Sunday Snippet: Paring Off by Elizabeth Harmon

I love stories where the heroine and hero have to overcome great obstacles to achieve their goals, both professionally and personally. I also have had a made love affair with figure skating ever since I saw Katarina Witt perform to Michael Jackson in the Olympics. I’ve had more than one mad crush on Russian figure skaters so Anton is right up my alley.

Chapter One

World Figure Skating Championships

Halifax, Nova Scotia

 

Were all Americans shameless fame whores?

Anton took one look at the reporters who swarmed outside the hotel, like pigeons around an overflowing trash can. Shaking his head, he turned back toward the harbor.

The morning air was cold on his face and sharp in his lungs as he jogged at a steady pace. The temperature wasn’t a problem. Neither was the saltwater tang in the air. Back in Moscow, it was colder. And compared to bus exhaust, a fishy smell was nothing.

At a little after 6:30, downtown Halifax was quiet, except for the crowd around the Marriott. The world usually ignored figure skating, but offer up a scandal and suddenly no one could get enough.

As scandals went, this was a good one.

It began two nights ago, when an American skating judge and the male partner from the U.S.’s top pair team were caught in bed by the judge’s husband. As if titillating details about whipped cream and handcuffs weren’t enough, within hours, reporters had connected the judge to the absurdly high scores that made the pair U.S. champions.

But justice was swift. Last night, the Americans were disqualified and stripped of their championship. This morning, Carrie Parker and Cody deWylde were going home.

Anton turned up the volume on his iPod, and his feet hit the pavement in time to the music. The song was “Blood Type” by Kino, one of his first favorite bands, and the brooding vocals matched his mood. Old music was comforting, like a favorite food. For years, Olga and Galina had tried to turn him into a lover of classical music, but loud guitars moved him in a way Tchaikovsky simply couldn’t.

He stopped at the end of the pier to admire the bridge in the distance, which resembled the big one in San Francisco. If there had been time, he would have jogged over for a closer look. But there was never time. He and Olga were due on the ice for practice in an hour.

He cut through the little park between the hotel and the casino, and took a shortcut through the parking garage. Even back here, a camera crew lurked in the dank concrete chill. It made sense. Their prey was much more likely to sneak out the back. He skirted the crew, keeping his earbuds in, though he’d turned his music off. In his running clothes and a ski cap, there was a good chance he could have slipped past unnoticed, but the reporter called to him.

He ignored her. Let her think he couldn’t hear or didn’t understand. Few Western reporters spoke Russian and many assumed the Russians spoke no English. His was very good, but he didn’t advertise the fact. Talking to the media seldom turned out well.

Last night, the Russian press had asked him and Olga to comment on the Parker and deWylde mess. “It’s very sad,” he’d said.

Olga had heaved a dramatic, pained sigh. “Yes, it is very sad. Sad that our sport is tainted by those who prefer disgusting tactics over hard work and training. Sad that some will stop at nothing to bring glory to themselves.” Cameras flashed, recorders whirred and clicked, reporters scribbled madly.

The memory made him wince. That wasn’t what he felt at all, but what could he say? That the injustice in all of this made him sick, and angry? Or that it was something much deeper, and that Carrie Parker reminded him vividly of a girl he’d met years before—a girl whose name he’d never known and whose face was now obscured through the cloud of time and his unfortunate marijuana buzz. That girl had been dark and Carrie Parker was blonde, but still…he seemed to have a thing for American women.

Just what he didn’t want to share with the media, or with Olga, his longtime partner and girlfriend.

The hotel’s lower concourse was deserted, except for one lighted conference room. Passing by, he spotted Cody deWylde holding a hand mirror as a stylist arranged his curly blond hair. The guy had a greasy, scrunched-up face and, as a skater, was vastly overrated.

With deWylde and the stylist was an older heavyset man in a dark suit talking on his mobile. The duo’s coach had publicly disassociated himself from the skaters, so this must be their manager. Anton caught something about lunch next week with someone’s “people.” Disgusted, he walked on.

Around a corner, across from the elevators, he spotted a drinking fountain. Gulping down cold water, he heard the soft chime and rolling door of an arriving elevator. He was about to step back around the corner, but stopped short at the sight of Carrie Parker.

