Operation Green Card (A Bluewater Bay novel)

Operation Green Card by G.B. Gordon
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-675-0
eBook release: 
Dec 11, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-676-7
Print release: 
Dec 11, 2017
Word count: 
57,800
Page count: 
219
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.

Ebook $4.99
Print $16.99   $13.59 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $21.98   $15.39 (30% off!)

Arkady Izmaylov is a family man. He’s also gay. In Russia. His sister Natalya has been telling him to get out for years, but it’s only after an attack in the street that he finally concedes and says yes to her desperate plan of him marrying a stranger for a green card.

Jason Cooley was taught from birth that he’s no good to anyone. Then the military taught him he was good enough to save other lives, but that purpose got amputated along with his leg. He’s now working security at Wolf’s Landing and sending monthly checks to his ex for their daughter’s education. When Natalya asks him to marry her brother, Jason knows right away he’ll do it more for the mission than the money she’s offering. But when he actually meets Arkady, his mission turns complicated.

Jason quickly discovers he’s not as straight as he thought. He’s also the man of Arkady’s dreams. Arkady must convince Jason that he’s worth loving, and that Arkady won’t disappear from his life like everyone else. Because Arkady has always wanted a family of his own, and he’s not letting go of this one.

 

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

hate crime, homophobic attack

Chapter One

“C’mon, I tried,” Jason said to the It’s-so-fluffy unicorn belted in on the passenger seat beside him.

The unicorn was clearly not impressed. Jason didn’t blame it. He’d tried to leave work early, but he wasn’t sure if that stuff just never worked out as planned or if his subconscious was always planning against him. On the plus side, it had made the drive from Bluewater Bay to Seattle a breeze, because he was hours behind the rush-hour traffic. But it also meant it was past ten by the time he reached Highland Park, and when he pulled up to the curb, the little rental under the big trees was predictably dark.

He turned to the unicorn. “Looks like you’ll be spending the night on the porch, buddy.”

The unicorn was glaring at him and sticking its tongue out.

Jason sighed and looked back toward the house. He’d known Lily would be in bed before he made it. Of course he had. But he’d hoped he’d at least be able to have a peek at her as she slept.

With a sigh, he unbuckled his belt and the unicorn’s, then awkwardly climbed out of the car, dragging the big plushy and getting his dummy foot stuck inside the doorframe.

“Jason?”

He turned and almost fell flat on his face, but caught one hand on the frame at the last second.

Kendra stood in the half-open front door, outlined against the hall light, a trash bag dangling against her leg.

Jason hooked one hand behind his knee and pulled the trapped foot free.

“Sorry it got so late. I wasn’t going to ring the bell, I swear.” He held out the unicorn. “I was just going to leave him on the porch.”

She didn’t look a day older than she had that fateful night six years ago, the week before he’d gotten himself deployed. Tall and athletic, though the weak light made her edges softer. She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Do you want to come in? Let me just get rid of this.”

He waited until she’d crammed the bag into the trash can by the side of the house, then followed her inside. “Dan not home?’

“He’s on night shift this week. He left about an hour ago.” She led him into the kitchen, where he plopped the unicorn into a chair.

“Cute,” she said. “Did you see the movie?”

“Just clips, but the little girl reminded me of Lily. I thought she might enjoy it.”

“She’ll love it. She asks about you. Wants to know what your favorite ice cream is. Stuff like that. C’mon, Jay, just take her out for ice cream one of these days. At least come over when she’s awake. Too often, you come when she’s already in bed.”

He tried not to pull his head between his shoulders. Guilty as charged. But he wasn’t good for Lily. Better to leave things as they were. “I don’t want to confuse her.”

“Bull,” Kendra said without heat. “She understands very well Dan adopted her, and who you are. You know that.” She stuck her tongue out at him. “I showed her your yearbook picture.” Then she got serious again. “Kids aren’t that easily confused. And Lily’s smarter than most.” There was pride in her face when she smiled. “She had to have a pre-admission screening for kindergarten because her birthday was after the cut-off date, and they told us she’s gifted.”

