Authors: Jessica Clare
Ice Dancing with the Stars? You’re fucking kidding me, right?
— Ty Randall, MMA Fighter, a.k.a. “Ty the MMA Biter,” to his manager
~~ * ~~
I really hated family reunions. You know, those shindigs where a variety of people that would otherwise barely like each other get together and pretend to be affectionate all because of a common bond? And you’re forced to sit there and endure for hours while someone goes on and on about the weather while you know they’re just dying to ask you about that horribly embarrassing incident in your past but that they just haven’t worked up to it yet?
Yeah. The figure skating community is kind of like that—a big family that can barely hold itself together, yet all forced to interact because of a commonality. And walking into the 7:00 AM meeting at JNO Studios and seeing a lineup of familiar skating faces? Yep. Family reunion time. And as if on cue, my stomach gave an unhappy twist. If this was a family, I was definitely the black sheep.
“Right this way, Miss Pritchard,” the assistant at my elbow said, and led me to the far end of the long table where the other skaters were already seated. I was the last one there. Bad luck. My juju was already off to a bad start. I took a sip of the iced latte clutched in my hand and tried to play it casual, though internally I was sizing up the others. I thumped into my seat—last one on the right, also bad luck, but I wasn’t in a position to complain, and I certainly wasn’t going to demand a new seat.
My days of demanding things? Pretty much over. Now I was lucky to get scraps.
The others were dressed in business suits or designer clothing. No one had given me
memo. I’d thought from the phone call yesterday that this would just be a quick overview session, nothing more. Lovely. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a tank top, and leggings, because, well, that was what I always wore. My dark hair was pulled into my normal tight bun and I wasn’t wearing makeup. Everyone else looked like they were heading to a Hollywood party.
Discomfort made my skin prickle, but I pretended to not care in the slightest, giving my latte a long, noisy slurp in response as continued to size up everyone in the room. Five other skaters, and they were all giving me wide, too-fake smiles.
“Zara, it is so good to see you getting back on your feet,” exclaimed Emma Rawley, seated at the far end of the table. “Did you just come straight from the ice?”
Mentally, I ran down her list of accomplishments. Two-time Olympian, one-time bronze medalist. She’d come in first at Nationals only once. She was good, technically, but uninspired. I slurped my drink. “No.”
Next to her sat Tatiana Bezrukov, a Russian champion with a bigger pedigree than anyone else. She simply watched me, saying nothing. Tatiana was never much of a talker. She kind of let her accomplishments speak for themselves. I was surprised they got as big of a name as her, though. She was a big deal in her home country.
The three men were Serge Volodin, Toby Bell, and Jon Jon Miller. I didn’t know them nearly as well as the women, but they were all very familiar to me. Very familiar and very skilled. But none of them were nearly as notorious as me.
Jon Jon sat next to me. He leaned closer, skipping all pretense. “So…just so you know. The executives really frown on it if you walk off of the ice while on the show. I hear you’re bad at that.”
I shot him the bird.
“Now that’s a familiar gesture.” Jon Jon winked. “Nice to see Zara Pritchard hasn’t changed that much.”
The others chuckled, except for Emma, who frowned unhappily at the table and then turned to me, beaming a smile that seemed sincere. “It is really great that you’re here, Zara. We heard you’d been teaching out in Ohio?” Her brows went up, encouraging me to answer.
“Tutoring,” I said, hoping they’d leave it at that.
“Anyone we know?” asked Toby.
He gave me an impossible-to-read look. “So an up-and-comer?”
You could say that. Most of the kids I tutored at the mall ice rink were four- to six-year-olds. I was sure they’d be up and coming at something at some point. So I merely sipped my drink and tried to look mysterious. Let them wonder.
No one had to know that Zara Pritchard had fallen so far. No one but me. This was my chance to redeem myself, anyhow.
Before they could question me more, four men and a woman, all dressed in business suits, entered the meeting room. Immediately, all of the skaters stood and straightened, and I could practically see them putting on their performance faces. Whoever had just walked in was important, which meant I needed to impress them. I slid my cup under the table and stood as well, wishing that I hadn’t brought it with me. I didn’t care about impressing the other skaters, but management? Management was important. They were the ones that had brought me here, and they were the ones that could boot me back to obscurity again.
A meet and greet commenced, and the suits welcomed the skaters, shaking hands and chatting. It was clear everyone in the room knew each other except for me. Not a surprise. This was the second season of
Ice Dancing With the Stars
, and the first one had been a mild hit for the network, so we were round two.
One of the executives came over to me, extending his hand to shake. “Zara Pritchard. I remember you. It’s good to see you here.”
My latte was sweating all over my hand, so I transferred it to my other, wiped my wet palm on my sweatshirt, and then extended it to him, hoping that didn’t look too awkward. “Thank you, sir. I’m very excited for this opportunity. I won’t let you down. You won’t be sorry.”
He took my hand and shook it with a nod. “Of course.”
“I’ve been working extra hard since I got the call,” I told him quickly. “Practicing my triple axels and toe loops to make sure I can keep up with the show. I’m used to putting in at least fifteen hours a day, so whatever you need, I can do. You can just point me to it, and I’ll be good to go. I’m really versatile, too. Any sort of routine you need—”
He was starting to get a glazed look in his eyes, and I knew I was babbling. But the truth was, I needed this job badly. And I couldn’t seem to make myself shut up, despite the pitying look that Jon Jon was giving me over his shoulder.
