“Welcome to Minsk International Airport,” the loud speaker announced as the aircraft bounced on the runway before coming to a halt.
Cecile Lornier rubbed her ringless finger, her spirit buoyant with triumph. “Belarus, here I come. Finally,” she whispered, her nose pressed against the plane window for a first look at the remote little country, located south of Russia. Not much to see. But the gloomy sight of gray sky, barren trees and drizzling rain couldn’t dim the joy that exploded in her heart. After a twelve-hour flight, she’d made it to Minsk. In spite of her ex-fiancé’s dirty dealing. For the millionth time, she cursed Rob Spenser, the worthless creep who’d snatched her promotion and almost foiled her first international assignment.
With a sigh of relief, she hung her purse on her arm and collected her hand luggage to exit the plane. Dragging her carry-on suitcases, she proceeded up the bumpy ramp of the jetway boarding bridge.
A group of people clustered in front of a sign affixed on the sidewall. Russian or Belarussian? Might as well be Chinese as far as I’m concerned. Unable to decipher the foreign script, Cecile shrugged and followed the line of passengers through the arrival gate, toward an escalator.
As if this rickety machine could be called a mechanical escalator. The uneven steps jolted with a grinding noise, bouncing and shuddering downward. Cecile scanned the area for an elevator or stairway. There were none in sight. Was she expected to negotiate this crooked roller coaster with her luggage in hand?
Apparently, yes. The passengers were carefully holding the railing, men helping their female companions and children as they went down. She eyed the rattletrap contraption. Her first taste of Belarussian obsolete technology. This was exactly why her company had been chosen to help modernize the local environmental laboratory.
A military officer dressed in khaki passed her. Cecile’s gaze fixed on his large back and decorated epaulets. He was tall, solid. A brick wall of a man. The wobbly escalator didn’t seem to bother him but then he didn’t have two suitcases hindering his movements.
Cecile bit her lip, imagining the sneer on Rob’s face if he could see her now, hesitating so long in front of the first step of her mission. Literally the very first step. She shifted her two carry-ons to her left hand and followed the officer onto the jerking stairway, hoping for the best. Wishful thinking. Her short heel caught between the steps of the damned escalator. Gripping the railing for dear life, she let her luggage slip out of her hand as she pitched forward.
“Welcome to Minsk…” the airport speaker roared in broken English.
A sturdy back blocked her fall. The officer turned and circled her waist with brawny arms, welding her to his rock-hard frame. She stopped moving, stopped thinking, stopped breathing, until the officer lowered her to stable ground as they reached the end of the escalator.
Her head still pillowed against the muscular chest, she took a breath, inhaling the scent of soap and spicy cologne. She was alive all right and oddly secure in this stranger’s arms.
He said something in his native language. She tilted her head back. Her gaze collided with deep- blue eyes shadowed by long, black lashes. Still floating in a peculiar haze, Cecile squirmed to free herself. She gasped for air to clear her head and squeaked, “I’m sorry.”
He stared at her, a glint of interest under the scowling eyebrows. “Americanka?” His baritone voice echoed against the metallic escalator’s crunch. “Here, let me help you.”