13 Excerpts from 27 Stages
"Why not leave it? I mean, we're only going to be down here a short while. Surely you could just return any missed calls?"
He hesitated, his hands momentarily frozen over his pockets, his expression blank. I understood at once the source of his agitation. He was expecting a call.
Scratch that. He was expecting her call.
"Fine," I said, pretending not to notice his guilty composure. "Go on up. I'll take my time over the menu, then."
Another hesitation, and then he was walking away from our table with obvious restraint.
I sat quietly, unsure how to feel. Charles had never before been quite so transparent about her. Part of me was quite hurt by this, and yet part of me was relieved. Of course, now I had my own mental diversion, and while it wasn't exactly the same it did seem to ease the pain a bit.
There was scarcely more than a moment for me to consider this before a sizeable group of men passed through the dining room and headed toward the exit. Stunned, I sat and watched them file by, chatting amongst themselves while their names ticked off a mental list, one by one: Meijer, Browdowski, Mendoza, Mendoza…
How was it possible we'd stayed in the same hotel and I hadn't even known it?
So much for any "psychic connections," then. I had to smile at my silliness, and that was when Renard passed by the table, one hand raised in a subtle greeting. My smile stayed in place even as my heartbeat sped up and my own hands shook on my lap.
He didn't seem to notice – he only smiled and continued out to the lobby. He glanced back at me before stepping through the doorway, and I heard the rumbling of what I presumed to be the team bus outside the front doors of the hotel.
"No way should that stage have taken us out like it did. You've all been letting things slide, acting on your own, not following orders." Jerzy turned his cold gaze to Rom, who ducked his head onto his chest. No understanding of English was necessary to know how he'd screwed up, and no doubt the message hit home. "This is what happens. As of today, you get one hour of free time after dinner. That's all."
Adrie's scowl behind Jerzy's back surely hadn't gone unnoticed by the rest of the team, but no-one would rat him out. Any rider with a family, or at the very least a girlfriend, was bound to resent such a limit on the time we could spend with them privately.
With surprising calm, Adrie cleared his throat, and Jerzy slowly turned to face him. James tensed next to me, and Alvaro, seated next to Adrie, shifted his seat away to one side after a skyward glance.
"You have something to add, Major?"
"What about our families? An hour a day is hardly enough time to spend with my wife and my daughter, and we all know there will be days we don't see them at all, anyway."
Silence spooled out in the meeting room, and I wondered if anyone else had neglected to breathe, as I had. As quietly as I could, I drew a long breath, waiting to hear Jerzy's response.
"I'm being generous. I could make it one hour a week," he said, and turned again to face the rest of us. "You all need discipline; that's clear. You should be supporting the team leaders, and instead, you fell apart!"
I couldn't help bristling at the plural. Leaders? I screamed mentally. That's the whole fucking problem!
"As far as families go – I don't want to keep any of you away from them. If you want to be with your family, go." He gestured toward the door and Adrie dropped his gaze to the table. "If you stay, you need to remember this: I am your father, your brother, your best friend – even your mother! I am your family. This team is your family. You depend on them, and they depend on you."
The composure with which he spoke was chilling. This was not ranting Jerzy, not blustering or manic Jerzy.
This was Jerzy at his angriest, and I'd never been more aware of walking on a knife-edge than I was then. The rest of the team seemed to be, too. No one spoke, whispered or so much as coughed in the silence that followed.
"Get out to the bus. Now."
Jerzy stalked away, and we all stood, not a chair scraping across the tiled floor before we filed out as quietly as possible.
I laughed and shook my head. "He'd never believe me if I tried to."
"What, that I apologized?"
"No, that I sat here with you as if we knew each other or something. He'd never believe it. I mean, I hardly believe it myself."
He smiled again and my heart lifted.
"We do know each other, don't we? You're Abigail. I'm Federico."
"Acquaintances at best," I said, drawing the words out and shaking my head. I didn't want to delude myself into believing anything too far-fetched, even if he was encouraging it.
"Yes, but…. It has to start somewhere, doesn't it?"
