"Sergei, this isn't a race to see how many back crossovers you can do in a minute, slow down and show me some style!" Frank Whittaker's voice boomed across the wide expanse of ice and echoed off the high ceiling. Casting a frustrated look over his shoulder, he watched as Aleksei Rocmanov, World and Olympic figure skating champion, pushed through the double doors of the ice rink and strode to his long-time coach and manager's side.
"How's it going?" Aleksei asked, his tone deep and filled with amusement as he watched Frank roll his eyes in exasperation. Aleksei looked to the ice for his coach's source of discontent and smiled as he watched his twenty-one year-old son race by him, separated by a waist-high wall. The breeze following Sergei washed over his father in a cool wave.
Despite Frank's obvious frustration, the two men watched the young man as he continued to speed his way around the rink in powerful ice-eating strokes. Frank cast a dubious look up at Aleksei and was amazed, yet again, to see how much Sergei favored his father. Tall, and rapidly leaving the lanky musculature of a teenager behind, Frank shook his head in wonder as he realized Sergei looked so much like his father at the same age it was scary. Long legged, broad shouldered, and too handsome for his own good, Sergei was already fighting off girls. Inwardly he cringed as he remembered the wild streak Aleksei had displayed until he'd been partnered with the young woman who surprisingly turned out to be the love of his life, and Sergei's mother, Jordan Jamison. That Sergei had inherited his father's handsome dark looks, flashing ebony eyes and devastatingly sexy smile was enough to make Frank think of retiring, but the fact he'd inherited his mother's extreme stubbornness and subtle knack for coercion, Frank found himself, once again, coaching a Rocmanov.
"He sure eats up the ice," Aleksei stated proudly, watching the ever-lengthening strides as his son continued to fly across the ice.
"No doubt about that. Now, if he'd just show some style," Frank complained, yelling yet another request toward Sergei as he sped by him. "Damn, his legs look long!" Frank mumbled.
"They are long. It makes his mother crazy because every time she turns around, costumes have to be remade. She can't even keep him in pants long enough for him to wear them out. Besides going up, he's going out too and Jordan's threatening to cut him off from his weight training," Aleksei chuckled, remembering Jordan's exasperated expression over the latest stack of pants he'd outgrown and the pile of shirts that couldn't stretch across his wide shoulders. As he watched his son skate, he again marveled that this muscular young man could have come from the petite woman he had married.
"Speaking of whom, where is Jordan? I thought you two were scheduled for the ice after this obnoxious son of yours was done scoring the surface," Frank growled.
"Busy chatting with Cynthia in the office. You'd think the two of them hadn't seen each other in a year the way they were carrying on when I left."
"What? It has to have been at least a day and a half since they saw each other last." Frank offered.
"If that - and they spent a good hour on the phone this morning so not much could have happened in the last three hours to warrant this kind of gossip session." Aleksei added.
"It's a girl thing." Frank concluded, casting a knowing nod over Aleksei's shoulder as the topic of their subject pushed through the doors and walked toward the duo.
"What's a girl thing?" Jordan asked, first kissing Aleksei sweetly on the lips and then Frank on the cheek.
"Nothing," both men answered in unison.
Jordan cast both men a disbelieving glance and quipped lightly, knowingly, "Bashing us girls again, aren't you?"
Negative nods came from both men, but their guilty looks said it all.
"That's okay, I love you both anyway, even if you are flawed males." Jordan answered sweetly, turning her gaze to the ice, her eyes lighting with pleasure as she watched her son fly across the shiny surface. "God, he's gorgeous!" she whispered, pride and love shining clearly in her emerald gaze.
"You're prejudiced, love - you're expected to say that - you're his mother," Aleksei stated, enfolding her in his arms, her back snugly against his wide, muscular chest, his chin resting on the top of her head.
"Do you disagree?" Jordan asked, her eyes never leaving the figure on the ice.
"Of course not, he is gorgeous. But what else could he be with us for parents?" Aleksei questioned lightly, his voice filled with laughter, his own gaze filled with pride and love.
"All right - enough of this mutual admiration society shit! I want to know how we're going to get this kid to show some style?" Frank growled, yelling across the ice, yet again, for Sergei to slow down and show some finesse.
"I'll handle it." Jordan answered, reaching down to pull the blade guards off her skates and then handing them to her husband; with a quick shrug, her coat slid from her shoulders and into Aleksei's hands also. "Watch and learn, gentlemen. Sometimes it takes a softer, female, touch to get past the macho ego and into the male brain." Jordan quipped, smiling sweetly and stepping through the doorway and onto the ice.
Aleksei and Frank watched Jordan skate slowly toward her son, accustoming herself to the now rough surface. Frank looked up at Aleksei and back at Jordan, shaking his head in puzzlement and wondering for the millionth time how he'd been so lucky as to stumble into coaching Jordan and Aleksei to Olympic Gold almost nineteen years ago. Somehow the time had simply vanished like mist in the sun and the only marker of those nineteen years now skated in the form of a younger Aleksei.
To see Jordan on the ice, looking more like a teenager than the mother of two children, a devilish smile lit up Frank's lined face and the look he cast Aleksei was filled with mischievous glee. "It's suddenly dawned on me, old man, you've got a birthday coming up." Frank stated casually.
Aleksei recognized the look, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Yeah&ldots; so?"
Frank shrugged his shoulders. "Just thinking out loud. I have to do that these days, my mind isn't what it used to be."
"Your mind is just as quick and devious as it ever was." Aleksei stated firmly, one brow raised questioningly as he pondered what form his coach's torture might take this time.
"I don't know about that. You're going to be what, fifty-three, fifty-four?"
"Whittaker, you're pushing it. This is number forty-nine and you know it. You don't need to add extras just for the hell of it." Aleksei complained. His age never really bothered him, except when he thought about it. Somehow the years had raced by him, and despite the fact he didn't feel any older than he had the twenty-five years ago when he'd first been partnered with Jordan, his body was telling him more and more frequently that time was marching on.
"To look at Jordan, you'd think she isn't old enough to have kids at all, let alone a twenty-one year old." Frank teased, nodding toward the still petite, very young looking, figure Jordan presented on the ice.
"She doesn't look any different than she did the day we took Gold at the Olympics," Aleksei stated softly. He remembered how close he'd come to losing her in a tragic accident, her long road to a complete recovery, despite the doctor's predictions she would never walk, let alone skate, again, and then their Olympic victory. Silently he sent his thanks to God, yet again, for being blessed with her love and all she'd brought him, and his heart filled with joy and love as he heard his wife call out to their son.
Jordan's soft voice carried across the ice as she called her son's name and he immediately changed his direction and skated to her side, sliding gracefully to a stop beside her, spraying her ankles with glittering sparkles of ice.
Aleksei and Whittaker watched silently as the pair on the ice conversed quietly. Whittaker shook his head in amazement. Would he ever get used to the fact Jordan was so petite when compared to her husband and son? The two noted Sergei's positive nod at something his mother said, then saw a broad smile light up his face as his mother took his hand in hers and the two of them began to circle the ice as a pair.
Jordan talked calmly and softly to her son as they skated across the ice, gradually picking up speed, and cued him when to three-turn so they were skating backward, then guided him as they started their back crossovers. Round and round they circled the rink, their pace controlled and steady, their arm and body positions perfect, their speed incredible as they flew across the ice silently, seemingly without effort. Jordan continued to practice with her son for several more minutes and with a last comment, released his hand and sent him on his own. Coming to a stop at mid-ice, she watched her son continue around the ice, his stride continuing at the same speed and pace as when they'd skated together.
"What do you think, Frank? That looks perfect to me!" Jordan yelled across the ice.
"Shit," Whittaker grumbled, casting a disgusted look at Sergei as he passed by him, giving him a jaunty salute. "He's been screwing with me again, hasn't he?"
"Like father, like son!" Aleksei's booming laughter echoed across the ice, memories of days gone by when he'd done his best to make Frank crazy flashed through his mind and his laughter grew as he watched his son race toward his mother, scoop her into his arms and spin her in circles. "After all, Frank, it's a girl thing!"
"Girl thing, my ass, he just likes skating with his mom." Frank stated, a light suddenly brightening his eyes as the very thought of making him into a pair came to life.
"He's always liked skating with his mom. Hell, I like skating with his mom!" Aleksei laughed.
"So what if we find him a partner?" Whittaker suggested.
Aleksei's eyes widened in surprise, his mouth opened and closed as he struggled to speak, his expression filled with disbelief. "You want to make Sergei part of a pair?" Aleksei finally managed to get the words out.
Whittaker laughed, "That's the same response you had when I made the suggestion to you. Boy, the more things change, the more they stay the same."
"You're asking me if I think Sergei can be part of a pair team? Have you even approached him with this idea?"
"It just came to me. I thought I'd run it by you first. If I have your approval it will make it easier to coerce - I mean, convince - Sergei this is a great idea!"
"No, you were right, coerce is the right word for what you have in mind." Aleksei growled, casting another look at the ice, a smile lighting his eyes as he watched his wife and son skate together. Maybe the idea wasn't so absurd. As he watched the two skate together, he noted how Sergei automatically adjusted his stride to match his mother's, just as he himself had done so many years ago, how gently he held her hand and how lovingly he smiled at her. Maybe it wasn't crazy to think he'd follow in his father's footsteps, although he'd always believed doing exactly what your father did put unwanted pressures on a son, and he'd never wanted to compete directly with his son, even though Aleksei's own origins had been as a singles skater.
Frank stood leaning against the short wall, his stance casual, yet he was aware of everything around him. He silently watched as Aleksei's eyes followed the pair on the ice. Frank could almost hear the wheels spinning in Aleksei's mind as he silently voiced questions to himself and sought answers they could all live with. With more patience than he imagined he had, Frank stood quietly beside his friend and watched the pair on the ice.
"Ask him," Aleksei finally stated softly. "But don't be surprised if he tells you to blow it out your ear!" he finished, slapping his coach's shoulder in camaraderie, then slipping his own blade guards off and handing both his and Jordan's guards and coat to Frank. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go skate with my wife!" Aleksei bragged and stepped onto the ice, his long strides taking him quickly to meet Jordan and Sergei on the ice.
