I featured other excerpts last year on my Profoundly Shallow blog, and these pick up where those left off. I hope you like what you see, here.
And now, with no further ado, I present:
13 Excerpts from 27 Stages
(a work in progress)
Rom was working mightily to get me to the head of the pack, in the throes of the final kilometers on the broken-heart-shaped perimeter road around Reus. Attilio did the same for Brunn, growing more aggressive as the stretch of roadway straightened out in front of us and the peloton surged forward as a whole.
There was some confusion at the long oval roundabout, and a few riders in the back of the peloton went down. More mildly grisly footage for the fans of crashes, then. After the tight curves, the road rounded gently to the left, and we continued jostling for position, trying to reassure ourselves of maintaining our standings. It was unlikely that Schlessinger would try anything today – strategically speaking, the climb into Andorra was his best bet for a Royal finish – so it was all a matter of maintaining the status quo.
Rom, doggedly forging ahead of me to open a slot in the pack so we could advance, threw me a look somewhere between amusement and agony. Tomorrow he'd be happy – the mountain stage would be brutal for some of us, but he'd be on his preferred turf – though at the moment, he was suffering. He'd never coped well with the monotony of flat stages.
Brunn and I were riding at speed amongst the peloton, but the group containing the sprinters was well ahead of us, gunning for the finish at the end of this flat stage. From Valencia to Torreblanca, Alvaro had sparred with Teodoro, promising his own victory to even the score between himself and his brother. Teodoro had instead assured us all of his own imminent victory, going so far as to predict a one-second gap at the finish.
Braggadocio, all of it – but the good-natured teasing between the brothers was enough to entertain the rest of us for the length of the stage.
A burst of shrieking and screaming across the team's radio frequency took me a moment to comprehend. Either Jerzy had just slipped over the edge into insanity, or somewhere closer to the line, one or more of my teammates had made a tactical mistake.
Brunn glanced at me, his expression inscrutable, save for a flicker of concern in his eyes before he turned back to the matter at hand.
Listening to the invective spewing over the airwaves, I had the feeling things weren't exactly going according to plan at the finish.
We pressed forward, the final roundabout looming ahead when Attilio gave a shout and bumped shoulders with another rider who was riding too close as the curve tightened.
Rom broke through the last few cyclists blocking us and I followed close on his wheel, the two of us making our way up to the head of the pack to lead the group through the roundabout and down the short final stretch.
We breezed our way down Avinguda di Sant Jordi, avoiding the concrete lip of the island separating the lanes of the road, but other riders weren't so lucky, judging from the shouts of the crowd and the skree of titanium on pavement, which followed the final turn.
Rom fell back behind me in short order and Brunn was soon at my shoulder, a slight grin on his face the only indication that he was pleased with how things had gone. As far as I could tell, there wasn't even a hint of curiosity regarding Jerzy's previous rant, not one iota of concern for Alvaro or Teodoro or for how they'd fared.
I supposed we'd find out soon enough.
In the meantime, for the riders who'd remained upright, it was a brisk finish. A few of the other riders picked themselves up and finished the stage with no problem. Only a handful of riders were unable to ride across the line, mostly from mechanical difficulties.
As for me, a strong sense of relief took hold once I was solidly across the finish line. The Royal was still mine, and I'd wear it into Andorra, regardless of whether I'd keep it once we got there.
As we made our way back to the team area to ready ourselves for the presentation ceremony, the source of Jerzy's dismay was made clear. Alvaro and Teodoro had gone very, very wrong and lost the sprint – which, by all estimations, had been theirs to take.
To my amazement, Jerzy hadn't quite exploded yet. We were, however, fifty miles outside Barcelona, and it looked like it was going to be a very, very long ride.
The end of the race was rather quiet, compared to how the other stages had gone. Only the sprint, with its disastrous turn of events for Alta VeloCidad, proved noteworthy. I was lucky enough to get photos of it all: from Putnam storming the line to Renard's quietly triumphant arrival a few seconds later, to the last, lingering arrivals after the crash in the final turn.
Wishful thinking had me almost convinced he'd seen me shortly after he'd crossed the line. I tried my best to shake the sensation – foolish as it was – and concentrated on snapping shots of the last of the peloton as they straggled across the finish line, the walking wounded, sometimes in a literal sense. I wondered at the sense of pride which could compel these athletes to soldier on this way, in some cases broken and bleeding, and not lightly injured.
Then I wondered if I was much different, since I'd been doing the same in my own way.
Charles had driven us to Barcelona, and I'd driven myself back to Reus alone. I planned to spend my drive back, and then my dinner that night, that way as well: alone.
I imagined he was in the hotel room, eating room service and talking with her on the phone, since I'd decided to leave him to it in the end. It was preferable to hearing the constant ringing of the phone, or to watching his guilty assessment of the same.
If I'd had a choice, I probably would have preferred to stay in the hotel room alone, as well.
As the situation stood, I didn't have a choice, and it probably didn't matter, either. If I let myself consider it realistically, the idea of completing the Tour alone was much too intimidating.
I lingered at the finish for a while after the end of the race, catching a few more random shots. The chaperones who ran from place to place, some of them escorting riders, some of them running errands; the fans, excitedly discussing the events of the race; the clean-up crews getting to work as soon as possible.
