay, so that leaves the Bloody Mary out.” Jamming a long slender hand into the pocket of his khaki slacks, Parker found coins but no keys, and that did nothing for his disposition. “If I had known then what I know now, there is no way I would have let her into my life—or my bed, for that matter,” he huffed, looking around. Turning in circles beneath the gilded chandelier was getting him nowhere, and he was already running late for rounds.

“I give up.” He glanced at the shallow Wedgwood dish resting on the marble-topped commode. Still no keys. “Can’t imagine where they got to.” Time was growing short as he reached for the neatly secreted wall panel and keyed the intercom. “Steven, I’ll need keys and the car. The Corniche, please.”

“Yes, sir. Right away.”

Wishing that more people in his life had Steven’s capacity for obedience, Parker checked the time again. He wasn’t scheduled to be on call for more than an hour, but it never paid to count on things running smoothly. He loved what he did, but he hated having to rush because the same unforeseen glitches that made the kind of life-saving, in-the-nick-of-time surgery he practiced so exciting and intellectually rewarding also made it nerve-wracking.

“God, I wish I hadn’t made this change with Fortnam. He and that little wife of his have an unscheduled getaway, so I’m the elected good guy. They get beaches and I get stuck covering for him. And after the night I’ve had.” Pushing a manicured hand through the thick, black waves of his silver-touched hair, Parker’s put-upon sigh mourned his passing youth. He could remember when the broad expanse of his mocha-colored face had been tight and wrinkle-free. Now two-and-a half deep furrows etched his brow, and a matching pair bracketed his thin-lipped mouth.

Worry has been known to cause premature aging, he thought, vainly ignoring his forty-five years. Who am I fooling? I didn’t look like this before Desireé ravaged my life.

Crossing the foyer, Parker wished for the icy wash of a vodka Gimlet. Steven was taking his time pulling the Rolls convertible around to the door. As he ought to, Parker thought. Driving the car was like good sex: bold, aggressive, and satisfying. Nobody could blame Steven for being careful and enjoying the chore. While he got to drive the other cars regularly, driving the Corniche was a rare treat.

Even I don’t drive it that often. Thinking about his dream car, Parker smiled, anticipating. Just hearing the engine purr and holding the keys was a kind of foreplay he would never tire of.

The Corniche was a quarter of a million dollars worth of superior engineering and perfect design. If Parker Reynolds could ever be accused of loving an object, it would be the Rolls-Royce Corniche. Thinking of the afternoon he had barely saved his car from one of Desireé’s afternoon drives, the good doctor shuddered. Her drives often transported her to clubs and neighborhoods that he would never willingly venture into.

“What the hell was I thinking?” Her name and the memory of her brought a sour taste to his mouth, especially when he thought of the odd knock at his door last evening.

 “I should have known better—opening the door myself.” Any other time, Anne, his personal assistant, would have answered the door, but no . . .

Parker thumbed the heavy brass knob and pulled the curved handle of his front door. He stepped into the already hot simmering blue of an Atlanta summer morning. Stopping at the top of the curving red-brick stairs, he looked for Steven, exhaling noisily when he didn’t see him.

Pushing at the fold in the sleeve of his oxford cloth shirt, he checked his watch and sighed again. “I pay Anne well to serve as my personal assistant, and I answered the door to a process server.” The little man had looked more like a helper for his lawn service than like someone with legal contacts. Parker hadn’t really thought much of it when the man asked his name and then shoved the large envelope into his hands.

“I always thought they had to say something, give you some kind of warning.” But the little guy in the Braves cap and tee shirt had said nothing after asking if Parker was Parker. “He didn’t even say ‘good night.’ “

Not that good manners would have made much of a difference. Retreating to the air-conditioned comfort of his home, Parker had opened the envelope and extracted the contents. Legal papers? He remembered thinking of it exactly like that: legal papers?

Who in the world would be sending me legal papers?

