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If someone were to ask Jasmine Santos to describe the last few years of her life with a single word, it would definitely be a four-letter one.

After seventeen years—and countless broken bones and broken promises—she knows her window to compete in figure skating is coming to a close.

But when the offer of a lifetime comes in from an arrogant idiot she’s spent the last decade dreaming about pushing in the way of a moving bus, Jasmine might have to reconsider everything.

Including Ivan Lukov.


EXCERPT: From Lukov with Love

Mariana Zapata

From the queen of the slow burn and delayed gratification, we just got another unforgettable romance to lose ourselves in, this time the story of two former enemies falling in love. And I have the first two chapters for you.

(Visited 2,077 times, 2 visits today)

Excerpt

Chapter One

Winter/Spring 2016 

By the time I’d busted my ass five times in a row, I figured it was time to call it quits.

At least for the day.

My butt cheeks could handle another two hours’ worth of falls tomorrow. They might have to if I didn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, damn it. This was the second day in a row I hadn’t been able to land a damn jump.

Rolling over onto the cheek I’d fallen on the least amount of times, I blew out a breath of frustration, managed to keep the “son of a bitch” I really wanted to scream inside my mouth, and tilted my head all the way back to make faces at the ceiling, figuring out almost immediately that decision was a fucking mistake. Because I knew what was hanging from the ceiling of the dome-shaped facility. For the most part, it was the same thing I’d been seeing for the last thirteen years.

Banners.

Banners hanging from the rafters.

Banners with the same jackass’s name on all of them.

IVAN LUKOV. IVAN LUKOV. IVAN LUKOV.

And more IVAN LUKOV.

There were other names on there right alongside his—the other miserable souls he’d partnered up with over the years—but it was his that stood out. Not because his last name was the same last name as one of my favorite people in the world, but because his first name reminded me of Satan. I was pretty sure his parents had adopted him straight out of Hell.

But at that moment, nothing else mattered but those hanging tapestries.

Five different blue banners proclaiming each of the national championships he’d won. Two red banners for every world championship. Two butter yellow banners for every gold medal. One silver banner to commemorate the single silver medal for a world championship sitting in the trophy case at the entrance to the facility.

Ugh. Overachiever. Ass. Jerk.

And thank fuck there weren’t banners for every Cup or other competition he’d won along the years too, otherwise the entire ceiling would have been covered in colors, and I would have been throwing up daily.

All these banners… and none of them had my name on them. Not one single one. No matter how hard I had tried, how hard I had trained, nothing. Because no one ever remembers second place, unless you’re Ivan Lukov. And I was no Ivan.

Jealousy I had no right to feel, but couldn’t exactly ignore, pierced right through my sternum, and I hated it. I fucking hated it. Worrying about what other people were doing was a waste of time and energy; I’d learned that as a kid when other girls had nicer costumes and newer skates than me. Being jealous and bitter was what people who didn’t have anything better to do, did. I knew that. No one did anything with their lives if they spent it comparing themselves to other people. I knew that too.

And I never wanted to be that person. Especially not over that jackass. I’d take my three seconds of jealousy shit to the grave with me before I ever told anyone what those banners did to me.

It was with that reminder that I rolled onto my knees to quit looking at those stupid-ass pieces of cloth.

Slapping my hands on the ice, I grunted as I got my feet under me—balancing on my blades was second nature—and finally got up. Again. For the fifth fucking time in less than fifteen minutes. My left hip bone, butt cheek, and thigh were aching, and they were only going to hurt worse tomorrow.

“Fucking shit,” I muttered under my breath so that none of the younger girls skating around me would hear. The last thing I needed was for one of them to tell on me to management. Again. Little snitches. Like they didn’t hear the f-bomb watching television, walking down the street, or going to school.

Brushing off the ice coating my side from my last fall, I took a steadying breath and reeled in the frustration flaring through my body at everything—at myself, my body, my situation, my life, the other girls I couldn’t fucking curse around—at today in general. From waking up late to not being able to land a jump that morning either, to spilling coffee down my shirt at work twice, opening my car door and having it almost break my kneecap, and then this second session of shitty training….

It was easy to forget that in the grand scheme of life, not being able to land a jump I’d been doing for ten years didn’t mean anything. It was just an off day. Another off day. It wasn’t unheard of. There was always something worse that could and would happen, someday, some time. It was easy to take things for granted when you thought you had everything.

But it was when you started taking the most basic things for granted that life decided to teach you that you’re an ungrateful idiot.

And today, the thing I was taking for granted were landing triple Salchows, a jump I’d been doing for years. They weren’t the easiest jump in figure skating—the jump consisted of three rotations that started while skating backward on the back inside edge of the blade of your skate before takeoff, and then required a landing on the back outside edge of the blade of the opposite foot you took off from—but it definitely wasn’t anywhere near being the hardest. Under normal circumstances, they were second nature to me.

But not today or yesterday apparently.

Scrubbing my eyelids with the backs of my hands, I took a deep breath in and let another slow one out, rolling my shoulders in the process and telling myself I needed to calm down and just go home. There was always tomorrow.

And it wasn’t like I was going to be competing any time soon, the practical but asshole part of my brain reminded me.