I belatedly made my way toward the podium and held my camera up over the crowd to capture a few more atmospheric shots before the presentations. I switched out the lens for a zoom and managed a few shots of the competitors receiving their jerseys amongst the cheering and clapping of the crowd.
A strange melancholy came over me as they stepped off the podium and shook hands with the town officials and other guests, before making their way toward the press line and their team buses beyond it. I was sure if I really tried I could get back there to ask some questions as well as take a few candid shots. When I thought of Renard's expression when he'd signed that autograph for me, I felt a slow melting inside.
Ridiculous. A schoolgirl's crush, and I was – what? – at least ten years older than he was. At least.
I made a mental note to look up his information online when I got back to the hotel. Or maybe I'd look it up on my netbook from the bar before I went up to the room. I didn't really feel like enduring any snide comments from Charles when I returned to Barcelona, tonight.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't be making them anymore, now that I'd called him on his "phone mate" and everything. Never mind. I'd play it by ear and see how things went.
Drifting back to my car, I paused as a shiver ran along my spine in a light, tingling caress. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I turned toward the Village, where the remainder of the crowd milled around just outside the team areas.
There was no-one there, but I would have sworn I'd felt his gaze on me, if just for a moment. I clucked my tongue dismissively. I was getting potty in my old age, I reckoned, and resumed my walk to the car.
When the feeling came again, I took out my camera, aimed it over my shoulder, and clicked the shutter. I'd examine the shot when I got to Barcelona.
The climb had been so gradual as to be nearly imperceptible. The chatter amongst the riders, which had begun with the false start and continued through the first breakaway, had quieted and then finally stopped altogether as the route trended slowly upward.
Now the mountains which had lined the horizon for the length of the day were all I saw, surrounding me and seeming to close in while I dragged myself toward the summit of the penultimate climb. The ascent grew steeper and steeper still, clawing the breath from my lungs in hot, ragged pulls through the heat-shimmer off the tarmac in the midsummer afternoon.
There was no breeze. The crowds of obscenely exuberant spectators lining the roadway blocked it from the riders. My sweat was cooled by the currents created by my forward motion, or it slowly evaporated through the layers of spandex I wore. It pooled in the small of my back and under the radio receiver taped to my ear, loosening the adhesive to a sticky drag along my lobe. With every movement I made, I could feel the radio itself, tucked beneath the shoulder strap of my bib shorts, sliding back and forth over the sheen of perspiration on my side. Unzipping my jersey did little to alleviate the heat, and it hung limp over me, seeming to absorb my sweat, adding to the weight I was hauling up the mountain.
A faint, metallic scent hovered in the air over the peloton, a humid, elemental odor of exertion and willpower. I could smell it emanating from myself, my teammates and the others. I could taste it in the dryness of my mouth between swallows from my water bottle. It ground out of me with every crank of the pedals as I maintained my place in the group, ascending the Pyrenean slopes.
After hours in the saddle, with exhaustion rearing its head, the end was finally approaching. I was sliding ever backward, into the heart of the peloton. Rom was giving it all he had, but I couldn't keep up.
Someone called out my name, and when the group I rode in had thinned out to a long, straggling line, I felt a spectator's hand on my back, pushing me forward in a gesture of assistance. I wanted to swat them away – couldn't they see they were more a hindrance than a help? – but I resisted.
Though only just.
Attilio and Brunn were ahead, maintaining their pace in a generous bid to keep me in the running, but I knew there was no real hope. Not today.
Schlessinger and his domestique, a scrawny little powerhouse named Lorenzo Motta, were just behind us. I knew they wouldn't be there for long; if my rival were going to make a grab for the Royal, it would be today. This was his clearest chance and he'd be a fool not to take it.
Even as the thought occurred to me, Motta and Schlessinger seemed to float past, their ascent on the steep grade seeming as smooth as if they were gliding downhill, instead. I watched, stunned as Schlessinger glared back at me over his shoulder and then broke into a wide grin.
"How's the girlfriend, Ciccio?" he called back before the crowd swallowed him up, their shouts and cheers drowning out anything else he'd had to say.
I suppose my puzzlement was plain on my face, and my reaction was not the one he'd sought. His scowl returned and he put his back to me, continuing to power his way uphill. Brunn followed him slowly, Attilio carrying him along, and both of them spared me brief, sympathetic glances as they went.
What the hell is going on here?
I pushed myself harder, striving for the summit only just visible over the churning crowds. Brunn was already lost to my sightline, and Rom doggedly led me through the chaos as we climbed endlessly toward the top. Brunn would catch Schlessinger, I was sure of it. On the final ascent, they'd race to the top for the mountain finish, and Brunn would keep him at bay.
He had to, or the Royal would be out of Alta VeloCidad's hands. Neither of us wanted that, even if I didn't want Brunn to have it.
I caught a glimpse of Schlessinger just before he disappeared over the summit. Several agonizing moments later, Brunn left Attilio behind and did the same. The image of Brunn's purple-and-silver team colors in the sunlight, then winking out of existence, was burned into my brain.