With a laugh, Aleksei pulled Jordan into his arms, effectively removing her from their son's hold, and shooed him off the ice. "Go find your own partner - she's mine and we've got work to do! And Frank wants to talk to you, so pay attention and think before you fly off the handle!" Aleksei yelled toward Sergei's retreating back, and winked conspiratorially into Jordan's upturned face, the question why clear in her unspoken look.
With another jaunty salute, Sergei made his way to the edge of the ice and stepped onto the rubber mat, accepting the blade guards Frank handed him and silently slipping them onto his skates. "Dad said you wanted to talk to me," Sergei stated calmly, his eyes meeting his coach's.
"Yeah, I've got a proposition for you&ldots;" Frank stated, and wrapping an arm across Sergei's already broadening shoulders, led him out the double doors and toward the office.
* * * * *
"Why do I have the feeling Sergei's not going to like the subject matter of Frank's discussion?" Jordan asked her husband, her tone semi-serious as she batted away Aleksei's wandering hands as he tried to pull her back into his arms.
Aleksei looked down at his waif of a wife, her shades of copper hair flowed in soft waves to her shoulders, her emerald eyes shone brightly with love, her smile full of secrets and mischievous. Her shapely figure still made his blood boil hotly and he wished he could whisk her away to some dark corner and ravish her body as he desired to. "Frank's got some wild idea of turning Sergei into part of a pair." Aleksei answered calmly, fighting the desire to ravish her right on the ice.
Jordan looked up into her husband's face, her look filled with astonishment, "Well it's about time, I've been dropping hints he do just that for three years! You would think he would have picked up on it long before now!" she answered excitedly, leaping into Aleksei's surprised arms and kissing him soundly.
Aleksei's look was confusion-filled. Here he'd been worried about her not liking the idea and now she was claiming to have been hinting at just such a proposition - and for three years! Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he watched as his wife skated in circles around him. "You have no objection to this possibility?"
"None at all. And why should I? You didn't do all that badly as a pair, despite your initial misgivings. You know how much Sergei loves to skate with me. Why wouldn't he want to skate with someone else? As long as it's the right someone else." Jordan's mind whirled with possibilities for her son.
"That's the operative word here, Jordan, the someone else. There's the small matter of a partner for him." Aleksei reminded her. "It's one thing to skate with your mother, it's another thing to skate with someone other than your mother. If you recall, I wasn't too keen on skating with you in the beginning."
"That's different - there were extenuating circumstances that clouded your better judgment - and Whittaker, being the fine coach he is, made the decision for you. And confess, despite our initial disagreements, we managed just fine." Jordan argued.
"Initial disagreements? Jordan I could have happily murdered you in the beginning and not even flinched when they put me in the electric chair and flipped the switch!" Aleksei countered on a laugh.
Jordan skated to meet her husband on the ice. Her hands slid around his waist and slipped lower to squeeze his firm bottom as she leaned against him; the warmth of her full breasts blending with the firm muscles of his wide chest increased his heart rate. He still had the best butt in the world as far as she was concerned. With eyes darkening to a deep green, she gazed into his ebony eyes and smiled seductively. "I'm very glad you didn't murder me. Think of everything you would have missed," she offered and raised up on her toe picks, her lips meeting his in a heated kiss.
Aleksei's body responded immediately to his wife's seductive kiss and he had to remind himself they were standing in the center of the ice rink, where anyone could come in. Despite the fact he wanted nothing more than to make love to her, he refused to risk publicly embarrassing anyone. With an effort, he pulled away from Jordan's sensuous touch and smiled down into her flushed face. "You'll never know how glad, but I'll be sure to show you just how glad tonight!" He promised deeply, his tone filled with passion. With a final quick kiss, he left her side and began to skate around the ice in an effort to regain control of his raging hormones and loosen up his muscles for their practice session.
Jordan watched the love of her life and recognized the passion that ran through his body like a raging fire. This practice session promised to be one that would leave them both exhausted by the end of it and yet ready to explode as their desire for each other flamed out of control. With a knowing, sensuous smile, Jordan began to slowly skate toward her husband, picking up her pace when he breezed by her and winked knowingly at her.
Whoever said minds couldn't be read had never seen Aleksei and Jordan in action!
* * * * *
"You are friggin' nuts, Whittaker, if you think you're going to hook me up with some little girl who thinks she can emulate my parents by skating with me!" Sergei growled deeply, his voice blessedly not breaking and ruining the macho effect he strove for. " Where'd you get such a nutso idea?"
"Your father didn't disagree with the concept. In fact, I'd say it probably pleased him somewhat, you know, following in his footsteps and all." Whittaker hedged.
"Dad started out as a single. The only reason he hooked up with mom was because he broke his stupid leg. Otherwise, he'd still be a single!" Sergei stated, his finger stabbing the air to emphasize his point.
"Maybe - maybe not - that's something we'll never know. But know this, if he hadn't switched to pairs, you and your sister wouldn't be here now!"
"Don't play that card, Whittaker. Mom and Dad were meant to be together and somehow would have found each other, despite you believing you were responsible."
"I was responsible. Did I, or did I not bring them together?" Whittaker argued.
"Which time? Their first meeting in Canada when Mom cut Dad's leg open, or when you and Dee decided to put them together as a team and they nearly killed each other?" Sergei countered.
Frank scowled at Sergei with narrowed eyes, obviously he knew the whole story of how his parents had come together, their shaky start, the accident that nearly destroyed the team and, finally, their amazing success at the Olympic games. There were few people in the world that didn't know their story; movies had been made, books written about them. Now, he was asking their son to take a risk and follow in footsteps that were golden. Frank had no doubt Sergei could be successful at pairs, he just had to convince the young man of the same thing.
"Tell me you don't like skating pairs with your mother." Frank suddenly stated.
"I can't say that and you know it. I love skating with Mom." Sergei fired off.
"So why can't you skate the same way with someone else?" Frank countered.
"Why should I skate pairs at all? I've got the elements I need to skate singles and be successful, I don't need to skate pairs!"
"You're right, you've got the required elements down pat technically - but you've got no style when you skate, you're just a madman dashing around the ice doing jumps and spins, you've got power and energy but no finesse. But when you skate with your mother, something changes in you and suddenly you've got style and technique and a beauty to your skating that's missing when you're alone."
"Just like Dad's, right?"
"No! I'm not looking to make another Aleksei Rocmanov; one was more than enough, thanks. I'm interested in seeing what Sergei Rocmanov has to offer." Frank stated calmly.
Sergei looked Frank square in the eyes, unblinking, and in a tone that was far older than his years, growled, "I'll have final say over who my partner is - I won't be railroaded the way Mom and Dad were - not by you, not by anyone. And if I feel you're not as serious about this fiasco as I think you should be, your ass is out of here and I'm finding myself a new coach!"
Frank blinked in surprise, dumbfounded by Sergei's mature declaration and nodded in agreement, extending his hand to Sergei and smiling at the young man's firm handshake as they sealed the deal. "I can't promise you this is going to be easy."
"Since when is anything worthwhile easy?" Sergei asked honestly, returning the handshake.
"Good point." Frank nodded in agreement, releasing Sergei's hand.
"So when do we start?" Sergei asked, his attention suddenly drawn away from Whittaker to the high-pitched shriek of welcome as his sister called his name from the other side of the wide room.
"Oh Christ," Sergei mumbled, rolling his eyes as he watched his seventeen-year-old sister race through the thickening crowd of people waiting for the ice to be cleared for public skate time, her attention focused solely on him, a wide smile lighting up her face.
"Sergei, Sergei, Sergei&ldots;" she called over and over, finally reaching him and launching herself into his arms.
Sergei's breath left in a gentle puff as he caught his sister in his arms, hugging her in return and placing a loud kiss on her cheek before setting her on her feet. "You're back early, Dani. We weren't expecting you for another two days."
Danielle Rocmanov looked up at her brother, her nose wrinkling in disgust as she noted his height. "You grew again, didn't you?"
"Not all of us get to be short, Dani, " he teased her, his shoulder taking the light punch she threw at him.
Sergei looked down at his sister. The top of her felt hat-covered head almost reached his chin. Her green eyes shone brightly as she looked up at him adoringly. A bright smile showed off straight white teeth framed by full lips colored a soft peach. She'd inherited her mother's pale complexion, high cheekbones and stubborn chin. Her figure was petite and just beginning its journey toward womanhood.
"I was only gone for a short while. That didn't mean you had to grow another two inches. If you'll note, I didn't do that." Dani growled, spreading her arms wide and making a quick circle to show him she hadn't changed.
"Eight weeks, Dani. You were gone eight weeks at that skating camp, which, considering how much it cost Mom and Dad to send you, I hope did you some good. Did you at least learn something new?" Sergei teased her again. Not that she had needed the additional training; she skated circles around him and had the style that Whittaker was forever raving about. The training camp had been more of a reward for Dani than a punishment; it had given her to chance to see if skating was what she wanted her future to be and it gave her the perfect chance to size up the future competitors she would face.
"As a matter of fact, there wasn't a single new thing they could teach me. I am so great, everyone was in awe of me!" she bragged in a bored tone, laughing out loud at her brother's disgusted expression.
"Yeah, I can just imagine how in awe they were of you." Aleksei taunted, flicking the brim of her felt hat so that it tipped back and slid off her head to the floor. "Holy shit, Dani! What did you do to your hair?" Sergei growled, shocked to see short, soft curls the color of honey where auburn waves that reached her waist should have been. "Mom and Dad are going to freak! What were you thinking?"
Dani ran her hands through her new short hairstyle, loving the way it felt against her fingers and loving even more the fact her head felt twenty pounds lighter. "It's easier to skate with it short. I got tired of always having to mess with all that hair and the fact it took forty-nine hairpins to keep it in a bun. If you want long hair, you grow it!" She finished, scooping her hat up off the floor and pushing into her coat pocket. "Where are Mom and Dad?"
"Probably still on the ice, and if I recognized the look in Dad's eyes, you may not want to disturb them." Sergei chuckled knowingly. Their parents had made no secret of the love they shared and the children had grown up watching the love their parents had for each other openly. It had been nothing out of the ordinary to catch their parents kissing and hugging at any given time and it had become a family joke to announce 'nap time' when their parents had wanted quiet time alone.
"You'd think they'd have learned to control themselves by now. For heavens sake it's embarrassing watching them, they're worse than teenagers." Dani complained, casting a devilish look at her brother. "Speaking of which, how's your love life, brother dear? Still steaming up the car windows with ol' what's her name?" She asked in a sickeningly sweet imitation of a southern accent before rolling her eyes in disgust. Felicity was simply the latest in a long line of girlfriends.
