Thursday, June 9, 2011
Tango's Edge, Chapter 10
“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.
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?”