“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 café on Tujunga Boulevard. Nobody walked in L.A., except Veronica Herrera. And Aroma Café 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 buff. 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 flinched. “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-fiancé 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 décor 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.
* * *
Bright murals and tapestries draped the walls of Electric Lotus, the luscious scents of cumin and coriander drifting from the kitchen to the dining room. Yet the fluttering in Veronica’s stomach tempered her appetite. Michael Karstadt didn’t eat either, just pushed potatoes smothered in curry around his plate. He kept looking over his shoulder like he thought they’d been followed.
She craned her neck to look as well, but saw nothing of concern. “All clear?”
He turned back in her direction, almost startled, like he’d forgotten they were on a date. Or were they? Veronica realized she wasn’t sure.
“Why don’t you tell me more about your books,” she said. “You mentioned they belonged to your grandmother. Was she nobility? Is that why you call Alexandra ‘the empress’”—Veronica made air quotes—“and talk about her as if she’s alive?”
Michael placed his fork on his plate and smiled. She noticed a small gap between his front teeth. It lent an off-kilter charm to his features. “You get straight to the point.”
“I’m no good at small talk, or so I’ve been told.”
“Give it a try. You might acquire a taste for it. How about ‘What do you do?’”
“You’re an attorney. Jess already told me about you.”
“I’ll try, then.” He was still smiling, but his jaw tensed. “Why do you study history? Did you start by looking into your own family’s past?”
Veronica sliced into a samosa with a greater degree of intensity than the flaky pastry warranted. “Hardly. I see history as cheap time travel. I delve into other people’s problems so I don’t have to think about my own.”
“Tell me a story about a dead Russian celebrity. Peter the Great perhaps?”
She had to admit, it felt good to share space with a history geek. “When Peter first set out to westernize Russia, he invited the Muscovy boyars to dine with a group of European ambassadors. The boyars wore smelly fur coats and beards down to their knees. They slurped borscht straight from bowls. Peter was so angry he grabbed a knife and lopped their beards off.” She paused for a sip of beer. “A little Freudian, don’t you think? Not that you can blame Peter. Rude manners should be suitably punished.”
Michael’s features relaxed again. “You must love your job. What a cushy gig.”
She choked on her beer. “I’m writing a four-hundred-page book with a fifty-page bibliography. That’s your idea of a cushy gig?”
He laughed softly. “I only meant you get to study Russian history. Nicholas and Alexandra are fascinating characters. They represent the final standoff between autocratic monarchy and constitutional democracy.”
Veronica reached for a piece of fluffy naan, liking his nimble mind. Without thinking, she touched his arm. “I wish you’d talk to my dean, this battleax named Regina Brack. She doesn’t get their appeal at all.”
Michael studied Veronica, his hand on his mouth. “Your eyes take on a gold tint in this light.” He moved his hand to emphasize the point. “And your face is shaped like a heart. You’re very striking.”
Tiny goose bumps rippled across her shoulders. Veronica ran her fingers along the rim of her glass, her mind reeling. She needed to watch herself. She’d been burned before by semi-glamorous men.
If she refused to look at Michael, she couldn’t fall under his spell. Instead, she watched the hostess lead a couple to the table directly behind them. The girl could have passed for Angelina Jolie’s kid sister and the guy had the doe-eyed soap star look. The part of Veronica that devoured Entertainment Weekly was captivated by their effortless beauty. Another part of her resented always feeling like a hobbit in a land of lithe elves.
The guy ignored his date, talking on his phone instead. He cursed loudly, spewing misogynist nonsense that would have made the crew on Entourage blush. A mother at a nearby table scowled. Her little girl had black hair gathered into the same type of pink ponytail holder Veronica used when she was a kid. The little girl started to giggle. For some reason, this made Veronica sad. Life shouldn’t turn coarse so early.
The guy took a seat directly behind Veronica and pushed his chair back so he was practically shouting in her ear.
At least now Veronica had an excuse to change the subject of conversation. “Speaking of rude behavior,” she told Michael. “Even the Muscovy boyars couldn’t compete with this.”
Every muscle in Michael’s face tightened, like he’d bitten into something sour. “Dr. Veronica Herrera,” he said. “I’m disappointed.”
“Why?” she cried, before realizing how pathetic she sounded. She lowered her voice. “What did I do?”
“It’s what you won’t do. Most people figure the past is the past and who cares. I think you immerse yourself in another time because the present is…” Michael rolled his eyes, as though the right word might drop from the ceiling. “… disheartening. We spend our days stuck in traffic or fretting over insurance or collecting friends we hardly know on the Internet. No one can tell this guy to watch his mouth around kids?”
“We’re socialized to avoid confrontation,” Veronica said. “It’s a survival tactic.”
The guy threw his elbow over his seat, jabbing Veronica’s head. “Ow!”
“That’s it.” Michael tossed his napkin on his plate.
“Wait.” She held up one hand and used the other to rub the back of her skull. “I don’t want to cause trouble.”
