Friday, July 29, 2011

Tango's Edge - Chapter 16

Chapter Sixteen

Kerry awoke to the sensation of Mikhail's lips on the small of her back. Still half-asleep, she smiled. Even in this hazy twilight between sleep and wakefulness, she knew he was kissing her turtle. The sensation of his warm lips on her skin sent a flooding heat through her lower half, and she released a soft, breathless sigh. A low chuckle came from Mikhail's throat, and his hand tightened possessively on the curve of her naked hip. His tongue traced another wet, leisurely path over her skin, and an involuntary cry escaped Kerry's lips.
His mouth lifted. “When did you get tattoo?” he asked, fingers skipping playfully down her thigh, sending goose bumps erupting in his wake.
“During my rebellious stage,” Kerry murmured through clenched teeth.
Mikhail laughed. “When was that?”
“Oh…from about…” she spoke haltingly, trying not to think about the sensations his tongue was arousing in her. “Thirteen to…twenty-three…but I got the tattoo…when I was sixteen. Catri had…a fit.”
His fingertips trailed over her turtle tattoo in a soft caress. Kerry gasped as liquid fire arrowed through her womb. How many times had they made love last night? Three…four? Whatever, it apparently hadn't been enough because she wanted him again.
But apparently, Mikhail was more interested in talking. “You said in car you would tell me long story about boyfriend. Joshua, yes?” His hand continued to stroke her skin, but he’d rolled over on his side, propping his head on his hand.
“It’s not really a long story,” Kerry said. “He was a bad-boy hockey player, and I found him irresistible. I guess you could say I was blinded by lust. Our relationship lasted for a couple of years.”
“Until scandal?”
Kerry nodded. “That was my wake-up call. That drug possession arrest nearly got me kicked out of skating. Even though I wasn’t the one who had the marijuana. But I was with him, so I was charged, too.”
“But charges were dropped, yes?”
“Yeah. Josh served sixty days and had to go through a drug rehabilitation program. He’s still playing hockey, and from what I hear, is as wild as ever. The whole thing scared the crap out of me, but even then I thought I still loved him. I’m ashamed to say I stuck with him for a few more months until he decided a stripper at a Hollywood club was more to his taste.”
“Stupid man,” Mikhail murmured, his hand moving down the curve of her hip. He leaned toward her, his breath warm on her skin. “But I am happy. I do not wish to compete with bad-boy hockey player.”
“No competition,” Kerry murmured.
She caught her breath as Mikhail’s mouth returned to her turtle. Her hand grasped a corner of the sheet and squeezed. She closed her eyes, murmuring, “You're driving me out of my mind, Mikhail.”
His lips moved away, and she could hear the smile in his voice as he said, “Turtles have just become my favorite reptile.” His finger traced over the design, then trailed up the middle of her back. He flattened his hand against her skin and moved down in a slow, seductive journey. His head lowered again. Kerry stiffened at the heat of his tongue, and the wet contact it made as it traced the turtle at the small of her back.
That's it, she thought. Can't take it anymore. She turned over abruptly, and slid her body up against Mikhail's hair-roughened chest. He caught his breath as her hand wrapped around his healthy erection.
“Did you hear me?” she said, meeting his gaze defiantly. “You're driving me crazy, Russian boy.” She stroked him, once, twice.
He groaned. “Estonian,” he said through clenched teeth. Two hot spots of color circled his cheekbones.
Kerry grabbed a handful of his blond hair as she continued the repetitive motion with her other hand. “I apologize. Here, let me make it up to you.” She kissed him, and his mouth opened to hers obligingly.
For the next twenty minutes, they took their time, savoring, learning the map of each other's bodies. This time, their lovemaking was even better than all the times before. It was slower, yet, more intense, almost desperate. Later, Kerry would look back and wonder why there had been that urgent sense of desperation. And she would wonder if it had been a premonition. That somehow, deep inside the core of their souls, they'd known it would be the last time.
* * * * *
Feathery flakes of snow fell from an overcast sky as Kerry walked hand-in-hand with Mikhail through Gettysburg's Evergreen Cemetery. Although he didn't know a great deal about America's Civil War, he'd been enthusiastic about visiting the famous battlefield. Kerry, who'd never been particularly excited about history, was just happy to accompany him as he went from monument to marker, reading about the devastating three days of battle. And she was especially happy that it was snowing. Maybe the weather would delay Roger's arrival.
She'd called him from Dale's phone just after they'd finished the huge country breakfast the older woman had prepared for them. As Dale had suggested, Roger hadn't seemed surprised by her call. A man of few words, he'd listened to her brief explanation about Mikhail and had tersely told her to stay put, that he'd be up to get them right away. She'd had to bite her lip to stop herself from saying, “Don't hurry.” But even if he left right away―or sent someone right away―it was still a good two, maybe three hour drive from Occoquan, depending on traffic. And now, with the snow…who knew?
As Mikhail peered at an aged headstone, Kerry glanced beyond the fence at the white snow-covered landscape. Her heart lightened. Another night, she thought. Just one more night with Mikhail before we have to go back to the real world.
Surely if it were snowing like this down in Virginia, Roger would postpone the trip. Oh, God! Why had she gone ahead and called him this morning? She hadn't wanted to. Picking up the phone and dialing his number had been harder than she'd ever expected it to be. Especially when her brain was shrieking “give us another week together, just one more week.” But common sense reminded her that Mikhail would be safer with Roger. She couldn't sacrifice his safety for her own selfish desires.
She felt his gloved hand squeeze hers, and turned to look at him. Her heart contracted at the softness in his eyes.
“Do not look so sad, Kerry,” he said. “It will all work out.” But his face was somber, too, and she knew his words were as much to convince himself as to reassure her.
A shiver ran through her, and she knew it wasn't the cold of the winter afternoon that caused it. A knot formed in her throat. “How do you know?” she whispered. Her chin quivered as she tried to hold back tears. Funny, how this time she was the one feeling as if the ax was about to fall.
Mikhail turned to her, placing his hands on the shoulders of her parka, and peered into her eyes. “Because…I have reason now…more than ever…to make life in America. It will work out. Believe this, Kerry.” His hands tightened on her. “I do. I must.”
He bent his head, his mouth claiming hers in a warm, head-rushing kiss. Kerry closed her eyes, drinking in his heat, the intoxicating scent of him as she returned his kiss, allowing it to drive out the demons of uncertainty from her chaotic mind. When she found the strength to draw away from him, she was trembling. Despite the frigid, wood smoke-scented air and the pelt of wet snowflakes on her face, her skin felt flushed as if she'd just stepped out of a sauna.
“Let's go back to the inn,” she said breathlessly, noting the heightened color on Mikhail's high cheekbones. “Maybe there's time before…”
Her words were drowned out by the beat of helicopter blades in the overcast sky above them. Alarm flickered in Mikhail's eyes as he looked up. Kerry knew what he was thinking because she was thinking it, too.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head in denial. “He wouldn't…”
But she knew he would. Of course, he would. Roger never did anything by halves.
Two helicopters emerged from the gray-white sky, flying in close formation over the snow-laden trees of the battlefield. Kerry and Mikhail watched as they disappeared from sight toward the northeast. Gradually, the whomp-whomp of their blades faded into silence.
Kerry looked back at Mikhail, her heart in her throat. “Maybe it's not…” she whispered through dry lips.
Mikhail didn't respond, but only gazed back at her with desolate eyes.
* * * * *
The helicopters were parked on a relatively flat knoll near the parking lot of the Mount Carmel Inn. Kerry's hands, despite the warm leather gloves she wore, were ice cold as she parked the Volvo. She didn't know anything about flying helicopters, but she bet it took a great deal of skill to land two of them on the top of a mountain in a snowstorm. Not that it had turned out to be much of a snowstorm, she thought, as she turned off the ignition. Even the weather had turned against them. The snow had stopped shortly after the helicopters had flown over.
She felt Mikhail's eyes upon her, but as she turned to look at him, his gaze shifted to the inn. She followed it, stiffening at the sight of four men standing on the front porch. One of them she recognized as her dour-faced stepbrother, Roger Ellery. She hadn't seen him in years, but she knew it was him all the same. He stood in a peculiar, hunched-shouldered stance, and even from a distance, she could feel his sharp, eagle-like eyes piercing into her.
For a moment, she sat still, her hands grasping the steering wheel, unable to move a muscle to open the door. Everything was about to change for them; she knew that with a certainty that left her paralyzed. Mikhail's stark face told her he knew it, too. She looked at him, knowing the desperation she felt must be showing on her face. There were so many things she wanted to say to him, but their time had run out. The men were making their way down the steps and heading toward them.
“Mikhail!” She grabbed his hand.
He clutched it, squeezing. “Be strong, angel moy.” Urgency threaded his voice. “We will get through this.” He glanced through the window and saw the advancing men. Turning back to Kerry, he clasped her head between his hands and gave her a hard, earnest kiss.
Tears burned behind his lids as he felt her body respond. Finally, he broke the kiss and drew away, his eyes holding hers. “Remember,” he said, just as the men reached the car, two on her side, two on his.
“What?” Kerry asked, eyes wide.
Mikhail ignored the men standing silently outside the Volvo, his hands tight on her shoulders. “Remember,” he said slowly. “This Estonian loves you.”
Kerry stared back at him, and something like panic flared in her eyes. Say it, he silently urged her. Tell me you feel the same way. I know you do, but I need to hear it.
One of the men knocked on the window on Kerry’s side. His face was grim. Mikhail held Kerry’s gaze, willing her to speak. But she turned away, her bottom lip trembling, and the moment was gone.

* * * * *
At five-foot-eight with a wiry, muscular build, Roger Ellery looked exactly like what Kerry thought a CIA officer should look like, square-jawed, cold-eyed and conservative. He didn't waste time with small talk but politely requested they get their stuff together and prepare to depart. Kerry thought she detected an undercurrent of annoyance in his cultured Virginia accent. She didn't know if it was because they hadn't been here when he'd arrived, or if it was because she'd involved him in the situation in the first place.
In the foyer of the inn, Dale gave Kerry a brief hug, and whispered, “Good luck, sweetie. Please keep in touch.”
Kerry drew away from her, and looked over at Mikhail a few feet away. His expression was implacable, but his eyes revealed anguish, and something more. Dread. Picking up on his vibrations, Kerry felt alarm skitter through her. Did he know something she didn't?
A moment later, she understood. The six of them left the inn, two of the blank-faced men with Mikhail, and Roger and the fourth man with Kerry. As the two men ushered her toward a helicopter, Kerry, in a flash of panic, realized what was happening. She stopped in her tracks and whirled around.
“No! We want to go together!”
The men on each side of Mikhail―bodyguards or prison guards? ―were taking him to one of the helicopters―not the one Roger was directing her to. Mikhail looked over his shoulder at her, his expression bleak, but resigned. He'd known, she realized. From the very beginning, he’d known they'd be separated.
She took a step toward Mikhail, shaking off Roger's warning hand. “No!” she snarled at him. “This isn't part of the deal. He's all alone. He needs me.” She moved another step closer to Mikhail.
Roger's hand wrapped around her upper arm in an ironclad hold. “Your part in this is over, Kerry,” he said quietly.