He remembered Anne calling to him from the office at the end of the foyer. Straightening the papers and reading words that only Desireé’s arrogance could have conjured, Parker exploded.

 “How dare she,” he had thundered, bringing Anne on the run.

“Who?” Anne had asked. “What?”

Rage made breathing hard, and Parker felt his chest tighten. Peppering him with questions, Anne led him to a chair. He felt his hazel eyes bulge and his chest constrict, leaving him virtually immobile. He couldn’t even manage to loosen his grip on the papers, and when he tried to focus on the hand-delivered documents, the palsy nearly defeated him.

Anne had pushed a glass into his hand. Parker sucked at the vodka over cracked ice, but the liquor failed to

anesthetize the jolt he had suffered. It was bad enough to have spent all that time arguing with Desireé over what she saw as her due: then she got it into her head that she was owed palimony.

“She couldn’t even spell the word before she met me, and after all the stress and embarrassment I had to endure to get her out of my home … But to send that little man to my door….” Parker nearly gagged.

“Desireé knew that what we had was temporary. She had to, how could it have been anything else? Now, to be accused of having had a common-law marriage with her is disgusting.”

The low and regal growl of the approaching Corniche caught his ear. Parker descended the stairs and stood waiting like a child on Christmas morn by the time Steven climbed from behind the wheel.

“Beautiful car, sir.” Thick-bodied, with a glossy mustache that nearly outshone his bald brown pate, Steven trailed a lusting hand along the door panel. “Looks like a beautiful day, sir.”

“Yes, Steven, it is.” The fact that the houseman had taken the time to open the Rolls’ top was not lost on Parker. Steven’s ability to anticipate his needs and desires was one of the things that made him so good at what he did. Accepting his car, Parker felt a bit like a medieval knight accepting his charger.

Behind the wheel, gunning the engine, Parker pulled on Armani sunglasses and settled into the leather seat. He let the engine’s liquid vibration lull him, then raised a hand to Steven and shifted gears.

Any other day, sitting in his car under a blue sky, feeling the soothing rush of sweet passing southern air would have been enough to appease him, but not today. Today, all Parker could think of was the night before.

“How did she even manage to come up with a scheme like this? Suing me for divorce. Divorce! As if I would stoop to marrying her! And to demand a settlement . . . She was little more than a whore, a concubine, and she wants to demand a wife’s rights? She’s a stupid little fool.” The Corniche seemed to murmur assent when his foot pressed harder on the accelerator. Parker tried to ignore the headache building behind his eyes.

“Who in the world would put her up to something like this? I know she didn’t do it all on her own. Hell, how she could even manage to rouse her one or two lonely brain cells long enough to get a decent attorney on the case is beyond me.” After a night of drinking, Parker’s vodka slogged-brain refused to help him out. “This is plainly some kind of trumped-up effort to milk me of money. Anyone can see she’s a gold digger. People like me simply do not marry people like her.”

Still, she had managed to put this little plan into action. How? “Probably came up with it with the help of a few of her less-kinky friends. Good thing for Desireé that they don’t look down their noses at her the way she looks down hers at them.”

Elbow parked against the window frame, Parker shielded his eyes with his hand and tried to focus. “If I’d known this little affair with her was going to turn out like this, I would have thought twice before paying to pare that nose down; that and the tits and ass I paid for, too.” He blew out hard and tried not to feel like a complete fool. Truth be told, he had paid almost as much for her body as he had paid for his medical degree.

“And she still wants more!” For a one-trick pony, Desireé had more nerve than a brass-assed monkey. She was determined to get all she could, and the damned papers she had had him served with made it clear—she could get a lot. “Too bad I fell for her one trick,” the doctor complained, remembering the things that girl could do with toys. His knees still grew weak when he thought of her singular array of talent.

It had started with a cocktail party dare. It was a boring party, featuring musty-tasting cheese and expensive but muffled wine and liquor, the kind of stuff you ate and drank to get along with stuffy, expensive people. Then along came Desireé. At first glance, she was a bit too much: too exposed, too loud, and far too brassy in her low-cut Versace knock-off.

