Three Weeks in January

I. Electrical Storm

It was the morning of the 2003 Nationals exhibitions, and Eric was slated to practice a full run-through of his "Electrical Storm" program. A few other skaters were at the rink when he got there, including Jamie—and Malcolm, of course, was at the boards as always. Greetings were exchanged, and Eric went through his warmups, goofing off on the ice with his relative Jamie.

"Are you ready to get down to it?" Malcolm finally asked, as Eric came to the boards for a drink of water.

"Yeah, I think so." Eric dug up the music from his skate bag and handed it to his coach, who wordlessly proceeded to cue it up. At center ice Eric took his opening pose, easing into a slow upright spin as the smooth and somber melody of "Electrical Storm" began.

The sea it swells like a sore head, and the night it is aching
Two lovers lie with no sheets on their bed, and the day it is breaking
On rainy days we go swimming out, on rainy days swimming in the sound
On rainy days we go swimming out

It was an unlikely song to resonate so strongly with Eric, for reasons he didn’t quite understand himself. His attention to the words wandered; he was focused on the change of pace, sudden brisk steps leading into his quad toe loop. Today, in practice, he substituted a triple.

Car alarm won’t let you back to sleep
You’re kept awake dreaming someone else’s dream
Coffee is cold, but it’ll get you through
Compromise, that’s nothing new to you

Eric recaptured the thread of the lyrics as he leaped into a flying sit spin. He executed a pair of split flip jumps, then started into the footwork leading to a lutz/loop combo.

You’re in my mind all of the time, I know that’s not enough
Well if the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love

Eric stopped in his tracks.

He remembered suddenly, clearly, a cold winter’s day; the snow-covered ground of the park seen through the café window, as they talked of flowers and spring. He remembered her eyes when he said the first words that could begin to explain how he felt.

"You’re on my mind all the time."

That had been nearly two years ago, a simple precious memory lost in the long months of joys and doubts. Eric closed his eyes, trying to recapture the thrill and promise of that moment. When had things changed, and why? Why hadn’t it been enough?

Why did he have to be the person that he was?

Who was he anymore, after all?

It’s hot as hell, honey, in this room
Sure hope the weather will break soon
The air is heavy, heavy as a truck
We need the rain to wash away our bad luck

His concentration shattered, Eric drew a deep breath and skated toward the boards.

Well if the sky can crack, there must be some way back
To love and only love

With a fierce jab he pushed the stop button on the tape deck, and the song cut off. Malcolm was staring at him with an expression of such baffled worry as he hadn’t seen on the coach’s face in a long time. "Eric, what is it?"

For answer Eric threw the tape into his skate bag and produced instead his copy of "The Rising", which he mutely held out to the older man.

Malcolm took the tape with eyebrows raised. "I presume, then, that you don’t intend to skate to ‘Electrical Storm’ tonight."

"I can’t." Eric raised doleful eyes to his coach. "It just… reminded me of something."

"Ah. Malcolm’s gaze softened sympathetically. "I see."

"Accepting isn’t the same as understanding. I still have so many whys and what-ifs." Eric paused for a moment and took a deep breath. "Malcolm… I want to go home, after tonight. Back to Montana with my family. Just for a couple of weeks," he added hastily. "Just to get myself straightened out."

The coach’s initial surprised concern faded, again, to understanding. "I can certainly understand that. You deserve a rest." He tilted his head thoughtfully. "If you stay with your family until Improv-Ice, and come back to Ambrose after that, you should have plenty of time to be ready for the Grand Prix Final. How does that sound?"

"Like a good chance to think things through." Eric shrugged. "When you see Kay, explain to her, alright? It’s not her… it’s me. Again." He managed a weak smile. "Tell her I just went home to figure out who I am without her. But I’ll be back… soon."

 

II: Lonesome Day

Never mind that it had only been a few weeks since Eric was home for Christmas; he was happier to see his parents’ house than he had ever been in his life.

With skate bag in hand and a suitcase under his arm, Eric unlocked the front door and shouldered it open. His parents followed behind, equally luggage-laden. They had just arrived from Dallas and the 2003 U.S. Nationals, where Eric had finally placed second after two years of victory.