Fury washed over her. How dare he? He wasn't going to tell her what to do. She struggled to pull away from him, but his hand tightened its grip. “Let me go, damn you! I want to go with Mikhail!”
“Impossible,” Roger said firmly. “They’re taking him somewhere to be debriefed, and you’re coming with me.”
“To my house in Occoquan. Sharon is anxious to see you.”
“But when will I see Mikhail again?”
Roger stared at her, and she was surprised to see something like pity in his brown eyes. “I can’t answer that right now.”
“Kerry, no,” Mikhail’s soft Russian accent cut in.
She looked at him. He shook his head, his eyes holding hers. “It will be okay. I will see you soon.”
Slowly, she nodded. She looked back at Roger. “You can let go of me now,” she said. “I'll be good.”
As she reached the helicopter, she looked over her shoulder for one more glimpse of Mikhail. He was just about to climb into his copter, but almost as if sensing her gaze, he looked back. Her heart spasmed at the sadness in his eyes, and she knew her own mirrored his. Her throat thickened. She swallowed, but the lump wouldn't budge.
When will I see you again?
Her eyes blurred. Oh, God! Why hadn’t she been able to tell him she loved him? Why was it so hard for her to say those words? Mikhail lifted a hand in farewell. Then he turned away and disappeared into the body of the helicopter.
A few moments later, Kerry was strapped into a seat of the other helicopter. It lifted off from the ground and gained altitude, moving south toward Maryland. She stared miserably out the window but saw nothing but gray clouds. No sign of the other copter. Just clouds as heavy with moisture as her heart was with sadness.
She wiped away the tear that rolled down her cheek and pretended not to be aware of Roger Ellery's scrutiny. “You’ve fallen for him, haven’t you? A Russian! Good God, Kerry. Aren't you smarter than that?”
Her chin lifted stubbornly. “He's Estonian.”
* * * * *
Kerry tried to wait through dinner before bombarding Roger with the question of the day. The same one she'd been asking for three days now. She knew that his wife, Sharon, had gone to a lot of trouble to prepare the perfectly grilled salmon with its delicate lemon-dill sauce accompanied by bite-sized roasted red potatoes and julienne carrots in a brown-sugar glaze.
She was sure the food was delicious―it was obvious Sharon loved to cook―but it might as well have been dry rice cakes for all Kerry tasted it. What was happening to Mikhail? Where had they taken him?
To a safe house, Roger had tersely replied that first day in response to her question. She, on the other hand, had been relegated here to his appropriately upscale Occoquan home, lavishly decorated with contemporary elegance by the multi-talented Sharon, an interior decorator in high demand by the Washington DC area's wealthier clientele.
It was a gorgeous old Victorian house on a hill overlooking the town and the river below, and every room displayed Sharon's warm personality. Kerry glanced around the formal dining room at walls covered in dramatic rose silk and adorned with exquisite art that certainly wasn’t purchased at the local Kohl’s. The burnished mahogany table at which they were seated rested on a plush rose and black Oriental rug. Above the table hung the most elaborate crystal chandelier Kerry had ever seen that wasn't in a five-star hotel.
Apparently, Sharon and Roger were doing well financially. But then, again, she reminded herself, Roger's dad―her stepfather, if you wanted to be technical―was wealthy, so maybe Roger reaped the benefits of some kind of generous trust fund. After all, that's why Jana had married Erich. She'd taken one look at the British-born, San Diego psychologist, and cash registers started ca-chinging in her little gold digger brain. It didn't take a genius to figure out why she'd left Dad as soon as he'd turned down all those endorsement deals after winning Olympic gold, opting instead to join Greenpeace. Poor naive Dad. He’d really believed Jana would put up with that?
“Kerry, you're not eating,” Sharon Ellery said in her soft southern accent, her perfectly shaped brows furrowed. “Don't tell me you don't like salmon?”
Kerry looked across the table at Roger's wife, a petite woman considerably younger than the forty-five year old Roger―about thirty-five, Kerry guessed. Sharon had the good looks of a former sorority girl with shining honey-brown hair and doe-like brown eyes. “It's very good, Sharon. It's just that…I don't have much of an appetite tonight.” Kerry shot Roger a dark look. He either didn't notice or pretended not to, shoveling a forkful of tender pink salmon into his mouth.
“Perfectly understandable,” Sharon said with a sympathetic smile. “You've had an exciting week, haven't you? And you're quite the celebrity, too. I'm surprised we don't have a contingent of reporters camping out on our front lawn trying to get a statement from you.”
“It's just a matter of time,” Roger said, shooting Kerry a grim look. “That's why I don't want you to go out.”
Kerry bristled. “It sounds like I don’t have a choice.” She didn’t much like being treated like a prisoner. Or being ordered around.
“Just trying to protect you,” he said.
“What's a celebrity, Mama?” piped up five-year-old Michelle, her brown eyes bright with curiosity as she clumsily tried to spread butter on a sourdough roll.
Sharon reached over and attempted to take the roll from her daughter. “Let me help, Shelly.”
“No!” the little girl screeched, dive-bombing the roll out of her mother's reach. “I can do it!”
Kerry winced. Her niece's siren-like shriek had gone through her head like a machete blow. Maybe I'll re-think that having kids thing. Especially if I want to keep healthy eardrums. It would be a bitch to go through life and not be able to hear Mr. Mister singing “Broken Wings.” For some reason, every time she heard that sexy ballad, it immediately brought an image of Mikhail to mind. She smiled dreamily. On second thought… she and Mikhail would make gorgeous kids.
Sharon relinquished the roll with a sigh. “Well, you're making a mess of it. A celebrity is someone in the public eye, honey. Remember, I showed you your Aunt Kerry's picture in the newspaper? That makes her a celebrity. Then again…” Sharon smiled across the table at Kerry. “Being a figure skater, I guess you were already one.”
Michelle paused in buttering her roll and looked up at Kerry with renewed interest. “So what did you do to get in the paper?” she asked. “You didn't win a gold medal. I know that.”
Kerry forced a smile at her niece, trying to think of an appropriate response. Precocious little brat, wasn't she? After demolishing half the stick, Michelle finally decided she had enough butter on her roll and crammed the whole mess into her pretty little mouth, then stared at Kerry, chewing thoughtfully. Kerry suddenly had the crazy feeling that she was the child, and Michelle the authority figure.
“Honey, that was very rude,” Sharon said with an indulgent frown. “Your Aunt Kerry has actually done a very brave thing. She helped a man get out of a horrible country, and now, your daddy is going to find a way for him to stay here in the USA.”
Roger swallowed a sip of wine and gave his wife an uneasy look. “Don't tell her that, Sharon. I don't have anything to do with whether Kozlof gets asylum or not. It's not up to me.”
Sharon's perfectly plucked brown eyebrows puckered. “But can't you use your influence to help him? I thought―”
“Of course I’ll do what I can, but like I said, it’s just not up to me.”
Kerry looked at him. Did he know more than he was letting on?
He gazed down at his plate, avoiding her eyes. A flutter of disquiet went through her.
“Ready for coffee and dessert?” Sharon pushed back her chair and stood. Moving with elegance and grace, she disappeared into the kitchen.
This was only the second time Kerry had met Roger's wife. The first time had been at their wedding seven years ago. In a misguided attempt to try to establish some kind of relationship with Jana, Kerry had gone back to San Diego for the wedding, but the weekend had been a total waste of time. Jana had been so caught up in the “society wedding of the year” that Kerry might as well have been invisible for all the attention she'd received from her mother. She'd been stupid to even try. Jana would never change. Something would always come before her daughter.
Kerry took a sip of water and frowned at Roger. “So, Roger, when, exactly, am I going to get to see Mikhail?”
He put down his wine glass and looked at her. “I don’t know, Kerry. If I did, I’d tell you.”
He was telling the truth, Kerry realized. And her disquiet turned to fear.
* * * * *
Sean paused in front of the pretty first-class flight attendant and extended his hand, giving her a lazy smile that sent the blood rushing to her 4th of July and apple pie Southern Belle features.
“Grand flight,” he said, deliberately intensifying his brogue as he squeezed her hand. American women loved Irish accents. “And, indeed, it was such a pleasure conversing with a beautiful, intelligent woman like yourself.”
The girl practically shuddered in delight at his compliment. “Thank you, Mr. O'Flanagan,” she said in a syrupy southern drawl.
He figured her undies were soaked by now. The long flight from Salt Lake City would've been unbearable if he hadn't entertained himself by seeing just how quickly he could get the girl hot for him simply by using his eloquent voice. He knew if he'd really poured on the charm, he probably could've boffed her in the lavatory, but he'd had no desire to take things that far. He was a family man at heart, and Elena was his family. No matter how comely the women were, he didn't intend to be unfaithful to his one true love.
But flirting, now, that was a different matter all together.
The flight attendant simpered up at him. “How long are you going to be in Washington, Mr. O'Flanagan?”
He shrugged. “Just a few days at the most. I have some business interests to attend to.”
“Well, I have a layover tonight,” she said, her china-blue eyes hopeful. “If you like, I could show you around the city?”
For a moment, he visualized rolling around on the sheets with the saucy redhead. A tantalizing idea, but…no.
He put on a regretful face. “Oh, love, that would be grand, but I'm afraid my night is already booked. Otherwise…”
Disappointment flared in her eyes, but apparently she was a quick thinker, because she reached into her pocket and handed him a business card. “Call me sometime. I fly in and out of Seattle all the time.”
He smiled. He'd told her he was a businessman based out of Seattle, amused at the way her eyes had lit up when he added that he'd probably be flying this trip off and on for the next few months. “I'll certainly do that. Bye, now.”
He stepped off the plane and headed down the corridor leading to the Dulles terminal, whistling a pop song by that John Mayer kid. It was being played to death on American radio stations, and he couldn't get the bloody tune out of his mind. Surprising, really, that he was in such a good mood. Especially after reading The Irish Times about a drug bust at Dublin Airport that had ended up with the capture of one of his men. That meant over 60,000 Euros down the drain, for fuck’s sake! Ah well, easy come, easy go. For every IRA man who got picked up for drug-running, there were a dozen more to take his place. Anyway, right now, Sean had problems closer to home.
Fagan had screwed up again, but admittedly, this time it hadn't been his fault. Not that Sean was going to assure him of that. Better to let him think he was in trouble because the CIA had outsmarted them all and found Kozlof and the girl first. But Sean had a plan.
It was a gamble, of course, but being a student of human nature, Sean felt like the odds were on his side. Kozlof and the pretty American ice dancer had been on the lam for almost a week, in close quarters, presumably, during those cold winter nights driving across America's heartland. Common sense told him that if you put a good-looking male who didn't appear to have any homosexual tendencies with a luscious young female like Kerry Niles, there was bound to be some sexual sparks ignited. And from what he'd heard about Mikhail Kozlof, he was a man of integrity even if he had something of a reputation as a “ladies' man.” Whether he felt just sexual attraction or a genuine caring for a woman, he would have an emotional investment in the woman's future.
Sowhat if that woman's future was threatened?
Smiling, Sean stepped out of the terminal into the brutal March wind. His timing was perfect because several Washington Flyer cabs were waiting for passengers along the curb. He strode to one, opened the back door and slid in.
