Mannsborough Tales 3: Svetlana's Second Chance

by Vulgar Argot

Caution: This Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Romantic, Slow, .

Desc: Sex Story: Now that she's no longer Mrs. Ivan Vandevoort, Svetlana has to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Not wanting to be idle or useless, she decides to drop out of the life she had and drop in to college. She soon discovers that college life is something she was not entirely prepared for.

Svetlana didn't even glance up when the doorbell rang. Despite the fact that he left her alone all but three or four days out of the month, Karl liked the illusion that she was completely helpless and, without him around, would soon starve or go mad due to her inability to perform even the simplest of tasks, like opening doors or turning on the television, for herself. For the most part, Sveta was happy to humor him. After all, he let her stay in this fairly posh apartment and asked so little in return.

He stuck his close-cropped blonde head in the door of the room where she was reclining. Frowning fiercely, he said, "There's a young man here asking for you, Sveta. He says he is your attorney." His English was heavily accented with German.

Svetlana smiled, "Thank you, Karl." Her own English was heavily accented with Russian, "And, Karl. Could you run down and pick up more orange juice? We are all out."

Karl's frown deepened into a scowl, "You are sure you do not want me to stay? I have many dealings with lawyers."

Svetlana's smile didn't leave her face. But, she said, "It's all right, dear. I have to resolve a small matter that I left unfinished in New York. It will be no problem."

Karl's smile was obviously forced, "Very well. I will be back shortly."

Svetlana rose and kissed him. Karl's smile became more genuine, "Be careful with him."

She nodded, knowing that Karl's warning had nothing to do with lawyers. Macartin Laughlin was a devilishly handsome man who knew it and had made no bones about his desire for Svetlana. For her own part, Sveta didn't see any benefit either to sleeping with him or discouraging his pursuits. After all, Karl might get bored with her at which point she would need another place to stay.

"Sveta," he said, sweeping into the room. "I just received a delivery that I thought you would want brought to you immediately."

"Oh," asked Svetlana. "What is it?"

Placing his briefcase on the side table, Macartin dialed in a combination and clicked it open. With a flourish, he extracted a FedEx envelope. Sliding his hand inside, he extracted a smaller envelope.

"This arrived at noon, along with a sheaf of related documents," he said.

Svetlana knew Macartin's love of the dramatic and wondered what sort of grand gesture he was expecting from her. She considered batting her eyelashes, clutching her hands together and saying, "Do so tell me what it is." But, that would probably be too over-the-top even for Macartin, so she just waited patiently for him to get to the point.

Looking vaguely disappointed, he handed her the envelope. Svetlana opened the flap, sliding out a small, green piece of paper, approximately the size and shape of a check. Turning it over, Sveta looked at it, puzzled. She'd seen such gag checks before, even been fooled by them when she first came to America, thinking that Publisher's Clearinghouse was really sending her husband ten million dollars. It was not such a far-fetched conceit. Ivan had been worth many times that before his recent legal troubles.

Then, she blinked and realized that this was not a check to Ivan, but from Ivan. Her hand rose to her mouth in stunned silence. She turned the check back and forth in her hand, not believing that such a small thing could be so very important.

Now, Macartin was smiling broadly. Obviously, Sveta had inadvertently played into his fantasy of how this scene should go. She was too stunned to care one way or another.

"I thought you said this could take years," she said.

Macartin nodded, "Quite often, it does. But, apparently Ivan has decided to stop contesting the prenup. The documents that came with it made it pretty clear that this is an indicator of a cessation of all legal ties between you two, both litigious and matrimonial." Slipping out another envelope from his briefcase, he handed it to Svetlana, "He finally signed the divorce papers as well."

Sveta took the envelope, not opening it, "That's wonderful. Mr. Laughlin, could I impose upon you for a ride to the bank? I would like to get this deposited before they close for the weekend."

"Of course," said Macartin. "It would be an honor."

In the car, he said, "We should go out and celebrate. This is going to be a big turning point in your life. You're a rich, beautiful, single woman now. You should start enjoying it."