"Her name is Felicity, and that's none of your business. What I do with whom has nothing to do with you!" Sergei challenged. "Besides, I'd be more concerned with Mom and Dad's reaction to your new look!" Sergei suggested, meandering through the ever-thickening crowd and stepping over out-stretched feet wiggling into rental skates.
"You're just trying to change the subject from what's important to what's no big deal." Dani fired back, following in her brother's wake.
"Believe me, Mom and Dad are going to think that thing you did to your head is a very big deal. I hope you had fun at your camp, it could be years before they let you out of their sight again!" he finished, holding open the door to the office and letting his sister enter before him.
Cynthia Washington searched crazily through the papers covering her desk looking for a pencil, the phone tucked between her ear and shoulder, firing off questions and then questioning the answers she was hearing on the other end of the call. Glancing up, her smile widened as she spotted Sergei, mouthing where's a damn pencil and then smiling in embarrassment when he pointed to her ear. With a chagrined smile, she pulled the pencil from behind her ear and began rapidly jotting down notes. Two minutes later she finished the call, her voice filled with frustration. "Just once, I'd like a costume company to get their orders straight. Who in their right mind would put a six-year-old in a ladies size large? Don't they have any damn common sense at all?" she trailed off, a scream of welcome exploding from her wide smiling face when she spotted Danielle leaning against the wall next to the door.
With arms spread wide, she rushed to greet Dani, enfolding her in her arms and hugging her tightly. "You're back, sweet pea, and early too! Oh, your parents are going to be thrilled. They've missed you so much!" Cynthia babbled, giving her a final quick hug before holding her at arms length and running her gaze lovingly up and down her slim body, her eyes widening in surprise when her eyes came to rest on Dani's face and the new hairstyle that fairly screamed out notice me! "Holy shit, Dani, what the hell did you do to your hair?"
Danielle looked over Cynthia's shoulder at her brother's smirking I told you so expression and, with nothing else left to do, stuck out her tongue in retaliation.
It was great to be home!
Dani and Sergei silently pushed through the double doors leading back to the rink where their parents practiced on the ice and slid onto the cool benches to watch the pair as they ran through the program they planned to skate for an upcoming benefit. The music that echoed off the high ceiling was classical in flavor and hauntingly romantic, bringing to mind lost-loves found and fairy-tale endings. For as long as either Dani or Sergei could remember, they had watched their parents skate together and had marveled at the perfection they witnessed on the ice. Even during practice sessions, Aleksei and Jordan strove for perfection, wanting to be the best they could be for each other and instilling in their children the belief that you might not be perfect every time you stepped on the ice but there was nothing wrong in trying to be. They asked no more of their children then they asked of themselves: do your best and you could be proud of whatever you accomplished, despite the outcome. Strive for the pinnacle but understand that it's not always achievable and learn from your mistakes. Not always an easy lesson when your parents were Olympic Gold Medal winners, but certainly something to aim for.
"I wonder if I'll ever be a good as Mom and Dad." Dani whispered, her eyes never leaving the pair on the ice as they executed a perfect star lift, Aleksei's hand firmly under his wife's hip as he held her over his head, her arms and legs stretching gracefully outward in a star pattern.
"It'll be tough to be as good as a pair when you're only a single!" Sergei teased, his gaze absorbing every move his father made and storing it away for possible future use.
"Funny&ldots;" Dani growled, lightly elbowing her brother in his ribs and taking pleasure in his exaggerated grunt of pain, his stomach was nothing but muscle, and she lightly rubbed her elbow. "Those sit-ups you're so fond of are finally paying off, aren't they?"
"Ssshhh." Sergei whispered, watching as they built up speed for their upcoming throw. His father launched his mother across the ice in their signature triple loop throw, watched her spin three times in the air in a blur of motion and land, her toe-pick catching the ice and throwing her off balance. In slow motion they all watched as Jordan hit the ice and slid to a stop. Smiles appeared as they heard their mother's frustrated comment to herself and then her scream of outrage as her husband slid to a stop, showering her with icy particles and held out his hand to help her up.
"You just love doing that, don't you?" Jordan inquired laughingly, accepting his hand and allowing him to easily pull her to her feet.
"You're the one that made up the rule that the one who falls gets an ice shower." Aleksei stated, brushing the ice from his wife's shapely bottom.
Jordan's laughter echoed off the high ceiling, the sound merry and light, carrying to all the corners of the large rink. "Aleksei, that was years ago," she returned.
Aleksei shrugged nonchalantly, "So, you keep the good rules and lose the bad ones!"
"Dare I ask what a bad rule is?" Jordan laughed, her eyes glowing brightly, her smile widening as she caught her husband's devilish look.
"No sex on the ice." Aleksei stated in a serious tone, his dark eyes held a sensuous glow that said otherwise.
"Aleksei&ldots;" Jordan scolded, her tone filled with laughter and breathless at the same time. Jordan's scream of delight as her husband pulled her into his strong arms and scattered teasing kisses over her face and neck caused her to dissolve into laughter.
"Oh, Christ." Sergei mumbled from the bleachers where he watched his parent's outrageous behavior. The look he shared with Dani was perfectly clear - they're at it again.
"Aren't they supposed to be too old to still be acting like that? I mean, jeez, they've been married for a hundred years!" Dani questioned, her eyes rolling in disgust.
"You'd would think so." Sergei mumbled, getting to his feet and pulling his sister with him as he walked toward the ice. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he called across the wide expanse, "We've had complaints of lewd and lascivious behavior being observed on this ice and the police are giving you five minutes to clear the ice before they haul your horny butts off. And Cynthia's also complaining she can't keep the ice frozen when you're on it. What excuse should I give her this time?"
"Bug off, Rocmanov! This is no place for children right now." Aleksei growled deeply, his wife's laughter echoing around him as he continued to kiss and tickle and caress her shapely form, ignoring her half-hearted attempts to escape him.
"You're right about that! There must be rules on the books somewhere about minors being subjected to such outrageous behavior." Dani called over her brother's shoulder, peeking around his tall form, her smile widening at her father's surprised expression.
"Dani!" the word fairly exploded from both her parents' mouths and suddenly their graceful forms were skating across the ice at breakneck speed, exiting through the open doorway and enveloping her in a joint hug. Kisses and laughter and a million asked questions all happened at once. With a final hug, Dani was released and held at arms length.
"Oh, sweetie, you look wonderful!" Jordan exclaimed, running her eyes lovingly up and down her daughter's petite form. "You haven't changed at all."
"Jordan, she was only gone for eight weeks." Aleksei commented, his own gaze caressing the length of his daughter.
"A lot can happen in eight weeks." Jordan quipped.
"You'll never know how much!" Sergei mumbled, the look he cast his sister filled with humor and the knowledge that her little secret wasn't long for this world.
"Oh, come on now, Sergei. Tell me one thing that's different about your sister." Aleksei challenged his son.
"He's just ragging on me because I teased him about Felicia." Dani stalled, trying to change the subject.
"It's Felicity," Sergei corrected her, his dark eyes filled with a spark of devilment so bright it didn't bode well for his sister. There was nothing better than having your sibling under your thumb with no place to go!
"Pardon me - Felicity - I stand corrected." Dani allowed, her gaze pleading for mercy.
"Besides, that shouldn't bother you. You haven't seen Felicity since Dani left for camp." Jordan asked her son, her gaze catching the look that suddenly passed between her children. The same look she'd see pass between them for years whenever one of them had something on the other that would cause an uproar in one way or another. "Okay, what's up?" Jordan suddenly asked, her eyes moving from son to daughter and back again.
"Nothing." The answer was simultaneous from her children.
"Don't give me that. Something's up with you two and considering Dani's only been back for a matter of minutes, I'd say you have the answer, Sergei. Talk!"
"Heh, I didn't do anything. There's no reason to be grilling me. I'd suggest you speak to the youngest Rocmanov." Sergei offered, turning to walk toward the doors in the hopes of escaping the soon-to-come explosion under the pretense of finding Whittaker. "Frank's waiting for me so we can decide the best way to find a partner for me." Sergei stated, walking away from the small group of his family.
"A what?" Dani yelled, following after her brother, her expression filled with confusion and disbelief. "Did you say partner? I can't believe this! Did you really say partner?"
"Don't change the subject, Dani. Stay and face the music. I'm not the one with spikes on my head." Sergei fired his parting shot as he pushed through the double doors and headed toward the office.
"Spikes?" Aleksei asked quietly, his voice a deep growl.
"Dani?" Jordan asked softly, her expression filled with questions.
Dani turned to face her parents, her eyes widening at their expressions that so clearly stated what have you done now? she almost laughed out loud. With more courage than she felt, she took a deep breath, pulled the felt hat from her head and fluffed out the soft honey-colored curls covering her head. "Isn't it just too cool?" she asked with false bravado.
Her mother could only stare, her mouth slightly open as she struggled to find words.
Her father had no such trouble; his deep voice rocked the building. "Danielle Janae Rocmanov, what the hell did you do to your hair?"
* * * * *
"You'd think I'd dyed my hair bright purple and pierced my nipples the way Dad's carrying on," Dani complained from where she sat amid a pile of stuffed animals piled at the foot of her bed as she watched her mother, seated cross-legged on the floor, unpack her suitcases.
"You know how much he loved your long hair." Jordan answered calmly, keeping the fact that she, herself, thought the new hairstyle on her daughter was adorable, although she would have preferred to see her natural auburn color as opposed to the light honey-tone that glowed brightly from her daughter's head. "Besides, it's not really about your hair, it's about the fact that you're his baby girl and you're growing up faster than either of us like." Jordan stated with a smile, one both wistful and a little sad. "When you're a parent, you're torn between wanting your kids to stay babies and cute and sweet and wanting them grown and out of your hair."
"Mom, I'm seventeen." Dani stated firmly, trying to assume an adult tone despite the fact she was surrounded by stuffed animals.
"Don't remind me," Jordan moaned, holding up an exceptionally short pair of short-shorts to her daughter and casting her a questioning look. "Please tell me you wore these over tights."
