Just a little further... just another few turns, Victoria thought, and then the Russian consul would have his back to the window, a perfect target for the tranquilizer dart in her gun. She ran through the plan in her head, waiting. He would collapse, the dance floor would be thrown into chaos, and while the EMTs – really other MI6 agents – tended to the fallen man, she could sneak into the upper levels of the consulate and search out the missile silo plans. She just needed to wait for movement on the dance floor to put her target in the frame for her, and…
"Such a beautiful woman ought to be part of the celebrations, not watching from afar," a man said from behind her in Russian. "Ah," he added, seeing her hand fly to her breast in shock, "but I have startled you, my apologies. Allow me to make it up to you with a dance."
Victoria had used her not-entirely-feigned motion of surprise to tuck her derringer away in her cleavage. Now she turned and took in the man who was doing his best to bollix up her mission. "The fault is mine," she replied, also in Russian. "I needed some fresh air, but I shouldn't have snuck away alone." She recognized him immediately – ironically, from the dossiers she'd collected from one of her assets only days before. The intel was on its way to London, a microdot on the back of a postcard assuring her aunt Minnie that Victoria was enjoying a relaxing vacation in Rome, but she'd read the original files before destroying them.
Ivan Simanov, KGB nursemaid, second-in-command to the Russian consul, and noted womanizer, smiled at her and held out his hand.
Bugger, Victoria thought, feeling her heart start to race. Rather than utilizing the calming exercises she'd practiced, though, she went with it, knowing the adrenaline would make her face flush and her eyes sparkle becomingly as she put her hand in his.
"It could be dangerous for a woman out here alone," Ivan continued – in Ukrainian, Victoria realized with surprise. He'd switched languages mid-conversation, picking up on the accent she'd cultivated in her Russian courtesy of a grandmother who'd fled Kyiv just ahead of the terror-famine. He could be trouble, she realized, giving a little cough to check that her gun was securely hidden between her breasts.
"I'm lucky it was you who found me, then," she said in the same language as they re-entered the consulate. She lifted two flutes of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter and saw the undercover agent take in Victoria, Ivan, and the consul – who was now doing an undignified tango with an Italian diplomat's wife – before he guided off to the kitchen. "To happy coincidences," Victoria said, handing Ivan one of the flutes. He drained it in one gulp, then took hers and set it aside, leading her onto the dance floor.
Another waltz began and he drew her close, though Victoria was careful to maintain a polite distance in order to keep him from feeling the holster under her dress. Her mind spun as she tried to gauge what level of engagement was appropriate to her cover. Thankfully, Ivan broke the silence before she had to.
"Quite the event," he said, turning Victoria elegantly so she got a full view of the opulent ballroom. The words were mild, but his grip tightened enough that she looked up. His gaze was fixed on the overflowing buffet table, its lavish spread a mockery of the privations that were still affecting the Soviet citizenry.
"Do you not enjoy balls?" she asked disingenuously. "But you dance so well!" He did, too – even distracted, he steered her expertly about the floor, much lighter on his feet than she would have guessed from his muscular physique. She matched him effortlessly; all assassins learned how to move with care, she reminded herself.
Ivan smiled down at her. "I have never been accused of being overly diplomatic," he said. "I prefer direct action to the slower process of these events. Yet we live in different times now – and these things do have their compensations." He ran a hand down over Victoria's hip to cup her arse, and she swayed into him with a startled squeak.
I'll show you action, she thought murderously, but managed to let out a laugh before tugging his hand up to a slightly less scandalous level. "There must be more than enough... action... at some of these balls," she said, trying to distract him by playing the wide-eyed ingénue. "Aren't you worried about the Americans crashing the party?" Or us Brits, she didn't say, watching another agent putting on a good act of a drunken idiot. She hoped it was an act.
"The Yanks couldn't get in here with a tank," Ivan said dismissively. "I'm quartered above, to keep an eye on the consul, and the security is impeccable."
Sure it is, you gobshite, Victoria thought contemptuously, then nearly tripped over the hem of her dress. She apologized to Ivan carelessly, blaming the champagne, while her mind analyzed the new intel. He's staying in the Consulate. If I can get him to take me up there, I can search the offices all night and have a legitimate entry in case anyone wonders. They won't know anything's happened until long after I leave. And I'll be the only one who might get burned. No matter how she went over the facts, she couldn't see any better resolution to her situation. The only problem was whether she could get Ivan to take her up to his room in the first place.
Then his hand slid down to palm Victoria's arse again, drawing her close against him, and she realized that access wouldn't be an issue.
The waltz drew to a close and Victoria joined in the polite applause for the band. They struck up a traditional Russian tune next, but she begged off, unsure her week spent practicing the steps in a warehouse in Brixton would hold up among a crowd who'd been doing them since birth. Turning from Ivan, she hesitated for a moment, seeming to think better of it, before turning back and running her hand along his strong jaw. "But save the last dance for me," she whispered, and slipped away as he nodded.
She darted to the loo and dawdled in front of the mirror, fixing her makeup, until only the attendant was left in the room with her.
"Not going as planned?" Jane inquired archly.
"Oh, ha bloody ha." Victoria pulled the gun out of her bra and handed it off, hoping the welt it had dug into her breast would fade quickly. "Change of plan, in fact. I've caught the attention of the 2IC. Going to try and run a honeytrap. I'll need an extraction team on alert all night, can you pass it on?"
"Of course. You're sure you want me to take the gun?"