Just like it did every single time I thought about that awesome fact, my stomach clenched in pure anger… and something that felt awfully close to despair.

And just like every time it happened, I shoved both those emotions way, way, way down, so far down I couldn’t see them or touch them or smell them. They were pointless. I knew that. Absolutely pointless.

I wasn’t giving up.

With another inhale and exhale as I subconsciously rubbed the ass cheek hurting the worst for forgiveness, I looked around the rink one last time for the day. Taking in the girls so much younger than me, still taking advantage of the session going on at the moment, I held back a frown. There were three that were about my age, but the others were all in their teens. Maybe they weren’t that good—at least not as good as I’d been at their ages—but still. They had their entire lives ahead of them. Only in figure skating, and maybe gymnastics, could you be considered ancient at twenty-six years old.

Yeah, I needed to get home and lay on the couch with some television to get over this shit day. Nothing good ever came out of me throwing my own ass a pity party. Nothing.

It didn’t take more than a couple of seconds to weave my way through and around the other people on the ice, paying just enough attention to not crash into anyone before making it to the short wall surrounding the rink. In the same place I’d always left my skate guards, I grabbed the pieces of plastic and slipped them over the four-millimeter wide blades attached to my white boots right before stepping onto solid ground.

I tried to ignore that tight feeling bubbling around in my chest that was more than likely mostly frustration at falling so much today, but maybe wasn’t.

I wasn’t about to believe my chances were high that I was wasting my time still hitting the Lukov Ice and Sports Complex twice a day to workout in hopes of someday competing again because the idea of just giving up seemed like a total waste of the last sixteen years of my life. Like I hadn’t basically given up my childhood for nothing. Like I hadn’t sacrificed relationships and normal human experiences for a dream I’d had that had once been so huge, nothing and no one could have taken it away from me.

Like my dream of winning a gold medal… of at least winning a world championship, even a national championship… hadn’t been broken down into tiny, confetti-sized pieces that I was still clinging onto even though some part of me realized all it did was hurt me more than help me.

Nope.

It wasn’t any of those ideas and possibilities that made my stomach hurt almost daily and made me nauseous right then and there.

I needed to chill out. Or maybe masturbate. Something had to help.

Shaking off that crappy feeling in my gut, I made my way around the rink and continued on down the hall that led toward the changing rooms, taking in the crowd. There were already parents and kids hanging around the rink, getting ready for evening classes; the same classes I’d started with at nine years old before moving on to small groups and then private lessons with Galina. The good old days.

I kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone and kept on going, passing other people who went out of their way to avoid my gaze too. But it wasn’t until I was going down the hall toward where my things were, that I spotted a group of four teenage girls standing around, pretending to stretch. Pretending because you couldn’t get a proper stretch in if you were busy running your mouth.

At least that’s what I’d been taught.

“Hi, Jasmine!” one of them greeted, a nice girl who, as far as I could remember, had always gone out of her way to be friendly to me.

“Hi, Jasmine,” the girl beside her said too.

I couldn’t help but nod at them, even as I counted down the time it would take me to go home, either make something to eat or microwave something my mom had made, and probably sit on my ass and watch TV. Maybe if practice had gone better, I’d want to do something else, like go for a run or even go to my sister’s house, but… it wasn’t going to happen.

“Have a good practice,” I mumbled at the two friendly girls, flashing a glance at the other two standing across from them, silently. They looked familiar. There was a class for intermediate skaters starting soon that I figured they were enrolled in. I had no reason to pay attention to them.

“Thanks, you too!” the first girl who had talked to me squawked out before slamming her mouth closed and turning a shade of red I’d only seen on one person in the past: my sister.

The smile that came over my mouth was genuine and unexpected—because the girl made me think of Squirt—and I dug my shoulder into the swinging door of the changing room. I’d barely taken a step in, shoulder still holding the door open, when I heard, “I don’t know why you get so excited seeing her. She might have been a good singles skater, but she always choked, and her pairs career was nothing to talk about.”

And… I stopped. Right there. Halfway in the door. And I did something I knew was a bad idea: I listened.

Eavesdropping never worked out for anybody, but I did it anyway.

“Mary McDonald is a better pairs skater—”

They went there.

Breathe, Jasmine. Breathe. Shut up and breathe. Think about what you’re going to say. Think about how far you’ve come. Think about— 

“—otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have teamed up with her this last season,” the girl finished.

Assault was against the law. But was it extra illegal to hit a teenager?

Breathe. Think. Be nicer.

I was old enough to know better. I knew that. I was old enough to not get offended by some teenage twat who probably hadn’t even gone through puberty yet, but…

Well, my pairs career was a sore spot for me. And by sore spot, I meant a bleeding blister that refused to heal. Mary McDonald and Paul The Piece of Shit Asshole I Would Burn Alive? I’d watched just enough of the Brady Bunch late at night when I couldn’t sleep to totally get Jan’s beef with Marcia. I would have hated her ass too. Just like I hated Mary McDonald’s ass.

“Have you seen all the videos there are online of her? My mom says she’s got a bad attitude and that’s why she never won; the judges don’t like her,“ the other girl attempted to whisper but basically failed because I could hear her clear as day.

I didn’t need to do this. I didn’t need to do anything. They were still kids, I tried to tell myself. They didn’t know the whole story. They didn’t even know part of the story. Most people didn’t, and they never would. I’d accepted it and gotten over it.

But then one of them kept on talking, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to shut the hell up and let them assume their bullshit. There’s only so much a person can take on a good day, and today hadn’t been a good one to begin with.

“My mom said the only reason she still trains here is because she’s friends with Karina Lukov, but supposedly her and Ivan don’t get along—”

I was this fucking close to snorting. Ivan and I not getting along? Is that what they were calling it? Okay.

“She’s kind of a bitch.”

“Nobody was surprised she couldn’t get another partner after Paul left her.”

And there it was.

Maybe if they wouldn’t have said the P-name again I could have been the bigger person, but fuck it, I was five foot three and I wasn’t built to be that person ever.

Before I could stop myself, I turned around and peeked my head out the door to find the four girls right where they’d been a moment ago. “What did you just say?” I asked, slowly, keeping the you talentless fuckers are never going to do shit to myself at least. I made sure to look right at the two that hadn’t said hi to me, whose heads pretty much snapped in my direction in horror the moment I started talking.

“I… I… I…,” one of them stuttered while the other looked like she was about to crap her leotard and tights. Good. I hoped she did. And I hoped it had a diarrhea-like texture so it would go everywhere.

I stared at each one of them for what felt like a minute each, watching their faces turn bright red and getting just a little a kick out of it… but not as much as I normally could have if I wasn’t already pissed off at myself more than them. Raising my eyebrows, I tilted my head in the direction of the hall-like tunnel I’d just taken from the rink to the changing rooms and smiled a smile that wasn’t one at all. “That’s what I thought. You should get to practice before you’re late.”

Somehow, I kept from adding “fuckers” to the end. Some days I deserved a medal for being so patient with idiots. If only they had a competition for that, I could have won.

Chances were that I’d never see two people move so fast ever again unless I watched the sprinters in the Olympics. The two nice girls looked slightly horrified but shot me quick uneasy smiles before following after the other two, whispering God knows what to each other.

Girls like those shitty two were the reasons why I’d stopped trying to make friends with other figure skaters early on. Mini fuckers. I raised my middle finger at the retreating bodies down the hall, but it didn’t really make me feel any better.

I needed to snap out of it. I really, really did.

I finished making my way into the changing room and dropped onto one of the benches in front of the row of lockers mine was located in; the ache in my hip and thigh had gotten stronger on the walk over. I’d taken falls a lot harder and more painful than the ones today but, despite knowing that, you never exactly “got used” to the pain; when it happened regularly, you made yourself get over it faster. And the reality of it was, I wasn’t training the way I used to, I couldn’t—not when I didn’t have a partner to practice with and didn’t have a coach correcting me for hours each day—so my body had forgotten what it could take.

It was just another shitty sign that time and life kept going even when I didn’t want it to.

Stretching my legs out ahead of me, I ignored the handful of older teenage girls already clustered on the opposite side of the room furthest from the door, getting dressed and fiddling with their boots, talking as they did it. They didn’t look at me, and I didn’t do more than glance at them out of the corner of my eye. Undoing my laces, I thought about showering for all of a second before deciding that was going to be too much work when I could wait twenty minutes until I got home so I could change and shower there in my full-sized bathroom. I took my right white skate off, and then gingerly pulled off the nude-colored bandage that covered my ankle and a couple inches above it.

Oh my God!” one of the teenagers pretty much shrieked from the other side of the room, making it impossible for me to zone her out. “You’re not joking, are you?

No!” someone else responded as I unlaced my left skate, trying hard to ignore the girls.

Seriously?” another voice, or maybe it was the same one from the beginning, piped up. I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t like I was trying to listen to them.

Seriously!”

Seriously?”

Seriously!”

I rolled my eyes and kept trying to ignore them.

“No!”

Yes!

No!

Yes!

Yeah. I couldn’t ignore shit. Had I ever been that annoying? That girly?

No way.

“Where did you hear that?”

I was in the middle of putting in the code to my combination lock on my locker when there was a chorus of noises that had me glancing over my shoulder to glare at the girls. One of them literally looked like she was on speed, she was baring her teeth, and her hands were hanging out right at chest level as she clapped her palms together. Another girl had her fingers knitted together, palms joined in front of her mouth, and she might have been shaking.

What in the hell was wrong with them two?

Hear it? I saw him walk in with Coach Lee.” 

Ugh. 

Of course. Who the hell else would they be talking about?

I didn’t bother sighing or even rolling my eyes as I turned back to my locker and pulled my gym bag out, unzipping it the moment I set it on the bench beside me so I could dig out my phone, keys, flip-flops, and a tiny bar of Hershey’s I kept in there for days like today. I took off the wrapper and stuffed that thing in my mouth before grabbing my phone. The green light on the screen blinked, telling me I had unread messages. Unlocking it, I glanced over my shoulder to see the girls there still squawking and making it seem like they were on the verge of having a heart attack over The Asswipe. Ignoring them, I took my time reading through the group chat messages I had missed while practicing.

Jojo: I want to go to the movies tonight. Anyone in?

Tali: Depends. What movie?

Mom: Ben and I will go with you, baby.

