Authors: Bella Rose
“Why do you say that?” Katie’s heart jumped into her throat. What had she expected? For Anne to tell her that Viktor had turned over a new leaf or something?
“For starters, he may not be a full-time member of the Karkoff crime family, but he’s definitely got ties.” Anne took a dramatic breath. “So there are rumors that he runs illegal stuff for them, for money!”
“Yes,” Katie said, feeling disappointed. “I can’t imagine he would have changed much since we were in school together.”
“Whoa!” Anne sat back in her chair. “You’re
“There was a rumor going around that Viktor Urevich was in love with someone named Katie for years. Supposedly he’s been single ever since.” Anne snorted, giving an impression of what she thought about that notion. “Personally, I think that’s a load of crap. The guy is hot and he’s into illegal stuff. He’s probably got women stashed all over the city.”
“Probably,” Katie murmured. “It makes for a nice story though, hmm?”
Anne shrugged. “If you like that sort of romantic crap, I guess so.”
“And you don’t like that romantic crap?” Katie happily steered the conversation away from herself.
“Are you kidding?” Anne rolled her eyes. “I’d be happy with a guy who could keep his dick in his pants.” Anne slapped her hand over her mouth, as if realizing she’d just said that out loud where any of their dental patients could have heard.
“There’s nobody here,” Katie assured her drily. “Although I’m sure Mrs. Anson would have gotten a kick out of that. At eighty years old, she probably has some insight of her own to add.”
Katie and Anne burst into a fit of giggles. It was fun to enjoy her time back here at home with work and friends, but sometimes Katie longed for a little more. And seeing Viktor again had put impossible thoughts in her head.
* * *
Viktor had never spent so much time in a park before in his adult life. In fact, he was starting to worry that one of the mothers hanging out by the jungle gym was going to call the cops on him. Not that he could blame her. Viktor didn’t look as if he belonged, and in this day and age, that meant somebody was likely to mistake him for a pedophile or someone equally distasteful.
Then Katie approached from the direction of the thick trees and caught him by surprise. “Are you just hanging out here watching children?” she asked with a smile. “Because I’m thinking you might be considered a suspicious person if you hang out here too much longer.”
“I think I have enough problems,” he told her jokingly. “So I suppose I’ll hang out with you for a while. That should lend me some credibility, don’t you think?”
“That depends.” She gazed up at him with an unreadable expression on her face. Her dog sat almost motionless next to her, also looking at him with an eerily human expression. “If you’re only using me to boost your credibility because you’re secretly doing something nefarious, then take a hike.”
“Nefarious?” he teased. “Who uses words like that?”
“People who paid attention in English class?”
Viktor snorted. “That most certainly wouldn’t have been me.”
“No. The only way you managed to get out of English class with a passing grade was with my help.” Katie smiled and the beautiful sight took his breath away.
“But I had an A-plus in Russian,” he pointed out. “Not many people could brag about that.”
She didn’t cut him any slack. “Only the other half a dozen kids like you who spoke Russian as their first language.”
Without another word, she began striding away toward the field where she’d been throwing a Frisbee for her dog the previous day. Viktor trailed along behind her. The day was warm and sunny. The late afternoon breeze was pleasant on his face, and he could see that Katie was enjoying just being outside the same way she had when they had been kids.
She launched the Frisbee and the dog bolted after it as if his tail were on fire. Viktor gave an appreciative whistle. “That’s a very fast dog.”
“He’s smart too,” she assured him.
“Where did you get him?”
Her expression was suddenly unreadable. “I got him when he was a puppy.”
* * *
Katie did not want to discuss her recent move, her failed relationship, or anything else about her life over the last five years. The fact that Viktor was obviously wondering about the missing years made her nervous, although it was also flattering.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” Viktor told her in a mild tone of voice. “I was just making conversation.”
“Then make conversation about something else,” Katie suggested flatly.
“Where are you working?”
She sent him a sideways glance. “City Dental Associates.”
“That sounds interesting.”
