Princess Anastasia Denisova took careful aim with the hammer. “Anya, no! Not the tiara!” Anya sent her best friend a quick glance, then returned her attention to the glittering headpiece in front of her. “We can’t hide it like this. We need small, unidentifiable pieces.” Elizaveta groaned, apparently resigned to the inevitable, and Anya quashed a pang of guilt for destroying something so undeniably lovely. Still, a piece of broken jewelry was the least of their troubles. With a silent apology to the artist who’d made such a beautiful thing, she brought the hammer down with a sickening crunch. The gold setting crumpled and a couple of pea-sized diamonds skittered across the wooden table. Elizaveta made a dive for the nearest one before it shot onto the floor. Anya hit the metal a few more times to loosen the rest of the gems, trying not to wince at the destruction, and scooped the diamonds into a small pile in front of her. “Now bread.” Elizaveta groaned again in protest. “We’ve already sewn jewels into our skirts. And your cloak. We don’t need to swallow them too.
” “You’ve seen what it’s like out there. People are getting desperate. We must take precautions.” Anya reached for the baguette on the table, ripped out a piece of the soft center, and pushed one of the smaller diamonds into the lump of bread. Elizaveta watched her with grim fascination. “But how will we retrieve them?” “By sifting through the contents of our bedpans, I suppose.” Anya smiled at her horrified grimace. Elizaveta drew herself up, her expression stern. “You are a princess of Russia! Second cousin to the tsar. Tenth in line to the throne! You shouldn’t be poking around in—” “Shit?” Anya supplied with a snort.
“Language!” Anya chuckled. “Is not befitting a princess. I know.” She sobered as the grim reality of their situation reasserted itself. “But there are worse things than sifting through bedpans.” Elizaveta reached over and gave her arm a sympathetic squeeze. “Well, when you put it like that —” “Exactly.” Anya tossed the bread ball to the back of her throat, took a mouthful of water from a nearby teacup, and swallowed. A week ago she’d never have considered destroying the family heirlooms. A week ago Dmitri hadn’t been dead.
Her brother had come to Paris following Napoleon’s abdication last year, attached to the Russian envoy, Carl Osipovich Pozzo di Borgo. When Bonaparte had been exiled to the island of Elba, Dmitri had deemed it safe for Anya to join him in the French capital for some shopping and sightseeing, and she’d jumped at the chance. Paris was everything Anya had dreamed it would be: thrilling, fashionable, exotic. They’d visited galleries and museums, attended salons and balls. The past few months had been a giddy whirl of picnics by the Seine and trips to the modiste. Napoleon’s audacious escape from his island prison had smashed that pleasant idyll. Dmitri had been away, assisting at the Congress in Vienna, and Anya had been naively certain that Bonaparte would be stopped long before he reached Paris. When Marshal Ney defected, and turned a large part of the “Royalist” French army over to his former commander, it had come as a nasty shock. Then the troops stationed outside the city walls had defected, and King Louis had abandoned the city. Elizaveta had urged Anya to do the same, but Anya hadn’t wanted to leave for St.
Petersburg without Dmitri. His last letter, dated ten days ago, had said he was accompanying di Borgo to Belgium to liaise with the British commander, Wellington. And then news had come of the battle, near the Belgian town of Waterloo. The allied British and Prussian troops had defeated Napoleon, but at a terrible human cost. Anya told herself there was no need to worry about Dmitri. He was a diplomat, not a soldier. He wouldn’t have been anywhere near the battlefield. He was just too busy to write, that was all. She considered travelling to Brussels herself, but there wasn’t a carriage to be had—almost every wheeled conveyance was being used by panicked citizens to leave the capital. And how could she hope to find him in all the confusion? No, she would stay in Paris and wait for him to come to her.
Anya stared down at the glittering stones on the table. She barely recalled the visit from General di Borgo. All she remembered was the blood leeching from her face when he’d told her of Dmitri’s death. The sick dread that had clutched her heart, Elizaveta’s arms around her as her grief escaped in noisy, gasping sobs. Now, two days later, her tears had dried. A hollow, aching sadness remained. She’d told Elizaveta they would return to St. Petersburg, but in truth it held little appeal. What was left for her there? A series of beautiful, empty palaces filled with the ghosts of happier times. Her parents had died five years ago, both carried off by the same fever.