“Wow.” On the surface, it was what every parent wanted to hear, but it also made him wary. It meant his little girl was different. And different meant difficult. It always did. “Does that mean a special school for her?”

Kendra shrugged. “They mentioned that as a possibility, but a grand a month? Who can afford that, right? But there are programs at school, and she might skip a grade later on.” She cocked her head at him. Reading some of his doubts in his face, maybe? “She’ll be fine, Jay. She’s an absolute joy. You really need to visit during the day.”

Too close. He was only good for people at a distance. He’d have no idea what to say to her, what to do, how to keep her happy. The only way he knew how to do that was by helping Kendra and Dan with whatever money he could spare. Kendra had balked at it at first. They didn’t need it, Dan had a good job, she’d said. But Jason had a pretty good idea what Dan earned at the steel mill. It might be a steady income, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be stellar. And he himself didn’t need much. Kendra had only relented when he’d suggested investing the money in a GET program for Lily’s college.

“Do you want to see her?” Kendra asked.

It would cost him, but he did. So much. “Yeah, I . . . If you think . . .”

“Come on upstairs.”

At the top of the stairs she put a finger to her lips, then eased open the door to Lily’s room and waved him in.

Lily lay sprawled sideways on her mattress, one fist tangled up in the cloud of dark curls spilling across the sheets, the other wrapped around a small and decidedly limp bunny, the blankets in a puddle on the floor. She had grown since he’d last seen her, her limbs longer now, less babyish. But she was still so tiny.

She made his throat tight and set off all kinds of weird shit in his chest. He’d known this would happen. She did that to him every damned time. He wasn’t sure why he did that to himself, why he kept coming back here. Except that he needed to. She tethered him. Even though he didn’t belong here, he belonged to her in a way. Without her, he’d be completely adrift.

He didn’t know how long he stood, just looking at his sleeping daughter, but when he turned back toward the door, Kendra had left.

He found her downstairs in the kitchen, where she’d poured herself some milk.

“Can I get you anything?” She pointed at the fridge. “Do you want a beer?”

Jason shook his head. “Driving. I should get home too. Early day tomorrow.” He paused, not sure how to get out what was sticking in his brain about the school she’d mentioned and how much it cost. It wasn’t his call. And he didn’t have the money either. He’d try to get it, of course, but better not talk about that unless he actually had something to talk about.

“Drive safe.”

“Always.”

“Jay?”

He was already in the hallway and looked back over his shoulder.

“Think about coming by when she’s up. You know you’re always welcome.”

“Yeah. Thanks. I will.” Think about it.

He threw a last glance at the unicorn, then left. It was a long drive back to Bluewater Bay.

* * * * * * *

It was just that bit harder to get up before dawn the next day, and Jason was grateful that Mark, his ride-share and Wolf’s Landing’s head of costumes, wasn’t a talker. Traffic was light this early, but Jason’s tired brain was stuck in a loop of She’s gifted. She needs a special school. I can’t afford it. But, she’s gifted. He didn’t have room in there for chitchat.

Jason threw a glance to his right. They weren’t friends. Close to; Mark might be the closest thing to a friend he had, but it was easier this way. Friendship always seemed to require talking about oneself, which he wasn’t good at. And eventually people left, which was harder. So yeah, this was fine.

At the Wolf’s Landing studios, the gate opened when they arrived. Turner, who was on duty this morning, peered inside the car and waved when they went past the brightly lit gate house, but he’d already opened the gate on their approach, when he could only have recognized the car. Convenient, but not safe. Jason filed it away to bring up as a general point at the next weekly meeting. It wasn’t his place to discipline anyone.

He automatically scanned the parking lot when he got out. One of the cameras seemed a little out of alignment. He’d better check that on the monitor.

