The Silver Fox

The Silver Fox

Deborah Smith

May 2017 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-769-4

Her greatest secret might save his life.

Our PriceUS$13.95
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Her greatest secret might save his life.

Dr. Kriloff’s blond companion was a slender female fashion refugee so horrible looking that pity was Audubon’s first reaction. She huddled in Kriloff’s shadow, a notepad clutched in her pale hands, her eyes fastened firmly on the carpeted floor. Her hair was thick, straight, and raggedly chopped off at the shoulder. It was parted with all the straightness of a lightning bolt and hung in front of her glasses on one side, hiding one eye like a limp, half-shut curtain.

The glasses were large, with ugly, black frames and green-tinted lenses easily a quarter-inch thick. She wore a dingy, gray dress suit that belonged on a woman four sizes larger and several inches taller, though this woman was taller than average. Between the jacket’s wide lapels, he could see a sliver of a round-necked, white blouse of some coarse material

She never moved and never looked up. Her skirt puffed out around her skinny calves as if she were standing over an air grate. And her shoes were matronly, black pumps with wide heels and straps across the insteps. The woman could go hiking in those shoes.

"Who is she?” Audubon put a hand on his hostess’s arm and brought them to a stop a dozen feet from the Kriloff group. "The blonde.”

"His secretary.” The hostess covered her mouth and whispered sideways, "Isn’t she awful looking? That gray bag makes her into a skinny-legged pigeon. Why in the world would Dr. Kriloff allow a member of his entourage to make such a terrible impression? People can barely keep from gawking at her. Thank goodness she doesn’t speak English. At least she won’t be hurt if she overhears a critical remark.”

"Introduce me to her.”

Deborah Smith is the New York Times and Number One Kindle bestseller of A Place To Call Home, The Crossroads Café, and many other romance and women’s fiction novels.


Coming Soon!



T. S. AUDUBON loved to make an entrance. He might laugh privately at his vanity, but he enjoyed the drama of his life. Richmond’s magnifi­cent old Park-Lane Hotel was the perfect backdrop for his unique looks, and as he crossed the lobby he knew that more eyes were on him than on its Victorian opulence. In his own way he was just as much a monument to old-school aristocracy as the hotel, and to the ladies who watched him even more awe-inspiring.

The scent of roses halted him beside a Gothic table bearing a gilded vase. A hint of the gracefulness in the movement of his long, indeli­cate- looking fingers, he snapped a small white rosebud from the arrange­ment. If he curved his fingers around a violin, they made impres­sive music. If he curved them around a stock portfolio, they made mil­lions. When they stroked the trigger of a gun, they made respectful ene­mies. When they stroked a woman’s desires, they made exquisite friends.

He tucked the rosebud into the lapel of his black tux, liking the white-on-black elegance. The white rose was the perfect accessory for his thick mane of white hair. "Goad evening,” he told a matronly hotel employee who had combined staring at him and walking with unfortu­nate results. He appreciated women who bumped into ugly rococo sofas on his behalf. "I hope you’re not hurt.”

"Mr. Audubon! It’s so nice to see you again! Oh, no. I’m not hurt, Mr. Audubon. I’m sorry, sir. I’m so clumsy. So—”

"Please, relax. It’s all right.”

She twisted her hands, apparently anxious to get away from him. "The rosebud looks wonderful with your hair.”

"Why, thank you. Premature gray will always be good for some­thing, I suppose.”

"Oh, yes. I didn’t mean to insult you. Please, forgive me.”

"I’m not insulted, I assure—”

"Oh. I’m sorry. So dense. Excuse me, sir. I have to run.” Her head down, she hobbled away before he could say anything else.

