My elbow whacked Chris’s forehead for the fourth time during practice. He grunted and caught me before I hit the ice. Though I’d skated over half of my nineteen years, I’d never had so many collisions. Of course, until a year ago, I’d never skated with a partner.
I cringed and touched Chris’s sweaty brow. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He raked his hand through his thick dark hair. “A little head trauma never hurt anyone.”
I laughed wearily and arched my neck, stretching the sore muscles. The cold air wasn’t helping to loosen them. Looking up, my eyes honed in on the red, white, and blue banner above the rink:
Emily Butler and Christopher Grayden–2000 National Silver Medalists
Only four months had passed since Chris and I placed second at our first national championship, but it seemed like a lifetime. The triple twist, the high-flying element we needed to learn before next season, continued to elude me. If we don’t master this move, we’ll never compete with the top teams in the world.
I grasped Chris’s hand. “Let’s try it again.”
We took matching determined strokes across the ice, and the burst of wind cooled my face and loosened damp tendrils from my long ponytail. With a quick motion, Chris squeezed my hips and launched me into the air. I wound myself tight and spun but fell into Chris’s waiting arms before finishing three revolutions. A sigh heaved my shoulders.
Sergei glided toward us around the other practicing skaters. Our coach was often mistaken for one of us because of his youth. He nodded and regarded us with his deep blue eyes. “The rotation is getting faster. Focus on what you did right today. I see a lot of improvement.”
I relaxed into a smile. Before I’d started working with Sergei, I’d heard many horror stories about Russian coaches. Sergei demanded discipline and maximum effort, but his energy stayed positive, and he provided constant encouragement.
Chris and I left the ice and sat on the short set of wooden bleachers. My ankles thanked me as I untied my skate laces and gave them space to breathe.
“I guess it’s an improvement I didn’t give you another black eye,” I said.
Chris poked his swollen freckled cheek. “I kinda like my shiner. Makes me look tough.” He grinned, displaying his dimples.
“You’re going to need more than that to make you look tough,” I teased as I walked away.
Inside the locker room, the musty scent of sweat and metal contrasted with the cool freshness of the ice. After stowing my skates in my locker and slipping on a pair of sneakers, I pulled a fitted T-shirt over my leotard and winced as I bumped the fresh bruises on my arms. If people only knew how much pain went into chasing the Olympic dream . . .
I needed to talk to Sergei before his next lesson, and I found him in the rink’s upstairs lounge, which overlooked the ice. He was holding a cup of coffee and talking to a couple of the skating moms. As usual, they sat captivated, totally engrossed in his words, and I couldn’t blame them. When I’d met Sergei, I stammered through our introduction, spellbound by his captivating eyes and gleaming smile. His personable manner had quickly put me at ease, though, and I’d gotten past staring at his good looks. Important, obviously, if I wanted to get any work done on the ice.
As Sergei spoke to the moms, I remembered I had to phone my own mother. She expected a daily call once I’d moved from Boston to Cape Cod a year ago. I lingered near the water cooler and read the announcements stapled to the bulletin board until Sergei finished his conversation and moved toward the stairs.
“Sergei, do you have a minute?”
“Sure.” He glanced at his sport watch. “I have about ten. What’s up?”
“I was thinking of doing some coaching in the afternoons like I used to in Boston. Just a few kids, but I wanted to see what you thought.” I toyed with my silver cross and chain. “If it might be too much to take on right now.”
He took a long sip of coffee and gave me a pensive look. “I might have a better idea. Walk with me.”
I followed him down the narrow steps to the rink, and he set his paper cup on the boards. Skaters swooshed past us, creating a chilly breeze.
“Would you be interested in helping me with one of my novice teams?” Sergei asked. “Teaching them the pair elements would reinforce everything you’ve learned.”
I bobbed my head with vigor at his show of confidence. “That sounds like a great idea.”
He spread his hands apart. “Don’t I always have all the answers?”
“Yes, Oh Great and All-Knowing Coach.” I performed a playful bow.
“I’ve never had an assistant before. Maybe you should call me ‘Mister Petrov’ when we work together.” He lifted his cup to his mouth, a hint of a smile on his lips.
“You’re joking, right?”
His eyes widened with innocence. “Why would I be joking?”
“You’re only six years older than me.” I laughed and started for the weight room, and Sergei chuckled behind me. “I’m not calling you ‘Mister.’”
