Another Masked Intent Snippet

Chapter 1 

Saturday, August 17


The sun peeks timidly from behind one of the many fluffy pinkish-white masses floating lazily across the early morning sky. It’s Saturday, just past 7 a.m., and I’m having second thoughts about what, until now, had seemed like an ingenious idea. As I slow my Ducati, my mind skims through the possible scenarios that could unfold over the next minutes. I pull into one of the many parking spaces that skirt the entrance to the Loudoun County, Virginia, park where I’ll be spending the next two hours training with the Renegade Running Club. I kill the throaty motor, peel off my helmet, and comb through my hair and my resolve one final time.

I’ve never been one to indulge in self-doubt or self-recrimination. I know what I want, and I’m used to pursuing whatever that is unapologetically. So why the hell does it feel like I’m about to jump a cliff?

In two words: Alexa Winston.

I can’t shake the heavy deliberation that weighs me down as I grab the duffle bag stored in the space beneath my seat and walk across the lot to the recreation center. A gentle breeze shoots a welcome rush of air through my helmet-crushed hair, and I run my hand through the mess once more to try and bring some order to what the wind has destroyed before I enter the building. Taking a deep breath and gathering my resolve, I scout for a rest room where I can trade my jeans, boots, and leather jacket for the running gear I picked up last night.

There’s great irony in this when you consider that running interests me about as much as owning a Chia pet. Sure, I stay in shape, so it’s not the running that has me on edge. But this is her passion, so I need to make it appear to be mine as well if I want her to take this little shenanigan seriously, if I want her to stop deflecting and take me seriously. Not so long ago, the notion that I would ever consider something resembling a relationship was laughable. Even sillier now is the fact that I have only myself to blame for my current relationship status with this enigmatic, golden-eyed beauty.

From our first meeting nearly a year ago, I’d been drawn to her – and not just in the way I regard most women these days. The attraction between us was instant, but it was more than just that. Our conversation came easy. The connection was clear and though it was intimidating, it didn’t stop me from pursuing her. At first, she deflected my advances. That made her a challenge to me, but challenge quickly transformed into fascination. We struck up a friendship, a brand-new experience for me because I don’t do well with women friends. They typically end up wanting more than I’m willing to give, but that wouldn’t be the case with Alexa. I’ve spent the past many months learning this woman, courting her, really, though I don’t like to think of it in such romantic, outdated terms. A fellow relationship refugee, Alexa fears our growing intimacy, which keeps us stuck in an interesting no-fly zone in our relationship. Our friendship is tight, true, and undeniable. The bond we’ve built is thick and apparently evident when we’re together. Yet, we’ve found ourselves stranded at an interesting outpost and can’t seem to move ahead on our journey.

Like I said, though, much of this is on me. For the past ten years, my heart has had no use for the fairer sex, well, not beyond sex anyway. When you’re out here like that, it doesn’t go unnoticed. But I never gave a shit. Not until I met her. Something about Alexa is different, true. She’s goodness and light. Trouble is, she views me through a single lens – because that’s the only way I’d wanted her to see me at first. I flirted, teased, and laced much of my early interactions with her with innuendo. It was easier that way. I knew she wouldn’t call my bluff, and it gave me time to understand better what I was feeling for her and why it was so different. For a short while, that had been fine with me … until it wasn’t. Until I could no longer deny that friendship was only part of what I wanted with her.

So, I went and did the unthinkable. Having slept with more women than I can ever account for, it was no great sacrifice to abstain for a while. It hadn’t been a conscious decision really, but I haven’t had a woman in my bed since shortly after meeting Alexa, so do the math. I knew my heart had overtaken my head the first time I deflected an offer for hot, sweaty, no-strings-attached sex from a cute undergraduate in one of the psychology classes I teach at American University. Then, with the next offer I’d declined one night while out trolling with friends, I realized shit had gotten serious. The university has long been one of my most lucrative playgrounds for hooking up, but I’ve had enough of the empty, hollow feeling that visits me and hangs around after a mindless romp in the sack. And though something more means something quite scary, the idea of a future with Alexa gives me a hope I haven’t felt in a long time.

