Authors: Sarah Granger
5032 Capital Circle SW
Ste 2, PMB# 279
Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Unforgiving Minute
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Granger
Cover Art by L.C. Chase
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact Dreamspinner Press, 5032 Capital Circle SW, Ste 2, PMB# 279, Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886, USA.
Digital ISBN: 978-1-62380-518-0
Printed in the United States of America
I am very grateful to Kate Sherwood
for her encouragement and perceptive advice.
wall of heat that met Ryan as he stepped out of the air-conditioned hotel into the harsh Brisbane sun felt like a slap in the face. Or how he imagined it would feel, anyway. That had never actually happened to him. If it was this hot in the city, it would be close to unbearable out on court.
Turning in answer to the shout, he saw two women and a young girl waving excitedly at him from beneath the shade of one of the many trees along the sidewalk. It was clear from the tournament programs they were brandishing that this wasn’t a chance occurrence; they must have been staking out the tournament hotel in the hope of seeing some of the players. Relinquishing his bags to Stefan, who took them with a sharp warning not to linger, he walked over to them and took the pen that was thrust at him to start signing across his photo in the program. It was a pretty flattering picture of him—he looked relaxed and happy, his dirty-blond hair reasonably neat for once, and his hazel eyes echoing the huge smile on his face. He remembered that photo being taken and how thrilled he’d been to need an updated official picture.
“You’re my fourth favorite player,” the little girl announced, grinning widely enough to show she had no front teeth.
“What Lizzie means is you’re her favorite non-Australian player,” one of the women added quickly.
“You have to cheer on the home-grown boys first, right?” Ryan said, hunkering down so his six-foot-five-inch frame didn’t tower quite so much over Lizzie as he signed the jumbo tennis ball she was clutching, and added a heart to his autograph.
“Right,” she agreed, beaming at him. “But I like you best out of all
the others. You’re funny.”
Lizzie’s mom choked, then seemed to give up the struggle to explain her daughter, a move Ryan thought was probably wise. He gave them a quick grin as he straightened up from his crouch and retreated to the bliss of a fully air-conditioned car, greeting the driver with a handshake over the seat. The two women shouted good luck after him, and he waved back at Lizzie as they pulled away.
Ryan didn’t think he could ever get used to being recognized and people telling him how much they enjoyed watching him play. This time last year, he’d been slogging round the Challengers’ circuit yet again, with only the most hardcore of tennis fans recognizing him off the court. His all-time career-high ranking had been 274 in the world. A wild card entry into a Grand Slam and a fairy-tale run that took him all the way to the semifinals later, and suddenly everyone wanted to know Ryan Betancourt. Over the course of one tournament, his life had changed beyond all recognition.
He stole a sideways glance at Stefan, sitting next to him looking as stony-faced as ever. Along with finally being able to employ a full-time agent, Leonie, who worked effortless miracles on everything that wasn’t tennis, Stefan had been one of the main benefits that Ryan had reaped from that magical run of success. Before that, before the prize money, the sponsors, and the entry into higher-ranked tournaments that the ranking points he’d gained had bestowed upon him, Ryan had been strictly limited in his choice of coaches by what he could afford. He’d had three coaches over the past five years and they’d all been good people, passionate about tennis and about wanting to help Ryan achieve success, but none of them had first-hand experience of what it took to get to the very top, nor how best to deal with the pressures that came with that.
That reminded Ryan about what Billie Jean King had once said about pressure being a privilege, and he thought he knew just what she’d meant. He was still filled with excitement every time he realized all over again that he was now on the World Tour and playing against players he’d been looking up to for years. Even if Stefan wasn’t in the least impressed by any of it, old hand that he was, Ryan couldn’t stop the bubbling excitement inside every time he thought about it and every time he stepped off a plane in a new country.
He stared out of the car window like the most shameless tourist, trying to see every scrap of Brisbane he could. They passed several parks, the green of which seemed so cool and tempting compared to the heat reflecting off the buildings and pavement. If not for Stefan’s presence, he’d be quizzing the driver, Matt, on where he should go to explore the city. But he knew Stefan expected him to be thinking about his upcoming match with fifth-seed Philippe Martin and so forced himself back to reviewing the match strategy he and Stefan had discussed at such length. As he relaxed into the familiar mental focus, Ryan forgot about where he was and concentrated instead on his response to each variation of the serve that might come his way from one of the most powerful servers in the men’s game.
