Hvidore Estate, Copenhagen
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, but 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. “Your highness, 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 snatched 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 window sill. 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 tip toes 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 bore 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.
St. Martin's Griffin
A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter—smuggled out of Russia before the revolution—continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences.
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.
About the AuthorJennifer Laam's debut novel is The Secret Daughter of the Tsar (St. Martin's Griffin, October 2013). She holds a master's degree in History. Jennifer has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, and has traveled in Russia, England, France, and Finland. In addition to Russian History, Jennifer's interests include film, music, pop culture, and politics. She currently lives in Northern California.
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