Friday, June 24, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 12

Chapter Twelve

Heart pounding a kettledrum beat in his chest, Mikhail raced back to the motel room. Somehow, O'Malley had tracked them down. How? How had he known? And how had his men found them so quickly? No time for that now. They had to get the hell out of here. Thank Christ he'd gone into the office when he did. The alternative made him weak in the knees. They would've been caught like reindeer in the headlights of a snowmobile.
He unlocked the door of the motel room and burst inside. “Kerry! We must go!”
The room was dark in the late afternoon gloom, but in the light of the TV, he saw a blur of movement, followed by what sounded like a whoosh of air and then a strangled squeak of pain, followed by a Russian profanity.
“Mikhail!” Kerry rushed toward him, her face pale-blue in the light of the TV. “We've got to get out of here!”
Mikhail moved across the room and looked down at the groaning man folded into a fetal position. He was clutching at his genitals, his face twisted in agony. A stranger. “No shit. And he is not alone. Get your stuff.”
It took them only a moment to grab everything they could carry, but after Kerry reached the Jeep, she tossed in her suitcase, and whirled around, still clutching her purse. “Wait!”
Already inside the Jeep, Mikhail watched in horror as she ran toward the office. “What are you doing?” he shouted. Had she lost her mind? He opened the door of the Jeep to run after her.
She was standing in front of a black Mercedes, fumbling around in her purse when he reached her side.
“Kerry! We must go!”
Ignoring him, she pulled out a lethal-looking nail file, and squatting by the front left tire, rammed it into the rubber. A soft hissing sound broke the silence. She grinned and hurried back to the left rear tire. Just as she was standing up, the office door opened and a man stepped out.
“Shit!” Mikhail muttered, grabbing her arm. “Come on!”
They ran. Mikhail heard a shout behind him. He risked a look backward as he jumped into the passenger side of the Jeep, and saw the man's feet slip on the ice. Kerry scrambled into the truck and inserted the key into the ignition.
“Fuck!” the man shouted, as he tried to stand, and fell again.
Kerry turned the key, but the engine only grumbled, refusing to turn over. “Damn,” she muttered as the engine protested. “I should've been coming out and starting her up.”
The man was on his feet again and running toward them. Kerry turned the key again, pressing on the accelerator. “Start, you bitch. Start!”
The man reached Mikhail's door, and began pounding on the glass. And at that moment, the engine turned over and began to run, albeit, raggedly. Mikhail stared into the man's weasel-like face. His dark hair was cropped short, his forehead low and broad. He grasped at the locked door, cursing, his mouth twisted in a snarl revealing a half-dozen rotted teeth.
Kerry thrust the gearshift into reverse. The Jeep bucked, and for an awful moment, the engine coughed and sputtered. Mikhail's stomach dipped. But as Kerry thrust into first, it recovered. She pulled out of the parking lot, tires skidding on the icy road.
“Do you think he'll come after us?” Kerry asked, glancing into the rear view mirror.
Mikhail looked over his shoulder at the road. No headlights yet. “Not in that car. Thanks to you. Besides, he’ll have to wait for his partner to recover from whatever you did to him.”
Kerry glanced over and gave him a wry grin. “Let's just say he'll be hitting some high notes for a while.”
“How did he get in?” Mikhail asked.
“I thought it was you. That you'd forgotten your key. When I opened the door, he pushed his way in and grabbed me. I was so startled, I froze. Then when I heard you at the door, my instincts kicked in and I did a little maneuver on him, something I learned in self-defense class.”
Mikhail looked at her. “You surprise me, Kerry Niles. Over and over. That was smart thinking. To ruin tires.” He shook his head. “But very risky.”
Kerry shrugged, her eyes fixed on the road. “We had to make sure they don't follow us. As for the other thing, I started taking self-defense classes a few years ago after a good friend of mine was raped. This is the first time I've ever had to put what I've learned to the test.”
Mikhail looked out his window into the darkness. “Because of me. I should never have brought you into this.”
Kerry didn't speak for a moment. Finally, she looked over at him. “Okay, I know you feel guilty, so let's get it out of your system. Because from here on in, I don't want to hear it. You told me from the beginning it could be dangerous. You said someone might come after you. I agreed to help you, even with that knowledge. So, let's just do the job and get you to Virginia, okay? So, who do you think it was?”
Mikhail ran a hand through his hair, not surprised to find it was trembling. “Sean O’Malley. Elena’s boyfriend. I just do not understand how his men knew where to find us so quickly.”
“Unless they've been tailing us from the very beginning,” Kerry said.
“But why? How could they know?”
She shook her head, but didn't answer.
He looked at her. “Were you not frightened?”
“Of course. I'd be an idiot not to be.”
“Let me see your hand.”
She glanced at him, her brow wrinkled. He held out his hand, fingers beckoning. Kerry took her right hand off the steering wheel and placed it in his.
At the touch of her warm skin, a memory of her bare breasts flashed through his mind. He remembered the sweet taste of her lips, the promise of her body pressing against his. And to think, if he'd had a condom, they'd probably be in the hands of the O’Malley right now. And maybe dead.
He dropped her hand as a chill went through him.
“So?” Kerry asked. “What was that all about?”
“You are not trembling. Your face still has color. And you say you were frightened?”
Kerry sighed. “Well, it's a funny thing about me and fear, Mikhail. I don't show it the same way most people do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, as long as the adrenalin has kicked in, I'm okay. It's only afterward that…oh, damn.” She took a hand off the wheel and clutched at her belly.
“What is wrong?”
Kerry slammed on the brakes. The Jeep shuddered as she pulled off the road, coming dangerously close to a mound of snow. She shoved the gearshift into park, and clutching a hand to her mouth, jumped out of the vehicle and slammed the door. She'd parked so close to the snowdrift that Mikhail couldn't open his door. He could only watch helplessly as Kerry slipped and slid her way to the front of the Jeep where she squatted, retching into the snow.
Mikhail opened the center console, and found a packet of travel tissues. He had a handful of them waiting for her when she slipped back into the driver's seat, her eyes tearing, her skin as white as the snow drifts outside.
She gave Mikhail a sheepish look. “That's what happens when I get scared. After it's all over. It's better than it used to be. When I was first competing, I'd have to make a beeline for the bathroom as soon as I left Kiss & Cry. We'd better get out of here.” She shifted into first and pulled out onto the empty road. “I think it would be a good idea to stick to the highway instead of the interstate, don't you? So…this Sean O’Malley. That’s not a Russian name. What’s the deal with him?”
Mikhail stared grimly ahead into the darkness. “He is ruthless man. Worse than KGB ever was. Rumor has it that his pub in Tallinn is front for racketeering and gun-running for IRA.”
She slanted him a glance. “How do you know all this?”
“Like I said, is rumor.”
Kerry's hands tightened on the steering wheel as the Jeep skidded on an icy patch. “I still don't see how they found us so quickly.”
Mikhail braced himself on the console, grimacing as Kerry easily handled the skid and kept going at a pace way too fast for the snow-packed road. Yet, he didn't tell her to slow down. With those goons after them, they needed to put as much distance between them as possible. He glanced at her profile. Her face was tense as she concentrated on the road, yet, not panicked, or even especially frightened. He admired her courage. But perhaps she just didn't realize how dangerous their situation had become.
“So, tell me, what is this little trick you used to overpower that Russian? He looked like big, muscular guy.”
She glanced at him and grinned. “It's called 'bite the shit out of his hand and then knee him as hard as you can in the balls.' I also like the 'ram your knuckles up his nose followed by a nut twist with the other hand' move, but it all depends on the position he's got you in.”
“Remind me never to piss you off,” Mikhail said wryly. Then he sighed. “This changes things, yes? I had hoped we'd be able to get closer to Virginia before they let the dogs go for us.”
He sounded so sad that Kerry decided not to joke about his screwed-up colloquialism. She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. Their eyes met, and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was. That if Sean O'Malley's men hadn't arrived, they'd probably be making love right now.
She looked back at the road. “We'll trade in my Jeep for something more…discreet in the morning. And we'll keep to the back roads. It'll be okay, Mikhail.”
He was silent for a long time, and then he said, “I hope I will not be sorry I brought you into this.”
“I wanted to do it. I'm still glad I'm doing it.” She bit her bottom lip and then went on, “My father started working for Greenpeace after he won his Olympic gold. It used to upset me when he'd go away for long periods of time. I remember once he was going to miss my seventh birthday, and I was really ticked off at him. He was on his way to Newfoundland to save the baby seals instead of staying home and celebrating my birthday, and I just didn't get it. Why was that so important? What about me? Wasn't I important to him, too? You know what he said? ‘Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices to do what you know is right.’ That's what I'm doing, Mikhail. I don’t know why you feel you have to leave your country, but I do know, just for the short time I've known you, that you wouldn't do it for an insignificant reason. That's why I'm helping you, and I don't regret it. I won't regret it.”
“I hope that will be true.” He gazed into the darkness out the passenger window. “I would tell you if I could,” he added softly. “But I must not. It could put you in even greater danger.”
She nodded. “I understand that.” She glanced into the rear view mirror to see if they were being followed, and was relieved to see nothing but darkness behind them. “Why don't you get some sleep? I'll wake you in a couple hours and let you take over.”
He nodded, and adjusted his seat back. After a few moments of silence, Kerry reached for a CD. Maybe a Van Morrison would calm her nerves.