When at last I crested the top, I saw Brunn giving chase below. Schlessinger was working damned hard to lose him on the descent, but it was clear he still lacked the confidence to use the steep downward slope to his advantage. I thought of nature programs which showed lions or panthers as they ran down their prey – galloping easily along before they reach out toward the hind leg of some swift gazelle and trip it up, knocking it to the ground.
Brunn and Schlessinger worked something like that: two tawny, golden beasts of speed, hurtling downhill until one – Brunn – swatted casually with one great paw, and just like that, it was over.
Not literally, of course, but once Brunn had passed Schlessinger and the final ascent had begun, the end of the stage was clear. And I was nowhere close to the scene as it played out.
All the same, I rode as hard and fast as I possibly could, to no avail. It made no difference how swiftly I descended, leaving Rom and the others behind. The next climb took me out in spite of my best efforts.
I'd lost the Royal.
The first riders ascended the final climb, reaching the slight plateau and straightaway with some difficulty. My heart sank. The Royal wasn't amongst the brilliant colors flaring against the dark of the tarmac, which meant that Renard had lost the top spot.
I swallowed down my disappointment and snapped my shots of Heinrich Brunn crossing the line, a desperately disillusioned Jürgen Schlessinger in frame just over his shoulder. Both of them wore fixed grimaces of effort, but the expression in Schlessinger's eyes was something on the edge of sheer defeat.
For a moment, my heart went out to him in a sincere wave of sympathy. From what we'd watched on the giant screens along the finish, it had been a mighty struggle for him. Brunn had clearly had the win from the final lengths on the ascent, making the whole thing look positively effortless. That surely added insult to injury for the younger German rider.
Four more riders swept past, and still Renard hadn't shown. I turned to the screen and saw the shot being filmed by the helicopter hovering just a short distance away: Renard was nearly to the plateau, but it was a fight he seemed to be riding to a draw. His domestique, Romuald Brodowski, was working hard to pull Renard up to the finish, that much was clear.
When they came into view, I quickly switched out my lens for a zoom and focused on them as the road leveled out beneath them. Was it my imagination, or was Brodowski looking particularly frustrated? From his previous performances in the mountains, I knew he was an excellent climber, and this chore had to be draining all the enjoyment of the stage from him. Still, he did his job admirably, and managed to get them both across the line in time for Renard to stay in top five classification.
I captured them crossing the line, and then slowly riding to their handlers. Renard's shoulders were slumped in exhaustion, and this time there was neither a giddy, delirious grin or expression of victory to buoy the fatigue. I kept taking photos of the arrivals, but I couldn't resist aiming the camera to catch Renard as he slid to the ground with his back against the barriers, unable to face the people around him.
More riders arrived and I caught them as they passed, my mind continually drifting to Renard, forcing me to turn and watch him through the lens, snagging a few photos in the process. Finally the group of sprinters arrived en masse, just barely within the maximum time allowed, but when I turned back Renard wasn't there. He'd been spirited away, presumably to the team bus and his post-stage cool down.
A distinct disappointment filled my stomach, and I packed up most of my gear before heading toward the podium for the presentations. I made my way through the crowd, noting that some of the faces were becoming almost familiar to me. Some were photographers – amateurs, like me – others were just devoted fans, I guessed, following the Tour as it snaked its way across the Continent. We exchanged nods or tilts of the head whenever we caught one another's eye, silently acknowledging the slight sense of recognition growing amongst us.
The heat was incredible, made even closer and more uncomfortable by the press of bodies beneath the late-afternoon sun. At last I reached the galley where I could set up on the edge of the photographers' pit, and I saw the Frenchman I'd met a few days ago. He smiled and shrugged vaguely behind him, seeming to indicate I should set up there, so I did.
I dutifully snapped away as Brunn and Schlessinger arrived, followed by the Basque rider, Estebe Legarreta who looked delighted to be the third place finisher. All the while, my thoughts were drifting to Renard and how he'd looked when he'd crossed the line. It wasn't just losing the Royal – the margin wasn't so great he couldn't reclaim it after the mountain stages were finished, anyway. No, something else was at work beneath the façade he presented to the public.
I shook my head, feeling ridiculous. What the hell was wrong with me? Did I really think I was so attuned to him? Based on what? A one-minute meeting and a lovemaking fantasy was all we had between us, and I had to admit it was a rather one-sided deal.
But my instincts had been correct in Reus, hadn't they? When I'd checked my photos last night, I'd found him in the crowd at the team buses in the final photo I'd snapped over my shoulder before going home. Not that this meant he'd been watching me or anything, but surely my awareness of him meant –
No. It didn't. It was a stupid fantasy and nothing more, but at least it made time spent at the hotel bearable.
Charles' silent resentment was hard to take, but his absence at the last stage finishes had been a relief. I hated to admit it, but there it was: I was more relaxed without him around. Without his grousing, his pronounced disinterest – and yes, his constant phone calls from "work" – it was so much easier to focus on what I was doing. There was no need to worry about him being happy, particularly since I knew nothing I did, shy of sending him to the nearest pub, would please him.
