Today I am so pleased to welcome E.J. Russell to Joyfully Jay. E.J. has come to talk to us about her latest release, The Thomas Flair. She has also brought along a great giveaway. Please join me in giving her a big welcome!
Thank you so much, Jay, for inviting me here today to talk about my latest release. It’s always… well… a joy to visit with you and your readers!
Gymnastics. It’s all about flying high and sticking the landing. But the biggest leap I make in The Thomas Flair is that the Tokyo Olympics take place in 2020 as originally planned. Part of the reason for this is that I finished the book last November, before any of us dreamed how much the world could change. For a long time, I considered shelving it permanently, since we still don’t know what 2021 will bring.
But all sports romances have an element of fantasy to them—we’re writing fiction, after all, not reporting team scores on the nightly news— and I loved my two main characters, Sol and Tony, so much that I wanted to imagine their Olympic dreams proceded on schedule.
I’ve got an exclusive for you—a deleted scene, featuring Sol and Tony on the plane to Tokyo. When I was tightening the book’s pace, I decided to cut it almost entirely—only a couple of paragraphs in the middle about the guys’ plans for haircuts in the Olympic Village made it into the final version—but I still like the glimpse it gives us of Tony’s caring side. (Note: “XBL” is the acronym for Tony’s social media channel, Xtreme Bucket List.)
Another hour and we’ll be in Tokyo. Another hour and we’ll be on the ground. Tony peered out the window of the plane at the sunlight glimmering on the ocean below. He was ten days away from marching into the Ariake Gymnastics Centre for his second Olympic Games, and his stomach had been doing round-offs since before they’d taken off in Denver.
But other than nerves, he felt better than he had since his surgery. Part of that was because he was sitting with the guys on the team—his friends now—and sitting next to Sol.
Who was asleep. Asshole can sleep anywhere.
Tony glanced across the aisle, but the passengers were strangers, not on the team. One of them was sleeping, and the other was reading—and they don’t know us, anyway. So Tony let himself stroke Sol’s relaxed fingers where they hung over the armrest, encroaching on Tony’s seat-space. He smiled to himself when Sol’s fingers twitched. He wasn’t really mad at Sol for sleeping—he needed to get over his jet lag ASAP so he could get his meals timed right before competition started.
Competition. Tony still had a hard time believing it. Ten more days. Ten more days and he’d be in that unforgiving spotlight again. His XBL stunts were cake in comparison, because if one went wrong, the only person bearing the consequences was Tony himself. Sure, his fans might groan and leave disparaging comments—or downright troll him, depending—but his failure didn’t take anyone else down with him.
He stretched, flexing his feet under the seat in front of him. Airline travel was one of the only times he was grateful that he was short. The basketball players must have it rough. Of course, the basketball players, since they were all from the NBA, didn’t have to fly commercial.
The flight attendant passed down the aisle with a cart. “Something to drink, sir? Coffee?”
Tony smiled at her. “No, thanks. But could I get a couple of waters for me and my friend, assuming he ever wakes up to drink it?”
She chuckled. “He still has a few minutes to rest.” She nodded to a second flight attendant, who handed Tony two six-ounce water bottles. “We’ll be preparing the cabin for landing shortly.”
Tony set the bottles on his tray table and turned to gaze at Sol. His eyelashes were sooty fans on his cheeks, the hollows under his cheekbones were shadowed in the dim cabin light. God, he’s so beautiful. His silky dark hair flopped over his forehead—the whole team needed haircuts. They’d all gone shaggy during training camp, vowing to get their next trims at the salon in the Olympic Village. In fact, all of them were going for highlights, too. They’d even talked Rahul into it, which hadn’t been easy. Tony had finally taken him aside and convinced him that being the only one not blond-streaked or tipped would make it seem like he disapproved of his teammates.
“I don’t disapprove. But it’s not necessary,” Rahul complained.
“True, it’s not necessary,” Tony replied. Then he grinned, nudging Rahul in the ribs. “But it’s fun.”
So sometime before marching out onto the arena floor, they’d all rendezvous with a bottle of bleach.
The cabin lights came on. That’s our cue. Tony laid a hand on Sol’s forearm and squeezed. “Hey. Time to wake up, Solly,” he murmured. “We’re almost there.”
Sol opened his eyes and blinked at Tony. Then he smiled, sleepy and sweet. Yeah, so I’m leaning in a little close. Sue me. “Hi.”
“Got some water for you.” He cracked open the bottle and passed it to Sol. “Unless you’d prefer coffee.”
Sol wrinkled his nose. “God, no.” He downed half the little bottle, his Adam’s apple sliding under his smooth golden skin. “Thank you. If I don’t stay hydrated, the jet lag is hell.”
“What jet lag? You’ve been asleep since we left the mainland behind. You’ll be so chipper when we land that none of us will be able to stand you.”
