The linesman’s voice rang across the court and Steve Anderson sat up straighter in the announcer’s booth.
Luke Rossovich swore and tossed down his racquet. After a few more expletives, he strode to the umpire’s chair, hands on hips. He peered up into the punishing Australian sun. “That ball was good. I know it, you know it, and everyone in this stadium except that linesman knows it.” The crowd hooted and hollered.
Steve and his fellow commentator grinned at each other. “Let’s go to the replay and see if Rossovich has reason for complaint. The ball looked like it might have been good to me, but our Court Cam will tell us for sure,” Steve said.
As the umpire tried to mollify the angry player, the home audience saw the ball catching the outside of the line. “Yep, that ball was good,” Steve confirmed. “But looks like Rossovich isn’t going to win this argument — the umpire isn’t going to overrule on such a close call. I know how he feels; I lost a few of those calls myself over the years.” Steve had been a decent player who had lucked into a Wimbledon championship one year when the top seeds were all eliminated early. He was milking that win for all it was worth, commentating for American TV and endorsing cheap tennis balls.
“This is bullshit!” Luke finally turned and stalked back to where his racquet laid on the court. His opponent, a young Swede, waited on the other side of the net. With the bad call, the Swede now had break point to win the set. Luke picked up his racquet and promptly threw it again, the cracking of the frame audible to everyone in attendance.
“Rossovich just cost himself the first set!” Steve exclaimed. “He threw his racquet hard enough to break it, and that’s definitely going to be a point against him. This kind of temper tantrum is something we haven’t seen from Ross in a few years, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
“Point Penalty to Rossovich. Grankvist wins the first set, six-four.”
Steve shook his head and whistled. “This just might not be Luke Rossovich’s day.”
# # #
Luke tipped his head back, his eyes closed as the water cascaded down his body. His muscles ached and the joint in his knee was uncomfortably stiff. He tried to lose himself in the hot shower, tried to let go of his spectacularly shitty day.
“Fuck!” He slapped the tile wall. It was no use. He’d lost in the second round of the Australian Open. The second goddamned round. At thirty-four, he sure as hell wasn’t getting many more chances, and he’d blown this one but good.
“Tough break today.”
Luke opened his eyes and peered through the steam. A young blond man turned on the water a few showers down. Luke thought for a few seconds and remembered his name and bio. Jesse McAllister: twenty-three years old, NCAA champion out of UCLA. Had cracked the top one hundred in the world after his first two years on tour, which wasn’t bad. Still, he was supposed to have been America’s great new hope, and so far he hadn’t quite lived up to expectations.
“Yeah. You could say that.” Luke wasn’t really in the mood for small talk.
Jesse opened a bottle of shampoo and lathered his hair. “You know, you should play more doubles. Your net game is suffering a bit.”
“Oh, really?” The nerve of this … kid coming in here and offering him advice.
“I just noticed that your volleys are pretty flat.” Luke was glad to hear a note of nervousness in the kid’s voice.
“Well, they weren’t too bad when I won Wimbledon. Three times. Not to mention this tournament once.” Granted, that was four years ago now.
Jesse rinsed the shampoo out of his hair and turned the water off. “No argument here. Look, I was just wondering if maybe you wanted to play doubles at Indian Wells. I think our games would mesh really well. But forget it.” He slung his towel around his slim hips. He was around 5’7” and slight, but toned and in great shape. He didn’t have a power game, but if Luke recalled correctly, he made up for it with his speed. “See ya.”
Then he was gone and Luke closed his eyes again, wishing he could just be home in his bed in Malibu. Instead, he had yet another hotel room to go to, with an ugly duvet and nouveau art on the wall that was all the same, no matter which city he was in. He sighed and turned the water up hotter.
# # #
The airport lounge was packed, and Luke pulled his baseball cap down further over his brown hair. Mirrored sunglasses hid his green eyes and as he folded his long, lean frame into a chair, he hoped no one would recognize him. He wasn’t in the mood to put on a smile and sign autographs. But at 6’2”, with a taut, finely muscled body and a face that People had called “movie-star handsome” on more than one occasion, Luke tended to stick out in a crowd.
The Aussies were huge tennis fans, so the tournament played on every available TV screen, much to Luke’s dismay. He just wanted to forget about this particular competition and look towards the next Grand Slam event, the French Open. He didn’t have much of a shot of winning it, but stranger things had happened.