Sveta's smile was cautious. She was already calculating how to get the seven-figure contingency fee she'd agreed to for his services reduced and it wouldn't do to get entangled, "I am afraid that I cannot. Karl and I have plans this evening. I thank you for asking though."

He smiled back, "Another time, then."

Inside the bank, Svetlana waited on line nervously. It being Friday, a lot of people were there at the last minute, trying to deposit or cash paychecks. Never having been in a bank at closing time, she didn't know what would happen if she were still on line, then.

As it turned out, at closing time, the guards merely locked the front doors, letting no one else in, but leaving the current line of customers inside. Sveta smiled. That was a very American way of doing things.

When she handed the check to the teller, the woman looked her over. Then, without trying to be too obvious, she pressed a button under her desk. A few seconds later, a manager appeared. He asked Svetlana to produce identification. Even after she did, he eyed her suspiciously.

Svetlana couldn't blame him. Karl had been so enamored of her youth that she had started dressing the part for him. Currently, she was wearing blue jeans and a gray t-shirt with the logo for Boston College. And, she had just deposited a check fifteen million dollars.

Finally, the manager said, "We're going to need to verify this. The funds won't be available until next Friday."

Svetlana nodded, "Of course." She was anxious to confirm that the money was in her account, but careful not to show that anxiety. Before she left, the manager was trying to sell her the bank's investment services. Somehow, his attempt to grab a chunk of the money made it more real.

-=-

Svetlana saw no reason not to spend the weekend with Karl. He was a competent lover, not creative enough to be cruel. For a man in his early fifties, he kept himself trim and in decent shape. Best of all, he assumed Svetlana was an empty-headed girl with no concerns beyond how he would amuse her today. It was an impression that Svetlana cultivated carefully and one which gave her plenty of time to think about things that didn't concern Karl at all.

Once Karl flew back to Germany and his wife, Svetlana found herself feeling nostalgic towards the apartment. It had never really been home, but it felt that way anyhow. On Tuesday, the bank called to confirm that the check had indeed cleared and to again try to sell her the bank's investment services.

Karl wouldn't be back for at least another two weeks. Svetlana split her time between studying up on her investment options and looking for a place of her own. As Karl's return drew closer, she'd made very little progress on the former and was still up in the air on the latter, but the more she realized she didn't know about... well, everything... the more she was drawn towards a particular course of action.

Two days before Karl would have returned, Svetlana braced herself and made a phone call.

"Hello," said Tryne when she picked up the phone.

"Tryne, it is your stepmother."

She could hear the pause before Tryne answered, "Not anymore, Svetlana. Now, you're my father's ex-wife. The divorce is final. What are you calling me for?"

Svetlana smiled. Tryne had only been in charge of the Mannsborough branch of the family for a few months. But, she was already all business. Despite the fact that Tryne actively disliked her, Svetlana found herself hoping things turned out well for her. Under different circumstances, they might have been friends, particularly since they were the same age.

"I need a favor," Svetlana said point blank.

"I ordered my father to send you a check for fifteen million dollars," said Tryne. "How many more favors are you going to ask for?"

"Ordered?" Svetlana let the word hang in the air.

She could hear Tryne sigh over the phone, "In a manner of speaking. I told him that he would have to settle your prenup if he wanted me to throw the weight of the family's legal team behind him in his recent... unpleasantness. Apparently, he hates the idea of paying you off slightly less than he does that of going to jail."

"Is he going to jail?" Svetlana asked.

"Almost certainly," said Tryne. "Did you call me to ask after my father's well being?"

"No," said Svetlana. "As I said, I need a favor."

"Why would I want to do you a favor?"

Svetlana smiled, "Because this favor will keep me busy and out of Vandevoort family politics."

"You're already out of Vandevoort family politics."

Svetlana laughed, "Am I? Do you think I spent all those years in your father's house and attended all of those family events and never formed alliances of my own? You have many relatives both here and in Amsterdam who would love to see you replaced as head of the Vandevoort Foundation with someone more to their liking."

"I don't doubt that I do," said Tryne.

"Hear my request," said Svetlana. "You may find it amusing."

"All right," said Tryne. "I have a lot of things to take care of today."