Audubon’s long legs took him across the lobby with an effortless speed and balance learned from years of meditative T’ai Chi and cut­throat amateur basketball. He grimaced, dismayed and distracted as he climbed the steep, central staircase. Inspiring admiration in a woman was one thing; inspiring her fearful respect was another. His grandfather had sold this hotel thirty years before, and Audubon expected to be treated as an ordinary visitor. But when seven generations of ancestors had been greedy and manipulative, when the family name was men­tioned in the state’s history nearly as often as Washington, Jefferson, and Lee—but with not nearly as much praise—and when a man’s father was remembered as the man who destroyed the state’s most beautiful tide­water marsh to build a fish-processing factory, people nominated you to the filthy rich Hall of Fame, with an emphasis on the filthy.

His mood subdued by the matronly employee’s reaction, Audubon reminded himself that he was here to indulge a hobby and have a good time.

A glittering maze of people was pressing slowly through stately dou­ble doors propped open at the end of the upstairs foyer. The smell of expensive colognes and perfumes was as familiar as the scent of old money. Audubon stood back from the crowd, scanning it for familiar faces and nodding to people he recognized. Those who nodded back immediately provoked whispers from onlookers.

He knew that the gossips believed that the Audubons’ only heir was adding to the family fortune by immoral, illegal means. He had lived with rumors of that kind for twenty years. And so it would always be, he assumed, because his unique work demanded secrecy.

Pulling a special invitation from an inner pocket of his tuxedo jacket, he moved through the crowd and presented it to a three-piece- suit type—undoubtedly FBI—stationed at the door to keep out any inter­national riffraff. After all, Dr. Gregori Kriloff was Russia’s leading re­searcher in paranormal science and one of the top five experts on the subject in the world.

"T. S. Audubon,” the agent said with a slow whistle of awe under his breath. "Aren’t you—”

"Just here to meet the doctor.” It was not a place to talk business.

"Audubon!” A hostess from the staff of the university’s administra­tion embraced him with the enthusiasm that he, as a five-million-dollar donor, deserved. "I’ll introduce you to Dr. Kriloff personally! We’re about to form a receiving line, but I’m certainly not going to make you stand in line. Are you going to attend his lecture tomorrow?”

"I wouldn’t miss it.”

The woman guided him through the packed ballroom past a long ta­ble groaning with the weight of platters of delicacies. White-coated waiters hurried about with trays of glasses full of champagne, while bartenders poured liberally from bottles of vodka. Spring flowers ex­ploded in massive arrangements set in tall urns around the room, and under a crystal chandelier, a small orchestra played chamber music. Audubon searched his memory. Rachmaninoff. Appropriately Russian— solemn, grand, filled with dark eroticism.

While his guide chattered about Russian tea, Audubon set his gaze along the line of her intended path, searching for Dr. Kriloff. The cluster of three-piece suiters with tiny lapel pins bearing the Russian flag was as subtle as the FBI man at the door.

In their center was a bearish, middle-aged man who towered above the others and wore a distinctive white tuxedo with suspenders. Some­one much smaller stood beside him, hidden behind a bulky KGB agent. Audubon glimpsed the top of a honey-blond head, but nothing else.

Gregori Kriloff’s height registered a good two inches above Audubon’s own six feet four; his aura of command was evident in the subservi­ent attitudes of the KGB men and the rapt attention of several university professors. He might have been Big Daddy in a Tennessee Williams’s play, but his booming voice came from somewhere south of Leningrad. Audubon’s attention shifted as one of the bulky KGB men stepped away from the doctor, gazing hungrily at the buffet.

For the first time, Audubon saw behind him. And almost stopped in surprise.

Dr. Kriloff’s blond companion was a slender female fashion refu­gee so horrible looking that pity was Audubon’s first reaction. She hud­dled in Kriloff’s shadow, a notepad clutched in her pale hands, her eyes fastened firmly on the carpeted floor. Her hair was thick, straight, and raggedly chopped off at shoulder length. It was parted with all the straightness of a lightning bolt and hung in front of her glasses on one side, hiding one eye like a limp, half-shut curtain.

The glasses were large, with ugly black rims and green-tinted lenses easily a quarter-inch thick. She wore a dingy gray dress suit that belonged on a woman four sizes larger and several inches taller, though this woman was taller than average. Between the jacket’s wide lapels he could see a sliver of a round-necked white blouse of some coarse material.

