Friday, April 29, 2011

Chapter 4

Chapter Four

Kerry sat across the table from her best friend and fellow skater, Brandi Vanderkleef, and watched as she scooped up a huge spoonful of vanilla ice cream dripping with hot fudge. She slipped it into her generous mouth. “Mmmmm…heaven,” she mumbled, closing her eyes in ecstasy. “Pure heaven.”
Kerry narrowed her eyes and stabbed a fork into her salad, dressed with a low-cal vinaigrette. If she didn't love her friend so much, she'd hate her for being able to eat anything she wanted and not gain an ounce. “Mmmm. Bet mine tastes better than yours,” she said with as much sarcasm as she could muster.
They were sitting at a table in the Olympic Village cafeteria, having a late afternoon snack. Kerry didn't dare eat more than a salad because of the original dance competition that evening. Lucky Brandi, being a singles skater, had more than a week before her competition began.
At the thought of the competition, Kerry's heart missed a beat. Not really because of the competition, but because of what would happen after it― when she broke the news to Adam and Catri that she was retiring from competitive skating.
She thought she knew how Catri would react. Disappointment, at first, followed by acceptance. A kind-hearted woman, Catri would want the best for her, and if that meant giving up competition, then so be it. Adam, though, would react in a completely different manner. He'd freak. Totally, and without restraint. It would come as a complete shock to him despite the many hints she'd dropped in the last year. Because that was Adam. He heard only what he wanted to hear.
Hard to believe that in just a few short weeks, she'd be out on her own. For the first time, really, and at the ancient age of twenty-eight. She'd been only twelve when her father died in an avalanche in British Columbia. His death had been the first loss of her young life, and another had quickly followed when her mother wrenched her away from her grandparents and moved her to San Diego.
Kerry had never forgiven Jana for that. Her mother had never really wanted her; she just hadn't wanted her grandparents to have her. That fact had been proven quite dramatically to Kerry when, a year later, Jana married Erich Ellery, and packed Kerry off to live with the Petenka’s. Although that had quite suited Kerry, because living with Jana and Erich in his La Jolla mansion would've been hell on earth, it still hurt that her mother thought so little of her that she'd allow her to grow up with strangers.
But thankfully, the Petenka’s hadn't been strangers for long. They'd become her surrogate parents, and Vladimir had almost made up for the loss of her beloved father.
What am I going to do now? Kerry wondered as she took a sip of iced tea. Get a job in an ice show? Coach? Or…maybe just take some time off and travel. At the age of twenty-one, she'd inherited the trust fund her father had set up for her. It was a considerable amount of money, and she hadn't touched it. Hadn't needed to. Maybe she'd just take some time off and see the world. Really see it. Not just the airports and the skating rinks and hotel rooms. She'd been all around the world, and hadn't really seen a thing.
“So, where's your shadow?” Brandi asked, interrupting her train of thought. Her velvet brown eyes swept the room as she devoured her sundae. “I'm surprised Adam allowed you to have lunch with me without tagging along.”
Kerry groaned. “My shadow…as you call him…is starting to learn he's not surgically attached to my side. I've had to point that out to him…quite emphatically, in fact.”
Brandi finished her sundae and dropped her spoon into her dish with a contented sigh. “Why is it guys always want the girls they can't have, and the ones who want them might as well be invisible?”
“Because guys are idiots, that's why.”
Poor Brandi. She'd had a crush on Adam as long as…well…as long as Kerry first got her crush on him. She remembered how the two of them would stay up all night at sleepovers, giggling about how Adam looked exactly like JFK, Jr. But Kerry had outgrown her crush years ago. Brandi never had.
Kerry glanced at her wristwatch then looked at her friend. The pretty strawberry blonde was sipping a glass of ice water and glancing about the room at the other athletes. Checking out the prospects. It was one of their favorite off-ice activities, admiring the male athletes. And why not? Lord knows the cafeteria abounded with lots of “eye candy” today. Sitting at a table in the corner were a bunch of Norwegian skiers, all of them with hair of various shades of blond. Not an ugly guy in the bunch.
Must be something in the Norwegian water, Kerry thought.
The Nordic skiers were pretending not to notice the admiring glances of the female athletes in the room, but Kerry was damn sure they were well aware of their impact. Brandi had been flirting with one of them since they'd sat down―a hunk with sapphire eyes and shoulder-length wheat-colored curls. She was a sucker for a guy with long hair and an accent.
“So, what's wrong with you, anyway?”
Brandi had finally looked away from her Norwegian and was now spearing her with a sharp gaze, a gleam of curiosity in her eyes. Kerry's heartbeat faltered, but she tried to keep her expression neutral. “Nothing. Why?”
“Oh, come on. Is it because I blabbed to that reporter you were thinking about quitting? I said I was sorry. You know how I get when I’m nervous. I talk too much.”
Kerry took a deep breath. “No, it's not that, but you do realize now I’m going to have to tell Catri and Adam before they read it in the morning papers? Thank you very much.”
Brandi blushed and looked down into her empty ice cream bowl. “Sorry,” she said miserably.
Oh, forget it. It’s something else, anyway.” Kerry hesitated a moment, then
went on. “Something strange happened last night…” She felt an odd sensation and
looked up toward the entrance, and her throat went dry.
Brandi stared at her, alarmed. “Kerry! What's wrong?”
Mikhail stood just inside the entrance to the cafeteria, his eyes fixed upon her. Kerry tried to look away, but it was impossible. Brandi followed her gaze. She caught her breath, then looked back at her. “Hey, have you been holding out on me? Is there something going on with you and that Russian?”
Kerry felt her face grow hot. “Of course not,” she said quickly, and only then did she manage to draw her gaze away from Mikhail. “I don't even know him.”
“Well, he sure looks like he knows you. Or wants to get to know you, anyway.” Brandi gave a sly grin. “He is good looking, isn't he? Except for that scar on his face. It makes him look kind of dangerous.”
Kerry glanced over at Mikhail, and was relieved to see he'd turned away and was heading to a table occupied by his countrymen. Was he still planning to defect? She felt a strange emotion wash through her, and for a moment, she couldn't identify what it was, and when she did, she shook her head in denial. Impossible! It wasn't regret. No one in her right mind would want to get involved in something like this. It would be crazy―and undoubtedly dangerous. But still…she couldn't quite banish the thought from her mind―she and Mikhail traveling together, making that long drive to Virginia. All that time…just the two of them. There would be plenty of time to get to know each other.
“But maybe 'dangerous' is too strong of a word,” Brandi chattered on. “It's more like mysterious. Like he's got a secret or something. You think that's it, Kerry? He's hiding something?”
If only you knew. Kerry attempted a smile. “You have quite an imagination, you know. You and Adam are perfect for each other.”
Brandi rolled her eyes, blushing. “Hey, I know what I saw. He walked into the room, and your face went white. There was enough electricity generated between you two to keep the lifts running all night. So, you're not going to tell me what's going on?”
Kerry pushed away her salad plate and stood. “There's nothing going on. Anyway, I have to go and work up the nerve to break the bad news to Adam and Catri at dinner tonight. Maybe if I do it in a restaurant, there won’t be a scene.”
Brandi chewed her bottom lip. “Sorry,” she mumbled again.
