BY: LARYSA RYCHKOVA
Two forces in a race against time…who will win?
After a whirlwind romance, a middle-aged Russian woman, Lara Petrova, marries an aging British businessman—Derek Harrison. Unbeknown to Lara, Derek, a seemingly successful business owner under immense pressure to keep his business in the black, has agreed to collaborate with the Russian secret services against Lara’s son Alex.
Alex, is studying nuclear energy science for his doctorate at Stockholm University, and has invented an important new source of energy, which could remove the need for fossil fuels for any country which becomes the owner of this ground-breaking technology. The Russians want the invention at any cost, Japan would be more than interested, but the British want it, too.
Alex just wants to stay alive…
The white Yak 42 with blue flashes touched down smoothly on the tarmac at Saratov airport in southern Russia, with barely a squeal from the tires. The roar of the engines filled the air as the pilot engaged reverse thrust to bring the aircraft down to taxi speed.
Outside of the airport, near the arrivals gate, a small crowd had gathered many carrying flowers for their expected friends and family. They were all trying to catch sight of the passengers descending from the belly of the plane. Everyone was looking for someone and there was a frisson of excitement and expectation in the air.
Towards the back of the crowd an attractive woman in her earlier fifties, was waiting patiently. She had long, glossy dark brown hair, which was curled into an immaculate chignon, and wore a smart, pale green business suit, which perfectly complemented her large green eyes. Looking down at her hands, which were holding five roses, loosely tied with a blue and gold ribbon, she saw that they were shaking slightly which she tried to hide. This might be a very important day in her life—a man she had been longing to meet was due to fly in from the capital.
She carefully checked each new passenger as they emerged from the plane, but she could not see him. Finally, she noticed a man, who looked just like the man in the picture in her handbag—tall and with short grey hair. Her heartbeat quickened…this must be him! Would he recognize her? She had sent him many photographs during the last month—a whole two months of exchanged letters and calls. He must surely recognize her! She waited eagerly for him to appear through the exit gate, lifting the flowers ready to wave, but as he drew closer, a woman with two small children, rushed to embrace him. And he was the last passenger to leave…
A dark wave of disappointment engulfed her, suddenly she just wanted to sit down and not move. She couldn’t believe that there were no more passengers. Where was her much expected man then? When she saw the pilot and the stewardess leaving the plane she approached them and asked if everyone left the aircraft.
The pilot smiled at her and said gently, “Yes, I’m sorry madam, there’s no one else on board.”
She stood there, confused and disappointed, the only person left in the arrivals hall.
By now it was getting quite late and the place was very quiet. She was numb with frustration and just wanted to sit down and cry. What could have happened? Why hadn’t he come? From his letters, he had seemed to be so genuine and reliable. And now—
What should she do? She couldn’t face returning to her car, where her driver had a bottle of Champagne in a cool bag, waiting for her and her guest. She decided to leave it a little longer so that she could calm down and cool off a bit before the drive home. She didn’t want her young driver to see her unhappiness. After a few moments, she stood up and walked towards the exit, trying hard to conceal her emotions.
As she passed the Information Desk, she stopped to ask about arrivals from Moscow. The bored looking clerk was stuffing a sandwich into her mouth and it was clear that it would be too much of an effort for her to make the necessary phone calls. Lara was insistent and it was finally confirmed that there had been no one called Harrison on the passenger list of any of the flights that day. And no, it would be of no use to call back later.
She breathed deeply and the let the air out slowly. She walked to her car, dumping the beautiful flowers in a bin on the way. Her driver had the door of the car open and immediately saw that all was not well. She managed to give him a neutral smile and said, “Let’s go, there will be no guest tonight.”
She fastened her seat belt, turned on the radio, and stared sadly into the darkness from the speeding car. Random thoughts jangled in her tired brain—what could have happened? She pressed her hands to her temples, as she could feel a headache coming on. She realized, with a sudden, sharp pain, that soon she would be back in her flat, where all her careful preparations, caviar and champagne would be for nothing. The apartment would be unbearably empty and silent.
Lara thanked her driver and took the lift to her eighth-floor flat. Turning on the lights she threw her jacket onto a chair and went into the bathroom. She splashed some water on her face and glanced in the mirror. She saw a mature, but still beautiful face with big green eyes, a small straight nose and sensuous lips. She tried to control her emotions, but tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She told herself that she would be strong, that it was time to sleep and that tomorrow would be better—tomorrow she would be able to cope with the situation, to think rationally.
The next morning, after a fitful sleep she awoke early. She stood up and stretched in front of her full length cheval mirror. Her body was still fit and well-proportioned, both from nature and a life-long love affair with the gym and swimming pools. She had always been determined to remain as slim and active as possible. There was the odd bit of cellulite, but nobody would take her to be in her early fifties. Only an occasional pain in her knees or lower back reminded her of her age. She took a good shower and, still in her dressing gown, had a light breakfast of cottage cheese with honey, fruit, and black coffee. She then put on an elegant grey skirt suit, carefully adjusted her Hermes silk scarf, which her absent guest had sent her as a present from England, and left her apartment building. Her driver was already waiting and opened the car door with a salute and a cheery good morning.
