Alexey and Mikhail ~ Chapter 4: All Aboard!

Mikhail Galayev gazed round the small room in which he was locked, with an increasing sense of despair. Clearly its primary function, when not being used as a holding cell, was for administration purposes. There was a single desk and chair below a notice board displaying duty rosters and announcements. As these provided the only reading matter in the room Mikhail had scanned the sheets but his mind was in such turmoil that he could make no sense of the English, much of which was technical vocabulary he had never learnt in English lessons at school.

He alternated between lengthy periods sitting on the hard, wooden chair staring vacantly ahead of him and time spent standing by the tiny porthole watching the land adjoining the Gulf of Finland slip past at an alarming rate. As the ship sailed away from St Petersburg Mikhail was leaving his partner, Alexey Baranov, further and further behind. His eyes filled with tears as he thought how desperately he wanted to talk to Alexey. He was in such trouble — there had been talk of police, customs officers, even of extradition — but he would give anything to have Alexey beside him again.

He shuddered as he thought how disappointed Alexey would be when he heard just how foolish his partner had been. He really hadn’t intended to do anything wrong but he just hadn’t been thinking when he got mixed up with those men. And how often, he thought regretfully, had his top tried to drive home one vital lesson? Think about the consequences of your actions. Had those painful spankings taught him nothing? He should have ‘think of the consequences’ engraved on his heart, if not on his backside. Alexey would slay him this time! If only, Mikhail thought with despairing hope, Alexey could find a way to rescue him first.

He heard a key scrape in the lock and looked up as an English officer came into the room to offer him a cup of tea, which he declined, and a trip to the toilet, which he thought he had better accept. He had no idea how long he was to be kept locked in that room. Some hours earlier the Russian speaking First Officer had informed him that his story would be checked and he would then be told what was to be done with him.

It was turning into a very long day. It had begun as usual with rehearsals at the Mariinsky Ballet where he and Alexey were both dancers in the corps de ballet. Victor Pavel, the ballet director, had announced that he was going to rehearse the girls in the afternoon and Alexey had suggested that the two of them use the unexpected free time to go shopping. Mikhail was not a great fan of shopping and had begged off, on the strict understanding that he would be home in good time to help prepare dinner.

Without any definite plans in mind, Mikhail had gravitated towards the embankment of the Neva River which he loved. St Petersburg had been an important maritime city since the days of Peter the Great and Mikhail had always dreamed of sailing away to foreign destinations. He was fascinated by the cruise ships which sailed right up the Neva and moored within sight of the Peter and Paul Fortress, disgorging thousands of foreign tourists into the city. It was such a popular destination that the ships stayed a number of days, giving time for most of the crew to go ashore as well.

Mikhail stopped to admire the lines of an elegant cruise ship registered in Southampton, which he thought was in England, although the crew members coming down the gangplank were Philippino. Nonetheless, when the laughing crowd stopped to ask for directions to the nearest bar they addressed Mikhail in English. He understood the question but struggled to give directions, as the nearest bars were some distance away. One young man flung an arm around Mikhail’s shoulder and seemed to expect that Mikhail would join them and show them the way. He suddenly thought it would be fun to go for a drink with this merry crowd and dismissed the lurking thought that Alexey wouldn’t approve.

A couple of hours later, and several vodkas later, he readily accepted an invitation to join his new friends for a party aboard ship. He had always longed to explore a cruise ship but had imagined that access was restricted. He was assured, however, that it was never a problem for crew members to bring a guest aboard. He was asked, though, if he would do a favour for them first and generously agreed to do anything within his power.

The request was very straightforward. They had arranged with a contact to get some cheap vodka for the party but it had to be collected from an apartment in the city. They had the address written on a scrap of paper in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russian language but did not know how to get there. Although Mikhail himself was unfamiliar with many parts of St Petersburg, he recognised the apartment block as being in an area where he used to live and indicated his willingness to help out.

Leaving the rest of his crew mates drinking, one of the group who introduced himself as Bayani, accompanied Mikhail to the tram stop which would take them out to the suburbs. He kept thanking Mikhail for his help, explaining that none of them could even read the address and the original plan had been to try and find a taxi driver they could trust to take them to the right place. When they finally got off at their destination, Bayani glanced rather nervously at the stark Soviet built tower block they were walking towards and he became even more anxious as they entered the rather dirty and dimly lit lift to the tenth floor.