Kerry couldn’t stand the guilt on her friend’s face. She reached down and hugged her. “No big deal. It’s probably better I get it over with, anyway. Wish me luck.”
Kerry headed for the door. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw Mikhail's gaze following her.
It was a good thing Mikhail was adamant about leaving on the night before the free dance. Because Kerry was very much afraid that if it weren’t for Adam and Catri, and their hopes for an Olympic medal, she might very well be tempted to help him. And that, Kerry Niles, would make you a crazy woman.
* * * * *
“Jesus Christ!” Adam snarled, his eyes shooting daggers at Kerry from across the table in the elegant French restaurant. So much for not making a scene in public. Apparently, she'd been way too optimistic. “I don't believe this! You're quitting? Just when we're hitting our peak?”
Catri raised a hand, halting Adam in mid-tirade. She looked at Kerry. “You've given this a lot of thought, Kerrelyn?”
Kerry ignored Adam and fixed her eyes on her coach. His reaction to her announcement about retiring had been as expected. Over-the-top furious. “Catri, don’t tell me you're surprised at my decision,” Kerry said. “I'm twenty-eight. Surely you've been prepared for this.”
“Prepared?” Adam cut in. “How did you expect her to be prepared? I'm your partner and I'm not prepared. This is the first I've heard you mention retirement.” He glowered at her. “How can you do this to me, Kerry? We've worked so hard, and now you're quitting on me? What am I supposed to do now?”
Anger sheared through her like a California wildfire. She'd hoped they could keep this discussion civil, but this was just too much. “Why is everything about you, Adam? I made a decision regarding my life. I've been competing since I was thirteen. I've had enough. Deal with it, why don't you?”
“It's my life, too.” His eyes sparkled with anger. “We're partners! Do you even know the meaning of that?”
“Oh, yes, I know exactly what it means.” Kerry stared him down and spoke in a clipped voice, “With you, it means having a father figure hovering over me twenty-four-seven, telling me what to do, when to do it and who to do it with. In case you haven't noticed, I'm an adult, and I'm sick to death of you treating me like a half-witted child.”
Adam's mouth dropped open. He looked as if a two-ton brick had hit him upside the head. “That's what you really think? I'm just trying to look out for you!”
Kerry clenched her fists and tried not to scream. “What's it going to take to get it through your thick skull that I don't need you to look after me?”
His brows lowered. “Obviously, you do.”
“Enough!” Catri's thick Russian accent cut through their argument.
Kerry and Adam stared at her. It was unusual for their coach to raise her voice, but when she did, she meant business. Her expression was stern as she gazed from one to the other, but Kerry saw something else in her eyes―sadness. She felt a pang of remorse. It wasn't her intention to hurt her coach. She loved her like a mother.
The older woman's gaze returned to Adam, her eyes owl-like behind magnified round glasses. “Please excuse us, Adam. We will meet you in the foyer.”
His jaw tightened and his entire body stiffened in protest. “But…”
“Please.” Her tone brooked no argument.
He scowled at Kerry, then without another word, stalked out of the dining room.
Kerry stared after him dejectedly. Why was it he always managed to make her feel like pond scum? She had a right to a life, didn't she? She'd given him fourteen years of hers. It was time to move on. Why couldn't he see that?
Catri reached across the table and placed her hand on Kerry's. “Gollupchic, look at me.”
Kerry met her gaze, and immediately her throat tightened at the tenderness on her coach's lined face. “Is this what you truly want, Kerrelyn?” Catri asked. “To give it all up?”
Kerry nodded. “I'm almost thirty. I've known for a long time that an Olympic medal isn't in the cards for us. Adam can't accept that, but I can. It's time to move on.”
Catri stared at her for a long moment without speaking. Finally, she nodded. “Okay, then. What are your plans?”
Kerry thought of Mikhail and of what she wanted to do. Her cheeks grew hot. What if she told Catri the truth? Well, Catri, I want to run off with a Russian defector and get myself into a whole shitload of trouble. Oh, God! What was wrong with her? Was she going insane?
“Um…well…I haven't thought it all through yet. I'll probably just take some time off…maybe spend a few months here in Utah with my grandparents.”
Catri nodded and with a final pat on her hand, she stood, signaling that their meeting was over. Kerry got to her feet, too, her gaze anxiously searching her coach's face. The older woman looked as if she were holding back tears.
When the woman paused, Kerry moved to her and gave her a hug. “Thanks for understanding.”
Catri's arms tightened about her, holding her close. Kerry breathed in her familiar scent of lavender and Scope mouthwash, wanting to preserve this moment of closeness.
“I knew you wouldn't be around forever,” Catri murmured. “I'm happy I had you as long as I have. But I admit it will be hard to let you go. You're like the daughter I never had, Kerrelyn.”
Kerry smiled, blinking back tears. “You know I feel the same. As far as I'm concerned, you are my mother, Cattie, and that's not going to change.”
They clung to each other for a long moment, and then Catri drew back, her eyes misty. “Perhaps you will decide to coach with me, yes? You and I would make a good team.”
“Maybe. But give me a few months, okay? I just need some down time.”
Catri nodded, then brushed a kiss onto her forehead. “I do not know what I would've done without you after Vladimir died. You and Adam were my salvation during those black days.” A gentle smile brightened her face. “He would've been very proud of you, you know. It would’ve been the greatest thrill of his life to see you two skate in the Olympics. I will always be sorry that he did not.”
Kerry gave a wry grin. “Even if we don't medal?”
“Just skate your best. That is all I ask.” Catri sniffed. “Now, go. You have made me cry and my make-up is ruined. I will have to go to the ladies' room and repair it.”
Kerry gave Catri a kiss on her artificially blushed cheek. “I love you.”
“Yes, yes, of course you do. Now, go!” Blinking back tears, Catri gave her a gentle nudge toward the door. “I will be with you in a moment.” She started to move away, then paused and turned back. “Is it safe to leave you and Adam alone out there?”
Kerry grinned back at her. “Don't worry. I've got my pepper spray.”
“You have my permission to use it on him if he does not behave,” she said, a mock scowl on her face.
Kerry breathed a sigh of relief as Catri walked away. She was so glad to have this burden off her shoulders. It had been weighing her down for months.
Soon, her new life would begin.
* * * * *
Sean watched the original dance from the stands, applauding wildly when Elena and Kozlof finished their flawless performance. The predominantly American crowd could be a little more enthusiastic, he thought. But then, that was typical of Westerners. They hated the Russians. Always had, always would.
Sean slipped a thumb and his forefinger between his lips and let loose a shrill whistle. As the couple skated toward 'Kiss and Cry,' Elena glanced up in his direction, but of course, she couldn't see him. He was too damn far up in the stands. His eyes narrowed as she flattened a slim, white hand against the pale blue bodice of her skating dress. Was it his imagination or was she more out of breath than she should've been after that short dance? Christ! He wished he could convince her to stop taking TNG.
Even her daffy uncle had warned her about the possible long-term effects the drug might have on her health, especially since she was mixing it with her asthma medication. Jesus Christ, if that bloody formula did something to her female parts to prevent her from having children, he'd personally slit Anton Boiko's scrawny throat. He wished he'd never told Elena about that fucking formula. From the moment she'd heard the words “performance enhancement” she'd never let up on him until he'd convinced Boiko to revive the project. At the time, he, too, had thought it was a good idea. But now that he was seeing the effects on her―the more frequent asthma attacks, the growing pallor of her luminous skin, the weight loss―the more he was convinced it was a horrible mistake.