Mark had already wandered off, so Jason locked the car and made his way over to the tower, which was what the guys had dubbed the surveillance center. It wasn’t an elevated structure at all, merely a room filled with monitors and communication equipment on the second floor of the administration building. Jason assumed the semicircular arrangement of the larger monitors had reminded someone of an airport traffic control tower. He had no idea where the name would otherwise have come from.

He went through the routine of shift change, glanced through the log, then poured himself a coffee from his thermos and settled in. The studio never really slept, but it did quiet down over night. Now the early birds trickled in.

He watched one of the producers, Anna Maxwell, drive in, always among the first to arrive and one of the last to leave, Jeremy like a magnet on her tail. Now there was a detail that would pay him more money than babysitting the fucking monitors did, but they’d never let him work as a bodyguard. Would they? He could at least ask; worst that could happen was a no. He knew he’d be good at it. Don’t get your hopes up, Cooley.

The camera of Parking Three was indeed a bit off. He was missing a corner of the lot on his screen. It didn’t happen often, but occasionally a large bird of prey or an adventurous raccoon could move a camera, if it wasn’t fastened tight. He’d see if he could catch Krueger in his office after lunch and let him know. Jason could just write it into the shift log, but he wanted to talk to Krueger anyway. He hated asking for anything, but he really needed to make more money. She’s gifted. She needs a special school.

He sighed and unpacked a sandwich. Another boring day, courtesy of a missing limb that disqualified him from what he wanted or was good at. He stared at his left shoe: not even anything in there he could hate. He didn’t hate the prosthesis; he’d be worse off without it. And one couldn’t hate air.

Damn, wasn’t it lunchtime yet?

* * * * * * *

Jason knocked on the frame of the open door and stepped into his boss’s office. He waited until Krueger had finished his phone call, then said, “One of the cameras in parking lot three is off-kilter. Might want to send someone out with a ladder.”

Krueger nodded. “Thanks. And you’re really here, because . . .”

Damn, the bastard didn’t miss a thing. Ever. Jason took a deep breath. “I need another shift.”

Krueger blinked. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.”

“Is there something going on I should know about? Anything I can help with? You’re not in any trouble, are you? What in the world do you need all that money for?”

All that money. When they were paying him a dollar above minimum wage.

“Price of bread is rising again,” Jason deadpanned to stop the questions.

“Yeah, fuck you too.”

Shit. He hated standing here, begging for work. But he couldn’t afford to antagonize the guy, who’d been trying to be nice.

“My daughter’s tuition just went up.”

Immediately Krueger relented. “That sucks, man. I have two. Twelve and fourteen. I hear ya. But honestly, Cooley, I don’t know what you expect me to do. You’re already working two shifts and the day only has three. Are you sleeping on weekends only, or what?”

Jason chewed on his cheek. “I could work weekends. Or at least let me switch one shift for night.” Night shift paid a buck more per hour.

“I don’t have any openings. Best I can do is let you have first dibs when someone’s sick.”

Jason nodded. “Appreciate it.” He turned to leave, then stopped. “Unless you want to put me on a close-protection detail.”

Krueger groaned. “Cooley, you’re killing me, you know that? You want to work as a bodyguard? With your medical?”

The anger flared up like a match struck in his gut. “Fuck the medical. I pass the fitness test every year. And you know as well as I do that I could run circles around at least two of the guys out there. Not because I run faster, but because I’d be moving before it even registered on their two brain cells that something was happening.”

“I know, I know. Unfortunately that’s not the point. Point is, regs. If I signed off on the guy with one leg doing anything except sitting in a chair monitoring the surveillance equipment, we’d both be out of a job.”

Jason pressed both fists against his thighs in an effort to rein in his temper, and Krueger sighed.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Cooley. Buy a lottery ticket, marry rich, or, seriously, go back to school for higher paying work; you’re a smart guy. I’d hate to lose you, but I can give you some contacts if you want to go that way.”

“Thanks,” Jason got out. “I’ll think about it.”

