Taming Natasha Page 18

The table surfaces were crowded with mementos, framed pictures, dried bouquets, fanciful statuettes inspired by fairy tales. There was a gingerbread house no bigger than his palm, a girl dressed as Red Riding Hood, a pig peeking out of the window of a tiny straw house, a beautiful woman holding a single glass slipper.

Practical tips on plumbing, passionate colors and fairy tales, he mused, touching a fingertip to the tiny crystal slipper. It was as curious and as intriguing a combination as the woman herself.

Hearing her come back into the room, Spence turned. “These are beautiful,” he said, gesturing to one of the figures. “Freddie’s eyes would pop out.”

“Thank you. My brother makes them.”

“Makes them?” Fascinated, Spence picked up the gingerbread house to study it more closely. It was carved from polished wood, then intricately painted so that each licorice whip and lollipop looked good enough to eat. “It’s incredible. You rarely see workmanship like this.”

Whatever her reservations, she warmed toward him and crossed the room to join him. “He’s been carving and sculpting since he was a child. One day his art will be in galleries and museums.”

“It should be already.”

The sincerity in his voice hit her most vulnerable spot, her love of family. “It’s not so easy. He’s young and hardheaded and proud, so he keeps his job, hammering wood, instead of carving it to bring in money for the family. But one day…” She smiled at the collection. “He makes these for me, because I struggled so hard to learn to read English from this book of fairy tales I found in the boxes of things the church gave us when we came to New York. The pictures were so pretty, and I wanted so badly to know the stories that went with them.”

She caught herself, embarrassed to have said anything. “We should go.”

He only nodded, having already decided to pry gently until she told him more. “You should wear your jacket.” He lifted it from the sofa. “It’s getting chilly.”

The restaurant he’d chosen was only a short drive away and sat on one of the wooded hills that overlooked the Potomac. If Natasha had been given a guess, she would have been on target with his preference for a quiet, elegant backdrop and discreetly speedy service. Over her first glass of wine, she told herself to relax and enjoy.

“Freddie was in the shop today.”

“So I heard.” Amused, Spence lifted his own glass. “She wants her hair curled.”

Natasha’s puzzled look became a smile; she lifted a hand to her own. “Oh. That’s sweet.”

“Easy for you to say. I’ve just gotten the hang of pigtails.”

To her surprise, Natasha could easily picture him patiently braiding the soft, flaxen tresses. “She’s beautiful.” The image of him holding the girl on his lap at the piano slipped back into her mind. “She has your eyes.”

“Don’t look now,” Spence murmured, “but I believe you’ve given me a compliment.”

Feeling awkward, Natasha lifted the menu. “To soften the blow,” she told him. “I’m about to make up for skipping lunch this afternoon.”

True to her word, she ordered generously. As long as she was eating, Natasha figured, the interlude would go smoothly. Over appetizers she was careful to steer the conversation toward subjects they had touched on in class. Comfortably they discussed late fifteenth-century music with its four-part harmonies and traveling musicians. Spence appreciated her genuine curiosity and interest, but was equally determined to explore more personal areas.

“Tell me about your family.”

Natasha slipped a hot, butter-drenched morsal of lobster into her mouth, enjoying the delicate, almost decadent flavor. “I’m the oldest of four,” she began, then became abruptly aware that his fingertips were playing casually with hers on the tablecloth. She slid her hand out of reach.

Her maneuver had him lifting his glass to hide a smile. “Are you all spies?”

A flicker of temper joined the lights that the candle brought to her eyes. “Certainly not.”

“I wondered, since you seem so reluctant to talk about them.” His face sober, he leaned toward her. “Say ‘Get moose and squirrel.’”

Her mouth quivered before she gave up and laughed. “No.” She dipped her lobster in melted butter again, coating it slowly, enjoying the scent, then the taste and texture. “I have two brothers and a sister. My parents still live in Brooklyn.”

“Why did you move here, to West Virginia?”

“I wanted a change.” She lifted a shoulder. “Didn’t you?”

“Yes.” A faint line appeared between his brows as he studied her. “You said you were about Freddie’s age when you came to the States. Do you remember much about your life before that?”

“Of course.” For some reason she sensed he was thinking more of his daughter than of her own memories of the Ukraine. “I’ve always believed impressions made on us in those first few years stay the longest. Good or bad, they help form what we are.” Concerned, she leaned closer, smiling. “Tell me, when you think about being five, what do you remember?”

“Sitting at the piano, doing scales.” It came so clearly that he nearly laughed. “Smelling hothouse roses and watching the snow outside the window. Being torn between finishing my practice and getting to the park to throw snowballs at my nanny.”

“Your nanny,” Natasha repeated, but with a chuckle rather than a sneer he noted. She cupped her chin in her hands, leaning closer, alluring him with the play of light and shadow over her face. “And what did you do?”


“A responsible child.”

He ran a fingertip down her wrist and surprised a shiver out of her. Before she moved her hand away, he felt her pulse scramble. “What do you remember about being five?”

Because her reaction annoyed her, she was determined to show him nothing. She only shrugged. “My father bringing in wood for the fire, his hair and coat all covered with snow. The baby crying—my youngest brother. The smell of the bread my mother had baked. Pretending to be asleep while I listened to Papa talk to her about escape.”

“Were you afraid?”

“Yes.” Her eyes blurred with the memory. She didn’t often look back, didn’t often need to. But when she did, it came not with the watery look of old dreams, but clear as glass. “Oh, yes. Very afraid. More than I will ever be again.”

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