I had the uncanny feeling that tonight would be like last night, and I would spend the better part of it alone again. I had already decided on which bar I would pass the time in, was already considering what I might have for dinner while I perused my photos from today on my netbook. Charles had told me before I left this afternoon, not long after lunch, and after he'd had two calls already, that he was going to have to take care of some work and thus wouldn't be able to have dinner with me.
"Since these bloody Spaniards can't eat at a proper time," he'd complained, "I suppose I'll just have to have room service instead of waiting until eleven bloody p.m."
"This is Andorra," I'd said in response, putting my bag on my shoulder. "We're not in Spain anymore."
"Well, then. Maybe there's hope for a meal at a proper time." His gaze met mine evenly, and I waited for him to continue. "But I'll still be working tonight, Abby."
"Okay." With that, I'd picked up my other bag and gone out the door to get some photos of the city.
And now I was sitting the bar I'd planned on all day, alternating my drinks between mineral water and white wine, examining my photos while I waited for a response to the email I'd sent my prospective publisher.
All in all, it was not how I'd imagined following the Tour would go for me.
The fact a silence briefly fell as soon as I entered the team's section of the hotel restaurant was the first sign that something was up. It only lasted a moment or two – too short to be anything of consequence, really – but I knew I hadn't imagined it when Rom didn't meet my eyes and Attilio shifted uncomfortably in his seat, doubtless feeling some species of guilt for having got Brunn so far ahead of me.
As for the new number-one race leader, Brunn went back to talking privately with Jerzy, giving scarcely a nod in my direction. I resisted a scowl and went to the last available seat at the table along the wall, where the bulk of my teammates and the rest of the crew sat.
With everyone politely averting his gaze from me, was it any wonder I thought I must have reeked with the stench of failure?
When I reached my chair, however, I found an envelope waiting for me. I picked up the manila package and examined it, confused. There was no return address, no postmark – no stamp or postage at all, for that matter – just my name written in clear block letters across the front.
"What's this?" I asked, holding the envelope up for my nearest seatmates to see. I got a silent, shrugging chorus in response, the currents of conversation all around me never ceasing.
I shook my head and bent back the metal tabs of the seal to open the envelope. I slid out the contents onto my plate: an issue of Avant-Mode, a French women's fashion magazine.
Ah, it's from Soledad. She must be in this one.
I disregarded the lack of postage or return address in an instant, and picked up the magazine to fan through the pages, distractedly seeking her picture.
"Soledad?" Rom asked from across the table, and now it was my turn to shrug. I hadn't seen her anywhere when I'd flipped through, and now I paged through more carefully, one by one.
I stopped dead when I found her.
I'd never seen Soledad like that before, at least, never in a photograph. She stood with her legs spread wide, her bathing suit bottom little more than a sheer strip of fabric, which barely covered her (now evidently shaved) pussy, her hands behind her back holding what looked like some sort of riding crop. Her bare breasts were thrust toward the viewer, her hair wild around her face, her red, glistening mouth open and expectant.
I stared, stunned, unable to do anything else. I'd seen that expression on her face before, but none of my teammates ever had. Not until now.
This was why she was in Australia? What the fuck is this advertising, anyway?
It wasn't until I heard the appreciative whistles and applause from the others that I realized I was holding the magazine out and away from me like a loathsome, living thing. And most of the team had gotten a good, long look at my fiancée in all her dubious glory.
"That's your Soledad?" Goosh asked in something like amazement.
My first instinct was to deny it. This was not the woman I'd flirted with on the podium a couple of years ago, whose kisses had lingered just enough to be outside the professional limits, whom I'd asked to marry me after nearly a year of dating.
This wasn't the woman I'd made love to just a few weeks ago, before she'd gone to Australia for a project to pad her portfolio, with lots of presentations and art modeling, she'd said. Maybe some television work, too.
This wasn't the woman for whose call I was waiting so eagerly. She wasn't this brazen, this coarse – she wasn't this vulgar.
And yes, it was her. I knew because I knew the face she was making in this photo. I knew every curve of her body, digitally altered or no, and I saw in the photo shades of her passion that she'd shared with me. In strictest confidence, I'd thought at the time. Now I wasn't so sure.
James grabbed the magazine away from me, examining it more closely for himself, and the rude comments soon followed.
"I wouldn't mind keeping her company for an hour or so – do you reckon she looks lonely?"
"D'you mind if I take her up to my room, Ciccio? You know, just for a little while."
"I knew she was pretty, but I had no idea she was this hot, mate. Cor…"
"I've never met someone before who's had a piece of ass like that. What's she like, then? Y'know, what's she like?"
"Oi, and what does she like? I need to fuel my imagination for tonight…" Phil added with a laugh, making a rude gesture.
I kept my mouth shut, refusing to rise to the bait, but they continued, growing more and more vulgar as the night went on. It wasn't until Phil made a show of stuffing the magazine under his shirt and sneaking toward the door of the restaurant with one hand on his crotch that I finally spoke up.
"For fuck's sake, all of you – she's my fiancée! How about a little respect?" I snatched the magazine away from Phil and stormed out, making my way to my room. My ears and face burned red-hot, not cooling for a long while even after I'd flopped down on my bed and examined the magazine again.
There were more photos on the next pages. How I'd missed them – how my teammates had missed them – was beyond me. Nonetheless, I counted my blessings that they hadn't spotted the more provocative and quasi-grotesque poses after all.
