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My Only One Eileen Nauman A CENTURY OF AMERICAN ROMANCEWhen Abby Fielding is knocked into the frigid Bering Sea, she has only one thought: to save the planet's gentlest creatures from a whaler's harpoon. When Aleksandr Rostov dives from his helicopter into those arctic waters, it is to rescue the woman he spotted through his field glasses. Little does the Soviet naval officer know she's the woman of his dreams.For Aleksandr, dreams are of Mother Russia. But as he and Abby bring their dramatic tale of courage to an eager world, she shows him the wonders of her homeland. And all the time, another, more personal story is unfolding before them.To the world, they are heroic, but all they long for is to be together. For Abby and Alec, glasnost is more than a policy–it's a prayer. A CENTURY OF AMERICAN ROMANCE When Abby Fielding is knocked into the frigid Bering Sea, she has only one thought: to save the planet’s gentlest creatures from a whaler’s harpoon. When Aleksandr Rostov dives from his helicopter into those arctic waters, it is to rescue the woman he spotted through his field glasses. Little does the Soviet naval officer know she’s the woman of his dreams. For Aleksandr, dreams are of Mother Russia. But as he and Abby bring their dramatic tale of courage to an eager world, she shows him the wonders of her homeland. And all the time, another, more personal story is unfolding before them. To the world, they are heroic, but all they long for is to be together. For Abby and Alec, glasnost is more than a policy—it’s a prayer. My Only One Lindsay McKenna www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Contents Chapter One (#u97326339-2d4b-5843-9d16-367e86638b85) Chapter Two (#ua27e64e0-1e77-5110-805d-60b867865a35) Chapter Three (#u401d31cc-fa28-5847-b972-98f0dd342cf1) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One April 1987 “COMRADE CAPTAIN, THE Japanese catcher ship and American salmon trawler are going to collide!” Second Captain Aleksandr Rostov twisted around in the nylon seat in the rear of the Soviet Helix helicopter. The gray-green water of the Bering Sea lay one thousand feet below them. Craning his neck, Alec could see a huge Japanese factory ship, followed by a secondary whaling fleet of ten smaller vessels, known as “catchers,” shadowing a pod of humpback whales swimming in a northward direction. He saw the metal harpoon on the bow of one of the catchers aimed at the closest whale, not quite within range to shoot—yet. “Comrade Captain, do you see them…?” Lieutenant Yuri Mizin was obviously upset. The earphones in Alec’s helmet hissed, blotting out the rest of the pilot’s observation. But Alec could see Zotov, the helicopter crewman, excitedly jabbing a gloved finger at the Plexiglas window behind him. Alec’s eyes narrowed. Mizin hadn’t dramatized the situation below them. One lone American trawler flying a Save Our Whales Foundation flag from the mast was brazenly challenging the path of the large, powerful catcher ship. “Are they fools?” Alec said to no one in particular as Mizin dropped the helicopter to a lower altitude. Mizin’s laugh was a bark. “Crazy Americans! Comrade Captain, didn’t you hear our radios picking up talk between the Americans and the Japanese whaling fleet since yesterday?” “Off and on.” Most of the time he’d been busy in his office on board the Udaloy, not on the bridge. He’d left the destroyer half an hour ago, for a quick hop to a Soviet cruiser forty miles south of their position. An Izvestia reporter doing an unheard-of story about officers in the naval fleet wanted to interview Alec in his position as the Udaloy’s navigation officer. Perhaps Alec’s study of communications had prompted the fleet commander to choose him. Whatever the reason, Alec surmised that with glasnost and perestroika becoming the new watchwords in the Soviet Union, this interview was all part of the new openness wanted by Moscow. Alec had taken the fleet commander’s order to fly to the cruiser with good grace, even though it seemed so frivolous in comparison to his usual demanding duties. Now, though, he feared he was about to find himself in the midst of an incident. “The trawler has been shadowing this fleet for the past five days,” Mizin explained. “First Captain Denisov wanted to make sure the Japanese didn’t fish in our two-hundred-mile economic-limit territory. That’s why we’ve been paralleling the whaling fleet, to remind them to remain in international waters. Yesterday afternoon this American trawler burst over the horizon and started breaking up the pods of humpback whales so the Japanese catcher ships couldn’t start harpooning them.” Alec recalled Captain Denisov, his commander, saying something about the shadowy trawler because Alec had had to plot several different courses as a result. He watched the tiny trawler, partly rusted out and resembling more of a scow than a seaworthy craft, dip up and down like a cork in the eight-foot waves. The Bering Sea was not kind to ships at any time of year, but in late April, the sea was fickle and moody, just like some of the women he’d known during his naval career. A slight smile hovered around Alec’s thinned mouth. Not that any woman wanted her husband at sea for six or nine months out of each year. His friend Misha Surin from the Politburo had long ago dubbed him with the nickname of Lone Wolf. “Lieutenant, is there a Coast Guard vessel nearby in case these ships collide?” Alec had been transferred from the Baltic Command in January, and his only experience with these kinds of incidents was hearsay. He did know, though, that it wasn’t wise for the trawler to brawl with a Japanese catcher fifteen times its size. “Nyet, Comrade Captain. I’m worried. Transmissions from the Japanese factory ship indicate the captain has made it clear he will not order his catcher ship to turn aside if the American comes across his bow again. He intends to have his catchers shoot the whales or else.” “I see.” The crewman handed Alec a pair of binoculars. When he found the trawler, Alec’s eyes widened. There, on the wet, slippery deck, was a woman in a bright orange survival suit. Her fiery-red hair was like a flaming banner about her shoulders as she raced toward the bow of the small ship. She was waving her arms madly at the approaching Japanese vessel. “Little fool,” he muttered. “Lieutenant, you said there was no sight of the Coast Guard?” Normally, if an American ship was in trouble, the U.S. Coast Guard would be called to effect rescue. However, the trawler was above the Aleutian Island chain and the closest station was on Kodiak Island, too far away. “That’s correct, Comrade Captain.” Mizin hesitated, and then said, “Er…what if they collide? The trawler is small and obviously in poor condition. That catcher ship may well cut it in half. Should I radio the Udaloy and alert First Captain Denisov of the situation?” Denisov was the senior officer aboard the Udaloy, and Alec normally never made command decisions involving anything but navigation-related items. He was, however, senior officer aboard the small helicopter. His hands tightened around the binoculars as he watched the gallant little trawler continue on a collision course with the Japanese whaler. “There have been many of these dramas played out between them,” Alec muttered to the pilot. “The Japanese have never rammed an American vessel.” “Comrade, you didn’t hear the earlier radio transmissions. The Japanese captain on the factory ship is furious. He’s behind on his quota and low on fuel. They’re hungry for a kill and won’t stand for any foolishness from these whale activists. I think they’ll ram the trawler if it’s foolish enough to get in the way.” Alec couldn’t tear his gaze from the woman who now stood in the bow of the trawler. Thick white spume from the sea shot upward, spraying her each time the trawler dipped into a trough. From this distance, he couldn’t make out her features, except that she was tall and had red hair that now waved across her shoulders like a crimson flag proclaiming war. “More like a red cape being waved at an angry bull,” he said to no one in particular. “Eh, Comrade Captain?” “Nothing, Lieutenant.” Alec noticed Mizin had brought the Helix into a slow, large circle above the two foreign ships. Apparently the lieutenant took the Japanese threat as real. Alec’s mind raced with potentials. The Soviets never interfered in such circumstances. But then, these fights had never bloodied anyone’s nose before, either. Did the red-haired Valkyrie on the bow realize how dangerous a situation she was in? “Lieutenant, I want you to remain on station and use the helo’s nose camera to photograph the confrontation.” Alec didn’t want to be dressed down by Captain Denisov if these two ships collided. Bad press was something General Secretary Gorbachev wanted to avoid at all costs. In the past, Alec knew the Soviets were sometimes blamed simply because they were in the vicinity where trouble erupted. They had been innocent, but the world press leapt at Mother Russia’s throat to make them look evil. It was his responsibility to stop incidents such as this from blackening their already tarnished image. “Yes, sir.” “And call the Udaloy. Apprise Captain Denisov of the situation. Ask what his orders are. If that Japanese catcher is stupid enough to make good its threat, that trawler may sink before anyone can get to it. If the captain wants us to become involved, ask him to alert the sickbay staff to prepare to receive injured crewmen.” That way, Alec knew his head was off the