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judging by the fact that the swearing is one of the most used words in this book, i think we can conclude this book will be amazing
15 March 2021 (23:24)
I absolutely loved this book!
25 March 2021 (09:05)
I loveeeee every single book Mariana has published, and this is not exception
20 April 2021 (18:17)
and Mariana has done it again AGH I FREAKING LOVED IT the banter and the jokes were so funny and it was so amazing to see them communicating and joking, def recommend
13 July 2021 (20:15)
Loved it amazing story !
24 August 2021 (07:23)
WHAT A BOOK DAMN IT. Amazing enemies to lovers vibes. Always loving Mariana’s characters
28 August 2021 (06:45)
kini kay very funny banter daw ingon si TikTok ???
01 September 2021 (17:25)
excited nako mag basa aaaack
03 September 2021 (04:24)
the best zapata book
24 September 2021 (11:10)
This took 1st place in my most favorite romance book. I don't know- everything, EVERYTHING is just- I just love it. The flaws? Oh my- even the flaws are beautiful. This is probably one of the best books I've ever read and I'm talking about in ALL GENRE. Just as I thought that my standards couldn't get higher than it is WELL IVAN FUCKING LUKOV PROVED ME WRONG. My standards went up to the unknown universe, and Jas? Oh my gosh she's the best, she's so strong both physically and mentally- oh also emotionally. Her family, his family are the best no stress just love, laugh, cry.
14 October 2021 (09:31)
OMG WHY IS THIS TAKING ME SO FLIIPING LONG TO DOWNLOAD UGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
19 October 2021 (01:24)
From Lukov with Love Mariana Zapata Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Epilogue Acknowledgments About the Author Also Available From Lukov with Love © 2018 Mariana Zapata All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2018 Mariana Zapata Edited by HOT TREE EDITING Cover Design by RBA DESIGNS Formatting by INDIE FORMATTING To my best friend and the best person I know, My mom The real chingona. Chapter 1 Winter/Spring 2016 By the time I’d busted my ass five times in a row, I figured it was time to call it quits. At least for the day. My butt cheeks could handle another two hours’ worth of falls tomorrow. They might have to if I didn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, damn it. This was the second day in a row I hadn’t been able to land a damn jump. Rolling over onto the cheek I’d fallen on the least amount of times, I blew out a breath of frustration, managed to keep the “son of a bitch” I really wanted to scream inside my mouth, and tilted my head all the way back to make faces at the ceiling, figuring out almost immediately that decisi; on was a fucking mistake. Because I knew what was hanging from the ceiling of the dome-shaped facility. For the most part, it was the same thing I’d been seeing for the last thirteen years. Banners. Banners hanging from the rafters. Banners with the same jackass’s name on all of them. IVAN LUKOV. IVAN LUKOV. IVAN LUKOV. And more IVAN LUKOV. There were other names on there right alongside his—the other miserable souls he’d partnered up with over the years—but it was his that stood out. Not because his last name was the same last name as one of my favorite people in the world, but because his first name reminded me of Satan. I was pretty sure his parents had adopted him straight out of Hell. But at that moment, nothing else mattered but those hanging tapestries. Five different blue banners proclaiming each of the national championships he’d won. Two red banners for every world championship. Two butter yellow banners for every gold medal. One silver banner to commemorate the single silver medal for a world championship sitting in the trophy case at the entrance to the facility. Ugh. Overachiever. Ass. Jerk. And thank fuck there weren’t banners for every Cup or other competition he’d won along the years too, otherwise the entire ceiling would have been covered in colors, and I would have been throwing up daily. All these banners… and none of them had my name on them. Not one single one. No matter how hard I had tried, how hard I had trained, nothing. Because no one ever remembers second place, unless you’re Ivan Lukov. And I was no Ivan. Jealousy I had no right to feel, but couldn’t exactly ignore, pierced right through my sternum, and I hated it. I fucking hated it. Worrying about what other people were doing was a waste of time and energy; I’d learned that as a kid when other girls had nicer costumes and newer skates than me. Being jealous and bitter was what people who didn’t have anything better to do, did. I knew that. No one did anything with their lives if they spent it comparing themselves to other people. I knew that too. And I never wanted to be that person. Especially not over that jackass. I’d take my three seconds of jealousy shit to the grave with me before I ever told anyone what those banners did to me. It was with that reminder that I rolled onto my knees to quit looking at those stupid-ass pieces of cloth. Slapping my hands on the ice, I grunted as I got my feet under me—balancing on my blades was second nature—and finally got up. Again. For the fifth fucking time in less than fifteen minutes. My left hip bone, butt cheek, and thigh were aching, and they were only going to hurt worse tomorrow. “Fucking shit,” I muttered under my breath so that none of the younger girls skating around me would hear. The last thing I needed was for one of them to tell on me to management. Again. Little snitches. Like they didn’t hear the f-bomb watching television, walking down the street, or going to school. Brushing off the ice coating my side from my last fall, I took a steadying breath and reeled in the frustration flaring through my body at everything—at myself, my body, my situation, my life, the other girls I couldn’t fucking curse around—at today in general. From waking up late to not being able to land a jump that morning either, to spilling coffee down my shirt at work twice, opening my car door and having it almost break my kneecap, and then this second session of shitty training…. It was easy to forget that in the grand scheme of life, not being able to land a jump I’d been doing for ten years didn’t mean anything. It was just an off day. Another off day. It wasn’t unheard of. There was always something worse that could and would happen, someday, some time. It was easy to take things for granted when you thought you had everything. But it was when you started taking the most basic things for granted that life decided to teach you that you’re an ungrateful idiot. And today, the thing I was taking for granted were landing triple Salchows, a jump I’d been doing for years. They weren’t the easiest jump in figure skating—the jump consisted of three rotations that started while skating backward on the back inside edge of the blade of your skate before takeoff, and then required a landing on the back outside edge of the blade of the opposite foot you took off from—but it definitely wasn’t anywhere near being the hardest. Under normal circumstances, they were second nature to me. But not today or yesterday apparently. Scrubbing my eyelids with the backs of my hands, I took a deep breath in and let another slow one out, rolling my shoulders in the process and telling myself I needed to calm down and just go home. There was always tomorrow. And it wasn’t like I was going to be competing any time soon, the practical but asshole part of my brain reminded me. Just like it did every single time I thought about that awesome fact, my stomach clenched in pure anger… and something that felt awfully close to despair. And just like every time it happened, I shoved both those emotions way, way, way down, so far down I couldn’t see them or touch them or smell them. They were pointless. I knew that. Absolutely pointless. I wasn’t giving up. With another inhale and exhale as I subconsciously rubbed the ass cheek hurting the worst for forgiveness, I looked around the rink one last time for the day. Taking in the girls so much younger than me, still taking advantage of the session going on at the moment, I held back a frown. There were three that were about my age, but the others were all in their teens. Maybe they weren’t that good—at least not as good as I’d been at their ages—but still. They had their entire lives ahead of them. Only in figure skating, and maybe gymnastics, could you be considered ancient at twenty-six years old. Yeah, I needed to get home and lay on the couch with some television to get over this shit day. Nothing good ever came out of me throwing my own ass a pity party. Nothing. It didn’t take more than a couple of seconds to weave my way through and around the other people on the ice, paying just enough attention to not crash into anyone before making it to the short wall surrounding the rink. In the same place I’d always left my skate guards, I grabbed the pieces of plastic and slipped them over the four-millimeter wide blades attached to my white boots right before stepping onto solid ground. I tried to ignore that tight feeling bubbling around in my chest that was more than likely mostly frustration at falling so much today, but maybe wasn’t. I wasn’t about to believe my chances were high that I was wasting my time still hitting the Lukov Ice and Sports Complex twice a day to workout in hopes of someday competing again because the idea of just giving up seemed like a total waste of the last sixteen years of my life. Like I hadn’t basically given up my childhood for nothing. Like I hadn’t sacrificed relationships and normal human experiences for a dream I’d had that had once been so huge, nothing and no one could have taken it away from me. Like my dream of winning a gold medal… of at least winning a world championship, even a national championship… hadn’t been broken down into tiny, confetti-sized pieces that I was still clinging onto even though some part of me realized all it did was hurt me more than help me. Nope. It wasn’t any of those ideas and possibilities that made my stomach hurt almost daily and made me nauseous right then and there. I needed to chill out. Or maybe masturbate. Something had to help. Shaking off that crappy feeling in my gut, I made my way around the rink and continued on down the hall that led toward the changing rooms, taking in the crowd. There were already parents and kids hanging around the rink, getting ready for evening classes; the same classes I’d started with at nine years old before moving on to small groups and then private lessons with Galina. The good old days. I kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone and kept on going, passing other people who went out of their way to avoid my gaze too. But it wasn’t until I was going down the hall toward where my things were, that I spotted a group of four teenage girls standing around, pretending to stretch. Pretending because you couldn’t get a proper stretch in if you were busy running your mouth. At least that’s what I’d been taught. “Hi, Jasmine!” one of them greeted, a nice girl who, as far as I could remember, had always gone out of her way to be friendly to me. “Hi, Jasmine,” the girl beside her said too. I couldn’t help but nod at them, even as I counted down the time it would take me to go home, either make something to eat or microwave something my mom had made, and probably sit on my ass and watch TV. Maybe if practice had gone better, I’d want to do something else, like go for a run or even go to my sister’s house, but… it wasn’t going to happen. “Have a good practice,” I mumbled at the two friendly girls, flashing a glance at the other two standing across from them, silently. They looked familiar. There was a class for intermediate skaters starting soon that I figured they were enrolled in. I had no reason to pay attention to them. “Thanks, you too!” the first girl who had talked to me squawked out before slamming her mouth closed and turning a shade of red I’d only seen on one person in the past: my sister. The smile that came over my mouth was genuine and unexpected—because the girl made me think of Squirt—and I dug my shoulder into the swinging door of the changing room. I’d barely taken a step in, shoulder still holding the door open, when I heard, “I don’t know why you get so excited seeing her. She might have been a good singles skater, but she always choked, and her pairs career was nothing to talk about.” And… I stopped. Right there. Halfway in the door. And I did something I knew was a bad idea: I listened. Eavesdropping never worked out for anybody, but I did it anyway. “Mary McDonald is a better pairs skater—” They went there. Breathe, Jasmine. Breathe. Shut up and breathe. Think about what you’re going to say. Think about how far you’ve come. Think about— “—otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have teamed up with her this last season,” the girl finished. Assault was against the law. But was it extra illegal to hit a teenager? Breathe. Think. Be nicer. I was old enough to know better. I knew that. I was old enough to not get offended by some teenage twat who probably hadn’t even gone through puberty yet, but… Well, my pairs career was a sore spot for me. And by sore spot, I meant a bleeding blister that refused to heal. Mary McDonald and Paul The Piece of Shit Asshole I Would Burn Alive? I’d watched just enough of the Brady Bunch late at night when I couldn’t sleep to totally get Jan’s beef with Marcia. I would have hated her ass too. Just like I hated Mary McDonald’s ass. “Have you seen all the videos there are online of her? My mom says she’s got a bad attitude and that’s why she never won; the judges don’t like her,“ the other girl attempted to whisper but basically failed because I could hear her clear as day. I didn’t need to do this. I didn’t need to do anything. They were still kids, I tried to tell myself. They didn’t know the whole story. They didn’t even know part of the story. Most people didn’t, and they never would. I’d accepted it and gotten over it. But then one of them kept on talking, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to shut the hell up and let them assume their bullshit. There’s only so much a person can take on a good day, and today hadn’t been a good one to begin with. “My mom said the only reason she still trains here is because she’s friends with Karina Lukov, but supposedly her and Ivan don’t get along—” I was this fucking close to snorting. Ivan and I not getting along? Is that what they were calling it? Okay. “She’s kind of a bitch.” “Nobody was surprised she couldn’t get another partner after Paul left her.” And there it was. Maybe if they wouldn’t have said the P-name again I could have been the bigger person, but fuck it, I was five foot three and I wasn’t built to be that person ever. Before I could stop myself, I turned around and peeked my head out the door to find the four girls right where they’d been a moment ago. “What did you just say?” I asked, slowly, keeping the you talentless fuckers are never going to do shit to myself at least. I made sure to look right at the two that hadn’t said hi to me, whose heads pretty much snapped in my direction in horror the moment I started talking. “I… I… I…,” one of them stuttered while the other looked like she was about to crap her leotard and tights. Good. I hoped she did. And I hoped it had a diarrhea-like texture so it would go everywhere. I stared at each one of them for what felt like a minute each, watching their faces turn bright red and getting just a little a kick out of it… but not as much as I normally could have if I wasn’t already pissed off at myself more than them. Raising my eyebrows, I tilted my head in the direction of the hall-like tunnel I’d just taken from the rink to the changing rooms and smiled a smile that wasn’t one at all. “That’s what I thought. You should get to practice before you’re late.” Somehow, I kept from adding “fuckers” to the end. Some days I deserved a medal for being so patient with idiots. If only they had a competition for that, I could have won. Chances were that I’d never see two people move so fast ever again unless I watched the sprinters in the Olympics. The two nice girls looked slightly horrified but shot me quick uneasy smiles before following after the other two, whispering God knows what to each other. Girls like those shitty two were the reasons why I’d stopped trying to make friends with other figure skaters early on. Mini fuckers. I raised my middle finger at the retreating bodies down the hall, but it didn’t really make me feel any better. I needed to snap out of it. I really, really did. I finished making my way into the changing room and dropped onto one of the benches in front of the row of lockers mine was located in; the ache in my hip and thigh had gotten stronger on the walk over. I’d taken falls a lot harder and more painful than the ones today but, despite knowing that, you never exactly “got used” to the pain; when it happened regularly, you made yourself get over it faster. And the reality of it was, I wasn’t training the way I used to, I couldn’t—not when I didn’t have a partner to practice with and didn’t have a coach correcting me for hours each day—so my body had forgotten what it could take. It was just another shitty sign that time and life kept going even when I didn’t want it to. Stretching my legs out ahead of me, I ignored the handful of older teenage girls already clustered on the opposite side of the room furthest from the door, getting dressed and fiddling with their boots, talking as they did it. They didn’t look at me, and I didn’t do more than glance at them out of the corner of my eye. Undoing my laces, I thought about showering for all of a second before deciding that was going to be too much work when I could wait twenty minutes until I got home so I could change and shower there in my full-sized bathroom. I took my right white skate off, and then gingerly pulled off the nude-colored bandage that covered my ankle and a couple inches above it. “Oh my God!” one of the teenagers pretty much shrieked from the other side of the room, making it impossible for me to zone her out. “You’re not joking, are you?” “No!” someone else responded as I unlaced my left skate, trying hard to ignore the girls. “Seriously?” another voice, or maybe it was the same one from the beginning, piped up. I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t like I was trying to listen to them. “Seriously!” “Seriously?” “Seriously!” I rolled my eyes and kept trying to ignore them. “No!” “Yes!” “No!” “Yes!” Yeah. I couldn’t ignore shit. Had I ever been that annoying? That girly? No way. “Where did you hear that?” I was in the middle of putting in the code to my combination lock on my locker when there was a chorus of noises that had me glancing over my shoulder to glare at the girls. One of them literally looked like she was on speed, she was baring her teeth, and her hands were hanging out right at chest level as she clapped her palms together. Another girl had her fingers knitted together, palms joined in front of her mouth, and she might have been shaking. What in the hell was wrong with them two? “Hear it? I saw him walk in with Coach Lee.” Ugh. Of course. Who the hell else would they be talking about? I didn’t bother sighing or even rolling my eyes as I turned back to my locker and pulled my gym bag out, unzipping it the moment I set it on the bench beside me so I could dig out my phone, keys, flip-flops, and a tiny bar of Hershey’s I kept in there for days like today. I took off the wrapper and stuffed that thing in my mouth before grabbing my phone. The green light on the screen blinked, telling me I had unread messages. Unlocking it, I glanced over my shoulder to see the girls there still squawking and making it seem like they were on the verge of having a heart attack over The Asswipe. Ignoring them, I took my time reading through the group chat messages I had missed while practicing. Jojo: I want to go to the movies tonight. Anyone in? Tali: Depends. What movie? Mom: Ben and I will go with you, baby. Seb: No. I’ve got a date tonight. Seb: James doesn’t want to go with you? I don’t blame him. Jojo: The new Marvel movie. Jojo: Seb, I hope you get an STD tonight. Tali: Marvel? No thanks. Tali: I hope you get an STD too, Seb. Mom: WOULD YOU ALL BE NICE TO EACH OTHER? Seb: All of you can eat shit except for Mom. Rubes: I’d go with you but Aaron’s not feeling well. Jojo: I know you would, Squirt. Love you. Next time. Jojo: Mom, let’s go. 7:30 work? Jojo: Seb- [emoji of a middle finger] Jojo: Jas, you in? I looked up as the girls in the changing room made noises I wasn’t sure I was capable of, wondering what the hell was going on with them. Jesus Christ, it wasn’t like Ivan didn’t train here five days a week for the last million years. Seeing him wasn’t that exciting. I would rather watch paint dry. Scrunching up my bright pink-colored toenails, I took them in and purposely ignored the bruise I had right alongside my smallest toe and the start of a blister I had beside my big toe from the seam of a new brand of tights I’d worn the day before. “What is he doing here?” the teenagers kept going, reminding me that I needed to get out of the room as quickly as possible. I’d already reached my limit for how much I could handle today. Glancing back at my phone, I tried to decide what to do. Go home and watch a movie or suck it up and go to the movies with my brother, mom, and Ben—or as the rest of us called him in secret, number four? I would rather go home and not hang out in a crowded movie theater on the weekend, but…. My hand fisted for a second before I typed up a response. I’ll go, but I need food first. Going home now. Then I smiled and added another message. Seb, I third you getting an STD. Aim for gonorrhea this time. Setting my phone between my legs in the meantime, I grabbed my car keys from the pocket of my bag and snagged my flip-flops, then carefully set each of my skates into a custom protective case lined with a faux-fur over thin memory foam that my brother Jonathan and his husband had bought me years ago. I zipped my bag back up, slid my feet into my sandals, and got to my feet with a sigh that made my chest feel tight. Today hadn’t been the best, but it would get better, I told myself. It had to. The good thing was, I didn’t have work tomorrow, and I didn’t usually come skate on Sundays either. My mom would probably make pancakes for breakfast, and I was supposed to go to the zoo with my brother and niece since he was picking her up for the day. I’d missed enough moments in her life because of figure skating. Now that I had more time, I was trying to make up for it. It was better for me to look at it like that than get hung up on why I had more time on my hands. I was trying to be more positive. I just wasn’t that good at it yet. “I don’t know,” one of the girls said. “But he usually doesn’t come in for a month or two after the end of the season, and it’s been what? A week since Worlds?” “I wonder if he split up with Mindy.” “Why would he do that?” “I don’t know. Why did he split up with any of the rest of them before her?” I’d already known from the moment one of them said Coach Lee’s name whom they were still talking about. There was only one man left at the LC—what most of us called the Lukov Ice and Sports Complex, or the Lukov Complex for short—that these girls would give a crap about. It was the same guy everyone gave a shit about. Everyone except me at least. And anyone else with a brain. Ivan Lukov. Or as I liked to call him, to his face especially—the son of Satan. “All I said was that I saw him. I don’t know what he’s doing here,” a voice said. “He never comes over randomly, Stacy. Come on. Put two and two together.” “Oh my God, are he and Mindy splitting up?” “If they are, I wonder who he’ll skate with.” “It could be anybody.” “Shoot, I’d pay to partner with him,” a girl said. “You don’t even know anything about pairs, stupid,” another girl said, snorting. I wasn’t actively listening, but my brain continued stringing together the pieces of their comments as they went in one ear and out the other. “How hard could it be?” the other voice rattled off proudly. “He’s got the greatest butt in the country, and he wins with everyone. Sounds like a walk in the park to me.” I rolled my eyes again, especially at the butt part. The last thing that idiot ever needed to hear was someone compliment it. But, she had missed the most relevant parts of Ivan. How he was the figure skating world’s sweetheart-slash-dreamboat. The World Skating Union’s poster boy for pairs skating. Hell, for skating in general, really. “Skating royalty” as some called him. “A prodigy” people had used when he’d been a teenager. He was the man whose family owned the center I had trained at for over a decade. The brother to one of my only friends. The man who had not once said a kind word to me in over ten years. That’s how I knew him. As the ass who I’d seen daily for years and had only ever bickered to me over the dumbest shit from time to time. The person I couldn’t have a conversation with without it ending in one of us insulting the other. Yeah… I didn’t get why he was at the Lukov Complex barely a week after he’d won his third world championship, days after the season had ended—when he should have been resting or vacationing. At least that was what he’d done every year for as long as I could remember. Did I care he was