Svetlana told her what she wanted. On the other end of the line, Tryne laughed explosively. Svetlana waited patiently for the laughter to subside.

"You'll fail," said Tryne.

"Perhaps," said Svetlana. "If I do, it will serve to vindicate your low opinion of me."

There was another long pause. Then, Tryne said, "I have no bond of affection for you, Svetlana. As far as I'm concerned, you were household staff and not the only member of the staff sleeping with my father. If I do this, I do not ever want to hear from you again. Are we agreed?"

"Of course," said Svetlana. "After all, how can a mother not give in to such a sweet request from her favorite daughter?"

-=-

Svetlana spent the rest of the summer learning the ins and outs of living alone in America. It was a new experience for her. In Moscow, she'd had three roommates in an apartment that would have been a tight fit for two. When she'd come to America, Ivan had set her up with a place on the outskirts of Chicago. Then, she'd been alone much of the time. But, it hadn't been the same. Someone paid her rent. Someone delivered her groceries. She had a maid to make the bed and vacuum the floor.

Now, she was really on her own. She considered getting a maid and all the rest. But, she decided against it. She'd seen those women--the ones who remained helpless as they bounced from husband to husband. When they lost their looks, they invariably either married some milksop who would wait on them hand and foot or became shut-ins, too afraid of the world to leave their apartments.

She finally figured out what to do with the money she'd earned. When she told her investment advisor, he said, "Svetlana, you're a young woman. You should take more risks. This portfolio would be more appropriate for a retiree."

Svetlana laughed, "That is exactly what I was looking for. As of today, I am retired."

-=-

For the most part, she kept her promise to Tryne. It wasn't the easiest thing to extract herself from the dealings and machinations of the Vandevoorts, but she did her best. When a member of the Minnesota branch of the family spoke too freely about their plans to remove Tryne as head of the Foundation, Svetlana made sure that her stepdaughter heard about those plans through indirect channels.

She took an apartment convenient to where she needed to be. It was relatively small compared to what she was accustomed to. But, since she was taking care of it herself, smaller was better. In spite of the fact that she had months to prepare, she found herself looking forward to the first day of school with the same trepidation she'd had when she was a little girl.

She viewed with wry amusement the letter than informed her that her application had been accepted to Boston College. She'd never submitted an application. She'd also been surprised by the letter, having forgotten that her admission was not a foregone conclusion. She'd never had any doubt that the Vandevoort machine would work as advertised.

By the time registration and matriculation rolled around, Svetlana had gotten to know the neighborhood between her apartment and Boston College. The morning she was to register for classes, she did her mane of red hair up in a ponytail, washed off most of her make up, put on a sweatshirt with the logo of the college and a pair of jeans, and looked herself over critically in the full-length mirror.

"Da," she said. "Am lookink like freshman." Then, she smiled. Her accent had become much heavier since she'd moved to Boston. She didn't consider it an affectation, though--more the dropping of an affectation. She could speak unaccented English when the mood struck her, but it was an effort. And, people tended to underestimate her more when she was less intelligible.

As she tried to find her way around the college, Svetlana realized she'd made a tactical error. While she'd put a good deal of time into learning the neighborhood around the campus, she hadn't put much time into learning the campus itself. She soon became hopelessly lost.

"Excuse me," said a young man. "Are you a freshman?"

"Yes," said Svetlana. "I am freshman."

"What's your name?"

"Svetlana," she said.

"Sorry," he said. "I meant what's your last name?"

Svetlana was ready for that one. She'd made sure that all her paperwork was in her maiden named, "Kyznetsov."

"Ah," said the young man putting out his hand to shake. "I'm Jeff Mason. We register in the same place--J through Q. Let me show you where it is."

She smiled at the young man, shook his hand, and followed him to the registration tables.

When she was done registering, she saw Jeff talking to a couple of men near his age. When he spotted her emerging from the building, he raised a hand, waving to get her attention.

Svetlana came over. Jeff introduced the two men he was talking to as his roommates. Responding to some invisible signal, the two roommates took their leave. As if it were the continuation of another conversation, Jeff said, "So, Svetlana. Would you like to get a cup of coffee? Or, maybe go out for a beer later? There are plenty of places around campus that cater to college students."

