“Wren, come on, if you would just put a bit more effort into this—”
“I would be competing again, I know, I know,” she interrupted and grabbed a sip of water from her purple water bottle.
Paul redirected a petite blonde toward a rowing machine before turning back to her. “You could have been done with your physical therapy a month ago.” His gaze softened. “The Olympic trials are less than a year away and the U.S. Gymnastics Nationals team starts its rotation in four months.”
“Meh, what makes you think I care about the stupid Olympics and competing again?” She snorted and pretended to focus on retying her ponytail. A long lavender strand covered her eye, and she pulled it back with the rest of her purple, amethyst, and wine hair.
“You’ve been here doing PT with me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past three months, Wren. Why would you put in all that effort, albeit half-assed effort, if you didn’t want to compete again?” he asked, arching a dark, bushy eyebrow.
That was the question of the century, wasn’t it? Why would America’s former golden girl of gymnastics want to compete again? After one and a half years of this crap, the lost sponsors, the hate mail… The TV host making jokes about her poor decision that ultimately led to her being ostracized from the whole community. Yeah, why would she want to come back? And even if she did get the full medical bill of health from Paul, Mr. PT Guru, did she want to humiliate herself? She could see the headlines now, “The bad girl of gymnastics makes her debut. Hide your children… and your car keys.”
One mistake, one stupid mistake had led her down the spiral of failure. And of course, because Wren had never listened to anyone, she had spiraled even more out of control. America’s bad girl of gymnastics did kind of have a nice ring to it. And it worked well with her freshly dyed purple hair. The press had had a field day with that. Just one more reason to keep the good gymnastics community and their loyal fans away from bad girl, Wren Montgomery.
“Did you hear a word I said?” Paul’s irritated voice cut into her thoughts. No, irritated wasn’t the right word. Paul never got irritated with her. But disappointed? Yeah, she could see that etched all over the tight lines of his face, and the worry creasing his forehead. Paul was used to her not paying attention. He never got angry. He just continued to quietly push and direct. That’s why she had agreed to work with Paul. Well, that and the fact that no one else within the gymnastics community wanted to touch her with a ten-foot pole. This guy wanted to help her, and she couldn’t even give him a few minutes of straight listening. Ugh.
“I’m recommending you go to a different PT. Someone who will be a better match for your,” he cleared his throat, “needs.” Motioning for her to follow, he led the way to his office.
“Wait, wait, what?” Wren practically tripped climbing over a bench and around a petite female in a plank stretch. “Y-you can’t just give up on me. I don’t have anyone else.” Panic started flaring, hot in her chest. Okay, she hadn’t meant to piss him off. “I’m sorry, I’ll try harder. I, I don’t know why I haven’t been pushing. But I will. I promise.”
Closing the door behind them, Paul pulled her into a loose hug. “I’m not giving up on you, kiddo. I promise I wouldn’t do that to you. Have a seat,” he said, directing her to the lone straight-back chair, as he sat on top of his desk.
Since her legs felt like jelly, it was easy to sag onto the chair. She wanted to curl up and cry, and felt the start of tears forming in the back of her eyes. She couldn’t take any more people abandoning her. Ah, crap, she needed to get her emotions under control. She was Wren Montgomery, the woman who made weak men cower, and mothers yank their kids to the other side of the street, so as not to be tainted by her.
Wren straightened her spine and let out a cool breath, and gave him a frozen glare. She had perfected this over the past few years. This glare told socializers to back off, her parents to knock it off, and news reporters and photographers to fuck off. It also made her look like she couldn’t care less. Standoffish and harsh was what they all claimed her to be. Whatever. She pierced Paul with another of her patented glares, and folded her arms around her chest. She didn’t care what he said or that he was about to ‘fire her’ as his client. She didn’t care. Right?
“Come on, kiddo, just hear me out. I know you’re upset.”
“What makes you think I’m upset, Paul? You gotta do whatever you need to do to keep your business.” Shrugging her shoulders, she made sure to keep her eyes directed at him.
The poor guy was like a huge teddy bear with glasses bigger than the space shuttle, and she couldn’t stay angry with him. Besides, he had been the only one to accept her into his practice. She relaxed and shook out her fists and sat back against the chair.
“All right.” She exhaled a long, tired breath. “What do you have in mind?”
“A new physical therapist, and possibly coach for you. I know you’ve had a hard time getting back into the circuit, and this guy is willing to take you. He and I have been friends since grad school, and I trust him.”
“Why can’t you keep me?” She hated that little-girl voice that came from nowhere, and the fact that she had lost her scowl.
“You and I both know you are destined to greatness in the sport. You were the best all-arounder the gymnastics world has ever seen. You got the short end of the stick after the injury. Sorry.” He nodded his head and continued. “But your poor choices, and no offense… bad attitude—”
“No offense taken.” She rolled her eyes.
“Anyway, you’ve made it a bit difficult to get back into the circuit. And I can’t push you any harder than you’ll let me. And since I’m not up to date with current gymnastics, I think you’ll fit a lot better with my friend. He knows the sport inside and out; I think he’ll be able to help you get out of your slump. But it’s up to you. And you need to be honest with me, for once.” He stood up and towered over her. “Do you want to compete again?”
