This picks up a few months after "The Heart of a Champion." Enjoy, whether you've read the prequel or not (but you totally should...)!
For people who hated attention, Payson Keeler and Sasha Belov were very good at attracting it.
It wasn't their fault, really. All eyes were on them at the 2018 Worlds Competition - not only because they had a great deal to prove as the National Team coaches, but because the cameras seemed to gravitate toward them regularly. No doubt someone at the cable network realized that these people were likely the most attractive and interesting coaches on the floor and instructed their workers to keep a lens on them on all times. This ended up being a wise decision for many reasons.
To say that the United States made a splash at Worlds would be the understatement of the century. The team exceeded everyone's expectations that day, ranking second as a whole between invincible China and impressive France. Ever since the early retirement of National Champion Keera Donaldson, experts had brushed aside the American gymnasts' potential on the world stage. They thought it was unlikely that any girl could step up to fill Keera's shoes, let alone medal in an international event. Little did they know, Sasha Belov and Payson Keeler were the last two coaches on the planet to shy away from a challenge. The World would soon discover the wild card they had up their sleeves.
When the Rock's Jessica Rudolph beat all the favorites and won the gold at Worlds, the crowd erupted in ecstatic and surprised cheers. This blond sixteen-year-old from Georgia had come out of nowhere, shocking her peers and the judges with flawless routines. In a matter of months she'd transitioned from a cautious, cookie-cutter gymnast into a well-rounded, risk-taking athlete on every apparatus. Evidence of her coaches' instruction marked her style: the fearlessness from Sasha was seen in her vault and floor routines while Payson's graceful precision lined every movement on the beam and uneven bars. The second her scores were updated and Jessica's name appeared next to the number one slot, Sasha Belov grabbed Payson Keeler and kissed her firmly on the mouth. The first shot of U.S. victory was of the two National coaches in a lip lock with their gymnast, Jessica, laughing heartily nearby at their nationally televised PDA. It was an iconic image to say the least.
If anyone didn't already know that those two were madly in love, they received the message loud and clear that night.
Abroad and riding on post victory bliss, Payson and Sasha managed to dodge most of the media and escape for a few romantic days alone. They went sightseeing with Payson's six-year-old daughter Ally, they slept in, and they did something that Kim Keeler would never forgive them for as along as they lived.
Payson Keeler and Sasha Belov eloped.
"You robbed me of a wedding, Payson!" Kim Keeler cried over the phone after Payson broke the news to her. Poor Payson tried her best to console her mother, pointing out that she would have never survived months of tedious event planning. Unlike other girls, Payson Keeler simply wasn't built for that sort of thing. Triple twists - yes, place settings and flowers - no.
"It wasn't completely impulsive..." Payson justified. "I mean, Sasha and I told you about our future plans. We just...executed them at a faster rate."
To appease her mourning mother, Payson let Kim plan a reception in Boulder to celebrate the spontaneous union. It was the least she could do for her.
"This is what we get for being impulsive." Payson sighed to Sasha as she hung up the phone. "My mother is going to invite everyone we've ever met to this thing. I hope you're prepared."
Sasha Belov grinned and walked over to his wife, hugging her from behind and planting a kiss on the curve of her neck.
"As long as I'm married to you...I'm fine." he said.
Payson leaned her head back into his shoulder and sighed. They fit together perfectly. Unfortunately, their blissful honeymoon period had been very short. Now back in Boulder, the couple immediately went back to the Rock to deal with the post-competition influx of phone calls from media outlets and inquiring parents. The Rocky Mountain Gymnasium had officially resurrected, finally rising to the former glory of its Rebel days. Sasha and Payson had a lot on their plate, but at least now they could tackle it together as partners.
"This is nuts..." Payson said, looking at the Rock's calendar. At present, she and Sasha were stowed away in the Rock's main office, piecing together their training schedules bit by bit. The room was in its usual state of organized chaos. There was little either of them could do to bring sanity and order into their lives. "Jessica is in such high demand, I'm not sure when she'll have time to train properly. I think all of this media attention is starting to intimidate her. We can't let it impact her gymnasts..."
Sasha nodded in agreement. They couldn't go on like this. World Champion Jessica Rudolph was starting to buckle underneath the pressure of publicity. At least she looked the part. With her white smile, curly blond hair, and green eyes, she made for a good picture and cover. Sports channels and morning shows were christening her "America's Next Teenager Sweetheart," but Sasha knew this was probably because none of them had actually spoken to her yet. Though talented and sweet looking, the girl was far from eloquent and even further from tactful. He cold only imagine the possible embarrassment Jessica would experience if she didn't get some media coaching soon.
He glanced over Payson's shoulder at the marked-up calendar she was laboring over. "You can't handle all this scheduling for her either, Payson. We're not qualified to give her advice on who to speak with and how to present herself. We don't have the time and, frankly, we're not very good at it."
She raised her eyebrow in confusion. "What are you saying? Are you saying she should hire an agent?"
"I don't know how she's survived so long without one."
Payson sat back with an insecure look on her face. "You're not suggesting...You're not suggesting we hire MJ, are you?"
Sasha couldn't help but grin at her tentative question. He had just put a ring on this woman's finger and made life-long vows, yet she still managed to be jealous of an old fling he had years ago. He walked over and kissed her on the cheek. "Of course not." he promised. "but Jessica has to hire someone. The Rudolphs keep calling me and asking for suggestions. I don't know what to say to them."