Seb: No. I’ve got a date tonight.

Seb: James doesn’t want to go with you? I don’t blame him.

Jojo: The new Marvel movie.

Jojo: Seb, I hope you get an STD tonight.

Tali: Marvel? No thanks.

Tali: I hope you get an STD too, Seb.

Mom: WOULD YOU ALL BE NICE TO EACH OTHER?

Seb: All of you can eat shit except for Mom.

Rubes: I’d go with you but Aaron’s not feeling well.

Jojo: I know you would, Squirt. Love you. Next time.

Jojo: Mom, let’s go. 7:30 work?

Jojo: Seb- [emoji of a middle finger]

Jojo: Jas, you in?

I looked up as the girls in the changing room made noises I wasn’t sure I was capable of, wondering what the hell was going on with them. Jesus Christ, it wasn’t like Ivan didn’t train here five days a week for the last million years. Seeing him wasn’t that exciting. I would rather watch paint dry.

Scrunching up my bright pink-colored toenails, I took them in and purposely ignored the bruise I had right alongside my smallest toe and the start of a blister I had beside my big toe from the seam of a new brand of tights I’d worn the day before.

What is he doing here?” the teenagers kept going, reminding me that I needed to get out of the room as quickly as possible. I’d already reached my limit for how much I could handle today.

Glancing back at my phone, I tried to decide what to do. Go home and watch a movie or suck it up and go to the movies with my brother, mom, and Ben—or as the rest of us called him in secret, number four?

I would rather go home and not hang out in a crowded movie theater on the weekend, but….

My hand fisted for a second before I typed up a response.

I’ll go, but I need food first. Going home now. 

Then I smiled and added another message.

Seb, I third you getting an STD. Aim for gonorrhea this time.

Setting my phone between my legs in the meantime, I grabbed my car keys from the pocket of my bag and snagged my flip-flops, then carefully set each of my skates into a custom protective case lined with a faux-fur over thin memory foam that my brother Jonathan and his husband had bought me years ago. I zipped my bag back up, slid my feet into my sandals, and got to my feet with a sigh that made my chest feel tight.

Today hadn’t been the best, but it would get better, I told myself.

It had to.

The good thing was, I didn’t have work tomorrow, and I didn’t usually come skate on Sundays either. My mom would probably make pancakes for breakfast, and I was supposed to go to the zoo with my brother and niece since he was picking her up for the day. I’d missed enough moments in her life because of figure skating. Now that I had more time, I was trying to make up for it. It was better for me to look at it like that than get hung up on why I had more time on my hands. I was trying to be more positive. I just wasn’t that good at it yet.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls said. “But he usually doesn’t come in for a month or two after the end of the season, and it’s been what? A week since Worlds?”

“I wonder if he split up with Mindy.”

“Why would he do that?” 

“I don’t know. Why did he split up with any of the rest of them before her?” 

I’d already known from the moment one of them said Coach Lee’s name whom they were still talking about. There was only one man left at the LC—what most of us called the Lukov Ice and Sports Complex, or the Lukov Complex for short—that these girls would give a crap about. It was the same guy everyone gave a shit about. Everyone except me at least. And anyone else with a brain. Ivan Lukov.

Or as I liked to call him, to his face especially—the son of Satan.

All I said was that I saw him. I don’t know what he’s doing here,” a voice said.

He never comes over randomly, Stacy. Come on. Put two and two together.”

Oh my God, are he and Mindy splitting up?” 

“If they are, I wonder who he’ll skate with.”  

“It could be anybody.”

“Shoot, I’d pay to partner with him,” a girl said. 

“You don’t even know anything about pairs, stupid,” another girl said, snorting. I wasn’t actively listening, but my brain continued stringing together the pieces of their comments as they went in one ear and out the other.

How hard could it be?” the other voice rattled off proudly. “He’s got the greatest butt in the country, and he wins with everyone. Sounds like a walk in the park to me.” 

I rolled my eyes again, especially at the butt part. The last thing that idiot ever needed to hear was someone compliment it. But, she had missed the most relevant parts of Ivan. How he was the figure skating world’s sweetheart-slash-dreamboat. The World Skating Union’s poster boy for pairs skating. Hell, for skating in general, really. “Skating royalty” as some called him. “A prodigy” people had used when he’d been a teenager.

He was the man whose family owned the center I had trained at for over a decade.

The brother to one of my only friends.

The man who had not once said a kind word to me in over ten years. That’s how I knew him. As the ass who I’d seen daily for years and had only ever bickered to me over the dumbest shit from time to time. The person I couldn’t have a conversation with without it ending in one of us insulting the other.

Yeah… I didn’t get why he was at the Lukov Complex barely a week after he’d won his third world championship, days after the season had ended—when he should have been resting or vacationing. At least that was what he’d done every year for as long as I could remember.

Did I care he was around? Nah. If I really wanted to know what was happening, I could just ask Karina. I just didn’t. There was no need to.

Because it wasn’t like Ivan and I were going to compete against each other anytime soon… or ever again, if things continued the way they were going.

And something told me, even if I didn’t want to believe it—never, ever, ever—as I stood there in the same changing room I’d been using for more than half my life, that that was the case: that I might be done. After so long, after so many months of being by myself… my dream might be over.