It wasn’t Krueger’s fault. The guy was trying his best. But that still left Jason empty-handed. And seething. Easy for the shrinks at the hospital to tell him that losing his leg didn’t define who he was. Tell that to everyone else. Because it sure as hell defined who he wasn’t anymore.

He did a sharp about turn and left the office, almost colliding with Natalya, the stunt coordinator, in the hallway. He’d seen her around a few times, but they hadn’t really talked much. And, of course, the whole studio knew about her relationship with Anna Maxwell, the producer. It had been impossible to miss at the time; the gossip machine had made sure of that, though things had quietened down. With a mumbled apology he brushed past her, surprised when she fell into step beside him, or tried to.

She only reached to about his chest and had to run to keep up with his stride. “Damn it, slow down a minute, would you?”

“Why?” He was still pissed, but not at her, of course, and curiosity was starting to gain the upper hand, so he relented and shortened his step. Less of an effort, anyway, but the whole thing had been satisfying for about five seconds.

“I couldn’t help overhearing the tail end of your conversation when I passed. I might have an idea for you.”

“That was private,” he growled.

“Sorry. You were loud. You want to hear it or not?” She spoke with a hard Russian accent, and her eyes dared him to mess with her, even though she had to look up quite a ways.

He hadn’t calmed down enough to find the humor in that, but she had his attention. “Fine. Shoot.”

“Not here. The Gull. Tonight. You know it? Does 8 p.m. work for you?”

The Gull? Really? She was avoiding his eyes, which made this whole thing sound even more suspicious. “If it involves drugs, I’m not interested.”

“What? No!”

“Is it legal?”

Again her eyes slid to the side, then she threw him a mischievous grin. “Maybe not exactly, but something like moonlighting doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

He clicked his tongue, thinking. Maybe she did have something for him. He could still walk away if he didn’t like it. “Make it nine, and I’ll be there.”

He got a brief nod in response, then she turned and disappeared down the hallway to his left. He stared after her for a few seconds, then made his way toward the stairs. Elevators were for pussies. And fuck his old drill sergeant for making him hear that in his voice.

* * * * * * *

Jason had quickly dropped off Mark and taken ten to shower and change out of his uniform.

He went to the Gull for a pint or a few now and then. It was a somewhat dingy little relic of Bluewater Bay’s pre-TV days. One beer on tap, one bottled import brand. The menu consisted of a large jar of pickled eggs and a bowl of peanuts on the bar. It was a good place if one wanted to get quietly shit-faced in a corner. And an excellent choice if Natalya didn’t want anyone to know about their meeting. Jason had never seen any of the Hollywood crew here, and he didn’t know any of the locals. He was surprised Natalya had even heard of the place. She didn’t strike him as the type who got quietly shit-faced all by her lonely self.

Right now she was waiting for him at a small table in the corner by the door, tapping her foot and drumming her fingers.

When she saw him, she slapped her hand on the table in what looked very much like triumph. It didn’t help Jason’s feeling that he might be getting himself in over his head. He grabbed a pint at the bar, then joined her, watching all the little tell-tale signs of her nervousness—the tapping, lip biting, roaming eyes. Well, keeping her off-kilter until he knew what she wanted worked in his favor, so he didn’t say anything, merely kept observing. She was cute, and nicely muscled, but he preferred his women tall and dark-haired. Cute wasn’t going to get her a break.

She took a sip of beer, then set the glass back down. “So, you came.”

He had, but not to make small talk. The sooner he knew what the hell she wanted, the better. “You have something to say, say it.”

“You need money,” she shot at him, niceties definitely over. “Why?”

“None of your business.”

She leaned back and fiddled with a beermat until it snapped in half between her fingers. “What I have in mind involves someone else,” she said. “But before I bring him in on this, I need to know that you’re not in trouble with the law.”

He laughed. “Really? You need to know that I’m not in trouble? After going through all this shady stuff?” He waved around at the cigarette-yellow walls and ceiling.