Mikhail, who had lived in an adjoining block until he moved into Alexey’s lovely old apartment in the centre of St Petersburg, thought nothing of these surroundings but even he was rather intimidated by the men who opened the door of the tenth floor flat. Bayani was invited inside briefly but Mikhail was left standing in the stairwell. When Bayani emerged he was carrying a large sealed cardboard box which had ‘Russian Standard Vodka’ printed on it and they headed back to the tram stop to wait for transport back to the city centre. On the return journey Bayani relaxed again and chatted happily, cradling the cardboard box which sat lightly on his lap.

Back at the bar, the Philippinos were having a great time and had hardly noticed how long Mikhail and their crewmate been away. However, they all got up and headed back to the ship as soon as they spotted the two men returning. Friendly arms round his shoulders meant that Mikhail was firmly included in the party. It did cross his mind to ring Alexey, but then he knew his partner would be cooking dinner for the two of them and would certainly tell him to come home. This was an opportunity not to be missed so he turned his phone off and slipped it back into his pocket. Closing his mind to the inevitable consequences that would follow his failure to go home at the appointed time, he gave himself up to enjoyment of the moment.

As they neared the ship, it became apparent that inviting a guest aboard was not such a straightforward matter as he had been led to believe. All members of the crew had photo identity cards and one was pressed into his hand. He looked with scepticism at the picture. He could never pass himself off as this man even if the picture was of an individual about his age with blonde hair. His friends indicated, however, that it would be fine if he was just calm and confident, although they made him wear a hat to make identification more difficult and as they walked up the gangplank they placed him in the middle of their group.

The officer at the top of the gangplank looked briefly at each returning crewman and swiped his boarding card through the computerised equipment. Mikhail was relieved that his check took seconds and he was waved aboard, following the men ahead of him below decks to the crew quarters where the borrowed boarding card was immediately taken from him as he was offered a drink. There was no sign of Bayani who had disappeared with his box of vodka. In fact, Mikhail soon realised that all the men who had come aboard with him had drifted away, although others soon joined him and drink was flowing freely.

Using the need to visit the toilet as an excuse, Mikhail extricated himself from the party and set off to explore. He wandered away from the sounds of talk and laughter down a narrow passageway and every time he came to a staircase he worked his way upwards until he reached the much more spacious passenger accommodation. He wandered along carpeted corridors and stopped to look at postcards of far away places in a well stocked shop. He wandered through bars filled with people dressed for dinner and finished up on the promenade deck from which height he could identify many familiar landmarks in his city.

Beginning to feel cold after standing so long leaning on the rail, he went inside and was drawn to the sound of music emanating from a small theatre. Passengers seemed to be coming and going at will so he entered quietly and stood at the back. There were singers and dancers on stage and so he sat down happily to enjoy the cabaret, watching with the critical eye of a professional dancer. It was when the show ended and he stood up to leave that an officer in a smart white uniform came up to him and asked to see his cruise card. He wasn’t sure what a cruise card was and he no longer had the card which had got him aboard. It was obvious from his accent he was not one of the English speaking passengers and he had no option but to go with the officer who politely escorted him to the Purser’s office.

In a panic, his first response when questioned by the Purser was to speak in Russian and to pretend he understood nothing. This tactic failed as soon as the First Officer arrived. He was a Russian national and Mikhail was terrified by his stern manner and relentless questioning. He rapidly established that Mikhail was on the ship illegally. He made very clear that Mikhail had committed a criminal offence and that he would be handed over to the police as soon as the ship docked in Helsinki. The full significance of that final sentence slowly dawned on Mikhail and he cursed himself for not noticing sooner that the ship was moving. Things were much worse than he had realised. He wasn’t going to be turned off the ship to make his way home; he wasn’t going home at all. His shoulders slumped and his cupped hands came up to cover his face as the full seriousness of his situation hit home.

Realising that he wasn’t going to get anything more out of Mikhail at that point, the First Officer went off to report to the captain that they had a stowaway on board. When he returned he brought a second Russian speaking officer with him and they both sat down opposite Mikhail at the Purser’s desk. The First Officer then began to formally question Mikhail, with his colleague taking notes and recording the interview. This time Mikhail cooperated fully from the beginning, giving his full name and address and explaining that he was a dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet.

