For over a decade, world-champion ice skaters Katie Nowacki and Brendan Reid have been partners in every way but one. But now that their electric on-ice chemistry has led them to Olympic gold, they're retiring from competition.
As they cross America on an exhibition tour with their fellow athletes, Katie and Brendan's always volatile relationship becomes more turbulent than ever as they face down the media, their fans, and their increasingly nosy teammates.
When Katie realizes she wants to go back to the farm she grew up on, leaving Brendan behind in the city where they trained, their fairy tale seems destined to end.
But will Brendan be able to convince her to trust him with the off-ice intimacy that only spelled disaster in their past?
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)|
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THE MOST RECENT WINTER OLYMPICS
KATIE LISTENED AS THE scores for the previous pair were announced in English, French, and Mandarin. She did the math in her head. There was absolutely room for them to win.
She tried not to look at Brendan; this wasn't about another team's scores. Keeping her eyes on her own work was essential if she was going to get through this without being hit with a wave of anxiety. There were all sorts of Olympic medals that could be won on math, but pair figure skating wasn't one of them.
Their names boomed over the loudspeakers, and Brendan took her hand as they took to the ice.
Smile at the crowd, she told herself. Smile at the judges, at the walls, at the ice if you have to, just fucking smile!
She plastered a grin on her face as they made a lap around the rink. Katie found these moments unendurable. They were hard for anyone of course, but the difference between reasonable and unreasonable nerves wasn't always clear to her. This time was worse than ever.
Because this was it. Twenty years of a singular dream were down to these four and a half minutes. Brendan would turn thirty next year; she'd follow soon thereafter. They were getting too old for this, if they weren't already.
Katie looked up towards the booth that held the announcers and wondered what they were saying about her and Brendan. Probably nothing kind. Probably way too much about their messy history. Inconsistent. Dramatic. A reality TV soap opera waiting to happen. She smiled at them anyway and mocked them in her head.
Brendan tugged her hand sharply. A check on her nerves, maybe. On her distraction, certainly.
But the announcers fascinated her. In a few months she might be one of them. Once she and Brendan retired from competition — and they would after this — it would be one of the few obvious career choices available to her. But she wasn't sure she wanted to be a part of that.
She'd watched enough replays of her own competitions to know how rude the commentary often was in hopes of keeping viewers interested enough to buy more cars, cereal, and makeup. She and Brendan would probably get endorsement deals for all those things if they won; the cereal especially. She wasn't sure how she felt about it, but this was not the moment to examine her relationship with capitalism.
"With me?" Brendan whispered to her as they skated to center ice.
"Always," she replied. The exchange was both ritual and habit for them.
They took their starting positions and waited for the music to begin. Katie willed herself to shut out her anxiety, the judges, the audience, everything but her awareness of Brendan's body so close to hers. She shut her eyes and listened to the sound of the deep breaths he was taking to calm his own nerves, and matched her breathing to his. Finally, when she thought she was going to pass out from the anticipation, the opening beats of their song played, and that was it.
Katie moved effortlessly into the first bit of choreography that let them ease from strained stillness into the meat of the program. Brendan was right there beside her, their movements a precise mirror of each other, as they went into the crossovers that led to their first side-by-sides jumps. If they nailed those, if they had the audience with them ... they were home free. Not because those jumps were the hardest — those came later, at seven seconds after the first minute mark — but because they set the tone. Katie reached back with her right arm and leg, dug her right toepick into the ice, and jumped.
From a triple jump a skater lands on the edge of a single blade with enough force that a thousand pounds of pressure shoots up through their body and down through the ice. Katie knew that a pair who could do that — who could endure that — in sync, on the beat, with a smile, and with their arms outstretched in victory, was a pair that had already won. Because winning was a choice. The audience could hold their breaths; the announcers could speculate, but if that first jump was perfect, if the energy was just right, the feat was always, somehow, already done.
Katie came down on the outside edge of her right skate. Brendan landed at the exact same moment as her, just as cleanly. Their eyes met, and the audience finally fell away. Everything about him — about them — was electric.
This isn't a competition, Katie thought. This, right here, is the victory tour.CHAPTER 2
THE MOST RECENT WINTER OLYMPICS
WHILE IT WAS HAPPENING, Brendan's only goal in a competitive skate was to exist completely in the present. He didn't want to think about the elements he had just executed or the ones that loomed ahead. He wanted to exist in perfect harmony with Katie in these moments where everything in their lives was absolutely clear. But today, the bubble in which they skated felt uniquely charged. Already Brendan could tell this was a performance that was going to live on in skating and Olympic history. They'd been good for a while. Lately, they'd been great. But in an entire life of skating, Brendan had never felt quite this certain, powerful, or free.
