Taming Natasha Page 31

“And I appreciate it.” Quietly he closed the door. “Just like I appreciate the way you look, the way you taste, the way you feel.”

She shouldn’t have been so aroused by only a look. Couldn’t be, not when the look told her that whatever the crystal in her pocket promised, he already knew their destiny. “This is a very inappropriate time.”

He loved the way her voice could take on that regal tone, czarina to peasant. “Then we’ll find a better one.”

Exasperated, she hefted the bags again. “I’ll help you hang your cobwebs, if you promise to be Freddie’s father—and only Freddie’s father while we do.”

“Okay.” He didn’t see any other way he’d survive an evening with twenty costumed first-graders. And the party, he thought, wouldn’t last forever. “We’ll be pals for the duration.”

She liked the sound of it. Choosing a bag, she reached inside. She held up a rubber mask of a bruised, bloodied and scarred face. Competently she slipped it over Spence’s head. “There. You look wonderful.”

He adjusted it until he could see her through both eyeholes, and had a foolish and irresistible urge to look at himself in the hall mirror. Behind the mask he grinned. “I’ll suffocate.”

“Not for a couple of hours yet.” She handed him the second bag. “Come on. It takes time to build a haunted house.”

It took them two hours to transform Spence’s elegantly decorated living room into a spooky dungeon, fit for rats and screams of torture. Black and orange crepe paper hung on the walls and ceiling. Angel-hair cobwebs draped the corners. A mummy, arms folded across its chest leaned in a corner. A black-caped witch hung in the air, suspended on her broom. Thirsty and waiting for dusk, an evil-eyed Dracula lurked in the shadows, ready to pounce.

“You don’t think it’s too scary?” Spence asked as he hung up a Pin-the-Nose-on-the-Pumpkin game. “They’re first-graders.”

Natasha flicked a finger over a rubber spider that hung by a thread and sent him spinning. “Very mild. My brothers made a haunted house once. They blindfolded Rachel and me to take us through. Mikhail put my hand in a bowl of grapes and told me it was eyes.”

“Now that’s disgusting,” Spence decided.

“Yes.” It delighted her to remember it. “Then there was this spaghetti—”

“Never mind,” he interrupted. “I get the idea.”

She laughed, adjusting her earring. “In any case, I had a wonderful time and have always wished I’d thought of it first. The children tonight would be very disappointed if we didn’t have some monsters waiting for them. After they’ve been spooked, which they desperately want to be, you turn on the lights, so they see it’s all pretend.”

“Too bad we’re out of grapes.”

“It’s all right. When Freddie’s older, I’ll show you how to make a bloodied severed hand out of a rubber glove.”

“I can’t wait.”

“What about food?”

“Vera’s been a Trojan.” With his mask on top of his head, Spence stood back to study the whole room. It felt good, really good to look at the results, and to know that he and Natasha had produced them together. “She’s made everything from deviled eggs to witch’s brew punch. You know what would have been great? A fog machine.”

“That’s the spirit.” His grin made her laugh and long to kiss him. “Next year.”

He liked the sound of that, he realized. Next year, and the year after. A little dazed at the speed with which his thoughts were racing, he only studied her.

“Is something wrong?”

“No.” He smiled. “Everything’s just fine.”

“I have the prizes here.” Wanting to rest her legs, Natasha sat on the arm of a chair beside a lounging ghoul. “For the games and costumes.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I told you I wanted to. This is my favorite.” She pulled out a skull, then flicking a switch, set it on the floor where it skimmed along, disemboded, its empty eyes blinking.

“Your favorite.” Tongue in cheek, Spence picked it up where it vibrated in his hand.

“Yes. Very gruesome.” She tilted her head. “Say ‘Alas, poor Yorick!’”

He only laughed and switched it off. Then he pulled down his mask. “‘O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt.’” She was chuckling when he came over and lifted her to her feet. “Give us a kiss.”

“No,” she decided after a moment. “You’re ugly.”

“Okay.” Obligingly he pushed the mask up again. “How about it?”

“Much worse.” Solemnly she slid the mask down again.

“Very funny.”

“No, but it seemed necessary.” Linking her arm with his, she studied the room. “I think you’ll have a hit.”

“We’ll have a hit,” he corrected. “You know Freddie’s crazy about you.”

“Yes.” Natasha gave him an easy smile. “It’s mutual.”

They heard the front door slam and a shout. “Speaking of Freddie.”

Children arrived first in trickles, then in a flood. When the clock struck six, the room was full of ballerinas and pirates, monsters and superheroes. The haunted house brought gasps and shrieks and shudders. No one was brave enough to make the tour alone, though many made it twice, then a third time. Occasionally a stalwart soul was courageous enough to poke a finger into the mummy or touch the vampire’s cape.

When the lights were switched on there were moans of disappointment and a few relieved sighs. Freddie, a life-size Raggedy Ann, tore open her belated birthday presents with abandon.

“You’re a very good father,” Natasha murmured.

“Thanks.” He linked his fingers with hers, no longer questioning why it should be so right for them to stand together and watch over his daughter’s party. “Why?”

“Because you haven’t once retreated for aspirin, and you hardly winced when Mikey spilled punch on your rug.”

“That’s because I have to save my strength for when Vera sees it.” Spence dodged, in time to avoid collision with a fairy princess being chased by a goblin. There were squeals from every corner of the room, punctuated by the crashing and moaning of the novelty record on the stereo. “As for the aspirin… How long can they keep this up?”

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