At the main entrance of her office building, Lara jumped quickly out of the car and put the happenings of the previous day out of her mind. She smiled, remembering that she was needed and respected here. Her job was absorbing and challenging—it showcased her talent and determination to find solutions for that part of the town’s population who were in search of jobs. Crossing the main hall, she called friendly good mornings to clients waiting for appointments and the various staff members already at their desks. In the light, spacious outer office, which was occupied by her deputy and a lawyer, she checked their plans for the day and hurried upstairs to her own office.
She exchanged pleasantries with her secretary Olga and quickly ascertained that there was nothing requiring her immediate attention.
“There will be a staff meeting in my office in an hour,” she said. “Please ask them to be ready to discuss plans for this week, and I’d like a cup of coffee please.”
When she was alone, she took a deep breath, put her handbag on the office chair, and sat down on the small sofa to plan the meeting.
Concentrating on her work today was proving very difficult, her thoughts returned constantly to what on earth could have happened to her visitor, and why he had not contacted her.
She completed all her routine tasks on autopilot, meetings with employees, checking and signing files, making decisions about budgets. Her thoughts returned again and again to Derek, who had not come.”
He had such a lovely speaking voice, his emails were so sweet, so wise and serious. What had she done wrong? Maybe someone better, someone younger had come along? Who knows? I guess that’s life, she thought. I’ve always had to fight, I shall fight again.
Lara realized suddenly that the day was almost over and she must soon return to her flat—a particularly dismal prospect with no sign of good news.
Once in the car, she asked her driver to take her first to a place on the riverbank where she sometimes liked to spend half an hour looking at the beautiful panorama of the mighty Volga. From bank to bank it was maybe three miles, and in some places you could not see the opposite side. Lara always liked to be near the river, to feel a breeze against her face and feel the energy from the water. Some peace of mind might come near the huge river, which she had loved since childhood.
Back in the car, the traffic was light and she was soon home. Maria, the concierge, was sitting as usual in a cozy corner of the entrance hall, checking arriving residents for security. She was very friendly with Lara and asked about her children, but Lara was in no mood for conversation that day, so she just smiled and said that they were Ok, hurrying on to the lift.
Lara’s daughter, Oleva, had met a Swedish man some years ago through the Internet and, after a short romance, had married him. Lara was happy that everything seemed to be going so well with her beloved child. She believed that her Swedish son-in-law was a kind and reliable man, who would look after her daughter, and as she knew that Oleva was loving and caring there was no reason to worry. Their marriage had every chance of success.
Her son, Alex, had already been abroad for several years, and was at present studying Nuclear Science at Stockholm University. Next year he should complete his Ph.D. And, she hoped, he would find a good job, there were plenty of nuclear power stations in the world, where educated young professionals were in demand.
Her son’s success made his mother proud, confident that he would do well in his chosen field. He had always worked hard and, just a month ago, had called her to share a very special piece of news. During his research work at the university he had discovered the possibility of developing a completely new energy source! It was very early days, and Alex would say nothing more about it as there was still much research to do.
“It is potentially very, very important, mum, but please, put it out of your mind for now. Don’t tell anyone, but one day, I think, you will be very proud of me.”
Lara didn’t take any of this too seriously, but still tucked the information away. She would always be proud of her handsome son whatever he did.
After a quick shower, she lay back on the sofa in her silk dressing gown and switched on the TV to relax for an hour. She felt so emotionally drained that she needed to close her eyes and rest.
Suddenly, opening her eyes she realized that she had slept for nearly half an hour. Feeling somewhat refreshed, she decided to call her friend Alina and tell her that Derek had not turned up.
“…Can you imagine how I felt?! He just didn’t appear! And I still have no idea why. What do you think, Alina?”
“You do realize that some foreign men just like to play games, Lara. We don’t really know anything about your Derek, although, I must say that when I was helping you to translate his emails, he did seem very genuine and I was inclined to trust him more than not. It really is odd that you have heard nothing. Maybe you should try and call him—something might have happened to him?”
Lara was torn by the idea of chasing after Derek and decided to call her son in Stockholm, first.
“Hi, darling, it’s Mama—how are you? I could really do with a little advice from a man of the world.”
She explained about her missing guest and asked if Alex would call him on her behalf. He would do this better as his English was much better than hers. She gave him the number, and hung up, still not sure if she was sad or angry.
A few minutes later the phone rang. “There was no reply, Mum. I think it might be best if you just try to forget him. He doesn’t seem very reliable to me.”
She was hoping for a charming, decent man who would be faithful and devoted to her. She wanted someone who would share her life and whose values were the same as her own. She needed something more than just a good secure job. She wanted to be with someone—her own man! After her first marriage ended in divorce, she had not met anyone with whom she could even consider a lasting relationship—all the decent men were married.
