of the contact had her drawing in a sharp breath unwillingly. His eyes held, no wavering. Her mouth went dry. Then he smiled, an unpleasant, direct challenge. Asher met it, more from shock than temerity as the crowd bellowed his name. Starbuck echoed from the walls like a litany. Ten seconds—fifteen—he neither blinked nor moved. For a man of action he had an uncanny ability for stillness. Boring into hers, his eyes made the distance between them vanish. The smile remained fixed. Just as Asher’s palms began to sweat, he turned a full circle for the crowd, his racket above his head like a lance. They adored him.
For Joan Schulhafer,
leader of tours, handler of details and good friend
Isn’t it always? Asher mused. For a moment the large arena held that humming silence peculiar to indoor sports events. There was an aroma of roasted peanuts and sweat. The overhead lights heated the scent somewhat pleasantly while the crush of bodies added enforced camaraderie. A small child sent up a babbling complaint and was hushed.
Seated several rows back at midcourt, Asher Wolfe watched Ty Starbuck—tennis master, gypsy, eternal boy of summer and former lover. She thought again, as she had several times during more than two hours of play, that he’d changed. Just how wasn’t yet completely clear. More than three years had passed since she’d seen him in the flesh. But he hadn’t aged, or thickened, or lost any of his characteristic verve.
Rarely over the years had she watched a televised match—it was too painful. Too many faces were familiar, with his the most strictly avoided. If Asher had chanced to come across a write-up or picture of him in the sports pages or in a gossip column, she had immediately put it aside. Ty Starbuck was out of her life. Her decision. Asher was a very decisive woman.
Even her decision to come to the U.S. Indoor Tennis Championship had been a cool-headed one. Before making this trip, she had carefully weighed the pros and cons. In the end logic had won. She was getting back into the game herself. On the circuit, meetings with Ty would be unavoidable. She would see him now, letting the press, her colleagues and fans see clearly that there was nothing left of what had been three years before. Ty would see too, and, she hoped fervently, so would she.
Ty stood behind the base line, preparing to serve. His stance was the same, she mused, as was his sizzling concentration. He tossed the ball up, coming back and over with the wicked left-handed serve that had become synonymous with his name, a Starbuck.
Asher heard the explosion of his breath that forced the power into it. She held her own. A lesser player than the Frenchman, Grimalier, would never have gotten a racket on the ball. His return was quick—force meeting force—and the rally began.
The crowd grew noisier as the ball smashed and thudded. Echoes bounced crazily. There were cries of encouragement, shouts of appreciation for the prowess of the two players. Ty’s basic entertainment value hadn’t decreased since Asher had been out of the game. Fans adored or detested him, but they never, never ignored him. Nor could she, though she was no longer certain which category she fell into. Every muscle of his body was familiar to her, every move, every expression. Her feelings were a confused jumble of respect, admiration and longing, which swirled to reach a vortex of pain, sharply remembered. Still, she was caught up in him again. Ty Starbuck demanded every last emotion and didn’t really give a damn if it was love or hate.
Both men moved quickly, their eyes riveted on the small white sphere. Backhand, forehand, drop shot. Sweat poured down unheeded. Both the game and the fans demanded it. A tennis buff wanted to see the effort, the strain, wanted to hear the grunts and whistling breaths, wanted to smell the sweat. Despite her determination to remain dispassionate, Asher found herself watching Ty with the undiluted admiration she’d held for him for more than ten years.
He played with nonchalant flash—contradictory terms, but there it was. Strength, agility, form—he had them all. He had a long, limber body, seemingly elastic until the muscles flowed and bunched. His six-two height gave him an advantage of reach, and he could twist and turn on a dime. He played like a fencer—like a swashbuckler Asher had always thought. Graceful sweeps, lunges, parries, with an almost demonic glint in his dusk-gray eyes. His face was that of the adventurer—narrow, rakish, with a hint of strong bone vying with an oddly tender mouth. As always, his hair was a bit too long, flowing wild and black around a white sweatband.
