The Russian Seduction
Christmas had come early for Political Counselor Alexis Castle at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. To celebrate the holiday, the Russians expelled a senior U.S. diplomat for espionage. Then, as a stocking-stuffer, the Russian military steamrolled over its small southern neighbor. Thanks to her boss’s expulsion, this gift-wrapped emergency landed right in Alexis’ lap.
No doubt about it, the stakes for the fledgling democracy of Ukraine couldn’t be higher. And the timing of this little international crisis would either make or break her career.
Tonight the Italian Political Attache was inching dangerously close to her own sovereign territory, armed with his megawatt smile. Behind him, the dazzling light of chandeliers glowed on the lemon-yellow walls of the German Ambassador’s residence. Christmas lights twinkled in the stately twelve-foot spruce tree soaring over the elegant crowd.
Alexis sidestepped the Italian’s ploy to corner her between the tree and the cocktail bar. Unfortunately, the designer suit couldn’t camouflage her pursuer’s pudgy frame, the scalp shiny with sweat against his receding hairline, or the fruity bite of Russian champagne on his breath.
But the heat was on her at this diplomatic reception-the first high-profile function she’d attended in her new capacity. The situation demanded an experienced diplomat’s discretion, not the panicked hyperbole of a woman overwhelmed by an aggressive male colleague.
So she smiled and kept her distance, while she steered their conversation firmly back to the crisis in Ukraine. Around them, a Beethoven sonata rippled through the Tsarist-era manor that housed the Ambassador’s residence.
Despite her evasive maneuvers, the Italian was breathing down the front of her tailored black suit while he answered her question. “Italy joins its NATO allies, signora, in being appalled by this Russian blockade of Ukraine’s territorial waters. We fear it could be the prelude to an invasion.”
“My government shares these concerns.” Carefully, Alexis recited the latest points from Washington, transmitted to post by instruction cable. Regardless of her strong sympathy for the former satellite state of Ukraine-bullied by its aggressive neighbor again-she wasn’t about to make a misstep during her first week in a new job.
“But we hesitate to condemn these acts,” she finished, “until Moscow provides an explanation. And let’s not forget that the Ukrainians themselves are assessing the situation, and haven’t yet asked for our help.”
“But this is unbelievable!” The Italian gestured with his champagne flute, black eyebrows winging up in astonishment. “Gross intimidation of a minor neighbor that already teeters on the brink of political collapse! Is this not precisely why your country argues for Ukraine’s entry into NATO?”
If she could have spoken freely, Alexis would have vigorously supported these sentiments. Regrettably, as one of the U.S. government’s senior representatives in Russia, speaking freely was not a luxury she could afford.
“We seek to deepen our dialogue with Ukraine,” she murmured, “without upsetting our delicate relations with Russia-”
“While you ‘deepen your dialogue,’ the Russians deploy their nuclear-armed vessels in a transparent bid to rebuild the Soviet empire!” The Attache paused, his oily eyes sliding over her. “Ah, but you are a newcomer to these responsibilities, is this not so, Counselor? Perhaps you have enjoyed limitedhellip; exposure to such matters.”
Alexis gripped the stem of her wineglass and arranged her features in a noncommittal smile. “Actually, the troubled relations between Russia and its neighbors are familiar terrain. My post for the past two years was here in Moscow-one level down, but in the same arena.”
She’d rebuffed the aging Lothario over the hors d’oeuvres, so now his bruised ego required stroking. How discouraging that, even on the brink of an international crisis, a female diplomat was not exempt from sexual advances in the workplace.
As she sipped her Riesling with its steely citrus palate, Alexis scanned her surroundings with worried eyes. Despite the festive decor, many guests were murmuring about the latest Russian aggression. An undercurrent of tension hummed through the well-bred gathering that made her nerves twitch. Yet the sedate throngs in business attire juggled their briefcases, exchanged brisk handshakes, and nibbled canapés without spilling a crumb on the Persian carpets.
To her dismay, her gaze collided with Deputy Chief of Mission Geoff Chase-her ex-husband. Still looking like Pierce Brosnan after all these years, dark-haired and steely-eyed, but aging past his prime. His trademark charm seemed to be working its usual magic on the French Ambassador’s wife and the Brazilian Embassy’s well-endowed female intern. But Geoff was watching Alexis, his elegant features etched in disapproving lines.