Victoria nodded. "Bit hard to explain away if things get that far." She pulled the holster off her thigh; Jane tucked it under the stack of towels in the corner. "I've still got my corset and my shoes."
Jane hesitated, then twisted a jewelled ring off her finger. "Best take this as well, just in case. You'll be all right with... the rest of it?" she finished delicately.
Victoria flashed back to the surprising skill with which Ivan moved, the gentleness of his hands and the hard lines of his body when he'd pulled her close. "It's not the worst sacrifice I'll have made for Queen and country," she said dryly. "Remember Comrade Chorney?"
Jane grimaced, Victoria laughed, and then the door opened and a gaggle of diplomat's daughters flooded in. "Thank you again," Victoria said in her accented Russian, slipping out before the door shut fully.
The party was winding down when Victoria returned to the dance floor, but try as she might she couldn't see Ivan anywhere. The consul, however, was right in the middle of the room, presenting an infuriatingly perfect target; Victoria was wondering if she should regret leaving her gun with Jane when she felt a pair of arms wrap around her waist from behind. Conquering her instinctual urge to jab her elbow back into his solar plexus, she relaxed back into Ivan's embrace.
"I was afraid you'd left without saying goodbye," she said playfully, deciding her cover identity could be a bit of a tease but was by no means a giggler.
"Run off on a beautiful woman before the final dance?" Ivan replied. "I would never tempt fate so." He drew her out onto the floor, pulling her far closer than strictly proper. She allowed it this time, knowing the gun and holster could no longer give her away. They swayed together until long after the final note sounded.
Eventually, Ivan spoke again. "Must the evening end so early?"
Victoria's heart leapt in triumph. "I see no reason why," she answered coyly, making no move to step away from Ivan.
"Will you join me in my room for a nightcap?" Ivan asked courteously.
There were still bottles of wine and champagne scattered across the tables, but Victoria ignored them. "I would be delighted," she said, letting Ivan lead her up the sweeping staircase. Miles gave her a furtive thumbs-up as they passed him.
Ivan was almost gentlemanly when they reached his small suite of rooms; Victoria hadn't expected him to actually pour her a drink, nor to keep his attention so fully trained on her that she couldn't dispose of it and had instead to sip it sparingly. She couldn't afford to get plastered before she finished the assignment. When Ivan finally kissed her, though, they both tasted of expensive vodka, and it set her a bit off balance. She swayed into him, his broad hands on her waist keeping her upright, and let herself forget for a moment what she was planning to do.
Her fingers flew as she unknotted his tie, shoved his suit jacket off his shoulders, spread open his shirt to bare his chest to her touch. She knelt, glancing up at him through her eyelashes, to untie his shoes and tug off his trousers, and when he was wearing only pants and, incongruously, black socks, she stood so he could return the favour.
He drew the zip on the back of her gown down slowly and let the fabric drop at her feet. She kicked it aside, but didn't turn. "But what is this?" he asked, tugging at the laces that held her scalloped corset in place, tight against her breasts and belly. "Another layer?"
She glanced over her bare shoulder, fully aware of the seductive picture she posed. "Think of it as gift wrapping," she said throatily. "The longer the anticipation, the greater the pleasure."
"Then I shall be very thorough," he whispered. Undoing the bow, he began removing the laces from the corset, freeing each set of eyelets before passing the laces through the next pair. Finally he reached the top and pulled the laces completely apart from the corset.
Victoria turned to face him, holding the material against her chest for a moment before letting it drop. She stood before him in knickers, stockings, and heels, and the glazed look that stole over his face was gratifying.
"Let me take care of that," she breathed, plucking the laces from his fingers. She trailed the ends across his chest, circling in behind him and leaning in to press her bare breasts into his back. Ivan moaned.
Victora took immediate advantage of his lack of focus, knocking him forward onto the bed and planting a knee in his back to hold him down. Whipping the titanium-reinforced corset laces around his neck, she wrapped the ends around her hands and garrotted him until he passed out.
Acting quickly, Victoria flipped him over, using the laces to bind his hands and tie them to the headboard. He was only out for a few minutes; when he came to, Victoria was sitting on his chest. "Ah!" she said, covering his mouth when he took in breath to speak. "I wouldn't." She raised her other hand to show one of the shoes she'd been wearing. She'd removed the heel sheath to reveal a wickedly sharp stiletto; it glinted in the light as she lowered it towards his face.
"Now," she said, holding the blade steady just above his eye. "Why don't you tell me where the missile silo plans are?"
"Bitch!" he grated out in heavily accented English. "Who sent you?"
"That would be telling," Victoria chided him, still in Russian. No need to give him her nationality. "The plans?"
"And then what, you kill me?" Ivan yanked at his bonds; the headboard clattered against the wall and Victoria laughed.
"A bit more of that and they won't wonder when it goes quiet in here." She smirked, waving one hand to display the ring Jane had given her. She pressed the underside of the band and a jewel popped out of its setting, swinging aside to reveal a glistening needle. "Tell me where the plans are and this will put you to sleep for the rest of the night. I'm sure someone will come and get you in the morning. Eventually. Don't tell me where the plans are, well." She ran the stiletto across his cheekbone; blood welled up quickly from the thin cut. "I might have to get creative."
Ivan pulled at the laces again, rattling the headboard, but the knots held and he sank back, frustrated.
"Take your time," Victoria said, resettling herself more comfortably on his chest and smiling. "I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, don't you?"