Svetlana looked up into the face of the earnest young man. He was attractive in a Midwestern corn-fed sort of way. Intellectually, she knew she was only a few years older than him, but he seemed impossibly young.

Besides, she was looking forward to college being a respite from the world for her, not an opportunity to start dating college boys. She laughed lightly, "Thank you, Jeff. But, I am going to be much too busy for..."

"For beverages?" Jeff asked.

"Yes," said Svetlana. "For beverages."

"Well," said Jeff, producing a business card. "I appreciate the sentiment, but just in case you ever get thirsty, here's my number. I realize this is kind of forward, but it's a big campus and I don't know if I'll get a chance to see you again otherwise."

Svetlana took the card and smiled at Jeff. After all, he was right. It didn't cost her anything to take the card and she would probably never see him again.

-=-

Jeff was not the last man to try to get her attention. Svetlana did nothing to try to attract them, but she could not get through a week without a fellow student trying to ask her out. Some of them were quite persistent.

She also turned out to be incorrect about not seeing Jeff again. His apartment was on the way to her own. Plus, for a big campus, they seemed to end up in the same places far more often than pure chance would seem to dictate. Still, he was never pushy. He asked her out once more and, when Svetlana deferred, he said, "Well, if you ever just want to hang out, let me know." And, he didn't bring the subject up again.

It was a frosty evening in November when Svetlana found herself staring at one of the blank walls of her apartment. College had turned out to be much easier than she'd expected. After a slow start, she was easily keeping up with her work and found herself with many free hours during the week.

She'd managed to fill those hours for a while. There was plenty of research and planning to do. But, it didn't last as long as she'd thought it would. As the empty hours seemed to get longer and darker, she found herself watching television. And, it wasn't even good television. It was anything to break the silence.

The television had been on for hours and, if pressed, Svetlana could not have named one show that flickered by. She was feeling a deep sense of ennui and, while the weather could account for some of that, she knew what the underlying cause was.

She was lonely. Even when she'd been a virtual prisoner in the house in Mannsborough, she'd had the household staff to amuse her. In Boston, she had no one. She'd made no friends among her fellow students and deliberately isolated herself from the Vandevoorts.

Holding the phone in her hand, she considered the options for who she could call. Jake, who had been her keeper for Ivan, was here, but she didn't have his new number. It was a shame. He had always been kind to her and never taken advantage of her desire to embarrass her husband with members of his own staff.

It would have to be one of her collegiate suitors then. Only a half dozen had ever advanced to giving her their phone number. She laid those numbers out and considered all her options. Finally, she chose one--a handsome young man from a family that had made its fortune in cement in Mexico. He clearly considered himself suave. And, if their reactions were any indication, so did most of the young women around him. Svetlana found him somewhat pompous and cocky, but not overwhelmingly so.

When she called him, he was gracious. He invited her to one of the more posh restaurants in Boston for that weekend. That gave Svetlana a day of shopping to find clothes, shoes and jewelery appropriate for the venue. Anything like that, she'd left in Mannsborough or with Karl.

Dinner was lovely. Eduardo turned out to be capable of a good deal of charm. But, he was too intent on impressing her with his family's connections and holdings.

After dinner, she let him take her back to his apartment. She had recognized she was lonely, but hadn't realized she missed this too. Sex had been a tool for getting what she wanted. But, finding that she wanted nothing from Eduardo, she discovered that the sex could be good for its own sake.

Besides, if she hadn't slept with him, Eduardo would have taken it as an affront to his pride. This way, he called her back only once, offering her answering machine some vague promise to get together again. Svetlana hadn't returned his call and he hadn't called again.

She tried the next most likely name on her list to the same effect. Not easily daunted, she tried the third. He turned out to be a little bit more suitable--an adjunct professor a few years older than her with a sense of humor and an air of erudition. But, that fizzled out by mid-December, leaving Svetlana with precious few options.

By then, finals were coming up and Svetlana found it easy to push aside the question of her boredom. She applied herself to her studies and ended up scoring extremely well on her tests.