“The town of Occoquan, please,” he said to the driver, his voice cheerful. Then he sat back and relaxed as the cab pulled into the stream of traffic heading away from the airport.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tango's Edge - Chapter 15

Chapter 15

The weathered stone house nestling in the snow-covered trees at the summit of Mount Carmel looked like a postcard of the ultimate winter getaway. It looked like…
Kerry drew in a sharp breath, braking gently on the snow-packed winding road, as the thought went through her mind. It looked like a honeymooner's paradise. The perfect place for a getaway, a place to while away long, lazy afternoons making slow, sweet love.
Her hand trembled on the steering wheel as she pulled up next to a navy BMW with Maryland tags. There were several other expensive cars in the parking lot, some from as far away as New York. Apparently, Dale was doing well for herself. Kerry glanced at Mikhail, her cheeks still burning from her amorous thoughts.
“Well, this is it. Mount Carmel Inn. What do you think?”
Soft floodlights illuminated the stone house and its protective boundary of snow-powdered trees. The stone walkway leading from the small parking lot to the steps had been cleared and salted. Carriage lights framing the burnished oak door with etched glass sidelights beamed a cheerful wintry welcome as did the flickering candles set in crystal blocks lining the steps to the porch. Frozen luminaries, Kerry recognized. She and Grandma Vive had made similar ice candles in Utah that had lasted all winter long. Dale had certainly used her Finnish heritage to turn this place into a winter wonderland.
“Is very beautiful,” Mikhail said quietly, staring at the inn. “Looks like perfect place to…” He turned his head, his eyes finding hers. “…love you.”
Kerry gasped, her gaze darting away in confusion. Flustered by his directness, she turned off the ignition and reached for her purse on the back seat. She tried to sound casual, but the catch in her voice gave her away. “I haven't seen Dale in years, and I know she'll have a million things to talk about.”
He nodded and reached for the door handle. “I am patient man.”
She got out of the car and pulled on her coat for protection against the biting wind. A few flurries drifted through the night air. The radio station they'd picked up in Harrisburg had called for clear weather through the next few days, but maybe up here in the higher altitude, they would get a little snow.
Good, Kerry thought. Getting snowed in up here with Mikhail wouldn't be a devastating problem. Funny, how a few hours ago, she'd half-convinced herself she was traveling with a desperate Russian spy. What had she been smoking?
The front door of the house opened as they made their way up the walk, and a slim woman with a grayish-blond bob called out an excited welcome. Earlier, Kerry had called Dale from a pay phone in Harrisburg, asking if they could stop by. Her father's former fiancée had been thrilled, exclaiming that by incredible good fortune, she'd had a cancellation just that morning, and a suite was available. Apparently, with nearby Ski Liberty doing a brisk business in an especially snowy winter, the Mount Carmel Inn had been packed to capacity all season long.
An omen, Kerry had thought, as she hung up the phone. She was through fighting her attraction to Mikhail. Obviously, whatever was going to happen between them was meant to be. And now, even the fates were giving their approval.
“Kerry! It's so good to see you!” Beaming, Dale Tuomas stepped gingerly out onto the front porch. “Careful, now, both of you. It's icy.”
Fresh-cut pine boughs carpeted the entrance to the house, a sight familiar to Kerry from her early years in Utah with her father and grandparents―a Finnish tradition that simultaneously welcomed visitors into a home while keeping slush from snowy boots out. Would Dale also have cozy felt boots waiting inside the foyer for guests to change into upon entering? Grandma Vive kept a supply of them handy throughout the winter.
Kerry walked up the steps, past the flickering luminaries, feeling butterflies jumping in her stomach. It was silly, but she couldn't stop thinking about how the pre-teen Kerry had treated this lovely woman. Oh, she hadn't been obnoxious―not the way she'd been with Jana when she'd first moved to San Diego. But she'd never exactly welcomed Dale into their lives. She'd been too threatened by her, and by her father's obvious love for the woman.
“Hi, Dale.” Kerry smiled at her, but made no move to touch her. “Thanks for letting us come by.”
Dale's gentle blue eyes swept over her. “You're all grown up! Come here.” The woman reached out and enveloped Kerry in a warm embrace. “Oh, I'm so glad you're here.”
At first, Kerry was startled, but breathing in her familiar scent of lavender and thyme, she relaxed into Dale's hug as a memory washed over her. Another time when she had been the one embracing Dale. The day of her father's funeral. Kerry had found her sobbing quietly in Grandma Vive's kitchen, and without hesitation, she'd gone to her and wrapped her arms around the woman's willowy waist.
“It's okay,” she'd murmured. “We'll get through this together.”
And that had been her first real overture to the woman who'd wanted to come into her life and be a mother to her. Too late, Kerry thought now as she hugged the older woman tightly, swallowing a marble-sized lump that had formed in her throat. She'd accepted her too late.
Dale finally released her, laughing softly. She turned to Mikhail who stood just behind Kerry, and extended a slim hand adorned with a glittering sapphire ring. “Hello. I'm Dale Tuomas. Welcome to Mount Carmel Inn.”
Kerry cleared her throat. “Dale, this is…my friend, Mikhail. I told you about him on the phone.”
Dale's eyes scanned Mikhail, and Kerry immediately realized they would pull nothing over on her. Not that she'd intended to do that. She'd planned to tell Dale everything, but she could see by the appraising look on the woman's face that it wouldn't be necessary.
Mikhail shook Dale's hand, murmuring a greeting.
“Well, come on.” Dale smiled. “Let's get in out of the cold. Have you two eaten? I just started a pot of homemade potato soup, and I made fresh bread today.”
“Sounds heavenly,” Kerry said, following Dale into a spacious pine-floored foyer.
The interior of the inn looked exactly how Kerry would've expected. It spoke of Dale's Finnish heritage with clean, fresh lines, potted plants and personal touches of elegance and comfort throughout. Colors of cobalt blue and pristine white predominated, accented with natural fabrics and soft sheepskin rugs.
“Oh, but first, let's get you situated in your suite.” Dale took a key from a pine writing desk on one side of the foyer. “You'll probably want to shower before dinner. But…” Her high cheekbones grew rosy as a thought occurred to her. She looked from Kerry to Mikhail. “I told you on the phone there's only one available suite. Ordinarily, I would have a spare bedroom to put you up in, but they've got this special thing going on at Ski Liberty…”
Kerry met her gaze. “No problem, Dale. We'll make do.”
Her smile returned. “Okay, then. Your suite is this way.”
Dale led them down an enclosed glass breezeway that led from the back of the house to a separate building. “I had this built on when business picked up a few years ago,” she said, her voice humming with pride. “I had people on a six month waiting list to get into the inn. Can you believe that?” She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at them. “Word of mouth really got around. I've had a lot of politicians from Washington and…” She winked. “A few celebrities. And now, I have you two. Anyway, I decided to build on this special suite. It's the most luxurious of all of them. Here we are―the Summit Suite.”
She unlocked the door, and stepped aside so Kerry and Mikhail could enter. Kerry stepped into the living room, and caught her breath. A huge stone fireplace immediately drew her gaze, taking up the expanse of one wall, a cheerfully blazing fire in its grate. A cluster of cobalt velour chairs and an L-shaped white sofa were positioned around it for maximum enjoyment. In front of the sofa, a glass coffee table held a beautifully bound book about Gettysburg and a two-pound box of Godiva chocolates. Kerry immediately decided that Mikhail could enjoy the book, and she'd take care of the chocolate. But then remembering his fondness for Ding Dongs, she resigned herself to sharing.
On the other side of the room, a breakfast bar separated the living room from a full-sized kitchen. A basket of fruit and nuts rested on its sea-green marbled counter top.
“I don't expect you'll be cooking,” Dale said, moving into the kitchen and opening cabinets. “But just in case, you'll find the cabinets well stocked with staples. Coffee, hot chocolate, popcorn. Of course, I'll be bringing breakfast to you at whatever time you choose tomorrow morning. Just fill out this little card with what you want, and leave it on the door handle. Now, let me show you the bedrooms.” She headed down a hallway, gesturing for them to follow. “There are three bedrooms in this suite. We often get a lot of families who come for a week of skiing.”
Kerry glanced back at Mikhail, and saw the amused look on his face. She blushed, reading his mind.
We will only be using one bedroom.
“Oh, this is the bathroom.” Dale paused at a door on the left. “We have a Jacuzzi, candles, bath oils, and music is piped in from the stereo in the living room. And we have a separate shower, of course.” She smiled. “I imagine you'll be fighting over that in a few minutes. Car trips are so tiring, aren't they?” She turned and headed back down the hall.
Kerry felt Mikhail's hand on her shoulder, and a second later, the warm air of his breath as his mouth dipped toward her ear. “No need to fight,” he whispered. “We can always shower together.”
A delicious shiver snaked up her back. “Behave yourself,” she said under her breath, flashing him an admonishing frown. He gave her a slow, suggestive smile. The smoldering look in his eyes turned her knees to mush. “I mean it, Mikhail!”
“The master bedroom,” Dale said, standing at the threshold of the room straight ahead.
Kerry stepped inside, her eyes widening. “Oh, Dale! It's gorgeous!”
A Scandinavian pine king-sized bed dominated the room, its iron-framed canopy draped with white lace. Beside the bed on a matching nightstand awaited a chilling bottle of wine in a silver ice bucket. A floor-to-ceiling pine armoire held court adjacent to the bed, and on the other side of the spacious room, two soft chairs cuddled around another stone fireplace, a smaller replica of the one in the family room. A fire was burning in this grate, as well.
Dale saw Kerry looking at the fire, and smiled. “I know. I love the smell of wood fire, too, but it's just too inconvenient for guests. I had the fireplaces changed over to gas after the first year of business. It was an easy decision to make after one of the guests practically burned down the whole place.” She clapped her hands together and grinned. “Well, that's the two-dollar tour. Tell you what, you two get settled in. Shower, take a nap…whatever. And I'll go finish dinner. Eight o'clock, okay? I don't usually serve dinner to my guests, but then, I don't consider you guests, but family. Will that be enough time for you?”
“Sure, that'll be fine.” Kerry didn't have to look at her watch to know it was pretty close to six-thirty. “Thanks, Dale. It's a beautiful place.”
“Yes,” Mikhail said, giving Dale a warm smile. “Is lovely…just like our hostess.”
Dale beamed, and her color heightened. She glanced from Mikhail to Kerry. “I'm beginning to understand how he talked you into helping him.”
A startled look crossed Mikhail's face, and Kerry almost burst out laughing. Apparently, he'd had no idea that Dale had figured out who he was. She looked back at the older woman, her lips twitching. “Yeah, if I didn't know better, I'd swear he was Irish, considering how good he is at talking blarney.”
Dale shook her head wryly. “Reminds me of someone I used to know.” She turned to go, and it wasn't until she’d stepped out of the room that Kerry realized she'd been referring to her father. It had never occurred to her before, but Dad had possessed a charisma very much like Mikhail's. Was that why she felt so close to him?
“See you at eight,” Dale called out as she opened the entry door. It closed behind her.
Kerry stood in the hallway, staring after her, and then she sensed Mikhail's approach. A moment later, his arms curled around her waist. He drew her against his hard, muscled body, and she caught her breath at the swell of his erection against the small of her back. His mouth trailed along the length of her neck. “I vote for…whatever,” he murmured.