She never moved and never looked up. Her skirt puffed out around her skinny calves as if she were standing over an air grate, which she wasn’t. And her shoes were matronly black pumps with wide heels and straps across the insteps. The woman could go hiking in those shoes.

"Who is she?” Audubon put a hand on his hostess’s arm and broughtthem to a stop a dozen feet from the Kriloff group. "The blonde.”

"His secretary.” The hostess covered her mouth and whispered side­ways, "Isn’t she awful looking? That gray bag makes her into a skinny-legged pigeon. Why in the world would Dr. Kriloff allow a mem­ber of his entourage to make such a terrible impression? People can barely keep from gawking at her. Thank goodness, she doesn’t speak English. At least she won’t be hurt if she overhears a critical remark.”

"Introduce me to her.” Audubon drew the hostess forward, ignor­ing her disbelieving stare. Part of his intention was based on sympathy, part on curiosity, and part on a. personal challenge to thumb his nose at every blue blood who was cruel to this pitiful red pigeon. Pigeon. It was really an insult to the bird.

As the hostess introduced Audubon to Dr. Kriloff, he caught the blond pigeon giving him furtive glances from behind the glasses and the shaggy screen of hair. Immediately she ducked her head and stared at the floor again.

Audubon was excellent at aiming his concentration in several direc­tions at once; it was a survival trait learned in Vietnam and honed over the eighteen years since. But his Russian was elementary and re­quired too much thought; for the moment he could only converse with Kriloff, telling him that he was in the import/export business—which was basic­ally true—and that his interest in paranormal studies dated back to his mother, who had claimed to be psychic.

"Very interesting,” the doctor said, looking bored. "You come to hear me speak, tomorrow. It was nice to meet you.”

Audubon had never cared whether Kriloff was likable or not; he was interested only in the man’s research, what little of it was known— only tidbits of Kriloff’s research reached the outside world. Audubon figured there were dozens of secret projects the scientist was working on.

However, Audubon couldn’t stomach the way the man ignored the pi­geon, keeping his back turned to her. The pigeon seemed to be shrink­ing quickly. Action was needed before her clothes swallowed her and she disappeared into a heap of them on the carpet.

The hostess responded to the message in Audubon’s slight nod. "Dr. Kriloff, I’m afraid my Russian is nonexistent. Mr. Audubon has asked me to introduce him to Miss Petrovic. Would you do the honors, since she doesn’t speak English?”

Kriloff’s meager charm disappeared completely. He scowled at Audubon and studied him shrewdly. With obvious reluctance he turned toward the slender woman. She slightly tilted up her head and gazed at Kriloff from under her brows. Getting a little better look at her face, Audubon noted the sharply rising color in her cheeks, the lovely complex­ion beneath them, the sweep of a graceful neck, and the hard chin kept in submission by soft, pretty lips that were clamped into a neutral line.

It wasn’t a terribly homely face, he saw, and could have been con­sider­ably improved by some work on the hair and a better pair of glasses. He couldn’t see her eyes well, especially from his side view, but what he saw magnified his interest a thousand percent. For all her appar­ent timidity, the eyelashes behind the glasses didn’t flutter while she listened intently to Dr. Kriloff. Her posture was meek, but the eyespeering up at Kriloff were only pretending at it.

"Elena, meet Mr. Audubon,” Kriloff said in curt Russian. "He does not use a first name. Mr. Audubon, meet my assistant, Elena Petrovic.”

Something subtle passed between Kriloff and the woman, some­thing Audubon deciphered as a warning. She lowered her eyes again, swung her head toward Audubon, and without looking at him said, "Zdravstvuyte,” in a soft, throaty voice. It stirred something warm and deep inside him, and to his amazement the warmth became a slight throbbing in his blood. He had never judged any woman’s sensuality by her looks, but Elena Petrovic’s determined frumpiness stretched his limits. Again he heard the erotic voice, melting into his ears.

"Zdravstvuyte, Mystyer Audubon.”