Katie laughed, the sudden sound of merriment almost musical to his ears. “It doesn’t sound interesting. You’re just saying that because you don’t even know what a person would do at a job like that!”
“Maybe, my behind,” she teased. “I answer phones and make appointments for people.” She shot him an evil grin. “When was the last time
went to see the dentist?”
“I have no idea.” He couldn’t help the distasteful expression that spread across his face. “And I hope I never have to go.”
“That’s actually the point of going regularly,” she teased. “We call it
“Do you like what you do?” He made an attempt to grab the Frisbee from Max’s mouth as he returned, but the dog ducked to avoid him.
“I do enjoy my job.” She put her hand out and Max promptly deposited the Frisbee. Katie grinned at Viktor. “He’s trained to give the toy back to whoever threw it.” She handed Viktor the Frisbee. “Try it.”
Viktor was a good deal stronger than Katie. She almost protested when he drew back and let the thing fly as though it had been shot from a rocket launcher. But Max was in heaven. The dog sprinted off so quickly that he was nothing but a blue-and-white blur streaking through the grass. His hindquarters bunched and he leaped into the air to catch the Frisbee.
“Wow.” Viktor turned and smiled. The expression was so honest. It reminded her of the way he’d been
. Then he pointed to indicate Max. “Did you train him like this?”
“Actually, yes.” She swallowed uncomfortably. This was getting into territory she really didn’t care to discuss. “A friend of mine’s family raises these dogs for show. They gave Max to me as a gift and I spent a lot of time on obedience and agility training.”
“Dog shows?” Viktor’s tone was incredulous. “I would have never thought you could be into something like that.”
“They’re certainly not for everyone,” she said stiffly. “But they can be fun.”
Max trotted up and triumphantly put the Frisbee back in Viktor’s hand. Viktor held it up and Max’s butt dropped obediently to the ground as he waited. Then Viktor pretended to throw the Frisbee. He swung his arm out in a wide arc, but didn’t let go.
To Katie’s amusement, Max stayed put right where he was and continued to stare at Viktor. Katie poked Viktor in the arm. “He’s not stupid. But he is wondering why you would bother trying to play that trick since he can both hear and smell the thing behind your back.”
“Nice. So even the dog thinks I’m a moron.” Viktor threw the Frisbee and Max took off.
* * *
Viktor realized as soon as the words were out that he’d just started a conversation he didn’t want to have. Although, he kept getting the feeling that Katie had several of those as well. She had alluded to a friend, but never seemed to want to discuss it any further. Was this “friend” a guy?
“What?” she asked. “I can tell you’re gearing up to ask me something.”
He cocked his head, trying to get a better read on her facial expression. “Ah, but you already told me you don’t want to talk about it.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t ask,” she reasoned. “You just might not get as comprehensive of an answer as you would like.”
“Comprehensive?” He sighed and gently nudged her with his shoulder. “Okay. You keep talking about a friend you had while you were away, but you never seem to want to say more. What gives?”
“You’re right. I don’t want to talk about it,” she said in a tight voice. “I thought he was a good guy. I was wrong. That’s pretty much all there is to it.”
Viktor’s gut clenched. He found he did
like the idea of some nameless, faceless jerk treating Katie badly. “Did he hurt you? Because I swear I will track him down and—”
She laid her hand very lightly on his forearm. The effect was instant and staggering. The tension seemed to leach right out of Viktor’s body. He felt soothed by her touch, as if nothing would ever anger him again.
Katie gazed up at him, meeting his eyes and holding him captive with hers. “He didn’t hurt me like that. Not physically. I promise. But he was a very selfish man.”
Max trotted up and sat down. Viktor took the Frisbee, but didn’t throw it. His mind was too full of other things. “Would you go to dinner with me tonight?”
“Oh Viktor, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” The expression in her wide gray eyes suggested something completely different, but he let that go for the moment.
“Come on,” he coaxed. “It’s just dinner. We could even do something completely low-key like getting pizza at Franco’s.”