Luke still had almost an hour to kill, so his gaze inevitably drifted to the closest screen. He felt a strange little jolt when he recognized the player in the far court. Jesse McAllister’s blond hair was practically glowing in the sun, sweat dripping down his brow. He’d made it to the third round, but was now playing one of the top seeds. He was down two sets and a break. It wasn’t looking good. Once a player had lost a game he was serving, his serve was “broken.” Since a set must be won by two games, the other player gained the advantage.
Jesse managed to break back to even the set, and Luke found himself getting more and more involved in the match. Jesse played with a grace that many compared to Bjorn Borg and what he lacked in power, he made up for with finesse. The kid was right — their games would mesh well.
As Jesse toweled off during a changeover, Luke’s boarding call crackled over the loudspeakers. Onscreen, Jesse pulled his shirt over his head, his lightly tanned chest glistening.
Twenty minutes later, Jesse lost the match in a third-set tiebreak, and Luke sprinted to make his flight.
Once the plane was in the air, Luke tried to relax. Thankfully, the seat next to his in first class was empty, so he didn’t need to make small talk. He watched a movie and picked at his dinner. Eventually he popped a couple of heavy-duty sleeping pills and didn’t wake up again until the California coast was in sight.
The traffic out of LAX was terrible, but that was nothing new. The driver looked in his rearview mirror often and tried to engage Luke in conversation. He was cute enough, and Luke thought briefly about telling him to pull over and join him in the backseat once they reached the quiet, hilly back roads near his house. As usual, the words just wouldn’t come. He needed a shower and a drink. Not necessarily in that order.
The house smelled stale, although the maid had clearly been by that morning to spruce things up. Cut flowers graced his kitchen table and the fridge contained all his favorite foods.
Luke opened a beer and walked out onto his deck. The sun had set, the quarter moon casting only a little light on the waves he could hear lapping at the beach in the distance. His pool and tennis court lay below, both immaculately kept.
He took a swig of beer and sighed. Tomorrow it would all start again, the inexorable push towards the next tournament. He’d practice and prepare and would probably lose early on, if his recent luck held. The thought flitted through his mind again — maybe it was time for a coach. He hadn’t had one for two years now.
At the thought, pain blossomed in his chest, regular as clockwork.
He slammed the rest of his beer back and headed upstairs. His bedroom was large, with French doors that opened up onto a balcony that overlooked the sea. Luke shut the drapes and took another sleeping pill, hoping he wouldn’t dream.
He tossed and turned for hours, strange images flitting through his mind, keeping him on the edges of real rest.
In the morning, his trainer Aaron arrived on schedule at seven. Luke was jet-lagged and irritable; they hardly spoke as they jogged on the beach before starting drills. Drills were the same as ever: First his backhand, then his forehand, then his serve.
“I should work on my volleys,” Luke said, as Aaron refilled the tennis ball machine.
“Your volleys? What for? You come into net about once a millennium these days.”
“Well, maybe I should change that.”
Aaron opened his arms wide, displaying the muscles he spent hours a day in the gym maintaining. “You’re the boss,” he grinned, the dimple in his cheek matching the twinkle in his eyes.
For the next few hours, Luke charged the net repeatedly. After what was probably his twentieth missed volley, he cursed Jesse McAllister for ever opening his big mouth.
# # #
Luke’s forehand sailed long and his racquet thudded to the ground. It had been a week and his net game was still pathetic. The rest of his shots weren’t too hot either and frustration was setting in.
“Hey, don’t work yourself too hard,” Luke’s hitting partner, Mike Madison, said as he approached. “Look, I know you must be upset about the Aussie and about Alexandra, but give yourself a break, buddy.”
Luke took a gulp of water and nodded. Then his brow creased in confusion. “Wait, what about Alexandra? I haven’t talked to her in forever.”
Mike blanched. “Shit, I thought you knew. She married that racecar driver over the weekend in Monaco. They kept it a pretty good secret until afterwards.”
Well, well, Alex had finally landed a dream husband. “Oh. Good for her, I guess.” The “relationship” between Alex and Luke had only been one of mutual convenience. Her days as a top supermodel were over, and being with Luke had kept her in the spotlight. They had seen each other only a few times a year, but always made sure the paparazzi were on hand to take plenty of pictures.
After Luke’s career had dipped, she’d informed him that she was moving on. Luke played the heartbroken ex-boyfriend very successfully, and no one bothered him about his love life. Which was fine by him.
“Sorry, man. I know it still gets to you.” Mike clapped Luke on the back. “Come on, let’s call it a day and go grab a brew.”
Luke nodded and they headed to the player’s lounge in the club. Oceanside Tennis Club was just down the street from his house in Malibu, and Luke and Mike met regularly to hit with each other, as they did on tour. Without a coach, Luke needed someone to practice with, and Mike was easy going and a good friend. A journeyman who’d never made it to the top of the game and never would, Mike kept slogging away year after year, making a living. At thirty-five, he was close to hanging up his racquet on the tour.
Naturally, the Australian Open played on the big-screen TV in the lounge. The German who had beaten Jesse McAllister, Stein Koehler, was on court playing for the championship.
“Did you see him play against that kid from UCLA in the third round? What’s his name? McAllister?” Luke tried to keep his voice casual.
Mike nodded as he stretched his arms over his head. He was an inch taller than Luke and well muscled, with close-cropped brown hair and a warm, open face. “Yeah, McAllister had a good third set, took him to a breaker. He just might follow your example and start winning Slams. But so far he never seems to be able to put it together when it counts.”
“He’s got the talent.”
“Yeah. You know, I hear he’s going to be playing out of Brookview again; he fired his coach in Florida and he’s moving back to L.A.”
“Huh.” Luke sipped his beer and munched on a pretzel.
Mike looked at his watch and groaned. “I’d better get going, or Shelley will have my hide. I have to help Tara with her math homework or I’m in trouble. See you tomorrow.”
“Have a good one. And hey, tell Shell to stop feeding you so well–you’re getting a bit thick around the middle.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mike laughed, playfully punching Luke in the shoulder as he left.
Luke ordered another beer and finished watching the match. He tried not to think about the fact that it should be him on court, the hot sun beating down, another title within his grasp.
# # #
“Brookview Golf and Country Club. How may I help you?” The young woman’s voice was crisp and pleasant.
“I’m trying to reach Jesse McAllister. I believe he’s going to be practicing at your tennis club again.” Luke’s throat was strangely dry. Why the hell was he doing this? He should just forget Jesse and focus on his training.
The woman hesitated. “I might be able to pass on a message.”
“It’s Luke Rossovich calling.”
“The Luke Rossovich? The tennis player?”
“The one and only.” Luke applied his practiced charm and could practically hear the woman’s composure melt.
“Oh, my god, you were totally amazing the first time you won Wimbledon. And the second! Not to mention the third, of course! I’m such a big fan!”
“Thank you very much. What’s your name?”
“Well, Amber, if you can get me Jesse McAllister’s home number, I’ll be sure to send you an autographed picture.”
“Really? That would be so awesome,” she gushed. “Okay, just a second.” She put him on hold and was back in a minute with the number. She also gave him her phone number, along with her home address. Luke promised to send the picture soon and made a note to do it later. A promise was a promise, after all.
As he dialed Jesse’s number, he felt strangely nervous. It rang, and he considered hanging up, but then Jesse was speaking. “Hey, it’s Jesse. Blah, blah, blah, leave a message after the beep.”
The beep sounded, and Luke was stammering into the phone. “Uh, it’s Luke Rossovich. I was thinking about what you said in Melbourne. Maybe it’s not a bad idea, playing doubles. I could teach you a thing or two. Call me if you’re into it.” Luke recited his phone number before hanging up.
He winced. Into it? He sounded like a teenager. He flopped down on the couch and turned on the TV, flipping the channels aimlessly until he settled on a rerun of a cop show he’d probably seen before.
When the phone rang, Luke jerked upright. He’d dozed off and he shook his head to try to clear the cobwebs. His stomach lurched when he saw Jesse’s name on the call display. Jesus, he really was acting like a teenager — what was it about this kid?
“Luke? It’s Jesse McAllister.”
“Hey. How’s it going?”
“Fine. I still have to finish unpacking and stuff. I hate moving.”
“Yeah, it sucks.” For some strange reason, Luke couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“So, um … you want to give it a try?”
“Huh?” Luke’s pulse suddenly increased.
“Doubles. Playing together. That’s why you called, right?”
Yes, yes, that was why he called. “Right. Let’s give it a shot.”
“You free on Saturday? I could meet you at your club. You’re in Malibu, right?”
“Yeah. But you can come to my place if you want. I have a court. It’s quieter here.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
Luke gave him the address and they arranged a time. After he hung up, Jesse’s “See ya,” rang in his ears. He picked up the remote and started flipping through the channels again, a smile tugging at his lips.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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