Taming Natasha Page 43

They would get mad and frown at her if she spilled something on the floor. Maybe they would yell. She’d heard JoBeth’s father yell, especially when JoBeth’s big brother, who was in third grade already and was supposed to know better, had taken one of his father’s golf clubs to hit at rocks in the backyard. One of the rocks had crashed right through the kitchen window.

Maybe she would break a window. Then Natasha wouldn’t marry her daddy and come to stay with them. She wouldn’t have a mother or a baby sister, and Daddy would stop playing his music at night again.

Almost paralyzed by her thoughts, Freddie shrank against the seat as the car slowed.

“Yes, turn right here.” At the sight of her old neighborhood, Natasha’s spirits rose even higher. “It’s about halfway down, on the left. You might be able to find a space…yes, there.” She spotted a parking space behind her father’s ancient pickup. Obviously the Stanislaskis had put out the word that their daughter and friends were coming, and the neighbors had cooperated.

It was like that here, she thought. The Poffenbergers had lived on one side, the Andersons on the other for as long as Natasha could remember. One family would bring food when there was illness, another would mind a child after school. Joys and sorrows were shared. And gossip abounded.

Mikhail had dated the pretty Anderson girl, then had ended up as best man at her wedding, when she’d married one of his friends. Natasha’s parents had stood as godparents for one of the Poffenberger babies. Perhaps that was why, when Natasha had found she’d needed a new place and a new start, she had picked a town that had reminded her of home. Not in looks, but in ties.

“What are you thinking?” Spence asked her.

“Just remembering.” She turned her head to smile at him. “It’s good to be back.” She stepped onto the curb, shivered once in the frosty air, then opened the back door for Freddie while Spence popped the trunk. “Freddie, are you asleep?”

Freddie kept herself balled tight, but squeezed her eyes open. “No.”

“We’re here. It’s time to get out.”

Freddie swallowed, clutching the doll to her chest. “What if they don’t like me?”

“What’s this?” Crouching, Natasha brushed the hair from Freddie’s cheeks. “Have you been dreaming?”

“They might not like me and wish I wasn’t here. They might think I’m a pest. Lots of people think kids’re pests.”

“Lots of people are stupid then,” Natasha said briskly, buttoning up Freddie’s coat.

“Maybe. But they might not like me, anyway.”

“What if you don’t like them?”

That was something that hadn’t occurred to her. Mulling it over, Freddie wiped her nose with the back of her hand before Natasha could come up with a tissue. “Are they nice?”

“I think so. After you meet them, you can decide. Okay?”


“Ladies, maybe you could pick another time to have a conference.” Spence stood a few feet away, loaded down with luggage. “What was that all about?” he asked when they joined him on the sidewalk.

“Girl talk,” Natasha answered with a wink that made Freddie giggle.

“Great.” He started up the worn concrete steps behind Natasha. “Nothing I like better than to stand in the brisk wind holding three hundred pounds of luggage. What did you pack in here? Bricks?”

“Only a few, along with some essentials.” Delighted with him, she turned and kissed his cheek—just as Nadia opened the door.

“Well.” Pleased, Nadia folded her arms across her chest. “I told Papa you would come before Johnny Carson was over.”

“Mama.” Natasha rushed up the final steps to be enfolded in Nadia’s arms. There was the scent she always remembered. Talc and nutmeg. And, as always, there was the strong, sturdy feel of her mother’s body. Nadia’s dark and sultry looks were just as strong, more so, perhaps, with the lines etched by worry, laughter and time.

Nadia murmured an endearment, then drew Natasha back to kiss her cheeks. She could see herself as she had been twenty years before. “Come on, you leave our guests standing in the cold.”

Natasha’s father bounded into the hall to pluck her off the floor and toss her into the air. He wasn’t a tall man, but the arms beneath his work shirt were thick as cinder blocks from his years in the construction trade. He gave a robust laugh as he kissed her.

“No manners,” Nadia declared as she shut the door. “Yuri, Natasha brings guests.”

“Hello.” Yuri thrust out a callused hand and pumped Spence’s. “Welcome.”

“This is Spence and Freddie Kimball.” As she made introductions, Natasha noticed Freddie slip her hand into her father’s.

“We are happy to meet you.” Because warmth was her way, Nadia greeted them both with kisses. “I will take your coats, and you please come in and sit. You will be tired.”

“We appreciate you having us,” Spence began. Then, sensing that Freddie was nervous, he picked her up and carried her into the living room.

It was small, the wallpaper old and the furniture worn. But there were lace doilies on the arms of the chairs, the woodwork gleamed in the yellow lamplight from vigorous polishing, and here and there were exquisitely worked pillows. Framed family pictures fought for space among the potted plants and knicknacks.

A husky wheeze had Spence glancing down. There was an old gray dog in the corner. His tail began to thump when he saw Natasha. With obvious effort he rose and waddled to her.

“Sasha.” She crouched to bury her face in the dog’s fur. She laughed as he sat down again and leaned against her. “Sasha is a very old man,” she explained to Freddie. “He likes best now to sleep and eat.”

“And drink vodka,” Yuri put in. “We will all have some. Except you,” he added and flicked a finger down Freddie’s nose. “You would have some champagne, huh?”

Freddie giggled, then bit her lip. Natasha’s father didn’t look exactly like she’d imagined a grandfather. He didn’t have snow-white hair and a big belly. Instead his hair was black and white at the same time, and he had no belly at all. He talked funny, with a deep, rumbly kind of voice. But he smelled good, like cherries. And his smile was nice.

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