 “My name is Desireé Johnson. That’s Desireé, with a accent over the e. It’s French for desire.” She extended limp fingers. “What’s yours?”

“Reynolds. Parker Reynolds,” he said, still holding the fingers.

“Um,” she hummed, surveying the crowd over his shoulder. Spotting no one more interesting, she turned her attention back to him. “Um. Parker Reynolds. That kind of name sort of goes with this kind of a crowd.” She wiggled her fingers, and he released them. “So Parker Reynolds, what are you going to do to make me smile?”

It was easy to see that she would never reach the point of being charming, but she was entertaining in a cheap and loose sort of way. Bored as he was, what Parker Reynolds thought he needed most right then was to be entertained, and something in him decided that it might be entertaining to make her smile. Clearly available, Desireé Johnson had an agenda of her own. Latching onto his arm, she quickly managed to separate him from the cocktail crowd—not that he needed much persuasion when she angled her décolletage at him.

 “This party is a real drag, huh?” she said with her lips close to his ear.

“A simple social obligation,” he murmured, looking into her face and wondering what lurked beneath the heavy, inexpertly applied makeup. Not much, he decided, tossing down the last of his drink. Without shifting his gaze, he managed to hand off the empty glass and collect a fresh drink from a passing waiter. His new drink was one of the fussy wines Teasley was so fond of, and Parker wanted to ditch it, but then he would have had to take his eyes off of Desireé.

The longer he looked at her, the more fascinating she became. What possessed a woman to dress herself in violently purple polyester and then climb up on a pair of four-inch heels? How in the world had she managed to paint her eyes, her mouth, and her cheeks so creatively? Could it be that she lived in a house with no mirrors?

His questions ended when she reached for him. His immediate urge was to avoid the inch-long nails, but the fascination held him in place. Her thumb and forefinger closed on his ear, pulling him into the vortex of her persona. “I’ve got a little joke for you,” she whispered. “Want to hear it?”

Silly question; of course he did.

Her lips were thick and lush, liquid with gloss, and Dr. Parker Reynolds could hardly wait to hear what she would say.

“What’s long and hard and filled with see-men?” She tipped her head to look deep into his eyes, letting the last word drag across her lips while Parker struggled to think of an answer. “Don’t you know?”

“A, uh . . . A . . .” Parker couldn’t bring himself to say the obvious word out loud.

“See?” Desireé drawled. “You’re nasty. I knew you were a nasty boy; I could tell by lookin’ at you. The answer is a submarine.”

“A . . . submarine, of course.”

“You didn’t get it.” Her laughter was soft and breathy, scented with the warm fruit of wine. The long-nailed hand she used to hold Parker’s lapel was tight, and she was closer to him than his shadow.

“I get it. Seamen, not semen.”

“Stupid, juvenile sense of humor,” Parker whined, remembering the encounter in far too much detail. Reaching for the preset button on the Rolls dash, Reynolds tried to fill the air around him with music. Johnny Mathis sang “Chances Are,” and Reynolds wondered why he had continued with the woman. “Maybe I just knew her for what she was and wanted to see if it was real.” He snorted a sound that might have been mistaken for laughter. It was funny, Reynolds recalled. When she made her pitch, he hadn’t seen it coming.

“What would you most like to do with me,” she had asked, moving even closer in the crowded room, and seeming to tow him with her to a place along the Dutch blue wall. It was as if she had taken most of the air with her, but he swallowed hard and dared to dream.

Afraid to hesitate, he told her in the crudest terms possible. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he might have stuttered on the letter ‘f’, it coming at the beginning of the word the way it did. And he wasn’t completely sure of the word that began with a ‘c’, but he was pretty sure that he had used it in context.

“Is that a medical term?” Desireé was completely unimpressed.