Let Big Dan Sullivan have the fucking formula. Sean didn't give a shit if he injected every one of his IRA cronies with the stuff, and turned them into Celtic Supermen. Not as long as Elena stopped taking it, and they could take the millions Big Dan would pay for the formula, and live out their lives in Rio. He didn’t care if the entire world, including Northern Fucking Ireland, went to hell. There was a time when fighting for a united Ireland meant everything to him. But as he grew older, his convictions had weakened as he’d realized there were more important things in life than politics. Now, working for the IRA meant pretty much one thing to him—cold, hard cash.
When Kozlof and Elena reached the portal, Mikhail placed a hand on her waist as if to help her as she stepped off the ice, and Sean felt a blaze of pure fury rip through him. It was bad enough that he had to sit and watch that bastard place his filthy hands all over her body during their performances, but did he have to touch her off the ice as well?
His jaw rigid, Sean moved out of the row to the aisle, and started down the steps. The thing that really pissed him off, though, was knowing that Elena enjoyed Kozlof’s touch. Wanted and craved it. And of course, he wanted her, too. What red-blooded male wouldn't want Elena? There was only one reason he hadn't fucked her yet. Sean knew all about these crazy athletes and how they refused to engage in sexual activities before an important competition. Kozlof was just waiting until they got their gold medal, and then he'd be all over her.
Sean smiled grimly. But that wasn't going to happen. Mikhail Kozlof would die before he touched Elena. Sean was going to make sure of that.
A warm applause went up from the audience, and Sean glanced at the scoreboard. 5.8s and 5.9s. No surprise there. Boiko and Kozlof were on their way to the gold. The presentation marks flashed up, and they were just as good. Not much room there for any of the other skaters to move up. Good, thought Sean. She'll get her gold, and then I'll get her. In a year…two, at the most, he'd have enough money saved to buy that villa in Rio, and he and Elena would settle down, have a couple of wee bairns and live the good life. And if the deal with Sullivan came through, it would happen even sooner. Of course, he had to get his hands on the formula for TNG. But that was only a matter of time. Anton Boiko was a cagey old bastard, but sooner or later, Sean would find a way to get it.
He reached the ground floor and headed toward the tunnel. A security guard stopped him, and then waved him through when Sean showed his badge. There was some kind of commotion going on in the tunnel, and it wasn't until he got closer that he realized what it was.
“Somebody get a doctor!” shouted a frantic voice.
Sean elbowed his way through the crowd, his heart hammering. A sixth sense told him Elena was at the center of the commotion.
And then he saw her. She was in Mikhail's arms, clutching her chest and gasping for breath. Fear and rage engulfed Sean, but he fought it back, knowing it wasn't the time to allow his emotions free range.
“Where's her inhaler?” Sean shouted to Mikhail. “She's supposed to have it with her all the time.”
“Here! Here it is.”
For the first time, Sean noticed Sergey Fadeyuska, an effeminate-looking middle-aged man fluttering about. Elena and Kozlof's coach. About as useful as a paraplegic at a walk-a-thon.
Sean grabbed the inhaler from the coach's trembling hand, his eyes flitting over the man in disgust. “For Christ's sake, what were you waiting for?”
He dropped to his knees beside Elena and inserted the inhaler in her mouth. She clutched at it, eyes frantic.
“Breathe in, love, nice and slow.” Sean tried to keep the panic out of his voice. His gaze darted to Mikhail. “How long has she been like this?”
“Just a minute,” he said tersely. “She collapsed right after we left Kiss and Cry.”
Elena's hands clawed at him, and Sean realized the inhaler wasn't working. He felt a thrill of panic race through him. “We need an ambulance here!” he yelled. Christ! They were all staring like cows in a field chewing their cud. “We need a fucking ambulance!”
“It's on the way,” someone responded.
Sean stared down at Elena. The horrible gasping sounds coming from her throat raised goosebumps on his skin. He realized that Mikhail had relinquished his hold on her, so Sean could take over. He gathered her up in his arms and cradled her. His eyes held hers as he spoke in a calm, reassuring voice that was in direct odds to how he felt. “Relax, love, and let the inhaler do its job. You're going to be fine.”
But either she was too panicked to listen, or the medication just wasn't working this time. Eyes wild, she clawed at Sean's shirt, still making that desperate strangling sound. Her lips were blue, and purple shadows smudged the pads beneath her eyes. Jesus Christ! She was dying right in front of him. “Bloody Christ! Where is the fucking ambulance?”
Suddenly Mikhail jumped up and headed through the crowd. “We need a doctor here now!” he shouted. “There's got to be a team doctor around somewhere. Somebody find one!”
Christ! I should've thought of that, thought Sean. Of course there would be a sports doctor somewhere in the vicinity. Moments later, an athletic-looking man appeared with a medical kit. Sean and Mikhail watched as the doctor got down on his knees and gave Elena an injection. Within seconds, her breathing began to ease. Sean closed his eyes, releasing a sigh of relief. Oh, thank the good Lord.
“You'll be all right now,” the doctor said to her. His gaze went from Sean to Mikhail, as if he were uncertain which one to address his remarks to. “She needs to get some rest. I don't think I've ever seen an asthma attack this bad before. It would probably be a good idea to have her undergo a complete physical.”
“No!” Elena gasped. “I am fine now. There is no need.”
Sean gazed down at her tenderly. To his horror, he felt absurdly close to tears. He had really thought he was going to lose her. Brushing a finger over her cheek, he smiled and spoke in English, “Ya took ten years off my life, ya did, girl.”
He felt the curious gazes of the crowd around them, and realized he wasn't playing the part of a bodyguard, but of a lover. He didn't care. He was tired of pretending he was just her employee.
Elena smiled up at him, her eyes drowsy from the drug. Then Sean saw her gaze shift, and her smile widen. “Mikhail,” she said softly in Russian. “Thank you for getting the doctor.”
Mikhail leaned down and patted her shoulder. He answered in their native language. “I'm just glad you're okay.”
Sean had lived in Estonia for almost eleven years, and he spoke Russian and Estonian fluently. He felt an icy rage sweep through him at their exchange. Mikhail. Always fucking Mikhail. Look at the way he’s gazing down at her. Like she’s his personal property or something.
Sean stared at him, and allowed the hatred to grow and boil inside him. That fucking scar. How he'd love to give him a matching one on the other side of that pretty-boy face. Maybe he would. Maybe he'd do exactly that. And maybe he wouldn't stop with the face.
Fuck the gold medal. Elena didn't need to be skating anyway, not in her frail condition. It would be better all around if she had to withdraw from the competition.
And what better excuse to have to withdraw? When your ice-dancing partner ends up dead. Sean smiled. Funny, wasn't it? How people seemed to end up dead when they got in his way. Like Liisa. For a moment, he saw her luminous blue eyes, awash with tears as she told him, yet again, that another month had passed, and she still wasn't pregnant. But even then, despite her failure to conceive his child, he would've let her live if she hadn't demanded he give up Elena. By that time, Elena was in his blood. The accident had been unfortunate, but necessary.
