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Karina stared at the closed door in front of her and did her best to calmher racing heart. "I don't know if I can do this."
She felt the man beside her look down at her. "Do you have any other ideas?" Viktor asked.
"No." If she had she would have said so before now. Heaven knew she had spent enough time thinking about it in the past week. How Sergei's death was her fault, and how would she survive.
It was Viktor, Sergei's son, who had come up with this option, this man. The one person who might be able to help her.
Her entire life. Her hope of survival. All in the hands of a stranger.
Trying not to shift nervously from one foot to the other like a child, she glanced up at Viktor. "Do you think he will even agree to this?"
"I do not know," he said simply. "But it is a chance."
Yes, it is, she agreed silently. One so extreme she wasn't sure she could go through with it, even if the man did agree.
But first he needed to answer the door and let them in. She sent an uneasy glance behind her, feeling entirely too exposed standing on the front stoop of this house. Even as she did, she sensed Viktor doing the same. It was impossible not to remember what had happened to Sergei and feel just how vulnerable they were out in the open.
The door finally opened in response to Viktor's earlier knock.
Viktor had told her several things about the man they'd driven to Baltimore from Washington, D.C., to see. What he looked like had not been one of them. She hadn't asked, the subject seeming unimportant compared to everything else. So she could only stare blankly at the man who'd answered the door, his expression solemn, andwait for either man's reaction.
"Viktor," the man at the door said finally, his mouth curving slightly at one corner. "It's been a while."
"Too long," Viktor agreed with a shadow of the charming smile she'd seen him wield since childhood.
As the two men shook hands, Karina carefully studied the man who'd answered the door. So this must be Luke Hubbard, Viktor's old friend. Her best chance.
She'd tried to picture what he might look like, but nothing she'd imagined had come close to the man himself. He was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, dressed casually in a white polo shirt and dark slacks. His was a handsome face, but there was a hardness to it, with so many sharp angles and hard planes, that gave him more of an edge than she'd expected. He most likely was the same age as Viktor, which would make him thirty-three.
Viktor said he was an attorney. Corporate law or something to do with business. Yes, she could imagine this man being a formidable opponent in a business negotiation. Perhaps he would be for Solokov, as well.
He would need to be.
"I was sorry to hear about your father," Luke Hubbard said.
"Thank you." Viktor nodded shortly, his expression tensing with grief.
It had been only a week, and Karina knew only too well that the pain of his father's death remained fresh. She felt the sorrow of it, too, combined with a guilt that was hers alone.
Her godfather was dead for one reason only: because he'd tried to help her.
And now she'd come to ask this man for his help. To put himself in danger for her. Guilt stabbed at her again. It didn't seem right to involve, to risk, anyone else. But then, what choice did she have?
"And thank you for agreeing to see us," Viktor was saying. At the obvious cue, he reached over and prodded her forward slightly with the press of his hand against the small of her back. "Allow me to introduce Karina Andreevna Fedorova. Our families have long been good friends. My father was her godfather."
She forced a smile onto her face as the man finally turned his attention to her.
The smile nearly died. She'd seen from the moment he opened the door that his eyes were blue. She just hadn't noticed how the hardness of his face extended to his eyes. They stared back at her, utterly emotionless, revealing nothing.
Cold, she thought distantly as a sudden chill shuddered through her. So cold.
She peered into those eyes, desperately searching for some reassuring sign this was the type of man who might be willing to help her. Some flicker of warmth. Some hint of kindness.
She found none. There was nothing but that cold hardness.
"Nice to meet you," he said, his tone polite and nothing more.
She made some sound of agreement, unable to do anything else but nod.
"Please come in," he said, stepping back from the doorway and gesturing with his arm.
Ducking her head to hide the sudden misgivings she was certain were written all over her face, Karina entered the house, Viktor following close behind.
Luke Hubbard led them into a living room located to the left of the entryway. The room was stylishly furnished, with sleek modern furniture and high-grade electronics, but it was as cold as the man who lived there. She saw no personal items, no photographs anywhere. There were not even any books or newspapers lying about, no sign that anyone had done any actual living here. It appeared to be as sterile as a hotel room.
As they took seats, she and Viktor on the couch across from Luke Hubbard, she tried to remember everything Viktor had told her about this man. He was an attorney, a successful one if his home was any indication. She would have expected as much. He and Viktor had met at Yale, where Sergei had sent Viktor to study. He was a widower, Viktor had said.
As the thought crossed her mind, she automatically lowered her gaze to his hand. His ring finger was bare. It made sense. Viktor hadn't said when the man's wife had died, but Karina had assumed it had been some time ago. It seemed unlikely he would approach a recent widower with his plan, no matter the circumstances. No, the man must have lost his wife at least several years ago, long enough that it was no longer appropriate for him to wear a ring.
Of course, her husband had been dead less than two months, yet she no longer wore his ring. It had seemed wrong to once she'd learned the truth about the kind of man he'd been and discovered just how much trouble he'd left her with. Even if she hadn't, she likely would have had little difficulty removing the ring.
"So what brings you to Baltimore?" Luke Hubbard asked.
Viktor sighed. "We need your help."
"What is it?"
"First I need your word that you will not tell anyone about what we are about to discuss."
"Of course," he said without hesitation, as a true friend would. Karina took some small comfort from the gesture.
Viktor drew in a breath. "In January Karina's husband, Dmitri, was murdered. He worked for a man named Anton Solokov. I don't know if you're familiar with the name."
Luke Hubbard frowned, his forehead briefly furrowing as he appeared to consider the name. "I don't think so."
"He's one of the wealthiest men in Russia. Like so many others, he moved in swiftly after the fall of the Soviet Union and made his fortune, first with an oil company, then diversifying into minerals."