If her partner and manager were show business flash, she was the opposite. In a light gray suit, she looked more like a young businesswoman than the scheming cheat she’d been branded. Her posture was rigid, her eyes closed and her hands were pressed together in front of her face. Was she praying? Meditating? It was impossible to tell, but he couldn’t miss the wet tracks that streaked down her cheeks.

The hot topic last night had been whether Carrie knew about her partner and the judge. Everyone assumed she did. Some even blamed her. But watching now, in his gut, he knew the truth. She’d been blindsided, and was still reeling.

His instinct was to go to her, but the one time they’d spoken, she was guarded. Wary, even. No idea why, but he doubted she’d welcome his comfort. He could respect her privacy though, and remain out of sight. After a moment, she let out a long breath, and then her high heels clicked briskly down the tile corridor. He stepped out from behind the corner as she walked away, shoulders squared, chin up. “Mne ochen jal,” he whispered. I’m sorry.

 

 

The haunting image of Carrie alone in that cold corridor stayed with him, even as he and Olga prepared to skate their long program. After a rough start, this season had been their strongest ever. Three years ago, they’d been ranked tenth in the world and just missed making the Winter Games. But if things went right tonight, they would be contenders at next year’s games in Lake Placid. A medal here would prove them ready.

But that evening, waiting to skate, he was drawn to a TV monitor, where a small crowd had gathered to watch a news clip of the American pair leaving the Marriott.

They left out the front.

There was deWylde, well-groomed and smiling as if he’d just won gold, not been sent home in shame. The manager did all the talking. But Anton couldn’t take his eyes off Carrie. As her partner preened for the cameras, she was silent, a small deposed queen who’d lost everything but her pride. Her calm dignity stood in stark contrast to the sleaze surrounding her.

When he was a kid, he’d found a little painting of flowers tossed in a garbage pile. He’d tucked it inside his coat so his friends wouldn’t see, and brought it home to his mother. As far as he knew, his sister still had it. Beautiful things deserved better.

“They say it was her idea, that she put him up to it,” said the woman beside him, a choreographer from Estonia.

“No. She didn’t,” Anton replied.

Olga had joined them, scented with the combustible sweetness of lacquered-down hair. She and the Estonian exchanged glances and rolled their eyes. “Men!” the gesture seemed to say. Then Olga took his arm. Her touch was cold and her nails dug in. “Come,” she said. “It’s almost time.”

Even as he walked away, he kept picturing Carrie Parker. She might never skate again, all because her partner couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. Sad didn’t begin to describe it.

“Anton! Listen to me!” They were in the elevator now and Galina had been talking, but he hadn’t heard a word their coach had said. He forced himself to concentrate. The Americans’ problems were not his concern. The next four minutes and twenty-seven seconds were.

The elevator opened. The chilly arena and applause for the pair that had just skated brought the familiar adrenaline rush. His heart raced and his muscles tensed, ready to perform the moves he’d spent hundreds of hours perfecting.

The French pair waited for their scores as TV cameras aimed at the kiss-and-cry area recorded every reaction. The girl wore a pasted-on smile. Her partner stared down at his hands. Anton held back a grin. Coming into tonight, Labreque and Marceau had been in third place. Now it seemed there was one less competitor to worry about.

At the gate, Galina stopped them and took both their hands. “Your time has come. Go and show the world you are champions.”

Olga skated out, waving to the crowd. But their coach held on to him a moment longer. “Make her proud, Antosha,” Galina whispered.

It was hard to hear over the crowd, but he didn’t need to. In twelve years, the ritual hadn’t changed. “I will.”

Applause thundered through the arena as they were announced. At center ice, he took his position beside Olga and waited for the music to begin.

 

Chapter Two

Four months later

 

This is it…I’m going to die.

Carrie clutched the back of the sticky vinyl seat and braced for the end. She hadn’t imagined she’d meet it speeding down a Moscow highway in a small, vomit-scented taxicab.

“Slow down!” she shouted, but it was useless. The driver spoke almost no English. She knew three words of Russian. Desperately, she tried to remember one. “Pozhalujsta! Please! Slow! Gooo sloooow!” She gestured with raised, outstretched hands.

The driver glanced back. “Chto?”

