Authors: Trixie Stilletto
Annalisa didn’t usually like being manhandled by men, but she hadn’t felt manhandled at all with Robert. She also hadn’t felt fear, even when he’d been yelling at her for falling into his boat—as if that had been her fault. She’d felt anger and a little embarrassment, but not manhandled.
Back to the job at hand, she told herself. She was the only photographer here and that was a good thing. After thinking about it, she thought that had been the problem yesterday. There had been several shooters in the spot and one of them had probably nudged her the wrong way. Once she zeroed in on taking the shot, everything else tended to fade for her. It wasn’t surprising that she hadn’t even been aware of being pushed into a danger zone.
That wouldn’t happen today. She thought the other shooters there were missing a prime spot. There were television cameras on rolling platforms that would cover the length of the course. There were a gaggle of still photographers positioned at the finish line for the shots of the bows of the boats crossing the tape. See? Her research had paid off. She knew which end of a boat was its bow.
There were a few more cameras positioned at various spots along the course, but she was the only one who had chosen to go for the bird’s-eye view. She felt a shiver along her spine. There must not be a repeat of yesterday’s performance. But she’d taken every precaution this time. She’d left her bag with most of her equipment in it at the media center. She only had two Nikon camera bodies with her, one with a fast telephoto lens attached and one with a wide-angle lens for some fish-eye shots. With the two bodies, she could seamlessly switch back and forth.
Buchanan’s group wasn’t scheduled to run until the fourth heat, so she was going to experiment with a couple of wide shots first, then use the telephoto lens for the money shots. From her position on the ledge, she could swing around and shoot the start of the races then it would only take a quick flip and she’d be positioned to catch the finish. She figured this spot would be the same one a sniper would choose. She laughed a little at that thought. She’d never compared herself to a sniper before. Since Robert had been an Army Ranger before tackling rowing, she figured he’d chuckle at the sniper comparison too.
She took a deep breath and locked her focus on the job as the officials signaled the start of the first heat. Time to get to work.
* * * * *
It was time. Robert joined his teammates on the small dock and boarded the scull. The coxswain readied them and Robert went through the checklist with the rest of the team. At the first time trial, it was important to get a feel for the water, then make their next one their best, earning a spot on the Olympic team. He knew his teammates felt the same way. This was the beginning of the real deal. It was vital that they start out strong and not have any glitches.
The sights and sounds of the competition were addictive to Robert. If he hadn’t been competing, he knew he’d have been there on the sidelines, just taking it all in. The enthusiasm and energy of the fans was contagious. The area popped with color and smells. The scent of the sunblock some of the rowers favored, mixed with a healthy dose of anticipation, settled over the venue.
The US finals competition was set up just like the Olympics. The best times in each heat would move forward, but there would also be a repechage round, which would allow them one more chance to move to the finals. Making it through to the Championship, and thus the Olympics, via the repechage was not on his agenda.
The crew was settled and the coxswain had a focused look on his face. He was like the driver of the tram, and considering that the boat was sixty feet long and made out of carbon fiber, “tram” was a pretty good way to think of it. Robert always thought of the cox as being the squad leader. He’d been one back in the Rangers, but here he was happy simply to take orders.
When everyone was settled in the boat, feet planted securely and oars at the ready, they looked at the Cox. Seconds later the horn sounded and they were off. Despite movie depictions, the cox didn’t yell “stroke, stroke” but the orders were obvious and fluidly counted out. The boat moved forward quickly at the release and Robert paced himself. He had been worried, as the new member, that some of the movements would be awkward. Rowing at this level was about working as a team and being certain that each oar blade hit the water in a precise way and with the correct angle to move them through the water. Fans watching the sport were known to say that something so flawless had to be easy. As his heart worked strenuously to keep up with his responsibility, and the muscles in his legs, arms, shoulders and back strained through the repetitive motion, he focused on one thing—the end of the line.
The cox’s call for the “power ten”, meaning the finish was close, made his adrenaline spike higher. They were going to do it.
* * * * *
Annalisa caught her breath and almost forgot to snap the picture. Only her muscle memory allowed her to zoom in and do her job. Buchanan’s squad was working like a well-oiled machine and it was, oddly, the most beautiful sight she’d ever witnessed. She saw it all through her lens—the strain on each rower’s face, the ultimate concentration on the job at hand, the seamless and unhurried instructions of the coxswain. Her camera motor shuttered quickly and almost silently through a series of shots. A mere touch of her fingers changed the point of view from the cox at the back of the boat to the middle, where Robert was working. She took the pictures without conscious thought, knowing there were many winners in this grouping. As a professional, she knew her shots would be crisp and vital.
As a woman, she felt a stirring inside her. The intensity on Robert’s face was compelling in ways that couldn’t be ignored. Sweat was running freely across his brow, down his nose and dripping off his chin. The muscles in his arms bunched and released with a precision that made her wish her fingers were resting against them. The motion of his hips and torso sent shock waves through her insides.
In a blink of an eye, the boat was underneath the overpass and she scrambled to get to the other side and capture the back view.
, she thought. Her finger pressed the shutter release, capturing each movement with digital accuracy. “The back is even better than the front,” she murmured.
Much too soon for her, the race was over. She continued shooting, taking more shots of the jubilation of the team after crossing the finish line. She heard the fans roar their approval as the announcer said that Buchanan’s team had set a course record. She didn’t stop shooting, wanting nothing more than to capture the sheer exuberance and exhaustion on Robert’s face. The only thing better than what she was doing would have been to be on ground level, touching him. She, along with everyone in the crowd, laughed and cheered when the team tipped their boat into the water, dunking themselves and their coxswain, in rowing tradition. Even as she lived their elation, she was capturing it all forever. To her complete surprise, the desire to touch him was greater than her satisfaction at having the money shot.
