Exposing world-class athlete Ruby Heart's cheating scandal five years ago made reporter Micah Blackwell's career. Falling in love with her now could end it. Yet watching her determination to return to the top, he can't resist the woman she has become.
Working with Ruby to tell America her story, Micah falls deeper under her spell. But at a crucial moment, his feelings for her conflict with his jobthe very thing that once saved him. Now he must choose between his skyrocketing career and the unlikely love of a good woman .
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The woman in the neon green baseball hat looked familiar to Micah Blackwell. There was a loose-limbed smoothness to the way she milled among the other racers at the starting line that tapped at a memory in his brain. He drummed his fingers against the side of his wheelchair, waiting for her to turn her head and let the little bit of sun prying its way through the cloud cover onto her face. He wanted to see her eyes.
The woman, bib number 86, caught him staring at her. She twitched as if to dart off in another direction and then seemed to calm herself. The brim of her cap threw her entire face and neck into shadow when she turned her head from his gaze, and Micah saw the lips of the man next to her moving, apparently in response to number 86's question. The movement of her head was smooth as she looked around, but the bounce of her pigtails on her shoulders exposed her nervous energy, as did the way she shook out the muscles in her arms and legs. Even the shaking seemed familiar.
Micah was so focused on the ripples of muscles in her sleek, powerful thighs that he almost missed her skittish look over her shoulder and the way she tried to ease through the other runners out of his sight. With only a hundred people in this race, the crowd wasn't so big that he couldn't follow the green bounce of the hat.
"Amir," Micah called to his photographer without taking his eyes off the woman. "There's a runner in the crowdbib number 86. I want you to make sure you get video of her."
Amir's thin face emerged from behind his camera. Sports was a world of bigbig men, big egos, big camerasand Amir always seemed lost among the oversize swagger. But big men often forgot that small men could be a threat, and before they knew it, Napoleon was their emperor. Amir could stand there with the gargantuan camera on his shoulder while the men who Micah interviewed forgot the camera even existed. Which made Amir one of the best photogs in the business. And he was Micah's photog. Two physical misfits working their asses off amidst a world of Achilles' and Hercules'.
"I thought we were covering Currito." The problem with having the best photog in the business was that Amir knew he was the best and so he felt comfortable arguing. The National Sports Network had sent them here to cover Currito, a Mexican-American runner who had seemingly come out of nowhere to finish in the elite pack at Western States and then gave a colorful interview about painting and mystic visions to the local sports guys. Despite Micah's multipart series on ultramarathoners being only in the planning stages, when Currito had told them he was running a race within driving distance of the NSN campus, they'd signed out a production van and driven to Iowa.
Neither Currito nor Amir nor bib number 86 knew it, but the ultra series now had its new starand it wasn't Currito. Luck favored the watchful, and Micah had been watching. "We are, but I've got a feeling about that runner. There's something about her ." His jaw tightened as his brain nearly spit out the memory and then yanked it back before a name came to him. "Get Currito, too, but " The drizzle was obscuring more than his view of the runners.
Amir looked as if he was going to argue again, but Micah raised an eyebrow. "Okay." Shrugging with one shoulder while the heavy news camera was balanced on the other nearly toppled the small man.
Micah caught a low flick of green through the legs of the runners, then followed the arc of the throw back through the crowds, which parted in time for him to see a head of unremarkable brown hair parted into pigtails. Runner 86 lifted her chin in a self-confident, defiant gesture as the gun went off.
"Aah " The memory exploded into Micah's conscious with a golden flash. "Ruby Heart, I've got you now."
The drumming of his fingers against his chair quickened along with his heart rate as Ruby ran past him, her stride shorter than he remembered from watching the Olympics five years ago. She seemed to be trying to disappear into the crowd, instead of bursting out of it. Noting the angle of her knee as she kicked behind her with each step, Micah wondered if he was right about her identity. The stride didn't look quite right. But the comparative power of Currito as the star of the ultra series balanced against disgraced Olympian Ruby Heart running again was worth the risk. Rumor had it an anchor position at NSN was about to open up, and Micah wanted it.