“Not really.” Parker felt himself floundering. “It was more on the order of an offer for a complete physical.”

“You have no imagination,” she suggested.

“Well, look here, how about this? It’s a little trick I picked up in Spain while traveling with my parents.” He plucked the maraschino cherry from her glass and popped it into his mouth. It took six minutes and a raised hand for him to work the stem on the tip of his broad tongue.

Desireé’s raised brow was a study in derision. “You should practice more. Besides, lots of people can tie cherry stems into knots with their tongues.”

“I suppose you could do better?” he challenged, folding the stem into a paper napkin.

“Absolutely. Time me.” She not only did the same trick, she did it better, beating his time by more than five minutes. “I can do other things, too.”

“Like what?” Intrigued, Parker fell into the oily, lipsticked smile and followed her like a happy puppy.

Towing him by his tie, she backed against what he first thought was a wall, but soon discovered was a closet under the staircase closet. Small and dark, the closet had apparently been forgotten by Teasley, because it housed only a small stack of sealed boxes. The boxes meant nothing to Desireé, who slipped to her knees in the dark and found Parker’s zipper with no trouble at all.

Parker inched lower in his leather seat, remembering. Between his legs, an uncomfortable bulging swell testified to the memory of Desireé’s skill and dedication to task. “The way she sucked, the girl could have changed her last name to Hoover,” he sighed, trying to keep his eyes on the road.

Hard as it was to admit, Parker had been damned near giddy when she finally let him out of that hot little closet beneath the stairs. Carefully creeping from the closet, Parker felt an embarrassed exhilaration he hadn’t known in years. People said sex in public places, places where the threat of discovery was heavy—well, they said it was exciting . . . and so it was. Standing again amid the guests with their good clothes, fine wine, and finer jewelry, he had wanted to do a little happy dance, but knew it would have been inappropriate. He watched Desireé correct the line of her fading lipstick with a daintily crooked finger. Around him, no one seemed concerned.

“Well, that was special.” Desireé had finished with her lipstick and was working at her nails.

“Yes,” Parker agreed, basking in what was left of his glow. “That was very special, indeed.”

“I was kidding.” Desireé’s dark eyes rolled slowly over the doctor’s face. “That was what you call sarcasm. What we just did in there was a little, um, a little icebreaker. S’just somethin’ to make this dead-assed party a little more tolerable. If we were somewhere private, I would show you something else, something I promise you would enjoy.”

“Like what?” Parker knew his tongue was hanging out.

“See that lady over there? The one with the cigarette, blowin’ the smoke rings? Well, I happen to know that if you put a cigarette in the right place . . .”

“Really? You can do that?”

Desireé’s breath sizzled past her teeth and across her lips when she laughed at his naiveté. “Are you sure you’re a doctor? I woulda thought you would have known that a well-educated body can do a lot of things.”

 “Educated?”

Crossing her arms creased the purple bodice of her dress and pushed her breasts into prominence. She nodded, and Parker had the distinct impression that she really did know what she was talking about. Raising his thick black brows, Parker held his breath, then made his decision. “Got any plans for tonight?”

“Uh-huh.” She slipped her arm through his. “I’m going with you.”

“And fool that I was, I brought her home with me.” Reynolds cursed himself. “If I hadn’t been so greedy when she showed me what she could do in a bathtub . . .” Yeah, that greed had moved her right into his sprawling home in the exclusive Roswell Vinings enclave.

Traffic was light, so Parker barely slowed the Corniche as he turned the corner, Desireé still on his mind. His stomach lifted and rolled, greasy with frustration. A man could watch a woman with Desireé’s particular brand of dexterity juggle billiard balls for only so long before she had to get dressed—and speak. Fully clothed and totally self-involved, Desireé left a lot to be desired. A woman with all the personality of an avocado, she had the nerve to be a snob on top of it. Nothing was ever enough, and beyond the realm of sexual acrobatics, her limited forté consisted of shopping.

