Authors: Zoya Tessi
by Zoya Tessi
Copyright © Zoya Tessi
Cover Art by Deranged Doctor Design
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ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Disclaimer: The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in this novel are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to anything or anyone is unintentional.
Dedicated to Him,
who opened my eyes and showed me how to see,
Two years earlier
It was almost midnight. Putting her scrubbing brush and bucket away in the store room, the cleaning lady could finally heave a sigh of relief and allow herself a good, long stretch. She raised her arms as high as she could, arched her back and groaned. Then she took her time in rubbing at the painful muscle in her neck, before removing her overalls and hanging them automatically on one of the hooks. It was almost ten at night, and she was looking forward to getting home and kicking back in her big old chair before the best part of the day – bed and rest for those aching bones.
dark and empty, echoed from her hurried steps until she noticed a sliver of light coming from a door on the right, breaking the blackness ahead of her. The door was open a crack and the cleaning lady wondered who on earth might be in there at such an hour. Her conscience pricked her, since she knew it was wrong to sneak around, but curiosity held the upper hand, and she decided to stop and listen. Being sure to make no sound, she brought her face up to the crack of the door and peered through.
The dim light came from a lamp resting on the table, where two men sat facing each other, deeply involved in a conversation that could only be confidential. Just one of the faces was in view, that of a man who bore a deep red scar along the length of his left cheek. The head apparently belonged to an older man, since
his hair was flecked with gray and he wore a long, white mustache. Leaning over the stack of papers before him, he absently passed his pen back and forth between his hands.
“Think this over before you agree,” he said, his features set in a grave expression. “If anything goes wrong, we won’t
be able to interfere. You’re on your own.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” said the man sitting with his back to the door.
A few seconds of silence followed and, still holding her breath behind the door, the cleaning lady took this opportunity to get a closer look at the other man. Judging by the tone of his voice, she took him to be much younger than the man with a long mustache, but even when she strained her eyes, she couldn’t tell anything about him. A black hood covered half his forehead, partly concealing the outline of his profile, and that was the only thing she could identify from there. Everything else was lost to the shadows of the gloomy office.
"That’s what I thought," the older man nodded and reached for the pile of folders in front of him.
He took two from the top and slid them across the table, then leaned back in his chair, stroking his long moustache with satisfaction.
“Well, it’s… i
nteresting.” the younger man said, leafing through the first folder.
And damned risky, too. Does that mean you accept the job?”
Man with the hood
reached out his hand for the other folder, but as he opened it a photo slipped out and fluttered to the floor, coming to rest by his feet. He slowly bent down, lifted it and turned it towards the light, examining whatever was there with interest. It looked like a black and white photo of a young woman.
“It’s possible that someone with more experience would be better suited… for a thing like this, but at the moment you’re the only one who fits the profile.” older man continued, “ I hope
you realize that everything’s on the line here and failure cannot be considered. We’ll never get this opportunity again. Is that clear?”
The younger man seemed not to hear him; his position remained the same as he continued to gaze at the picture in his hand.
“I asked you, is that clear?”
r,” he finally answered, put the photograph back where it had come from, picked up the folders and started to rise from the chair.
“I'm glad to hear that.
Just… one more thing.”
“If you have to cross the line... I'll understand”, the older man said, in a voice deeper than before, “This must succeed. No matter what.”
For a few seconds they stood motionless, regarding each other in silence
, before the large shadow nodded.
When she realized the conversation had ended, the cleaning lady moved quickly away from the door and, clutching her sweater close to her chest, went swiftly towards the exit. When she found herself outside, in the cool night air of the parking lot, she let out her second sigh of the night. With all that she’d heard still buzzing around her head, she made straight for the nearest subway station.
It was only the end of April, but the weather outside made it awful sticky. The air was thick and heavy and sweat clung to everyone. The passing people pushed and rushed by like cats on hot cars, all trying to catch the green light en-route to the shade on the other side, paying no mind to the others all doing the same.
The strap on my bag dug into my shoulder without mercy, all but cutting off the circulation, so that I had to shift it to the other arm as I stepped on to the crossing. The lady next
to me dragged a suitcase wildly and I just managed to get clear of its wheels. To this I gave the briefest shake of my head and quickened my pace, hoping to avoid an injury that day. As I reached the sidewalk something struck my shoulder, hard and a guy on skates rushed by me in a blur of colors.
Hey!” I shouted as he receded into the crowd, but then of course I saw his headphones and realized it was no use.
my eyes, I walked over to the coffee shop with the red awning and putting my weight behind the big glass door, shouldered it and pushed inside. As it swung shut behind me, I took a deep breath and let the cool air from the air conditioner bring me round. Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I dragged myself over to my favorite table near the window at the far side of the room and slumped onto the nearest chair. I threw my bag onto the sill next to me, grabbed an “At Luigi’s” menu and began to fan myself frantically with it.
ragazza!” Paolo came over with a broad smile on his face and pinched my cheek, “Why the sour face? You look like you’ve been sucking lemons!”
What's up?” I flashed him a wry smile.
“If anyone else called me baby-face, I’d be insulted, but since it comes from
someone pushing five feet tall and with such beautiful eyes, I just can’t hold it against you,” he grinned at me, took a look around to make sure no one was waiting to order, and sat down next to me.
Paolo was one of many Italians who’d settled here, hoping to make it big working as a model for one of the famous fashion houses. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to want him, and after a year of trying desperately to get in on the action, he’d come to work as waiter at his uncle Luigi’s bar. Even though he had a perfect face, well-defined features, piercing dark eyes and a great physique, he wasn’t exactly tall, and no agency was interested in hiring a male model under the requisite height.
Most people would probably slide into depression or give it all up in his situation, but Paolo didn’t. I was fascinated by his persistence and his attitude, which put him always on the bright side. For him, the glass was always ‘half full’ and every failure spurred him on to try harder the next time. For over a month he’d been working on a business plan that would let him open up a pasta restaurant downtown. We constantly jibed that he’d come up with this plan only to fatten up the competition, so that he could sign up as a top model in their place.
“How is it going with your devilish plan to raise the average weight of your fellow citizens?”
“More than good. In fact, everything’s ready. The only thing left is to find some money and I’m in business,” he shrugged his shoulders, as if this was just a formality.
“I love your optimism.”
“Sasha darling, a little bit of positive thinking wouldn’t hurt you either. You sit there like a drowned puppy instead and you look like you hate the whole world,” he stole a glance at me and, with a look of displeasure on his face, pointed a finger in my direction, “And what the heck is that?”
You like it?”
up from the chair, I turned on my heels and batted my lashes a few times. I was wearing silver sandals with sequins, dark low-rise jeans with a boot cut, and a lightweight, dark blue tunic with rhinestones along the edges. My long, light brown hair was twisted into a thick plait that ended just above my waist. When I turned around, dozens of silver bracelets and dangling silver earrings jingled like silver bells at Christmas.
“Did you know you’re the only person who can put such terrible things on, and still not look like a fortune teller?”
“And you are so shiny. You remind me of a pimp in that silk shirt.”
“You didn’t mind Tyler wearing silk shirts...”
“Don’t mention that bastard, please!” I looked away, sat down in the chair again and started twisting my bracelets.
If there’d been any chance of me finding myself in a good mood, it evaporated right there and then. I’ll never understand how I could have let myself believe Tyler’s lies. I always thought I was a real good judge of character; never imagined that any man could make a fool out of me. And what makes it worse is it seems so ordinary – that a girl should fall for charming words and even more for a handsome face. I let this smooth-talking jerk have me wrapped around his little finger for almost six months.
People tried to warn me, of course. They told me Tyler was playing the field, that I should wake up and smell the coffee. I dismissed it all, convinced that they were saying those things because they were jealous of what we had. Idiot! I had done my best to please him from the beginning. I dealt with his fits of jealousy and his mood swings, brought ice for his hands when he came back after yet another fight, I even sat through the dreadful Steven Seagal movies he loved so much. God I hated those! I was such a fool! It was plain for everyone to see. Perfect body, sweet smile, considerate blue eyes… all just a thinly veiled disguise for what he really is – sneaky, low down and selfish. I thought I’d landed the best catch at university, but I came down to earth soon enough. Two weeks ago I caught him necking in the park with one of my classmates. That image still made me retch, so I tried to force the thought from my mind.
“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” Paolo came up to me and hugged me tightly. ”I know the whole situation with you and Tyler’s still an open wound, but if you ask me, he was never good enough for you.”
“Just don’t mention him again and everything will be fine. You’d better get me some fresh juice because I need to recover from this hellish heat.”
“Anything for you, beautiful,” he stood up and walked to the bar,
but then turned around and gave me a shifty look over his shoulder.
... We could arrange Tyler falling into someone’s fist one of these days. I know some people who could kick his ass...” he winked at me and disappeared behind the bar.
A bitter smile started to play on the corners of my mouth, but I shrugged it off and reached for my laptop and books from the bag. Good old Paolo has always been kind of protective towards me, but he had no idea that if I wanted to, I could fix it so that Tyler was wiped off the face of the earth in a matter of hour
s. His people “who could kick ass” were baby bunnies compared to people I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life with.
I set the books down on the table in front of me, took a sip of the lemonade Paolo fixed, and got down to writing my paper. My assignment was to analyze the meaning of the colors
Wassily Kandinsky used in his pictures. I wasn’t really a big fan of modern art, and if I could have chosen the topic myself I'd have dealt with one of the stars of the French romantic scene. To my disappointment, one of my least favorite compatriots finished up as my subject.