“What trouble? You can’t eat in public without risking a concussion?” Michael reached across the table to tap the guy on the shoulder. Excitement bubbled in Veronica’s chest. No one had ever stood up for her before.
“Hold on.” The guy turned and glared at Michael. “What?”
“Will you keep it down?” Michael’s voice had a tight edge.
“What are you, the FCC? Mind your own business.”
“You hit my date in the head.”
“Tell the bitch to put some ice on it.”
The word rang in her ears, hard as any slap. Michael jumped to his feet. The guy set his phone on his table and the two of them scowled at each other like a pair of roosters ready to tear one another to pieces. The room stilled; even the waitress who’d come to clear their plates hesitated. The techno-sitar music, which blended so smoothly with the cacophony of voices a moment before, now blasted over the speakers. Michael’s gaze locked with Veronica’s. He looked scared. This seemed unreasonable, given his size, but then the other guy did have youth on his side. Veronica’s shoulders slumped.
As soon as Michael saw her reaction, he spun around and snatched the guy’s phone. He headed for the servers’ station near the kitchen, where coffee hissed and dirty dishes were stacked in a plastic tub. Veronica heard a faint “hello?” from the other end of the line as Michael tossed the phone in the trash.
“That’s my property,” the guy screeched. “I’ll sue.”
Michael returned to the table. Veronica thought he could have stopped a charging cheetah in its tracks. “Try suing me. You’ll have a countersuit on your hands, on her behalf, for assault and battery.”
The guy’s Adam’s apple wobbled. His date, the mini-Jolie, suppressed a smirk. Veronica pivoted her head to gage the reaction of the room, expecting a cinematic chorus of approval. No such luck. The other diners averted their eyes. Even the little girl with the pink ponytail holder had returned to her meal. A manager in a clean white shirt and bow tie approached their table, his expansive forehead creased with concern. A voice inside Veronica’s head hissed, Do something.
Veronica stumbled to her feet. She reached into her purse and flung a couple twenties on the table. “Don’t worry. We’re leaving.” She took Michael’s hand, and led him past the other diners to the front door.
Outside, the evening sky had deepened to velvety purple. Streaks of orange sunlight ignited the western horizon. The white dome of Griffith Park Observatory hovered in the hills above them like a Byzantine temple. Veronica drew in a deep breath, savoring the spicy-sweet scent of flowers and citrus trees mingled with bitter exhaust fumes. She had always preferred the vibrant east side of Los Angeles to the bourgeois western enclaves and she’d forgotten how pretty the city looked at dusk.
“Sorry to embarrass you,” Michael muttered as they crossed Los Feliz Boulevard, heading to his new Prius and her well-loved Toyota. “And I think I owe you money.”
“No. I mean…” What did she mean? She needed the money. Veronica lengthened her strides to keep pace with Michael. Maybe she should get home and call Jess: What were you thinking with this guy?
Except she didn’t feel that way. She felt wonderfully exhilarated and sorry for the mere mortals shooting past them in sleek cars, going about the boring business of life.
“Most guys are so reserved,” she blurted, “especially in L.A. You’re different.”
Michael stopped in front of the Prius. “You’re serious?”
A gust of wind whipped tendrils of hair against Veronica’s cheeks. She shivered, not unpleasantly. “Peter the Great would have been proud of what you did in there.”
He dipped his head to meet her gaze. “Do you want to come over?” he asked.
Veronica froze. When she was ten, she had mounted the high diving board at her neighborhood pool. From the top, the pool stretched out before her, an endless sea of chlorinated crystal blue. She’d felt like Pelé, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Then the voices in her head started to hum. It was too high. They’d scrape her remains off the bottom of the pool with one of the red nets hanging from the side of the lifeguard’s station. The same onslaught of vertigo shook her now. Her head buzzed.
“For coffee,” Michael added. “I’m only five minutes away in Silver Lake. I’m not trying to seduce you on the first date.”
“You don’t want to seduce me? How insulting.”
He smiled, but looked at the ground.
When she was ten, Veronica had climbed down the ladder, wet toes curling around each rung. Her cousins’ mocking laughter still rang in her ears. She’d always regretted not making the dive.
* * *
Michael’s house was built in the cute Craftsman style so popular in the hills. In the yard, scraggly lemon trees clung to life and wild strands of ivy crisscrossed the fences. Shrill staccato barking greeted them as they approached the gate. Michael fiddled with the knob on the arched door. “That’s Ariel. Watch out.”
As soon as he unlocked the door, a furry golden chow charged them, panting wildly. Michael grabbed her and the dog strained at her collar like a half-trained Moscow circus bear. “It’s okay,” Veronica said. “I love animals.”
“You asked for it.” Michael let go and Ariel sprang on her, slobbering. Two gray-and-white cats balanced on either side of the sofa, glaring at the chow with jealous green eyes. The cats jumped down and set to work rubbing and threading themselves between her legs.
