Trouble in a Tight Dress(4)

By: Lori Sjoberg

Nope, not going there, she reminded herself with a mental shake of her head. After thanking the bartender, she sipped her wine as she did a little old-fashioned people-watching. She’d never been to an event this big or fancy, and she felt a bit out of place. The crystal chandeliers alone must have cost more than what she earned in a year. Dozens of middle-aged and older men milled about with their trophy wives, rubbing elbows and making deals that would affect the lives of millions of people they’d never even meet.

To her right, the sound of two men talking snagged her attention, not because of what they were saying but because they were speaking in fluent Russian. As a child of immigrants, she’d learned both Russian and English, but she hadn’t heard anyone speaking her family’s native tongue since she left home over a decade ago. Curious, she turned her head toward the conversation, and a punch of recognition knocked the air out of her lungs.

Time hadn’t been kind to Victor Gagarin. What was left of his hair had turned completely white, and his pale face was etched with deep wrinkles. But there was no mistaking the stocky man who’d acted as one of her father’s enforcers ever since she was old enough to walk. The other guy, a tall blond with a pockmarked complexion, seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t remember his name. Why were they here? Were they searching for her? Or was their presence a mere coincidence?

She had no intention of hanging around long enough to find out. Glass in hand, she strode away from the bar and searched for Austin and Ryan amid the clusters of people. They’d moved away from the piano, but she spotted them not far from the small stage where Benjamin Trask was supposed to address the guests. Relief went through her as she started in their direction, but then she let out a gasp when Victor Gagarin stepped into her path.

“Antonina, is that you?” he asked in Russian, astonishment clear in his voice.

It took every last ounce of her self-control to overcome the instinctual urge to flee. She’d left home at a young age and under less than ideal circumstances, and she had no intention of ever going back. If she ran, he’d definitely know it was her, but if she played stupid, she might be able to bluff her way out of this mess. Knees shaking, she peered up at Victor, plastered a bewildered expression on her face, and tossed some Southern drawl into her voice. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Confusion bloomed over Victor’s weathered features. “I apologize,” he said in heavily accented English. “I mistook you for someone I know.”

“That’s okay, darling. You have a good night.” Flashing a smile so he wouldn’t see how rattled she was, she stepped around him and continued toward Austin and Ryan. By the time she reached them, her heart pounded so hard against her ribs it was a wonder they couldn’t hear it.

“Ah, there you are. We were wondering where you’d run off to.” Ryan’s smile faded. “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”

“I’m all right. My head’s just killing me.” It wasn’t a lie and wasn’t the whole truth either, but it was a hell of lot easier than telling her bosses about her past. Her focus shifted to Austin, whose face was drawn tight with concern, and the memory of their kiss shot front and center in her mind. God, she was screwed. “When can we leave?”

Austin glanced down at his watch. “The senator should be taking the stage any time now. We can go as soon as he’s finished.”

She’d had a feeling he was going to say that. Impatient but not wanting to draw attention to herself, she cooled her heels until the senator gave a short speech thanking his donors, volunteers, and campaign staff for their support in the upcoming election. All the while, she felt Austin’s gaze on her, and she felt guilty because he probably assumed she was acting strange because of what happened in Trask’s office.

As soon as the senator finished speaking, they headed for the door, along with a few other guests. Nina crossed the room, her heels clicking against the marble, unable to shake the distinct feeling of being watched.

She glanced over her shoulder and sure enough, she found Victor Gagarin at the bar, staring at her as though he was trying to solve some great mystery of life.

Chapter Two

AUSTIN RAISED HIS pistol, sighted the target, and methodically squeezed off half the clip.

Mondays were typically quiet at the outdoor gun range, which was one of the reasons he was there. He hated shooting with a bunch of weekend warriors who talked a better game than they shot. This way, he could get in, burn through a few boxes of ammo, and still get to the office with time to spare.

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