Red Hot Russians # 1
By: Elizabeth Harmon
Releasing February 2, 2015
A 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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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.
He gave a polite nod, but didn’t smile. “Hello, Carrie. Welcome to Moscow.”
How could this be? He belonged with Olga, training at a top rink with a top coach. Not here, with a second-rate coach and skating with…her! She gaped and shook her head. “What are you doing here?”
His brows lifted in surprise. “You don’t keep up with news of your sport?”
Under normal circumstances yes, but these past months she’d avoided as much contact as possible with the outside world and especially the skating world. Galina crossed her arms. “Olga has teamed with Valentin Egorov. You are to be her replacement.”
She grasped the board tighter, as her out-of-control life spun into orbit. “That’s impossible.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Galina said. “You will train with me, and partner with one of world’s top male pair skaters. I cannot see how this is bad thing.”
Well gosh, for starters, she knew how he looked naked. Damn good, if memory served. Though seven years had passed since that night, this wasn’t an ideal start to a professional partnership. Even if he and Olga no longer skated together, she assumed they were still an off-ice couple. She searched his eyes for any sign of recognition. There was none. Was she relieved, or disappointed?
And how was it that Galina had simply decided to pair her with Anton, without even a tryout? Skaters were matched after weeks of evaluation, like dating before you were engaged. This felt more like a quickie Vegas wedding. She shook her head, as if that might clear her addled brain. This was ridiculous. They couldn’t possibly skate together. “We’re very different,” she began. “Olga’s delicate and artistic. I’m more of a jumper. An acrobat.”
Anton nodded. “You and Olga are different. But with right coach…and right partner, you could be champion again.”
His smile was much too attractive. Straight, perfect teeth gleamed against tawny skin dusted with the shadow of late afternoon stubble. She flashed back to that smile shining brightly in a stranger’s dim bedroom, as Anton gazed down and gently stroked her face. She crossed her arms over her chest as her cheeks burned hot and she let out a harsh laugh.
“Well, bless your heart.” The damn drawl slipped out, the way it always seemed to when she was nervous. “This is all very flattering but I’m afraid we can’t compete together. I’m an American. I’m not eligible.”
Galina spoke up. “Under international rules, you are eligible by permission to compete for us one year after date of your last competition for United States. Since you never skated at World Championship, your last competition was U.S. Nationals and this year, Russian Nationals begin exactly three days after one-year date. Our skating federation has contacted yours and both are willing to grant permission.”
Wasn’t that nice of them? Normally, a top-tier skater wouldn’t be released to compete for another country so easily. American figure skating was clearly anxious to be rid of her.
“As for citizenships,” Galina continued, “you can be both American and Russian. Becoming citizen here normally takes long time, but our government can be most accommodating when dreams of gold medals are at stake. Now then, shall we get to work?”
Carrie stared. Her hands fell to her sides. These two weren’t talking cruise ships. “Lake Placid is in less than seven months! You can’t be serious.”
But the Russians looked dead serious. Anton shrugged. “Not ideal situation, but neither of us is beginner. I am World medalist. You were U.S. champion.”
“Only because my partner slept with a judge!”
“Is that what you think?”
She gave a bitter laugh. “What difference does it make? Everyone else thinks so.” “Maybe you have something to prove, then?” His deep, exotic voice sent a shiver up her spine.
God, it was tempting. She’d been so close to her dream of competing at the Winter Games, only to see it snatched away. Here was another chance. Maybe, if she could salvage her career and restore her reputation, she could finally hold her head up. The public would forgive her. Dad would forgive her.
Was this the opportunity of a lifetime…or a disaster waiting to happen?
Just as she had skating dreams, Dad had political dreams; to win Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat this fall…then in a few years, maybe run for president. The Cody scandal had embarrassed him, and as much as it hurt that he’d done nothing to defend her publicly, she understood. His political opponents had slobbered over images of Les Parker’s cheating daughter like dogs with new bones.
Imagine how they would react to her turning Russian so she could compete in Lake Placid.
And suppose Anton suddenly remembered their night in Amsterdam? True, she’d had jet-black hair at the time, and been hidden behind those silly sunglasses she and the other Silverettes wore when they snuck out after curfew. Back then, she’d still talked like Scarlett O’Hara too. But hey, it could happen. How would he feel about skating with a girl he’d deflowered, even if it meant nothing? Nothing to him, anyway.
Besides, who was she kidding? She didn’t belong here. The Russians ruled figure skating—especially pair skating—like the popular kids ruled the school cafeteria. She’d been the queen of that lunch table in high school, and if you didn’t belong there, you didn’t try to sit down. She’d lost her seat in spectacular fashion and now the quarterback wanted to take her to prom.
This was too weird for words, and she’d had enough weird to last a lifetime.
I love stories that give a fresh take on classic themes, and feature characters and locations not often seen in romance. Give me a lovable, if less-than-perfect heroine, a gorgeous hero with a heart of gold, take them a little off the beaten path and I'm a happy girl.
I read a variety of genres-- romance to horror and just about everything in between. I am a member of Romance Writers of America. I have worked as a freelance journalist for a number of local publications and am a contributing writer to Romance Writers Report.
When I'm not writing, I love to ice skate, bike ride, hang out at the beach or on my front porch. I love vintage homes, adventurous cooking, spending time with my family and traveling.
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