Two more chapters to go, y'all - hang in there!

J.F


Dimitri could recall every detail of the day his mother died as if it had happened moments ago. From the uproar in the servants' quarters, to the complex stench of rot in their bedroom where she'd been hanging for hours in the dark. The colorlessness of her face under the doctor's flashlight before he hid her under an old sheet. The unnatural chill of her skin as he held on to her hand with all his might until the guards snatched her body away.

He remembered the empty, sunken feeling in his gut most of all, a pressure that had felt like a blistering lead weight on his chest before he went numb and stayed that way - until the day he met a young Anastasia in the palace kitchen.

He'd thought the pain would kill him back then. Tonight, seeing the look on Anya's face when she accused him of using her attempted rape to his advantage...well, it felt close to that.

Especially because she hadn't been entirely wrong. He had used it. He'd used her faith in him after his rescue to lock in her trust. And it had worked.

The thought of it disgusted him now.

Dimitri had failed the only other woman he had ever loved. Though he'd been willing to give up everything to make it right in the end, he couldn't even give her the family she yearned for to make it worth the sacrifice.

So he stood hunched against the cold behind a marble column with that in mind, his overcoat draped dejectedly over his arm, eaten alive by the knowledge that he was worthy of Anya's acrimony but not her love.

He hadn't been able to raise his head since he'd left the performance hall. Anya had disappeared without a trace by the time he'd gone outside, likely having fled to the hotel. Dimitri had thought to follow her - knew he should have - but couldn't make his feet abandon the front steps of the grandiose building. He didn't have the answers for all the barbed "whys" he knew she'd send flying his way. Not ones she'd want to hear, at least.

After all, he'd lied in the beginning because he was as despicable as she'd accused him of being. He'd continued lying after everything changed between them because his love for her at the time was self-serving. His reasons didn't matter. Same outcome, either way.

Vladimir had looked sick when Dimitri returned to their balcony box in defeat with a bloody lip and woke him from his nap with the news. Vladimir left the theater early with Sophie after she arrived a short time later in distress, explaining that the incensed Dowager had sent her away for the evening. She'd had only sad, downcast eyes for Dimitri before they exited.

It felt stupid to stay until the end of a performance he had no interest in, so Dimitri had gone out to the street to lick his wounds, both physical and otherwise.

The grand entrance had been deserted in the half hour since the ballet returned from intermission. Curiosity made him turn toward the sound of heels clicking against the stone.

He did a double-take, spying the Dowager strolling proudly to her idling car from his haunt in the shadows.

Holy shit.

Dimitri snatched off his top hat and glanced around for any attendants who might have been trailing behind, seeing no one. She was alone.

His body already in motion, he couldn't think about the real possibility of his being arrested or shot on sight for what he was about to do. This was his last chance to do right by Anya, even if she hated him forever.

In the thirty seconds it took for the Dowager's driver to close her car door and walk around to the other side, Dimitri had already jumped behind the wheel, thrown his belongings into the front passenger seat and stomped on the clutch and gas pedal so hard the vehicle burned rubber.

As the car jerked forward, he silently thanked Vladimir for teaching him to drive back when he'd needed a stack of newspapers to see over the steering wheel. Adrenaline burned through his veins so hotly he forgot to be afraid of the thudding sound he heard in the back seat and the successive noise of surprise.

He turned the wheel hard in his haste and rounded the next corner practically on two wheels, just missing a parked car.

"Ilya! Slow down!"

That tone again. The woman's inborn lordliness reminded Dimitri that it was her stubbornness that had driven him to such drastic lengths.

"I'm not Ilya," he snapped as he half-turned to glare at her behind him through the car's open partition, "and I won't slow down - not until you listen."

Though he had to refocus on the road and missed her reaction, he heard her appalled gasp loud and clear.

"You...how dare you! Stop this car immediately! Stop this car!" She emphasized each of her last words with a bang of her cane on the floorboards.