And I had not a single fucking thing to show for it.

Chapter Two

“Did you hear the news?”

I gave the laces on my boot an extra tight squeeze in the changing room before looping the ends into a knot tight enough to survive the next hour. I didn’t need to turn around to know there were two teenage girls down the bench from me in front of their lockers. They were there every morning, usually farting around. They could have had more time on the ice if they didn’t talk, but whatever. I wasn’t the one paying for their ice time. If they’d had my mom for their own, she would’ve gotten them out of that standing-around habit real quick.

My mom told me last night,” the taller of the two said as she got to her feet.

I stood up and kept my attention forward, rolling back my shoulders even though I’d already spent an hour warming up and stretching. Maybe I wasn’t skating six or seven hours a day like I used to—when stretching for at least an hour was absolutely necessary—but old habits died hard. And suffering for days or weeks from a pulled muscle wasn’t worth the hour I’d save from skipping my warm-up.

“She said she overheard someone say that they think he’s retiring because he’s had so many problems with his partners.” 

Now that caught my attention. 

He. Retiring. Problems.

It had pretty much been a miracle that I’d graduated from high school on time, but even I knew who they had to be talking about. Ivan. Who the hell else? Other than a few younger boys, and the three years that Paul had spent training at the Lukov Ice and Sports Complex with me, there was no other “he” that anyone here would talk about. There were a couple of teenage boys, but none of them had the potential to go very far, if anybody gave a shit about my opinion. Not that they did.

Maybe if he retires he’ll go into coaching,” one of the girls said. “I wouldn’t mind him yelling at me all day.”

I almost laughed. Ivan retiring? No way. There was no chance in hell he’d retire at twenty-nine, especially not while he was still killing it. Months ago, he’d won a US championship. And a month before that, he’d taken second place in the Major Prix final.

Why the hell was I even paying attention anyway?

I didn’t care what he did. His life was his business. We all had to quit sometime. And the less I had to look at his annoying face, the better.

Deciding that I didn’t need to be distracted starting the first of only two hours I had in the day to practice—especially not being distracted over Ivan of all people—I made my way out of the changing room, leaving the two teenagers in there to waste their own time gossiping. This early in the morning, there were six people on the ice, like usual. I didn’t come in as early as I had before—there wasn’t a point—but every face, I’d been seeing for years.

Some more than others.

Galina was already sitting on one of the bleachers outside the rink with her thermos of coffee that I knew from experience was so thick it looked and tasted like tar. With her favorite red scarf wound around her neck and ears, she had on a sweater I’d seen at least a hundred times in the past and what looked like a shawl on top of it. I’d swear she’d started adding an item of clothing to what she wore every year. When she had first plucked me out of lessons almost fourteen years ago, she had been fine in just a long sleeved shirt and a shawl, now she probably would have frozen to death.

Fourteen years was longer than some of these girls had been alive.

“Good morning,” I said in the choppy Russian I’d picked up from her over the years.

“Hello, yozik,” she greeted me, her eyes darting toward the ice for a brief moment before returning to me with a face that was the same as it had been when I’d been twelve, all weathered and fierce, like her skin was made of bulletproof material. “Your weekend, it was good?”

I nodded, briefly reminiscing on how I’d gone to the zoo with my brother and niece and then gone to his condo afterward for pizza—two things I couldn’t remember ever doing in the past, the pizza part included. “Did you have a good one?” I asked the woman who taught me so many things I could never give her credit for.

The dimples she rarely showed came out. She had a face I knew so well I could describe it to a sketch artist perfectly if she ever came missing. Round, thin eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, a thin mouth, a scar on her chin from taking a partner’s blade to the face back in her competing days, another scar at her temple from smacking her head on the ice. Not that she would ever go missing. Any kidnapper would probably release her within an hour. “I saw my grandchild.”

I thought about the dates for a second before it clicked. “It was his birthday, right?”

She nodded, her gaze moving toward the rink again in the direction of what I knew was the figure skater she’d been working with since I’d left her to start skating pairs four years ago. Well, I hadn’t wanted to leave her but… it didn’t matter. It didn’t make me jealous anymore to think of how quickly she’d replaced me. But sometimes, especially lately, it bothered me. Just a little. Just enough.

I’d never let her know that. “Did you finally buy him skates?” I asked.

My old coach tipped her head to the side and shrugged a shoulder, the gray eyes, which had stared me down countless times, still settled on the ice. “Yes. Used skates and video game. I waited. He’s almost same age you were. Little later, but still good.”

She’d finally done it. I remembered when he’d been born—before we’d split—and how we’d talked about him figure skating when he was old enough. It had only been a matter of time. We both knew that. Her own children hadn’t made it out of the junior level, but it hadn’t mattered.

But thinking about him, her grandson, just starting made me feel… almost homesick, remembering how much fun figure skating had been back then. Back before the bone-crushing pressure, the drama, and the fucking critics. Back before I’d learned the shitty taste of disappointment. Figure skating had always made me feel invincible. But more than anything, back then, it had made me feel amazing. I hadn’t known it was possible to feel like you could fly. To be so strong. To be so beautiful. To be good at something. Especially something that I cared about. Because I hadn’t known that contorting body parts and twisting and turning them into shapes that shouldn’t have been possible could be so impressive. It had made me feel special to go as fast as I could around the oval shape, that I would have no idea until years later, would change my life.