Dani's exasperated look as she rolled her eyes held a devilish glint as she answered her mother. "For heaven's sake Mom, of course not&ldots;" she began, her smile widening as she watched her mother's eyes close in mortification as she imagined the amount of bare bottom the shorts would have displayed, "I wore them over bike shorts!" Dani finished in a stage whisper, her laugh echoing through her bedroom as she caught her mother's relieved look and sigh of relief.
Dropping the shorts into the pile of dirty laundry that was rapidly becoming a mountain, Jordan slid gracefully to her feet and joined her daughter amid the menagerie of stuffed creatures on her bed. Drawing her daughter into her arms, she breathed deeply of the scents that enveloped Dani: fruity shampoo, a light floral cologne and baby-powder assailed her as she held her daughter. Had it really been seventeen years ago that this beautiful young woman had been a baby, awaiting the lessons of life that would bring her to this point? Tears threatened Jordan's eyes and the lump of emotion that refused to allow her to speak above a whisper caught her by surprise. Holding Dani's face between her hands, feeling the silken texture of her daughter's skin against her palms was her undoing. With tears flooding her deep green eyes, Jordan gazed into the same green eyes as her own and whispered, "How could you grow up so much in the last eight weeks? You weren't supposed to do that."
Dani's gaze returned her mother's look steadily, a new light of understanding and respect filled her as she acknowledged her mother's whispered words. "I'll try to remember that in the future. No more growing up unless you're around," she replied, her own eyes filling with tears that slipped silently down her rose-tinted cheeks and splashed onto the stuffed bunny that sat in her lap. With a little gasp, Dani dissolved into her mother's arms, closing her eyes as the comforting feel of being totally safe and home again rushed over her in a wave. No matter how old she got to be, she couldn't imagine ever feeling as safe as she did in her mother's arms and this home. The bond between mother and daughter was rock solid, built on love, respect and communication, with a good dose of humor thrown in to get them over the rocky periods, which were, thankfully, few and far between.
Jordan gave Dani a quick, final hug and tussled her daughter's short curls, "I think your hair's adorable, but if you dare tell your father I said this, I'll swear I didn't, until my final, dying breath!" Jordan stated laughingly, with a quick kiss to Dani's nose and slid off the bed.
"It'll be our little secret." Dani agreed, placing her favorite stuffed bunny back against the numerous fluffy pillows, unfolded her long legs and joined her mother. With a smile, Dani accepted the armful of dirty clothes from her mother and followed her out the door. As she made the short trek to the laundry shoot, she had to stop every now and then to pick up a lost piece of clothing that fell from the pile she carried and finally shoved the clothes through the small door.
"So tell me, Mom. What's the deal with Sergei skating pairs? When did this all come about?" Dani asked, following her mother down the hallway that led to the stairs.
"Whittaker finally caught the hint I've been throwing at him for the last three years and made the suggestion today. I tell you, sometimes you have to hit a man over the head with a four-by-four a millions times before they can take a hint." Jordan mumbled.
"Except for Daddy," Dani qualified.
"Including your father!" Jordan announced. "In the beginning, your father was just like your brother, or at least according to Frank, he was. I think that's why your father and brother disagree so strongly. It's hard to deal with someone when you look at them and see yourself staring back. Mirror images have always been a hot issue. Think about it, your brother's legally able to drink alcohol."
"Mom, he's so straight laced it's ridiculous. You'd think that now he's twenty-one, he'd want to be out there partying. Is he? No! His idea of a hot Friday night is critiquing skating tapes and drinking iced tea! I tell you, living that dangerously, he might as well be an engineer!" Dani complained.
"Chronologically he's twenty-one. Unfortunately, sometimes I think he's an old man in a young man's body, he's too serious for his age. I don't want him to miss out on being young because he thinks he has to prove he's mature enough not to do something stupid, something childlike. Some of life's hardest lessons come from making mistakes," Jordan said.
"Sergei hates to make mistakes!" Dani stated knowingly.
"Don't I know it!" Jordan sighed in agreement, knowing how difficult the path her son was moving toward was going to be and wishing she could make his trek an easier one.
Whoever said being a parent was easy had obviously never been one!
Sergei held his head in his hands, his palms covering his ears as he attempted to muffle the shrill sounds of too many female voices talking excitedly at once. Leaning against the low wall, his elbows rested on the wall of the rink, his dark, frazzled gaze stared at the tiny lines scored by numerous blades in the ice directly below him. The headache, which had begun as a mere annoyance, now throbbed painfully in tempo to the pulse that beat strongly at his temple. How had this happened?
The sudden hearty slap on his back and Whittaker's booming greeting, caused Sergei to close his eyes, shake his head and wonder for the forty-ninth time what in the hell he was doing here.
"I see you made it," Whittaker boomed, smiling as he looked across the ice and the numerous girls, of all ages and sizes, as they skated in slow circles around the rink, warming up muscles and getting a feel for the ice.
"I'm beginning to wish I hadn't." Sergei growled, his look one of disgust as he watched one of the girls blow him a kiss from across the rink. "What is all this?" Sergei questioned sharply.
"Rumor's out you're looking for a partner." Whittaker answered simply, his sharp eyes continuing to scan the skaters on the ice.
"I made the decision two days ago to become a pair. How can word spread this quickly?"
"Rumors are like wildfires; don't ask me how they happen, they just do!" Whittaker answered with a negligent shrug.
"Yeah, right! Well this is turning into a wildfire, totally out of control and unwanted. If this is what it's going to be like finding me a partner, I'm out of here!" Sergei growled, running his hands through his hair in frustration and cringing as a high-pitched, voice screeched his name. Looking toward the source of the sound, that in all likelihood could scare away dogs, the flamboyant figure of his would be girlfriend waved exuberantly.
"Isn't that Felicia?" Whittaker inquired with a sly wink.
"Felicity," Sergei growled dangerously in correction, his dark gaze narrowing in a silent threat at his coach's deliberate mispronunciation of the girl's name.
"That's right!" Whittaker agreed, banging his head with his palm, "I've never been good with names."
"Bull! Your mind's a steel trap, you never forget a thing, except things you want to forget." Sergei argued, trying to ignore Felicity's repeated shout of hello across the ice.
"You'd better answer her or she's never gonna shut up!" Whittaker urged, nodding his head in the direction of the offending noise.
Sergei offered a minimal wave and returned his attention to his coach. "Satisfied?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. I've heard less screeching coming from alley cats. Too bad, her packaging is plenty nice, but when she opens her mouth that's all you'll remember."
"There's something to be said for her packaging, Whittaker. It's not exactly what it seems." Sergei offered cryptically.
"Do tell!" Whittaker urged, a wicked glint lighting up his eyes.
"My mother taught me if you can't say something nice, don't say anything. I'd never sully a lady's reputation with vicious rumors."
"Well, your mother raised you to be noble. My mother had no such aspirations and took great pleasure in gossiping at every opportunity and on every subject imaginable, so spill it or I'll find out from a reliable source."
"I'm sure Dani would be more than happy to fill you in on every detail - correct or otherwise - that's been said about Felicity." Sergei suggested, an amused light sparking in his dark eyes.
"Dani's a very reliable source. She's rarely wrong about such things and I know for a fact, she was very concerned about your - ah - interest in Felicity."
"Dani's a busy-body who takes great delight in tormenting me in every way she can imagine and a few her friends have suggested to her."
"She loves you," Whittaker stated easily.
"She loves to make me crazy, and in her own warped way, you're right, she loves me," Sergei amended, holding up his hand to stop Whittaker's attempted interruption. "But, she's got to understand that, unlike her, who doesn't seem to notice there's another gender on the planet - much to Dad's happiness - I have noticed the other gender and enjoy spending time with them. It doesn't mean I intend to have a serious relationship with the first girl who smiles at me. But I don't think I should have to constantly be worried that my little sister is going to cause havoc if I decide to invite a girl to dinner and a movie."
"I agree. Dinner and a movie's fine, keep it simple and fun and uncomplicated and then you can concentrate on your skating." Whittaker stated seriously.
"Do you ever think of anything other than skating?" Sergei asked in frustration.
"Skating has been the focus of my life for more years than I care to count and your father did more than his fair share of putting gray hairs on my head with his antics before he met your mother. I believe if you commit yourself to something, you had better be dead serious about it or don't waste my time. God only knows how many more years I've got to whip you into shape and I don't want to be wasting those years chasing you from woman to woman. You concentrate on your skating and let me find you a partner."
"It was agreed I would have the final say as to my partner. Remember?" Sergei reminded his coach sternly, his gaze steady, his tone firm.
"I remember, and you will have final say. But let me select who I think would be a good match for you and then you and I will decide who's best. Agreed?" Whittaker asked, offering his hand to Sergei.
Sergei accepted Whittaker's hand, clutching it firmly and shook in agreement. He trusted his coach to do what was right for him and his soon to be partner, whoever she was. And at the same time, Whittaker knew Sergei could make his life a living hell if he chose to do so. After all the years of having to deal with Aleksei's rebellion phase, the last thing he wanted to do was go through the same torment with Sergei.
"You won't be disappointed, Sergei. Trust me. I'll find you a partner the likes of which you've never seen before."
"I'm sure you will. But just remember, I'm much easier to please than Dani, and Dani, despite her sworn statement to keep her nose out of my business, is going to put her two cents worth in whether we want it or not. Dani's the one you're going to have to convince, not me, and unfortunately, the girl knows her skating." Sergei stated truthfully.
Whittaker's frown of understanding spoke volumes. It was true; Sergei was much easier to deal with than his younger sister was. Sergei was the calm, easy-going, sensible, slow to anger sibling while his sister was a powder keg of emotion and passion just looking for a place to explode. She loved her brother completely and unquestioningly, and despite her oft-erred attempts to save him from himself, she found herself having to face the fact once her brother got something in his mind, he finished it to completion. Right or wrong, good or bad, fast or slow, and it broke her heart to know she could have kept him from experiencing some of the pain, both physical and emotional, he'd had to go through, if only he would have listened to her.
Now, both he and Whittaker, would have to find a partner whom his sister could accept, who could skate on the same level as he and was physically capable of both keeping up with him and matched styles. No easy task, for sure!
Sergei cast a final glance at the crowd of girls circling the rink and shook his head in frustration. "You've got your work cut out for you, Coach. Good luck. I hope you know what you're doing." Sergei voiced in concern, turning and walking toward the double doors that exited the ice rink.
"That makes two of us, son. That makes two of us." Whittaker mumbled to himself, then returned his attention to the rink filled with female skaters, picked up the remote microphone and announced the official try-outs would begin.
