Heels Over Head

Heels Over Head by Elyse Springer
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-566-1
eBook release: 
May 29, 2017
eBook Formats: 
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Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-567-8
Print release: 
May 29, 2017
Word count: 
~97,000
Page count: 
~366
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Jeremy Reeve is one of the best divers in the world, and he’s worked hard to get where he is. He intends to keep pushing himself with one very clear goal in mind: winning gold at the summer Olympics in two years. That medal might be the only way to earn his father’s respect as an athlete.

Brandon Evans is everything Jeremy isn’t: carefree, outgoing, and openly gay. With his bright-blue eyes and dramatic tattoos, he’s a temptation that Jeremy refuses to acknowledge. But Jeremy can’t ignore how talented Brandon is—or that Brandon has no interest in using his diving skills to compete.

They’re opposites who are forced to work together as teammates, but Jeremy’s fear of his own sexuality and Brandon’s disinterest in anything “not fun” may end their partnership before it begins. Until a single moment changes everything, and they help each other discover that “team” can also mean family and love.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Jeremy

August (24 months until the Olympics)

I’m doing a series of dives off the springboard. It’s not my favorite exercise, but the air I can get is awesome, and Andrey likes to remind me that I should get used to it, because someday my body won’t let me do the ten-meter platform anymore and it’ll be springboard or retirement. Andrey is a morbid dick at times, but his brutal realism is why I moved out to Bumfuck, Ohio, to train for the next two years. Because dreams and optimism are all well and good, but they’re not going to win me Olympic Gold, are they?

It started off as a normal Tuesday afternoon, nothing special about it. I’d spent the morning doing cardio, took a break and went to class for a few hours, and now I’m enjoying every second of being in the air. You’d think divers would spend most of their time in the water, but you’d be wrong; between weight training, trampoline, and practicing on crash mats and foam pits, we spend the majority of our day on dry land.

Andrey is recording me on his iPad to show me exactly how bad I’m screwing up this twist, and calling suggestions while I stretch and flex and try to make my body do what I need it to do—which is a forward two and a half somersaults, two twists dive.

Easy when it’s from the platform and you have heaps more time in the air. But I’m on the springboard, and Andrey is about three seconds away from his head exploding because I won’t point my damn toes. Plus, the springboard is turning my legs to jelly.

“It’s good for you,” Andrey is fond of saying.

It probably is, but right now I feel about three seconds away from my legs giving out, so I’m going to have to disagree.

Anyways, Andrey is recording, I’m diving, life is good. And then suddenly Andrey isn’t paying attention anymore, and I completely fail to rip my entry because I’m distracted by the guy standing next to Andrey, talking to him. That’s the first sign that it’s not going to be a typical practice . . . Andrey is usually just as focused as I am.

Doesn’t this guy know that we’re in the middle of a practice? It’s the interruption that upsets me, not the eyes watching me that are the exact same color as the pool I’m currently floating in. He’s skinny, dark hair a mess, and wearing sweats that are loose and worn.

Our gazes meet, lock, and he smiles. I look away quickly.

I tread water for a second, trying to figure out what’s going on. Andrey has the iPad tucked under his arm and is reaching to shake the guy’s hand, nodding. There’s another man that I hadn’t noticed before, probably Andrey’s age. I recognize him from somewhere, but my brain isn’t making the connection, although you’d think I’d be able to place that epic mustache in a heartbeat.

I’m climbing out of the pool, grabbing my shammy from where I tossed it before, when I hear Andrey say, “Okay, let’s see what he has.”

What the hell?

My mouth must be hanging open in shock a little, because Blue Eyes glances toward me and shrugs guiltily. But then he’s pulling his T-shirt over his head, toeing his flip-flops and sweats off to reveal a tiny red Speedo and miles of brown skin covered in swirls of black ink. I’d be angry, except it’s hard to be angry when you’re standing in front of a work of art.

Then the guy scampers up the stairs, heading straight for the ten-meter platform, and yeah, I’m angry again. Even those awesome tats and rippling muscles can’t take away from the fact that he’s interrupting my training session.

I’m toweling myself down absentmindedly while the guy stretches and moves to the end of the platform. He does an effortless, absolutely perfect handstand, like he’s completely unaware that there’s thirty feet of air and the hard surface of the water in front of him if he slips. He hangs there for a second, body straight as a pole, and then he pushes off.

It’s fucking beautiful. A back three and a half somersaults, and his pike is damn perfect.

Except he botches the landing so badly I can feel the spray of the water from where I’m standing.

The guy emerges from the water, smiling like he hadn’t just turned a perfect-ten dive into a cringe-worthy failure. He pushes his hair out of his face, still grinning like an idiot, and pulls himself out of the pool.

“How long has he been diving?” Andrey asks the older man.

The man answers too low for me to hear, but whatever he says is either impressive enough or ridiculous enough that Andrey’s eyebrows go up. He looks back over at Blue Eyes, who’s dripping poolside without a care in the world only a few feet away from me.

Andrey glances between the two of us. Makes a decision that’s obvious on his face and has my stomach sinking.

Then he shakes the mustache guy’s hand and nods.

“Jeremy, will you show Mr. Evans the locker room and training area?”

At first I think Andrey is talking about the guy with the ’stache. But then Blue Eyes bounds over, all excitement and white teeth, holding a hand out.

“I’m Brandon,” he says.

I don’t shake his hand. Yeah, I’m an asshole, but Andrey is walking away with the older guy, talking with his head tilted in, like I don’t even exist. In the middle of our training session!

Brandon shrugs and pulls his hand back, using it to wipe some drops of water off his stomach instead.

Up close I can see that his eyes are framed by dark lashes still wet from the pool, making them appear even more brilliantly blue. He’s fit, but all divers are in amazing shape. And he’s covered in ink: a full sleeve on his right arm, something fierce and tribal-looking curling up his leg and over his hip, cursive words on his ribs that I purposefully don’t read.

He’s watching me with a cheerful, expectant gaze.

I hate him pretty much immediately.