chopping block. The Soviet navy rarely helped anyone else in distress, but the laws of the open sea permitted offering aid when appropriate. Glasnost and perestroika were underway, and he saw them as an opportunity, a positive one, if Denisov would allow him to orchestrate it properly. For once, the Soviets might be the hero, not the villain. “Yes, sir.” Mizin continued to circle the Helix downward, and Alec was able to focus on the woman at the bow. Unconsciously, he held his breath. Her hair was long and thick, like a horse’s silky mane. But it was her face that made his pulse quicken in an uncharacteristic beat. She reminded him of a fox, her features clean and sharp. Her forehead was broad, with slightly arched eyebrows framing narrowed eyes. He wished momentarily that he were close enough to see their color. Was she the daughter of the sea or the air? Would her eyes be green or blue? He laughed at his romantic side, which he normally kept carefully closeted from the military world, though his curiosity ate away at his frivolous wondering. Perhaps it was her mouth, set with challenge, or that slender, oval face with that small chin jutting outward that intrigued him most. There was no apology in any line of her body, her fist raised over her head at the approaching catcher that dwarfed her. Little Fox, you are in great danger. That bear of a Japanese ship will crush you. A fox never takes on a bear. A bear always wins. Lowering the binoculars, Alec frowned. His straight black eyebrows drew together momentarily. Puzzled that a woman he didn’t even know could create such a powerful, unbidden response in him, Alec sat there digesting the discovery. “That Japanese whaler isn’t going to back off!” Mizin cried out, swinging the Helix around so that they could fully view the coming collision. “Any word from Captain Denisov, yet?” Alec snapped, getting out of the nylon-webbed seat and moving forward, hunkering between the pilot and copilot’s seats. “Nyet. They’d best hurry with an answer.” As he gripped the back of the two seats, Alec’s scowl deepened. “Lower, Comrade. I want that Japanese catcher to be fully aware of our presence. Perhaps he’ll back down if he realizes there is a witness to his premeditated murder.” Mizin deftly swung the Helix to the starboard and dropped it to three hundred feet. “I can fly up to his bridge windows.” Alec tendered a tense smile. Mizin would do exactly that—the pilot known for taking chances. “Nyet, Comrade. This will do.” Why hadn’t the captain of the Udaloy answered them? Didn’t Denisov realize time was limited? In another few minutes, the collision would occur. Placing one knee on the cold metal deck, Alec lodged his shoulders between the pilots’ seats to steady himself as he watched the unfolding drama. “Look at the activity aboard the Japanese ship,” Mizin said. But Alec had the binoculars trained exclusively on the red-haired woman. His heart picking up in a painful beat, Alec watched mesmerized as the powerful bow of the whaler sliced forward, within a quarter mile of the trawler. “Call the Udaloy again! Tell Captain Denisov that a collision is inevitable. I must have an answer now!” “Yes, sir!” Get out of there, Little Fox! You’ll be the first to be killed. Run! Alec’s intake of breath was unexpected when the red-haired woman suddenly turned and lifted her face in their direction. Her eyes were a vivid blue, the color of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. They were filled with the fire of challenge and anger. Alec’s mouth stretched into a disbelieving smile. “She’s not even afraid….” He hadn’t even realized he’d spoken aloud until it was too late. He was instantly sorry. His comment was completely unmilitary. The woman returned her attention to the catcher. Alec watched in shock as she climbed onto the farthest point on the bow, her arm around the short spike of wood to steady herself in the angry sea. What was she doing? Didn’t she realize what was going to happen? Anguish serrated his chest. The sensation was white-hot, galvanizing. Alec froze, the binoculars pressed hard against his eyes, every shortened breath he took, a slicing agony. The red-haired woman would be killed—instantly. * * * “ABBY! ABBY! THAT JAPANESE ship ain’t gonna turn!” Abby heard the hysteria in the voice of Captain John Stratman across the bullhorn. She turned, watching as the old salmon-fishing captain violently gestured for her to come back to the wheelhouse that was situated amidships the Argonaut. The wind was freezing and the spume slapping against the trawler’s bow flung upward and drenched her survival suit with the seawater, which instantly froze into a thin coating of ice on her clothing. Cupping her hand to her mouth she shouted, “No!” The trawler’s forward progress increased the windchill factor until her eyes watered with tears. “He won’t turn!” Stratman bellowed. “Get down from there! Get down and prepare for collision!” Whirling around, Abby clung to the spindly pole on the bow of the Argonaut. She shook her gloved fist at the catcher. “I won’t let you kill my whales! Turn back!” Her voice cracked with a sob as she watched the black bow raise up and then, in slow motion, come down. Each forward thrust brought them closer and closer. Abby saw the crew of the catcher in the forward turret where the huge, ugly harpoon sat ready for firing at the endangered humpback whales. Her whales. The humpback population had been estimated at one hundred fifty thousand at the beginning of the century. Now, less than fifteen thousand were still alive. This pod wasn’t going to join those who had already died, not if Abby could help it. She screamed at the approaching vessel. “You won’t kill them! You won’t!” Twisting around, Abby stared at the fleeing pod of whales. The catcher was almost within firing range. The Japanese had never rammed a SOWF vessel or inflatable Zodiac. Never! Captain Stratman was a cautious man, and to this she attributed his terror. The Japanese would never risk an international incident or the bad press resulting in running down a puny trawler. Or would they? It was a David-and-Goliath situation. Her attention had been snagged by another sound other than the constant roar of the ocean, the laboring chug of the Argonaut’s pressed engines and the howling wind. She had never seen such an odd-looking helicopter in all her life. It was dark green, with a red star painted on the fuselage. That was right: Captain Stratman had said he’d picked up Soviet ship-to-ship talk this morning. At dawn, she’d seen the ghostly group of what Stratman said were Soviet destroyers shadowing the Japanese whaling fleet. The helicopter had no weapons visible, so Abby tore her gaze from it and centered her attention on the whaler bearing directly down on them. The Japanese were in international waters and had as much right to be there as the Soviets, and right now were her main concern. For five days she’d dogged the heels of the whaling fleet, disrupting their bid to kill the pods of humpback whales that came north at this time of year with their newly born calves from the Revillagigedo Islands near Baja, Mexico or from Maui. The Japanese didn’t care whether their steel harpoons punctured the side of a nursing cow, struck a calf or any other member of the family. The Argonaut crew consisted of only four people, one a SOWF photographer who was taking photos of the event, and the other, the first mate to Stratman. Abby saw both men running toward the bridge, struggling into their life vests. She’d left hers on the bridge as the survival suit was too bulky anyway. With a life vest over it, she’d barely be able to turn or do much of anything. The brackish waves were growing higher. She clung to her perch on the bow and continued to wave her fist up at the whaler. The gesture was a language anyone could interpret, no matter what country they came from. Spray slammed up against the Argonaut, drenching Abby. The water was chilling, like a slap in the face. Her long, naturally curly hair was stiff with salt and frozen to her suit. Wiping her face, she blinked. It was then she realized with awful clarity that the catcher wasn’t going to turn aside as it had previously. Abby’s grip tightened around the pole. She heard Stratman’s cry of warning torn away by the wind as he jerked the wheel of the Argonaut to starboard. The trawler lurched, hung up on a wave. Her eyes widened enormously as she watched the tall, knifelike bow of the catcher lift upward. Mouth dropping open, Abby suddenly realized that when it came down, it would come down on the trawler. She anchored to the spot, stunned with the realization that she was about to be killed. She crouched, clinging to the pole, turning away as the catcher bow came down upon them. No! Oh, God, no! * * * “NO!” ALEC BLURTED. His cry had been utterly spontaneous, but he couldn’t help himself. He watched the deadly ballet of the two ships as they slid downward into the same trough of water and collided. At the last second, the trawler had heaved starboard to try to soften the impact of the collision. A cry clawed up Alec’s constricted throat and stuck there as he watched the catcher’s bow strike the port side of the Argonaut in a grazing motion. The violent impact tossed the woman off the bow and high into the air. Alec dropped the binoculars as he rose, tense and disbelieving, his gaze riveted on the woman. She had struck the water a good fifty feet away, her red hair like a flame against the gray-green sea. “Rescue her!” Alec snapped to Mizin. “Get down there and get her!” “But, Comrade