The First Officer seemed less intimidating and more understanding once Mikhail began speaking freely and he was allowed to describe at his own pace everything that had happened since he met the crew members on the quayside. His interviewer seemed particularly interested in the trip to collect the vodka, asking specifically whether Mikhail had actually seen the bottles. Mikhail answered confidently in the negative and as he reran the sequence of events in his mind his suspicions were aroused. Not only had he not seen any of the bottles, he hadn’t heard them clink when Bayani was carrying the cardboard box. Furthermore, it now occurred to him that the box hadn’t seemed heavy enough to contain six full bottles of vodka.

He hesitantly shared these observations with the First Officer, anxious now to do his best to show that he was innocent of any wrong doing. The person who could, of course, clear up the whole matter was Bayani. He suggested once or twice that Bayani be sent for to give his side of the story and when he was finally informed there was no crewman of that name on the ship he knew he had been set up.

The ship, he was told, was being searched as they spoke. The box probably carried drugs. The criminal gangs in St Petersburg were continually trying to evade the security on the cruise ships in order to smuggle their drug consignments aboard. It looked as though they had had some inside assistance on this occasion. Mikhail was asked if he would be able to identify the crew members who had invited him aboard but he didn’t think he would be able to pick them out from amongst the hundreds of young Philippinos who worked on the ship.

The First Officer finally concluded that Mikhail had probably got involved in criminal activity unknowingly but that did not alter the fact that he had come aboard ship illegally. He pointed that fact out again to Mikhail who winced as he thought what Alexey was going to make of this dreadful situation. That did not prevent him giving Alexey Baranov’s name and contact details as the person he would like to have informed of his whereabouts. When asked who could formally confirm his identity and his employment with the Mariinsky Ballet the obvious name to provide was that of Victor Nikolaevich Pavel.

Back in the small, sparsely furnished office it seemed like he had been waiting hours to have his story confirmed but eventually the key turned again in the lock of his temporary cell and the First Officer came in to tell him what had been decided.

“You’ll be pleased to hear that we can send you back to St Petersburg, under police escort, where you will be met by the port authorities. That will save extradition procedures from Finland which can take months. Your identity will be confirmed on arrival and if your story checks out fully you may avoid prosecution.”

Mikhail gasped with shock. It all sounded so serious. But there was one piece of good news though: he was going back to St Petersburg. He didn’t know how, but he was going back. The answer to that question was soon provided as he was escorted from the room that had served as his temporary cell down flights of stairs to reach a small door which opened almost at sea level. Running beside the ship in choppy waters was the pilot boat waiting to collect the pilot who had guided the cruise ship down the narrow inlets of the Gulf of Finland into open water. Mikhail glanced across and saw two police officers waiting for him on the deck. His major worry, however, was transferring safely from the huge ship to the small craft running alongside her. He watched the pilot judge the waves and then step smartly across. Gathering his nerve, and urged forward by the First Officer, he too made the transfer safely.

It was four o’clock in the morning when they finally docked in St Petersburg and Mikhail came ashore in the cold light of dawn with his hands handcuffed behind his back. As he walked under escort across the quayside he saw Alexey and Victor standing together on the other side of the chainlink security fence. He could have cried with relief at seeing them, and with shame that he was returning under guard and in handcuffs. Alexey waved in greeting and, in response, Mikhail tried to walk towards the immigration buildings with his head held high.

Some minutes later they met face to face in an interview room. The harbour police and a customs officer were also present. Victor was required to formally identify Mikhail, and Alexey provided evidence of Mikhail’s address and gave an assurance that he would be available for interview at eleven thirty in the morning. The formalities did not take long and a taxi was waiting to take them all home. Victor sat in the front with the driver and spoke only to give the two of them the following day off. Alexey and Mikhail sat together in the back where Alexey was able to reach across discreetly and take Mikhail’s hand, squeezing it reassuringly and running his thumb repeatedly across the knuckles in a slow caress.

Back in the apartment Mikhail gave way to the tears which had been threatening to overwhelm him throughout the taxi ride. They were tears of relief at getting home at last and tears of shame that he had got himself into so much trouble. Alexey just steered him gently into the bathroom and helped him undress as he ran a hot bath. As the warmth and comfort finally calmed and relaxed Mikhail, he began to slip down in the water and Alexey urged him out of the bath before he fell asleep. He stood unresisting as Alexey towelled him dry and helped him into his pyjamas before going to make them both a hot drink to take to bed.