There was that saucy grin again. He was getting an idea of what Anna saw in her. It was conspiratorial and engaging, a daredevil grin.

“Humor me.”

“I’m not in trouble.”

She seemed to weigh that for a moment, then dug for her wallet and pulled out a faded and dog-eared picture. For a few seconds she stared at it without a word, then handed it to him.

It showed two young men, one blond, one dark-haired, both lanky, almost skinny, arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling and waving into the camera.

Jason put the picture faceup on the table and watched her, waiting for an explanation.

“That,” her finger tapped the blond one, “is my brother Arkady. That,” tap, tap on the other man, “was his best friend, Dimitri. They weren’t a couple, though they’re both gay. Dimitri died while they were in the army under mysterious circumstances about a year after this picture was taken. Because that’s what happens to gay men in Russia.” She threw him a challenging glance. “He was nineteen. That was ten years ago. The situation is worse today.”

There wasn’t really anything to say beyond the obvious outrage, so he didn’t.

After a while she went on, “I’ve been trying to get Arkady out of Russia since I came here, but it’s never been more pressing than in the past few years. Ever since Putin’s Propaganda Laws—” She choked on whatever she was going to say, and took a hasty gulp from her glass. “He was supposed to get hired by security on the set last winter, but it fell through. He needs a green card yesterday.”

Again she paused, but Jason was still mystified. She’d overheard him asking for more work. Why would she think he could help with a job for her brother?

“Something Ben Krueger said when you left his office . . .” Her hand closed into a fist on the table, opened and closed, opened and closed. “I’ve tried everything else.” It was a whisper, as if she was trying to convince herself this was a good idea.

The good idea for him might be to get up and walk away now.

“When Krueger joked about you needing to marry rich, I had this thought.”

What?

“I know people are marrying for green cards, so it must work.”

“Come again?”

“You need money. I know Arkady has some savings I’m sure he’d be willing to invest in getting out of Russia. I’ll have to talk to him, but he could also share whatever he earns with you as soon as he finds work.”

“Whoa. Hold it. Are you asking me to marry your brother?”

“It’s legal now.”

“That’s the most . . . I’m not even gay.”

At that she barked a bitter laugh. “Really? That’s your objection to a fake marriage? That you’re not gay?”

The shame washed over him like acid. It wasn’t even like he thought that would be particularly terrible. Hell, he very much doubted there was a soldier out there with long-term deployment under his belt who’d had zero contact with another man’s dick. In any case, it had been a stupid thing to say. “Sorry.”

She got up. “You know what? Forget it. You’re not the kind of guy I should have as—”

“Every other objection was obvious, so why would I mention them?”

“What?”

“That it’s illegal? That it can fail at about fifty different stages? That he might not even want to take the chance? You know all that.”

She paused, half-standing, both hands on the table.

And against all reason, it suddenly became most important to convince her that she was wrong about him. “I don’t give a shit about anyone being gay or not. It just seemed like a thing one would want to know in a situation like this.”

It wasn’t a lie, though it sounded more thought-out than it had been; he hadn’t quite gotten to the bottom of where he stood on that line. This whole proposition had come way too far out of left field.

Natalya sat back down, but she didn’t stop frowning at him.

He picked the picture up again and stared at the blond guy, a boy, really. Okay, ten years ago, so he was a man now. Still. He didn’t deserve to be harassed or hurt or, worse, killed for who he loved or fucked. Nobody did.

“Does that mean you’ll do it?” Natalya asked.

“I don’t know. It’s not the kind of decision I want to make over a beer. I don’t have the foggiest idea how this would work and what it would entail. Why don’t you ask your brother if he’d even consider it?” After all, it might be a decision he wouldn’t have to make. It was such a desperately ludicrous thing to do. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure this Arkady would give his sister a piece of his mind about what she said to random strangers.

“Okay. Yeah, I’ll talk to him.” She sounded deflated now, robbed of momentum, and he took the opportunity to drain his glass.

“I guess I’ll see you around, then.”

