Somebody brushed against my arm. For a moment I didn’t respond, but the pressure was insistent. I turned to find a woman beside me. She had carefully manicured black hair, braided atop her head in an elegant bun. That was my first impression of her.
Her hand on my arm had a disconcerting, almost pleading force to it. The woman was tall and her features were those of a ballerina – a slim, serious face, thin drawn lips, huge black eyes and a pale, perfect complexion.
“Mr. Stuyversant,” the woman said in a breathless discreet whisper. Her English was very good. “I have someone who would wish to talk to you.”
She was beautiful in a fragile, porcelain kind of way. Her fingers were long and delicate, her eyes fringed with long curling lashes. “He is an important man and he wishes that you would speak with him.”
I forced a genial smile. “Certainly,” I said over the ebb and eddy of noise from the milling crowds around us. “I’m always happy to talk.”
The woman looked pleased and relieved. She glanced over her shoulder and made eye contact with a man who emerged from a nearby group of stern-faced delegates.
The woman made the introductions.
“This is Mr. Sergey Volostok. He is a member of our negotiating team.”
I shook hands with the man, and the woman – her job done – disappeared like a wraith into the crowds that moved about us.
“You look uncomfortable, Mr. Stuyversant,” the man’s voice was a deep bass that rumbled like thunder across a stormy sky. He was holding a crystal wine glass in one of his massive hands. “Are you not enjoying our Russian hospitality?”
I smiled smoothly. The man’s English was heavily accented. He was big-boned but squat in stature; something that not even the immaculately tailored suit he wore could disguise. The fabric smoothed down the lumpen width of his shoulders and the powerful bulges of his upper arms, but nothing could completely conceal the raw brute power of his physique.
He was bald, in his mid-fifties with a broad flat face and dark penetrating eyes. He was staring at me with a questioning expression. He had an embassy nametag pinned to the lapel of his suit.
“I’m not uncomfortable, Sergey,” I assured him. “I’m just taking a moment to admire the magnificent architecture.”
I lifted my eyes to the high arched ceiling of the Great Kremlin Palace and the Russian mirrored my action. The silence between us lasted a few seconds.
“This is the St George Hall,” the Russian explained, turning and casting wide his hand in a sweep of the vast room. “The palace has other similar rooms also.”
If the Russians had wanted to project a subtle sense of national power upon the trade delegation, they had certainly chosen the perfect venue for the glittering reception. The Palace was a wonder of gold paneling and plush red curtains, while the high vaulted arches that supported the ornate ceiling gave the hall a cathedral-like grandeur. Around the edges of the vast room were red velvet-covered chairs and it was all cast in dazzling golden light by the massive chandeliers that hung above the polished floor.
There were perhaps three hundred other people in the hall – the men dressed in dinner suits and the women in long shimmering gowns. Yet still the sounds of murmured conversation seemed to echo hollowly.
I arched my eyes with just the right amount of impressed awe and saw Sergey smile.
He was some kind of Russian intelligence officer. I knew that… and Sergey knew that I knew.
Half the men – and a few of the women – in the room were either American or Russian spies. Hell, most of the white-shirted waiters were attached to the Russian security apparatus.
Trade delegation or not, the great game of international intelligence and counter-intelligence went on unabated at every opportunity…
I took a careful sip of my own drink, scanning the room casually over the rim of my glass. Across the space of the hall a tall blonde woman was staring in my direction. She was the wife of one of our Embassy staff; a pretty, slender woman wearing a white dress that was provocatively split to the top of one thigh. The woman smiled at me, languidly slanting her eyes. She dabbed at the gloss of her lips with the tip of her tongue and then turned suddenly and gave a delicate little laugh in the direction of her husband.
I glanced sideways at Sergey.
The Russian missed nothing.
He was smiling to himself with a knowing expression on his face, tucking away every morsel of information for the contact report he would write at the end of the night. Then suddenly his eyes hardened, the veneer of politeness replaced by an expression that gave his face a look of artless cunning.
“May we speak frankly?”
“I would prefer it,” I said.
The Russian grunted, paused, then spoke in a sudden rush.
“We don’t know who you are, Mr. Stuyversant,” he said bluntly. “And that bothers us. It makes my Government nervous.”
I looked bemused. A waiter walked past holding a silver tray. I gave the young man my empty glass and he offered me another in faltering English. I took a crystal tumbler off the tray then paused until the waiter had disappeared through one of the high arches. When I was sure the Russian and I could not be overheard, I leaned closer with a conspiratorial whisper.
“I’m nobody, Sergey.”
