Friday, July 29, 2011

Tango's Edge - Chapter 16

Chapter Sixteen

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

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

No comments: