Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 1

Chapter One
Park City, Utah – Three Weeks Earlier

Kerry waited until she heard the shower turn on in the room next to hers, then grabbed her gray wool coat and stepped out into the corridor of the hotel. Walking briskly toward the front door, she pulled the coat on over her thick turtleneck sweater and black jeans. Outside, the icy wind hit her like a sledgehammer, sending her long black hair flying. She tugged her white knit cap down over her ears and strode briskly toward the arena.
She stepped into the welcome warmth of the skating rink lobby and breathed a sigh of relief. A smiling young woman looked up from behind the counter. “Hi. Are you one of the skaters?”
Kerry nodded, and dug a badge out of her coat pocket. “You need to see this?”
“Yeah.” Her eyes swept over the badge. “Hello, Kerry Niles. Nice to meet you. The rink is that way.”
“Thanks.” Kerry pulled her hat off, tucked it into her pocket and combed her fingers through her tangled hair to get it into some kind of order. Who knew what important judges might be here, watching the skaters practice? It wouldn't do to walk in looking like Nick Nolte in his famous mug shot.
She heard Handel's “Water Music” coming from the rink, and pushed through the double doors, feeling the cold air wrap around her like an Arctic blanket. Her practice time with Adam wasn't scheduled until the next day, but she wanted to get a first look at the rink they would be using for the next two weeks before the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
A couple glided over the ice, practicing their free dance routine, and Kerry recognized the female immediately. Elena Boiko, the Russian ice dancing star. Why she was a star, Kerry wasn't sure. Yes, she was beautiful. No argument about that. She had that Grace Kelly princess thing going on. But any expert eye could see she lacked a certain grace on the ice. Her movements were often stiff, almost forced. Technically, she was a good skater, but her presentation left a lot to be desired.
Kerry remembered the World Championships in Switzerland two years ago. Even though Elena had tripped on her partner's foot, they’d edged her and Adam out of a medal, and it still rankled.
Under the lights of the rink, Elena's smooth chignon glowed white-blond. She had the tall, lithe body of a ballerina and the elegant neck of a swan. Even from a distance, Kerry could see her eyes were a deep, lapis blue. She was, quite simply, breathtaking, even in her practice attire―a plain gray leotard with a filmy chiffon skirt.
Kerry's gaze moved to Elena's partner, and she caught her breath. She recognized the ice dancer with the intriguing scar across his face. Mikhail Kozlof. Two years ago, he'd been skating with Tanya Novikova. Kerry remembered reading in Skating World Magazine how the director of the Russian skating association had teamed him up with Elena after the death of her partner, Ivan Rostropovich. She also seemed to remember the article had implied that he hadn’t been exactly happy with the decision. The partnership had obviously done well for Elena. Kerry had watched their first competition together at Worlds in Cincinnati last March where they'd won the silver. This year, they were favored for the gold.
Kerry smirked. Good thing you've got Mikhail, Elena, or you wouldn't have a chance in hell.
Her gaze followed Mikhail as he moved over the ice. There was something so arresting about him, something that went much deeper than his physical good looks. It was in the way he moved on―and off―the ice, the intensity of his expression as he skated. Something about him touched a chord inside her. Made it hard to breathe.
“They are quite magnificent, are they not?” said an accented, feminine voice behind her.
Kerry turned. A pretty woman with dark brown hair and unusual golden brown eyes smiled and extended a slender, elegant hand. “I do not believe we have officially met. I am Tanya Novikova from Russia. And you are one of the American ice dancers, yes?”
Kerry shook her hand, her lips quirking in a bemused smile. “That's right. How did you know?”
“Because I saw you skate last year at Worlds, and was quite impressed by you and your partner. I think you are one of the best dance teams to come out of America in years.”
Kerry's smile widened. “Well, thank you. I'm honored, considering that you and Sergey Isavenivic are so wonderful.”
Tanya's gaze moved to the couple on the ice. “We are good,” she admitted. “But no one will touch those two.” One slim shoulder lifted in a very European shrug. “Boiko…how do you say…tied up in a bow the gold medal when she took Mikhail away from me. He was my partner first.”
Kerry looked back at the couple on the ice. They were skating a Viennese waltz, their edges deep, lines perfect. Was it her imagination or had Elena's carriage improved since last year? Perhaps skating with Mikhail really had helped her presentation.
“Oh, yes. I heard,” Kerry said.
Tanya glared at Elena. “She decided she wanted Mikhail, so she took him away. No matter we had been training for months. She snapped fingers…” Tanya demonstrated. “And just like that, he is gone. And I am looking for new partner.”
Kerry's eyes widened. “So, it’s true? They made him skate with Elena?”
Tanya gave a sardonic smile. “Things have not changed so much since the old days. There are still people with power, and Elena is one of them. She replaced Mikhail’s coach, as well. And Nadya had been with him since he was six.”
Kerry glanced at the beautiful blonde on the ice. “I get the feeling you don't like her much.”
Tanya’s unusual golden brown eyes sparkled with amusement. “That comes through, yes? And I try so hard to be good.”
Kerry grinned. Here was a kindred spirit―a woman ruled by her emotions, and unashamed by it. She was different from all the other Russian women Kerry had met. Where was that aloof, “don't buddy up with the Americans” attitude most of them adopted? And even if they spoke English, which most did not, they pretended they didn’t. That’s what she’d heard, anyway. Then againshe reminded herself of the source of that commentary. Adam.
“So, tell me about Mikhail,” Kerry encouraged. “What's he like?”
Tanya pursed her lips. “He is something of…mystery. He comes from Estonia. Very independent people, not typical Russian, you understand? I do not know Mikhail well, even though we were partners for a time. Some say he is ladies' man.” She smiled. “I do not believe anyone truly knows the real Mikhail Kozlof. Look at him. See expression on his face? There is something very deep and private inside him that is only revealed when he skates.”
Kerry understood what she meant. Mikhail's blue eyes were intense, focused upon his partner's face as they moved on the ice.
“Is he involved with Elena?” she asked.
Tanya gave an unladylike snort. “She wishes! No, I think he barely tolerates her. But who knows? That may change. Men are ruled by what is between legs, no? And she is very beautiful.”
The music came to an end at the exact second of the couple's final spin. Entwined, they held their closing position for a moment, and then broke apart. Hands on his hips, his flaxen head bowed, Mikhail moved backward. He appeared to be in deep thought. Elena spoke in Russian, and Mikhail looked up and nodded. They turned and headed toward the boards.
“Would you like me to introduce you, Kerry?” Tanya asked.
Kerry's heart began to drum, but she tried to summon a blasé smile. “Sure. I'd love to meet him…I mean, them.”
* * * * *
Mikhail saw the young woman as he skated towards the boards. She looked familiar, and he wondered where he'd seen her before. She smiled at something Tanya said to her, and his heart dipped. It had been a long time, if ever, that he'd reacted to a smile like this. His heart rate pumped up a notch, and for a moment, he wasn't sure he could quite catch his breath.
Tanya motioned him over. “Mikhail, come here a moment,” she said in English. “I want you to meet someone.”
Beside him, Elena expelled a disgusted breath. “Good God! Does she think we have nothing better to do than chit-chat with fans?”
Mikhail glared at her. “Calm down, Elena. It won't kill you to say hello.”
But as they skated closer to the twosome, Mikhail realized the attractive girl with Tanya was not a fan. Those blue-green eyes. They weren't easily forgotten. Especially in contrast to that fair skin and ebony hair. He could see that her body was slender and elegant despite the coat and thick Irish sweater she wore over black jeans. Even if he hadn't seen her before, he would've guessed she was a skater.
“Mikhail, this is Kerry Niles,” Tanya said. “She is ice dancer with Adam Cutter for America. Kerry, this is Mikhail Kozlof and Elena Boiko.”
Kerry held out a slim hand to Mikhail, her face lighting up in a radiant smile. His heart began to race. When he'd first looked through the dossier Immaakin had given him, he'd recognized Kerry's photo as the skater he'd found so attractive two years ago at Worlds. Incredible to know that she might very well be the key to his escape. He took her hand and gave what he hoped was a relaxed smile.
“Hi.” Her voice was low and musical. “Nice to meet you, Mikhail.”
“Likewise.” He was amazed to find his voice sounded normal. “Good luck in competition.” A light dusting of freckles across her perfect nose and cheekbones gave her an impish look, made even more so by the sparkling humor in her remarkable eyes.
Her gaze still held his, even though she was tugging at his hand for release so she could greet Elena. Mikhail let go, his face growing hot. He was remembering that moment he'd collided with her backstage at Worlds. She'd seemed distraught, close to tears. Even though she'd been a complete stranger, he'd felt an overwhelming need to take her into his arms and console her. Strange thing, though. He felt the same way now. Not to console her, of course, but to simply take her into his arms. And that was insane! He didn't even know her.
Elena briefly shook Kerry's hand and turned to go. “You coming, Mikos?” she asked in Russian, one perfectly arched eyebrow raise imperiously.
He glanced at her, and spoke in precise English, “We are done for day, no?” It embarrassed him that she was so rude as to speak Russian in front of someone who didn't understand the language.
Annoyance flickered across Elena's haughty face. “Yes, but don't you want to go get some dinner with me?” Russian, again.
The bitch. Mikhail decided to risk alienating her permanently. He could think of nothing more distasteful than sharing dinner with his ice-dancing partner. They'd been together since early morning, and he needed a break.
“Thank you, but no,” he said in English. “I am not hungry now. I will see you tomorrow, Elena.”
“Fine! But if I were you, I'd watch myself with this American slut. Sergey won't like it if you get yourself involved in an international incident.”
Mikhail stiffened. He shot Elena a quelling look. Sergey can kiss my ass. He just barely restrained himself from saying it. Instead, he gave Elena a grim smile. “Goodbye, Elena.”
With one last murderous glance at the three of them, the tall blonde stepped through the portal, slipped on her skate guards and clopped off down the hall.
Mikhail turned his attention back to Kerry. “I apologize for her rudeness. So, did you just arrive here? I have not seen you on ice.”
She nodded. “Just got in this afternoon. The first thing I always do is come and check out the practice surface.” Her eyes scanned the rink. “Looks pretty good.”
Mikhail shrugged. “Is not bad. A bit small, but you compensate.”
A brief silence fell. Mikhail realized he was staring as Kerry's eyes connected again with his. A soft blush spread over her face. He looked away, catching Tanya's amused expression. What did she think was so funny? As if he didn't know. Tanya had never seen him appear to be out of his depth with a woman before. But there was something about this Kerry Niles that made him feel like an awkward schoolboy. He supposed it was partly because she was so pretty―and an American.
But most of all, it was because she could very well be the only person in this country that would help him defect from Mother Russia.
* * * * *
Kerry tried to think of something to say to fill the awkward silence. Tension, thick as smoke, filled the air between the three of them, and she couldn't quite figure out why. For a moment, she'd thought she'd caught a gleam of attraction in Mikhail's clear blue eyes as their gaze had met and held, but now, he was staring at a Coca Cola sign along the boards like it was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
She shifted her feet uneasily and glanced at Tanya. The Russian girl wore a Mona Lisa smile on her face as if she had a delicious secret she had no intention of sharing. She was so different from the brittle-faced Elena Boiko. The woman had been incredibly rude, speaking Russian in front of her. Little did she know, though, that Kerry was fluent in Russian―thanks to spending seven years in a household where Russian was the dominant language. She'd understood the entire exchange. How dare Elena! Calling her a slut!
Okay, enough is enough. Kerry decided it was up to her to break the silence. This was so weird, though. She'd never been shy. Why, now, did she feel so tongue-tied?
“Well, I…” Kerry began just as Mikhail spoke at the same time, “You are…”
They both stopped abruptly. Mikhail flushed.
Kerry bit her bottom lip. “I'm sorry. You first.”
Mikhail shook his head. “No, please. You were saying?”
Silence. Tanya grinned. “If you two would let me get word in edge-way, I will invite you both to join me for dinner at Olympic Village.”
Something like relief crossed Mikhail's face. He smiled and nodded. “Yes. I would like that.”
Kerry was just about to say she'd like that, too, when she heard a footstep behind her. “Hey, Kerry?” said a familiar male voice. “Why didn't you tell me you were heading over here? I would've come with you.”
Adam. Disappointment flooded through Kerry as she realized there was no way she could accept Tanya's invitation. Catri had made dinner reservations for the three of them at a popular Salt Lake City restaurant for a pre-Olympic pep talk before the start of their grueling practice sessions tomorrow. It was a tradition they'd been sharing for years, and she couldn't believe she'd actually forgotten about it. But then again, she had a feeling that being near Mikhail would make her forget her own name.
Kerry turned to Adam who was gazing at Tanya and Mikhail with wary speculation in his brown eyes. His hair was still damp from the shower. No doubt as soon as he'd realized she was gone, he'd pulled on his clothes and raced right over. Typical behavior.
“Adam, this is Tanya Novikova and Mikhail Kozlof,” she said. “They skate for Russia.”
Adam shook their hands, his expression only slightly warmer at Tanya's touch than at Mikhail's. Kerry could barely disguise a grimace at his frosty attitude towards the Russians.
It occurred to her that she could do some matchmaking and get Adam and Elena together. They seemed like two peas in a pod, both of them wearing colossal chips on their shoulders. But Adam would never go for it. Brainwashed at a young age by his father's conservative views, he wouldn't be caught dead dating a Russian. Adam maintained an almost pathological distrust of the former Soviet block despite the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Which was really weird, considering he'd practically been raised by two former Russians who'd doted on him since he was a junior skater. But when questioned about this contradiction, he'd dismissed it with an offhand, “Oh, you know I'm not talking about Catri and Vladimir. They're special. Besides, they defected.”
It was this narrow-minded bigotry that had been one of the reasons Kerry had fallen out of love with Adam so quickly. Once the excitement of first love—and first sex―had diminished, she'd begun to see there were some less attractive qualities to his personality that she could live without. But deep inside, she believed he was a good guy. Misguided, perhaps, and obstinate, but decent―and in need of some intensive personal relations education.