He pulled up to the hotel soon after. The few minutes that had passed since he'd revealed himself had felt like hours with the Dowager making threats on his life the entire way.

He threw the car in park, jumped out, stalked around to her side and yanked the door open.

"You have to talk to her!" Furious, he stuck a finger in the Dowager's unflinching face at first, just as she had to him, but felt a pang of guilt at such brazen disrespect and let his hand drop. "Just look at her! Please!"

The cabin lights illuminated the aged woman nestled beneath a snowy mink coat, her expression bored as she looked down her nose at Dimitri as if he'd asked if she wanted red wine or white.

She looked away into the distance, through the windshield. The sharpness of her clipped words was his only clue to how livid she had to be. Her grip tightened on the handle of her cane. "I won't be badgered by you a moment longer. I'll have the hotel manager contact the police on my behalf - "

"Do you recognize this?" Dimitri took a knee to meet her at eye level and held up the trump card he'd hidden inside the inner pocket of his tuxedo. The tiny golden jewelry box from the palace was meant to be insurance, a last resort. Now it was his only hope.

She gasped, eyes widening. "Where...where did you get this?" Her once derisive tone had become quiet and pained as she took the box from his hand and held it up before her to catch the light behind her head. "I don't understand how you could..." All traces of softness in her blue eyes disappeared when she faced him again. "How did you get this?"

"Your Majesty," Dimitri said with his heart in his throat, "I know you've been hurt, but it's just possible that she's been as lost and alone as you. Just talk to her. That's all I'm asking."

The Dowager's jaw remained set for another moment before her face slackened and shoulders drooped as the fight drained out of her body. She stared at the jewelry box cradled in her gloved hands, then looked back at him. Surprisingly, this time those classic features held a hint of a smile. "You'll stop at nothing, will you? Not even kidnapping."

Dimitri smirked and held his hand out to her, a peace offering. "I'm probably about as stubborn as you are."

"Clearly." She surprised him again by rolling her eyes.

The Dowager took his hand and he helped her out of the car onto the walkway. She held on to him just long enough to get her footing, then promptly swatted his hand away. "Your assistance is no longer required."

So stubborn. Dimitri almost laughed. So much of the fire she still possessed he could see in Anya.

He bowed to hide his bittersweet smile. "Room 107, Your Majesty."

Marie acknowledged him only with a pointed look before she turned and walked into the building.

She was gone less than five minutes before Dimitri started pacing the banquette and cursing under his breath. Anya's room was on the ground floor and he couldn't see what was happening, but it was a good sign when another few minutes passed and the Dowager hadn't reappeared.

Wasn't it?

Stomach in a knot, he retrieved his coat and hat from the car and rushed into the hotel, ducking into the lobby to surreptiously watch for their exit. Praying when they left they did so together.

Still looking over his shoulder to avoid missing them, Dimitri made his way to a stool at the end of the bar to the right of the wide wooden staircase. They'd have to pass right by him to leave. As long as he kept his back to the lobby, they shouldn't spot him.

"Monsieur?"

Dimitri glanced up to find the bartender staring expectantly and frowned back at him. Something about the man's pencil-thin mustache rubbed him the wrong way.

"Vodka, s'il vous plait," he said, testing out the smidgen of French he'd picked up during his brief time in the city.

When the bartender shook his head, Dimitri scowled and slipped back into Russian. "What, I'm not allowed to have vodka?"

Turning up his narrow nose, the bartender made an exaggerated gesture with his arm at the array of bottles lined up on shelves built into the wall. "No vodka," he said in French, but Dimitri understood well enough.

"Fine," he said with a sigh, "give me - "

He aborted his request when the unmistakable sparkle of diamonds caught his eye. He peeked over his shoulder and saw a grinning Dowager Empress towing Anya behind her through the lobby, causing quite a stir among the few guests still around at such a late hour. The mellow light from the chandelier caught her crown, throwing slivers of brilliance all over the room as she passed beneath it.

Dimitri had never had much use for God, but at that moment, he almost fell to his knees in gratitude.

