The Secret Daughter Of The Tsar

THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR by Jennifer Laam
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, Paperback
ISBN: 9781250028686, ebook ISBN: 9781250028693
Copyright (c) 2013 by Jennifer Laam

***** FROM THE BOOK JACKET *****

In her riveting debut novel, “The Secret Daughter of the Tsar,” Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her. Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra. After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie. Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy. Then as Veronica’s passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected. “The Secret Daughter of the Tsar” is thrilling from its first intense moments until its final, unexpected conclusion.

PROLOGUE

HVIDORE ESTATE, COPENHAGEN OCTOBER 1927

The clanging of the old woman’s summoning bell echoed across the kitchen. Annika raised her voice higher with the other girls to drown out the sound. She wanted to hear the latest gossip free from interruption.

The laughter soon gave way to intermittent giggles and then ceased altogether. A moon-faced sous chef regarded her with a sly smile, as though Annika’s every move was destined for failure. Annika stuffed another bite of herring in her mouth and let the greasy skin slide across her tongue. The glacial stares sank her spirit like a stone. If Annika proved derelict in her duties, she’d be released without pay. Someone else would inherit the unenviable task of gratifying Marie Romanov’s every last whim. She passed a linen napkin over her lips and excused herself.

Upstairs, Annika found Marie perched in her favorite flowered armchair. Despite the frigid autumn chill, the exiled dowager empress had ordered her chair moved from its place in the sun to a less conspicuous corner of the room. Annika suspected Marie didn’t want the young visitor to count her wrinkles in the fading light.

The visitor was bent over a tarnished silver samovar now, pressing the wolf’s head–shaped spout to refresh Marie’s tea. “Nicholas and Alexandra encouraged your granddaughters to pursue sports, did they not?” He spoke impeccable Danish, though his thick German accent struck each consonant like a mallet. “I understand that even at the end, while the royal family was held captive in Siberia…” When he spotted Annika at the door, he hesitated mid-pour and forced a tight smile.

“There you are,” Marie snapped. “What took so long?” She drew her ratty ermine stole closer around her neck and made a flicking motion with two fingers. “Show Herr Krause to the door. His audience with me has quite come to a close.”

Annika lowered herself into one of the quick curtsies that sufficiently pleased Marie without making her calf muscles ache terribly. The German visitor scowled at her and Annika responded with a small shrug. Despite his fine-looking features, she found nothing appealing about this grim young man.

Herr Krause turned the crushing weight of his attention back to Marie. “Dowager Empress, I can’t leave yet. You haven’t finished telling me of your family’s holidays along the Baltic Coast, before the troubles began.”

Underneath her thick layer of facial powder, Marie’s expression softened. She caressed the gilt edges of the leather album on her lap. Her gaze flashed over a discolored photograph of her four granddaughters standing in a row, shortest to tallest, hands clasped together. The girls wore identical white cotton dresses and giant sunhats with long ribbons. Their heads were tilted coyly to the side, flirting with the camera, untroubled by any hint of the difficulties to come.

“Nicky and Alix are excessively fond of tennis.” Marie reached for the delicate porcelain cup perched underneath the samovar. Herr Krause pressed the hot water spout once more. The tea emitted a fragrant aroma of cloves and cinnamon. “They have taught the older girls to play, and lament Grand Duchess Tatiana’s weak serve.”

“I understand your son Tsar Nicholas was an avid athlete,” Herr Krause said. “And even in his final days sought comfort in his daily walks and calisthenics.”

Marie snatched her cup back. Boiling water splashed Herr Krause’s hand. He yelped and fell back into a chair. Annika found Marie’s speed astonishing, given her age. Then again the dowager empress always greeted reality with nasty swipes, like a bear disturbed during winter hibernation. “See him to the door,” Marie said crisply.

Herr Krause grabbed a linen napkin from atop Marie’s china cabinet and pressed it to his hand. His slender backside melded into the faded upholstery of the guest chair until he appeared intractable. “I don’t understand.”

“The tsar has not suffered through his last days yet.” Marie’s husky voice rose in pitch. The thin blue veins in her neck strained against her papery skin. Annika shifted her weight and prepared to stand silently for a quarter of an hour at least, while Marie delved into another bewildering account of how the tsar and his family might have escaped the Bolshevik firing squad to live in hiding in Paris or San Francisco or the Siberian wastelands. Annika had heard a hundred scenarios, each more outlandish than the last.