He was a set up, and held advantage, but he played as though his life depended on this one point. That hadn’t changed, Asher thought, as her heart pounded at double time. She was as involved in the match as if she were the one with the racket in her hand and the sweat rolling over her skin. Her palms were slick, her own muscles tight. Tennis involved its onlookers. Starbuck absorbed them. That hadn’t changed either.
Ty smashed the ball crosscourt at the sideline. It careened away even as the Frenchman dove toward it. Asher sucked in her breath at the speed and placement of the ball.
“Wide,” the line judge said dispassionately. A loud complaint poured out of the crowd. Asher fixed her eyes on Ty and waited for the explosion.
He stood, breathing hard from the punishing rally, his eyes fixed on the judge. The crowd continued to roar disapproval as deuce was called. Slowly, his eyes still on the judge, Ty swiped his wristband over his brow. His face was inscrutable but for his eyes, and his eyes spoke volumes. The crowd quieted to a murmur of speculation. Asher bit hard on her bottom lip. Ty walked back to the base line without having uttered a sound.
This was the change, Asher realized with a jolt. Control. Her breath came out slowly as the tension in her shoulders diminished. In years past, Ty Starbuck would have hurled abuse—and an occasional racket—snarled, implored the crowd for support or berated them. Now he walked silently across the service court with temper smoldering in his eyes. But he held it in check. This was something new.
Behind the base line Ty took his time, took his stance, then cracked an ace, like a bullet from a gun. The crowd screamed for him. With a quiet, insolent patience he waited while the scoring was announced. Again, he held advantage. Knowing him, and others like him, Asher was aware that his mind was occupied with his next move. The ace was already a memory, to be taken out and savored later. He still had a game to win.
The Frenchman connected with the next serve with a blazing forehand smash. The volley was sweating, furious and blatantly male. It was all speed and fire, two pirates blasting at each other across a sea of hardwood. There was the sound of the ball hitting the heart of the racket, the skid of rubber soles on wood, the grunts of the competitors as they drew out more force, all drowned beneath the echoes of cheers. The crowd was on its feet. Asher was on hers without even being aware of it. Neither man gave quarter as the seconds jumped to a minute, and from a minute to more.
With a swing of the wrist the Frenchman returned a nearly impossible lob that drove him behind the base line. The ball landed deep in the right court. With a forceful backhand Ty sent the ball low and away from his opponent, ending the two-and-a-half-hour match, three sets to one.
Starbuck was the U.S. Indoor Tennis champion, and the crowd’s hero.
Asher let the enthusiasm pour around her as Ty walked to the net for the traditional handshake. The match had affected her more than she’d anticipated, but she passed this off as professional admiration. Now she allowed herself to wonder what his reaction would be when he saw her again.
Had she hurt him? His heart? His pride? The pride, she mused. That she could believe. The heart was a different matter. He would be angry, she concluded. She would be cool. Asher knew how to maintain a cool exterior as well as she knew how to smash an overhead lob. She’d learned it all as a child. When they met, she would simply deploy his temper. She had been preparing for the first encounter almost as religiously as she had been preparing to pick up her profession again. Asher was going to win at both. After he had finished with the showers and the press, she would make it a point to seek him out. To congratulate him—and to present the next test. It was much wiser for her to make the first move, for her to be the one prepared. Confident, she watched Ty exchange words with Grimalier at the net.
Then Ty turned his head very slowly, very deliberately. With no searching through the crowd, no hesitation, his eyes locked on hers. The strength
He’d known, Asher thought furiously as people swarmed around her. He had known all along that she was there. Her anger wasn’t the hot, logical result of being outmaneuvered, but small, silver slices of cold fury. Ty had let her know in ten seconds, without words, that the game was still on. And he always won.
Not this time though, she told herself. She had changed too. But she stood where she was, rooted, staring out at the now empty court. Her thoughts were whirling with memories, emotions, remembered sensations. People brushed by her, already debating the match.