Sergei flinched in surprise as the excited scream filtered through the brick walls of the ice house, and reached him at the snack bar where he awaited his ordered soft drink. The shrill noise caused all in the open lobby to look toward the direction of the ice rink, and the young girl attending the snack bar smiled as she handed him his drink. "Let me guess, the auditions for your new partner are underway!" she offered brightly, handing him a straw.
Sergei opened his mouth to say something, didn't, then closed it and shook his head in disbelief. How had his life become so crazy?
Without a word, he took his drink and left the building.
All that was left to do now was wait to hear from Whittaker.
* * * * *
"I take it the search for your partner started off badly," Aleksei's deep voice stated softly, walking quietly to his son's side and sitting down beside Sergei on the park bench. Gazing across the expanse of water that reflected the clear blue sky, the gentle ripples and soft breeze soothed Sergei's soul and brought comfort and calmness back within his son's reach.
"Don't ask," was Sergei's soft reply.
Aleksei crossed his arms, his muscles clenching, then relaxing as he reminded himself he couldn't take care of every problem his children faced anymore. Jordan had reminded him, more than once, that sooner or later the kids were going to have to learn to stand on their own, even if for only short periods of time. It was a still a concept Aleksei didn't like, but he understood it and tried to do as his wife asked. Watching his son second guess his decision to skate pairs was tough to do, but he knew it was Sergei's decision to make. For Aleksei, himself, the decision had been made for him, and for a long time, he's battled against the decision. Thankfully, he'd come to his senses, and the pairing of Jamison and Rocmanov had become legendary. Now, their son was facing the history his parents had made and actually considering stepping up to challenge it. Something Aleksei wasn't even sure he'd be brave enough to try. Challenging a path of gold was always treacherous. If nothing else, Sergei had courage.
"Exactly how bad was it?" Aleksei asked softly.
Sergei shook his head in disgust, trying to forget the scene of screaming girls. "I've never seen anything like it, Dad, dozens of girls of all ages and sizes, literally screaming to be noticed by me. I've never been so embarrassed in my life, not for myself but for the girls. I felt as if I was expected to hold up a point value sign for each one."
"Not exactly a smooth start to finding you a partner," Aleksei agreed, "What did Whittaker say about the whole mess."
"He told me he'd take care of things and to get my butt out of there," Sergei growled, running his long fingers through his thick, dark hair, the same color as his father's, minus the touches of gray at the temples. "I never expected anything like this to happen. I'm beginning to think this whole suggestion that I take up pairs is liable to be the biggest mistake of my life."
Aleksei looked out over the calm water of the pond, remembering another pond, this one frozen, he and Jordan had discovered, smiling at the memory of how they'd made love in the snow beside that pond and then skated afterwards. How they'd laughed and teased and fallen a little deeper in love on that pond. Now, their son found solace in this peaceful glen gazing out over another pond. Some things were simply made to be. Apparently bodies of water brought comfort and peace to the Rocmanov's.
"Do you want to go back to singles?" Aleksei asked quietly.
Sergei frowned. "How can I go back to singles, when I haven't even officially tried pairs yet? I'm not going to quit just because the situation's not what I'd like it to be. I'm not a quitter!" Sergei growled, surprised by his father's question.
"I never said you were. I'd just hate to see you so disillusioned by this episode that you decide it's not worth skating at all."
"That's not even a possibility. Skating is as big a part of my life as it is yours. Would you have ever considered giving it up?"
"More times than you'd think, especially after Whittaker signed me up to skate with your Mother. We didn't exactly mesh immediately, you know."
"But you worked through it."
"Yes, we did work through it and there have been moments during our career that both of us questioned the wisdom of skating full-time, especially after you kids were born. But we managed to find a solution that worked for all of us and kept us together more often than not. It wasn't perfect, by any means, but we all worked at it and if I do say so myself, our family didn't turn out too bad."
"With the exception of maybe Dani." Sergei mumbled, a hint of a smile touching his full lips.
"Dani," Aleksei sighed, running one hand through his hair; his baby girl was growing up before his eyes and, try as he might, he couldn't stop it. For the hundredth time he wondered how he was going to survive the next few years.
Sergei cast a sideways glance at his father, and recognized the expression on his face, one of confusion, amusement and bafflement all mixed together, it was the same look he'd often seen on Whittaker's face. "Is it worth it?"
Aleksei looked at his son, their identical dark eyes blending in understanding. "Skating or having a family?"
Sergei's broad shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "Either? Both?"
"Skating has brought me more things than I certainly deserve, but if I had to decide tomorrow between skating and keeping my family within arms reach, I'm afraid the guy who sharpens my blades would be looking for work. The three of you mean more to me than life itself; without you, I'm nothing." Aleksei stated huskily, his eyes shining brightly with tears.
Sergei looked deeply into his father's tear-glazed dark eyes and saw the strength; the deep emotion and determination that had made their dreams come true. At that moment, he hoped one day he could look into his own son's eyes and see the same reflection.
"I want what you've got, Dad. Is that asking for too much?" he asked softly.
Aleksei ran a hand through his son's dark, wavy hair, tussling it as he had when he was a youngster and smiled. "You can ask for anything you want, whether or not you get it is strictly up to you. Ball's in your court son, time to take your best shot,"
Sergei gazed over the calm water, his father's few words sinking in and taking root. Suddenly Sergei's head swirled with images of the possibilities before him and he couldn't wait to get started. "I won't disappoint you, Dad."
"You haven't disappointed me so far, why would you think that's a concern now?"
Sergei's shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "There's always the chance I might screw up along the way."
"Welcome to the club, son. Screwing up is a part of life, get used to it!" Aleksei stated laughingly and with a knowing look offered his son a last piece of advice. "And, Sergei, when it comes to women, don't ever make the mistake of thinking you know what makes them tick. If you only take one lesson I've taught you to heart, let it be that when it comes to women: you are always going to be wrong, you will never understand the way they think and I've found groveling will take you a long way on the road toward forgiveness!"
The sound of deep male laughter drifted across the gently rippling pond as the gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees surrounding the pond's banks, the mocking laughter-like sound returned by the ducks that drifted lazily in the water a soft echo.
The classical music pulsed toward its conclusion, the beat steady and powerful as the pair skaters practicing on the ice prepared for their final move, a throw double salchow. The move was dangerous enough at the beginning of a program when the skaters were fresh and energized, but was rarely attempted at the end of a four-minute long program when legs were ready to collapse. Still, the pair back-stroked into position, held their backward spiral and the man powerfully propelled his partner into the air, sending her flying and watched as she struggled to keep her body positioned correctly to land on her feet. The grating sound of metal against ice as her edge refused to hold her on her landing and then the solid thud as her body hit the ice hard disappeared as her partner roared in anger.
"You fucking idiot, there was no reason you couldn't land that throw! You're just fucking around to make me look bad!" the girl's partner screamed in rage, skating around her, towering over her, while she struggled to her feet, her left knee and hip throbbing from her hard fall.
Cautiously she glanced up at him, her china-blue eyes glazed with tears of pain, fear shining clearly from them. "That's not true," she answered softly, cringing when her partner suddenly turned and closed the distance between them, his broad hands closing hurtfully around her upper arms.
"I don't remember asking for your fucking opinion," he hissed dangerously, his face only inches from hers as he forcefully lifted her upward, forcing her to raise up on her toe-picks; forcing her to rely upon him for balance.
"I'm sorry," she answered on a whisper, barely breathing as she watched her partner's eyes go dark with rage.
"If you fuck this competition up for me, Chloe, I swear I'll kill you!"
Chloe shook her head back and forth, the movements minimal. "I won't, Andrew, I won't! I swear, there won't be any mistakes!" she answered urgently, her eyes wide, her pupils so dilated it was nearly impossible to tell her eyes were blue.
His eyes glowed evilly, a wicked light flaring to life in their brown depths; "I'm through fucking around with you, Chloe. There are plenty of girls out there just dying to be my partner. I don't know why I put up with your shit. You're nothing!" he hissed into her face and then abruptly pushed her backwards.
Chloe felt herself falling and knew there was nothing she could do to stop herself. In slow motion, the world seemed to move a frame at a time, silent and in a strangely calm manner. She watched Andrew's eyes sparkle in evil delight as he watched her descent toward the ice, saw his lips curve into a wicked smile. She hit the ice tailbone first, the sudden jolt sending a flash of pain up her spine. Her backward motion continued and she felt her shoulders hit the ice and then as the back of her head made contact with the concrete hard surface, explosions of black and silver scattered before her vision.
The bright overhead lights began to dim as she looked up from the ice and Andrew's face entered her line of vision. Casually he leaned over her limp body as it lay sprawled on the ice and with a voice filled with malice and hate, stated calmly, "You're fucking nothing!" and without another word, skated nonchalantly away.
From seemingly far away, Chloe heard the door to the rink close forcefully; knowing the sound should have been louder and frowning in confusion at the soft noise. Time seemed to stand still as she watched the lights overhead fade to shadow. Hazily, from miles away, she thought she heard a beloved name called - Sergei - and smiled softly as the merciful darkness enveloped her in its welcoming arms.
* * * * *
"So, has Whittaker come up with a list of possible partners for you yet?" Dani asked her brother as she stepped down from the Jeep, closed the door and went to retrieve her skating bag from the back of the vehicle.
"I didn't know there were so many girls interested in skating pairs until this fiasco began, but to answer your question, no, he hasn't given me a list of contenders yet." Sergei answered, retrieving his skating gear and closing the back hatch on the Jeep.
Dani looked at her brother, tempted to tease him yet again about the hullabaloo with all the girls and changed her mind at his dark expression. The sudden squeal of tires as a familiar bright red Camaro raced through the parking lot and tore into the street, cutting off a mini-van entering the parking lot, caused both Dani and Sergei to grimace.
"I'd say someone's practice session didn't go so well today," Dani offered, concern causing a small frown to appear between her eyes.
"That idiot's going to kill someone someday," Sergei forecast as he listened to the echo of screeching tires fade away in the distance.
"I'm just glad Chloe had the good sense to bring her own car," Dani stated, recognizing the bright yellow VW Beetle in the parking lot, her frown lessening only marginally as she looked around the lot for her friend.