Heat pooled deep in her belly at the touch of his tongue against her skin. She closed her eyes and leaned into him. His hands molded against her abdomen, stroking.
“Mmmm…what do you mean…whatever?”
His mouth drew away from her neck momentarily. “Dale’s suggestions.” He paused to nip at her throat. “Shower.” Another soft stroke of his tongue. “Nap.” He lapped again. “Whatever.” The tip of his tongue curled into the shell-like opening of her ear. “I like whatever.”
Liquid fire shot through her bloodstream, and Kerry shivered. With an effort, she drew away from him, and turned around to cup his face in her hands. “Stop this right now!”
His blue eyes gazed back at her, guileless. “Stop?”
“Yes, stop. We have…uh…” She lifted her hand to peer at her watch. “Exactly…an hour and thirty-five minutes before dinner. We need to bring in our stuff, shower…” She sniffed, and made a disgusted face. “God! I can't believe you want to make love to me when I smell like this. Has it been that long, Mikhail?”
“You smell like fresh daisies,” he protested, reaching for her again.
She backed away. “No! Later, Mikhail. Trust me, you'll be glad we waited.”
He looked doubtful, but then sighed. “If you say so. I will get luggage.”
“Good.” She smiled at him. “I'll go ahead and jump in the shower. Can you bring my suitcase into the bathroom? And no peeking, okay?”
He gave her an affronted look. “Do I look like kind of man who would resort to peeking?”
She laughed, and gave his blond head a ruffle with her fingertips. “Yeah, as a matter-of-fact, you do.”
Mikhail's heart dipped as she gave him a saucy smile and disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. For a long moment, he stared at the closed door, his heart bumping. The realization had come out of nowhere, simultaneous with Kerry's come-hither smile, and it had jagged through him like a lightning bolt.
He was in love with her.
* * * * *
Kerry stepped into Dale's kitchen, wearing her oldest pair of faded jeans and a thick off-white turtleneck sweater. Her hair was still damp from the shower, and because she hadn't wanted to take the time to blow-dry it, she'd French-braided it and secured it with an elastic band. She was anxious to talk to Dale one-on-one. There were so many things she wanted to say.
The kitchen smelled heavenly with the aroma of baking bread, brewing coffee and whatever was cooking on the stove. Potato soup, wasn’t it? The slim blond woman stood at the stove, stirring chopped carrots into a cast-iron Dutch oven. She looked good, Kerry thought. Life must've treated her well in the seventeen years since she'd last seen her. She must be, what? Close to fifty now, Kerry guessed, yet her trim, athletic body could pass for a woman of thirty. Oh, how Dad must've loved her. Now that Kerry could look at it without the jealous mind of a twelve-year-old, she realized what a great match Dale had been for her father. Like him, she came from tough Finnish stock, and loved the outdoors, especially when it came to winter and all the snow activities that came with it. She skied, almost as well as Dad had, and like him, loved snow-shoeing and ice fishing. They'd gotten along so well.
A wave of sadness washed over Kerry. Why had she never seen that? Poor Dad. He'd had such a bad marriage with Jana. He'd so deserved a woman like Dale. Why had things turned out the way they had?
Dale looked up and smiled. “Oh, hi. You look nice and fresh.” Her brow furrowed. “What's wrong, Kerry? Why such a sad look on your face?”
Kerry shook her head and spoke candidly. “I was just wishing I'd been nicer to you all those years ago.”
Dale wiped her hands on a towel hanging on the stove, and then shook her head. “Oh, honey. You were just a kid afraid of changes. I knew that.” She closed the distance between them, and took Kerry into her arms. “I had no doubt I'd get you to love me. All I needed was time.”
Tears clogged Kerry's throat as she clung to Dale, remembering that horrible evening the two of them had waited in the Whistler Lodge for news of her father. And then, it had come, and their lives had been shattered. “And time was the one thing we didn't have,” Kerry said, her voice breaking.
Dale stroked her braid a moment, and then released her. Tears shimmered in her blue eyes. “No. But I've never regretted a moment I spent with Kell. He was the love of my life.”
“I know.”
Dale turned back to the counter. “I just made a pot of coffee. You want a cup?”
“That would be awesome.” She took a deep breath, trying to gain control of her tremulous emotions, and slid onto a stool at the breakfast bar. She watched as Dale took two Dutch blue ceramic mugs from the cabinet. “So, Dale, you never got married in all these years?”
Dale glanced over at her and smiled, the laugh lines around her eyes deepening. “I almost did a few years ago.” She poured steaming coffee into the mugs. Its rich, Colombian aroma drifted through the air, causing Kerry's stomach to rumble with anticipation. She was starving! How long had it been since she'd had that Wendy's cheeseburger?
“What happened?” Kerry asked as Dale placed a mug in front of her and pointed out a matching ceramic sugar bowl on a Lazy Susan.
Dale shrugged and took a cream pitcher out of the refrigerator. “Oh, I was dating this guy for a while, and he wanted to get married, but…you want cream?” At Kerry's nod, she placed the creamer on the counter, and went on, “When it came right down to it, I couldn't do it. I had my life, this place, the solitude. And I decided…” She shrugged. “I was happy with the way things were. Why change it?” She gave a sad smile and positioned herself on the stool next to Kerry. “Well, he didn't see things the same way, and eventually, he moved on. I couldn't blame him.” She took a sip of coffee, then met Kerry's gaze. “It's just hard, you know. I kept comparing him to Kell, and he came up wanting.” Her lips twisted in a wry smile. “I guess a psychiatrist would have a field day with that, huh?”
“Oh, I'm thinking they've probably heard it all before,” Kerry said lightly.
Dale set down her coffee mug and turned to her. “So, whatever made you go on the run with your good-looking Russian? It's been all over the news. What are your plans?”
Kerry laughed. “One question at a time. I don't really know why I did it. Let's just say he's very convincing.”
Dale's eyes danced. “I'll bet he is.”
Kerry felt her cheeks warm at the innuendo in Dale's voice. Was it so obvious she was attracted to him? Well, duh! Could it be because she was panting after him like a love-starved puppy?
“As for our plans, we're heading to my step-brother's house in Occoquan, Virginia, and then, I guess he'll take Mikhail into CIA Headquarters for…what is it…debriefing? It's been quite an adventure, I'll say that. We almost got caught in Colorado by a Russian goon and his Irish partner, but managed to get away.”
Dale's gaze sharpened, a glimmer of worry appearing in her eyes. “Just that one close call? People like that don't usually give up.”
Kerry's brow puckered as she stared down into her coffee mug. “I know. I've been thinking about that, too. We haven't seen a sign of anyone tracking us since then. We've been really watchful, too. That is weird, isn't it?”
A buzzer went off on the stove, and Dale slid off the stool. She turned it off, and then opened the refrigerator door to pull out a half-gallon of milk. Frowning, she poured some into the cast-iron pot on the stove, stirring. She covered the pot again and placed the wooden spoon on a plate near the burner.
“My guess is…they're waiting for you in Occoquan,” she said slowly, looking up and meeting her gaze.
Kerry's heart lurched.
“They've probably figured out where you're headed and they plan to get to you before you can get to your step-brother.”
Kerry felt the blood drain from her face. Of course! Dale was right. That was exactly what they were going to do.
“I can't let them get to Mikhail, Dale,” she said quietly. “What are we going to do?”
Dale smiled, and turned back to the refrigerator. She brought out a head of lettuce and fixings for salad. “That's easy enough. We'll simply have your stepbrother come to you. I'm sure he's been alerted to the situation, and is expecting you. We'll simply call him, and have him drive up here and get you.” She rinsed the lettuce under running water and placed it into a spinner. Then she looked up and gave Kerry a radiant smile, her eyes misted with tears. “I'm so glad you found the love of your life, Kerry.”
* * * * *
“After you, angel moy.” Mikhail stepped back from the door of their suite and smiled.
Kerry's heart, which was already beating about a thousand times faster than usual, wrenched up a notch. Great, she thought. She'd have a heart attack at the tender age of twenty-eight, and her plans for a sensuous evening featuring sweet, slow love-making with Mikhail would be ruined.
It had been tough getting through dinner, carrying on polite conversation with Dale while feeling Mikhail's burning gaze upon her, and knowing what they planned to do once they were back in their suite. Hard to concentrate, to say the least. And of course, Dale knew exactly what was going on, except that Kerry had a feeling she thought they'd been sleeping together for some time. If their speed at getting through dinner, and then dessert and coffee, was a puzzlement to her, she didn't let it show.
By the time they excused themselves, it was nine-thirty. Much to Mikhail's frustration, which he tried, and mostly succeeded at hiding, Kerry had insisted on helping Dale with the dishes. Finally, after saying goodnight, she'd followed Mikhail back to their room―at a pace faster than she'd ever seen him move.
She stepped past him into the living room of the suite, and the door closed behind her. Pressing a hand over her pounding heart, she took a deep breath and released it slowly. This was so silly! She felt like a timid virgin in a Victorian novel, about to be ravished by a rakish highwayman. One that was gorgeous, and ultimately heroic, of course. But really! She'd been around the block a few times. Her affair with Joshua had stripped her of all innocence years ago. So, why did she feel something uncomfortably close to…?
She swallowed hard, and clutched a hand to her suddenly unsettled tummy.
No, not fear. Nerves. But sometimes, the two emotions were very close cousins, and damned if they didn't have the same result on her equilibrium.
The skin on her arms tingled as she felt Mikhail's approach behind her. She turned abruptly, and drew in a sharp breath at the smoldering look on his face. His eyes roved over her, bluer than ever, heated to a slow simmer.
He placed his hands on her shoulders and gazed down at her. “Day has been long, yes?”
Kerry tried, but couldn't speak. Her heart was still pounding like a kettledrum, and her stomach felt like it was going to make her the star attraction in a Humiliate Kerry Show. Mikhail's eyes focused on her lips, and as his head lowered for the kiss, she brought her fingers up to cover his mouth.
He paused, eyes questioning.
“Onions,” Kerry said. “Dale had onions in her potato soup.” She breathed air onto her palm, sniffed, and then faked a cringe. “Yep. Onions. I've got to go brush my teeth first…and when I'm done, you might want to do it, too.” She whirled around and hurried down the hall to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
Leaning against it, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Idiot, she thought. He probably thinks you're some kind of freak. And maybe you are. Cradling her tumultuous stomach, she took another deep, cleansing breath. Non-freaky people didn't get queasy at the thought of making love. But why now? This had never happened before. She liked sex. Always had. But this time, oh, God! This time, it was with Mikhail.
Another deep breath, and the butterflies in her tummy began to dissipate. Good. Maybe it was all in her head. She went to the sink and began to brush her teeth. A memory flitted through her mind. That other time they'd almost made love. She'd been brushing her teeth while he went for condoms. Why was it she hadn't had butterflies that night?
Because you weren't in love with him then.
She gasped and stared into the mirror. Her startled eyes stared back. Oh, God! It was true, wasn't it? She'd fallen head over heels for the man. No point in denying it any longer. She spit into the sink, grabbed a glass and rinsed out her mouth, still musing over this revelation.
She'd gone and done it now, hadn't she? Exactly what she'd told herself she couldn't, under any circumstances, do.
What a moron.
