No Holding Back
By Kate Evangelista
Feiwel & Friends Copyright © 2016 Kate Evangelista
All rights reserved.
NATHAN WAS RIGHT where he wanted to be — hands clasped and biting down on the tips of his thumbs in a futile attempt at settling the tendrils of nerves coiling in his stomach. Maybe at the moment it didn't seem like he wanted to be where he was, considering his legs bobbed as he sat among the multitude of family and friends cheering on loved ones currently competing for a coveted spot in the Bennett Club. But yes, he was right where he needed to be — aging ten years in a matter of minutes. He wouldn't be surprised if he walked out of that facility with gray at his temples. God forbid.
The prestigious, privately owned swimming club in Colorado that Preston was trying out for boasted of producing the best of the best. Any kid who dreamed of being a champion swimmer dreamed of being coached by Bobby Bennett. Banners suspended along the walls of the gigantic state-of-the-art facility featured twenty-foot pictures of past Olympians — medals and fists raised in triumph. They were undeniable proof of results.
His gaze slipped to the empty seat next to him, where his sister Natasha would have sat had she not made some lame excuse for not coming along. In fact, they all should have been there cheering Preston on. But Caleb had classes at Loyola he couldn't miss.
Nathan sighed. He could still remember the absolute determination on Preston's face when the invite had been delivered via special courier. The envelope came a couple of days after his cousin canceled their European adventure to sweep Didi — now his girlfriend — off her feet. Only about a hundred were given out every year. And only a handful of swimmers were actually chosen. It was akin to finding the golden ticket wrapped around a chocolate bar. Preston hadn't even finished reading the letter before he had dropped everything and started packing.
For years one of Nathan's favorite things to do — besides planning magnificent parties — was watch Preston swim. It was like watching performance art. The way his arms sliced through the water, each stroke pulling him forward with speed and precision. The way his back muscles flexed took Nathan's breath away every time. It must be the closest someone could get to the perfect balance between physicality, endurance, and concentration.
Well, maybe not right this instant, since the swimming god was completely botching things.
"What the hell are you doing?" Nathan yelled, jumping to his feet and shoving his fingers through his dark brown hair — a Parker trait he shared with his twin sister and cousin. If strands happened to separate from his scalp from pulling too hard, he didn't care.
His shoulders tensed when Preston finished third in the hundred-meter freestyle. He removed his goggles and swimming cap in one smooth pull. Panting, he looked up at the digital board displaying lap times.
Even from afar Nathan could feel the frustration radiating off his friend. To qualify for Team USA, a swimmer had to finish at least second in his respective event. Anything less was unacceptable.
Time for an ass-kicking.
* * *
To say Preston ate, slept, and breathed swimming was an understatement. It wasn't even a stretch to say he devoted every waking moment to the sport. As soon as he was old enough to figure out how to hold his breath underwater, he'd been a swimmer. He knew nothing else. Didn't want to do anything else. Watching Michael Phelps bring home seven gold medals in a single Olympics set his benchmark. His ultimate goal.
And what a complete loser he'd been all day.
Beyond frustrated, Preston slapped his hands on the pool's edge and heaved himself up. He hadn't always been this wobbly in the water. Coming in third? He couldn't even remember the last time that had happened. He should have been kicking their asses. There were only a few heats left. If he didn't make something happen soon, he could kiss joining Coach Bennett's team good-bye.
Sure, he might still be able to train elsewhere in preparation for the Olympic Trials in June next year, but it wouldn't be the same. Being part of the Bennett Club would give him the edge he needed. It was already the end of August. Many of the other private clubs were full, and he'd said no to all the collegiate team coaches for this, his best chance at becoming an Olympian — and he was sucking spectacularly. Maybe he should have kept his options open.
He snorted into the towel thrown at him by one of the staff. As far as he was concerned, Coach Bennett was it. The dream coach. If he couldn't make it into the Bennett Club, then what else was there for him?
"What the hell do you think you're doing?"
He lifted his face from the towel to stare into the blazing blue eyes of the one person unafraid to call him out on his shit. At five foot ten, Nathan was in full battle mode.
"I just can't seem to gain my stride," Preston said, irritation at himself leaking into his words.
"Of course not," Nathan said. "You're too in your head about this."
Preston slanted a glance over to the silver-haired man in a blue jacket watching the swimmers with a keen eye and a stern expression. "I thought maybe ..."
The slap on his chest forced him to return his gaze to Nathan. In a lime-green sweater and white slacks, he stood out among the men and women strutting around in tight Speedos. Yet something about the confidence in his stance made him fit in anywhere.
