Authors: Trixie Stilletto
“I was wondering about that,” Robert said. “The way it looked when I first opened the door, I thought you guys were having an intimate conversation.”
Annalisa shrugged. “It wasn’t intimate. And I never would have initiated anything like that with him. We’re barely friends.”
“Sure didn’t look like that,” Robert said. “The way he was looking at you, as if he owned you.”
Annalisa straightened. There was something about the way he said it that rubbed her wrong.
“No one owns me,” she said.
Robert waved that off as if he were batting away an insect. “You know what I mean. When a guy thinks a woman is his, he’s protective.”
Annalisa couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What did you say?”
“I said, when a guy thinks a woman is his, he protects her.”
“What cave did you come out of?”
“Excuse me?” Robert finally seemed to be getting that she was angry.
“I don’t need protection. I can protect myself,” she said, speaking as she would to a particularly dimwitted person.
Robert laughed. “What a joke. You can’t even keep from falling into a river when you’re shooting. You wear blinders to everything going on around you. It’s lucky you haven’t killed yourself. I’ve never seen anyone who needed protecting more.”
Annalisa knew she was being touchy but she couldn’t help it. She’d been ready to declare her love for this man—hell, she had declared it in every way but speaking the words. Now she wondered if she even knew who or what he was.
Rather than let him see just how upset she was, she straightened her spine and firmed her resolve.
“Well, it’s nice to know what you really think of me,” she said.
“Yeah, well, here’s more. I almost lost the damn US Championship because of you, if that tells you anything.” He folded his arms across his chest.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her mind a total blank. “Say that again.”
“I said, I broke a cardinal rule in athletics, and by doing so nearly blew everything I’ve been working for. All because I let worrying about you, having you, take over my mind and my life.” Robert sighed. “I’m too old and I thought I was too smart for that, but it just goes to prove that you’re dangerous, not only to yourself but to me. And to beat that, I think I pulled a muscle last night keeping up with you.”
Annalisa was stunned and it took her long seconds to get her thoughts together enough to form a coherent sentence.
“Thanks, Mr. Buchanan,” she said, “for telling me what you really think of me. But now that I know exactly how you feel, I won’t be a blip on your screen any longer. It’s been fun. Hope you have a great Olympics.”
She didn’t add “and a nice life”, but when she went back into her room and closed her door she knew he’d gotten the message.
She stood behind the door and waited. She knew he was still standing in the hall and she closed her eyes, hoping for something she couldn’t name or describe.
When no knock came, she felt the first tear streak down her cheek. A few agonizing minutes passed before she took a steadying breath. She didn’t have to look to know he was no longer in the hall.
She swiped away the tears now running down her face and refused to look at the evidence of their lovemaking scattered around the room—the linens half on the bed, half on the floor, the wet towels, the scent of love—no, sex, she reminded herself.
She steeled her emotions. She was leaving now. It only took twenty minutes to pack her gear, call to the front desk and check out. She didn’t need any protection. She didn’t need any man. What she did need was another assignment. She waited until she’d returned the rental car to call her uncle.
“Hey, honey. I wanted to tell you again what a great job you did shooting the Championships. I’ve added you to the staff covering the Olympics,” Vinnie said when she reached him.
“Great,” she said, biting her bottom lip to keep the sobs from coming out. “What do you have for me next, though?”
“Ah.” Her uncle was clearly caught off guard. “I thought I’d get a little more reaction than just ‘great’, since you’ve been bugging me to let you do this for years. What’s going on?”
Annalisa shook her head even though she knew her uncle couldn’t see her. “Nothing. It’s a long time until the Olympics. I just want to keep sharp.”
There was a long pause. “Your aunt and I thought maybe you’d want to stop in for a visit. She’s been dying to see you and you haven’t had a vacation in over a year.”
Annalisa forced some joy into her voice. “Hah, Aunt Rebecca just wants to feed me and you want to get out of getting me that replacement camera body.”
There was another short pause then her Uncle came right back. “Well, it’s true. This is the fourth replacement I’ve paid for in the last five years. You’re trying to kill the company one Nikon at a time, aren’t you?”
Now Annalisa felt a sad smile cross her face. She hoped her uncle was teasing but she wondered if he thought she was a total idiot and a klutz as well. “Why do you think I want my next assignment? The only way I can work it off is to shoot.”
Vinnie sighed but she could hear his fingers working on his keyboard and knew she had won. “Well, I might have something for you. It’s in LA. Are you flying out of Knoxville or Tri-Cities?”
Annalisa looked at the board listing the available flights. “Tri-Cities. It looks as if I can go to Chicago or Atlanta in fifteen minutes. Get me something out of Chicago.”
“Okay,” Vinnie agreed. “The e-tickets should come to your phone in two minutes. And honey, try not to ruin any more camera bodies—at least for another week, okay?”
Annalisa laughed and ended the call without promising anything. She would have time to go to the ladies’ room for a good cry before getting on the plane. Her worst fears had been realized. Her Uncle Vinnie also thought she was pretty much useless.
One month later
Robert looked around the venue for the Olympics and sighed. He should be on top of the world. Instead he felt hollow inside. It had been a month since he’d blown it with Annalisa. A month of unanswered calls and emails. A month of working himself into exhaustion training, falling into bed and missing her then getting up to do it all over again.
He was a pro. He could be miserable and still do his job. That was the most basic skill a Ranger possessed. As far as his teammates and coaches knew, Robert was focused one hundred and ten percent on one goal—winning the gold.
But in his heart he knew that it didn’t mean what it should, because Annalisa wasn’t with him.