He turned back quickly to avoid being seen, watching the pair through the rain-splashed window after they walked outside. An immeasurable relief flooded his body. He wasn't sure how the royal driver had found his way back to help them into the car, but Dimitri was glad he had.

Met with the droll expression of the bartender when he faced the bar again, Dimitri slid off the stool and made for the door. He still needed a drink, but not here.

His feet began to wander after he stepped out into the brisk night once more. It was an odd sensation, how his heart could feel at once light as air yet as heavy as his guilty conscience. He couldn't deny the sense of pride from knowing he'd helped Anya fulfill her destiny. Still, the toll it had taken on him to get her there had left wounds that would leave him scarred for the rest of his life.

That he was capable of such selflessness was a revelation in itself. Part of him wished he wasn't. The reality of having to go on somehow without her propelled him past the posh stores and closed eateries toward the seedier part of town to seek relief.

When he became aware of his surroundings again, he thought for a moment he had somehow walked his way back to the slums of St. Petersburg. Same kind of dilapidated stone row houses and trash floating in puddles, same half-dressed whores gyrating in open doorways for dates.

Finally, something around here he recognized.

Dimitri felt the tension ease in his shoulders, supposing at times his relaxation required a little poverty to feel complete. Considering how long and hard he'd fought to achieve just the opposite, the irony wasn't lost on him.

Where there were whorehouses and drifters, there were always plenty of pubs. Dimitri entered the first one he saw and slapped down a handful of coins courtesy of Vladimir on the wet bar top. "Vodka," he said with conviction and sat on a stool that leaned to the side, too depressed to move to a more stable seat.

The bartender here wore a stained apron and raised an eyebrow at Dimitri, who no doubt looked like a lost tourist in his expensive ensemble. He shook his head and grumbled something in French before bending to grab a small, clear bottle from a low shelf behind the bar. He placed it and a smudged glass before Dimitri prior to sliding the coins into his palm and moving on to the next miserable man waiting to drown his sorrows.

The place was dim and dirty and filled with acrid cigar smoke that stung Dimitri's eyes. He felt at home already. He didn't recognize the brand, but cheap vodka tasted like cheap vodka no matter where it had been made. He emptied the bottle into his glass, filling it way past his usual third almost to the rim. He downed the whole thing in three gulps.

The alcohol smoldered in his chest, but he could still see Anya's smile when he closed his eyes.

Definitely not drunk enough yet.

He tossed a few more coins on the bar for another little bottle and kept at it, trying to wipe out her delicate floral scent and the memory of how she snorted when she laughed too hard. How her face softened and full lips parted when she wanted a kiss but didn't know how to ask him. How she challenged him at every turn - to be more than he was, to be a better person than life had given him the tools to be.

Two hours later, Anya's face in his mind had barely blurred around the edges.

Fuck.

When the grumpy bartender swiped his third vodka bottle away, Dimitri almost fell off the stool trying to grab it back. "Hey!"

"Out, Russian," he said as he butchered Dimitri's mother tongue, pointing at the door. "Bar closed."

Dimitri stood, steadying himself with both hands flat on the counter. He managed to snatch the bottle back and drain the rest of the clear liquid before the bartender grabbed it again.

A moment later, he tripped on the threshold and stumbled onto the sidewalk, almost losing his grip on his hat.

"You used me..."

He jumped, Anya's words from earlier that evening so loud and distinct in his mind, he almost looked over his shoulder.

"I was just part of your con..."

Dimitri clamped his eyes closed and squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, trying to make his mind go blank and failing. Surely Anya knew she meant far more to him than that.

"You would've just let him rape me..."

He hung his head, eyes wet out of nowhere. Anya was never going to forgive him. Besides, what kind of future could she have with him as the Grand Duchess of Russia? He couldn't give her anything she deserved. Only himself, and that wasn't much to begin with.

Dimitri meandered through the unfamiliar arrondissement, each step a little more off balance than the last. Determination straightened his spine when he saw the light on above a liquor store down the street. He still had a few coins left.