But I do as I’m told. I show Mr. Evans—like hell am I calling him Brandon—to the locker room. He’s wiping himself off with his T-shirt, making his short hair stand up in spikes, which makes him seem about fifteen if you’re only focusing from the neck up.

Which I am.

Since we’re back there already, I grab my own track bottoms and tug them on. Andrey has made it pretty clear that we’re done training for the day, and there’s no point in being cold. Normally I’d rinse off poolside, but a hot shower will work even better. If I can get rid of Evans.

“Locker room.” I motion around, as though the showers and lockers need a formal introduction.

Evans bobs his head. “So, what’s your story?”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, you must really like diving.”

The guy is a total moron.

“The training room is through there,” I say, pointing through another door. “I’m going to shower and change, I’m sure you can find your way back to wherever you need to be.”

Now the guy is getting it. He straightens, and his eyes darken until they’re like the ocean instead of the pool we just came from. He says, “Sorry I bothered you,” like he actually means it, but I think he’s more disappointed than anything else. Like I kicked his dog or something.

I feel guilty for about two seconds, but then he finally turns and leaves. Good. Now I can shower and change into dry clothes, and maybe get a dryland workout in so the day isn’t a complete waste.

* * * * * * *

Home is a boring gray apartment in a boring gray neighborhood. It’s the kind of summer where everything is brown and dried up instead of green and vibrant, so I keep my curtains closed most of the time to block out the blandness.

I hate Ohio, but it’s where I need to be. It’s where Andrey lives—though I still can’t fathom why—and the pool facility at the university is modern and well maintained, so I guess it doesn’t matter too much about what’s outside.

My alarm goes off at exactly six thirty the next morning, and I’m out of bed before I can be tempted to hit Snooze. Breakfast is fruit and scrambled eggs, which are the only type of eggs I know how to make. If I’m super hungry, sometimes I’ll add on a bowl of instant oatmeal, but today I’m all right. I eat alone at the table.

Some days I wake up and crave bacon or the waffles Dad used to get from the frozen food aisle. But I have to be aware of every single thing I put into my body, and how it will convert to energy and muscle. Andrey had a nutritionist from the college come in earlier this year, and now I have a set schedule of what and when to eat.

I pack my bag slowly, running through the mental checklist: suit and shammy, and an extra of each just in case; bandages for my wrists and legs; KT tape for my shoulder, which twinges if I don’t warm it up properly.

Being a diver is a lot cheaper than any other sport. That was probably the main reason Dad let me keep at it as a kid; Isaac wanted to play hockey, but we couldn’t afford the pads and sticks and bags full of gear. What I need fits in a backpack. I toe on my sneakers and get out the door right on time.

I usually walk to the pool. It’s less than a mile, and the light exercise gets my heartbeat up a little. The walk also gives me time to think, to plot out my goals for the day and to figure out what went wrong in yesterday’s training so I can try to correct it.

Today, though, I’m thinking about blue eyes and black ink.

It’s enough to get my heart racing in a totally different way, and I’m furious at myself for losing my focus by the time I arrive.

I’ve only been at the natatorium for half an hour when Andrey finds me warming up in the weight room.

“You’re upset.”

Yeah, no shit. But Andrey’s earned my respect, so I just nod and finish my set of crunches.

He straddles a bench and watches me for a few minutes. Normally he offers critique, but today he’s silent until I’m almost done. “He’ll be training with you going forward.”

His words don’t inspire as much anger as I expected. I’ve had the night to process, and I’ve resigned myself to sharing Andrey’s attention. Most coaches train multiple students at the same time, but I train alone. Well, I did until now. Andrey is retired—supposed to be retired, anyways—and he only took me on because someone called in a favor.

That knowledge makes me want to work even harder. I’m lucky to be here, at this school, and with Andrey. The university doesn’t have a reputation for turning out star divers, but they gave me a scholarship when my dad refused to help me pay. And they let me train with Andrey, instead of the coach for the university team.

“What did you think of him?”

I grunt around my plank, counting down the time in my head. It gives me a chance to collect my thoughts, because Andrey appreciates the same brutal honesty that he likes to give out.

“He’s got a ton of talent, but he’s raw as hell.”

Andrey just nods, which means he’s thinking along the same lines.

“Maybe start by teaching him that his hands go first when entering the water?” Yesterday’s landing probably stung like crazy, hitting the water almost on his back, though Evans didn’t complain or even wince.

That gets a laugh at least. “He’s going to be here soon.” Andrey pauses. Then, uncharacteristically, he adds, “Be nice to the kid?”

I snort. “Sure.” Which means, No way in hell, but Andrey knows me well enough to let that lie go.

By the time Brandon Evans shows up, I’m in that focused zone where the only thing that matters is the next movement in front of me. I barely notice as Andrey gets him started, walking him through a warm-up. The guy looks less like an excited Labrador retriever today, more subdued.

Somersaults and flips for forty-five minutes, one after the other, forward and reverse so I’m not falling-over dizzy. Pretty much every three-year-old on earth can do a somersault, but doing three and a half of them while tumbling through the air toward the hard surface of the water means you better be able to do them perfectly.

I take a break to get a drink and lean against the wall next to Andrey. Evans is stretching his muscles out with a resistance band, muscles straining under the pull. He’s leaner than most divers . . . and more flexible too.

I turn to Andrey instead. “I’m gonna hit the trampoline.”

He nods. “Point your toes,” he says, like I haven’t heard those three words enough times to dream about them.

“Yeah.”

I work on flips for another half hour, until I’m sweating and my muscles are buzzing from the repetitive movements. When I stop, it’s to find Evans standing at the base of the trampoline, holding a bottle of water out for me.

As much as I want to ignore him, the gesture is a kind one. I grab the bottle, gulping down cool water gratefully. “Where’d Andrey go?”

Evans shrugs. “Said he was going to grab his iPad.” He holds a hand out and takes the bottle back, setting it on the ground where I’d left it. “That looks crazy fun.”

Great, not only am I going to spend the next two years training with someone else, but I’ll be forced to make banal small talk the entire time.