Two-thirds of the way through their program came the footwork pass. A lot of other pairs looked like they were taking a rest break on theirs — and with good reason. At four and a half minutes, these programs were exhausting. Without the somewhat less brutal demands of the footwork sequence, they weren't survivable. But for him and Katie, footwork and choreography were never about slowing down or easing up. They were places to up the stakes, secure a few more points, and to sell the only story they knew how to tell on the ice: That of love and desire so powerful it could burn the world down like war.
In the four years Brendan had spent apart from Katie, skating with other partners in the miserable purgatory between Annecy and Stockholm, he'd had to work to portray chemistry between himself and his other partners. Where to put his hands, where to direct his gaze, and where to move his body had taken up as much mental effort as the rest of his skating put together. With Katie, he didn't have to think about any of those things at all. He never had. Their bodies simply knew each other.
They were coming up on their third and final overhead lift in the last Olympics they would ever skate in. They only needed a few strokes to pick up speed.
Katie turned in his arms and jumped.
He caught her, and then he had her above his head. Their only two points of contact were their hands, clasped tight around each other, as Brendan rotated across the ice, covering as much distance as he could while the music swelled and the audience, already caught up in the moment, roared. Brendan's face felt like it would split from smiling. They'd been perfect, and now they were only seconds from the end.
Their eyes met as he guided Katie down from the lift and back onto the ice. Her face, framed by her dark hair, was incandescent with delight.
This. This moment is joy.
Last was the pair spin. They came out of it, Katie's head on his chest, Brendan's arms around her waist, both of them heaving for breath as the final strains of the music died away.
The crowd exploded into cheers.
As they came up out of their ending positions, they stared at each other in wonder and disbelief. They were made to do what they had just done, but they had fallen short so many times. Brendan didn't know if he had experienced destiny or a miracle. Maybe it had been both. After all, he was here with Katie. Finally.
Her eyes were wild with joy. She clasped Brendan's hands hard enough to hurt before she threw herself at him, her arms wrapped tight around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder.
Brendan folded his arms around her back and held her close. He'd never felt more whole.
"I love you." He ducked his head to whisper in her ear. Hopefully, the cameras wouldn't see. "And I'm pretty sure we just won."CHAPTER 3
SIX WEEKS AFTER HARBIN
On a Bus Somewhere Between Salt Lake City, UT and Portland, OR
THIS WAS NOT, EXACTLY, how Katie ever thought her life would turn out. Oh, she had secretly expected to win gold in pair skating; she had worked too hard and faced too many setbacks not to. But the whirlwind she'd been in since ... that was the confusing part.
No one had ever told her to think about what would happen after she won. In fact, lots of people had told her to avoid considering it at all; it would bring bad luck, weaken her intent, and aggravate her anxiety. And so, for twenty years, she had harbored only a single desire and a complete inability to plan for a life beyond skating.
Now, six weeks after the closing ceremonies in Harbin, she was on an International Ice Spectacular tour bus, sharing a hard, narrow bunk with Brendan. They lay side-by-side, his mobile phone suctioned to the low ceiling above them as they watched the latest episode of some makeover show, sharing a single pair of earbuds. They'd been doing this — trashy TV included — nearly their whole lives, ever since they had started skating together. She'd been nine, and Brendan had been ten.
Katie pointed at the small screen. "I like that dress, but I don't like it on her."
Brendan batted her hand away so he could see. "Yeah, but look at what the host is wearing. I'm sorry, but she doesn't get to have an opinion."
Katie laughed as she tangled her legs with his. He leaned his head against hers in response. Easy. Predictable. Safe. Their physical comfort with each other had never entirely made sense to others — especially people who didn't skate. But they had always been each other's refuge in the midst of relentless training, endless travel, and the acute pressures of the public eye. For them, physical closeness was situation normal. That, combined with the disaster of their first Olympics in Annecy and their brief, doomed attempt at dating afterwards, meant that the media constantly asked if they were a couple. It had only gotten worse since Harbin.
Katie understood why people were curious, but didn't feel like she knew how to answer the query. She and Brendan were together in ways most romantic couples never would be and which no one but them could understand. Even she didn't understand it a lot of the time. They'd spent most of their lives learning how to touch each other so that they could do things that were nearly impossible. Whether they were dating and/or screwing — which they weren't, because terrible things happened when they did — was purely incidental.
"I like this," Brendan said.
"Me too," she said after too long a pause.
The bus was uncomfortable, but being pressed so close to Brendan wasn't. His body was warm. His soft breath and steady heartbeat made Katie feel calm. She already missed competing; touring never could scratch the itch she had to push herself and Brendan relentlessly. But at least they were together. Being with Brendan twenty-four/seven because of the ice was how she functioned.
"Your dye's growing out." He touched her hair near the part, where it was a honey drab and not the rich, dark brown she favored.
"I know." Katie sighed. "I need to deal with that." The constant to-do list of keeping up public appearances was exhausting, for her so much more than for Brendan. On the days he didn't have time to shave, his fans just got more excited.
"Why haven't you?" Brendan asked. "Brushing mascara on it before every performance has to be a pain."
Katie shrugged. "Maybe I was thinking I'd let it grow out."
Brendan laughed quietly at her and fingered the strands. "You should. I always liked it. Don't know why you don't."
"If I'm thinking about growing it out, doesn't that mean I like it fine?" she said irritably. Whatever complicated feelings she had about her image, her hair, and how they were all tied up in her all-but-finished career, she didn't feel like talking about them right now. Even with Brendan.
"Maybe," he said.
"What do you mean, 'maybe?'"
He shrugged. "You're my inscrutable Katie."
She was his, wasn't she?
Katie turned her head to smile at him. In so many ways she knew his features better than she knew her own. After all, she spent the majority of every day looking at him. I guess he's my something-or-other too.
Brendan's face was easy. Friendly. The boy next door. Brown hair, green eyes, a smile that would assure any parent he had only the kindest heart. Which he did, but that was only one of the reasons Katie loved him. He had a fierce mind and a dogged sort of ambition; Katie loved him for that, too; perhaps more than for the qualities of his heart. If all she had wanted was a good man — or a good woman, for that matter — there were plenty at their Denver rink or at home in Wisconsin. But what she wanted was someone who didn't mind that she liked to run and who could keep up with her whenever and wherever she did.
Too bad jumping into bed together had ruined their first Olympics in Annecy, split their partnership, and sent them down a road of unsuccessful careers with other partners. Reuniting after their miserable showing in Stockholm had been Katie's idea. Four years after the fact, she could remember the visceral rush of relief at being with Brendan on the ice again. Skating had been easy at first. She'd missed her best friend and her partner in crime. It had been so good to see him first thing every morning and to go back to hanging out with each other every night.
That had lasted about a week. As ease and familiarity returned to their partnership, so did the trust between them — and the chemistry that had gotten them into trouble in the first place. For months Katie had been terrified they'd end up right back where they started, in bed with each other and broken on the ice. But after more than a few arguments — and a few awkward conversations with their coach — they'd decided to bring their connection, so impossible to deny or ignore, to the ice.
The more they acted out love in its most brutal and desperate forms, they more they were able to keep their desire compartmentalized and their energy channeled in useful directions. They shared rooms on the road. They even sometimes shared a bed — just to sleep. But they'd drawn their line, and they diligently stayed on the safe side of it all the way to Olympic gold.
But ... but, Katie thought as she watched Brendan's face, mere inches from her own. Their competitive career was all but officially over. Did the old rules still apply? They were the best skaters in the world. They were in talks to do a skating tour that was all about them as headliners instead of the usual Team USA branding. No other pair had done such a thing in decades.
None of that would change if they kissed. Time would not unwind. Their medals couldn't be taken away. Maybe they didn't need to deny the totality of their connection anymore.
Slowly, Katie rubbed her face against Brendan's. If the gesture was strange, she didn't care. She'd wanted all of him for so long without being able to have him like this. The anticipation — and the suspense of whether either of them would put a stop to it — made her skin feel like it was on fire.
"What are you doing?" Brendan asked, his voice lazy and curious. Katie envied him his easygoingness. If his mind was churning as rapidly as hers — which she doubted — he wasn't showing it.
"I don't know," she admitted. "Can I keep doing it?"
"Be my guest," he said, absurdly polite for the situation they were in. But that was who Brendan was.
Katie wanted more of this, more of him. She nosed along the line of his jaw, breathing in the warm scent of his skin. He smelled like his deodorant and her shampoo; he must have run out of his own and borrowed hers this morning. Again.
When her lips pressed to the point at his throat where she could feel his pulse beat beneath the skin, his breathing hitched. He rolled towards her, and Katie mirrored him, unwilling to lose the warm press of his body against hers. Before the noise in her head could talk her out of it, she kissed him.
Brendan's lips were warm. They fit against hers as if they'd done this for years. Why hadn't they been doing this for years? She nipped his lower lip sharply. He used to like that. Does he still?
With a soft groan in the back of his throat Brendan opened his mouth to her. So that's a yes. His arm, slung loosely around her waist, tightened, but he was letting her lead. Given their shared history, that might have been a wise choice. But it wasn't what Katie wanted. On the ice, this was a man who could throw her across the rink, who ran his hands all over her body for the cheer of the crowd, who pushed and pulled in response to her relentless pursuit. Now that they were finally doing this, Katie wanted all the intensity they'd bottled up and poured out only onto the ice.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "After the Gold"
Copyright © 2018 Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese.
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