Authors: Elizabeth O'Roark
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth O’Roark
Editing by Jennifer Roberts-Hall
Cover Design by Kari March Designs
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
my first day at a new college and I’m dragging my feet like it’s an execution. Which makes sense since the man I’ll meet today has the ability to end my life. Life as I know it, anyway.
I seek out the dining hall first, using the crappy, copied map the school sent me last month. Athletes are provided a dining plan whether they live on campus or not. Given that I’ve spent the past three months eating nothing but eggs and ramen, this is probably a good thing.
I get my food and sit alone with the exact breakfast I have every day during the school year: one scrambled egg, plain oatmeal, and one apple. I eat the apple first, praying I can hold it down.
I already know that today’s meeting can't possibly go well. After the incident at my last school, it was a shock that
team would have me, and I’m pretty sure my new coach is about to make his reservations clear. The best case is a series of warnings and threats, and the worst is that he lays out conditions I can’t possibly agree to.
They wanted you
, I remind myself.
They gave you a scholarship. It won’t be that bad.
Somehow I just don’t believe it.
The athletic department is housed in a vast building that dwarfs almost any other on campus. It lets you know in no uncertain terms what matters most at East Colorado University. I suppose I should be grateful for this fact since it’s the reason I’ve got a scholarship.
There’s no wariness on the secretary’s face when she tells me I can go in, which means she must be one of maybe 10 people in the world of collegiate sports who don’t know what I did. Most people watch me now as if I’m a rabid animal or that snake in Malaysia, the one whose bite is so deadly you collapse only a few feet from the site of the attack.
There's no doubt, as I enter the room, that the two men in front of me know
what has happened. They're already looking at me sternly—narrowed eyes, arms folded—which means I’m already sort of pissed off.
I brace myself for the lecture I know is coming because I have no other choice. Peter McEwan, the track coach in front of me, is the stuff of legends, and I
a legend right now. People used to call me a “gifted” runner. They spoke of my potential in awed voices. Now they don’t.
But McEwan needs a legend too. ECU hasn’t had a winning women’s track team in nearly a decade, which is why they’ve incurred the vast risk of offering me a scholarship.
They need me to find that thing, whatever it is I’ve lost, almost as much as I do.
I’m willing to act contrite right now for the chance to work with him. I’ll even pretend I’m sorry. But I’m not prepared to do so for the other one. He’s not much older than me and looks like he should be posing for the cover of
instead of sitting there scowling. He leans back in his chair, blue eyes glittering like ice on his tan face, a smug lilt to his mouth that sets my teeth on edge. I'll let McEwan lecture me, but I'll be damned if I'm going to kiss this guy’s ass.
Keep glaring at me, asshole. See how far that gets you.
McEwan rises from his chair and greets me with a handshake. "This is my colleague, Will Langstrom," he says, motioning to the guy beside him. Langstrom shakes my hand, but his eyes remain narrowed and unwelcoming.
He towers over me, and between his size and the way he is looking at me—like I just drowned some small pets for fun—Langstrom feels like a threat. People either cower or lash out when threatened, and I’ll give you one guess what camp I belong to.
This is bad.
"Olivia," he says.
"I go by Finn." I meet his eyes once before I look away.
I don't need your approval, dickhead.
"Will is the coach for the women's cross country team," McEwan adds.
Oh shit. I do need his approval. Shit, shit, shit.
This is news to me, but did I really think Peter McEwan was going to coach me personally? I know he has his hand in the entire coaching program, but talk about equal rights all you want, no school is wasting a revered coach on the women’s team.
"You have two years until graduation," McEwan continues, "and whether we can make something of your ability before then is entirely in his hands and yours."
I shift uncomfortably. I can't say I love the phrase "make something of your ability.” I still hold three course records. Wasn't that something
of my ability? Am I going to have to keep proving myself for fucking ever?
"I don't feel we need to go over what happened between you and your former teammate," he intones. My spine relaxes, just a little. "I do, however, need to make sure you understand that it can't happen here." I nod again, hands clasped in my lap.
. "And we're not going to wait until you've hospitalized someone before we kick you out of here," he warns. "We get even a hint of that temper and you're packing your bags. Understood?"
Not show a hint of temper? Impossible.
You’re on the verge of 'a hint' right now.
I somehow manage to nod my agreement.
“The other thing is your
,” he says. “According to the reports from your last coach, they had a huge impact on your ability to practice. That can’t happen here, understand?”
He has no idea what my extracurricular activities really were. How they were so much worse than what he’s imagining. How I couldn’t stop them if I tried. And believe me,
Just when I think the meeting is over, it gets worse. McEwan stands and says he’ll give me and Langstrom time to chat. My throat grows dry watching him walk out the door, and once it closes I reluctantly turn back to my new coach, who I already fucking hate.
"I don't want you here," he says flatly. "I'm not buying this whole good-girl-made-a-mistake crap. You nearly killed someone."
I stare at the ground, at anything but him, trying to rein myself in. I brace myself, tighten my thighs and my biceps, draw everything in so that I don't explode.