He had her there and she knew it. The woman had loved Franco’s since before he’d met her. She gave him a squinty-eyed glare. “That’s cheating and you know it!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just offered to buy you pizza at your very favorite restaurant.” He stuck his tongue out at her. “That makes me the nice guy here, not the villain.”
“I don’t know about that,” she groused. “I think you’ll always be the villain.”
“But will you go get pizza with me?”
She sighed and snatched her Frisbee out of his hand. “Yes. I’ll meet you there at seven.”
“Deal!” He couldn’t believe how eager he felt for something that should have been mundane.
Katie pulled open the front door of Franco’s Pizza Parlor with mixed feelings. It was great to walk in and smell the yeasty goodness of Franco’s signature thick crust. On the other hand, she was here meeting a man she had no business hanging around with.
“Katie!” Franco Parelli waved to her from behind the counter. “It’s good to see you. I heard you were back in town!”
She grinned at the old man who looked exactly the same, save for the extra hair growing out of his ears. “I couldn’t stand going without your pizza anymore, Franco. I had to move back to town just for that.”
“I’ll make you your favorite and have it right out to you!” Franco called out with a wave.
Katie took a seat by the back window where she and Viktor had always sat when they came here after school to do their homework. It was like being in a time warp. She half expected Viktor to come sauntering in carrying his backpack over one shoulder. He’d been narrow chested with good abs, but no real size to speak of.
The front door swung open and Viktor strode inside. Katie felt her heart start to pound. He certainly didn’t look like he had in high school. The guy was huge and buff, with broad shoulders that looked as if they could carry the whole world.
“Hey.” He took a seat across the table. “Did you already order?”
“Franco didn’t let me order.” Katie gave a little laugh. “Apparently I was very predictable when I came here.”
“Medium chicken and spinach Alfredo pizza with extra pepper and plenty of parmesan.” He gave her a hard nod. “That was you.”
“Nothing has changed in that respect,” she admitted.
He cocked his head to one side. “Implying that it
changed in others?”
“Don’t things always change with time?” She looked intently at him. “Take you, for example. You seem the same in a lot of ways, but you’re also very different.”
“How am I different?”
Franco appeared, setting two sodas on their table and frowning at Viktor. “You can be here, but I want nothing to do with those hoodlum friends of yours.”
Viktor bobbed his head, acknowledging Franco’s warning. “Yes, sir. I’ll make certain my associates remain outside.”
Franco muttered something else and left the table. He did give Katie an indulgent smile before he headed back to the kitchen.
Katie made a gesture to indicate the old man. “That right there is sort of significant, don’t you think? Franco liked you when you were a kid. Obviously that ship has sailed.”
“Crashed and burned more like,” he said jokingly.
“Why do you joke about something like that, Viktor?” Katie wanted to know. “You were never a bad kid. What happened?”
“I almost think it was more like you decided to stop actively trying
to be a bad kid.”
His expression clouded over. She could tell she had made him angry. Then he seemed to get control of himself. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will, Katie.”
“I already knew that.”
“Yes, but when you left I had no reason to walk away from the easier road.” He fiddled with his straw before taking a drink of his soda. “When I was with you, I tried to steer clear of the people and things that would take me down that path.”
“The mafia path,” Katie said to clarify things. “That’s what you’re talking about. Right?”
“Yes.” His gaze seemed to focus on something far away. The scar bisecting the left side of his mouth gave his expression a somewhat sinister appearance. “You were my credibility. I didn’t realize that entirely until you left. I had begun to count on the odd jobs with people like Franco or the dry cleaner to make money. I had even thought to get a job stocking groceries at night and try to go to community college. But after you left, Mr. Phillips wouldn’t hire me.”
“Because you had already started hanging out with your deadbeat friends all the time,” Katie guessed.
“Who else was there?” He looked angry. “I was alone. Nobody trusted the little Russian boy whose father was a mafia enforcer for the Karkoffs before he died in a knife fight.”
Katie’s heart went out to him. He had always felt pigeonholed by his origins. She knew that even if she had always disagreed. “You aren’t your father, Viktor.”