The placing didn’t bother him. His friend and training partner Ryan Williams had won, and deservedly. Eric had skated well, but not as well. He simply hadn’t felt it.

He wasn’t feeling much of anything right now, except drained, emotionally and physically. That was why he had come home: to rest, and to ground himself in what was real and mattered. His family was going to fuss over him, and while that was usually embarrassing, all he wanted right now was to wrap himself up in their love and let it fill his empty heart.

Almost before he could set down his baggage in the living room, his sister Evelyn was on him, hugging him tightly. "Welcome home, Big Brother! I’m sorry I couldn’t be in Dallas, but work has been crazy. I saw you on TV, though—you were wonderful."

"Thanks," Eric murmured, patting her shoulders.

Drawing back slightly, she peered into his eyes with an anxious concern that was unlike her. "Mom told me on the phone about Kay. I’m sorry. I really liked her."

"Yeah… well. Kay and I… we couldn’t have made each other happy." He gave Evy a small smile which was genuine. Of course she was disappointed; it was an unspoken law in the family that their parents wouldn’t let her marry until Eric did. Even if she had no suitors on the line right now—at least that he knew of—she was eager to see the conditions met.

"I’ve gotta get the rest of the bags out of the car," Michael Lansing’s voice came over Eric’s shoulder, and he turned. "I’ll help."

"Oh no you don’t." Evy pushed him, quite firmly, into an armchair. "You take it easy. I’ll help Dad," she said, and followed their father out into the snowy night.

Grateful for a moment to sit and do nothing, Eric slouched in the plush chair and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he found his mother sitting in the chair opposite him. At fifty, Barbara Lansing was beautiful; she was fit as an athlete, and sometimes more energetic than he was. But in this moment of quiet she looked even more beautiful, gazing at him with loving and sympathetic eyes.

"I’m glad you came home."

Eric grinned humorlessly. "Maybe I’m just hiding from the world for a little while."

"Nothing wrong with that. We all need to sometimes." Barbara fell silent with a smile, as her husband and daughter paraded noisily back through the living room and upstairs with the rest of the luggage. Then she turned to Eric again, her expression taking on a shade more concern. "I know we talked about it in Dallas, but things were so busy there. Is it really alright, Eric?"

He let out a slow sigh, and nodded. "Yes. I’ve had time to think about it, even before Nationals. I love Kay, and I always will… but our lives just wouldn’t have fit together right. That’s all. She’s still one of the best friends I’m ever going to have."

"I’m glad. She’s too nice a girl to lose completely. When you see her back in Ambrose, let her know she’ll always be welcome here."

"I will," Eric said quietly.

After a long moment of silence, Barbara asked, "Were you planning on skating tomorrow?"

"Not really." Eric sank a little deeper into his chair. "When I skate, that’s all I think about, and right now I want to think about what else there is in my life. I wasn’t going to go to the Wolf Den for a day or two."

"Oh. That’s too bad." Barbara leaned back, almost coyly, picking at a loose thread on the doily covering the arm of her chair. "You know how much the kids there all love it when you’re here—and you always look so happy when you’re skating with them."

"It does make me feel good." Eric half-smiled and shrugged. "I’m sure I’ll be seeing them all in a few days."

Another silence stretched out before his mother remarked, "Becky Woodward is going to be doing some work at the rink with the Mayers’ little girl tomorrow."

Now she sounded too innocent—disturbingly like his sister when she was scheming at her worst. Eric sat up straight, giving his mother a dubious look. "Just how do you know that, after spending the last week in Texas?"

She did a wonderful job at feigning wounded surprise. "Well, I volunteer at the Den, don’t I? I’ve gotten to talk with Becky quite a bit since she moved back here. She’s a nice girl."

"Why do I feel like George Bailey talking to his mother about Mary Hatch in It’s A Wonderful Life?"

The corners of Barbara’s eyes crinkled mischievously. "Well, not too far from it."

Once the initial shock had passed, Eric’s first impulse was to scoff at his mother’s matchmaking ideas—after seeing a relationship of two years reduced to bittersweet friendship, prospecting for a new girlfriend was the last thing on his mind. But he was given pause when he thought of Rebecca Woodward, the show skater turned choreographer whom he had met at the local Christmas exhibition… had it only been a few short weeks before?

