Friday, May 13, 2011

Tango's Edge - Chapter Six


Chapter Six

The phone call jarred Kerry awake. Her gaze darted to the illuminated clock on the bedside. Three o'clock. Who on earth would be calling at such an ungodly hour?

It was Brandi's voice on the other end, and it was almost unrecognizable with panic. "It's Adam," she said, her throat choked with tears. "He was hit by a car outside the hotel."

Kerry's heart froze. "What?"

She and Mikhail had heard sirens just as he was about to leave. They'd watched the ambulance arrive, its lights flashing red on the street below. They'd commented on it, wondering what had happened. It hadn't, for a moment, occurred to her that someone she knew might be involved. Fear clawed up her throat. Oh, God. She'd been exasperated with Adam, but she'd never ever wanted to see him hurt.

"Is he okay," she asked, unaware that she was holding her breath as she waited for Brandi's response.

"He will be. Oh, Kerry!" Brandi burst into sobs. "I was so scared when I heard. I thought he'd…he'd…oh, I love him so much, and I don't care if he never loves me. I just want him to be okay."

"You said he was going to be okay. You said that, right? How badly is he injured?"

"He's in surgery. His leg…his femur I think they said…is broken in three places. They have to put it back together with pins. He's going to be in the hospital for probably a couple of months, but it'll be at least a year before he can get back on the ice. He was lucky, the doctor said. Kerry…" she paused. "It was a hit and run. Can you believe it? How could someone be that cruel? To hit him and just leave him lying there."

Kerry closed her eyes. "Oh, God. It's unbelievable." Her hand tightened on the receiver. "Does Catri know? She's going to be frantic. She can't lose Adam, too. Not after…"

"She knows. She's right here. They called her first. She says Adam's parents are in town for the Olympics, and they're trying to find them. Catri couldn't remember where they're staying."

"The Marriott," Kerry said woodenly. "I have my car. I'll go pick them up and bring them over. Which hospital is it?"

Brandi told her, and then added, "Tell them he's going to be okay. He's going to be fine."

It wasn't until Kerry hung up that she realized why Brandi's closing remark made her feel so uncomfortable. It was almost as if she were trying to convince herself it was so.

* * * * *

"Well…is he dead, then?"

Sean took a drag of his cigarette and stared at the man across the room. His name was Fagan Reilly, and he'd been working in Sean's employ since the good old days in Belfast. They still worked for the Cause, but there were times, like now, for instance, when Fagan did an extra job or two for him that had nothing to do with Ireland and the situation back home. Bloody old Fagan. Revolting man, really. The kind of man that the Prods pointed to when they talked about the filthy drunken Catholics, and how their kind stank up the city. Catholic to the core, even Sean saw they had a point. But then, Fagan served a purpose. Despite a wee bit dim in the light bulb department, he was quite adept at the wet work.

Sean grimaced as the memory of poor, plain-faced Liisa flooded over him. She hadn't been the typical Finnish beauty, that was for sure, but she'd had a good heart. He didn't like thinking about her, about how she'd died, so as always, he brushed the thought of her away. Instead, he remembered how Fagan had handled that little Ivan problem a couple of years ago. And of course, back in December, when Kozlof's mum had flapped her lips a wee bit too much, and stuck her big fat Estonian nose where it didn't belong, Fagan had taken care of her, too. Good thing Sean had an informant working at that newspaper office who'd discovered what the old bat was up to. Question was, had she managed to get any of that information about the massacre to her son? Another reason he wanted to see that bastard dead.
If Fagan was here to give him the good news, well, then, that was fine and dandy. If good old boyo Fagan here, for ten thousand dollars, gave the correct answer, everything would be coming up smelling sweet as fucking roses.

"Don't know, boss."

Sean's mouth tightened. Wrong answer. Fagan shifted uncomfortably under his piercing stare. "I hit him, Sean. Square on. He went splat on the sidewalk, and I would've finished the bugger off except that a great crowd of people came out of the bar just then. I figured it was better that I make a run for it." His thick Dublin accent rose to a whine, and Sean frowned.