Years ago, she’d admired his relentless ambition and laser-like focus on his career. These days, the sight of him left a sour taste in her mouth.
While Geoff angled through the crowd toward her, she reminded herself again that their marriage was over. They were no longer one of the State Department’s tandem couples, posted together at the same Embassies, transferred together every two years, their stars rising in parallel arcs. But it still hurt to see her ex-husband flirting so openly with other women.
He extracted her from the Attache’s amorous clutches-thank God for small blessings-with a smooth apology.
“That smug son of a bitch,” Geoff muttered, when he had her ear.
Dear God, not this again. He couldn’t possibly feel threatened by that sweaty Italian.
“What’s the problem, Geoff?” Keeping a professional distance between them, Alexis took a bracing swallow of wine. As disastrous as the five years of their marriage had been, she found having her ex-husband as her new boss to be equally trying.
“The ‘problem’ is that tall blond chap in uniform-near the band.” Her ex bristled with contained annoyance and adjusted his cufflinks. “Apparently thinks the epaulets give him an excuse to stare at youhellip;for the last five minutes.”
Evidently, the Italian’s sexual overtures weren’t the problem after all. In fact, she doubted suddenly that Geoff had even realized he was rescuing her.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” Gritting her teeth at the soothing tone she’d deployed-old habits died hard-Alexis snuck a glance toward the string quartet. Through the shifting crowd, she could see no one staring, drooling on himself, or doing anything else unseemly. Nor could she spot anyone who matched Geoff’s sketchy description.
But that hint of Oxford English was creeping into his speech-always a dead giveaway of displeasure in her British-educated ex.
“And when the devil,” he muttered, “are you going to express our concerns about this Ukraine crisis to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? That demarche is a priority message-our official response to the Russian aggression. You’ve been sitting on the document for three days. They’re going to think in Washington that I can’t manage my subordinates.”
“It may surprise you to learn,” Alexis said dryly, “that this international crisis is not about your career.”
And neither was our divorce. Although he’d never been good at handling rejection, Geoff’s career had always come first. When she finally gave up on their marriage, his primary objection had been that her decision humiliated him before their colleagues. Still struggling to process the pain of his serial infidelities-the irrefutable evidence of her own inadequacy-she’d been praying his sudden interest in a Moscow job was unrelated to their divorce.
Geoff had to suspect she’d transferred here to escape the emotional fallout from their shattered marriage. Moscow was her post, damn it, and she’d been here first.
“Don’t lecture me about the future of democracy in Ukraine.” Reacting to her comment, Geoff’s gray eyes flashed a warning. “I’ve been conducting U.S. foreign policy since you were in high school, Alexis. If you want to prove you’re up to snuff at handling your new responsibilities, you’d better get that demarche delivered-and no later than tomorrow.”
“I’m on it.” Deliberately, she extracted her arm from his proprietary grip. “Believe it or not, Geoff, the chief of the MFA’s Security Affairs Department does not hover near his telephone breathlessly waiting for our calls. He’s brand new, as you know-since they just fired his predecessor for sleeping with mine.”
“And for suspected espionage,” he murmured, glancing around them. “Let’s not forget that minor detail.”
She relinquished her wineglass to a waiter, and loosened her white-knuckled grip on her briefcase. Yet she couldn’t relinquish as easily the familiar stab of resentment.
She’d earned her promotion the hard way, scaling the steep Foreign Service ladder over ten long years, logging twelve-hour days at four overseas posts-not all of them exotic, by any means. And her predecessor’s abrupt departure had just made her, at age thirty-two, the youngest Political Counselor ever to serve at this Embassy. As well as the highest-ranking woman, subordinate only to Geoff as Deputy Chief of Mission, and to the Ambassador himself.
Yet she still heard it whispered by the old boys’ network that she owed her advancement not to her own merits, but to the man she’d married. Or to her prestigious father, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs Wayne Castle, whose name still held substantial cachet years after he’d passed away. This promotion was her big break, and she was burning to prove her detractors wrong.
Geoff ran a hand over his well-groomed hair. “How exactly do you plan to track down the man, Alexis? You’ll understand that I’m asking this question as your superior. As I recall, you’ve already submitted several requests to meet with Victor Kostenko through the usual channels. Yet he’s steadily refused to see you.”
