“Guess what? Elena Boiko just collapsed backstage.” Brandi's eyes were wide as she relayed the news to Kerry and Adam.
They'd just stepped out of “Kiss and Cry” after getting decidedly mediocre scores from the judges for their original dance. Adam was still sulking, but at Brandi's words, his eyes lit up with hope. “You think she might withdraw from the competition?”
“Adam!” Kerry slanted him a disgusted look. “Don't be mean.”
“Hey, it's a reasonable question.”
“No.” Kerry said slowly. “A reasonable question would be…is she okay, Brandi?”
Brandi nodded. “Yeah. They say it was an asthma attack. A pretty bad one, but she's going to be fine.”
“Figures,” Adam muttered. He loped off down the corridor.
Kerry shook her head, gazing after him. “Can you say…poor loser?”
As always, Brandi jumped to Adam’s defense. “Give him a break, Kerry. He's still smarting over losing you. As a partner, I mean. You know…I was wondering. Do you think Catri would let me train as an ice dancer?”
Kerry looked at her friend in surprise. “You'd give up singles for Adam?”
A rosy blush flooded her face. “I've been thinking about it for a while. Ever since you told me you were, you know, retiring. It's stupid, isn't it?”
“Of course it's not stupid. Actually, I think it's a great idea. You and Adam would be perfect for each other.” She reached out and impulsively grasped Brandi's hand. “I mean it, Bran. I think you'd be good for him. You're stable and good-hearted. And patient. That's something I'm in short supply of. And I think you'd skate beautifully together.”
Brandi grinned. “You think so?”
“I know so. I'll mention the idea to Catri. I'll bet she'll love it.”
“Thanks. So…did you see our favorite Russian couple skate? They look pretty hard to beat, don't they?”
Kerry sighed. “They sure do. I don't know what Elena Boiko has done in the past year, but she's like a completely different person on the ice. Skating with Mikhail has really improved her performance.”
Brandi grinned, a dimple flickering near the corner of her mouth. “Oh, it's Mikhail now, is it? You know what I think? I think you have a case of the hots for him.”
Kerry felt her cheeks grow warm. She was very much afraid that Brandi had hit the proverbial nail square on the head. A case of the hots. That would explain why her temperature rose a degree or two whenever Mikhail was nearby. Even the hairs on her arms seemed to crackle and stand at attention. It was lust, pure and simple. Yep, good old-fashioned lust. Because what else could it be? She didn't even know the guy.
But she wanted to. Wanted to very badly.
Tonight, as she'd watched them skate, all she could think about was what it had felt like to dance in his arms, gliding over the ice with abandon, her heart singing at his touch. His scar had stood out starkly under the bright lights of the rink, and Kerry found herself wanting to trace the mark with a finger, then slide her hands down the smooth cords of his neck, skimming down to his muscled biceps and…
She'd had to give herself a mental cold shower, and she'd done that by looking at Elena, the human icicle. How cool and detached the Russian woman appeared as she danced with Mikhail, wearing a sequined dress of ice blue. Not an iota of emotion in those frosty blue eyes. Her Nordic blond head was just a few inches shorter than Mikhail's. Damn! They looked good together. A great looking couple. And by the way, were they a couple?
She and Adam had been waiting to be announced when Mikhail and Elena left “Kiss & Cry.” Mikhail's gaze had met hers for a few seconds, and she'd felt as if she'd jumped out of an airplane and was plummeting to earth in a free fall. What had he decided to do? Would he try to defect on his own? She caught her breath. What if he did and something horrible happened to him? Wouldn't she feel responsible for refusing to help him?
She'd had to force the thought from her mind as she skated out to center ice to take her position before the original dance. And somehow, when the music started, she pushed away all thoughts of Mikhail and concentrated on their performance.
Now, back in her hotel room, she undressed and drew on a long fleece robe, then headed for the bathroom to fill the tub. A long soak in hot bubbles would be just the thing to help her relax.
