In a town where everybody practices domestic discipline, a girl needs to be careful about who she tests…
Annika hesitated in the hallway. She’d put a skirt on and she was glad she had, for in the interim someone new had arrived. She only saw the back of his head and his shoulders, but she already didn’t like him. He was too broad, too wide, too fat, and American. Like the man she’d come to meet, the man who’d turned out to be nothing like he’d pretended to be online.
The man Annika was supposed to meet was twenty-eight years old, a professional with his own home and a sports car. In his pictures he’d looked handsome. A man with a full head of dark hair and brown eyes. A lot like Steven Soames actually looked. She’d become quite fond of the man who sent her the nice emails, who told her how much he was looking forward to making her his wife and how happy she would be with him. For months, Annika had built up a picture of the life she would lead when she reached America, and the man who was rescuing her from her drab, dour, and deprived existence in Russia.
It had all fallen apart the moment she set foot on US soil. The man who had met her at the airport was at least fifty, three hundred pounds, and smelled of cheese. He owned a mid-sized sedan and lived in a noisy, rented apartment. He was a liar. A liar who stole her passport, told her to ‘get over it’ and wanted to have sex within hours of meeting. He was grabby and greasy and she’d only barely fought him off before running away.
“Annika?” Steven stepped around the corner and gave her a reassuring smile. “We’re about to eat, but first, come meet John. He’s Mary’s husband.”
Hearing their conversation, the man named John stood up and turned around. She realized she’d made a mistake in judging him so quickly. He was nothing like the man Annika had come to marry. He wasn’t fat, he was just… huge.
He didn’t smile. Neither did she. He was looking at her with an analytical gaze, taking her apart piece by piece. She was doing the same. She reached her conclusion before he did.
“Police,” she said. “You are police.”
“Impressive,” John said. “I’m not wearing a uniform or a badge. Who told you I was in the police?”
Annika didn’t answer the question. She did the only thing she knew how to do. She ran.
“Annika, wait!” She heard Steven behind her, following her. Gaining on her. And there was nowhere to run. There was just the house. The pink bedroom. The bedspread, which she dove under. “Annika, it’s okay,” Steven said, his baritone breaching the comfortable barrier. “You’re safe.”
“You asked police here. To take me.”
“No. I didn’t,” he assured her. “John’s a friend. Mary’s husband. He’s not going to take you anywhere.”
“But I am runaway…”
“You came here on a marriage visa. You decided not to marry the man who got it for you. That doesn’t make you a criminal, Annika. Trust me.”
Trust him. Annika wasn’t inclined to trust anyone, but she’d been trusting Steven from the moment she’d gotten into his car and he’d yet to let her down. Maybe she could trust him on this too.
“John isn’t going to throw you behind bars, or turn you over. He’s just here for dinner. That’s all.”
“Promise.” He lifted up the corner of the coverlet and smiled in at her. “Mary has been cooking for hours. I think it’s going to be good.”
Having been lured out from under the covers, Annika sat at Steven’s table and chewed on succulent roast beef while exchanging evil eyes with John. She might trust Steven, but she didn’t trust him. And judging by the way he was looking at her, the feeling was mutual.
“Where did you land when you first got to the States, New York or San Francisco?”
Annika shrugged. “My English…” she said. “I do not understand.”
“It was New York, of course,” Mary said. “You think she came all the way across the country to crawl into Steven’s car?”
“Maybe we should talk about something else instead of interrogating Annika,” Steven suggested diplomatically. “The meal is delicious, Mary. You’ve really outdone yourself.”
“Thank you,” Mary smiled. “Do you like to cook, Annika?”
“I like raw food,” Annika said. “Is easier.” She paused, then forced a smile. “But this is very good too.”
“Raw food?” John snorted.
“John…” Steven and Mary said at the same time.
“Raw food,” Annika said. “Yes. Apples. Carrots. Sometimes, if very hungry, apples and carrots. We grew both in the commune.”
“The commune?” John’s brick-like face was growing redder, his eyes narrower. “You lived on a commune in Russia?”
“Da,” Annika confirmed. “We would pick apples and sing songs of greatness of Lenin and wonderfulness of communism.”
“If you like communism so much, why don’t you go back to Russia?”
“I make commune here,” Annika said. “I teach Americans how to live as good communists.”
John looked at her with an indignant annoyance that went beyond mere personal dislike. She was so far under his skin it almost wasn’t funny—except it very much was. With a few well-chosen sentences, she had the big man dancing to her tune, believing what she wanted him to believe. It was a small amount of power, but she was happy to take it.
“Annika,” Steven said smoothly. “Are you winding John up?”
“Wind him up? Like toy?” She allowed the merest suggestion of a smile to quirk at her lips.
Mary giggled. “She’s playing with you, John. I bet nothing she said was true.”
“Da,” Annika admitted, taking a big bite of meat. “I study physics in Russia. At university. Not at commune.” She smirked through her mouthful as John’s color faded and his brow rose, not at her, but at Steven.
“Looks like you have a brat on your hands.”