Taming Natasha Page 45

“No, he’s not. But—”

Impatient, Nadia shook her head. “Holding on to something that’s gone only makes a sickness inside. You have a good heart, Tash. Trust it.”

“I want to.” She wrapped her arms around her mother and held tight. “I do love him, Mama, but it still scares me. And it still hurts.” On a long breath she drew back. “I want to borrow Papa’s truck.”

Nadia didn’t ask where she was going. Didn’t need to. “Yes. I can go with you.”

Natasha only kissed her mother’s cheek and shook her head.

She’d been gone an hour before Spence made his bleary-eyed way downstairs. He and the gray dog exchanged glances of sympathy. Yuri had been generous with the vodka the night before, to guests and pets. At the moment, Spence felt as though a chain gang were chipping rock in his head. Operating on automatic, he found the kitchen, following the scents of baking, and blissfully, coffee.

Nadia took one look, laughed broadly and gestured to the table. “Sit.” She poured a cup of coffee, strong and black. “Drink. I fix you breakfast.”

Like a dying man, Spence clutched the cup in both hands. “Thanks. I don’t want to put you out.”

Nadia merely waved a hand as she reached for a cast-iron skillet. “I know a man with a hangover. Yuri poured you too much vodka.”

“No. I took care of that all on my own.” He opened the aspirin bottle she set on the table. “Bless you, Mrs. Stanislaski.”

“Nadia. You call me Nadia when you get drunk in my house.”

“I don’t remember feeling like this since college.” So saying he downed three aspirins. “I can’t imagine why I thought it was fun at the time.” He managed a weak smile. “Something smells wonderful.”

“You will like my pies.” She pushed fat sausages around in the skillet. “You met Alex last night.”

“Yes.” Spence didn’t object when she filled his cup a second time. “That was cause enough for one more drink. You have a beautiful family, Nadia.”

“They make me proud.” She laughed as the sausage sizzled. “They make me worry. You know, you have daughter.”

“Yes.” He smiled at her, picturing what Natasha would look like in a quarter of a century.

“Natasha is the only one who moves far away. I worry most for her.”

“She’s very strong.”

Nadia only nodded as she added eggs to the pan. “Are you patient, Spence?”

“I think so.”

Nadia glanced over her shoulder. “Don’t be too patient.”

“Funny. Natasha once told me the same thing.”

Pleased, Nadia popped bread into the toaster. “Smart girl.”

The kitchen door swung open. Alex, dark, rumpled and heavy-eyed, grinned. “I smelled breakfast.”

The first snow was falling, small, thin flakes that swirled in the wind and vanished before they hit the ground. There were some things, Natasha knew, that were beautiful and very precious, and here for only such a short time.

She stood alone, bundled against the cold she didn’t feel. Except inside. The light was pale gray, but not dreary, not with the tiny, dancing snowflakes. She hadn’t brought flowers. She never did. They would look much too sad on such a tiny grave.

Lily. Closing her eyes, she let herself remember how it had felt to hold that small, delicate life in her arms. Her baby. Milaya. Her little girl. Those beautiful blue eyes, Natasha remembered, those exquisite miniature hands.

Like the flower she had been named for, Lily had been so lovely, and had lived such a brief, brief time. She could see Lily, small and red and wrinkled, her little hands fisted when the nurse had first laid her in Natasha’s arms. She could feel even now that sweet ache that tugged when Lily had nursed at her breast. She remembered the feel of that soft, soft skin and the smell of powder and lotion, the comfort of rocking late at night with her own baby girl on her shoulder.

So quickly gone, Natasha thought. A few precious weeks. No amount of time, no amount of prayer would ever make her understand it. Accept, perhaps, but never understand.

“I love you, Lily. Always.” She bent to press her palm against the cold grass. Rising again, she turned and walked away through the lightly dancing snow.

Where had she gone? There could be a dozen places, Spence assured himself. It was foolish to be worried. But he couldn’t help it. Some instinct was at work here, heightened by the certainty that Natasha’s family knew exactly where she was, but refused to say.

The house was already filled with noise, laughter, and the smells of the celebrational meal to come. He tried to shake off the feeling that wherever Natasha was, she needed him.

There was so much she hadn’t told him. That had become crystal clear when he saw the pictures in the living room. Natasha in tights and dance shoes, in ballet skirts and toe shoes. Natasha with her hair streaming behind her, caught at the apex of a grand jeté.

She’d been a dancer, quite obviously a professional, but had never mentioned it.

Why had she given it up? Why had she kept something that had been an important part of her life a secret from him?

Coming out of the kitchen, Rachel saw him with one of the photographs in his hand. She kept silent for a moment, studying him. Like her mother, she approved of what she saw. There was a strength here and a gentleness. Her sister needed and deserved both.

“It’s a beautiful picture.”

He turned. Rachel was taller than Natasha, more willowy. Her dark hair was cut short in a sleek cap around her face. Her eyes, more gold than brown, dominated. “How old was she?”

Rachel dipped her hands into the pockets of her trousers as she crossed the room. “Sixteen, I think. She was in the corps de ballet then. Very dedicated. I always envied Tash her grace. I was a klutz.” She smiled and gently changed the subject. “Always taller and skinnier than the boys, knocking things over with my elbows. Where’s Freddie?”

Spence set down the picture. Without saying it, Rachel had told him that if he had questions, they were for Natasha. “She’s upstairs, watching the Macy’s parade with Yuri.”

“He never misses it. Nothing disappointed him more than when we grew too old to want to sit in his lap and watch the floats.”

A laughing squeal from the second floor had them both turning toward the stairs. Feet clomped. A pink whirlwind in her jumpsuit, Freddie came dashing down to launch herself at Spence. “Daddy, Papa makes bear noises. Big bear noises.”

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