She was so glad the original dance was over. The free dance would be held in two nights, and because this was the dance where they had free rein with the music and choreography, it was always her favorite part of competition. They'd put together a compilation of different movements from Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and Kerry was fairly confident that she and Adam would put on a solid performance. But what she was really looking forward to was the exhibition skate on the night of the closing ceremonies. They were skating to Ray Charles's “It Had to Be You,” a slow, sexy dance that incorporated many unusual twists, turns and lifts―some which were illegal in competition, but always wowed the fans. She wished the World Figure Skating Association would allow skaters to use music with lyrics for competition, but although there had been talk of it for years, it didn't seem like it would ever happen. Too bad because it would open up a lot of creative doors in the sport.
Kerry turned on the faucets to fill the tub. Just as she was securing her hair in an elastic band, she thought she heard something from the bedroom. A knock at the door? She turned off the faucet and listened. It came again, louder this time. Her heart began to pound. Definitely a knock.
Mikhail! But why would it be him? She'd given him her answer, and he'd accepted it.
The knock came again, more demanding this time. She tightened the belt of her robe, moved to the door and peered through the peephole. Then sighed. Adam!
She cracked the door. “It's late, Adam,” she said, hoping he'd take the hint and go away. But he wasn't having it.
“Isss importan…” He pushed his way inside, and stood there, swaying, his eyes bloodshot, jaw slack.
He was drunk, which was unusual. Adam wasn't much of a drinker. He didn't do it often, but when he did, he couldn't handle more than a couple of beers before he was juiced. Even before that crazy year with Josh when Kerry had taken binge drinking to a new high, she'd been able to drink Adam under the table and still be able to shoot a clay pigeon from twenty-five yards away. She knew that because she'd once done it on a dare at the tender age of sixteen. Adam hadn't believed her when she'd told him her father had been an Olympic biathlon, and had taught her to shoot.
Kerry sighed and closed the door behind him. “Couldn't you at least have waited until after the competition is over before getting wasted?”
“It's over. Or as good as,” he mumbled, his reddened eyes peering at her like a pitifully abused dog. “Sorry I'm such a fuck-up. Such a loser. If it weren't for me, you'd probably win a medal.”
Oh, God. He'd gone from “the judges wouldn't know good skating if it came up and bit them in the ass” to “nothing ever works out for me.” She knew these stages well because she'd been there before. Like last year after the World Championships. And the year before after Skate America. And…she could go on and on. Jeez, it was like being with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only both personalities were just as bad.
Okay, so she'd play along. “You're not a loser, Adam.” She kept her voice low and soothing, quelling any irritation. Which was not easy. “You just need to go to bed and sleep it off. It'll be better in the morning.”
“Yeah, I am a loser,” he moaned. “I lost you, didn't I?”
Oh, no. Not that, again. She tried to hold onto her patience, even though this particular subject was getting incredibly long in the tooth. It had been twelve years since they'd been a couple. A lifetime ago. Get over it, already!
Still, she managed to speak calmly, “We were too young to get so serious. The timing was wrong, that's all.” God, how she hated lying. She'd fallen out of puppy love with Adam as quickly as she'd fallen into it. But it seemed kinder to make him think it was really only their youth that had caused the break-up.
Or maybe not.
Something in his eyes changed, grew softer, and Kerry realized she'd made a tactical error. Damned if he wasn't taking that remark as encouragement. Before she could move or say another word, he grabbed her, pressing his body against hers.
“Mebbe the timing's right now,” he garbled just before his mouth slammed down on hers, his tongue thrusting. Kerry's stomach spasmed at the gross taste of stale beer masked by a breath mint.
Damn him! He'd planned this! Apparently, he wasn't as drunk as he wanted her to think. She struggled out of his grip and gave him a hard shove. “Have you lost your mind? God!” She wiped the sleeve of her robe over her mouth in disgust.