"Quiet, you moron. Elena is sleeping in the next room." He took another drag from his cigarette, thinking. "You're sure you hit him? You heard Kozlof go crunch?"

Fagan grinned, revealing a mouthful of half rotted teeth. "He went crunch like a stinkbug under the heel of me boot."

Sean grimaced. Not at his words, but at the ugly mug grinning at him like a fucking Jack O' Lantern on All Hallow's Eve. Christ! You'd think a man would have more pride in himself than to go to the dogs like that. Had Fagan never heard of a bloody dentist? Or a toothbrush, for that matter. Sean shook his head. Thank the good Lord he'd been raised differently. Not like that Dublin gutter rat who didn't give a shit if his teeth were rotten or that he stank of stale Guinness and cheap fags. Ah, well. To each his own, he supposed.

"Okay, then." He reached for his money clip and peeled off twenty one hundred dollar bills. "Here."
Fagan reached out and took the bills, riffling through them quickly. He looked up, his brown eyes confused. "Uh…boss. This is only two thousand. You said ten."

Sean stared back at his employee, his lips twisting in a grim smile. "You're right, I did. I said ten thousand to kill him," he paused, his eyes drilling into Fagan Reilly. "You'll get the rest when I find out Mikhail Kozlof is dead."

* * * * *

Every surface in the hospital room was covered with greeting cards from fans, judges, coaches and other skaters. A bouquet of brightly colored balloons swayed in the air currents at the head of Adam's bed, one with Bart Simpson's grinning face that read "Get Well Soon, Butthead." When Kerry stepped into the room, wearing her own smiley face, Adam was staring out the window at the snow-capped mountains. He wasn't aware of her presence yet, and wore a curiously vulnerable expression, one that reminded Kerry of a younger, less arrogant, Adam. It brought a pang to her heart. Oh, Adam, why did things have to get so complicated between us?

Kerry cleared her throat, and when Adam turned his head, she smiled brighter. "Hey."

Surprise flashed across his face, immediately followed by a sullen expression. "You didn't have to come. I'm surprised you bothered."

Kerry sighed. "Oh, Adam. Don't be like this. Of course I'm here. You're my friend. I care about you."

His jaw tightened, and he turned back to the window. "Yeah, right. You care about me." His voice was heavy with sarcasm. "So, did you bring your Russian lover along?"

She approached his bed, biting her lower lip. How could she get past his anger? It would be so easy to just tell him the truth. Tell him there wasn't anything between her and Mikhail. But wouldn't that just give him false hope that there could ever be more than friendship between them?

She stopped at his bedside, staring at his handsome profile. He still looked like JFK, Jr. If only he'd work on his personality a little bit, he'd be a real prize for some lucky girl. A girl like Brandi.

"You're a fool, you know that, Adam?" she said. "You spend so much energy pining after me when there's a girl waiting on the sidelines just hoping and praying for something as simple as a smile from you."

He looked at her. "And who would that be?"

Kerry shook her head in amazement. "Men are so clueless."

She stared at him. He really didn't know. God, Brandi was going to kill her for this, but tough. "Brandi came as soon as she heard the news. She was here all night while you were in surgery. And even when she knew you were okay, she wouldn't go back to the hotel. Catri had to force her to go back and rest. Adam, you idiot, Brandi Vanderkleef has been in love with you since we were sixteen years old. And I don't see any sign of her ever getting over it."

Adam stared at her in utter shock. Damn, she'd been right when she called him clueless.

"Do what you want with the information," Kerry said. "But if you break her heart, Adam, so help me, I'll find a way to make you regret you were ever born."
Silence ticked by. Two high spots of color enflamed Adam's cheekbones. He glanced away from her, at a complete loss for words.

"So...where are your parents?" Kerry asked finally.

Adam shrugged, still not looking at her. "I think they went down to the cafeteria to get something to eat."

