WHO WANTS TO ICE A WORLD-CLASS SKATER?
Speed skater Laney Thompson still has nightmares about the car crash that almost shattered her lifelong dream. But as she's poised to compete in the world's most important games, she finds worse trouble. Someone wants her out of contention badly. Laney won't let anything stop hernot sabotage, a stalker or partial amnesia. As she and her brooding trainer Max Blanco strive to overcome past tragedy, the ice between them starts to melt. But as the race draws closer, a killer becomes more desperate, and a race for the gold becomes a race for their lives!
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Four long years, and it was as if the shock of the accident still lingered in her muscles, weakening the certainty she'd felt as a twenty-three-year-old champion. Now, at almost twenty-seven years old, Laney felt the eyes following her as she climbed from the heat box and clumped her way to the ice. Taking off her skate guards, she slid onto the sparkling surface of the ice and headed for the start line.
Was it whispers she heard from the coaches and the other girls? Or was it her own thoughts bubbling up to the surface, memories from four years before when she'd had her dream and lost it? It wasn't the venue that sparked the tension inside; she'd spent most of the past year training in this very spot. Nor was it the fear of losing, not really. Though it was a practice race, it was an important one, an indication of her prospects for placing in the trials in a matter of weeks, the event that would decide who made the team for the Olympic Games.
Up until now she'd been training mostly on her own with Max, grinding her body back into shape in spite of the pain. Today was the time she would answer the question publicly. Was Laney Thompson back?
As she glided slow circles on the ice, she pondered the question she'd tried to answer for herself every day since the accident that broke her ankle and left her with a brain injury. Did Laney Thompson still have what it took to compete for the United States in the biggest meet of her life? Her competitions throughout the season had not been stellar, moments of brilliance mixed in with enough mistakes to leave room for doubt.
Again the tickle of guilt that inevitably came with the question. Did she even deserve to be back, poised for a second chance, when Max was not?
She knew he was there somewhere in the arena. How did he feel at that moment? Now a trainer, thanks to the screws in a hip that had been extremely slow to heal, he watched others strive to live out a passion now denied to him.
He'd emerged from the accident scarred inside, too, hidden damage that had caused him to withdraw from her. Or maybe he'd lost any tender feelings for her when she woke up unable to remember chunks of their time together. Something broke there on the snow that day, something more than bones and dreams. She didn't understand what it was, and maybe she never would.
Beth Morrison gave her a smile, dimples standing out against her pale face, dark hair sporting a hot pink streak today. The girl looked so incredibly young. And when, Laney thought drily, had she become the old lady of the team at almost twenty-seven years old? Beth pointed to Laney's left skate. "Not tight," she mouthed.
Laney blushed and dropped to a knee to try it again. Gifted athlete, natural dancer, all-around high achiever Laney Thompson still had to remind herself of the steps to tying her skates. Why had the nuances of short-track speed skating lingered in her memory, but the act of tying her laces remained a challenge? And reading a clock, and remembering to eat or what not to eat? She'd almost triggered an allergic reaction two days prior when she'd been ready to eat a nutrition bar containing peanuts. It's the brain injury, Laney, not you.
Tanya Crowley shot her an odd look before she concealed her eyes behind racing glasses. Was it disdain Laney saw on her lips? Mind games, an athlete's trick.
Laney wondered what would happen if she produced a terrible race here today. Practice or not, she knew her performance would answer the question in her own mind. Could Laney Thompson be the person she was before the hit-and-run driver had almost taken away her future?
Her eyes scanned the darkened arena for Max. She did not see him. Zipping her skin suit up to her neck, she had a flash of memory, picturing the cut paper bird he had given her a moment before their lives were changed. After the crash, he'd retreated so far she doubted if there ever really had been the sweet connection between them.
You're like a bird, flying over the ice without really touching it. Had she read more into those words than she should have?
Would he ever see her that way again? Or was she someone flying away with a dream that should have been his?
No more time to think about it, Laney. Get into position. Game face on.
