Authors: Blair Bancroft
Not after finding out she was carrying thousands in cash. Not after he found the sleek thirty-two footer in the boathouse. With or without a memory, Sergei Tokarev didn’t need a living soul.
Yet his hands felt so good, she couldn’t force herself to believe he’d harm her. After all, hadn’t he admitted he couldn’t cook? And when had Cade ever given her massage?
Fright—or was it seduction?—did what logic couldn’t. Her tears dried up. But Vee kept her head down. No way was he going to get a look at her tear-ravaged face.
“Is all right to cry,” Sergei Tokarev said. “Is smart to be afraid. You are trapped on island with man as dangerous—more dangerous, I think—than men who want to kill us.”
His hands moved down her back, finding taut muscles she hadn’t even known existed
. Dear God, but that felt great
. His fingers we
re as mesmerizing as his voice.
“Bad scene for pretty girl with easy life. You trust too much. That get you dead. I yell at you not to hurt, but make you wise.” His hands roamed back up her spine, turning her attack of the shakes to shivers of a different kind. “You are still angry with me?” he inquired, almost sounding meek.
And then, damn him, he laid a tissue on the table in front of her. With as much dignity as she could manage, Vee straightened her back, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. “Why speak to me as Sergei?” she demanded, going on the attack out of sheer desperation. “Isn’t he the one who wants to kill me?”
“Not until after he’s fucked you,” Nick said with infuriating nonchalance. “And Sergei is more scary. I figured you’d listen better to him than to me. Both of us are sorry, by the way. Not for telling you to be more careful, but for making you miserable. You don’t deserve it. You’ve done well.”
“And I’m sorry for the flood,” she told him, keeping her red eyes and flushed face toward the cheerful yellow wall. “It won’t happen again.”
“I know. You’re the woman with the smoke bomb who got us out of the city and all the way to our own private island.”
“So humiliating me with my own gun was just a bit of fun and games to keep you from being bored?”
“An experiment to discover how bad I really am.” Nick shrugged. “
. Sergei enjoyed the revelation. I did not.”
Analyzing that one could trigger another meltdown, Vee decided. Back to reality. “So kindly get out of the kitchen, both of you, and let the chef do her stuff.”
“Is okay then?” Sergei whispered, his lips brushing the back of her neck.
Vee’s head whirled, her stomach churned. No response was possible. When she finally looked around, he was gone.
Why the hell did the little Feeb have to be a good cook on top of possessing a face and figure that could stop an ox dead in its tracks? The meat sauce almost made him moan. The salad might have come out of a plastic bag and the dressing out of a bottle, but it beat hospital food by a mile. And the mystery of where she’d found the lemon meringue pie was solved only when Ms Frosty pointed out her Aunt Victoria’s walk-in freezer. Not to mention the wine cellar that had revealed one more odd fact—he knew enough about wines to be impressed by whoever had stocked this carved-out cave beneath the house. Daddy?
A definite menace, this woman. Smart enough to be afraid of him, but soft enough to bind him to her with chains he might never break. Her bosses knew what they were doing when they picked her for this job. From her he’d tolerate things he’d never tolerate from anyone else. And do it willingly, just to make her stop looking so solemn. Like the interrogation she was conducting over the last few bites of pie and cups of strong rich coffee.
“Did you speak with an accent while you were in the hospital?”
“And never had a clue about Sergei until I told you about him?”
“You spoke idiomatic American English until I told you your name was Sergei Tokarev, and then you suddenly dropped into the heavily accented English of a recent Russian immigrant?”
Nick considered carefully before he answered. “Weird as that sounds, that seems to be exactly what happened.”
“So you’re an American playing at being a Russian wiseguy.”
Put that way, it almost made sense. Nick switched to Russian. “But I speak Russian like a native, don’t I? No sign of an accent there either.”
Vee rested her chin on her hand and scowled at him. “So you might have been born in Russia and c
me here as a child, were raised in a Russian-speaking home.”
“And somewhere there’s a set of loving parents wondering what’s happened to their arms-smuggling, wiseguy son.” Nick’s split lip curled in disgust.
“Except . . .” Vee shook her head. “Naw, too way out. Sorry.”
“Except what?” Nick snapped.
“I wonder . . . You speak perfect idiomatic American. Sergei has to be a character you put on when you want to. Or need to. Sergei is bogus. The question is: why?”
“I didn’t want to embarrass Mom and Dad with a criminal son?” Nick ventured. “I thought being a fake Russian immigrant would give me status in the
? Maybe I made up a bad-guy history from Mother Russia to be an instant big-shot?”
, but she looked good, her skin warmed by the stained glass colors of the Tiffany shade hanging over the kitchen table, its rainbow colors reflecting in her long blond hair. Streaks of red still ringed her blue eyes, but hers was a face of both beauty and strong character. Now lost in thoughts focused on him.
That made a man feel good.
“Possibly,” she murmured, “but surely you’d have to have help fabricating a false history. It’s too easy to check things out these days.”
“So?” Nick raised thick brown brows, noting with surprise that they actually moved. More than his mouth was beginning to respond to his brain’s commands.
Vee bit her lip, shifted her weight in the old wooden chair. “This is pretty far out—probably wishful thinking—but could you have been working undercover, one of those long-term assignments? Something that brought you to the heart of the Brotherhood? And then they found out, and
The air was sucked out of the room. Nick’s brain froze. Yet somehow he was on his feet, pacing to the far side of the kitchen, gazing out the window above the sink at the glowing windows of homes on other islands, the wink of major channel markers, the distant pinpoints of light that marked outer Long Island eighteen miles across the Sound. He stalked back to the table, threw himself into his chair. “Your mind makes up for your inexperience,” he growled, aware the words didn’t sound like the compliment they were meant to be. “But a long con like that would be almost impossible to pull off. It would require an agent to do a lot of really bad things on his way up the ladder.”