Now that Dmitri was gone, her closest male relative was some distant cousin in Moscow, who’d hound her to marry the first fortunehunting fool who came her way. Her father had refused plenty of suitors over the years. Men like the scheming Vasili Petrov, who hadn’t wanted her, merely the cachet that marriage to a Russian princess would bring. Anya was adamant that her union—like that of her own parents—would be based on mutual respect and appreciation, and not financial inducement. She’d seen far too many unhappy arranged marriages at court to consider settling for one herself. After her father’s death, Dmitri had done the refusing. Now he was gone too. Pain and grief balled inside her, but Anya pushed them away. She had to be practical, for Elizaveta’s sake. She pinched off another piece of bread, inserted another diamond, and swallowed it down.
Concealing a selection of gemstones inside their clothes was an expedient thing to do, considering the volatile situation outside. It was a long way from Paris to St. Petersburg. Two women alone would be an easy target for would-be thieves. If Anya’s baggage was stolen, they’d have the jewels sewn into the hem of her cloak. And if her cloak was stolen too—well, then the diamonds she’d just swallowed would be a last resort. With bleak humor, she wondered how long it would take for the gems to work their way through her body. A few days, probably. How horrified her former tutors would be to know she’d been called on to make such an obscene calculation. Elizaveta finished stitching a small pearl choker into the lining of a walking dress and picked up the mangled baguette.
“That’s quite enough. You’ll make yourself sick if you have any more.” She scooped the remaining loose jewels into a reticule and folded the newly weighted garments over her arm. “I’ll go make us some tea.” Tea, in Elizaveta’s opinion, was the answer to everything. After she left, Anya sat listening to the heartbreakingly normal sounds of the street outside. Carts rattled, birds sang. Tradesmen haggled. How could the world carry on as if nothing had happened? How was it possible to feel so alone amongst hundreds of thousands of people? The ache in her chest intensified. Thank God for Elizaveta.
Without her dear friend, she’d be truly alone in this world. Footsteps echoed on the stairs, too heavy to be Elizaveta returning with a tea tray. Anya frowned. Another visit from General Di Borgo? She stood and started for the door, but it opened after only the briefest of knocks. Her skirts swirled around her ankles as she came to an abrupt stop. “Count Petrov!” she managed. “This is … unexpected.” It definitely wasn’t “a pleasure.” Back in Russia they said: In a foreign country you are glad to see even the crow from your own land. But that wasn’t true.
She wasn’t glad to see Vasili Petrov, at all. If she’d had her wish, she’d never have set eyes on him again. Back in St. Petersburg, they called him handsome, with his pale blond hair and cool blue eyes, but Anya had known him since childhood. He was sly and vindictive, always jockeying for position. A preening peacock who bragged of his female conquests and his luck at the gaming tables with equal pride. She narrowed her eyes. He was neat as a pin, pure military perfection in his powder-blue uniform edged with gold braid. Unlike General di Borgo, whose head had still been bandaged beneath his battered hat, Vasili didn’t look as if he’d been anywhere near a battlefield. “Have you just arrived in Paris?” she asked.
“Were you at the battle in Belgium?” Vasili removed his pristine white gloves, tugging at the tip of each finger before folding them carefully in his palm. “Alas, no. We arrived a few hours after the French retreat. It was all over by then.” A wave of indignant fury welled up inside her. Why should a bastard like Vasili be spared, and good, brave men like Dmitri die? Vasili slapped his gloves against his thigh and his pale gaze roved over her as if he were inspecting her for flaws. “I heard about the death of your brother. You have my condolences, Princess.” His stiff, emotionless tone was an insult. How dare he? Dmitri was a hero who’d died serving his country, whereas Vasili— He took a step toward her.
Anya swallowed a gasp of astonishment as he dropped to one knee and caught her hand in his. She tried to pull away, but he had a firm grip on her fingers. “Princess Anastasia—Anya—” he murmured. “With Dmitri gone, you need a protector. A husband. Please, do me the honor of—” Anya shook her head in horrified disbelief. “Don’t be ridiculous! I’m going back to St. Petersburg. On my own. I don’t need anyone’s protection.
” Vasili’s fingers tightened painfully on her knuckles. “No, Princess. You’re going to marry me.” Chapter 2. Anya quelled a spurt of incredulous anger. “I most certainly will not. My father denied your suit three years ago. As did my brother, when you persisted. You want my dowry, Vasili. You have no regard for me at all.