“In fact, he hasn’t responded at all yet.” Alexis declined to divulge how much that bothered her. “But Captain Kostenko is hardly your average Ivan. Until recently, he was a submarine captain, the golden boy of the Russian fleet. He commanded their newest Akula-class attack sub-apparently with considerable flair.”
Geoff turned aside for a cordial handshake with a Russian Duma member, but ignored the junior staffer hovering in his wake. When her ex turned back to Alexis, he spoke in a pleasant murmur that disguised his agitation from anyone in hearing range. “Why isn’t Kostenko sitting in his submarine, enforcing the blockade, with the rest of his comrades?”
“He’s been reassigned to a desk job at MFA, probably as a reprimand for some misstep we can’t identify.” This was all in Kostenko’s dossier, which she’d forwarded to Geoff days ago. Evidently, her ex-husband had been too busy in Moscow’s exclusive restaurants, schmoozing his new counterparts at taxpayer expense, to read his email.
“Even though they gave Kostenko a pretty senior slot,” she finished, “he’s bound to be mad as hell about it.”
“From god of his own universe-fully armed with torpedoes and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles-to just another bureaucrat drowning in paper.” Geoff grinned as if he relished another man’s disgrace. “Hell of a Christmas present, isn’t it? If the chap’s as much a monomaniac as the sub skippers I’ve met, that’s bound to stick in his gullet.”
“Victor Kostenko has been a difficult catch,” she finished, projecting a confidence she didn’t entirely feel. “But I’m going to bag him, Geoff. So don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t let it take too long.” He drilled her with a wintry stare. “For reasons he hasn’t bothered to explain, the Ambassador chose you to lead our dialogue with the Russians. He’s hoping your negotiations will prevent this maritime dispute from flaring into armed conflict. At a bare minimum, if we want to avoid a war, you must persuade Kostenko to talk.”
Geoff paused to flash his charming smile at the Canadian Ambassador, and Alexis exchanged greetings with the attractive brunette as well. When the woman moved away, her ex leaned close to finish his warning.
“Bear in mind, Alexis, you’re not the only new incumbent whose performance is being assessed. I can’t afford a fumble on my watch.”
Alexis concealed her cynicism, as she would have done with any new boss, and seized the moment to excuse herself. She was searching for the powder room when a pressed-and-starched functionary with a German accent slipped up discreetly beside her.
“A telephone call has rung in for you, Frau Chase.”
“It’s Castle,” she corrected. The divorce was still making the rounds in diplomatic circles, which inevitably led to some awkward moments.
“A telephone call has rung in for you, Frau Castle,” the young man repeated. “I shall show you the way, please.”
Alexis gripped her briefcase-awkward to carry, but these receptions were intended for business, not pleasure, and all of them did it. As she followed the German up the stately staircase toward the private rooms, the strains of violin music ebbed away. Her heels clicked against the floor as they wound onto another narrow stair, a servant’s passage for the original manor, she guessed.
For the first time, she suffered a twinge of unease. They’d climbed far beyond the public area now. Surely Ambassador von Hippel had made a nearer phone available where she could have taken the call?
“Excuse me,” she called, trying out her halting German. “Are you certain we’re going the right way?”
“Don’t worry, Frau Castle.” The functionary spared her an impersonal smile as he turned onto a dimly-lit third floor corridor. Ahead, an amber beam of light spilled over the Turkmen carpet from an open doorway. A sinuous rope of cigarette smoke twined through the air. Here the young man stopped, and invited her with a bow to enter.
Nodding her thanks, Alexis strode briskly into a high-ceilinged library, its walls lined with embossed leather-bound volumes. A massive antique desk reared before the window. The glass panes behind it were rimed with ice, gusts of snow swirling through the frigid darkness of a December night in Moscow.
In the intimate island of light cast by the Venetian lamp, a gold-braided officer’s hat was propped carelessly on the desk. In the Louis XV chair behind it, a man sprawled, turned away from her, feet braced on the window sill as he stared into the night.
Cigarette smoke uncoiled above his head as the officer inhaled, lamplight running like melted butter over dark blond hair, at least an inch too long for regulation. Light glittered against the epaulets that spanned his broad shoulders, three golden bars proclaiming a captain’s rank-her first clue as to who this guy might be. The black fabric of his uniform strained across the powerful muscles of his back and clung to impressive biceps.