The slack look had disappeared from his face, replaced by brooding anger. “You didn't used to be repulsed by my kisses.”
She stared at him in amazement. “What's wrong with you? I was sixteen!”
Adam ran his hands through his rumpled dark brown hair and sank onto the foot of the bed. Groaning, he dropped his head into his hands, and then looked up again, eyes wounded. “But we were so good together. Why can't you see that?”
Kerry fought against the wave of pity she felt for him, and lost. She sat down next to him, placing a consoling arm around his shoulders. “We were kids,” she said softly. “Each other's first loves. It was special, Adam, but first love doesn't usually last.”
He looked at her. “It did for me.”
Kerry stared back, at a total loss for words. What was it going to take to convince him to move on?
A tap came at the door, and she started. Oh, God. Now, what?
Adam looked at her. “You expecting someone?”
Kerry didn't bothering answering. She got up and strode to the door to look through the peephole. Her heart jolted. It was Mikhail. And like a lightning bolt, the idea came to her. It was outrageous, and totally daring, but it just might work. She took a deep breath and placed a hand over her racing heart. Oh, God, was she really going to do this? If so, it was now or never.
She opened the door and gave Mikhail a big smile. “Well! It's about time. Come in.”
One eyebrow arched in question, but he did as requested. Okay. Here goes. After he stepped inside, Kerry fastened her hands on each side of his face and said under her breath, “Play along.”
His blue eyes widened in surprise. He opened his mouth to say something, but she didn't give him the chance. She reached up and pressed her lips against his in a full-bodied kiss.
For a moment, he stood stiff with shock but then she felt the change come over him. His hands slid up her back as his warm mouth became eager and pliant on hers. Kerry's head began to spin, and the blood in her veins turned to the consistency of rich, hot syrup as she tasted Mikhail's flirting tongue.
Oh, God. Maybe this wasn't such a great idea, after all.
“What the hell is going on here?” Adam snarled, jumping to his feet.
Kerry tried to break the kiss and pull away, but Mikhail had different ideas. His hands tightened on her back, and his mouth nibbled at hers, playful and incredibly erotic at the same time. Her knees began to tremble. She felt close to fainting. Oh, wow! Not since Josh had she felt this kind of physical attraction.
“For God's sake, Kerry!” Adam's voice was growing angrier. “Do you know who this guy is?”
This time when Kerry tried to break the kiss, Mikhail released her. She drew away, her breathing erratic, eyes locked on his. He looked mildly amused, his full, sensuous lips quirked in an ironic smile. It made Kerry want to kiss him all over again.
Mikhail's gaze left hers and moved to Adam who was glaring at them with a belligerent scowl.
“Does Kerry usually kiss complete stranger?” Mikhail asked in a mocking tone.
Well, not usually. But after this, she might do it more often.
She moved closer to Mikhail, placing a proprietary hand on his muscular bicep―rock hard, she couldn't help but notice―and met Adam's indignant gaze. “We've been seeing each other for…” Her mind went blank.
“Several weeks,” Mikhail put in.
“Yes, several weeks.”
The color had ebbed from Adam's face. His hands were clenched in angry fists at his side. “But how? When have you had time?”
Mikhail's blue eyes roved over her, sending her body temperature up another notch. “We have made time, have we not, angel moy?”
She smiled, almost swooning from the sexy come hither look in his eyes and the throaty Russian endearment that had rolled off his tongue. “That's right, Adam. I didn't want to tell you before the competition because I knew it would just upset you.”
“Damn right it would upset me!” Adam's pale color had disappeared, replaced by a red tide of rage. “Are you nuts, Kerry? Getting involved with a…a…”
Mikhail looked at him, waiting for him to complete his sentence.
Adam's bravado faded. “Getting involved with someone in the middle of an Olympic year?”
Mikhail's hand moved up and down her arm, raising goose bumps under the fleece fabric of her robe. She could only imagine what her reaction would be if he actually touched skin.