Captain,” Mizin began helplessly, “Captain Denisov hasn’t given us permission to—” Whirling around in the cramped confines of the Helix, Alec growled, “I’m giving the order, Lieutenant!” His decision could easily mean an international incident. Alec knew that no one, not even his friend Misha Surin, from the public-affairs office in the Politburo, could save him from being sent to a Siberian labor camp for making this decision solely on his own. Suddenly, he didn’t care. He’d been playing it safe and cautious all his life. This woman, who had displayed such incredible courage, deserved better than a death in the icy sea. She had no life vest, and that survival suit she wore could drag her down into the sea in minutes. If she didn’t drown, she would die of hypothermia within thirty minutes. Zotov quickly slid the door open, and a cold blast of Arctic air filled the confines of the helo. Alec stood tensely at the door as Zotov expertly guided Mizin verbally toward the floundering woman. The pilot dropped the Helix fast, and Alec clung to the air-frame door, his feet spread apart for maximum balance. The wind from the double rotor blades was whipping up the grasping, hungry fingers of the sea all around her. Alec leaned out the fuselage door, the cold air numbing his features. His eyes widened as he saw blood covering part of the woman’s face as she struggled to keep her head above water. “Quickly!” he snapped at Zotov. “Get the collar lowered quickly!” The bright orange collar was placed on a hoist hook outside the door and lowered. It swung and twirled wildly beneath the Helix, caught in the air turbulence created by the aircraft. Alec leaned out, the blasts from the rotors pummeling his body like punches from a boxing opponent. Abby couldn’t scream, she couldn’t even cry out; sea water funneled up her nostrils and then burned down the back of her throat and into her vulnerable lungs. Though she was dazed, the freezing water kept her semiconscious. Awkwardly, she flailed around, the drenched survival suit pulling her downward, always downward. Barely aware that the Soviet helicopter hovered nearby, Abby struggled weakly. The water was stealing what little heat was left in her body. Her flesh was numb; she felt nothing. Die…I’m going to die, she thought disjointedly. It was so hard to push upward, to keep her head above the water. The stout leather boots she wore were becoming heavier by the second, constantly tugging at her from below like hands pulling her down into the icy depths. A huge wave caught her and she cried out. Too late! Water streamed into her open mouth and she went under. Every movement stole more of her eroding strength, but Abby fought back. She broke through to the surface, gagging, and weakly tried to focus on the helicopter now hovering thirty feet above her. Blinking the salt water from her eyes, she saw two men leaning out, lowering something she didn’t recognize. The collar landed ten feet away from her and floated on the water. She looked up to see one man, leaning out of the helo at a dangerous angle and gesturing for her to swim toward the object. Coughing violently, Abby tried, but her arms were leaden. The suit felt like encasing concrete. And the sea was stealing the last of her body heat until no matter what her barely functioning brain screamed at her, the signals just didn’t reach her muscles. “She’s going to go down!” Zotov screamed at Alec. “She’s too weak to swim to the collar!” With a curse, Alec watched the woman’s waxen features. When her eyes rolled back in her head, he knew she’d lost consciousness. He tore off his helmet, then his parka. There was no time to unlace his heavy black leather boots. Turning to Zotov, he screamed at him above the roar of the helo, “I’m going to jump. I’ll get her to the collar. You lift us both up!” Zotov nodded jerkily, his eyes huge. It was a thirty-foot drop into the ocean. Alec’s alarm increased as he saw the woman slide beneath the surface for the last time. Taking a deep breath, he leapt from the helo. Abby’s last coherent thought before she surrendered to her watery grave was of the man tearing the clothes from his body. When he removed the helmet, she could clearly see his taut features: a lean, intense face with dark brown eyes that seemed to burn with some undefinable inner light, hair cut military short and the color of the black walnuts that each autumn fell from the trees around her apartment in Alexandra, Virginia. Just the anxiety, the care building in his eyes, made her try one last time when she realized he was stripping off unnecessary clothing to jump out the door to save her. With the last of her strength, she lifted her hand above her head as the sea jerked her downward. Her icy glove stretched upward in a silent plea of help. It was the last thing she remembered. Alec landed in the Bering Sea with a huge splash. The icy water tore the breath from him as he shot back up to the surface. Shaking his head in a violent motion to blink away the seawater from his eyes, Alec saw her hand just as it slid beneath the surface. With floundering strokes he reached her, but she was already beneath the water. Gulping in a huge breath of air, he jackknifed into a dive, lunging beneath the surface. There! He saw her red hair floating around her waxen features like living red coral. Kicking hard, he propelled himself downward, his hand outstretched, but the cold was stealing his strength. If only…if only… There! Alec grabbed the shoulder of her survival suit. Instantly, he kicked back toward the surface. To his surprise and terror, the survival suit was much heavier than he’d realized. It took every last vestige of his superb physical condition to get the woman back to the surface. Gasping for air, he placed one arm around her to keep her head up and out of the water. Swimming hard for the collar that dangled nearby, Alec sobbed for breath. No wonder she’d gone down so quickly. The survival suit felt like an anchor. As hard as Alec kicked, he realized with a sinking feeling that his boots were retarding them from reaching the collar. Anxiously, he glanced at the woman. She wasn’t breathing. He had only minutes to revive her or she’d have permanent brain damage. If he could revive her at all. She was suffering from hypothermia and a small cut on her forehead. The collar, once retrieved, was easy to bring around himself and the woman. Alec placed both his arms under her, locking his hands into a fist just below her breasts. He heard the winch begin and instantly felt the collar tighten around them. Hurry! Hurry! The weight from the deadly survival suit was ponderous. The winch was pulling them up, up, until finally, like two dripping towels being rescued from the grasping, hungry sea, they slowly came out of the water. Alec was nearly beside himself at the slowness of the winch recovery. Zotov helped him maneuver the woman into the helo and laid her down on the metal surface that was glazed over with ice. Alec staggered into the aircraft on his hands and knees, gasping and shaking from the cold. “Shut the door!” he ordered Zotov as soon as he shrugged out of the collar. The crewman shut and locked it. Alec crawled to the woman’s side and rolled her onto her belly. Like all officers in the Soviet navy, he’d been taught CPR and advanced first-aid life-saving techniques. Straddling her, he placed his hands low on her torso and, leaning forward, forced out the water he knew was in her lungs. Zotov hovered nearby. Without a helmet on, Alec was without communications ability with his pilot. “Get to the Udaloy!” Alec yelled above the roar, hoping Zotov would understand him. The crewman jerked a thumbs-up that he understood the order and relayed the command to the pilot. Instantly, the Helix banked right, gained altitude, the engines revving up to maximum pitch. A half an hour. They had half an hour before Alec could get the woman any kind of medical help. He kept pushing huge amounts of water out of her lungs. Alec was trembling badly, the dark blue one piece suit stuck to his body, icy and stiff. Zotov helped him turn her over on her back. It was then that Alec got the first good look at her. Her flesh was a bluish gray, indicating she had stopped breathing. With trembling hands, he tore at the zipper of the survival suit. He had to get it off her! It would only impair her chances of surviving, now an icy coffin helping to induce her body into worse hypothermia. Zotov understood. Together, they wrestled with the bulky, wet material, stripping her out of it. Zotov retrieved the thermal recovery capsule and placed her in it. Why was he doing this? Alec thought. Why was he risking his entire career—his life—for her? He tipped her head back, that mass of red hair spread like a limp halo about her. He saw copper-colored freckles across her cheeks and realized in anguish just how beautifully sculpted her lips really were. Trying to get a pulse at her throat and finding none, Alec knew he must do CPR if he was to even have a chance of saving her. Even as the helo returned to the Udaloy, Alec continued to perform CPR. He tirelessly pumped on her chest to try and get her heart started, and blew his breath into her. He lost track of time, as he always did in an emergency. She became his sole focus, his entire reason for being. As he fitted his mouth to her slack lips, he envisioned not only his breath entering her, but his will for her to live flowing into her slender body at the same time. Come on, fight back! Do you hear me? Fight back! Where is the fire that shows in your hair? Show it to