Becky was a small, cheery young woman with long reddish-brown hair and warm green eyes. A local girl, she had confessed to a childhood crush on him. In their short working acquaintance, he had found her to be uncomplicated, gregarious and perky—and nothing like Kay at all.

Perhaps that was just what he needed.

Sitting up straighter, Eric drew his heels up onto the edge of the chair and clasped his arms over his knees. "So what do you think of her?"

His mother smiled. "I think Becky is a girl who’s going to make some young man very happy someday, and be everything he needs."

"Lucky guy," Eric remarked, with the faintest edge in his voice. Two years wasn’t something he could just cast over his shoulder—and even if he could, it seemed somehow disloyal. He wanted to see Kay share her life with someone, even if it couldn’t be him; he didn’t want her to be alone. And he didn’t want to be alone… but he would rather have been, if it would hurt Kay to see him with someone else.

"I’ll tell you a secret."

His mother’s voice stirred him from his lonely contemplations, and he glanced up at her. She was smiling, not mischievously, but with sincerity and warmth.

"I remember when you were ten years old," Barbara began, "not long before you moved to Minnesota with Malcolm. Every day when I came to pick you up after practice, there was a little girl with a long red ponytail waiting for group lessons, and she’d peek out of the girls’ locker room just to watch you walk by. I thought she might faint if you so much as looked at her." She chuckled, then sobered slightly. "You never noticed her, but Becky was your very first fan."

Eric felt himself blush as his mother spoke, and afterward, he sat in silence for a long moment. Finally, he uncoiled himself from the chair and stood up.

"I think I’m going to go to bed."

Barbara gaped. "Already? It’s only nine o’clock!"

"Yeah." Eric smiled gently. "But I need the rest. After all... I’m going skating tomorrow."

 

3. Save Tonight

Eric slept late the next morning, and woke feeling more lively than he had in several days. His up-before-the-sun mother had made a tremendous breakfast, which he surprised himself by making short work of. Afterward, he headed for the rink.

On weekdays the Wolf Den was never busy until later in the afternoon, when children got out of school and started coming to practice or just play. Old Man Gorey, who had worked there since well before Eric’s first day on the ice, murmured a drowsy and entirely unsurprised hello from behind the front desk as Eric walked by. His regular donations of money, time and publicity had earned him as much free ice time as he wanted, and with a small wave to the ancient clerk, he went straight to the rink.

He wasn’t sure anyone would be there, but he recognized Rebecca Woodward right away. She was at the opposite end of the rink, demonstrating a step sequence to a little girl of about ten—Kristy Mayer, one of the young luminaries of the Christmas show the month before. For a long moment Eric stood just inside the entrance, watching Rebecca’s light, delicate footwork and beautiful edges. Becky was old-school; she had those wonderful qualities which came with extensive knowledge of figures.

She did have that in common with Kay.

Shaking his head, Eric silently walked over to the bench and sat down to put on his skates. Rebecca was absorbed in her choreography session, praising her young charge and making intermittent suggestions or corrections, and he continued to watch them for several minutes after lacing up his skates.

At length Rebecca stepped off the ice, cued up some classical music, and had Kristy run through the full short program. Eric liked what he saw in Rebecca’s choreography. It was elegant and powerful, almost like Malcolm’s; Eric wondered if she was a fan of his as well. At last Kristy finished with a layback spin, and Eric chose to make his presence known, leaning forward to applaud.

Both of the girls gave a start, and amusingly, the eyes of both grew very wide when they saw him. "Mister Lansing?" Rebecca queried in amazement.

Eric grinned and climbed over the boards. "Eric," he corrected, as he had on Christmas, and smiled down at Kristy. "Your lutz is looking even better than it was at the show last month."

"Thank you," the little girl almost whispered. Even if he came from your own small town, it wasn’t every day that an Olympic champion just waltzed into your rink unannounced and paid you a compliment.

Abruptly Rebecca glanced at her wristwatch. "Oh, Kristy, I’m sorry honey. You’re going to have to go now if you’re going to make it back to school before class starts."