Within a week, I began assisting Sergei with his newest and youngest team of twelve-year-old Courtney and fourteen-year-old Mark. They were struggling with their double loop throw jump, so I acted as Sergei’s partner to demonstrate the technique. The kids stood next to the boards while Sergei’s strong hands grasped my hips and vaulted me across the ice. A double felt light and easy compared to the triples I normally did.
Courtney and Mark studied us attentively and tried the throw on their own. Attempt after attempt, Courtney failed to land on a clean edge. Her pink cheeks deepened to crimson as she huffed with frustration.
“It’s alright.” Sergei patted her shoulder. “Mark, she needs a little more height. Make sure you’ve got your weight balanced on the takeoff.”
“Courtney, also try pulling in tighter and quicker.” I brought my arms sharply against my chest.
Our students worked on the element each afternoon, some days having more success than others, but Sergei never lost patience. Watching him handle Courtney and Mark’s roller coaster of emotions with gentle authority gave me a new level of respect for him. He knew just how to reassure the kids and light up their eyes with understanding.
After Courtney and Mark’s sessions, I often stopped at the Starbucks near the rink on my way home. I learned Sergei was a frequent patron, too, and every time we ran into each other, our conversations grew longer.
One afternoon, we finally gravitated to one of the tiny tables and had been sitting there over half an hour. Sergei had gone to the counter for a refill, and when he rejoined me, he caught me softly singing Sting’s “Fields of Gold” along with the piped-in radio.
“Are you a Sting fan?” he asked, stirring a packet of sugar into his black coffee.
“Huge.” I sipped my latte. “Are you?”
“I have all his CDs. ‘Fields of Gold’ is one of my favorite songs.”
I leaned forward and rested my elbows on the small table. “Did you know he’s having a concert up in Mansfield next weekend? None of my friends want to go. They said his music is for old people.” I frowned.
Sergei laughed. “Yeah, I don’t know anyone interested in going either.”
“I wonder if there are tickets left. Maybe we could go together.”
He stared at me over his cup, and I shifted backward in my seat. I hoped he didn’t think I was suggesting anything like a date. The U.S. Figure Skating Federation wouldn’t approve of a coach and student dating.
I hastily added, “You know, since no one else wants to go . . . and we don’t know when he’ll have another show here.”
Sergei nodded and his mouth gradually opened into a smile. “Yeah, we should go. The last concert I went to was about five years ago, right after I moved to Virginia from Moscow. It was Dave Matthews Band. I hadn’t heard of them, but some people at the rink invited me.”
“Ahh, I love them. I’ve never seen them live.”
“They were great. Turned me into a big fan.” He tapped his fingers on his cup. “But what I remember most about that night was the taxi ride home. I didn’t have a car, and I lived way outside the city. The taxi driver didn’t speak good English and neither did I at the time. I fell asleep, and when he woke me up, I had no idea where we were. He’d misunderstood me and taken me to a town twenty miles from where I lived.”
I burst into laughter. “Oh, no!”
“When he finally got me home, I didn’t have enough cash to pay the ridiculous fare, and we got in an argument about whose fault it was he took me to the wrong place.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I gave him all the money I had and left him outside my apartment, cursing me out.”
Giggles echoed in my throat. “That’s crazy. Well, the good news is we can drive ourselves to Mansfield. Speaking of which, I should get home and check on the tickets.” I snagged my car keys from my purse. “If I find some, I’ll go ahead and order them.”
“Let me know later how much I owe you.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t curse you out if you don’t pay me right away.” I smiled, and Sergei laughed.
With my keys in one hand and my coffee in the other, I stood and aimed for the door. “I’ll call you when I get them!”
Typical summertime traffic slowed my drive home. I loved the beauty of the Cape during summer with the hydrangeas in bloom and the deep orange sunsets, but I missed the peacefulness of winter on the island. After crawling bumper to bumper on Route Six from South Dennis to Hyannis, I finally arrived at my parents’ vacation townhouse, which had become my year-round home.
In the sun-splashed living room, my roommate, Aubrey, was hunched over one of her ice dance costumes, needle and thread in hand.
“What happened to your dress?” I dropped down beside her on the beige chenille couch.
She pushed a few stray blond hairs out of her eyes and squinted at the pink fabric. “Some stones fell off last time I wore it.”
I picked up my laptop from the coffee table and drummed my fingers while it booted up. With a few clicks, I landed on Ticketmaster.com.
Aubrey glanced at the screen. “What are you buying tickets for?”
