“So, Napoleon, who is the lucky woman with whom you will share your evening?”
“Oh, I think it’s going to stay just between the two of us. For some reason I feel reluctant to let it get around headquarters.”
That caused the Russian to frown; the insinuation that he would gossip seemed uncalled for.
“I assure you, my friend, her name would not escape my lips.”
“Mmmm… If it’s all the same to you, Illya, I’d rather not say.”
“Very well, keep your secrets and I shall have mine.”
At that the brunet smiled knowingly.
“Afraid it’s too late, tovarisch.”
In spite of Napoleon’s remarks, Illya was pleased with his plans for New Year’s Eve. Ginny was a delightful girl, pleasantly conversant and surprisingly knowledgeable about a number of subjects. Her educational background, of which the Russian approved, had been augmented by some very practical experience working for Section II agents as a type of administrative aid. Ginny had aspirations of attending Survival School next year, something that was both attractive and worrisome to this region’s number two agent.
Illya spent no more of his time wondering about Napoleon’s date, who she was or why the American had chosen to not reveal her name. Ginny had hinted at something special for the evening; Illya hoped it was as enjoyable a prospect as Thanksgiving had been.
Napoleon was also looking forward to an evening of pleasant interactions with his date. It had been an impulse on his part to not tell Illya the woman’s name. She didn’t even work for UNCLE, so would have remained unknown to him and everyone else regardless.
On second thought, she wasn’t unknown to a segment of the employees that Napoleon had most wanted to avoid. His date was a familiar face on fashion magazines, and if the girls in the secretarial pool hadn’t recognized her name, they would have known her face from the cover of Vogue and Glamour. Or so he was led to believe.
Natalie Cosmos was a cover girl extraordinaire. She was originally from the Midwest, and had been discovered while on a family vacation to the Big Apple. A chance encounter with an agent while shopping in Macy’s famed flagship store had changed her life. She never dreamed that modeling a dress for her parents would predict a new life, but it had changed everything.
Meeting a handsome man who was ten years her senior had become the second most important day of the pretty blonde’s life. Napoleon Solo was more like one of the movie stars Natalie had dreamed about while sitting in her room at night, reading fan magazines. Not in her wildest imagination, however, would she have visualized this man. He was something beyond her dreams, and that made Natalie very happy.
The two were seated at Sardi’s, a place Natalie had only hoped to visit when reading about the famous people who dined there, and the equally famous caricatures that commemorated their patronage of the iconic restaurant. The crowd was ebullient, full of good cheer as toasts were being made to the new year, and happy faces that all seemed glamorous in this most glamorous of cities.
“I read that the original artist was Russian. Didn’t you say your business partner is Russian?”
Something in Napoleon grimaced at the mention of his friend. For some reason he didn’t want to introduce Natalie to Illya, and his ego wouldn’t allow the possibility that some small tinge of uncertainty existed regarding Natalie’s feelings for only him.
“Did I? Oh, well yes… A boorish lot, those Russians. I’m constantly having to cheer him up, he’s sort of a pessimistic fellow.”
Natalie pretended to pout.
“Does that mean I won’t get to meet him? I think he sounds rather exotic, being Russian and all. Isn’t Yul Brenner Russian? I think he’s intriguing, even if he is bald.”
That made Napoleon laugh. Being with Natalie was refreshing, the innocence of youth combined with a face that made him want to watch her for hours. She was that beautiful to him.
Napoleon was, in fact, so enthralled with Natalie’s face that he failed to notice the blond who was being shown to a table, along with a curvaceous brunette. Illya hadn’t noticed his partner at the booth near the back of the restaurant, but Ginny, ever vigilant and vying for that spot in Survival School, saw Napoleon with a pretty young thing and nudged her date.
“Illya, isn’t that Napoleon back there? Who is he with?”
The Russian noted that the last word had become something like a syllable and a half, a part of her speech to which he was not yet completely accustomed.
“What? Napoleon is here?”
Ginny wondered again why Illya didn’t always pronounce his R’s…
“Yes, see him… over there.”
Ginny waved as she motioned Illya towards the other couple’s table, something that was both unwelcome and unexpected from Napoleon’s perspective. He got up, nonetheless, feigning pleasure at the arrival of his blond partner. Natalie was perplexed, but began to understand that this was the Russian.
