But I now know something she doesn’t: Paul Markov is more than the shy, devoted lieutenant I fell in love with in St. Petersburg. He can be cold, cruel. He could be a murderer.
On the train to Moscow, when the uprising began, Lieutenant Markov shot a guard who would have killed me and Katya. Since then I’ve remembered that moment as proof of how protective he is, how he would do anything to keep me safe. Now I remember how he never even looked down at the man he’d shot, bleeding to death at his feet.
The afternoon passes in a kind of daze. It feels like hours before I even move from my bed, and I do that only when I realize I’ll be more nauseated if I don’t eat than if I do. Every action I could possibly take—even something as inconsequential as sitting at the window to look out at the Place Vendôme—seems as if it could backfire disastrously. This is ridiculous, of course; watching the Paris scene is a lot less risky than having unprotected sex. But after screwing up this badly, I don’t trust myself right now. Guilt paralyzes me.
As the pale sunlight begins to dim at dusk, the maid arrives to prepare me “for dinner.” I remember the line in my planner—tonight I’m dining at the home of someone called Maxim. I wish I could tell the maid to go away, burrow back under the silk coverlet, and try to shut out the reality I’m in, the one I created for the grand duchess.
But I’ve screwed up her plans enough for one lifetime. The least I can do is keep her appointments.
I submit to the maid’s ministrations. While she’s not the equal of the attendants I had in St. Petersburg, she shares their knack for making the most out of my few good features. My curly hair is tamed into a soft cloud by ornate gold combs, enameled with cobalt-blue lotuses that seem vaguely Egyptian. The dress she gives me is a darker shade of blue, beaded with jet, and while it fits snugly around my newly acquired bustline, it flows down beneath that in loose folds. Even the closest observer wouldn’t be able to spot the slight thickness at my middle.
I watch the maid carefully, wondering if her eyes will linger at my waist. Whether she knows. If so, she’s too smart to give any sign.
She’s not one of the women who attended me in St. Petersburg, I remind myself. I don’t know how long I’ve been in Paris, but I almost certainly wouldn’t have left until after I was sure of my pregnancy, so no more than a month to six weeks. The maid doesn’t realize my body doesn’t always look like this.
That buys me time, but how much? Another month, at most—
For jewelry, the maid chooses heavy, screw-on earrings of black pearls and a ruby ring so enormous it dwarfs my skinny fingers. (The Firebird remains around my neck, all but hidden under the dark gauze at the dress’s neckline, unnoticed by the maid.) Then dark slippers are slid onto my feet, an elaborately beaded bag is put in my hands, and a heavy wrap of burgundy velvet and black fur is draped around my shoulders.
Turns out I’m staying in the “Suite Imperial,” but the rest of the Ritz is nearly as swanky as my rooms. Red carpet, gilded ceilings—the splendor doesn’t quite reach the levels of the Winter Palace, but it comes pretty close.
The doors that separate my area of the hotel from the rest swing open to reveal two large, stern men dressed in black. Instantly I realize they’re my personal guard. I remember Lieutenant Markov, always standing at my door, always protecting me, his gray eyes searching mine every time we dared look at each other.
“Your Imperial Highness?” says one of the guards. “Are you unwell?”
I’ve stopped in my tracks, one hand over my heart. Through the beaded gauze of my dress I can feel my Firebird. “I’m very well, thank you. We can leave now.”
They shepherd me through a corridor that offers only a glance of the opulent lobby, but I glimpse women in dresses as elaborate as mine, men in tuxedos and the occasional top hat. A rush of whispers trails behind me like smoke. If this dimension’s technology had developed as quickly as our own, paparazzi camera flashes would light up around me. I have to maintain a neutral, pleasant expression even though on the inside I feel like crying.
The car is a low-to-the-ground roadster with running boards and a canvas top, the kind of thing they’d drive on Downton Abbey. Numbly I lean back in my seat and take in the view of this wholly different Paris. A few horse-drawn carts still travel on the streets, most of them apparently bringing in agricultural products from the countryside. I see one stacked with old-fashioned metal milk jars, another laden with enormous wheels of cheese. Stores and shops are smaller and darker, and each one looks individual, with hand-painted signs advertising their wares.
Most people I see on the street aren’t dressed as elegantly as those of us staying in the Ritz, but compared to the fashions I’m used to back home, everyone looks more formal. Every man has a jacket and a necktie, even the ones walking into pubs with their friends. Every woman wears a long skirt, most of them with elaborate hats to match. Nobody eats or sips coffee while they walk; instead of cell phones or plastic shopping bags, they hold walking sticks, or fans.
I expect the car to pull up in front of some mansion or stately apartment building, wherever the mysterious Maxim lives. Instead, we stop at an enormous gaudy neon sign over what looks like the biggest, most bustling restaurant in the city: Maxim’s.
“Your Imperial Highness! Welcome back.” This man in the tuxedo must be the maître’d, or the owner. Whoever he is, he’s really glad to see me. No wonder—having a Russian princess as a regular customer must be great advertising. “Your private room awaits you.”
“Thank you,” I say evenly, trying to disguise my relief. Whoever I’m meeting here, I won’t be able to miss them, and any little mistakes I make won’t be noticed by as many people in a private area. Either way, the delicious smells of beef and bread and cheese make my mouth water; my earlier nausea has given way to intense hunger.
Maxim’s turns out to be almost as lush as the Ritz. Sinuously carved frames surround long oval mirrors that hang throughout the hall. The wood that panels the walls ripples in gold and brown as if it were tortoiseshell. Light shines from flower-shaped lamps held by bronze angels or through the enormous stained glass mural overhead. The other patrons are a blur of fur, satin, jewels, and candlelight.
The doors open to reveal an intimate dining room, complete with bookshelves and a chaise longue. At one end of the small table, rising to greet me, is the last person I expected.
“Your Imperial Highness,” says Theo. “How enchanting to see you again.”
The next brief flurry of activity—accepting menus and the fawning team of waiters—gives me a second to take this in. After leaving Theo in New York, where he was bruised and bloody, just the sight of him alive and well buoys me. And yet he’s not precisely the Theo I know.
His suit is black, cut closer to the body than most men’s seem to be—an avant-garde style, I’d guess. He has facial hair, which I find sort of hilarious even though the mustache and Vandyke beard look good on him. He’s combed his hair back with that oil or pomade or whatever men used for gel back in the day. He speaks French to the waiters but English to me—with a slight Dutch accent. I’ve heard my own voice change accents before, but hearing someone else’s change is even weirder.
Yet the way he smiles, the flourish when he hands the wine list back to the waiter, even the slightly rakish tilt of the deep red scarf knotted around his neck: All of that is very familiar.