"Hmmm..." Payson thought. "We need someone sane...someone who is willing to work with us and knows the demands of the sport. They can't be all about the glitz."
"Someone smart, too." Sasha added. "We don't need any sloppy representation, especially for Jessica. She needs someone to keep her focused, but not inflate her head before the Olympics."
"Absolutely." agreed his wife, relisting the qualifications in her head. "They need to put Jessica and her well being first; understand the athlete and not just the business..." Suddenly, a wave of realization washed over her and a smile crept up slowly on Payson Keeler's face.
"Uh…Payson?" Sasha asked, waving his hand in front of her blank stare. "What's going on?"
"I know exactly who we should ask…"
"This seat taken?"
A petite brunette looked up at this question. She was sitting at an airport bar alone, attracting some attention from surrounding males. This was no surprise considering her looks. With a toned figure, long hair, tan skin, and a stylish gray dress she was certainly enough to induce head turns from the opposite sex. She gave the inquiring young man a small smile and gestured politely to the empty seat on her right before looking back up at a mounted television set.
"Jessica Rudolph," the reporter on the screen asked. "You're the new world champion. What's next? The Olympics?"
"I certainly hope so!" the young girl said, her voice breaking nervously. "That would be nice. The Olympics, I mean. That would be so embarrassing if I didn't go now..."
The young woman heaved a heavy sigh and draped one leg gracefully over the other, taking dainty sips from her martini glass. The man next to her subtly looked her up and down - he couldn't help himself.
"So..." he started nervously, trying to turn his A game on. "Drinking alone, uh?" He hoped his joke wouldn't take offense.
It didn't. The brunette chuckled. "Well, I'm going home today. It's been a while."
"Oh." he said with a knowing grin. "I get it."
"Yeah, I have to go to a wedding - well, it's sort of a wedding." she said. "I haven't seen these people in a while, so I thought I'd relax and take the edge off before my flight."
He watched her attention travel back to the interview on the television. He couldn't tell whether he was bothering her or whether she was easily distracted.
"Are you interested in gymnastics?" he asked, nodding toward the television.
"Uh...I used to be." The girl looked down at her lap, suppressing a secretive smile.
Finally brave enough, the young man extended his hand toward the pretty woman. "I'm Tom, by the way."
"Kaylie Cruz." she returned his grip firmly. Kaylie then lifted her left hand from its place on her lap, resting it firmly on the counter for him to see.
Ah, an engagement ring, Tom observed cursing his bad luck. I should have known...
"You know what?" he said, looking at his watch hand nervously. "I-I just remembered - I have to head to my gate now. It was nice to meet you!"
Kaylie shook her head with amusement and watched the young man scurry away. She found that the good ole ring flaunt was enough to prevent most men from hitting on her. This one had made an admirable effort, though. Kaylie had to give him credit. She sat forward again and finished her drink, catching the tail end of the television interview.
"Do you have any advice to girls your age, Jessica?" the reporter asked.
"Uh..." the blond teenager paused, eyes shifting back and forth. "I mean, I don't know. I don't know much about normal teenagers. It's not like I spend time at the mall. Elites generally don't hang out with people our own age. I train most of the time."
"Wow..." Kaylie said to herself as she watched the train wreck unfold. Jessica Rudolph – a girl who had been quickly thrust into America's spotlight - definitely lacked the self awareness and tact needed to get through an interview. Then again, Kaylie knew more than anyone how hard it was to hone normal social skills when most of the interactions you experience as a teenager are with inanimate gym equipment. Poor girl.
Kaylie Cruz thanked the bartender and placed some money on the table. Now more relaxed, she was ready to take on (what she hoped would be) a short weekend in Boulder, Colorado.
At the ripe age of twenty-five, Kaylie was taking what her older brother Leo called "an unconventional life path." This phrase was eye roll inducing. Of course Leo, the man with more direction than a traffic light, would think that about her. How typical.
Seven years ago, Kaylie Cruz ended her gymnastics career on a somewhat lower note than she dreamed, winning just one event bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic games. She pretended like she wasn't disappointed...and frankly she was convincing. After months of press with Emily and Payson and repeating the phrase "so proud of my team" over and over again, Kaylie Cruz started to believe it herself. She successfully brushed aside her letdown and as soon as the traveling and promotions ended, she closed the back cover on that phase of her life for good. Kaylie had been eager to leave gymnastics - and most of the people in it - behind.
Kaylie then did what any independently wealthy eighteen-year-old would do: she went to Europe to broaden her worldview. At that point, her parents' marriage was completely dissolved and Leo was wrapped up in his PHD program for chemistry, leaving the Cruz family without a home base. In her opinion, leaving the country was the perfect remedy to this situation. Kaylie spent a few years floating around happily. She learned French and Italian, took up photography, attended cooking classes in France, and even had a brief stunt in the fashion industry. Eventually she settled in London where she met her fiancé, Eric.
All in all, she spent a good chunk of her adult life successfully avoiding gymnastics. Kaylie didn't know it yet, but her streak was coming to an end and she would soon be tumbling back into the sport - that is, is Sasha Belov and Payson Keeler had anything to say about it.
a/n - so what do you think? Next chapter: the reception (enter Austin Tucker)...