“That’s Boris and Natasha. It’s kind of a zoo, but make yourself at home.” Michael moved into the kitchen, dog and cats close at his heels.
Veronica stood upright, her legs unsteady. “This place is amazing,” she said. A beamed ceiling and huge fireplace dominated the front room, along with a thick Persian carpet, liberally scattered with cat and dog fur, which covered most of the hardwood floor. Modigliani prints, oblong female faces with eyes askance, hung from the walls.
Michael popped out of the kitchen. “I’ll give you the grand tour in a minute.”
He reached over and touched Veronica’s hand. A surge of warmth shot through her. That touch had been meant to reassure, rather than seduce, and yet her limbs felt pliant. She supposed she could try to seduce him. Her heart raced. Ordinarily, she didn’t think this way at all. Then again, perhaps a one-night stand was exactly what she needed to break out of her funk. She’d wake up next to him tomorrow morning and think, Oops, I barely know this guy. She’d call Jess and feign guilt while divulging every juicy detail.
Except she had no clue how to signal what she wanted. A hand on his knee? A sly wink? She wanted to feel sexy and wild. If only she had something sexy and wild to say.
“Where’s your bathroom?” she asked.
“Downstairs.” He hesitated. “Are you all right?”
She managed a contrite nod and Michael withdrew to the kitchen. Veronica didn’t need to use the bathroom, but didn’t want to play the fool either. She headed downstairs.
With every step, an ominous creak sounded. On the lower floor, one of the doors had been left ajar. Bookshelves ran along the walls of what looked like a home office.
Her lips twitched. Some people peeked into a stranger’s medicine cabinet to learn secrets. Veronica looked at their books. She glanced at the stairs. No sign of Michael. She pushed the door open and stepped inside the room.
The evening breeze drifted in from an open window and Veronica huddled deeper into her black cardigan. Below her, trucks rumbled by on Hyperion Boulevard. Veronica rubbed her arms and looked around, noting the cluttered desk, file folders and legal pads scattered about. From upstairs, she heard the crackling grooves of a vinyl record. Michael Karstadt was an analog type of guy. She should have known. And he remembered her devotion to Joy Division. Ian Curtis’s raw baritone soon barreled into “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” God, she was a sucker for a baritone.
Veronica approached the shelves. Many of the books were bound in leather and stained. She breathed in deeply, taking in the scent of the decay, and traced the embossed lettering on their spines, careful not to damage the fragile stitching. Her hand came to rest on a thick, canvas-bound binder. She stood on her tiptoes to remove it from the shelf.
An elaborate reproduction of the symbol of Imperial Russia, the double-headed eagle, was imprinted in dark scarlet on the cover. The eagle’s two heads guarded the ancient Crown of Monomakh, reptilian tongues lashing out at some unseen threat to the Russian land. Sharp talons grasped a long sword on one side and a round scepter on the other.
Pulse racing, Veronica flipped through the binder. Yellowing documents, faded at the edges and cluttered with typos, had been tucked between plastic leaves: birth certificates, marriage licenses, death records. On the last page, she found a family tree with neat geometric shapes framing the names. On top of the page, she read:
NICHOLAS I (1796–1855)
m. Charlotte of Prussia, 1817
Tsar of all the Russias
“What are you doing?”
Veronica fumbled the binder and almost dropped it. Michael stood in the doorway, a steaming cup of coffee in each hand.
“Oops.” She tried to smile. “I found Bluebeard’s secret room.”
“But no dead wives, I hope.”
She laughed, too loudly. He moved next to her. They didn’t exactly touch, but he’d removed his jacket and Veronica felt keenly aware of his shoulders underneath the fabric of his shirt. Michael handed her one of the mugs, something from an arts and crafts festival. She didn’t peg him for the arts and crafts type. Maybe the mug belonged to an ex-girlfriend. Maybe he brought women here all the time. But Russian history professors? When he kept a binder full of genealogical records? Her hand trembled as she lifted the cup to her lips. The coffee seared her tongue.
“Careful,” he said.
Veronica ran her tongue along the roof of her mouth to ease the pain. It served her right for letting his shoulders distract her.
“Why don’t you let me take that off your hands?” He reached for the binder, but she stepped back, set the mug down, and clutched it tighter.
She tried to sound playful, even with her heart banging in her chest. “So what’s the deal with the Iron Tsar?” That had been Nicholas I’s nickname.
Veronica saw a flash of panic in Michael’s eyes. “You’re not shocked?”
“I’m more thrilled than shocked.”
He raised his hands in apology, but his shoulders rose and fell. “I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I want to explain.”
She shook her head, confused.
“You didn’t see?” he asked.
Once again, he tried to snatch the binder from her hands. She dodged him and flipped it open to the page she had been reading before, the family tree. She scrutinized the other boxes on the chart. At the bottom of the page, in the last box, she spotted Michael’s name.
Michael Karstadt had traced his own lineage through the male line of his family tree to a reigning tsar. Russian genealogy was charted this particular way for one reason.
To claim the Romanov throne.
Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Laam