"Now if she only had the good sense to drop that asshole of a partner; he's a time-bomb waiting to explode!" Sergei concluded.
"They've been together a long time, Sergei, five years. It's not that easy to just switch partners, you know? Well, you don't know, but you will soon enough. You're liable to find yourself amazed at the amount of stuff you learn to tolerate when the alternative is starting all over with a new partner."
Sergei cast his sister a disbelieving look. "Right. I can't wait to be abused, both mentally and physically, all for the sake of keeping a skating partner," Sergei growled deeply.
"There's been no proof he's ever abused her," Dani fired back, a low blush tingeing her cheeks at her comment. No one had ever actually seen Andrew strike his partner, but to know Chloe off the ice and then see the change in her when her partner was near made it clear, something definitely wasn't right. And then there were the bruises, always hidden by clothing, but impossible to hide while changing in the locker room.
"You've seen the way he acts, not just to her, but to women in general. He's an asshole, pure and simple, and someday he's going to hurt her, it's just a matter of when and how badly," he argued.
"I hope to God you're wrong about that, Sergei. Chloe tries so hard to please Andrew, unfortunately, he seems to have turned into a person it's impossible to please or satisfy. He finds fault with everything around him and her in particular. When he's in the right mood, they're wonderful together,"
"And when he's not in the right mood?" Sergei questioned, seeing the answer in his sister's eyes without her saying a single word.
"Don't ask," Dani finally answered quietly, a small frown making the corners of her generally smiling mouth turn down.
They continued their walk toward the building's entrance in silence. Sergei held the door for his sister as they entered through the double doors of the ice house. Hurried greetings of welcome were exchanged as they passed friends in the lobby and made their way toward their respective locker rooms.
"Ten minutes, Sergei. Whittaker said seven-thirty and you know how he hates to be kept waiting," Dani needlessly reminded her brother, pointing at the watch on her wrist.
"The day I keep you waiting is the day the world comes to an end," Sergei growled at his sister, a teasing smile lighting his eyes. "Five bucks says I'm on the ice before you,"
"I'm not going to risk breaking a nail for five dollars; make it ten and you're on!" Dani threw back, her look full of challenge.
Sergei smiled at his younger sister, so grown up in some ways and felt a pang similar to what their father probably did when he looked at her. Where had the little girl that had tagged along behind him so adoringly gone? It was hard to believe this gorgeous young woman was his littler sister and the thought he was going to have to start keeping an eye on the guys that seemed to follow her like meek sheep popped into his head. He knew the days ahead were going to cause him major headaches.
"You're on!" he agreed and dashed into the locker room, the door closing with a whisper behind him, her barely heard 'cheat' reaching his ears through the doors.
* * * * *
Seven minutes later, Dani burst through the double doors leading to the west ice rink, screaming 'I win! I win!" and found her brother kneeling on the ice beside a still figure, then heard Sergei's deep voice urgently yelling across the ice, "Dani, call 9-1-1! It's Chloe!"
* * * * *
The ambulance arrived with lights flashing and sirens blaring, pulling up to the side entrance of the west rink and entering through a side door. The attendants made their way cautiously across the ice, their bags resting on the gurney they pulled across the slick surface. When they reached Sergei, he stepped aside only far enough to give them room to work but kept within a few feet of Chloe.
"What's her name?" one of the attendants asked, checking her pulse and slipping a blood pressure cuff over her upper arm, pumping it up and recording the reading on his notepad.
"Chloe Spenser," Sergei answered quietly, unable to believe this silent, pale, wisp of a girl unconscious on the ice was someone he'd watched grow up. How she had suddenly gone from a cute little girl to a beautiful young woman had him baffled and he berated himself for not having noticed the change. Suddenly the rag-tag pigtails were gone and her hair gleamed with highlights of honey and gold. He knew her eyes were blue, but he couldn't remember exactly which shade, and he desperately wished she would open them for him, the sudden need to know was overwhelming. Her soft pink lips were slightly parted as she took shallow breaths, making her chest barely rise and fall, her blossoming figure was still wispy and willowy and her legs looked impossibly long. Gazing at her slim form he guessed she probably didn't weigh ninety-five pounds dripping wet, and a calm rage swept over him at the thought her partner was probably responsible for her condition.
"What happened?" the second attendant asked, cautiously checking her eyes with a flashlight for pupil response and her head for injury, carefully slipping a brace on to stabilize her neck.
Sergei shook his head, "I don't know. I found her here like this. She was on the schedule to be practicing with her partner and just as my sister and I arrived, her partner tore out of the parking lot on two wheels. My guess is he did this to her." Sergei answered in a deadly tone.
"Who did what isn't our concern; that's for the police. Any idea how long she's been unconscious?"
Sergei only wished he could answer the question. He knew head injuries weren't something to be scoffed at or screwed with, you didn't want to be banging your brain around in your skull if you could help it.
Chloe's soft moan brought Sergei immediately forward and he kneeled on the ice at her head. "Hey, Chloe," Sergei's soft, deep voice rolled over her like a gentle wave, calming her and warming her at the same time. "How's it going?"
"My head hurts," Chloe answered, her gaze meeting Sergei's, china blue and ebony blending, one graceful hand lifting to touch her head, only to be captured in Sergei's gentle grasp.
"No wiggling around for now. You've got two handsome men fawning over you right now, let them do their work," he teased softly, his thumb gently caressing her palm.
"Three&ldots;" she whispered, the glory of her eyes disappearing as her long lashes fluttered and her eyes closed.
Sergei cast an anxious glance at the paramedics, his eyes full of unasked questions.
"Keep her talking, we need to keep her conscious if we can," one of the paramedics stated, checking her blood pressure yet again while his partner reported her stats to the hospital over the two-way radio.
Sergei nodded in understanding, "Come on, Chloe, stay with me. Open up those gorgeous eyes of yours," Sergei urged deeply, his tone growing urgent when her eyes fluttered open and immediately drifted shut again. "Chloe! Look at me!" he called sharply, his demanding tone reaching her, her eyes flying open, her blue gaze filled with fear.
"No, Andrew&ldots;" she whimpered softly, struggling weakly to pull her hand from Sergei's gentle grasp. "Please don't hurt me, I won't mess up again," she repeated over and over, her cowering tone and glazed, fearful expression breaking his heart.
"Who's Andrew?" one of the paramedics asked as he assisted his partner and they gently placed Chloe on the gurney and strapped her in place.
Sergei looked from Chloe to the lead paramedic and with eyes the color of midnight, calmly stated, "Andrew Manning, the bastard that did this to her." At that moment, he would have gladly drilled Chloe's partner into the ground, in front of the police now gathering information from possible witnesses, if necessary.
"I'd suggest you talk to the police before you take any action personally, despite your inclination to do otherwise," the paramedic gathering up the remaining equipment suggested calmly, before following his partner that pushed the gurney across the ice.
"Sergei&ldots;" Chloe's soft voice echoed across the ice, reaching his ears and wrapping a firm grasp around his heart.
The paramedic pushing the gurney leaned over and spoke to the slight form covered and strapped to the rolling bed and nodded in understanding. "She doesn't want to go to the hospital alone, are you available?"
With a single nod, Sergei skated to where Dani stood rinkside, his blade guards in one hand, his skate bag in the other and handed them to him as he came off the ice.
"Let Mom and Dad and Whittaker know what's happened. I'll call you as soon as I know anything. I don't know when I'll be home," he stated quietly, kissing her quickly on the cheek and then brushing away the tears that fell from her green eyes.
"Tell her I love her, Sergei, and take care of her, okay?" Dani requested, her voice breaking in emotion.
With a final quick hug of reassurance, Sergei slipped the guards on to his skates, slung his bag over his shoulder and ran to catch up with the gurney as it exited the side door.
Gently the paramedics loaded their patient in to the ambulance, allowing Sergei to follow Chloe in and set off for the hospital, lights and sirens blaring.
Sergei held Chloe's hand in his own, frowning at the chill of her hand, gently rubbing it between his palms as he sought to restore some warmth to it. Twice he tried to tell her Dani sent her love and each time was interrupted by the noise of the radio, the siren or a question from the paramedic. Finally, in frustration, he bent over Chloe, his mouth close to her ear and said 'Dani sends her love, Chloe', only to hear, "I love you too, Sergei," whispered softly in return.
Sergei sat up in surprise, his gaze flying to the paramedic beside him and, judging from his smile knew the paramedic had heard Chloe's declaration of love.
With an easy smile, the paramedic's words set Sergei's future in motion, "You're a lucky man."
Sergei looked from the paramedic to Chloe and out the windows in the back of the ambulance at the traffic trailing behind the speeding vehicle. Was his life destined to be a wild, reckless ride or was fate speeding him toward his future? Chloe's voice softly calling his name returned his attention to her immediately and the sudden understanding that he was on the brink of something great washed over him, leaving him strangely calm, more than a little apprehensive and wildly anxious all at the same time. He suddenly realized and could feel it in his heart, fate had been leading him to this moment, just as he knew he was going to take the chance that was being offered to him by the slight wisp of a girl whose hand he held.
Sergei's smile widened as he returned the paramedic's smile, "You're right, I'm damned lucky!"
Sergei had found his new partner.
* * * * *
The emergency room was swamped when they arrived at the hospital. Friday nights were always a brisk night for business in the medical field, throw in a full moon and things really hopped.
Sergei followed the paramedics through the crowded hallway as they pushed the gurney, loaded with Chloe, into the designated exam room, noticing the number three outside the door as he crossed its threshold. While the paramedics passed information regarding Chloe off to the incoming medical staff, a nurse, who introduced herself as Reggie, gently escorted Sergei, despite his protests to remain with Chloe, into the waiting area of the emergency room and saw him settled on one of the lumpy couches.
"I'll keep you posted with regular updates on her condition, Sergei. In the meantime, if you're hungry or thirsty, there are snack machines just around the corner or if you're feeling exceptionally lucky today, the cafeteria is two floors up." Reggie offered with a smile.
"Thanks, Reggie, but I'll just stay here for awhile, in case Chloe needs me for something."
"No problem. But might I suggest you remove your skates? You won't find much ice around here."
Sergei looked down at his feet, his skates totally forgotten and smiled sheepishly up at Reggie before he bent to loosen the ties.
