Can love grow and survive for two men on opposite sides of the deepest of chasms—slavery?
In this world, one country has cut itself off and is closed and mysterious to everyone else. What’s the secret it’s hiding? Magic? Monsters? No, just the cruel reality of slavery. But inside its borders life goes on as normal, and it competes with the rest of the world at sport just like everyone else, just to prove that it’s the best.
Nicky accepts that and is happy in his own small, simple life as a gymnastics coach. He accepts it because he’s never known anything else, but he stays as far away from the brutality of slavery as he can, until he’s given a present he doesn’t want and isn’t allowed to refuse.
As for love? Well, he loves his sport. Isn’t that enough?
With her face creased in concentration, the young gymnast landed well from the mid-air somersaults, her feet making solid contact with the mat. But rather than creating an elaborate show of her stability, she immediately arched backward, stretching her spine into a perfect curve. Her arm came up above her head, elbow soft, hand following the movement, as she looked backward along the line, making sure every finger was in the right place, delicate and gentle.
The extra gesture followed perfectly with the music, a quiet, haunting piece of heartbreaking intensity with only a single clear voice laid over the melody. She followed the sound with her hand, her arm, her whole body, faced creased with the feeling of the music, till the very last note.
Then she was still. Perfectly, completely still, caught in the moment and the magic. For a long second she kept the position, fixed in time, then the spell was broken as she turned toward her coach, a sixteen-year-old girl once more. “Nicky?” she asked, her attention fixed on his face. “Was it good enough?”
Nicky took a slow breath as he pulled himself up from where he sat, just outside the floor area. “How did it feel to you?”
“It felt…” Adeline caught her lip between her teeth, uncertainty seeming to creep over her like a plague as she dipped her head, suddenly aware of everyone else in the gym.
“No.” He stopped her. “Doesn’t matter how anyone else reacts. How did it feel to you?”
Her focus was back on him again, as though he were the only important thing in the world. The only thing. “Like I’d become part of the music. L—like I could feel it in my tummy, like I was in it. It felt… I felt…” She stopped, shaking her head.
“Beautiful,” he said quietly. “You looked beautiful. You were beautiful. Beautiful—that’s the word you want. You and the music were beautiful.”
She stared at him, her heart and soul in her eyes, all being offered to him, then she broke into a huge grin. “And the triple twist somersault?”
“Over cooked and off line.” He shrugged, grinning back. “But we can sort that out later. It doesn’t matter—you caught the essence, the soul of it. Who cares about a bit of a wobble when you’re that graceful?”
“The judges will, you idiot.” She laughed, running toward him. “That would be at least a point two deduction.”
“And another point two off your score for not being straight.” He slung an arm over her shoulder, leading her across the hall. “But I’d give you an extra couple of marks for taking my breath away.”
“Idiot,” she repeated, smiling and leaning into him for a moment. Her hand went up toward his face, hovering for a moment near the birthmark covering his cheek on one side. She gave it the briefest of touches with one fingertip, then she ran away as he pushed her gently.
“Okay, everyone, warm down then home. I, for one, need some sleep.”
There was a chorus of cheeky replies and a few harmless insults before the group of girls got together on the floor area to go through their ritual warm down. Nicky started clearing up—a water bottle here, a track suit top there, putting mats back in their proper place—as he listened to them.
They were still laughing and giggling together—amazing after a three-hour, strenuous work out. Comments about their haircuts mixed in with gossip from favorite TV shows and the latest pop star as they took care of muscles that had been worked hard. Nicky stopped and watched them, a collection of hand guards held against his chest. They were damned good girls. Not just at gymnastics—that went without saying. But a collection of diverse personalities that had one thing in common—they were all good people. Some were loud and confident, others softly spoken or wary, but they would all grow up to be decent adults.
He had chosen the group well. Not just great gymnasts—not even always the best he had seen, there had been other, better, gymnasts he had turned down—but great gymnasts with better characters who he could work with. Who he could help become the best in the world. He smiled at them fondly.
“What are you staring at, old man?” Martha stood, hands on hips, and pulled a face at him, sticking out her tongue.
“A stick insect with red hair?”
“A stick insect?” She narrowed her eyes. “If I’m such a stick insect, why did you have that soppy expression your face? You looked a sausage short of a barbeque.”
He barked out a laugh at the absurdity of her comparison and knew that the soppy expression was back again. “Because I’m proud of you,” he said seriously. “I’m proud of all of you.”
Martha stopped for a moment, her face showing her pride in the compliment, then she was off again, running toward the showers. “I told you he’s gone soft in the head,” she shouted over her shoulder to the others. “It’s because he doesn’t spend enough time having fun.”
“If I have gone soft, it’s because I spend too much time with you guys.” He threw a hand guard half-heartedly after her, knowing he’d have to pick it up himself, and shook his head. He was proud of them, each and every one. “And why are you all in such a rush to get out of here?”
“Because”—Martha popped her head back round the changing room door—“as we did so well in the last competition, our mums have given us money to go late night shopping. We’re buying something other than leotards and track suits for once, something glamorous. High heels and skirts with spangles on them.” She grinned again, flashing her teeth. “Unlike you, we know how to have fun.”
“So, go, have fun.” He waved them away. “Just don’t be late for training in the morning.” He picked up the hand guard and looked round the gym. All ready for the next day. He collected his things and reached for the light switch, muttering to himself, “I do know how to have fun, if I remember right.”
Outside in the corridor he held the main door open for the last of his girls as they headed off, still talking a mile a minute. But before he could lock up, one of the girls’ mothers stopped him, her foot in the door, her hand pressed against his chest.
Mrs. Bygroves. She’d always made him want to take a step away. Too pushy, too knowing, too self-assured. “Nicky.” She purred his name. “We wanted to have a quick word with you.”
“Myself and the other mothers.” She indicated the group of women behind her, already starting to move toward the door. “We won’t keep you long. We just wanted to give you something to say a proper thank you for all you’ve done for our girls, especially after the amazing results at the last competition.”
“You don’t have to give me anything.” He hesitated, already not liking the feel of this. “I do it for the pleasure of working with them, and they’ve already said thank you.”
“Nonsense.” She pushed past him, confidently making her way to the office. “I know the authorities don’t recognize your work as they should and I’ll wager they never say thank you.”
“It doesn’t matter.” He trailed after the women. What else could he do?
“But you’re the best women’s gymnastics coach in the country. You should be working with the elite national squad, not stuck out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“But I’m building a better squad than the national elite one.” He allowed himself a satisfied smile. Yeah, his girls were damned good.