And now, perhaps, it was time for another one. Mikhail Kozlof, dead. That had a really nice ring to it. He'd planned to do it anyway. Why not move up the timetable by a week or two?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 3


Chapter Three

Mikhail and Elena skated their final required dance element and left “Kiss and Cry” with scores that had them leading the competition. Backstage, Mikhail turned away from her, disgusted by the smug look on her face. Couldn't she at least pretend to be modest?
He left her and started to round the corner leading to the men's dressing room, but paused when he heard an angry female voice speaking in English. Peering around the corner, he saw Kerry and Adam outside the men's dressing room, engaged in a heated conversation. Mikhail eased back out of sight, and on the pretense of adjusting the laces of his skate, he listened. Thank God Nadya had forced English lessons down his throat from the age of seven.
“I told you, Adam. It’s precious to me. It's my private time. I need it.”
Adam's voice was equally grim. “And I'm telling you it's not safe to be alone in that rink at four in the morning. Who knows what kind of lunatics could be hanging around?”
Kerry's breath exploded in a frustrated groan. “That's what the badges are for, Adam! That's why they have desk personnel there all night, so we can get in practice time whenever we need it. I hardly think one of the Olympic skaters is skulking around the rink waiting for the opportunity to slit my throat.”
“Oh, yeah?” Cutter’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “You ever heard of Nancy Kerrigan?”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Another exasperated breath. “Adam, I'm serious! You are driving me crazy. I can't take two steps without you breathing down my neck. Hey, if I wanted a bodyguard, I'd hire one.” A moment of silence, then, “Ah, jeez, Adam…don't give me that hang-dog expression.” Her voice softened, turned pleading. “Try and understand, for God's sake. Those hours from four to six are like church to me. It's my meditation time. Can't you respect that?”
Mikhail's heartbeat tripled. Here was the answer to his problem. She had to be talking about the practice rink in Park City. That's where he would find her alone.
But Adam wasn't ready to give up. “At least let me walk you over there. It's not safe to be out on the streets at that time of morning.”
“No, Adam!” Exasperation rang in her voice. In the short silence that followed, Mikhail imagined the couple face to face, eyes locked in battle. “I have pepper spray,” she said finally. “I'll be okay.”
Another strained silence followed, and then Adam said, “I just want to take care of you.”
“I know.” Kerry's voice bled sadness. “That's the problem. I haven't needed anyone to take care of me since I was twelve years old. I'm a big girl. I take care of myself.” Another pause, then, “I'll see you tomorrow morning, all right? Six o'clock. No earlier.”
Her footsteps rang in the corridor, heading toward Mikhail. He quickly untied his lace and began to loosen it. As she rounded the corner, he looked up and smiled. “I cannot bear it another second,” he said. Then added, “New skates. Do you not hate breaking them in?”
She looked momentarily startled, and then smiled. As usual, he felt that odd tug in his heart. Dear God, did she know the power of her smile? She looked prettier than ever in her street clothes―faded blue jeans, cowboy boots and a fuzzy-looking lemon-colored sweater that made her black hair, flowing freely down to her shoulders, look almost blue.
“Yeah, by the time they start feeling good, it's time for new ones.” She paused in front of him as he loosened his other skate lace and straightened to a standing position. “Congratulations. You and Elena were wonderful tonight. She's like a different skater with you. Oh, damn…” A soft blush crept over her cheekbones. “That was a horrible thing to say. I'm sorry. I just meant…”
Mikhail held back a laugh. He knew exactly what she’d meant, and he agreed with her. “You looked very good on the ice, as well.” He wasn't lying. She had looked good. She had the potential to be a skating star someday.
Her brows furrowed in a slight frown. “We suck,” she said grimly.
“Not true,” Mikhail said quickly. “You are in Olympics, yes?”
An abashed smile chased away her frown. “Well, relatively speaking. It’s obvious Adam and I have a ways to go before we're competing at your level. I know it. I just wish he did. He actually believes we can medal this year. I’m afraid he's setting himself up for a crushing disappointment.”
Mikhail decided this was a woman who wouldn't appreciate platitudes. “And you? Will you not be disappointed, as well?”
She looked him in the eyes, hesitated and then said, “Don't get me wrong. I'd
love to win a medal. But I’m not going to jump off a bridge if it’s not in the cards for me. I’m just happy to be able to do something I love. And going out there and skating my best…giving it my all…is what's important to me.” She gave a slight shrug. “I guess the fire of competition has burned out. And when that happens, that means it’s time to…” She stopped, and her cheeks filled with color. “I do talk too much, don’t I?”
He started to protest, thinking that now might be the time to ask her for her help, but then he heard voices coming from behind them. More skaters on their way to the dressing rooms. No chance to ask her now. It would have to wait until tomorrow. At least now, he knew where and when he'd find her.
“I'd better go,” he said.
She nodded, but he thought he saw something like disappointment in those incredible eyes of hers. Their blue-green color reminded him of a tropical cove off the windward side of Oahu where he'd spent a few days during last summer's exhibition tour.
She flashed him her heart-melting smile and gave a little wave. “See ya.”
He couldn't help but watch her stride off down the corridor, her long, straight hair swinging below her shoulders. She was as graceful in cowboy boots as she was in her skates.
A wave of stark fear washed over him. What if she refused to help him?
He would have to find a way to convince her.
After Kerry disappeared around the corner, he stepped into the men's dressing room and saw Adam Cutter at the sink, staring into the mirror. His brown eyes met Mikhail's in the reflection of the mirror, and then quickly looked away. But in that one moment, Mikhail recognized the torment on the American's face. And he knew the truth.
Adam Cutter was in love with his partner. And that was sure to make things more complicated for Mikhail.
* * * * *
He stood in the shadows and watched Kerry's trim figure on the ice. On her forward outside edge, she lifted herself into the air and gracefully rotated two and a half times, landing gently on the back outside edge of her opposite foot. A picture-perfect double axel. Mikhail caught his breath as she immediately went into one of the most beautiful layback spins he'd ever seen, her slender arms extended over her head, lovely hands in mesmerizing motion, reminding him of a hula dancer he'd seen in Hawaii. Her long, black ponytail whipped around as her speed picked up, becoming a black blur. Finally, the spin slowed, and she stopped, breathing heavily.
Mikhail applauded. He couldn't help it. He was so blown away by what he had seen. Startled, she stiffened, staring in his direction. Then she began to skate toward him in long, furious strokes, like a hockey player coming after the puck. As she grew closer, he saw two blooms of red on her cheekbones. His pulse jolted at the glitter of rage in her eyes.
“Is it six already?” she said, her voice cold as the ice beneath her skates.
She thought he was Cutter, he realized. He opened his mouth to correct that impression, but before he could speak, her eyes widened and she arced to a stop in front of him, spraying ice.
“Oh! I thought you were my partner.”
He stared at her, momentarily unable to think of a thing to say. She was so lovely with her face flushed from exertion, her long ponytail a bit tangled from the spin. Beads of sweat dotted her upper lip, and for a crazy moment Mikhail imagined removing them with his tongue. They would taste sweet, just like her lips. Bad time to be thinking about her lips, he reminded himself.
“You skate like singles skater,” he said. “With layback and double axel.”
The color on her face deepened, and Mikhail was quite sure it had nothing to do with her workout on the ice. Could it be that she found him as attractive as he found her?
She nodded. “I switched to dance when I was fourteen.”