He earned another funny look from the cashier when he paid for a full-sized bottle of his alcohol of choice, a better brand this time around he hoped didn't taste like gun oil. He left the bottle in its paper sack and sipped as he walked, waiting for his vision to double. Once that happened, he knew the temporary peace of a hard, dreamless sleep would be right around the corner.

The ancient winding alleyways turned him around more than once, an easy feat in his compromised state, but he found his way back to the main road with little more mishap than scuffed shoes. The sun had begun to rise by the time he returned to the hotel, feet numb and entire body shivering.

He'd watched the Dowager's fancy car leave hours ago, but the sight of the empty spot at the curb made him unspeakably sad. He took a long draw from the vodka bottle to take the edge off his misery and went inside.

Head still down, he dragged himself through the lobby and long hallway to his room. He fished his key out of his coat pocket, fumbling to keep it securely in his grasp.

When he looked up to place it in the lock and found Vladimir standing in his way, his heart faltered in shock.

"Christ...what are you doing here?" He shooed him to the side, nearly slurring some of his words. He somehow fell into the door as it swung inside the room. Making his way to the bed, he sat on the edge nearest the window with his back to the entrance with a long sigh.

"How much did you drink?" He heard the door close as Vladimir entered the room behind him.

"Not enough." Dimitri stared out to the awakening street, certain no one outside of that room could be as brokenhearted as he.

"Oh, Dimitri," Vladimir said, a decade of fondness and regret and empathy in his voice. He walked to the foot of the bed and stood over Dimitri, who silently refused to look up.

A newspaper suddenly landed with a soft plop in his lap. The Paris Evening Post.

The headline screamed at him, twisting the knife. ROYAL PARTY PLANNED - ROMANOV PRINCESS FOUND. A party Dimitri wouldn't be invited to.

He closed his eyes and tossed the paper onto the bed. "I don't need to see it."

"What happened last night after the ballet?" He felt the bed dip down as Vladimir settled in beside him.

"Paper says it all."

Vladimir placed a hesitant hand on Dimitri's shoulder, as if he were afraid to make contact and risk accelerating his young friend's self-destruction. "No, it does not."

Dimitri finally looked up at his confidante from the bottom of the hole he'd fallen into after being thrown out of the Dowager's private balcony. His blood had to be more alcohol than organic material by now; his usual ability to shuffle his true feelings out of view like the ball in a shell game had failed him altogether.

So he didn't address Vladimir's query at all, choosing instead to focus on the perfect cut of his new gray suit. He lacked the energy to ask how he'd gotten custom clothing made in such a short time, but he did say, "You look nice, Vlad."

Of course his long-time partner saw Dimitri's avoidance for what it was, and Vladimir's answering smile was the saddest thing Dimitri had ever seen. "What happened?"

"What did Sophie tell you?"

"Only that the Dowager called her late last night in hysterics to tell her Anya had proved she was Anastasia. Sophie sent her driver to pick them up at the hotel and they have been at the Dowager's residence ever since."

Dimitri swallowed hard. "Did she say anything about what happened to the Dowager's driver?"

"No, why?"

Dimitri's shoulders sagged in relief. At least the Dowager didn't seem intent on having him arrested for the stunt he'd pulled. "No reason. I saw her as she was leaving the theater and gave her the jewelry box. That's why she agreed to see Anya." He shrugged and looked at the floor. "The rest is history, I guess."

"So it would seem." Vladimir underscored his statement with a long, unhappy exhalation and studied his clasped hands in his lap.

After a long lapse, Dimitri asked, "Have you seen her?"

Vladimir shook his head. "I tried to this morning before coming here, but Sophie said she would not see me."

