I used to ice skate competitively when I was a little girl, and love of the sport is still in my blood. I find it hard to pass up a book about figure skaters. Thus, I was drawn to Pairing Off, the debut novel by Elizabeth Harmon and the first book in her Red Hot Russians series. The book opens with a rather steamy encounter, set several years before the main part of the book, when Anton Belikov gets drunk after a juniors competition and sleeps with a visiting American skater. He remembers her accent and dark hair, but the rest of the evening is rather foggy. (Readers will be entirely unsurprised that the girl turns out to be the heroine, Carrie Parker.)
When Pairing Off reaches the present, both Carrie and Anton are in trouble. Carrie’s partner was caught sleeping with a judge for inflated scores. Anton’s partner (and fiancee) left him right before the season started for a partner she thinks will give her a better chance for gold. Anton’s coach Galina contacts Carrie to partner with him. She thinks Carrie’s style will be a good fit for Anton’s and they can get her citizenship rubber-stamped. (I do believe that, because the Russians are very serious about having a strong set of contenders in ice skating.)
Anton’s fiancee is perhaps the biggest obstacle between the two of them. But I like that his current relationship brings out the reasons Anton is a good romantic partner as well as skating partner. He’s loyal, and he can accept another man entering his fiancee’s life without getting crazy jealous. Many people can’t believe he doesn’t dump her immediately for his injured manly pride, but Anton decides there are other qualities he wants to nurture for himself than manly pride. It’s really only once he sorts pride out of the equation that he starts to come to turns by his own hurt feelings of being left behind on the ice.
There are things holding Carrie back too. She’s the daughter of a Senator who wants to run for president. Her old partner’s scandal has already caused some friction about how it has damaged his reputation. Her mother was lower class than her father, and there was a nasty divorce followed by her mother’s early death. Carrie is carrying around a lot of old wounds and a gnawing feeling that she’ll never live up to her father’s wishes. She doesn’t even know how to tell him that she’s defecting to Russia. However, getting back on the ice and skating with a partner who is right for her helps Carrie gain confidence in herself … eventually.
Pairing Off has a terrific setting. The skating parts are very well done. Harmon captures how insular the world is and how much dedication it takes. She even goes into the paths that are available to skaters after their competition years are over. The one thing that bothers me is that Carrie and Anton skate routines that weren’t written for them. This is an Olympic year! Galina says she chose Carrie because her athletic style is a better match for Anton’s strengths than his old partner’s artistic style. Why wouldn’t she prioritize getting new routines to capitalize on what she knows her pair’s strength is? (Especially since Carrie finds skating a part that isn’t right for her so trying.) The Russian part of the setting is done well too. There are details of the culture, the architecture, the good and bad parts of town. I like Carrie’s drive to learn the language, not just for her citizenship, but because it is isolating not to be able to just speak to people. There’s a real sense that Pairing Off takes place in a different country, not just a place that might as well be the US with a few foreign words thrown in.
While the setting pulled me in, the romance sold me just as it should. I like Anton and Carrie apart and I like them even better together. There are some angsty parts, but in general, Pairing Off is about two sweet people meeting each other, respecting each other, and coming to love each other. I enjoy the way that the development of their professional relationship and their personal relationship dovetailed. Pairing Off is sexy and sweet, with a strong plotline about moving to a new country and working hard to make it to the Olympics to keep it from being too much of a lightweight romance. I think it is an impressive debut and I look forward to more romances about ice-skating Russians from Elizabeth Harmon.
American figure skater Carrie Parker’s Winter Games dreams were dashed when her philandering partner caused one of the greatest scandals in skating history. Blacklisted from competing in the United States, her career is over…until she receives a mysterious invitation and is paired with the most infuriating, talented—and handsome—skater she’s ever met.
Russian champion Anton Belikov knows sacrifice. He gave up a normal life and any hope of a meaningful relationship to pursue his dream. And he’s come close—with a silver medal already under his belt, the next stop is the gold. All he needs is a partner. While he’s never forgotten the young American skater he seduced one long-ago night in Amsterdam, he never expected to be confronted with their past…never mind share the ice with her.
When what starts as a publicity stunt grows into something real, Carrie and Anton’s partnership will test their loyalties to family, country and each other. With only a few months to train for the competition of a lifetime, can they master technique and their emotions, or will they lose their footing and fall victim to the heartaches of their pasts?
Read an excerpt here.
Other books in this series: