It’s the all-important Olympic season and eighteen-year-old American figure skater Alex Grady is discovering that there are many obstacles along the way on his quest to win a gold medal. For starters, he has to get through endless hours of practice under the watchful eye of his stern and slightly terrifying Russian coach. Then he has to contend with his all-American rival, Tanner Nielsen. Tanner has the talent, looks, poise and picture-perfect girlfriend that make him the ideal poster boy for United States figure skating.
Alex has the talent and his looks aren’t bad, but the filter between his brain and his mouth is missing, and he definitely doesn’t have a girlfriend. He doesn’t have a boyfriend either, although he finds himself thinking far too much about pairs skater Matt Savelli, which is ridiculous, since goody two-shoes Matt is totally not his type. Besides, Alex doesn’t have time to worry about dating, not with the Olympics looming, right? Can he find a way to go for the gold and still remain true to himself?
Note: This title is currently out of print
Read an excerpt from The Next Competitor
Back at the hotel, I have a shower and think about ordering room service before telling myself not to be so lazy. Paying nineteen dollars for a grilled cheese sandwich is just stupid, even if it is on egg bread and made with some fancy cheese I can’t pronounce.
After pulling on jeans and a hoodie, I go downstairs to ask the front desk where I can get some food. As I enter the lobby, Mylene’s cheery voice rings out. “Alex!”
She’s on a couch with a few other Canadian skaters, and I automatically look for Matt. I feel weirdly disappointed that he isn’t there, which is stupid. Like I don’t see him enough at home? I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
I go over and say hi to everyone, and Mylene invites me along to dinner. It’s barely five o’clock, but we all have to get our sleep during a competition; practices start at six in the morning. I’m about to say yes when Matt walks in.
“Hey. Great short today, Alex.”
He watched me skate? For some reason I’m going to hope is hunger, my stomach flip-flops. “Yeah. Thanks.” That was eloquent. “You guys did great, too.” I actually didn’t see them last night, but since they’re in second place they must have been good.
Mylene does a little bouncy hop thing and her grin is infectious. “We’re going to kick so much ass tomorrow.”
The group heads out and we find a chain restaurant down the block. Even though I shouldn’t, I order a burger and fries, telling myself that I deserve it. Mrs. C frowns on grease, which is strange for a Russian, judging by the time I’ve spent in Russia at competitions, but I sure don’t.
It’s fun to hang out and relax for a while, and we gossip about other skaters, not to mention coaches and judges. As an ice dancer named Todd tells us all about the Russian coach who is dating his barely legal skater, I find myself watching Matt. I don’t even know when it happened, but suddenly I find him really nice to look at. I mean, he always was, but I thought he was so dull and I don’t really know when that changed. Maybe being nice isn’t such a bad trait in a guy.
I shouldn’t even be wasting my time like this. I have too much skating stuff to focus on. I blink to attention and realize that all eyes are on me. “Huh?”
Mylene snaps her fingers playfully. “Earth to Alex! Todd asked you about Mrs. C. What’s the dirt?”
“Dirt? On Mrs. C? Uh-uh, not gonna happen. First off, there’s nothing to tell. Secondly, I value my life, not to mention my limbs.”
“Well, you’re no fun.” Todd’s partner grumbles, and we all laugh.
After we finish dinner, Matt says goodbye to us all as we leave the restaurant. “Where are you going?” I ask before I can stop myself.
“It’s my first time in Philly, and there’s one thing I’ve got to see.”
My mouth opens and I say, “I’ll go with you.”
Matt looks puzzled and a bit surprised. “You will? Why?”
“I don’t really feel like going back to my room yet.” I shrug. “But if you want to go by yourself, it’s totally fine.” Why did I say anything at all?
“No, it’s cool. Come on.”
We turn in the other direction from the hotel after Mylene, who is giggling for some reason, waves goodbye. Night has fallen and the air has a bite to it that reminds me that winter isn’t far away, which means the Olympics aren’t far away either. We walk along in silence for a bit and then I feel like I have to say something.
“So, which sight is it?”
Matt zips up his jacket and puts his hands in his pockets. “You can’t guess?”
I think about what Philly is famous for. “The Liberty Bell?”
“Some memorial to Ben Franklin?”
“The cheesesteak museum?”
Matt laughs. “Seriously? They have a cheesesteak museum?”
I laugh, too. “I have no idea. They should, though.”
We’re in a big park now, approaching the back of an imposing building. As we come around the side and I glance up, I realize where we’re going. “Wait, wait. Is this the Rocky thing?”
Grinning, Matt nods and points to the building. “Philadelphia Museum of Art, featuring the famous steps Stallone ran up in the movie.”
“You a big Stallone fan?” I’m a bit surprised.
“Not really, but who doesn’t love that moment? Come on, it’s classic.”
“I’ll give you that.”
We keep walking toward the front of the museum, which is lit dramatically. I hardly ever visit any sights when I’m traveling for competitions, so it’s a nice change seeing some of Philadelphia. A little voice still nags, though, saying that I should be resting and getting ready for my long program.