Shaking her head, she rinsed off the toothbrush and grabbed a tube of lipstick from her cosmetic bag. Color! That's what she needed. She looked as if she'd spent an afternoon at the blood bank. She smeared the lipstick on, and examined herself in the mirror. Better, but her face still looked only slightly healthier than an anemic albino. Maybe some blush would help.
Fifteen minutes later, she stepped out of the bathroom, her face completely made up―foundation, eye shadow, blush―the works.
“Mikhail?” She glanced around the living room, but it was empty.
“In here,” he called out from the bedroom.
Her brow furrowed. His voice sounded odd. There was an undercurrent of…something…in it. Anxiety? Maybe even fear?
Kerry headed down the hallway. She hoped Mikhail wasn't having an attack of nerves, too, or they'd never get this show on the road.
“Mikhail, what―?”
She stepped into the bedroom and stopped short, eyes widening.
“Please…” Mikhail spoke slowly and carefully. “Get…it…off…me?”
Kerry began to laugh. She couldn't help herself. It was the funniest thing she'd ever seen in her life. Mikhail lay in the bed, bare-chested, his body rigid with fear at the tiger-striped cat lying on his stomach. It, on the other hand, looked perfectly at ease, nonchalantly licking its paws.
Mikhail's eyes darted from the cat to Kerry, still standing in the doorway, giggling helplessly at the sight of a grown man terrorized by an adolescent kitten. “I'm sorry,” she mumbled. “It's just so…so…”
“Go away, cat,” Mikhail said, glaring. “Kerry, please! Take cat away.”
“Okay, okay.” Kerry went to the bed and grabbed the cat, which protested with an annoyed meow. “Ah, it's so cute!” She cradled the animal in her arms, stroking its soft belly. It peered up at her with golden eyes and stretched its mouth in a feline yawn. “How can you be scared of such a sweet little thing?” Kerry asked, scratching the cat's neck. A contented purr rumbled from its throat.
“Long story,” Mikhail said grumpily. “Please, take cat out.”
“Okay. I'll be right back.”
She deposited the cat outside the entry door, and it trotted off toward the main part of the house. She wondered when it had gotten into their suite. Probably when Mikhail had brought in their luggage. Dale had mentioned at dinner that she had a couple of cats, and now that she thought about it, at that very moment, Mikhail had looked as if he'd bit into something hideous. That could be a problem to their budding relationship, Kerry thought, considering that she was most definitely a cat person. She'd grown up with cats at Grandma Vive's, and had planned to get one for herself once she'd established a stable home. Typical. And now, she'd gone and fallen in love with a cat hater.
Oh, well. Too late now. Kerry headed down the hall toward the bedroom. Funny, she didn't feel nervous anymore. Nothing like laughter to drive away the pre-sex butterflies.
As she passed the bathroom, she saw the door was closed, and behind it, she heard the sound of running water. The shower, not the sink. She smiled. Poor Mikhail was trying to shower away cat residue. Somehow, she found that endearing.
In the bedroom, she stripped off her sweater, and then slid her jeans down her hips. She turned to the mirror and gave her body a critical scan. In anticipation of the night, she'd chosen to wear her lacy rose-colored bra and matching panties―attire appropriate for seduction. Reaching up, she released her hair from the French braid, and it tumbled to her shoulders in shining black ripples. She liked the way it gave her a hippie sort of look. But…she frowned…the make-up was all wrong. What had possessed her? She looked like she was auditioning to appear in Christina Aguilera’s “Moulin Rouge” video. With a groan of disgust, she reached for a tissue and began to rub off as much make-up as she could without water or make-up removal, which, of course, was in her toiletry bag in the bathroom with Mikhail. Oh, God! Maybe she should go back to the bathroom and wash her face after Mikhail got out. At this rate, Roger would be here before she and Mikhail made love. Except…
She grinned. She hadn't exactly called him yet. Tomorrow, she'd decided. Tonight would be for her and Mikhail, with no thoughts of anything else.
There. Her face looked almost normal now, except for the unnatural red of her lips. Potent dye, that stuff. Probably saturated with cancer-causing agents. She'd have to change brands. Surely one of those environmentally safe cosmetic companies made a shade similar to Wicked Devil Red. Then, again, maybe she should reconsider the shade, she thought, as she scrubbed at her lips with a tissue. This one definitely screamed out tart.
“Laskovaya moya…”
Kerry whipped around at the sound of the Russian phrase. And her breath left her body.
Mikhail stood in the doorway, totally nude. She stared, her heart tripping into overdrive. Totally unself-conscious, he watched her as she absorbed the beauty of his body―the toned, hair-roughened chest, the muscular biceps, the narrow waist and hips. Legs, strong and corded from years of skating and ballet, carpeted with golden hair. Her cheeks burned hot as her gaze swept over his groin. Natural blond, she saw. And most definitely aroused.
Apparently, that old wives' tale about big feet, big cock, was true.
Her temperature shot up another degree. She quickly averted her eyes, and turned to the mirror to fiddle with her hair.
Like a graceful panther, Mikhail crossed the room and stood behind her, not touching, but so close she could feel his body heat. He gazed over her shoulder into the mirror, his eyes meeting hers.
“You are most beautiful woman I've ever seen,” he said softly.
Still holding her gaze in the mirror, he reached out, and his fingertip skimmed over the freckles that dotted her nose and cheekbones. He smiled, and her heart dipped.
“I love your freckles,” he said, his Russian accent thicker than ever.
“I hated them as a kid,” she spoke breathlessly as his finger traveled down her face to her neck. “But I had a change of heart about them when I got older. I decided they were mine for better or worse, so I might as well accept them.”
He bent his head and planted a gentle kiss against her neck. A tremor ran through her. Her legs suddenly felt so weak, she was sure they were about to give out on her. His lips were the only part of his body making contact with hers, but his heat rolled over her, turning her blood to lava. He looked up, again meeting her eyes in the mirror. Then positioning his hands on her shoulders, he drew her bra straps down, and then followed the movement with his lips, kissing one shoulder along its length, then the other. Kerry's legs began to tremble more violently. Reaching both hands around, he unfastened the front closure of her bra, then parted the lacy material. For a moment, his eyes watched her face, and then moved down to her taut brown nipples. He gently drew the bra off her shoulders and let it drop.
Kerry drew in a ragged breath, watching him. His breathing was irregular, too, his eyes bright with desire. For a moment, he didn't move. Then finally, his big hands came around her and cupped her breasts. Her sharp intake of air broke the silence. She watched his hands, mesmerized by his long, artistic fingers. Silver glinted in the firelight―his pinkie ring she'd noticed that morning when he'd asked her to skate with him. He always wore it. Did it have some special significance for him? There was so much she needed to learn about this man who so captivated her.
His eyes met hers in the mirror. “I love your breasts, as well,” he murmured, his hands stroking her. “Ever since that night in hotel, I have been dreaming about your lovely breasts.”
He nestled against her, still caressing her, and now, she felt his rigid heat against the small of her back. She closed her eyes and arched her body against his. A ragged groan splintered from his throat.
Abruptly, he turned her in his arms, and grabbing a handful of her hair, he angled his mouth over hers. There was nothing subtle about his kiss. Her mouth opened under the onslaught of his tongue, her nails digging into the skin of his back. His erection prodded at her belly, insistent, urgent. Her head swam. She wanted him inside her now. She was frantic for him.
But Mikhail had other ideas. Breaking the kiss, he swept her up in his arms and carried her to the bed. His body covered hers, his hands roaming over her, touching her neck, throat, breasts, and tummy. It was as if he wanted to touch her all over, and all at once. Meanwhile, his mouth traveled its own seductive path. His tongue delved into her navel, and she writhed, her fingers entwined in his hair. He reached the lace edge of her bikini panties, and kissed his way along it―tender, wet kisses on her lower belly. His fingers explored the sensitive spot of tender flesh on her inner thighs.
“So sweet,” he murmured, raising his head slightly. “Just like I knew you would be.”
Kerry moaned and arched toward him, begging for him to touch her. She ached for him. Somehow reading her thoughts, he brushed his fingers over the damp crotch of her panties, and she flinched and cried out. Hooking his fingers on each side of the elastic, he drew the wisp of material down over her legs, and tossed it to the floor.
“Mikhail, please…” Kerry cried out, thrashing her head back and forth. She needed…she had to have…
He pulled her down on the bed and parted her legs. She felt his breath upon her swollen heat, and then, finally, his hard, wet tongue took her into the stratosphere.
Still quaking from her intense climax, he gathered her into his arms, and held her. After she was finally still, he cradled her face in his hands, and took her mouth in another long, soul-shattering kiss. Afterwards, she gazed into his eyes, her finger tracing the scar on his face from jaw to cheekbone.
“Oh, Mikhail,” she whispered. “I never dreamed…”
“It is exactly how I dreamed,” he said. He reached over to the bedside table and grabbed a rectangular packet. When had he put the condom there? He deftly opened the foil, and rolled the condom onto his stiff shaft. She caught her breath, her heart hammering. And just like that, her body was at a simmer again.
He moved over her, covering her body with his own, supporting his weight with his hands. His penis pressed against her pubic mound. “I do not want to hurt you,” he said softly. “But I am…so much…want…” He shook his head. “I will try to be gentle.”
Kerry grabbed a handful of his blond hair and nudged his head down so her mouth could take his in a succulent kiss. “I have…want, too,” she said, and smiled. She rotated her hips against him in a saucy invitation. Her smile widened. “Make fuck to me, Mikhail.”
“No,” he said, eyes solemn. “Not make fuck. Make love.”
He slowly entered her, and she gasped, closing her eyes in astonishment at the exquisite sensation that rivered through her. He didn't move for a moment, but just held motionless, allowing her to feel his fullness, his strength.
“Okay?” he asked, watching her.
She chewed her bottom lip, trying to hold back, to hold onto the rightness of the moment. “Yes.”
He began to move. He held her gaze, his hands smoothing back her hair as he loved her. Keeping a steady rhythm―sweet and slow―he dipped down to play with her lips, using his mouth and tongue. In between, he watched her, his eyes riveted on hers as he gauged where she was, what she wanted. And always, that slow, exquisite drive in ever increasing intensity.
Kerry was lost in his blue eyes, in the magic of their union, the rhythm and tempo and primal need. At the moment of her climax, Mikhail called out her name in a hoarse voice, and with one final powerful stroke, he shuddered in release. Kerry clung to him, gasping. Finally, he collapsed against her, his breath hot against her neck. She felt his heartbeat pounding, in synch with hers, and the lyrics from a U2 song swept through her mind. “Two hearts beat as one.” She smiled.
He lifted his head and gazed down at her. Her heart contracted at the tender look on his face. Cradling the sides of her head in his hands, he traced his thumbs over her brows, and then followed the caress with light kisses, first over her brows, down the bridge of her nose to finally settle with sure mastery on her lips. With a soft moan of surrender, she kissed him back. When their lips parted, Kerry gazed up at him, still intensely aware of him inside her.
“I don't want you to go,” she said softly.
His eyes glimmered with sadness. “I do not want to go.”
Her words, she knew, held a deeper meaning, but she wasn't sure what it was. Thoughts skated through her mind like passing clouds. He felt so good inside her, she didn't want him to go, but it was more than that. She didn't want him to go to Langley. Some weird sixth sense inside her warned that if she turned him over to Roger, he'd disappear out of her life, and she'd never see him again.
