“Get your skinny ass over here,” Mike Bremner shouted across the stage.
FBI Agent Cole Stanton hurried over to his commanding officer, not wanting to give the older man any more excuses to dislike him. Eight weeks into his new posting and he was ready to shoot himself or his boss or both. “Sorry,” he said.
“What took you so long?” Bremner asked. “Not enough time to do your makeup or hair or something?”
Cole ignored the insults. “Traffic.”
Bremner scowled. “I need a dead ballerina like a hole in the head. The stiff’s a Russian national, so it falls to us and not the local boys. I want you leading on this one.” Bremner sneezed as he waved his hand at the center of the stage, where a sheet-covered body lay.
“You do?” Cole couldn’t help saying, not able to mask his surprise. It was obvious Bremner didn’t like him. He seemed to go out of his way to make Cole’s life miserable. In the two months since his transfer to the New York field office, Bremner had assigned him the most mundane and boring cases and buried him under a backlog of paperwork that should have been completed months ago. He also seemed to delight in making Cole look foolish in front of the other team members.
Bremner scowled again, moving over to the body. Cole followed, digging his notebook and pen out of his jacket pocket. Bremner looked over his shoulder. “I’ve got four agents out with the flu. So, Stanton, you’re it,” he said curtly with another sneeze. “Just wrap the damn case up as fast as you can. Don’t do any fancy-assed stuff. Got it?”
“Yes, sir.” Cole nodded. The disappointment curled in his stomach; Cole knew he was being stupid, but he would have liked the task as lead investigator in a murder based on his merits, not because other agents were sick with the flu and unavailable. He sighed, wondering if Bremner was hoping he would fail. The thought made Cole determined to succeed, resolving not to fail himself, the Bureau, or the body lying under the white sheet.
“Irina Markhov.” Bremner pulled the sheet off the woman with an unnecessary flourish. “Arrived in the country two months ago to dance in this pansy-ass production. Went AWOL yesterday afternoon. The crew was testing the trapdoor in the stage this morning when up she popped. Dead as a dodo. Scared the shit out of them.” Bremner chuckled.
Ignoring Bremner’s crassness, Cole stared down at the lifeless form sprawled on the floor surrounded by a sea of congealed blood that spread outward, staining the hardwood surface dark red. The young woman’s pale green eyes stared back at him, not seeing, her blood tainting the otherwise perfect white silk gown she was wearing. She was young and delicate-looking and had been pretty in life, but the gray mask of death made her ugly. Cole sighed, numb to the sight, having seen death in all its forms so many times during his career. He looked down the length of her body and could just about make out the ugly, bluish tint of finger marks around her slender neck where someone had tried to choke her. Cole shifted his gaze to the obvious defense marks of mottled bruising on her arms, evidence of Irina trying to fight off her attacker before being viciously struck down by the ornate dagger sticking out of her chest. “Do we know time of death?” he asked.
Bremner looked bored. “ME estimates around five or six yesterday evening.”
“So after a dress rehearsal?” Cole asked, writing the fact down in his notebook.
“How do you figure?” Bremner asked.
“She’s in costume,” Cole said. “I doubt she ever wore her costume home. So she must have been killed after the dress rehearsal. Before she had a chance to change back into her own clothes.”
Bremner huffed, annoyed. “Start with him,” he said, waving a hand at a man standing just offstage in the wing. “Alexei Valchikovsky.” He stumbled over the pronunciation. “Damn stupid name. Doesn’t even talk like a Russian. But at the moment, he’s our prime suspect.”
After six months, Cole didn’t think the name would still affect him, having convinced himself he was over Alexei, but his body decided to taunt him, betraying him almost immediately. His mouth went dry and he wanted to be sick. His heart hammered so loudly in his chest Cole was convinced Bremner would hear the pounding. He swallowed convulsively as all his feelings for Alexei came rushing back. Love. Passion. Need.
Cole cursed silently, wondering why he’d ever thought he could avoid Alexei, but the New York field office had been the only posting available and he’d been desperate. Cole swallowed hard again. “Why?” He successfully managed to keep his voice even and his body language neutral. He was determined not to lose the one chance of proving his worth because of a past love affair with the prime suspect.
Bremner didn’t notice his uneasiness, too busy snuffling into a dirty white handkerchief. “The dagger belongs to him.” He turned on his heel, dismissing Cole with his back. “Preliminary report on my desk tomorrow. No excuses.”
“Yes, sir,” Cole said, tired of the two words he seemed to be using a lot these days. Glancing back down at Irina Markhov, Cole was filled with the sudden strong urge to pull the dagger out of her chest, but he knew better. Instead he crouched down, drawing the white sheet back over her body in an effort to give Irina an element of dignity in death.