As such, the end of the semester and the reality of Christmas looming just ahead took her entirely by surprise. She found herself staring out the window on the evening of the twenty-second and realizing she was going to spend the holiday alone. It shouldn't matter, but somehow, it did.

One thing she'd realized from her foray into dating again was that she didn't need romance or even sex as much as she needed companionship. She'd even started to grow nostalgic for her tiny apartment in Moscow and her roommates. Only one person had offered her friendship with no strings attached. He probably hadn't meant it, but it was a start.

So, she dialed the first number she'd been given since starting college. On the other end, the phone didn't ring, but went straight to voice mail. So, she left her number and asked Jeff to call her back.

"Svetlana?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked.

"Jeff?" she asked. "It's good to hear from you."

"I was surprised to hear from you," he said. "Merry Christmas."

Svetlana suppressed a giggle at the sentiment, "Thank you, Jeff. What are you and your friends up to tonight? I'm bored."

Jeff muttered something unintelligible, then said, "I'm at the airport in Des Moines. I came home for Christmas. Are you still in Boston?"

"Yes," said Svetlana. "Boston is home now."

"Oh, well, I'm really sorry I'm not there now. Are you going to be all right?"

"Of course," she said with forced gaiety. "I do not know why I... spaced on you going home for the break."

"Listen," said Jeff. "I've got to go down to the baggage carousels before they decide my suitcase is a bomb or something. I'm sure to lose you then. But, let's definitely get together some time after I come back."

"All right," said Svetlana. "Take care, Jeff."

"You too," said Jeff. "And have a Merry Christmas. Say hello to your family for me."

The afternoon of Christmas Eve, Svetlana was convivially drunk on sherry when she made a decision. She had managed to get a hold of one more number she could call. It had taken a lot of effort, but she nearly didn't use it anyway.

Finally, she dialed. When the man on the other end answered, she identified herself.

The man on the other end sounded wary, "Mrs. Vandevoort."

Svetlana smiled into the phone, "Please, Jake. I have not been Mrs. Vandevoort since July. It is just Sveta now, Sveta Kyznetsov. How have you been?"

"Incredibly busy," said Jake. "And stressed. Hazel and I got divorced earlier this month."

Svetlana had thought Jake's divorce final while he was still in the employ of her husband. How had she gotten that detail wrong? Momentarily taken aback, she asked, "How is your son. Dylan?"

"Darwin," Jake corrected her. "He's doing well. He still doesn't understand why his mother went away, but he's looking forward to Christmas."

"Oh," said Svetlana. She found herself at a loss for words.

"Are you still in Boston?" Jake asked.

"Yes," she said. "I am going back to school."

"Really?" asked Jake.

Svetlana laughed, "You don't need to sound so surprised. I do not intend to become one of these useless women who lives only to spend her alimony."

Jake chuckled, "There was never much of a chance of that."

Again, the awkward silence spread out.

"Listen," Jake asked. "What are you planning on doing for Christmas?"

"I will be celebrating in the Russian way."

"Sveta," said Jake. "Are you all right. You sound a little... drunk."

"Da," she said. "That is how we celebrate the holidays in the Russian way."

"Listen," he said. "I don't know if this is something you would be even remotely interested in, but it's just Darwin, my father, and me here for tonight and Christmas, but we're doing it up right. If you wanted to come by, I'd be happy to set a place for you."

She didn't answer for so long that Jake asked, "Sveta?"

Finally getting her tears under control, Svetlana said, "I would like that, Jake."

-=-

Svetlana considered what she would wear. She started out considering the dresses she'd bought for dating but discarded them quickly. They were beautiful and flattering. But, they made her look like Mrs. Vandevoort and that would not do.

She considered what she was wearing--blue jeans and a black sweatshirt. That would never do either. It would make Jake think she was destitute. She decided to swap the sweatshirt for a sweater--warm and cable-knit, but form fitting where it mattered.

As she was looking for the sweater, Svetlana let her hand linger on her favorite blouse. It was dark green silk, brought out her eyes, and flattered her form. It was the only thing Karl bought her that she kept. Tucking it into her blue jeans, she examined herself in the mirror. Buttoned up, it was almost demure. With one button undone, it offered a hint of sin without being overt. It was perfect.