“Illya, Ginny… uh, oh… let me introduce you…’
Napoleon put his hand on Natalie’s shoulder, a proprietary move that was not lost on Illya.
“Natalie Cosmos, this is my partner and … my friend, Illya Kuryakin. And his date, Ginny …”
“Pleased to meet you Natalie.”
“Yes, pleased to meet you. Napoleon has been very secretive about you, I begin to understand why.”
Illya did understand, and now the girl and what he began to think was a very famous face intrigued him. Ginny spoke it first, in that way unique to Southern Belles.
“Oh, my Lord, you’re a model aren’t you. I’ve seen you on magazines. Napoleon, you little stinker, you’ve been hidin’ this gorgeous li’l girl from all of us… Aren’t you just the cutest couple.”
The men both listened more than watched as Natalie responded, her obvious delight in being a part of something that smacked of couples and love and … it was all very exciting. And the Russian was … different. In a good way.
“You are so sweet to notice. Yes, I’ve done a few covers. Please, sit down… Oh, is that all right Napoleon? I think we should all dine together, don’t you?”
Illya tried to back out of it, recognizing his partner’s lack of enthusiasm for the suggestion. Still, the girl was beautiful and he was suddenly, unexpectedly quite interested in finding out more about her.
Napoleon stammered out something that sounded like agreement, motioning for Illya and Ginny to sit. He let the waiter know that two more would be joining their table, and then proceeded to ask the other couple where they had started their evening, since it was now closing in on midnight.
“We took in a film, something Ginny wanted to see.”
She slapped him on the shoulder, clucking her tongue at his lack of enthusiasm.
“Now, Illya honey…’
Napoleon raised an eyebrow at that endearment. Illya honey?
“You know you enjoyed that movie as much as I did. Who doesn’t love Doris Day and Rock Hudson? I mean, what’s not to like?”
Ginny was a lovely woman, soft in all the right places and understanding to the point of … well, she was very accommodating. But at this moment, Illya was feeling as though his spontaneous invitation of the previous day had been unfortunate. He liked Ginny, but he was feeling less inclined to spend the rest of the evening in her company.
Napoleon spotted that change in his partner. He caught the glance cast towards Natalie, the sparkle in the blue eyes. Sometimes he hated the damned Russian for his ability to woo a woman without even trying. Natalie was watching Illya like a cat watches a butterfly, ready to pounce but too calculating to move without a sure shot.
“Oh, so you dragged our academic here to see some fluff onscreen? That’s quite an accomplishment Ginny. You must have some kind of charm to pull that off.”
Napoleon hoped it was true, but his infatuation with Natalie was being unfairly challenged at this very moment. Illya couldn’t help himself, just the same as the brunet seemed unable to control his libido and how women responded to it. But, this time he really wanted to be with this woman. Girl. She was only twenty-two. That’s young, he thought frantically to himself. What am I going to do with a kid just out of school?
“Well, the antics of the characters were quite ridiculous. I believe that Hollywood needs a dose of Russian romanticism to lend it a bit of reality.”
Natalie practically purred when Illya spoke.
“Mmm… Russian romanticism… that sounds delicious. How does one acquire such a thing?”
Perhaps she was mature for her age.
“Oh, I … well, reading would be a first step. If you like I can give you a list of titles, something to help get you started.”
Napoleon practically groaned out loud. He caught the look on Ginny’s face and recognized what she was thinking. It was pretty much the same as what was going through his own mind.
Natalie reached across the table and put her hand on Illya’s, a smile on the beautiful face. Hers, not his.
“Oh, that would be so neat. Perhaps we could go to the library together and pick out some of these. Oh, that is if you don’t mind.”
Touché. Just a big damned touché. Napoleon sighed, his evening was over and he knew it. Illya hadn’t meant to ruin everything, and actually, now that he was thinking it over, Ginny was really a fun girl and very pretty; she was looking at him like the prize that he was. Let the blond have his model. Southern girls are full of gentle words and kisses that last long into the night…
“Napoleon?” Mouth moving, words incomprehensible.
“What? No, I’m … Sorry, what did you say?”
Natalie and Illya had somehow moved closer to each other, probably discussing the stupid books. Ginny got up from her side of the booth and came to sit next to Napoleon. This was crazy. Is everything so obvious?
“I said we’re ready to order. Do you know what dish you’d like.”
Napoleon nearly spit out his martini.