A woman dressed in a red and white cycling jersey and joggers paced along the windows of the waiting room of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Whenever the heavy security doors to the ER opened, she would turn to look, then resume wringing her hands or tugging at her copper brown ponytail as she walked. Her lime-green Nike's squeaked on the linoleum when the doors opened again and a nurse in navy scrubs stood at the threshold, glancing around.
She all but ran over, her hands clenched together. "Is she going to be alright?"
"Your friend is being admitted," the nurse replied. "Someone will come get you when you can go and see her." Loren watched the nurse head back into the ER, her stomach in a tight knot.
"What did the nurse say?" a rich baritone brushed her neck, holding the phantom of a French accent. She closed her eyes, pushing aside the spreading warmth as he massaged her shoulders.
"Stop touching me." She stepped away and turned to glare at her Directeur Sportif, Felix Lalonde. A corner of his mouth curled up in the soft smile.
"I thought you were enjoying it."
"I wasn't." She crossed her arms over her chest. "They're keeping Evette."
He nodded. "I had assumed as much. I imagine she'll be here a day or two." Loren took a breath to speak, but he waved her off. "I will stay with her and escort her back to England if her husband doesn't get here first." She turned, running her fingers through the ends of her hair.
"It's my fault. I should've–." She flinched when Felix touched her again.
"You were perfect," he said, stepping around to face her. "You couldn't have known Evette wasn't behind you going up Levering Street. From what I understand, she got tangled with Chantal and a rider from SportMatrix."
"I don't know yet," he replied. "I have to watch the video replay." His fingers slid down her arm to take her hand. "I'm going back to the house to make sure everyone is packed up for the airport. Our flight is at seven tonight, so you have some time with her." Felix then brought her hand up and kissed the inside of her wrist. "It's going to be alright, mon tresor." Her scowl followed him to the sliding doors, touching the spot.
What the fuck am I doing? I can't let him get to me again. She jumped when the nurse touched her arm.
"Ms. Mackenzie?" It was the nurse. "Sorry. I'll take you back now."
Loren entered the tiny room to find her friend and teammate Evette Nadal propped up in a narrow hospital bed. She grimaced as she adjusted to sit up further.
"Hey," Evette croaked, and Loren sat down on the hard plastic chair next to the bed.
"Hey, yourself. You look like shit."
"I can imagine," she replied with a soft laugh. "Did you win?"
Loren shook her head. "I got fourth and the climber's jersey you were supposed to get because I was your lead out all day. By the time I realized you weren't behind me, I didn't have much left for the eighteen percent section of the Wall." She smirked. "It kinda hurt going up the sixth time.”
"It hurt every single time," Evette whined. They both chuckled, but Loren turned serious.
"What happened? Felix said you got hung up."
Evette pursed her lips. "I was with you at the turn to Levering Street, but we had to go around Chantal and that girl from SportMatrix," she said. "They tried to slip in between us and clipped wheels right in front of me. There wasn't anything I could have done to avoid it. I landed on the curb."
"Jesus," Loren said, grimacing. "No wonder you got broke."
Evette glanced toward the window and sighed. "I'm not coming back to the team."
She reared back. "What? You can't–."
"I was planning on retiring this year anyway." She fiddled with her wedding band. "I don't want to be thirty-five and just starting a family." She met Loren's gaze with a hard glare. "I know what you're thinking. My husband's not pressuring me. I'm tired of barely scraping by, you know? The team does a lot for us, but it's not enough when you're on your own." Evette then wagged her finger. "And don't think I didn't see what you did in California. Why would you hold back for Ingrid to take the bonus?"
"I wasn't holding back," Loren replied, dropping her chin. "Ingrid had a better–."
"That's bullshit, and you know it." She took a few deep breaths as the heart rate monitor began to chime. "It's not just the money you're giving up, it's the points. You're fifth in the World Cup standings. A couple of good wins and you could take the whole thing." Evette shook her head, her frown deepening. "I was talking with Ulrik on the plane and we both think you should be lead rider."
"You deserve it," Evette told her. "It's time to step up and make it official."
Loren nodded, clenching her hands to stop them from shaking. What if I'm not strong enough?
"I'm back," Loren called out entering the Conarroe Street house in Manayunk the team had been occupying over the past few days.
"In here!" A voice came from the living room and Loren burst out laughing at her teammate, Cece Taylor, sitting on her bright orange duffle. "Shut up and get over here," she grumbled, then shifted to lie flat on the bag.
"They're keeping her until at least Tuesday," Loren replied, zipping the duffle shut. "She fractured her pelvis."
"Damn," Cece drawled, wincing. "Felix was here, but he didn't say anything."
"He's going to stay with her if her husband doesn't show up beforehand." Loren sighed and plopped down on the floor. "She's not coming back."
"Yah, I reckoned that. She was talkin' to me about it on the plane." Cece slid down her duffle to the floor and gave her friend a shoulder bump. "Don't you be gettin' any ideas now. We need the princess to take the throne."
Loren gave her a dark look. "Very funny."
"Hey, it wasn't Evette that got us the win in California," she argued. "And who won at Plumelec?"
"That wasn't me." Loren put her head back on the couch, her eyes following the swirls in the plaster ceiling. "I had the flu, remember?"
"Oh, yah." They both stared at the ceiling for a few moments.
"Ingrid thinks she should be leader," Loren said finally.
"Yah. She'll be cross, I'm sure, but she's no good with strategy," Cece replied. "And forget handling Felix and his moods. He looks at her cross-eyed, and she's near tears. You stand up to him."
No, I don't. Loren sighed again and scooched down to put her head on her teammate's shoulder. "What would I do without a friend like you?"
Cece burst a laugh. "You'd be a right pew, that's what!"
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