-=-

Jake's father arrived at Svetlana's door soon after she was dressed. When Jake had insisted she not drive, she'd offered to take a cab. But, Jake said, his father had to run out for some groceries anyway and would swing by to pick her up.

Unlike Jake, his father was skinny and gray, almost wiry. When Svetlana greeted him, he eyed her up and down carefully. Then, he grunted. But, it didn't seem like an unfriendly grunt.

Riding along in the passenger seat of the man's station wagon, Svetlana couldn't help but notice that he kept glancing over at her as if he wanted to say something.

"Are you looking at something, Mr. Steiner?" she asked as pleasantly as she could.

"Never mind," he said. "And never mind this 'Mr. Steiner' nonsense. My name is Abe."

"All right, Abe," said Svetlana. "But, you obviously wanted to say something. What is it?"

"I was just remembering what my father told me when he first met my second wife, long before she became my second wife."

"What did he tell you?" Svetlana asked.

"He told me that the only reason God gives some women red hair is to serve as a warning to others."

Svetlana laughed, "Your second wife was a redhead, then?"

"Was and still is," said Abe. "Although it's purely from a bottle now."

"My father would probably agree," said Svetlana amicably. "My mother and sister both have this hair, too."

-=-

When she got to Jake's house, Svetlana was surprised to find it bedecked with blinking lights and set up inside with both a Christmas tree and a Menorah. She smiled when he took her coat, "Jake, this is positively... homey. I never knew you had it in you."

Jake grunted, "It wasn't really a side I wanted to show at work. But, this is a social call. Right?"

Svetlana kissed him on the cheek, "Of course, Jake. It is good to see you again."

"It's good to see you too, Svetlana," said Jake. "Although, I'm sure it's not the sort of celebration you're used to."

Svetlana didn't laugh, but her eyes reflected her amusement, "I would hope not. Christmas with the Vandevoorts was always such a bore except when it was absolutely horrible. But, I must warn you. I have absolutely no idea what to do at this sort of thing."

"Neither do I," said Jake. "I've been taking lessons from Abe. Christmas with Hazel was... unique. And, this is the first year we're celebrating Chanukah."

Svetlana looked around, "I didn't even know you were Jewish. I thought you were Italian."

Jake smiled, "A lot of people make that mistake."

"I knew it was a mistake to tell him he was Jewish," said Abe. "At least he didn't do like his brother who went to Israel and became a goddamned paratrooper. Now, he won't eat anything I cook." So saying, he looked like he remembered something and headed off to the kitchen.

Svetlana smiled, "Your father is quite the character."

Jake nodded, "That he is, but you'd better get used to calling him Abe. He tells everyone he's my brother."

As Svetlana took a step towards the living room where she could hear the television, Jake laid a light, but firm hand on her arm, "This way, please. So, we can get a chance to talk before you meet Darwin."

Svetlana looked up into his eyes. He was still friendly and relaxed. But, there was a hint of the old business there. It said that he wanted to welcome her into his home, but needed to make sure that she was on the up-and-up.

"All right, Jake," she said quietly, going where she was directed.

The room he led her to was dominated by a regulation-size poker table on one side and a wet bar on the other. Jake went to the wet bar, "Can I offer you something to drink?"

"I've acquired a taste for sherry," admitted Svetlana. "But, if you don't have any, anything sweet will do."

"Amaretto?"

"Yes. Thank you."

He brought her the glass, "How have you been, Svetlana? I haven't heard from you since you escaped."

Svetlana laughed, "I guess I did escape at that. Well, I moved to Boston because I had... allies here. But, that was instinct. I'm free of the Vandevoorts and glad to be free of them. I have an opportunity to get on with my life and I intend to take it."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Jake. "You're really disassociating yourself from the Vandevoorts?"

She put a hand on his cheek, "Ah, Jake. Always suspicious, aren't you? Yes. I've let my allies know that I am out of their machinations. Those who chose not to believe me I betrayed their confidences to my stepdaughter. They have not troubled me since."

Jake nodded, seemingly lost in thought. Svetlana decided to hazard a guess as to what he was thinking about, "You knew some of this."