“It’s work.” I do a few more flips, hoping he’ll get the message and leave me alone.

But of course he doesn’t. “Can still be fun. You ever just jump around?” There are two harness straps hanging on the side, and he points to them. “I bet you can have a great time with those.”

I stop flipping, plant my feet on the trampoline and my hands on my hips, and stare down at him.

“Why are you even here?”

That throws him. It might be petty of me, but it’s strangely gratifying to see him speechless.

“Like, here watching you jump around? Or here,” he gestures around him, laughing a little, “at the pool?”

I give him my most unamused look. “I mean here, working with Andrey.”

“Um, to get trained as a diver?” He says it like he isn’t sure it’s the right answer.

It’s not.

“What an idiot,” I say to myself, and go back to my exercises before Andrey returns and sees me slacking off.

Evans hears the words, though I wasn’t intending to say them aloud, and his shoulders go up. He stands there for another second, then nods as if he’s decided something and goes back to whatever he’s supposed to be doing.

* * * * * *

Sports Illustrated ran a profile on me last year. It was pretty good, just a fluff piece talking about the United States’ hopes for the next Olympics, and highlighting the up-and-coming athletes to keep an eye out for.

I did the interview solely because I knew it would eat my dad and brothers alive to see me in Sports Illustrated.

Anyways, they talked a lot about my victories over the last few years. Bronze at the World Championships the last year, and fifth place two years before that, when a shoulder injury during my last dive kicked me off the medal podium altogether.

The interviewer glossed over the Olympic trials from two and a half years ago, thankfully. I went into the qualifications still battling that shoulder injury, nervous, and I didn’t make it. End of story. I wasn’t prepared then, but you can bet your ass I will be two years from now.

But my favorite part of the article was that they talked about Andrey. Specifically, the fact that he’d taken me on as his only student. Andrey won a whole handful of medals back in the day, and he’s coached some of the biggest names in diving.

Andrey agreeing to train me is more meaningful than any medal in my trophy case, because it means he looked at me and saw Olympian buried beneath everything else.

I’m not sure why he decided to train Brandon Evans. I don’t care. Because I will do everything in my power to live up to Andrey’s expectations, and to be the champion he knows I can be.

 

Chapter Two

Brandon

August (0 months since leaving Texas)

You know those movies where the hero is going about their life as a Normal Joe, just working a job and trying to make rent, and then they get whisked away by a secret agent from some shadowy government organization, and thrust into a life of explosions and crime and sexy models wearing tiny bathing suits?

Yeah, that’s not what happened here at all. Except the part about the sexy models in tiny bathing suits, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

One day I’m minding my own business, diving off my favorite spot at the lake. I’m hamming it up because a few girls are recording me on their phones and it would be awesome to end up as a YouTube sensation. The cliff I jump off of is about forty feet high, and the water beneath is deep and smooth as glass.

I do a few flips in the air, hooting and hollering like the eighteen-year-old fool that I am, and hit the water feet first, plunging down into silence. It’s the best adrenaline rush I’ve ever found.

Two weeks later, some guy is on the phone asking if I dive professionally, and the next thing I know I’m in a pool on the UT Austin campus and being asked to show off my best moves. So I do.

Turns out the guy actually is a kind of official, just not one that carries a gun or wears a suit. He’s a bigwig with the USAS, which he tells me stands for US Aquatic Sports, and basically he’d like to offer me a scholarship to train as a professional diver.

They sign me up for classes at UT, give me a Longhorns shirt, and tell me to get to work. And for two years, I dive a couple of days a week and compete on the weekends, and it’s great. The guys on the team wear the tiniest Speedos I’ve ever seen—my best friend, Aaron, laughs for an hour when I tell him that, because I have to wear one too—but it makes practice a lot more enjoyable, that’s for sure. Everyone is fit.

But then after my sophomore year another official guy shows up. He has a polo on that says US Diving, and he asks a bunch of questions about my training (all two years of it), my background (gymnastics, ballet, modern dance), and my grades (passing, though barely).

Then he asks if I want to tryout to train with one of the best coaches in the world. And I don’t know what to expect, but I say, “Sure, why not?”

I’m whisked away. Bye-bye, shitty dorm in Austin, and hello . . . shitty dorm in Ohio.

At least the eye candy is still really nice?

* * * * * * *

The guy who flies up with me to Ohio is named Martin Durand. He’s awesome, but a little too intense for me. He talks a lot about the “singular opportunity before me” and “making an impression.”

Basically, I zone out and let him do his thing.

We spend the night in a hotel, and the next morning I put on the tiny bathing suit beneath my sweats and we drive over to this insanely big aquatics center.

Inside everything smells like chlorine, and surprisingly it’s mostly empty. There are a few people swimming laps, and two men at the far end. As we approach, I watch a guy my age run down the springboard, jump, get some awesome air, and do a bunch of flips before hitting the water.

He’s good. Even with my limited experience I can see that plain as day.

The diver is back on the board by the time we get closer, and Martin is introducing me to this older Russian man named Andrey while he does another dive. I should be paying attention and “making a good impression,” but what’s happening in the pool catches my attention and damn.

The guy is hot. Pale like he doesn’t get out much, but not sickly white. Muscles like one of those statues in the museums, and blond hair that falls into his eyes when he climbs out of the pool. He has a glare like a little Chihuahua: more adorable than scary.

He meets my eyes long enough for my gaydar to ping, then looks away.

Martin and Andrey get me to show off, and I do. It’s been hard over the last couple of years, teaching myself to dive hands first instead of feet first, but it’s just as fun as before. I start with a handstand because it’s my favorite, then flip backward a bunch of times, remembering at the last second to straighten out.

I still hit the water on my back. It stings like a bitch, but the adrenaline overrides that.

Later, after being rudely dismissed by hot blond guy—whose name, apparently, is Jeremy—Martin explains that I’m going to be training with Andrey going forward.

“It’s a one-year scholarship. You prove what you can do on the platform, they’ll extend it through the end of your college career.”