Galina’s chuckle snapped me out of my funk. At least for a moment.

“One day, you coach him,” she offered with a snort, like she was imagining me treating him the way she had treated me, and it made her laugh.

I snickered at the memories of all the hundreds of times she had smacked me on the back of the head throughout those ten years we were together. Some people wouldn’t have been able to handle her brand of tough love, but I’d secretly loved it. I’d thrived with it. My mom always said that if anyone gave me an inch, I’d take a mile.

And the last thing Galina Petrov would ever do is give up a single centimeter.

But this wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned the idea of me coaching. Over the last few months, when things had become… more desperate… when my hope of finding another partner began to shrivel up… she’d started dropping the possibility on me when we’d talk, not subtly or swiftly at all. Just Jasmine, you coach. Yes?

But I still wasn’t ready for that. Coaching felt like giving up, and… I wasn’t ready. Not yet. Not fucking yet.

But maybe it’s time? Some nagging, whiney voice in my head whispered at the same time, making my stomach clench.

Almost as if she could sense what was going on in my head, she made another snorting sound. “I have things to do. Practice your jumps. You aren’t committing, you are too much in your head, that’s why you have been falling. Remember seven years ago,” she said, her attention still on the ice. “Stop thinking. You know what to do.”

I hadn’t thought she’d noticed me struggling since she was busy coaching someone else.

But I focused on her words, remembering exactly what time period she was talking about. She was right. I had been nineteen. That had been the worst season of my singles career, back when I hadn’t had a partner and skated all by myself; that season had been the catalyst for the next three seasons that had led me down the path to pairs, to skating with a partner. I’d been in my head too much, overthought everything, and… well, if I’d made a mistake transitioning from singles, it was too late to regret it at this point.

Life was about choices, and I had made mine.

I nodded and swallowed back that old shame at the memory of that horrible season I still thought about when I was by myself and feeling more pitiful than usual. “That’s what I was worried about. I’m gonna go work on them. I’ll see you later, Lina,” I said to my old coach, fiddling with the bracelet on my wrist for a moment before dropping my hands and shaking them both out.

Galina’s eyes quickly moved over my face before she dipped her chin gravely and turned her attention back to the rink, shouting something in her deeply accented voice about going into a jump too slowly.

Taking off my skate guards and setting them in their usual spot, I stepped out on the ice and focused.

I could do this.

* * *

Exactly an hour later, I was as sweaty and as tired as I’d been back when I’d have a three-hour session. I was getting soft, damn it. I’d ended up doing a few jump combinations—a sequence or at least one jump followed immediately by another, sometimes two more jumps—but my heart hadn’t really been in it. I’d landed them, but only barely, wobbling and fighting to stick each one while trying my hardest to focus on them and only them at the same time.

Galina was right. I was distracted, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly was distracting me. Maybe I really did need to rub one out real quick or go for a run or something. Anything to clear my head, or at least this funky feeling that had been following me around like a ghost.

I made it back to the changing rooms, only slightly frustrated to find a plain yellow Post-It note on the door of my locker. I didn’t think anything of it. A month ago, the general manager for the LC had left me a similar note, asking me to go to her office. All she’d wanted was to offer me a job coaching beginner lessons. Again. Why she thought I’d be a good candidate for teaching young girls—practically babies—I had no idea, but I’d told her I wasn’t interested.

So when I picked the note off the locker and slowly read Jasmine, come to the GM office before you go, twice, just to make sure I read it correctly, I didn’t think much of it except the fact that whatever the GM wanted from me was going to have to be quick because I had to get to work. I had my days timed to the minute. I had lists with my schedules just about everywhere—on my phone, on sheets of paper in my car, in my bags, in my room, on the fridge—so I wouldn’t forget or get flustered. Being organized, prepared, and constantly keeping track of time to be punctual were important to me. As it was, I was going to need to skip sitting under the hot water and putting on makeup to get to work in time, unless I let my boss know.

Pulling my phone out of my bag the moment I had my locker unlocked, I typed up a message, thanking spellcheck like I always did for existing and making my life easier, and sent it to my mom. She always had her phone on her.

Me: The LC GM wants to talk. Can you call Matty and tell him I’m running a little late but will be there asap?

She responded immediately.

Mom: What did you do? 

I rolled my eyes and typed a response. Nothing  

Mom: Then why are you going to the office?

Mom: Did you call someone’s mom a dirty whore again?  

Of course she’d never forget that. No one did.

Then there was the fact that I hadn’t told her about the three other times the GM had asked me into her office to try and talk me into coaching. 

Me: I don’t know. Maybe my check last week bounced.  

That was a joke. She knew better than anyone how much LC fees cost. She’d paid for them for over a decade. 

Me: No. I haven’t called anyone’s mom a dirty whore again, but that other dirty whore deserved it.

Knowing she would reply almost immediately, I set my phone back into my locker and decided I could text her back in a minute. Rushing through my shower after putting my things up, I slipped into my underwear, jeans, collared shirt, socks, and the best looking comfortable shoes I was able to afford, in record time. By the time I was done with that, I checked my phone again and found my mom had replied.

