Lightning Crashes

Ambrose, Minnesota, September 2003

At one o’clock in the morning, the Lansings’ wedding reception was just beginning to wind down. Inola Hawkins sat at one of the tables in the hotel ballroom the new couple had rented for the occasion, watching the remaining guests mingle and dance and browse what was left of the buffet.

Her partner Maxim Reznikov sat across the table from her, statuesque and silent in his own thoughts.

That he had agreed to come with her tonight had surprised her. She knew the Lansings in passing and had wanted to congratulate them, as well as get better acquainted with other skaters at Ambrose after the long summer tour. And besides, she couldn’t resist a party. Neither could Max, for that matter—but he tended to linger only long enough to find a girl to sneak away with. Yet his behavior tonight was even more unusual than his coming to begin with.

He stayed around… and he behaved. He was always a master of smooth grace and charm, but tonight there was something different about his civilized affectations. Something more real. He had danced with a number of girls—some of whom were probably more than happy for the chance to feel him up—but he always came back to Inola’s table. He rarely spoke, but he was there, a quiet solid presence she could feel from across the table or across the room. He was that kind of man.

The proverbial strong silent type, in every way.

The dance floor was empty when the first melancholy guitar strains of "Lightning Crashes" by Live echoed from the speakers, and Inola leaned her head back with a sigh. She loved this song.

"Would you like to dance?"

She opened her eyes halfway, then widely. Maxim was standing, and bowed to her as she looked at him, extending one broad strong hand.

The night just kept getting more interesting.

With confused surprise, Inola took his hand, smoothing her short, gauzy white dress as she rose. They crossed the floor, and drawing her into a tentative embrace, Max began to lead her in a slow dance. It was nothing she recognized, but something original and spontaneous. He was a talented choreographer, on or off the ice—and even better as a partner. She could read his body perfectly, knowing exactly the way to move when she was in his hands.

He was wearing black, as usual. The skin of his clean-shaven neck against her cheek was smooth as silk, and he smelled good.

She turned her head away, suddenly wishing she had never agreed to this. He never held her this close on the ice. That was what kept her safe from herself, because even after all the warnings, even after all she had seen in him and disliked… it could still be so easy to want him. Because there was something primal about Maxim. Shadows and strength and sensuality, a dark dangerous soul that appealed to her most reckless instincts.

Animal magnetism, they called it. And she was, after all, a steel magnolia.

Oh, I feel it coming back again
Like a rolling thunder chasing the wind
Forces pulling from the center of the earth again
I can feel it

Maxim glanced down at Inola as she turned her head away, and with a sigh, he laid his cheek against her hair. He should never have done this, never even have asked. To touch her when they skated was all he had sworn to permit himself, even when she tortured him with teasing flirtations, mocking him for his self-indulgent ways. He wanted to show her it wasn’t only himself he could indulge—but he wouldn’t.

Because for the second time in his life, a woman meant too much to him.

He told himself it was because she was his partner, and the best one he’d ever had. Skating with her felt better than with anyone else, and he didn’t want to lose that; didn’t want to ruin the chances of what he could achieve for himself, with her fearlessness and beauty to match his power and grace.

But it was more than that.

To skate his best with her, he had to know her, to understand her. It was the first time in his life he had ever acquainted himself with a woman’s mind—and it was intoxicating. She was the vulnerable girl whose youth had been troubled and fatherless; the fierce performer who didn’t even blink at spectacularly dangerous ice stunts that even gave him pause. He was thrilled by the paradox, the challenge of a woman who trusted him completely to handle her body, yet trusted him not at all to handle her heart.

Her head turned again. She looked up at him, dark eyes deeper than anything he had ever seen, and in an instant all of his arrogant pretenses fell away. For the first time, a woman had mastered him, shattering his pride and breaking his will. He wanted everything from her, but knew he would have nothing—even when she made him want to be something better. Something worthy of her.

To escape the moment, without warning, he improvised something entirely new to their dance: he picked her up in an overhead lift, just as if they were on the ice. She let out a short gasp of startled but pleased laughter, her weight settling against his hands as if she belonged there. After a moment he swung her back down into his arms, not meeting her eyes, and their dance steps quickened to the rising music. He knew how much she loved the song, but for a brief moment, he let himself pretend her passion was stirred by something more.

I can feel it coming back again
Like a rolling thunder chasing the wind
Forces pulling from the center of the earth again
I can feel it

As the song came to an end, Maxim dipped Inola as gracefully as though they had just skated in front of a crowd of thousands. Her back against his knee, she looked up at him as he leaned over her, and her breath caught when she saw his eyes. The man they reflected was not the one she knew.

A burst of scattered applause from the remaining guests shattered that momentary revelation. They had drawn a crowd; all eyes were on them.

Max pulled away abruptly and stood up, lifting her to her feet, then turned to give the onlookers a courtly bow. Her skin feeling hot and her mind a little dazed, Inola curtseyed, perhaps with a bit less grace.

"A Sorta Fairytail" by Tori Amos began to play as Inola retreated from the dance floor, returning to the table where she had spent so much of the evening. From the corner of her eye, she saw Max heading for the bar, and she closed her eyes with a sigh as she sat down.

He could never love me.

At the bar, Max downed a stiff shot of vodka and glanced back toward his partner, sitting by herself. She needed no one; she was strong. Even strong enough to play by his rules, and win.

She could never trust me.

© 2003 Jordanna Morgan