Now that he was facing her, he had no idea how to broach the subject that had to be broached. He tried to smile, hoping it wasn't too strained. “You are good at both, yes?”
She shrugged, her fingers plucking at the chiffon of her skirt. “Not really. That double axel I landed was a fluke.”
Fluke. He'd never heard that term before. “This fluke. This is new word for me. I am not sure what you mean, but I think is not good.”
She smiled, and some of her nervousness seemed to drain away. “It means I don't land it that way usually. Hardly ever, as a matter-of-fact.”
He felt himself begin to relax. He still wasn't sure how he was going to convince her to help him, but for the moment he would put that at the back of his mind and follow through with what he'd wanted to do since he first saw her on the ice three weeks ago.
“Will you skate with me? Now, I mean. Right here.”
Her eyes widened, and her lips parted in a silent “o.” Before she could refuse―because he knew that was what she was about to do―he went on. “I have been watching you all week and I…” His English faltered, as it often did when he so desperately wanted to be understood. He shook his head, exasperated. “I do not know right way to say what is in here.” He tapped his forehead with an impatient finger. “You move like…so lovely. And…” He shrugged, giving up trying to explain further. “I wish to skate with you.”
Still, Kerry didn't speak. But something in her eyes told him she wanted to accept his invitation. Yet, he saw apprehension there, too. But that, he would ignore. “Excuse me. I will be right back.”
He turned without waiting for her response, and hurried through the double doors and over to the desk. A young man with sleepy eyes looked up from an issue of Rolling Stone with Britney Spears on the cover.
“Can you please play Tango Romantica?” Mikhail asked, slipping him a Canadian twenty.
The kid looked surprised, his face losing its sleepy look. “No problem.”
By the time Mikhail reached the rink again, the music had started to play. Kerry stood where he'd left her, looking bemused. He removed his skate guards and stepped onto the ice, then turned to her, his hand outstretched.
Seconds passed as she stared at him, and then her cool, slender hand was entwined with his. He wasn't sure, but he thought he felt it trembling. He placed a hand on her waist, and felt the tension emanating from her slender body. They stood still, waiting for the music to loop to the opening movement, and then began to move across the ice. She felt stiff, wooden in his arms. And then her foot tangled with his, and she was sitting on the ice. Hot color flooded her face as she scrambled to her feet.
He reached out and steadied her. “You know this dance. You have done it hundreds of times with your partner.” His gaze held hers. “Just relax and let yourself feel music.” Again, he placed his hand on her waist. “Ready?”
She nodded. He smiled at her, and as one, they began to move on the ice. Gradually, he felt the tension seep out of her body as their feet moved in perfect synchronization. She'd realized this was the compulsory dance she'd done last night with Cutter. She knew every movement, every step of it by heart. She was light in his arms, performing the elements with grace and confidence.
Mikhail danced over the ice with Kerry, his heart soaring. How could this be? He was dancing with a complete stranger, yet, he felt as if his edges had never been deeper, his curves never tighter. It was as if they'd been ice dancing together for years.
Kerry turned in his arms, and for a moment, they faced each other. She smiled up at him, her face radiant, eyes sparkling. He grinned back. Then he spun her around, and the scent of a fruity shampoo from her hair wafted over him. Then she was at his side again.
The music ended. Too soon. Much too soon. They stopped skating, but he didn't release her. She stared up at him, eyes wide, mouth slightly parted, her breathing shallow. Mikhail gazed at her, struggling with an overwhelming desire to kiss her. He saw in her eyes that she wanted it, too. How easy it would be to go with the moment. To give into the attraction crackling between them.
But no. It would complicate things. He needed her help, but he wouldn't seduce her to get it. She tilted her head, offering her lips. Inviting him. His hands moved up her arms, fastened on her shoulders and tightened.
“Kerry Niles,” he said softly. “I need your help. Please…”
Confusion crept across her face. Before she could say a word, he plowed ahead, knowing it was now or never. “I must defect from my country, and I need your help to do it.”
* * * * *
“Defect? I don’t get it. There is no more Soviet Union. What’s there to defect from? Can’t you just leave if you want to?” Kerry paced her small hotel room, one finger mindlessly twirling a strand of hair from her ponytail.
He sat on a chair at her writing desk in her hotel room, watching her silently. His second cup of black coffee sat at his elbow, fragrant and still steaming. Kerry turned and glared at him.
“Is clear you do not understand situation in my country. Yes, Communism is thing of past, but if Russian citizen is valuable athlete, is not so easy to leave. Especially if those who want you to stay have connection to Russian mob.”
“Jesus!” Kerry exploded. She whirled around and resumed her pacing. “Do you know how crazy this is? I mean, seriously. And why me? Why do you think I would help you?”
Mikhail stared at her soberly. “I do not know. I only hope you will. And yes, it is crazy.” He gave a slight shrug. “But nonetheless, it is what I must do.”
“But why? You still haven't told me why.”
“I cannot give you details. Like I said before, there is information I need to get to the American government. That is why I was told to contact you. Because your brother works for CIA.”
“He's not my brother,” she snapped. “He’s my stepbrother, and I hardly know him.”
She tugged the elastic band from her ponytail and her hair tumbled about her shoulders. Mikhail swallowed hard as a wave of desire coursed through him. Focus, he told himself. She began to pace again, tunneling her hands through her glossy black hair.
He’d gotten this far. She’d even brought him back to her room so they could talk without being interrupted by early rising skaters. That was encouraging. She hadn't told him he was a lunatic and stalked off the ice like he'd half expected. She'd listened to the brief explanation he'd rehearsed in his room―that after the death of his mother, he'd discovered some disturbing information in her papers that had to be brought to the attention of the West. And then he'd waited for her to flat out refuse. She hadn't done that. Yet.
“I just don't know,” she said now, her fingers pushing at her temples. “I don't know if Roger can help or not. He’s an odd fish.”
Mikhail took a sip of coffee and watched her move about the room. “If you can get me to him, I can convince him. I know I can. You have car, right? I understand your grandparents live nearby.”
Kerry stopped pacing and stared at him. “How do you know so much about me?”
Mikhail glanced at the floor. “There are some people in my country who make it their business to get information. Luckily, they are the good guys.” He looked up and fastened his gaze upon her. “So, you do have car, yes?”
She nodded.
“Good. So, will you help me? Take me to your step-brother?”
She stared at him, her face a mask of perplexity. “Let me get this straight. You want me to drive you all the way to Virginia so you can turn yourself in to the Americans? Why the hell can’t you just go to the nearest INS?”
Mikhail suppressed a sigh. How to make her understand? “I must go to Virginia. My contact in Tallinn has given me two names. Yours and your brotherstepbrother,” he amended. “I am not willing to trust anyone else. I have heard stories about others who have trusted INS, and they were turned away. I cannot risk that.”
Kerry stared at him. “What makes you so sure you can trust me?”
He looked at her closely. “Can’t I?”
She glanced away from him, a soft rose blush tinting her face. “Don’t be so sure. I am the Bad Girl of skating, you know. You get newspapers in Russia now, don’t you? I’m sure you read all about the big scandal that almost got me kicked out of skating.”
Something clicked in Mikhail’s brain. He remembered a scandal that had rocked the skating world three or four years ago. It had to do with a professional hockey player from Canada and an American figure skater. And it involved drug trafficking.