So, slowly, and with focused deliberation, I’ve become a man with a plan. After some successful Facebook and Instagram stalking, I learned that Alexa is an avid runner. In measured steps over the last few months, I’ve chatted her up about the hobby, all but convincing her that this is yet another common thread to bind the friendship we share.

Even though I’ve sewn some fertile seeds with Alexa, I’ve sensed her tensing and retreating as our attraction has begun showing signs of an intimacy and attachment that hasn’t previously been there. I still need to find my way in, which is what brings me here to begin training for the Prospect Park Classic Distance Duathlon – a 10-mile bike ride through the storied Brooklyn park sandwiched between two 5K runs. This will be my lever. And so, I’ll train with her (coincidentally, of course), forcing us to spend time together outside of our professional personas so we won’t be able to deny the pull between us anymore.

I find a strange sense of comfort in these thoughts as I exit the bathroom and head toward the center of the lobby where the group has begun assembling. No way could she freak out when she sees me, right?  But I won’t have a chance to debate with myself over this. Before either of us can avoid it, Alexa, who’s just finished tying her running shoes, bounds up without looking, sending her careening into my chest. I grab her shoulders to halt her momentum.

“Hey, hang on there, freight train! What’s your rush?”

Chapter 2


 Freight train, indeed. Only I feel like I’ve been hit by one when my mind deciphers who and what I’ve just collided into.

Oh. The Hell. No.

In what seems like slo-mo replay, my eyes travel up the well-muscled chest that blocks my path until they meet his gorgeous face. In truth, I didn’t need to see the face to know the identity of the solid object in my path. The smell, the voice. The dreamy gray-green eyes that make me think of the Caribbean and see straight through to my soul. It was Mateo Da Rocha in glorious 4k right in front of my face. Quite literally.

I draw in a quick, shallow breath, planting my hands on his forearms while trying to find my voice. “Mateo? What are you doing here?”

Still holding on to my shoulders, he gives a slight squeeze before bending down to kiss my cheeks European style. “I could ask you the same,” he teases, deliberately bypassing my question. That doesn’t go unnoticed.

“A duathlon seems a bit too badass for you, Lexi,” he says with a smile, which for some reason makes me blush and knocks me off center. He’s not exactly wrong in his assessment because this will be the longest, most intense race I’ve entered to date. But he doesn’t need to know this, so I throw my shoulders back and strut my moxie.

“Then it looks like you don’t know what I’m capable of, Da Rocha.”

I’m still struggling for my composure, cursing myself as I try to put away the assortment of way-too-awkward feelings that completely arrests my body and my brain. Hastily, I find my smile, put a mask back in place and try not to consider the possibility that steam might be pouring from my ears if my rushing heartbeat is any indicator of such things.

“Seriously, what in the world brings you all the way out here? Aren’t you operating a little outside of your area code?”

He laughs, and I’m grateful for the unintended ice breaker I’d thrown out there.

“You really need to lose the idea that my address somehow limits where I can go and what I should do, Alexa. But now let me ask you a question. Why do you assume I don’t have ties around here?”

“A fair question. I didn’t consider that. My bad,” I answer with as much indifference as I can muster. Something about him, about our interactions, has been shifting over the past weeks. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. No, that’s a lie. The connection between us has been strong since we met. But I’m too afraid to go there with him and ruin our friendship and maybe risk my heart again. I take a small step back, just enough to pull away from Mateo’s lingering grasp on my shoulders. But the space between us remains saturated with our shared tension.

“So, seriously, what brings you out to God’s country? No running clubs in DC?” I need to do something to break the bonds of this intensity between us.

He folds his arms across his chest and smiles. “I have some connections nearby.”

“Oh, hey, I had no idea,” I say. “So, I guess you get out here a fair bit then.”