Alexey let Mikhail sleep as long as possible in the morning, just waking him in time to get ready and eat some breakfast before they set off to the docks for the prearranged interview with the harbour police. It became apparent early in the questioning that the authorities had a full transcript of the interview Mikhail had given the previous evening aboard the cruise ship. Most of the focus that morning was on the detail of the trip to the suburbs, how exactly Mikhail had known where to go, what he had seen at the apartment and who they had met.

As it became increasingly clear that he had got mixed up with a ruthless criminal gang Mikhail became acutely conscious of Alexey’s gaze upon him. Alexey had been permitted to remain with his partner, on the understanding that he sit to one side and not interrupt the interview in any way. But Mikhail didn’t need to look towards his top to know how the details of his escapade were being received. He felt himself becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the full story was drawn out of him. He had gone into the interview worrying about what the police would do. Now his major concern was what Alexey would do, although he had a shrewd suspicion that he would not be sitting comfortably for some time to come.

Finally Mikhail was required to sign a copy of his statement and was thanked for his cooperation with police and customs. He was told very firmly that using fake ID to go aboard a cruise ship was a serious offence but a decision had been taken, with the consent of the cruise line, not to proceed with a prosecution. Mikhail could hardly believe it when he heard he was free to go and that, unless he was required later as a witness, no further action would be taken. He and Alexey came out of the port buildings into bright sunlight. Mikhail felt like a prisoner emerging from captivity.

“How about we walk home?” he suggested. “I know it’s a fair distance but I feel like the exercise and the sun is shining.”

“Putting off the inevitable?” Alexey asked with mock seriousness.

Mikhail was taken in at first. “No, no…” he stammered. “Really, I wasn’t thinking of that… I just fancied a walk. But if you want to get home quickly to deal with this…”

Alexey laughed and interrupted him. “I was just teasing, Misha. I think we could both do with the walk after the night we had last night.”

They drew together, bumping shoulders occasionally as they walked in comfortable silence, finally crossing the sparkling waters of the Neva River by the Leytenanta Shmidta Bridge which brought them back to St Isaac’s Square. As they neared their apartment, Alexey raised again the subject which had occupied both their thoughts on the journey home.

“You realise you have a lot to thank Victor Pavel for?”

Mikhail looked to Alexey for clarification.

“He pulled strings for you. By rights you should be facing prosecution now. The Kirov Ballet still means something special in this city. You owe Victor and you owe the company.”

Mikhail absorbed this piece of information. He hadn’t realised that Victor had done so much more than just turn out of bed in the middle of the night to come and identify him. It explained a lot though. At one point last night Mikhail had feared ending up in prison, possibly in a foreign country, and now he was home and he could put everything behind him. And as that thought crossed his mind he winced inwardly, realising that something very painful would soon be making itself felt behind him.

Alexey did not waste time once they had entered the apartment and settled down on the sofa with a hot drink.

“Well, I think I’ve heard the whole story this morning so perhaps we should concentrate on how you managed to get yourself into so much trouble.”

Mikhail was taken aback. He wasn’t good at identifying the why and how of his actions. He knew that he was in a lot of trouble. He knew Alexey would be angry about him going aboard ship illegally and getting involved with drug smuggling. After the events of the last twenty four hours it felt like he was just emerging from some sort of nightmare. And now he was being asked how he had got into the situation in the first place. He tried to replay the events in his head to identify when things started going wrong.

“I suppose I should have gone shopping with you instead,” he finally offered.

Alexey shook his head. “You didn’t have to come shopping with me. I wish you had, but the choice was yours. I don’t dictate your choices, Misha, but I am disappointed when you make poor choices. Can you identify any poor or wrong choices you made yesterday?”

Mikhail began thinking in a more focused way about his conduct and recalled the times when he had had faced choices and dismissed the unappealing options without too much thought.

“I should have come home when you said.”

“Yes, you should. I bought food and cooked a special dinner for us. Can you imagine how I felt when you didn’t come home and I couldn’t contact you?”

Mikhail had been so wrapped up in his own troubles that he was only just beginning to appreciate that Alexey would have known nothing of his whereabouts until the police contacted him in the early hours of the morning. Guilt prompted him to make the next damning admission.

