TRUSTING A STRANGER
A sharp gust of wind grabbed the branches of the trees outside the window, sending them crashing and scratching against the glass with a screech.
From where she stood in front of the window, the impact came mere inches from Karina’s face. She didn’t even flinch. She had too many actual threats to fear to be so easily frightened by nothing.
As she had every day since her arrival, she stared out at the street in front of the building. She watched the passing cars, she scanned the pedestrians. She didn’t know why she kept her silent vigil. There was really nothing to see. If the danger she expected did come, it would hardly approach so boldly from the front. The answers she sought deep in her soul weren’t out there. Yet she simply didn’t know what else to do.
She’d arrived in the United States just over a month ago at the beginning of February. From what she’d seen through the building’s windows, it had been gray and cold ever since. Not so unlike Russia at this time of year. She almost wished she could look at the unremarkable city scene outside and pretend she was home. But she’d never managed to forget that she was not home, nor why.
“I am going out now.”
The booming voice behind her was too familiar to startle her. Or perhaps she was simply too numb to be startled.
Forcing some semblance of a smile, Karina turned to face her godfather.
He stood halfway inside the room, already wearing his overcoat, pulling on his gloves. He was a big, robust man with a ruddy face automatically eased in a smile of his own. But she sensed the strain in his expression as much as she felt it in her own. He couldn’t quite hide the worry in his eyes. Even though he’d said nothing about it, she knew how much trouble he’d gone to to bring her here. She hated that she’d brought her problems halfway around the world to his door, but she’d simply had nowhere else to go.
“You should come with me,” Sergei said. “Come see the city. You have not left this building since you arrived.”
“I am fine here.” Safe here.
“You are not fine,” he said, the reprimand slightly tempered. “You are hiding.”
“For good reason.”
He grimaced. “I brought you here to be safe, not to turn this building into your prison.”
“It is too nice to be a prison,” Karina said wearily. She cast an eye around the room. Beautifully decorated, it was as lovely as the rest of Sergei’s home. Much like the homes she used to decorate back in Moscow, when she’d had a job, a life that was not limited to four walls. How unfortunate that the plush surroundings were wasted on her.
She felt him watching her. “There are many kinds of prisons,” he said. “You know, the Americans like to say this is the land of the free.” He smiled, a trace of patronizing amusement in his voice.
Her lips quirked sadly. “But it is not my land. Perhaps I am right not to feel free here.”
“You are safe here,” he said, echoing her earlier thoughts. But hearing the words spoken aloud merely allowed a whisper of doubt to creep in.
Still she answered, “I know.” But she couldn’t meet his eyes.
Sergei stepped forward and took her hands. “We will not let him win.”
Dread pooled in her belly. He could say the words a thousand times and she didn’t think she would be able to believe them.
Lowering her head so he couldn’t see the doubt on her face, she could only nod tightly.
He pressed a kiss to her forehead and stepped away. Karina listened to the sound of his retreating footsteps, the soft click of the door shutting, letting the warmth of his words and his touch sink in as she tried to believe he was right. They failed to pierce the bone-deep cold filling her body. She wrapped her arms around herself, even though the chill had nothing to do with the temperature, and slowly regained her position at the window. The wind had picked up again. The branches in the trees twisted and tangled like the frenzied writhing of tormented spirits.
Or the ever-present uneasiness she felt churning deep within her that not even Sergei’s assurances could calm.
KARINA HAD LONG SINCE retreated to the sofa, night having fallen hours earlier, when she heard the voices. The sound of them, their tone sharp and urgent, broke into her thoughts. She frowned, irritated by the distraction even if nothing she’d been thinking about had been particularly pleasant.
She slowly raised her head to look at the closed door, the one Sergei had shut when he left. The barrier was thick, solid. Yet the voices were loud enough, the intensity in them fierce enough, to be heard through the surface.
A familiar sense of foreboding fell over her. She tried to swallow, only to discover her mouth had suddenly gone dry.
Something was wrong.
Part of her longed to stay where she was, safely insulated from whatever lay on the other side of that door. The rest of her already knew what it was, what it had to be. What she’d feared would happen from the moment Sergei had brought her here, even more than the idea of something happening to her.
She barely realized she was rising from her seat until her feet hit the floor. As if in a trance, she forced herself to cross the room and open the door.
One of the household staff stood a short distance down the hallway. At the sight of her, Karina’s heart fell into her stomach. The woman’s hand was pressed to her mouth, her expression locked in grief and horror and shock.
And Karina knew she’d been right.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, the voice seeming to come from far away rather than from her own mouth.
The woman jerked her head up and just stared at her for a long moment. It didn’t seem possible, but the horror on her face deepened at the sight of Karina standing there.
“Mr. Yevchenko— He…is dead.”
Expecting it did nothing to protect her from the sharp pain that ripped through her at hearing the words spoken. She realized some small part had hoped that it would not be true, or that if something had to have happened, he would only be hurt, not killed.
“How?” she asked, that strange distant voice coming out as a barely audible rasp.
“A shooting. He was leaving his vehicle and a car drove by. Someone inside shot at him.”
Of course, she thought faintly. That was how they would do it. She didn’t ask if the shooter had been caught. She knew better than to think they would choose a way that would lead to them being captured.
She stood frozen, unable to move, unable to react, unable to do anything but stare at the horror on the woman’s face, knowing it was mirrored on her own.
The woman started to say something else. Karina didn’t hear her, the sound drowned out by Sergei’s final words to her, the reassurances now painfully mocking, echoing in her ears.
You are safe here.
We will not let him win.
And another voice, one she usually only heard in her nightmares, now as vivid as though the speaker were standing beside her, whispering cruelly in her ear.
I always win.
Copyright © 2009 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.