Anya banged her toe on a kitchen chair as Ryan led her around the table, his big hand wrapped securely around hers.
Damn, that hurt. She sucked in a breath and kept going. No way would she act like a wimp even though her teeth chattered from fear, her feet were ice blocks, and her knees shook with pent-up adrenaline.
He hustled her through the living room and she nearly had to run to keep up. Her legs were long, but his were longer, and he covered the distance with quick, hard strides. Just adrenaline, she told herself, not anger making him whisk her away from the hidden bunker. Away from his men.
Well, maybe a little anger. Fear, too?
What a position she’d put him in, protecting her over the safety of the men. Even now, his group was removing equipment from below and scurrying out the back door with it. Loading up to leave.
Was he leaving as well?
Propelling her into the bedroom, Ryan closed the door behind them. He released her hand and cocked his chin at the bed. “The best I could do. They’ll be big on you.”
Clothes. Thermal underwear bottoms, a pair of gray sweatpants. Socks.
Anya wasn’t a hugger—who would she hug besides her grandmother?—but her arms went around his neck of their own volition and she pressed herself against him. He was calm and solid and so handsome, she almost kissed him. Out of gratitude, she told herself. Not because she wanted to touch all that heat and strength and solidness. “Thank you,” she murmured against his neck. “For everything.”
He stiffened at first, then relaxed, one hand coming to rest on her back. “They’re just clothes. Nothing fancy, but they’re clean.”
Just clothes. The irony struck her and she smiled into his shoulder. If only he knew what a few items of clothing had cost her in the past few days.
He gently pressed her away. “We need to talk.”
Her turn to stiffen. Embarrassed at her display of emotion, she kept her eyes averted and faced the bed. The supply of clothing didn’t include a shirt, so it looked like she got to keep the sweater.
Good. She hugged herself and rubbed the soft cotton. Her teeth chattered and she clamped her jaw to stop them as she grabbed the long underwear. She tugged them on, followed by the sweats. Resigning herself to telling Ryan at least some of the truth, she flopped down on the bed, raised her knees to her chest, and rubbed her red toe. “What do you want to know?”
Seemingly without thought, he bent down and took over the rubbing, and massaging, of her injured toe.
Her breath caught at the shock of his warm hands against her cold skin. Oh, God. She’d never had a man touch her feet before.
Too good. Her brain went fuzzy. On his knees in front of her, the action appeared to help him concentrate, his forehead creasing as the wheels in his head turned.
He stroked the injured toe, base to end, over and over. The fuzziness left and her thoughts became clear once more…although they were anything but appropriate. Ryan and her in this bedroom—on the bed—doing more than talking…
He glanced up, met her eyes. She blushed but he didn’t seem to notice her embarrassment. Mr. Business had other things on his mind. “Truman told me about your grandmother and Ivanov. Solomon believes you can be an asset for us, and retrieve certain sensitive information from the Kremlin. You help us, we’ll help you. We need evidence Ivanov is a real threat.”
Anya hugged her knees, tried to focus. “I brought you the key. How much more do you need?”
Ryan’s face was impassive, though his fingers moved to massaging her whole foot. Warming it up. Warming everything up. “Launch keys for nuclear weapons are old school collectors’ items. What we need is some kind of evidence Ivanov is actually violating the NPT.”
Concentrate, Anya. “NPT?”
“Nonproliferation Treaty for nuclear weapons.” He counted off the items on his fingers. “Nonproliferation, disarmament, and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology. We’re concerned about the first two obviously.”
“He’s amassing everything. Weapons, royalty, genetic research.”
He quirked a brow, stopped massaging. “Genetic research?”
Oh, God. Don’t stop. “I think he wants me to do more than play the role of his princess at the summit. And I’m a two-for-one special.”
She wiggled her toes and he started kneading her foot again. Nice. “I’m a geneticist. From what I saw in the underground lab he showed me yesterday, I think he wants me to help him create a super race.”
Ryan’s brow dipped in confusion.
“He believes royal blood is superior, and wants to bring royal genes back to Russia.”
Ryan released a low whistle under his breath and absently began rubbing her other foot. “Based on your blood?”
Hemophilia ran rampant in the royal genes, but Ivanov didn’t know about her disorder. She’d been cursed with von Willebrand’s, a hereditary blood abnormality that was fairly common and rarely fatal. Only she had the more dangerous Type 3 variety. Less common, sometimes fatal. Definitely not super-race material.
Ryan’s gaze dropped to her side where her wound lay hidden. “Did he do that to you? Cut you?”
Anya pinned her gaze to the floor. The memory of Ivanov’s rage, his attack with the dirk, slamming her hard. “I refused to wear the clothing he picked out for me. Couture dresses and shoes he believes a princess should wear. They’re all ridiculous. I look like a bridesmaid or a prostitute in them. When I said no to the red dress, he got mad, and cut off my shirt to teach me a lesson. In the process, he nicked me with the blade. Afterward, he claimed it was an accident. I’m not so sure.”
Brief silence descended. A deep silence charged with anger. “He got that upset over clothes?”
And there it was. The difference between a man like Ivanov and a man like Ryan. “He’s obsessed with me. With how I look, what I wear. I have to be a princess twenty-four-seven, no exceptions. Appearances are crucial.”
Another silence. This one longer. Anya thought she heard Ryan’s teeth grinding. He released her foot but stayed on his knees in front of her. He scanned her face searching for more answers. “How did you escape, Anya?”
She preferred Anya over princess, especially when Ryan said it. “After he cut me, Ivanov freaked out and apologized. He called in his personal doctor who bandaged the wound, but I refused to talk to Ivanov. I was…”
Should she admit she was terrified of him? That he was a madman? Oh, hell, she’d come this far. “I was scared. Terrified, actually. He thought I was playing hard to get. He thinks this is a dream come true for me, being a Russian princess.” Hate charged her next words. “It isn’t.”
She rocked back and forth on the bed, caught herself and stopped. Straightening her back, she grabbed the socks and shoved them on her feet.
Ah, wool socks.
Ryan’s wool socks. Not as good as his hands, but still nice. “In the bastard’s warped mind he decided a spa day would appease me. Every princess needs one of those, right?” Bitter laughter escaped her lips. “A massage, a mani-pedi, and all’s forgiven. He lined up a complete package…hair, nails, sauna, makeup. Had to get me ready for the summit tomorrow. So he sent me to a private place that caters to his cabinet members and their wives. I used a pair of earrings he gave me—he claimed they were family heirlooms—to bribe the spa manager for a few hours alone. Then I climbed out a bathroom window while I was supposed to be in the steam bath and stole the car.”
Ryan got to his feet and sat on the bed next to her. The bed sagged from his weight. “Industrious.”
His approval filled her with pride. “Grams always said you have to work with what you’ve got.” And I don’t have much at the moment.
Except she did. She glanced at Ryan from the corner of her eye.
Sitting close enough their shoulders touched, he crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the door. Even his thinking was charged with tension.
But, she had to admit, all that energy coiled in his body was fierce and…sexy. “We need to get you back before they notice you’re missing.”
Anya’s knee bobbed. I don’t want to go back. “Inga—my babysitter—told me lots of the wives sneak out of the spa and meet lovers on the side. That’s how I got the idea to bribe the manager with the earrings. The manager will cover for me as long as possible, but not forever.”
You help us, we’ll help you.
Anya stayed quiet. The thought of returning to the Palace, to Ivanov, made her skin crawl, but Ryan needed her to find proof of Ivanov’s plans. What was he going to ask her to do?
He shifted to look her in the face. So brown, his eyes. So serious. “You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to. I’ll make some calls. Get you into some type of protective custody.”
What? She met his stare. “No way. I have to go back to the Palace. Ivanov will kill Grams if I don’t.”
“You’re sure he’s got her? Have you seen her?”
A sick dread crept into her stomach. “No.”
He uncrossed his arms, attention dropping to her lips as he leaned back on the bed with one hand, his casualness belying the gears churning behind the calm, impassive face. “This type of undercover work is rough. Things could get…intense. More intense than an accidental slip of Ivanov’s knife.”
She raked her teeth over her bottom lip. Ryan’s eyes flashed with a bit of heat at the gesture. She forced her knee to stop bobbing and put her hand over his. She could do this. With his help. “I can handle it.”
They stayed that way for a long minute. Anya’s face heated from the intensity of his stare. Her heart beat fast, echoing in her ears. Would he trust her? Would he stay in Russia and help her find Grams if she helped him nail Ivanov?
Suddenly, there was more to the heat in his eyes. More than the adrenaline from the close brush with the police and the anger over Ivanov’s rough treatment lingering in his body. The tension changed, morphed into something else. Something that made her smile, unexpectedly feeling very female.
He blinked, and just like that, the heat was gone. He slid his hand out from under hers. Stood and moved toward the door. “Your assignment will be twofold, then. Obtain proof of life regarding your grandmother and evidence against Ivanov regarding the nukes. I’ll be attending the summit meeting, so I can help you. There’s not much we can do at this point about his playing God with genes, but we sure as hell can stop him from adding to his nuclear arsenal.” He turned back and looked at her. “I’ll give you a quick rundown of evidence to look for before we drive you back to Moscow. Think you can handle it?”
Of course she could handle it. Didn’t mean she wasn’t freaking out inside. “I pocketed a launch key from Ivanov’s collection, escaped his security goons at the spa, and made it all the way here, bleeding, in a stolen car. What do you think?”
The side of his mouth quirked. “I think you’re resourceful as well as industrious.”
Anya couldn’t stop the satisfaction that flooded her. “Exactly. I’m the one person who can get up close and personal with Ivanov. So tell me, Eddie…” She used the code name to make her point. “What do you need me to do?”