“You’re that American skater?”
Her jaw tightened, but she steadfastly met his gaze. “Yeah. But I was innocent. And finally, cleared.”
Mikhail nodded. “If you were guilty, you would not be here to have this conversation.”
“Right! The only thing I was guilty of was being stupid enough to trust a double-dealing, lying son-of-a-bitch jerk that…oh, let’s not go there!” Kerry plopped herself down on the foot of the bed and dropped her face into her hands.
Mikhail watched her, feeling hope rise in his chest. Was she thinking about it?
She dropped her hands to her knees and looked at him. “When were you planning on doing it?”
This time Mikhail had to look away. Here comes the tough part. “On Friday.”
Her brows furrowed. “Friday? Hey, wait a minute.” Her jaw tightened ominously. “Are you out of your freaking mind? That's the night before the free dance. You're going to defect on the night before you're due to skate for a gold medal for Russia?”
Mikhail forced himself to meet her eyes. “It must be that night. Once we win gold medal, the media of every country will be all over us. It will be impossible to slip away once we win medal.”
Kerry was staring at him as if he'd suddenly sprouted devil horns and cloven hooves. “Oh, my God,” she said softly. “I can't believe this. You're asking me to drive you to my stepbrother in Virginia, and if that's not bad enough, you're asking me to give up my Olympic dream to do it?” Her eyes glittered with anger. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Mikhail swallowed hard, taken aback by her sudden fury. She jumped up from the bed and took a step toward him, fists clenched. “You're very self-centered, aren't you? You think the world revolves around you and what you want? Hey, I told you that getting out there on the ice and skating my best was more important to me than winning medals, but that doesn't mean I'll give up my chance to win one. And yeah, you're right. We probably won't win a medal. God knows it would be a miracle if we did…especially with these biased judges we have to put up with…but damn it, Mikhail, I want my chance to go for it. And I would never do that to Adam. Do you know how much this means to him? Do you have any idea? And you expect me to throw all that away just to help you get to Virginia? You are out of your freakin' mind!”
That's when it hit him. She was right. What had he been thinking? How had he expected her to agree to such a thing? Maybe he was nuts. But now, the question was, what was he going to do? He hadn't lied to Kerry about the reason why they had to make their escape the night before the free dance. Once their competition was over, and they'd won the gold medal, there would be no peace. No chance to slip away.
He got to his feet. “You are right, Kerry. I should never have asked this of you. Is too much.”
The anger had faded from her face, and she was staring at him, eyes wide, lips slightly parted. He turned and swiftly crossed the room to the door.
“Mikhail, I would help you if I could,” she said. “But the timing sucks. I just can't do that to Adam.”
He reached the door and looked back at her. “I know. Do not worry. I will think of something. Goodnight, Kerry.”
He stepped out into the corridor and closed her door. Then he took a deep breath and released it, trying to calm his racing heart.
Now, what? he thought. For a moment there, he’d started to believe she would help him. But her loyalty to her skating partner had been the deal-breaker. Mikhail couldn’t help but admire her for that. In fact, if she’d agreed to help him at the expense of Adam’s dashed dreams, it would’ve been hard to respect her.
Still, if not for Adam…
Deep in thought, Mikhail headed for the elevator. If only there was a way to take Adam out of the equation…

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 2


Sean O'Malley took a healthy gulp of cold Guinness and eased back into the bubbling hot tub with a satisfied sigh. Who would've thought a town like Park City, and a hotel like this one, could provide a good pint? But then, money could get you pretty much anything you wanted these days. A slow grin spread across his face. He glanced over at the sleeping Rottweiler lying on the floor next to the tub. “Life is good, isn’t it, old boy?” Beowulf ignored him, lost in dreamland.
Sean was still thinking about just how good life had been lately when through the opened bathroom door, he heard the door to the suite slam, followed by the thump of angry footsteps. His grin faded. Well, money could buy almost anything. One of the things he wanted had just come into the suite, and no amount of money was going to buy her.
“Hey, love, is that you?” he called out, sitting up in the tub and reaching for his Guinness. Beowulf woke from his sleep and lifted his massive head, his ears twitching as Elena appeared at the bathroom door. The dog lowered his head and closed his eyes.
Elena’s gaze flicked over Sean with cool disdain. “Enjoying your holiday, I see,” she said in Russian.
“Damn right, love.” He tossed her an engaging smile, one that usually mellowed her out. But not this time, apparently. Her expression remained like stone, as if a sculptor had carved it from exquisite rose marble. “Hey, I was in great need of a holiday, love. Ya know how hard I've been workin'.” He purposely thickened his Belfast accent as he replied in English, knowing how it turned her on.
It didn't work this time, though. He could tell that by the wintry look in her big baby blues. Hell! What had happened at the rink? Lately, it took so little to piss her off, and once she fell into one of these foul moods, good Christ! He had to work like the devil to pull her out.
“What would you know about hard work, Sean?” Her voluptuous bottom lip took on that peculiar pouting shape that drove him crazy, and beneath the swirling water, his penis hardened. Not a good time, he reminded himself. When Elena was in one of her moods, there would be no lovin'. Not unless he could find a way to make her forget about whatever hair had crawled up her ass this time.
“Ah, love…” With a sigh, Sean stood up in the bubbling hot tub and reached for the thick, white towel on the ledge. He switched to Russian. “What's wrong, darling?” He purposely moved slowly, allowing Elena to drink her fill of his nude body. Perhaps he could still cajole her out of her nasty disposition. He rubbed the towel over the black mat of glistening hair on his chest, feeling her gaze riveted on him, but the anger still hadn't drained from her eyes. He took his time rubbing the towel over his flat stomach and down his muscular thighs. His penis was still semi-hard, and there was no doubt in his mind that Elena knew it. His body was golden from frequent visits to a tanning salon, and toned from the health club he frequented three times a week. Usually Elena showed her appreciation of the way he kept in shape for her. In fact, any ordinary time, they'd be screwing like bunnies by now. He stepped out of the tub and sighed, knowing that wasn't going to happen.
“Mikhail is what's wrong,” she snarled, and whirled away as he draped the damp towel over his lean hips.
He followed her out of the bathroom, his brow furrowed with irritation. Mikhail, again. Christ, he was getting bloody sick of hearing that man's name. Elena had opened the door of the stocked mini-bar, and was peering in as if it contained the answer to all her troubles. She grabbed a small bottle of vodka, twisted off the cap and took a healthy swallow.
Sean watched her, feeling a vague twinge of alarm. “You know you're not supposed to do that, love,” he said, consciously keeping his tone mild, non-accusing. “It's not good to mix that with the asthma medication.”
“Fuck the asthma medication!” Her eyes blazed into him defiantly. “What does it matter, anyway? Oh, God! Why is everything so difficult for me? You know how hard I work, Sean. Every day for the last nineteen years I've trained on the ice, working for an Olympic gold medal. And now that it's finally in reach, you would think everything would be lovely, wouldn't you? But no!” She lifted the bottle of vodka to her mouth again.
Sean crossed the room and grabbed it just before it reached her lips.
“No, you bastard!” she shrieked, reaching for the bottle of liquor, her eyes shooting blue fire.