“Awesome.” It’s not like I have a lot of choice. I could go back to Texas, assuming they’ll renew my scholarship down there . . . or I can smile and shake hands and listen to Martin talk about competition requirements and living allowances. But there’s nothing waiting for me in Texas except Aaron and a mountain of tedium, whereas Ohio offers something new, a chance to escape and start over.

Yeah, I’ll take option B, thanks.

* * * * * * *

Andrey puts me to work right away, setting workouts and giving me routines for the dryland boards. He doesn’t actually let me back into the pool for the first two weeks, and there’s a strict exercise schedule that I’m supposed to follow. I tape the schedule up on the wall of my studio, alongside the nutrition plan Andrey handed me the first day. I don’t look at either very often.

Dryland training is my favorite, because it’s a lot like the gymnastics that I did as a teenager. Giant mats, trampolines, and flipping around until my muscles are pleasantly sore. I think I impressed Jeremy by holding a handstand for over a minute, though it’s hard to tell, what with the not-so-subtle glare he shoots me every time I accidentally cross into his line of sight.

I thought maybe he was distant at first. But now I’m pretty sure he’s just a grade-A dick.

A few weeks in, I call Aaron and spend half an hour catching up. We used to talk every day, but he was pissed at me for taking the first chance to escape Texas, and for leaving him behind. Most people aren’t close with their exes, but Aaron and I were best friends first, and we’ll probably be best friends until the end of time, even if we’ve realized that sleeping together is a bad idea.

“So you’re some kind of prodigy?”

I’m sitting on my bed, feet propped in front of me. There’s a hole in my sock, and it’s driving me crazy, but I’m too comfortable to get up and find new socks. “Nah. I think they’re just excited for fresh blood or something.”

“This is the first time you’ve had a break to call me. What the hell do they have you doing up there?”

“Fuck, it’s ridiculous.” I end up flopping back onto the bed and stretching my leg up flat against my chest, peeling the sock off, and flinging it in the direction of the garbage can. Then remember that I can’t throw it out because I basically have no money except what I get from my scholarship. “I need to get a job, but they have me training twice a day. Plus classes, online and in the classroom most afternoons, though thankfully I’m not doing a full load this semester.”

Aaron whistles low. “Intense.”

He has no idea.

Weight training twice a week in the mornings, diving in the afternoon. Cardio workouts alternate, and then dryland training of course. Jeremy gets a workout on the highest platform every Wednesday, and Andrey tells me to come watch, like maybe I’ll learn something.

The only thing I’ve learned so far is that Jeremy is über talented, and pretty much the most mysterious person I’ve ever met.

Laughter in my ear reminds me that I’m in the middle of a conversation. “Oh man, who is he?”

“Huh?”

“Dude, we’ve known each other since you were a tiny thing in leotards trying to convince me to do ballet with you. You get all silent like that midsentence, it means you’re thinking about something . . . or someone. So spill.”

Did I say that Aaron is my best friend? Scratch that.

“It’s nothing.”

“Bran, seriously.”

I sigh. “So, the coach who took me on has another student. Jeremy Reeve. I’m not really sure what his deal is, but every other word out of his mouth is either ‘diving’ or ‘Olympics,’ and he’s totally not my biggest fan.”

“But he’s hot?”

So hot.” I raise my voice, going for full-on thirteen-year-old girl, and it gets me the laugh I was aiming for. “But no, man, he’s crazy serious. Like, I get in to train at 9 a.m., and he’s already there working out. It’s been three weeks, and I haven’t seen him smile once.”

There’s a clacking sound in the background, and I realize that Aaron is typing on his keyboard. It’s confirmed a second later when he says, “Shit, he’s gorgeous.”

“What?” I sit up straight. “How’d you find a picture of him?”

Aaron sighs. “Paging Brandon Evans, welcome to the twenty-first century and the age of Google stalking. Your boy is all over the internet: competitions, National Championships, blah, blah, blah. Looks like he was a favorite to join Team USA for the Olympics two years ago, but bombed in the qualifications.”

That explains a lot. “I had no idea.”

“No shit. You’re not exactly the kind of person who digs beneath the surface.” He says it fondly, but I know it annoys him that I tend to take everything at face value . . . I’m definitely a “jump first and think later” guy.

But this information has me seeing Jeremy in a new light.

Aaron changes the subject to fill me in on some local gossip, and I let his words wash over me, the barely there twang making me homesick. I hated Texas, but it’s where I lived for my entire twenty-one years until now, so thinking about my home state is still familiar and comforting. Not to mention, there’s no good Mexican food anywhere in this entire godforsaken state. I checked before Martin flew me up here.

But I’m free from the restraints that living in Texas put on my life. And . . . maybe my training partner isn’t so bad after all. He could be a friend, if I can figure out how to speak his language.

Tomorrow I’ll try to chat with him about the training. Extend an olive branch, right?

* * * * * * *

No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to bridge the gap between us. We’re on two very different paths in life, me and Jeremy Reeve. He’s going to the Olympics. I’m just riding on this wave as long as I can before they send me back to Texas. Someday I’ll put on the TV and see him waving his gold medal around, and I’ll be able to say, Hey, I knew him way back when. It’ll be a good story to tell at the bar.

So logically, I know it doesn’t matter if we’re bitter enemies or besties. But I’d like to be somewhere closer to BFFs on the spectrum if we’re going to be diving together for the next two years.

The only language Jeremy seems to speak is Diving, so the only way to ease the tension in the natatorium is to speak to him in a way he’ll understand. I’m not an idiot, despite what he thinks. He might be a better diver than I am, but there are areas where I clearly have a lot more experience—like in dryland training.

“You’re doing that wrong,” I tell him one afternoon after I’ve been there a month. He’s doing backflips onto one of the mats, but he keeps overbalancing and ending up on his butt. Every time he recovers quickly, rolling back to his feet, and goes straight into trying again. But then he does the flip, arms spread, and ends up on the ground instead of flat on his feet.

He gives me a scathing glare. “Like you’d know anything about it, Evans.”