"That's something I keep telling myself I'm going to learn how to do one of these days. But I'm beginning to think I'm too old to try it," Reggie stated, watching Sergei's fingers fly as he unhooked the laces from the hooks on his boots, loosened the laces and slipped his foot from the skate. Carefully he dried off the sharp blade with a soft towel he pulled from his skate bag and slipped on the cotton blade guard before stuffing the boot in his bag.
"You're never too old to start skating," Sergei offered, casting a devastatingly gorgeous smile up at the nurse. "In fact, I'll teach you personally. You come by the Washington Ice House and I'll give you as many lessons as you want."
Reggie's smile widened at Sergei's offer and for a brief moment she fully intended to take him up on his offer. It certainly wouldn't be a waste of time to spend a few hours in the presence of a good looking young man who was willing to teach you to skate. If only I was twenty years younger, flashed through her mind, then was dismissed as a doctor called her name and she was recalled to duty. "I may have to take you up on your offer, Sergei, but for right now, you sit here and I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
Sergei nodded in agreement and watched as Reggie quickly raced across the hall and slipped into Chloe's exam room.
Time slowed down to a crawl as Sergei watched various doctors come and go through the door that entered exam room three and wished he didn't feel so helpless and useless. He wondered if what he was feeling was similar to what his father had felt while he'd waited in another hospital for his mother to come out of her coma after the accident that had nearly killed both his parents. Funny how things happened; if Aleksei and Jordan hadn't survived the accident, he, himself, and Dani would never have been born, he'd have never known the joy skating, never felt this rush of apprehension as he prepared to enter this new chapter of his life. The thought was both odd and question provoking. So many 'what ifs' were a part of life, and like his mother, he would have given his left arm for a crystal ball and a peek into the future.
As he sat silently on the lumpy couch, he watched people come and go, heard the myriad of emotions that came with sadness, joy, fear, and relief, he closed his eyes and said a quick prayer for Chloe's recovery. When he opened them, his father was standing before him, a source of strength and comfort. Without a word, Sergei stood and stepped into his father's arms, silently accepting his support, feeling his father's arms wrap tighter around his back as his legs dissolved beneath him when the adrenaline rush that had held him together began to dissipate.
Aleksei lowered his son back down to the lumpy couch, and sat down beside him, pulling a can of soda from his coat pocket and pushing it into his son's shaking hands. "Your mother said you could use the caffeine."
Sergei smiled in thanks and took a shaky sip of the cola, grimacing at the bite of the lukewarm drink. "Dani drink all the cold ones?"
"I'm sure she's got a few stashed somewhere, but I don't know where she hides them and your mother thought a warm drink was better than no drink."
Sergei nodded in agreement. "How's Dani taking this?"
"Not well," Aleksei answered quietly, running one hand through his hair in frustration. "They were planning to have lunch together tomorrow. Chloe said something about a change in her life she was considering making and wanted to bounce a few ideas off Dani. Dani, of course, had all kinds of ideas to share with Chloe, including you, I might add."
"I probably shouldn't tell you this, but ever since Dani heard you were switching to pairs, the first name out of her mouth for a partner for you was 'Chloe'." Aleksei stated, watching a frown appear between his son's dark eyes. "You know how hard it is to change your sister's mind once she's made it up?" At Sergei's agreeing nod, his father continued, "I was sure Dani was badgering you every chance she got about Chloe for a partner. I can't tell you how surprised I was when she called and told us what had happened."
"Dani never mentioned Chloe's name once as a possible partner." Sergei stated quietly, his attention suddenly drawn to exam room three as the door opened and a doctor spoke with Reggie as she exited behind him. Reggie quickly scribbled down notes on the chart she held, nodding in understanding as the doctor gave directions and then pointed a finger at Sergei in the waiting area.
The doctor smiled in thanks and calmly walked the distance to the waiting area, extending his hand in greeting as Sergei rose to his feet. "Mr. Rocmanov, I'm Dr. Pierce."
"Dr. Pierce, my father, Aleksei Rocmanov," Sergei shook his hand and then introduced his father.
"Mr. Rocmanov," the doctor offered with a smile, shaking Aleksei's hand and noticing how very much Sergei favored his father, "skating obviously runs in the family. I've been a fan of yours for many years."
"How's Chloe?" Sergei asked firmly, unable to wait another second, unwilling to stand quietly by and listen as his father and Chloe's doctor chatted.
Dr. Pierce and Aleksei shifted their attention to Sergei, each noticing the light flush of embarrassment creep into Sergei's cheeks as their intense gazes rested on the younger man. Aleksei raised one eyebrow, his question clear despite his silence as he looked at his son. Sergei swallowed the knot in his throat and repeated his question to Dr. Pierce.
"Chloe's resting comfortably, at the moment. She's suffered a concussion and is presently dealing with a whopping headache. There are still some tests we want to run to answer a few questions we have, since no one knows how long she was unconscious on the ice, but presently we haven't found any problems. If you like, you can go see her, but only for a short while. We'll be transferring her upstairs in a few minutes for further tests." The doctor offered to Sergei's retreating back as he quickly cross the floor and pushed the door to the exam room quietly open.
Aleksei and Dr. Pierce exchanged knowing looks. "It looks as if your son has a more than a friendly interest in Miss Spenser," Dr. Pierce stated.
"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. They've known each other forever; grown up together. Chloe's my daughter's best friend. They've never shown anything more than a passing tolerance for each other before today," Aleksei offered in a tone laced with confusion.
"It's those quiet, subdued affairs that hit hard and fast. You don't even see it coming and Wham! You're flat on your back and wondering how you got there," the doctor stated knowingly, shaking his head as he remembered his own early attractions to the opposite sex.
"Don't remind me," Aleksei pleaded quietly.
Dr. Pierce looked up at Aleksei, remembering bits and pieces of stories he'd heard and read about the volatile pair that made up the team of Jamison and Rocmanov and wondered if his son was destined to travel the same path. "The path to love is never easy when you're young; emotions run wild, small problems become overwhelming, it's grand or it's torture; never in-between."
Aleksei thought about his own rocky road to love, smiling in remembrance at the times he was torn between killing Jordan or making love to her and wished his son an easier path toward love. With a small shake of his head, Aleksei patted the doctor's shoulder and with a self-deprecating smile, stated truthfully, "Doc, it ain't any easier when you're old."
Dr. Pierce watched the tall man walk toward the same door his son had entered only moments before and with an easy smile, stated into the air, "Ain't it the truth!"
* * * * *
Sergei pushed gently on the door, opening it only far enough so he could enter the small exam room. Medical paraphernalia filled every nook and cranny in the room and when his gaze touched on Chloe, covered with a light blanket pulled up to her chin, her body trembling visibly on the hospital bed, it stopped him dead in his tracks. The sudden overwhelming urge to pummel Manning into the ground was pushed aside when Chloe turned her head at Sergei's in-drawn gasp and their eyes met. Chloe's bright blue eyes flooded with tears, then traced a path down her pale cheeks, and into her tussled hair where it lay spread over the bright white pillowcase beneath her head. With a barely perceptible cry of distress, she turned her head away from Sergei's searching gaze and closed her eyes to shut out the world.
Sergei's heart broke at her defeated look and he quickly closed the distance to her bed, pulling up a rolling stool from the only corner not filled with medical gear and sat down beside the bed. His anger returned when he softly stroked her arm through the blanket and felt her distinct flinch at the contact. What had her bastard of a partner done to her? "Hey, Chloe," Sergei called softly, tamping down his anger and struggling to keep his tone casual. "How's the headache?"
Chloe turned her head slowly; her tear-filled blue eyes the color of the sky full of pain and confusion. "The doctor said he couldn't give me anything for the pain for a while yet, there are still a few tests they need to run," she told him softly.
Sergei cast her a commiserating look, "You'd think with all the advances medicine has made over the years, someone could manage to figure out how to open one of those child-proof bottles and get you a couple of aspirin," he teased, a gentle smile curving his lips.
Chloe looked up at him, her eyes full of adoration, "Yeah," she agreed with a sigh.
"Do you want me to call your Mom?"
Chloe shook her head negatively, grimacing as the sudden movement sent cymbals clanging in her head, "No, this was the week she had to be in California for the Telecommunications merger. She's the lead attorney on this deal, it's the most important job she's ever been given and I won't let her miss this opportunity. She's been working so hard to prove herself. I won't ruin it for her!"
"I can at least let her know what happened. I think she deserves to know you were hurt," Sergei pressed.
"What can she do from there? It's not as if I'm in critical condition, or something. I bumped the back of my head on the ice; that's all. It's not the first time it's happened and it probably won't be the last," Chloe ended slowly, her eyes widening as she watched Sergei's eyes flame to life at her words.
"How did you bump your head, Chloe?" Sergei asked softly, his tone steely.
"I know you fell, Chloe, I want to know how you fell,"
Chloe gave a little shrug, her eyes leaving his to suddenly study the ceiling, "I don't know. I don't remember," she finally answered weakly.
"Don't remember or won't say? Chloe, did Manning do this to you?" Sergei asked darkly, his patience wearing thin as his desire to confront Chloe's partner grew.
Chloe's gaze returned to his abruptly, her eyes wide with fear, her pupils dilated and blown wide, "No, of course not. Why would you even think such a thing? You've seen how Andrew treats me," she said, her voice quivering with emotion; fear the most prevalent.
"Yeah, I've seen how Manning treats you, and that's why I'm asking.
Chloe shook her head vigorously back and forth, trying to ignore the explosions of pain in her head at the movement. "No, Sergei, you're wrong. You've misinterpreted things. Andrew's a perfectionist and he has a right to expect the same from me. When I screw up, he has a right to get upset with me; it's understandable, expected even. If I was a better skater, he wouldn't behave this way," she explained, her voice rising in pitch as panic began to set in, her hands releasing their hold on the blanket and pushing herself up to a sitting position.
The sudden motion made her sway toward Sergei and he quickly rose, grabbing her by her upper arms to steady her. Chloe's sudden cry of pain made Sergei release her and she fell back against the pillows, turning on her side to face away from him, wrapping her arms around her knees and curling into as small a ball as her body could make. The hospital gown she wore separated down the back and all Sergei could do was stare at the myriad of colors that scattered over her the pale skin of her narrow back; old and new bruises blending to make an ugly abstract design on the palette of her body.