The child’s face fell. "Oh. Yeah." Then to Eric, "Will you be here later?"

He nodded. "I’m going to be in town for a little bit, so you’ll be seeing me around. I promise."

Kristy’s eyes went big again, and she left the ice smiling. Eric knew then that it was going to be a long day. His presence in town wasn’t going to be a secret for long, and in a few hours the rink would be full of kids eager to see him.

But that was later.

Rebecca was looking at him with badly concealed curiosity. Eric bided his time, watching Kristy gather her things and leave, then turned casually to the choreographer. "She’s great. I didn’t think I’d see any kids her age here at this hour."

"Kristy walks over from school almost every day to skate during her lunch break. She’s really got the work ethic to make it big." Rebecca shrugged and smiled, a little awkwardly. "Hello."

"Hello," Eric laughed. "Sorry for the surprise. I haven’t been planning ahead much lately."

"Gotta admit I’m kind of shocked." Becky leaned on the boards. "Taking a vacation after Nationals? You were fantastic there. I thought you deserved much better."

"Not this year. Anyway, it’s more of an escape than a vacation. I’m a little run-down. I guess mid-season is a bad time to look for a fresh start, but there it is."

"I don’t know how you keep the jet lag off. I heard you even went to British Nationals right before Dallas." Becky paused. "How did your girlfriend skate? I heard she won."

"She was great." Eric glanced down at the ice, discomfort setting in suddenly. "The fact is, um… Kay and I… we’re not together anymore."

Rebecca gaped. "Oh my gosh, why? I thought… well, never mind what I thought. I’m sorry, if you don’t want to talk about it…"

"No, it’s okay." Eric shrugged. "We wanted to be right for each other, but we weren’t. It’s as simple as that. We saw it coming for a little while, so I was ready for it… mostly."

"I’m sorry." Becky’s eyes were sympathetic. "No wonder you wanted to leave everything behind for a while. How long are you staying?"

"Until I take off for Improv-Ice at the beginning of February. Then I’ll go back to Ambrose and work on getting ready for the GPF and Worlds." Eric sighed. "Being here, watching the kids, skating with them… that’ll remind me why I love to skate."

"I know how you feel. When I was doing shows, sometimes it got so hard doing the same thing every day for months. Then I came back here and saw girls like Kristy, and somehow it made everything fresh and new again."

Eric smiled at her. "I think it’s started for me already."

Becky blushed, and began fumbling for her skate guards. "Well, you probably want some ice time…"

"I can share. In fact, I think I’d like to." Gently he placed his hand over the guards in her grasp. "Listen. I wondered… if you’d like to have dinner tonight."

Her blush dissolved into a stunned pallor, and she stared at him for a moment, her mouth practically agape.

"Do you mean… a… a date?"

"I mean… dinner." Eric shrugged ruefully. "I’d like to know you better. I can’t really think any further than that right now… but let’s just say I’ve got an open mind."

"Oh, wow…" Rebecca let out a deep breath. "I mean, yes. I would love to have dinner with you, Eric."

"Great." He glanced toward the doors of the rink. "As soon as Kristy spills the beans, I’m going to be hip-deep in grade-schoolers, so I guess I’ll be here for a while. Should we say eight?"

"Let’s say whenever we’re done here." Becky smiled. "I think I’ll stick around, if you don’t mind."

Eric smiled.

 

IV. Everything You Want

As Eric had predicted, he drew a crowd at the rink. It was almost nine o’clock by the time he and Rebecca were able to make a graceful exit, bound for a local Italian restaurant that was modest, but comfortable and extremely good. After ordering, they sat for a few moments in tentative silence.

"So tell me about yourself," Eric finally began.

Rebecca smiled and blushed. "What is there to tell? My older sister Nancy married a schoolteacher named Joel, and they have a wonderful little girl named Emily. My parents still live down the street from yours, in the house I grew up in. I fell in love with skating, but competition was a little too much excitement for me—I just wanted to perform. So I did shows, here in the States, and sometimes in Canada. New York Ice Theater, the Nutcracker On Ice… Disney On Ice…" She chuckled. "Finally, I just felt like I wanted to come home. I was really drawn to the art of making programs, so I decided to try choreography. That’s how I got the job with the Christmas gala."