Parker gripped the steering wheel tighter and wished for a drink. “But the heifer didn’t have good taste,” he recalled, “not even in groceries. Thank heavens she preferred to shop solely for herself.”

After she moved into his home, Parker quickly learned that nothing was ever enough for Desireé. Initially intrigued by the toys, gadgets, and fripperies that money can buy, she had been compliant and easy to please—at first. As time passed, Desireé discovered her personal trump card: embarrassment. The woman was a bottomless and all-consuming pit of crude behavior. She would publicly pout and bitch and moan to get her way—anything to get on his last nerve, and bounce.

He had tried to drown the whining and complaints in a glass of vodka. Over time, one glass became two, and two became five, and the glasses got bigger and bigger. Hell, by the time he finally got her out of the house, the damned glass was practically a vat.

And after getting the trumped-up divorce papers, Parker plunged deep into that vat again. “She can just use the body I paid for to reel in another sucker, for all I care. She’s got all she’s getting from me.”

Even as he said the words, he knew that putting her out of his life was easier said than done. Common as table salt, his mother had once called her, and she was right. But common, selfish, and greedy as she was, Desireé had one redeeming trait: she loved him.

Being claimed by a woman determined to love him, and make him a better man, was a novelty. Nobody had ever wanted Parker the way Desireé did, and Parker wasn’t sure that was a good thing—but it was certainly addictive. The look on her face when he called her name, having her there when he came home from a rough shift at the hospital, the welcome of her early morning touch; all of this had become precious to him. But enough was enough, and he could live without her.

Determined to wean himself, Parker passed his hand across his face and decided that if he couldn’t have vodka, he could at least get some coffee. Coffee and maybe some food ought to help. Flicking his turn signal, he made a right turn. “Can’t imagine what the holiday crew might dredge up in the hospital cafeteria.” He made an illegal turn and headed for the ramp going north on I-75. “Better not take the chance.”

The American Café would be open. They never closed, not even on Christmas, and they served breakfast all day. Almost no traffic on the road; the trip there and down to the hospital would take next to no time.

Dr. Parker Reynolds hit the accelerator hard, and his ire returned in force when Desireé Johnson invaded his thoughts again. “How dare she?” he hissed, barely seeing the silver Honda Accord. The woman in the Accord was pushing the little silver bullet for all it was worth when he sideswiped it, sending it careening across the road.

The howl of creasing metal made him blink. The Corniche’s heavily armored body barely swayed. The Accord didn’t have that luxury. Horrified, he watched as reality slowly fell like a heavy cloak. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. He could see the shock and terror on the woman’s face.

He saw the passenger-side wheels leave the road, saw her hands rise into the air. He saw her pretty brown face when her mouth stretched wide, first showing white teeth, then the raw pink of her scream. The Accord seemed bent on destruction, lifting higher and pirouetting across the far lane and into the center wall.

Parker’s foot went to the brake and the Corniche slowed. Stunned, he sat in the center of the empty highway, looking back at the twisted mass of metal wedged against the highway’s dividing wall. Panicked, he looked over at the other side of the wall and was amazed to see no oncoming traffic. There was nothing in his rearview mirror, either.

“Easy,” he cautioned himself, “easy.” Reaching for the ignition, Parker Reynolds had an idea. Swallowing hard, he turned the wheel lightly and steered the Corniche a quarter mile farther down I-75 to the nearest exit. He found the off-ramp and tried to control his breathing.

“Easy . . .” He checked the rearview mirror again— nothing behind him. He made a left turn and found the return ramp. “All I have to do is make a circle.”

Eight minutes later, Dr. Parker Reynolds eased the Corniche to a stop behind the smoldering, twisted remains of the Accord. He took out his cellphone and hit 911 as he ran toward the car. “Hello,” he shouted, praying that the woman was still alive.

“Hello!” And where the hell was the 911 operator? Parker was still clutching the phone when he heard the woman moan.

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