Mom: You need money? 

Mom: She did deserve it.  

Mom: Shoved anybody lately? 

It killed me inside that she still asked me if I needed money. Like I hadn’t taken enough of hers over the years, month after month. Failed season after failed season.

At least I wasn’t asking her for it anymore. 

Me: I’m okay with money. Thanks.  

Me: I have not shoved anyone again.  

Mom: You sure? 

Me: Yes I’m sure. I would know if I did. 

Mom: Positive? 

Me: Yes 

Mom: It’s okay if you did. Some people need it. 

Mom: Even I’ve wanted to punch you sometimes. It happens. 

I couldn’t help but laugh. 

Me: Me too 

Mom: You’ve wanted to punch me in the throat? 

Me: There is no right answer to that question. 

Mom: Ha ha ha ha. 

Me: I never did it. OK? 

Zipping up my bag, I gripped the handle, fisted my keys, and walked out of there as fast as possible, basically jogging down one hall and then another to head toward the part of the building where the business offices were located. I was going to have to eat the egg white sandwich I’d left in my lunch bag in my car as I drove. Just as I made it to the door, I typed up another message to be on the safe side, ignoring my misspellings, which I usually didn’t. 

Me: For real ma. Can you call n tell him?  

Mom: YES 

Me: Thank u 

Mom: Love you. 

Mom: Tell me if you need money. 

My throat tightened for a moment, but I didn’t text anything back. I wouldn’t tell her even if I did. Not anymore. At least not if I could help it, and the truth was, I’d turn to stripping if it ever got to that point again. She’d done enough.

Holding in a sigh, I knocked on the door of the general manager’s office, thinking that I really wanted whatever conversation was about to happen to last all of ten minutes so that I wouldn’t be too late to work. I didn’t want to take advantage of my mom’s closest friend being lenient with me.

I turned the knob the second I heard a voice inside the office shout, “Come in!”

Let’s get this over with, I thought, opening the door.

The problem in that moment was that I’d never been a fan of surprises. Ever. Not even when I was little. I had always liked to know what I was getting myself into. Needless to say, no one had ever thrown me a surprise birthday party. The one time my grandpa had tried to pull that off, my mom had told me in advance and made me swear I’d act surprised. I had.

I’d been ready to face the general manager, a woman named Georgina that I’d always gotten along with. I’d overheard some people call her a hard-ass, but to me, she was just strong willed and didn’t take shit from people because she didn’t have to.

So I was pretty much shocked as hell when the first person I spotted sitting in the office wasn’t Georgina, but a familiar, fifty-something woman in a classy black sweater and a bun that was so neat, the only other times I’d seen one so perfect was during competitions.

And I was even more surprised when I saw the second person in the office, just sitting there on the other side of the desk.

My third surprise came in the shape of the realization that there was no general manager in sight.

Just… them.

Ivan Lukov and the woman who had spent the last eleven years training him.

Someone who I couldn’t have a conversation with without arguing, and the other who had said maybe twenty words to me over the course of those eleven years.

What in the hell is going on? I wondered, before settling my gaze on the other woman, trying to figure out if I’d misread the note on my locker. I hadn’t… had I? I had taken my time. I had read it twice. I didn’t usually butcher reading things any more.

“I was looking for Georgina,” I explained, trying to ignore the instant frustration in my stomach at the possibility I’d misread the words on the Post It. I hated messing up. Hated it. Screwing up in front of them made it even worse, damn it. “Do you know where she’s at?” I ground out, still thinking about the note.

The woman smiled easily, not at all like I’d interrupted something important and not even a little like I was someone she had basically ignored for years, and it immediately put me even more on edge. She had never smiled at me before. Actually, I didn’t think I’d ever seen her smile, period. “Come in,” she said, that smile still holding strong. “I left the note on your locker, not Georgina.”

I’d feel relieved later that I hadn’t misread the words, but at that point, I was too busy wondering why the hell I was standing there and why she had sent me that note…. And why the hell Ivan was sitting there not saying anything.

As if reading my mind, the woman’s smile grew wider, like she was trying to reassure me, but it did the opposite. “Sit down, Jasmine,” she said in a tone that reminded me she’d coached the idiot to my left through two world championships. The problem was, she wasn’t my coach, and I didn’t like people telling me what to do, even when they had a right to. She also hadn’t been particularly nice to me either. She hadn’t been rude, but she hadn’t been kind either.

I mean, I understood. That didn’t mean I was going to forget about it though.

For two years, I’d been in the same competitions Ivan had. I was competitive, and so were they. It was easier to want to beat someone that you weren’t friendly with. But that didn’t explain the years before that, back when I’d skated by myself and had nothing to do with him. Back when she could have been friendly with me… but hadn’t. Not that I’d wanted her to or needed her to, but still.

So she shouldn’t have been surprised when all I did was raise my eyebrows at her.

Apparently, she decided that raising her eyebrows right back at me was the best way to respond. “Please?” she offered, almost sounding sweet.

I didn’t trust her tone, or her.