I smoothed out the offending pages and stared hard at them, hating that I must have sounded like a foolish old prig downstairs. Still, what did they expect? She was my fiancée, and that they'd talk about her like that… Then again, to them – most of them, anyway, since Brunn, Rom and Adrie hadn't taken part – this wasn't anyone who actually existed. Soledad was someone they'd only met briefly, from time to time, and here she was just an image on the pages of this magazine.
Frankly, she was starting to feel just as remote to me.
I didn't want to see Charles yet, so I delayed going back to the hotel room. Instead, just as I had the night before, I wandered down to the hotel bar and restaurant and settled into a corner booth. It was early so the restaurant was still quite empty. I set up my computer without worrying about taking up a table all by myself.
I planned on leaving once the crowds started coming in. By that time, Charles would surely be done with his "work" and I could go to bed right away. At least, I hoped so.
I transferred photos from my camera to the computer hard drive, and then to the portable external hard drive for additional backup. I couldn't be too careful, if this were a safeguard for my project.
When the file transfers were finished, I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and studied the photos of the day. The heaviness in my chest persisted as I examined the photos of Brunn on the podium with Schlessinger and Legarreta.
There was no sense denying to myself that I had a definite favorite in this Tour, and this time he hadn't made it to the podium. Still, it was possible – if not particularly probable – that Renard could regain his position at the top. And the fact that his teammate had the Royal now was a significant victory.
I clicked through the slideshow on my screen until I found my first photo of Renard from that afternoon. It was – even if I did say so myself – a remarkable shot: he was striving for the finish, his face a mask of pain and determination, the muscles of his legs and arms standing out in incredible relief beneath his skin. The background was the indistinct jumble of the crowd with their signs and flags and replica jerseys – the multicolored rainbow making Renard in his Royal jersey atop the blue bike stand out even more.
My eyes were drawn to the expression on his face again and again. Such agony, such anguish was written there that my heart twisted in empathy. It was a photograph of someone losing their hard-fought dream in spite of giving all they had to hold on to it.
I was starting to understand exactly how he felt.
"You've been drinking...?" Charles replaced the cell phone on the bedside table, and I put my bags on the loveseat by the window.
"Not much. Just a little wine with dinner. You know, as you do." I shrugged and went through my bag, digging out my nightgown and slippers.
"Are you upset about something?"
The disingenuousness of the question was almost insulting.
"Charles, how do you play at ignorance so well?"
"Come on, Abby." He stood and came over to my side of the bed to stare down at me while I changed clothes.
"You can't honestly be this oblivious." I looked up and met his eyes, daring him to pretend further.
Instead, he sank down to sit beside me and sighed. "This is why I thought we should consider…"
"I know what you've suggested. I've already told you why I don't want that." I got under the coverlet, and Charles kept his back to me while he did the same.
"I'd just feel better, Abby, if I thought you had someone with you when I'm away."
"No, you'd feel better if I said you could have someone with you when you're away. That's what this is all about."
"No, it isn't."
"For all I know, you already have."
I turned onto my side and resisted the urge to sigh.
"I didn't want you to feel this way about it," he said.
"How else would I feel? You're talking about having an affair." I turned to face him and found him staring at the carpet, shaking his head. "And me, giving you the okay."
"No, I'm not."
My throat tightened and I smoothed down my nightgown as I got out of the bed and stood up. I held up one hand and started counting off: "You put down the phone when I come in the room, you stay late at work even if you don't have to, and you get more phone calls than you need from work…"
"That's not proof of anything, Abby. Circumstantial at best."
"Give me time..." I folded my clothes and piled them into the laundry bag. "I'm sure I'll dig up ample evidence soon enough."
After the ride, my teammates' teasing resumed in full force. I endured as best I could until we'd arrived at the hotel once more. Attilio wasn't as aggressive as before; as one of my oldest friends on the team, he knew when I was reaching my limits. James and Phil, not so much. Their good-natured banter was starting to press every button with stunning precision, and I'd nearly had enough.
"Yeah?" My response came out somewhere between a grunt and a sigh as we stepped off the bus and crossed under the canopy in front of the hotel. James didn't seem to notice.
"I was just wondering if I could borrow your magazine sometime. Those of us presently unattached tend to get a little lonely, eh? D'you reckon she'd be amenable to a little – ahem – company?"
"All right; that's it!" I turned on James, heat rushing to my face with my shout. "Just fucking drop it! Give it a fucking rest and show the woman some respect already!"
Startled, James took a couple of paces back, his hands raised defensively. "Whoa, mate, steady on… I was just playing around."
"She's not just some piece of ass, you know."
"I know, I know –"
Phil cut in between us, a goofy smile on his face. "Ciccio, mate – calm down, yeah?"
"I will not! Not until you all lay off of Sunny!"
I became aware of Adrie behind me, his usual calm presence raising my hackles even before he spoke.
"You're overreacting, Chicco."
"Am I?" I spun around to face him. "She's my fiancée, isn't she?"
"It's just a photo – no big deal."
My stomach did a long, slow roll over itself as I considered this. Easy enough for him to say, wasn't it?