He licked his lips, took another drink and set his glass back on its coaster with exaggerated care.
"Friendship," he said with an air of finality, his gaze meeting and holding mine. "And don't you think these coincidences are enough to show maybe we could be friends?"
Or something else altogether, if your eyes are saying what I think they are.
I pushed the idea aside and tried to focus on the inherent sweetness of the statement he'd just made. Friendship was a lovely option, wasn't it?
"Well, going back to the hotel thing…" I began, unsure why I wanted to return to the topic.
"Where is the team staying tonight? That is to say, I doubt we're in the same place again, but it's probably a good idea to be sure."
He laughed quietly, nodding, and I understood he wanted to put me at ease. Something changed in that moment and he ceased to be "Renard" in my mind, becoming "Federico" instead.
That's one step closer to something, but what?
Behind me, Schlessinger barked a short, disapproving laugh. I glanced back at him and returned my focus to the ride, only to have him pull alongside. I paid no attention to him, but let him get ahead of me and take his turn at the head of the group.
Brunn looked back at me, shrugged, and when the time came he took over at the head of the group again.
"You never did answer my question, Ciccio," Schlessinger said, dropping behind me once more.
"Which question was that?" I asked, filling my voice with as much bored disinterest as I could.
"How's your girlfriend?"
A ripple of chuckles went through the group around me, but I pretended not to notice. Evidently, word had gotten around.
Now I understood who had sent the magazine to me at the hotel.
I took my time answering him, prolonging my silence by taking a long drink from my water bottle, then meticulously replacing it in its cage. It was my turn to lead again, and I did, noting Brunn's questioningly-raised eyebrow as I passed him.
I waited until my turn was over, and then Schlessinger's, before responding.
"She's fine. I wish her the best."
Charles rubbed his eyes slowly, then lowered his hand to the tabletop. "Abby…"
I stiffened. What on earth was coming, now?
He took a deep breath and looked out the window again. "I might have to go home."
"Why?" I asked, my heart pounding so hard it hurt. Was he going to tell me about the other woman? Was he going to ask for a divorce? Should I be feeling almost eager to hear, one way or the other?
"Work, darling. Always for work."
There were no words. I sat in silence for what felt like an eternity before a question finally formed.
"When were you thinking of going?"
"I thought we'd leave from Torino."
"Of course, 'we'. I couldn't possibly leave you here alone, following that bunch of miscreants –"
"I'm not going home. Not until the Tour is over."
"Abby, be reasonable-"
"I am. If you need to go home, then go home, but I'm not going with you. I'm following this through, all the way to Paris."
He sighed again, and I resisted the urge to stand and slap him. "Abby, Abby… Of all the things to see through, you pick this?"
For just a moment, I hated him. The moment passed, but it passed slowly.
Because I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, I thought. Not even the desk clerks saw me go by on my way to the front doors.
I stepped out and watched the entrance of the restaurant across the street. I was suddenly sure that were I to simply start walking across the street – without so much as a glance in either direction – no harm would come to me.
Still, I checked. No point in pushing my luck and getting mown down by a bus.
Once I'd crossed I glanced back at my own hotel, fully expecting to see Jerzy at his window, scowling down at me. Or perhaps waiting at the front door with a hangman's noose in his hand. Or the bucket.
I shivered a little, unable to stop, and then went inside.
"Abby," I said, my lips forming my own name in spite of the fact I couldn't feel them, any more. "My friends call me Abby."
That smile again – innocent, not sly or seductive – and I couldn't pull my gaze away. I was distantly aware of the heat rising to my cheeks. And a few other places, as well.
My heart was pounding to the point I almost couldn't hear when he spoke again. The din of rushing blood in my ears and the rattling of suitcases as they were pulled through the lobby behind me had rendered me nearly deaf.
Then he rested his hand on my arm, just below the short sleeve of my t-shirt, and I snapped out of my daze.
"Abby," he said, my name sounding awkward as he used it for the first time. "Could I buy you a coffee, or something? I'd like to see more of your photos, if I may." His eyes flicked in the direction of my computer bag, and I followed a moment behind, uncomprehending.