Robert and his team members went to a bistro in Kingsport to celebrate their victory. As celebration parties went, it was ridiculously tame. As a special operative working in different foreign countries for many years, he had never lost control or broken his discipline, because doing so could cost a life. His life was less dangerous now, but he noticed his that teammates followed a similarly strict routine. This celebration consisted of a meal of low-fat protein to rebuild muscle after their race and high-density fresh vegetables with a small amount of pasta for some carbohydrates. The raciest thing he saw on the table was a yogurt smoothie.
“You guys really know how to pa-a-a-rty,” he said as he walked up to the table. It had taken him a little longer to get to the celebration, as several media members had wanted individual interviews with him. Though he’d done the talking, he had turned all the attention away from himself and focused on the job the team had done. There had been several photographers taking pictures in the media room. The one he was most interested in had been noticeably absent.
“Yo, rookie, we were waitin’ for you,” said Bert Armstrong, the coxswain for the team. “We figured those media boys would get tired of your lame answers sooner than this.”
Robert smiled at the small, dark-haired man who was easygoing and laid-back in the extreme—except on the water, where he was a pit bull who didn’t suffer whining or crap from men twice his size. He possessed a fierce competitive streak and hated losing more than anyone. Robert admired that and would have been pleased to have Armstrong by his side in any battle. Robert knew that Bert had coxed for the University of Pennsylvania team, which had taken top honors in the college division for four years straight. He was a professional in every way.
“You know how these journalists get. They’re just desperate for something to write about since there isn’t much going on today. They’ll have real news to report by tomorrow,” Robert replied. The truth was that he was more than a little embarrassed by the attention he’d got today.
“That’s true. That’s when they’ll be writing about me,” Benny Galway retorted.
Galway was an oarsman on the eights and the odds-on favorite to take the Olympic gold in the pairs next month with his teammate Frank Stallion. Galway had a shock of red hair, freckles that stood out against his permanently sunburned face, and a training regime that would make most Ranger candidates expire within half an hour. Of course, the rest of the team took every chance they got to knock his ego down a peg or two.
“You’re probably right, Benny,” Bert agreed, but Robert hid a smile because he saw the gleam in his eyes that was a sure tell. He didn’t disappoint him. “They’ll be busy writing stories about how you choked in the pairs. Of course, perhaps Frankie can save your butt, but the way you’ve been putting away the pasta today, you’ll probably cause the boat to sink.”
That brought laughter from the team, which got louder when Frank added, “Hell—I think the rookie already has that distinction. Had any more gifts from the heavens, L.T.?”
The team had started calling him L.T. in reference to his time as a Ranger. He never made a big deal of it, even though by calling him a lieutenant they were actually giving him a demotion. When he’d been injured, he’d been a captain. But the team nickname was growing on him.
“I heard it wasn’t so much a gift as a pain in the…” Bert paused at just the right time then said, “middies.”
“I saw what that babe looks like—that must have been the kind of pain that hurts so good,” Benny interrupted.
Robert had always taken the “officer and gentleman” creed to heart, so he wasn’t one to kiss and tell. Though he wasn’t about to comment, he also couldn’t just laugh the incident off. If he left the party without a comeback, he’d be in for more razzing, or hurt feelings from his teammates. Not liking the indecision he was feeling, he decided to say anything to change the subject, but before he could, he felt her presence behind him.
“I’m sorry if I’m interrupting,” she said. Her voice was steady but there was a blush on her soft skin that told him she had overheard the comments by his teammates. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at her. He had nothing to feel ashamed about. He hadn’t been saying a word.
“I took this shot of all of you after the heat was over this afternoon. It’s been requested by a lot of papers, but I thought you guys would like copies. I brought some prints over for y’all.”
She slid the prints onto the table and Robert looked down at them. The rest of the crew each took one and for a moment there was total silence. It was a great shot, taken at the moment right after they’d crossed the finish line. Each face was stamped with elation, along with exhaustion and physical triumph. It was the moment when they’d each known they’d done their best and produced the results they’d worked long and sacrificed much to achieve. It was a picture that told the only story that mattered.
“Ah, well…sorry about interrupting your party,” Annalisa said when silence greeted the pictures. She turned to leave. Robert heard Burt say, “I’ve never had anyone give me a print before.”
“Shit, it’s a great shot. Look at us,” Benny added. “We’re a team.”
Robert agreed, but he didn’t stay with his team. He went after Annalisa, who despite her short legs had made it all the way to the entrance of the cafe. By the time he caught up with her she was pulling open the door.
“Wait a minute,” he said as he reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop.
“Oh, hi.” She turned and looked at him. There was a small smile on her face but it didn’t reach her eyes. Robert could tell she was still very embarrassed. “I really didn’t mean to interrupt your party, I just thought your team members would like the picture.”
“They did. I did,” Robert said.
Her smile became a little more relaxed, but she still seemed uncomfortable. “Great. I guess I should have just left them at the media request window instead of delivering them personally,” she said. “I was headed back there after picking up these prints when I saw you all come in here. I didn’t think, just followed you.”
Robert looked at her—really looked at her. How had he not noticed that her skin was like heated silk, while her eyes were clear, honest and as innocent as a child’s? He ran his finger down the side of her face, unable to resist the lure of touching her. When the skin blushed a charming pink, Robert felt himself falling deeper under her spell.