Claire Jacobs stormed into the apartment, flinging her purse over the back of the chair before collapsing onto the couch. Frustrated and tired, she had nothing to show after her five a.m. wake up and one hour commute. Did they know how hard it was to be an amateur athlete, trying to make it, while working full time? Did they even care? She took a deep, cleansing breath and closed her eyes for thirty full seconds.
All right. She couldn’t blame the home improvement store chain in Linville for not having enough “Elite Athlete Training Program” slots, in which athletes can work part time hours for full-time pay while training for the Olympics. Besides, she should have gone in for the store’s athlete recruitment a month earlier, instead of waiting until the last minute. Like she always did.
Had she set herself up for failure again? Like she had done in her big races? Like that one time when she forgot to set her alarm, and missed the start of the race? Had she really forgotten?
Frustration and anger coursed through her.
“So, how’d it go?” Her best friend and roommate, Jenny, came out of the bathroom towel drying her hair.
“Ugh,” she groaned, and rubbed her bleary eyes, “They don’t have any openings for athletes, but offered to put me on a waiting list. Two hours of driving for nothing,” she muttered.
Jenny sat down, and adjusted her towel. “Ugh. I’m so sorry—that stinks.”
She rolled her shoulders and willed the tension from her body. “I guess I’ll just have to work full time and train in the evenings and pray I don’t end up injured or burned out.”
Jenny nodded, a compassionate look on her face. “The last thing I want to see is you burned out again.
Claire tried to hide her embarrassment. She had been a mess, hitting rock bottom four years earlier. But no, that would not happen again. She threw her shoulders back, rallying. “That’s okay. I still have a chance.” She stood and paced the small living room, “The marathon is a crazy sport. On any given day, anyone can make it.” She felt her excitement build. “Maybe, I can still make it to the Olympic Trials—or even the Olympics!” She stretched her arms toward the ceiling, loving the feeling of her muscles lengthening and heating. She sank back down onto the couch, and pulled off her sweater.
Jenny giggled, “I love watching you talk about racing. Your eyes light up, and ya get all excited. I’m proud of you! I know you’ll make it. I have a suggestion for how to work out your training. When are the trials again?”
Seven months too soon, Claire worried. When Jenny had decided to move to Blowing Rock to help her father open a new branch of his Pharmaceutical Company, Claire had decided to move with her. The Appalachian Mountains were the perfect place to train for the Marathon. But she had to get her job situation and training schedule resolved first.
Then she needed to figure out what was holding her back. She knew she had it in her to qualify, if she could just get over her habit of self-defeat. This was her last chance before the year’s Olympic Trials. If she didn’t make it this time, she would have to wait another four years. At 32, her running abilities were peaking. It was now or never.
She looked around the small apartment, at the remaining boxes that had still not been opened since their move two weeks earlier. Jenny had been kind enough to let her move in with her temporarily so Claire could save some money and focus on her training. But when the season was over, she would need to start looking for her own place.
She could take up the Pharm Rep’ing job Jenny’s dad, Mr. Danbury, offered. It wasn’t a bad job. But it entailed a lot of driving time. The Elite Athlete Training Program would have solved that problem. She sighed.
“No offense. I appreciate your dad’s offer to give me the Rep position, but I don’t know if I can do all that traveling. I’ll have to see if any of the restaurants are hiring.”
Jenny wrinkled her nose. “You don’t want to do that, and you know it. You’ll be on your feet all day, and too tired for the real workouts. Then you’ll get upset and start right back up with… old habits.”
She squirmed, knowing Jenny referred to her habit of overloading on cupcakes, chips and whatever else she could find, followed by the frantic rush to the bathroom to purge. Old habits. Bad habits. But she was fine now. Almost two years had passed since her… last time.
She sighed, leaning her head back on the couch and curling her feet up under her. “You’re right, Jen. But I think I’m okay”
“I know you’re all right. And… well, I’ve been trying to tell you that I have a possible arrangement for you.” Jenny smiled.