“I did think to ring you but I was having such a good time and I’ve always wanted the chance to go aboard a cruise ship. I just turned my phone off. I can see now that was a really thoughtless thing to do. I’m so sorry.”

“'Thoughtless' seems to sum up the whole sorry business. My main concern is the danger you put yourself in. Did it never occur to you that you were getting involved with criminals?”

“They just seemed so nice, Alesha. They invited me to a party aboard ship. I was just returning the favour by helping them collect the drink.”

“I shudder to think what might have happened if you had got on the wrong side of the men you went to meet. Did it never occur to you that you were in danger… or were you too drunk to notice what was going on?”

“I wasn’t drunk,” said Mikhail hastily but when Alexey just glared at him he added, “They did buy me a number of vodkas in the bar and… and maybe my judgment was affected.”

“Your judgment was seriously at fault. You risked your life, Mikhail, consorting with gangland criminals, to say nothing of your professional career. What would have happened to your dancing if you'd finished up with a prison sentence?”

Mikhail was beyond responding. His shoulders were slumped and he lowered his head into his hands as his eyes flooded with tears of remorse.

“I’ve tried to teach you to think before you act. It appears my lessons have not made sufficient impact on you. I’m determined to keep you safe, even if it means I have to punish you more severely than I ever have before. This time I am going to cane you. A dozen strokes. And if you ever do anything like this again it will be two dozen. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Mikhail miserably.

“Stand up.”

Mikhail watched in confusion as Alexey moved the sofa into the middle of the room and then went into their bedroom, returning with a long, pale cane which Mikhail had never seen before.

“Drop your trousers,” came the curt instruction.

Mikhail struggled to comply with fingers that had suddenly become shaky.

“And your underwear. And bend over the back of the sofa.”

Mikhail now understood the reason for rearranging the furniture; Alexey would have plenty of space in which to swing the cane. He bent over as instructed, struggling to get his body far enough forward over the high back of the sofa. Then he felt Alexey’s warm hands lift his hips until most of his weight fell forward onto his hands which clutched convulsively at the seat cushions. With his toes just touching the floor he realised that he was effectively immobilised in this position and he waited in trepidation for the first stroke to fall.

The first swish of the cane made him jump and his buttocks clenched in a protective reflex action. But Alexey was only judging the weight and flexibility of the implement and didn’t touch him. He was just letting go his indrawn breath and beginning to relax when the first stroke cut a flaming line across his bottom and he yelled in surprise and pain.

Mikhail had been caned once before. Alexey knew it, but he had never used anything other than his hand on his brat. This time he intended to give Mikhail a punishment to remember and he caned slowly, making every stroke count. Livid welts were developing across Mikhail’s backside; his hands scrabbled to get a firmer grip on the fabric of the sofa and his teeth bit into the back cushion as he attempted to contain the appalling sting.

After the shock of the first stroke Mikhail tried to remain silent but his breathing was coming in shallow gasps, punctuated with sharp exhalations through pursed lips as each crack exploded across his bottom. Alexey was working his way steadily downwards and when the cane cut into the crease below the curve of his bottom Mikhail could contain himself no longer and he cried out in distress as tears overflowed down his cheeks. The last few stokes marked the top of his thighs and then Alexey paused before administering the final stroke as hard as he could, cutting diagonally across Mikhail’s welts and temporarily robbing him of the breath to cry out.

As the punishment came to an end, Mikhail realised that his whole body was rigid, with the muscles of his arms and legs clenched in tension and most of his weight supported on his belly which was pressing painfully into the back of the sofa. He allowed his body to go limp and then he felt Alexey’s strong arms under his chest lifting him onto his feet and then cradling him in his arms. He leaned gratefully against Alexey’s body and the two men stood entwined, with Alexey gently rubbing circles on his back, until Mikhail’s breathing was under control and his tears finally stopped flowing.

Without letting go of Mikhail, Alexey sat down on the sofa and then lay back, guiding his partner to recline on his chest. The two men rested together for a long time luxuriating in their closeness and relief that an ordeal was over. When Mikhail finally lifted his head to face his lover, Alexey only allowed him to apologise once but he was touched by his brat’s deep contrition and his promise not to misbehave again. Alexey harboured no doubts about the sincerity of Mikhail’s heartfelt assurances but he ended their loving reconciliation with a gentle warning.