She was a tall, reed-slim figure tanned gold from hours in the sun. Her hair was short, sculptured and misty blond. The style flattered, while remaining practical for her profession. During three years of retirement, Asher hadn’t altered it. Her face seemed more suited to the glossy pages of a fashion magazine than the heat and frenzy of a tennis court. A weekender, one might think, looking at her elegant cheekbones in an oval face. Not a pro. The nose was small and straight above a delicately molded mouth she rarely thought to tint. Makeup on the courts was a waste of time, as sweat would wash it away. Her eyes were large and round, a shade of blue that hinted at violet. One of her few concessions to vanity was to darken the thick pale lashes that surrounded them. While other women competitors added jewelry or ribbons and bows to their court dress, Asher had never thought of it. Even off the court her attire leaned toward the simple and muted.
An enterprising reporter had dubbed her “The Face” when she had been eighteen. She’d been nearly twenty-three when she had retired from professional play, but the name had stuck. Hers was a face of great beauty and rigid control. On court, not a flicker of expression gave her opponent or the crowd a hint of what she was thinking or feeling. One of her greatest defenses in the game was her ability to remain unruffled under stress. The standard seeped into her personal life.
Asher had lived and breathed tennis for so long that the line of demarcation between woman and athlete was smudged. The hard, unbendable rule, imposed by her father, was ingrained in her—privacy, first and last. Only one person had ever been able to cross the boundary. Asher was determined he would not do so again.
As she stood staring down at the empty court, her face told nothing of her anger or turmoil—or the pain she hadn’t been prepared for. It was calm and aloof. Her concentration was so deep that the leader of the small group of people that approached her had to speak her name twice to get her attention.
She’d been recognized, she discovered. Though Asher had known it was inevitable, it still gave her a twist of pleasure to sign the papers and programs thrust at her. She hadn’t been forgotten.
The questions were easy to parry, even when they skirted close to her relationship with Ty. A smile and double-talk worked well with fans. Asher wasn’t naïve enough to think it would work with reporters. That, she hoped, was for another day.
As she signed, and edged her way back, Asher spotted a few colleagues—an old foe, a former doubles partner, a smattering of faces from the past. Her eyes met Chuck Prince’s. Ty’s closest friend was an affable player with a wrist of steel and beautiful footwork. Though the silent exchange was brief, even friendly, Asher saw the question in his eyes before she gave her attention to the next fan.
The word’s out, she thought almost grimly as she smiled at a teenage tennis buff. Asher Wolfe’s picking up her racket again. And they’d wonder, and eventually ask, if she was picking up Ty Starbuck too.
“Asher!” Chuck moved to her with the same bouncy stride he used to cross a court. In his typical outgoing style he seized her by the shoulders and kissed her full on the mouth. “Hey, you look terrific!”
With a laugh Asher drew back the breath his greeting had stolen from her. “So do you.” It was inevitably true. Chuck was average in almost every way—height, build, coloring. But his inner spark added appeal and a puckish sort of sexuality. He’d never hesitated to exploit it—good-naturedly.
“No one knew you were coming,” Chuck complained, easing her gently through the thinning crowd. “I didn’t know you were here until . . .” His voice trailed off so that Asher knew he referred to the ten seconds of potent eye contact with Ty. “Until after the match,” he finished. He gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. “Why didn’t you give someone a call?”
“I wasn’t entirely sure I’d make it.” Asher allowed herself to be negotiated to a clear spot in a rear hallway. “Then I thought I’d just melt into the crowd. It didn’t seem fair to disrupt the match with any the-prodigal-returns business.”
“It was a hell of a match.” The flash of teeth gleamed with enthusiasm. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Ty play better than he did in the last set. Three aces.”
“He always had a deadly serve,” Asher murmured.
“Have you seen him?”
From anyone else the blunt question would have earned a cold stare. Chuck earned a quick grimace. “No. I will, of course, but I didn’t want to distract him before the match.” Asher linked her fingers—an old nervous habit. “I didn’t realize he knew I was here.”
Distract Starbuck, she thought with an inner laugh. No one and nothing distracted him once he picked up his game racket.
“He went crazy when you left.”