"You know, I suppose you're right." I shook my head and turned to go, then faced him again. "By the way…"
"D'you have any pictures of your wife?"
His eyes widened, then narrowed, his jaw setting in a stern line. "Excuse me?"
"Aw, come on, Adrie. It's no big deal, right? Like James said, we get a little lonely, from time to time. Some of us like a little variety, too –"
His hand shot out so fast I hardly saw it coming, his grasp on my jersey threatening to rip the fabric alongside the zipper. I tried to pull away but his hold was too strong.
"Don't alienate everyone, Ciccio," he said, taking obvious care to use my team nickname and not my personal one. "Not unless you don't really want to get within shouting distance of the Royal again. We can all see to that."
Before I could respond, Jerzy's hand landed on Adrie's and parted us with a rough shake. Epithets streamed out of our team manager until he found a common language for both Adrie and myself and focused on it.
It took all my willpower to keep from trying to slap his hand away from me, or to shout the worst, most blasphemous phrases I could think of in return for his abuse. The childish fit of temper faded soon enough, just as Jerzy turned loose of me and spun me away from my teammate, propelling me out of the lobby and toward the stairwell.
“Your rooms, idiots!” he shouted, and I saw the rest of the team flinch, then hesitate before they dispersed. Jerzy had only been addressing Adrie and me, anyway. I took the stairs two at a time, slammed through the door of my room at the end of the hall and went straight into the bathroom to shower.
My anger puzzled me. Why was I running so hot today?
When I reached for the shampoo, I found my hands clenched in fists, my muscles trembling. The unfairness of the situation screamed from every cell in my body. I had to rectify this – and soon – or else I'd burn out before the Tour was half over.
I considered how it would feel to punch the tile wall of the shower stall, imagining how the ceramic would fracture under the bones of my hand, even as my bones did the same.
Then I thought of being unable to ride, for that same ridiculous reason, and how humiliating it would be to miss out because I'd had an injury unrelated to racing. My own stupid temper would be all I had to blame.
In spite of the heat of the water, an icy calm descended over me.
I had to focus.
I had to plan.
I had to win.
That was all I had to do.
I tried not to show I was still upset when I stepped out onto the patio. The murmur of conversation crested and fell as I walked over to take my seat, and I felt the eyes of my teammates follow me every step of the way.
I picked at a salad, my interest in the meal waning with each passing moment. There was too much effort involved in trying to wrap my head around the events of the last twenty-four hours.
Why hadn't Soledad told me there would be that sort of photo shoot? Why hasn't she answered or returned my calls? How did I manage to lose the Royal so soon?
Okay, so some questions had simpler answers than others.
All the same, I had never felt so low.
Adrie settled into a chair nearby, giving me a brief, annoyed glance before turning his attention to his tablemates and his glass of wine.
Rom sat down, a beer in each hand before he slid one over to me. He looked at me quizzically until I picked up the glass and took a grateful sip.
A short while later one of the staff came out with an armful of letters and packages and began handing them out. As he approached my table, he sorted out a smallish box and put it down in front of me. “All the way from Sydney,” he said with a grin before moving on to the next group.
No sooner had I picked it up than Phil and James had seated themselves at my table, Attilio and Goosh close behind.
“What the fuck, guys?” I protested, not yet opening the package.
“Can't we see?”
I sighed, begrudgingly and perversely pleased by their attention, but still dreading any repeats of the night before. “It's personal,” I said, splitting the tape and pulling it back.
“Oh, come on...” Phil wheedled, and James rose from his seat to stand next to me.
"I've got my fingers crossed for something special,” Attilio joked, and James made a show of crossing his fingers, too.
“Pretty panties, pretty panties, pretty panties...” James chanted, his crossed fingers raised up to either side of his face.
I shook my head, resigned myself to their company and continued opening the package. Once I'd opened the flaps of the box, I froze. Crumpled paper on either end of the interior of the box had kept the contents from shifting.
A few pages from a magazine were folded around a smaller box. I took the paper out and unfolded them to find photos of Soledad once again. This time, however, she was dressed in a floor-length evening gown as she clutched the arm of a man I'd never seen before. He certainly wasn't me, anyway.
On the next page was Soledad with the same man, her arms wrapped around his neck while she kissed him passionately in front of a crowd at some sort of premiere. At the bottom of the page I found his name alongside hers: Daniel Conway, fashion photographer.
I reached into the box again, my hands numb, feeling as though I'd been doused with icy water from head to toe. I no longer heard James chanting, no longer felt the jovial curiosity of my teammates clustered closely around me.
My fingers closed around the only other object in the box, the soft velvet sliding slightly underneath my fingertips. I was shaking, praying all the while the guys couldn't see it.
I put the cardboard box back on the table, clutching the velvet box in my other hand.
“Oh, fuck...” Attilio's sentiment was exhaled on a slow, stunned breath. My heart was beating too hard, my mouth had gone too dry. My hands were scarcely under my own control.
I lifted the box up and pulled it close to my chest, slowly prying the halves apart for a glimpse of what was inside.
Not that I didn't know.
A faint sparkle as the diamond caught the light, and I snapped it shut once more.
