Friday, May 20, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 7

Chapter Seven

Mikhail gazed out the window at the glowing skyline of downtown Salt Lake City, his stomach tight with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. He glanced over at Kerry at the wheel of her monstrous vehicle as they headed around the city on Interstate 84. He hadn't expected a vehicle of this size―a Jeep Cherokee she called it. The automobile somehow didn't fit the feminine beauty of the woman at the wheel, but then, he had a feeling there would be plenty more surprises from her before this was all over. The very first one had been that she'd actually agreed to help him. He still couldn't quite believe it, even though they were on their way out of the city.
“Take a last look at the Olympic flame,” Kerry said. “It's probably the last one we'll ever see. Unless it's on TV. Well…me, anyway.” She gave him a quick glance. “If you get asylum in America, you'll probably be able to skate for us in the next Olympics.”
He shrugged and gazed out at the flame, feeling a deep sadness in his heart. “I will be thirty-two by then. That's quite old for competing in Olympics.” He shook his head. “I believe there is no Olympic medal in my future.”
“And how do you feel about that?” She looked at him.
He met her gaze. “How do you feel about it?”
She thought about it, and then gave an off-hand shrug. “C'est la vie.”
He gazed at her for a long moment, trying to figure out if she was serious. Deciding she was, he said, “You are amazing woman, Kerry Niles. When I think of how Elena will react when she discovers I am gone…well…” He gave a mock shudder. “She will not be so complacent. She will go…” He struggled for the right English word.
“Ape-shit?” Kerry offered, her dimple flickering.
“Ape-shit?” He tested the word on his tongue, and then nodded. “Yes, that is good word.”
She laughed and looked back at the road. Mikhail turned his head to catch one last glimpse at the Olympic flame glowing orange against the dark sky. Would this be the last Olympics in which he'd ever compete? He felt a stab of fear at the uncertainty of his future. Dear God, what if he was doing the wrong thing by defecting? Although he'd never thought of himself as Russian, preferring to acknowledge Estonia as his homeland, the fact was, he'd spent most of his life in Moscow. It had been a good life, one that ordinary Russian citizens would've felt blessed to have. Living in luxury and training for the Olympics. Now, his future was a question mark, and he'd be a fool not to be apprehensive about it.
Kerry glanced at him. “You okay?”
Christ, was she a mind reader, too? He shrugged and looked out the window at the last of the skyline sliding away. “I am thinking of what I am doing. What I have already done.”
Kerry remained silent. The traffic was light on the freeway heading out of the city. The Olympics weren't even half over yet, and Salt Lake City was teeming with people. But the Games were over for him and Kerry.
The escape had been easier than he'd thought possible. Sergey Fadeyuska had reserved a private room at a Salt Lake City restaurant in an upscale hotel to entertain their athletes. Mikhail had immediately ordered one screwdriver from the free bar, and then switched to straight orange juice, pretending to grow inebriated with each one. At eleven, he'd said his goodnights and staggered into the lobby of the hotel, and out the front doors where a doorman hailed him a taxi. Mikhail saw Kerry's monster of a truck waiting at the curb, and when the doorman turned to help another departing couple, he'd slipped inside, and they were off.
Earlier that afternoon, they'd rendezvoused at a quaint bistro in the historic part of the city, and Mikhail had given Kerry his meager belongings―a change of clothing, a few toiletries, and of course, the valuable information Vassily Immaakin had compiled to convince the CIA he was telling the truth―-and leaving everything else―his skates, his costumes, his luggage in the hotel room in Park City. It was done, and now…Mikhail looked out the window. The lights of Salt Lake City had disappeared.
“When will we reach state border?” he asked. “I will feel better when we leave Utah.”
Kerry's front bumper practically kissed the car in front of her, causing Mikhail to cringe and press his foot onto an imaginary break pedal before she swerved into the left lane and passed the car as if it were parked. Did all Americans drive so crazy?
“Oh, an hour…hour and a half,” she said, eyes fixed on the road.