Straightening up, Cole sucked in a deep breath and headed over to the wings. Cole took his time, giving himself an opportunity to study the man Bremner had decided was their prime suspect. Alexei Valchikovsky was the same, not changed at all in six months. He was still beautiful, poised, and graceful, resembling every classical statue exhibited in art galleries around the world. Alexei possessed a typical dancer’s body—tall and supple with broad shoulders and muscles in all the right places. A narrow waist, trim hips, and powerful-looking legs completed the picture. Even dressed in loose sweatpants, Cole could still make out the rippling muscles in his thighs and lower legs. He could feel his skin heating at the thought of those powerful legs wrapped around his body, pulling him close. Cole coughed, shaking himself away from memories of their passionate lovemaking and back to studying Alexei. His skin was tanned almost golden in color, and long, dark hair nearly touching his shoulders gave him an almost gypsylike appearance. His face was angular, with high cheekbones that accentuated every feature, from his nose to his mouth to his eyes. Slanted dark brown eyes seemed to glint in the light and were now studying him as he drew near.
Cole swallowed hard; this was the man he had tried not to love, but every night, even six months later, he still dreamed of their life together. Dreamed of their bodies tangled together, lost in passion, and their love for each other. Cole groaned, mentally reminding himself that the New York posting was his chance to get his life back on track, both personally and professionally, and he couldn’t afford any distractions. Professional, aloof, and detached were his watchwords for the day, Cole decided. “Alexei,” he managed to say calmly. “I just need to ask you a few questions.”
Alexei raised an eyebrow at the formality. “No ‘Hello, Alexei’? ‘How have you been Alexei?’”
Cole swallowed at the sound of Alexei’s voice. Honey-soft, a hint of New England twang evident with no trace of the typical harsh Russian accent, it went straight to his groin, and he shifted from foot to foot. He swallowed again. “No.” Cole lowered his voice. “This is my job. My career. And as far as my boss knows, we don’t know each other, and I want to keep it that way. So just answer the damn questions.” Cole couldn’t help the tremble in his body and flipped a page of his notebook over in an effort to mask the effect of being so close to his ex-lover.
Alexei pursed his lips, noticing the small shudder as he let his eyes sweep up and down Cole’s body. He frowned at what he saw but hid his concern behind a smile. “Ask your questions. I’ll try to help all I can.”
Cole shifted from foot to foot again, still uncom-fortable with being so close to Alexei. He looked down at his notebook, pretending to study his scribbles in an effort to distract himself from the sexy man standing in front of him. Cole could feel his traitorous body responding to Alexei’s proximity. He clenched his teeth against the sensations pumping through his body. Cole cleared his throat, deciding on the direct approach. “Does the dagger belong to you?” he asked.
Alexei snorted out a surprised laugh. “You were always so direct,” he said. “It’s one of the many things I loved about you. Love about you.” He stepped into Cole’s personal space, his eyes dark with want. “I’ve missed you, Cole.”
“Stop it.” Cole glared, taking a step backward, wanting to remain professional, gripping his notebook tightly in an attempt to stop the trembling at Alexei’s closeness. “Alexei. This is a murder investigation,” he said. “Don’t make this any harder than it already is. Please just answer the question.”
Alexei sighed. Letting Cole walk out of his life following a stupid argument was the biggest mistake of his life, and Alexei still bitterly regretted allowing his ambition and career to triumph over his personal life and happiness. Even six months later, Alexei cursed his cowardice, knowing he should have gone after Cole and begged his forgiveness; instead, he’d allowed his pride to win and sat staring at the closed door for hours. Irina’s murder had unexpectedly thrust Cole back into his life, and Alexei was determined to win his lover back. “Yes, the dagger belongs to me. It’s an exact replica of the one we use in the ballet.”
“When did you last see it?” Cole asked.
Alexei shrugged. “Maybe a couple of weeks ago. It was in my dressing room, I think.”
“Who has access to your dressing room?”
Alexei frowned slightly. “Everyone, I guess. I never lock the door. A bad habit of mine.”
Cole nodded. “How well did you know Miss Markhov?”
“Not very well. As you know, the ballet has been on tour. And she joined about two months ago, after we closed in Washington and just before we came to New York. Irina was shy. Kept herself to herself. Her English wasn’t too good,” Alexei replied. “A lot of the troupe are foreign nationals, but some have better English than Irina.”
“When did you see her last?”
“We open in three weeks, so we’ve been rehearsing every day. It was a dress rehearsal yesterday afternoon. Irina was there, and I saw her heading back to the dressing room area with some of the other dancers around four-thirty.” He waved a hand at the corridor behind some stacked scenery. “I didn’t see her again.”
“Did she have any particular friends?” Cole asked, scribbling reminders in his notebook.
“Not really. I know she shared an apartment with two of the other dancers. Lena Anderson and Natalie Dupre.”
Cole looked down at his notebook, not really wanting to see the reaction to his next question. “Where were you between five and six last night?”
“Our ME estimates that Miss Markhov was killed sometime between five and six last night.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Cole looked up, calmly holding Alexei’s stunned expression. “No. Just answer the question. Where were you between five and six last night?”
Alexei chuckled. Cole raised his eyebrows, waiting for an answer as he tapped the pen against his notebook. Alexei gaped as his expression moved from mocking to serious to incredulous. “You’re serious?”
“Deadly. And you just admitted it’s your dagger.”
“This is ridiculous.” Alexei pointed at the stage. “I was onstage with the musical director, practicing the last dance for the last act. It isn’t quite right yet. And I want it to be perfect.”
Before Cole could ask another question, a gray-haired man dressed in an immaculate business suit appeared at Alexei’s side. Cole recognized him immediately: Anton Stolin, Alexei’s manager, ballet master, and the person he held responsible for taking Alexei away from him, Cole thought childishly. Cole narrowed his eyes at the older man. Stolin scowled at Cole in recognition.
Alexei immediately sensed the antagonism, never really understanding the reason. He stepped in between the two men. “Cole is investigating Irina’s death,” Alexei said.
“Such a tragedy,” Anton said, leaning on his ever-present cane. “Poor child.”
Cole turned to Stolin. “How well did you know Miss Markhov?”
“I didn’t really know her personally. She was one of the dancers hired in Russia by an agency on our behalf. She was an average dancer but a very sweet girl.” Stolin glanced sideways at Alexei, then back at Cole. “Did Alexei tell you about the threats?” he asked.
“Threats?” Cole raised an eyebrow at Alexei. “What sort of threats?”
Alexei shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
Anton glowered at Alexei. “Let the FBI be the judge of what is or isn’t important,” he said. “It might have something to do with poor Irina’s death.”
Alexei sighed. “Letters. One received last week, one two days ago, and one received maybe two weeks ago, I think. Saying I have danced my last dance. You know the sort of thing.”
“Have you still got them?” Cole asked.
“I told him to keep them. Go to the police…. But no, Alexei Valchikovsky knows best,” Anton said.
Alexei shook his head, ignoring Anton. “I didn’t think they were serious. I just thought it was the work of a crank fan. I didn’t think. Sorry.”
Cole pursed his lips, annoyed. “Were they posted or delivered by hand? Handwritten or typed?”
“They just appeared in my dressing room. I don’t think there were stamps on the envelopes. So I guess hand-delivered. And typed in bold letters,” Alexei replied.
Cole nodded before turning back to Anton. “I’ll need to see all the employee records, including Irina’s. And I would like to talk to as many of the troupe as possible.”
“Of course. We’ll all do what we can to help. You can use my office,” Anton said. “I’ll take you there now.” He turned, limping in the direction of the corridor behind the piled-up scenery.
“Thank you.” Cole glanced at Alexei. “I may need to talk to you again once tests have been carried out on the dagger and the body.”
Alexei’s dark eyes glinted as he smiled. “You’ll have my undivided attention.”
Cole glared before hurrying after Stolin, desperately trying to ignore the sensation of Alexei staring at his ass.
As Cole caught up with him, Stolin glanced sideways, his eyes cold. “Alexei doesn’t need any distractions.”
“I don’t intend to distract anyone,” Cole answered. “I’m here to investigate a murder. Nothing else.”
Stolin narrowed his eyes at Cole. “This tour is important. The performances so far have been sellouts, and Alexei is being hailed as one of the greatest dancers of his time. New York is important to Alexei and his career. This is his time. It’s a dream come true, and he doesn’t need a love-struck FBI agent getting in the way and ruining his career or his life.”
The words stung more than he would have believed they could, and Cole felt his anger rising. He pushed the feelings down, determined to remain professional. “I’ve heard all this before… six months ago, you said the same things,” he said. “And just for the record, I would never have stood in the way of Alexei and his career. But you didn’t believe me. So I left, like you wanted. Alexei and I are done. Over. Finished. But I have a job to do, and I intend to do it. I will not let Alexei, you, or any past feelings get in my way. And I will find out who killed Irina Markhov. And then I’ll be gone from your lives again.” Cole knew the words sounded bitter, but he didn’t care. Alexei was the love of his life, but for once Cole was going to put his own life and career first.
“Good,” Stolin replied with a small, triumphant smile. “I’m glad we understand each other.”
Cole really wanted to punch Stolin but resisted the urge. “Do you think the threats are real?” Cole asked instead. It seemed to him too coincidental that the threatening letters had been received just before Irina Markhov’s death, and Cole’s gut instinct was telling him the events were connected somehow. He never ignored his gut instinct but knew convincing Bremner of the connection based on a feeling was another matter altogether. Cole needed proof and cold, hard facts to convince his commanding officer.
Anton sighed. “Maybe.” He stopped, waving his hand at an open door. “My office. Help yourself. The personnel files are all in the top drawer of the desk. I’ll send the dancers along as they arrive for work.”
Anton narrowed his eyes at Cole again, scowling. “But I meant what I said. Stay away from Alexei. He doesn’t want or need you in his life.”
Cole glared. “And I don’t want him in mine.”
He stepped into the office, slamming the door on Anton. Leaning against the door, Cole struggled to get his breathing under control. Pushing off the door, he slumped down behind the desk, organizing his notebook and pen in front of him. “Alexei Valchikovsky means nothing to you. You don’t love him anymore. You’re so over him,” Cole said over and over in his head, knowing it was a lie. Sighing, he opened the desk drawer, pulling out the stack of personnel files. He opened the top folder, hoping that concentrating on the case would distract him from thoughts of Alexei.