1944, Germany: Gazing through the barbed wire fence, up to the pale blue sky, Antonia dreams of home: cherry orchards, golden fields, and the man she loves, who she may never see again…
The Nazi soldier thrust the barrel of his gun between Antonia’s shoulder blades and she stumbled, still clutching the chubby hand of her small nephew tightly in her own. Her sister lifted her other little boy up into the back of the truck. Under the watchful gaze of the Germans, their eyes met, full of fear. They both looked back towards the farmhouse, their childhood home, for one final time…
Before Antonia and her family were captured and sent to a labor camp, she was a fighter rather than a victim. Working in a resistance group to free her country from those who had turned her home into a bloody battleground. By her side was clever, handsome Viktor. The man she was to marry, whose love shone like a light in the darkness of war surrounding them.
Antonia does not know if her beloved Viktor has been caught or executed. But she does know she cannot wait any longer to be saved. Her precious nephews will die without proper food and they could all be killed at any moment.
The world outside the camp gates is full of danger and war, but finding a way through them is their only hope, even if it costs Antonia her life. The Nazis have taken everything from her, but they can never take away her courage…
A heartbreaking, inspiring and totally unforgettable story of the unbelievable courage and determination of extraordinary people in the darkest days of war. Fans of Mandy Robotham, Kate Quinn and Pam Jenoff will be gripped from the very first page until the final, heart-stopping conclusion.Readers love Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger:
“Absolutely heartbreaking… Gripped me from the first page and I read it in one sitting!… Will stay with me for a long time.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Fantastic!!! There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t gripped!… My heart really ached… Incredibly gripping!” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“Kept me up all night and I finished this book with tears in my eyes after I read the ending!… Powerful, gripping… Unputdownable… Five stars!” Tropical Girl Reads Books, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“A gripping story that will stay with you long after you have put it down… I highly recommend.” NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“I could barely put down the book. I smiled, cried… I recommend it to all history lovers!” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“What a story!… I loved the ending!” NetGalley reviewer“Grab a few tissues… Such a powerful story you must read…
Release date: September 2, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Woman at the Gates
Antonia impatiently rubbed at the sting of tears. With all that she had endured, with all that they had survived, she was going to cry over apricots? The memory of apricots?
No, the memory of that apricot orchard. Her home. Her life. Him.
Antonia’s nephew pushed himself away, the metal bed frame squeaking as he shifted. “And cherries,” he added. “I miss apricots and I miss cherries.”
On Antonia’s other side, Nestor yawned. He was still too young to remember apricots from Ukraine, or the tart summer cherries for that matter. Nestor was too young to read, but his finger moved along the pages of the German picture book titled Unser Bauernhof—Our Farm. Except it wasn’t their farm. Their farm was in the Carpathian lowlands, in the village of Sadovyi Hai. Here, beyond the lead-pane windows of the castle attic, it was the Bavarian hillsides that Antonia looked upon.
Nestor pointed to the word for cherry tree in German.
“Kirschbaum,” Konstantin read.
“Kirschbaum,” Nestor repeated, then went back to the small orange circles on the initial illustration. “Marillenbaum.”
To prevent herself from succumbing to a second gut punch, Antonia pressed Nestor to her. “And you? What is it that you miss?”
As soon as it was out of her mouth, she covered his ears and kissed his head. Nestor’s only memories would be the scratchy, dark and noisy ones of war. He’d known nothing else.
Outside the dormitory rooms, the wooden floorboards creaked from the staircase to the corridor as if they were on a ship. The others—displaced persons, as the Allied forces designated them—were heading up from the dining room. Some had spent the evening playing cards, or the old guitar from the music room. Others had sat in the castle gardens and listened to the crickets, thanking God they had survived. Or, more likely, wondering why they had. The children were being children. Instead of parents covering their mouths to hush them against discovery, or to prevent a beating, or capture by Nazis or Soviets, these children and their parents now loudly negotiated the brushing of teeth. Tomorrow, they would live to see another day, and that was why they pursued the frivolity with such passion.
As the boys fought to turn the next page of the picture book, Antonia tuned into the symphony of Eastern European languages. Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Czech, Russian and Ukrainian all intermixed in this old castle in Bavaria—just a short drive to Berchtesgaden; a short drive to Hitler’s bunker—now secured by American troops.
Antonia coughed and the boys gave her room, but the irritation quickly passed. Out of habit, she ran a finger beneath the thin, cream-colored scarf wrapped around her neck, and half-consciously checked the size of the growth at the base of her throat. Before she could assess it further, someone knocked on the door and Lena appeared.
“Mama,” Nestor called to his mother. “Aunt Antonia is reading to us.”
Lena did not seem to hear. She raised her hand, revealing an envelope. But it was the expression on Lena’s face that made Antonia close the book in her lap.