“Well, Dad wants me to do some extra traveling with him. He wants to open a few more branches in the surrounding states. That means I’m going to be in and out a lot.”
“And?” Claire sat up straight.
Jenny tossed her perfect straight blonde hair over her shoulder, and inspected her well-manicured nails. She epitomized the southern belle, gorgeous and refined while Claire had always considered her own average looks, plain dark hair and middle class Midwestern attributes frumpy and undesirable.
“Come on, Jen! What else?” she flicked Jenny’s arm in impatience.
“Well, first of all, I need someone to watch the apartment for me, so you have to stay. For at least the next six months.”
That would take her right up to the Trials.
Claire frowned, “I can’t pay the utilities on this place by myself, let alone, full rent. And I still need to work out the job situation.”
“I’ve got you covered on both accounts, girlfriend. Daddy needs to get some promotion work done out in the field. He needs someone who is willing to take product samples out to the races. He’s also hoping that same person will wear the company logo on her racing uniform. He’s looking to sponsor an athlete to get his name out there. Ya know of anyone that meets that description?” Jenny grinned.
Her jaw dropped in shock, “You mean…”
“I mean,” Jenny continued, “you are officially a sponsored athlete of Danbury LLC, if you want to be. I’ll need you to stay and take care of the apartment since I’ll be gone so much. But still—”
She opened her mouth but Jenny cut her off before she could say anything.
“Still paying your agreed upon share of the rent.”
She bit her bottom lip. “This is so great, but—”
“And,” Jenny interrupted her again, “you can have my job at the office while I’m gone. It’s mundane filing, answering phones, stuff like that, for three or four hours a day. He said he will pay you full time for the part time work, like the home improvement store does. If,” she added meaningfully, “you promise to stay healthy. That means you can run your little butt off, and train hard. But not too hard.”
“I don’t know what to say.” She felt the tears form in the back of her eyes. She didn’t want to accept a handout from her best friend’s father. But she needed this. A chance to train, without the stress of the full time job. She would make it up to Jenny and Mr. Danbury. She loved Jenny and her father—sometimes, to her shame, more than her own family.
And now, she could train. She could do this.
She squealed and threw her arms around her best friend. “I don’t know how to thank you or your dad.”
“Well, you can start by not choking his only daughter to death.” Jenny sputtered and smiled as she slipped her arms from her neck. “I’ll leave in a few weeks for my first trip,” she said, looking at her with concern. “Are you sure you can do this kind of training? I mean will you be all right?”
She knew what Jenny was really asking. Would she end up in the hospital again due to overexertion? Would she misuse diuretics and ipecac to manage her weight? Could she stay healthy with the amount of physical and emotional stress she would put on her body?
She bit her lower lip. “Honestly, I’m not sure. But I’ll do my best. And if I think there are any problems, I’ll back off.”
“You know, I’ve told you before, if you need to talk to a professional, my therapist is great. I trust her with my life.” Jenny took her hands into her own. “I still do appointments with her by phone now that we’ve moved.”
“I don’t do hers,” she bit out, instantly regretting how harsh she sounded. “Sorry. Hey! One good thing did come out of my visit,” she said. “The manager recommended a nearby coach who works with post-collegiate runners. He’s supposed to be pretty good, but kind of a hard ass.”
Jenny shifted and gave her a hug. “Are you going to check him out? You always say you prefer the accountability of a real coach. And he’s not a female.”
“Ugh, no more female coaches, right,” she said, nodding. “Yeah, I’ll give him a call. At least I might be able to run with the team.” She fiddled with her hair elastic, twirling it around her finger before tossing her long hair up into a ponytail.
Jen smiled in understanding. “Well, I hope this guy will be able to train you right. And if he’s as big a hard ass as you heard, then he will be perfect for you.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I meeeean, that he needs to push you to your limits without breaking you. He has to understand what you’re saying when you’re not saying anything. He should be firm without being harsh and manipulating. And he better kick your ass when you show any signs of letting yourself get hurt.”