Slowly, Mikhail withdrew from her, and turning on his side, gathered her up against his heated, damp body. Her lips brushed the hollow of his throat, and she breathed in his spicy male scent. He tightened his arms around her, his hand moving sensuously down the small of her back. His lips brushed over her forehead in a delicate feather-touch. For a long moment, there was silence in the room with only the hiss of the gas fire, and the sound of their soft, mingled breathing.
We're so in tune, Kerry thought.
It was like nothing she'd ever felt before, this feeling of rightness, lying here in Mikhail's arms. She thought back to that first moment in Geneva when she'd watched him doing his stretches before taking to the ice. Even then, he'd captivated her. And now, she'd done what she'd been warning herself not to do from the moment he'd taken her hand and led her into a dance on the ice. She'd fallen in love with him―and even more foolhardy, had made love to him. But God, she didn't regret it! What, now, though? Where would they go from here?
A sigh rumbled from Mikhail's throat, and Kerry's heartbeat faltered. Was he regretting it already?
“My mother was murdered,” he said quietly.
Her pulse jumped. She searched for something to say, but before she could think of anything, he went on. “She was working for an Estonian newspaper, and she discovered that the KGB conducted drug experimentation on a Sami village in the early Seventies.” As he spoke, his voice grew progressively quieter. Kerry lay still in his arms, barely breathing. “Entire village died. My real father was one of victims. This, I found out just few months ago. At first, I wish to ignore this. Go on with my good life as privileged Russian athlete. I say to myself it is old history. That nothing will bring my parents back to life. But then, I realize that if I turn my back on what happened, my parents will have died for nothing, and I am then, no better than their killers. This is why I asked you to help me.”
He rolled her over so he could peer down into her eyes. His face wore a solemnity Kerry had never seen before. “I do not know what will happen tomorrow,” he said. “Your step-brother will probably take me away to safe house. I do not know when I will see you again.”
Kerry's fingertips touched his lips. “It won't be long,” she said quickly. “Once you tell your story to the CIA, they'll put you in protective custody, and yeah, you might have to stay in hiding for a while, but I'm sure Roger will let me visit you. As soon as the danger is over, you'll be free to go anywhere you want.” She almost added, “with me,” but bit back the words at the last second. She didn't want him to think she was putting pressure on him just because they'd slept together.
The somber look remained on Mikhail's face. “Kerry…” He traced the line of her eyebrow with his thumb. She trembled at the gentle caress. “They may send me back to Russia,” he said slowly. “The information I have may not be strong enough to allow me to stay.”
Her heart lurched. She fastened her hands on his jaws and forced him to meet her eyes. “No! I refuse to believe that. Roger won't let you down, Mikhail. I won't let him.”
He stared at her a long moment, then said, “He may not have choice. I want to believe you are right. But I am very much afraid now.” His fingers brushed back the hair from her forehead, and then moved over her cheekbone to gently cup her jaw. His eyes held hers, so tender it made her heart ache. “Especially now. I cannot imagine a life without you.”
Kerry smiled through sudden tears. Her hand curled around his, and she brought it to her lips, brushing his knuckles. His silver pinkie ring glinted in the moonlight streaming through the skylight. “You always wear this. Does it have special meaning?”
He smiled. “Nadya gave to me when I won first medal at fifteen.” He turned his hand in hers to peer at the ring. “It fit ring finger for two years, then I had to move to little finger because of growth spurt. Later, I show you inscription. It says 'To Mikhail, Son of my Heart.' Nadya has always treated me as son.”
Kerry saw the wistful look on his face, and her fingers tightened on his. “You really miss her, don't you?”
He nodded. “I wish I could bring her here. She loves America.”
“Maybe you'll find a way to do that someday. Maybe I can help.”
He drew her close, his lips brushing her forehead. “I can do nothing for Nadya until I know what future holds for me here.”
Kerry drew away just far enough to place her fingers on his lips. “Let's not think about tomorrow,” she said softly. “Let's just make tonight last.”
She drew his head down for a kiss, and as soon as his mouth met hers, she stopped thinking.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 14

Chapter Fourteen

In the bright morning sunlight, Kerry squinted at the road map on her lap, tracing her finger along the route they were traveling. Damn! It was time for an eye exam. She couldn’t read worth a darn in her contacts, but she was way too vain to wear glasses while traveling with Mikhail.
He was at the wheel of the Volvo, a pair of dark sunglasses protecting his eyes from the glare of the sun on the vast acres of snow drifts hugging the road. The ice crystals sparkled like thousands of diamonds in the sunlight. Kerry looked up at the endless highway stretching in front of the hood of the car, the mile markers slipping past as they made their dogged way eastward. A sigh escaped her lips. Soon, they'd be in Virginia, and once Roger and the CIA got hold of Mikhail, who knew when she'd see him again?
It was a gorgeous late February morning with cloudless blue skies and calm winds, but bitterly cold with the temperature hovering in the low single digits. Two hours earlier, the car had protested at starting at the motel in Ohio, but had finally rumbled to life. It had made them wary about stopping for breakfast. What if they couldn't get it started again?
Chocolate on a stick, indeed, Mr. Buddy, she thought, as her stomach gave a protesting growl.
Mikhail must've heard it, even over the sound of Mr. Mister, on the CD player singing ‘Broken Wings.’ “Want Ding Dong?” he asked with a smile.
Kerry groaned. “If I ever see a Ding Dong again, it will be too soon. Let's stop for breakfast, Mikhail. The car has been running for two hours. Surely it’ll start again.” As if on cue, she saw a familiar sign up ahead. “Look! There's a Shoney's. They have a really good breakfast buffet.”
Ten minutes later, Kerry sat in a booth opposite Mikhail, a plate in front of her piled high with biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon and French toast dripping with maple syrup.
She grinned. “Doesn't this look scrumptious? God! I thought I was going to pass out from hunger.”
Mikhail eyed her food ruefully. His plate was just as full, and beside it, there was another one holding two huge pancakes smothered with strawberries and whipped cream.
“You eat like a man,” Mikhail said as she took a generous bite of French toast. “How do you keep trim figure eating like that?”
Kerry narrowed her eyes at him. She swallowed and said, “That could be construed as a sexist remark, but I'll let it slide. Since you ask, though, I probably won't keep my figure. I haven't eaten like this in years. But now that I'm not skating anymore, I've got to get it out of my system. The freedom is awesome.”
His eyes swept over her, and Kerry felt her cheeks grow warm at his perusal. “Few extra…pounds, is it? Will not hurt. You still have beautiful body.”
Their eyes met, and an awkward silence fell. Mikhail was the first to look away. A waitress stopped by to refill their coffee mugs, and then moved on. The restaurant was packed with customers, and the hum of their conversation ate up the silence. Utensils clattered, the cash register jingled, and over it all, Pam Tillis wailed “Spilled Perfume” on the sound system.
Kerry fastened her eyes on the view outside the restaurant―nothing but a few snow-laden bushes and grimy, salt-coated cars in the parking lot. Things had been tense between her and Mikhail since they'd left the motel in Missouri. They'd driven until after ten that night before stopping at a nondescript motel in a small town southwest of Cleveland. Exhausted, they'd fallen into bed and slept straight through until early this morning. There had been no repeat of the dangerous behavior they'd…or rather, she'd…initiated in the motel in Missouri. God, what had gotten into her? She'd practically demanded that he make love to her. And if he hadn't put on the brakes…
Her cheeks warmed, and to cover it up, she hastily scooped up a forkful of hash browns and popped it into her mouth. She supposed she could blame the whole thing on the fact that she'd awakened just after having an especially steamy dream about being naked in a hot tub with Mikhail. But why lie to herself? She'd known exactly what she was doing when she’d begged him to kiss her. She'd contemplated doing it earlier when she'd seen him stretched out on the bed, covers tossed aside to reveal his lean, bare body clad in red boxer shorts. Only steel resolve had made her crawl into her own bed and force herself to go back to sleep. And she had, only to dream about him―hot, erotic dreams that made her toss and turn in feverish anxiety. Later, when he awakened her, she’d found him sitting on her bed, bare-chested, and still wearing those wicked boxer shorts. Who could blame her? Her id had taken over.
“Let's see if there's anything interesting in the paper.” She took a sip of coffee and opened the newspaper to the sports section. She'd grabbed it on the way inside, wondering if there was any word on Mikhail’s disappearance. “Uh oh.” She glanced up at him. “Looks like we've made the paper. Look at this.” She pointed to an item halfway down the front page. Russian Athlete May Have Defected With Help of American Skater. Alongside the two-paragraph article were two photos―one of Mikhail, and one of Kerry.
“What does it say?” Mikhail asked.
“Give me a minute.” She scanned the article. “Not much. Just that they think we're together, and I'm helping you defect. Well, at least they used good photos of us. But how did they get this information? I mean, seriously! How did they put it together? Just because I disappeared at the same time?”
“Think about it,” Mikhail said. “Who do you know that would jump to conclusion?”
Her gaze met his. “Adam, of course. I wouldn’t put it past him to tell the authorities you kidnapped me. God! You don’t think he’ll do that, do you?”
His eyes flared. “If you get hurt because of him…” He muttered something in Russian, and it didn't sound like a compliment.
“They would've figured it out sooner or later, Mikhail,” Kerry said. “And Adam is only acting from his concern for me. He probably has no idea―”
“He is fool!” Mikhail snapped. “If he truly believes you are involved in helping me defect, he must know that talking to newspaper about it could put you in danger.” His hand tightened on his fork. “Is too bad that accident did not put him in coma for few months.”
“Mikhail!” Kerry stared at him, shocked. “That's an awful thing to say!”
He looked away from her, his face reddening. “I am sorry. You are right. Of course, I do not mean that. But he is very stupid man.” He took a sip of his coffee, and looked out the window, his expression distant.
Kerry watched him a moment. There were so many facets to this man. The funny, boyish side. The sexy, magnetic side. And now, this ruthless, cold side he'd just displayed. Which one was the real Mikhail? Or was he all of them?
She pushed away her plate, realizing if she ate another bite, she'd surely explode. The waitress came by with a pot of coffee and refilled their mugs. After she moved off again, Kerry looked at Mikhail and said, “I have an idea.”
He looked at her, his brow arched. “Yes?”
“I was looking at the map earlier, and I think if the weather holds out…” She glanced out the window at the sunny skies. “And it looks like it will; we should be able to make Gettysburg by evening.”
Mikhail's eyes lit up. “Ah, Gettysburg! I have heard of such place. I saw film about American Civil War. Do you think we might have chance to go to battlefield?”
“Well, that's what I want to talk to you about.” Kerry ran a finger around the rim of her coffee mug, almost afraid to go on.
Would he see through this idea as a ploy to keep him with her for an extra day? And what if he did? It was true, wasn't it? Partially, anyway. She did want to see Dale. It had been years, and with every Christmas card she'd received from the woman who, if life had been fair, would've become her step-mother, Dale had begged Kerry to come to Mount Carmel for a visit.
