He rolled out of his empty bed—because what woman wanted to be awakened at four thirty in the morning?—dragged a hand over his hair in need of a cut, and pushed to his feet.
After Lexi and Josh graduated high school, or moved on to a more advanced coach, he wasn’t going to take on any more students for a while. Maybe sleep until seven. Stay up to watch the late news. Or even a movie.
But now that school had started again, Lexi and Josh wanted to get in their lessons before their classes, so he met them at the rink at five and they practiced until around seven. They’d be back after school, too, so he’d be at the rink until seven or eight tonight, come home, shower and crash, then do it all again tomorrow morning. His only breaks were on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, when they had dance and gymnastics classes instead.
He shouldn’t complain, he knew, as he tugged on his sweats and padded into the kitchen for a to-go tumbler of coffee. These two ice dancers were insanely talented. They had what it took to go all the way. He’d been coaching them since they were about twelve, but he couldn’t take credit for the natural skill and grace the two of them had, or the work ethic.
Because he owned the rink, he was paid for both their ice time and for coaching.
He was out of bed and out the door in fifteen minutes, even if he wasn’t fully awake.
He had a staff at the rink, of course, but since he had to be here this early anyway, he was the one to open up, get the lights on.
Yeah, he’d been fortunate to be able to buy this place with the winnings from the endorsement deals he’d gotten after winning gold in Sion. Probably, though, he shouldn’t have banked so much on the notoriety from those days, papering the lobby with his picture, including a big one of him on the podium holding his medal.
At least he’d had the sense—or the pettiness—to block Colby out of that picture.
But he couldn’t block out what had happened next. He had turned to Colby, his partner, on the podium, and went down on one knee. He hadn’t had a ring, but he’d been so overwhelmed with emotion, and they had been America’s Sweethearts at that time, anyway. The crowd had gone crazy. He remembered the confusion on her face, but she’d said yes, and he’d leapt up to fold her into a passionate kiss, and….
Yeah, he wished he hadn’t tied those two events together in his mind. Because everything, everything had gone downhill from there. A lifelong dream, and the beginning of a nightmare.
He got all the lights turned on in the place—the lobby, where the parents waited, the snack bar, the gym, the rink, the office last. Then he sat behind his desk and reached for his skates. Since he had gotten out the door so quickly, he had time to get some skating in.
Some days he was able to fit some in later in the day, after the morning rush, when most of the kids who came for lessons went to school, before he went into his office and attended to business, but this morning he needed to be on the ice first thing to kind of center him. He wasn’t sure why.
At the last minute before he stepped onto the ice, he decided to turn on the PA system, plugged his phone in and blasted a classic rock song through the speakers. Then he tossed his guards and skated onto the ice.
Usually he liked the peaceful sound of blades cutting through the ice. But today he wanted the pounding bass, the ringing guitar. He let the music pound through him as he skated the perimeter, gathering speed, before leaping into the air for a quick axel, landing on one blade, the momentum carrying him forward, nothing driving him but the pulse of the music and his love of skating.
Declan had skated with a partner for over twenty years, from the time he was eleven, and he’d liked it, but skating alone was freedom and joy.
The cold air of the rink stung his face, the scent of it more familiar to him than the scent of his own home, the shape of it familiar enough that he could close his eyes as he powered around. He indulged in his favorite jump, the toe pick, because it propelled him forward, and he used that momentum to do a split jump, landed, and skated half the perimeter before lowering his torso and raising his leg to go into a camel spin, his left leg straight behind him as he whipped his body around. Testing his strength, he lifted his left leg in front of him and lowered his body over the spinning skate, his knee giving some protest at the move, but he pressed on. The end of his left skate sent bits of ice flying as he spun before using the last of his strength to stand again.
He was breathing heavily as he skated to a stop, hands on his hips, his knee throbbing a little. He kept limber with yoga and Pilates, but apparently thirty-three-year-old knees didn’t care.
The applause caught him off-guard, and he looked up to see his students, Josh and Lexi, and their moms, Melina and Cynthia, clapping and cheering as he took a slight bow.
He didn’t see the fifth person until he skated over, until his phone’s playlist advanced to the next song, even as his brain screeched to a halt.
Colby Martin stood with them, her hands tucked in her puffy silver jacket, not applauding, just staring at him.
His ex-partner, his ex-best friend.
“Declan, we took your advice and hired a choreographer for the kids,” Melina said, stepping forward, holding one of her hands out.
Why, Declan didn’t know, and he skated back a bit out of her reach, wishing he’d never turned the stupid music on, because it was blasting and he couldn’t think, and he couldn’t get over to the system to turn it off without passing Colby, who was just…watching him. Not saying anything.
“There are other choreographers,” he said, sharper than he intended, skating down to the other entrance to the rink. His guards were on the floor near Josh and Lexi, but he didn’t care. He’d take his skates off. Anything to get the music off.