As her sister’s gaze locked with hers, Antonia was again whisked back to Sadovyi Hai. They were back in their village orchards, back to the first days in the secret underground organization. Lena’s and her first fight but not their last battle. In the time it took Lena to close the space between the doorway and the bed, Antonia relived the torture in the Soviet secret police interrogation room and the terror of being captured by the SS. Lena’s eyes reflected the value of unconditional love. Forgiveness. And freedom’s heavy toll. Antonia’s heart clenched at the fear of breaking again.
Lena knelt by the side of the bed, as she did when she said her prayers, then extended the envelope, but Antonia had already seen the Red Cross emblem. She already understood that one of their men had finally been found.
She yanked the sheet out of the typewriter and considered the final lines of her article. Words mattered. And these words could get her killed.
Behind the Soviet-issued textbooks, in the hidden wall compartment, was the metal box containing the remaining articles, the photographs sent from the west, and the files on students who might be potential recruits for the clandestine Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Antonia retrieved and unlocked the box, removed the prepared folder, and added her article. She slipped the envelope into the secret compartment of her briefcase, which otherwise carried her students’ German literature essays.
Outside her office window, aside from the spray of water in the courtyard’s fountain, everything was still. When she stepped into the foyer, the halls were empty. The aroma of floor cleaner and the sour smell of cabbage from the café battled one another. Antonia glanced at the large clock above the entrance. It read ten after eleven. To the left hung the Soviet Carpatho-Ukrainian flag, which had replaced the Polish colors two years earlier. To the right, the lion-imprinted crest of Lviv. Regardless of the regime, that flag never changed.
Antonia tucked the briefcase beneath her arm and was heading for the exit when she heard brisk footsteps behind her.
Arranging her expression first, Antonia turned to face Dr. Bodnar. The dean’s shock of white hair and long, white mustache were his trademarks at the university. That, and his two well-tailored suits: a brown one for fall and winter, and a gray one for spring and summer.
“You’re leaving rather late,” he remarked.
She indicated the briefcase with a tired smile. “The freshmen’s last essays of the term.”
Dr. Bodnar’s gaze shifted to the floor between them. “I received word that the Soviet secret police chief has been relocated. I wondered whether you’d heard anything to that effect? Or about his successor?”
“I had no idea. His wife said nothing to me the last time I saw her. But I am usually the last to hear anything.”
If what Dr. Bodnar said was true, it was a tragedy. Antonia had cultivated a good working relationship with the chief and his wife. The university had used that to their advantage. More precisely, Dr. Bodnar had used it to his advantage.
“If our students would only stop getting arrested,” the dean grumbled, “we would not need to deal with them at all.”
“Youth fights for its ideals compulsively. They are spurred by the rash belief that justice and freedom are won by making noise and exhibiting passions.” And who could blame them? Antonia’s sympathies were with the students. The need for freedom was as natural as the need for air and water, necessary for survival.
Dr. Bodnar held up his hands. “Whoever takes charge of the commissariat may not be as, well, understanding with our students.”
Antonia glanced at the double doors before her, eager to be on her way. She should have been at the art studio twenty minutes ago. And she really did need to mark those essays at some point. “I suppose we’ll learn who the new chief is soon enough. After all, this isn’t the first time Moscow has restructured the department.”
As she bade Dr. Bodnar goodnight, she absorbed the news, wishing she knew more. Her light tone had belied the pang of anxiety she felt. It had taken years to build a cautious relationship with the chief and his wife. The authorities in Moscow—or maybe even as close as Kyiv—must have been displeased about or suspected something to have simply “disappeared” them.
Antonia crossed the university’s courtyard, her heels clicking on the pavement. A spring shower earlier that day had left the air heavy, and the pathway through Kościuszki Park glowed beneath the weak street lamps. Just before reaching the statue in the center, she heard footsteps scurrying. Shadows disappeared into the shrubbery of the side gardens. Antonia steeled herself; there was only one reason anyone would be about at this hour.
Sure enough, Kościuszki’s pedestal had been daubed with anti-fascist and anti-Soviet slogans, the paint still wet. A moment later came the inevitable response: headlights lit up the park, and the Soviet secret police emerged from their hiding places.
Antonia froze but kept the briefcase loose at her side. A flashlight caught her and she squinted against the glare. A plainclothes policeman appeared from behind it and lowered the lamp.
“Yes.” Behind her, students were struggling to break free of their captors.
“Sorry, Professor Kozak,” the policeman said. “This has nothing to do with you.”
But it did. Secret police would never reveal themselves—call her by name—unless they intended to warn her, to let her know that they knew exactly who she was, where she was, and when.
He told her to go on her way, leaving Antonia in a quandary. Should she go to Viktor’s apartment first? Pretend to go to bed and then slip out to the art studio later? Her acquaintance with the chief had been public, or rather her friendship with his wife, a woman whose strong influence over her husband’s policing affairs had maybe led to their quiet and unannounced removal.