He snapped out of his trance and smiled at her—or at least at her bowed head. "Zdravstvuyte, Elena.”

"Excuse us, now, Mr. Audubon,” Kriloff interjected. "I believe I am to meet the other guests in a receiving line. Good-bye.” He motioned for Elena Petrovic to follow him, snapping blunt fingers under her down­cast eyes.

"Would you like to dance, Elena?” Audubon said quickly, his Russianclumsy but effective. Her gaze shot up to his. The eyes behind the tinted glasses were wide, light globes of undeterminable color, but bril­liant with life, intelligence, shock—and hope. They shot downward again just as quickly.

Her fate, as far as Audubon was concerned, was sealed. She was a cauldron of mystery, and nothing short of an international scene would keep him from taking her away from Dr. Kriloff, at least temporarily.

"She does not dance,” Kriloff said.

Audubon stepped forward, politely but oh-so-firmly inserting all two hundred and twenty pounds of his tall body into hers and Kriloff’s path. "The music is very slow. It would be easy to teach her. Please. I’d like to have a chance to improve my Russian, and I’m sure Elena can help.”

The doctor stiffened with aggravation. "She does not dance. She does not speak English. She is very shy. Excuse us.”

From under the sheet of lank blond hair came carefully submissive Russian, almost a whisper. "Please, I would like to learn to dance, Doc­tor. This is our last week in America, after all.”

Audubon watched, intrigued but growing angrier, as Dr. Kriloff glared at her. He sensed that he was seeing a battle of wills that had been brewing for a long time. Was she this stern patriarch’s lover? Didn’t he have a wife and daughter somewhere, mentioned in an article? Was this jealousy on his part, or something more complicated?

Whatever it was, her situation ignited Audubon’s compassion and de­sire to help the helpless, a desire that had fostered his ideals, his work, his life. He thought acidly that Kriloff had started a war and didn’t know it.

"Dance, if you want,” Kriloff allowed finally. His heavy face re­gained its composure, but with an obvious effort. "It is, after all, our last week here. You should have a little freedom.”

"Yes, thank you,” she said, twisting her notepad in her hands. Ab­ruptly she pivoted and gave it to one of the men in their entourage. Then she faced Audubon, managed to raise her eyes to the pearl buttons on his pleated shirtfront, and simply waited.

"I’m honored,” he said, groaning inwardly because the limits of his Russian were going to make an intimate conversation impossible. Why couldn’t she be French, Spanish, German, Italian, or even Greek? He had fluently charmed women in all of those languages.

But body language was universal. He held out a hand, palm up, and she stared at it for a second. Then she slipped her pale, cool-looking hand across his palm and curled her fingers gently around his. The pale hand wasn’t cool at all, but deliciously warm in a way he’d never felt before, almost hot, and until he shook the strange idea off, he thought that she was communicating desire to him through channels of energy that went far beyond the ordinary thrill of touch.

"Enjoy yourself, Elena,” Dr. Kriloff said sharply, and walked away. She gave a jerky nod in response, her gaze fastened on Audubon’s hand as if it were the most enticing object her lowered eyes had ever beheld.

And he stood there, forty years old, a veteran of seductions he had al­ways controlled, and felt helplessly enchanted by a woman who was shy, plain, laughably dressed, and incapable of communicating in his own language.

Gently he led her to a small teak parquet dance floor in front of the orchestra. Everyone else was in line to meet Kriloff; the floor was empty, the chamber music wrong for dancing, and Elena Petrovic looked even more out of place under the glittering chandelier. She kept glancing at Kriloff with obvious worry.

"Am I bothering you? To dance?” Audubon asked in his inept Russian, facing her as they came to a stop. "Embarrassing you,” he added in English, as if it might help. "I don’t mean to.”

"Bother? No,” she answered in Russian. "I will dance with you no matter what anyone else wishes. You’re special.”

She said it without coyness, as if it were simply something she had rec­ognized and accepted immediately. Her voice made goose bumps rise on his flesh. He was enormously pleased at the same time that his sophisti­cation shrugged off her flattery. He looked down at their joined hands, surprised to feel her hand trembling. He was shocked to realize within seconds that it was only his imagination, because what he felt was the fascinating, invisible vibration again, as if she’d surrounded him with an aura of welcome.