By the time he reached the other entrance, Josh was there, offering his skate guards, which Declan took gratefully. Not the kid’s fault his mother hired Declan’s worst nightmare.
“No one is taking new clients,” Cynthia said, following her daughter down to Declan.
“Josh, can you shut off the bloody music?” Declan asked through his teeth as he slapped the skate guards on the blades.
Josh seemed just as grateful to get away, nodding and running up the stairs to the PA controls.
And then the place was silent, just the two hopeful mothers, the young skaters who appeared uncomfortable, and Colby.
All the peace Declan had built was erased, and he stormed up the steps to the lobby.
No one else had arrived yet, thank God, but they’d be coming soon. His students had the ice to themselves right now, and he was wasting their time, but really, he was furious.
“Go warm up,” he said to Lexi, gruffer than he intended. Honestly, he wanted to go into his office and slam the door, but he had an obligation to these kids, and to their parents. “Excuse us,” he said to Colby, and ushered the mothers through the door into his office. He knew that didn’t afford them much privacy, since it was a hollow core door. But at least he wouldn’t have Colby looking at him while he confronted the women.
He took a seat behind his desk in the small room, but the mothers did not sit in the chairs he gestured to.
“You have to know how difficult it would be to work with her,” he said, wishing he’d had more time to think out his response. “You no doubt know our history.”
“Yes, of course, but she said it would be okay with her. She would be fine working with you,” Cynthia said.
He looked at the woman he had known for years like he was looking at a stranger. “Why didn’t you ask me if I’d be fine working with her?”
“The two of you made such a good team! You won gold! I thought it was kismet when she was available,” Melina said.
“She’s available because she’s extremely difficult to work with.” She hadn’t always been, but the better they’d gotten, the more of a diva she’d become. “And who do you think would know that better than I do?”
“I’m sorry, Declan. We just assumed you’d be professional about this,” Melina said with a small, hurt sniff.
Oh, no, they were not going to put this on him. “You thought I’d be professional?” He’d raised his voice and hadn’t meant to. He glanced toward the door, certain Colby was on the other side of it, listening to everything. He decided he didn’t care. No one had hurt him like she did. No one.
“We want the best for our kids. We want them to have the same chances you did. That’s why we hired you, and that’s why we hired her.”
“Look, can she not just devise the routine, and you implement it?” Cynthia asked. “It’s not like you’d have to work with her for long. Or she can work with them, then you can? Take turns? We really did a lot of investigating into this. No one else was taking clients this year. Please, Declan.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.” He couldn’t believe he had to keep saying it. Figure skating was a small world, sure, and he hadn’t had to encounter her in the past eight years, mainly because she had gone to Los Angeles, hoping to make it big in acting. He hadn’t heard she’d come back to Aspen, hadn’t heard she’d come back to skating.
He wondered why.
“Could you talk to her?” Melina asked. “Just see if there’s something the two of you can work out?”
“You’re putting your kids in the middle of this,” he said, one last shot at appealing to them. He honestly wanted to tell them to find another coach, but he’d been working with these kids since they were twelve, and he genuinely liked them. He’d known time would come when he’d have to, if not give them up to more experienced coaches, at least give up some of the control he had, to share them with another coach. But he’d never expected to be forced to work with Colby.
“Please, just talk to her. She seemed to think there would be no problem, so maybe she has a solution you haven’t thought of.”
“I need to get to your kids’ lesson,” he said. “If Colby wants to stick around to talk to me when we’re done, that’s fine. I’ll talk to her then.”
Maybe by then he would have figured out what to say. Or she would give up and leave.
Yeah. Sure. Unlikely.
As he expected, when he opened the door, she was standing just outside it, still silent, making him want to scream.
But he had to rein it in, get to Josh and Lexi so they could take advantage of their two hour block before they had to go to school.
“Come back at nine,” he said brusquely, not exactly meeting her gaze, but not exactly avoiding it, either.
She was still so beautiful, smooth skin, big blue eyes accented with perfect makeup, that shiny hair that was not quite brown, not quite red, piled in a messy bun on her head. Those full lips that brought back so many pleasant memories, and through which such nasty things had been said.
“I’m going to stay and watch,” she said. “I need to know what these kids can do before I design a program for them.”
He grunted, since he’d kind of expected she’d say something like that. He didn’t relish the idea of her watching him, judging him as he worked with the kids he’d coached for four years now.
“You stay in here, not out there.”
“It’s not right, you know,” she said as he opened the door to the rink, standing in the blast of cold air. “You cropped me out of all these pictures.”
“Not all of them,” he said, and pointed to a picture where just the toe of her skate made it into the photo.
With that, he walked out.
Hearts on Ice is available at all retailers.
On sale at Kobo until Sept. 26.