around? Nah. If I really wanted to know what was happening, I could just ask Karina. I just didn’t. There was no need to. Because it wasn’t like Ivan and I were going to compete against each other anytime soon… or ever again, if things continued the way they were going. And something told me, even if I didn’t want to believe it—never, ever, ever—as I stood there in the same changing room I’d been using for more than half my life, that that was the case: that I might be done. After so long, after so many months of being by myself… my dream might be over. And I had not a single fucking thing to show for it. Chapter 2 “Did you hear the news?” I gave the laces on my boot an extra tight squeeze in the changing room before looping the ends into a knot tight enough to survive the next hour. I didn’t need to turn around to know there were two teenage girls down the bench from me in front of their lockers. They were there every morning, usually farting around. They could have had more time on the ice if they didn’t talk, but whatever. I wasn’t the one paying for their ice time. If they’d had my mom for their own, she would’ve gotten them out of that standing-around habit real quick. “My mom told me last night,” the taller of the two said as she got to her feet. I stood up and kept my attention forward, rolling back my shoulders even though I’d already spent an hour warming up and stretching. Maybe I wasn’t skating six or seven hours a day like I used to—when stretching for at least an hour was absolutely necessary—but old habits died hard. And suffering for days or weeks from a pulled muscle wasn’t worth the hour I’d save from skipping my warm-up. “She said she overheard someone say that they think he’s retiring because he’s had so many problems with his partners.” Now that caught my attention. He. Retiring. Problems. It had pretty much been a miracle that I’d graduated from high school on time, but even I knew who they had to be talking about. Ivan. Who the hell else? Other than a few younger boys, and the three years that Paul had spent training at the Lukov Ice and Sports Complex with me, there was no other “he” that anyone here would talk about. There were a couple of teenage boys, but none of them had the potential to go very far, if anybody gave a shit about my opinion. Not that they did. “Maybe if he retires he’ll go into coaching,” one of the girls said. “I wouldn’t mind him yelling at me all day.” I almost laughed. Ivan retiring? No way. There was no chance in hell he’d retire at twenty-nine, especially not while he was still killing it. Months ago, he’d won a US championship. And a month before that, he’d taken second place in the Major Prix final. Why the hell was I even paying attention anyway? I didn’t care what he did. His life was his business. We all had to quit sometime. And the less I had to look at his annoying face, the better. Deciding that I didn’t need to be distracted starting the first of only two hours I had in the day to practice—especially not being distracted over Ivan of all people—I made my way out of the changing room, leaving the two teenagers in there to waste their own time gossiping. This early in the morning, there were six people on the ice, like usual. I didn’t come in as early as I had before—there wasn’t a point—but every face, I’d been seeing for years. Some more than others. Galina was already sitting on one of the bleachers outside the rink with her thermos of coffee that I knew from experience was so thick it looked and tasted like tar. With her favorite red scarf wound around her neck and ears, she had on a sweater I’d seen at least a hundred times in the past and what looked like a shawl on top of it. I’d swear she’d started adding an item of clothing to what she wore every year. When she had first plucked me out of lessons almost fourteen years ago, she had been fine in just a long sleeved shirt and a shawl, now she probably would have frozen to death. Fourteen years was longer than some of these girls had been alive. “Good morning,” I said in the choppy Russian I’d picked up from her over the years. “Hello, yozik,” she greeted me, her eyes darting toward the ice for a brief moment before returning to me with a face that was the same as it had been when I’d been twelve, all weathered and fierce, like her skin was made of bulletproof material. “Your weekend, it was good?” I nodded, briefly reminiscing on how I’d gone to the zoo with my brother and niece and then gone to his condo afterward for pizza—two things I couldn’t remember ever doing in the past, the pizza part included. “Did you have a good one?” I asked the woman who taught me so many things I could never give her credit for. The dimples she rarely showed came out. She had a face I knew so well I could describe it to a sketch artist perfectly if she ever came missing. Round, thin eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, a thin mouth, a scar on her chin from taking a partner’s blade to the face back in her competing days, another scar at her temple from smacking her head on the ice. Not that she would ever go missing. Any kidnapper would probably release her within an hour. “I saw my grandchild.” I thought about the dates for a second before it clicked. “It was his birthday, right?” She nodded, her gaze moving toward the rink again in the direction of what I knew was the figure skater she’d been working with since I’d left her to start skating pairs four years ago. Well, I hadn’t wanted to leave her but… it didn’t matter. It didn’t make me jealous anymore to think of how quickly she’d replaced me. But sometimes, especially lately, it bothered me. Just a little. Just enough. I’d never let her know that. “Did you finally buy him skates?” I asked. My old coach tipped her head to the side and shrugged a shoulder, the gray eyes, which had stared me down countless times, still settled on the ice. “Yes. Used skates and video game. I waited. He’s almost same age you were. Little later, but still good.” She’d finally done it. I remembered when he’d been born—before we’d split—and how we’d talked about him figure skating when he was old enough. It had only been a matter of time. We both knew that. Her own children hadn’t made it out of the junior level, but it hadn’t mattered. But thinking about him, her grandson, just starting made me feel… almost homesick, remembering how much fun figure skating had been back then. Back before the bone-crushing pressure, the drama, and the fucking critics. Back before I’d learned the shitty taste of disappointment. Figure skating had always made me feel invincible. But more than anything, back then, it had made me feel amazing. I hadn’t known it was possible to feel like you could fly. To be so strong. To be so beautiful. To be good at something. Especially something that I cared about. Because I hadn’t known that contorting body parts and twisting and turning them into shapes that shouldn’t have been possible could be so impressive. It had made me feel special to go as fast as I could around the oval shape, that I would have no idea until years later, would change my life. Galina’s chuckle snapped me out of my funk. At least for a moment. “One day, you coach him,” she offered with a snort, like she was imagining me treating him the way she had treated me, and it made her laugh. I snickered at the memories of all the hundreds of times she had smacked me on the back of the head throughout those ten years we were together. Some people wouldn’t have been able to handle her brand of tough love, but I’d secretly loved it. I’d thrived with it. My mom always said that if anyone gave me an inch, I’d take a mile. And the last thing Galina Petrov would ever do is give up a single centimeter. But this wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned the idea of me coaching. Over the last few months, when things had become… more desperate, when my hope of finding another partner began to shrivel up, she’d started dropping the possibility on me when we’d talk, not subtly or swiftly at all. Just Jasmine, you coach. Yes? But I still wasn’t ready for that. Coaching felt like giving up, and… I wasn’t ready. Not yet. Not fucking yet. But maybe it’s time? Some nagging, whiney voice in my head whispered at the same time, making my stomach clench. Almost as if she could sense what was going on in my head, she made another snorting sound. “I have things to do. Practice your jumps. You aren’t committing, you are too much in your head, that’s why you have been falling. Remember seven years ago,” she said, her attention still on the ice. “Stop thinking. You know what to do.” I hadn’t thought she’d noticed me struggling since she was busy coaching someone else. But I focused on her words, remembering exactly what time period she was talking about. She was right. I had been nineteen. That had been the worst season of my singles career, back when I hadn’t had a partner and skated all by myself; that season had been the catalyst for the next three seasons that had led me down the path to pairs, to skating with a partner. I’d been in my head too much, overthought everything, and… well, if I’d made a mistake transitioning from singles, it was too late to regret it at this point. Life was about choices, and I had made mine. I nodded and swallowed back that old shame at the memory of that horrible season I still thought about when I was by myself and feeling more pitiful than usual. “That’s what I was worried about. I’m gonna go work on them. I’ll see you later, Lina,” I said to my old coach, fiddling with the bracelet on my wrist for a moment before dropping my hands and shaking them both out. Galina’s eyes quickly moved over my face before she dipped her chin gravely and turned her attention back to the rink, shouting something in her deeply accented voice about going into a jump too slowly. Taking off my skate guards and setting them in their usual spot, I stepped out on the ice and focused. I could do this. Exactly an hour later, I was as sweaty and as tired as I’d been back when I’d have a three-hour session. I was getting soft, damn it. I’d ended up doing a few jump combinations—a sequence or at least one jump followed immediately by another, sometimes two more jumps—but my heart hadn’t really been in it. I’d landed them, but only barely, wobbling and fighting to stick each one while trying my hardest to focus on them and only them at the same time. Galina was right. I was distracted, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly was distracting me. Maybe I really did need to rub one out real quick or go for a run or something. Anything to clear my head, or at least this funky feeling that had been following me around like a ghost. I made it back to the changing rooms, only slightly frustrated to find a plain yellow Post-It note on the door of my locker. I didn’t think anything of it. A month ago, the general manager for the LC had left me a similar note, asking me to go to her office. All she’d wanted was to offer me a job coaching beginner lessons. Again. Why she thought I’d be a good candidate for teaching young girls—practically babies—I had no idea, but I’d told her I wasn’t interested. So when I picked the note off the locker and slowly read Jasmine, come to the GM office before you go, twice, just to make sure I read it correctly, I didn’t think much of it except the fact that whatever the GM wanted from me was going to have to be quick because I had to get to work. I had my days timed to the minute. I had lists with my schedules just about everywhere—on my phone, on sheets of paper in my car, in my bags, in my room, on the fridge—so I wouldn’t forget or get flustered. Being organized, prepared, and constantly keeping track of time to be punctual were important to me. As it was, I was going to need to skip sitting under the hot water and putting on makeup to get to work in time, unless I let my boss know. Pulling my phone out of my bag the moment I had my locker unlocked, I typed up a message, thanking spellcheck like I always did for existing and making my life easier, and sent it to my mom. She always had her phone on her. Me: The LC GM wants to talk. Can you call Matty and tell him I’m running a little late but will be there asap? She responded immediately. Mom: What did you do? I rolled my eyes and typed a response. Nothing Mom: Then why are you going to the office? Mom: Did you call someone’s mom a dirty whore again? Of course she’d never forget that. No one did. Then there was the fact that I hadn’t told her about the three other times the GM had asked me into her office to try and talk me into coaching. Me: I don’t know. Maybe my check last week bounced. That was a joke. She knew better than anyone how much LC fees cost. She’d paid for them for