Kerry glanced at his left leg encased in a cast and suspended by pulleys attached to traction. Poor guy. Here he was laid up in the hospital, and she was berating him for not noticing a girl was in love with him. God, she was such a bitch! Why he was so crazy about her, she'd never be able to fathom.

She placed a hand on his arm. "Are you in much pain?"

He turned back to her, and gave another slight shrug. "They're keeping me well medicated."

"Do you remember anything about the accident?"

His black brows furrowed. "Just the lights of a car bearing down on me. I remember thinking about the competition. About how we wouldn't get a medal now."

Kerry nodded, trying not to allow her thoughts to show on her face. Poor Adam. Had he really believed they could medal? "I'm sorry, Adam."

He looked away, his throat working. Oh, God, please don't cry. I can't deal with that. But when he spoke, his voice was under control. "We could've done it, Kerry. I know we could've done it."

Kerry patted his arm. "Sure, we could've. Anything is possible." Yeah, and Pam Andersen is a virgin.

He looked at her, his eyes glimmering with hope. "Won't you reconsider, Kerry? Just four more years. One more try at the Olympics. You and me in Turin."

Kerry tried to remember that he was in traction in a hospital bed. It wouldn't be a good idea to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled. Instead, she contented herself with a baleful glare and spoke between gritted teeth, "In 2006, I'll be thirty-two years old, and I can guaran-fucking-tee you that if I'm on an ice rink, it will be in the capacity of a coach…or a performer in the Ice Capades. And Adam, don't take this the wrong way…I love you…I really do. As a friend. But I don't care if every bone in your body is fractured. I don't care if you're hanging on by a thread. That doesn't give you the right to try and put pressure on me about my life and my choices. Don't ask me to reconsider again. I'm quitting. I won't change my mind. Got it?"

His jaw tightened mutinously. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I forgot. It's all about you, isn't it?"

An outraged cry of frustration burst from her throat. Her hands curled into claws, and it was all she could do to stop herself from jumping on him and strangling him until he yelled for mercy.

The door opened behind her, and Catri stuck her red head inside, her mouth stretched in a bright smile. "Oh, hi, Kerrelyn. How's our patient doing?"

Well, Catri, funny you should ask. He's nano-seconds away from being murdered. She gave her coach a bright smile, absolutely certain it looked as false as it felt. "Oh, he's getting back to normal, I'd say."

"Good." Her blue eyes moved to Adam who was still glowering at Kerry. "I have a little surprise for you, milaya moya." She opened the door wider, and a stream of skaters filed into the room.

Kerry grinned. They were from various countries, and they carried all sorts of things--cards and flowers and balloons, magazines and games, anything they thought would help Adam to pass the time in the hospital. Brandi was one of the first to enter, and she handed Adam a book about mountain climbing and a package of bakery-fresh chocolate chip cookies. Kerry watched Adam's expression as he accepted her gifts. Was it just wishful thinking that he seemed to be looking at the strawberry blonde differently than he had a few days before?

There was a tap at the door, and Kerry's heart jolted at the couple that entered. Mikhail and Tanya. A dignified silver-haired man and an attractive blue-eyed brunette—Adam's parents, followed them. Mikhail's eyes swept the room and found Kerry. She caught her breath at the question mirrored there. And for the first time since she'd heard of Adam's accident, she realized that now there really was no reason to wait. She'd already told Mikhail she'd help him--as crazy as that decision was. But now that she and Adam wouldn't be skating tomorrow night that meant…

If I'm going to do it, it has to be before the free dance. We'll be under constant watch after we win the medal.

Mikhail finally looked away, his gaze settling on Adam. Tanya smiled and approached the bed, holding out a festively wrapped package. "This is for you, Adam. From Russian skating team. Mikhail picked it out."

The Russian skating team, hmmm? Kerry thought. And where would be the queen of the Russian Skating Team? Her Royal Highness, Elena the Great?

"Thanks," Adam said tightly.

Kerry glanced at Adam's parents who were watching the proceedings. Adam's mother, Barbara, had a fixed smile on her pretty face while his congressman father, Oliver, stared, lock-jawed, at the Russians with barely concealed suspicion.