He shifted uneasily and glanced over at her profile. She had the most charming nose―slightly tilted and somehow, mischievous. He'd earlier noticed that dimple flickering near the right corner of her mouth when she smiled or grimaced in a certain way. She wasn't smiling now, but looked rather thoughtful. Was she regretting her decision to help him already? His gaze drifted over her. She was dressed completely in black―black slacks, black turtleneck, black leather coat, even black cowboy boots. And why not? She was playing a spy game, wasn't she? Why not dress for the occasion? Her hair was loose around her shoulders, anchored by a black knit cap pulled low over her ears. All she needed was a pair of dark sunglasses and she'd look like she'd just stepped out of a James Patterson novel. It was endearing, really, except…
A fresh jolt of fear shot through him. Did she have any idea what she might be getting into? Had he made it clear to her about the danger, the possibility that somehow, Elena and her granite-faced bodyguard might know what he was up to, and would stop at nothing―even murder―to prevent him from reaching Washington and Roger Ellery? Because, of course, O'Malley had to be up to his eyeballs in this. Elena did nothing without him knowing about it.
“Is not too late to change your mind, Kerry,” Mikhail said slowly. “We can turn around and go back. No one will ever know you were involved.”
She looked at him, one black eyebrow raised. “Are you nuts? How do you think you can do this without me?”
He shrugged. “I will find way.”
“Like hell!” She shook her head and sighed. “Look, Mikhail, you're just having what we Americans call a case of the jitters. It's too late to turn back now. I'm in. And I'm going to get you to Occoquan, Virginia, or die trying.”
“Do not say that!” His voice came out in a harsh croak.
She gave him a strange look. “Hey, I was kidding. It's just an expression.”
“An expression that could turn out to be apt, Kerry,” he said, his voice softer, insistent. He had to make her realize this wasn't a game. “I try to make you understand that there are dangerous people who, if they discover what I am doing, will do anything to stop me. And because you are with me, your life will be in danger, as well. It does not matter that I have not told you details.”
“I realize that, Mikhail. Really, I do. But you have to understand something about me, okay?” She glanced at him again, and then looked back at the road. “For the first time in my life I’m on my ownfree. Do you know how good that feels?” She looked at him and grinned, making his heart turn over with the appearance of that sweet dimple. “And so are you. How does it feel, Mikhail? To feel so free?”
He stared at her, knowing he couldn't admit the truth, that he didn't feel free at all, that all he felt was fear and an unwelcome sense of isolation. Their eyes met and held for a moment. Mikhail was the first to look away.
He fixed his gaze on an air freshener in the shape of a cat hanging from her rear view mirror. It smelled like cinnamon, not cat. Thank God! He loathed cats. Ever since the day a young female skater brought a cat to the rink, and spooked by the noise of the skates scraping against the ice, it had jumped out of her arms, straight at nine-year-old Mikhail, practically taking his ear off, before slipping and sliding on the ice as it made its maddened escape. He'd hated―and had a phobia―about cats ever since.
“Perhaps when I have asylum I will feel free,” he murmured, continuing the conversation.
“Of course you will.” Kerry glanced at the illuminated clock on the dashboard. “We should be able to make Denver around first light.”
“How do you know area so well?” Mikhail asked. “You are from California, yes?”
“Yeah, but I grew up in Utah with my dad and grandparents. I learned to drive here the summer I turned sixteen.” She flashed an impish grin at him. “Grandma Vive said it took ten years off her life.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Mikhail said dryly as she passed another car at such a rate of speed, it looked like it was stalled in the middle of the road. “I did not know I was getting mixed up with crazy driver.”
She gave a saucy laugh. “I’ve had my share of speeding tickets. And of course, there’s that little police record thing…”
He glanced at her, unable to hide his curiosity. “What made girl like you get mixed up with Canadian hockey player?”
She shrugged. “Oh, same old story. Impressionable young woman who gets involved with a good looking, but very bad boy. It's not very original, and would probably bore you to death.”
Mikhail knew nothing would bore him if it came out of this fascinating woman's mouth. She was an enigma, an unusual combination of coltish girl and sensual woman. He wondered how badly the bad boy had hurt her. And if there had been other love affairs since. He wanted to ask her, but it would be rude to delve into her personal life on such short acquaintance. But he very much hoped that before they reached Washington―or Occoquan, as she insisted on calling it―he would have a chance to get to know her better.
“I would like to hear this story sometime,” he said finally, breaking the silence that had fallen between them.
She chuckled. “Okay. Maybe later. But I warn you, Mikhail, once I start talking, you won't be able to shut me up. And you'll be sorry you ever asked.”
He nodded, smiling. “I am warned. How long will it take us to get to Wash…I mean, Occoquan? What is this odd name, Auk Oh Quan?”