Chuck’s quiet statement brought her back. Deliberately she unlaced her fingers. “I’m sure he recovered quickly.” Because the retort was sharper than she had intended, Asher shook her head as if to take back the words. “How have you been? I saw an ad with you touting the virtues of a new line of tennis shoes.”
“How’d I look?”
“Sincere,” she told him with a quick grin. “I nearly went out and bought a pair.”
He sighed. “I was shooting for macho.”
As the tension seeped out of her, Asher laughed. “With that face?” She cupped his chin with her hand and moved it from side to side. “It’s a face a mother could trust—foolishly,” she added.
“Shh!” He glanced around in mock alarm. “Not so loud—my reputation.”
“Your reputation suffered a few dents in Sydney,” she recalled. “What was that—three seasons ago? The stripper.”
“Exotic dancer,” Chuck corrected righteously. “It was merely an exchange of cultures.”
“You did look kind of cute wearing those feathers.” With another laugh she kissed his cheek. “Fuchsia becomes you.”
“We all missed you, Asher.” He patted her slim, strong shoulder.
The humor fled from her eyes. “Oh, Chuck, I missed you. Everyone, all of it. I don’t think I realized just how much until I walked in here today.” Asher looked into space, lost in her own thoughts, her own memories. “Three years,” she said softly.
“Now you’re back.”
Her eyes drifted to his. “Now I’m back,” she agreed. “Or will be in two weeks.”
“The Foro Italico.”
Asher gave him a brief smile that was more determination than joy. “I’ve never won on that damn Italian clay. I’m going to this time.”
“It was your pacing.”
The voice from behind her had Asher’s shoulders stiffening. As she faced Chuck her eyes showed only the merest flicker of some secret emotion before they calmed. When she turned to Ty he saw first that his memory of her beauty hadn’t been exaggerated with time, and second that her layer of control was as tough as ever.
“So you always told me,” she said calmly. The jolt was over, she r
easoned, with the shock of eye contact in the auditorium. But her stomach muscles tightened. “You played beautifully, Ty . . . after the first set.”
They were no more than a foot apart now. Neither could find any changes in the other. Three years, it seemed, was barely any time at all. It occurred to Asher abruptly that twenty years wouldn’t have mattered. Her heart would still thud, her blood would still swim. For him. It had always, would always be for him. Quickly she pushed those thoughts aside. If she were to remain calm under his gaze, she couldn’t afford to remember.
The press was still tossing questions at him, and now at her as well. They began to crowd in, nudging Asher closer to Ty. Without a word he took her arm and drew her through the door at his side. That it happened to be a womens’ rest room didn’t faze him as he turned the lock. He faced her, leaning lazily back against the door while Asher stood straight and tense.
As he had thirty minutes before, Ty took his time studying her. His eyes weren’t calm, they rarely were, but the emotion in them was impossible to decipher. Even in his relaxed stance there was a sense of force, a storm brewing. Asher met his gaze levelly, as he expected. And she moved him. Her power of serenity always moved him. He could have strangled her for it.
“You haven’t changed, Asher.”
“You’re wrong.” Why could she no longer breathe easily or control the furious pace of her heart?
“Am I?” His brows disappeared under his tousled hair for a moment. “We’ll see.”
He was a very physical man. When he spoke, he gestured. When he held a conversation, he touched. Asher could remember the brush of his hand—on her arm, her hair, her shoulder. It had been his casualness that had drawn her to him. And had driven her away. Now, as they stood close, she was surprised that Ty did not touch her in any way. He simply watched and studied her.
“I noticed a change,” she countered. “You didn’t argue with the referees or shout at the line judge. Not once.” Her lips curved slightly. “Not even after a bad call.”
He gave her a lightly quizzical smile. “I turned over that leaf some time ago.”
“Really?” She was uncomfortable now, but merely moved her shoulders. “I haven’t been keeping up.”
“Total amputation, Asher?” he asked softly.
“Yes.” She would have turned away, but there was nowhere to go. Over the line of sinks to her left the mirrors tossed back her reflection . . . and his. Deliberately she shifted so that her back was to them. “Yes,” she repeated, “it’s the cleanest way.”