Dimitri wasn't surprised; he knew she'd felt Vladimir's betrayal as keenly as his own. The room bloomed with an uneasy silence until Vladimir cleared his throat. "I am concerned for you, Dimitri. I know this...ordeal has been very difficult for you because you care so deeply for Anya -"

"I love her, Vlad," Dimitri said as he raised his gaze from the carpet, his trembling voice on the edge of breaking as his despair and regret rushed forth from his mouth in a torrent. "I have loved her for years, when she was just Anastasia, since I was a little boy - ever since the day I caught her stealing apples. I loved everything about the princess then. I love everything about Anya now. Them being the same person, it's - it's..." his sentence fractured in his throat and he couldn't breathe, the agony in his heart about to snap him in two. "I'm ruined. She has ruined me, Vlad. I will never love anyone like this ever again." They looked at each other and Dimitri saw his anguish reflected back at him. "I can't."

Vladimir didn't speak, as if he knew no words existed that could soothe Dimitri in that moment. He let his large hand linger on Dimitri's shoulder, as was his way, and stared unseeing across the room. "So this is why you could never stay long in the company of a woman, no matter how much I urged you to do so," Vladimir said after another long stretch of quiet. "Your heart already belonged to another."

Dimitri shrugged. It was all he had left in him.

With another heavy sigh, Vladimir pushed up from the bed. "I would be the last person to tell you that you are not entitled to your sorrow," he said, bespectacled eyes flicking toward the vodka bottle still clutched in Dimitri's hands, "but my visit has a purpose. The Dowager wants to see you."

Dimitri's heart seized. "Did she say why?"

"I was not informed, only asked to retrieve you."

"When, then?" Dimitri asked, shooting to his feet. It took a second for him to lose his balance, a positive sign he wasn't as intoxicated as he'd thought. "Now?"

"As soon as possible, I would imagine." Vlad walked to the door. "You should clean yourself up. I will be back with coffee."

After Vladimir's exit, Dimitri staggered to the bathroom to throw himself into the elegant claw foot tub for a cold shower. The first hard spray of icy water dissolved most of the alcohol's haze. He found an eggplant purple suit hanging in a garment bag in the closet with a crisp white shirt and a tie of forest green. After examining his reddened lip and finding it felt worse than it looked, he was dressed and ready by the time Vladimir returned.

He handed Dimitri a steaming cup of black coffee. "You look better."

"Thanks, I guess." Dimitri tossed back the contents of the tiny cup. After rinsing his mouth in the sink he followed his partner downstairs, where Sophie's car waited with its driver.

Though the ride to the royal residence didn't take long, it felt like an eternity in hell. Dimitri fidgeted in the back seat next to Vladimir, mind running through nightmare scenarios of him being thrown in the stocks or on the guillotine, of him taking the reward money and living with the corrosive guilt, of him refusing the money and dying not only destitute, but alone as alone could be.

The grandeur of the Dowager's home when the car pulled up at the gate compounded his feelings of inadequacy. It made Sophie's house look like a shack in the woods.

After they entered into the grand parlor, Vladimir announced Dimitri to the suited butler who escorted him up a wide staircase to the open upper floor. Dimitri followed with averted eyes, afraid to see the looks of censure from the royal ancestors looking down on him from massive paintings along the wall.

One hand behind his back, the butler ushered Dimitri into a large study and said in crisp, formal Russian, "Wait here. Her Highness will be with you shortly."

Dimitri nodded, and with a quick bow, the butler vanished into the hallway.

The room could have housed multiple families in breadth and height, the ceiling at least three times higher than his old room in the palace. Stained glass lamps on the desk and on the side table in the nearby sitting area had been turned off in favor of the sunlight streaming in from a wall of floor-length windows, their oxblood velvet curtains drawn back with gold cords. It was as substantial a study as he'd expect for a woman of the Dowager's stature. Its perfect dustless condition alone was imposing.

Dimitri waited with his stomach in his shoes for the Queen Mother to appear, shuffling from foot to foot like a schoolboy and trying not to gnaw off his own bottom lip.

"Good day."