"Don't think about Bennett. No one cares about him."
Um, maybe I do? Preston thought.
But maybe that was it? That he cared way too much?
"No!" Nathan interrupted, wagging his finger. "I don't want to hear any more excuses from you. I'm fed up seeing you lose."
Nathan crossed his arms and cocked his hip to the side, displaying his best I-don't-give-a-damn-what-other-people-think stare. "We did not fly all the way to Colorado just so you could choke at the very last second. Third? Seriously? When was the last time you placed third in any race?"
"Then what do you think I should do?" Preston asked, heat creeping into his tone.
Nathan rolled his eyes as if the answer was obvious. "Maybe calm the fuck down?"
It dawned on Preston all at once. "I'm a fucking idiot."
"Exactly! Stop thinking too much about Bennett and focus all your energy on swimming." This time the slap against his chest was one of reassurance. "It's what you're best at. Stick with the butterfly for now."
"But those aren't until later."
The butterfly was the most challenging stroke, so the fly heats were always slated for last. Competitive swimmers had to be proficient in all styles, but everyone had a favorite stroke. Preston just so happened to possess the shoulder strength and the arm span that made him lethal at the one he enjoyed most.
Nathan tilted his head. "Better for you to rest up. How many heats are there?"
Preston did the mental count. "There's the hundred-meter and the two-hundred-meter."
Nathan's eyes grew saucer wide, as if he suddenly understood something he might not have at the beginning. "The freestyle has six heats, while the butterfly usually only has two. Somehow you got it in your head that being in the water more will show Coach Bennett what you're made of."
The last part sounded more like a question, but Preston knew it wasn't. "Maybe."
"Pres, you are one of the best swimmers I know."
"I'm the only swimmer you know."
"You can't afford to suck any more than you already have," Nathan said. "You're making me look bad."
Preston kept his expression blank, but inside he was wincing. Maybe even dying a little. But not from the obvious joke at the end of Nathan's words. He knew just how much he was sucking. The truth hurt like a punch in the gut.
Showboating. That was what he had been doing. Sure, he could deny it all he wanted, but it didn't mean it wasn't the truth. He wanted to be top dog. Unfortunately, he'd bitten off more than he could chew. Damn it all to hell.
"Switch gears," Nathan continued. "Show Bennett and everyone in this building why I flew a thousand miles just to watch you swim."
The corner of Preston's eye twitched. "Of course you're making this about you."
"Hell yes, this is about me." Nathan shot him one of his better grins. The kind that hid nothing from the world. "Don't embarrass me out there, Pres. Show them what you're really made of."
Nathan's features softened. "You're too stiff. Remember, just have fun. I know this is your dream. I know it might feel like the world is over if you don't get onto this team, but if you don't have fun, then it wouldn't be worth it either way. Trust your training. Breathe and loosen up."
And just like that, Nathan turned Preston's humiliation into renewed purpose. His fingers closed tightly around the towel he'd been holding. He faced the fifty-meter pool currently filled with his competitors. Somewhere along the way he'd let his nerves get the better of him when he should have been concentrating on what he did best.
"The bastards won't know what hit them," he said, meaning every word.
"That's what I like to hear." Nathan turned on his heel. As a parting shot, while walking away with a strut like only he knew how, he said over his shoulder, "Give them hell, Pres. Give them hell."
* * *
Heart beating in his throat, Nathan excused his way back to his seat. The final heats of the day would begin any minute. Preston's expression after Nathan had left him was all too familiar — stone-cold stoic. It was the one he always wore when he was about to dominate in the pool. Nathan should be more confident that he'd done all he could in the motivation department, but looking at the competition made it hard.
A horn blared. Just a short burst, but it was enough to quiet the crowd's murmuring.
Through the speakers, someone announced the first heat for the hundred-meter butterfly. Nathan pushed to the edge of his seat. This was it.
The spectators came alive again as one by one the participating swimmers strode to their lanes. Whistles and cheers followed. When Preston appeared, Nathan's thundering heart all but stopped in his chest. Preston looked good. More relaxed. He had a sureness in his stride. That was the image Nathan always had of Preston — a force to be reckoned with. Calm. Collected. Ready to annihilate.
Once at their respective lanes, the competitors began stripping out of their warm-up jackets and pants down to their jammers. And damn if Preston, at six foot two, didn't look the best in them. They started at his hips and stopped above his knees. The way the cut of the material emphasized the V of muscle below his six-pack was enough to drive anyone insane. And that glorious perpetual tan he sported made him stand out. Nathan could stare all day and not get tired of what he was looking at.
Another short blast of the horn signaled the swimmers to get on their marks.