Like father, like son, Kerry thought.

Adam began unwrapping the box, moving gingerly as if fearful it contained a nuclear device or something equally lethal. He glanced up at the Russians before taking off the lid, his hesitation clearly obvious. At least, it was to Kerry. Again, she felt an overwhelming desire to shake some sense into him. Couldn't he, for once in his life, be cordial to citizens of a former Communist country?

Mikhail nodded, an ironic smile flickering about his lips. "Go ahead. Is not bomb."

Kerry held back a laugh at the startled look in Adam's eyes. He removed the lid and gazed into the box.

"Is brain teaser," Mikhail said. "I found at department store in Salt Lake."

Adam picked up the water-filled globe housing a tee and a golf ball, the objective of which, Kerry assumed, was to get the ball on the tee. He turned it over in his hands, examining it while his parents looked only slightly relieved that they hadn't been blown to smithereens.

"Is popular here in West, no?" Mikhail added.

Adam glanced at him warily. "Golf or this thing?"

Mikhail looked confused at his question. "Is hard, I think." His eyes flicked over the traction. "But you, no doubt, have plenty time to devote to game."

"No shit," Adam muttered darkly, glaring down at the globe.

Kerry rolled her eyes and moved closer to the bed, pasting a smile on her lips. "Uh…Adam? Don't you have something to say to Mikhail and Tanya for being so thoughtful?"

How old was he, anyway? Five? And why did she have to play mother when his real mother was standing right here in the room?

Adam had the grace to flush. "Yeah…thanks," he mumbled. "It's a cool gift," he added grudgingly.

Mikhail's eyes met Kerry's. He smiled, and she felt her heartbeat pick up. Talk about lethal, she thought. Mikhail's smile should be licensed as a dangerous weapon.

The skaters gathered around Adam's bed and chatted for a few minutes until finally, Barbara Cutter suggested that Adam needed his rest, and one by one, they began to leave the room. Tanya and Mikhail were the first to depart.

"Yeah, I've got to get going, too," Kerry said. "I'll stop in and see how you're doing tomorrow, Adam."

And to say goodbye, she thought.

Adam gave her a brief nod and turned to Brandi who still hovered at his bedside. In addition to the book and cookies, she'd brought him an Olympic teddy bear wearing skates and it was now propped up on the pillow next to him.

"You want to stay a while, Brandi?" he asked, and then looked at his parents. "Mom and Dad have to be going, right? Maybe you can hang around and keep me company."

Her freckled face blushed scarlet as her brown eyes widened in amazement, darting from Adam to his parents. "Me?" she asked in a small voice.

"Yeah, you," Adam said gruffly. "Anybody else here named Brandi?"

Kerry grinned. Maybe Adam's head wasn't as thick as she'd supposed.

"Yeah, sure," Brandi said, eyes glowing.

Kerry gave them a wave. "Later!"

* * * * *

"Say that again," Sean spoke into the phone between gritted teeth. "And slower this time. I know I must have heard you wrong."

Fagan's Dublin accent traveled over the telephone line, and the quaver in it had nothing to do with bad reception. "I said I hit the wrong guy." He waited for a response, and when he didn't get one, his tone raised a notch. "I'm sorry, Boss. I saw him go in, and then, it looked like the same guy coming out. I just assumed…"

"You…bloody…fuck-up!" Sean kept his voice low. He glanced towards the closed bathroom door. The sound of the shower told him Elena was still in there, soaping her luscious body.

He'd just enjoyed a taste of it minutes before, and his own body was still tingling from the climax she'd brought him to up against the shower wall. Now, though, at the news on the other end of the line, he felt the pleasure seeping out of him, replaced by an icy rage.

"Okay, so who did you hit?"

Fagan's rusty sigh came across the line. "Some American skater. Christ, I don't know his bloody name. But not to worry, he's not dead."

