Conscious Decisions of the Heart

an excerpt



Prologue

Four o'clock in the morning wasn't a good time to be thinking about torture.

Ben Rider's mind had come to the subject circuitously from thinking about the stranger sleeping alongside him--the man whose blond hair was sliding silkily through his fingers as he stroked it, the man whose warm, lean length was pressed entirely to him. Thinking about this stranger had led Ben to think about the difference between the person he'd believed him to be, an aloof, austere diplomat, and the man he actually was--the man Ben had discovered him to be. Aleksey Primakov. What things had Aleksey Primakov done in his life to lead him to this place? Ben knew some things now, a little about his childhood in Denmark, more about how he'd come to England on an assumed name and stolen life. What about the time between? Trying to fill in this gap had led Ben to think about torture.

He knew a little about Spetsnaz training--know your enemy and all that. Regular Spetsnaz officers were trained using the theory of empty barrels--the deeper you dragged them down under the surface the harder and faster they rose. But sometimes these men were dragged so far down into degradation and pain they were in danger of bursting from the external pressure. There's only so much dignity you can strip from a man in training before all he can think about is suicide--or murder. Consequently, every Spetsnaz officer left training with a vast charge of malice ready to discharge like lightning from a thundercloud. And these were the regular officers. Ben was also aware of the...others. The ones more fearful, whose reputation still scarred the terrible mountains of Afghanistan. These were the interpreter officers, the intelligentsia of Special Forces. Fluent in many languages, the man breathing softly against Ben's ear would have been an ideal candidate to join this specialised group within the most elite of the vast Soviet army. But perhaps it wasn't his skill at languages, his education and his intelligence that had suited him to the interpreter officers--if, indeed, he'd been one. Perhaps it was the knowledge he'd gained surviving for five years as a teenager in Soviet prisons. After all, it wasn't every man who could calmly drive nails into an enemy's head to extract information, split tongues snake-like to terrify, fill lying mouths with hot coals to encourage truth...Had this man done that?

And what, Ben reflected, did it say about him that only a few hours ago he'd told this man that nothing he ever did or said would drive him away? That even if that bolt of malice discharged against him and he was killed, he'd return from death, still wanting.

He tightened his arms around the sleeping man and returned to his thoughts about torture.

He suspected he wasn't as skilled in the art as this man, but if the meeting in the morning went wrong, there wouldn't be a thundercloud big enough to contain his malice.

Torture?

It was the least of the things he'd now do to keep this man safe.

And his.

Part I

Chapter One

Ben didn't understand the call Nikolas made to Gregory Malenkov to set up the meet, because the conversation, what there was of it, was in rapid-fire Russian. He caught the occasional word, but he learnt more from watching Nikolas's expression--which wasn't happy. But then, neither of them expected what they were trying to do to be easy. When he was done, Nikolas tossed the burner phone he'd used onto the bedside table and lay back, his arms folded under his head. "So, we meet. I suggested dinner. We have some time to kill, therefore."

Ben sat on the bed next to him and ran his thumb lightly over the very recent scars on Nikolas's thigh.

"You in pain?"

Nikolas shook his head. "Nothing I can't bear."

"Oh, you're so brave. You're my hero, you know that, right?"

"Don't be facetious, child. Stroke a little higher."

Ben smiled and did as he was told.

* * *

"You're not coming tonight, by the way."

"Hmm."

"Benjamin, are you listening to me?"

Ben lifted his head. "Yep. This is me giving you one hundred percent of my concentration."

Nikolas arched his back with pleasure, but persisted, "Stop it. I'm being serious. I must meet him this evening on my own. Your presence would only complicate things."

Ben ignored him and continued with his more interesting activity. It didn't take long for Nikolas's thoughts to return to this as well.

* * *

Sometime later and recovering, long, elegant fingers in Ben's hair, Nikolas returned to his theme. "He's a master of manipulation. He'll twist the truth until it screams and begs for mercy, and when he lets it go, all you'll see are the lies that remain. I'll meet with him and we...You're not listening to me. Stop it, Benjamin. I mean it; you mustn't--Stop! I've agreed to put the man I was as Aleksey behind me and to meet Gregory as myself, but you must therefore do me the courtesy of obeying me now." Nikolas looked down at his leg. "What're you doing?"

"I'm poking at this bullet hole until you shut up. Nothing else seems to work." Ben slid up Nikolas's seductively bed-warm body and captured his mouth with a kiss. Nikolas held him off.

Ben sighed. "I mustn't...I'm not listening...blah, blah. You're like a broken bloody record. I get it--but I'm still coming with you."

"No, you're not. I'm adamant about this, Ben. I'm not joking. I don't want--"

"Oh, I know what you don't want. You don't want him to tell me things about you that you don't want me to know."

Nikolas's eyes flicked momentarily away from Ben's, an obvious tell. Ben chuckled. "Yeah. Thought so."

"You're being ridiculous, as usual. I don't want you there because--"

"Because I might get to find out what lies under...here?"

"Now you're just being ridiculously childish."

"Or here, maybe? Some secret hidden...here?"

Nikolas, laughing, gave in and allowed Ben to examine other interesting places where his secrets might lie, and when Ben was done with him, Ben thought both of them were fairly sure nothing much could remain hidden between them.

When he had Nikolas limp and unresisting to anything he wanted, Ben just informed him in a neutral voice, "Nothing on this earth would stop me being there when you meet the guy who was trying to kill you. Nothing. And nothing he says about you will change the way I feel about you right now."

Nikolas turned with some difficulty and lay on his back, looking up at Ben. He brushed a thumb over Ben's cheekbone. "I wish that were true, for both our sakes. But you're a romantic, and I'm a realist. I've seen love and faith shattered and destroyed too many times to believe it can ever survive the harsh realities of this life."

Ben caught at his hand, entwining their fingers. "I'm cutting you off the vodka. You're turning into a melancholy Russian. Are you seriously telling me you've never seen a purely altruistic act?"

Nikolas frowned, seemed about to answer in the negative but then hesitated. "That doesn't count. He was a priest. There wasn't enough food, but he gave his to--Away, anyway."

"Okay. And another? Think. Not everyone you tor--you saw tortured broke and betrayed their loved ones, surely?"

Nikolas pursed his lips. He seemed reluctant to admit it but conceded grudgingly, "No, many people resisted and died rather than implicate others. I was always surprised."

Ben swallowed, his earlier thoughts about this man's past resurfacing like a gas-filled carcass, but he covered by bending down and kissing him. The kiss deepened, as it always did between them until, breathless, Ben finally had to pull away. "So, do you think I'm weaker than them?"

Nikolas closed his eyes, professing defeat. He gave a small dismissive wave of his hand. "I surrender. I give you permission to continue with your stubborn, unrealistic blind faith in my complete lovability. It's quite astounding to me no one else has ever noticed just how loveable I apparently am."

Ben straddled then folded his arms on Nikolas's chest, looking serious. "That's because they were looking in all the wrong places..." This time, Nikolas took control of the game, deciding Ben had enjoyed enough fun at his expense. After all, he was completely loveable, so there wasn't anything he could do to Ben, however much Ben might protest, that would alter that belief.