“I have lots of ideas for choreography, too,” I gushed, helpless to stop my nervous babbling. “That was one of my specialties when I was competing. I tend to score very well artistically. Not that my technical scores weren’t great, of course. I mean, they were. It’s just that I really prided myself on my artistry, and so—”
“Who’s this?” The female executive cut me off, moving to the man’s side. She gave me a cool look up and down.
The man gratefully snatched his hand back and put it on my shoulder instead. “This is Zara Pritchard. She’s filling in for Svetlana, since she’s too pregnant to compete.”
Yes! Thank you, Svetlana, for getting knocked up. I totally needed to send that woman flowers. I gave the female executive my best beaming smile.
“She’s awfully young,” the woman said, frowning as she considered me.
“Oh, I just look young,” I explained hastily, and gestured at my tight bun. “It’s the hair. It makes my face rounder than it really is. Everyone always talks about how I look like I’m fourteen, but I’m really twenty-five. I get carded all the time. I—”
The female executive sniffed. “They told me you were an Olympian.”
“I am. Was.” Oh god, the horrified look on Jon Jon’s face had turned to one of pity. Please, please don’t let me babble out my past. “I competed in 2002. Salt Lake. I was thirteen and—’
Her eyes widened. “You walked off after you fell. I remember.”
Oh god. I was going to barf. “It was a mistake,” I blurted out. “I was a kid, and I was really upset. I didn’t realize what a mistake it would be. I’d never do it again if given the chance to do-over. I mean, no one does that, right?” I gave a high-pitched, nervous laugh. “That’s like, rule number one of figure skating. You never walk off the ice mid-routine, but I did it. So yeah, I…um, won’t do it again.”
Please, floor, swallow me up now.
She gave me a tight look. “See that you don’t.”
“Of course not. Absolutely. You can count on me. I—”
She turned away before I could finish. Ouch. “Let’s start the meeting, shall we?”
Everyone returned to their seats, and none of the other skaters would look in my direction. My cheeks burned with humiliation, but I forced myself to sit. I would never run away again, after all. I’d learned my lesson.
I was thirteen when I’d won at Nationals, and fourteen for the Salt Lake Olympics of 2002. I was a favorite for the US, and I had been all over Sports Illustrated and figure skating magazines, and my managers were in talks with multiple sports companies about endorsement deals once I medaled at the Olympics. I was a prodigy. I was young, cute, and everyone loved me. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ I medaled, but when. I was the favorite going in.
And I’d been cocky as hell, too. I was so sure that I was going to mop the floor with the others that, after I’d skated a flawless short program, I was positive that I was unstoppable. I might have even skipped a practice.
But the ice had been shitty, and I’d drawn the bad luck of going first. Skating first, when the ice wasn’t all torn up and malleable,
. I didn’t like that. Bad luck all around. And then I’d doubled a triple toe loop. And got pissed at myself. Why was I doing such stupid moves? Why? Why wasn’t I paying attention?
And then I’d gone into my double-axel sit spin, a move I normally nailed…except I’d mis-timed it and landed flat on my too-proud ass in front of the judges.
And then I’d sat there, humiliated, as the music played on. Skaters are taught to get up and carry on, salvage the program as best they could. Keep your chin up and your head held high, and you’ll at least finish with grace.
But I’d been fourteen, and my dreams of medaling had just come crashing down around my ass. And so I picked myself up off the ice and flounced right off of the rink.
People had been stunned. No one walked off the ice. No one. They started to boo.
I then shot everyone the bird, full of myself and humiliation.
Of course, that had just made things worse.
The Olympic favorite had just scratched.
It made headlines everywhere. ZARA PRITCHARD WASHES OUT, complete with pictures of me storming away, my middle fingers in the air. My coaches were horrified. My parents were, too. The rest of my team, devastated. I’d embarrassed everyone. Worst of all? I’d killed my career. My management team fired me. Endorsement deals that were practically inked had dried up overnight. No one would hire Zara Pritchard, supreme loser. No one wanted anything to do with me. After a few years of struggling, I’d landed odd jobs skating as mascots (always masked and covered head to toe) or doing private lessons. I barely scraped by.
So now, here I was, more than ten years later, being given a second chance because Svetlana had gotten too pregnant to compete. And I was determined not to screw this up this time, damn it.
Zara Pritchard had learned her lesson.
“So,” the female executive said, taking a seat at the head of the table and flipping through a packet of notes. “We’re all familiar with the layout of the show, right?”
I wasn’t. I didn’t watch last year’s show because my hated nemesis, Penelope Marks, the skater who’d taken the gold the year I should have had it, was also one of the judges. Hated Penelope. HA. TED. But I guessed that I should have paid more attention to the show. Now wasn’t the time to ask.
“There will be six weeks of shows, since we’re a summer replacement for the network.” The executive continued on calmly. “That means six routines with your partner, provided you last the entire six weeks. You’ll have two weeks, starting tomorrow, to train and warm up with your partner. Then, we start live shows. As a reminder, if you get to the finale, you automatically get a fifty-thousand-dollar bonus. The winner gets a hundred thousand, as does the celebrity. Of course, they’ll be giving theirs to charity.” She gave us all a wintry smile. “You are encouraged to do the same, if you choose.”
Give away a hundred grand? Hell no. That’d set me for years. I pressed my lips together tightly, just to make sure the protest didn’t blurt out of my mouth.
“Costumes will be provided. Simply inform production of your choice at the beginning of the week, and they will take care of the rest. Ditto with music, so we can ensure that we get the appropriate rights to play the music. You don’t want to sub out at the last minute.” She gave a pointed look at Serge.