“I do, actually.” Ballet since I was five, gymnastics from eight until the teacher pulled me aside at sixteen and said I was probably never going to go anywhere with it, and it was kind of inappropriate for me to be the only guy in the women’s class, wasn’t it? But the point is: I know how to shift my weight and plant my feet on the ground. “You’re pulling your knees in too early.”

Woah, if looks could kill. “I’ve got this.”

“You don’t.” He seems taken aback by my bluntness, so I plow on full-steam ahead while he’s shocked into silence. “You don’t want to tuck your knees until you’ve rotated farther back. It’s not like diving, where you’re trying to tuck as early as possible.”

Jeremy does another backflip, and ends up on the mat. He’s clearly determined to do it on his own, seeing as how he doesn’t try to correct the problem.

Finally I sigh and step forward. Jeremy freezes, watching me warily. “You’re rotating in your shoulders—” I rest my hand on the mentioned joint “—instead of through your hips.” My other hand slides down, settling on his side. “It puts you off-balance.”

His skin beneath my hand is warm, even with the layer of his T-shirt between us. Jeremy doesn’t move an inch, just watches me wide-eyed, breathing shallowly.

When I step away, he swallows visibly. For a second, I think he’s going to scoff and argue with me. But then he nods once and gets back to work.

I don’t offer any more advice. Instead I stand back and watch another three failed attempts.

But then . . . he lands it. Completely steady, arms outstretched: a stuck landing that any gymnast would tell you is perfect.

And oh, the smile on his face, the clear pride radiating from him.

He looks over at me and nods again. “Thanks, Evans.”

He’s so goddamn beautiful. And I want to know what it would take to make him smile like that again. “You’re welcome. You should call me Brandon.”

It looks like he’s going to sneer and refuse, but then he nods once, slowly. “Fine.”

We stand side by side, relaxed and pleased. Then Jeremy’s eyes cut to the side, glancing at the clock, and his face goes blank. “Let’s get back to work,” he says.

It’s not an olive branch, exactly, but it’s something other than outright animosity. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

 

Chapter Three

Jeremy

September (23 months until the Olympics)

Valerie is at the pool this morning, balancing on the edge of the five meter when I walk in. It’s a pleasant surprise because I thought she was at school in California. Her dark hair is piled messily in a bun on top of her head and dripping down her neck, which means she’s been here for a while already and has gotten a few dives in.

I’ve known Val since we were kids, competing on the same juniors circuits. Most sports have a weird barrier between the male and female competitors—never the two shall meet, or whatever. Diving is no different, and even has separate rules for men’s and women’s events. But I always wanted to compete against Val when I was growing up. She was way better than most of the boys in those competitions, and she knew it. Better yet, I knew it. I wanted to learn from the best, so at a Junior Nationals competition in Georgia, I found her sitting on a bench after the competitions and introduced myself. I was nine, she was eleven.

“You’re good.” Even back then I didn’t talk more than I had to. In my house, talking meant drawing attention to yourself, and it was easier to keep your head down.

She had nodded. “I know.” And then she’d looked over at me, smiling wryly. “You’re almost as good.”

Somehow that cemented our friendship.

But we’ve never actually trained together. We see each other at competitions, grab sushi and protein shakes between rounds, and fill each other in on what’s new in our lives. Sometimes we text, but neither of us are much for frivolous conversation. Today, though, I’m startled enough to say, “I thought you were off studying something unpronounceable on the other side of the country.”

She grins like she knows that her appearance has thrown me off-balance. “It’s called kinesiology. I graduated in June.”

“And you’re not, like, doing grown-up kinesiology things?”

Val gives me a flat stare, her smile vanishing. “Of course not,” she says. “I’ve been training.”

Yeah, I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole right now. “Last I heard, you were training out in California while you were in classes. San Diego not cutting it for you?”

She grabs her bag and follows me to the locker room. “Enough with the small talk. What the hell is Andrey up to?”

I blink and set my bag down on a bench. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I got a call from my mom three days ago,” Val says. We both wince, because Val’s mother is scary intense, and a phone call from her can never be good. Back in the day, Val’s parents were both Olympians, competing for Germany. Her dad was a swimmer, her mom a diver, and they met at the ’88 games—though neither of them medaled. After they immigrated to America a few years later, I guess they decided that the only way they’d ever get an Olympic gold was to combine their genetics and live vicariously through their kid.

If Valerie ever feels the pressure of having two parents pushing her constantly to succeed, she has never once shown it in the decade-plus that I’ve known her.

“So what’d she want?”

Val grimaces. “She told me to get on a plane and get to Ohio because I had a meeting with Andrey Fedorov at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning.”

I slide down onto the bench next to my bag, hands between my knees.

Brandon comes bounding into the locker room a minute later, all smiles and limitless energy. I get exhausted just watching him sometimes. He pauses when he notices Val leaning against the lockers.

Normally I would ignore Brandon, but the sight of him reminds me of the heat of his hands on my shoulder and hip from the week before. So I meet his gaze briefly, then turn to Val. “This is Brandon Evans. He’s also training with Andrey.”

“You didn’t tell me you had a partner.” Val says the words to me, but she’s eyeing Brandon.

“I don’t.” I pointedly keep my eyes on her.

Val raises an eyebrow. “Well, this is starting to make a little more sense now.”

It is? I want her to fill me in, but there’s no way she’ll say anything else in front of a complete stranger. Besides, it’s almost nine, and she has a meeting to go to. I’ll get all of the details afterwards, and I can be patient.

She glances at me and nods, then brushes past Brandon without introducing herself.

Once she’s gone, Brandon tosses his bag in the locker he usually chooses and kicks his sneakers off. He mutters something that sounds like, “Great, now there’s two of them,” and slams his locker shut. Brandon’s already wearing the shorts and tank he normally has on for gym work, but he hovers at the edge of the bench for a second, like he’s giving me a chance to explain.

It’s tempting, but Val has been my only friend for so long that the idea of talking about her with Brandon—with a man I still don’t like all that much—makes my stomach twist. So I don’t say anything, and Brandon leaves with a huff.