"Is that where your husband was murdered?" Luke Hubbard asked, turning that cold gaze on Karina. "Russia?"
"Moscow," she confirmed.
"Solokov was responsible," Viktor said.
Luke Hubbard's eyebrows rose the slightest bit. "Responsible," he echoed. "You're saying he had your husband murdered?"
"Yes," she said.
"How do you know?"
"Two men came to our house one night," she said, trying not to shudder at the memory. "I was in the kitchen. Dmitri had just come home when they knocked on the door. He answered. From what I could hear, it was two men. They said that Solokov wanted to see him immediately. He tried to tell them he had just gotten home and they insisted he would have to come with them. The way the man said it made it clear he was threatening Dmitri. Dmitri became very quiet and said, 'He knows, doesn't he?' One of the men said, 'That you've been stealing from him? Yes, he knows.' There was nothing for a second, then a sound like Dmitri trying to slam the door shut. I heard it crash against the wall, then Dmitri cried out, like he had been hit. I came out of the kitchen to see what had happened. Dmitri was on the floor. His face was bloody and one of the men was trying to pull him up. He saw me and told the other man, 'Take care of her.' The second man started to come toward me. He was reaching into his coat and I thought he might have a gun." She swallowed hard. "I ran before he could catch me and went out the back door. I got away." Leaving Dmitri behind, she thought guiltily.
"Two days later Dmitri was found dead outside the city," Viktor said. "He'd been tortured."
"Did you know your husband was stealing from his boss?" Luke Hubbard asked. It sounded like an accusation.
"No," Karina said firmly. His expression didn't change. She couldn't tell if he believed her.
"There's more," Viktor said. "There have been rumors for a long time that Solokov has connections to organized crime. The mafia. They have never been proven, but most likely only because he has connections with the police, as well."
"You think the Russian mafia is involved?"
"It is possible. If Solokov was laundering money for the mafia, then some of the money he stole might be theirs."
"Do you even have any evidence beyond the comment she overheard that Solokov was involved?"
"Everything else that happened is my evidence."
"My father's death, for one thing," Viktor interjected.
"According to the news, your father fell victim to a drive-by shooting, most likely by gang members who were shooting at someone else."
"A lie," Viktor said, anger darkening his face. "A cover-up to conceal the truth."
"What makes you think this Solokov was involved?"
"Karina contacted my father after Dmitri's death. She has no other family. She knew how powerful Solokov is and didn't know who to trust. Using his diplomatic status, my father arranged for her visa through the embassy and for her to travel to the United States via private jet. He suspected she wasn't safe there. Solokov's reach is too great. But now that my father is dead, her situation has changed."
"Yesterday my visa was revoked," she said. "Without my godfather to intervene, I am being sent home."
"It is Solokov's doing," Viktor said harshly. "He has political connections, as well. Her visa was revoked too quickly to be a coincidence."
"You believe Solokov had your father killed?"
"It certainly makes more sense than him being mistakenly targeted in a drive-by shooting by a random gang member, as your country is suggesting. And he had no other enemies, no reason why anyone else would deliberately kill him. There is only Solokov. As long as Karina was in his home, she was safe from Solokov. He's trying to force her back to Russia, where there is nowhere she can run where he cannot find her."
"For what purpose?"
"He must believe she was aware of what Dmitri was doing. If Dmitri didn't tell him where the money was, then she is his only means of getting it back."
Luke Hubbard nodded. "So you're looking for legal advice? Help with how to stay in the country? That's really not my expertise, but I can certainly recommend some good attorneys who specialize in immigration matters."
Her gaze flicked to Viktor's, reading the same touch of embarrassment in his eyes that she felt rising in her cheeks. It had been his idea, yet now that the moment was here he seemed unwilling to voice it.
"No," Viktor said simply. "That's not why we are here."
In the silence that followed, Luke Hubbard's eyes narrowed, shifting from Viktor to her and back again.
"What exactly are you here for?"
So be it, she thought. If anyone should make the request of this complete stranger it should be her. It was her life. She shouldn't rely on anyone else to beg for it.
"Viktor believes the best way for me to remain in this country is to marry a United States citizen."
She lifted her chin and met his cold stare.
"We are here to ask you to marry me."
Luke hadyears of experience at schooling his expression to reveal absolutely nothing, but the woman's ridiculous statement nearly managed to crack his composure. It was sheer strength of will that kept him from flinching at her words.
Marriage. Even the idea sent a jolt of pain through him, the heat of it searing his insides until it felt like he was being burned alive.
Instantly, Melanie's face rose in his mind, the same image that always did. The way she'd looked at her happiest, her head thrown back in laughter, her smile wide, her eyes fixed unerringly, so lovingly, on him and him alone.
The way she'd looked just before she died.
Another sharp pain, harder than the first, shafted through him. He swallowed slowly and blinked the image away, entirely too aware of the two people sitting across from him, watching him intently.
There was only one woman he'd ever wanted to marry, and in the years since her death he'd never once considered taking that step with another. Hell, he'd never been tempted to do so much as let a woman leave a toothbrush in his home. If he had been tempted to take another walk down the aisle, it certainly wouldn't have been with some woman he'd met less than five minutes earlier.
She was pretty in a pale, delicate way. Chin-length black hair. Finely carved features, perhaps sharper than they should have been thanks to what he suspected was an unnatural thinness. Looking closely, he finally noticed the weariness in her eyes. She was young, most likely in her late twenties. Her voice carried a trace of an accent he would have pegged as Eastern European even had he not known where she was from, though her English was impeccable.
"You're proposing a marriage for green-card purposes?" he said coolly.