paperback racquet and ballsIt’s hard to avoid tennis puns when thinking of blog post titles for a tennis romance. Love match. An ace of a story! A new spin on the sports genre. So really, the one I’ve picked isn’t too bad.

Whatever slice I put on this post, Code of Conduct tells the story of Viva Jones, a top tennis player battling to remain at the top of the game, and Gabriela Mendaro, an umpire, striving to reach the pinnacle of her career: gold badge umpire. Trouble is, players and officials must keep their distance, a rule that is written in the officials’ code of conduct.

Whatever pun you choose,  Code of Conduct is available everywhere next Wednesday, 4 July.

Of course, if  you can’t wait that long, you can get it right now direct from Ylva Publishing.  And of course it’s on preorder everywhere else.

In the meantime though, and to distract myself from bad tennis puns, here’s the first chapter.

Code of Conduct

Chapter 1

Viva’s heart pounded in double time as she waited at the service line for the crowd to calm. If anything, the cacophony of applause and shouts grew louder.

“Quiet, please.” The umpire’s even tones cut through the din. “Tie breaker, 6-5, Jones. Genevieve Jones to serve.”

Viva drew a deep breath and let the tension drain from her shoulders. She twitched her toe into position a centimetre behind the service line. The crowd’s noise faded; there was nothing in her mind except the next point. She rocked back on her heel and flung the ball skywards.

“C’mon, Paige! Show us what you’ve got!”

The shouted encouragement for her opponent cut through Viva’s concentration. Laughter rippled around centre court. Abort. She lowered her racquet, caught the ball, and fought down her flash of anger as she waited once again for the crowd to settle.

“Please do not call out when play is in progress.” The umpire made a mark on the tablet in front of him.

Viva spun away from the service line and nodded to the ballkid for a towel. New York’s humidity made the racquet slip in her hand like butter on a hot pan. She wiped her face, hands, and the racquet handle. Staring down at the strings, she refocussed her concentration and willed away the butterflies cartwheeling in her stomach. This moment, this point. Set point. Nothing else mattered right now. Not her grand slam title defence, not the number one ranking she stood to gain if she succeeded. This point matters. Only this one. If she won this point, the match would go to three sets. She paced back to the service line, collecting and discarding balls from the ballkid.

She bounced the ball once, twice. A third time. Her grip tightened on the racquet. This point matters. Only this one. A fourth bounce and she prepared to swing.

“Time violation. Warning, Miss Jones.”

She swung around to face the umpire.

He stared back impassively, as if daring her to react.

She closed her eyes for a second, biting back the hot words she wanted to say. She was maybe a few seconds over time. To call a violation was massively unfair. With a deep breath, she bent and picked up her racquet.

A quick glance at her peppy blonde opponent, now taking pretend swings with the racquet. Paige had a poor three-set record, especially when she lost the second set. Viva knew she could win the match—if it went to a third set. And it was still set point to her. Viva wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her wristband.

Two bounces, the ball toss, the swing. Ace! Viva whirled around with a jubilant fist pump.

“Second serve.”

What? Her eyes widened, and she turned to the umpire.

“Foot-fault.” The umpire leant forward and spoke into the microphone. “Miss Jones, a foot-fault was called.”

The buzz of white noise in her head built to a crescendo. Viva pressed her lips together tightly and swallowed hard. She jerked around to face the lineswoman, who stared straight ahead, no expression on her face.

Viva nodded, a jerky up-and-down, and walked back to the service line. Two bounces of the ball, the toss, the swing. The softer serve kicked wide, and Paige returned it hard down the centre. For a minute, they duelled back and forth before Paige sent a backhand winner down the line.

6-6. Viva now needed two straight points to win. She stalked back to her chair for the short break at the change of ends. A mouthful of sports drink, another of water. She wiped the handle of her racquet and tested the string tension. The little routines calmed her momentarily, stilled her jiggling knee. She focussed deep inside, trying in vain to block out the pounding music that played during the two-minute breaks.

Viva returned to the service line. Someone coughed in the crowd as she prepared to serve, and she paused, then bounced the ball one more time. A clean serve down the centre line. Paige pushed it back short. Viva raced in and scooped the ball. It hit the net cord and for an agonising moment seemed to hang there before it fell back on Viva’s side of the net. Damn. That was the worst luck. That was—No! She slammed a wall up against the negative thoughts.

“7-6, Westermeier.”

If Paige won this point, she would win the match. And she now had two serves.

Viva focussed on her feet as she returned to the baseline, this time to receive.