The Russian’s face showed no reaction. He searched my eyes then slowly shook his head. “No, you are a somebody, Mr. Stuyversant,” he said with a sad, emphatic shake of his head. “Otherwise you would not have flown to Russia to advise your Ambassador on these negotiations.”
I gave a dismissive shrug of my shoulders. “I’m just an interested spectator.”
“This is untrue,” the man’s expression became crestfallen as though the telling of the lie saddened him. “You are a close confidant of your President. This much we know. And clearly, you have the ear of your Government’s most powerful leaders… but you,” he stabbed a thick finger at me, “You personally are an enigma. We have no records of you. No file.”
I shrugged again and kept the thin smile on my face fixed. Sergey shuffled his feet, stepping a little closer. I could smell garlic on his breath and there were beads of sweat on his brow.
“Then tell me this, American,” he started to growl and then reproached himself with a moment of inner recrimination. He tried again, this time his voice made less jagged. “Then simply tell me this thing,” his English began to fracture. “Are you here to destroy those trade issues our Governments have worked hard to negotiate common ground on?”
I stared at the man and made my face sober and sincere. I realized he wasn’t angry – he was anxious. He may have been one of the key architects behind the entire negotiating process that had been two years in development.
“Sergey, I’m not that man,” I assured him. “I am a fixer, not a destroyer. On that you have my word.”
The Russian leaned back and slitted his eyes warily. I held his gaze. Finally relief spread across his face, smoothing out his features, wiping away the scowl of mistrust.
He raised his glass. “Nostrovia.” He allowed himself a companionable smile. I lifted my own glass in salute.
“Nostrovia,” I replied.
We stared into each other’s eyes for a second longer and then I saw the Russian’s gaze waver, drawn instead towards someone over my shoulder. Subconsciously his free hand went to his tie and adjusted the knot like he was preening himself. He straightened his back.
I resisted the urge to turn. By watching the Russian’s eyes, I could tell the person who had caught his attention was coming closer. Then I smelt a waft of perfume.
“Connie,” a young woman came to my side, her face lifted to mine, her eyes glittering with breathless wonder. The top of her head was at the level of my shoulder and in the sparkling light her long blonde cascade of her hair glinted like molten gold.
“Are you impressed?”
“Oh, yes!” Connie Wyatt smiled, her voice a little husky and shy. “The Palace is magnificent.”
She was barely twenty years old with deep blue eyes beneath a broad pale brow and a wide friendly mouth. She wore just a dusting of makeup so that her lips were soft pale pink. She was wearing a long sapphire blue gown that left her shoulders exposed, and it cupped nicely beneath the creamy smoothness of her breasts. The dress cinched tight at her narrow waist, then fell shimmering to the floor.
The Russian bowed deeply to Connie in a fumbling attempt at gallantry.
He looked to me. “Your beautiful daughter?”
I smiled thinly and shook my head. “No,” I said. “Connie is my personal assistant. She flew from America with me.”
“Aah,” the Russian blushed in acute embarrassment. He unwrapped his best smile and spread it across his face. “It is my great pleasure to meet with you, young Miss Connie.”
The Russian diplomat took Connie’s hand and held it like it was something precious for a very long time. Connie’s expression became demure. She straightened, becoming suddenly formal.
“Very nice to meet you,” she said.
A string orchestra had begun playing the soft strains of classical music in one corner of the great hall, and some of the delegates paired off and began dancing. I took Sergey by the elbow and led him towards one of the high arches where a line of chairs was arranged. But we didn’t sit. Connie hovered at the fringes of our conversation, close enough to overhear every word, but with her face turned towards the dancers.
“So…” the Russian said as a prelude. We were quite alone. Most of the delegates had been drawn towards the music.
I smiled to myself. The Russian was not a typical intelligence officer, of that I was sure. Nor was he any kind of high-ranking diplomat. He was too direct. He lacked the subtleties required of the espionage craft, and his attempts at conversation were too stilted to pass as natural in a high-powered setting.
“Yes?” I let him squirm. He was clearly uncomfortable.
“Have you seen much of Moscow since you arrived?”
I shook my head grievously. It wasn’t an act. “No, regretfully,” I said. “We flew in just last night. There hasn’t been time yet. But I am very keen to see more of the city. I really am. If you have any suggestions…”
Sergey stared down into his wine glass as if perhaps the answers might be there. He was contemplative for a long moment.
“Do you want to see the tourist attractions, Mr. Stuyversant… or do you want to see the real underbelly of Moscow?”
It was a question, a challenge, and a deft invitation all in one.
“I want to see the real city.”