over a decade. Me: No. I haven’t called anyone’s mom a dirty whore again, but that other dirty whore deserved it. Knowing she would reply almost immediately, I set my phone back into my locker and decided I could text her back in a minute. Rushing through my shower after putting my things up, I slipped into my underwear, jeans, collared shirt, socks, and the best looking comfortable shoes I was able to afford, in record time. By the time I was done with that, I checked my phone again and found my mom had replied. Mom: You need money? Mom: She did deserve it. Mom: Shoved anybody lately? It killed me inside that she still asked me if I needed money. Like I hadn’t taken enough of hers over the years, month after month. Failed season after failed season. At least I wasn’t asking her for it anymore. Me: I’m okay with money. Thanks. Me: I have not shoved anyone again. Mom: You sure? Me: Yes, I’m sure. I would know if I did. Mom: Positive? Me: Yes Mom: It’s okay if you did. Some people need it. Mom: Even I’ve wanted to punch you sometimes. It happens. I couldn’t help but laugh. Me: Me too Mom: You’ve wanted to punch me in the throat? Me: There is no right answer to that question. Mom: Ha ha ha ha. Me: I never did it. OK? Zipping up my bag, I gripped the handle, fisted my keys, and walked out of there as fast as possible, basically jogging down one hall and then another to head toward the part of the building where the business offices were located. I was going to have to eat the egg white sandwich I’d left in my lunch bag in my car as I drove. Just as I made it to the door, I typed up another message to be on the safe side, ignoring my misspellings, which I usually didn’t. Me: For real ma. Can you call n tell him? Mom: YES Me: Thank u Mom: Love you. Mom: Tell me if you need money. My throat tightened for a moment, but I didn’t text anything back. I wouldn’t tell her even if I did. Not anymore. At least not if I could help it, and the truth was, I’d turn to stripping if it ever got to that point again. She’d done enough. Holding in a sigh, I knocked on the door of the general manager’s office, thinking that I really wanted whatever conversation was about to happen to last all of ten minutes so that I wouldn’t be too late to work. I didn’t want to take advantage of my mom’s closest friend being lenient with me. I turned the knob the second I heard a voice inside the office shout, “Come in!” Let’s get this over with, I thought, opening the door. The problem in that moment was that I’d never been a fan of surprises. Ever. Not even when I was little. I had always liked to know what I was getting myself into. Needless to say, no one had ever thrown me a surprise birthday party. The one time my grandpa had tried to pull that off, my mom had told me in advance and made me swear I’d act surprised. I had. I’d been ready to face the general manager, a woman named Georgina that I’d always gotten along with. I’d overheard some people call her a hard-ass, but to me, she was just strong willed and didn’t take shit from people because she didn’t have to. So, I was pretty much shocked as hell when the first person I spotted sitting in the office wasn’t Georgina, but a familiar, fifty-something woman in a classy black sweater and a bun that was so neat, the only other times I’d seen one so perfect was during competitions. And I was even more surprised when I saw the second person in the office, just sitting there on the other side of the desk. My third surprise came in the shape of the realization that there was no general manager in sight. Just… them. Ivan Lukov and the woman who had spent the last eleven years training him. Someone who I couldn’t have a conversation with without arguing, and the other who had said maybe twenty words to me over the course of those eleven years. What in the hell is going on? I wondered, before settling my gaze on the other woman, trying to figure out if I’d misread the note on my locker. I hadn’t… had I? I had taken my time. I had read it twice. I didn’t usually butcher reading things any more. “I was looking for Georgina,” I explained, trying to ignore the instant frustration in my stomach at the possibility I’d misread the words on the Post It. I hated messing up. Hated it. Screwing up in front of them made it even worse, damn it. “Do you know where she’s at?” I ground out, still thinking about the note. The woman smiled easily, not at all like I’d interrupted something important and not even a little like I was someone she had basically ignored for years, and it immediately put me even more on edge. She had never smiled at me before. Actually, I didn’t think I’d ever seen her smile, period. “Come in,” she said, that smile still holding strong. “I left the note on your locker, not Georgina.” I’d feel relieved later that I hadn’t misread the words, but at that point, I was too busy wondering why the hell I was standing there and why she had sent me that note…. And why the hell Ivan was sitting there not saying anything. As if reading my mind, the woman’s smile grew wider, like she was trying to reassure me, but it did the opposite. “Sit down, Jasmine,” she said in a tone that reminded me she’d coached the idiot to my left through two world championships. The problem was, she wasn’t my coach, and I didn’t like people telling me what to do, even when they had a right to. She also hadn’t been particularly nice to me either. She hadn’t been rude, but she hadn’t been kind either. I mean, I understood. That didn’t mean I was going to forget about it though. For two years, I’d been in the same competitions Ivan had. I was competitive, and so were they. It was easier to want to beat someone that you weren’t friendly with. But that didn’t explain the years before that, back when I’d skated by myself and had nothing to do with him. Back when she could have been friendly with me… but hadn’t. Not that I’d wanted her to or needed her to, but still. So, she shouldn’t have been surprised when all I did was raise my eyebrows at her. Apparently, she decided that raising her eyebrows right back at me was the best way to respond. “Please?” she offered, almost sounding sweet. I didn’t trust her tone, or her. I couldn’t help but sweep my gaze in the direction of the chairs across from her. There were only two, and one of them was occupied by Ivan, who I hadn’t seen since he’d left for Boston before Worlds. Those long legs of his were stretched out straight, those feet that I’d seen more in skates than in regular shoes were tucked beneath the desk his coach had taken over. But it wasn’t the lazy way he was sitting there with his arms crossed over his chest showcasing those lean pecs and leaner torso, or the navy blue turtleneck bringing to life the almost pale skin over the face that the other girls at the facility went nuts over, that caught my attention for the longest amount of time. It was his gray-blue eyes totally zoned in on me that made me pause. I never forgot how intense the color was, but it always took me off guard anyway. I never forgot how long the black eyelashes surrounding them were either. Then there was everything else around those eyes. Ugh. So many girls went nuts over his face, over his hair, over his eyes, over his figure skating, over his arms, his long legs, the way he breathed, the toothpaste he used…. It was annoying. Even my brother called him a pretty boy—he called my sister’s husband a pretty boy too, but that wasn’t the point. If that wasn’t enough, girls worshipped the broad shoulders that helped him hold his partners a full arm’s length above his head with one foot balanced on the narrow slice of metal called a blade. I’d overheard women swoon over a butt I didn’t need to look at to know had to be a perfect example of a bubble butt—tight buns were pretty much mandatory in this sport. And if he had a best feature, those creepy eyes would have been it. But he didn’t. The devil didn’t have any redeeming qualities. I stared at him, and that evil pretty-boy face stared back at me. He didn’t look anywhere other than my face. He didn’t frown or smile or anything. And that shit put me on edge. He just… looked. With his mouth shut. And his hands—and fingers—tucked into his armpits. If I had been anyone else, he would have made me uneasy with that gaze. But I wasn’t his groupie. I knew him well enough to not be distracted by the bodysuit he wore over his natural form. He worked hard, so he was good. He wasn’t a unicorn. He definitely wasn’t a Pegasus. He didn’t impress me. Plus, I had been there when his mom ripped him a new one once years ago for talking back to her, so there was that, too. “What’s this about?” I asked slowly, staring at Ivan’s semi-familiar face for another second before finally dragging my gaze back to Coach Lee, who was almost hunched over the desk, if someone with her posture was capable of hunching, elbows firmly planted, the thin, dark slashes of her eyebrows still high in interest. She was just as pretty as she’d been back when she competed. I had watched videos of her back in the 80s when she’d been the national champion. “It’s nothing bad, I promise,” the older woman answered carefully, like she could still pick up on my uneasiness. She gestured toward the chair besides Ivan’s. “Can you take a seat?” Bad things happened when someone asked you to take a seat. Especially one next to Ivan. So, that wasn’t happening. “I’m fine,” I said, my voice sounding as weird as I felt. What was going on? I couldn’t be getting kicked out of the facility. I hadn’t done anything. Unless those shit kids from the weekend had tattled on me. Damn it. “Jasmine, all we need is two minutes,” Coach Lee said slowly, still motioning toward the chair. Yeah, this shit wasn’t adding up, and it was only getting worse. Two minutes? You couldn’t do anything well in two minutes. I brushed my teeth for longer than two minutes twice a day. I didn’t move. They had tattled on me. Those little fuckers— Confirming that I wasn’t hiding my thoughts at all, Coach Lee sighed from her spot behind the desk. I didn’t miss the way her eyes slid toward Ivan briefly before returning to me. In a navy suit jacket and a crisp white shirt, she looked more like a lawyer than the figure skater she had been and the coach she currently was. The woman shifted in her seat and sat up straight, her lips pursing together for a moment before she spoke again. “I’ll get to the point then. How set are you on being retired?” How set was I on being retired? Was that what everyone thought I was? Fucking retired? It wasn’t like I’d chosen not to have a partner and miss an entire season, but… whatever. Whatever. My blood pressure did something weird it had never done before, but I decided to ignore it and the r-word at least for now and chose to focus on the most important part of what had just come out of her mouth. “Why are you asking?” I asked slowly, still worried. Just a little. I should have called Karina. In a straightforward move I could appreciate at any other time, the other woman didn’t beat around the bush. And that’s what surprised the hell out of me even more than I’d already been, because I wasn’t expecting the sentence that came out of her mouth. It would have been just about the last thing I’d ever expect to hear out of her. Shit, it was the last thing I would ever expect out of anyone’s mouth. “We want you to be Ivan’s next partner,” the woman said. Just. Like. That. Just like that. There were moments in life where you asked yourself if you did drugs without realizing it. Like maybe someone had put some LSD in your drink and didn’t tell you. Or maybe you thought you took a pain reliever—and didn’t remember—but it was really PCP. That right there, standing in the general manager’s office at the LC, was that moment for me. All I could do was blink. Then do it some more. Because what the fucking fuck? “If you’re ready to come back out of retirement, that is,” the woman continued on, using that r-word one more time, like I wasn’t standing there wondering who could have spiked my water with hallucinogenic drugs, because there’s no way this shit was happening. There was no way these words were actually coming out of Coach Lee’s mouth. No fucking way. I had to have misheard her or just completely missed a giant part of the conversation somehow because… Because. Me and Ivan? Partnering? There was no way. No chance. …wasn’t there? Chapter 3 I didn’t like being scared—who the hell does other than people who love the shit out of creepy movies?