HEART POUNDING, Mal Harrison stood outside Coach Mather’s office door. He licked his lips, looking at Mather’s secretary. She flicked him a grim look, and his gut twisted.
He’d just finished his latest swim meet, and although he was being mentally tough and fighting off negative thoughts—something every athlete who made it to the Olympics had to learn how to do—the frustration he’d been living with was rising like smoke from a growing fire. He trained hard, very hard. He was focused. So why had he come in third again?
He went over the event in his head, seeing his turns were still his weakness despite the way he worked out over and over again to improve them. Maybe Coach Mather wanted to cover that with him again? Mal swallowed thickly, hoping that was the case.
After a moment Mather’s secretary nodded to him stiffly. “You can go in, Mr. Harrison.”
Mal nodded, taking a deep breath the way he did before an event with stiff competition. He reminded himself of everything he’d accomplished in some very tough years. Everything he’d sacrificed. How discreet he tried to be about how hard he partied when he wasn’t working out all the time—he knew it stemmed from his frustration. And finally he reminded himself in the duffel in his hotel room was an Olympic gold medal for the backstroke.
But that didn’t stop him from smoothing his still-water-slick hair back from his face before he reached for the doorknob; something told him when he walked over this threshold again, everything would be different.
COACH MATHER leaned back from his desk, his steel-gray gaze on Mal. He ran a hand over his jaw and then cleared his throat, saying the words Mal dreaded: “You’re off the team, Harrison. I’m… sorry.”
Mal’s face stiffened like a pale, sweating mask as he held the coach’s uncompromising gaze.
He knew this was it. He was officially washed up at age twenty-three. He wouldn’t be competing for Olympic gold in two years in the butterfly and backstroke events.
“Coach, if it’s about coming in third today….” Mal leaned forward. He held on to his dignity with his fingernails, taking another deep gulp of air and fighting tears. He couldn’t stop pushing now, even knowing it was useless.
“It’s about coming in third for almost a year, Mal,” Coach Mather said flatly. “I’m really sorry, son. You push hard—maybe too hard. Lately I don’t feel like you have the passion for it anymore, so believe it or not, this may be the best thing for you—a fresh start. What will you do now?”
Mal swallowed, fighting the need to throw up. He rubbed his stomach through his T-shirt, feeling sweat prickle his underarms and his upper lip.
“Go home, I guess,” he said, his voice echoing dully in the coach’s office. “Hey, good news is at least I don’t have to shave my body hair anymore,” he quipped weakly.
A second too late, he asked himself why he’d said something that inane. Fighting the swell of emotions that felt like seawater right up to his neck, Mal stared blankly at the wall as the coach gave him a few suggestions on what he might do next. Teach, for one. He was an invaluable asset—just not to his team.
Or he could start a business. A sporting store or club. A lot of former athletes did that. Or there was always school.
He had the rest of his life to figure it out. He was really a lucky man, not a washed-up ex-swimmer.
And the words echoed mockingly because Mal felt completely blank: the rest of his life.
ALONE IN his room later, Mal sat on the bed, a page from his grandmother Nan’s latest letter in his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, not wanting to cry. He’d have to call her. He’d let her down.
But when he looked at her letter again, he reread something she’d written: “More and more you don’t sound happy to me, Mal. Are you sure this is truly what you want to do? I have a feeling if you just came home, you’d find what it is you are looking for….”
Nan had pressed him to think about the bigger picture of his life more than once, but Mal had blown her off. He shifted so he was sitting with his back to the headboard of his bed, looking out at the cold, winking lights of New York City that never seemed to go out.
At least he could still go back to Nan and to Sylvan, the little farm town he was so desperate to escape as a teen.
He lifted the gold medal out of his duffel, fingering the disc as he remembered winning it at a very young age. Maybe he wasn’t as successful as his other teammates, but he had this.
After a moment he reached for his phone. Nan had always accepted him. She knew who he was, and unlike him, she didn’t struggle with the fact he was gay. He knew she’d take this in stride also, welcome him home. Back under her roof and with her loving support, he’d somehow figure out what to do.