Sean grimaced. "Christ! That's great. Just great, Fagan. You can't even do that right. You left him alive so he can identify you? What are you, a flamin' idiot? Well, if they catch you, Fagan, you're on your own. Got that? I don't know you."

There was a moment's hesitation, and then Fagan said, "What do you want me to do about Kozlof?"

Sean shook his head in amazement. "Do I have to spell it out for you, you imbecile? I want you to take him out! I want Mikhail Kozlof dead before the free dance tomorrow night, you understand?"

Sean slammed down the phone. He'd been so involved in his conversation that he hadn't realized the shower had stopped. Elena stepped out of the bathroom, clad in a thick, white terry robe. Her eyes fastened on his face in overt curiosity. "What's wrong, Sean? You're all flushed."

He managed to summon a smile. "Not a thing, love. I'm flushed because I'm still hot for you."

"Who was that on the phone?"

"Just a business associate." He crossed the room to her. Gazing down into her eyes, he worked the knot from her robe and slipped his hands inside the opening to cup the firm globes of her breasts. "Just a little problem that's being taken care of as we speak. Mmmmmm…I want you again already. Why is it I can't get enough of you, girl?"

She smiled up at him, eyes sultry. Her hands crept around his neck, playing with the hair that curled at his nape. "Good thing I don't believe in the philosophy of abstaining from sex while in training." She licked her lips, her gaze on his.

His penis had turned to granite. "Good thing for me," he murmured. "I'd go bloody mad if I couldn't have you." His mouth captured hers in a brutal kiss. She gave back as good as she got, finally breaking away to catch a breath.

Her eyes danced with excitement. "Can you believe it, Sean? One more day. Tomorrow night, I'll be wearing that gold medal around my neck. That's all I'll wear, too. Just me and my gold medal."

Even that enticing image wasn't enough to stop him from stiffening with an unreasonable anger. His hands tightened on her shoulders, but he forced himself to smile down at her.

"You know what? Why don't we just put that gold medal on the backburner for now? I've got something else in mind to occupy your thoughts."

He swept her up in his arms and strode to the bedroom. Placing her on the rumpled sheets, he grinned down into her lust-clouded eyes.

There's no gold medal in your future, love, he thought. You're just going to have to be happy with me.

* * * * *

Kerry was walking past the fourth floor waiting room on the way to the elevators when she heard her name called out by a masculine Russian voice. Her heart began to beat a tattoo in her ribcage. She turned to see Mikhail getting up from a chair.

"I was waiting for you," he said. "Do you have moment to talk?"

Kerry took a deep breath, trying not to think about how gorgeous he looked in his red Norwegian sweater and black slacks. He was especially Nordic looking today. She could imagine him posing in a calendar of Norwegian sports stars, half-naked, and bronzed from the sun, his hair golden and wind-ruffled. Oh, God. That image was definitely a mistake. Now, she'd never be able to get it out of her mind. He was standing in front of her, fully clothed, and she had him undressed down to his Jockeys. Did Russians wear Jockeys? Or nothing at all?

Her face flamed. Don't go there, dummy. She gave a furtive glance around and stepped over to him. "Yeah, but not here. There might be too many skaters lurking around."

Mikhail nodded. "There is small park across street. You feel like taking walk?"


They were silent in the elevator as it descended to the lobby floor. Kerry was exquisitely aware of Mikhail standing next to her. He was so close, she could smell the intoxicating scent of his cologne, a mix of exotic Eastern spices and sandalwood. She remembered it from the other night when they'd skated together. It reminded her of faraway lands and romantic, moonlit nights under swaying palms.

"Tough break for Adam," he said finally as the elevator reached the ground floor. "I'm sorry you will not get chance to compete tomorrow night."

Kerry shrugged, stepping through the elevator door into the lobby of the hospital. "Yeah, it's a disappointment, but hey, that's life. I'm just glad Adam wasn't hurt worse than he was."

Mikhail followed behind as she headed for the front doors. "Did they catch driver who hit him?"

"Not that I know of. But when they do, I hope to hell they lock him up and throw away the freakin' key. What a slime ball."