“Love does not follow time table, is that not true, milaya moya?”
Love? Well, she'd been thinking more on the lines of lust, but hey, if it worked to get Adam off her back, she was all for it.
She smiled up at Mikhail, and he gave her a wink that made her heart spasm. “That's right. So…if you don't mind, Adam, Mikhail and I would like to…you know…have a little privacy.”
Adam stared at them. “I just can't believe this! Kerry, didn't you learn your lesson with Josh Mullins? You almost destroyed your career running around with that low-life hockey player!”
Kerry's mouth tightened. She opened the door. “I think you'd better go now.”
He didn't move, just stared at them.
“The lady wishes you to go,” Mikhail said quietly.
The two men eyed each other for a long, tense moment. The elevator dinged in the corridor outside and laughter erupted as some late night revelers headed to their rooms.
Adam wilted. “Okay,” he said, moving toward the door. “Ruin your life, Kerry. Because that's what you're doing, you know. And I won't always be around to rescue you.”
Kerry grimaced. “Please, Adam, don't get my hopes up by saying things like that.”
“Go ahead and joke.” Adam paused at the door and glared at her. “But I bet you won't be laughing when Catri finds out about this.” He stepped out into the hallway, and Kerry closed the door behind him.
She turned and met Mikhail's gaze. “Tattle-tailer,” she muttered.
His lips quirked. “I do not know what that means, but I think is not good.”
She grinned. “You're right. It's not.” Her smile widened. “So, we're an item, are we?”
“Item?” A questioning eyebrow rose. “What is this 'item'?”
“You know…” She felt the color rise on her cheeks as she gestured from him to herself. “You and me.”
“Oh!” He grinned, his face transforming from dangerous to delightful. “Ah, yes, seems we are.” He looked at her closely, his expression suddenly watchful. “I have question to ask you, Kerry. If I can slip away after competition, will you then help me get to Virginia?”
Seconds passed as he waited for her answer. Kerry gazed at him, her heart bumping. It was the moment of truth. Just this afternoon, sitting with Brandi in the dining room, she'd been wishing she could find a way to help Mikhail. Now, he was giving her a second opportunity to do so. And she didn't know what to do.
Then she did what she'd often done in the past fourteen years. She asked herself one simple question. What would Dad do? He'd always been a man of integrity―a gold medalist who’d turned down lucrative endorsement contracts, and instead, joined Greenpeace because he believed so strongly in ecology preservation and the protection of wildlife. Kerry knew her father would tell her to search her heart, and the right choice would be revealed. She'd already done that, and now, she just had to commit herself.
She took a deep breath, released it, and with a confidence she in no way felt, she looked Mikhail in the eye and said, “I must be nuts, but yeah, I'll help you. So…what's the plan?”
* * * * *
The man sat in a late-model dark sedan, watching the entrance to the small hotel. The motor was running, the lights off. Ten minutes ago, he'd watched the Russian figure skater enter the building.
He'd wanted to take a go at him then, but there'd been too many people around. The bar on the corner had a healthy number of people spilling out onto the street, and with the Winter Olympics going on, the village of Park City was bustling with activity, even in the early hours of the morning.
Bad news for the business at hand. But no matter. He was a patient man. The right time would come. He took a draw on his fag and released it. Smoke curled in the air around him. Yep, if he had his druthers, he'd just as soon use his Makarov. But Boss wanted it to look like an accident.
So, it would look like an accident.
He tensed, his eyes fastening on a dark figure stepping out of the hotel. It was Kozlof. Clenching his teeth around the cigarette butt in a snarl, he thrust the gearshift into first and pressed on the accelerator. The Mercedes’ wheels shrieked in protest as the car bolted forward.
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. The headlights caught the startled face of the man, the dark eyes widening in horror as the car plowed into him. The driver cackled.
Poor old sot never knew what hit him.