The Russian smiled. “Then perhaps I can arrange something,” he said. “Are you a married man?”
I sighed and made my voice weary. “Sergey, do you have a notebook?”
“Then write this down.”
The Russian fumbled inside a pocket of his jacket.
“I am forty-eight years old. I have no brothers or sisters and both my parents are dead. I made my fortune in oil and the stock market. I was born in Chicago and married when I was thirty-two. My wife’s name was Sylvia. She died three years ago. I have no children… and I have been a personal friend of the President of the United States since we served in the military together. I am here in Russia to help push through the trade deals our two countries have negotiated because our President wants to strengthen the global ties between our countries. Got all that?”
The Russian looked up from his notepad. “Da,” he said again.
“Good. Now perhaps we can talk like real men instead of playing games, yes?”
The Russian smiled, and it was an expression of understanding and relief.
He slid the notebook back into his pocket and in his hand instead was a small white card.
“Are you free tomorrow evening, Mr. Stuyversant?”
I turned and glanced a question at Connie. She nodded her head.
“You have a meeting with the Ambassador after tomorrow’s negotiations,” Connie said quietly. “That should last an hour. There is nothing scheduled for the rest of the night, sir.”
“Then perhaps I could take you somewhere on the outskirts of the city so that you can see what life is like in Moscow?” the Russian offered.
He held out his calling card like it was a peace token. I passed it to Connie.
“Let me check with some other people at my embassy first,” I shook Sergey’s hand. “Then I’ll get Connie to call you.”
Does it show?
Can he see how I feel about him?
He’s such an insightful, dangerous, powerful man. Can he see it in my eyes and in my face every damn time I look at him?
He seemed godlike to me at that moment, standing with the Russian in the great Kremlin Palace as though he was born to this world of glittering wealth and power.
Everything about him; his shoulders wide as a gallows tree, his darkly classical features, the cut of his suit, the straightness of his back, the thrust of his jaw and the gray at his temples that bestowed dignity… everything about Mitch Stuyversant seemed a gift borne from Olympus. If he had asked me… if he had even noticed me… I would have gladly thrown myself on my knees and worshipped him.
I slipped the Russian’s business card inside my clutch purse and stood with my back straight, a polite smile fixed on my face – but beneath the façade my emotions were swirling in utter turmoil.
I was in Russia! Fucking Russia!
Just a week ago I’d been working in a tiny cubicle in Washington, doing temp work for the government offices, when suddenly I’d been transferred urgently to fill in for Mitch Stuyversant’s ill secretary. The ensuing days had flown by in a whirlwind of security clearances, late nights of crammed research and long phone calls.
And in the eye of that crazy tempest, infatuation had blossomed and then become the angst of a deep lustful desire that I knew in my heart could never be fulfilled.
Mitch Stuyversant didn’t know how I felt about him – how he turned my stomach to jelly, heavy as molten lead, that spread through my lower body and pooled damply in my panties. God! I would have fainted of embarrassment if he even suspected.
And I would have died of shame if he knew the problems I was facing. That was something even the security agencies hadn’t discovered.
Because behind the smiling face, and concealed beneath the dutiful dedication to my work and my boss… I was in real trouble.
The reception for the American delegation ended at eleven and we stood on the steps of the great palace and waited patiently as a procession of black limousines pulled up to the curb to steal us away to the Embassy compound.
It was bitterly cold; the wind cut like a razor and there was snow heaped in high mounds along the surrounding sidewalks. The lights along the wide plaza were haloed in fog. I stood close beside Mitch and shivered. No one from the delegation spoke.
We didn’t have long to wait. A sleek black vehicle flying the pennants of the United States on its long hood glided to the corner and a uniformed driver came out of the car to hold the rear door open. Mitch went down the steps and I followed him dutifully. On the sidewalk, he turned and looked back, searching for the face of the Ambassador. Mitch waved to the man and he came through the crowd to join us. He was a man in his seventies, with a thick crop of gray wavy hair. He was hunched in a deep warm coat – one of the benefits of foresight of having lived so long in Moscow, I guessed ruefully.
The Ambassador slid into the back of the vehicle. Mitch caught my eye. “It might be a little tight,” he apologized. “But it’s only a short trip.” He sat beside the Ambassador and I tried to squeeze myself discreetly into a corner. The driver pushed the door shut and I stared out through the window.
I could feel the press of Mitch’s thigh against my own leg. I could feel the warmth and the toned resilience of his muscles through the cloth of his trousers and I made no move to pull away. I couldn’t have, even if I’d wanted to. There was simply no more space on the upholstered leather seat.