Max stood in the shadows, his body tensing just as it always did before the start of a race. Practice run or the real thing, it had never made a difference. When the buzzer sounded, there was only the ice and the finish line and seventeen-and-a-half-inch blades carrying him to victory. That's what he had loved about it most, how racing stripped everything away to that simple equation. Insane levels of training plus a helping of talent equaled a win.
At least, it used to. He eased the weight off his bad hip, still stiff in spite of the massive efforts he'd made to rehab. It wasn't enough. He wasn't enough. The only thing that saved him from total despair was this job, the chance to help Laney achieve what they'd both lost. He wouldn't get all of it back. Anger twisted his soul into an impenetrable knot that separated him from everyone, even Laney.
He found his hands were clenched around the rail as he watched her get into the zone. Would she remember to focus on her cornering? He was already taking notes about her tendency to chat with the other girls. Always kindling with energy, Laney struggled with brain trauma that had left her with a shortened attention span. There was more riding on this practice run than anyone knew, except maybe him and Dan Thompson, Laney's foster dad, who paced anxiously up and down the opposite side of the oval.
He felt someone next to him. Jackie Brewster, Beth's coach, stood there with her impeccably perfect posture and gleaming silver hair. Coach Stan Chung was the lead coach of the U.S. national team, overseeing all the girls, but most competitors like Beth had the means to employ private ones.
"Does Laney have it together?"
"Absolutely," he said, bobbing his chin at Jackie's athlete. "And Beth looks like she's in good form."
Jackie nodded without taking her eyes off her own skater. "At this point, it's all mental, as we both know." She paused. "There is a gentleman hanging around out front, asking for Laney."
She shrugged. "He said he's a reporter. I told him he could be the King of Siam and he wasn't going to get into the arena without an appointment."
Max nodded. "Thanks. She doesn't need any distractions right now."
"This is true. Security is lax around here. I already shooed away a kid who was hanging around last night."
Max had seen him, too, a skinny red-haired kid with a sweatshirt too small for him.
"See you after the race." Jackie patted him on the arm and went to take her place on the ice, stopwatch in hand, creased slacks an odd contrast to her clunky skate-clad feet. She was the only person he knew who could walk gracefully in skates.
Max saw Laney get into position. It was time for her to prove to herself that she had that heart of a lion, the ability to put everything and everyone out of her mind and go as fast and hard as she could for the five hundred meters it would take to win.
After some last-minute activity, the coaches took their places and everything went quiet. Max tensed with Laney as she raised her arm in front of her and crouched low, her blade tip dug into the ice. He realized he was taking slow, measured breaths, the same way she would be doing, bringing her mind into focus, preparing her muscles for the grueling challenge.
The bell sounded and Laney exploded from the start line so quickly she was a blur. After the initial chopping steps, she settled in to longer pushes, tucking into second position, the place where she was most comfortable as she waited to break away for the win. She leaned forward in the perfect crouch, gloved fingers skimming the ice as she rounded the turn, hands folded behind her on the straightaway.
"You've got this, Laney," he whispered.
"Are you Max Blanco?"
Max jerked. He'd been so intent on Laney that he hadn't noticed the lanky man come up next to him. "Who are you?"
The stranger regarded Max seriously, chewing on his thick mustache. "I asked you first."
Max scanned his shirtfront and found no identification tags. "You have permission to be in here?"
He smiled, one eye drooping slightly. "It's skating, not a nuclear missile test."
Max looked back at the ice. "What do you want?"
Max offered him a momentary glance. "I'm busy."
"I want a story about Laney."
"She's busy, too."
"I'm patient. I can wait."
Max rounded on him then. "Look, man. Laney's racing, if you can't tell. She needs to concentrate, and so do I. Call and make an appointment like everyone else."
"I've called. No reply from any of the people I've tried. Almost like someone doesn't want me to talk to her."
Max looked at Laney as she completed another turn and he saw something there, something hesitant, a tiny flicker of uncertainty that was probably only visible to him. Instinctively, he moved for the entrance to the ice, eyes riveted on her.
The man took Max's arm. "I'm writing about the American team hopefuls. Want to follow a skater from here all the way through the Winter Games."
Max shook off the touch. "Good for you. Call again. Maybe you'll get an appointment."