Jake nodded again, "Ivan didn't have a lot of allies left in the family. But, he had enough that we felt it was prudent to keep an eye on the Vandevoorts in case someone decided to move against Thule as revenge for what he did."

Svetlana nodded, "There are some who hate Ivan, but will always hate Thule worse because he besmirched the name. If you like, I will tell you what I can about them."

Jake was clearly surprised by the offer, "Err... thank you. That would be very helpful."

"You don't entirely trust me. Do you, Jake?"

"Doveryai no proveryai," Jake offered, shrugging.

Svetlana smiled, "Your pronunciation is very good. Are you learning Russian?"

"A little bit at a time," said Jake. "People who really know the spook business tell me I won't really understand paranoia until I've read it in the original Russian... No offense."

Svetlana smiled, "None taken. I think you will make an excellent Russian, Jake."

"So, if you're not involved in family politics anymore, what have you been doing with yourself?" Jake asked.

"I have taken a little apartment and am attending college," said Svetlana.

Again, Jake looked surprised, "You're in college?"

"Da," said Svetlana. "In some ways, I have gotten away with being a child for a long time, Jake. But, it becomes tiresome. And, when children no longer wish to be children, they go away to college."

Jake shook his head, "I'm just having a hard time getting my brain around it. You go to class and everything?"

"Well, I go to class," said Svetlana. "But, I am discovering that I do not do everything. I have not been making the effort to get to know my classmates. They just seem so... young."

Jake laughed, "You're not that much older than them, you know. But, I understand what you mean."

"Yes," said Svetlana. "But, this is part of it. I have no friends. My family is in Moscva and I would not particularly welcome them if they were closer. If I am going to have a real shot at getting away from the life I had with the Vandevoorts, I need to build something better."

After that, the conversation was easier and more relaxed. They caught up on what each other were doing. Jake asked again if Svetlana was sure she was going to college.

"If I'm not," she said. "An elaborate prank on a grand scale has been perpetrated at great expense. I suppose I would not put it past Ivan, but he does not have the funds anymore."

Jake laughed, "Can't say I'm sorry to hear that. I'm sure I must be fairly low on his list of favorite people right now."

Svetlana's smile was gentler now, "If Tryne is to be believed, Ivan will not be a problem for a long time."

"I hope she's right."

"So," asked Svetlana. "Do you have a regular poker game in here?"

Jake nodded, "Wednesday nights."

"Can I play?" Svetlana asked, running her fingertips over the felt.

"That's probably not a good idea," said Jake. "It's a pretty tough game and the stakes are fifty-one hundred."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that you bet fifty or a hundred dollars at a time," said Jake. "Most players start the night with at least five thousands dollars. You might want to wait until you resolve the legal problems with Ivan before you play with that kind of money."

Svetlana smiled again, glad to see that Jake had not been keeping too close an eye on her, "Jake, it is sweet of you to want to look out for me. But, I am big girl. Do I have permission to join your little game?"

"That's cute," said Jake. "When you want something, your accent gets thicker."

"Thank you," said Svetlana. "Am glad you are likink my technique. May I join game?"

Jake laughed, "Sure. But, do you even know how to play poker?"

"I know some," she said. "I will probably lose at first. I have not played for so much or with specific betting limits before. At the games in Moscow, you could bet whatever you had on the table."

"You know," said Jake, looking hard at her, "I bet you could be a hell of a poker player, Mrs. Vandevoort."

Svetlana felt an unfamiliar sensation in her cheeks and, for a moment, wondered if she could have drunk too much already. Then, she realized what it was and lowered her head.

"Sveta," said Jake. "Are you crying? I'm sorry. I..."

She raised her head to show him she was not crying.

"You're not," said Jake. "You're blushing."

Svetlana shook her head, "Impossible. I can not catch embarrassment. I'm a carrier."

"My mistake," said Jake, a look of deep amusement on his face. "I guess you must still be flushed from the cold. We should see what Abe is up to. The last time I left him alone in the kitchen this long with Darwin running around, he was explaining to my son what an orgasm was."