However, at the moment, she could cheerfully strangle him for the jut-jawed way he was eyeing Mikhail like he was an assassin getting ready to bump her off.
“So…studying the competition, are we, Kerry?” Adam asked with a stiff smile.
Mikhail's eyes met hers, and Kerry felt her face grow warm. Damn Adam! Did he have to make it sound like she was involved in an underhanded conspiracy?
“Admiring the competition,” she said, hoping the edge in her voice would communicate her displeasure.
Tanya smiled at Adam. “We invited Kerry to join us for dinner. We would love you to come, as well.”
Adam barely waited for her to finish the sentence. “Sorry. We have plans.” His gaze fastened on Kerry. “In fact, you'd better go back to the hotel and get ready. We’ll be dealing with rush hour traffic, and we're supposed to meet Catri at seven.”
Kerry smiled at Tanya and Mikhail. “Catri is our coach. And Adam's right. I'd better go get ready. Thanks for the invitation, though. Maybe some other time.” Adam glowered at her, and she threw him a challenging look. When would he stop treating her like she was his personal property?
She couldn't resist another glance in Mikhail's direction, and felt her heart kick into overdrive. His blue eyes drilled into her, dissecting her in a most pleasurable way. She smiled, and he blinked, then returned the smile with one of his own. Strong, white teeth, Kerry noted with relief. In her experience, more than a few foreign guys had their good looks marred by bad teeth. She was glad Mikhail wasn't one of them.
“It was nice meeting you…” Her eyes moved from Mikhail to Tanya. “…both of you.”
As she turned to go, Adam placed a proprietary hand on her elbow to guide her away. She joggled away from him, throwing him a disgruntled look.
“Hey, don't get an attitude with me,” he said as soon as they were out of earshot of the Russians.
Kerry gritted her teeth, pushing through the double doors with more force than was necessary. “Well, don't you start acting like you're my father or something. What is up with you, anyway? You were downright rude to them.”
Adam frowned. “Well, it's not a good idea to get buddy-buddy with the Russians. You know that.”
“Oh, jeez, Adam. Why don't you grow up? What do you think they're going to do? Kidnap and torture me until I reveal the deep, dark secret of our free dance technique?” She gave a mock shudder. “Oooooh. The horror of it!”
“You just go right ahead and make fun,” Adam snapped. “I don't like that guy. Did you see the scar on his face? I'll bet he got it in a knife fight. Hell, for all we know, he's part of the Russian mafia.”
Kerry gave him an incredulous look and then laughed. He was serious! “You know what, Adam? You should be in Hollywood writing James Bond movies. I'll bet you could make a killing.”
He gave her a sulky look and held the front door open for her. The icy wind assaulted them as they stepped outside. Kerry pulled her cap out of her pocket and tugged it down over her ears. “Hey, I'm just looking out for you,” he added as they headed down the street toward the hotel.
Kerry bent her head, shielding her face from the frigid wind. “Who asked you to?” she muttered, glaring at her boots.
He didn't answer, but she could feel the anger vibrating from his pores. Jeez, if he got this bent out of shape over her hanging out with a few Russians, she hated to think how he was going to react when she broke the news to him. That after the Olympics were over, she planned to retire from amateur skating.
* * * * *
Mikhail watched Kerry and Adam walk down the corridor and disappear into the lobby. Were they a couple? The man certainly acted like she belonged to him. And that, for some unaccountable reason, annoyed him.
“Hey!” Beside him, Tanya snapped her fingers in front of his eyes. “Hello, Mikhail? Remember me?” When he turned and looked at her, she smiled. “Ah, you like her, no? You can't take your eyes off her.”
He felt his face grow hot. “Don't be absurd. She's a pretty girl. “He lifted a shoulder in an offhand shrug. “So, what? I like pretty girls.”
“Yes, I know that.” Tanya gave him a speculative once-over. “But why do I get the feeling there's more to it than that?”
Mikhail's stomach plunged. He gave her a close look. How could she possibly know? But her eyes were teasing, her smile innocent. His stomach settled. He placed an arm around her shoulders and nudged her toward the lobby. “Did you not say something about dinner? Come on. Elena has worked my ass off today, and I am famished.”
Tanya leaned back and peered at his rear end. “Really? Looks like it is there to me, and…” She grinned. “…it’s looking quite good, I must say.”
He gave her an askance grimace. “Hey, don't start that with me. You had your chance a long time ago, and wanted nothing to do with me, remember?”
“I remember. I was waiting for you to give up your playboy ways and decide you're a one woman man.”
He laughed. “And you have finally decided to give up, yes? Because it will never happen?”
She shook her head and gave him an appraising look as he held the door open for her. “No. I've decided that you just have not met that one woman yet.” Then, to his disconcertment, she added slyly, “But perhaps you just did.”

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