me! Show it! Several minutes before Mizin landed the Helix on the aft end of the destroyer, Alec felt a pulse. With a cry of elation, he watched her fine, thin nostrils quiver. He placed his hand on her chest, feeling a trembling, shallow inhalation on her part. He grinned triumphantly up at Zotov, who smiled back. Beneath the survival suit, the woman had worn a heavy pair of white cotton longjohns. They, too, were soaked, but Alec left them on as he and Zotov wrapped her in the thermal capsule once again. As they landed and the deck crew placed the tie-down chains on the four wheels to stop the Helix from being tossed overboard into the sea, Alec quickly made sure the thermal unit fit snugly around the woman. Her flesh was frighteningly cold, and he knew she would have to be treated immediately for hypothermia. If she wasn’t warmed up, her heart would stop beating again. Zotov jerked the door open. To Alec’s relief, two medical corpsmen waited with a stretcher just outside the aircraft. The rotors were slowing, the engine turned off. Alec ignored the curious looks of the sailors and those officers who gathered at a safe distance from the helicopter. With Zotov’s help, he transferred the woman to the stretcher and issued orders to have her taken immediately to the dispensary. He followed close behind, soaked to the skin and freezing as never before. Entering the destroyer from a nearby hatch, Alec was on the heels of the corpsmen. They hurried, lifting their feet high above each hatchway, the passage narrow and confined. What had he done? The ship’s captain, Denisov, had never given permission to affect a rescue, much less bring the American woman on board. As cold as Alec was physically, the pit of his stomach tightened considerably—but it was with fear. Fear for his own career for making a decision of this magnitude on his own, without proper authority. Chapter Two ALEC REFUSED TO leave the red-haired woman, choosing instead to wait in Dr. Antoli Ryback’s office until she was stabilized. She would have to be stripped out of her wet longjohns, dressed in a cotton gown and then placed back in the thermal capsule in order to slowly elevate her body temperature. A half an hour later, Ryback ordered Alec into the dispensary. The lean physician stood at the woman’s bedside, a scowl on his narrow features as Alec approached. “Tell me what happened to her out there,” he demanded as he placed an IV into her right arm. In a few succinct sentences, Alec told him. He couldn’t tear his gaze from the woman’s slack features. She wasn’t beautiful, but rather, intriguing looking. Alec forced himself to remain unaffected so that Ryback wouldn’t realize his personal interest in her. “You’d best go see Captain Denisov now. I’m sure he’ll want the full story on your heroic rescue effort,” Ryback said wryly. “This sounds like a golden opportunity, Comrade.” “Oh?” “Of course. The Soviets did a good turn for the Americans. You rescued one of their people.” He placed the stethoscope against her gowned chest, listening to the woman’s lungs, a satisfied expression on his face. “She’s going to be fine, so don’t look so concerned, my friend. Go, change uniforms and then speak to our captain. I’m sure she’ll regain consciousness by the time you return to check on her.” Faintly embarrassed by Ryback’s perceptiveness, Alec nodded. As he turned away, he told himself that Ryback was a doctor, therefore more closely attuned to the pulse beat of human actions and reactions. Had his concerns for the woman really been that apparent? As he stepped into the narrow passageway, Alec absently rubbed his chest. Would he return in time to see her awaken? What was her name? Where did she come from? What had possessed her to take on that Japanese catcher? Her courage stunned him. They were but a few of the many questions that plagued Alec as he headed down the passageway deep in thought. * * * ABBY JERKED AWAKE. Where was she? Where? The room where she was laying was dark except for a red light on the bulkhead, throwing a crimson wash across the small, neatly kept space. Everything was made of metal, except for the curtain beside her bed. Coughing violently, she pressed her fingers to her raw throat. It was then that she became aware that someone was sitting near her bedside. Abby’s eyes widened enormously and her heart pounded unevenly. A man in an unfamiliar uniform was sitting quietly observing her. His eyes held exhaustion and interest in them as he regarded her with a slight, tentative smile. He reached out and turned on a small lamp beside the bed. “Dr. Abby Fielding?” She blinked and struggled into a sitting position, feeling dizzy. “Y-Yes?” “I’m Second Captain Aleksandr Rostov. I want to welcome you aboard the Udaloy, a Soviet naval destroyer. Please don’t look so frightened. You are our guest. A friend.” Abby stared at him, his words slowly sinking into her spongy mind. “You…” she whispered, her voice choked with emotion, “…you rescued me out there. My God, I thought I was going to die.” Alec slowly rose, not wanting to cause more fear than what was presently mirrored in her lovely blue eyes. “You came very close to death, Doctor.” He smiled warmly, trying to disarm her wariness. Her hair lay in wild abandon around her shoulders. She needed to shower to wash the stiff salt brine out of those copper-colored tresses. Placing his hands against the steel tubing around her bed, he added, “Your defiance, your fight, saved you from drowning.” Suddenly emotional because his voice was gentle with understanding, Abby clung to his dark brown gaze. “My defiance got me into a collision with that Japanese catcher. I thought it would turn aside like it had in previous days, but it didn’t.” She touched her throat, the raw feeling uncomfortable. “You saved my life. I was going down for the count.” Quickly wiping away tears at the corners of her eyes, she asked, “What about the Argonaut crew, Captain? Are they okay?” “We’ve got the Argonaut in tow behind us. Captain Stratman and the two crew members are staying on board with a dewatering pump we’ve loaned them. The trawler sustained some hull damage and with our help, they have the leak under control. They’re fine. You were the only one who was injured.” When he saw her alarm turn to relief, he added, “We’re taking you to your Coast Guard base in the Kodiak Islands for repairs. Once we reach the U.S. twelve-mile limit, a Coast Guard cutter will take tow of your trawler. At that time, we’ll transfer you to the cutter, too.” “Good….” Abby whispered. “And my whales? That pod of humpback whales? Did they get away?” “There is a happy ending for everyone except the Japanese whaling fleet, who came up with no catch. Your whales are safe.” Relief cascaded through Abby. When she opened her eyes, she melted beneath his interested inspection of her. “I’m on board a Soviet ship?” “Yes. As our guest,” Alec stressed. Suddenly nervous in Alec’s presence, Abby nodded. “Thank you so much.” She gripped his hand that was resting on the tubing. It was a strong, powerful hand belonging to a man who obviously didn’t sit behind a desk any more than necessary. There was an incredible sense of strength about the officer, and yet he was treating her as if she were a frightened child, with gentleness and understanding. Alec didn’t move, the coolness of Abby’s fingertips brushing the back of his hand. Her touch had been fleeting. Pulverizing. His heartbeat soared. “Are all Americans like you?” he asked as she removed her hand. “Like what? Willing to risk their lives for whales?” His mouth curved into a grin. “Perhaps that also. No, you reached out and touched me. Is that an American thing to do?” With a little laugh, Abby said, “I’m afraid so.” She hesitated. “I should amend that answer. Some of us don’t let decorum stand in our way of reaching out and touching a person. Although,” she said wryly, “it’s more of a western custom than an eastern one.” Cocking his head, Alec absorbed her breathy laughter. Her blue eyes no longer looked dazed. Instead, he discovered gold highlights of amusement in them. “I’ve never met an American before. You must first forgive me for the endless questions I will ask you. I’m the navigation officer on board, but I studied communications, so my curiosity comes from a personal as well as professional level.” Abby gasped. “You’re a public-relations officer?” He was shocked by how easily she showed emotion, but oddly, Alec enjoyed the unexpected discovery. “Not exactly.” “Still, you have the background. Then you can help me!” For the first time in a long time, Alec laughed—fully and deeply. “I doubt many could refuse you, Dr. Fielding.” “Please call me Abby. I can’t stand formality.” “I’ve already gotten that impression. Then you may call me Alec, if you choose.” He had a wonderful name, Abby thought. She liked the dancing highlights in his eyes and his ability to parry her lightning-quick exchanges. “I’d better slow down,” she said more to herself than him. “It’s my red hair. It’s always getting me into trouble.” Touching her cheeks, she smiled up at him. “I’d better finish my explanation about Americans being so open and friendly. I’ve found that people born in the western part of the country are far more friendly and trusting than those born in the east. I was born in La Jolla, California, and where I was raised, it was the thing to do.” “I see. So, reaching out and touching me was a normal thing to do, even though I’m a stranger?” She made a face. “Well…not every stranger. You have a trusting face. Besides, you saved my life. That should merit a hug of gratitude, too.” For an instant, Alec wanted to suggest something far more intimate. The idea shocked even him, for he had been raised in a very strict, disciplined environment. “I think I like these western people from America,” he teased. “Before we go further, how do you feel? Are you hungry?” Excited about Alec and his friendliness, Abby had forgotten about her own condition. She stopped, took internal stock of herself, and then said, “I’m starving, and I feel fine, except for a sore throat.” “You swallowed a lot of seawater.” She had a lovely, long neck, and he ached to reach out and lightly trail his fingers along its length. Abby said nothing as the experience and the fear came back to her. “I—I almost died.” “Yes,” Alec whispered. “A terrible loss if that had happened.” Struck by the emotion in his husky voice, Abby studied his closed, unreadable face. Alec couldn’t disguise the feeling in his voice, however, and she allowed his comment to pass without reaction. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Is there any water around? I’m dying of thirst.” “Of course.” Alec busied himself getting her a glass of water from the examination room next door. She had suddenly paled when she realized she had almost died. Dr. Ryback had asked Alec to remain with Abby, the physician hadn’t wanted her to wake up alone in a strange place. Alec had willingly volunteered and had gotten the choice assignment mainly because he was one of the few men on board who spoke fluent English. Picking up the phone attached to the bulkhead of the examination room, he called mess. Letting the chief steward know that he wasn’t going to dine with the other officers as usual, he then ordered two trays of food to be brought to the dispensary. He returned to Abby’s bedside and handed her the large glass of water. She drank the entire contents. Alec motioned to a small room. “There is a shower in there. I have food being prepared and brought to us. Perhaps you would like to clean up before you eat?” Abby leapt at his idea. “Yes, I’d love to, thank you.” She wrinkled her nose as she looked down at the coarse white gown she wore. “I smell awful!” Unable to stop the smile, Alec released the tubing from one side of the bed. The IV had been taken out previously, so she was fully mobile once again. “I didn’t notice that the gown detracted from you,” he told her wryly. “Beauty transcends such things.” Heat stung Abby’s cheeks. She liked the officer’s dry sense of humor. “Our American men could learn something from you,” she said, placing her legs across the bed, the deck cool beneath her bare feet. It was time to leave, but Alec hesitated at the hatch. “You must tell me more of what that means while we eat our dinner later. I’ll be in Dr. Ryback’s office, waiting for you. Captain Stratman had your luggage brought over.” He pointed to it sitting in the corner next to her bed. “Once you’ve showered and dressed, come join me.” Abby nodded and watched as the officer pulled the hatch partially closed to give her privacy. For a moment, she sat on the bed, just getting used to the ship’s rolling movement. The deck tilted slightly one way, and then the other. The Argonaut, because of its small size, had been like a small cork on the Bering Sea, so the destroyer was infinitely more stable in comparison. Still, the dizziness came and went, and she didn’t want to risk further injury by being too spontaneous about sliding off the bed too soon. An hour later, she appeared at the entrance to Dr. Ryback’s office. Alec immediately stood up from behind the desk, which, like all the furniture, was bolted to the deck so it couldn’t be tossed around. When she stepped hesitantly across the hatch, Alec’s eyes widened in appreciation. Although Abby’s hair was still damp, it hung in shining copper curls about her shoulders. She wore a pair of decidedly old blue jeans that lovingly outlined her long legs. The sweatshirt had the endangered minke whale emblazoned on it. “Come,” Alec invited, “sit down. Our steward just brought us these dinner trays.” Abby chose a metal chair near the desk. “I’m so starved I could eat sushi!” Alec brought the tray over to her. Abby’s long fingers curved delicately around the edges of the tray. There was little about her, Alec decided, that wasn’t beautiful or graceful. “Sushi? What is that?” He went back to his seat behind the desk and took the cover off his tray. “Raw fish. Everyone eats it over in Japan, and it’s all the rage in the States now.” Abby stared down at the tray. There were two thick, greasy lengths of sausage, a slice of black bread, some boiled cabbage and a thin, watery soup with more cabbage floating in it. Alec watched Abby’s mobile features. Her fine, thin eyebrows drew into a worried line as she studied the contents on her tray. “And you prefer raw food to cooked food?” he wondered aloud. Was that why she was looking disappointed? “Uhhh…no, as a matter of fact, I can’t stand sushi. My friend Susan Stone, who lives across the hall from me with her daughter, loves it. We went to her boss’s home a month ago for a dinner party.” Abby lifted her head and managed a weak smile. “I didn’t realize it was a sushi party, and neither did Susan.” “You couldn’t eat it?” She shivered. “Ugh! No way.” Alec waited for her to take the first bite. That was proper dinner etiquette, to allow the lady to begin eating first. He was starving, so he silently wished that Abby would begin eating her meal. However, he was too polite, too much of a gentleman, to suggest such a thing to her. “And so, did you starve that night?” With a roll of her eyes, Abby laughed. “I grabbed Susan and we sneaked into the kitchen. The caterer made me a peanut butter sandwich instead. Susan’s a wonderful friend,” Abby said with feeling. “She puts up with me and my many eccentricities.” Patience was something Alec had by heritage. He watched as Abby’s hands moved gracefully as she talked. She was never still. “Then,” he said tactfully, “this meal should appeal to you. Nothing is raw or uncooked.” With more pride, he added, “The food you are about to eat is served only to the officers on board. Meat is a very rare commodity for us, and the steward has given you a double portion. Please, eat.” Distressed, Abby took her spoon and tried the thin soup. It was bland, with no hint of seasoning, just a slight taste of cabbage flavor to the broth. She saw the officer watching her, almost hawklike. “It’s good. Really good,” she lied. Unsure, Alec picked up his silverware and began to eat methodically. “While you were showering, I talked to First Captain Denisov, the commander of our destroyer. The seas are calming down, and he anticipates we’ll reach Kodiak in five days.” “Good,” Abby said, finishing off the small bowl of soup. She took her fork and moved it through the heaping strands of cut and boiled cabbage. It was dripping in grease, and she hesitated. “Is there something wrong with the food?” Abby chewed on her lower lip and chanced a look at the officer. “I—well, it’s awfully greasy. You know—cholesterol.” “I beg your pardon?” She laid the limp cabbage back on the tray and put the fork aside. “In America, half the deaths each year are due to heart attacks because we eat too much meat, and too many other foods with high cholesterol in them. The fat clogs your arteries and gives you heart problems.” She gave a delicate shrug and her voice became apologetic. “I’m sorry, I just can’t eat the cabbage or sausage, Alec. It’s too greasy. And besides that, I’m a strict vegetarian.” Frowning, he tried to table his hurt over her decision not to eat the costly and rare meat. “A vegetarian?” “Yes. I don’t eat any kind of meat, including seafood. I eat lots of other things, though,” Abby said quickly, seeing that his features mirrored injury. “Rice, bread, any kind of fruits, vegetables, lots of salads, nuts and things like that.” She watched as he grew more distressed. “I’m sorry. I imagine it’s tough to keep lots of fresh fruits and vegetables on board. You’ve done your best to feed me. It’s my problem.” “No, you need to eat something.” “The soup and bread are fine. Really.” With a slight smile, Abby added, “Did you know half the people in my country are overweight?” Alec motioned to her. “That may be so, but you’re too thin.” He was confused by her explanation, thinking Americans had strange ideas about food and health customs. Abby looked down at herself. “I know. Susan gets on me about that all the time. But I’m so busy with SOWF matters that I’m constantly traveling. And when I travel, I don’t eat much.” Getting up, Alec brought his bowl of soup over to her, plus a thick slice of black bread. “I won’t be responsible for you losing any more weight, then. Here, eat these. The bread is rich and nutritious. I’ll order more if you like.” Touched, Abby took his offering without protest. Alec could have rightfully acted rebuffed by her eccentric eating habits, but he didn’t. She watched as he ordered her another large bowl of soup and four more slices of the black bread. Not wanting to appear more ungrateful, she began to eat in earnest, even though the soup was little more than water. If Alec considered the food he ate as an officer good, what on earth did the crew eat? After the meal, Abby was pleasantly full. The trays were taken away by a teenage steward with sandy hair. He tried to glance at her inconspicuously, without appearing rude about his curiosity. When he left, Alec grinned. “You know you are a celebrity on the ship, don’t you?” “No.” “There are no women on board, and so when the crew found out we had