Her Russian SurrenderBy: Theodora Taylor
“EXCUSE me, miss. Sorry to interrupt. Is this your jacket?”
Sam McKinley turned from her conversation with a cater-waiter named Husik to see a young man wearing circular glasses. Like many of the men at the Hockey Ices Cancer Gala, he had on a tux, but unlike those other men, his face still had a bit of pudge to it, the baby fat that dogged some guys into their twenties.
He extended her coat, a banged up, brown leather number she’d scored at a thrift store for thirty bucks back in grad school. It didn’t really go with the emerald floor length gown she was wearing, but hey, at least it did its job. Nearly ten years later and it was still keeping her warm, even here in Indiana with its brutal winters.
“Yes, that’s my jacket,” she answered without embarrassment. “Is there something wrong?”
Sam fully expected to be kicked out of this party. She’d only been here for thirty minutes, but she hadn’t exactly been invited. Unless using the name of your best friend’s husband’s former teammate to get inside could be considered an “invitation”—because in that case, she totally was invited.
But she knew not everyone would consider her presence at the event legit, so she braced herself, hoping the man’s polite tone meant he’d let her go quietly without calling security.
“No, no, not at all,” he answered quickly, his face flushing. “I just wanted to make sure. The woman at coat check assured me this was yours, but I, ah…” He seemed to be searching for a polite way to say that most people didn’t attend galas in beat up jackets that were probably older than he was. “I wasn’t sure,” he finished weakly.
He then rushed in to say, “But there’s nothing to be worried about. I’m actually here to extend an invitation. Nikolai Rustanov would like the pleasure of your company on the balcony. I retrieved your jacket so you’d be warm.”
Sam breathed a mental sigh of relief that she wasn’t getting kicked out but…
“Who’s Nikolai Rustanov?” she asked, scanning the room from side to side.
The man’s eyes widened as if she had asked him who the President of the United States was.
“Nikolai Rustanov? One of the best hockey players the NHL has ever seen? The new owner of the Indiana Polar?”
The young man seemed to be waiting for Sam to make the connection, but she shook her head with an apologetic shrug.
“Sorry. Never heard of him.” She turned to look at Husik, the Armenian cater-waiter she’d spent most of the party talking with so far. “But the Indiana Polar is the state’s hockey team, right?”
Husik winced as if he was just plain embarrassed for her.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered. “Nikolai Rustanov--they call him Mount Nik--owns it, and you should probably know… this is his house.”
“Oh!” Sam took a closer look around the large, opulent room. The ceilings were covered with intricately carved crown molding, and the ivory walls were filled with luxurious gilt pieces Sam couldn’t have pegged on a specific era or design, but they put her in mind of words like “baroque” and “rococo.” Every room she’d seen in the place so far was done up in this way, and ever since she’d walked in, she’d felt like she was standing in the middle of a set piece for one of the historical romance novels she used to read back when she was a teenager.
Whoever this hockey player was, his home was beautiful, but way over the top, like Peter the Great and Josephine Bonaparte had hooked up and decided to build a home together in Indiana.
“Wow! Well, thanks for the invitation to join your boss…” Sam smiled at the bespectacled representative of the hockey player with baroque tastes.
“No, need to thank me,” the man assured her, lightly cupping her elbow. “If you’ll just follow me, the balcony is right this way.”
Sam didn’t budge. “As I was saying, thanks for the invitation but…” she carefully removed her elbow from his grasp, “…please tell Mr. Mount Nik the answer is no.”
The young man blinked. “The answer is no?” He was clearly not used to this response.
“Yes, the answer is no.” She held up her coat. “But thanks for the coat! I’ll probably be heading out soon anyway, so you saved me a trip.”
“But… I don’t understand!” the young man’s eyes traveled from her ragged coat to her bare ring finger as if he were trying to piece together the answer to a complex puzzle.
“I don’t really think there’s anything to understand,” she answered. “He invited me, and I’m saying no. It’s really pretty simple. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I was in the middle of a conversation with Husik.”
Having nipped that in the bud, she presented the younger man with her back. But she waited until he’d moved away to say, “Actually, I’m glad that guy brought me my coat because I left my business card holder in it.” She took out the flat metal case and handed Husik one of the small cards tucked inside. “If you think your niece is in trouble, give her my card. It doesn’t have anything but my name and number on it, so even if her boyfriend finds it, it shouldn’t cause her any problems. Sometimes just having my card at the right time is enough to get someone out of a bad situation.”