"Oh," I said, half-laughing as I understood at last. "Of course you can. We could go in the restaurant here, or in the bar in the back. I think they might have some booths free."
"Perfect." He started across the foyer with me, one hand rising to touch the back of my arm, just above my elbow. It was an innocent, gentlemanly gesture, nothing more, but it sent a small shock through me.
When I reached my floor, I paused, forcing myself to take slow, deep breaths until I could hear the air-conditioning hum echoing around me. There was no other sound on the floor, as far as I could tell.
I opened the door carefully and poked my head out, harbouring a momentary, insane desire for a mirror to check around the corners with. No sign of Jerzy. He wasn't lurking behind the decorative ficus, nor was he standing by the door to my room. The corridor was completely empty.
Easing the stairwell door shut behind me, I took a few tentative steps toward my room, the keycard against my palm now slicked with sweat.
More silence. Only silence. The quiet padding of my trainers across the carpeted floor barely registered. A sudden, blatting fart – reminiscent of an angry duck's quack! – made me jump as I passed James and Phil's room.
I bit down on my lower lip, hard, to stop the laughter which threatened to erupt. I didn't know if I wanted to laugh because of the noise, or because the noise had actually startled me.
I had to be crazy. This was the biggest risk I'd ever taken – none of my races even compared to this. I knew as well as anyone that Jerzy's wrath wasn't something to be trifled with – contract or no contract, if he wanted you off the team, you were gone.
And here I'd acted against his very explicitly-expressed wishes. I'd broken one of his biggest rules by defying the team curfew.
I shivered at the thought as Charles replaced the receiver in the cradle of the phone. The bed sank beneath his weight as he shifted and stood up, and I pulled the covers up over my shoulder. I listened to him padding to the window, heard the shick of the curtains opening and the soft patter of rain against the windowpane.
"Abby, you need to get up. We'll want to leave for Avignon as soon as possible this morning."
I ducked under the covers a bit more, sighing. He was right. The stage was starting there today, and it wasn't likely we'd arrive early enough to beat most of the crowds. Perhaps I'd have to shoot further along the route instead?
I shook my head. The logistics alone made it unlikely that Charles would agree to change any plans at this late hour.
With a groan, I extracted myself from the covers and shuffled across the room. My lack of sleep the night before was going to be problematical. Charles laughed softly behind me and I turned to face him.
"What?" I asked, allowing myself a smile at the sound of his gentle mirth.
"You're becoming an old fart like me, darling. The late nights aren't agreeing with you as much as they used to, eh?"
"I guess not." I nodded, stepping onto the cool, tiled floor of the bathroom. "Maybe I just need to get back into the habit?"
He stood in the doorway while I took off my nightgown. I felt his gaze, steadily assessing, slide over me while I turned on the water in the tub and pulled the lever to send the water up to the showerhead. I stood straight and faced him, making no attempt to hide myself. Why should I? He'd seen everything a thousand times before, and had shown his appreciation just a few days ago, hadn't he?
And yet… The desire to cover myself up, a perverse demure impulse, flitted through me. The words were there, on the tip of my tongue, waiting to be spoken.
Who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you go?
And the worst, most painful question of all came as he turned away, half-smiling.
What did I do wrong?
I don't really believe in luck – good or bad – but I couldn't deny the feeling which had wrapped itself around me this morning. Aware I was smiling again, I wondered if I looked as oblivious and simpleminded as I feared I might.
The day came into sharp focus: the green of the mountains, the white peaks in the distance, the deep grey of the tarmac rolling slowly beneath our wheels all had a clarity which I would have sworn wasn't there moments before. The air itself was crisp and sharp, magnifying the approaching summit until it seemed as though we were there a thousand times over.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, her voice was whispering her name to me.
She was in Grenoble by now. She was waiting.
I had to reach her. Forget everything else.
And if I happened to snatch a little time and close the gap a bit? If I happened to get a bit closer to the Royal in the process? All the better.
It was a foolish way to address the situation, but there it was. I'd made my choice by not saying anything. It was already too late. Whenever I told him (tomorrow? the day after? the day after that, when he left?), there was no way to know how he'd react.