rescued a red-haired American woman, the rumors began to fly. This young steward will go back to his quarters after his watch and tell everyone how he actually saw you, that you aren’t a rumor at all, but very much alive and beautiful.” “I feel very pampered and cared for, Alec. Thanks to you.” He smiled and barely tipped his head in her direction. “So, let me show you to your quarters. Captain Stratman has asked that when you feel like it, he’d like to talk to you on the radio. I can take you up to the bridge after we deliver your luggage to your quarters.” With food in her stomach, Abby felt her returning strength. “I’d like that.” By the time they arrived on the bridge, dusk had fallen across the Bering Sea. Abby felt the intense stares of the crew, who tried to look at her discreetly. In America, they’d gape. First Captain Denisov was a barrellike man, his hair steel gray just like his eyes. His skin was ruddy, and his smile genuinely filled with welcome. “Rostov, I see you’ve brought our guest to me.” He stretched out his hand in Abby’s direction. “Glad to see you alive and well, Dr. Fielding.” Denisov’s handshake was powerful and Abby quickly released his grip. She gave the skipper her thanks not only for the rescue, but for the care afterward. “It’s nothing.” Denisov gestured to the rear of the bridge. “Take a look. There is the Argonaut, who is in surprisingly good shape after the collision.” Abby was glad that Alec remained at her side. The destroyer had several spotlights focused on the Argonaut from its array of radar, radio antennas and other equipment positioned above the bridge. The small trawler was being expertly towed from the stern of the destroyer. Denisov ordered the radioman to make contact with Captain Stratman for her. Alec led Abby to the console so that she could talk to the American skipper. He showed her how to operate the microphone and then handed it to her. “Abby!” Stratman boomed over the radio, “Are you all right, girl?” She laughed and held the microphone close to her lips while looking out the thick window toward the Argonaut. “I’m fine, John. Just fine.” “Thank all the saints. Girl, I thought for sure you were goin’ down for the count.” Abby glanced up at Alec, who stood relaxed and yet alert nearby. “I had a very brave navigation officer by the name of Second Captain Alec Rostov save my life, John.” “Yeah, I didn’t see your rescue. I had my hands full just getting the Argonaut out of the way of that Japanese catcher. Hey! Things are cookin’, gal.” “Oh?” “Yeah. Did you know that the Soviet helicopter that rescued you photographed the whole event? And Brad got it on video, too. Captain Denisov has agreed to lend us a copy of their film and a copy of a follow-up article that’s being prepared by a reporter from Izvestia. How about that? Brad is already on the radio with Anchorage about what happened. Some SOWF representative, a Tony Cummings, is flying out to Kodiak to pick up the film and article and take them back to Anchorage for release to the press. He’s going to take Brad’s video of the collision, too. Tony’s hoping that the national news networks will carry the story. Ain’t that great? We might get national airtime!” “Oh, John, that’s wonderful! Wonderful!” Abby glanced up at Alec. His features were shadowed and thoughtful, his eyes never leaving her face. It sent her heart pounding suddenly in her chest. Distracted, Abby asked, “John, what are you doing about the Japanese ship? Have you filed a protest yet? Did they stop trying to follow the pods of humpback whales?” “Whoa! One question at a time. No, girl, I’m afraid they haven’t stopped hunting the whales. Yes, I’ve filed a protest, but you know how that goes. The U.S. hasn’t been enforcing the Pelly and Magnuson Amendments that’re supposed to slap the hands of these countries illegally hunting the endangered whales. So you know my protest will fall on deaf ears in Washington. Listen, don’t worry about all these details. You nearly died out there this morning. Just get well. I’ve already got repairs underway here. We’ll patch up the Argonaut in Kodiak and be ready to come back out here and give ’em hell again.” Her fingers tightened painfully around the microphone. “John, we’ve got to stop them! I don’t care what the cost.” “The cost was almost your life today, Abby,” he warned seriously. “Next time, we might not be so lucky.” “Next time, we’ll do the same thing,” Abby whispered, her voice vibrating with anger. “Those whales have no way to protect themselves from a harpoon. We’re all that stands between them and death. No, John, we’ll be going back out as soon as repairs are made to your ship.” “Okay, girl, you always did get your way when you wanted it.” He laughed. “But stand by for action. If Tony can get us national news coverage, it ought to really turn up the heat internationally on the Japanese, Icelandic and Norwegian whalers who are defying the ban on endangered whales. Good work, girl. Gotta sign off for now. I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning, eh?” “Okay, John. Thanks…thanks for everything. It took a lot of courage to stare down the mouth of that catcher this morning.” With a chuckle, Stratman said, “Now I know how Jonah felt just before the whale swallowed him,” then he signed off. Abby handed the microphone back to Alec and thanked him. Denisov came over. “I think you should know, Dr. Fielding, that we’ve been communicating with your U.S. Coast Guard stationed at Kodiak.” He smiled slightly at Alec and continued. “Apparently your brave encounter with the Japanese whaler is making waves of its own with the press from around the world. The Coast Guard informed us just before you came up to the bridge that they are giving us permission to enter Kodiak with the Argonaut. But there is one more surprise. The international press awaits both of you in Anchorage.” Abby glanced up at Alec, who was scowling. “What does that mean, Captain Denisov?” she asked. “A very large press conference is being prepared for you once we anchor in Kodiak.” The stern planes of Denisov’s face became more serious. “Captain Rostov, you have just been ordered by fleet headquarters to act as liaison officer to Dr. Fielding for the coming two weeks. When we arrive in Kodiak, both of you will be picked up by Coast Guard helicopter and flown directly to the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage for the press conference. The video and the film will be shown, and both of you will answer the press’s questions.” Stunned by the turn of events, Alec cleared his throat. “Sir, I’m not really a public-affairs officer—” “Moscow has faith in your ability to tell the story as it happened,” Denisov replied. “When you reach Anchorage, you are to escort Dr. Fielding to the various press and television stations. A Coast Guard officer will also be your liaison. Congratulations. Glasnost at its finest will be seen in action by the entire world.” Alec nodded, stunned by the news. “Thank you, Captain.” He saw Abby smile, her eyes shining with such life that the assignment seemed insignificant compared to the fact he’d be with her for two weeks. The thought was tantalizing. Provocative. “Wonderful!” Abby added, giving both men a winning smile. “It will give me a chance to show you a little of America, Alec.” Denisov’s eyebrows rose, no doubt over Abby’s informalities. Hiding his nervousness, Alec smiled. “With glasnost a priority, Dr. Fielding, I’ll be happy as a representative of the U.S.S.R. naval service to be shown your country and way of life.” “Brother, are you in for a treat,” Abby teased warmly. Alec could see dark shadows beginning to form beneath Abby’s glorious blue eyes. He gently cupped her elbow. “I think, Doctor, that you are getting very tired. Let me take you to your quarters. Tomorrow will be a busy day, I’m sure.” His touch was light but firm. Abby was surprised that he could tell she was getting tired. The trauma from nearly drowning this morning had caught up with her. She told Captain Denisov goodbye, then followed Alec off the bridge and onto one of the lower decks of the destroyer. “Are you always a mind reader?” she asked as they walked single file down a narrow passageway deep in the heart of the rolling ship. “I think,” Alec told her seriously, stopping at a hatchway and opening it for her, “that any good officer tries to stay in touch with his crew’s moods and needs. It is his duty.” He gazed down at her in the shadowy light, her red hair curlier now since it had dried. He had a wild, unexpected urge to thrust his fingers through that mass and explore its silken texture. “I merely applied my powers of observation.” Abby stepped across the hatch and into her very small quarters. Two of the officers had given over to her their cramped living area, which consisted of two thin bunks, one above the other. “I think, Captain Rostov, that there’s much more to you than what you show the rest of the world.” His lips lifted slightly. “You have the same perceptiveness as I do, Abby.” “Does it bother you?” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “If you were another officer on board the ship, it might. But you’re a woman and an American, so I have little to fear about what you might see in me.” Abby stood there for a long moment, digesting the seriousness of his comment to her, his sable-colored eyes smoldering with an intensity that made her deliciously aware that she was a woman. “We’ll have to talk more,” she whispered. “Good night, Alec. And again, thanks for everything.” Impulsively, she threw her arms around his neck and gave him a quick hug. Releasing him, she stepped back and smiled shyly. “That was my western upbringing coming out.” His body tingled where she had lightly pressed herself against him. Shocked by her impulsiveness, Alec nodded and came to attention. “It was my pleasure, Abby,” he said with a slight bow. “I think I’m beginning to like your western customs more and more.” Chapter Three “WHAT DO YOU think of all this excitement and press interest that’s building, Rostov?” Dr. Ryback asked Alec at mess the next morning. Two stewards, dressed in white jackets and slacks, served the ten officers in the small rectangular room. Alec was careful with his words. “I feel it’s a useful opportunity for us to expand awareness of glasnost to the world, Doctor.” Every ship had its KGB agents, the eyes and ears of the clandestine spy organization. Alec had no desire to be quoted saying the wrong thing. Denisov chuckled, hungrily digging into a mound of powdered scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. “You must have very good connections in Moscow, Rostov. I envy you the chance to see what America is really like.” “We’ll soon find out if they are gangsters and cowboys,” Alec agreed. The perception of Americans was just that and little more. He wasn’t about to admit the intensity of his curiosity about going ashore with Abby and learning about her way of life. Over the years, in order to maintain his facility with English, he read any book on America whenever possible. Alec had done some checking last night on the bridge when it was his turn for watch. The messages from Moscow had been signed by Misha Surin, his friend at the Kremlin, and countersigned by the admiral of the Soviet pacific fleet. Obviously, the hierarchy in Moscow thought his rescue of Abby was something to be paraded in front of the world press. Chuckling, Denisov waved his fork in Alec’s direction. “Make us all proud, Rostov. Who knows? If you do well with the American press, we may all receive a glasnost medal for helping continue to warm the relations between our two countries. Not a bad reward, eh?” One of the stewards opened the hatch entrance from the passageway and Abby Fielding entered. Immediately, all ten officers leapt to their feet. Alec suppressed a smile as Abby stood there, shock written across her still-sleepy features. Today she had taken her thick hair and braided it in a decidedly feminine style down the back of her head. The wispy bangs barely grazed her eyebrows, and playful tendrils touched her temples. She looked excruciatingly beautiful in his eyes in a simple wardrobe of jeans and a long-sleeved white blouse. A dark blue sweater was hung across her back and shoulders, the arms crossed in a casual fashion across her breasts. The image was fetching. Refreshing. “Good morning,” Alec said in greeting, leaving his chair and going over to her. “You are the guest of honor. I’ll seat you next to Captain Denisov.” Flushing over such formality, Abby smiled and nodded. If the truth be known, she’d much rather have sat beside Alec, but she realized it would not have been prudent. “Good morning,” she murmured huskily to all the serious-faced officers. Denisov looked delighted by her presence. When Alec offered her the seat and she sat down, the other naval officers returned to their chairs. “You are like a rare spring rose aboard our humble naval vessel,” Denisov told her in thick, heavy English. He waved the steward over and ordered him to serve her coffee and then had her plate heaped with eggs, potatoes and two portions of sausage. “Thank you, Captain Denisov.” Abby picked up the white ceramic mug filled with steaming hot coffee, needing the caffeine badly. Learning that she had to taste all Soviet food carefully, Abby took a small sip of the strong liquid. As much as she wanted to wrinkle her nose, Abby suppressed the desire. Denisov was watching her every move, wanting to be assured that his efforts pleased her. She forced a smile. “Your coffee is like the stuff I drink on the Argonaut—strong and rich.” The “rich” was a white lie, but Denisov’s face grew flushed with pleasure. “Excellent! At least we share one thing in common, eh? Both American and Soviet coffee is good! We purposely make our coffee strong to keep us hearty.” Abby knew she wasn’t a diplomat and gracefully refrained from saying anything more, pretending instead to eat. The eggs, of course, were out of the question. The potatoes had been fried and lay in grease, like shining silver dollars on the white ceramic plate edged with red trim. The sausages stared at her, and she couldn’t bear looking at them one moment longer. Discreetly, Abby played with the potatoes with her fork. “Why not get Dr. Fielding some bread?” Alec suggested to one of the two young stewards. Abby flashed Alec a grateful look she hoped he would interpret as a silent thank-you. She found his sable eyes twinkling knowingly, and she suddenly realized how much she missed Alec’s teasing and lighthearted banter in comparison to the rest of the solemn sailors and officer on board the Udaloy. From them there was never a smile, a joke or a laugh, just unrelenting formality. Alec was different, Abby had decided this morning as she was being escorted to mess by the chief from the dispensary. “You know,” Denisov said, “at sea we sometimes don’t get news from home as often as we’d like. Tell me, what is happening in your country right now? What is newsworthy?” Abby blotted her lips with the white linen napkin and searched her memory. “Well, I’ve been out to sea for a week, Captain, so what I remember will probably be old news.” He shrugged dramatically. “We rarely get news from America at all, so perhaps you will indulge us with this ‘old’ news?” She smiled. “Sure. Our Supreme Court just approved a hiring preference for women and minorities.” “Why is that important?” “Because women in America are considered second-class citizens, Captain. We’re fighting for equality in all phases of our life. And that means that employers can no longer discriminate and hire a man for a job that a woman can do as well.” “Interesting,” Denisov murmured. “You know, in the Soviet Union, our women are just as strong and work right alongside our men.” Abby smiled. “No, I didn’t know.” “So what is this I hear about you not only having an actor for a president, but now a mayor, as well?” Deciding that Denisov was rather well-informed whether he was at sea or not, Abby grinned. “Clint Eastwood, an actor from Hollywood, was just voted in as mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.” “Is your country run only by actors?” “Sometimes,” Abby said seriously, “I think so. But, that’s a personal opinion. President Reagan is very popular with a lot of people.” “Yet, you don’t care for him?” “I don’t care for some of his politics,” Abby stressed. “In our country, we’re allowed to dissent and voice our own opinion, whether it’s popular or not.” Denisov’s bushy gray brows rose, but he said nothing. “Your brush with the Japanese whaler is only the tip of the iceberg, it seems.” “Oh?” “Hasn’t your president just blocked three-million-dollars worth of Japanese merchandise from coming into your country in retaliation for Japan not honoring a trade agreement regarding semiconductors?” Abby gave the captain a blank look, rummaged through her memory and then said, “Yes, he did just impose that embargo.” “What of sports?” “I don’t know very much about sports, Captain.” “Boxing? Is there anything going on? It is my favorite sport.” “I think I recall Sugar Ray Leonard beating Marvin Hagler for the middleweight championship of the world.” Grinning, Denisov said, “Good! Sports are the lifeblood of men.” Silently, Abby agreed. She hated football and any other sport. To her, it was a waste of time to be glued to the television set for an entire weekend, watching one sporting event after another. “You and every man in America agree upon that,” she muttered. “What other bits of news do you recall?” Abby sighed inwardly. Were the next four days at breakfast going to consist of Denisov questioning her at length? She wondered if she should be speaking about anything at all, but then decided that she knew so little of matters related to national security that it wouldn’t hurt to entertain the cagey captain. “Let’s see…one of our huge oil companies, Texaco, just filed for bankruptcy. That’s been a real shock to the nation. My friend Susan is a stock broker, and she says it’s going to send a scare through the financial district of Wall Street.” With a nod, Denisov pushed aside his plate. Immediately, one of the stewards came and picked it up. “I heard that one of your air force Centaur rockets blew up less than a minute after takeoff from Cape Canaveral.” He studied her intently. “A year ago, you lost the Challenger in that unfortunate mishap. I understand your country is having a hard time placing satellites into orbit without the space shuttle. This Centaur was supposed to have been struck by lightning, veered off course and had to be destroyed. Is this true?” Squirming, Abby shrugged. “Got me on that one, Captain. Things like sports, military or entertainment items don’t interest me. I sort of ignore them in favor of politics, which is an area that interests me greatly. Sorry, I don’t know anything about the rocket exploding.” She was lying, of course, but didn’t care. Looking down at Alec, she saw him frowning. Abby tried to relax and adjust to the situation. Denisov was going to pump her, and she was simply going to evade and play dumb when she felt it necessary. In one way, Abby wanted the