“My father's former fiancée lives on a mountain overlooking the battlefield. She runs a bed & breakfast there. The Mount Carmel Inn.” Kerry finally dragged her gaze to Mikhail and found him watching her with interest. “I've always wanted to go visit her, but…” She shrugged. “With my schedule, you know…it just didn't happen. Anyway, we'll be going right by there…”
Mikhail smiled. “I would love to see Gettysburg.” He paused, then, “This woman. Were you close to her?”
Kerry's cheeks warmed, and she looked away from him. “We had our ups and downs. They were going to get married that summer, but then we had to get that last ski trip in, so the three of us went to Whistler. Dale really was a sweetheart, but I guess I was too young―and too jealous of her―to realize it. I suppose I thought once she married my dad, he wouldn't have any time for me. If I'd only known our time was running out anyway…” To her horror, tears blurred her eyes. She blinked quickly. This was too stupid! That had all happened so long ago.
Mikhail reached over and took her hand. His eyes held hers, and her heart jolted at the warmth she saw in them. “I would like to meet this Dale. Perhaps a visit for you is overdue.”
Kerry nodded, trying to dislodge the lump in her throat. His hand squeezed hers, and she felt closer than ever to tears as a memory washed over her. Dale's concerned blue eyes gazing down at her as she writhed in pain, the cool palm of her hand against Kerry's sweat-dampened brow. It had been the morning of her father's death, and if not for the sudden arrival of her first period, Kerry would've been with him that afternoon when the avalanche thundered down the mountain, burying him under tons of snow.
“You ready to go?” Mikhail asked.
Kerry looked at him, and a flash of blue beyond his left shoulder caught her attention. Her sharp intake of air alerted him.
Alarm flickered in his eyes. “What is it?”
Kerry looked down at her plate, cradling the side of her mouth against her palm. “Police,” she said under her breath. “Two of them. They're coming this way.”
What if the cops recognized them from the newspaper? And if they'd made the newspaper, their disappearance had probably been covered on the morning news shows, as well. Oh, God. Cops all over the country were probably on the lookout for them.
A hostess was leading the policemen right toward them. Kerry's heart pounded. She grabbed her coffee mug and took a sip of the tepid remains, casually looking out the window. But she felt the gaze of one of the cops as they passed their booth and settled into the one right behind them.
Would it look weird if she and Mikhail got up and left now? Or would it look like they were trying to run?
She met Mikhail's gaze across the table. He was waiting for her cue. Behind her, she could hear the cops ordering coffee from the waitress who'd just appeared. Her heartbeat steadied. Their voices sounded normal.
“And I'll have Adam & Eve on a raft―wreck 'em,” one of the cops said in a grating Midwestern twang. “With a side of bacon cooked crisp. Burn it, if you have to, but don't bring me any limp bacon.”
Relief coursed through her. The cops were obviously more concerned with feeding their faces than looking for Russian defectors and their accomplices. She smiled at Mikhail. “I'm ready. Oh, let me leave a tip.” She drew a couple of dollar bills from her wallet and placed them on the table, then reached for her coat, purse and the newspaper.
She slid out of the booth and turned to follow Mikhail who was heading to the cash register in a casual stride.
“Hey, lady!” A voice boomed from behind her.
Her body stiffened, and she felt the blood drain from her face.
“Yeah, you. In the black leather.”
What to do? Run for it? Try to play it cool? Pretend she didn't hear him?
“You dropped your glove,” the voice said.
Kerry looked down, and saw her black leather glove lying on the floor. She glanced over at the cop who'd spoken. He was a young guy with a crew cut, a prominent Adams' apple and soft brown eyes. She gave him a sheepish smile. “Thanks,” she said, hoping her voice didn't betray her anxiety. “I'm always losing these.”
He grinned at her, his eyes scanning her in admiration. “Don't want to do that on a morning like this. It's a day fit only for penguins out there.”
“Yes, it sure is cold,” she said, trying to keep her voice casual as she snatched up her glove. “Thanks, again.”
“No problem, ma'am.” The cop beamed at her. “Have a good day.”
She smiled and turned away. Mikhail was already at the cash register, paying for their breakfast. She scowled at him as she reached his side.
“Making a run for it?” she asked under her breath.
He smiled at the waitress when she handed back his change, and didn't speak until they stepped outside into the numbing cold.
“He was only flirting with you. This was obvious to me.”
“Well, I'm glad it was to you. It scared the crap out of me!”
His eyes danced in amusement. “You have such way with words,” he said as they headed for the car.
* * * * *
“Where the bloody hell did you say you were?” Sean snarled into the phone. Fury rampaged through his body, and he wished with every sinew that Fagan―the bleedin' idiot―was standing in front of him right now so he could beat the stupid out of him. Sean had heard very well where the man had said he was, but he still couldn't believe it.
Like the moron that he was, Fagan dutifully repeated, “Abilene, Texas.”
Sean closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He counted slowly to ten before speaking in a deceptively soft voice, “And why are you in Abilene bloody Texas?”
“Because that's where that car salesman in Kansas said they were headed, Boss,” Fagan said, his tone millimeters away from a defensive whine. “So, I figured we should go ahead and try and track them down here.”
“Do I pay you for making decisions on your own, Fagan? Or do I pay you for reporting everything…I mean, everything…to me, and then wait for orders?”
Sean gritted his teeth. Was the bloody fool thinking over his answer?
“Fuck,” Sean muttered. “Fagan, you and Shlusvaka get your asses to Occoquan, Virginia. That's their destination. I don't know when they'll get there, but you're going to be waiting for them. Listen closely. Get Kozlof before he makes contact with Roger Ellery. Got that?”
“Yeh, Boss. Uh…what about the girl?”
“Yeah? What about her?”
“What do you want us to do with her? Kill her?”
Sean thought about it. She was a pretty thing. It would be a shame to kill her. Besides, he wasn't a monster. Just a businessman. Still, if Kozlof had told her anything about TNG, she could be a danger to all of them. But would he be that stupid?
“Bring her to me,” Sean said, making up his mind. “I'll find out if she knows anything. And this time, don't fuck up!”
He slammed down the phone and turned to the closed bedroom door. What was Elena doing in there?
Everything had been much better between them since she came out of her funk a couple of days ago. She'd stopped watching the Olympic skating on the bloody telly, so that was a good sign. Even their lack of success in finding Kozlof hadn't seemed to bother her all that much. And since she hadn't been spending any time at the rink, her health appeared to be better than it had been in months.
In fact, there had been no asthma attacks since the one after the original dance. Was that because she hadn't received a TNG injection since leaving Russia? It had been too risky to try to smuggle the drug into North America. And was it his imagination or had Elena's skin lost its pallor, becoming more luminous in the three weeks she'd been off the drug? He really would have to try and talk her into not resuming the shots once they returned to Moscow. Sure, TNG gave her the stamina and strength she needed for competition, but the side effects frightened him. He wasn't a doctor, but even he knew that yellowish tinge to her skin meant liver damage, and it was also clear to him that the drug worsened her asthma. But God! The woman was stubborn. And now that she'd decided to train for next year's Worlds…
Sean shook his head. He should never have agreed to her proposal. But she'd dangled the one carrot in front of him he couldn't resist.
Marriage. And children.
He strode to the door, gave an abrupt knock and walked in. He stopped short, his body stiffening. Elena stood at the foot of the bed, packing a suitcase.
“What are you doing?”
She gave him a cool look. “Are you blind? I'm packing. I'm going back to Russia.”
He scowled. “Since when?”
“Since about an hour ago. Since I decided I'm bored out of my mind. And I need to start training again. I need my shots.”
Christ, Sean thought. He recognized the jut-jawed look of obstinacy on her face, and knew better than to argue with her. So he decided to try a different tactic.
“What about Kozlof? I thought you wanted to wait until we found him.”
She gave a European shrug and folded a silk sweater into a small square. “I have no doubt you will bring him back to me. You promised. But I cannot wait here until it happens. You bring him to me in Russia.” She closed the suitcase, and then looked up to give him a sultry smile. “And I will give you a sample of how I will repay the favor.” She glanced at her slim gold wristwatch. “I have a half-hour before I leave for the airport.”
* * * * *
Welcome to Pennsylvania, the Keystone State.
Kerry saw the sign and felt her heart dip. Another state closer to their destination. She chewed her bottom lip and glanced over at Mikhail. His head was tilted at an angle that looked exceedingly uncomfortable as he dozed against the window. It was almost time to wake him up so he could take his turn at driving again. She'd been at the wheel for almost three hours, and it would probably be a good idea if she could get some sleep, especially since they wanted to make it to Gettysburg by nightfall. But her mind was racing, and she knew it would be impossible to sleep.
She'd felt on edge ever since that morning when they'd left the Shoney's in Ohio. And she knew it wasn't because of the cops. It was Mikhail, and what he'd said about Adam.
It is too bad that accident did not put him in coma for few months.
The CD playing, Matchbox Twenty’s “Mad Season,” came to an end, and Kerry ejected it. She reached for an old favorite, U2's “October,” and slipped it into the CD player. As Bono began to sing “Gloria,” she glanced over at Mikhail again. The afternoon sunlight streamed over him, turning his flaxen hair bright gold. In sleep, his face held a hint of boyish vulnerability that brought out the protective instinct in her. But when he'd made that comment about Adam, there had been nothing boyish or vulnerable about the expression on his face. His eyes had been icy; his lips thin, almost cruel. Or was that her imagination?
No. She didn't think so. She'd seen a new side to Mikhail in that moment, one she'd never suspected. It was almost as if he were glad Adam had been injured―and disappointed that his injuries weren't worse.
“Damn,” she whispered as a thought took shape in her mind. It was so preposterous she almost dismissed it immediately. But once it appeared, there was no shaking it.
Could Mikhail have been responsible for Adam's accident?
Her fingers grew cold on the steering wheel as the question reverberated in her head. After all, the timing couldn't have been more perfect. She'd initially refused to help Mikhail because he'd insisted on leaving before the free dance.
I won't do that to Adam, she'd told him.
And what had happened? A hit-and-run driver had taken Adam out of the equation. It hadn't been Mikhail, of course. He'd been with her in her hotel room when the accident occurred. But suppose he had connections…someone…who had worked with him to remove the problem of Adam?
She shuddered. This was crazy, yet…it fit. Because of Adam's accident, she had agreed to help Mikhail. Wasn't that just too convenient for him?
“Are you cold? I turn heater up?”
She jumped at the sound of his voice, and then turned to see him watching her with amused eyes. He held the golf globe in his hands. How long had he been awake?
“Sorry,” he said. “You were far away with thoughts?”
“Mmmm…yeah, I guess so. What did you say about the heater?”
“You shivered. I wonder if you are cold?”
“No. I mean, yeah, maybe.” No, she wasn't cold. She was sick. Her stomach was churning, and had been for the last few minutes. She recognized it for what it was. Fear. Had she made a horrible mistake? Giving up the life she'd known to help a man who, for all she knew, could be a dangerous spy? It wasn't unheard of, was it? Just because the Cold War was over didn’t mean that Russia wouldn’t use their citizens to conduct clandestine operations. And what better citizen to use than a champion ice skater who traveled freely in the West?
Mikhail had refused to tell her anything about his reasons for defecting. What if it was all a grand ploy to get inside CIA Headquarters? She'd seen plenty of James Bond movies, and sure, they were a little over-the-top, but weren't they somewhat based on reality?