"You’ve been touring America for two months. Am I the first American who tried to speak with you?” he asked gruffly.

"The first who didn’t give up quickly. No one has ever made Dr. Kriloff uncomfortable before. I could tell from the tone of his voice that he finds you threatening, even though you’re a stranger. You have a sense of your own importance. People watch you, to see what you’ll do next.” She added grimly, "Now they are watching me, too, unfortu­nately.”

"Then we’ll shock them together.”

"I know I’mugly. I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

"You’re not ugly.” The most gallant lie I ever told.

She held up her other hand, found his with a sureness that seemed to come like an inner radar, and warmed him again with perplexing ideas about communication and desire. She’s not ugly, he concluded, and it was a staggering leap of faith, but no lie.

"You are a kind liar, Mr. Audubon, and you like to cause trouble. Is that why you asked me to dance?”

"After you talked my ears off and threw yourself into my arms, what else could I do?”

Her startled gasp became asoft, musical chuckle. The light from the chandelier flickered on her glowing cheeks. The reaction of his apprecia­tive masculine impulses signaled she had just redefined ugly once and for all.

His next step brought his torso close enough to touch her floppy jacket lapels. The top of her head was level with his nose, and the lanky hair had a clean, sweet scent that made him forget its looks. She stared fixedly downward, as if hypnotized by his pleats, pearls, and the rosebud boutonniere. "When I remember America, I’ll remember tonight most of all,” she told him. "Meeting you... I mean, being asked to dance by such an interesting American is worth everything.”

"We move like this,” he told her in Russian. "Only a little. We can’t do anything important to this music.” If we were in bed we could, but that’s a different dance.

"Important?” she asked.

He searched for a clearer word and sighed with exasperation. Mut­ter­ing under his breath in English, a distracted part of his mind noted that she was swaying with him more gracefully than he’d expected. In fact, when he put one hand against the small of her back, she came alive like a willow, and he felt as if she were bending against his palm.

Then he realized he’d been thinking out loud, saying flexible, but in English. Audubon tucked his chin and studied the camouflaged face behind the glasses and hair. "Do you speak any English?”

"No.” She darted a glance toward the receiving line and Audubon’s gaze followed. Kriloff looked up from shaking hands to glare at them. "No,” she repeated firmly.

Audubon took in the exchange with great satisfaction. She speaks Eng­lish. But why would Kriloff be so determined to keep her quiet?

"I speak such bad Russian,” Audubon told her, sighing. "I give up. Talk to me. Tell me about yourself, and I’ll try to translate.”

Her hand curled more tightly around his. She had rested her other hand on his shoulder; now it crept higher and slipped around his neck. He could tell exactly where her fingertips were, even through his jacket. It was odd—they made tantalizing hot spots at the top of his spine. The nagging twinge from an old muscle pull faded magically. What seductive distraction!

"I cannot talk to you very much,” she whispered, her eyes still low­ered. "It wouldn’t be wise. You talk to me.”

"Why are you afraid?”

Her hand cooled inside his. The heat of her fingertips disappeared. "I cannot,” she repeated, sounding angry and sad.

"Are you afraid of Dr. Kriloff?”

"I’ll have to leave if you don’t stop asking me questions like that, Mr. Audubon.”

"No, don’t leave. I’ll talk to you in English, even if you don’t under­stand. I like to talk.”

"I noticed. Good. I like your voice, Rhett Butler.

He chuckled. Her hands warmed again. The startling temperature changes, the sway in her body, the lithe feel of it, and the feminine scent of her hair made him giddy. He tried to remember the last time giddy had described anything about his emotions, and concluded that he had proba­bly been in grammar school. "All right, English it is, then. Here goes.” He cleared his throat dramatically, and one corner of her mouth drew up in amusement. It was the only sign that she was listening, as her downcast eyes continued to explore his shirtfront.