Thank God, he’d understood. “Yes! Slow!”

Instead, she was thrown back against the seat as he darted into a tiny gap between an 18-wheeler and a sinister, black Lexus SUV with tinted windows. The Lexus honked its displeasure. Wind whipped through the open windows, blowing her hair into her eyes and mouth. As they rocketed past the warehouses, office buildings and apartment blocks that lined Kashirskoe Highway, Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky blasted from the rear speakers.

When I die and they lay me to rest…”

Nice music. What was next, Death Cab for Cutie? From behind, a shadow loomed. She turned to see the Lexus bearing down.

The cabdriver saw it too. Yelling, he gestured out the window with a raised middle finger and shot back into the center lane, just missing the front bumper of a cement mixer. More horns honked. She yelped and covered her eyes. It was best not to look.

She could have waited for a legitimate cab, but her flight landed late, Customs took forever and the line at the taxi-booking desk inched forward at a glacial pace. When two German-speaking business types left the official line and gravitated toward the motley fleet of private cabs parked outside, she’d followed. The driver, a friendly guy in a faded Beatles T-shirt and Yankees cap, promised in very broken English to get her downtown by 3:00, or 15:00 as it was known here, no problem.

She should have mentioned that alive would be nice too.

She was rocked by another wild swerve, followed by more horns and Russian swear words. Then, the cab slowed. She peeked between her fingers. They were on an exit ramp. The tense knot between her shoulders relaxed, and she glanced at her watch. Two forty-five. Miraculously, she’d survived, and was right on time to meet her new coach.

A little smile tugged at her lips. For the first time in a long time, things were looking up. They parked in front of an old red brick building in an industrial area near a river. A concrete medallion of a hammer and sickle loomed above the door, but the geranium-filled urns flanking the front steps were a nice touch.

The driver turned in his seat and tugged his ragged ballcap, ready for his fare. Carrie reached into her purse, her fingers brushed against the clasp of her wallet. At the airport, they’d agreed on one hundred U.S. dollars, but that was before he’d almost killed her. She shifted her gaze from his expectant, gap-toothed smile, to the dirty windshield. The peeling dashboard. The items attached to the sun visor with rubber bands. A pencil and notepad. A packet of tissues. School photos of two little girls.

The driver pointed to the pictures and his smile grew wider. “Moi docheri.”

His daughters. The pride in his voice required no translation. This man supported a family with his beat-up, smelly taxi. She counted out five twenties, and added an extra as a tip. “Spasibo,” she said. A Southern girl always knew the words for please and thank you.

As the driver carted her bags inside, she reread Galina Borisova’s email, shaking her head in wonder. American skating had shunned her, fans had turned their backs, yet here was the official paperwork confirming that someone—a Russian coach of all people—still thought Carrie was worthy of her time.

In the rink’s lobby, she bit back disappointment. This looked more like a neighborhood hangout than an elite training facility. Why was she surprised? Galina was a minor coach who’d gotten lucky and discovered Olga Zelenskaya, one of skating’s stars in the making. After winning silver at Worlds in Halifax this spring, Olga and her partner, Anton, had no doubt left to train with a top-level coach, leaving Galina to cast her net for new skaters. That she was willing to take on the pariah of American figure skating proved how desperate she must be.

Good thing Carrie’s expectations were modest. Since no one in North America would partner with her, she’d team up with a reasonably skilled Russian leftover, and find something low-profile to fill the days—maybe a cruise ship ice show—while she figured out what to do with the rest of her life.

In one corner of the rink’s lobby were wooden benches and day lockers, in the other, a shuttered blade-sharpening counter. At the rear of the lobby was a concession stand, also closed. The faint, fried aroma that hung in the air brought a memory of corn dogs. And just like that, she was ten years old, gliding across the oval at the Sweetspire Ice Palace.

“Momma! Watch me land a toe loop!”

At the boards, Momma chuckled and shook her head. “You’re gonna crack your skull, baby girl.”

Not that it would have mattered. She would have been back on the ice the minute the bandages came off. Skating once made her so happy. Dare she hope that it might again?

She pressed her fingers against her lips. She wasn’t asking much, just to find the joy she lost somewhere between landing that first jump, winning—then losing—the U.S. Championship, and arriving at this run-down Moscow rink, hoping for a fresh start.