Now it’s my turn to stand and start getting ready for the day. I change slowly, reveling in the solitude to think about Val’s sudden appearance. But there’s only so long I can take to untie my shoes and toss my T-shirt in the locker with my backpack, and I still haven’t figured out what’s going on by the time I finish.

* * * * * * *

Val and Andrey join us when we’ve finished our warm-up, and we head out to the pool as a group. I keep shooting Val glances, which she catches and ignores. Her face is so blank that she looks like a statue, but she’s shaking out her wrists, flexing her fingers the way she does when she’s excited and nervous.

“Jeremy, springboard.” Andrey has his business face on, which means I won’t be getting any answers from him, either.

I hesitate. Wednesdays are usually platform days. The stress of my body hitting the water from that height means I only get up there once a week to practice—otherwise I risk injury. Andrey is changing things up, and I’m not sure what to think about that.

Still, I’d rather dive from the springboard than not at all. Diving is what makes the tasteless meals and the dedicated workouts tolerable. The second I get up on that board, everything else fades away.

I stretch my arms over my head, twist side to side, and climb up on the board. I can already imagine the feel of my muscles contracting, the air rushing around me.

It’s the closest I’ll ever get to being truly free, but I’ll never say that aloud.

Andrey claps his hands once. “Forward dive, pike position.”

It’s pretty much the most basic dive there is. I glance over at Andrey, then realize that he’s speaking to Evans—Brandon, I remind myself. Val meets my eye from his other side, eyebrow raised. So this is a demonstration, then.

Brandon knows how to dive. He’s had training, though I’m still not sure how much, but he generally recognizes the various terms that Andrey throws out, knows how to get his body into the right position. His timing is crap, and he usually over-rotates pretty badly, but he doesn’t need a Diving 101 class.

Andrey gives me a look, and I sigh.

Fine.

I adjust the fulcrum and roll my shoulders. The dive may be beginner-level stuff, but I still pause for a second, close my eyes, and picture every piece that makes a whole dive: The edge of the board in front of me, step forward, toes on the edge, stretching my arms above me and bending my knees. Push off, legs straight going into the pike, arms out, and then pull them forward as I rotate, straighten my body, and hit the water completely vertical.

It’s all of two seconds from start to finish. Blink and you’ll miss it.

This was actually the first dive I ever learned. I thought we were going to get straight to the fun stuff, doing flips off of high surfaces and making big splashes. I can still remember how confused I was, seven years old and being told that the flips were ages out, and the entire point was to make as little splash as possible.

Now this basic dive is so ingrained in my muscle memory that my body goes through the motions automatically. I do the dive, rip the landing, come out smiling.

It’s a simple victory, but every dive I do well is something to smile about.

Andrey is explaining what I just did to Brandon, but he pauses to give me an approving nod and hand me my shammy as I come out of the pool. Val is up next. Same dive, but backward.

We run through an entire series of intro dives, and Andrey dissects each one as we go. It’s almost refreshing, to be able to dive without having to focus too hard. We spend so much time on the more complex technical aspects, on making sure our armstands are straight and our tucks are tight.

Then Val and I are told to take a break, and it’s Brandon’s turn.

“This should be good.” I say the words low, so only Val can hear me. She opens her mouth as if to ask what I mean, but I just shake my head and nod toward the pool. It’ll be clear soon enough.

In the air, Brandon is grace and beauty. But from what I’ve seen over the last month, he’s always a mess when he hits the water.

On second thought, maybe going back to the basics is exactly what he needs.

His first dive actually doesn’t go badly. His hips are twisted and his legs overextend, so he hits the water all wrong, but it’s clear he was listening to Andrey’s coaching. The second dive goes worse.

Val presses her lips together, though whether she’s stifling a laugh or deep in thought I honestly can’t tell.

I forgot to bring my jacket, but instead of focusing on the cold, I focus on Brandon. He’s a welcome distraction. I suspect he’s been spending his downtime in the sun, and his skin is dark tan, a tiny hint of red along his shoulders from where he’d been burned. You’d think the tattoos would blend in more, but somehow they stand out, and every time he moves or bends, the ink looks like it’s flowing.

And now I’m warm again, but it’s not the right type of heat. I shift, earning a glance from Val, and force my mind back to important things—like the fact that Brandon has just messed up his third dive.

Once I pay attention, the problem is obvious. “He’s rushing it,” I mutter.

“Hm?” Val seems just as frustrated as I am, though she shows it differently. After years of friendship, and countless competitions where we’ve sat side by side, watching other divers and taking notes, I know that the display before us is making her grit her teeth.

Agitation washes through me. If Val isn’t going to say something, then I will. “He’s not thinking it through. Look at him.” I fling an arm out. “He doesn’t get each of the individual steps of the dive.”

She nods tightly, but her gaze flickers to Andrey.

She’s trying to impress him. She won’t say anything because she doesn’t want to upset Andrey. The puzzle pieces click together.

My head whips around to stare at her. “Holy shit, you’re going to be training with us?”

She hisses at me. “Really, you’re just now getting it?”

“It’s not like I expected it.” I’m keeping my voice down, but Andrey still flicks his eyes toward us disapprovingly. I say my next words at a whisper. “How was I supposed to get it sooner? Andrey doesn’t take other students.”

Val rolls her eyes and stares pointedly at Brandon.

Okay, point made.

I’m torn between excitement and dismay. Val is my best friend—my only friend, honestly—but the realization that I’m going to be sharing Andrey’s attention even more doesn’t sit well.

Still, I can’t take my upset out on Val. Not only does she not deserve it, she could flatten me without breaking a sweat if I tried.

But if my biggest complaint is that I have to share Andrey’s attention, I probably shouldn’t complain. After all, Andrey has it even worse. He’s stuck coaching Brandon, and I can see the signs of his frustration clear on his face. He’s busy running a hand through his hair, trying to get Brandon to understand something technical about coming out of his pike. But Brandon clearly isn’t listening, because he does the dive wrong again.