“And who said you’re a saint? Certainly, not me.”
“So in order to survive,” he mused, “I had to be almost as bad as Sergei.”
“But something happened. He—
balked—and . . .” Vee waved her hand in the air. “You got dropped off a bridge, more dead than alive.”
“Nice to believe I’m one of the good guys, but—”
“It fits all the facts.”
“We don’t know all the facts.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Nick!”
“Yeah, well, I’m having trouble believing I’m on the side of the angels. Probably just a wiseguy who got caught in a gang war.”
“When you woke up in the hospital, did you feel like a bad guy?” Vee demanded.
“Hell, no. Never crossed my mind.” Nick paused, thinking hard. “It didn’t take me long to figure out I was a tough guy, but bad guy, no. Not until the local cops called in the Feebs, who called in Homeland Security.
, I had to begin to wonder. So, sure, my interrogators had a bit of an attitude, but when don’t they? I was inclined to believe the story that I was just some Joe who knew more than he should. Someone the bad guys felt they had to take out.”
“But what if you’re an agent yourself?”
“My fingerprints would have made their way to someone who knew that. Someone would have come forward, told the truth.”
“Blast it,” Vee breathed. “I was so certain I’d nailed it.”
“You said it. Wishful thinking. I’m a bad guy, through and through. Your worst nightmare, come to life.”
“That’s bull,” Vee declared, standing up and beginning to clear the table. “I choose not to believe it.”
“Then you’re the fool I first took you for.” Nick thrust his hands in his pockets, rocked up onto the balls of his feet and back down again. “That’s a good-looking cruiser in the boathouse. Do your watchers have orders to keep me in?”
“They do double duty.”
“Bat from both sides of the plate?”
“Something like that, but don’t let them hear you say that. Dad’s people tend to be sensitive about their macho image.”
“So if I take off, I’d better have you with me.”
“And I’d better tell them to keep their RPGs off their shoulders.”
“Nice,” Nick murmured. “That makes me feel so secure.”
Vee opened her eyes wide. “Did you really think I was a toothless wonder?”
He allowed his eyes to examine her from the golden blonde top of her head to the tip of feet that looked dainty, even in sneakers. “Just a tasty morsel laid on by the
for my personal delectation,” he drawled.
“If you weren’t so precisely, disgustingly correct, I’d shoot you.” Turning her back on him, she began to stack the dishwasher.
Nick lost his train of thought in admiration of her jean-clad derrière. Ah,
. There had to be light at the end of this particular tunnel. “Vee?” It was the first time he’d called her by her nickname. It felt good. But hope sparked by
speculations was fading fast. Her theory was crap.
“Vee . . . you’re forgetting I woke up in the hospital speaking and thinking in Russian. It was maybe three days before I discovered I could read and speak English.”
A sauce-stained plate in her hand, Vee leaned back against the dishwasher and stared at him. “Who else would be chosen to go undercover with the
than a native Russian? You must be Russian American, someone who spoke Russian at home, American English in school.”
“Makes sense,” he muttered, “but you’re right, it’s too way out.” And there were other, uglier reasons a Russian might speak perfect American English. Including being undercover for the GRU instead of any Western intelligence agency.
“Go.” Vee shooed him out of the kitchen. “We’ve got dish TV. There’re probably twenty sports channels. Enjoy. Don’t think. You’ve screwed with my head enough for one day. Out! Disappear. Be gone.”
Nick slunk out of the kitchen like a chastened schoolboy. But in his soul he was Russian, he knew it.
What the . . .
The smoke-filled room enveloped him, the cement block walls as stark as the people in it were colorful. The room could have been any inner city from London to Sydney to New Orleans. But dark skin glistening through the haze of smoke, the cut of the clothes, the babble of a language he couldn’t understand, the flashing smiles and uninhibited laughter, all said Africa. Some country teetering under the assault of rebels with a cause. Terrorists bent on jihad, greedy bastards intent on taking over gem and mineral profits, or simply fanatics who got their kicks from rape and genocide. People who needed weapons so they could play king of the mountain, spraying their AK-47s in an arc of hate until no one was left standing.
Heat. Humidity. Hashish. And a home brew Sergei could only hope had enough alcohol to overwhelm the germs.
, but he wanted out of here! Wanted to bolt for the cargo plane he’d come in and be back in civilization in time for a shower, a slug of scotch, and a night between clean sheets in a first-class hotel. If this miserable excuse for a country had one.
But business was business, and he had to be sure this new client would become a regular customer. Sergei always escorted the first shipment himself. Good PR. And he had a gift for sniffing out anomalies. If he found one and couldn’t pin it down, that was it. No more shipments. Better to lose a bit of business now than put the
But this run had been textbook, and he wasn’t about to blow it by insulting his buyers. So here he was, slumped on a sagging couch, sipping God only knew what kind of poisonous brew, and breathing in enough hashish fumes to scramble the brains of an elephant. Communication was a problem. The only guy who spoke any language he knew had disappeared into a bedroom with the female Sergei had picked out for himself. The remaining women didn’t inspire him to get up off the couch,
let alone get up anything else.
He sipped. He tried to smile and look friendly. A ring of dark faces smiled back. The woman next to him giggled, laid her long slim fingers over his flabby dick, flashed him a come-hither look impossible to mistake. Sergei summoned the full force of the Tokarev charm as he politely shook his head.