“Perhaps it is for best,” Mikhail said suddenly.
She glanced at him. “What?”
He didn't look at her. Just stared up at the ceiling of the Jeep. “You and me,” he said quietly. “What did not happen back in motel room.”
Kerry's heart thudded. She knew he was right. She agreed with him. Absolutely. But God, it hurt to hear him say it. She swallowed hard, and found her voice. “Yes, you're right. It is for the best.”
He didn't speak again as they drove on through the darkness toward the Kansas state line.
* * * * *
The road conditions improved the closer they got to Kansas, and by the time they crossed the state line, a weak sun was just beginning to rise.
Kerry yawned, and glanced over at Mikhail who was taking his turn at the wheel. “You okay?”
He nodded. “This Jeep Cherokee, I like. Handles very good.”
“Yeah, I like it, too.” She frowned. “Too bad…” Then she caught herself.
He looked over at her. In the early morning light, she could just make out the sober expression on his face. “Too bad you must sell?”
“It's okay,” she said. “I've been thinking about trading it in, anyway. Get something a little more…you know…feminine.”
That made him grin. “I think Jeep Cherokee is perfect for you.”
She slanted him a derisive look. “Are you saying I’m not feminine?”
Color flooded his face. “No! You misunderstand. You are…most feminine, but unlike any woman I have ever met.”
“Oh, I was just giving you a hard time. Look!” Her eyes fastened on a green sign along the roadway. “Norton is less than two hours away. We should get there about the time the used car lots open. Still no sign of our friends?”
Mikhail shook his head. “No. Very little traffic.”
“Good. Maybe they still think we took the interstate.”
Mikhail stifled a yawn, and then said, “Kerry, I'm famished. We never had dinner last night, remember?”
Oh, did she ever. His words immediately brought to mind those exquisite moments on the bed, the warmth of Mikhail's body, the touch of his hands and his mouth tenderly exploring hers. Heat shot through her, and biting her bottom lip, she reached out to turn the temperature control down a notch.
“I'm hungry, too,” she said. “Should we risk stopping for breakfast?”
Mikhail shrugged. “We have to eat.”
They found a truck stop, and pulled in, carefully glancing around to make sure no one was watching them before they got out of the Jeep.
Everything seemed normal inside, just the usual mix of truck drivers and families on the road. A waitress led them to a booth overlooking the parking lot, and they ordered eggs, bacon and coffee. As before, Mikhail remained silent, allowing Kerry to do the ordering. This time, though, the waitress barely acknowledged him. Kerry supposed they'd been successful in turning him into just another American guy, albeit, a really great-looking American guy.
An hour later, they were back on the two-lane highway heading for Norton. It was eight o'clock when they pulled into a used car lot just off the road. Kerry turned off the ignition, and looked at Mikhail. “You'd better let me handle this. Your accent would really make you hard to forget.”
The corner of his lip lifted in a wry smile. “No problem,” he said. “I play henpecked husband.”
The used car lot was quiet this early, and Kerry didn't see a salesman anywhere. Hands tucked deep in the pockets of her insulated parka, she picked her way through the brown slush, casting a critical eye over the variety of vehicles in the car lot. Mikhail followed behind her silently.
“So, we're going to stick to the northern route,” she muttered, thinking aloud. “Because they'll assume we're planning to stick to I-70…the sane route in the dead of winter. That means we need to find something that can handle the snow. But what? I have no idea how much they'll give me for the Jeep.”
Mikhail stopped behind her, eyeing a sleek black Camaro. Kerry noticed and gave a short laugh. “No way, Mikhail. Move on.”
“Ah, you're breaking his heart, Ma'am. Be a sport.”
Kerry whipped around to see a little man with twinkling blue eyes standing a few feet from them, his hands tucked into a black parka etched with Buddy’s Pre-Owned Autos. He grinned, and Kerry immediately felt a kinship with him. In some weird way, he reminded her of Grandpa Johan. Used car salesman, she reminded herself sternly as she automatically returned his smile. Not to be trusted.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning to you, folks. What can I do you for?”
Kerry took a deep breath. “Well, my…er…husband and I want to trade in our Jeep Cherokee for something more…oh, I don't know…practical?”
The salesman's eyes widened, but he recovered from his surprise quickly, thrusting out a gloved hand. “You can call me Buddy.” He shook Kerry's hand, and then Mikhail's who nodded and smiled, but didn't speak. “Okay, now…let's see…” The car salesman rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Something more practical than a Jeep Cherokee. That's a tall order…uh…” He slanted a look over at Mikhail. “Something wrong with the Jeep?”
“Not at all,” Kerry said quickly. “It's just that…uh…” With a flash of inspiration, she patted her belly through the thickness of her parka. “We have a little one on the way, and we just want something…you know…sturdier. Safer. Something good in snow, but not too expensive. Something good for a long trip. But not too flashy. In fact, the more boring, the better. You got anything like that?”
Buddy's eyes burned with curiosity as he looked from Kerry to Mikhail. Mikhail grinned and nodded. “Um…well…I'll have to think on that,” Buddy said. “Tell you what let's do. Let me take a gander at that vehicle of yours, and then we'll know what ball park we're in. How's that sound?”
“Hunky dory,” Kerry said, starting to enjoy the game. “Come, Michael. Let's go show Buddy our car.”
A half hour later, they sat in Buddy's office signing the papers for the trade of the Jeep for a 1997 Volvo.
“She's really good in snow,” Buddy was saying as he put the paperwork together. “Yes, Ma'am, chocolate on a stick in snow. You're going to really enjoy her. I drove her over from KC during a sumbitch of a blizzard…excuse me, Ma’am…a couple months ago, and didn't have nary a problem with her. Too bad, though, we don't have something in a better color. That charcoal gray is a little drab, but hey, it'll get you where you want to go, and that's what counts, right?”
“I like the color,” said Kerry. “And so does Michael. Don't you, Michael? Don't you like the color?”
“Uh huh,” Mikhail said slowly, with a smile that looked about as genuine as Pamela Andersen’s breasts.
Buddy flashed him an appraising look. “You're the strong, silent type, aren't you, partner?”
Kerry laughed. “Oh, that's Michael, all right. Only speaks when he has something to say. And of course, it's hard to get a word in edgewise with me around.” She laughed heartily.
Buddy slid some papers over the desk toward them. “Okay, just need both of your John Hancocks right here, and you'll be on your way with your new car.”
“Oh, Michael doesn't have to sign,” Kerry said. “The Jeep is in my name, and I'm going to write you a check for the balance…although, I really think you should let that two thousand slide. Seems like a fair trade to me…but…oh, well…we've been through this, haven't we?” She reached for the pen.
Buddy sighed. “This is the very best I can do, Mrs. Niles. You got my word on that. Okay, now, we're all set,” he said as Kerry signed the papers. He stood and gave her the keys, then stretched out a hand. “She's all yours. Good luck to you.” He turned to Mikhail, hand outstretched. “And you, sir. Come on back when the Missus gives you permission to buy that black Camaro out front.” His eyes twinkled with humor, and Kerry could practically read his mind.
You'll get that Camaro, friend, on the day Hell freezes over.
“Okay, then…” Kerry jangled the keys. “You ready to hit the road, Michael? It's a long way to California.”
“Uh huh,” Mikhail said.
A few minutes later, they slid into their newly acquired Volvo, Kerry, of course, at the wheel. She waved warmly at Buddy as they pulled onto the street.
“No point in shattering Buddy's illusions,” she said with a grin, “about who’s wearing the pants in this marriage.”
Mikhail eyed her. “You enjoyed that, did you not?”
Kerry laughed, and a tingle of pleasure raced through him at the joyous sound of it. He was glad she could still laugh after their close call last night.
“Mikhail, you've got me all wrong! Do I look like the type who would enjoy hen-pecking a husband?”
He examined her thoughtfully. “Not hen-peck,” he said finally. “But I think you are woman who enjoys having her way. Being in control.”
Kerry turned this over in her mind, and then gave a grudging nod. “I suppose that's true. When you've been on your own…figuratively speaking…as many years as I have, I suppose it's hard to give up control.” She glanced at him. “Do you find that unattractive in a woman?”
A slow flush crept over his face, and he avoided her eyes, looking out the window at the town of Norton. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible, but she heard it all the same.
“I find nothing unattractive about you, Kerry Niles. And that scares hell out of me.”
* * * * *
The day passed quickly as they sped toward Missouri, taking turns driving, and stopping only for gas and a quick lunch in St. Joseph. They hoped to make St. Louis by nightfall, but it didn't look good. Darkness came early in the plains in February, and the pregnant gray ceiling of clouds hinted of more snow, and perhaps lots of it. Despite Buddy's promise that the Volvo was “chocolate on a stick” in the snow, Kerry wasn't looking forward to trying it out in a blizzard. Or was she kidding herself? Was she just making excuses to prolong her time with Mikhail? She'd never been nervous about driving in snow before. What was different about now?
There was no doubt in her mind, though, about their fatigue. They'd been driving now for over sixteen hours, with only three breaks. Despite taking turns at the wheel every two hours, they both were exhausted. There'd been no sign of their pursuers, and finally, at four o'clock in the afternoon, Kerry said what Mikhail had been thinking.
“Let's pack it in for the night.”
As they approached the small town of Mexico, Kerry saw a quaint L-shaped motel, a throwback to the Sixties, with rooms that opened up directly to the parking lot. Not exactly the safest place to stay, but Kerry knew if they continued on, they would be in more danger from a car accident than being caught by O'Malley's thugs.
She pulled up under the portico of the office where a big neon sign flashed, “Office. Vacancy.”
“We might as well keep playing the hen-pecked husband and overbearing wife,” she said, opening the driver's side door. “I'll check us in.”
There were only a couple of other cars in the parking lot, she noticed. One with Minnesota tags, the other with Nebraska. A white dog sniffed around a garbage can at the side of the office building, looking up at her approach, and giving a half-hearted wag of his tail.
“Hey, Pooch,” she greeted him. “What are you doing out here in the cold?”
A stray snowflake drifted down from the dark sky. Her heart lifted. Snow, she pleaded to the heavens. Snow all night, all day tomorrow, for a month. The more the better. Snow is my new best friend.
Five minutes later, she stepped out of the office with a key. Mikhail was reclining in his seat, eyes closed in slumber. Kerry regarded him tenderly for a moment. Poor baby. You didn't know what you were getting yourself into, did you? I guess I didn't either.
But oddly enough, she didn't regret anything. Despite the danger, the fatigue, the uncertainty of what the next day would bring, she couldn't regret being here with him. For the first time since her father died, she felt fully and joyously alive, and even with the fear of bad people chasing them, she wanted to hold onto this time, this adventure. Hold onto every precious moment with Mikhail.
Oh, God. What is happening to me? She hadn't felt like this since those early days with Josh. When she'd felt like she was walking on air, and every tissue, every blood vessel inside her felt electric and wild and heady with newfound love. But look what that had got her. A broken heart, a police record and a stern dressing down from the USFSA.
She gazed at Mikhail's sleeping face, and despite the warning bells tolling inside her head, she wanted to reach out and touch him. Brush her fingers down his bristled jaw, trace the outline of his full, perfectly molded lips. It took everything she had to turn away from him and start the engine. He awoke, his senses at full alert.
“I've got us a room, Mikhail,” she said, her voice husky. “In a minute, we'll be able to crawl into a nice warm bed and sleep. Doesn't that sound wonderful?”
He gave her a warm smile, and its power was such that she felt shattered, as if her defenses were crumbling into a thousand tiny pieces.
* * * * *
They slept in separate double beds through the night, so exhausted that neither of them moved even when the winds whipped up to a howling frenzy, and the snow, mixing with sleet, beat against the small window overlooking the parking lot.
When Kerry finally opened her eyes and stretched out her legs with a long, satisfied groan, she thought it was still the middle of the night. It was unbearably hot in the room and so dark she could barely make out the large bump on the other bed hunched under a blanket and a purple paisley bedspread. Her skin was slick with sweat, her hair damp. She threw off the bed covers, and felt immediate relief. The drawstring pajamas and skimpy camisole top she wore was soggy with perspiration.
She'd turned up the thermostat upon entering, and hadn't bothered to turn it down before crawling thankfully into her bed. She supposed she should get up and turn it down now, but she couldn't seem to make herself move.
Turning on her side, she looked at the alarm clock on the bedside table and saw that the illuminated hands indicated it was six o'clock. Impossible, she thought. She'd had to have slept more than two hours. Gingerly, she swung her legs over the bed, and stood, glancing again at Mikhail's slumbering form.
God, wasn't he steaming under all those covers? She crept across the dark room to the thermostat and turned it down to sixty-five. There, that should cool it off in here. Then she moved to the window to peer out and make sure everything looked as it should. She caught her breath.
A glaze of ice covered the window so thickly it was like looking through a frosted shower door. That's when she noticed the wind. She must've been hearing it all the time, but she'd just assumed it was the furnace. But no, it sounded more like the howl of a lonely wolf as it whistled through the eaves and hammered against the fragile walls of the old-fashioned motel.
Kerry tiptoed to the door, and turned the double latch, then cautiously, opened it a crack. The wind whistled in, bringing with it a torrent of whirling snow. A pale, ghostly light told her she'd been wrong. It was six in the morning, not night, but it was definitely not the kind of morning for travel. A drift had piled up knee-high on the threshold, and from the look of things, the snow wouldn't be stopping any time soon. Kerry slammed the door and locked it, her heart pounding.
Oh, thank you, God. Yes, this is exactly what I prayed for.
She turned back to her bed, a pleased smile on her lips. Might as well crawl back under the covers and get some more sleep. They weren't going anywhere today.
Just as she reached her bed and sat down on it, Mikhail moaned and threw off his covers. Kerry's heart jolted at the sight of his bare chest and his long, lean haunches as he stretched out on his back, clad only in a pair of red boxer shorts. A slow-moving tide of heat crept through her, and it had nothing to do with the temperature of the room. Oh, how she wanted to follow her instincts and cross that small space separating his bed from hers, crawl up next to him, and fit her body against the pulsating heat of his.
He was totally vulnerable to her now, still lost in whatever dreams that were playing across his brain. If she wanted to, if she had the nerve, she could slide her hands over the light carpet of hair on his chest, travel up his strong, corded neck, and capture his mouth with hers. He would make slow, sensuous love to her, and not even be fully aware he was doing it. She knew she could make it happen.
If she had the nerve…

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tango's Edge - Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

“I have upset you.” Mikhail stood in the motel room, his hands tucked in the pockets of his sweat pants. He’d just stepped out of the bathroom after showering, and although he was dressed in his Bronco sweatshirt and jeans, his hair was still wet and combed back from his sculptured Nordic face.
Kerry could barely make him out, even though he was only a few feet away. She sat on the middle of her bed, her arms hugging her knees, eyes fixed on the TV screen glimmering in the shadowy room. Her hair, still damp from the shower, hung loose and tucked behind her ears. She wore soft cotton pajamas―a V-neck top and drawstring bottoms ordered from an L.L. Bean catalog years ago. It was the most comfortable article of clothing she owned, and if she never had to put on anything else in her life she'd be perfectly happy. But clothes would be required later for their hike down to the restaurant for dinner.
Too bad there isn't pizza delivery out here. But even if there was, what were the chances they'd deliver in the middle of a snowstorm? Although…last time she'd looked, it had almost stopped snowing. In fact, they probably should go ahead and get on the road tonight. For a moment, she considered suggesting it, but somehow, she just couldn't wrap her tongue around the words.
“I'm not upset,” she said now to Mikhail, looking at the TV instead of at him.
She’d got caught up in some woman-in-jeopardy movie on the Lifetime Channel while Mikhail was in the shower. She was pretty sure she’d seen it before, or one very similar.
Mikhail skirted his bed and sat on the edge of it. Kerry felt his eyes on her and turned to look at him. Her pulse gave a kick at the solemn look on his face. “What's wrong?”
“I was thinking about our talk at restaurant. About losing parents.” His voice softened. “I never knew my father. Not my real father. He was Sami. Do you know of them? The indigenous people of the North? They are sometimes called Laplanders, but I do not think that is…what is word? Politically correct?”
Kerry nodded. “We read about them in school. They live in the northern section of Scandinavia, right?”
“And in Russia. Two months ago, I did not know I was of Sami blood. It was only upon my mother's death that I learned truth. That she loved another man before the one I thought of as my father.”
Kerry gazed at him, now just a shadow in the darkness. “But you had a happy childhood, right? He treated you well?”
Mikhail shrugged. “I did not know him well, since I was taken away from my home so young. For the years I lived with my parents, Stefan was decent man, but he did not know how to show love.” He paused, and then added, “If I ever have children, they will know they are loved.”
Kerry caught her breath at the intensity in his voice. A wave of compassion shot through her. She thought of what it must've been like for him, taken away from the only home he knew at the tender age of six. Poor kid must've been scared to death. “But your mother. She showed her love, didn't she?”
“Yes. And so did Nadya, my coach. She became like second mother.” He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice had thickened with emotion. “I lost them both. Once I became Elena's partner, I rarely saw Nadya. And now…who knows if I ever see her again.” He stared off into space, eyes bleak.
He's homesick, Kerry thought, feeling a pang go through her.
“Oh, Mikhail!” Without thinking about the consequences, she scrambled off the bed and moved over to sit next to him. In the flickering light of the TV, she could see the sadness on his face, and it broke her heart. There had been so many losses for him lately. His parents, Nadya…his homeland. She lifted a hand to his cheek, feeling the hard ridge of his scar under the pads of her fingertips. How many times had she imagined touching him like this? Freshly showered, he smelled like deodorant soap mixed with the musky oak moss scent of the Cool Water cologne he'd bought.
“You still grieve for your father,” Mikhail said softly, turning to her. “Does it ever end? The grieving?”
She cupped his jaw in her hand, tears burning behind her eyelids as she thought of her father's laughing face. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head. “It gets easier as time passes, but I don't think you ever stop missing them. Sometimes…” She dropped her hand to her lap as her voice broke. She swallowed convulsively and lowered her head. He placed an arm around her shoulders, drawing her close to him, his chin anchoring on top of her head. “…sometimes,” she went on. “I wish it had been Jana who died instead of my dad. Isn't that awful? Doesn't that make me a horrible person? But every time I get out on the ice, and I'm standing there waiting for the music to begin, the same thought goes through my mind. Why can't he be in the audience? He would've been so proud to see me skate in the Olympics.” A tear trailed down her cheek. “Jana has never seen me skate live. I don't know if she even watches on TV. But you know what? I don't care. I just don't care!”
Mikhail leaned away from her, and the next thing she knew, he had her face cupped in his hands, his eyes holding hers. “We are very much alike, Kerry Niles,” he said. “We both grieve for lost parents. Even those not of our blood. You have lost two fathers. I have lost two mothers…and two fathers.” His thumbs caressed her tear-stained cheeks, sending an inexplicable feeling of longing through her. Her heartbeat accelerated at the soft expression on his face. “But you still have a mother,” he added. “Perhaps is not too late to start new relationship with her.”
Kerry didn't want to think about Jana right now. She couldn't think about her. Her gaze swept over Mikhail's handsome face, lingering on his molded lips, remembering their taste during that blissful moment out by the creek. She knew he wanted to kiss her again. He was weighing the decision right now. All she had to do was give him some sign that she wanted it, too.
Her gaze moved to his scar. Like a magnet, it drew her fingers. She traced it lightly, and saw his eyes darken with desire. But still, he didn't move. Just watched her. Her tongue moistened her bottom lip. “How did you get this?”
His thumb moved slowly over her cheekbone in a tender caress. “Skate blade,” he murmured. “I was sixteen, training for pairs. My partner came too close during camel spin.”
Kerry's gaze moved from his scar to his eyes. What she saw there caused her to catch her breath. Her heart began to race. “We shouldn't be doing this, should we?” she whispered.
He shook his head, and when he spoke, his voice was husky with longing, “No. Is not good idea.”
But neither of them moved. Her finger brushed the ridge of his scar again and then moved down his bristled jaw. Mikhail's hands smoothed her hair back from her temples. Then, cradling her head, he leaned toward her, his lips inches away from hers.
She caught her breath. “We should probably go ahead and leave,” she murmured. “It's stopped snowing.”
“Yes,” he whispered, a smile in his eyes. “That would be wise thing to do.”
“If we leave now…” she said breathlessly, “…we could be in St. Louis for breakfast.”
His mouth closed over hers in a hot, demanding kiss. Kerry clutched the folds of his sweatshirt in one hand as she opened to him, drinking in the sweetness of his lips. He broke away long enough for each of them to take a gasping breath, then took her mouth again in an increasingly hungry series of slow, burning kisses. Her head swam. Her heart felt as if it were exploding in her rib cage. Under her palm, she could feel his thudding heartbeat. On the TV, a woman screamed and men shouted. There was the sound of gunfire. Too bad, whoever you are. You’re getting shot at, and I'm kissing a hunk. And oh, my, can this hunk kiss.
Mikhail eased her back onto the bed, his mouth still plundering hers. His hand moved down her neck, teasing at the vee of her top, awakening every nerve, every blood vessel along its trail. Finally, with one last soulful kiss, he dragged his mouth from hers and moved to the hollow of her throat, nibbling and tasting. Kerry gasped, lacing her fingers through his damp hair. She closed her eyes, giving herself up to his touch.
“I have wanted to do this since I first saw you,” he murmured, lifting his lips from her neck momentarily. Then he returned to planting kisses along the column of her throat before finally reaching her mouth again, his tongue slipping inside to coax her enthusiastic response.
This is crazy, she thought, eagerly returning his kiss. This is exactly what I've been telling myself I can't do. Get romantically involved with a charismatic Russian on the run. It would just complicate things. It would just…
Still kissing her, his hand moved to the first snap of her top. With a soft pop, it came undone, then the second one. Then the third. He slipped a warm hand inside her top, cupping her bare breast. Her blood went from simmer to boiling. She gave a soft moan, her nails clutching convulsively at his back. In response, his kiss deepened, became urgent. He rolled onto his back, pulling her on top of him, one hand holding her head to maintain contact with her mouth. She could feel the heat of his erection pressing into her belly, and she knew common sense had lost the battle. Damn celibacy! She dragged her mouth from his, and straddling him, straightened so she could gaze down into his eyes. He stared back, his breathing labored.
“Let's get this shirt off you,” she said finally, her hands going to the bottom of his sweatshirt. She helped him pull it off, and then tossed it to the floor. Flattening her hands on his muscled chest, she skimmed down his flat stomach then moved back up to his nipples. He drew in a staggered breath, watching her. Smiling, she bent down and laved the hollow of his throat with her tongue. Oh, yes. This was all coming back to her. A ragged moan splintered his lips.
She drew back and gave him a wicked grin. “I've wanted to do that since I first saw you.”
With a soft growl, his upper half came off the bed, his hands reaching for the opening of her top. With one brisk snap, he wrenched it open, revealing her breasts to his appreciative gaze. “What do they say?” he asked with a delighted grin. “Turn about is fair play?”
Before she could answer, he laughed and rolled her onto her back again. Straddling her, he molded his large hands to her breasts, his eyes dancing. “I am going to drive you crazy, Kerry Niles. I will make love to you all night long. I will make you come over and over.”
Kerry gave him a lazy smile, her tongue wetting her bottom lip. “Sounds like a deal I'd be an idiot to pass up.”
Twin flames ignited in his eyes as he fastened his gaze on her mouth. “You do know that little trick drives me over edge, yes? You do that on purpose? To drive men wild?”
“Not men,” Kerry whispered. “You, Mikhail. To drive you wild.” Her gaze held his as she pressed her hand against his rigid penis, hot and thick beneath his sweatpants. “Come on, Mikhail. It's your turn. Drive me wild.”
Fastening his hands at the sides of her head, his mouth took hers in a plunging kiss. With a moan, she arched against him, the aching need between her legs intensifying. His mouth still locked on hers, he moved his hand down to her pajama bottoms, tugging at the drawstring. Kerry pushed at his sweatpants. She wanted to stroke him, to feel the naked power and pulse of him in her hands.
Suddenly his body tensed. He dragged his mouth from hers and stared down at her, alarm flaring in his eyes.
“What?” Kerry asked, her voice ragged. “What's wrong, Mikhail?”
Regret flickered across his face. He rolled off her and sat up, raking his hands through his hair. “We cannot do this.”
Oh, hell. Now, he decides we can't do this. Every cell in her body shrieked in frustration. It was as if she'd been handed a three-pound box of See's Chocolates and told she was forbidden to taste, but could only look and smell.
She rolled over on her side, propped her head on her hand, and eyed him. “Well, let me just say your timing sucks.”
He lifted his head and gave her a chagrined look. “Sorry. But…” He shrugged. “I just remembered. I have no protection.” An eyebrow rose in question. “Do you?”
“Uh…no.” Kerry flopped onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. Her heart was still thudding with excitement, her limbs weak. “Condoms weren't on my shopping list. And I haven't been on the Pill for four years.” Not since Josh. But she didn't intend to share the particulars. “I'm shocked you don't have any, considering the rumors I've heard about you being such a womanizer.”
Mikhail winced. “Rumors greatly exaggerated.”
Silence fell between them. Kerry stared up at the ceiling. Why is it all motel ceilings look alike? she wondered. That cheesy-looking stucco stuff and a smoke detector blinking its little green light every few seconds. Damn it, Mikhail Kozlof, you've got my body so wired, I feel like my blood could produce enough energy to light up the entire city of Manhattan. And you had to go and remember you don't have any condoms.
She gnawed at her bottom lip. Hell, there was virtually no chance she could get pregnant. She'd just had her period the week before. But then, of course, pregnancy wasn't the only thing they had to worry about. There was, oh, just a little thing like…death from AIDs. She supposed she really should be grateful to Mikhail for keeping a clear head…although that wasn't exactly a compliment to her seductiveness, was it?
Mikhail lifted his head and stared at the TV. Kerry frowned. Okkkaaay. So we’ll forgo the sex and watch a little TV instead. Hey, what about HBO? We can watch people having sex. Oh, happy day!
Mikhail was still gazing glassily at the TV, his brows furrowed. Then he grinned. “I just remembered.” He turned to her, his eyes sweeping over her face and down to her opened top.
Kerry had never been a particularly shy person, and was certainly comfortable with nudity. She felt Mikhail's gaze on her exposed breasts, but didn't bother to cover up. After all, a few minutes ago, he'd had his hands all over them. No point in playing the shy schoolgirl now.
But apparently, Mikhail felt differently. His lips tightened, and he sat up, reached over and covered her up. Then, methodically, he began to re-snap her top. “You make it hard to think,” he said shortly.
Kerry grinned, and rolling over on her side, she allowed her gaze to wander down to his bulging erection. “That's not the only thing I made hard, apparently.”
Mikhail's lips quirked, and she couldn't tell for sure but she thought he might be blushing. “Kerry Niles,” he said slowly, in mock astonishment, “You are bad girl.”
“I know. I am what I am. So, what is it you remembered?”
He nodded, excitement flaring in his eyes. “Yes! Remember when you checked into motel? I went down hall to use men's room. I think I saw sex machine in there.”
Sex machine? Her heart bumped. “You mean a condom machine?” She hoped that was what he was talking about. A friggin' candy machine just wouldn't cut it right now.
He nodded, and scrambled off the bed, grabbing his sweatshirt from the floor. His head disappeared, and then reappeared through the hole, his hair tousled. “Do not move. I will be right back. Oh!” He stopped and looked at her, hesitation written on his face. “Can I borrow dollar?” he asked. “Remember, we still have not found bank to exchange rubles.”