“Hey! I don’t need my ass kicked.” She pretended to glare.
“No, but you could use a good spanking every once in a while.” Her best friend winked.
“Hey, just because you and your boyfriend like to get kinky every once in a while does not mean I want to.”
Cocking her head, Jen grinned, “A little slap and tickle here and there is good for the soul, girlfriend. You should try it some time.”
Claire sighed, and headed for the kitchen. “No thank you. That’s not for me.” She felt her face heat at the lie. She had read a story a few years ago. One that had turned her world upside down. The man had done a lot more than sexy pats to the heroine’s backside. He had thrashed her as she howled and begged for him to stop, and Claire had been unable to get that punishing scene out of her head.
Jen laughed, and her emerald green eyes danced merrily, “All in good fun, eh?”
Claire shook her head, “I’m not judging. If that’s what you like then, go for it. But it’s not for me.”
“Have you ever tried it? You know, being spanked?” Jenny asked.
“Besides the time that we got drunk in the dorms and tried to replay Blue Hawaii?”
Jenny coughed, “I did a pretty good Elvis impersonation, didn’t I?”
Claire shook her head, and sighed at her sweet, dramatic best friend. “Well you can find yourself another partner, because my role playing days are done. That hurt!”
“You were as drunk as I was.” Jenny giggled, “It couldn’t have hurt.”
“Wanna see how much it hurt?” She picked up a wooden spoon, and chased the squealing towel clad blonde around the apartment.
They were stopped from their chase when a loud male voice bellowed, “What the hell is going on here?”
Both women stopped dead in their tracks and looked sheepishly at Jen’s boyfriend, Tom. The large man considered them, and stifled a cough, as if trying hard and failing not to smile.
He pointed at the couch. Both women giggled and sat down trying to appear repentant.
“Wanna tell me what you two naughty girls were up to?” They knew he was playing around, but it was fun pretending to be chastened by the large man who had stepped into the role of protector and big brother naturally.
“Jen got to play Elvis in college. And I never got to reciprocate. She deserves a spanking.” She folded her arms over her chest and pretended to be petulant and angry. “And everyone knows, turnabout’s fair play.”
“Well, she is jus’ actin’ like a big ole’ caveman!” Jenny pouted, turning her southern charm and accent onto her boyfriend.
He appeared to think it over, and made his decision, striding toward the couch.
He bent down and picked up his girlfriend, throwing her over his shoulder with ease.
Jenny giggled and shrieked, “Let me down, you big Neanderthal!”
Tom winked at Claire before turning away, “I agree,” he smacked his little girlfriend’s towel clad bottom, “Turnabout is fair play. I’ll take care of it for you.”
She watched as he carried her best friend off, both laughing, slamming the door behind them.
She turned on the TV, and cranked the volume, hoping to drown out the noises from Jenny’s room. They were such a cute couple, and so in love. She liked Tom. He was a big, scary man that a sane person would never want to anger; he was also kind and thoughtful, especially with what he called “his two favorite gals.”
She liked strong, athletic, authoritative men, though Tom was a little too muscular for her tastes. But the thought of having a man throw her over his shoulder, carrying her off like a caveman, made her heart stutter. She liked dominance in a man, as long as he wasn’t overbearing or mean.
“You sure you don’t want to go out with me and Tom tonight?” Jenny’s voice interrupted her from her musing.
That must have been a record. Ten minutes of kinky sex, and time enough for Jenny to throw on a tee shirt dress.
She smiled at her two friends, seeing their love for each other as Tom held Jenny tightly in his grasp, massaging her shoulders, and nibbling on her ear.
Jenny giggled, and swatted him away.
“Nah, I’m good thanks. I’m going to get my logs together, so I can call that coach in the morning. Have fun tonight.”
“You too!” Jenny blew her a kiss as they walked out the door.
She turned on the TV, and flipped for a few minutes until she came to an old western. She took a sip of her wine, stretched out, and watched John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara on the screen.