“Just think before you get involved in any potentially risky activity in the future, Misha. That’s all I ask. I don’t want to have to repeat today’s punishment and I’m quite certain that you don’t.”

From then until bedtime, Mikhail was very subdued but he wanted to remain close to Alexey, wordlessly seeking reassurance that he was forgiven and loved. Later, when they were lying in one another’s arms in bed, Alexey slipped his hand slowly down the back of Mikhail’s pyjamas and ran his fingers lightly across his bottom.

“How does that feel?” he inquired solicitously, and then, with a touch of amusement in his voice, “Is the sting dying down?”

Mikhail reached his hands back to rub his own backside and winced convincingly although the sting had indeed died down, leaving him with raised welts and a general soreness which was not bad enough to prevent him from sleeping. However, he decided not to tell Alexey yet that the worst of the smart and burn had passed.

“Did you buy that dreadful thing specially to use on me today?” he inquired accusingly.

“No, I’ve had it a couple of years, and it was bought to use on me.”

Mikhail’s head reared up off the pillow in utter amazement. He couldn’t imagine Alexey ever being punished in that way. He couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing to Alexey. The scenario refused to take shape in his head.

Alexey laughed at the expression he dimly discerned on his brat’s face in the darkness.

“Don’t look so amazed. Come here. Lie down again and I’ll tell you.”

Mikhail lay back in his arms and listened to a story which finally made sense of one or two things Alexey had let slip in the past.

“When I first came to St Petersburg I didn’t behave very well myself.”

When Mikhail loudly cleared his throat to mimic disapproval, Alexey added sternly, “Not that I ever got involved with criminal gangs or was ever arrested by the police!”

Mikhail subsided into respectful silence.

“I did party rather too much though,” he confessed, “and I regularly drank too much. When I started coming in late and hung over for rehearsals Victor Pavel took me in hand. He confronted me after class one day and said that I was putting my place with the company in jeopardy. He offered to help me sort out my life and at that point I knew I wouldn’t get back on track on my own. Living here in the centre of St Petersburg was too much of a temptation with bars and clubs virtually on the doorstep. I moved in for a while with Victor and we agreed the rules I needed to help me sort myself out. Yes, don’t look so surprised. It wasn’t public knowledge at the theatre but I knew that without the structure and discipline he brought to my life at that point I would never have made it.”

“So Victor Pavel caned you,” said Mikhail in amazement.

“Yes, and paddled me too, but not very often. I found his punishments provided a very powerful motivation to sort out my behaviour! I was soon getting home on time, eating well, cutting out the drink and putting everything I could into my dancing. He took care of me then and I regard him as a trusted mentor now.”

“So you’ve told him all about us,” said Mikhail, suddenly shocked.

“Of course not, Misha. I would never tell anyone about the nature of our relationship, not even Victor. He may have his suspicions, especially after last night, but he will never hear anything from me.”

Mikhail relaxed against Alexey and took a little time to absorb all the information he had just been given.

Then he repeated, mostly to convince himself, “So Victor Pavel used to spank you.”

“As I’ve told you,” confirmed Alexey patiently. But then he laughed. “You thought Victor gave you a thorough caning that day in the dance studio? So who do you think he perfected his technique on?”

Mikhail gasped with surprise before dissolving into laughter. “Well you certainly paid close attention to his methods, Alesha. I never want you to use that cane on me again. It was agony, you know,” he added ruefully.

When it became obvious that Alexey had no intention of expressing regret for administering a well deserved punishment, Mikhail snuggled up to him and finally admitted, “The sting has worn off, though, and I’m feeling a lot better now.”

Then he slipped his hand provocatively down the front of Alexey’s pyjama bottoms and ran his fingers lightly along the length of his cock.

“How does that feel?” he inquired teasingly, mimicking the solicitous tone Alexey had earlier used towards him.

The speed of Alexey’s response took him by surprise as his wrist was taken in a vice-like grip. He was then flipped onto his back and Alexey used his superior weight and strength to pin him to the bed.

Alexey’s eyes glittered with feigned menace as he growled, “I hope you’re ready to take the consequences of provoking me.”

Mikhail nodded with barely repressed excitement.

“I’m ready,” he whispered, relaxing totally in Alexey’s grasp.