Paige took her time to serve, bouncing the ball many times, then a bad ball toss, which she caught and regrouped.

Viva bit her lip. The umpire should call a time violation. He should— She tamped that line of thought. Focus.

Paige’s serve was soft, almost tentative.

Viva was already in position, and her driving return clipped the baseline. 7-7. Yes! She jogged back to the baseline to receive and sent a cool glance at her opponent. Do your worst, Paige.

Paige’s next serve thundered down hard and fast and unexpected.

Viva lunged for it, and the ball glanced off the tip of her racquet. A streak of pain shot into her wrist from the force, and she gasped as the joint was forced back. The racquet fell to the ground. She bent to pick it up, gritting her teeth against her disappointment. Her wrist throbbed. It was now 8-7 and a second match point to Paige. But it was not over yet. After accepting a ball, she spun around to the service line and stared down the court as she drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

She twitched her foot into position, the toe of her fluoro shoe behind the line. Two bounces. A third for luck. Throw. Swing. And the serve was good; she was sure it was and—

“Foot-fault.”

“No!” The shout erupted from her tight throat. “Not again! No way!”

The racquet trembled in her hand, and she clenched her fingers on the handle. A glance at the umpire’s implacable face. No chance of an overrule. She swung to face the lineswoman, who sat stony-faced on the chair, her neat, brown hair as short and tightly controlled as the rest of her. She stared straight ahead, as if she were waiting for a bus.

Viva glared up at the umpire. “She’s wrong! You can’t let her get away with this. It’s match point!” A red haze built in her mind. She tightened her grip on the racquet, consumed by the urge to smash it onto the court until it was broken beyond repair.

“Second serve.”

Viva tightened her lips so much that her teeth ground together. She nodded once, tightly, to the umpire and stalked back to the service line. As she drew level with the lineswoman, she flicked her a contemptuous look. “I will not forget this.”

The woman didn’t flinch. Her sweat-damp hair clung limply to her forehead in the heat, but she stared straight ahead without reaction.

With a final venomous glare in her direction, Viva took her place at the service line. She heaved a breath, trying to compose herself. This point matters. Only this one. The hyped-up crowd, now all cheering for the American, the heat and humidity of the afternoon, Paige bouncing lightly on her toes—they all receded, pushed back into a place where they were unimportant. The lineswoman’s stony face intruded, and she, too, was dismissed from her mind. Focus.

She accepted three balls, rejected one. To lose the match on a penalty would be an unbearable indignity. Viva closed her eyes for a second, banishing the negative thoughts. Lose? No. She would win this. Her grip was firm on her racquet, and conviction surged in her mind. She rocked back on her heel. The silence of the crowd was absolute. The ballkids as still as lamp posts, the umpire poised in his chair. The lineswoman leant forward, hands on her knees, gaze locked on the service line.

Second service. Last chance.

Viva tossed, swung, and smashed the ball true in the centre of her racquet. It shot like a rocket, over the net.

“Out!” The call was loud and sure from the linesman at the far end of the court.

“No!” She couldn’t supress the cry, not the victory shout she had imagined, more a forlorn little sob of shattered dreams. She had lost. Lost in the quarterfinals, in the defence of her US Open title. Her legs were suddenly as weak as jelly, and she sank to her haunches on court, her head bowed over the handle of her racquet. Soon she would have to face her coach Deepak and the press, but for one private moment she let the misery consume her. Only for a second. Arranging her face into a wry smile of congratulation, she sprang to her feet and walked to the net.

Paige bounded up, elation scrawled over her face. Around them the crowd surged to their feet, and the stadium rang with their cheers and applause.

For Paige. Not for her.

“Well done, Paige. Very well-deserved.” She hugged her opponent around her sweaty shoulders before walking to her chair. A quick shake of the umpire’s hand, and she swiftly gathered her things and stuffed them into her bag. Get off court. The urge to flee was overwhelming. A long shower, that was what she wanted so that the streaming water would hide her tears.

She raised a hand to the crowd and trudged to the exit. The cacophony of cheers for the winner followed her out.

* * *

Later, much later, after she’d showered, talked with Deepak, and faced a barrage of questions from the press about her shock loss, Viva returned to her hotel room. She lay on the bed, phone clenched in her hand, staring at the ceiling. The things she needed to do marched through her head, but she ignored them. She blinked away the moisture in her eyes and focussed on the white ceiling, replaying the final tie breaker in her head. She had had the momentum, the edge. She was the better player, higher ranked than Paige, better able to deal with the pressure. Except she hadn’t. The final point rolled through her head like a horror movie. Her position behind the line, the toss, the serve. The foot-fault call. The mental playback stuttered and halted. That call had lost her the match.