He started when the Dowager breezed into the room from another entrance across the way, the train of her emerald velvet day gown trailing just slightly behind her on the immaculate mahogany floor. Her hair had been twisted into a flawless chignon without her crown today. The wide, high collar of the dress both adorned her shoulders and framed her face with delicate lace. "I believe you and I have business to discuss." Unlike the night before, she flashed him a dazzling smile.

It reminded him too much of Anya and he had to avoid her eyes, tucking his chin in a bow. "You sent for me, Your Grace?"

He caught the sound of a lock releasing and raised his head. The Dowager opened the lid of a large valise he hadn't noticed sitting on the desk and turned it toward him.

"Ten million rubles, as promised, with my gratitude." Her eyes twinkled. "And apologies for my stubbornness."

Stacks upon stacks of cold, hard cash, his for the taking. Dimitri couldn't lie - he was literally salivating. That was a life-changing amount of money. Legacy-making. Having worked himself to the bone most of his life and idealized his reward for so long, seeing it in person gave him pause despite his resolution to turn it down.

Then a vision came to mind of he and Anya in some tiny apartment, nothing more than a bed and perhaps a rickety chair or two in the place, sitting on the floor half-naked over a picnic dinner and laughing until they felt sick about anything at all.

Dimitri couldn't fathom a happier existence. And a case with a billion rubles in it could never buy him such a life.

He gulped. "I accept your gratitude, Your Highness, but I-I don't want the money."

The Dowager's eyes widened with stunned suspicion. "Indeed? What do you want then?"

Anya's smile every day for the rest of his life.

"Unfortunately, nothing you can give." He felt his edges fraying, his mind brimming with tortuous thoughts of the love that was lost to him. He needed to leave before he embarrassed himself.

He bowed low again and turned to the open doorway.

"Young man."

The Dowager's dainty footsteps sounded behind him as she approached and Dimitri knew he had to stop. Goddamn it.

"Were you telling the truth when you told me you used to be in the palace's employ?"

He frowned, confused by her new line of questioning. He looked at her over his shoulder. "I was, Your Grace."

She cocked her head, seeming to study his face for a long time. "Did you know a Mrs. Tikhonova?"

The question knocked the wind out of him and he blinked in shock. "Olesya Tikhonova?" He didn't know anyone else by that name and it had been a lifetime since he'd heard it spoken aloud, but he had to be sure the Dowager was asking what he thought she was.

"Yes," she said with a nod.

He had to take a deep breath to steady himself once he remembered how to speak. "She-she was my mother."

Marie paled, her manicured fingers drifting up to her mouth in astonishment at some kind of confirmation.

"Something about your face was so familiar but I was unsure...I saw you before, at her funeral. I knew she had been with child, but she was so private I had not known she had a son until that day." She appeared almost shamefaced. "I had never seen a child look so sad," she said softly. "I have never forgotten it."

Dimitri had had no idea that any of the royal family knew her name, let alone had deigned to attend a common servant's funeral unnoticed. He certainly didn't remember seeing any of them at the small, sad affair, but he had to admit he had been more than distracted by his grief at the time. At present, he couldn't have made a sound if someone had jabbed him with a cattle prod.

"She was a lovely woman." The Dowager smiled in a tight way that betrayed her discomfort before lifting her eyes heavenward. "May God rest her soul."

Just when Dimitri's thoughts took an unkind turn toward believing her response was the empty condolence typical of someone from her class, the Dowager continued with a wistful expression. "I was rather fond of the beautiful little sweets she would make. No one else could produce them as perfectly as she did." The usually haughty aristocrat looked away. "I wish I could remember what they were called," she murmured, almost as an afterthought.

Dimitri's heart almost broke open at the memory of his mother pulling a tray of those swirled meringue confections from the wood oven in the separate servants' kitchen, laughingly slapping at his hands to wait until they had cooled. He hadn't thought about that in years.

"Zefir," Dimitri choked out. "Your Majesty."

Marie looked up at him with gratitude in her eyes for his lack of judgment. "Zefir. Yes." She smiled again. "Thank you."