This evening, however, Marie merely patted the fringed bangs cut high on her forehead. “We will rescue Nicky, Alix, and the children. We will find my missing granddaughter.” Her voice cracked and dropped an octave. “Alix will forgive me then.”

Herr Krause extended his hand toward Marie. She shot him a withering look and he quickly dropped his hand back into his lap. “Forgive you for what?”

Marie pursed her lips and leaned against the windowsill. She drew the silken curtains back and stared at the gravel beach outside. Marie’s sorrowful, searching gaze once again reminded Annika of the precarious nature of the old woman’s circumstances. Hvidore belonged to Marie, yet since the Russian Revolution she had lived here only at the pleasure of her nephew, King Christian of Denmark.

“You are fatigued. I have stayed too long.” Herr Krause tossed his soiled napkin back on the cabinet, rose to his feet, and started across the room. He stopped abruptly at the door, bony knuckles splayed on the loose knob.

“Don’t abandon hope, Dowager Empress. Remain steadfast and true.” Herr Krause drew back his right leg and placed his left palm over his heart. A welt blistered beet red on the back of his hand. “We will restore your family’s throne. I promise you that.” He bowed deeply in Marie’s direction, and then followed Annika out to the hall.

Most visitors to Hvidore couldn’t keep their gaze from wandering to the domed ceiling, the statuary lining the walls, or the silvery crests of Baltic waves visible from the high windows. This opulence seemed misplaced in the otherwise sensible residence, like the furs and pearls Marie wore with her practical house dress and sturdy black shoes. Yet Herr Krause’s gaze remained fixed on each step before him. He removed a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wrapped it around the welt on his hand. “Does the dowager empress not understand what happened to the tsar’s family?”

“The poor creature lost everyone in the Revolution.” Annika trailed her fingers along the wrought-iron railing as she led him down the central staircase. “She won’t speak of them in the past tense and refuses to indulge those who do so.”

Herr Krause winced. “Should I return and apologize?”

“I doubt it will do any good. It looks like she’s lost to the world for the evening.”

He tilted his head to the side. “Did you understand what she said about a missing granddaughter?”

Annika suppressed a shiver. She didn’t care for this topic. On the other hand, once Herr Krause left, she would spend the rest of the night in Marie’s room with a needle and colored thread, embroidering flowers on dish towels while the old woman rambled on about the old country and the old ways. “She mentioned a missing granddaughter before. Some of the girls think she’s talking about Anna Anderson.”

He gave an abrupt laugh. Annika didn’t care for the harsh sound of it. “The lunatic who claims she’s Grand Duchess Anastasia?”

“No one knows. No one dares remind the dowager what happened. Why should we? The truth is too horrible to bear.” Annika imagined the Romanov family on that final night, crowded together in the basement of the house in Siberia where they were kept prisoners. By now, she knew the story too well. She could hear the girls’ high-pitched screams, the blast of gunfire, and the sickening sound of flesh ripping underneath the curved tip of a bayonet. Sometimes, she felt as though she’d been in the room herself.

“Besides, the dowager empress dismissed Anna Anderson’s petition immediately.” Annika quickened her pace. “She called her a silly imposter out for money. Of course, the dowager is eighty years old. She can’t distinguish the living from the dead anymore, poor woman.” Annika stopped just short of the main doors and opened the hall closet. She stood on her tiptoes to retrieve Herr Krause’s overcoat and black fedora from the top hooks. “I wouldn’t put much stock in anything she says about a missing granddaughter.”

Herr Krause grabbed her arm. Annika tried to wriggle out of his grip. It wasn’t painful, but he held her fast. “What does she say? What have you heard?”

His icy blue eyes bored into her, reminding Annika of the Romanian hypnotist who sometimes performed at Tivoli Gardens in the summer. She understood now why Marie had allowed this young man into her chambers when she’d shunned so many visitors before. “Late in the afternoon, when her mind is least clear, I hear her calling out: ‘Alix. Forgive me. We’ll keep her safe. We’ll protect your fifth daughter.'”

“I don’t understand.” Herr Krause dug his fingers deeper into Annika’s flesh. “Tsar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra had only four daughters and a son.”

“Yet another figment of the dowager’s imagination, I’m sure.”

“Of course. Clearly, she is an ill woman.” Herr Krause released Annika’s arm and allowed her to retrieve his hat and coat. “Perhaps I might speak with Dowager Empress Marie again in the morning, when her thoughts are more lucid.”

An entire morning free of the dowager’s prattling? Annika smiled to herself. “I could tell her you were misinformed about the fate of the tsar and his family. She might agree to see you again then.”