I was engrossed in downloading the necessary info from the web when I heard a message ping on my cell. Still deep in thought, I picked it up from the table and stared for a few seconds at the unknown number on the screen. The fact the caller was unknown was enough to tell me who the message was from. Only one person sent messages from unfamiliar numbers.
PARK BEHIND UNIVERSITY 7 p.m. – it said.
“Oh great,” I muttered under my breath, snapped the phone shut and threw it in the bag.
Picking up the books and laptop quickly, I swung the bag over my shoulder and started for the door.
“You’re leaving already?” Paolo shouted after me.
“Something's come up. See you Saturday then?”
I'm coming for you and Beth at ten. Be sure and eat well before we go, ‘cause we all know what happens when you drink on an empty stomach,” he grabbed himself by the throat and pretended to throw up.
“Stop it! That was a one off! Are you
gonna rub my nose in it forever?”
“There now... I know. That was the night when you gave Tyler the boot because he...oops...
”, he quickly moved his hand across to cover his mouth in remorse, “I'm sorry, I let it slip. I promise not to mention a certain person any more.”
“And you’d better not!” I smiled when I saw his glum expression, blew him a kiss and stepped out into the street.
I caught a cab and as we drove, I used the opportunity to call Beth, but of course she wasn’t picking up, so I left a message.
“Hey, just to let you know, I’ll be late tonight. Got to go and pick up a book I left in class.”
Leaning back in the seat, I looked out of the window, praying to God that Beth didn’t plan on playing chef again that night. I’ve never been skilled in the culinary arts, but at least I didn’t pretend that I am and risked involuntary manslaughter, like she did. Beth was like a sister to me, but if she had it in mind to make me eat one of her creations again tonight, she’s got another thing coming!
When I moved into an apartment at the start of last summer, I looked for a roommate from the get go
because I couldn’t imagine living alone in such a vast space. It took up the entire top floor of a downtown building and at least three people could have lived there in comfort, without even seeing each other from day to day. After almost a month of vetting potential roomies, I was almost ready to give up and try going solo when Bethany showed up. At first, overdressed and super-chatty, the tall leggy blonde with her leopard prints took me by surprise. And yet I decided to give her a chance, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.
Our characters were different for sure, but it was fascinating
how well we functioned together and we soon became inseparable. I felt us to be something akin to magnetic poles, canceling each other out. When I erupted, Beth put out the fire. When she fell into a funk, I’d make her laugh and needle her out of bed with a few playful, sarcastic comments. If I had a problem, she was the first one I’d go to for advice and I never met a person who knew how to listen as well as Beth. Even if she didn’t agree with some of my decisions, the opinions she gave were always honest and without reproach.
For that very reason, there were times when I cam
e close to laying my heart bare and sharing my whole story, but I’d always hold back in the end because I didn’t want to put her in danger by telling her too much. I drew a line between my past life and my new one for the good of the people around me. Beth never insisted that I tell her where I’d been or what I was doing before I enrolled at university and I was truly grateful to her for that.
I was startled out of my reverie when the taxi swu
ng over to the sidewalk by the university building. Giving the driver a bill, I got out of the car and set off towards the park behind. Despite the fact that the sun went down, the concrete still gave off a heat that made the air feel heavy.
I caught sight of him then, sitting on a bench with his back to me, head tilted slightly on one side, gazing out over the pond in front of him. Every time he summoned me like this I felt I entered the cast of characters in some second-rate spy thriller.
In his expensive dark pants and gray designer shirt he looked the very model of sophistication. His honey-colored hair was styled in the most unassuming way - the very epitome of casual cool. He always reminded me of some egocentric millionaire, strutting down one of the most exclusive European marinas arm in arm with a girl half his age, a faint but satisfied smile just visible on his face.
Well, look at that.
I don’t think anyone would place him over thirty-five, even though he’s pushing fifty.
When he heard me approach, he turned and smiled, but I didn’t return the gesture.
“Hello Nikolai,” I said and stopped four feet in front of him.
he smile faded from his face and he looked offended. I followed his dark blue eyes, the same ones I saw every morning in the mirror.
“Princess... I asked you not to call me that.”
“And I asked you not to call me Princess... Dad”.
“That's better,” he smiled again, pretending not to notice the sharp edge to my voice.
I sat down next to him, but placed my bag between us, so that it formed yet another barrier. A brief silence ensued; neither of us had known how to start a normal conversation in years.
“How are you
?” he finally asked.
gh he lived here for more than two decades, he never lost his heavy Russian accent. Thanks to my mother, and due to the fact that I was born here, I’ve never had any.
“And Bethany? How are you two getting along?”
“Is it really necessary to go through all of this? I’m sure your spies have already filled you in on all the details,”