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Oh, please, let it be 5.7, Dany prayed silently, her hands clenching the stems of the roses she was holding. Hardly anyone ever got a perfect score—a 6.0—but she could come close. Only a few minutes earlier she’d scooped the roses up from the ice and waved them at the audience with a bright smile of appreciation as she glided around the rink. Anthony had taught her to do that as he’d taught her everything else. “A crowd pleaser,” he’d said with that cynical little smile. “It’s always your business to please your audience, Dany.”
But it wasn’t the audience she had to worry about today; it was the judges. She’d always had an empathy with the audience. She could feel their warmth and admiration reach out to enfold her every time she skated out onto the ice to do a routine. They were always with her all the way, and she was passionately grateful for that support. She’d needed it today when she’d found out Anthony wasn’t going to be there for the finals.
Shifting the flowers, she rubbed her palms nervously on the sheer silver chiffon of her skating costume, her gaze fixed on the judges across the sports arena from her. “Why can’t they hurry?” she whispered.
“The scores should be coming up any minute, sugar,” Beau Lantry said soothingly, his own face tense. “That third judge has been handing in her scores late all evening.” His hand fell bracingly on her shoulder. “It’s not a life-or-death decision, you know.” His lazy southern drawl flowed like molasses over her taut nerves. “One competition isn’t going to break you, Dany.”
“Tell that to Anthony,” Dany said dryly. She drew a deep, steadying breath. “He doesn’t understand failure. Particularly in an important competition like the United States Championships.”
“True.” Beau’s lips twisted ironically. “Still, he probably won’t be angry at you, only at me. I’m your coach, and all blame falls on my humble head. I’ve never heard him raise his voice to you in all the years I’ve been working for him.”
“He’s never had to.” All he had to do was gaze at her in silence with silver-green eyes that could be as glacier-cold as a Norwegian ice floe. Then he could proceed to tear her entire routine apart with an incisive brilliance that left her feeling as miserably unsure of herself as she’d felt as a child. No, more unsure. He’d been kinder to her then. Not warmer, but certainly more tolerant than the relentless mentor he’d become since she’d won the Juniors.
The scores for technical merit flashed on the board and she heard a disappointed groan from the crowd. She tabulated frantically and bit her lip. Not high enough to carry her over the top.
“Don’t worry,” Beau said. “You’ll make it up in artistic impression. You always do.”
“Maybe,” she murmured under her breath.
Then the second set of scores began to light up the board one after another. They were even lower than the first set. The composite score couldn’t possibly be over a 5.6, Dany thought. She needed a 5.7. Second place. She hadn’t won the championship. Oh, Lord, what was Anthony going to say?
Beau suddenly whirled her around to face him so that her back was to the arena. He had a determined smile fixed on his lean, handsome face, and his hazel eyes were warm with sympathy. “Keep facing me for a while, honey,” he said easily. “You’ll be all right in a minute, but you know how those TV cameras love to zoom in on the losers. You don’t want them to see how upset you are.”
“No, I don’t want them to see that,” she said dully. Anthony had taught her to keep a bright, smiling mask in place no matter what happened. He’d be more upset than ever if she fell apart in public. She knew a sudden flare of anger that speared through the anxiety and disappointment she was feeling. If he wanted her to be so damn perfect, why wasn’t he here to help her? Dany asked herself. Why wasn’t he here? She composed her features into a bland mask and returned Beau’s smile with a bright, meaningless one of her own. “I’m okay now,” she said quietly. “Thanks for shielding me.” She turned around to face the cameras, her expression serene as she waited to skate out to the rostrum to receive her medal and congratulate Margie on winning first place. Oh, Lord, why did it have to happen now? She’d been winning everything in sight all year, and now, just a month before the Olympics, she had to lose to Margie Brandon. She’d be going into the Olympics in Calgary with everyone in the sports world wondering if she was slipping.
“They’re ready for you,” Beau said softly, giving her a gentle nudge toward the ice. “Just a little longer and you can go to your dressing room and shut them all out. There’s a TV sports commentator waiting in the corridor, but I’ll bail you out after a few minutes.”
“Thanks, Beau. I know you will.” This time her smile was warm with affection. She didn’t know what she’d do without Beau’s kindness in moments like this. She glided out on the ice toward the rostrum. Her slight, fragile body moved with the liquid grace that had made her a champion; her head, crowned with silky auburn hair, was held high with indomitable pride.
Twenty minutes later, as she tried to fend off the questions of the sports commentator in the hall outside her dressing room, she wasn’t quite so confident of Beau’s ability to extricate her. She’d found most sports reporters to be sympathetic, but Jay Monteith was as persistent and feral as a weasel. All of Beau’s attempts to whisk her out of his clutches had been futile.
“You’ve been the United States champion for the past two years, Miss Alexander,” Monteith said. “It must be very upsetting to be toppled from your throne this close to the Olympics. Will this change your training plans?” He thrust the microphone at her as if it were a weapon.
“Naturally I’m not happy about it,” Dany said, keeping her voice carefully expressionless. “But it really won’t affect my training plans. I was going to work extremely hard this month anyway.”
“How does Anthony Malik feel about your defeat?” Monteith asked, his dark eyes narrowed on her face to catch any flickering change of expression. “I noticed he’s not here today. Has he been told that the queen has been deposed?”
“I have no idea,” she said coolly. What a thoroughly unpleasant little man, Dany thought. He must have studied at the Howard Cosell school of journalism. “I haven’t heard from Mr. Malik yet, so I would assume he hasn’t heard. However, I’m sure my guardian will be very supportive as usual.”