Kerry couldn't help it. She laughed. It just struck her so funny. The horny Russian, desperate for condoms, and with only rubles to buy them. Still snorting with laughter, she moved off the bed and grabbed her purse from the desk, drawing a couple of singles from her wallet. She handed the money to him, giving him a big grin to go with it. “Consider it my contribution to the cause.”
He took the bill, placed a hand on the back of her head and gave her a hot, succulent kiss that immediately sent her head spinning. “I will be back.”
Kerry's fingertips brushed her burning lips as she watched him race to the door. “Oh, I'm counting on that.”
* * * * *
Mikhail hurried through the side entrance of the motel office and down the hall to the men's restroom. From the desk around the corner, he could hear the motel clerk gabbing to someone about the snowy weather. It was the same man who'd checked them in―a long-winded old guy with a shock of white hair. Poor Kerry had stood there for fifteen minutes with the key in her hand, while the garrulous owner talked her ear off about the Olympics and why, in his opinion, the Americans hadn't brought in as many gold medals as they should have. Mikhail hoped whoever it was out front would keep the old guy talking because he sure didn't want to get waylaid by him now. Not with Kerry waiting for him back in the room.
He deposited the money into the vending machine, his heart thudding at the thought of her flushed, sexy face, her beautiful blue-green eyes cloudy with desire. A small voice inside him reminded him that sleeping with her would be a mistake. The double-pack condoms dropped into the tray, and he mentally ordered the voice to be silent. Pocketing the package, he stepped out of the restroom and turned left to head for the exit door.
That's when he heard it. Another male voice coming from the lobby around the corner. Mikhail stopped, listening, and a chill crawled over his skin.
“Have you seen this man? He may be traveling with this young woman.”
The accent was unmistakably Irish.
* * * * *
As soon as Mikhail left the room, Kerry hurried into the bathroom and began to brush her teeth with more energy than she'd had in months. After swishing some minty-tasting mouthwash for a few seconds, she grabbed her travel bag and dabbed a few drops of Michael Kors perfume onto her pulse points, then gazed into the mirror. She grabbed a brush and began to run it through her now dry hair, smiling at the flush on her cheekbones and the bright excitement in her eyes. It had been a long time since she'd felt like this. Since she'd allowed herself to feel like this. So what if it was a mistake? It probably was, but right now, she didn't care. She'd worry about it tomorrow. Right now, she couldn't wait to be back in Mikhail's strong, sexy arms.
A knock came at the door. Kerry put down her brush, smiled into the mirror then flew across the room. “Did you get them?” she asked, flinging open the door. Her smile froze and her heart plunged.
It wasn't Mikhail.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 10

Chapter Ten

“Here's the situation, love.”
Sean sat on the edge of the bed next to a pale-faced Elena. She lay on her back, the black satin mask hooked securely over her eyes, her full, seductive mouth nearly bloodless.
She'd calmed down a lot since the previous day, once she'd shrieked her fury, thrown a couple of lamps and ripped her skating costumes to ribbons with a pair of cuticle scissors. But then, the team doctor had prescribed a sedative, so that accounted for her momentary calm. Sean had decided it would be a good time to bring her up to speed on what he'd discovered from his contact in Estonia.
Immaakin had been easy to find. He had a law office right in downtown Tallinn. Getting information out of him, though, had been more difficult than anticipated. But in the end, he'd talked. Niko always got them to talk.
“Kozlof has defected,” Sean said, stroking Elena's arm. “He has come across information about the TNG formula, and is trying to make his way to Virginia to deliver it to the CIA.”
Elena moved her hand, and her nails bit into the skin of his arm. “How could he do this to me?” she said, her voice ragged with anger. “How could he?”
Sean gave a grim smile, knowing she couldn't see his face. In a perverse way, he was enjoying this. And was about to enjoy it even more.
“He has an American girl with him. The ice dancer, Kerry Niles.”
Elena bolted up in the bed, and in the same motion, ripped her mask off. Her red-tinged eyes glared at him, wild and enraged like a rabid animal's. “He is with that woman?” she hissed.
“It would seem so,” Sean said coolly. “Do not worry, love. They won't get far. I have a couple of men hunting them down. I can guarantee you they won't make it to Virginia.”
Elena's nails bit into his arms. “I don't care what you do to that little bitch, but you bring Mikhail Kozlof to me. You understand? You bring him to me untouched. I will deal with him, and when I do, he's going to wish you killed him.”
She flopped back on the bed, and tugged the mask over her eyes again. Sean stepped out into the living room, a satisfied smirk on his face.
Yes, perhaps things were working out for the best. Elena hated Kozlof now, and anyone who knew Elena knew how lethal her hatred could be. He'd do as she asked. He'd bring Kozlof back and let her take care of him.
It might be very entertaining to see exactly how she'd do it.
* * * * *
Kerry stepped out of the bathroom in her warm fleece robe, a towel wrapped around her head. “Okay. Shower's free.” She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Mikhail standing at the window of the motel room, staring out at the falling snow. He was shirtless, wearing only a pair of the jersey sweatpants they'd bought yesterday. She sucked in an admiring breath. The man had an absolutely gorgeous back.
He turned around, and her breath left her body like a balloon releasing its air. Oh, Lord, save me, she thought at the sight of his magnificent chest, washboard abs and flat tummy. Could a man look better than this? It was obvious from his rippling muscles that he worked out. Of course, being an ice dancer, he had to work out. Had to take ballet, too. That accounted for the almost feline way he moved. But even so, she hadn't expected his bare chest and belly to be so…so…scrumptious! And this was after eating half that box of Ding Dongs last night. Oh, and it was just the kind of chest she liked, too―not too much hair, just enough to be manly. It was golden-brown, trailing down to a “V” below the waist of his sweatpants. Yes, indeedy, this was a sight for sore eyes…as Grandma Vive often said.
Kerry saw the amused light in his eyes and realized she was staring. She quickly looked away. “Still snowing?” she asked, rubbing the towel vigorously through her wet locks.
“Like a mother,” Mikhail said.
Kerry laughed. “You sure pick up on Americanisms fast.”
He grinned. “I am quick learner.”
He'd learned this latest Americanism from her as they'd walked back from Wal-Mart. And it was still “snowing like a mother” she saw, glancing out the window. Perhaps they'd have to spend another night here. The thought warmed her. It had been fun last night. After a dinner of hearty beef stew at the small restaurant down the road, they'd returned to the motel room, got into their comfortable sweats and watched TV all night, snacking on Ding Dongs for dessert. Mikhail hadn't been kidding when he'd said he loved American TV. He'd laughed his butt off at “Friends” and then later got absorbed in “CSI.”
“I will shower now,” Mikhail said. “And then we go eat breakfast, yes?”
Kerry glanced at the box of Ding Dongs on the table, and raised an eyebrow. “One Ding Dong left. It seems to me like you've already had breakfast.”
He shrugged and gave a lopsided smile. “There is something about winter air and snow that gives me big appetite.”
“Well, you eat many more of those Ding Dongs, and you're going to lose that nice trim figure of yours.”
“Ha!” He scoffed, and pounded his abs with his fists. “I am hard as rock, see?”
“Yeah, I see.” Boy, did she ever! “Right now, you are. But I still think after we eat breakfast, we should go walk off some calories. I'll go crazy if we have to sit here in this room and watch TV all day. Once I get you hooked on the soaps, forget it. I'll never get you out of here.”
His eyes lit up. “Ah, yes. I have not seen 'Days of Our Lives' since Colorado Springs. Do you know what time it shows?”
Kerry rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Get in the shower, Mikhail! And make it fast. I'm starving.”
He headed for the bathroom, and Kerry reached for the last Ding Dong. Might as well go ahead and eat it. If not, the Walking Russian Sweettooth would scarf it down. They'd have to make another pit stop at Wal-Mart and restock. Maybe they'd go for the Ho Ho's this time, or how about those yummy Snowballs covered with marshmallow and pink coconut―or green since St. Patrick's Day would be coming up soon. God, it was so good to be able to eat whatever she wanted without being worried about fitting into a slinky skating dress. Of course, she'd have to be careful not to go overboard. She was pretty sure Mikhail wouldn't be attracted to her if she turned into a moose.
Not that she wanted him to be attracted to her, she reminded herself as she unwrapped the Ding Dong.
She jumped and looked around. Mikhail stood at the bathroom door, wrapped only in a towel. Her face flamed at the sight. But of course, he thought she was blushing because she'd been caught unwrapping the Ding Dong.
“I knew I could not leave you alone with last Ding Dong,” he said, an eyebrow quirked in jest.
Kerry glanced down at the cake, and finished unwrapping it. “Yeah, you caught me red-handed.” She took an enthusiastic bite. “So, what's my punishment?”
He gave her a slow, sexy grin, and she almost choked on the cake. Oh, God. This man was doing things to her libido that she'd never imagined could be done. Maybe a good roll in the snow would help cool her off. With an effort, she turned away from him, and sat down at the small desk, reaching for the newspaper they'd picked up the afternoon before. She took another bite of the Ding Dong, her eyes studiously fixed upon the sports page. Not a word about Mikhail so far. Thank God.
Holding the ends of the towel in one hand, Mikhail crossed over to the dresser and grabbed a plastic bottle. “My new shampoo.” He gave her a smile and a wink, and then headed back to the bathroom.
