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.”
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.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Silver Fox
By Deborah Smith
BelleBooks, Inc.Copyright © 1990 Deborah Smith
All rights reserved.
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 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." 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 eyes peering 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 Russian clumsy 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'm ugly. I don't mind, if you don't."
"You're not ugly." The most gallant lie I ever told.
Excerpted from The Silver Fox by Deborah Smith. Copyright © 1990 Deborah Smith. Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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