"I think that’s a pretty good rundown of your family and career." Eric smiled. "Actually, I wanted to hear more about you."

"Oh, but that’s even more boring." Becky shrugged. "I’m on the ice most of the day. When I’m not, I like to do the usual things—you know, read, browse the computer, take walks in the park. I do a lot of volunteer work, and I love spending time with my niece." She sighed. "What else… I like to make things. I love music. I really like Celine Dion… except ‘Beauty and the Beast’. When I was with Disney On Ice, I played Belle for two years!" She laughed.

Eric laughed as well. "You look the part." It was an honest observation, but it made her redden slightly. If there was one thing they had in common, it was a distinctive habit of blushing.

"So what about you?" she finally asked, playing with the empty wrapper to her drinking straw.

"Aw, c’mon. Everybody knows everything about me."

"I don’t. Really. Tell me."

Heaving a thoughtful sigh, Eric shrugged. "I live alone with my cat in an apartment back in Ambrose. I like playing billiards and swimming, because of my dad and mom, respectively. I love music too. I want to take up coaching when my skating years are over, and part of that is because of my own coach. Malcolm is my best friend and favorite role model."

"I thought he would be," Becky said pensively. "After all… you followed him away from home when you were just a kid."

"It wasn’t easy. I was scared to death and homesick for a month. But being named the head coach of a rink like Ambrose was too good for him to pass up—and working with a man like him was too good for me to pass up." He paused. "Ambrose is just as much home to me now as Wolf Creek. I’m pretty much settled down for good there. I love this town, but noplace in the world would have the kind of opportunities for me that Ambrose does."

"I can believe that! I can’t get over how many top skaters you train with—I’m sure Mister Redgrave must deserve a lot of the credit for that. Isn’t he coaching four new national champions?"

"Yeah. Ryan Williams, Simon Westbrook, Hiroshi Kitamura… and Kay." He abruptly dropped his gaze, poking with his straw at the ice in his water glass.

After a moment, Becky asked, "So tell me more about your idea of settling down."

This was a subject Eric could easily warm to. He looked up with a smile.

"I guess you’d call it the American Dream. I want a family—the wife, the kids, the dog, and a nice house to make into a home. I considered starting on the ‘house’ part before… but I didn’t want to live by myself in anyplace bigger than my apartment."

"I’ve spent the last several years in apartments, if not hotel rooms. Right now I’ve moved back in with my parents. I really ought to find a place, but… I guess I don’t feel much like being alone, either." Rebecca shrugged. "What you’re describing sounds wonderful."

"It’s probably just a fantasy." Eric shook his head. "I know there’s no perfect little family, like you see on those old sitcoms. Growing up with my sister taught me that!" He chuckled, but then sobered. "I just can’t help feeling like I want more than I deserve… or maybe more than I can take. Maybe Kay saw past all my starry-eyed dreams, and knew what I’m really setting myself up for."

"Don’t say that." Becky reached out, gently placing a hand on his arm. "Just thinking about raising a family would scare anybody—you wouldn’t believe how many times I had to hand-hold Nancy over the phone at midnight while she was pregnant. But now she’s just as happy as could be. Anyway, I think life isn’t about having everything perfect, but trying to make it perfect."

"It’s not the destination, it’s the journey?" Eric quoted wryly.

She smiled. "Something like that. Anyway, I know what it is to want kids—Emily is one of the biggest joys in my life, and I see how much she adds to Nancy and Joel’s lives. I want that for myself, too."

"Yeah." Eric rested his chin on his hands. "Well… someday. Right now I don’t even know what I’m going to do next season. I felt a lot more optimistic about going pro before I lost my national title… I wanted to go out as the U.S. champion." He sighed. "I can’t say there’s not a temptation to stay in the game long enough to get that title back. But one thing I know I’m not doing is another Olympics—I couldn’t top Salt Lake in a hundred years."

"Well, whatever you do," Becky said warmly, "you can count on me to cheer for you."

 

V. As Long As You Love Me

 "Rise and shine, Big Brother!"