"You’re the most unique woman I’ve ever met, and I suspect you’re hiding a great deal about yourself.”

Her expression was as unchanging as the Siberian tundra, but there was a tiny quiver in the upturned corner of her mouth.

"You remind me of a pigeon that’s had its wings clipped, Elena.”

The orchestra’s strings swelled to a throbbing, plaintive melody. She and he were barely moving, the dance a pretense for closeness. A nervous patter of Russian burst from her. "When I was a little girl, I saw a silver fox outside my bedroom window one night. You remind me of him, with your white hair. I used to make up stories about him. I thought I could trust him.”

"If you’d speak English, we could discuss your fantasies about me in greater detail.”

"Iwish I knew what you were saying. Anyhow, silver foxes are very rare. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t just imagine I saw one. He never came back after that night. Foxes may be handsome and smart, but they aren’t very reliable, are they? Even the most unusual ones.”

"Iwish I knew what you were saying,” he mimicked. "Something about wanting a silver fox to visit your bedroom at night?”

"This is a very strange conversation. Anyone who was watching wouldn’t guess we’re speaking different languages. They would even think I understand what you’re saying.”

"You do. What little I can see of your face is scarlet. And believe me, Rhett knows what scarlet means.”

"Here are simple questions you can answer in Russian. How old are you? Are you married?”

"Sorok. Nyet.” He continued casually, but in English, "Although I’m forty years old and have never been married, I’ve enjoyed the company of several wonderful women. I’m a connoisseur, you see, and connois­seurs need variety.” He chuckled at his excuses then lowered his voice to a brocaded, teasing drawl. "I’ve never met anyone quite like you, though. I think you agree, even if you don’t understand English, that we could improve international relations immensely if we were alone in a private room right now.”

Her stoic facade never cracked. "How old am I? I’m twenty-nine.”

"After we made love, we’d lay close together and talk. I’d run one hand over you very slowly while I told you about myself. Then you could return the favor.”

Russian ice. "Here’s another question you should understand in my language. What is your first name?”

"You’ll have to make love to me if you want to find out. I’ve never told anyone, but I’d tell you.

"Why don’t you answer in Russian, so I can understand you?”

"You understand me.” He stopped moving and held her still.

"I have to go. Good-bye.”

He brought one hand up swiftly, hooked a forefinger under her glasses, and swept them into his hand in one neat move. Her head jerked up and she made a startled sound, then looked around quickly to see if Dr. Kriloff was watching. He was. "Pozhaluysta!”

He held the lenses up for scrutiny and nodded. "Fakes. This pigeon has terrible taste in glasses but excellent eyesight.”

"Pozhaluysta,” she begged again, her voice trembling.

Audubon rebuked himself for complicating her unpleasant situa­tion. "I apologize, Elena. Here.” He slipped the glasses back into place, pushing her half curtain of hair aside with his fingertip. He caught his breath at the full sight of her strained, upturned face. The strength and balance of cool, unadorned porcelain presented themselves as a back­drop for a tempting but disciplined mouth and light blue eyes under the dramatic wings of coppery brows.

Those eyes, covered with the awful glasses once more, troubled him. He’d seen trapped, wary hope too often not to recognize it in her searing gaze. "If you want to stay in America, I’ll help you,” he whis­pered.

He still held one of her hands as he had while they were dancing, but the wonderful warmth was gone. She stiffened, withdrawing. "I do not understand English.” It was an angry, mechanical defense.

"I’m not with the government—either yours or ours. This isn’t a trick. I enjoy helping people in, uhmmm, problem situations.”

"Speak Russian!”

"I want to help you. I think you want my help. Here.” Turning her so that Kriloff’s view of their hands was obscured, he slipped a hand inside his jacket and quickly produced a pale gold business card bearing only a phone number. Pulling her close and smiling pleasantly for any­one who might be watching, he brushed his mouth over hers while his hand darted inside her jacket. Deftly his fingers slid between the plain white buttons on the front of her blouse and tucked the business card between her bra and the luxurious swell of a breast.

