by Marteeka Karland
The quest for Olympic immortality is killing Natalia. Literally. She has pushed her body beyond endurance and she has nothing left to give. Good thing Zechariahs is there to pick her up and ease her through the transition from Olympic athlete to normal life.
Zechariahs has loved Natalia from the first moment he met her when they were both teenagers. He knew she had ambitions she had to pursue and kept his distance, but was unable to completely leave her. That is, until her mother moved her to another city with a better training facility.
From that moment on, Zechariahs dedicated himself to being ready when Natalia left gymnastics behind. He intended to be there.
But will Natalia recognize when it’s time to hang up her leotard and live her own life, or will she honor the wishes of her mother and continue on the path she’s followed for most of her life, even if it means losing out on her chance at true love?
“How long has it been since you’ve seen Natalia?”
There was a long pause before Grayson answered. When he did, the weariness in his voice told Zechariahs all he needed to know. “Too long, by the sound of it. I saw her last week, but I take it she looks worse now than she did then.”
“No clue. I just know she’s dehydrated, in pain, and completely exhausted. She couldn’t even change a flat on her own. I put her in the truck and she was asleep before I got done and had her car loaded.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this to you, Zechariahs, but take her to your house. If she goes back to her apartment, Mom will be there and she’ll just keep pushing her. Dad and I have tried to talk sense into both of them, but Natalia just smiles at us and Mom pretends we’re not speaking.”
Zechariahs almost dropped the phone. “Take her home? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“I know how you feel about her. Why do you think I called you when I couldn’t come get her? If there is one man in the world I’d give permission to date my sister, it would be you, not that I am, mind you. And I’m not saying you should sleep with her. In fact, if you did, I’d have to kick your ass. Just take her home and keep Mom away from her for a few days. Keep her out of the gym if you can. She needs rest more than she needs to train.”
“You know she’ll never stay out of the gym, but I can dodge your mother. As to the other, I don’t want to discuss it.”
As he hung up the phone, Zechariahs looked at Natalia’s peaceful form. She was still as beautiful as the day he’d first seen her. He’d had his own dreams back then, but the second he’d seen her, his whole purpose in life had changed. She became his dream, his focus for the future. All he could think about was the little pixie he’d spotted running around the school track with eyes too big for her face and the riot of chestnut curls she could never quite tame into a ponytail. Her brother, Grayson, had been his best friend and had introduced them. If he lived to be a hundred, Zechariahs would never forget Grayson’s words that day.
This is my sister, Natalia. She’s completely off limits to you, but I wanted you to know her so there could be no mistakes later. I’d hate to have to kill my best friend.
Zechariahs had been eighteen at the time, but from that moment on, he’d never looked seriously at another woman. He had taken Natalia on “dates” but always with an appropriate chaperone, usually her brother with the suggestion that she “could tag along if she wanted.” Hell, he’d never even so much as kissed her cheek or held her hand. Nevertheless, he’d known then, the same as he still knew, Natalia was the only woman for him. As a result, he’d waited twelve long, torturous years. Everyone said he was crazy, but the payout was close. It would all be worth it when he had her securely married to him.
Somehow, during the drive, Natalia had leaned against his shoulder. Zechariahs wanted to wrap his arm around her, but driving made that impossible. He contented himself with the feel of her breath fanning his shoulder as her arms encircled his. Had she not been in such a fragile state, he would have enjoyed the sensations more. As it was, he just wanted to get her home, into an ice bath, and off to sleep. He’d deal with his feelings when it was more convenient for her.
Still, he couldn’t help the slight smile and the easing in his chest of tension he didn’t even realize had been there. Natalia was there. Next to him. If he had anything to say about it, this was right where she was going to stay.