Matt goes on, “My dad loves that movie. We used to watch it together when I was a kid, and it was like…I don’t know. Like it helped us relate to each other. He’s a plumber from a big conservative Italian family. We don’t really have that much in common.”
That would suck. “I got lucky with my father. He’s a software consultant and he’s always been pretty liberal. He was a big hippie back in the day. We can talk about anything.”
“My dad didn’t like me skating when I was younger. At all. But now that I’m doing so well, I think he’s happy. I hope so. Besides, he’s worked his ass off for years to pay for it, so it’s not that he wasn’t supportive. Still, I think deep down, he wants me to marry Mylene one day and have a bunch of babies.”
I’m not sure what to say, so I make an “mmm” noise to show I’m listening. I didn’t know Matt could talk this much in a row.
“I just wish he could accept me for who I am. I’ve always tried so hard to make him proud.” Matt shakes his head and laughs. “God, sorry. I don’t know how this became a therapy session.”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t mind.” I never really thought about Matt having angst. He always seems so together and unruffled.
“You’re a surprisingly good listener.”
“Thank you?” I make it a question to note the back-handed compliment.
He smiles. “No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant was…it’s been nice getting to know you better.”
“Yeah, you too.”
We reach the middle of the wide stairway and stand at the bottom of the steps, peering up. I whistle. “Wow. That’s a lot of stairs.”
“Bet I can beat you up there.”
I do love a challenge. “No way, no day.”
Suddenly, Matt’s off and running and I curse under my breath as I launch after him. He’s faster than I thought, and although I close most of the distance, he remains a few feet above me as we power our way up the steps. My breath comes in bursts that fog up the air, and I strain to catch up with him. We pass a few people who are coming down, and they applaud as we race by.
I manage to pull up beside him, and we’re neck and neck as we take the last steps. We reach the top in stride, and Matt lets out a whoop of joy. We both turn around and take in the amazing view of the city. Skyscrapers rise in the distance, and before us is a huge oval area surrounded by a road, with trees and grass and a statue of a guy on a horse.
Matt raises his arms over his head and punches the air. I join in, because that’s what you do when you run up the Rocky steps. I’ve never seen him so animated. Well, except for when he’s irritated with me.
We dance around like idiots, and then we both struggle to catch our breath. Matt leans his hands on his knees, and I reach out to give his shoulder a punch. I find I don’t have the energy, and my hand just rests there instead.
A shock bolts through me, like I’ve just touched a metal doorknob in winter. We’re both breathing hard, and Matt gives me this look that makes me want to throw him down right here and now and do things that would get us both arrested and kicked off our national teams.
He stands up straight and my hand falls away as he steps closer. “Thanks for coming up here with me. It was way more fun than doing it by myself.”
All I can think of is something else that is way more fun to do with someone else, and I swallow, my throat suddenly dry. I manage to get out, “Sure.” My pulse is thrumming in my ears, and it’s not because of the run up the steps anymore.
We lean toward each other. I’m staring at his lips, and I am so turned on right now—
Matt and I leap apart as a little boy comes hurtling over the top of the steps. His parents and a few siblings follow, huffing and puffing from their climb. The parents say hello to us and we say hi back, and I realize we passed them on our way up. I’m glad it’s dark, because I know I’m blushing like a girl.
The father asks us to take their photo, and Matt does, telling them to smile. He gives the camera back and we stand there awkwardly for a few moments. I clear my throat. “I guess we should…” I motion in the direction of the steps.
Matt nods. “Yeah, it’s getting late.”
It’s barely seven o’clock, but I murmur in agreement and start down the stairs. We descend side by side, not talking. It would seem weird to try and kiss him now. Or maybe I should stop overanalyzing and kiss him anyway.
“Is your family coming this weekend?” Matt’s voice sounds normal. Maybe he didn’t really want to kiss me, but was swept up in the whole moment, or something. Or it was all in my imagination and there wasn’t a “moment” at all. Besides, since when do I want to kiss Matt? I need to get a grip. Clearly I’m overtired.
I realize he’s waiting for an answer. “Yeah. They’re driving here tomorrow.”
“What does your mom do?”
I tell him about my mom’s work as an HR consultant, which I’m sure is fascinating for him. His mom’s a teacher, and we talk about that for a while, and before I know it, we’re back in the hotel.
We get in the elevator and Matt presses the button for the eleventh floor. His hand hovers by the bank of buttons and he looks at me expectantly. “Fifteen.” I answer, and nod my thanks when he presses the button for me.
Just as the doors are closing, a woman sticks her arm in, and the doors obediently spring open again. She gets on with a small girl in tow. The kid waves at us, and we both wave back, smiling.
Then we’re at the eleventh floor and Matt smiles as he steps off. “See you around tomorrow.”
“See ya.” I’m going for a casual tone and am moderately successful.
The doors close, and that’s it, like nothing happened. Which I guess is true.
Copyright © K.P. Kincaid