He grabbed her hand and held it in an iron grip. “I'm not going to let you kill yourself, Elena,” he said quietly. “You know what Anton said. No liquor while you're taking TNG.”
“I don't care what he says,” Elena cried. “He's a cautious old fool! And I need a drink after the day I've had.”
The battle of wills stretched out for an endless moment, their eyes locked. And finally, Sean saw the resignation cross Elena's face.
“Okay,” she murmured. “You are right, darling.”
And to his shock, her eyes filled with tears. It had been a long time since he'd seen Elena cry―not since her father died of a massive heart attack over two years ago.
His hand gently cupped her jaw. “What is it, love? Talk to me.”
She shook her head, biting her lower lip. “It is Mikhail. Why does he hate me so? I try so hard to be kind to him, and he snubs me at every turn.”
Sean's jaw tensed. Again, this Estonian. He was getting bloody sick and tired of hearing the man's name. It seemed with every passing day Elena was getting more and more obsessed with him. At first, Sean hadn't been concerned. He'd figured it was just her fanatic desire to attain that fucking gold medal, and he'd humored her, and yes, supported her in reaching her goal. Christ, if not for him, she'd still be skating with that party boy, Ivan Rostropovich. When she'd bitched and moaned about how she wanted to dump him, and replace him with Mikhail, he'd taken care of the problem, hadn't he? It had been child's play to tamper with the brakes on Rostropovich's Mercedes, and then have one of his employees make sure the man spent the evening tanking up in a Kiev bar before attempting to drive himself to his mama's house.
Now, Sean was beginning to regret that little endeavor. At the time, it seemed like the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone. Elena wanted to discard her partner, and Sean wanted to discard her ex-lover. Now, though, it seemed that her new partner might be even more of a problem. Sean knew Elena, probably better than she knew herself. And there was no doubt in his mind that she wanted Mikhail sexually. It was only a matter of time before the Estonian succumbed. Good Christ, look at her! What man could resist her? But once he did give in to her, he'd have to die.
Because Elena belonged to Sean. And he wouldn't share her. He couldn't.
“What has he done now?” he asked quietly, his thumb tracing a line over Elena's porcelain cheekbone.
She drew away from his caress, a frown marring her pristine golden-brown brow. “Well, for one thing, he can't keep his mind on the training.” She sauntered over to the window and pulled back the drapes to gaze out over the village.
Sean's gaze moved down her ballerina-trim figure clad in a gray leotard and a short wisp of a skirt. He imagined stripping it off and peeling down the leotard, kissing her luscious skin as he removed it. But that wasn't going to happen. Not until he coaxed her out of this frightful mood.
She whirled around and glared at him. “You should have seen him. Flirting with this…American girl!” She spat the words as if they tasted filthy in her mouth. “It was disgusting the way he was fawning over her. Yet, he barely looks at me when he speaks. I deserve more respect than that, do I not? I am his partner. I am the reason he is here in Calgary.”
Sean could no longer hold onto his temper. “Bullshit, Elena,” he said shortly. “He is the reason why you're here. Remember who you're talking to. The guy who knows all your secrets, remember? Lie to yourself if you want, but at least have the decency to be straight with me. You know damn well if it weren't for Mikhail Kozlof, you wouldn’t be the favorite for a gold medal!”
Hot color flooded her face. “Bastard!” she hissed. “That is not true!”
Sean shrugged. “Hey, if you need to believe that, go ahead. But you know what, love? I'm thinking there's a whole other reason why Kozlof has got you so hot under the collar. You want to fuck him, don't you? You're not happy unless you have every man around panting after you. Why am I not enough for you, Elena?”
Her lips tightened. “Oh, please! Let's not start that old argument again. And you are wrong, by the way. I don't want to fuck Mikhail Kozlof. I just want him to treat me with the respect I deserve.” She began to pace back and forth in front of the window. “Who does he think he is, anyway? He is nothing but an Estonian peasant boy. He is lucky cesska allows him to skate. I―” She stopped abruptly, the color fading from her face. Her hand clutched at her chest as a horrible wheezing constricted her throat.
Sean's stomach contracted as he realized what was happening. “Where's your inhaler?”
But even as he snarled the question, he was lunging for the bag on the floor that contained her skates and all the other odds and ends she took to her training. He found the inhaler in the side pocket, and rushed to her side.
Still struggling to draw in a strangled breath, she grabbed the inhaler and stuck it in her mouth, injecting the spray of medicine into her lungs. As soon as she began to breathe easier, Sean took her into his arms, cradling her, his mouth crushed against the silk of her hair.
“Oh, Christ, it scares me so bad when that happens,” he murmured.
He knew that Elena's older brother had died of an asthma attack when she was only ten. One night old man Boiko had described the harrowing incident to him while in one of his “talkative” moods, thanks to the fifth of vodka he'd consumed. He'd been with the seventeen-year-old Yuri during the attack, and nothing, not even an inhaler, had been able to save him. Sean lived in fear that one day the inhaler wouldn't save his precious Elena either.
But this time, it had. She drew the inhaler out of her mouth and leaned into him, still somewhat breathless. But the horrible wheezing had stopped.
“Thank you,” she said softly, her face nestled against his neck.
His hand caressed a slow circle over her back. “This is madness,” he said, knowing his words would do no good, but unable to hold them back. “The skating, the drugs. You're killing yourself. You know that, don't you?”
She didn't respond, but just clung to him.
“Is the gold medal really that important?” His voice was soft, coaxing. “You and I…we could have a good life together. With all the money I've made with the pub in Tallinn and…my other enterprises…we could buy our own island in the South Pacific. Or buy a villa in Rio overlooking the ocean. Staff it with servants who'll answer to our every whim. We could have a houseful of children, Elena. A little girl who looks just like you. A son to carry on the O'Malley name. It would be a grand life, love. All you have to do is give this up, and come away with me.”
She didn't answer right away, and for a moment, a brief second, he felt hope fill his heart. Perhaps this time…
Then she drew away, just far enough to place a lingering kiss on the hollow of his throat, and he felt that glimmer of hope drain away.
“We will have that, Sean,” she said. “But not until I have my gold medal. I'm so close now. I would be a fool to give up my dream.”
Sean bristled, his arms tightening around her. “Even if it kills you? You don't know what TNG is doing to your organs. Especially since you choose to ignore your uncle's warnings, and you continue to drink on the sly. Yes, I know all about the bottles of liquor you hide where you think I can't find them. Not to mention the asthma medication. For all any of us know, the combination of the three could be lethal, yet, you continue to play with fire.”
Elena drew away from him with a sigh. “You were the one who first suggested reviving the TNG project. Why were you not so concerned with my health then?”
He stared at her. “That was before I fell in love with you. But I have changed my mind. I'm scared at what TNG may be doing to you.”
Her expression softened. “It is doing nothing to me except making me stronger.” A smile flickered about her lovely lips, and Sean recognized what it meant. She was putting her bad mood behind her.
Her gaze roved up and down his body, and her smile widened. “Have I told you, Sean O'Malley, how scrumptious you look in that skimpy towel? Maybe now would be a good time to practice on creating those brats you want.”
Her words had an instant effect upon his body. Beneath the damp towel, his cock hardened into a brick. “Only practice?” he said, his voice husky with desire. “I'm thirty-seven. Almost an old man for a father.”