She nodded without words, eyes fixed on the photograph on the table. So he left, pulled his collar up against the April wind, and walked back to the house by the beach that had been his grandmother’s. Snippets of their discussion ricocheted around in his skull. The boy who’d been killed. The other one who was in danger. Neither one of them was any of his business, really. He was under no obligation to save anyone. He didn’t know the guy. Hell, he barely knew Natalya.

He knew himself, though. And walking away just wasn’t in his DNA. Getting people out of danger zones was what he did. What he’d been trained for, anyway, though these days his job was more about preventing visitors from “getting lost” on set. Was this the universe throwing him a bone? A chance to do something that would actually make a difference to someone? He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Then there was the money. However much some savings was. He could definitely use money, but robbing a man of his life savings wasn’t his thing. And a second income only sounded tempting if it wasn’t hypothetical. Would the guy be allowed to work in the first place?

Ah, fuck, it was bullshit even to think about the whole plan, because Natalya’s brother would want to know what she was smoking. There was no way anyone would agree to this. He should put it out of his mind and figure out how he could come up with a better paying shift.

With that resolution firmly in place, he fired up his computer as soon as he got home to google green card marriage.

 

Chapter Two

The rock came out of nowhere and hit Arkady just under his cheekbone with enough force to whip his head around. He instinctively ducked down on one knee, but was too startled to form coherent thought. The street seemed completely empty in the semidarkness of false dawn. He was in the wrong part of town for a mugging, hadn’t even crossed the river yet. Kids, then? Leftover partiers out for a drunken lark?

Pidar.” The hiss came from the left. Though all Arkady saw was a low stone wall, the homophobic slur sent his heartbeat up into his throat. Fuck! It meant the attack hadn’t been random. But how so? Who? He’d been afraid of something like this ever since the university had fired him, but this was a terrifying first. Was this a student? An ex-colleague? Or had the rumors that he was gay spread beyond the university by now?

As he slowly approached the wall, he heard cursing and twigs snapping. He should probably run, but he couldn’t help himself. The need to see the face behind the hatred and the rock pushed him forward. He kept his forearm up, expecting another rock, but nothing happened, and when he rounded the corner where the wall met a low fence, all he found was some crushed grass and an empty bottle.

He went back to where he’d dropped his tool bag on the sidewalk, dug his cigarettes out of the side pocket, and lit one with shaking fingers. The whole left side of his face throbbed with every beat of his heart, but careful probing with his tongue revealed no broken teeth. The metallic taste of blood told him he’d cut his cheek on his own teeth, though.

That had been too close. Much too close to home. Too close in every respect. Whoever had been behind that wall had been waiting there, had known Arkady would pass here on his way to work, had known who he was.

It took a second cigarette before he calmed down enough to get going again, to the small electric company that was work these days, and to face cousin Misha—who was also his boss—and his concerned scrutiny.

“You’re late, Sparky.”

Arkady turned barely enough to give his cousin the finger, before dropping his tool bag on the shop floor and stretching his shoulders. Normally he shrugged the hated nickname off, but this morning he was already done.

Pizdets! What the fuck happened to your face?” Misha came over and gently hooked his finger under Arkady’s chin, turning his left cheek into the light.

“Probably looks worse than it is.”

“Your fucking cheek’s cut open, man.”

Arkady winced and jerked his head back. “I’d better get cleaned up, then.” He should reassure Misha, make light of the truth, or invent a kind lie, but he didn’t have the energy or the head space. He ducked into the tiny washroom and inspected his face in the mirror. Yeah, it wasn’t pretty, but the cut wasn’t deep and had stopped bleeding. An open cut might even save him from developing the grandmother of all bruises. He slid the first aid kit off the shelf by the door and braced himself for the disinfectant. Blyat, that crap stung. The sticking plasters in the kit were all too short to cover the cut, so he left it. He was scheduled to work on a building site today, and he didn’t need the shit he’d get from construction workers for putting an actual bandage on a shallow cut. A quip about women with long nails would have to do to head off any questions.