His mind was still on that when he got out of the car at the Queensland Tennis Centre, so the whirlwind that greeted him took him by surprise. The dark hair and short stature of the whirlwind clued him in fairly fast to the fact that it wasn’t some freak Australian weather phenomenon but his best friend and fellow tennis pro, Elena Sanchez.
“Guess who’s here,” she demanded, somewhat breathlessly because Ryan was hugging her.
“You want to give me a clue?” he asked, letting her go again to take his bags from the trunk of the car.
“Rhymes with Josh and Andrews.”
“Imagine that,” he marveled. “It’s a tennis tournament, and a tennis player shows up.” But he knew his nonchalant air didn’t fool Elena for a single minute. The heat in his cheeks, if nothing else, gave him away. If he’d known he would
playing in the same circles as the legendary—and really good-looking—Josh Andrews, he’d never have shared with Elena just how hot he thought he was. Not that he’d needed to tell her; years ago she’d spotted the poster he’d then had over his bed of an eighteen-year-old Josh being presented with the US Open Boys’ trophy. An eighteen-year-old Josh who had a compact and muscular grace that few guys of his age could boast, and which had held Ryan, a particularly lanky sixteen-year-old at the time of his victory, spellbound. Not to mention more than a little turned on. Josh’s immaculate tennis hadn’t helped. Ryan had been besotted.
“Yeah, imagine that,” she said dryly. “Tennis tournament, tennis player shows, and Ryan Betancourt trips over his giant man-crush on said tennis player.”
“Ryan.” Stefan’s terse summons rescued him before he could try and convince Elena that, really, he was only interested in Josh Andrews because he was the world number one player, or rather, he had been before injury and a series of operations on his left knee had taken him away from tennis for almost the whole of the previous year. Judging by the look on Stefan’s face, Ryan needed to get his head back in the game and away from thoughts of Josh Andrews in crisp tennis whites.
“Go on,” Elena said quietly. “It looks as if you’re about to get fired.”
Ryan bit back the retort that he was the one who paid Stefan rather than the other way around because he knew who really had the power in their relationship. He was incredibly lucky to have been looking for a high-end coach at the exact same time that Stefan had parted company with his previous charge, even if the whole interviewing process made it clear who was really engaging whom. Stefan wouldn’t have taken Ryan on if he hadn’t seen potential in him, no matter how much money was on offer.
Ryan squared his shoulders, picked up his bags, and marched determinedly toward the practice courts. It might be the first tournament of the year, but if he really wanted to be in the top flight, hard work and enthusiasm weren’t enough. It was all about attitude and taking every last advantage he could over the opposition. Daydreaming about how great it was to be rubbing shoulders with players he’d admired for so long was not going to cut it. Even if they looked like Josh Andrews.
delighted to see his practice partner for the day was Tommy Fleischman, who Ryan had known since they were both twelve years old. Tommy didn’t look very different these days from how he had back then. He might have gained a few inches, some muscle, and his knees might be a little less knobby, but the dark curls were as riotous as ever and his grin just as infectious.
Having done as much as they deemed necessary for match day, they gathered their belongings and left the court. As Ryan came onto the footpath that ran down the side of the court they’d been using, he was aware of a disturbance up ahead. A wire fence around the practice courts meant that members of the public were able to see into the courts but weren’t able to approach the players. Ryan could hear excited shouts from where the fans were gathered. Obviously one of the top players was walking past. Ryan glanced to see who it was, because, okay, yes, he might still be a little star-struck. At first, he couldn’t see anyone he recognized in the group of men in sweats walking down the path toward him. And then his eyes were drawn to the figure dressed in white in the center of the group and all thought processes stuttered to a halt.
He retained just enough sense to step out of the way as Josh Andrews and his entourage swept past, not seeming to notice Ryan’s or Tommy’s existence. Everything else around Ryan faded away, because all those photos he’d seen of Josh didn’t do him one bit of justice. The white T-shirt and shorts that he was wearing set off the light tan he had all over. Well, maybe not
over. Ryan would need to check on that. All over his legs and arms, anyway. His hair was cut short, in the style he always wore. It got lighter through the season as the sunlight slowly bleached it, but for now, there were simply suggestions of gold strands tangled among the brown. And his face…. Ryan had thought that Josh’s tennis was perfect, but that was before he had seen his face close-up and in person. His face redefined the word perfect. His jawline was strong, his cheeks impossibly smooth-shaven, and his lips were generous. Then there were his eyes, which were bluer than any person’s eyes had a right to be and framed by long, thick lashes.