Her circle of friends mainly comprised of powerful business people with good social positions and although they were very understanding and always willing to help her, she wanted love, affection and intimacy—she was aching to give her heart to someone.
Lara breathed deeply, taking the small pile of his letters from her bureau. As she read, she thought he sounded sincere enough…two grown up daughters, neither married yet, but both living with partners—one had a small son.
Derek had been married twice, which did not sound too good, but his last wife had died suddenly, so it was not his fault that he was single again. He certainly came across as an honest, caring man without the usual emotional baggage. And he had a lovely telephone voice—he had even called her princess. Hardly how she saw herself, but flattery is very pleasant for any woman. He seemed to be sincere and wrote beautifully, with a strong, masculine hand. He’d had a business for 26 years, which suggested both ability and stability. Lara didn’t really understand exactly what he did yet, but his company seemed to be doing well, which was the main thing. Everything had looked so promising—except, where in God’s name was he?
She snapped out of her reverie.
What am I thinking about? I really am losing my head! This man failed to show up, without a word, and here I am still thinking about living with him. Am I insane?
It was getting late and she was feeling hungry so went to her comfortable kitchen to rustle up something quick for supper. She was admiring her stylish granite worktops, and thinking about a glass of wine when the phone rang! A call at this time of night was unusual—she ran to the phone, her heart beating wildly.
“Oh, Thank God. It’s you! What on earth happened? Where are you, Derek? Yes, yes…All right—I’m writing the number down now. Don’t worry, everything will be all right. You found me—I won’t let you go now. I’ll call you straight back at your hotel.”
Her face was getting hot and red with excitement, her heartbeat quickened with pleasure, and her hands were trembling a little from the shock of such an unexpected surprise. At last he was here! It was magical. She hurried to the kitchen for a glass of water then grabbed the phone.
“Hello, Derek. I was so worried about you. Where were you? Tell me what happened.”
She was so thrilled to hear his voice that she only partly listened to what he said, and certainly didn’t understand every word. However, despite her excitement, she had a very acute woman’s intuition, and had a worrying feeling that he was not telling her the whole truth, that he was holding something back.
“Derek, it’s very late now and I cannot come to your hotel tonight. If you can wait there alone for a few more hours, I will come in the morning. It is about a two-hour drive from Balakovo to you in Saratov, so I should be there by ten. Is that good?”
“I’ll be fine here till the morning, Lara, but I cannot wait to see you! I am looking forward to it so much. Till tomorrow—sleep well.”
Despite the late hour, she picked up the phone again and called her secretary
“Olga? I am so sorry to disturb you at home so late. Look, I need to take some holiday. I am going to the Saratov tomorrow, but would prefer to keep it quiet. Please, will you find the letter, at my desk, that needs to go to the Regional Office and make sure it is sent tomorrow? Thanks. I’ll keep in touch while I am away to check on things.”
Lara began to pack quickly, her mood buoyant. She tried various clothes in front of the mirror, smiling to herself, and imagining their first meeting.
The day dawned clear and sunny, birds were singing gaily in the trees. The building where Lara lived was on an avenue in the greenest part of town, close to the banks of the river. Normally she did not notice the birds, but this morning her own heart was singing in unison—maybe even more loudly than the birds.
As expected, it took a little over two hours to reach the city of Saratov. The driver, Peter, was quiet during the journey thinking about his own domestic problems. His wife had no job, and he had two little girls to bring up, his salary was barely sufficient to feed everyone. Despite his troubles he could not help but notice that his boss was in an unusually happy mood, singing to herself most of the way. Obviously, something pretty dramatic had happened since last night. Once in the suburbs, she asked that he drop her at the Metropole Hotel and return to the office. She mentioned that she would be taking a short holiday and that her secretary Olga would let him know when to come back. He was very pleased when she also said that she was looking into the possibility of giving him a raise, despite the normal rates being fixed by the government.
As she got out of the car, Lara’s heart was jumping almost out of her chest. This man, whom she had liked instantly from his letters and photos was waiting for her in this very hotel! She had decided that nobody should know about the new man in case she did not get on with him as well as hoped. This was why she had sent her driver back instead of having him drive them both to the airport. She asked the receptionist for Mr. Harrison’s room number and followed her directions to the lift. She checked her hair and make-up in the mirror and trying desperately to remain calm, she went along the corridor to his room.
She knocked in the door and in the next moment the door opened, revealing a good looking, man in his early sixties. He had a short grey hair and was casually dressed in a fawn, V-necked cashmere sweater and matching slacks. He had a charming smile, and opened his arms to embrace her.
“At last! I am so glad to see you!”
He held her back at arm’s length admiringly.
“God, you are really beautiful—so much more so than your photograph. It’s truly wonderful to finally meet you, Lara.”
“Welcome to Russia, Derek—welcome to my country.”
Smiling happily, she put both her hands in his hand and could already feel the passion rising within her from his touch.