I’ve noticed that most of the time, when asked, Mateo prefers to be vague about the details of his life. I’ve wondered what secrets he may be hiding but chalked it up more to caution than anything else. We aren’t too different when it comes to our willingness or not to trust the opposite sex.

“Often enough.”

“What’s that mean? Care to ’splain?”

“No, love. No, I don’t. At least not today,” he says with a wink. “What do you say we get settled in here and figure out just what we’ve gotten ourselves into,” he deflects as he nods to the registration desk to his left. “I haven’t checked in yet—”

“Mateo, you ass, you can’t do that!” I chide him playfully. “You can’t just leave me hanging.”

“Sure, I can. I just did,” he says with panty-dropping smile. “Now come on. Let’s go do this thing.”

My jaw drops as Mateo turns away from me and heads over for his registration papers. As he takes his place in line, I catch up to him and tug his forearm.

“You’re seriously not going to tell me?”

“Of course, I will. Just not now,” he teases. “In fact, it’ll be my leverage.”

“Leverage?” I ask.

“Uh huh. My way of ensuring you’ll agree to train with me. Share in this insane experience with me, and I’ll tell you…soon.”

His smile grows as he reads the obvious confusion on my face. In answer, he points to a sign on the table: Designate your intended training partner at time of sign up. My face drops as I process what this would mean. Running is my sanctuary, a sacred place where my thoughts and I can be alone and in step, whether at peace or in discord. I don’t share that with anyone. But how can I say no to him? How can I deny that this gets my heart beating faster than any foot race? I swallow to relieve the dryness in my throat as I slowly, reluctantly but with moth-to-a-flame resignation realize this truth. I can’t say no to him. Not that he’s ever asked anything of me. Not really. But now …?

“Well,” I begin carefully, speaking more to myself than to him, “I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

I wait a beat while he considers my words. This was a compromise, a convenient compromise. It was not about the fact that I can’t tell him no, or that I’m scared for us be alone like that.

“So sure, let’s partner up. Though full disclosure: I have no idea what that means. Trying to train with someone, I mean.”

“Well, then, I guess we’re perfectly matched because I don’t have a clue either. No expectations. No pressure, right?”

Mateo raises his eyebrows expectantly. I can tell that he can tell that I’m not wholly comfortable with his proposal, and if I’m not mistaken, this seems to please him. Ignoring his satisfaction and resisting the mounting urge to cut and run, I simply nod, square my shoulders, and feign my resolve.

“So, it’s settled. Now what?”

“No clue,” he says, “but we should probably figure it out fast. We’re next up.”

And with that, he eases me around in front of him, slips his right palm into the small of my back, and guides me up to the desk to sign on for 12 weeks of Lord only knows what. Some 20 minutes later, Mateo and I have joined 16 of our new closest friends as we warm up and listen to our instructor run down the highlights and goals of the training program. Our coach, Linzi, gives off a pixie-like energy and is way too perky for my liking. Though she’s attractive enough, she’s going to be nothing but annoying as hell, all five-feet-two inches of her. Her blonde bob cut, straight, white teeth thanks to thousands of dollars in orthodontia, and cheerleader-like demeanor can’t make up for the fact that, for me, she’s already an irritant. I work like it’s my job to contain the urge to get the hell out of there as pixie-faced Linzi drones on and on about the ultimate challenge that our bodies were about to face.

“I promise you,” she begins her wrap-up pep talk, “that if you all push yourselves to the limit and follow this program like your lives depend on it, you will have experienced nothing, and I mean nothing, any more exhilarating than the feeling you get when you finish your first duo.”

If her trite take on life’s best moments is any indication, Little Miss Linzi is not only shy of a brain cell or two but clearly hasn’t experienced enough life to make such a call. So, by the time she finally directs the training pairs to run our first 5K, at least five minutes later, aiming for a slow, steady pace, I’m more than ready to beat feet, get out on the road, and pound out a few good miles.

And that’s exactly what I do.

Copyright © 2021 by Kimberly Greer