He volunteered for grunt duty, laying cables, just to be able to work alone that day, but it was a double-edged sword, because it gave him ample time to think. About really having to leave now, like Tasha’d been telling him all along. Leave Petersburg, the city he loved; leave everything behind. And not “eventually,” as he’d anticipated a year ago, when he’d lost his job and lost every chance at making full professor. But the worst, leave his family: Misha and Katya and the girls, his parents, his aunt and uncle . . . Merely thinking about it felt like a fist around his heart. A very different pain from a little cut on his cheek.

His stomach was rumbling when he finished up and stepped out for a smoke on the concrete platform that was going to be the fifth floor of the building. Checking his watch told him he’d not only missed lunch, but was working overtime. He needed a shower and something to eat.

When he returned to the shop and hung the keys for the truck up on the board, Misha came over and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “You okay, Sparky?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just beat. Crawling around in hip-high spaces dragging a cable drum all day will do that to you.” Plus, I’m not a fucking electrician, I’m a literature docent, and I’d much rather teach Chekhov and Shakespeare. But that last part, he didn’t say, because he owed Misha. For giving him a job, for supporting Arkady in every way. Hell, working here had put him through university in the first place.

“I guess you don’t want to hear about Pavel’s freezer crapping out again, then?”

“Fuuuck. When’s he going to replace that piece of shit?” Arkady picked his tool bag up again, but Misha took it from him.

“I’ve got this. Go home, Kashka. Sleep. You’ve been on for ten hours straight now, and knowing you, you didn’t eat.”

“Guilty.”

“See you tomorrow. Or better, have dinner with us.”

Normally he’d jump at the idea: great food, playing with the girls . . . But tonight it would just remind him of all the things he couldn’t have. All happy families were indeed alike. He hadn’t asked to be different. Alike would have worked fine for him, thankyouverymuch.

“Not tonight. Rain check?”

Misha gave him a long, hard stare, but then dropped it with a shrug. “Okay, see you tomorrow, then.”

“Thanks, Misha. I appreciate it. All of it.”

“Get out of here, Sparky.”

This time Arkady managed a grin. It pulled on the cut. “Asshole.”

Misha’s laughter followed him out the door.

April was preparing for May with a real effort at spring, and for a few minutes, Arkady stopped on the bridge across the Nevka to admire the shades-of-apricot beauty reflected on the water and let the evening sunshine drive the dark clouds out of his head. It had been a long day, was all. He was alive, he had a job, and when he got home, there would be mail from America waiting for him, asking him to pack his bags.

Which was what he’d been half-dreading, half-hoping every day for over a year now, ever since Tasha had told him the film people had promised a job and papers. It would happen. Eventually. When the sun was shining on him and glinting off the water like this, he could almost see a day when he wouldn’t have to live a lie anymore; when he’d be able to have a family of his own.

He spit into the river below, because when you were leaning over the banister of a bridge and didn’t feel the urge to spit into the water, you were practically dead and calcified already. Then he pushed himself off the banister and squinted into the low evening sun. Despite the late hour it was still too bright to make out the silhouette of the fortress on the other side. A promise of the white nights to come.

Turning away from Petrogradskaya embankment, he did a quick shoulder check and immediately hated himself for it. The rock at dawn had shaken him worse than he cared to admit, but deep down he’d felt on thin ice since the university had fired him. They hadn’t actually accused him of being gay, of course—not to his face. They didn’t have anything concrete. He’d been extremely careful, had avoided the muscled and ultra-male tough guys he had such a weak spot for, and this past year, he’d avoided any sort of relationship at all.

But the university hadn’t been able to give him a solid reason for firing him either. He knew the budget cuts line had been a lie. And he knew the looks and the whispers and the occasional verbal challenge. Rumors had followed him like shadows for years. A decade, even. Had followed him since Mitja’s death. It had only been a question of time until they caught up with him.