Herr Krause bent forward to take her hand. He kissed her fingertips with surprisingly soft lips. “I would like that very much.”

Annika opened the front door to a freezing coastal gale. Undeterred, Herr Krause placed his hat on his head, tightened his coat around his chest, and took the steps down to the courtyard two at a time. He looked back one last time and tipped his hat in her direction. She found his sudden burst of energy odd, considering he’d spent the better part of his afternoon dealing with Marie’s delusions. Then again Marie often commented on the strange quirks of the German race. Perhaps the old woman was more perceptive than Annika realized.

CHAPTER ONE

LOS ANGELES PRESENT DAY

“I’m trying to change your life for the better,” Jess said. “Just listen for one minute, will you?”

Veronica Herrera rubbed her bare left ring finger, a nervous tic she’d indulged too much lately. For a short while, she felt like a well-adjusted thirty-eight-year-old woman enjoying another glorious Southern California morning. She’d thrown on a dark green sundress, rather than one of the black outfits she usually favored, and walked to the cafe on Tujunga Boulevard. Nobody walked in L.A., except Veronica Herrera. And Aroma Cafe lived up to its name. The patio always smelled like cinnamon toast.

But then Jess ruined it all by raising the forbidden topic of Veronica’s love life, the one subject guaranteed to reduce Veronica to adolescent gawkiness.

“Eighteen months is enough time to get over anyone or anything,” Jess added. “I’ve made it my personal mission to return you to the land of the living.”

“Forget it.” Veronica picked at the remains of her muffin and threw the crumbs to a trio of little gray birds gathered at her feet. “No set-ups. It makes me feel pathetic.”

“But you’ll like this one.” Jess gave an authoritative nod.

Veronica imagined her cousin in a tailored business suit, rather than the hippie blouse and Pea in a Pod maternity jeans she wore now. As an assistant district attorney, Jess knew how to grill an uncooperative witness into submission.

“All right,” Veronica sighed. “One minute. That’s it.”

“His name is Michael Karstadt. He’s an attorney too and we met at one of those ridiculous social mixers. Since I can’t drink and he was the only other halfway-sober person there, we got to talking. He’s a huge history buf. So when I found out he’s available, I couldn’t help myself. I mentioned you. I told him you teach Russian history and you’re writing a book about the last Romanov queen. That really piqued his interest.”

A gust of Santa Ana wind picked up, scattering the birds. Veronica ran her hand through the shorn layers of hair brushing against her chin, unaccustomed to the breeze on the back of her neck. Let’s say she actually agreed to meet this Michael Karstadt. He’d expect a witty, urbane author, not an untenured academic fraud. “Alexandra Romanov wasn’t a queen. Her formal title was tsarina, but she preferred empress.”

“Excuse me, Professor,” Jess said. “I haven’t taken any of your classes. Anyway, I showed him your picture. I have tons of pictures of you saved on my phone. He thinks you’re gorgeous. Who wouldn’t?”

An alarm sounded in Veronica’s head. “Which pictures did you show him?”

“The ones from my bachelorette party last summer. Don’t you remember?”

Veronica remembered. They’d gone to Cabo San Lucas. It was the first time she’d worn a bikini since college. Big mistake. “You keep those pictures on your phone? And show them to strange men?”

“Look at me.” Jess patted her swelling stomach. “I like to keep memories of the glory days readily at hand.”

“You do look ready to pop,” Veronica said. “You’re huge.”

Jess laughed. “Still no good at small talk, are you?”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Veronica’s cheeks flared pink with embarrassment. Now the right adjectives sprang to mind. Jess didn’t look huge, but radiant, glowing. Everyone else in her family understood how to behave around Jess. They squealed and cooed, even Veronica’s grandmother, and her abuela was hardly the sentimental type when it came to babies. Meanwhile, Veronica hadn’t even asked to touch Jess’s belly.

“It’s okay. I know what you meant,” Jess said warmly. “So can I give Michael your number?”

“You met him at some after-hours bar party. You can’t say with any confidence he’s not a serial killer. That should be a goal in dating: don’t get killed by a serial killer.”

“Come on, Veronica. You know me. I had him checked out. Not so much as a traffic ticket. Besides, I know it’s been a while, but you remember the rules. Meet at a public place. If he creeps you out, leave. Oh! Look what he gave me.”