We'd have to hash this out eventually, but I was reluctant to set it all in motion.
Or I could just go home with him and be done with it.
I shook my head. No, that would never do. I'd hate myself forever if I did. How many dreams did I have to let die to find the dream I wanted most? I'd given up the idea of children when his career made it clear I'd be raising them alone, and now it was nearly too late. I'd passed on owning a photo lab in our small town because he felt it was too risky and besides, "The chemist's got that covered, hasn't he?" Artistic photography? Too arty-farty and I'd need a proper patron in order to make it work. "And what would you photograph, anyway? Backsides and landscapes?"
I sighed, remembering. He'd methodically shot down each and every one of them with stunning accuracy. I still didn't understand why he'd gone along with the Tour project. Maybe because the magazine had liked my demo shots and put up some funding for this project? Or maybe because his job had all but pushed him to take a holiday in the first place?
Most likely he'd thought I'd get bored and abandon it, just like I'd done with other half-hearted projects in the past; furniture refinishing, an attempt at watercolour paintings of landscapes, volunteering at the local crafts club.
But this was different. This was my passion reborn, but he couldn't see it at all.
He couldn't see the changes in me, either. I reckon we'd grown too far apart for him to see me clearly any more.
Was it possible I had no idea what she was talking about? Did she mean the AvantMode – if one pardoned the unfortunate choice of word – spread?
Abby blushed again, deeper this time.
"I saw the photos of her with that Conway person. They were on the entertainment news on TV, too."
"They were?" I asked, strangely incredulous.
Abby nodded, guiltily this time. "Yes. Some sort of art show or premiere or something? I hadn't heard anything about that until today. You're taking it rather well, though."
"Well, you know. I wish her the best. Really, I do. She'd never have been happy with me, anyway."
I don't know why I said it, but as soon as I had, I realized it was true. Solange had hated cycling – she hated most sports, except for figure skating and diving competitions – and she had admitted it from the start. That was, once her gig as a Tour d'Europa podium girl was over, of course. It wouldn't have done for the public to know that the smiling girl in the royal blue dress, giving kisses to each cyclist on the podium, thought that the sport itself was boring and the competitors were egotistical bastards (her words, not mine).
"How can you say that?" Abby's face held a sincere confusion which I found both puzzling and endearing. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
"I'm not being hard on myself," I said, and a small chuckle wormed its way out of me. "Honestly. It's very kind of you to defend me, though. Even if it is against myself."
"Well, you seem like a decent enough person to me. I mean, you're nice, you're accessible, you're attra-" She cut herself short, but not before I understood what she was about to say.
The ever-deepening flush in her cheeks only confirmed it.
"Maybe I'm not so nice, Abby."
"What do you mean?" she asked, turning the computer so she could see it without looking up at me.
"The fact I've hardly thought about her the last couple of days should mean something, shouldn't it?"
The team came into the lobby while I was sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs by the dining hall entrance, just passing the time before I went up to get changed for dinner. I put away my computer, resisting the urge to go up to Federico and…do what? Throw my arms around him and kiss him? Ask him to take me away?
I shook my head and laughed to myself. Ridiculous. I'm absolutely ridiculous.
But when I got up to leave, he turned around and spotted me as though he'd expected me to be there all along.
Stopping short, I stood there, his gaze holding mine across the lobby's parquet flooring and wooden furnishings. In spite of the chaos of a couple dozen people checking in at once, the lobby seemed silent and still. He broke eye contact with me to face the receptionist and take the keycard she'd slid across the desk to him, and then he turned and pushed through his teammates in order to come over and join me.
A swift rush of dizziness came over me and I realized I'd stopped breathing for a moment. I drew a long, deep breath before he stepped up to me, smiling his usual sweet, warm smile.
And there you have an additional thirteen excerpts from 27 Stages.
I hope you've enjoyed them.
I'm working hard to get the book finished and then, of course, out for all you fine readers to enjoy in its entirety.
In the meantime, I'll have to give the ladies a little something to tide them over.
Just a little somethin'-somethin'.