Alexis cleared her throat and addressed the back of his head, employing her fluent Russian. “I beg your pardon. I was looking for the telephone-”
The soft click of the door closing behind her sent a chill of uneasiness skittering down her spine. She’d been led here, far from earshot of the other guests unless she shouted-though she’d never be so undignified-and dropped into a rather disconcerting private setting with a high-ranking Russian military officer.
A figure no U.S. diplomat should be meeting alone in this era of tense bilateral relations, without the sanction of an official dialogue to justify the encounter to superiors. It was a precaution Alexis waived at her own risk, given what had just happened to Oliver Grey, her unfortunate predecessor.
Behind the desk, the Russian addressed the window coolly, without turning his head. “I am afraid there is no telephone call, Ms. Chase.”
“It’s Castle.” Noting the crisp diction of his accented English, she switched languages to accommodate him. “Forgive my ignorance. You seem to know me, but I’m a bit unclear who you are.”
At last, he swung his legs down and pivoted to face her. The lamplight spilled around him like water in a ship’s wake, streaming past an impregnable hull. The Slavic sharpness of high cheekbones; a canny crease between tawny brows; hard jaw glittering with the gold dust of day’s-end stubble; and a mouth whose firm press suggested ruthlessnesshellip;and sensuality.
But God-his eyes. That Nordic gaze fixed her, unwavering, piercing blue as winter ice. She wondered how many men had looked their last into those cold eyes, then told herself to get it together. Still, she could barely contain the shiver that whispered through her.
His lips tightened in a humorless smile. “I’m Captain First Rank Victor Tarasovich Kostenko. I’m told you’ve been looking for me.”
“Captain Kostenko?” She erected a wall of diplomatic courtesy between them, to camouflage the frustration of her three-day pursuit. The guy had just ambushed her-with help from a NATO ally, no less-and she couldn’t afford to give him an inch of turf. “I understand you’re the newhellip;administrator tasked to observe Russia’s military engagement with Ukraine.”
“I am the new Director of the Security Affairs and Disarmament Department,” he said coolly. “In that capacity, I oversee the Russian Federation’s military collaboration with the fourteen nations that comprise the post-Soviet empire. As even a newcomer to your position must be aware, this empire includes Ukraine.”
Given the classic sub skipper’s ego, she’d figured Kostenko would be annoyed to hear himself described as a glorified secretary. But he was a cool customer, this Russian, and his harsh-chiseled features gave nothing away as he parried her thrust with that little dig about her inexperience.
Still, she wasn’t going to let him rattle her. No matter what hair-raising exploits he might have piloted his submarine through, the man possessed substantially less diplomatic experience than she did herself.
As she pinned on her best game face, those narrowed blue eyes slid down her body from head to heels, then slowly slid back up. For a heartbeat, that chilly remoteness almost fractured. His gaze lingered on the immaculate silk suit she’d chosen so carefully to project her authority, the turquoise scarf she’d knotted at her throat to match her eyes.
She knew what he saw: the epitome of restraint and gravitas she took constant pains to reflect. Yet now, for some reason, she had to remind herself not to toy with the silver-blonde hair that brushed her shoulders, or tug at the costly jacket. Alexis tamped down that inner twitch of nerves and tightened her grip on her briefcase.
“I have talking points and a demarche from Washington for you, captain.” Pausing, she infused her tone with sympathy. “Since you’re new to your diplomatic responsibilities, I should explain that a demarche is an official position paper. In this case, it’s intended to initiate dialogue-”
“Thank you for the tutorial on elementary diplomacy, Counselor.” Now his tone was icy, but the furrow between his brows deepened. “Are you able to articulate the document’s subject-or are you merely functioning as a mailman?”
Touche, captain. She unclenched her jaw, and refrained from betraying a flicker of annoyance.
“I have a passing acquaintance with the topic,” she said dryly, “since I’ve been following your government’s evolving relations with its neighbors for the past several years.”
While you were cruising the North Sea playing war games. Her genteel condescension had to be getting under his skin. This wasn’t a man accustomed to being patronized-especially, she guessed, by a woman.
“My government is demarching you,” she finished, “to express its concern with the troubling presence of Russian naval vessels in Ukraine’s territorial waters.”
“It’s a training exercise.” Through watchful eyes he studied her, drawing on his cigarette and speaking curtly through the smoke. “If you have documents for me, I’ll give you a fax number.”
“I’m afraid that will not suffice.” Alexis worked to contain a sharp burst of irritation.
