Paris, France, November 2001
With a lazy stretch, Inola Hawkins shambled down the length of the boards, looking for the right vantage point to watch the second pairs practice for the Trophee Lalique free skate.
She and her partner, Mark Brandis, had practiced earlier in the afternoon. They were skating as well as they ever had, and their prospects for a medal were at least fair. All the same… she was annoyed with Mark. He had been glued to his cellphone since they left Lake Arrowhead, jabbering to his girlfriend of six months.
Correction: six months, two weeks and three days. She hadn’t heard anything else ever since.
Not that she begrudged Mark his puppy love, but it was so… counterproductive. Ever since they had first teamed up, they had agreed on one thing: career goals before personal life. Yet now it looked like that pact was going out the window, three months before the Olympics.
She was afraid to lose him. It was a selfish feeling, but it was there.
Her eye was caught by a figure sitting halfway up the stands, huddled in a black jacket. She recognized the lone dark-haired woman as a singles skater from Israel. Hannah… something. For some reason, her interest was piqued, and she was drawn up the steps to sit down a few seats away from the brooding figure.
For a few minutes, she focused her attention on the pairs practice. At that moment, there were three teams on the ice: Canadian, Russian, and French. The first two pairs were powerful, but they couldn’t come close to the presence radiated by the French duo. The lean, handsome man and his aristocratic brunette partner were art in motion: svelte, poised and elegant.
Inola knew that very moment that she and Mark would lose to that team.
The pair was elusive and not often seen together off the ice, but Inola knew them by reputation. Francoise Delacourt was a native Parisienne; Maxim Reznikov was a transplanted Russian. Partners for a decade, they had won a place on the world championship podium for five years straight—including one world title—and this season they were still one of the teams to beat. There were all kinds of rumors about the two of them, both together and separately… but Inola’s mother had raised her too well to pay attention to idle tongues. All she knew was that Delacourt & Reznikov were breathtaking skaters.
As she watched, they performed a flawless throw triple salchow. Inola was impressed, and glanced over at the Israeli woman to see if she had the same reaction—but Hannah’s lips were pressed into a thin, hard line that expressed nothing short of bitterness. Vaguely she recalled something about Hannah having skated pairs as a teenager, but she couldn’t remember with whom.
Gathering her courage, she decided to ask. "You skated pairs, didn’t you?"
Hannah turned slowly, eyeing Inola with a guarded and somewhat wolfish gaze. At last, lifting her chin, she replied, "Yes." She glanced back toward the ice, and tilted her head. "With him."
Inola glanced back at the ice. For a brief instant she thought Hannah might have meant the man from the Russian team—but no. She could only have been indicating Max Reznikov, who had paused by the boards and bent down to adjust his skate laces.
It was not, Inola had to admit, a bad view at all.
"Wow," she murmured. "You really skated with one of the best in the world?"
Hannah’s laugh was short, abrupt, and harsh. "Maxim is nothing. He’s a beast. Surely you know what they say about him."
"I don’t listen to rumors," Inola shot back, just a little petulantly. Then she sighed. "But I have heard a few things that… weren’t nice."
The Israeli woman smiled crookedly. "They’re all true."
With a frown Inola looked back at Maxim, now performing a perfectly synchronized side-by-side camel spin with his partner. It was true, there seemed to be something about his face that was somehow… shadowed. The quick, masterful, dominating grace of his movements gave him an almost frightening air—but in a way that was exciting and alluring. She had always thought it was something he cultivated, like his exquisitely polished appearance. That he was vain, she had no doubt, but the wickedness she had heard whispered of him was difficult to believe.
"I don’t know that," she replied to Hannah. "I only know he’s an amazing skater… and if I had the chance to skate with him, I’d do it."
She was startled to hear herself say those words.
Hannah was looking at her now, and that bitter smile had softened, into something so broken and sad and strangely sympathetic that Inola’s heart skipped a beat. Shaking her head slowly, Hannah replied, "I think you’re too nice to deserve that."
Inola was at once both deeply moved and irrationally irritated. Somehow, "nice" didn’t seem very much like a compliment from Hannah’s lips, even if it was meant that way. She was clearly a strong woman, but if she thought it took that pit of bitterness inside her to make her so, then she was wrong. Inola was strong, too; but she wasn’t hard and harsh, the way Hannah was.
"I try to be nice," Inola said coolly. "But I can take care of myself—and I could handle any partner, if it was worth my while to skate with him."
Hannah’s answer was softly spoken. "I hope you never have the chance to find out."
Then, without another word, she rose and climbed the steps to the arena exit. Inola watched her go, with troubled and puzzling feelings in her heart. What had Maxim Reznikov done to deserve such wrath from so extraordinary a woman?
She glanced back toward the ice… and him.
© 2003 Jordanna Morgan