Kerry watched the door close, and then released a breath she hadn't even known she'd been holding. Then she shook her head. “There should be a law about looking like that in a towel,” she muttered. She popped the last bite of chocolate cake in her mouth, closed her eyes and chewed slowly.
Chocolate was a great substitute for sex.

* * * * *

After breakfast, they trudged through the snow back toward the motel. Kerry estimated that another foot had fallen since last evening, and so far, there had been no sign of any snow equipment clearing the interstate. A few four-wheel drive vehicles had trundled by, so realistically, they could probably get on the road tonight. But…
But she didn't want to.
Why risk driving on snow-packed roads? Would it matter if they delayed here another day? After all, it wasn't as if they had a schedule to keep. Roger had no idea they were coming. What difference would it make if they arrived in Occoquan three days from now? Or even a week from now?
The truth was, she didn't want this time with Mikhail to end. Not yet.
Beside her, he glanced up at the gray sky, blinking to avoid a dive-bombing snowflake. “Still snowing,” he said unnecessarily.
But Kerry understood what he meant. “Yeah. It would probably be a good idea if we just stayed put another night.” She held her breath, half expecting a protest.
“I like Colorado,” he said, turning to smile at her. “Perhaps I make this my new home.”
Kerry grinned back as the wind tossed her hair wildly about her head. Her heart suddenly felt lighter. Yes, they would stay another night. Wait until this snowstorm blew itself out, and then head for Virginia. God, it was so beautiful here! She'd never really noticed the wild beauty of this state before. And with the snow, it looked like a scene from a Currier & Ives Christmas card. She glanced around, her eyes lingering on a smooth hill behind the motel, a gentle slope of land covered in drifts of snow like swirling mounds of whipped cream. It was the perfect hill. Just like the one on Grandma and Grandpa's farm where Dad had often taken her sledding.
She stopped in her tracks, a grin spreading across her face. “Mikhail!” She grabbed the sleeve of his parka. “We’ve got to go back to Wal-Mart. I just figured out what we could do to pass the time.”
* * * * *
Fagan sat across the table from a burly Russian with cropped brown hair and a flat nose that looked like it had been broken once too often with a crowbar. He was looking at the menu with incomprehensive brown eyes, and Fagan wondered why he bothered. He could barely speak English. No way could he read it.
“Don't worry, mate,” Fagan said. “I'll order for us both.”
With a shrug, Boris Shlusvaka put down the menu and glanced out the window at the falling snow. Fagan followed his glance.
“Yeh, it's coming down to beat the band, isn't it, now? The road will be impassable soon. Probably be a good idea to find a place to hunker down for a wee bit. Kozlof and the girl won't be getting far in this.”
Boris's stone-cold eyes fixed upon him, showing no emotion whatsoever. He didn't speak, but all the same, Fagan picked up on his thoughts, and it was all he could do to control a shudder that wanted to snake up his back.
Fine. Let's hunker down a wee bit, and if the Russian gets away, Boss will have your Irish ass in a sling.
“Christ!” Fagan went on, as if the Russian had said those words aloud. “We couldn't see the bloody road! Why risk our necks? Oh, here comes the waitress.” He reached into his coat pocket and drew out two photos, then grinned up at the blowsy blonde in the hot pink uniform. “Hello, me love. How you doing this fine snowy mornin?”
The waitress barely cracked a smile as she waited, pencil poised over a notepad. “I've been better, mister. The durned truck wouldn't start because of the cold, and I had to get a ride from the cook. Should've just stayed home in bed.” She glanced out the window with a worried frown. “Probably be here all night now. The way it's coming down. What can I getcha?”
Fagan grinned up at her. She was just the type of woman he liked―blonde, buxom and with some generous meat on her bones. “Well, now, we'll both have the Farmer's Delight breakfast and coffee…the stronger, the better.”
The waitress―Sue was the name on her tag―looked over at Boris, and her thick lips twisted in something resembling a grin. “Cat got yer tongue, mister?”
Fagan saw she was missing a tooth, but he supposed that was a fair trade for those beautiful titties thrusting out against the nylon bodice of her uniform.
“Laryngitis,” Fagan said.
Sue nodded. “Must be going around. Okay, two Breakfast Delights and coffee. Coming right up.”
“Oh! Miss Sue?” Fagan said as she turned to go. “Would you…by any chance…have seen this couple in the last twenty-four hours?”
Sue took the photos of Kozlof and the American girl, Kerry Niles, and peered at them. She nodded and handed them back. “Yep. They was in here before daylight yesterday morning. I remember him, for sure. He's a doll baby. And I'm pretty sure she's the girl he was with. You friends of theirs?”
Fagan nodded and slipped the photos back into his pocket. “Yeh, you could say that. Did they happen to mention where they were headed?”
She shook her dyed-blond head. “Nah. He didn't speak at all.” Her eyes slid over to Boris. “Matter of fact, he had the same problem your friend here has. Laryngitis. That's why I said it's going around.”
She turned to go again.
“One more thing, love,” Fagan called out, and Sue paused. “When did it start getting bad like this? I mean, bad enough to make the roads dangerous?”
She shrugged. “Yesterday afternoon, I guess. Just the four-wheel-drives are getting through.”
Fagan's eyes followed Sue's ample figure as she moved back toward the kitchen. He turned to Boris. “Boss said Niles is driving a Jeep Cherokee. It could probably get through some bloody bad stuff. But then…”
Boris watched him, his face expressionless, but Fagan was sure he understood every word.
“My guess is after driving all night, they needed to stop and hole up at a motel off the interstate. And with this blizzard, they'll probably stay put for some time. So, here's what I propose to do…”
Sue appeared at the table with a pot of coffee. Fagan grinned up at her, and then waited until she'd moved on before he finished his sentence. “Let's check into the motel next door, and get a few hours sleep, then as soon as the snow lightens up, we'll head on down the interstate. I'm betting we'll find 'em before dark tonight.”
Boris didn't respond. His eyes stayed fixed upon Fagan, and very deliberately, he clenched his beefy hands together and popped his knuckles with a resounding crunch.
Fagan decided to take that as a “yes.”
* * * * *
Kerry shrieked, grasping the handles of the plastic sled for dear life as she careened down the hill toward a clump of scrub pine trees. To her right, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mikhail on another sled, and he was just as much out of control. The hill that had looked so gentle just a short time ago, had definitely taken on a new character once they'd plopped themselves onto the cheap plastic sleds they'd bought at Wal-Mart and pushed off from the top. In fact, Kerry thought, her eyes widening as the pines grew larger through the falling snow, this may not have been the greatest idea she'd ever had. Because…
Her hands tightened on the handles. Oh, Lord! Was that a creek down below, just visible through a break in the trees? Oh, shit. It sure was. And it was getting very, very close. “Mikhhaaaaaaillllll!” she screamed, “The creeeeekkkkkk!” She closed her eyes and braced for impact with the icy water, praying it wasn't deep. But just then the sled hit a bump, jolting her off. She went flying, landing on the snow on her left side and rolling. She squeezed her eyes closed, expecting to feel frigid water surrounding her at any second. But when she rolled to a stop, she realized she was still on solid ground. Then she heard a panicked shout.
“Watch ouuuuutttt!”
A hard body slammed into her, and then they were both rolling down the hill toward the creek. Kerry grabbed Mikhail's parka. His blue eyes stared into hers, wild with laughter mixed with mild panic. Her voice joined his in a whooping shout as they slid toward the creek, so close Kerry could hear the trickle of water. She closed her eyes, holding onto Mikhail as if he were a piece of driftwood in the ocean. If she was going in, damn it, so was he.
But no. Something stopped their progress. Mikhail let out a soft “oomph,” and slowly, Kerry opened her eyes. They had slid into a bramble of bushes, laden with snow―the last barrier before the creek. Grasping the nylon of his new parka, Kerry stared into his startled eyes.
He held her in a clumsy embrace, their legs tangled. The thought of what they must look like struck her, and she began to laugh so hard tears blurred her vision. Mikhail grinned. Suddenly a dollop of snow thundered down from the bush that had stopped their slide, landing full on Mikhail's face. Kerry laughed harder. Oh, God! Why hadn't she taken the time to pee before coming out here? Would she never learn? Grinning, Mikhail grabbed a handful of snow and shoved it into her face.
“Hey!” she sputtered as the slush slid down her neck. “No fair! I didn't do that to you! The bush did.”
“No. But you laugh.”
“Because it was hilarious! Come on, help me up.”
Mikhail untangled himself from her, and got to his feet. He reached down, grabbed her arms and pulled her up. Kerry looked around and saw they were less than a foot from the creek.
“Oh, that was close. Good thing that bush stopped us, or we'd be hating life right now.” She looked up at Mikhail and grinned. “Want to do it again?”
“You are crazy girl,” he said, eyes twinkling. He grabbed the collar of her parka and pulled her closer. Before she could take a breath, his mouth covered hers in a warm, searching kiss that jolted her senses. But just as she was starting to enjoy it way too much, he released her so abruptly she almost stumbled. “There. That will teach you lesson.” He turned to retrieve his sled, and headed back up the hill.
Kerry stared after him, her gloved fingers touching her tingling lips. “Lessons like that, I could get used to,” she muttered.
Mikhail glanced back at her, grinning. “One more time,” he called over his shoulder. “Race you.”