She saw a gas station coming up on the right, and flicked on the turn signal.
“You ready to drive?” She managed to say through the sudden flow of saliva in her mouth. She knew what it meant. She had to find a bathroom―and fast.
“Sure,” Mikhail said.
Kerry pressed on the accelerator, fighting the nausea welling inside her. The car spurted into the parking lot of the Exxon station, tires squealing as she swung it into a parking space. Thank God it wasn't busy.
Cupping her hands over her mouth, Kerry jumped out of the car and ran, coatless, to the outside restroom.
Please don't be locked, she prayed, forcing back a gag.
It wasn't. She burst into the restroom and bent over the toilet, expelling the remains of the Wendy's double cheeseburger she'd so enjoyed a couple of hours before.
Wiping her face with a wet paper towel, she stepped out into the frigid sunlight and headed for the passenger side of the car. Mikhail was at the wheel, waiting. His eyes mirrored concern as he watched her slide into the passenger seat.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded, still dabbing at her forehead with the damp paper towel, avoiding his eyes. “I'll live. I guess that cheeseburger didn't agree with me.”
His lips twitched. “Perhaps you should have ordered single.”
“What are you, my mother?” She slanted him a disgruntled look. “Let's go, okay? I want to try to get to Gettysburg by tonight.”
He looked startled at the curt tone of her voice, and somehow, or so Kerry imagined, hurt. She almost apologized, but then remembered that he might well be a calculating espionage agent who may have put Adam into the hospital, so she remained silent. Let him think what he damn well wanted.
Mikhail didn't speak again until they were back on the highway. On the stereo, Bono was belting out “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Apt, thought Kerry. That was Mikhail, all right. He was a stranger, and this was for damn sure, a strange land to him. That was something she needed to keep in mind. He was a virtual stranger. What did she know about him, really? Maybe it would be best if she backed away. Things had gotten way too friendly between them. And if he did have something to do with Adam's accident…
“This land,” he said suddenly, making a sweeping gesture toward the snow-covered rolling hills of western Pennsylvania. “…Very beautiful. What is like here in summer?”
She shrugged. “I don't know. I've never been here in summer. But I hear it gets awfully hot and muggy.”
He nodded. “I like hot and muggy. Maybe I will live here after I get asylum. Or perhaps Colorado. I like Colorado, too.”
“Well, if it's hot and muggy you like, you shouldn't choose Colorado. Now if―” She bit back the words she'd started to say. Damn! Why couldn't she keep her mouth shut? Two minutes ago, she'd decided to keep things impersonal between them. But here she was, giving him advice on where to live.
He glanced at her. “Yes? You were saying?”
She shook her head and looked out the window at a raging brook flowing over snow-covered rocks. “Nothing. Never mind.”
She felt his puzzled gaze, but refused to look at him.
“What is wrong, Kerry?” Mikhail asked after a moment. “You are acting strange.”
The stop at the gas station restroom had alleviated her nausea, but her thoughts were still roiling around in her brain like lava threatening to burst from the mouth of a volcano. It was a weakness in her, she knew, but Kerry had never been able to stop an eruption once it had reached the boiling point.
And the boiling point had been reached.
She turned in her seat and fastened a hard gaze upon Mikhail's bewildered face.
“I want the truth, and I want it right now, Mikhail Kozlof, or I swear, I'll dump your ass out onto the side of the road, and leave you to freeze there. I swear it!”
His jaw slackened in shock. “Truth about what?”
Her mouth tightened. “About Adam. Did you arrange his accident?” She stared at him, every muscle in her body vibrating with tension as she waited for his answer.
Slowly, the blood drained from his face as the impact of her words hit him. He looked back at the road, his expression inscrutable. A nerve twitched in his jaw. And still, he didn't answer.
A minute ticked by, keeping time with the savage beat of Larry Mullen's pounding drums in “Is That All?” She felt Mikhail's anger. No, it was fury. It emanated from his body, an electric energy almost as potent as the sexual energy that so captivated her. But this…fury…she sensed now, was so alien coming from him, so intimidating, she didn't dare speak. Not until he responded to her accusation.
He flicked on the turn signal and pulled off the road into the parking lot of an old abandoned grain elevator. His jaw set, he put the Volvo in park, and turned to her, his eyes icy. As if on cue, the U2 song came to an end, and there was a sudden silence in the car.
“Is that what you think?” he asked, his voice barely audible.
Kerry took a deep breath, and defiantly met his gaze. “It doesn't matter what I think. I want the truth.” The CD began to play at the beginning again with Bono enthusiastically belting out “Gloria.” Kerry reached over to turn down the volume. “Did you have anything to do with Adam's accident? You have to admit it was very convenient. It got you what you wanted―my help. And being able to escape before the free dance. I'd be a fool not to wonder.”
“Why did you not wonder before?” He asked tightly. “Why did you not ask me that day at hospital? We took walk outside. If you were suspicious, why did you not ask?”
“I wasn't suspicious then. It never occurred to me you might have…you know…had something to do with it. It wasn't until you…back at the restaurant…when you made that horrible remark about Adam being in a coma. That got me thinking.”
Mikhail swore in Russian. He looked away and shook his head. Then with an unexpected violence, he slammed the palms of his hands against the steering wheel. Kerry flinched.
His fingers curled around the steering wheel. Kerry wondered if he was imagining it was her neck he was gripping with such violence. He turned to her, his eyes blazing. “I am insult! You know, you are no different from Adam. You pretend you are open-minded, yet, you show true colors now. You think all Russians are evil communists. Maybe spy. You think this, no? Tell me. Is that what you think? I am spy?”
“No! I mean, I don't know! How am I supposed to know?” Kerry shot back, her anger matching his. “We've known each other, what? A couple of weeks? How do I know who you are, at all? You won't tell me why you want to defect! And you still haven't answered my question. Did you, or did you not, have something to do with Adam's accident?”
“No!” He turned and grabbed her upper arms, his hands tightening on them with an iron-like grip. His eyes impaled her. “I did not have anything to do with accident. Kerry!” He stopped, staring at her. His voice softened. “Kerry, you almost made love to me. Do you think you would want the kind of man who would do such a monstrous thing? We may not have known each other long, but I believe you know me better than you think you do.”
For a long moment, Kerry stared into his earnest blue eyes. She did believe him, she realized. Or else, she wanted to believe him so desperately that she was convincing herself his story was true. Why? Because she was so over the moon for him that she refused to believe he could be anything but what he said he was? Could he have mesmerized her that much?
Jiminy Freakin' Cricket! What was she thinking? In love? No, impossible! She'd vowed never to fall in love again. Not after Joshua. Falling in love just led to too much trouble. So, why was she thinking “over the moon” in relation to Mikhail?
His gaze swept over her face, lingering on her lips. The anger had completely disappeared, replaced by molten desire. He was like her, in that way. He could no more hide what he was feeling than Britney Spears could sing and dance without grabbing at her crotch.
“Do you still want me, Kerry?” Mikhail asked huskily. “Because I sure as hell want you.”
His hands imprisoned her head, and his mouth claimed hers in a hot, hungry kiss. Kerry sighed against his questing tongue, and gave herself up to it. His fingers threaded through her hair, gathering and releasing as they kissed, breaking for a moment of air, and merging again for more intoxicating sweetness. Over the rapid beat of her heart, she heard the sound of passing traffic on the highway, and on the stereo, Bono, singing about throwing a brick through a window. And Mikhail's staggered breathing. She could feel the thudding of his heart beneath her palm. His scent surrounded her, a combination of rosemary, sage and oak moss from his cologne, and the muskiness of his own unique maleness.
Mikhail's hands slid down her neck, and onto her shoulders as his tongue played with hers, teasingly erotic. He touched her breasts through her cotton sweater, and a furl of heat exploded from her womb. A soft moan escaped her mouth as he released it momentarily to nuzzle at a point on her neck just below her ear. Her hands crept up to tangle in his hair, and she angled his head so that his mouth was once again seeking hers. His fingers latched onto her nipple, stroking, teasing. With a soft moan, she arched her body against his, her knee ramming against the gearshift as she tried to position herself where she needed to be.
“Chert!” Mikhail cursed, breaking the kiss, and shoving his body back in his own seat. He ran trembling hands through his rumpled hair. “I will not fuck you in car like barnyard animal.”
Gasping for breath, Kerry stared at him in astonishment. “You…you…what?”
He slanted her a chagrined look. “You heard me. This…” He gestured to himself and then her. “This thing between us…is more than down-and-dirty sex. I will not fuck you in car like barnyard animal.”
Kerry burst out laughing. Something about the way he said it, the frustrated, yet, embarrassed look on his face, the entire ludicrous situation, struck her as absolutely hilarious. She laughed so hard that tears misted her eyes.
He looked at her, startled. “What is so funny?”
She tried to speak, but couldn't. Every time she tried to get something out, the giggles took over again. He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest and watched her, trying to keep an affronted look on his face. It didn't work. Reluctantly, his lips twitched, and his blue eyes grew amused.
When it seemed like she'd finally regained control, he spoke, “I am happy to be your comic entertainment.”
And that set her off again. He shook his head, a bemused grin spreading over his face. “You are crazy woman, Kerry Niles,” he said.
“I know.” Still snickering, Kerry wiped the tears from her eyes. “It's a bitch, but I've learned to live with it.”
“Are you ready to tell me why you find me so amusing?”
“It's not you, exactly,” she said, grinning. “It's just the way you said that.” She arranged her face in a somber expression and lowered her voice to imitate a macho Russian accent, “’I will not fuck you in car like barnyard animal.’” Another peal of laughter rang out. “First of all, I don't get the analogy. It's not the habit of barnyard animals to fuck in cars. Not to my knowledge, anyway. And also…you just looked so damn cute when you said it.”
His brow arched quizzically. “Like I said, I'm happy to be entertainment.”
“You idiot!” Kerry reached out and imprisoned his head between her hands. She kissed him, a hard, bruising kiss on the mouth, and released him just as he was getting into it. “But you're right. This is not the place to…uh…continue down this path. We should get going.”
Mikhail nodded, and put the gearshift into drive. He glanced over his left shoulder, and pulled out onto the highway. On the stereo, Bono was singing “Fire.” Kerry was sure she'd never be able to listen to this CD again without cracking up…or getting exceedingly horny.
For a few moments, Mikhail drove without speaking. Kerry gazed out the window, twirling a lock of hair around her index finger, and trying to quell the waves of pulsating sensations going on down south. Damn the man! He was getting really good at bringing her to fever pitch then putting on the brakes.
“Fire” ended, and in the momentary silence between tracks, Mikhail cleared his throat. “Kerry, your friend who runs this bed and breakfast…” He stared straight ahead, seemingly concentrating on the road.
“Do you think she would have problem with us sharing room?”
Kerry's jaw dropped. She turned to look at him as her heartbeat picked up. He continued to stare at the road as if it were the most interesting thing he'd seen in years. Kerry coughed, and then said, “I don't think she would have a problem with that.”
He nodded, and then looked at her. The impact of his smoldering blue eyes took her breath away. “This is good,” he said.
Kerry swallowed hard and turned to look out the window. A slow grin crossed her face, and she began to sing along with Bono, “Won't you come back tomorrow?”