Though routine documents were often delivered via fax-not email, which was deemed too insecure-important messages like this one required the added emphasis of a personal meeting. And if he knew what a demarche was, Victor Kostenko damn well knew she wouldn’t be faxing this one. She wondered whether his inaccessibility was dictated by his superiors at MFA, or merely reflected his own difficult personality.
“My government would like a response to these concerns,” she pressed, “that goes beyond a confirmation of receipt from the MFA fax machine.”
And I’ll need that response by tomorrow, captain, if I want to hold on to my hard-won promotion.
Kostenko exhaled smoke, that ruthless mouth twitching as if he sensed her desperation. As if he too was scanning her for weaknesses, and had just picked up her “tell.”
“In point of fact,” he murmured, in his accented but impeccable English, “it will reflect poorly upon you personally if you are unable to entice a more substantive response from me, yes? It will reflect upon you: Alexis Castle Chase, who are the only surviving child of a legendary U.S. Ambassador, and the recent ex-wife of another senior U.S. diplomat.”
His eyes glinted like submerged glaciers in the North Sea as she clung grimly to her poise. No wedding ring, she noted, either on his left hand or his right, where an orthodox Russian would wear it. Which was more than a bit unusual for a guy his age-around forty, her analysts calculated-in this culture.
“It would reflect poorly,” he finished softly, “upon you: the new Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs, who are widely rumored to have obtained your impressive promotion through your connections with these two great men, rather than through your own merits.”
“I beg your pardon.” Gripping her briefcase until it cut into her fingers, Alexis responded with steely control. “Notwithstanding my ‘connections,’ your colleagues across five ministries consult me on a regular basis, as do your counterparts from the Russian Security Council and the Presidential Administration.”
She arched her brows. “I’m not certain how things worked on your submarine. But in diplomacy, it’s generally considered appropriate to coordinate your views with your superiors.”
An electric pulse of annoyance flashed in his eyes. He might be compelled to take his marching orders from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but she’d bet her trust fund this alpha male didn’t like it.
“At my level,” he bit out, “I possess the authority to make Russian policy and dictate its positions myself. Of course, I appreciate that an Embassy functionary stationed thousands of miles from her capital cannot enjoy the same privilege.”
And that smug son of a bitch had just impugned her professional abilities again. No doubt he’d intuited, with those aggressive instincts, how hard she worked to suppress her doubts-her secret fears that her performance could never live up to her star billing. He knew she was under the spotlight, and needed to deliver a stellar performance.
But the trick to dealing with Russians, as Alexis well knew, was never to blink. Now she drew from the sketchy information she’d read in his dossier to prepare for this meeting.
“Have they really let you off your leash at MFA, captain?” she murmured. “You must know those diplomats downstairs are buzzing about you. They’re asking each other what kind of misstep would impel the Ministry of Defense to pull its most talented captain from commanding an attack sub to sail a desk in the backwater of another ministry.”
Though she shouldn’t have said it, and her Ambassador would probably faint if he heard it, her pointed riposte finally drew blood. Her adversary went utterly still, a muscle ticking in his jaw the only indication that she’d hit a nerve. His cigarette hovered, clamped between his fingers, a cylindrical ash growing on its tip.
“You must inform your Defense Attache,” he said with dangerous softness, “that his dossier on me contains certainhellip; inaccuracies. For the Kostenko who was the fleet’s most talented captain was not myself, but my father. As a submarine captain, I cannot claim to surpass him. And the so-called crime for which he was convicted-after his sub was lost at sea with all souls aboard, including his own-was nothing more than his Ukrainian ancestry.”
He paused. “The same so-called ‘deficiency’ which I, of course, must share.”
Kostenko’s Slavic features brooded, as he flicked the ember from his cigarette into a brass ashtray. “When we were united under the Soviet Union, the question of ethnicity was a trifling matter. Now, in these more complicated times, a loyal soldier and citizen of Mother Russia must be all the more zealous-as you will appreciate-in discharging his responsibilities.”
That would hold especially true for a senior officer whose mixed ethnicity straddled both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Cool and dispassionate though he might appear, Victor Kostenko had to be feeling some heat.
As she stood at attention before the enormous desk like a soldier on parade, with tension simmering in the air between them, Alexis felt an unwilling pang of sympathy for the officer’s dilemma. She understood, all too well, how it felt to be trapped by a father’s legacy. She too, in her own way, had struggled all her life to escape.