* * * * *
Okay, this was not working out the way he'd planned, Mikhail thought as he gazed at Kerry over a steaming mug of hot chocolate―one that he really hadn't needed or wanted. Enough heat had been generated between them during the afternoon of sledding that filling their bellies with hot liquid had been totally unnecessary. Mikhail had suggested going over to the restaurant for hot drinks simply to delay returning to the room. Because he knew that once he had Kerry alone in there, it would be almost impossible not to strip off her wet, snow-covered clothes and warm up every inch of her long-limbed body with his tongue.
What insanity had made him kiss her out there by the creek? He took a sip of hot chocolate, his gaze sweeping over her winter-pinked face, her sparkling eyes that looked greener than blue right now, her straight black hair, slightly tangled from the wind. Even with her pert, freckled nose reddened by the cold, she was adorable. And if this table wasn’t between them, he'd kiss her again, by God. Just because he couldn't get the taste of her sweet lips out of his mind.
This is crazy, his conscience told him. You can't seduce this American girl, and then leave her a few days down the road. You'll never see her again. It wouldn't be right. But since when had that mattered to him? There had been plenty of other women. Plenty of one-night-stands. Why did this feel different?
She was attracted to him. He'd seen the way she'd looked at him this morning when he'd stood in front of her, clad only in a towel. And what would be wrong with sharing a few nights of love? She wasn't an innocent teenager, and neither was he.
Still, it felt wrong. Making love to her would feel too much like he was using her. Better to keep things on a friendship level. A loaded silence had fallen between them, a silence charged with sexual electricity. It was time to find a safe topic of conversation.
“So, you said earlier you've trained for biathlon,” Mikhail said. “What made you change to figure skating?”
Kerry shrugged and took a sip of hot chocolate. “I lost interest after my father died. It just wasn't the same without him. I still cross-country ski occasionally and I can still shoot pretty damn good, but…I don't know. I just couldn't see myself doing biathlon training without Dad to cheer me on. So, I got into skating instead.”
“I know what is like to lose parents. My mother and stepfather both died in December,” Mikhail said, gazing out the window at the falling snow. His face was etched with pain.
Kerry caught her breath. “I'm so sorry, Mikhail.” Then she added, “It's hard, isn't it?”
He nodded, and swallowed. It took him a moment to find his voice. “You still miss father, yes?”
Kerry nodded. “Yeah. It's been sixteen years, and even now, every time I go downhill skiing, I feel like he should be there on the slopes with me. It still hurts that he's not.”
“I understand. Is not easy to get over loss of parent. What about your mother? She is still alive, yes?”
“Oh, yeah.” Kerry gave a short laugh. “She'll be around forever. She's too mean to die.”
“You do not have close relationship?”
“That's putting it mildly.” She stared down at the checked tablecloth, tracing its pattern with a forefinger. “Let's just say things are pretty rocky between us. She hasn't been an ideal mother. But to be fair, I'm not a big prize as a daughter, either. I guess I haven't given her much of a chance to be a good mother.”
“How so?” He gazed at her intently.
Kerry sighed. “I didn't want to move to California with her after my father died. And I was a real pain in the ass about it. I even ran away once, made it back to my grandparents in Utah by hitchhiking. Jana brought me back, kicking and screaming. I tried to sabotage her romance with my stepfather, but he saw through it.” She shook her head and gave a rueful smile. “I guess he really loves her. They've been married now about fourteen years. Anyway, she finally decided I was more trouble than I was worth, and she packed me off to Lake Arrowhead to live with the Petenka's. It's the best thing she ever did for me. They essentially became my parents until I was grown.”
A waitress came by and placed the check on the table. Mikhail waited until she'd gone before asking, “And you never see your mother?”
“Hardly ever.” Kerry shrugged. “She calls up once in a blue moon and says something about us getting together. I say, 'yeah, okay,' and then blow her off.” He supposed he couldn’t hide the shocked look in his eyes because she added quickly, “She doesn't really want to see me, Mikhail. She just calls out of a sense of obligation. Birthdays, holidays, you know. I'm just another chore on her long list of things to do.” She frowned and glanced out the window at the falling snow. It wasn't coming down as heavily as before. Was the storm finally moving out? “That's okay. I don't need her. I got along just fine without a mother for the first twelve years of my life. I certainly don't need one now.”
“What happened with parents?” Mikhail asked. “They were divorced?”
Kerry nodded. “From what I understand, their marriage was a horrible mistake from the very beginning. They met at the 1972 Olympics in Japan. Dad was a biathlon, and Jana, a figure skater. It was one of those lust-at-first-sight things, I guess. But they thought it was love. They got married in secret, and Jana moved to Utah with Dad. She hated it up there, though. See, she grew up in southern California, and she just couldn't adapt to life up there in the north. Well…that was Grandma Vive's take on it, anyway. If you ask me, Jana was a pampered little California girl who was bored to tears by life in outside of L.A. Grandma didn't come out and say so, but she was horrified when she found out Jana was pregnant with me. I think she would've aborted me if she'd had half a chance. Instead, she stayed with Dad just long enough to give birth, then she packed up and went back to California, leaving me to be raised by my father and grandparents.”
Kerry blinked quickly, embarrassed to find she was close to tears. She stared down at the chocolate remnants in her mug, feeling the heat warming her cheeks. “That would've been fine if Dad hadn't died in that avalanche when I was twelve. I had a wonderful life up there. I had everything I needed…and then Jana came and took it all away from me.”
She looked up and defiantly met Mikhail's sympathetic eyes. “She thought after twelve years of neglect, she could suddenly start being a mother to me. Well, I didn't need her then, and I certainly don't need her now.”
Mikhail stared at her thoughtfully. “Perhaps not. But do you think she might need a daughter?”
Kerry's lips parted in astonishment at his bluntness. Finally, she found her voice, “Jana needs a daughter like she needs another diamond tennis bracelet. Look, Mikhail, you probably had a great relationship with your mother. I know you're still grieving for her. But all mothers aren't the same. Just because one gives birth, doesn't automatically infuse her with maternal feelings. Trust me. Jana could care less about me. The only reason she stays in touch with me at all is to put on this appropriate facade for the outside world. I still don't know why she insisted on taking me away from my grandparents, but one thing is for certain. She wishes she'd never laid eyes on me. And the feeling is mutual.” Her jaw tight, Kerry unzipped the front pocket of her parka and pulled out three-dollar bills. She placed them on top of the check and looked at Mikhail. “You ready to head back to the motel?”

Friday, June 3, 2011

Tango's Edge, Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

“So! This is Wal-Mart.” Mikhail grinned as they walked through the automatic doors of the discount store. “When I was in Colorado Springs, I saw TV advertisements for Wal-Mart. So many things for sale.”
Kerry nodded and brushed the snow off her parka. “Oh, yeah. You name it, they got it.”
It had been snowing fiercely when they awoke a couple of hours ago. After breakfast in the diner, they'd driven for another two hours until full light, and then booked a room with two double beds in a Motel 6 outside a small town in northern Colorado. At that time, it had been snowing lightly, but in the seven hours they'd slept, more than six inches had fallen, and it was still coming down. They'd been in luck, though, because there had been a Wal-Mart just across the highway from the motel. After showering, they'd trudged over to outfit Mikhail in American clothes.
“This way, Mikhail.” Kerry unerringly made her way to the men's department. One thing about Wal-Mart; if you can find your way around one of them, you can find your way around all of them.
Kerry looked through racks of clothing while Mikhail stood by, silently watching. “Try this.” She handed him a couple of T-shirts and a sweatshirt. “What size jeans do you wear?”
He shrugged. “I do not know American sizes.”
“Hmmm.” Kerry looked him up and down, and for the first time since she'd met him, she had the perfect excuse to look her fill. So why not enjoy it? Even so, she felt her cheeks grow warm. Maybe it had something to do with that devilish glint in his eyes. Like he knew what she was thinking.
“Why don't we try a couple of different sizes? Here, take these.” She placed a pile of jeans in his arms. “What else? You'll need a parka. Your coat screams out Moscow. Why don't you go try those on and I'll see what else I can find.”
“Uh…Kerry?” Mikhail stood stiffly, his arms full of clothes. “Remember, I told you I have only rubles. How do we pay?”
“We'll work it out later,” Kerry said, trolling through the racks for more possibilities. “But you're right. We need to find a bank so we can exchange your money. Now, go try on that stuff.”
Mikhail headed toward the dressing room, but paused at a rack of NFL sweatshirts. “Ah, Denver Broncos!” A delighted grin spread across his face. “I watch Denver Broncos play on TV in Colorado. John Elway, yes? He looks like big Viking. You think this sweatshirt is good?” He held out the orange Denver Bronco sweatshirt, his face hopeful like a little boy's on Christmas morning.
Kerry smiled. “Yes, Mikhail. That sweatshirt would be perfect for you. But I think John has long retired. “
Grinning, Mikhail grabbed the sweatshirt and headed toward the dressing room. While he changed, Kerry looked through the coats. A few minutes later, she heard a throat clearing behind her. “Kerry, how do I look?”
She turned, and her eyes widened. “Wow! Mikhail! You look so…American!”
And he did. He was dressed in snug jeans and the Denver Bronco sweatshirt. His own hiking boots worked perfectly with the outfit.