After turning a corner I stopped short, having seen a familiar but wholly unexpected face, illuminated by the light of a tiny laptop computer. I stepped back behind a tall potted plant, the broad leaves providing the perfect cover for me to study her, to be sure I wasn't mistaken. Seated as she was in a booth in the corner, a single glass of wine on the table next to her computer, she was obviously alone. And it was definitely her.
Abigail. The woman I'd signed the autograph for after the fourth stage, in Lorca.
All the drama with Soledad had pushed Abigail out of my mind for a while, but this glimpse of her was enough to bring everything back: I felt a rush of anticipation with a hint of anxiety trailing behind, just as I had the first time I'd seen her.
My hand was shaking where it rested on the wall. Making a fist, I willed myself to remain steady. A fleeting, desperate image of going to her and giving her the deepest, most passionate kiss I'd ever given faded swiftly from my brain before my shaking ceased.
I'm losing my mind. I'm too stressed. It's crazy to be thinking like this, so soon after what just happened…
I was stunned to find myself standing next to her table, my hands in my pockets in an attempt to look calm and casual. Surely she'd see I was anything but.
"Abigail?" I queried, as though I weren't positive it was her. As though I hadn't memorized her face the first time I'd seen it, or sought a glimpse of her in the crowds before and after the start of the last two stages.
As though she hadn't lingered in the back of my mind nearly every moment since I'd signed that scrap of paper for her.
My mind went completely blank when she raised her eyes to mine, even though she needed a moment to focus them again. The lack of comprehension written there gave my heart a small, sympathetic turn and brought a smile to my face. Behind her dark-framed eyeglasses, her gaze darted to my right and my left, flicked back to her computer screen and then returned to scrutinize me warily.
"You really shouldn't look at a screen like that without better lighting around you," I said, amazing myself. "It's bad for your eyes," I almost sounded like I was thinking clearly.
"Yeah, I know," she said, her voice soft in deference to the relative quiet of the pub, and then she tapped her eyeglasses. "I guess that's why I need these." Two heartbeats later, she added, "You remember me."
That it was a statement and not a question made me feel weak for some reason.
"Of course I remember you." I wondered if she understood the depths of honesty in my words.
She continued looking up at me, her lips parted slightly in a slack expression of surprise. At last she sat up straight and looked around, the darkness around the booth seeming to throw her.
"So, um…" She gestured offhandedly to the seat across from her before she removed her glasses and tucked them away in her handbag. "Would you like to sit down?"
"Ah, yes, thanks." I sat down, hoping no to look too eager. Once more, however, I went hopelessly blank. I couldn't think of anything to say to her.
Before it was too noticeable, a server came over to her – our – table and waited patiently for me to order something.
"Una cervesa, per favor," I said and he disappeared into the darkness from which he'd emerged, presumably to retrieve my drink.
"You speak Spanish?" she asked.
"That was Catalan," I said, and instantly felt like a heel for correcting her. "I hope it was, anyway. My Spanish accent is bad enough I hope it isn't bleeding over…" I trailed off, eternally grateful for the dim lighting to hide my flush of embarrassment.
"So, you speak Catalan?"
"Just enough to order drinks. And to get myself into trouble."
"Wow… I've been speaking miserable high-school Spanish the whole time I've been here." She shook her head and I found the movement almost hypnotic.
The waiter returned and I mumbled appreciative thanks as he placed my glass on a coaster and turned away.
"That's fine, then. I'm sure most people do that, actually. I wouldn't worry about it." I advised her as sincerely and helpfully as I could. Her shy smile made my heart jump and then plunge into my stomach.
Was I crazy? Sitting here with her when anyone could see us, and then word might get back to –
Oh, right. Soledad. Why was I worrying about her? For that matter, why didn't I still feel that dagger twisting my innards?
Abigail reached to close the computer and I leaned forward, my hand resting over hers before I had a chance to stop it. What the hell was I doing?
Her eyes widened in mild surprise and I hesitated, withdrawing my hand a moment later. "What are you working on?" I asked, indicating the laptop with my retreating hand and then folding my numb fingers around my glass.
Suddenly it seemed as if she were the one blushing, her eyes evading mine by returning to the glow of the screen. "Oh, I was just… Nothing."
"Nothing?" A smile crept onto my face and settled in. "Are you sure? That's a lot of equipment for doing nothing."
This time she definitely blushed. Part of me was delighted to see it.
"Well, okay. It's not 'nothing,' exactly. It's my work. Sort of."
I nodded as if I understood, though nothing could have been further from the truth. Then again, I was having difficulty focusing on anything at the moment. Her accent intrigued me, a curious blend of British and what I presumed to be an American twang of some sort, unfamiliar as it was. She could have told me the sky was made of orange juice and I would have nodded along, just to keep her talking.
"I mean," she continued, her gaze sweeping over the table and avoiding mine, "I was reviewing some of my photos."
"Photos?" I echoed, not yet putting the word together with the "work" she'd already mentioned.
She nodded and shrugged. "I take pictures."
"You're a photographer?" I cringed inwardly. When did I develop a gift for stating the obvious?
She nodded again, with what appeared to be greater confidence. "Yes, I am. I'm shooting the stages of the Tour. The starts and, uh, the finishes, mostly."