Eric awoke with a start to the sound of his bedroom door banging open, as his sister barged into the room. The breakfast tray in Evelyn’s hands made him doubt whether he wasn’t still asleep and dreaming.

"What time is it?" Squinting in the bright morning light, hair wildly dissheveled, Eric sat up and pulled the edge of the covers against his bare chest. He peered at the bedside clock; it was close to ten.

"Somebody had a long night," Evy remarked with a smirk, planting the heavy tray on his blanket-clad lap.

"Sorta." Eric hadn’t woken up enough to notice her tone of voice. "I guess I did get back pretty late last night. I had a nice time."

"Uh-huh…"

This time he was too busy finding the fork on the tray to listen to her. He’d begun to realize he was hungry, and the breakfast she had miraculously dropped in front of him looked and smelled delicious. Finding the errant utensil under a napkin, he started to dig into the eggs and sausage; it was wonderful. It was also, he realized after a few bites, definitely not their mother’s cooking.

"Who made this?" He gave Evelyn a suspicious stare. "Did you make this?"

Evy rolled her eyes. "You know I can’t boil water without burning it. Your new girlfriend brought this."

Eric stared fuzzily at her. "Who?"

"Becky, ya big dope. She dropped it off here before going to the rink—said she would’ve stayed, but she had an appointment. Just what were you two up to last night?"

"Oh, get outta here!" Thoroughly confused and slightly annoyed, Eric grabbed a spare pillow and aimed for Evy’s head, but long practice at sassiness had taught her when to duck. She laughed as she dodged out of his room, leaving him alone with his intriguing breakfast-in-bed.

He’d received stranger gifts, but not many.

 

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Eric took time enough to somewhat hurriedly enjoy the meal, then got dressed and set out for the rink. Rebecca Woodward was alone on the ice, apparently choreographing a program, but she looked up with a smile when he came in. "Good morning."

"You certainly did your best to make it a good morning." Eric sat down on a bench by the boards, one eyebrow arched quizzically. "Breakfast was great, but… kind of a surprise."

Becky blushed. "I told you I like to make things—that includes cooking. Dinner was so great last night, I wanted to treat you in return." She stepped off the ice and reached for her skate guards.

"Well… thank you." Feeling peculiar, Eric watched her put the guards on her blades and approach him. "You might be a little more careful about a cute trick like that, though. I mean… if somebody didn’t know any better, they might… I don’t know… think you were after a full-time job."

She sat down on the bench beside him. Her green eyes were large, and bright, and utterly serious.

"Maybe I am."

Eric closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, letting himself accept the sudden joy that filled his heart.

Becky loved him; that was all there was to it.

It felt good, and he could think of only one way to thank her. Gently he placed his hands on her shoulders, and leaning forward, he pressed a soft, tender kiss against her lips.

When he drew back, her eyes were closed. A smile slowly crept across those lips he had kissed, and her eyes opened, misty with emotions that he couldn’t name but felt just as deeply.

"That’s some job interview," he breathed.

She made a sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sniffle, throwing her arms around him to bury her face against the crook of his neck and shoulder. "Tell me this is real."

"You don’t know how much I want it to be." Smiling only a little ruefully, Eric laid his cheek against her hair, resting his hands on her shoulders. "Be patient with me."

She drew back slightly to gaze at him, her warmth and sympathy not quite suppressing the joy in her eyes. "Take all the time you need."

 

VI. Wasting My Time

It was a beautiful morning in Wolf Creek—cold but sunny. As he stepped out the front door of his parents’ house, Eric winced at the glare on the snow, fishing for the sunglasses in his jacket pocket.

He had put off calling his coach for long enough—afraid, perhaps, that to speak of the changes happening in his life was to make them irrevocably real. But he owed Malcolm that. He owed Becky that.

So he went out under a clear blue Montana sky, and as he sprawled on the porch swing, he took out his cell phone and dialed Malcolm’s number. After several rings, the crisp British voice of his mentor finally made a habitual terse reply into the disdained device: "Redgrave."

Eric hadn’t realized how much he missed Malcolm’s voice, and couldn’t help but smile. "Hi, Boss."

"Oh, hallo Eric!" Immediately Malcolm’s voice became bright, the way Eric liked to hear it. "I expected a call from you rather sooner… How are you?"