Viva picked up the TV remote and flicked through the channels until she found a replay of the match. She skipped ahead to the final point. There she was, tension shimmering in her body, her face closed-in and intent. She replayed the foot-fault call again and again. Had her toe moved over the line before or after she hit the ball? She studied the footage. It was a bad call; she was sure of it.

Her phone rang, and a glance at the display showed it was her mum calling from Australia. She ignored it. Later, she would talk to her family, cry a little, wallow in the love and comfort offered, but not yet.

She let the replay move on. The camera cut to the lineswoman who’d made the call. Olive skin, chiselled cheekbones, aloof expression. Her name flashed along the bottom of the screen: Gabriela Mendaro. Viva paused the frame, committing her face and name to memory. Her lips twisted. This woman was responsible for bundling her out of the US Open. Now she was no longer Genevieve Jones, defending US Open champion, the number one ranking within reach; now she was just another player scrambling to remain in the top ten.

Her phone rang again, and she glanced at the caller ID. Her lips twitched into the ghost of a smile. If anyone could raise her spirits, Michi could.

“Hey, partner,” she said.

“Hey yourself. How are you?” Her doubles partner was usually the most ebullient of people, but her voice now held a soft, cautious quality.

“I’ve had better days,” Viva said wryly. “Like pretty much every day this year.”

Michi was silent for a moment. “It’s not the end. It’s just a match that you lost. You know that.”

“Yeah.” Viva gusted a sigh. “You’re right, of course, but at this moment, it’s the end of life as I know it.” In front of her, the TV screen was still frozen on Gabriela Mendaro’s face. She’d seen her before—players and officials were on nodding terms. “It was a bad call.” She couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice.

“Maybe. It was certainly close.”

“The lineswoman should’ve let it go. It was match point. Match point!

“That doesn’t make it different. If anything, on match point the calls should be tighter.”

“Any call should be accurate. And that one wasn’t.”

“Have you talked to Deepak?” Michi’s tone still had the wary hesitation of someone who wasn’t sure what to say.

“Yeah. And he said I should move on.”

“Of course he did. Brett tells me the same when I have a bad call. ‘Don’t dwell on anything,’ he always says.”

“I know. Deepak’s right. Brett’s right.”

“Am I right too?” Humour laced Michi’s voice. “Because if I am, that’s a first.”

Viva snorted. “You’re always right, partner. It’s what you do best.”

“I thought my sizzling forehands down the line were what I do best.”

“Those too.” Viva heaved a sigh. “You’re right, Michi. Of course you are. My head knows that even if my heart is yet to catch up.” She moved to sit cross-legged on the bed so that she could see out of the window. “What are you doing tonight? The whole of New York is out there. Want to have dinner? It’s either that or spend a dismal hour on the internet finding the cheapest flight to Montreal for the next tournament.”

“The United Airlines commuter flight. Always the cheapest because it leaves when most normal people are still in bed. But I’ve got a better idea. Instead of flying to Montreal, let’s hire a car and drive. Just you and me and the open road. Brett wants a couple of days to see his family, so now’s his chance. We’ve got four days to get to Montreal. We can take a tour of upstate New York, visit towns with weird names, see some fall leaves, eat way too much, drink weak beer, and share a room. It’ll be like old times.”

A smile tugged at Viva’s lips. It would be good, the two of them having fun, with no thought of tennis. Michi was a great friend. No doubt she was gesticulating at Brett right now that he needed to visit his family in Colorado.

“As long as you don’t stay up until two in the morning watching horror movies, as you did the last time we shared a room.”

“Promise. No horror. Well, except for my hair in the mornings.”

Viva chuckled. “It’s a deal. You book a car—something roomy—and we’ll plan our route over dinner tonight.”

“High five, partner! This’ll be awesome. The terrible two on the road again.”

“No Thelma and Louise jokes.”

“Not even a little one.” Michi’s enthusiasm bubbled down the line. “Brett and I will come by your room at six, and we’ll go eat.”

Viva ended the call and threw the phone on the bed. The paused TV screen was still frozen on the lineswoman, Gabriela Mendaro. For a last moment, she studied the woman’s impassive face, the smooth skin, the arched brows, and the keen gaze.

Michi’s words came back to her: Don’t dwell. She clicked off the TV and rose from the bed.

Enough.

Code of Conduct is available from the following places.

From 20 June 2018

Ylva Publishing

From 4 July 2018

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