The way she'd stumbled over "finishes" gave me a fleeting pain. My last finish hadn't been my best, after all.
"Could I perhaps see what you were working on?" I'd had no idea I was going to say it until the words were out there, lingering between us over the table. Besides, did I really want to see visual proof of me losing the Royal?
It was too late now, regardless.
"Um… If you really want to, I guess."
Again without thinking, I slid out of the booth and went over to her side, even as she half-turned the tiny computer toward me. A moment of awkward hesitation followed: should I sit back in the booth I'd just vacated, or sit next to her even though she hadn't exactly invited me?
Beh. In for a penny, in for a pound, as the Brits say.
I slid in beside her when she made room for me and turned the computer back toward us. Blessedly, my ego was momentarily spared: the image on the screen was not of me but of Schlessinger and Brunn's finish. It was a fantastic shot, the sort of thing one might manage once in a lifetime – but when she stroked the key to advance to the next picture, I realized it wasn't a fluke. The second picture was of the peloton arriving, a crisp, brilliant capture of the colors and expressions of every team member in the forefront. Everything else was blurred, giving the illusion of movement on the page.
I watched the screen while she continued clicking through the pictures, one by one. Finally she reached one and clicked swiftly past it, deliberately I thought, before the image had time to register in my mind.
"Wait, wait… Go back? I didn't see that one." I glanced over at her, my eyes adjusting from the bright glow of the screen to the ambient light it created, and found her finger trembling where it hovered over the keypad.
She pressed the key and I turned back to the screen to find a photo of myself after the initial time trial, lying on the ground, surrounded by the team staff and doctor. It was quite close up – enough to make me strangely self-conscious.
"The time trial," she said, and I turned to face her again. "It's one of my favorites."
"Why is that?" I asked, looking at the photo again.
She shrugged, her arm brushing mine as she did so. I realized she was leaning in to look at the photo, too, and I shifted my shoulder so we were almost facing each other, our necks craned to study the screen.
"You just look… I don't know… so vulnerable. I wanted to help you, some –" Falling silent, she turned away from me and I felt an indescribable pull in my chest, next to my heart.
An embarrassed smile formed on my lips and I made a point of keeping my gaze on the screen.
"Thanks," I said quietly, when I knew she'd turned back toward me. I cleared my throat and clicked through a few more photos on my own while she folded her hands in her lap. "I suppose this explains why I couldn't find you – you were behind a camera all the time."
No sooner had I realized what I'd said than my cell phone rang in my pocket. For a single, foolish moment, I hoped it was Soledad.
...I sank back down into my pillows and pulled the blanket up over my shoulder, thinking to the night before, in the pub.
I still couldn't believe he'd come in there, or that he'd remembered me from Lorca, and had come over to speak with me. It was unreal to think he'd sat with me and admired my photos, or that we'd chatted as amiably as though we'd known each other for a while already.
But the proof was right there in my handbag, on my little hobby camera. How I'd found the nerve to ask for a photo of him, I'd never know. But I had.
After he'd left the pub, I'd sat there for an age looking at the picture. I put it in a separate file on the computer and looked at it on the screen in a haze of disbelief.
He was just as I'd thought he'd be: handsome and charming, very relaxed and comfortable with himself. Even now I silently prayed that he hadn't noticed how nervous I'd been when he approached me, or when he sat next to me in the booth.
I covered my face with my hands, unable to keep myself from recalling the soft, spicy scent of his cologne, or the warmth of him when we'd sat so close together. My stomach did a little flip way down low, and my throat tightened.
Reaching out for Charles' pillow, I pulled it close and inhaled his scent off it, drawing his smell deep into my lungs. Still I fancied Renard's cologne clung to the back of my throat, and I squinted my eyes shut against the sudden burn behind them.
I didn't want this. I really didn't.
No matter how I tried, I couldn't shake any of it away.
How stupid I was! Nearly forty years old and I was crushing on some good-looking guy like a teenager! No wonder Charles' "boyfriend" taunts irritated me so much – they felt too true.
"I never had a boyfriend like that, though," I said quietly to the empty room, and laughed a little. That felt good; laughing made me feel a little less like maybe I might be losing my mind in some mid-life hormonal surge.
That innocent encounter the night before had been enough to keep me from reaching a deep sleep for most of the night. When I had slept, I'd dreamed of him – nothing out of bounds, just reliving the conversation we'd had, again and again.
I heard footsteps out in the corridor and released Charles' pillow, then rolled back onto my side. I tried to push the memories away: of my dream, of the pub, of whatever it was we'd talked about…
Regardless, Renard's response to what I'd said about the photo after the time trial continued to echo in the back of my mind. The softness of his voice in that moment, the simplicity of what he'd said; was it crazy for me to put so much weight on a single "Thanks"?
Why did it mean so much to me, anyway?
Charles' key in the lock seemed to shake loose another memory, and I shivered pleasantly in spite of myself, clutching the covers closer as I remembered what Renard had said next:
"I suppose this explains why I couldn't find you."
And now, the *real* reason you come to my blog entries.
I'm not silly enough to think you come for the story excerpts, after all. ;-)
So, let's get to him, shall we?
Ciao for now! :)