Finally I can’t take it anymore. I push to my feet and head to the board.

Andrey is attempting to explain where Brandon should be looking, to make sure his head and body are angled correctly, but Brandon is missing the point.

“You need to visualize.” I’m interrupting, but it’s almost physically painful watching him mess this up. He has the strength and flexibility to do the dive, but he’s not focused enough.

I expect Andrey to be upset about the interruption, but he just shrugs and steps back, giving me space to explain.

“Look, Brandon, you’re seeing the entire dive as one piece.”

His eyebrows go up. “It’s not?”

I shake my head. “It’s half a dozen steps, and they all have to go together seamlessly. If you get them right, it seems like one motion from start to finish, but if even one of those pieces goes wrong, the whole thing falls apart. So you have to stop and actually picture each piece in your mind.”

It’s the most I’ve said to Brandon since the day we met, and he seems a little shell-shocked at the passion in my voice.

“So what do I do?”

I glance over at Andrey, but he makes a gesture that says go ahead.

There’s no doubt that I’m a shit teacher. I can be patient when I need to be, but dealing with other people has always gotten my shoulders up faster than anything else. People are loud, and they act without thinking, and Brandon is one of the loudest people I’ve ever met. I don’t just mean in volume either; every single thing he does is somehow amplified, like his excitement and energy are a speaker. But as bad as I am with people, I know diving, and I know how to spot where other divers are going wrong.

Where Brandon’s going wrong is obvious, at least to me. Right from the start I could tell that he didn’t know what he was getting into. He didn’t know who Andrey was, or why training with him was so significant. And even now he’s watching me like he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on: head cocked to the side and eyes wide, like a curious toddler, nodding although he clearly isn’t internalizing my words.

That’s where Brandon gets it wrong: he doesn’t care.

No, that’s not right—like he just doesn’t have a reason to care.

I walk him through it step-by-step, and he copies my movements. Eyes on the end of the board at first, step forward, hurdle. Arms up, head up, find your focus on the water. Don’t blink.

He keeps nodding, but he’s glancing over and focusing on my face, not my hands while I show him the proper grip. He’s . . . watching me the way guys at competitions watch Valerie, like they see a hot girl and not a diver.

I hate that he looks at me that way. I hate that my body wants to respond, though I have enough years of experience to stop it in its tracks.

“You’re way too intense about all of this,” Brandon says suddenly. “Relax, I’ll probably get it eventually.”

Just like that, I know what he’s doing wrong. It hits me so hard that I stop midmovement and stare at him.

“Jesus fuck.” I sound awed, but I’m not. It’s shock . . . and not the good kind.

“What?”

I shake my head slowly. “You don’t care about winning.”

Off to my side, I can see Andrey giving me a warning frown. Val straightens, the jacket falling off of her shoulders.

Brandon shakes his head. “Dude, this isn’t a competition. We’re just practicing.”

“Dude.” I repeat the word back, so sarcastic that my voice is acid. “Everything is a competition. Life is a competition. But this?” I gesture around me to the pool and the diving lanes beyond, the platform and Andrey, watching us with his hands on his hips. “This is the biggest competition of all. Either figure that out, or fuck off and stop wasting our time.”

I get down from the board and don’t ask Andrey for permission before I storm off to the locker room.

This practice is over.

 

Chapter Four

Brandon

October (2 months since leaving Texas)

Whatever I did to piss Jeremy off this time, it’s really bad. The kind of bad where I walk into a room and he stops talking, and if we’re working alongside each other, his eyes slide over me like I’m invisible. I thought maybe we’d start getting along more after I helped him out with his flips, but that one small step forward has been erased by a giant step back.

I don’t get it. So I don’t give a damn about competing—and that makes me the bad guy?

It was humiliating too. Jeremy got up on that platform and read me the riot act, and after, I had to face Andrey’s disappointment and the disdain of the new girl, Valerie.

Over the next couple of weeks, my humiliation simmers and slowly turns into anger. I’m angry at Jeremy because he’s fucking gorgeous and talented and cruel and people like him remind me of my parents and the people I associated with back before they cut me out of their lives. And I’m angry at Andrey and Valerie too, because they’re treating me like a leper as well.

No, that’s not fair. Andrey still trains me exactly the same as before, and he’s endlessly patient. But now I can see that he’s upset when I slack off, or when I don’t take an exercise as seriously as the others.

And Valerie . . . I don’t know what to think about her. She ignores me for days, sticking close to Jeremy, and then one day a switch flips and she’s talking to me like we’re friends.

She finds me before our afternoon practice two weeks after my disappointing show on the springboard. I got to the natatorium early, because it’s chilly outside and the library is packed with people studying, but here I can do my reading for my sociology class without interruption.

“You shouldn’t let him get to you.”

I glance up from my textbook. “Thank you, Valerie, for that helpful bit of advice.” If I’m being rude, it’s only because I’m learning fast that politeness doesn’t work here.

She flashes a small grin. “You can call me Val.” She folds her arms and watches me for a second. “But I’m serious. Jeremy can be an asshole, and god knows he’s terrible when dealing with other people.”

“I thought you two were BFFs.”

Val’s eyebrows furrow for a second while she works that out. “Oh. Best friends. We are. When you spend thirty hours a week practicing, and traveling around the world to compete, it’s not easy to make friends, and Jeremy and I have known each other for a decade. Doesn’t mean I don’t know how big a jerk he can be.”

“Understatement.”

That gets a laugh. “But he’s not wrong, you know.”

I set my book down. I really enjoy my sociology classes; someday I think I might like to be a social worker, help out kids whose families kick them out. So I’m frustrated by the interruption, by Jeremy’s friend pointing out that he’s right.

“Why does it matter if I don’t want to win? I like diving. It’s fun, it’s good exercise. The school gave me a scholarship to come up here and dive, and that’s about all I care about. He is wrong . . . it’s not solely about competitions.”

Val’s arms drop to her sides. “Do you know who Andrey is?”

I shake my head. “A coach with the university?”