“It's a Dogue Indian name. Means “at the end of the water.” It's the cutest little town. Sits right on the Occoquan River. I visited Roger and Sharon there after an exhibition skate at the MCI Center. Sharon took me to this fantastic craft show. They totally closed down the whole town, and blocked off the streets and…” She glanced over, and grinned. “Oh, sorry. I told you once I get started talking, I can't shut up. How long will it take us to get to there?” She shrugged. “Depends on the weather, and how hard we want to push it. Josh and I drove from California to New York that summer, and made it in three days. But he's a speed demon, so…” She gave another shrug.
He stared at her. “And you are not?”
“No!” she scoffed. “I just go with the flow of traffic. Seventy-five, eighty…whatever. Do you drive?”
He glanced at the dashboard and shrugged. “I have sports car at home. But this big truck I do not know.”
“What kind of sports car? Is it a stick shift?”
He looked puzzled.
“A five-speed?” Kerry said. “You know, like this.” She indicated the gearshift between them. “Or is it automatic?”
“It is Mercedes convertible. With shift like this.” He shook his head and sighed. “I will miss that car.”
“Oh, don't worry, Mikhail.” She gave him a sympathetic smile. “Once you turn professional in America, you'll be able to afford several Mercedes. Although, personally, I'd go for a Porsche. It's sexier. Anyway, since you can drive a stick, you'll have no problem handling Big Bertha here.”
He looked at her, confused, and then realized she was talking about her car. Odd thing, naming a car. There was so much he had to learn about Americans and their customs.
“Why don't you try and get some sleep,” Kerry said. “After we cross into Wyoming, you can drive for a while. How about a little music?” With her right hand, she pulled a cassette tape from the holder on her sun visor. “You like Nickelback?”
He shrugged. “I have not heard such music.”
“It's hard rock. You like rock?”
He grinned. “Oh, yes. I play guitar. Maybe I will be rock singer some day. It will be new career.”
“No kidding?” Kerry glanced at him. “Yeah, you kind of got that rock star look going on. Maybe someday I can say I knew you when.”
She popped in the Nickelback CD and tapped the “seek” button to track number two, then began to sing along with the vocalist in a decidedly off-key alto. Mikhail adjusted his seat back and closed his eyes. No way would he sleep. He was too tense. But perhaps he'd just close his eyes for a few minutes. Almost immediately, though, the hum of the tires on the road and the music on the cassette player began to work its magic, pushing away his troubled thoughts.
This is nice, he realized, being here in a warm truck driving through the dark winter night. The woman sitting next to him was very much responsible for this momentary sense of well-being. Why he felt so comfortable with her, he didn't know. He liked the way she was so down-to-earth and real. She smelled good, too, like wildflowers and musk. And listen to her!
“This is how you remind me,” she sang along with the rock group, totally unself-conscious, even though her voice was, to be charitable, more Lucille Ball than Madonna. But even her off-key notes, he found charming. Damn. This was not good. He was becoming entirely too attracted to Kerry Niles. That was a complication that neither one of them could afford right now…not if they wanted to keep their wits about them.
* * * * *
The phone shrilled out on the bedside table in the early morning darkness. Half asleep and cursing, Sean rolled over on his side to grab it before it woke Elena.
“Yeah?” he grunted.
“Fagan, here,” said the voice on the other end.
Sean became immediately alert. His voice lowered. “Did you take care of it?”
“Uh…not exactly,” came the mumbled reply.
Sean’s hand tightened on the phone. Fuck! He glanced over at Elena. In the graying light of dawn, he could just make out the black satin mask covering her eyes, her lips parted in slumber. He released a frustrated sigh and found his voice.
“What happened?”
“He didn't come back to the room. I've been waitin' here all the fuckin' night. It's been bloody boring, too.”
“I don't give a shit if you're bored out of your fucking mind.” In his anger, Sean spoke louder than he intended, and Elena rolled over on her side, mumbling something unintelligible. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to calm down. Then he spoke between clenched teeth, “He left the restaurant just after eleven. Elena said he was sloshed to the bloody gills. And you're telling me he didn't come back to the hotel room?”
“That's what I'm telling ya.” Fagan's reply was mildly sarcastic. “I was sitting here, dick in one hand and my Makarov in the other, waiting to send him to Kingdom Come, and the bastard didn't bloody show.”
Asshole, thought Sean. Fagan was getting just a little too cocky for his britches. Soon, very soon, he was going to have to put that smelly sod back in his place.
“Hey, Boss,” Fagan went on in a more conciliatory tone. Sean supposed his ominous silence had put the fear of God back into him. “Maybe if he was that lit, he got rolled by some enterprising dickhead, and he's floating in the Green River by now.”
“You wouldn't be that lucky,” Sean retorted. “No. He's probably found a woman, and is sleeping it off in her bed right now. Elena has been bitching that he's been sniffing after that hot American skater with the black hair.” He ran a hand through his tangled hair, his brows furrowed in thought. “Look, stay there. He'll have to come back to his room sooner or later, and when he does…” He glanced over at Elena, still on her side facing away from him. “You know what to do.”
“Boss, I'm tired and famished,” Fagan whined. “If he's in some wee gel's bed, he won't be back for hours. Can I not go get me a wee bit of breakfast?”
“No!” Sean said harshly. “You heard me. Stay there, and take care of the job. Got it, Fagan?”
“Yeh, Boss.” His reply was sulky.
Sean hung up the phone, shaking his head in disgust. Jesus Christ! Good help was getting bloody hard to find.
* * * * *
Kerry pulled the Jeep into the brightly-lit gas station and put the gearshift in park. A few errant snowflakes hit the windshield, melting on contact. So much for the good weather holding out. But hey, she was used to driving in snow. No problem-o.
She looked over at Mikhail and grinned. Hadn't he said he was way too wired to sleep? Obviously, he'd been wrong. She wondered if she should wake him up. She had to pee like a racehorse, and if she was going to keep driving for a while, she needed coffee. The cessation of the motor hadn’t awakened Mikhail like she’d expected.
Her gaze swept over his face. Oh, how her fingers itched to stroke that strong, stubbled jaw, to run through his silky blond hair. She grimaced. What was she thinking? This must be what it felt to be a diabetic longing for a Hostess cupcake, and knowing it would be a huge mistake to sink your teeth into the sweet chocolate. Her gaze moved to his lips, and she remembered the passionate kiss the other night in front of Adam. He had taken her breath away with that kiss. A shiver of excitement zipped through her even now as she relived it.
Stop it, she told herself. That had been a game, a deception. They'd made it out of Utah; there was no reason now to pretend they were anything more than strangers. And it would be stupid―really really stupid―to act upon this attraction she felt, even though her intuition told her it was mutual. A woman knew when a guy was interested, and those vibes had been coming from Mikhail from the first moment they'd met. But nothing was going to happen between them. No way. Josh had taught her not to jump impetuously into a relationship. Not that it would be a relationship. If anything, it would be a one-night―maybe a two-night―stand. The skating world might have labeled her a “bad girl” but she wasn't into casual sex. And never had been.
She touched his shoulder. “Mikhail! We're at a gas station. I’m going to get some coffee. You want some?”
He opened his eyes. For a moment, he appeared disoriented, and then recognition dawned. His lips quirked mischievously. “Depends.” His gaze moved lazily over her lips. “I like mine sweet.”
Kerry's cheeks flamed as her heart turned over. She managed what she hoped was a casual smile. “Tanya warned me about you being a flirt. Now, behave yourself. Sugar and cream?”
“I will go as well.” He opened his door and paused as a frigid wind blew into the Jeep along with a few stray flakes of snow. “I need to stretch legs.”
Kerry eyed him as he stretched, not only his legs, but his arms, too. Sinuous as a cat, she thought, then shook her head and got out of the Jeep.
Fifteen minutes later, they were back on the interstate. Mikhail had offered to take over driving but Kerry, wired from the first few sips of coffee, had turned him down.
She glanced into the rearview mirror and wished she hadn’t. “Oh, damn,” she muttered.
Mikhail looked at her. “What?”
“We’ve got company.” She put on her left turn signal and began to slow.
Mikhail’s head whipped around. He muttered a word in Russian that Kerry recognized as an exceptionally foul profanity.
“Don’t freak, Mikhail,” she said calmly, pulling into the breakdown lane. “It’s just the state police.”
He looked at her as if she’d just announced she was going to sky-dive off the Washington Monument in pink tights. “They found us already. How did they know?”
The police car pulled up behind her, lights flashing. Kerry reached across the back seat for her purse. “Don’t be silly, Mikhail. They’re not after us. I might have been speeding.”
His jaw dropped. “Might have been? Kerry, your speed has not dropped below eighty since we got on road.” He muttered another Russian oath. “Great! Just great. What if I am recognized? What if___”
“Shhhhh!” Kerry hushed him, her eyes on the rearview mirror. “Here he comes. Just stay quiet, Mikhail. Pretend you’re asleep.”
A uniformed figure appeared at her window, and Kerry pushed the button to lower it. “Hi,” she said brightly, giving the cop her most charming smile. “How you doing tonight, officer?”

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