” A cynical smile curved the corners of his mouth beneath his blond mustache. She’d always disliked men with mustaches. “I don’t deny it,” he said coolly. “Why should I apologize for being ambitious? We’ll make a good team, you and I. You’re intelligent, for a woman. You know how to run a household, order servants. You’ll make an excellent hostess.” His gaze swept her features and a greedy, lecherous look kindled in his expression which made her skin crawl. “You know full well you’re beautiful. Admit it, you loved having all the boys panting after you at court, didn’t you? And this ice princess facade? I’ll melt it.
Bedding you will be no hardship at all.” Anya snatched her hand away from his. Her expression must have shown her disdain because he raised an amused brow. “What’s the matter? I’ll make you like it.” She sent a panicked glance at the door. Where was Elizaveta? Vasili was watching her closely. In a sudden move, he stood, pulled her to her feet, and yanked her hard against his chest. Anya cried out and tried to pull away, but he caught her wrists in his fists, like manacles. “You don’t have any choice in the matter, Princess,” he hissed. “We will be wed.
As soon as I can find a priest.” “Release me at once.” An ugly, belligerent glint lit his eyes. “You’ll wed me if I ruin you.” Her blood ran cold. “Don’t touch me!” “Who’s going to stop me?” Anya fought a wave of revulsion as his mouth crashed down on hers. His lips were hard and punishing. She shook her head, struggling violently, but he was bigger, stronger. His tongue probed her lips, seeking entrance. She let out a shocked cry and managed to free one wrist, then slapped him on the side of the head.
Hard. He stumbled back with a muffled curse. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and sent him her most imperious glare. “I will never marry you, Vasili Petrov. You’re a traitor!” Anya felt a stab of triumph before the magnitude of what she’d just admitted dawned on her. She could have bitten off her tongue. Dmitri had told her in confidence that Vasili, or someone close to him, was suspected of passing information to the French. He’d hinted that he would be investigating the matter as soon as he returned from Vienna. Vasili’s eyes narrowed into slits. “So.
We can do away with the pretense, can we? That’s good. It makes everything so much easier.” He smoothed back his ruffled hair. Anya returned his hostile glare with one of her own. “Your brother spoke to you about me.” It was a statement, not a question. “Of course he did. The two of you were always close. He thought I was helping the French.” “Were you?” “As a matter of fact, yes.
They pay extremely well.” Anya gasped at the casual way he admitted to treason. Good God, the information he’d traded had led to the death of thousands of men. It had led to Dmitri’s death. “Bastard!” she breathed, incensed. “You traitorous whoreson!” Vasili chuckled. “Tsk. Such language, Princess.” Anya fought the urge to slap the smug look off his face. “Dmitri intercepted a letter of mine,” Vasili continued.
“He sent it to you.” She didn’t have to feign her look of confusion. “No, he didn’t.” “Don’t lie to me! Where is it?” “I never received any letter. I swear.” Vasili’s face settled into a cold, murderous mask. Before Anya knew what he was about, he lifted his hand and dealt her a backhanded blow across the face. Blinding pain was quickly followed by astonishment and outrage. No one had ever hit her before. She cradled her stinging cheek and glared up at him through watering eyes.
He gave a sickly smile. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever evidence you have, or don’t have, your brother is dead. And a wife can’t give evidence against her husband.” Anya sucked in a breath at his horrifyingly simple plan. He would marry her to ensure her silence. She would be trapped in marriage to this brutal, sneering thug. Vasili backed toward the door. “You will stay here until I return. And don’t think to run.
There’s nowhere I won’t find you. If I have to come after you, I will be most displeased.” He flicked a glance at her burning cheek and smirked. “Your brother always allowed you too much leeway. But you’ll learn to respect your husband.” Anya glared up at him and smiled. “Never.” Vasili sensed Elizaveta’s presence behind him a fraction too late. He swung around, but she brought the Chinese vase down on his head with all her strength; it shattered as it made contact with his skull. His eyes slid closed and his big body collapsed onto the rug with a satisfying thump.
“Excellent timing,” Anya gasped. “Thank you!” Elizaveta glanced down at Vasili’s prone form with a grimace of distaste. A patch of blood was seeping through the blond hair on the back of his head. Anya battled a wave of nausea. “Is he dead?” “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Elizaveta said briskly. “He deserved it, threatening you like that.” She poked Vasili with the toe of her boot and gave a disappointed sigh. “No, he’s just out cold.” Anya’s hands were shaking. Vasili had hit upon an uncomfortable truth: without a male protector, she was dangerously vulnerable.