The line rang a long time, and then Jed Morris, Nan’s nearest neighbor, answered. Weird, Mal thought. Why was he—?
“Mal, that you?” Jed asked, though he had surely recognized Mal’s voice.
“Yeah, is everything all right? I want to speak to Nan,” Mal said, his belly knotting up again, though this time, he wasn’t sure why.
“Mal.” Jed’s voice was heavy. “Son, I have some bad news….”
THE TRUCK driver who gave him a ride let Mal off on an unpaved road. Mal got out, stiff from sitting for so long, and banged on the cab in thanks, then watched the rig pick up speed, leaving him. He felt very small standing in the shadow of the bleached wooden grain elevators. They towered like sentinels over the yellow-and-green-striped fields that stretched out like a carpet all the way to the purple foothills.
He put his duffel over his shoulder and pushed back his black hair from his eyes before he started walking. He was probably two miles away from Sylvan Lake and Nan’s cottage by the water.
Wearing jeans so worn they were white and a pair of his old cowboy boots he’d dug out of his storage locker, Mal walked past some fenced-in grazing cows. A curious calf trotted close, watching his shadow as it passed by at a laconic pace.
The hot July sun, the huge bowl sky—everything was home, even the choking dust that rose in the wake of a car that passed him, going much too fast on the country road.
Just ahead Mal saw someone dart into the center of the road, and the speeding vehicle swerved, music blaring.
“Shit!” Mal dropped his duffel and sprinted ahead, seeing with disgust the unknown driver hadn’t even stopped, just picked up more speed. Couldn’t be from around here, that was for damn sure.
He knelt next to an old man with gray hair in his eyes who had fallen in the center of the road, panting. His elbows and hands were raw and scraped from the tumble he’d taken to avoid the car. When Mal’s shadow fell on him, blocking the hot yellow ball of sun, he blinked up at Mal through dazed eyes.
“Hey, mister,” Mal said gently. He reached out and took the elderly man’s arm. “Are you all right? You might want to move off the road.”
“Road?” the man asked, looking around, obviously confused. Had he hit his head somehow? “You tricked me, didn’t you?”
Mal shook his head, helping the old boy climb to his feet and then guiding him to the sandy side of the road. “No, I didn’t trick you. Uh, are you alone out here, mister?”
“I don’t know….” The man sounded abruptly frightened, and Mal’s throat tightened in sympathy. Lately everything hurt. Everything got to him where he lived.
“Don’t worry, I’ll help you,” he said.
“Oh, here’s Leif!” The elderly man pointed to a tall man running toward them on the dirt road, his hair flashing silver. As he got closer, Mal could see it was silver-blond, not gray. He must have been about six four, wearing a blue work shirt plastered to a muscled chest, and jeans as well as work boots. He was also deeply tanned, with crow’s feet at the corner of his pale eyes.
“Papa!” he huffed, taking the older man’s arm and pulling him away from Mal. “What are you doing? You said you’d wait for me in the truck.”
Mal stuck his hands in his pockets, caught by the interplay between the pair. “He nearly got run over,” he told the stranger.
Cool-gray eyes pinned Mal with a look, and Mal felt his chest constrict. Whoa.
“You nearly hit my papa?” the man growled.
Mal put up his hands. “No, sir, I helped pick him up off the center of the road. He’s scraped up some.”
“Oh, Papa.” The younger man put his arm around his father, examining his bleeding hands.
“Leif, let’s go now,” the elderly man urged. “You know I don’t like you talking to strangers.”
“Yes, Papa, I know,” Leif replied, shoving his hair back. He gave Mal a searching look, hesitating a moment as their gazes locked a little too long. Finally he muttered, “Thanks.”
Leif’s voice dismissed him despite the high-octane look they exchanged. Mal shook his head, sure he must have imagined the weird chemistry. He put his hands on his hips and watched as the two men walked down a long driveway until they disappeared under a strip of arching birch trees.
“You’re welcome,” Mal said wryly before heading back to retrieve his duffel. It was a long walk into town, so he’d better get on with it.