Her eyes narrowed. “There's just one thing missing.” Her gaze swept the men's department and stopped on a rack of baseball caps. Grinning, she strode over to it. “I don't see any Bronco caps, but what about this one?” She grabbed a cap emblazoned with the “Survivor” motif, and settled it on Mikhail's blond head, turning the bill backward the way the kids wore it. “There. Now, you really look like an American.”
“Let me see.” Mikhail took off the cap and peered at it. He frowned. “I do not like this ‘Survivor.’ Players are vicious bastards.” He looked over the rows of caps, and then grinned. “This one.” He handed Kerry the ‘Survivor’ cap and grabbed another one. “Yes. I like this one.”
Kerry looked at it and burst out laughing. “Homer Simpson? How old are you? Nine?”
“I will be thirty this August.” Unconcerned by her ridicule, Mikhail placed the cap on his head. “And I like Simpsons. Where is mirror?”
Still laughing, Kerry led him to a mirror. He adjusted the cap on his head and grinned. “Yes, this is good. Now I look like American.”
“Okay, you win. Why don't you go change back into your clothes while I get a cart for this stuff? Then we'll find you a parka. Oh, and some sweatpants. You can't look like an American without lots of sweatpants.”
He nodded and headed back to the dressing room. Still grinning, Kerry strode toward the front of the store to grab a cart. But when she returned to the men's department, Mikhail was nowhere in sight. She waited for a few minutes outside the dressing room, and finally stuck her head in.
“Mikhail? You still in there?”
No answer. Hmmm. Where has he gone? Kerry pushed the empty cart through the store, her eyes sweeping the aisles for the missing Russian. Humming along with Avril Lavigne playing on the PA, Kerry passed the cosmetics aisle, and caught a glimpse of a big blond guy. She stopped and backed up. When she realized what Mikhail was doing, she wondered why it had taken her so long to find him. The smell alone should've led her right to his side. He saw her and smiled, his eyes lighting up. “Kerry! Come. You tell me if you like this scent?”
Kerry rolled her eyes. “I don't need to come closer to smell it. What have you done? Taken a bath in it?”
He moved to her. “So many different scents. You decide which I buy.” He bent down, exposing his neck to her. “This one?”
Kerry caught her breath. She didn't know if the dizziness she felt was because of his closeness or the overwhelming stench of half dozen different colognes. He turned his head and invited her to sniff at the right side. “Or this one.”
She flinched away from him. “Ugh! That one reeks. Get the first one. Definitely. But it sure smells like you've got more than two on.”
He grinned and held out an exposed forearm. “This…I think is Hugo, and this…” He thrust his other forearm under her nose. “…is Old Spice.”
Her heart spasmed as her father's familiar scent washed over her, bringing back happy memories from her childhood. He’d been wearing Old Spice on that last sunny morning at the lodge just before he'd taken the lift up to ski the backcountry and couloirs of Whistler Mountain. Kerry had planned to go with him, but her changing body had foiled that plan, and ended up saving her life. Earlier that morning she'd awakened on bloody sheets, her stomach cramping worse than on that one unfortunate Christmas Eve when she'd eaten a dozen of Grandma Vive's Finnish butter cookies, and ended up sick through Christmas.
She’d never seen her father alive again. Later that day, he’d died in an avalanche, and Kerry was catapulted into adulthood in more ways than one. A month later, she was living with a stranger in San Diego, torn from her paternal grandparents as cleanly as a surgeon removed a diseased organ from a patient.
“So…?” Mikhail said, interrupting her dark thoughts. “This one, you say?”
Kerry focused on him, and brushed her fingers over the left side of his neck, trying to ignore the tingle she felt at the contact. “I like this one the best.”
“Cool Water,” Mikhail said, nodding with satisfaction. “Yes, I like this best, as well.” He reached for an unopened package, and then gave her a questioning look. “Is okay?”
Kerry smiled. “Sure. I'm keeping a tab for you. Now, what did you do with the clothes you tried on?”
“Here.” He turned to a shelf behind them and gathered up the clothing, dumping the whole lot into the cart. “Now what?”
“Your parka. Let's go see what they have.”
He nodded, but as they headed back in the direction of the men's department, Mikhail stopped dead in his tracks when he spied the toy section. “Kerry, look! Toys.” Like an excited schoolboy, he headed down one of the aisles. Kerry shook her head, grinning. Maybe he was nine. She turned the cart and followed him.
He stood at a shelf, staring intently at a bright pink plastic pony with a long mane of silky hair and silver sparkles on its rump. Kerry's smile widened. “Don't tell me? In addition to The Simpson’s, you also have a thing for My Little Ponies?”
He glanced at her, one eyebrow raised. “Your little ponies?”
“No, silly! That's what they're called. I didn’t even know they still made them. They were really popular when I used to baby-sit for our neighbor’s little girl. She must’ve had a dozen of them.” She shook her head. “I just didn’t get it. When I was a kid, I preferred playing with guns and toy soldiers.”
“Ah. Tommy boy, no?” he asked with a big smile.
“Tomboy, you mean.” She gave a slight shrug. “I suppose so. My father was a real outdoorsman, and my being a girl didn't stop him from including me in the things he enjoyed.”
Mikhail brought the My Little Pony to his nose and sniffed. His brow wrinkled in surprise. “Is perfumed?”
Kerry laughed. “You probably smell yourself. But yeah, I think it is. Wouldn't surprise me.” She was having a blast watching him. He really was like a young boy on Christmas morning. How different he seemed now than the way he had that first time she'd watched him warming up before hitting the ice. He'd been so serious, so aloof. Now, he was anything but. Was she getting a glimpse of the real Mikhail Kozlof? If so, she couldn't wait to learn more.
Mikhail put down the pony and turned to the other side of the aisle. He picked up a globe similar to the one he’d bought Adam. “This might pass time for car trip,” he said, and then looked up at her, an amused light in his eyes. “You think Adam likes his?”
Kerry nodded. “He'd probably never admit it, but I'm sure he does. Adam is…complex.”
He watched her, tossing the cube back and forth in his hands. “He is in love with you, I think.”
Startled, Kerry's eyes met his. “How did you know that?”
He shrugged, but didn't answer.
“Well, he was in love with me, but I think he's getting over it. I hope he is.”
“And you are not in love with him?”
Her cheeks grew hot. “I'm not in love with anybody. Haven't been for a long time. So, you want to go look at those coats now?” When she saw the reluctance on his face, she added, “Go and ahead and buy it. Like you said, it'll help pass the time during the drive.”
He flashed a delighted grin. “Yes! Good idea.” He tossed the globe into the cart on top of the clothes.
After deciding on a parka and a few pairs of sweatpants, they found the snack aisle and Kerry began selecting munchies for the trip. “I've been craving chocolate lately. You like Ding Dongs, Mikhail?”
He gazed curiously at the box she held out for his inspection. “I do not know. What is this Ding Dongs?”
“Chocolate cakes with cream filling. Yummy!” She dropped the box into the cart and reached for a can of peanuts. “Okay, that should do it. Oh, let's get some sodas, and maybe we should pick up a little cooler so we can keep them cold for the trip.”
Fifteen minutes later, bags in hand, they stepped out of the Wal-Mart into the swirling snow. Kerry looked up at the quarter-sized flakes falling around them and took in a deep breath of the cleansing Colorado air.
“Whoa!” She grinned at Mikhail. “It's really coming down.”
Mikhail nodded, smiling. “Looks like Russia.”
“Yeah, I'll bet.” Kerry glanced over at him. “You know what, Mikhail?”
Swinging her bag from her fingers, she hopped across an icy spot on the pavement, and her grin widened. “I think we might have to spend the night right here in our little Motel 6.”
* * * * *
Elena practically attacked Sean when he walked into their room. “Well, is he there? What did you find out?”
Sean stared at her, wondering how to break the news. He knew he was experiencing the last moment of relative peace that he would have for God knows how long because the shit was just about ready to hit the bloody fan.
Earlier, he'd been imagining how he'd break the news about Kozlof's unfortunate murder at the hands of a burglar he'd surprised ransacking his room. That, he'd been savoring, imagining how he'd hold a hysterical Elena in his arms, kissing her moist forehead, stroking the golden strands of her hair. Of course, he didn't kid himself that her grief would be at Kozlof's death, but more importantly, at the death of her dream of Olympic gold. Oh, sure, on some level, she'd be sorry he was dead, but Elena was a selfish woman. Sean wasn't blind to that, despite his love for her. Elena's first concern was herself, and always would be.
Looking at her now, at her wide blue eyes and the hopeful expression on her cover-model face, Sean was experiencing the moment right before the tornado touched down―that eerie, electrically charged moment of stillness just before all hell broke loose.
He sighed. Might as well get it over with. He just hoped he'd survive the coming storm. “Kozlof is gone,” he said quietly. Her eyes gazed back at him without comprehension. It was as if he’d spoken in an alien language.
“His personal items are missing,” he went on when she didn't respond. “His toiletries, sweaters, underwear. They're not in his room.”
He watched her face as the message sank in. Her eyes darkened with horror, and a muscle flexed in her jaw. The color ebbed from her face, leaving it a pale porcelain hue. Her hands tightened into fists at her side. And still, she didn't speak.
Sean held her gaze, and said evenly, “My guess is…he has defected.”
Elena’s face twisted into a grimace of rage as she sunk to her knees on the carpet. Her mouth opened, and a blood-curdling shriek erupted from her lungs. Sean just stood rigid, knowing there was nothing to do but let her scream.