“Hardly.” He scrubbed a hand across his face. “Maybe I should just pour the rest of this over my head. I shouldn’t have slept so much. It makes me stupid.” He peered at Tony, a little furrow between his brows. “Did you sleep?”
“Not much. Too…” What am I willing to admit? Too excited? Too nervous? Too terrified?
Luckily, he didn’t have to find the words, because somehow Sol understood. “I get it. Well, we’ll have a day to get acclimated before we have to report for our first training session. You’ll have a chance to rest up.” Sol put on his stern face. “Because training when you’re not rested is dangerous. You need to be in tip-top condition a week from Saturday. I won’t allow anything less.”
“Yes, master,” Tony intoned in his best Igor impression.
“Shut up.” But Sol couldn’t hide his smile. Mission accomplished.
Danny suddenly loomed over the back of their seats. “Hey, guys. We’re almost there. How long do you think it’ll take to get to the Village?”
“How would I know? I’ve never been here before.” Tony tilted his head back to look at Danny upside down—not as odd a view as it would be for a non-gymnast. After all, they were upside down half the time, anyway. “But be ready for delays once we arrive. There’ll be a wait while we get our credentials. Then we have to find our rooms. Then—”
“Do you think we’ll get to see the venue today?” Eddie popped up from the row in front of them. “I heard it’s amazing.”
Sol shook his head. “Not today. But probably tomorrow. The training gym is right next to it, so we ought to at least get a peek inside, even if we don’t have official floor time until podium training.”
The flight attendant paused next to their row. “If you gentlemen could please take your seats. We’ll be landing in a few minutes.”
Danny and Eddie both complied, leaving Tony and Sol to their nominal seclusion. Tony hooked Sol’s ankle with his foot. “Soon, Solly. Soon.” Sol smiled at him, letting his shoulder rest against Tony’s for a moment.
Then they were landing. Deplaning—Danny almost left his phone in his seatback pocket. Walking, laughing, or gape-mouthed (sometimes both) through the airport. Collecting their bags under the harried supervision of the coaches.
“We’ve got a car service. They’ll meet us after we’re out of baggage claim,” Barry said.
“Will the driver be holding one of those signs?” Eddie asked. “You know, like we’re celebrities?”
Tony slapped him on the shoulder. “We are celebrities, dude. We’re Team USA Olympic gymnasts.”
Eddie rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but we’re Team USA Olympic male gymnasts. Nobody cares.”
They will soon. “We’re here to make them care. So let’s get to it.”
But when the team emerged with their bags, the signs weren’t for the team. They were for Tony personally. Damn. I forgot. His XBL channel had a huge following in Japan. Tony grinned at them and waved, but tried to turn away.
Sol grabbed his arm and forced him back around. “They’re here for you. Go talk to them.”
“But I’m not here for me. I’m here for us.”
Sol beckoned the other guys over. “Then why not introduce them to the Team USA Olympic men’s artistic gymnasts?”
Tony grinned at him. “You’re right. We’re building our new brand, starting now.”
It’ll take more than medals to mend their relationship.
Diabetic gymnast and team alternate Sol Ashvili had one thing on his agenda when the 2016 Rio Olympics wrapped up—confess to his teammate and best friend Tony Thomas that he’d been in love with him for years. But Tony took a major deduction in Sol’s heart when he jetted out of Rio and turned his back on an almost-finished college degree, international gymnastics meets… and Sol. The first two Sol could forgive—barely. The last? Not a chance.
Tony’s crowd-pleasing, no-holds-barred, high-octane gymnastics style stole its nickname from a legendary gymnastics move—the Thomas Flair. After the 2016 Games, he vaulted into a career as an internet celebrity, specializing in extreme sports and risky stunts. When Tony decides to battle his way into competition shape to earn a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, he has to survive the most extreme risk of all: facing Sol again.
For the sake of the team and the reputation of US men’s gymnastics, Sol and Tony must leave the past behind and get a grip on working together. And as the Games draw closer, they realize that being morethan teammates might be the only way they can truly fly high and stick the landing.
Multi-Rainbow Award winner E.J. Russell—grace, mother of three, recovering actor—holds a BA and an MFA in theater, so naturally she’s spent the last three decades as a financial manager, database designer, and business intelligence consultant (as one does). She’s recently abandoned data wrangling, however, and spends her days wrestling words.
E.J. is married to Curmudgeonly Husband, a man who cares even less about sports than she does. Luckily, CH loves to cook, or all three of their children (Lovely Daughter and Darling Sons A and B) would have survived on nothing but Cheerios, beef jerky, and satsuma mandarins (the extent of E.J.’s culinary skill set).
E.J. lives in rural Oregon, enjoys visits from her wonderful adult children, and indulges in good books, red wine, and the occasional hyperbole.
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E.J. has brought a winner’s choice of backlist book to give away to three lucky readers. Winners can find her full backlist at https://ejrussell.com/books to make their selection. Just leave a comment at the end of the post to enter. The contest ends on Tuesday, August 18th at 11:59 pm ET.
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