"Maybe I'll stay and talk to her anyway."
With effort, Max controlled his rising temper. "Get out," he said over his shoulder as moved.
The man shrugged. "All right, but you're not her keeper off the ice."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Max received no answer as the guy ambled in the direction of the exit. Max knew he should follow and make sure the man was truly leaving, but he could not walk away, not then, with Laney skating this critical race, her sides heaving with the effort, bits of ice exploding from under her blades as she rounded the turn with two laps to go.
Tanya was in first position but fading, he could tell. Beth was in third, looking for the gap on the inside to pass Laney. From his perspective the skaters were packed together, but he knew they would see it differently, waiting for an opening, that fraction of space to slip into that would change everything.
And then, as if in slow motion, things did change.
Something upset the dynamic of the flying pack.
Laney spiraled out of control.
She felt the blade give slightly under her right boot, but there was nothing she could do to stop her momentum. The break in the rhythm, an odd shift of her weight over her forward skate told her brain what her body already knew: a crash was coming.
At forty miles per hour the only result of skidding out was hitting the wall. Hard. Even cushioned by the thick blue pads, it was going to hurt. She prayed she could keep from taking out any of the other skaters or cutting herself open with her razor-sharp blades. In a blur of motion she went down on her right hip and slid at breakneck speed, the wall coming at her. One second more and she crashed into the pads, helmet first.
The impact knocked the wind out of her and she felt the pain of bones hitting ice; the recoil bounced her off the pads and sent her limbs spiraling in an unruly tumble. For a moment, there was only the harsh sound of her own breathing; the arena noises all faded away as she spun helplessly on her back. When her vision cleared, she was looking up at the ceiling of the oval, sparks dancing in front of her eyes. She lay still, feeling the shock of the impact shuddering through her body as she sucked in deep lungfuls of oxygen before she tried to move. Then Coach Stan was there, peering down at her, and behind him, Max's anxious face.
"Laney?" Coach Stan asked.
She realized what he wanted to know, but she wasn't sure herself if she was injured or not. Max squeezed her hand. "Hey, Birdie. Tell me how you feel."
She closed her eyes. Birdie. The nickname tickled something inside her. She forced her eyelids open and managed a grin. "I guess the eagle has landed, but not very gracefully."
The coach seemed to relax a little, and Max squeezed one more time before he let go and the team medic took his place. She was checked and helped to her feet. Looking back across the ice, she was in time to see the racers finish, Tanya first, Beth in second place. Beth glided to them, chest heaving, along with the other girls.
"Are you okay?" she puffed. "What happened?"
"Dunno," Laney said as she made her way to the edge of the ice, put the guards over her skate blades and sat heavily on the wooden bench. Her father materialized there, and she knew that though he'd probably wanted to run right down on that ice, he would never have done so.
He clutched her around the shoulders, and she felt his heartbeat vibrating through his skinny chest. When had he lost so much weight?
"Baby girl, you know how to crash with style," he said.
She laughed again, though it set off some pain in her rib cage.
"What hurts?" He asked it in that soft voice that always soothed her.
He'd asked when she'd come home from school in tears because the grade-school kids had found out her mother had abandoned them. He'd crooned it when years later she got a fat lip defending her younger sister from the unwanted attention of some teen thugs. He'd repeated it when she'd lain in a hospital bed crying for something she could not name. The loss of her chance at gold? The grief at knowing Max was suffering his own agonizing recovery? Or something else that would not come clear in her pain-fogged mind?
"Knee and elbow, ribs," she said, ticking off the list. "That about covers it." She looked to Coach Stan. "What now?"
"Now you rest up. Medic will check you out more thoroughly in a bit. Tomorrow we have a twelve-hour training day if you're up for it."
He smiled. "I thought you'd say that. We'll do another practice race at the end of the week. Tonight you take it easy and let us know if you have any confusion."
"More than usual, you mean," Laney said.
Coach Stan patted her hand. "When you catch your breath, we'll talk it through, look at your dad's tapes."
Her father nodded and held up the video camera that he was never without. "Got it all right here."