"Mmm… fine." Eric felt a sudden hesitation to admit why he had called.

"Have you been skating?"

"Every day." With Becky… Eric cleared his throat and shifted the subject. "How are things back in Ambrose? How were Japan and Sweden?"

"All very well, thank you. Have you seen any television coverage?"

"Not really," Eric admitted guiltily. "Been busy. I’ve kept up with results on the computer, though. Looks like your protégés did pretty well at Europeans." He frowned at hearing what almost sounded like a stifled chuckle from his coach.

"Yes, indeed." Now it was definite—there was humor in Malcolm’s voice, and that was an even bigger red flag than when Eric’s mother was feeling mischievous. "I’ve acquired some new students while you’ve been away."

"Really." Eric’s frown deepened. "How many?"

"Three so far, with another interview to go."

"Mal!" A note of protest entered Eric’s voice. He was always happy to see Malcolm happy, and Malcolm was happiest when busy—but even for him, there had to be such a thing as overwork.

"Oh, it’s quite alright, Eric. Besides, I’ve also acquired some help—the rink has a new assistant director. My old friend, Alexander Chevalier."

Eric considered. "Is he the one you rushed out to see right after we moved to Ambrose? The one who got his leg hurt in an accident?"

"The very same. I hadn’t even seen him since, but we fell in with each other in Sweden, and he very neatly gave himself a job with me." There was a remarkable warmth in Malcolm’s voice. "You’ll like him, Eric. He’s approximately the sweetest man I’ve ever known."

"I’m sure I will." Eric paused, tried to bring himself around to talking about himself, and finally gave up. "So who are my new training partners?"

"Ah, yes. Well, first was a professional from Germany, Roxanne Wagner—very colorful, this one. I believe the word is ‘diva’. The second is May Archer, a charming young lady from England. And the third… is an exceptionally talented chap from Russia, a European champion in fact." A pause. "His name is Krylovsky."

Eric nearly dropped the phone.

"Eric? Are you there?"

Eric scowled at the phone and put it back to his ear. "Yeah, I’m fine. Must be interference in the line—for a minute there, I thought you said you’re coaching Zhenya."

"That is exactly what I said, Eric. Evgeny Krylovsky."

It wasn’t much easier to believe the second time. "Whoa, give me a minute here. I thought Zhenya was terrified of you."

"He is. Or at least he was. Apparently though, he decided that was just what he needed. Besides, as it turns out, Natalya Romanova intends to retire by the end of the season."

"Why does all heck break loose when I’m gone?"

Malcolm chuckled. "The laws of existence, I suppose. At any rate, what about you? Besides practice, what have you been about lately?"

"Oh, the usual. Getting fussed over by Mom, playing pool with Dad, fighting with Evy…" Eric fidgeted and bit his lip. "Mal… are you sitting down?"

A pause. Then, "I am now. What’s on your mind?"

Drawing a deep breath, Eric took the plunge. "I’ve met a girl, Mal."

There was a brief silence, in which ostensibly Malcolm was sorting out what to make of the announcement. "Have you? Well…"

"Her name’s Rebecca Woodward. She’s a choreographer and show skater from here in Wolf Creek. She started skating because of watching me when I was a kid," Eric gushed breathlessly. "See, Mom knew Becky used to have a crush on me, so… after the way things have been… well—"

"Your mother set you up with this young lady," Malcolm finished for him. "I must say I’m surprised at that, coming from Barbara. But I do seem to recall a Miss Woodward in the cast at the Ice Theater of New York a few years ago. The same?"

"Yeah, she’s skated there," Eric affirmed. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. "You must think I’m nuts. But Becky… she loves me. She wants everything I want in life. I understand her—"

"Unlike Kay," Malcolm cut in.

Eric flinched, then sighed and slowly nodded to himself. "I don’t feel like I have to guess anything with Becky. I don’t feel all the doubts I did… before." He hesitated. "You think I’m crazy, Boss?"

"I think you’re in love." Malcolm’s tone was blunt, but entirely without disapproval. "Are you in love, Eric?"

