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After the Gold by Erin McRae, Racheline Maltese (1)

Chapter 1

THE MOST RECENT WINTER Olympics

Harbin, China

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KATIE LISTENED AS THE scores for the previous pair were announced in English, French, and Mandarin. She did the math in her head. There was absolutely room for them to win.

She tried not to look at Brendan; this wasn’t about another team’s scores. Keeping her eyes on her own work was essential if she was going to get through this without being hit with a wave of anxiety. There were all sorts of Olympic medals that could be won on math, but pair figure skating wasn’t one of them.

Their names boomed over the loudspeakers, and Brendan took her hand as they took to the ice.

Smile at the crowd, she told herself. Smile at the judges, at the walls, at the ice if you have to, just fucking smile!

She plastered a grin on her face as they made a lap around the rink. Katie found these moments unendurable. They were hard for anyone of course, but the difference between reasonable and unreasonable nerves wasn’t always clear to her. This time was worse than ever.

Because this was it. Twenty years of a singular dream were down to these four and a half minutes. Brendan would turn thirty next year; she’d follow soon thereafter. They were getting too old for this, if they weren’t already.

Katie looked up towards the booth that held the announcers and wondered what they were saying about her and Brendan. Probably nothing kind. Probably way too much about their messy history. Inconsistent. Dramatic. A reality TV soap opera waiting to happen. She smiled at them anyway and mocked them in her head.

Brendan tugged her hand sharply. A check on her nerves, maybe. On her distraction, certainly.

But the announcers fascinated her. In a few months she might be one of them. Once she and Brendan retired from competition — and they would after this — it would be one of the few obvious career choices available to her. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a part of that.

She’d watched enough replays of her own competitions to know how rude the commentary often was in hopes of keeping viewers interested enough to buy more cars, cereal, and makeup. She and Brendan would probably get endorsement deals for all those things if they won; the cereal especially. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it, but this was not the moment to examine her relationship with capitalism.

“With me?” Brendan whispered to her as they skated to center ice.

“Always,” she replied. The exchange was both ritual and habit for them.

They took their starting positions and waited for the music to begin. Katie willed herself to shut out her anxiety, the judges, the audience, everything but her awareness of Brendan’s body so close to hers. She shut her eyes and listened to the sound of the deep breaths he was taking to calm his own nerves, and matched her breathing to his. Finally, when she thought she was going to pass out from the anticipation, the opening beats of their song played, and that was it.

Katie moved effortlessly into the first bit of choreography that let them ease from strained stillness into the meat of the program. Brendan was right there beside her, their movements a precise mirror of each other, as they went into the crossovers that led to their first side-by-sides jumps. If they nailed those, if they had the audience with them ... they were home free. Not because those jumps were the hardest — those came later, at seven seconds after the first minute mark — but because they set the tone. Katie reached back with her right arm and leg, dug her right toepick into the ice, and jumped.

From a triple jump a skater lands on the edge of a single blade with enough force that a thousand pounds of pressure shoots up through their body and down through the ice. Katie knew that a pair who could do that — who could endure that — in sync, on the beat, with a smile, and with their arms outstretched in victory, was a pair that had already won. Because winning was a choice. The audience could hold their breaths; the announcers could speculate, but if that first jump was perfect, if the energy was just right, the feat was always, somehow, already done.

Katie came down on the outside edge of her right skate. Brendan landed at the exact same moment as her, just as cleanly. Their eyes met, and the audience finally fell away. Everything about him — about them — was electric.

This isn’t a competition, Katie thought. This, right here, is the victory tour.