"Sweet Jesus!" Sergei managed on a strangled gasp, wanting to take Chloe in his arms and tell her everything would be okay, yet afraid to touch her for fear of hurting her more. All the rumors he'd heard about Manning's abusive behavior were obviously true, and yet everyone had turned a deaf ear to them. Apparently Andrew Manning's father, the most prominent attorney in the state, carried enough weight and power to keep his son's dirty little secret safe. Briefly the thought crossed his mind as to how Chloe's mother couldn't know of the injuries her daughter had suffered at the hands of her partner and then everything clicked together; Chloe's mother worked for the partnership that was owned by Andrew's father. A nice, neat little package to say the least. Sergei wondered how much money the elder Manning had paid Chloe's mother to keep from pressing charges against his son.
Chloe's heart wrenching sobbing brought Sergei's attention back to her and he circled the bed, kneeling on the floor in front of her, resting his forearms on the bed, his chin on his hands. His position put him eye level with Chloe and he called her name softly until she finally returned her watery gaze to his steady one. "Chloe, none of this is your fault," he began only to stop her with an abrupt shake of his head when she started to object, "Listen to me - this is not your fault! Manning has a problem - more severe than anyone realizes - and he's obviously not been held responsible for his actions. I somehow have the feeling his father's known about this and kept it quiet. Am I right?"
Chloe remained motionless, staring into Sergei's dark eyes, wanting to disappear into their mysterious depths to float and fly and feel no fear or pain; she just knew it would be like soaring through midnight on velvet wings. Sergei asked her the question again, his eyebrows raising slightly in the same silent question.
Chloe's affirmative nod was barely perceptible but spoke volumes, as if she'd screamed it from the top of a mountain. Yes!
Sergei dropped his head against his folded hands and fought to control the rage that again swept through him at the thought of all Chloe had endured at Andrew's hands. He'd heard of things like this happening but had never witnessed anything first hand. He prayed to God he never had to be witness to any such thing ever again and wondered how cowardly a person had to be to beat on someone smaller than himself. Granted, he'd threatened to pound his sister more times than he could count, not that he ever really would have. 'Boys don't hit girls!' It was a litany his parents had drilled into him for as long as he could remember. Obviously, Manning's father didn't hold the same belief, and any respect Sergei may have had for the elder Manning vanished like the early morning fog.
Chloe's tentative, gentle touch as she touched Sergei's wavy hair made him lift his head and brought their eyes together. "I only wanted to skate," she stated tearfully, her voice, a heartbreaking whisper, her small, white teeth nervously pulled on her lower lip.
Sergei felt like weeping at Chloe's words. He knew how she felt, recognized the need as being the same as his own; to skate was to live, to live was to skate. With firm resolve, he smiled into her tear-filled eyes and requested, "I'm looking for a partner, Chloe, come skate with me."
Chloe's expression went from surprise, to hopeful, to regret within seconds. "You don't want to skate with me, Sergei. You want a partner who won't embarrass you; one who knows what they're doing. I'm obviously not that person," she answered sadly.
"If I want a partner that requires I put a pink ribbon on her left ankle so she remembers which foot is which, that's my decision," he teased lightly, "You do know your right from your left, don't you?"
A shy smile turned Chloe's soft lips upward; "Of course I know my right from my left,"
"Well, then, you've already saved me the price of the pink ribbon! Skate with me Chloe. Please?" Sergei asked softly, his voice taking on a huskiness she'd never heard before, the sound sending the nerves at the base of her neck tingling, a not unpleasant sensation. His dark eyes beckoned her to accept.
"I don't know&ldots;"
"You don't have to answer me this minute; think about it. The decision is entirely yours to make and I won't push you into anything you don't feel comfortable doing." Sergei pushed the soft waves of honey and gold from her cheek, a small frown appearing between his eyes at her slight retreat from his touch. "I'll be back tomorrow and we'll talk some more. Okay?" he asked casually.
Chloe nodded affirmatively, a small, shy smile reaching her eyes.
"Sleep well, princess," Sergei urged, running his fingers gently along the top of her hand where it rested on the light blanket, made his way to the door and with a quick, last smile, left her room.
Sergei wasn't surprised to find his father outside the exam room, waiting patiently, his look one of concern. "How bad is it?" Aleksei asked his son quietly, his shoulders subtly shifting as he awaited his son's response, already having gained information he wasn't officially entitled to have. Whoever said it was impossible to finesse information you had no right to know obviously didn't know Aleksei Rocmanov.
"Her back looks like an ad for an ugly painting. Manning's been beating the shit out of her and I didn't do anything to stop him!" Sergei growled, his fists clenching at his sides, the desire to physically thrash the coward nearly overwhelming.
"You didn't know," Aleksei reminded his son.
"There have been rumors for months," Sergei fired back.
"You can't believe everything you hear?" Aleksei stated calmly.
"I could have asked!"
"Do you honestly think Chloe would have told you the truth? Do you think it's easy for anyone to admit something like that is happening to them? If they admit there's a problem then they have to acknowledge responsibility for staying in an unsafe situation. The longer an abusive relationship goes on, the less likely it is the one being abused is going to leave."
"Who in there right mind willingly stays in an abusive relationship?" Sergei growled, pacing a small path back and forth across the floor like a caged animal.
"People who abuse have more power than you might imagine. Over time they convince the person they're abusing it's all their fault for the way they're being treated; if they were better, smarter, prettier, tried harder, jumped higher, whatever, they wouldn't be treated this way. After being told you're ugly, or stupid, or can't skate over and over, you begin to believe it and suddenly, in a warped fashion, they begin to understand that the abuse is punishment for their failures. They begin to believe it's justified, even deserved," Aleksei explained.
"Bull shit," Sergei shook his head back and forth vigorously, "Chloe would never believe that. She knows what a wonderful skater she is. Hell, she's a better skater than I am."
Aleksei ran his hands through his hair, "How long have Manning and Chloe been partners?"
"I'm not sure. About five years, I guess," Sergei answered with a shrug. "Why?"
"Chloe's eighteen now. You know how temperamental Dani gets about her looks or her weight or what she's wearing; Christ, look at what she did to her hair and that was her idea! When was the last time you heard Chloe express a complaint or an opinion to her partner?"
Sergei searched his mind, trying to remember the last time Chloe even uttered a sound when she was with her partner. In fact, the more he thought about it, he couldn't even remember her lifting her eyes to meet his when he said hello to her when she was with Manning. Sergei's eyes darkened in pain and sorrow as it suddenly dawned on him that it had to have been at least two years since he'd seen Chloe act like the carefree girl he remembered her to be when she was with her partner. The thought she'd spent the last two years in an abusive partnership made his heart ache and stole his breath away. "Two years," he whispered, raising tear filled ebony eyes to his father, his breath catching as he struggled to maintain his emotions. "Could this have been going on for two years?"
Aleksei's broad shoulders lifted in shrug, "I don't know, Sergei, I hope to God not. But even if it has, there was no way you could have known. Abusers are sly and manipulative and dangerous in more ways than you or I could ever imagine. I can't imagine Manning's father didn't know about this, but considering his high position in the legal field, I can't imagine it was too tough for him to keep it covered up."
"Yeah, but it's out in the open now. Manning's got questions to answer," Sergei vowed.
"Not unless Chloe presses charges against him, and in her present state, I don't see that happening," Aleksei stated, holding up one hand to stop his son's impending protest. "Chloe's on the brink of collapse; pressing her to charge Manning is liable to do her more harm than good. Our first concern should be to see that she's comfortable and safe. Has she contacted her mother?"
"She doesn't want to cause her mom problems with the elder Manning. Apparently Mrs. Spenser's been given a chance to oversee a large merger and if she blows it, she's out of a job. Chloe insisted I not contact her mother. I'm not sure whether to listen to her or not."
"I don't agree with Chloe's decision, but I understand her motivation behind it. Obviously both Spenser women have lost control to the Manning's and I won't add to their dilemma by pressing the issue. For now, Chloe stays with us, it'll keep Dani occupied so I don't have to worry about her piercing a body part or coming home with a tattoo."
Sergei nodded in agreement, a small smile graced his lips as the image of his sister with a tattoo came to mind and he slipped the bag that held his skating gear from his father's shoulder to his own. "I think that's a good idea. If anybody can help Chloe find herself again, Dani can," Sergei said quietly, falling into step with his father as they made their way toward the parking lot.
"So, any word from Whittaker as far as a partner for you?" Aleksei asked his son casually, stepping aside as paramedics arrived and pushed their way through the corridor with another patient.
"I don't know if he has or not; we never hooked up. Not that it makes a difference; I found a partner myself," Aleksei stated without hesitation.
Aleksei looked at his son and knew his answer before he asked the question. "Please tell me it's not Chloe,"
"No can do, Dad,"
"Sergei, you have no idea what you're getting yourself into with Chloe. Not only are you going to be dealing with someone who's got more baggage than she knows what to do with, but there's also the added problem of Manning. You can't believe he's going to just let her go without a fight; she has information that can damage his reputation and future skating career if she chooses to disclose it," Aleksei argued, hoping his words would at least make Sergei rethink his decision.
"That's the operative word, Dad - if. And what if she decides to just pretend this never happened and doesn't press charges? Does that make what she experienced any less real? Dad, I've - we've - known Chloe for thirteen years; you don't turn your back on a friend when they're backed into a corner. I'm going to help her in any way I can and if that means kicking the crap out of Manning, oh well!"
"Your mother would have a fit if she knew you were talking like this; we didn't raise you to run toward fights,"
"No you didn't, but you also taught me to stand up for what I believe in and to face a problem head on. That's what I intend to do. Chloe can't stand up to that scumbag, but I sure as hell can! Her days of having to fight alone are done!"
Aleksei looked at his son, recognized the fire of determination in his eyes, the set of his jaw and saw himself as he must have looked at the same age, ready to take on the world and the devil be damned. "Your mother's going to skin both of us if you do something stupid."
"Then I guess I'd better not do anything stupid, huh? I'd hate to be responsible for you sleeping on the couch!" Sergei stated, a devilish light glinting in the ebony depths of his eyes.
Aleksei shook his head in bemusement, understanding why Sergei made his coach crazy. Whittaker might as well have been dealing with Aleksei again for as much as Sergei was like his father.
"You remember that, pal, because if your mother kicks me out of bed, I'm taking yours and you can sleep on the couch!"
Good or bad, Aleksei couldn't have been prouder of his son!*
Copyright © 2000-2002 C.E. Moynihan
*All Rights Reserved
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