She moved against him, and casually reached down to wrap her cool, slim hand around his erection. He closed his eyes as a wave of pleasure encased him. With her other hand entangled in his hair, she brought her mouth to his, nibbling and tugging at his lower lip before finally allowing him in for a deep, searching kiss.
His senses swam, and as he had so many times in the past, he gave himself up to her exquisite touch, knowing he'd lost the battle yet again. But at the moment, it just didn't matter.
* * * * *
Mikhail opened the folder the Estonian lawyer had sent him after his arrival in Utah. It was postmarked from Denver with a return address of a ski equipment manufacturer, something that wouldn't raise any eyebrows with the Soviet skating authorities if they were inclined to check incoming mail. But with the brochures of ski equipment was a slender folder containing the names and photos of several Americans who, in Immaakin's opinion, might be of help to Mikhail in his attempt to defect.
He'd met two of them this afternoon. Kerry Niles and Adam Cutter―the American ice dancers. And of the two, Kerry had definitely been the more approachable. He'd felt a distinct wave of hostility emanating from Cutter. But maybe that was simply because he'd felt threatened, thinking that Mikhail was moving in on his woman.
His thoughts turned to that woman. Kerry. There was something about her. Those unique blue-green eyes, her open, friendly expression that proclaimed she didn't take herself too seriously. And her smile. Just thinking about her smile made Mikhail feel warm all over. It was dazzling, and it made his heart…well…ache. As corny as that sounded.
He shook his head and frowned. His mind was going down the wrong road. He had to get it back on track. He flipped to another page in the folder and stared at the black and white photo of a stranger's face.
A sober-looking man with dark hair and grim eyes. Roger Ellery, Special Forces Officer with the CIA in Northern Virginia. Kerry Niles's stepbrother. That's what made Kerry so important. If he could convince her to help him get to America, they could go her stepbrother, and once with him, he would be safe.
Adam had been a possibility as well because his father was a powerful congressman in Washington DC. But as soon as Mikhail had looked into his cold brown eyes, he'd dismissed that avenue.
It would have to be Kerry.
He tunneled his hands through his hair and stared bleakly at the TV. Earlier, he'd started watching this thriller called “Fatal Attraction” about a curly-haired blonde who was trying to get a married guy to resume an affair with her by boiling his kid's pet rabbit.
And he thought he had problems. He groaned and turned away from the TV.
How could he approach Kerry? How on earth was he going to be able to get her alone long enough to convince her to help him?
He didn't know. All he knew for sure was that he had to find a way. He couldn't turn back now. He had to avenge his mother's murder. Defection was the only answer.

* * * * *
The exotic strains of a tango filled the Olympic arena as Kerry Niles and Adam Cutter performed the required elements of the Tango Romantica on the ice. The ebony-haired beauty wore flowing ice-pink chiffon, and her partner was in a black tux. Mikhail stood near the boards, watching them with a critical eye. Niles and Cutter were good, but not quite at a top championship level yet. Their timing was just a bit off, their overall skating somewhat wooden. But only a champion, a coach or a judge would see that. To someone who simply enjoyed watching ice dancing, they would look perfect, and the Canadian audience was showing their appreciation of the popular American couple. As they rounded the turn close to Mikhail, he found himself watching Kerry's face. She was smiling, but her eyes seemed strained. She knew they weren't skating their best.
Mikhail wished he were skating with her. He'd love to see that strained look disappear and be replaced by the sheer joy of moving effortlessly over the ice. It wasn't conceit that made him think he could make that happen. It was a certainty. Somehow, he knew he and Kerry would skate perfectly together.
His eyes narrowed as the couple rounded the next turn, their feet turning, gliding, moving constantly. She didn't like his touch. He didn't know how he knew that, but knew it, he did. He frowned. Again, his thoughts were taking him away from the matter at hand. Like how he was going to find the right moment to approach her.
She was never alone in the Olympic Village. That Cutter guy hovered over her like an overprotective papa. And if he happened to take a bathroom break, her coach, a woman with flaming hair and a thick Russian accent, was at Kerry's side. He hoped that wouldn't be a problem. The three of them seemed to have a good relationship. Just yesterday, he'd noticed Kerry giving her coach an enthusiastic hug. Would she be so loyal to the woman that she would refuse to help him? But then, she might refuse, anyway. Face it, he would be asking a lot of her. It wasn't like he was requesting a ride back to the hotel or borrowing a cigarette or something. He was asking her to take him to Washington DC. To get involved in an international incident that could very well destroy her skating career. And if they were caught, who knew what kind of laws she'd be accused of breaking?
The enormity of it all hit him, and he caught his breath. How could he do this? How could he expect this lovely young woman to drop everything―her career, her very life―and help him with something that didn't even concern her? It was insane! Immaakin was insane for even suggesting it.
But then, this whole situation was insane. It was insane that his father had died along with an entire village, and those deaths had been passed off as an influenza attack. And it was insane that that same drug might be poisoning the bloodstreams of Russian athletes even now. For all he knew, he'd been injected with the stuff in place of the routine vitamin shots he'd been getting every week.
That's why he had to ask for her help. That's why he had to convince her to do it. With a start, he realized the music had ended, and Kerry and Adam were skating towards the portal.
“Damn,” he muttered. There were only two couples between Niles and Cutter and he and Elena. His partner would be wondering why he wasn't backstage limbering up.
Wearing his skate guards, he strode back to the tunnel just as Kerry and Adam entered “Kiss and Cry” to wait for their scores. A moment later, the Canadian crowd made known their displeasure with hisses and boos. A low score, apparently. Mikhail wasn't surprised. The judges had most likely seen what he'd noticed. That the couple lacked that intangible chemistry that told the judges they were in sync, a partnership. And that was something no one could learn. It was either there or it wasn't. Odd, then, that he and Elena were favored to win the gold medal. God knows there wasn't an iota of chemistry between them. Maybe they were just good at faking it. Or, more likely, the dislike that simmered between them was mistaken for sexual tension. He shuddered at the thought. As if.
He strode through the tunnel crowded with skaters waiting their turn on the ice. A babble of voices in different languages echoed in the cavernous corridor. His eyes swept the area, and he saw a sleek, blond head above the crowd. He headed toward it. It disappeared as Elena did a sideways bend, stretching her torso, and then appeared again. As if sensing him, she turned, and her smoky blue eyes drilled into him. Surprise, surprise. She was angry. Wondering where he'd gotten off to, he supposed. Christ, why didn't she just put one of those dog leashes on him, like the one they'd seen on a toddler at the mall in Salt Lake City the other day. That way, she'd always know where he was. He could be at her beck and call every single moment.
He gritted his teeth. Just a few more days, and he'd be done with her forever.
“Where were you?” she snapped when he reached her. “We skate soon, you know.”
From the ice, the tango music began to play again.
“I know that, Elena,” he said quietly, trying to hold onto his temper. “I was just checking out the competition.”
“Why?” The anger faded a bit, and her full, sensuous lips quirked in something resembling a smile. “We have nothing to worry about. You know that.”
He shrugged. “Maybe not this year. But there is always the future.”
“Silly boy.” Raising a slender arm over her head, Elena did another side bend. “You'd better start stretching. We don't have much time.”
Mikhail didn't respond. He just turned his back on her, closed his eyes and began to stretch. Sometimes, the simplest thing to do was to just tune her out.