He looked over the venue for the rowing event. The team had been here for a week, learning the course and getting acclimated to the change in time and weather since the team had landed in Brazil, the site of the Olympics. The press and media corps were here as well. Some of the writers and photographers had arrived three days ago. She was supposed to arrive today.
Robert had this information because after the first week of getting no answers to his calls and emails, he’d gone underground, another Ranger trick that he wasn’t ashamed to admit to using. He’d contacted her boss at the World News Organization. Though their training facility was located outside Boston, Robert had taken one of his days off and flown to Atlanta, where the WNO headquarters were located.
There he’d had a short but intense meeting with Vincent Webb, the WNO executive editor. Vinnie was a bear of a man who had cut his journalism teeth covering wars all over the world before settling down to turn the WNO into the most recognized media concern in the world. Vinnie was known to have razor-sharp instincts for hot news spots, great writers and not taking any bullshit. Robert had also learned, after only two minutes in Vinnie’s presence, that he would do anything to protect his niece.
Robert had thought they were going to have to settle it the old-fashioned way when he told Vinnie about what had happened then asked the man if he was crazy for sending Annalisa alone to Brazil to cover a celebrity wedding.
Sometime during the exchange, Robert and Vinnie had reached a semi-agreement. Vinnie would let Robert know where Annalisa was and Robert would apologize to her the first chance he got. Robert hadn’t told Vinnie that it wasn’t just going to be an apology. He was going to beg for her forgiveness and her hand in marriage.
Then Robert had returned to the training facility and focused on one thing—being ready for the Olympics and beyond.
* * * * *
Annalisa was positioned at the finish line in a large group of photographers from around the world. Unlike at the US Championships, the media was confined to specific areas and the security was tight. Everywhere she’d gone during the last three days she’d been screened and her credentials checked. And with the larger pool of photographers, it would be even harder to get a shot no one else had.
Annalisa tuned out the talk of the shooters around her as they discussed lenses and camera brands and loyalties. But her ears pricked up when she heard Jason Hull’s name mentioned.
“I’m sorry to interrupt but can you repeat what you said about Hull?” she asked the female photographer who had spoken. The woman turned and smiled as Annalisa wrapped her long, blonde hair into a quick ponytail.
“Hi, I’m Annalisa Webb with the WNO.”
“Hi, Annalisa. I’m Ruby Davis with British Press. Do you know that miserable bastard Hull?”
“Sort of. I had a little run-in with him at the US Rowing Championship. It got a little ugly,” Annalisa said. “Did you have a problem too?”
“Yes. And it got more than ugly. The bastard cornered me alone after the championship tournament in Britain,” Ruby said. “It was not a good thing. He claimed that I’d led him on, that we were in a relationship because he’d loaned me a filter to shoot the rowing. The man is crazy. I didn’t even borrow a damn filter.”
“Wow,” Annalisa said, getting a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “What happened then?”
“Well, I told him he was an idiot and I wouldn’t go on a date with him, much less be in a relationship. Well, then he got nasty. He pushed me against the wall and tried to kiss me.”
Ruby paused and Annalisa could see the fear in the woman’s eyes just remembering it. “I tried to get him off me but he was stronger than I thought. He roughed me up a little bit, but then a guy I know happened down the hall and stopped him.”
“Oh my God,” Annalisa said. But she was remembering a very similar scene at the US Championships when Robert had been her rescuer. “What did you do?”
“What do you think? I called the police and filed a complaint. Then I called my boss at the BP and told them. They also filed a complaint with the athletic governing body and the Olympics. I wanted to make sure the bastard would never be able to shoot another event like this.”
Annalisa felt the bile rise within her. “He did the same thing to me.”
“Damn, love, I’m sorry. How did you get away?”
“Same as you,” Annalisa answered, all the while thinking that she had been so unfair to Robert. Instead of accepting his help out of what may have become a very dangerous situation, and in hindsight had already gotten scary, she’d lashed out at Robert. She could admit now the incident in the hotel had scared her more than a little. Instead of being grateful at the man who’d backed her up, she’d let her fear and anxiety overwhelm her common sense. Not for the first time since that awful morning, when things had gone so bad so quickly, did she wish she could have a do-over.
“We were lucky, love,” Ruby said. “I just learned he actually raped a girl in Singapore. He’s facing criminal proceedings over there. If he gets out, it’ll be a long time before any of the news organizations ever hire him again.”
Annalisa closed her eyes and vowed she would do whatever it took to apologize to Robert and thank him. No matter what had happened between them after Hull had accosted her, what Robert had prevented couldn’t be overlooked.
All talk ceased, though, as the race began. Annalisa and the other photographers positioned themselves for their shots then things passed in a blur. Robert and his teammates finished first in the eights then a short time later, in a thrilling race, Robert edged out the competition from France by the smallest margin to take the gold medal in the singles.
Annalisa’s shots were great but the feeling of pride in Robert’s success was even better.
After the race, Annalisa followed the group of photographers into the media tent. She hadn’t been assigned to shoot it, and hadn’t been planning to go, but now she felt compelled to be there even if Robert never knew.
She stayed at the back of the tent, giving the working press the best spots at the front.
Robert and the other medal winners were escorted in. The United States team sat together and the media hurled general questions them, then pigeon-holed Robert.
“Buchanan,” one reporter said. “Tell us what it means for you to have won the gold in the eights and singles.”
Robert looked down at his hands then looked up, right into the crowd and the mass of cameras.
Annalisa knew he couldn’t see her but it felt as if his gaze were zeroed in on her.
“All of us worked really hard, trained and sacrificed a lot,” Robert said. “I’m happy for my teammates and myself. I’m also happy for all the guys who helped me to recover from my injuries at Walter Reed.”