This was the question Eric needed to answer. He couldn’t give the answer to himself, but to Malcolm… He breathed deeply, and let his reply come from his heart.

"Yes, Mal. I am."

"Then I’m glad for you." His coach’s voice was quiet, but sincere. "In spite of the life I’ve lived, I believe we aren’t fated to love only once. You loved Kay—still do in many ways—but if love enough to build a life together isn’t there, don’t hesitate to seek it elsewhere."

It wasn’t the reaction Eric had expected. He felt a lump in his throat and swallowed it back. "I just… don’t want Kay to think…"

"Eric, let me say something, this once, that may seem rather unkind. Kay gave up her rights to your heart, when she went to you to say that your relationship had no future. That was her choice, and her responsibility. Yours is to live your own life, and find your own happiness."

"Yeah… I know." Eric breathed deeply. "Thanks, Mal."

"You can thank me by giving me a chance to meet this charming new inamorata of yours. You say she’s a choreographer? Tell her she’d find no shortage of work in Ambrose." At this, Malcolm’s voice was again upbeat, and Eric smiled.

"I have told her," he replied. "We’re talking things over. Anyway, she’ll be at Worlds."

"Another reason for me to look forward to Washington, then."

"You’re looking forward to it?" Eric smiled and shook his head at his stress-loving teacher. Then he gave his wristwatch a glance. "Hey, I’d better get off the line now. Tell everyone hi for me, okay?"

"By all means. Goodbye, Eric."

"Bye," Eric said, and pushed the end button on the cellphone. He stared at it for a long moment, then shook his head, tucked the phone into his pocket and went inside.

He had a lot to think about.

 

VII. Here Is Gone

The thirty-first of January came too quickly.

Eric felt as if he’d spent the last three weeks in a different world, with Rebecca as his constant companion. They skated together most of the day, every day, and dined together every evening—several times at the homes of their parents, who sat back and watched with conspiratory smiles. By now Eric felt as if he had known Becky for years… and he couldn’t have denied his feelings if he wanted to.

But now his rest was over. It was his last night in Wolf Creek. In the morning he would be on his way to Alaska, and from there, it was back to the daily grind at Ambrose.

His mother insisted on making a lavish supper. Afterward, Eric and Becky had the den to themselves, and Eric sprawled out comfortably on the thick carpet. Becky sat curled up on the couch above him, gazing into the flames on the hearth. He knew that she was thinking of his leaving, and it didn’t make the prospect any easier. He was ready to go; he wanted, and needed, to be back in the heart of the skating world. It was only her presence he didn’t want to let go of just yet.

"I wish I were going with you."

Eric blinked and looked up at Becky. She was peering over the edge of the couch cushions like a quizzical kitten, and the image made him smile. With a stretch he sat up, shaking his head, and reached out to place his hand over hers.

"We both have work to finish. I want things to be right before I see you leave what you’ve got here." He took her hand, gently kissing her knuckles. "Besides… I want to make a place for you, back in Ambrose."

Becky’s cheeks colored. "Oh, Eric, that is the sweetest. Papa Bird builds a nest?"

In some other time and place, that remark would have petrified him, but here and now, it gave him a warm feeling inside. He smiled and leaned over to kiss her forehead. "After a while. Actually, I was thinking of your job… Unless you’d rather be the stay-at-home type," he added with a grin.

"I’ll let you know in about fifty years." Becky slipped down off the edge of the couch to sit beside him, smiling as she settled into his arms. "Thank you for understanding."

"Thank you for not feeling like you have to give anything up for me."

"Mmm." Becky sighed and laid her head on his shoulder. "Nearly two months just seems like such a long time. I’m going to miss you every minute."

"Likewise. It’s going to be pretty hard putting my heart out there on the ice, when the whole time it’ll really be back here in Wolf Creek."

The remark struck the right note. She raised her head to gaze meltingly at him, and as if on impulse, leaned closer to give him the deepest kiss they had yet shared. When they parted breathlessly, he could see tears gathering at the corners of her eyes, but she smiled.

"You might be leaving your heart here, but if it helps, mine will be with you," she whispered.

"That’s all the help I need." Eric smiled and kissed her again. "I love you, Becky."

© 2003 Jordanna Morgan