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Here And Now
By Michelle Monkou
KimaniCopyright © 2007 Michelle Monkou
All right reserved.
Chase Westfield pulled out his personal data assistant and reviewed the list of reminders. Technically he didn't need the mental nudge. Every year, since high school, he remembered one particular birthday. First love, like a meteor, had the power to crash into the system with enough impact to throw every feeling, thought or memory off kilter. One woman had such a forceful effect on his system.
He sighed heavily, fingering the thin red ribbon tied around the small gift box. The box fit neatly on his palm. But its meaning was larger than anything in his office. His birthday gift served dual purposes, one more important than the other, that included being considered a peace offering.
"Mr. Westfield, the staff meeting is about to begin," his secretary prompted.
She didn't move until he looked up from the gift box and set it aside. Chase still had to get used to the various meetings that consumed his entire day. Every appointment appeared to come with a special announcement tag or a bold heading marked as important or urgent. All these command performances grated on his nerves. He was a man used to listening to his own internal directives.
Now, a typical day was spent in meetings with the department, the track team and assistant coaches. If he could manage, he escaped to the track field armed with a stop watch. While his peers headed for home around five o'clock, he ended his day withmore coaching and the occasional one-on-one mentoring sessions.
With no background in coaching, he had to rely on his college coach's tricks and tips to nudge the best from his team. By year-end, heck by month-end, these young men had to understand that talent alone didn't breed success. Razor sharp focus, coupled with one hundred and ten percent commitment, had to become their mantra.
After all, he should know. The emotional high from winning a medal didn't do anything for those days when consistently crossing the finish line in second or third place threatened rankings in the sport.
He opened his desk drawer to return the small box. His hand paused over the gift. Finding a way to present this token, especially on her first day of work, might prove to be difficult. Well, presenting it was one thing, having it accepted could be near impossible since he'd broken almost every promise that he'd made. He frowned, now wrapped up in his worry.
Shaking off the doubts that tested his conscience, he headed for the conference room. His tardiness already earned him a reputation that made him the butt of many jokes. He'd better hurry. Meanwhile, the clock in the hallway gave him three minutes before the meeting started. As he approached the coffee machine, the steaming pot begged for his attention.
"What the heck," he muttered, heading toward the scent of freshly brewed, addictive coffee.
Training as a sprinter didn't afford him the luxury to deviate from a strict diet. To his credit, he carried a super lean physique with a metabolism likened to the Japanese bullet train. Now as head coach, retired from his first profession at the age of twenty-six with a blown Achilles tendon on one heel and a torn ACL in the other knee, he enjoyed breaking the rules that were once his personal code.
Some people who suffered self-medicated with booze. He chose to drown his sorrows in vast quantities of coffee.
He sipped the dark liquid, savoring the robust flavor. Now his day could begin. With a ready smile, he pushed open the conference room door. A quick survey showed most, if not all, of the staff in attendance. The clock on the conference room wall now declared him five minutes late. Darn!
"Ah, Chase has joined us. Okay, let's begin." Chase peered at Roger Freeman, his boss, trying to read if sarcasm was in play. Freeman's wide grin set his mind at ease. However, muffled laugher and teasing about his tardiness from the rear of the room followed him to his seat.
Freeman held up his hand until there was some semblance of calm. "As you know, we had a little shake-up in staff personnel three weeks ago. Out of the slight chaos we managed to land our very own Olympic medalist, Chase Westfield." Freeman paused, allowing his staff's roar of approval to play out. "Before we begin the staff meeting, I'd also like to introduce our latest addition. I'm pleased with our recruitment efforts in adding another qualified physical therapist to our staff. We can count our lucky stars that the board of regents didn't recommend any cost cutting measures for our departments." Freeman stepped out of the room.
A dull murmur filled the room. Much to Chase's embarrassment Freeman had mentioned his arrival to the department as if it were something new. Of course, he knew what an asset he was to any university, even if in name only. At least his colleagues played along with their excited boss at each meeting.
However, at each meeting, mentioning Freeman didn't eclipse their unease when cutbacks and the board of regents were also part of the discussion. Topics like this placed Chase at a disadvantage. Chase's income had spiked like a rocket as he won numerous championships, broke records and raked in various endorsement deals. Today, he commiserated with a few of his fellow coworkers out of a need to belong, to fit in with his new world.
He'd turned into an everyday kind of man now. Freeman stepped back into the room. He was always the character, with his disheveled, shocking white hair and twinkling, vivid blue eyes, now grinning with boyish exuberance. He turned toward them. "She's here."
His pose reminded Chase of a game show host opening the magical Door No. 1 with a great deal of theatrics. He'd heard that his boss belonged to an amateur actors group.
Chase eased to the edge of his seat, craning his neck to see around the head of another eager observer. As an afterthought, he set down his empty coffee cup on a nearby window sill. He didn't trust his hands with the task of holding on to anything. Anticipation zipped through his body as if on roller blades, shooting to the tips of his fingers and toes. Jitters from the stomach-knotting tension grew without regard to his fervent wish to remain calm. His nervousness took him back to his competitive days, waiting in the starter box for the race to begin.
And then, Laura Masterson entered the room. A few of the men sitting nearby paused in their conversations.
The girl he knew on the cusp of womanhood had rounded the turn. Nothing less than a confident, sexy young woman stood at the front of the room.
He'd have loved to offer up a whistle of appreciation. But she didn't deserve anything so common. All he could settle for was his heart beating on hyper-speed on the verge of a panic attack.
"Welcome. Welcome. Come on in. They don't bite," Freeman offered with a deep, underlying chuckle. He indicated an empty chair close to him. "Everyone, please introduce yourself to Laura Masterson, our new physical therapist." Freeman's chest puffed with pride like an old lion looking over his dominion.
One by one, the staff welcomed Laura. She acknowledged with a soft, personal smile for each person. What they said to her held no importance for him. Right now, memory had to catch up with the current, real version of his former love.
Only the woman in the front of the room mattered, sporting a tightly secured ponytail, a stylish navy blue pantsuit on her slender frame and sensible shoes.
Chase eased back in his chair, pushing it back toward the wall. He wasn't hiding, but simply wanted to lengthen the time that he could study her without her knowledge. He'd broken her heart once. He didn't expect her initial reaction to be along the lines of a happy family reunion.
As his colleagues stated their names, Chase scrutinized Laura's face noting that she wore more makeup now. The soft colors accenting her eyes enhanced their roundness. Years ago, he used to trail the length of her nose playing connect the dots with the tiny freckles sprinkled against the natural beige tone along the bridge. The small rounded tip of her nose had a cute uplift that got her teased as a teen for being a snobby nose. And who would have figured that when provoked, her dainty small mouth could curse like a sailor?
Excerpted from Here And Now by Michelle Monkou Copyright © 2007 by Michelle Monkou. Excerpted by permission.
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