Jess grabbed her purse and pulled out her phone, red lipstick, a case for her sunglasses. “I know it’s here somewhere. Ah!” She withdrew a yellow legal pad, detached the first sheet, and flattened it on the table. “Michael wanted me to show this to you. He said he has an entire library and you can borrow anything you want. It was cute that he took the time to write it out on paper. He’s an anti-techie–like you.”

Veronica set the salt shaker on top of the paper to keep it from flying away in the wind. In elegant handwriting, Michael Karstadt had listed the titles of fifteen books on the Romanov family, some by academic historians and others by survivors of the Russian Revolution. He’d written the list in Cyrillic. Veronica felt a faint tingle along the backs of her ears as she decoded the exotic Russian alphabet.

“I told him you’re always complaining about being stuck in your research,” Jess said.

Veronica finched. “Thanks.” Not that she could argue. She was stuck. She wasn’t in a position to refuse help with her research. She leaned back in her chair, trying to enjoy the feel of the sun on her face, wanting to sound casual. “What does he look like?”

“He’s your type.” Jess bobbed her head as though this would make it so.

“I have a type?”

“He’s everybody’s type.”

“What’s his favorite Joy Division song?”

“Come on, Veronica. Do you expect everyone to pass your impossible tests?”

“Did you ask him?”

“Actually, I did. ‘Shadowplay.’ He didn’t even hesitate. Seriously. It’s like I ordered him off of a menu for you.”

The Santa Ana wind gusted again, ruffling the edges of Michael Karstadt’s list of books and blowing a sugar packet off the table. Veronica bent to retrieve it, glad for the excuse not to look at Jess. She stuck the white packet at the front of its little caddy and then made sure all of the pink and blue packets were aligned.

“You’re organizing,” Jess said in a flat voice. “That’s never good. What’s really the problem here?”

Veronica folded her hands on the table, staring at her cuticles. “You know the problem.”

“And you know I’d like to rip that jerk’s throat out for what he did to you.”

Jess meant this to be reassuring, so Veronica fought the impulse to double over. Thoughts of her ex-fiance still made her feel as though she’d swallowed spiders–queasy. Couldn’t her cousin just play the exultant mother-to-be, oblivious to everyone else’s pain? Eighteen months wasn’t a long time, no matter what Jess thought. Veronica stared once more at the Cyrillic list before her. She tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear.

“By the way, I love your haircut,” Jess said. “It’s a statement. I know what it means. You’re ready to move on.” She reached across the table and took Veronica’s hand gently in hers. “What if I give Michael your office number?”

“Is there any way I can stop you?”

Jess grinned and rolled her eyes upward. She gave Veronica’s hand a squeeze.

“Fine,” Veronica said. “My office number. And you owe me for this.”

“No, you owe me, Professor.” Jess flashed Veronica a triumphant smile. “You’ll see.”

“You’re up for tenure in January.” Regina Brack, dean of Alameda University’s College of Arts and Sciences, repositioned herself on her plush throne of an office chair. “That’s only four months away, and you haven’t completed your monograph?”

Veronica felt a pinching at the base of her skull, like someone squeezing her nerves with a pair of pliers. The office decor didn’t help matters any. A row of colorful butterfly specimens were displayed in a glass-fronted box on the wall behind Dr. Brack. Pins impaled their delicate abdomens, as if they’d displeased some medieval despot.

“I’ll admit, I don’t understand the attraction,” Dr. Brack said. “Nicholas and Alexandra Romanov are the most spectacular failures in Western political history. Why devote an entire book to the woman?”

Veronica tried to read Dr. Brack’s stoic expression. Was she suggesting Veronica would fail spectacularly as well? “I guess I’m just a sucker for history’s losers.”

Dr. Brack frowned. Not that she’d really been smiling in the first place. “With a subject this well known you need to find a unique angle. Some of your colleagues feel you haven’t yet refined your argument well enough to claim such an angle.”

A quiver of panic bristled in Veronica’s chest. Still, she knew better than to let this woman see her rattled. Regina Brack collected information as methodically as she collected butterflies. Any change in Veronica’s demeanor would be noted, logged, and no doubt passed on to key members of her tenure review committee.

Dr. Brack formed a steeple underneath her chin and tapped her index fingers together. Veronica once watched her make this same gesture in a seminar, right before she publicly decimated an untalented student. “You want me to be honest, right?”

Veronica’s fingers clawed the sides of her chair and she scanned her brain for something diplomatic to say. “Sure.”

“If the committee voted today, you wouldn’t make tenure.”