"Amir, I need to do some research at the hotel, so it'll just be you and King." Micah cocked his head toward the other reporter from NSN who had made the trip out of curiosity to watch, quote, "pain freaks run."
"What?" The one eye of Amir's that Micah could see was wide with horror.
"He'd probably leap at the chance to have input into the story."
His cameraman choked. "Sure. And when I use the camera to beat him to death for his input, I'll make sure NSN sends the bill for a new camera to you. And I'll expect you to post bail."
"Okay," Micah said with a shrug and a smile. King was not a popular figure with the support staff at the network, but Amir would get the footage Micah asked for, King's interference aside.
"Why can't " Amir stopped. Micah finished the question in his head. Why can't you send King back to the hotel in your car to do the research so I'm not stuck in the production van with him? One of the great conveniences of a hand-driven car was that no one could borrow it. "King's gonna want to know why we're waiting to film that woman after Currito runs by."
"If I'm right, you won't have to wait long." Listening to Kingston "Call Me King" Ripley howl with pain when he realized that one of the biggest sporting news stories of the year had run right past him and he'd missed it would feel almost as good as the ratings Micah knew were coming his wayas well as that anchor position.
"King won't like it," Amir said. But this argument flopped on the dirt, sucked in a few last gasps of air and then stilled like the dead fish it was.
"King will like it too much." The man would think he had a chance to take over this story, and he didn't even have the foresight to know what the real story was. "Look, King is loud, obnoxious and he can't withstand a direct charge. Ignore his bluster and any advice he gives you and stick to getting the footage I want. Half Currito, half that woman. Good shots of the face. I don't want anyone to doubt who she is when I'm done." Micah thought for a minute, then added, "And try to make it look as if you're not focusing on her. I don't want to spook her."
"Who is she?"
"And give you a name for King to weasel out of you? Hell no." If rumors about the upcoming anchor opening were true, King would be fighting Micah to the death for it, and getting an interview with Ruby Heart would be equivalent to securing the nuclear arsenal. "Get the shotsI'll confirm the name afterward." The rough, wet dirt stalled his exit, but Amir knew better than to offer help. Micah wheeled himself over the rocks and sticks in the trail to his car and drove off.
Back at the hotel, he connected to the wireless and started digging. Most of the pictures he found were of Ruby as the world had known hersharp points of her short platinum hair aimed directly at her painted red lips, looking more like a younger, edgier version of Marilyn Monroe than an athlete. But buried on her college's website was a team photo from her freshman year. There, Ruby Heart looked like the girl next door. Her hair was still short, but it lacked the snap of her Olympic haircut and was the same mousy brown he'd seen today. The eyes clinched it. Without the heavy makeup, there was nothing to hide those doe eyes gracing the face of the girl who would become America's Darling two years after this photo was taken. Even in the picture of her during his interview, after her cheating had been revealed to the world, her brown eyes had dominated her face, giving her an aura of innocence.
"You understand what I'm going through, right?" she had asked him after the camera stopped rolling on that memorable interview. "We both had our passions taken from us." Her voice had sounded so young, adding to the blameless look she'd had on her face and almost making him agree with her. As if their careers had ended the same way. "It wasn't fair." He'd added whiny to the list of her defects. When he'd told her that her entire athletic career hadn't been fair to her competitors, she'd jumped back as if he'd swung a fist at her.
Micah pulled himself away from the memory, found the list of participants in today's run and looked for the name. According to the website, no Ruby Heart had registered, but there was a Diana Heart. A Wikipedia page didn't offer Ruby's full name, only a short summary of the girl's soaring rise to greatness and her crashing fall. Icarus, with his wax wings climbing higher and higher toward the sun until the lies he'd woven into the wings melted from the heat. Only Ruby had been the genuine flying article and she'd strapped wax wings onto her back anyway.
Her stupidity left a foul taste in his mouth the bitter coffee couldn't overpower.