—but the truth was, there wasn’t a whole lot that could have that effect on me. Spiders, flying roaches, mice, the dark, clowns, heights, carbs, gaining weight, death… none of that freaked me out. I could kill spiders, roaches, and mice. I could turn on a light in the dark. Unless he was a big-ass clown, chances were, I could kick his ass. I was strong for my size and had taken a few self-defense classes with my sister over the years. Heights did nothing for me. Carbs were great, and if I gained weight, I knew how to lose it. And we were all going to die at some point. None of that fazed me. Not even a little bit. The things that kept me up at night weren’t physical. Worrying about being a failure and a disappointment weren’t things you could just fix. They were just there. All the time. And if there was a way to work on them, I hadn’t learned how to yet. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’d been freaked out in my life, and every single one of those times revolved around figure skating. Once was the third time I gave myself a concussion. My doctor at the time had told my mom that she should consider making me give up figure skating—and I’d genuinely thought for a while she would force me to call it quits. I could remember the two concussions following that one, and being worried that she would put her foot down and say that was it, that I wasn’t going to risk all the repercussions that came from continued brain trauma. She hadn’t. And the other times when my mouth had tasted like cotton and my stomach had tightened and churned… I wasn’t going to think about those moments more than I needed to. But that was it. My dad thought it was funny to say that I only had two emotions: indifferent and pissed off. It wasn’t true, but he didn’t know me well enough to be aware of that. But as I stood there wondering if I was either dreaming this, on drugs, or if this was actually fucking real—and entertaining the idea that it was, that I wasn’t on some hallucinogenic drug—I felt a little scared. I didn’t want to ask if this was real… because what if it wasn’t? What if it was some screwed-up kind of joke? I hated feeling so insecure. I really hated being scared that the answer I was looking for was one I probably would have sold my soul for. But my mom had told me once that regret was worse than fear. I hadn’t understood it then, but I did now. It was with that thought that I made myself ask the question that a big part of me didn’t want to know the answer to, just in case it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. “Partner for what?” I asked slowly to be sure, trying to rack my brain for what the hell I could partner up with him for in this screwed-up dream I was having that seemed to be real. Fucking Pictionary? The man I’d watched grow up from a distance that was sometimes too close, rolled those ice blue eyes. And just like every other time he rolled his eyes, I narrowed mine in return. “To skate pairs,” he answered like “duh.” Like he was asking to get smacked. “What did you think? For square dancing?” I blinked. “Vanya!” Coach Lee hissed, and out of the corner of my eye, I might have seen her slap her palm across her forehead. But I wasn’t sure because I was too busy staring at the smart-ass in the seat and telling myself, Don’t do it, Jasmine. Be better. Shut your mouth… But then a smaller voice I knew really well whispered, At least until you figure out what they really want from you. Because this couldn’t be it. Not really. “What?” Ivan asked, still looking right at me, the only change to his nearly blank face being the hint of a baby smirk on his mouth. “We talked about this,” his coach said, shaking her head, and if I’d turned to look at her, I would have seen I wasn’t the only one glaring. I was too busy telling myself to be a better person though. But that comment snapped me out of it, and I turned my attention to the other woman and kept my narrowed gaze on her. “What did you talk about?” I asked slowly. I could take whatever she said. Good or bad. I had survived all kinds of things being said to me, I reminded myself. And when my stomach didn’t turn or clench at the reminder of those worse things, I felt better. Her gaze flicked to mine before she shot the idiot in the chair a frustrated look. “He wasn’t supposed to run his mouth until I talked to you about everything.” I drew out the one word. “Why?” The other woman let out a long breath in pure exasperation—I was familiar with that sound—and her eyes went back to the man on the chair as she answered, “Because we’re trying to get you to join the team, not remind you why you wouldn’t want to.” I blinked. Again. And then I couldn’t help but twist my head to smirk at the ass in the office chair. His own baby smirk hadn’t gone anywhere and didn’t go anywhere even as he took in me making a face at him. Dumbass, I mouthed before I could stop myself and remember to be better. Meatball, he mouthed back. That wiped the smirk off my face real quick, just like it always did. “All right,” Coach Lee said with a short huff of a laugh that wasn’t funny at all as I stood there, eyes locked on the demon in the chair, mad at myself for letting him get to me. “Let’s back up here a moment. Jasmine, please ignore you-know-who over there. He wasn’t supposed to open his mouth and ruin this important conversation he knew we were having.” It took everything in me to slide my gaze back to the other woman instead of focusing on the person to my left. Coach Lee gave me a smile I might have called desperate on anyone else. She kept right on going. “Ivan and I would like for you to be his new partner.” Her eyebrows went up, that weird smile I didn’t trust stayed on her face. “If you’re interested.” Ivan and I would like for you to be his new partner. If you’re interested. They—these two people that looked and sounded like Coach Lee and Ivan—wanted me to be his new partner? Me. This was a fucking joke, wasn’t it? For one split second, I thought Karina had something to do with this, but then I decided no way. It had been over a month since the last time we’d spoken. And she knew me too well to try and do something like this. Especially not with this Lukov of all people. But this was a joke… right? Ivan and me? Me and Ivan? Just a month ago, he had asked me if I was ever going to go through puberty. And in reply, I had told him I’d go through it when his balls decided to drop. All because we had both tried to get on the ice at the same time. She had been there. Coach Lee had overheard us. I knew it. “I don’t understand,” I told both of them, slowly, totally confused, a little annoyed, and not sure who the hell I should be looking at, or what the hell I should even be doing, because this didn’t make any sense. Not even a little bit. I didn’t miss how the two people in the room gave each other a look I couldn’t pick apart before Coach Lee asked, her expression almost tight, “What is it you don’t understand?” That there were a thousand other people they could go to, most of them younger than me, which in this sport was what everyone was looking for. There was no logical reason to ask me… other than the fact I was better than any of those other girls. At least technically, and by technically I meant jumps and spins, the two things I did best. But sometimes being able to jump the highest and spin the fastest wasn’t enough. Program components scores—skating skills, transitions, performance and execution, choreography and interpretation—were just as important to a total score. And I had never done so well at those things. People had blamed my choreographer. My coaches for choosing bad music. Me for “not having a soul” and not being “artistic enough” and “not having any feel.” My ex and I for not having that “oneness” factor. Me for not trusting him enough. And maybe all of those things had been a huge part of why I hadn’t done well. That and me choking. So. I swallowed down the bitterness—at least for now—and took my time glancing at both of these people that I knew but didn’t. “You want me to try out to be his”—I hooked my thumb in the direction of where Ivan sat to make sure we were definitely on the same page—“partner?” I blinked again and sucked in a breath through my nose to calm my blood pressure. “Me?” The other woman nodded. No hesitation. No side glances. Just a clean, crisp nod. “Why?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question, but what the hell was I going to do? Act like this was nothing? Ivan snorted as he shifted in the chair he was sitting in, drawing his extended legs in until they were flat on the carpeted floor. One of his knees jiggled. “You want an explanation?” Don’t flip him off. Don’t flip him off. Don’t do it, Jasmine. I wasn’t. I wouldn’t. Don’t do it. “Yeah,” I told him dryly, but a lot nicer than he deserved and would have usually gotten, as this feeling of uneasiness covered my entire body. Sometimes things really were too good to be true. I would never forget that. I couldn’t. “Why?” I asked again, not about to back down until we got this shit sorted. Neither one of them said a word. Or maybe I was just being impatient because I kept talking before either of them did. “We all know there’s younger skaters out there you can ask,” I added, because what would be the damage if this was exactly what I thought it was? AKA total bullshit. A trick. A nightmare. One of the most asshole-ish things anyone had ever done to me… if it wasn’t real. And what the hell was going on with my blood pressure? I felt sick all of a sudden. Tracing my bracelet with the fingers of my opposite hand, I swallowed and looked at both of these basic strangers, trying to keep my voice steady, my emotions in check. “I want to know why you’re asking me. Besides there being girls five years younger than me you could ask, there are some with more experience in pairs. You both know why I haven’t been able to find another partner,” I spit out before I could stop myself, leaving the “why” out in the open like a ticking time bomb set up specifically for me. The answering silence said they were aware of all that. How could they not? Years ago, I’d earned a shitty reputation, and I hadn’t been able to shake it off, no matter what I did. It hadn’t been my fault people only repeated the parts they wanted to hear instead of the entire story. She’s difficult to work with, Paul had said, for anyone who gave a shit about pairs skating to read. Maybe things would have been different if I’d explained every single one of my actions every time they happened, but I hadn’t. And I didn’t regret it. I didn’t care what other people thought about me. At least until it had come back to bite me on the ass. But it was too late now. All I had left was to own it. And I did. I had shoved some speed skater dickwad once for grabbing my ass, and I was the bad guy. I had called one of my rink mate’s mom a whore once after she’d made a comment about my mom having to be great at blow jobs for having a husband twenty years younger than her, but I was the rude asshole. I was difficult because I gave a shit. But how the hell could I not give one when this sport was what I woke up every morning excited for? Little things built up, and up, and up until my sarcasm—until everything that came out of my mouth—was taken as a rude comment. My mom had always warned me that some people would always be eager to believe the worst. That was the unfortunate and shit truth. But I knew who I was and what I did. I couldn’t find it in me to regret it. At least most of the time. Maybe life would have been a lot easier if I’d had my sister’s sweetness or my mom’s personality, but I didn’t and I never would. You are who you are in life, and you either live that time trying to bend yourself to make other people happy, or… you don’t. And I sure as hell had better things to do with my time. I just wanted to make sure, if this was what I thought it was, that I was walking into it with my eyes open. I’d never close my eyes again and expect the best. Especially not when this involved the same person, who after every competition in my singles days, wrote out all the mistakes I’d done in my programs—the pieces I competed with, one short, the other longer and called a free skate—and made sure I knew why the hell I had lost. Like a fucking dick. “Are you that desperate?” I asked the man directly, meeting those gray-blue eyes, totally on. My words were rude, but I didn’t care. I wanted the truth. “No one else wants to pair up with you now?” Those glacier-like eyes didn’t look away. That muscular, long body didn’t flinch. He didn’t even make a face like he normally would have pretty much every time I opened my mouth and directed words at him. In that way that only someone who was so sure of himself, so sure of his talents, of his place in the world, in the fact that he was the one in a position of power, Ivan just met my gaze like he was measuring me too in return. And then the asshole I knew came out. “You know what that’s like, don’t you?” This mother— “Vanya,” Coach Lee damn