“He doesn’t work for the university. At least, not directly. Andrey works with Jeremy, and only Jeremy . . . until now, when he works with us too. Before this, he’d retired from coaching after leading the Russians to victory at the Olympics four times.”

“Okay, so he’s a big deal. And?”

“And he’s taken you on. Andrey came out of retirement because he thought Jeremy had a genuine shot at winning gold at the Olympics. And he’s taken you on because he saw something in you . . . something that said you might be just as good.”

The Olympics? Yeah, okay, I get that those are important. And knowing that Jeremy is good enough to compete . . . that Andrey wants me to train alongside an Olympic-level athlete, that’s huge.

Val must see my shock on my face, because she nods. “Maybe now you’ll get it when Jeremy says that this is a competition.” She tucks her hands into the pockets of her sweats. “Maybe you don’t care about winning, but you’ve been given a unique opportunity here. Stop treating this like it’s just a game.”

She leaves me to my homework, but I’m too wrapped up in processing her words to focus on the pages before me anymore.

It never occurred to me that this might matter.

* * * * * * *

Watching Jeremy is the best type of research, because he’s so damn pretty. Also, he gets this look on his face when he catches me watching him, a wrinkle of the nose that says he’s not thrilled by the observation, and a flash of heat in his eyes that says exactly the opposite.

So of course I start paying more attention to him.

And not just to his facial features and muscles, although let’s be honest: they’re worth noticing. He has the kind of pale skin that probably turns bright red the second he walks out into the sun, and blond hair that sticks up at all angles because he never combs it after he finishes diving. And his eyes are the most ridiculous shade of brown. Not like boring, dark brown, but this light color that reminds me of milk chocolate.

Yeah, I have a crush. So sue me.

But I also study him when he’s diving or working out. Val’s words have me thinking about what it means to win, but also what goes into winning, and it’s clear that Jeremy is in it to win it. He never slacks off during practice, ever. Even when he finishes an exercise early, he just finds something else to do until Andrey says we’re done for the day.

I actually envy his focus; when Jeremy’s in the zone, it’s obvious that nothing else matters.

Now that I know to look for it, I can see that Jeremy is Olympic quality. I sneak into the pool to watch one of his ten-meter training sessions with Andrey, and he’s incredible.

So I up my game. Winning isn’t in the cards, but Val said I could learn from this chance to train with Andrey, so I buckle down and start listening. At the very least, maybe I can learn some cool tricks, and training along the best in the sport is pretty damn exciting. And I take Jeremy’s advice from that day on the springboard, and start breaking each dive apart into multiple steps.

Toes on the edge of the platform, heels hanging over into the air. Body poised, arms out to the side. Inhale. Then rapid-fire: arms to my side, knees bend, push, and twist. Depending on the dive, I have to move a very specific way, so I visualize the dive ahead of time from start to finish, figure out how to twist my body in the free position—with one hand over my head and the other against my chest—or piked with my legs straight out and pointed, my chest folded down to meet them.

The first time I see approval on Andrey’s face, I get a little rush.

But no matter what I do, I can’t get even a glimmer of positive feedback from Jeremy. He’s definitely paying attention; he watches me working with Andrey during our one-on-one practices in the pool, his head tilted to the side like he’s seeing something. But then he gets this pinched frown on his face and looks away.

It’s worse whenever I relax. I work hard whenever I’m on the mats or at the pool. I do my weight training and cardio without complaint. But if I even think about giving less than one hundred percent, I get that I’m disappointed in you frown from Jeremy and Andrey.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to forget how to have fun, though.

“You can’t be serious every second of the day,” I tell Val one afternoon, grinning.

Since our little talk, she’s been more open with me. I wouldn’t say we’re friends, but . . . we’re friendly. She ate lunch with me once, and told me a bit about how she graduated this past summer, how she’s been diving since she was a kid. The stories she has from past competitions are pretty hilarious, actually, and it’s a relief to know that there’s a human being under the diving machine.

“We have to train.”

“Yeah, but not for another half hour.” We’re both early; her because a storm is rolling in and she didn’t want to be caught in it, and me because my classes ended early and going back to my shoebox dorm room was too depressing to contemplate. “You know what we should do?”

She smiles. “What?”

“Diving board contest.”

Val’s raised eyebrow makes it clear that she has no idea what that is, so I explain the rules: we have to run and jump off the springboard at the same time. Whoever gets the most air and the biggest splash wins.

“The springboards aren’t toys,” she says.

They’re totally toys. Holy crap those things are fun. If I didn’t love the adrenaline rush I get from the ten-meter so much, I’d be happy to dive springboard instead. “It’s gonna be awesome.”

She wavers.

“Come on. Consider it practice to see how much air you can get on the springboard when you really try. It’s . . . scientific research.”

She laughs, and I know I’ve won.

And while I have way more practice at making a splash, Val’s a quick learner. She also fights dirty; I didn’t even think about adjusting the fulcrum on the board to make it more springy, but she does and kicks my butt in the second round.

Unfortunately, Jeremy walks in after our third round. He stands at the side of the pool, face like a thundercloud. When Val catches sight of him, she smiles easily and pulls herself out of the pool, her relaxed posture vanishing. Val doesn’t seem ashamed at being caught, but it’s obvious that Jeremy’s appearance marks an end to the fun. Time to be serious.

I give Jeremy a smile too, and wipe myself down with a shammy. They’re little microfiber towels, which means they absorb tons of water, and then you can wring them out and they’re completely dry again. Seriously, divers have the best toys.

Jeremy doesn’t return the smile. “Andrey wants to see us before we start practice,” he says, practically snarling the words.

Woah.

He storms off before I can try to defend myself, and I follow behind, drying myself off, and putting as much distance between us as possible. I know Val explained why Jeremy’s so serious, but I’ve been working harder, and I hate that relaxing for even a few minutes is so terrible in his eyes. I bet Jeremy would still be just as talented if he’d take that stick out of his ass.

I have no idea what Jeremy’s issues are with me, but I’m determined to find out.