-=-

Darwin had apparently worn himself out. He was nowhere to be seen. Jake checked his room, came back, and said, "Sleeping. I can't believe it. Of course, he'll be up at four a.m., but it's amazing."

"He may be awake," said Abe. "But, he won't be up. I told him that the Chanukah Hobgoblin hangs around until sunrise and, if he sees little boys wandering around, he breaks their toys."

Svetlana laughed, "Surely, he did not believe..."

"Jesus Christ," said Jake. "I knew when I was listing stories you were not to tell Darwin, I missed one. Do you know I slept with a light on until I went away to college because of that goddamned story?"

Svetlana found that she couldn't stop laughing once she started. Jake and Abe decided to let Darwin sleep through dinner. Apparently, he'd been awake until three a.m. the previous before finally giving up the ghost.

"The worst part is," Jake told her when his father was in the kitchen. "The little bastard doesn't even believe in Santa Claus. Hazel and I decided it would be better to raise him to be rational. We just talk about Santa in front of Abe so that we don't ruin his fun."

"Jake," said Svetlana, lowering her head, "You must have mercy on me. My ribs and face hurt like I've been worked over. You need to stop being so funny."

Jake put on his professional thug face, "Yes, ma'am."

This, of course, set Svetlana off into another wave of laughter.

Besides the banter, dinner was made up of wave after wave of more food than the three of them could have eaten if they'd been joined by five times their numbers. As he was dishing out the main course, Abe talked about the palate cleanser and desserts he'd prepared.

"Abe," asked Svetlana. "Are you sure you're not Italian? Besides the fact that I would have been dead by now if I tried eating everything you made, nearly all of this food is... well, Italian."

Abe smiled, "My first wife, Angelica, swore she would never marry a man who could not make ossobuco to her liking. So, I studied cooking for six months. Then, the night I proposed to her, I made her a dinner much like the one you see before you--except, of course that the main course was ossobuco over cappelini."

Svetlana put her hands on her hips, "Abe, if you don't stop, you're going to make me start believing in romance."

"Perish the thought," said Abe, clutching his chest as if he'd been stabbed. "I was just following the first rule of attraction."

"Which is?" Svetlana asked.

Jake put a hand to his temples, "Don't encourage him."

"The first rule of attraction," said Abe. "Is that, if you can give a woman good food and orgasms, she will never leave you."

Svetlana found herself laughing so hard that tears were rolling down her cheeks. When she finally managed to catch her breath, Jake deadpanned, "And that... is why he was explaining to my four year-old son what an orgasm is."

-=-

After dinner, the palate cleanser, dessert, and coffee with biscotti, Abe stretched dramatically, "If you don't mind, son, I'm going to take care of last few dishes in the morning. I'm beat."

"All right, dad," said Jake, kissing his father on the cheek. "Sleep well."

"I will," Abe agreed. "I'll sleep like a rock. I probably wouldn't wake up if a herd of hippos stampeded through my room. Good night, son. Good night, Svetlana. It was lovely meeting you."

Jake shook his head at his father's receding back, "And that was Abe at his most subtle."

Svetlana laughed, "Your brother is charming. I see where you get it."

Jake laughed, "I didn't get it at all. In his day, Abe could charm the robe off the statue of Justice herself." He rose from the table and started to collect some of the last few dishes. Svetlana rose to help him.

"Sveta, you don't have to..."

"I know," she said. "But, I want to. I am learning to take care of myself and I will tell you a secret."

"What?"

"I am starting to enjoy this sort of thing," she said, scooping up the last plate and heading into the kitchen before he could answer.

As they worked together to get the dishes clean enough to go in the diswasher, Svetlana said, "Jake, I want to tell you deeper secret."

He paused at what he was doing, "Yes?"

"I am not really starting to enjoy this sort of thing," she said. "But, I am hoping, if I tell myself that I am enjoying it, eventually I will forget that it is not entirely true."

Jake chuckled, "You don't have to enjoy it, you know."

Svetlana smiled, "I know. But, it would make these things easier."

-=-

Later, Svetlana was helping Jake carry presents from his bedroom closet to the tree in the living room. She smiled at him as he extracted a bright red tricycle.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Romantic / Slow /