But in the end, she’d understood that she would never escape being the daughter of the venerable Undersecretary Castle. She could only atone for her own inadequacies. She wondered if Victor Kostenko had yet learned that painful lesson.
Back to business, she reminded herself, and smoothed her face to professional detachment. “As I’ve mentioned, I have the talking points and paper outlining our concerns in my briefcase. Allow me to convey these documents to you now. Then you can consult your superiors, and respond to me tomorrow-”
“I fear that is impossible, Ms. Castle,” the Russian said curtly. His clipped words did nothing to camouflage a simmering impatience with these diplomatic niceties, his tangible scorn for the protocols forced upon him. “I am not permitted to accept without prior authorization any documents on military matters, outside the physical boundaries of a ministry or agency of the Russian Federation. This is for your protection as well as mine.”
So that neither of them could be accused of espionage for the transaction. Alexis swore silently at the emergence of this latest bureaucratic obstacle. Indeed, to defend against such allegations, both of them were already required to report this private discussion to their respective authorities.
Conscious of the scrutiny of those cobalt eyes, Alexis placed her briefcase squarely at her feet-a silent declaration of intent. The embattled country of Ukraine was counting on her to flex some muscle. Her assignment was to wield the threat of U.S. wrath convincingly enough to strong-arm the Russian navy back into international waters, without resorting to violence. She had to deliver her message, come hell or high water, and persuade Kostenko to respond to her government’s very real concerns.
If she didn’t, it was her ass on the line. And the newly independent state of Ukraine might be breathing its last gasp of freedom.
“In that case,” she said calmly, “I must call on you at MFA tomorrow to discuss these pressing issues. When will it be convenient for you to see me? Shall we say 10 a.m.?”
A flicker of something-wry acknowledgement of her persistence, maybe-surfaced beneath the arctic chill of his features. Thoughtfully, he ground out his cigarette. Then, with an abruptness that disconcerted her, he pushed to his feet.
She couldn’t help noticing the guy towered over the hapless desk, way over six feet tall. And the breadth of his chest beneath that gold-braided jacket was, admittedly, impressive. She wondered what he’d been doing on his submarine to give him that physique. This was hardly the body of a man who spent his days scowling into a periscope-or hunched over a desk at MFA, for that matter. While the suntanned skin stretched over those Slavic bones in December hinted at an outdoor man.
Alexis cut short her wayward thoughts, every nerve tingling with wariness as he rounded the desk with the silent glide of a hunting shark. She stood her ground as he prowled toward her, surprisingly graceful for such a large man, with the athleticism she respected in her sparring partners at the dojo or the fencing salle. In the narrow confines of the library, he passed close enough to touch. If she’d wanted to touch him, which of course she didn’t.
Still, she couldn’t help noticing how the lamplight glittered on those epaulets and the double column of gold buttons marching down his torso. Or the way the caramel-colored light picked out sun-streaks in his hair, thick enough to tempt a woman to run her fingers through it.
And she definitely couldn’t help breathing in the fragrance exuded from his rough-shaven skin: an enticing blend of Davidoff cigarettes and the woody spice of David Beckham’s Signature cologne. It didn’t help that she was probably the only woman left on earth who actually liked the rich acrid perfume of a high-end cigarette, though she didn’t smoke herself.
Clearly Kostenko was escalating his offensive because he hadn’t managed to pierce her composure with his pointed words. Well, if he thought she’d be intimidated by his proximity, he was destined for disappointment, because she wouldn’t show him an ounce of weakness. She stood her ground as he circled her, like a great white smelling blood in the water.
Though she was definitely not afraid of him, she couldn’t deny being hyperaware of his every silent step. Warm breath stirred her hair and brushed her ear, making her toes curl, as he leaned in close from behind.
“Tell me, Ms. Castle, how far will you go to accomplish your mission?”
“What are you asking me, captain?” she countered. “Obviously, I’ll do nothing illegal, or even remotely inappropriate.”
But her voice sounded breathless, which was unsurprising given the way her stomach was fluttering. A dead giveaway to a perceptive man, which he definitely was, that she wasn’t as firmly in control as she pretended to be.
Now he lingered behind her, so she couldn’t see his face, and she seized the moment to shore up her defenses. But when he spoke-whisper-soft-his voice seemed thicker, his accent more pronounced, as though he too felt distracted.