near shouted, shaking her head like a mom scolding her toddler for just saying what was on his brain. “I’m sorry, Jasmine—” Under normal circumstances, I would have mouthed I’m gonna kick your fucking ass but managed not to. Just barely. Instead, I stared at that clear face with its perfect bone structure… and imagined myself wrapping my hands around his neck and squeezed the shit out of it. I wouldn’t even be able to tell anyone about the amount of restraint I was showing, because they wouldn’t believe me. Maybe I was growing up. Then I stared at him a second longer and thought, I’m going to spit in his mouth the first chance I get, and decided maybe the growing-up thing was a stretch. Luckily, all I decided to say was, “I do know what that’s like, shitface.” Coach Lee muttered something under her breath that I didn’t hear clearly, but when she didn’t tell me not to talk to Ivan like that, I kept going. “Actually, Satan”—his nostrils flared, and I didn’t miss that—“all I want is to know if you’re coming to me because no one else wants to deal with you—because that doesn’t make sense, so don’t think I’m stupid and don’t know that—or if there’s some other ulterior motive I’m not getting.” Like him making this the meanest, early April Fool’s joke in history. I might actually finally kill him if it was. Coach Lee let out another sigh that drew my gaze to her. She was shaking her head and honestly looked like she wanted to pull her hair out, which was an expression I had never ever seen on her face before, and it made me nervous. She was probably realizing the truth: Ivan and I were like oil and water. We didn’t mix. Not unless we didn’t speak to each other, but even then there were dirty looks and middle fingers exchanged. More than a handful of dinners at his parents’ house had gone down that way. But after a moment that stretched the nauseous feeling in my stomach to almost the breaking point, Coach Lee set her shoulders. Glancing up at the ceiling, she nodded, like it was more for herself than for my benefit, before finally saying, “I’m going to trust that this stays in this room.” Ivan made a noise that she ignored, but I was too busy taking in the fact that she wasn’t telling me not to call Ivan Satan or shitface to care. I snapped out of it and focused. “I don’t have anyone else to tell,” I told her, and it was the truth. I was good with secrets. I was really good with secrets. The other woman dipped her chin and settled her gaze on me before going on. “We—” The idiot in the seat made another noise before sitting up straight and cutting her off. “There’s no one else.” I blinked. He kept going. “This would only be for a year—” Wait. A year? Son of a bitch, I’d known this was too good to be true. I’d known it. “Mindy is taking… the season off,” the black-haired man explained, his tone tight and a little annoyed as he referred to the same partner he’d had for the last three seasons. “I need a partner for the time being.” Of course. Of course. I tipped my chin up to look at the ceiling and shook my head, feeling that blunt tip of disappointment jab me right in the gut, reminding me it was always there, just waiting for the perfect moment to say it never went anywhere. Because it didn’t. I couldn’t think of the last time I hadn’t felt disappointed in something—mostly myself. Damn it. I should have known better. Why else would he be coming to me? To be his permanent partner? Of course not. God, I was so lame. Even if I had just considered the possibility for a second… I was an idiot. I knew better. Good shit like this didn’t happen to me. It never had. “Jasmine.” Coach Lee’s voice was calm, but I didn’t look over. “This would be a great opportunity for you—” I should just go. What the hell was the point of me still being here, just eating up time so I got to work later and later? Stupid, stupid, stupid Jasmine. “—You would gain more experience. You’d be competing with the reigning national and world champion,” she kept going, throwing words out that I was mostly ignoring. Maybe it was time for me to hang up my skates now. What better sign did I need? God, I was an idiot. Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it. “Jasmine,” Coach Lee said, almost sweetly, almost, just almost kindly. “You could possibly win a championship or at least a Cup—” And that had me tipping my chin down to look at her. She raised an eyebrow, as if she’d known that would get my attention, and for good reason. “You could easily find a partner after that. I could help. Ivan could help.” I ignored the part about Ivan helping me find a partner, because I highly doubted that shit would ever happen, but—but—what I didn’t ignore was the rest of it. A championship. Fuck it, a Cup. Any Cup. I hadn’t actually won one since my junior days before I’d moved into the senior level, which was where I was at now and had been for years. Then there was the other thing: Coach Lee helping me find a partner. But mostly: a fucking championship. Or at least the chance of it, the real possibility of it. Hope. It was like a stranger offering a little kid candy if they got into their car, and I was the dumbass little kid. Except instead of candy, this woman and this ass-face were waving the two things I wanted more than anything right in front of me. It was enough to get me to stop thinking and keep my mouth shut. “It might seem like a great endeavor, but with a lot of hard work, we think it would work,” the woman went on, her gaze straightforward. “I don’t see how it couldn’t, if I’m going to be totally honest. Ivan hasn’t had a bad year in almost a decade.” Wait. Reality set in, and I made myself think of what she was really saying and assuming. We were supposed to win a championship in less than a year? Forget the fact that she said Ivan hadn’t had a bad year in forever, where I’d had so many bad years, it was like I sucked it all up for him. She was saying we were supposed to win a championship in less than a year. Shit. Most new pairs teams took a season off to learn how one another skated, to work on technical elements—everything from jumps to lifts to throws—until they did them together seamlessly… and even then, things could be rough after twelve months. Pairs skating was about unity, about trust, timing, anticipation, and synchronization. It was about two people almost becoming one, but still somehow maintaining their individuality. And what they were asking for was something we only had months to do—to perfect—before choreography would have to be learned and then mastered. Months to do what would normally take a year or more. The damn near impossible. That’s what they wanted. “You want a championship, don’t you?” came Ivan’s question, like a shank straight into my chest. I glanced at him sitting there in his slacks and a thick sweater, the hair that was longer at the top and faded at the sides styled perfectly back, the bone structure that was in thanks to generations of selective breeding making him look every bit like the trust fund baby he was, and I swallowed around the lump in my throat that felt like the size of a grapefruit… if it was covered in nails. Did I want the one thing I’d sacrificed most of my life for? Did I want the opportunity to keep going? To have a future? To finally make my family proud? Of course I did. I wanted it so bad that my palms were getting sweaty, and I had to sneak them behind my back so that neither one of them could see me wiping them on my work pants. They didn’t need to know how bad my need was. But fuck. One year for the one thing I wanted more than anything. For a championship. For the thing my mom had nearly gone bankrupt for, for the thing my whole family had always dreamed of for me. What I had always expected of myself but had always failed at. And now, for a year, I could team up with this asshole, someone who could give me the best chance I’d ever had at getting what I had started to believe was lost. But… Reality and facts. It wasn’t for sure we would win. There weren’t any promises that, even if we did win something—anything—I would get a partner of my own. There weren’t any assurances things would work out. I had been lucky in my career that I hadn’t been injured regularly, but it had happened, and sometimes those injuries were season-enders. Plus, I could only begin to imagine all the work we would have to put in to be ready. Plans that would interfere with other plans I’d made that I couldn’t back out on because I had made promises. And I took my promises seriously. “We want it to be an easy transition. It’s business. Mindy likes to keep her private life private. Ivan does as well,” she said, like I didn’t know that. Karina didn’t even have a Picturegram account, and her Facebook was under a fake name. “Our focus would be on the sport,” Coach Lee took her time explaining, watching me carefully as I stood there trying to process everything and mostly failing at it. “With you, Jasmine, it would look good that you’ve been training at the same facility as Ivan for years. You’re a friend of the family as well. You’re a known face in this business, and you’re talented. You have the experience under your belt to compete at this level without having to start from the beginning, which we can’t afford to do with this time limit. We can work with what you bring.” She paused, glanced at Ivan, and threw out one last thing. “The age difference between both of you also helps. I feel very strongly that you would make a good partner for Ivan.” Ah. The age difference. My twenty-six to Ivan’s nearly thirty. She had a point I hadn’t thought about. It would look strange if this grown-ass man paired up with a teenager. That would probably actually hurt him more than it helped. Then there was her comment about them being able to “work” with what I could bring to this partnership, but I’d think about that later. Much later. When I wasn’t standing there, the center of attention, feeling like my world had just been kicked out from under me at the same time as it seemed like I’d been given it back. It would be a lot of work. There were no promises. I had a life outside of here that I’d slowly built up, even though I hadn’t necessarily wanted to, a life I was still building up and couldn’t just ignore. These were all facts. But… I had to think. Think first, talk later, or something like that, right? I’d already learned the problems that could come with running my mouth before I realized what was coming out of it. I took a deep breath through my nose and then asked the first thing that came to mind. “Your sponsors would be okay with me?” Because they could try and recruit me all they wanted, but if the sponsors said no, it would be for nothing. It wasn’t like I’d had more than a handful of sponsors on and off my entire career, if I didn’t include all the dresses my sister made me for me, which was all of them. I still got my skates for free, but I knew how it worked for the people who won, the figure skaters the masses adored. It wasn’t like Ivan needed the help financially, but they were still a real and necessary thing. The sponsors and the ASF, the American Skating Federation, could hate us together, and I wasn’t about to let them build up this opportunity for me and then have them rip it out from under me. Coach Lee shrugged almost immediately. “It wouldn’t be an issue. People can and have come back from worse, Jasmine.” Why did that comment make me feel like a drug addict? She kept going before I could think about her word choice any more. “You can fix an image. That wouldn’t be a problem. With the right decisions, it would work out fine. We would just have to have you… on board for the changes we’d need to make.” Her last sentence had claws. She was admitting there was something wrong with me, but it wasn’t like I didn’t know that. Still, it was one thing for me to acknowledge I had issues, but it was another thing for her to. “Changes like what?” I asked, taking my time with my words as I glanced between her and Ivan for hints. Because if they told me I needed a makeover, or that I’d have to start kissing babies… or becoming some fake-ass that made it seem like she was made out of ice and was up for sainthood… it wasn’t going to happen. Ever. I’d tried being an ice princess once when I’d been too young to know any better. Prim, proper, angelic, and sweet. It had lasted about thirty minutes. Now, I was too old to pretend to be this perfect little beauty queen who didn’t cuss and shitted rainbows for breakfast, all for people to like me. Coach Lee tipped her head to the side. “Nothing serious. We can talk about it later.” Later? “Let’s talk about it now.” Because I wasn’t going to think about anything before I knew what I was getting myself into. The other woman scrunched her nose before making