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…

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