“I’ll inform my colleagues that your government is planning to demarche us about our legitimate military collaboration with Ukraine.” His breath teased her ear. “I’m able to make no guarantees, you realize. However, one might possibly avoid an official refusal…if you were to give me the relevant documents when I see you tomorrow evening.”
A swell of satisfaction flooded through her at his apparent capitulation, even though he’d hedged his bet. But she caught her breath at his unexpected last word.
“Tomorrow evening, captain?” She’d be squeaking in just under Geoff’s deadline, and she didn’t like cutting it that close. “Are you planning to attend the Embassy reception? We’re hosting an event for the Russian scientists who’ve won slots in our exchange program-”
“Hardly.” Victor Kostenko snorted as he completed his stroll around her. “And neither are you, Ms. Castle, if you really want to give me those unpleasant documents you’re carrying.”
She bristled at his peremptory tone. “I’m afraid my presence at that reception is a command performance. May I suggest an earlier appointment?”
“Unfortunately that will be impossible given my schedule. I’ll send a car for you at 1830 hours,” he finished, those vigilant eyes glinting as they catalogued her reaction. “Don’t be late.”
Anger flared through her as Alexis stared up at him, absorbing the calm certainty in his tone, his utter conviction that she would yield to his diktat without a syllable of protest.
Of course, her father had thought nothing of regimenting her life in precisely that manner, without even consulting her. And she’d resented the hell out of it. When Wayne Castle passed away, she’d seized control of her own life, and vowed not to let anyone else behind the wheel. She couldn’t tolerate being pushed around by another man who projected her father’s unquestioning authority. Especially not this Russian skipper, who exuded all the arrogance and aggression that were archetypes of the breed.
But she had to deliver that message, and he’d just outlined the circumstances under which he would concede to take it. Yet she couldn’t deny-and couldn’t hide, damn it ten times-the wicked thrill of challenge that rippled through her.
No doubt about it, Captain First Rank Victor Kostenko was far too sure of himself for any woman’s good.
“I’ll report your proposal to my colleagues, captain,” she said blandly. “Will any of your comrades from MFA be joining us?”
“No.” Looking amused, the captain extracted a fresh cigarette and a slim silver lighter from his pocket. “Do you think I’m going to require reinforcements to deal with you, Counselor?”
She’d bet he didn’t allow himself to require or rely on anyone. But if she agreed to take this meeting tomorrow, she’d be on his turf. She wasn’t so blind cocky that she’d pass up the opportunity to secure some allies of her own.
“As you like,” she said crisply, lifting her chin. “For my part, I’ll be accompanied by our Defense Attache, General Baker.”
“We won’t require the general’s presence for the dialogue I’m envisioning.” His voice deepened an octave. “Kindly arrange to leave your minders at home.”
For a nanosecond he actually smiled, fine lines creasing in the suntanned skin around his eyes, and that flash of bad-boy charm hit Alexis like a triple shot of espresso.
Whoa. He hadn’t picked that up at the Russian school for sub skippers. That smile made it impossible to overlook the inconvenient distraction she’d been struggling to ignore since she’d walked into the German Ambassador’s library. All his Russian brusqueness and glacial chill notwithstanding, Victor Tarasovich Kostenko was a rather unusual specimen.
In fact, he was the type of guy she might possibly have gone for-except for that minor detail about being a high-ranking Russian officer. Which was the show-stopper, of course. He was the very last liaison any career-minded American diplomat would ever dare indulge.
And he was doubly dangerous to Alexis, since her boss Oliver Grey had just been expelled from country for an unsanctioned sexual relationship with Kostenko’s female predecessor. Their capitals were still scrambling to establish who’d been spying on whom. As for the luckless Russian diplomat, rumor had it the Minister of Foreign Affairs had sacked her personally. While the Embassy’s security office had already warned Alexis the pissed-off Russians could target her for the payback.
So don’t overreact to the fact that the guy’s somewhat attractive…borderline interesting…and apparently single. You’ve probably just been celibate too long-ever since Geoff. But even as she cautioned herself, she bent to retrieve her briefcase and caught another mouth-watering whiff of that Beckham fragrance.
Holding her professional composure like a shield between them, she uttered a brisk goodnight and hightailed it out of there. But she was still vibrating beneath the sweep of his eyes, like a targeted vessel pinged by Russian sonar, when she swept around the corner and out of firing range.