Just as quickly he stepped back, feeling confident, aroused—and wor­ried. She looked shocked and upset, her chest rising and falling swiftly. The magnetic blue eyes stared at him, analyzing and assessing. Her hand rose to her throat, fumbled, grasped the front of her blouse over the spot where he’d inserted his fingers, then flattened. She looked to Audubon like a kid in grammar school who was trying to find her heart for the pledge of allegiance.

Audubon sensed the KGB agent before the man stepped between them, nodding to Elena Petrovic and speaking in low, urgent tones. She shuddered visibly and looked toward Kriloff. Her hands fell to her sides. Her head sank and she leveled her gaze at the carpet again, becoming the meek pigeon from before.

Audubon fought a reckless desire to snatch her away, no matter what the consequences. It was possible he’d made a mistake in judging her, but he was willing to take that chance. He stepped forward, began to raise his hand, then halted.

How could he risk a scandal that would endanger his work, as well as all the people who worked for him? Raging inside, he forced his face into a pleasant expression. He would have to find a way to help her that was not immediately confrontational... or perhaps even obvious.

"Dasvidaniya, Mystyer Audubon,” she said in a subdued voice.

"Good night, Elena.”

The man escorted her across the ballroom and out the doors. Kriloff still stood at the head of the receiving line, pumping hands and glaring over people’s heads. Audubon met his challenge with a cold smile, letting seven generations of blue-blooded patrician arrogance rise to the surface to help make his point.

He wondered what the crowd’s gossips were whispering about this scene. Then he laughed at their overt stares and plucked the boutonniere from his lapel, jauntily twirling it by the stem as he walked from the dance floor. The silky petals brushed the tops of his fingertips, and he looked down in surprise. "What the hell?” he asked out loud, and stopped in his tracks.

The tightly furled little rose bud was now in glorious full bloom.

"YOU SHOULDN’T have done that.” Sergei moaned, wringing his big hands as he walked down the hall with Elena. "Now we probably won’t be allowed to go shopping for souvenirs tomorrow. You’ll be confined to your room until we leave for home!”

Sergei was as fussy as a grandmother. When she was little, Elena had even called him babushka,to his chagrin. Ordinarily she would have patted his arm in sympathy, but she was in a daze over the amazing Mr. Audubon.

His card lay smoothly against the top of her left breast, as if his fin­gers still coaxed her with their secretive, rebellious, and probably deceptive touch. Who was he, really? What was he? The Americans had spies and agents everywhere, according to Sergei. And Kriloff had warned her repeatedly not to trust anyone they met in the United States. Because she’d been sheltered from outside news and information all of her life, she could only believe what she was told.

She clenched her fists and wanted to scream from a lifetime of frustra­tion. It was maddening to be kept so ignorant and helpless. Even a hostile American world was better than a future without even a taste of freedom. Back at home, Kriloff’s newest research project was waiting for her. She’d rather die than return to that.The two-month American lecture tour was almost over, and her chances of escape were dwindling. All of the groveling she’d done to win her place on this trip would be for nothing!

Elena looked around the hallway desperately. With Sergei beside her every minute of the day and another bodyguard by her door every night, she had no opportunities. She’d been such a fool to jeopardize everything by dancing with the American!

"Why did you do it?” Sergei asked, as he lumbered ahead of her and punched the elevator button. "Why did you let that smug American cause trouble for you?”

Elena stared hollow-eyed at her humiliating gray image in the mir­ror like surface of the elevator doors. I couldn’t help myself. He was wonderful. "I’m a grown woman who has never been asked to dance before.” She raised knotted fists and begged, "Sergei, why should I live like this? No one should live this way. I want to be treated like an adult. Like an ordi­nary woman.”

"You had Pavel. He didn’t treat you like a child.”

The shame and fury that rose inside her made poor Sergei look guilty and nervously stroke his thinning gray hair. He’d made a mistake by bringing up the most painful reminder of Kriloff’s manipulation. In a low, trembling voice Elena said, "Mr. Audubon wasn’t hired to service my romantic needs. He offered of his own accord. Forgive me, but I was overwhelmed by the novelty of it.”