Veronica’s panic morphed into a shimmering wave. If she failed to make tenure, her career was over. Russian historians were like three-legged puppies, pitied but seldom adopted because the upkeep was too expensive. She imagined standing under the freeway with a sign: “Will explain the dynamics of imperial Russian court politics for food.”

“Can we discuss this, at least?” Veronica managed.

Dr. Brack nodded toward a sturdy duffel bag and a glass jar propped beside it. “Maybe next week. I’m headed out the door. I’m collecting specimens in the Mojave this weekend.” Her eyes momentarily brightened. “Have you ever been?”

Dr. Brack would spend the weekend tramping around the desert on her skinny little legs, trapping butterflies for her ghoulish collection. Meanwhile, Veronica would retreat to the darkest recesses of the library trying to resuscitate a career that might already be over. “I’m not much of an outdoorswoman.”

“How unfortunate.” Dr. Brack began to shut down her computer. “In the meantime, keep an eye out for job postings. That’s all I have to say about that.”

The last twelve years of her life–“poof”–into thin air. Veronica’s career was in shambles and not one strand of Regina Brack’s helmet of a bob had fallen out of place. Veronica slipped into a sloppy Southern accent. “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

Dr. Brack looked at Veronica like she was from outer space.

“It’s how Forrest Gump ended his stories,” Veronica explained.

“Oh. I don’t watch films like that.”

Veronica slung her bag over her shoulder and eyed Dr. Brack’s skewered butterflies for a last time. Once full of life, now useless. Veronica could relate.

“I only need access to the right materials. I’ll finish my monograph.” Even as Veronica articulated the thought, she heard the off-putting tentativeness in her voice. She felt the dull ache of tears and blinked them back, refusing to give this woman the satisfaction. “I’ll find a publisher.”

“I hope so. From what I understand, university presses aren’t as indulgent with junior scholars as they once were.” Dr. Brack gave her a prim smile.

As Veronica walked down the stairs, back to her office, the clean lines of the administrative suite gave way to disorder: vintage travel posters clumsily tacked to walls, bulletin boards overflowing with flyers for study-abroad programs, outdated political cartoons taped to office doors. For a flashing moment, the bohemian chaos of her department inspired her. She would jump-start her brain with strong coffee and lots of sugar. If she determined what to write next, a sentence even, surely the rest of the chapters would flow.

At this hint of blossoming confidence, the voices in Veronica’s head began to hiss. They had snakes for tongues, mythological beasts. “You’re an academic fraud. What makes you think you can publish a book?”

Veronica hummed to drown out the voices. She reached her office and fumbled for her key. When she turned it in the lock, the door gave way too easily. Veronica shared her office with an adjunct professor, but he should have left by now. She kept her hand on the knob, confused, and peered inside.

Her officemate had pinned five new pages from his graphic novel-in- progress to the back wall, zombie knight crusaders in chain mail and bloodied tunics. A man stood before the pictures, bending from the waist to examine each one.

Veronica felt her heart thump in her chest. She left the door open, in case she needed to scream for help. Clutching her bag tightly to her chest, she stepped inside. “May I help you?”

The man spun around. The curl in his lashes and the arch of his brows made his face look innocent and ironic at once. Flecks of gray speckled his dark, wavy hair. Veronica put him at six foot four, but then she was short and given to overestimating.

“Dr. Herrera? I’m sorry to startle you. A student at the front desk let me in.”

Veronica made a mental note to speak to the student first thing on Monday.

“I’m Michael Karstadt, Jessica’s friend.” He drew his right leg back and bowed to her, his left hand over his heart. Like an imperial courtier. Veronica took in the French cuffs on his shirt. A pulse of nervous energy shot from her stomach to her throat.

“Who?” she heard herself ask.

Michael quickly straightened again to his full height. He looked a little full around the waist, but his shoulders were broad and his suit tailored so cleverly it didn’t matter much. “Jessica told you I was coming, right?”

“There may have been a misunderstanding,” Veronica said carefully. She set her book bag on the chair behind her desk.

“She gave me your office number.” Michael motioned toward the numbers on the door. “She said you expected me to stop by.”

What a sneaky cousin she had. “She should have given you my office ‘phone’ number,” Veronica told him. “I’m not accustomed to finding strange men in my office.” She cringed. She hadn’t meant to sound like a nineteenth-century spinster.

Michael gave a soft laugh and scratched the back of his neck. “So this is even more awkward than it should be.” He spun on his heels and wagged his finger at the pictures on the back wall. “By the way, are these yours?”

