Hugo knocked commandingly on Virginie’s door and waited impatiently in the narrow corridor. He’d always hated tiny places. Just another headache to add to the already soaring list connected to this year’s contest.
The door opened.
He straightened away from the wall, caught off guard by the sight of Virginie securing a towel between her breasts.
She wasn’t looking at him. “Give me a second, will you Greg-” She looked up, met his eyes. “Oh, it’s you.”
Hugo smiled, it wasn’t forced. He liked what he was seeing. He was almost grateful to his own plan now. “Yes, may I come in?” He held up the bottle of wine. “To toast your good fortune?”
There was a moment of silence. Her eyes, disconcertingly, said nothing. She showed no shame at having been caught near naked. She seemed neither inconvenienced nor excited by his arrival.
Hugo began to think, for that one horrible moment in time, that she would actually reject him. Actually slam the door in his face, maybe even saying nothing, and leave him stranded in the hall. He began to get the feeling that with her, rejection could, or rather, would always be a possibility.
“Give me a moment.”
Then she slammed the door in his face. But having been given the assurance that she would return, Hugo was happy to wait. And being alone in the corridor, he was able to allow himself a small smile of victory.
Virginie returned to the door much more quickly than he’d anticipated but he was careful to shift his smile of victory to one of pleasure at the sight of her.
She stepped aside to let him enter and he caught a whiff of fresh soap and spring water. He entered the compartment and noted with surprise how bare it was. Even his compartment was loaded with his luggage, strewn with maps, books, notes. Hers was absolutely bare. She was, he realized, that rare breed of person who cleans as they go. He imagined her as a child, carefully packing her toys away after having gingerly played with them. She’d probably enjoyed the clearing up as much as the playing itself.
Virginie stood behind him, her back pressed against the closed door. He noticed that she was wearing men’s pyjamas. He wondered if they belonged to a boyfriend or husband. But she didn’t seem to him like the settling or marrying type. And the clothes were a small size, they fit her too well. So either her boyfriend was very slender and feminine in shape (Lesbian? Hugo wondered suddenly. God, he hoped not. Selfish, yes, but there it was.) or she was single and… just wearing the pyjamas… out… of… pleasure… Back to the lesbian scenario? God, he hoped not.
She was looking at him strangely, her head cocked to the side. Her damp hair fell about one shoulder in gorgeous disarray. “Have a seat.”
Damn! He’d been waiting for her to sit, planning to park himself beside her on whichever bunk she chose. Hoping that good manners would mean she couldn’t move seats, allowing him… some very sweet liberties.
He sat on one bunk. He though it was hers. It was the only one with a few personal possessions around it.
She smiled and sat on the other. “Here.” She held out her hand for the bottle.
The frail elegance of her wrist belied the commanding authority of her voice.
Hugo handed over the bottle and watched in mild surprise as in one deft movement, she pulled out a dagger, laid the bottle on the table, and sliced the neck clean off in one blow. She tipped the bottle over the glasses still held limply in his hand and poured them each a measure of wine. She reached out a hand, her fingers touched his wrist, and steadied his hand. He felt the warmth of her fingers.
In the next instant, the warmth was gone. She’d removed her fingers, was taking her glass from his hand. This time there was no touch. Hugo found himself regretting it.
“Nice trick.” He watched her as she re-sheathed her dagger.
“I saw it on a YouTube video once. It’s called Le Saberage, traditionally done with a sword, of course. I’ve always wanted to try it.”
The sip Hugo had been taking went down the wrong way at her words and he coughed. “This was your first time?” He sounded absolutely horrified.
Virginie raised her glass. “Just kidding. Relax Hugo, you look so- what’s the word in English?” She hesitated. “Suspicious? Is that what I’m thinking of? Maybe not. French is much easier for me.” She smiled.
“You were born in France then?”
“Have you ever been to Argentina?”
“Why?” She looked at him curiously.
She hadn’t put on a bra. Hugo was momentarily distracted by the sight of her cleavage framed by the sloping collar of her pyjama top.
He forced his mind back to the matter at hand “It’s just that you look familiar.”
She seemed to really look at him for a moment, her expressionless eyes flashing to life for a brief instant, before shuttering once more to reveal nothing. “No. I’ve never been to South America.”
Hugo, taking another track, leaned forward confidingly. “You know Ragnar is telling everyone that you’re military.”
“Is he?” She smiled in what looked like genuine amusement but said nothing more.
Her glass was starting to empty, he refilled it quickly.
He studied her as she drank. “Are you?”
“Sorry.” She returned her attention to him. “Am I what?”
“How absurd.” She looked at him steadily. “Why on earth would he think that?”
Hugo arched an eyebrow. “Things like carrying a dagger, using said dagger to cut the neck off a bottle-”
“I was raised in the country.” She interrupted. “I grew up around all sorts. Animals, weapons, people, even produce.”
“And how did you manage to beat the train to Ekaterinburg?”
“There were planes on that little farm too.”
He looked doubtful. “You flew to Ekaterinburg?”
He refilled her glass while she was distracted.
“We never toasted.” He raised his glass. “To your victorious reign.”
She didn’t smile. “À votre santé ” Her voice sounded wicked in her native tongue, smoke and whiskey, fire and life.
“Salud y amor y tiempo para disfrutarlo.”
“What does that mean?” Her head tipped ever so slightly to the side again.
“Health and love and time to enjoy.”
“Is that what people believe in Argentina?” Virginie looked amused.
“What do you believe?”
There was a knock at the door.
Gregory’s voice filtered through the door. “Virginie, may I come in?”
“Just a second.” She turned back to Hugo. “I believe, Mr. Vidal, that you’ve come here under some confused misapprehension about seducing me.” She laughed quietly. “You think, you can wheedle your way into my confidences…maybe even,” she met his yes, “into my bed?”
“You give yourself too much credit.” His voice was cold.
“I assure you, I’m aware of my exact value.” Virginie stood. “Thanks for the drink, but I won’t waste your time any longer. I ask that you pay me the same courtesy.”
He stood. “You should apologize to me.”
She was opening the door, she paused and glanced at him with honest curiosity. “For what?”
“For your wild and mistaken allegations.”
Virginie opened the door fully. “Goodnight.”
Hugo walked past, pausing when he was alongside her. “Goodnight.”
Gregory stepped aside, wide eyed, and allowed Hugo to pass. He whistled as he entered the room and closed the door behind him. “He looked mad. What did he want?” Gregory glanced at the little table between the bunks. He picked up the broken bottle piece and studied it curiously. “Was there a struggle?”
“Relax, Gregory.” Virginie held up a hand as he began to work himself into a little lather. “I did that.”
He looked more mystified than ever. “Why would you do that?”
“I was making a point. The man’s trying to figure me out. I like confusing him.”
“Why would he be trying to figure you out.” He set down the glass and collapsed onto his bunk.
“Apparently Ragnar thinks I’m military.”
Gregory shrugged. “I just assumed you were.” He faked nonchalance while he eyed her avidly under his eyelashes.
Virginie slid under the sheets. He noticed that she tucked her dagger under her pillow. It made him nervous knowing that she thought she might need it. She turned her back on him.
“Get the light, will you? Goodnight, Gregory.”
“Goodnight, Virginie.” He turned out the light and lay in the darkness, listening to the sound of the train click-clacking its way over the rails.