"Oh, Laney-kitten, I’m sorry to see you so unhappy. I understand, re­ally. But we must do our duty—”

"I’ve been dutiful all my life!” She looked around again, then grasped his hands. "Please, Sergei, help me live a real life, like everyone else.”

The elevator arrived and the door began to open. Sergei put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her awkwardly. "To your room now, Laney-kitten. No more rebellious talk.”

She stared into the elevator’s shining hull. It was a casket. If she went inside, she’d be burying herself and her dreams. CallMr. Audubon tomorrow. No. He must be a trickster. American men were self-serving playboys, weren’t they? She couldn’t trust him any more than she’d trusted her childhood faith in fairy tales.

"What’s wrong, Laney-kitten?” Sergei tugged on her elbow. "Come along. Into the elevator with you.”

Oh, she was going crazy, caught in T. S. Audubon’s spell. She’d seen a silver fox outside her window at the institute one night more than twenty-five years ago. The stories she’d dreamed up about him rescuing her had only been a child’s way to battle grief and loneliness. Why did they pull at her memory now? Because he’s finally come back to help you.

"Elena!” Sergei was angry and worried now. He pushed her forward gently, but with a firm grip. She dug her heels into the hallway’s Turkish carpet. All was lost, but she had to fight. Even futile rebellion was better than meek captivity. "Elena, I’ll have to report this!”

His next sentence was drowned out by the sudden shrieking of alarm systems. Elena clamped her hands over her ears. Down the hall, people hurried from the ballroom. "What is it?” she yelled to Sergei.

"Fire alarms! Stay here! Right here! I’ll be back!” He galloped to­ward the crowd. Elena gaped at his retreating bulk. Could it be possible? The alarm seemed to be screaming inside her head. Now! Run! She piv­oted blindly, searching. Beyond the elevators was a door marked Emer­gency Exit.

Five seconds later she was headed down a stark, concrete stairwell, her feet racing to catch up with her heart.

WHEN THE ALARMS sounded, Audubon skirted the panicky crowd with a calmness borne of his work’s routine brushes with chaos. He managed to get out before the throng of people completely blocked his way. Elena Petrovic’s stocky, aging bodyguard rushed toward him, headed back into the ballroom. Audubon grabbed his arm. "Where is Miss Petrovic?”

"Waiting by the elevators!”

As the man continued past, Audubon’s shrewd gaze shot to the ele­vators. Elena Petrovic was gone. Beyond the elevators the emergency door to the stairwell was swinging closed. Audubon glimpsed an unmistak­able flash of gray. So the pigeon had flown the coop.

The crowd surged out and surrounded him. He cursed eloquently un­der his breath as he dodged around people. By the time he reached the stairwell, he could only hear the faint patter of feet below him. When he reached the basement parking garage, he swung toward the unmanned exit booth and saw her running past it toward the darkness of a deserted city street. The sheer beauty of her long-legged stride made him want to cheer; her speed made him groan with dismay.

He reached the street in time to see her run into a nearby intersec­tion between tall office buildings. A lone pickup truck with a covered bed idled at a red light, unsuspecting. She made a beeline for it, pulled up the canvas flap emblazoned Nilly’s Fine Vegetables, Artemis Island, VA, and climbed inside the truck’s tall, wooden shed.

Audubon memorized the license plate just as the light changed. He stood in the center of the street, watching the truck pull away, feeling triumphant but sorry for her, because she’d had to resort to such a pitiful avenue for escape. The flap lifted at one corner. She peeked out and froze when she saw him. Then the flap snapped down again.

Audubon strolled back inside the hotel where security guards were yelling that everything was all right, that someone had pulled the alarm as a prank. Humming under his breath, he went to a phone in the lobby and called his estate. Within fifteen minutes his elite network was prepar­ing to track the flight of the fascinating, mysterious, and possibly dangerous pigeon, whom Audubon intended to capture for himself.

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