She wiped perspiration from her brow and took a zippered makeup pouch from her purse. Her hair was a snarled disaster, but she tugged out most of the tangles and dabbed powder on her shiny cheeks. She slicked her lips in Succulent Peach, dabbed on enough Calvin Klein to mask any trace of the Vomit Comet and straightened her travel-wrinkled linen skirt and silk top.

She glanced at the swinging doors that led to the rink and took a deep breath. Time to face the future.

She’d seen Galina Borisova at competitions, but they’d never been introduced. Galina looked to be in her fifties and her thin neck, sharp features and spiky bleached blond hair, tinted pink on the ends, brought to mind a flamingo. Her dark eyes and brows suggested neither blond nor pink were her natural shade.

“It is well to meet you. Flight was agreeable, yes?” Galina’s accent was so heavy, Carrie struggled to understand. The ancient Zamboni rumbling past on the ice didn’t help.

“Yes. Spasibo. As I said before, I want to reimburse you for the airfare. I know it was very expensive.”

Galina waved the offer away. “Money is made to be spent. I consider investment. I wish you had let me arrange pickup car.”

“Really, that’s fine. You’ve been more than generous.” The Russian coach’s willingness to pay for and arrange everything now seemed too good to be true. Didn’t Dad always say “There’s no such thing as a free lunch?” She had the feeling she’d just flown six thousand miles to see him proven right. “I’m excited to begin training. I was a big admirer of your work with Zelenskaya and Belikov.”

Galina gazed wistfully at the departing Zamboni and the glistening ice left in its wake. “Olga and Anton were once-in-lifetime pair. Every coach should have good fortune to work with skaters so talented.”

Carrie offered a sympathetic smile. Losing her longtime students must have been heartbreaking for Galina. “Well, I’m no Olga Zelenskaya, but I’ve also been quite successful.”

Galina thinned her lips. “In your way. But we all must move forward, not live in past, yes?”

She bobbed her head, as her cheeks grew warm. Just how successful she’d been was the subject of ongoing debate. From the corner of her eye, she spotted someone doing warm-up stretches on the opposite side of the rink. “Is that my new partner? Your emails didn’t provide much information.”

A tall, dark-haired man skated out. Fast and athletic, he stroked halfway around, then cut toward center ice, launching himself into a double axel. After a confident landing, he glided into the far corner and did a camel spin, rotating with perfect form, his muscular body in flawless, T-shaped alignment over the ice.

Carrie caught her breath, but it wasn’t his beautiful skating that made her heart race. “Oh. My. God.”

“Yes, this must be good news for you. Antosha!” Galina waved, beckoning him over.

Carrie grasped the rink board to ground herself in reality, shaking even more than in the cab. This couldn’t be happening. But incredibly, it was. Her new skating partner was Anton Belikov, World silver medalist…and the first man she’d ever made love to.

pairing offA scandal-plagued American figure skater’s last chance at gold means pairing up with Russia’s sexiest male skater…who happens to be the first man she ever loved.

“The Cutting Edge” with a Russian twist.

American pairs figure skater Carrie Parker’s Winter Games dreams were dashed when her philandering partner caused one of the greatest scandals in skating history. Blacklisted from competing in America, her career is over…until she receives a mysterious invitation and is reunited with the most infuriating, talented—and handsome—skater she’s ever met.

Russian champion Anton Belikov knows sacrifice. He gave up a normal life and any hope of a meaningful relationship to pursue his dream. And he’s come close—with a silver medal already under his belt, the next stop is the gold. All he needs is a partner. While he’s never forgotten the young American skater he seduced one long-ago night in Amsterdam, he never expected to see her again…never mind skate with her.

When what starts as a publicity stunt grows into something real between them, Carrie and Anton’s partnership will test their loyalties to family, country, and each other. With only a few months to train for the competition of a lifetime, can they master technique and their emotions, or will they lose their footing and fall victim to the heartaches of their pasts?

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1 Comment

  1. Elizabeth Harmon

    Thanks for including me as your Sunday Snippet and I hope you enjoyed reading Pairing Off, as much as I enjoyed writing it. Spasiba and happy reading. Elizabeth

    Reply

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