Mikhail gave a short laugh. "You do not mince words, do you, Kerry Niles? I like that. You say what you think."

Kerry slanted him an amused look as they stepped outside into a sunny, but cold afternoon. "Yeah, and believe me, I get into a lot of trouble for it."

She tugged down the edges of her knit cap and pulled up the fake fur around her collar as she waited for the light to change to cross the street.

They didn't speak again until they reached the small park across from the hospital. Mikhail tucked his gloved hands into the pockets of his heavy tweed coat, and stared out at a frozen pond glittering in the sunlight a few yards away. He'd pulled on a traditional Russian fur hat as they'd left the hospital, and it had transformed him into a mysterious stranger, reminding Kerry that she really knew nothing about this man. Yet, she'd agreed to help him defect from his country. Was she out of her freakin' mind?

"I grew up skating on pond like that," he said suddenly, nodding his head toward the ice. "Nadya, my former coach, discovered me when I was six years old. I was doing figure eights on pond outside my home town of Tallinn." His eyes wore a faraway look as if he were picturing it in his mind. He gave a soft chuckle. "Oh, how Nadya frightened me the first time I met her. She came to my parents' flat to take me away to Moscow to train for competitive skating."

Kerry stared at him in surprise. "At six?"

He nodded. "In Russia, training starts early for talented athletes."

"But you were just a baby! She took you away from your home, your parents?"

He looked at her, a slight smile in his eyes. "Yes. That is not unusual in my country. It was frightening, I admit. But Nadya is good woman. She had no children of her own, and she treated me like a son." He sighed, gazing off at the pond again. "I still miss her."

Kerry's heart plunged. "I'm sorry. Did she…did you lose her recently?"

"Almost two years ago." He turned back to her, saw the look of sympathy in her eyes, and smiled. "No, she is alive and well. But when Elena became my partner, she was replaced by Elena's coach. Against my will, but…" He shrugged. "…orders from Russian Figure Skating Federation cannot be ignored."

"But I thought things were different now. Didn't you have any say in the matter?" Kerry asked.

He gave her a sardonic grin. "Name has changed, but athletes are still under thumb of government. When I first started skating, my goal was to become good enough to be accepted into the Central Red Army Club. Cesska, it was known by. Only the best athletes were accepted at cesska. For every Soviet skater you saw at world competitions, there were hundreds of others not so gifted, but who yearned to someday gain admittance to cesska so they, too, would become Soviet skating stars. It was first goal on journey of Olympic medal."

"And at what age did you make it in?" Kerry asked.


"Wow," she said softly, impressed. At ten, she was skiing black diamonds with her father, but had only skated a few times for fun.

They stood in silence for a few moments, Kerry on his right. She cast a quick glance at him, her eyes sweeping over the scar on his cheekbone.

She almost asked him how he'd gotten it, but just as she opened her mouth, he spoke again. "In light of what has happened to Adam..." He didn't look at her. "Perhaps is callous of me to say such thing, but…" He turned his head, and his eyes met hers. "Do you believe in fate, Kerry?"

She didn't answer, couldn't find her voice. And she couldn't look away from his mesmerizing blue eyes.

His voice lowered to a near whisper. "Our coach is arranging for special dinner for Russian skating team tonight. Everyone will get drunk, and most of them will party into morning hours. It will be perfect time to make my escape. I will have everything ready and out of my room. I will pretend to be drunk, and will stagger out to get taxi back to hotel. That will give me a good twelve hours before anyone will think to check on me. They will just think I'm in my room sleeping off vodka. Instead, if you help me, we can be on our way to Virginia." He paused, holding her gaze. A desperate light gleamed in his eyes. "You said you would help me, Kerry? Can we not move it up now?"

Kerry swallowed hard, and then took a deep, shuddering breath. "Okay," she said.
It came out nearly inaudible. She blinked, and then tried again. "Okay, Mikhail." This time her voice rang out clear and confident. "Tonight. Tell me where you want me to pick you up."

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