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?