Taming Natasha Page 46

“Did he rub his beard on your cheek?” Rachel wanted to know.

“It’s scratchy.” She giggled, then wriggled down to run upstairs once more, hoping he’d do it again.

“She’s having the time of her life,” Spence decided.

“So’s Papa. How’s your head?”

“Better, thanks.” He heard the sound of the truck pulling up outside, and glanced toward the window.

“Mama needs my help.” Rachel slipped back into the kitchen.

He was at the door waiting for her. Natasha looked very pale, very tired, but she smiled when she saw him. “Good morning.” Because she needed him, she slipped her arms around his waist and held tight.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes.” She was now, she realized, when he was holding her like this. Stronger, she pulled back. “I thought you might sleep late.”

“No, I’ve been up awhile. Where have you been?”

She unwound her scarf. “There was something I needed to do.” After peeling off her coat, she hung it in the narrow closet. “Where is everyone?”

“Your mother and Rachel are in the kitchen. The last time I looked, Alex was on the phone.”

This time the smile came easily. “Sweet-talking a girl.”

“Apparently. Freddie’s up with your father, watching the parade.”

“And putting him in heaven.” She touched her fingertips to Spence’s cheek. “Will you kiss me?”

There was some need here, he thought as he bent toward her. Some deep, private need she still refused to share. Her lips were cold when his met them, but they softened, then warmed. At last they curved.

“You’re very good for me, Spence.”

“I was hoping you’d catch on to that.” He gave her bottom lip a playful nip. “Better?”

“Much. I’m glad you’re here.” She squeezed his hand. “How do you feel about some of Mama’s hot chocolate?”

Before he could answer, Freddie came sprinting down the steps again, one shoelace trailing, to throw her arms around Natasha’s waist. “You’re back!”

“So I am.” Natasha bent to kiss the top of Freddie’s head. “What have you been up to?”

“I’m watching the parade with Papa. He can talk just like Donald Duck, and he lets me sit on his lap.”

“I see.” Leaning closer, Natasha took a sniff. There was the telltale fragrance of gumdrops lingering on Freddie’s breath. “Does he still hog all the yellow ones?”

Freddie giggled, casting a quick, cautious look at her father. Spence had a much different view of gumdrops than Yuri. “It’s okay. I like the red ones best.”

“How many red ones?” Spence asked her.

Freddie lifted her shoulders and let them fall. It was, Spence noted with some amusement, almost a mirror image of Natasha’s habitual gesture. “Not too many. Will you come up and watch with us?” She tugged at Natasha’s hand. “It’s almost time for Santa Claus.”

“In a little while.” Out of habit, Natasha crouched to tie Freddie’s shoelace. “Tell Papa that I won’t mention the gumdrops to Mama. If he saves me some.”

“Okay.” She dashed up the stairs.

“He’s made quite an impression on her,” Spence observed.

“Papa makes impressions on everyone.” She started to rise, and felt the room spin. Before she could sink to the floor again, Spence had her arms.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.” She pressed a hand to her head, waiting for the dizziness to pass. “I stood up too fast, that’s all.”

“You’re pale. Come sit down.” He had an arm hooked around her waist, but she shook her head.

“No, I’m fine, really. Just a little tired.” Relieved that the room had steadied, she smiled at him. “Blame it on Rachel. She would have talked through the night if I hadn’t fallen asleep on her in self-defense.”

“Have you eaten anything?”

“I thought you were a doctor of music.” She smiled again and patted his cheek. “Don’t worry, the minute I go into the kitchen, Mama will start feeding me.”

Just then the front door opened. Spence watched Natasha’s face light up. “Mikhail!” With a laugh, she threw herself into the arms of her brother.

He had the dark, blinding good looks that ran in the family. The tallest of the brood, he had to bend to gather Natasha close. His hair curled over his ears and collar. His coat was worn, his boots were scarred. His hands, as they stroked Natasha’s hair, were wide-palmed and beautiful.

It took Spence only seconds to see that while Natasha loved all of her family deeply, there was a separate and special bond here.

“I’ve missed you.” She drew back just far enough to kiss his cheeks, then hugged him close again. “I’ve really missed you.”

“Then why don’t you come more often?” He pushed her away, wanting a good long look. He didn’t care for the pallor in her cheeks, but since her hands were still cold, he realized she’d been out. And he knew where she’d spent that morning. He murmured something in Ukrainian, but she only shook her head and squeezed his hands tight. With a shrug very like her own, he put the subject aside.

“Mikhail, I want you to meet Spence.”

As he took off his coat, Mikhail turned to study Spence. Unlike Alex’s friendly acceptance or Rachel’s subtle measuring, this was an intense and prolonged stare that left Spence in no doubt that if Mikhail didn’t approve, he wouldn’t hesitate to say so.

“I know your work,” he said at length. “It’s excellent.”

“Thank you.” Spence met look for look. “I can say the same about yours.” When Mikhail lifted one dark brow, Spence continued. “I’ve seen the figures you carved for Natasha.”

“Ah.” A glimmer of a smile curved Mikhail’s mouth. “My sister always was fond of fairy tales.” There was a squeal from upstairs, followed by rumbling laughter.

“That’s Freddie,” Natasha explained. “Spence’s daughter. She’s making Papa’s day.”

Mikhail slipped a thumb through one belt loop. “You are a widower.”

“That’s right.”

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