And I definitely didn’t want to. Every new bump and every turn of a corner brought our bodies brushing together.
I could smell the particular aroma of him; the scents of old leather mingled with the stronger notes of aftershave and, beneath it all, the husky hint of natural healthy manliness. The simmering pool of inner warmth between my thighs suddenly flickered into small fires and I had an almost insane impulse to reach out and touch him.
I felt my cheeks flush and reached quickly into my purse for the distraction of my phone. Mitch seemed not to have noticed the wild giddy effect this small intimacy was having on me. He was muttering softly to the Ambassador, their words intelligible.
When we had arrived at the Embassy compound the day before, I’d been summoned to a special ‘information class’ that was held in a downstairs cafeteria of the main building. The lecture had been conducted by an attaché to the Embassy. She was a woman in her late sixties with a head of lacquered gray curls and wearing horn-rimmed glasses that were suspended around her neck by a thin cord. She looked like an old-style schoolmistress.
There was a dozen or more of us assembled; men and women. We had all arrived as support staff for the leaders of the delegation.
“Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be caught alone in conversation with anyone from the Russian delegation,” the woman had issued the stern warning. “Assume everyone you meet beyond the gates of this compound is working for the Russian intelligence apparatus. Always be polite, and always be sure to conduct your conversations with anyone from the Russian delegation in groups.
“And never,” the woman waggled her finger like a threat, “never ever discuss anything you have seen or heard whilst in a motor vehicle. You should assume that all modes of transport in Moscow are bugged.”
The dark streets of Moscow slid past the window. I turned on my phone and guiltily went back to the email. A pall of gloom draped itself around my shoulders.
The notification was dated four days ago. I skimmed it for the thousandth time without really reading. Doom-laden words and phrases leaped out at me until my eyes began to fill with tears.
‘The bank regrets…’
‘Foreclosure and forced sale of assets…’
‘Unserviced overdraft beyond normal trading limits…’
‘Demand immediate payment…’
I shut off the phone and had to choke down a sob that crawled into the back of my throat.
When I glanced up and blinked my eyes, Mitch was staring at me, his brow furrowed in concern. There was a flash of silent enquiry in the way he gazed at me. I forced my trembling lips into a tight smile.
“I’m just cold,” I whispered the lie.
For a girl who had been born and raised in Galveston, I had come a long way. But in reality, I was still a child of Texas, and the great state will always be my home – no matter where in the world I live.
I moved to Washington to chase my dream of studying political science, and the price for my aspiration had been the need to leave behind my grandmother and the business she had dedicated her entire adult life to building. Both my parents had passed away when I was just a young child; all I have to remember them is an old photograph and the stories my grandmother told after I went to live with her. And so my formative years were spent at my grandmother’s bookstore, sitting in the tiny office at the back of the building, surrounded by the smell of new books and the thousands of imaginative adventures they contained.
The bookstore had been my safe place against all my childhood sadness. But the past few years had been lean, as new digital technologies changed the way people bought books, and new trends altered the kinds of stories they wanted to read. My grandmother had begun directing her business towards schools and educational texts, and in the spring, there was an order coming from the Canadian government that would ensure that my nana’s little book store stayed open for many years to come… if she could keep her head above water through the difficult winter.
Nana had lost my mother to cancer, and she had lost me to the lure of a Washington career. All she had left was the little bookshop with the family name proudly painted above the front door.
And now the banks were threatening to take it away from her.
I felt the kind of helpless despair that only the desperate and the hopeless know.
The limousine swept through the high steel embassy gates. A marine at the guard post threw up a hand in a silent salute. The car pulled up in front of the embassy’s main building and another man in a uniform came from inside the building.
I stepped out into the cold, and the uniformed man went around to the far side of the vehicle to hold the door for the Ambassador. We gathered on the steps. I felt the brush of Mitch’s hand in the small of my back.
“You go on up to bed,” he said kindly. “The Ambassador and I want to meet with some of the other delegation team when they return from the Palace.”
“But…” I began to protest. My sense of duty kicked in. If Mitch was going to work late, then I should be loyally at his side.
He shook his head and the protest died on my lips. “It’s informal… and confidential,” he admitted. “Connie, there would be nothing you could do to help apart from fetch coffee – and the embassy has plenty of people to do that. Now, go to bed, get warm and get some sleep.”
I searched his eyes; his gaze was level, unwavering. “You have to call Washington tomorrow morning. The President’s staff are expecting the call at seven a.m. Moscow time,” I reminded him.
He nodded. He forgot nothing. He had an incredible insightful mind.
“I’ll meet you back here in the lobby at six-thirty.”