a noise. “I don’t know. I would just be throwing things out—” “Okay.” Her eyes went to the side for a second before moving back to me. “Okay.” Her shrug almost looked uncomfortable. “Maybe you could smile more.” I blinked at her and thought I might have heard Ivan snort, but I wasn’t sure. “You could do photo shoots together, a gala or two. Your social media presence needs work, but being more active, even if it’s posting a picture of your life off the ice every once in a while, would make a big difference.” She wanted us to do all this when we’d only be paired up for a year? Was she fucking kidding me? Then it hit me. An almost sickening feeling made the back of my neck itch when I finally processed her social media request. I’d once had different accounts, but I’d ended up deleting all of them once I’d started losing sleep. I should tell her that, I thought, even as my head told me nothing good would come of posting pictures of myself online. I should probably also admit to her that I was going to need… extra help. But I couldn’t. Not if it meant I would lose this opportunity, which it might. This was my chance. More than likely my last one. I could be safe. Couldn’t I? I could watch what I posted. Be more careful. I could be smart about it if things started happening again. Especially if this opportunity was real and mine. I could record our sessions so I could practice them more later on by myself. I’d done it before. My mom and siblings would help if I asked. I could be more focused and make Ivan skate everything first once we got to doing choreography. I could figure it out. I could make it work without telling them. Anything was possible… wasn’t it? I was strong, smart, and wasn’t scared to work. Just fail. So, I kept my fucking mouth shut. “We’re not going to ask you to change anything major, Jasmine. I swear to you right now, that won’t be the case. I just need to know you’re on board for doing whatever is best for the team. This is going to be a lot of work for all of us, but it’s doable.” I’d do anything for the sake of winning. Even start up another social media account if I had to. I’d lie, cheat, and steal… to a certain extent. I mean, I wouldn’t beat up a competitor or take steroids or give Ivan a blow job, but everything else I’d probably be game for if this chance was real. From the look on Coach Lee’s face and the almost pained expression on Ivan’s… I was starting to think it was. Ivan was the most successful and highly decorated pairs skater in the last two decades. I hadn’t even been able to move on to the Major Prix Final the last season I’d competed and nationals had gone terrible. My ex and I had gotten fifth and sixth place in both competitions we’d been in. This was a better opportunity than any I had ever hoped for after I’d been left partnerless. “Are you interested?” the other woman asked, her expression and tone cool and even, like this wasn’t in a way exactly what I wanted. Was I interested? Duh. It was just everything else I couldn’t ignore. Every pairs skater in the world knew you had to trust your partner completely. A female pairs skater—especially the female—pretty much put her life in the hands of her partner every single day. I didn’t need to tell Coach Lee or Ivan that. Trust was the foundation for every partnership. Whether it was trust that someone might hate you, but they wanted to win badly enough that they wouldn’t jeopardize the chance, or that straight, pure trust that you gave away to people who earned it and could only hope it didn’t backfire on you. But I wanted to win. I wanted this. I’d always wanted it. I’d bled for it, cried for it, bruised for it, had broken bones, had concussions, pulled just about every muscle in my body, never made friends, never went to a single school anything, never loved anyone, ignored my family, all for this. For this love that was greater than just about everything and anything I had ever known. For this sport that had given me the confidence to know I could get up after every fall I’d ever take. A year ago… six months ago… this would have been the answer to every prayer in my life. I glanced between both of them, torn between getting excited at this chance, even if it was with the reincarnated version of Lucifer—that’s how bad I wanted it, that I was willing not to factor that in. But like my mom said when we were kids and didn’t want to eat whatever she’d made for dinner, beggars can’t be choosers—and still, still I couldn’t help but worry that this was some kind of fucked-up ploy that they were playing. It wouldn’t be unheard of. It really wouldn’t. Some people in this world didn’t care what or who they hurt to get what they wanted. I couldn’t handle being used. Not again. I wouldn’t say it, but I’d give them everything in me if they gave me this chance. Everything. But… I’d made commitments. Compromises and promises I didn’t want to go back on. As much as I wanted to say yes! Yes! Yes! I needed to think about it. Not everything was about me, and it had taken me a long, long time to come to terms with that. I still was. “If this is some kind of trick, or if you’re going to try and use me to make a point with another skater you’re interested in”—I wasn’t going to get excited. I didn’t trust these two people to not be playing with me, regardless that they were saying otherwise—“don’t even think about it.” Ivan should already know I’d kill him. Hell, his sister would kill him if he did this to me. There was a pause in the room, and I didn’t know what it meant. Guilt? Or acknowledgment that it was a shitty thing that I even had to bring it up? “No,” Coach Lee said after a moment so full, it left the room with this heavy sensation I couldn’t pick apart. “That isn’t it. This isn’t a trick. We want you to do it, Jasmine.” If my heart gave a little pinch at her saying they wanted me to do something, I wasn’t going to focus on it. I looked at the man sitting in front of the desk, quiet, so freaking quiet and watchful… and I wondered what had made his other partner decide to take a year off. Maybe she was getting married. Maybe someone was sick. Maybe she couldn’t stand his ass and needed a break. I wished I had her phone number so I could just text her and ask. She had always been nice. “You can take a picture if you’re going to stare,” Ivan said dryly, leaning back against his chair. I rolled my eyes and glanced over at Coach Lee to hopefully keep me from saying anything to the shitface before I ruined this opportunity. I could save it up for later. Luckily, Coach Lee rolled her eyes too, like she wasn’t surprised by his dumbass comment and focused on me, the strain on her face saying she was trying to keep this professional. “You don’t have to give us an answer right now. You can have some time to think about it, but we do need one sooner than later. Time is ticking, and if you’re both going to compete next season, we need every minute we can get to get ready.” “What’s up your ass?” my brother Jonathan asked, not even five minutes after I’d sat down beside him with a plate of our mom’s chicken parmesan. It was something that a year ago I wouldn’t have been able to eat unless it’d been my once a week cheat meal. Now, almost every day had a cheat meal. All of my pants—and bras and underwear and shirts—showed that reality. My damn boobs had gone up a full cup size, not that that meant much. My mom had cursed all of her girls with mosquito bites for tits; the greatest ass-et—literally—passed down through our genes were our butts. My slightly larger boobs and even bigger ass were one of the only benefits of toning down my training in competitive figure skating. Going from skating six or seven hours a day to two was a giant difference. And now… well, now I might be getting back to that point. Maybe. It had almost been twelve hours since my meeting, and I hadn’t reached a decision. If, and that was a big if, I said yes to Coach Lee and Ivan’s proposal, I’d be saying goodbye to the bag of M&Ms I’d been eating three times a week. It was a sacrifice I’d willingly make though. If I did it. But I was getting ahead of myself. Maybe I’d sleep on it like I’d promised Coach Lee and decide I didn’t want to risk everything again for just a possibility. I needed to consider and weigh every option. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it. Not during work, not afterward during my second workout session, and not during the Pilates class I still took once a week. I hadn’t been surprised when I’d pulled into the driveway to find a familiar car parked on the street half an hour ago. My family came over whenever they wanted; it wasn’t limited to just weekends or holidays. With two older brothers and two older sisters, someone was always over. My brothers and sisters randomly showed up for dinner, even though they had all moved out years ago, leaving me alone with my roommates… AKA my mom and her husband. My mom, my brother Jonathan, and his husband, James, were all in the living room when I walked in. The first thing any of them said to me was, “Go shower!” I gave my brother the middle finger because he’d been the one to yell about the shower, and kept my words to myself as I jogged up the stairs and headed toward my room. It didn’t take me long to gather clothes, shower, and get dressed—all the while thinking about the conversation I’d had in the office before the most distracted day of work I’d had since I’d found out my last partner had ditched me. I made it back downstairs to find my family in the kitchen, filling plates with whatever Mom had made for dinner. I gave each of them a kiss on the cheek, and in return got an annoying wet kiss from my brother, a peck from his husband, and a slap on the butt from my mom, before I started scooping food onto a plate. Trying my best not to constantly think about Satan and his coach, I had loaded my plate up with a portion of noodles and chicken parm before I took a stool around the kitchen island we were all eating at. The only time the dining room was ever used was if it was a holiday. I’d only gotten about three bites in, chewing slowly, when my brother asked the question I should have seen coming. I’d been too quiet, and that didn’t happen often. Before I could think of what the hell to tell them, my mom made a noise as she made her way around the island, one hand holding a plate, her other hand holding a glass of wine so big, she had to have poured at least half a bottle inside of it. “Damn, Mom. You should have just brought the bottle over instead of dirtying a glass.” I snickered as she set the glass down more carefully than she’d probably ever set me down as a baby. She rolled her eyes as she put her plate down beside it. “Mind your own business. I’ve had a long day, and it’s good for the heart.” I snorted and raised my eyebrows as I finally got a chance to take in her clothes: skinny jeans I’m pretty sure were mine and a bright red blouse I thought I could remember my sister wearing before she’d moved out. “Anyway, Grumpy. What’s up your butt? Did you get in trouble at the LC?” she asked as she took a seat, oblivious to the looks I was giving her for “borrowing” my clothes. She had sent me a message halfway through the day asking how the meeting had gone. I hadn’t responded. I hadn’t even given myself a chance to think about whether I wanted to tell them anything about my offer or not. It wasn’t like I lied regularly. I didn’t. But… what if it didn’t work out? What if I got them excited for no reason? I’d let them down enough over the years. Yeah, that thought was a shard of glass right down the windpipe. Drawing my gaze away from the woman who got hit on more in a week than I had in my entire life, I focused back down on my plate, twirling the tines of my fork into the noodles with a shrug. “Nothing,” I answered too quickly, immediately aware that I’d screwed up by saying that. There were three different scoffs around the island. I didn’t need to look up to know they were all sharing a look with each other like they thought I was full of shit—which I was—but it was my brother that finally snorted. “Damn, Jas, you didn’t even try to pull that lie off.” I made a face at my food before looking at him and bringing the middle finger closest to Jonathan up to my face and pretending to rub at my inner eye with it. The only member of my family that sort of looked like me with his kind of tan skin, black hair, and dark eyes, stuck his tongue out. Thirty-two years old and he stuck his tongue out at me. What a little bitch. “We might have believed you if you hadn’t said ‘nothing.’ Now we know you’re lying,” our mom egged him on. “You not telling us when something is bothering you?” She pretty much snorted, her attention down on the chicken she was cutting into pieces. “Ha! Since when have you done that?” This was what I got for making them my best friends over the years. Other than Karina, who I spoke to less and less over the last few years, and a couple of other people I didn’t mind, my family was it for me. My mom said I had serious trust issues, but honestly, the more people I met, the more I didn’t want to meet more. “You okay, Jas?” James, my brother’s much better half for the last ten-ish years, give or take, asked, his tone worried. Moving my fork tines in the noodles some more, I looked over at the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life and nodded my head. With dark hair, the clearest hazel eyes, and his skin color a shade of honey brown that didn’t give anyone a single clue about his heritage, he could have dated anyone. Anyone. Literally. I’d seen straight men check him out countless times. If he had decided to be a model, it would have been over for every other male model in the world. Even my sister, who was all about women 24/7, three hundred and sixty-five days out of the year, had said before she’d marry him if he asked. I would marry him even if he didn’t ask. He was the nicest man, good looking, successful, and down-to-earth. We all loved him. He loved us back, but not the same way he loved my brother Jojo. People liked to say love was blind, but there was no way love could be that blind. I’d stopped trying to figure out my brother Jonathan and James’s relationship a long time ago. How he’d ended up with the biggest idiot in the family, I didn’t get. My brother had giant Dumbo ears and a gap between his two front teeth that my mom had claimed was so adorable his whole life, he’d never bothered getting braces. I’d had a little bit of an overbite and ended up with braces for three years. Not that I was hung up over it or anything. “I’m good. Don’t listen to them,” I said to James, sounding distracted enough that I knew I was messing up again. So I tried to change the subject and chose the most obvious one: my mom’s husband, who should have been at the table with us… but wasn’t. “Where’s Ben at, Mom?” “He’s out with his friends,” the redheaded woman who had given birth to me, explained quickly before raising her gaze and aiming her fork in my direction. “Don’t change the subject. What’s wrong with you?” Of course that didn’t work. I just barely held back a groan as I shoveled a piece of chicken into my mouth and chewed slowly before answering, “I’m fine. I’m just… thinking about stuff, and it’s putting me in a bad mood.” My brother snickered beside me. “You? In a bad mood? No.” I reached over before he knew what was happening and pinched him on the puny thing he called a biceps. “Oww,” he cried, yanking his arm away and cradling it. I tried to do it again, but he flailed his elbow to keep me from being able to. “Mom! Look at her!” my brother whined, gesturing toward me like there was someone else attacking him. “James, help me!” “Snitch,” I whispered, still trying to pinch him. “Bitch.” His husband laughed but didn’t choose sides. No wonder I liked him so much. “Quit hurting your brother,” Mom said for probably the thousandth time in my entire life. When he moved his hands to block me around the area of his waist, I reached up, quick, quick, quick and flicked him on the neck before he turned his mouth to try and bite me. “Momma’s boy,” I whispered, snatching my hand back. He tipped his head from side to side with a smirk, mocking me like he always had when Mom took his side. She always did. The suck-up was her favorite, even though she’d never admit it, but the rest of us knew the truth. I loved both my brothers, but I got why my mom loved him the most. If you ignored the similarities between him and Pluto, he always put a smile on someone’s face. Those giant ears had that effect on people. “Baby girl, even I know something’s up with you just from the way you’re talking. What’s wrong?” my brother’s husband asked, leaning forward over the table with an expression so full of concern, it made me feel guiltier than anything my mom or Jojo could have said. I wanted to tell them. But… I could, and probably always would, clearly remember how my brother had cried angry tears when we first found out I’d been left without a partner. My mom would never admit she’d been devastated, but I knew her too well to not see the signs. I’d seen the same signs after every marriage before her current one had failed, when she knew her life was changed forever and there was no going back to the way things were before. Right after I’d quit training to compete—because you couldn’t exactly practice a lot of elements in pairs skating by yourself, and I’d been totally aware of how slim my hopes were in women’s singles—I had emotionally turned into myself majorly. The right term might have been depression, but I didn’t want to think about it. It wasn’t the first time it had happened; I was a sore loser. It hadn’t been a secret how heartsick seeing my dream slipping away had made me… how angry and hurt and upset I’d been. How angry and hurt and upset I still was. Honestly, part of me worried I would never get over it. I held grudges like a motherfucker. But my family had all ridden this ride with me, year after year, one up and five downs, over and over again. Most importantly, they had all been there for me in the aftermath of me slowly trying to build up this new life I had outside of the rink, from forcing me to do little things like eating dinner with my family while all I wanted was to hole up in my room alone, to threatening me into going out with them, and guilt-tripping me into doing things I hadn’t made time for before. They had done that over and over again until it had begun to feel like second nature. All those things I hadn’t done enough of in the past, but could once I told my mom she wasn’t going to have to keep paying the astronomical fees that came with coaching because I didn’t have one anymore. He had ditched me too. It was one thing for me to be sad and heartbroken, but I didn’t want them to feel that way too. Never again. Not if I could prevent it. And I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. The selfish part of me wanted to do it. Duh. But the other part of me, that tiny part that didn’t want to be a selfish shit, didn’t want to let these people down by turning into the person I’d been before. The one who was never around. The one who everyone thought didn’t care… probably because I hadn’t cared enough to. Then there was the whole part of me not being sure I could handle things not working out… as much as that made me a pussy. And the whole it-being-Ivan this deal was with. Ivan. Ugh. I wanted it that bad that I wasn’t immediately saying no to the possibility of spending most of my days with him of all people. This was what my life had come to. Possibly spending time with that arrogant dipshit. I really had no idea what to do, damn it. So, for that moment… I lied. “I think it’s just my period on the way.” “Ahh,” was Jonathan’s response, because girls being on their periods was old news after sharing a bathroom with three sisters for the first eighteen years of his life. My mom, on the other hand, squinted a little, watching me for two moments too long. So long that I thought she was going to call me out on my shit, but right as I assumed that, she shrugged and then dropped another bomb. “So, is it true Lukov and his partner split up?” I blinked, not sure why I was surprised. She always knew everyone’s business. Someway, somehow. It was James, my brother’s husband, who sucked in a loud breath first. That’s how long he’d been with Jonathan, that the name meant something. I could remember a time, many, many years ago when James hadn’t known a single thing about figure skating. But now he’d been a member of the family long enough that he knew more about the sport than I’d bet he’d ever imagined he would. “He got rid of his partner?” Jonathan perked up, shoving his glasses up his nose, like this was the best gossip he’d heard in a while. Mom raised her eyebrows and nodded. “From what I heard, it happened a few days ago.” I made sure to shove a big piece of chicken into my mouth so that I wouldn’t make a face that said that’s not what happened. Luckily, my nosey-ass brother gasped. “Hadn’t they just paired up a few years ago?” Jojo asked, aiming the question at our mom because he knew she had all the gossip. “Uh-huh. The partner before her fell twice at the Major Prix final. They won a bronze, but with this girl he won a national title and worlds with.” The Major Prix. Worlds. Nationals. They were three of the most prestigious competitions in the figure skating world, and only he could screw up that much in a competition and still win something. That should have reassured me that I’d be making a good choice if I accepted his offer, but all it did was make me resentful toward myself for fucking up so much that I had nothing. “Karina didn’t tell you anything about it?” My mom turned her attention to me. I made sure I still had chicken in my mouth while I shook my head and said with a mouthful, “She’s still in Mexico.” They knew she was in school. “E-mail her and find out,” she urged. I frowned. “You e-mail her and ask.” Mom snorted like bring it on. “I will.” “I always forget Karina is his sister,” James noted, leaning across the table. “Is he just as good looking up close, in person?” I snickered. “No.” Jojo snorted out, “Uh-huh,” but the tone put me on edge and had me glancing in his direction to find him leaning into James’s shoulder. He pretended like he was trying to whisper, but the idiot looked right at me as he added, “Jasmine used to always flirt with him. You should have seen it.” I gagged on the chicken I hadn’t swallowed yet before coughing out, “The hell did you just say?” His “ha!” made me get my middle finger ready. “Don’t even pretend. You used to always come home talking about him,” the five-foot-seven-inch man who had always been a perfect balance between a supportive older brother and an annoying pain in the ass with boundary issues claimed. “You had a thing for him. We all knew.” He looked at James and raised his eyebrows. “We knew.” Was he fucking with me? He was fucking with me, wasn’t he? Me flirting with Ivan? Ivan? “No,” I told him calmly, only because if I said it too aggressively they would cry bullshit. I knew how they worked. “I did not flirt with him.” And just so James knew, I emphasized it. “Ever.” Mom made a noise that basically said, “Well.” I swung my gaze toward her and shook my head. “No. No, I didn’t. He’s all right looking”—I only said that because, if I said he wasn’t my type, they would assume I was trying to hide something, and I wasn’t. “—but it was never like that. Not even a little bit. He’s kind of a jerk. His sister and I are friends. That’s it.” “He wasn’t a jerk,” my mom interjected. “He’s always very polite. He’s very good with his fans. He seems like a very nice boy.” She slid me a look. “And you did like him.” A nice boy? What the hell were they on? Yeah, everyone did love him, and they all thought the world of him. Handsome, talented Ivan Lukov, who had won the world over as a cute, winking, cocky teenager. He knew how to play the game. I would give him that. But I had never liked him. Not ever. “Nope, no I didn’t,” I argued, shaking my head in disbelief they would be trying to claim that kind of crap. Were they for real? “You’re imagining shit. We say a sentence to each other once a month, and it’s always sarcastic and a little mean.” “Some people might consider that foreplay—” my brother started to say before I cut him off. I made a horrible noise again, still shaking my head. “Hell no—” Jonathan burst out laughing. “Why’s your face turning red then, Jas?” he asked, slapping his palm over the top of my head and giving it a shake before I could jerk it out of the way. “Shut your mouth,” I said to Jojo, thinking of a dozen different comebacks and knowing I couldn’t use any of them because they would all come out way too defensive and make me look guilty. Or, worse, I’d tell them about the offer I’d been given that morning. “I didn’t like him though. I don’t know why you two would ever even think that.” Mom snickered. “It’s okay to admit you used to have a crush on him. There are plenty of girls around the world who have. I might have even had a little crush on him back in the day—” Forgetting we were on opposite teams, Jojo and I both gagged. Mom groaned. “Oh, stop. I didn’t even mean it like that!” Of course the woman who was married to a man not even ten years older than me would have to clarify that comment. Mom wasn’t just a cougar, she was The Cougar. All other cougars hailed to her. “I’m going to pretend you just didn’t say that so I can sleep tonight, Ma,” Jojo muttered with a