“Sting’s concert in Mansfield. Turns out Sergei is as big a fan as I am.”
Her perfectly-shaped eyebrows curved upward. “You’re going on a road trip with Sergei?”
“Mansfield is an hour away. I don’t call that a road trip.”
She straightened the short skirt of the costume and examined the shimmering silver stones around the hem. “You two seem pretty chummy these days,” she said with a sidelong glance.
I shrugged. “We like to talk when we get coffee. No big deal.”
“It’s a big deal when you start going out at night together. Coaches aren’t supposed to be that friendly with their students. Especially not young, hot coaches.”
My face warmed, and I focused on the computer screen. “We work together and have a few common interests. It’s nothing more.”
“I’m just trying to look out for you, Em. You need to be careful.”
My fingers paused on the keyboard. Aubrey was the same age as me, but her dating history could fill a book three times the size of mine. She’d been breaking hearts since I’d met her at thirteen. Our gap in boyfriend experience sometimes led her to treat me like a little sister.
“Sergei and I have a professional relationship. You don’t need to worry.”
She didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t press the issue. I turned back to the computer and concentrated on selecting two seats for the concert, ignoring the tiny voice in my head that echoed Aubrey’s warning.
A rumble of thunder rolled in the distance, and both Sergei and I looked skyward. Fast moving clouds hid the moon. A roof covered half the amphitheater but not our seats in the farthest reaches of the venue. Sting had finished his first set, and I was regretting not bringing my rain slicker.
Sergei rose from the long bench. “Do you want a soda or anything?”
“I’ll take a bottle of water.” I reached into my jeans pocket for the cash I’d stashed.
He waved away the money. “I’ve got it.”
I smiled as I watched his long legs take him down the packed aisle. I hadn’t been on a date in so long that I’d forgotten how nice it was having a guy do the little things like fight the crowd for concessions and . . . Wait a second. I shook my head. This isn’t a date, remember? Just because Sergei opened his car door for me and wiped the dirt off my seat at the amphitheater didn’t mean our outing was anything more than friendly. He was being polite.
The smell of popcorn wafted past me as people returned from the concession stand and climbed into our row. Sergei came back with two bottles of water and handed me one.
“This is definitely the best concert I’ve been to,” he said.
“I saw U2 a few years ago in Boston, and they blew me away.” I paused, and Sergei raised an eyebrow. “But so far, this is even better.”
A lone raindrop plopped on my nose, and my eyes drifted to the sky again. “I think we’re about to get drenched.”
A few more drops fell, and Sergei said, “If it gets too bad, we can leave if you want.”
“No way. I don’t wanna miss any of the show. Unless you’re afraid you’re going to melt?” I bit my bottom lip to stifle a smile.
He laughed. “No, I can handle it.”
The drops soon increased to a steady drizzle and pelted us on and off through the rest of the show. I sang along to every song while the rain coated my lips. Next to me, Sergei patted his leg in time to the beat of each tune, and every now and then, his arm bumped mine. His skin felt warm despite being wet, and with each touch my arm tingled.
By the time Sting finished his second encore, my navy T-shirt clung to me and my hair was soaked, but I was too awed by the music to care. I peeked at Sergei, and his short golden brown hair had darkened from the rain, making his blue eyes stand out even more. We moved with the thick crowd to the parking lot and had just hopped into Sergei’s SUV when the drizzle became a downpour.
“We got out of there right in time,” I said.
“You mean you wouldn’t want to sit outside in this? What, afraid you would melt, Emily?”
I laughed. “Oh, I could’ve handled it.”
The windshield wipers slapped back and forth, drowning out the classic rock on the radio. Sergei turned on the heater and drove slowly until we reached the interstate and pointed south to the Cape.
“I’m so glad we came,” he said. “He sounded amazing live.”
I combed my fingers through my hair, unknotting the long, damp waves. “I know. I’d see him again in a heartbeat.”
“Next time he comes, we’ll have to get tickets early so we can be closer to the stage.” He shot me a smile. “And out of the rain.”
“Definitely.” I returned his smile.
A shiver sped down my spine at the thought of spending another evening with Sergei. I didn’t know if I was still on a high from the concert, but being in the dark car with him was heightening all my senses. I’d always thought he was attractive, but only now did I notice how his smile softened the sharp angles of his face, how sexy my name sounded in his Russian accent, how his T-shirt hugged his lean yet muscular chest.
I gulped and set my eyes on the highway in front of us. You need to put those thoughts out of your mind right now.