Wren swallowed hard and stiffened, preparing to give him another ‘whatever’ speech. But something in his eyes stopped her. This kind man whom she had spent over seventy-five hours with over the past three months had been willing to take her in when no one else would. And they could both agree, she had not been the easiest to work with. She at least owed him the truth.
“I’m scared.” She met his kind eyes and they gave her the strength to continue on. “I miss the smell of the mats, and the feel of the chalk between my fingers. I miss being achy and sore and feeling good about myself. I miss numbered signs, announcers, and cheering crowds. I even miss that stupid music they play during the floor events.”
“So?” Paul’s mild manner gave her the confidence to answer.
“Yeah.” That wasn’t as hard as she thought as she leaned forward, elbows on her knees. “I want to compete again.”
Paul smiled. “Thank you for your honesty. Believe me, I am not trying to get rid of you, I have loved working with you, and want to stay in touch as friends, if you would be okay with that.” Walking behind his desk, he sat down and grabbed her file. “I think it would be in your best interest to work with this new PT. He’s extremely qualified, but has been out of the circuit for the few years, due to some issues. I think you two will work really well together.”
“All right, if you think that’s the best-case scenario to get me competing again.”
“Yes, I do. He and I go back a ways, and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s great at what he does. Trust me.” His eyes became serious again. “If you give yourself fully to his training, you’ll be in the running for the national team. Just give it a chance.”
“Okay, what do I have to lose, right?”
“The scowl would be a good start.” Paul’s mouth twisted into a lopsided grin.
“It depends on whether or not he deserves it, but I’ll try,” she deadpanned, but sobered at his fixed gaze. “All right. So when do I meet this god of PTers?”
A knock sounded at his door, and Paul strode to answer it. “That’s Jonathan now.”
Jonathan? Her tummy did a little flip-flop. Surely there were more than one Jonathan in the field, right? Please don’t let it be him. Anyone but him. Anyone but that cocky bastard, Jonathan Reilly.
“Wren Montgomery, meet your new physical therapist and coach, Jonathan Reilly.” Paul smiled from the doorway.
The tall, dark-haired man with the confident brown eyes and smirk gave her a nod and ambled in. “Hey, little rebel.”
Wren yanked herself out of the chair and pointed at him. “Oh for God’s sake. You?”
“I’ll leave you two alone to catch up, while I go check on my other client.” Paul shut the door behind him.
“I see you still have the sullen brat act going on.” Jonathan casually leaned against the doorway, effectively blocking her in. “What’s the problem?”
“You… you spanked me!”
Jonathan couldn’t stop the shit-eating grin as he plunked down on top of Paul’s desk. Yes, that little spanking had fueled a lot of memories and fantasy fodder over the past three years. Her creamy flesh jiggling up and down as he imprinted her with his red splotchy handprint. Granted, that had been extremely inappropriate. So had the thoughts he had had toward the then nineteen-year-old athlete. It was a smart move for him to take a break from the team. But if he had stayed, Wren wouldn’t be in the position she was in now. Falling from grace must have hurt her pretty bad. And it looked like she was still very angry. Her lips pursed, her blue eyes blazed, and if her arms squeezed any tighter around her chest, she would asphyxiate herself.
“Did you hear me, jackass?” she spat.
“I heard you loud and clear, sweetheart. And it sounds like you are itching to go back over my knee again, right now.” He took pleasure in her soft little gasp as her eyes widened and her cheeks blushed. He had always been able to fluster her, and he loved how easily she showed her emotions. She hadn’t changed a bit. Well, except for filling out a little more up top, and the hardened look in her eyes. He would fix that.
He leaned into her personal space, and listened as she took in a quick nervous breath. Grasping a tendril of her long hair, he twirled it around his finger a few times. “I like the purple. What’d your folks say?”
She caught her bearings and yanked away from him. “What do you think?”
He was sure good old conservative Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery had had fits. He wondered how much of her lashing out was for the media, and how much was directed at her parents. “Well, it suits you and your personality.”
She rolled her eyes and snorted, sitting back against the chair stiffly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He knelt down to get at her eye level and grasped her chin. “It means you haven’t given up yet. You’re stronger than they gave you credit for. And you are going to prove it to them when you make the national team in four months.”
Her eyes softened and he finally received a glimpse of the former Wren Montgomery, the sweetheart with the heart of gold. She sniffled. “Who’s them?”
“The whole world, sweetie. Including you.” He let go of her chin and sat back on the desk, folding his arms and piercing her with a firm gaze. “But first, we need to get you through your last bit of PT, and you’re going to need a coach.”
“Are you going to act like this the whole time we’re together?” Her brow furrowed and the pink flush spread to her ears.
“You’re asking if I’ll spank your bare bottom again.”
Her small squeak of embarrassment assured him he had all of her attention, even though she wouldn’t meet his gaze. It had worked three years ago. Why not?
“Yes, my little rebel, I’m going to work your ass harder than you have ever trained before. And when you give up, or don’t give your all, or give me too much attitude, I will punish you. And I promise you, when we are done, you will be the best ‘bad girl’ gymnastics has ever seen.” He stood up and held out his hand. “So what do you say?”
Her grip was stronger than he had anticipated, and Jonathan schooled his features not to wince as she flashed her brilliant white teeth at him. “When do we start, coach?”