If he’d truly tried to molest her, she doubted she’d have had the strength to stop him. What if Elizaveta hadn’t come? It didn’t bear thinking about. They hurried out into the hallway. Anya locked the door and dropped the key into the flower vase —now conspicuously lacking its twin—which flanked the door. “We can’t stay here. Not now that he’s found us.” “Should we go to the authorities?” Elizaveta asked. “Or to General Di Borgo?” “I doubt either could help. The whole city’s in turmoil. There’s too much going on.
” Anya shook her head, her thoughts in a whirl. “Although, this chaos might work to our advantage. If we disappear now, we’ll be harder to trace.” She didn’t doubt Vasili’s threat to follow her. His pride was fierce, and he hated to be thwarted. She hurried toward her bedchamber with Elizaveta hard on her heels. Vasili would expect her to head back to Russia. Even if they managed to evade him on the journey, he would catch up with them in St. Petersburg and attempt to enact his absurd plan there. They needed another destination.
And to throw him off the scent. “What if I pretend to kill myself?” Elizaveta frowned. “What?” “As a diversion. I’ll leave a note. I’ll say I can’t bear to live without Dmitri and would rather die than marry Vasili.” Anya’s voice cracked at the mention of her brother, but there was no time to grieve him now. She had to think. To act. “You think he’ll believe it?” “It’s worth a try. At the very least it will give us some time before he starts looking for us.
” Anya glanced around her comfortable bedroom. She had a wardrobe full of clothes, silver-backed brushes and mirrors, a host of expensive luxuries she’d always taken for granted. She pushed down a brief pang of regret. “We’ll have to leave all of this behind.” Elizaveta nodded decisively. She selected a small bag and thrust a few choice articles inside, then picked up Anya’s travelling cape and the reticule of diamonds. “Thank goodness we didn’t leave these in there with him.” Anya pulled her leather jewelry box from the back of the wardrobe. “I have some coins. And we can take a few more jewels.
Vasili won’t know what’s missing.” She grabbed the satchel she used for watercolor paints and thrust her favorite pair of leather ankle boots inside, along with a shawl and a few clean chemises. “Hurry! Heaven knows how long we have before he wakes up.” She rushed to the writing desk in the corner, snatched up a pen and paper, and dashed off a short note proclaiming her intention to throw herself into the Seine. That done, she joined Elizaveta at the front door to the apartment. A thousand contradictory thoughts crowded her brain. Good God. How had it come to this? Thrust from a life of peaceful contentment into one of terrifying uncertainty, all in the space of a few days. If they ran, they would be just like every other citizen out there; they’d have to make their own way in the world without the cushion of rank or fortune to ease the way. The thought was oddly beguiling.
Anya might never have experienced the hardship of living without family, or wealth, or social status, but she’d developed a certain amount of cunning while learning to survive the scandals and machinations of the Russian court. Neither she nor Elizaveta were fools. They were determined and resourceful. They would rise to this challenge. And really, could whatever awaited them out there be worse than the fate Petrov had planned for her? She doubted it. Anya took a fortifying breath. This might be an ending, but it was also a beginning. A chance to experience all that life had to offer. Her whole life she’d been seen as little more than a means of enrichment or a political pawn; it was time to see what she could achieve on her own. She grasped Elizaveta’s hand.
“Are you sure you want to come with me? I can give you enough money to get back to St. Petersburg, if you want.” Elizaveta returned the squeeze. “I wouldn’t dream of leaving you, my love. What’s the plan?” “All right. We’ll find a carriage heading north, toward Belgium. There will be plenty of wounded soldiers returning home. We’ll attach ourselves to them and say we’re widows, or looking for our husbands. We’ll go to England. Vasili won’t think to look for us there.
” Anya gave a decisive nod. “Think of an English surname.” Elizaveta wrinkled her nose. “Smith? Brown? What was the name of the family in that English book we read last year? Bennett?” “Perfect. You can be Elizabeth—no, Lizzie—Bennett. Or Smith, if you prefer. And I shall be Anna. Anna Brown. From this moment, Princess Anastasia Denisova is dead.”