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Kelly Maxwell unpacked her gym bag and shoved the contents into her locker. She was pumped. Adrenaline burned in her veins. It had been nearly a month since she'd been able to practice and she was eager to get on the track and cut through the air. Running was her drug of choice. It got her through the days and even some nights when she would sprint through the dark streets of Atlanta when the city was asleep and her only company was the moon and the stars and the wind.
The sounds of approaching laughter and the easy banter shared between friends interrupted her reverie. She shut her locker, turned the key and shoved it into the pocket of her shorts. She'd hoped to have some time alone. She wanted to get in and out before anyone saw her.
"Well, if it's not our little star sprinter," Stephanie Daniels said sarcastically, the comment a sneer rather than a compliment. Stephanie walked further into the locker room and looked Kelly up and down. "Pretty soon we're going to have to put STAR on your locker door if David has anything to say about it."
"Stephanie, knock it off," said Maureen, another member of the track team. She flashed Kelly a look of sympathy without letting Stephanie notice.
Stephanie opened her locker and pulled out her bag. "I call them like I see them. She gets the locker room to herself and the track. What next, the coach?" She laughed.
Kelly snatched her towel from the bench and draped it around her neck. "We're all on the same team, Stephanie," she said walking up to her. "I'm where I am because it's where I deserve to be." The corner of her mouth curved in a half smile. "And so are you. Second!''
She walked out before Stephanie could respond, but she clearly heard herself referred to as a dog of the female persuasion.
When she stepped outside onto the lush field and imagined the empty stadium seats filled to capacity and the crowd roaring her name, Stephanie's ugly innuendos no longer mattered. The only thing that mattered was getting on the track and flying, making all her troubles, her fears, her aloneness vanish under the beat of her feet. Reaching the finish line first is what defined her, made her whole.
She jogged down the steps in David's direction, wincing slightly. She'd have to adjust the wrapping when she got down on the field.
"How's my star today?" David said, putting his arm around her shoulder.
"I wish you wouldn't say that around the other teammates," she said.
He dropped his arm. "Why, because it might make them really step up their game?"
She turned to face him. "No, it makes it difficult for me, David to fit in when everyone thinks I get special treatment."
He looked down into her eyes, and lifted her chin with the tip of his index finger. "Maybe because you are special, Kelly. Ever think of that? I know a winner when I see one. And so does the sports world. I told you that from the first day we met. You are a champion with the medals to prove it. And there's nothing that any of them in the peanut gallery back there can do about that."
She drew in a breath. There was no point in pursuing the subject, David would never understand. They'd been down this road before.
"Now, let's see what you got today." He pulled the towel from around her neck and watched her walk out onto the track. Moments later he followed.
"Need some help with that?" David knelt down beside her.
"I know what I'm doing," Kelly said a bit more harshly than necessary, as she tightened the Ace bandage around her right ankle. She briefly shut her eyes to withstand the pain that shot up her leg all the way to her hip. Slowly she stood up, bouncing on the balls of her feet to test the ankle.
David stood back, his expression tense and hard, marring his usually approachable facade. Kelly Maxwell was his star sprinter, his claim to fame. As much as his heart told him to snatch her off the track and take her home, his drive for the gold medal and all that came with it overrode any pangs of emotion.
He held up his stopwatch. "Ready!"
Kelly assumed her starting position, snatched a glance at him over her left shoulder and gave a short nod.
She was off the starting block like a bolt of unexpected lightning, fast, smooth, dazzling to the eye. Kelly was incredible to watch. She moved like a gazelle, the long, lean lines of her body flowing in a rhythm that only came from being a natural athlete. What she did could not be taught. It was instinctive. Every breath she took propelled her faster as if she were inhaling fuel. The power in her legs and arms pulsed with energy as she rounded the turn and came into the home stretch.
David checked the watch. His heart rate escalated. She was on her way to a new record for the 100-meter sprint.
But instead of a cry of victory, a scream that vibrated through his bones echoed in the still morning air. Kelly went down hard on the track, writhing in agony.
David and the team doctor rushed to her side.
"Get a stretcher," David barked to an assistant as he knelt beside her. "It's gonna be okay, Kelly."
"My ankle," she sobbed. "My ankle." She writhed back and forth in pain.
"Take it easy."
Two assistants appeared and gently lifted Kelly off the ground and onto the stretcher.
"Take her straight to Atlanta University Hospital," Dr. Graham said. "I'll meet you there." He turned to David, his blue eyes cold and accusing. "I told you not to let her run." He turned and hurried after his patient.
For several moments, David stood on the empty track as he listened to the wail of the siren speed off. She was going to be all right, he told himself over and again. She had to be.
David paced the confines of the waiting room, every few minutes checking the wall clock overhead. Time moved at a mind-numbing pace. David knew that the rest of the team was probably speculating on the outcomeStephanie Daniels in particular. If Kelly was out of the running, Stephanie was the next golden girl in line. It was no secret that Stephanie had no real love for Kelly although she feigned it quite well for the media and anyone of importance who would listen. The truth was, Stephanie believed that Kelly was an overrated has-been whose time had passed and she was merely given special treatment because of David. What Stephanie failed to realize was that Kelly was everything Stephanie only wished she could be.
David stopped short his pacing when Dr. Graham entered the room. His expression was somber.
"David, can I speak with you?"
"How is she?"
"I hope you're satisfied."
"I don't need your sarcasm, Doc. How is Kelly?"
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, then took off his surgical cap. "She won't be doing any running for quite some time, if ever."
David's breath stopped short in his chest. His features pinched as he stared at the doctor. "What are you saying?"
"Kelly has a hyperextended Achilles tendon and a stress fracture of the ankle."
David shut his eyes and drew in a long, deep breath. "I told you she wasn't ready to get back on the track."
"It was only a sprain. You said so yourself."
"A serious sprain. The second one in less than six months. The ankle was weak and you knew that. But you let her go out there anyway."
"It was her decision."
"You're her coach!" he said bitterly from between clenched teeth.
David briefly lowered his head then looked into the doctor's eyes. "Does she know?"
"She's hasn't awakened from the anesthesia yet."
"I want to be the one who tells her."
"Why, so you can sugarcoat it and make her believe she's going to be back out on the track in two weeks? I'm sure the surgeon will tell you the same thing since you don't believe anything I say."
David clenched his jaw. He and Dr. Graham had been at odds about Kelly's rehabilitation for months. He didn't expect it to get any better with this latest setback. He'd simply find another doctor for Kelly, one who would give her the encouragement she needed to return to the champion athlete the world had known.
"I want this whole thing kept quiet," David said. "The last thing she needs is the tabloids blowing this out of proportion. Kelly just needs to concentrate on getting well."
Dr. Graham slowly shook his head in disgust. "Always looking at the bottom line, aren't you, David?" He turned and walked away.
David stared at the doctor's retreating back. He needed a plan, a plan to keep this under wraps, to get Kelly out of town as soon as possible, into rehab and with a doctor that saw things his way. In the meantime, he wanted to be the first face that Kelly saw when she woke up.