Preston stepped up onto the starting block. Like he always did, he rotated his shoulders forward, then back, followed by twisting his head left, then right. He bent his knees and flapped his arms until his hands slapped his shoulder blades. Then he touched his fingertips to the edge of the block. Patiently waiting, he faced forward with singular focus.
Nathan hadn't breathed since Preston took his position. Nothing could tear his gaze away from lane four until the race was over.
A hush spread across the bleachers. All eyes were glued to the pool with its bobbing red and yellow buoy lines that separated each lane. Anticipation crackled in the air, causing goose bumps to crawl up Nathan's arms. Again he clasped his hands together. This time it was for an entirely different reason.
A whistle blew.
Like a whip crack, Preston pushed off the block — the long line of his body arching through the air.
WATER WAS PEACEFUL. Water was purpose. Water was all.
Preston found a sense of contentment and clarity when he swam. It was as if nothing could touch him. At the same time, water was his battlefield. His arms and legs transformed into lethal weapons, propelling him with a single-minded purpose. All his muscles were attuned to what his brain wanted, which was to win. To dominate. In a particularly fierce fight — like the one he was currently in — he focused on the only vital thing in that moment: breathing control.
It began with a sharp inhalation. A short hold that provided much-needed oxygen to his limbs. A quick exhale to expend the CO2. And beginning again with another inhale as he crested the surface. A beautiful cycle that drove him until he reached the edge of the vast expanse fifty meters created.
At the end of the red five-meter marker, he tucked over and under until he faced the direction he had come from. He'd done it so many times during the course of his swimming career that he no longer had to think as his feet touched the opposite wall. Muscle memory kicked in and he was thrust forward — a speeding torpedo headed for home.
Why he'd insisted on swimming freestyle was totally beyond him. It shouldn't have taken Nathan coming down from the bleachers to remind him what he was the best at. The reason he had gotten the invitation to try out in front of the infamous Bobby Bennett in the first place was that he was a record-breaking butterfly champion, shattering statewide and countrywide lap times as if they were merely a suggestion.
With his height and arm length, fifty seconds was all he needed to finish a hundred-meter heat. His best time came at just over forty-nine, but he'd already been swimming all day. As long as he came in first, lap time mattered little at this stage.
He pushed all his regrets out of his mind and channeled his frustration into flying across the pool. Breathing through each stroke, he didn't worry about his competition. They all knew him by reputation. The swimming world wasn't all that big. And he would crush them. Without mercy.
In his periphery, the five-meter red buoys bobbed.
With each new breath he inhaled, he counted down. With the last rotation of his arms, he shifted all his strength to his legs for one final dolphin kick.
His palms made contact with tile.
Like a bullet out of a gun, relief shot through him. Pulling off his goggles and cap, his gaze scanned the digital board. He was a full two seconds ahead of second place. And most gratifying of all was his shattering of the current world record set in the last Olympics. He roared in triumph.
The swimmer in lane five slapped his shoulder, calling him a beast. He was beyond hearing anything else when he noticed Coach Bennett staring straight at him. It was like looking at the face of God. Certainly for swimmers.
That caught his attention, Preston thought.
Satisfied, and maybe a little too full of himself, he pushed out of the pool. With the number of swimmers participating that day, the organizers had to divide tryouts into several races. He would swim in another hundred-meter, then a couple of two-hundred-meter heats.
Regaining his confidence, Preston padded toward one of the showerheads lining the wall and rinsed off. Ten minutes until he would be back in the water.
* * *
In all the excitement, Nathan hadn't noticed his phone ringing until the crowd quieted down. He did a quick search and found Preston resting in the Jacuzzi, chatting up other swimmers. His heart lurched.
In his mind he could already imagine the attention Preston would get when his career took off. Could Nathan really stand aside while someone else captured Preston's heart? Nathan wasn't blind to the lustful stares Preston had been getting.
But in the movies, when a friend fell in love with a friend, it usually spelled the end of the friendship. The thought of having feelings for Preston beyond the platonic scared the Prada loafers off him. There were two points for potential disaster that he could see so far.
One: Nathan could find the courage to finally confess, risking their friendship. What if Preston didn't feel the same way?
Two: If Nathan managed to keep his feelings to himself, there was a great chance he would lose Preston anyway. If he didn't speak up, there was no guarantee he ever would.
Again his phone rang, jarring him away from the impossible knot he found himself in. Lose-lose didn't even come close to describing his situation. Ah, crap. (Continues...)
Excerpted from No Holding Back by Kate Evangelista. Copyright © 2016 Kate Evangelista. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel & Friends.
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