The current Wikipedia photo was Ruby at her apex, with the American flag raised high over her head in a stadium of adoring fans. No amount of makeup could hide the pure joy overtaking the exhaustion on her face. The other photo on the page was a still from his interview of herRuby's blond hair looking limp and fake, her eyes hurt and confused. Micah wondered how often the pictures were swapped out as the remaining few who caredboth fans and detractorsbattled it out in cyberspace. Someone had cared enough about her to note that her suspension for doping was over.
While he didn't recall the specifics of her complicated settlement, after she'd provided enough information to close several clinics, her lifetime ban had been converted into a suspension from all non-Olympic sports. Micah had a vague memory of the prep material he'd gotten for that interview, which had included Ruby's full name and the fact that she went by her middle name.
Pitiful, really, to have disappeared from the American psyche so completely that all it took was a set of pigtails and different first name for people in your own sport not to recognize you.
Back in her hotel room, Ruby Heart turned the television on for company, tossed the remote onto the bed and then eased her tired body into the chair at the small desk and prepared to indulge in her grocery store sandwich and chocolate milk. Her medal for finishing sat piled atop its ribbon, its tacky glitter weighing down her race bib. When she flicked at the medallion, her fingernail bounced off the cheap metal with a mournful ting, which her favorite medalthe gold one she'd had to give uphadn't had. She picked the medallion off her bib and turned it over in her hand. It might lack the sparkle of the Olympic gold, but no one could argue that Ruby hadn't earned this one.
She had crossed the finish line of the fifty-kilometer race on her own two feetwhich had been her number-one goalin four hours and forty-three minutes, which was short of her second goal by three minutes. The race medal clinked against the desk when she dropped it. Three measly minutes. It had taken being handed a beer by a volunteer for Ruby to remember that she wasn't competing against anyone other than herself. And still those minutes rankled. She allowed herself thirty seconds to clench her teeth before she took a deep breath and focused on what her goals had been. New goals for a new Ruby Heart.
As long as Micah Blackwell hadn't recognized her, then she only had to prove something to herself, and crossing the finish line had done that, even if she'd skipped out on the postrace festivities. She hadn't wanted to risk him catching sight of her again.
The short cameraman standing next to Micah at the start had been filming at several points along the race, but the camera had been rolling long before she'd run past it and had kept rolling; she'd looked over her shoulder several times to make sure. The cameraman was probably getting filler for whatever story they were planning to run on Currito. Ruby was nothing. Less than nothing. Her past was forgotten and her future was nonexistent. Even if Micah had recognized her, no one would be interested in her story. She was the detritus of American sensationalism.
Today was also proof that she could stay that wayrun a competitive race, return home and not hear her father say, "Do you know what it's like for me at the office?" Or her mother complain about the gossip at the salon. Or her sister about the rumors on campus. Or any number of the other places her family had gone during the two weeks when the cameras had been camped outside her house and she'd been trapped inside.
She swallowed a bite of her sandwich, chewing through the bread and the ideas of risking another race. She'd finished, but there were those three minutes She bit her lip, then licked the little bit of mayo off. Had today proved it could be done, or had it only been proof it could be done once?
Micah's warm, confident voice came over the television, and Ruby rolled the desk chair back to watch. After Micah introduced him, Currito talked about his race and his training. His black curls bounced about his face and his dark skin was shiny with sweat. "It's all mental," the runner said. "I'm not saying anyone can run one of these things, but it's your mind that works hardest."
"You're also an accomplished artist," Micah said on the television as he leaned back in his chair and opened his arms, inviting the world in. A trademark move, and she'd fallen for it along with a hundred other interviewees. After an interview during the Olympics, one of the gymnasts had said it felt as though he was inviting her onto his lap to whisper intimacies in his ear.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful story with great character twists.As a runner I enjoyed the heroine, but was surprised by the unconventional hero Ms. Lohmann developed. The only negative I took away was that the ending felt rushed after the build up of romance between the main characters. Overall it was a pleasant read, and definitely challenged tried and true romance rules.