“They belong to my officemate. He’s a Medievalist. They’re all nuts.”

“If they were yours I’d need to reconsider this whole thing. You might be a serial killer.” When he looked at her, his eyes danced. “You’re not the only one who worries about these things, you know.”

Veronica tried to laugh, but the noise got stuck in her throat. Jess had a big mouth, all right. “I might be a serial killer regardless. You never know.”

“I’ll take that risk.” He picked up an old postcard of Alexandra Romanov from the corner of Veronica’s desk. As he looked at the picture, his expression pinched. “Tell me about your book. Why did you decide to write about the empress?”

“The empress?” The sudden reverence in his voice seemed odd. Instinctively, she took a step back and away from him. “You make it sound as though she’s still alive.”

“You evaded my question.” Now he sounded playful again, more like one of Jess’s attorney friends. “Why are you writing a book about Empress Alexandra?”

“I’ve never been a fan of happy endings.”

Michael looked at her, brows raised. “That’s it?”

Veronica glanced at the picture on the postcard. It had been taken at the height of Alexandra’s celebrated beauty. Even so, Alexandra appeared ill at ease, her back too straight and her head too primly tilted. She may have been Empress of all the Russias, but she’d never mastered the art of posing for a camera. “She always looked so stiff and awkward,” Veronica said. “I guess I can relate.”

He turned the postcard over and examined the note on the other side. “The woman who wrote this had grandchildren in Moscow. She wants them to visit her.”

“I know. I read Cyrillic. Kind of goes with the job.”

“Sorry,” he said. “There’s just something exciting about that alphabet.”

The back of Veronica’s ears tingled. She wished she hadn’t been so quick to sound like a pompous twit. She couldn’t seem to strike quite the right note around this man. “I feel the same way, actually.”

Michael set the postcard down and swung his hands behind his back. Veronica had known him for all of five minutes and had yet to see him stand still. “I know it’s early,” he said, “but maybe we can get dinner.”

She focused on his gold tie clip, glittering in the early evening light. The words sputtered forth. “Jess may have given you the wrong idea. I’m not really dating now.”

His smile collapsed.

“I’ve had a horrible day,” she added, remembering how deeply romantic rejection stung. “I wouldn’t be good company.” Her vision clouded with brown spots.

“Hey…” she heard Michael say. “Are you okay?”

Her eyes started to burn. “I’m fine.” She’d get fired. She’d return to her grandmother’s house in Bakersfield with nothing to show for twelve years in Los Angeles except a mountain of debt. She could hear Abuela already. “Oh mija, what happened? You’re such a clever girl.”

Veronica shuddered. Before she could say anything, Michael stepped forward. He didn’t exactly sweep her into his arms, but somehow her head pressed lightly against his chest. A pleasant scent clung to his jacket. It reminded her of sunshine on an autumn day.

Still, she wasn’t in the habit of falling into strangers’ arms. She pulled away. A little wet pool of tears stained his jacket. Humiliation complete.

Michael reached into his pocket and fumbled for something. She expected a tissue. Instead, he withdrew a monogrammed handkerchief and handed it to her.

Veronica hesitated. “Are you kidding?”

“It’s pristine.” She still didn’t take it, but he kept his arm extended. “I promise.”

She accepted the handkerchief and dabbed her eyes, avoiding the elaborately intertwined “M” and “K” on the corner of the fabric. “Do you think I’m a freak?”

“I think something’s bothering you. Maybe I can help.”

Veronica twisted the handkerchief in her hands. “Can you fly me to the state archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow?”

“I don’t have a pilot’s license.” He dipped his head, so that despite the difference in their height, he seemed to look up at her. “But I collect books on the Romanovs.”

“No offense, but I doubt your home library rivals the state archives.”

“I didn’t mean to imply it did. You saw the list though, right? The one I wrote for Jess? Maybe you’re curious? Why don’t you let me take you to dinner?”

Veronica met his gaze. His eyes were hazel and far prettier than she first realized. “Will you ask me more questions about ‘the empress?'”

Michael raised his hands, palms forward. “Probably.”

“So is this dinner for business or pleasure?”

The curve of his mouth was crooked and sweet at once. She wondered if it was meant to provoke her. “I’m not sure. It might be fun to find out.”

Despite everything, Veronica had to admit going out with him held more appeal than going home and obsessing over her grim tenure prospects. The bar for the night had been set damn low.

She decided to let Michael Karstadt distract her from her problems. Not charm her or seduce her, just distract her.

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