The Lapins and Ruslan Grafinsky were the first persons to arrive at the Christmas party, and they were confused seeing the empty hall.
"I told you it was too early," whispered Vlad to Nina.
However, Hannah was glad to see Larisa, and the girls started playing together.
"I thought Mr. Limpson, as the organizer, would be here," Ruslan said to the VanSteins.
"He's very busy, but he promised to come later." Megan smiled. "Looking for a sponsor, eh?" She winked, but the face of Ruslan was so clouded that the woman felt herself uncomfortable, and she started talking with Nina.
More and more people arrived. Children ran around and were so noisy that Megan sent them to play in another, smaller hall prepared with some toys and games especially for the younger set.
"I'll watch the kids," Nina offered.
"Oh, don't worry." Megan explained, "There are nannies here to watch them, but thanks anyway."
Gleb Merkulov came later. He nodded to his wife, yet did not come close.
He gazed at Ruslan Grafinsky and sat next to him.
"Nice evening," Gleb dropped casually. The young man did not answer.
"I'm warning you, buddy," keeping a nice smile in place, Gleb hissed to him.
"You don't scare me," calmly replied Ruslan.
Lucy Limpson quickly entered the hall. She glanced about, saw Gleb and Ruslan, and she smiled. However, she did not go to them. First she addressed David, then the other guests, then went to Gleb only after other people had arrived and the attention of everybody was drawn from her to the newcomers.
"Hi." she said to the Russians. Ruslan's gloomy face surprised her. "Is something wrong?" she asked as she sat next to Gleb.
"Everything's fine," Ruslan replied sarcastically.
"When you're beside me, nothing's wrong," uttered Gleb emotionally.
Ruslan glanced at him. "Except the situation, eh?"
Lucy averted her eyes, and giggled.
"How's your wife, Mr. Merkulov?" she said loudly, and Russsian men gazed at her. "I bought some of her pictures."
Surprised, Gleb pointed to a group of guests.
Quietly singing together, Marina Aleksandrova and Nina Lapina were sitting side by side. Marina played her guitar while Vera drew a sketch of them.
'What about they had talked?' Gleb thought, worried. 'I hope Vera didn't say something that could destroy my plans.'
"Oh." Ruslan attentively looked at Lucy. "Well, it's good. When will your father arrive?"
"Are you looking for a sponsor?" Lucy snorted, but her smile died immediately in view of Ruslan's face, filled with pain. Not answering, he got up and walked away, and Lucy concentrated her attention on the conversation with Gleb.
Vlad Lapin was talking with David VanStein and some other professors from the University. A smiling Megan approached and interrupted them. "Enough talk about work."
"You're right, honey," David said with an apologetic smile. His guests looked at the Russian women.
"Ladies," called one of the professors. "Why do you hide in the corner? Come here and sing to us. I've never heard Russian songs."
"I can't sing." Nina got embarrassed, but Marina calmly went to the middle of the room. Placing her feet on the stool, she took her guitar, and sang.
She was singing in Russian, so the Americans listened without understanding the words. Marina's voice sounded very emotional, and everybody saw-she put her heart into the singing.
Suddenly Megan VanStein noticed that the other Russians were visibly confused as she intercepted exchanging glances. When Marina finished, and all the people applauded, she asked, "What was this song about?"
"Just a love song," Vera hastily answered, and Megan did not like the look on her face.
"One girl loves one man," Marina sighed, walking back to the couch.
"Yeah, one married man," Nina Lapina said very loudly and laughed.
A deadly silence reigned at once.
Vlad quickly nudged his wife, and she looked at him, then around the room with naive surprise, as she did not expect her phrase to have had such an effect.
David saw Marina glare at him. Framed with the puff of her fluffy straw-colored hair, her face went red, and he was amazed, feeling his own cheeks blush as well. The guests exchanged whispers.
"I see it's a very frequent situation." Lucy gave Gleb a wink.
"What do you mean?" wondered Gleb.
"I mean when a girl loves a married man," she answered very quietly, staring at him.
Little by little the party resumed its normal course, and when Lucy's father entered the hall, only a few people noticed.
Lucy, Gleb, and Ruslan walked to him very quickly, almost running. Lucy glanced at Ruslan, and addressed her father. "Daddy, let me introduce Gleb Merkulov. I showed you his wife's pictures. And this is..." She forgot Ruslan's name, and confusedly looked at him.
"Ruslan Grafinsky," he said. "Mr. Limpson, can I have a talk with you?"
"If it's about sponsorship," Mr. Limpson coldly replied taking out a business card, "here is the address to send your query or project. You will get a response within three months."
"This is more important to you than to me," Ruslan retorted in the same tone that Mr. Limpson had used. He did not take the card, and the businessman gazed at this Russian youth with interest.
"Very well, Mr. Grafinsky," Mr. Limpson grinned. "I'll give you a ride home and we can talk." He went to greet the guests.
"He won't believe you," Gleb said in Russian.
"At least I'll try," replied Ruslan.
Lucy did not understand, but the spite in Gleb's voice made her worry.
"What?" she addressed Ruslan. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm afraid, sweetheart," Gleb answered sadly, "my pal wants to ruin our friendship."
"Nobody can do that, I swear," she took his hand, and tenderly squeezed it with all her excessive emotion.
Without another word Ruslan moved aside...