Dimitri nodded, still floundering in disbelief at the turn in conversation, and readied to make his escape. "If there's nothing else - "

"There is, actually. Where did you get that music box?"

He didn't answer. Couldn't answer. She already knew too much.

"You were also the boy, weren't you?" the Dowager said as she began to circle him and he turned his head to avoid her gaze this time. "You had to be the servant boy who got us out. You saved her life, and mine, then you restored her to me...yet you want no reward?"

Dimitri closed his eyes to shut her out, at least for a second. "Not anymore."

"Why the change of mind? As it is, I feel I owe you much more than money."

He paused and took another breath before raising his head, the genuine kindness he found shining from the older woman's eyes giving him the strength to tell his truth. "It was more a change of heart."

Marie's lips stretched into a knowing smile. "For my granddaughter."

The simple statement pierced Dimitri's very being. Even if he'd wanted to, how could he respond to that? Anya was the sun. She was air.

She was everything.

God, why wouldn't the woman let him leave?

"The Grand Duchess is unequalled in every way, Your Grace," he said, choosing his words with care. "I'll be forever grateful and honored to have known her."

The Dowager's smile sweetened as she continued to watch Dimitri thoughtfully. It made him want to leap right out of the nearest window. "You turned out to be quite the surprise. I think your mother would have been proud."

Out. Out now. "Your Highness, I must go." Dimitri couldn't handle another minute of their conversation. He bowed a final time and strode from the room as quickly as he could without being rude before the Dowager could stop him again.

"Psst!"

Dimitri halted outside the door to find Vladimir waiting for him at the end of the long open walkway. He had to chuckle when he got close enough to see Anya's dog tucked into Vladimir's elbow, little paws dangling over his beefy arm.

"So you're the keeper of the royal mutt now?" It looked as if it had been treated to a good brushing and a bath since the last time he saw it.

"Anya may not be speaking to me, but this little one followed me up the stairs and will not leave my side," Vladimir said, smiling down at the dog. "Who am I to refuse?"

Dimitri shook his head in amusement.

"What did the Dowager say?"

Sobering, Dimitri cast a glance toward the open study door before turning back. "Doesn't matter. I did what I told you I would. Everything's finished now." He rubbed at the back of his neck. He was never good at goodbyes. "I gotta get out of here," he said, his spirit getting heavier by the second. "If you're ever in St. Petersburg again, look me up." He tried not to think about the unlikelihood of his seeing his only real companion again.

Vladimir tutted. "Has there ever been a time I have been unable to find you?"

Dimitri thought of all the instances he'd tried to run away as a child. Vladimir would always track him down by the next day.

He snorted. "No, I guess not. So long, Vlad." He stuck out his hand for a handshake. Ignoring it, Vladimir bent briefly to put Pooka down and grabbed Dimitri into a strong hug instead.

"Oh, my boy," Vladimir said as he withdrew, shaking his head sadly. "You are making a mistake. Stay. Anya will come around."

"Trust me, this is the one thing I'm doing right." He felt a nudge at his ankle and looked down. To his surprise, even Pooka looked sad to see him go.

"So long, Mutt." He squatted on his heels for a moment to scratch him behind the ears and earned a couple of fond licks to his thumb. "I can't stay," he whispered to the whining pooch. "I don't belong here."

As if to prove his point, a commotion of feminine voices rang out downstairs from the open atrium. He stood to see what was happening and felt a fresh stab of pain. Anya was turning around and around in her court gown while Sophie and a seamstress exclaimed over the fit, her crown catching the light as her grandmother's had and nearly blinding him all the way upstairs.

"Vlad, is there an exit in the back somewhere?"

Vladimir had picked Pooka up again and watched Dimitri with mournful eyes. "I am afraid the only exit from here is down the main staircase."

Dimitri sighed. He'd been afraid of that. "Alright."

He moved to the top of the stairs, drawing strength from the thought of the half bottle of vodka in his hotel room. Enough to get good and drunk one last time before his bleak future began.

One last obstacle and he was home free.