next four days to pass quickly. But on a personal level, she wanted them to stretch out and slow down. She suddenly wanted the time to know one Alec Rostov better. * * * ON THE FIFTH MORNING ABOARD the Udaloy, Abby spent breakfast with the officers, as usual. Denisov was in a good mood, smiling often and laughing easily. In the past week Abby found ways to manipulate the conversations with the curious captain. She talked about several books she’d brought aboard the Argonaut to read at night when their whale-watch duties were done. Denisov found Destiny by Sally Beauman interesting, although he wasn’t much of a reader of women’s fiction. The entire table became animated and engrossed when she discussed Texasville by Larry McMurty, because it was about the Old West, and she discovered the Soviets’ keen curiosity with anything having to do with that time in her nation’s history. Abby decided not to discuss State Scarlet by David Aaron with them because it was a political hot potato sprinkled liberally with intrigue and national-defense information. Another morning, Abby talked about the Broadway plays in New York City, and a lively discussion ensued as to whether the Bolshoi could compare. Having just seen Blythe Spirit by No;auel Coward, Abby shared the plot of the play with them. She discovered the Soviets had a deep and loyal tie to the arts, and breakfast soon became a place to share such information. When she told them she’d seen the ballet Sleeping Beauty at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, they excitedly told her about the Bolshoi. Perhaps the most political she got was in telling them about The Jaguar Smiles by Salman Rushdie, a book that was written about the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. When it got too political, Abby gracefully evaded the topic and deftly turned the conversation to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Sunflowers, which sold recently for 39.9 million dollars. The officers at the table simply couldn’t comprehend such money being spent on one painting, despite their love of the arts. Denisov smiled. “While you slept this morning, Tony Cummings landed on our helo pad and took the film and official report of your rescue, and then left,” Denisov told her. “He said to tell you hello and to give you this.” He produced a thick manila envelope. “It is your information for the forthcoming press conference in Anchorage. I would hope that you would share its contents with Captain Rostov in order to help him prepare for the reporters’ questions.” “Of course,” Abby murmured. She placed the heavy envelope across her lap, having the distinct feeling that Denisov would have preferred her to open it and share the contents in front of him, but she resisted. “Would it be possible for Captain Rostov to go over the information with me after breakfast?” Beaming, Denisov nodded. “Excellent idea, Dr. Fielding. Excellent idea.” * * * IN ANOTHER STAFF ROOM AFTER the meal, Alec sat down with Abby. The coast of Kodiak Island was clearly in sight now, and by tomorrow morning, the Udaloy would arrive at the twelve-mile limit of U.S. coastal waters. It was Abby’s understanding that a Coast Guard helicopter would land on the Udaloy, pick up her and Alec, and fly them directly to Anchorage for the press conference at noon. Although the hatch to the small room was shut and no sound could be heard, Alec didn’t trust the room not to be bugged. Taking out a pen and paper from the breast pocket of his dark blue uniform blouse, he scribbled a note and placed it in front of Abby. This room may be bugged. Watch what you say. If there are sensitive things that need to be said, I suggest a walk on deck where there are no prying ears, just prying eyes. Frowning, Abby nodded. She watched as Alec took the note and placed it in a pocket. She quickly shook out the contents of Tony’s envelope on the table before them. “Oh, look!” Abby exclaimed, pleased. There was a color photo taken from the video Brad had shot of the Japanese ship bearing down on the Argonaut. The video had been flown to Kodiak Island by the long range Helix yesterday. The effort had been worth it. “Brad got some great shots!” she whispered excitedly, looking through the ten photos. “This is awesome. Simply awesome!” “‘Awesome’?” Looking up, Abby realized the word confounded Alec. “It’s a slang phrase we use in America. We seem to go through certain words in our culture every decade. In the sixties, it was groovy and far out. Today it’s awesome. Do you go through phrases like that in Russia?” He shook his head. “No.” Abby wanted to say that so far, all the men she’d met from the Soviet Union had very little to say—ever. She wondered why. Was it the brooding tenor of Communism that had forced them to all behave in such a low-key manner? Returning her attention to the articles, Abby noticed several newspaper clippings that Tony had copied for her. “Take a look at these, Alec.” She rapidly scanned several articles. “You’re a hero in every major newspaper in the U.S.! Just look at these!” For the next half hour, Alec poured over the mound of newspaper articles. In amazement, he glanced at Abby. “This is simply incredible.” She grinned happily. “If it will get my whales this kind of attention, I’d do it all over again.” Cocking his head, Alec studied her. The room was stuffy. “Would you like some fresh air?” Abby immediately caught his inference. “I’d love some. I need my daily exercise anyway.” Every day they took a stroll out on the deck of the destroyer, if the weather cooperated. Alec shrugged into his dark blue parka and settled the trooper cap of the same color on his head. Abby quickly retrieved her cranberry-colored wool jacket and white scarf. Out on the deck of the Udaloy, the morning sun was shining brightly across the gray-green Bering Sea. The weather had held up surprisingly well for the entire week, but the sea was confused this morning, so Alec kept a hold on Abby’s elbow as he guided her out onto the helicopter landing pad. It was the best place to talk privately. The wind had a decided bite to it, and Abby brought the collar up to protect her neck. She scrunched her hands deep into her pockets. From the fantail she could easily see the Argonaut in tow, and her three friends up on the small glass-enclosed bridge. Waving energetically to them, Abby saw them all return her greeting. It was impossible to visit them while the trawler was in tow, so she had to be content with waving to them. “Your friends miss you,” Alec observed as they came to a halt and stood together on the center of the landing pad area. “I miss them. John and I have done a lot of whale protecting from that old salmon trawler of his over the last three years. The SOWF funds pay for his gas, but John volunteers his time.” She looked up at Alec’s square-jawed face, those dark brown eyes upon her. It sent a ribbon of warmth through Abby. She liked the gentle light she saw in Alec’s thoughtful gaze. “Why did you write that note to me?” He shifted and stood close to Abby, the destroyer constantly rolling from side to side or pitching up and down. Although the waves were only three to four feet in height, the destroyer could hit waves going in a different direction or a rogue wave many times higher, and Abby might lose her balance and fall. “Because most of the rooms are bugged.” “Oh….” With a grimace, Alec said, “We have KGB agents aboard and no one knows who they are. We must watch what we say at all times, I think, when it comes to discussing the forthcoming press conference.” She grinned. “Good thing I didn’t say anything about those greasy sausages or potatoes I got three mornings in a row, then.” Alec’s laugh was full and resonant. “I’m glad you didn’t. Captain Denisov wanted everything perfect for you. He had finally realized you’re a vegetarian and you won’t eat the meat, no matter how prized it is to us. The Captain has taken it in good stride, though. I’m glad our cooks found some rice for you, otherwise you might have starved to death on cabbage soup and black bread.” His smile deepened as he absorbed Abby’s flushed features into his heart. She was so alive, so incredibly spontaneous compared to the women of the Soviet Union. “In all truth, most of us are forced into being vegetarians because there is so little meat available in our country.” “You make vegetarianism sound like a bread-and-water prison sentence,” Abby said with a laugh, “and it isn’t. Actually, I’ve enjoyed your black bread, just as I’ve enjoyed being with the crew and having our spirited talks at the breakfast table. But you’ve been evading me all week,” she teased him. “I know so little about you personally, Alec. From what Tony’s letter said, we’ll be spending a week together in Anchorage. Couldn’t you tell me a little bit more about yourself?” Caught up in her enthusiasm, he nodded. “I didn’t mean not to talk about myself, but I think Soviets remain like a closed book because of their fear of the KGB network of spies. I’ll try, over the next day, to give you more personal vignettes about myself.” He frowned. “I’m looking forward to the experience, but I hope my English is good enough so that I don’t embarrass us with your press.” “Your English is flawless. In fact, far better than mine.” She turned and faced him, the salt air invigorating, the wind whipping around them. “So, tell me about yourself. Everything!” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/eileen-nauman/my-only-one/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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