I couldn’t help but sweep my gaze in the direction of the chairs across from her. There were only two, and one of them was occupied by Ivan, who I hadn’t seen since he’d left for Boston before Worlds. Those long legs of his were stretched out straight, those feet that I’d seen more in skates than in regular shoes were tucked beneath the desk his coach had taken over. But it wasn’t the lazy way he was sitting there with his arms crossed over his chest showcasing those lean pecs and leaner torso, or the navy blue turtleneck bringing to life the almost pale skin over the face that the other girls at the facility went nuts over, that caught my attention for the longest amount of time.

It was his gray-blue eyes totally zoned in on me that made me pause. I never forgot how intense the color was, but it always took me off guard anyway. I never forgot how long the black eyelashes surrounding them were either.

Then there was everything else around those eyes.

Ugh.

So many girls went nuts over his face, over his hair, over his eyes, over his figure skating, over his arms, his long legs, the way he breathed, the toothpaste he used…. It was annoying. Even my brother called him a pretty boy—he called my sister’s husband a pretty boy too, but that wasn’t the point. If that wasn’t enough, girls worshipped the broad shoulders that helped him hold his partners a full arm’s length above his head with one foot balanced on the narrow slice of metal called a blade. I’d overheard women swoon over a butt I didn’t need to look at to know had to be a perfect example of a bubble butt—tight buns were pretty much mandatory in this sport.

And if he had a best feature, those creepy eyes would have been it.

But he didn’t. The devil didn’t have any redeeming qualities.

I stared at him, and that evil pretty-boy face stared back at me. He didn’t look anywhere other than my face. He didn’t frown or smile or anything.

And that shit put me on edge.

He just… looked. With his mouth shut. And his hands—and fingers—tucked into his armpits.

If I had been anyone else, he would have made me uneasy with that gaze. But I wasn’t his groupie. I knew him well enough to not be distracted by the bodysuit he wore over his natural form. He worked hard, so he was good. He wasn’t a unicorn. He definitely wasn’t a Pegasus. He didn’t impress me.

Plus, I had been there when his mom ripped him a new one once years ago for talking back to her, so there was that, too.

“What’s this about?” I asked slowly, staring at Ivan’s semi-familiar face for another second before finally dragging my gaze back to Coach Lee, who was almost hunched over the desk, if someone with her posture was capable of hunching, elbows firmly planted, the thin, dark slashes of her eyebrows still high in interest. She was just as pretty as she’d been back when she competed. I had watched videos of her back in the 80s when she’d been the national champion.

“It’s nothing bad, I promise,” the older woman answered carefully, like she could still pick up on my uneasiness. She gestured toward the chair besides Ivan’s. “Can you take a seat?”

Bad things happened when someone asked you to take a seat. Especially one next to Ivan. So, that wasn’t happening. “I’m fine,” I said, my voice sounding as weird as I felt.

What was going on? I couldn’t be getting kicked out of the facility. I hadn’t done anything.

Unless those shit kids from the weekend had tattled on me. Damn it.

“Jasmine, all we need is two minutes,” Coach Lee said slowly, still motioning toward the chair.

Yeah, this shit wasn’t adding up, and it was only getting worse. Two minutes? You couldn’t do anything well in two minutes. I brushed my teeth for longer than two minutes twice a day.

I didn’t move. They had tattled on me. Those little fuckers—

Confirming that I wasn’t hiding my thoughts at all, Coach Lee sighed from her spot behind the desk. I didn’t miss the way her eyes slid toward Ivan briefly before returning to me. In a navy suit jacket and a crisp white shirt, she looked more like a lawyer than the figure skater she had been and the coach she currently was. The woman shifted in her seat and sat up straight, her lips pursing together for a moment before she spoke again. “I’ll get to the point then. How set are you on being retired?”

How set was I on being retired? Was that what everyone thought I was? Fucking retired?

It wasn’t like I’d chosen not to have a partner and miss an entire season, but… whatever. Whatever. My blood pressure did something weird it had never done before, but I decided to ignore it and the r-word at least for now and chose to focus on the most important part of what had just come out of her mouth. “Why are you asking?” I asked slowly, still worried. Just a little.

I should have called Karina.

In a straightforward move I could appreciate at any other time, the other woman didn’t beat around the bush. And that’s what surprised the hell out of me even more than I’d already been, because I wasn’t expecting the sentence that came out of her mouth. It would have been just about the last thing I’d ever expect to hear out of her. Shit, it was the last thing I would ever expect out of anyone’s mouth.

“We want you to be Ivan’s next partner,” the woman said. Just. Like. That.

Just like that.

There were moments in life where you asked yourself if you did drugs without realizing it. Like maybe someone had put some LSD in your drink and didn’t tell you. Or maybe you thought you took a pain reliever—and didn’t remember—but it was really PCP.

That right there, standing in the general manager’s office at the LC, was that moment for me. All I could do was blink. Then do it some more.

Because what the fucking fuck?

“If you’re ready to come back out of retirement, that is,” the woman continued on, using that r-word one more time, like I wasn’t standing there wondering who could have spiked my water with hallucinogenic drugs, because there’s no way this shit was happening. There was no way these words were actually coming out of Coach Lee’s mouth.

No fucking way. 

I had to have misheard her or just completely missed a giant part of the conversation somehow because…

Because.

Me and Ivan? Partnering? There was no way. No chance.

…wasn’t there?

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