Fuck you fuck you fuck you
. Why should I have to listen to this guy anyway? He’s tall and broad, the body of a swimmer or football player, not a runner. I wouldn't tell a mechanic how to change my oil, so why should this guy get to tell me how to run?
"I'm curious," he says. "Are you even sorry?"
People always ask me this, but they don’t really want an answer. They simply want to remind me that I
be sorry. And I am. I'm sorry I lost my scholarship. I'm sorry I had to leave and that I’ll never run for a Division 1 school again. But I'm not sorry I did it. When I think of Mark Bell, with his smug smile and that ugly thing behind his eyes, it’s hard to feel much regret.
I’m going to try not to say that last bit out loud.
"I didn't mean to hurt him as badly as I did," I mutter. It's the one true statement I can offer that doesn't make me sound like a sociopath.
"That's not really the same thing as being sorry," he says.
No, it's not, asshole.
"Your running is crap. You haven't placed better than third in nearly two years, and the last time you ran a 4:30 mile was three years ago. I think you've lost it."
These are words I hear in my own head daily. "I can get it back," I tell him. "I just need to apply myself."
He crosses his arms in front of his chest. He has particularly nice biceps, which would totally distract me if we were having a different conversation. "You're a liability and I don't feel like taking time away from really talented athletes so that you can 'apply' yourself, but Peter sees something in you. Claims you're a diamond in the rough."
The words console me, momentarily. Peter McEwan thinks I'm a diamond in the rough. That's got to be worth something.
His mouth goes to a flat line. "I disagree.”
If I were a smarter girl, I’d pack my bags right now. Because one of us has to go, and I’m guessing it won’t be him.
hree guys sit
along a brick wall outside the athletics building as I walk out. "Hey, new girl!" one of them shouts. Athletes are cockier than the general population. They don't worry about being shot down as much as everyone else.
I stop, letting my dark hair swing over my shoulder as I turn my head toward them. It's soothing that no matter how much I fuck up, I still always have this one thing. Being attractive is the next best thing to a superpower. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card, causing men to overlook my many other terrible qualities.
And I have so, so many terrible qualities.
"Yes?" I ask with an eyebrow raised.
They all grin like naughty children, and the boldest one saunters forward. "So you're new here?" he asks as he catches up with me.
"I thought we'd established that." He's hot. Broad. Football player. I like that. A skinny runner’s build does nothing for me.
"I'm Landon," he says, and inwardly I flinch. Landon is a private school name, one of those kids who wears a pink collared polo shirt and beats up gay kids after class. But he’s cute. The whole super-all-American boy thing isn't necessarily my type, but after a few beers I have a whole lot of types.
“Hi, Landon," I reply, but I keep walking because men love to chase. And he chases. Of course he does. They are all so fucking predictable.
"You didn't tell me your name," he says, catching up.
"You didn't ask."
"Okay, what's your name?"
He stops in his tracks and I keep walking. "That's a boy's name!" he shouts.
"I know.” I laugh.
"I want you to be my girlfriend, Finn!”
Yeah. I know that, too.
that girl on my team.
From the moment she walked through Peter’s door, I knew it. The music from “Jaws” could have been playing and it wouldn’t have felt more ominous.
It’s mind-boggling that Peter brought her onto the team at all. She took a bat to another member of her own team, for Christ's sake. Even if her talent could make up for that, she’s hit-or-miss at best. Moments of brilliance followed by months and months of mediocrity.
“She’s nothing but trouble,” I tell him after she’s gone. I try to make my voice neutral, try to disguise my vehemence because even I realize that it exceeds anything close to reasonable.
"You need a frontrunner," Peter says. "Someone who's going to make your girls think they've got a shot. Someone they're going to work for."
Peter is the one who's been doing my job for 25 years, who's made a national—hell, an
name for himself. He could have left us for a Division 1 school decades ago. Peter is the expert.
But Jesus, this time he's just wrong.
"We've got Betsy," I say. His snort of derision says it all: Everyone hates Betsy. She’s arrogant, a bully, and only marginally faster than the other girls but acting like she’s the star. Everyone's just too scared of her to say otherwise.
"Okay, but Finnegan? You think
going to inspire loyalty? She makes Betsy sound like Mother Teresa."
"Have you ever seen her run?” he asks.
I shake my head. I’d graduated from college two years before she entered. I heard her name a few years ago when she was a freshman and people thought she was the next big thing. And then the whispers faded and everyone forgot, including me. I wish I could have continued forgetting.
"She's unbelievable.” He sounds slightly awestruck. "When she wants to be, she makes the rest of the field look like they're in slow motion.”
“Well, she hasn't been unbelievable in a long time," I counter, "and she sure as hell doesn't seem like the type who pulls people together."
Peter smiles. "Who better to teach her how to do it than you?”
It was not a job I wanted, and now that I’ve seen her it’s
not a job I want. That girl isn't just trouble of the not-a-team-player, not-a-reliable-runner variety. She's trouble of the devious, manipulative, too-fucking-hot-for-her-own good variety. Sashaying into Peter's office like a runway model, all long-legged and tan with big green eyes and a knowing smile. She's the kind of girl who causes trouble merely by existing, and then makes sure to cause more.
And the last thing I need right now is more trouble.