Behind Antonia, doors slammed and vehicles accelerated away. The park fell quiet again. She estimated that half a dozen students had been arrested. They had been reckless. They needed leadership. They needed discipline and training. They needed her, because when Antonia Kozak broke the law, she did everything in her power to make sure she did not get caught. She now zigzagged through the city, checking that no dark cars followed her, no hatted man or stern-faced woman tailed her. Your enemies are everywhere, Stalin warned. Trust no one. That warning now applied to everyone in the Soviet Ukraine.
Despite her frustration, she understood why those students insisted on making their voices heard. She herself had been impelled to join the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists to help free Ukraine from foreign rulers. Initially, she too had been prepared to fight those who repressed her country’s language, traditions and cultures; a Ukrainian’s very right to exist. The Habsburgs, the Hungarians, the Poles had all taken their turn, beating her homeland into submission, choking its citizens’ hopes, and suffocating the country’s very soul. For as long as Antonia could remember, there had been sliding panels and secret doors to be discovered in her Carpathian village, and the music of their defiance had sustained her.
The Polish regime had shown little tolerance for the nationalists’ clandestine activities. One by one, Ukraine’s professors, authors and revolutionaries were purged, imprisoned, and executed. That was when Antonia realized that martyrdom would achieve nothing. The country needed leadership and it needed a strong voice to rally support and give the people strength. Her tactic now was to raise her voice, but to do that she had to outwit the enemy and survive.
She was very late now but at least, if anyone had been following her, she had shaken them off. Only when she was alone in the rear courtyard of the art studio did she use her key. Above her, lights glowed from a pair of neighboring apartments, but she did not see anyone looking down, no curtains suddenly dropping into place. Tightening her hold on the briefcase, she pushed the door open and took the stairs to the cellar. In the furthest storage room, tonight’s team was already at work.
Ivan Kovalenko was setting up the mimeograph to produce the illicit copies of Our Nation’s Voice. His sister, Oksana, looked up from the typewriter they used to create the stencils. Meanwhile, Viktor—his back to Antonia—was writing furiously at a makeshift table propped between two workhorses. She threw the Kovalenko siblings a knowing glance and indicated that Ivan should come to her.
In the corner, he bent down and pecked her cheek in greeting. “What took you so long?”
“I wanted to make some changes to my article.”
He was always concerned about her. Ever since she’d first appeared in the marshes outside their village, insisting that she fill her brother’s place in the Organization, Ivan had kept an eye on her.
She took in Viktor’s profile. A lock of dark hair hung over his brow, nodding in agreement with the words flowing onto the pages. She loved watching him work. He was like a deep-sea diver. On occasion he would come up for air, absently reach across the writing table they shared at his apartment and kiss her hand before going back under.
“How long has Dr. Gruber been going at it?” she asked.
Ivan waved a hand. “Since he walked in.”
“Appears to be so. He said the two of you were working very late last night as well.” Ivan’s eyes flashed with a spark of envy, but then that slow smile spread across his face.
He was not one to be easily impressed and that smile was something he seemed to reserve for her. In all other respects he appeared to be a rough and tough Cossack, with his reddish-blond mustache, which he’d recently trimmed, and the long hair, which he had not. In his suede boots, he stood a whole head taller than her and reminded Antonia of the long-ago warriors her sister wrote about in her novels.
Ivan now reached for the edge of the spring-green scarf around her neck. “Did you have that growth checked?”
“I did.” Her fingers fluttered upwards and she threw a look at Viktor’s profile again. She ought to tell him about the diagnosis first, but Ivan was like a brother. A meddlesome one—as she imagined Oleh might have been had he not been shot dead by Bolsheviks.
“Will the doctor remove it?” Ivan asked.
Antonia folded her arms and leaned against the wall. “I don’t have time for vanity projects.”
“Don’t take it too lightly.” He sounded disapproving.
“I’m not. The clinic prescribed home remedies. It’s my thyroid, as expected. It explains why I’ve not been able to sleep.”
He started to say something, but she cut him off.
“Have you heard from Pavlo?”
“He’s on duty tonight. Why?”
Antonia propped her briefcase on a shelf of paints and brushes and other paraphernalia before turning back to him. “I ran into Dr. Bodnar, the dean. He says the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs has a new chief. Just like that. No announcement, nothing. And the police picked up some more students in the park this evening. The agents made themselves known to me.”
Ivan shook his head. “I suppose this is not a good time to tell you that Division One deployed our new agent to Kyiv.”
Antonia frowned. “You mean 1309? The one who claims he can flip the Soviet secretary?”
The Cossack winced.
Antonia sighed and threw Viktor a look. If anyone had cared to ask her, Agent 1309 was not ready for the field, but Viktor had caught her at a weak moment and cornered her into recruiting the political science graduate against her better judgment. She rubbed her forehead. If it went awry, she would be the only one responsible, and all because she had not stood up to Viktor. Was there a connection between 1309 and the chief’s removal?
Ivan’s mouth was set in a grim line. He shook his head as if to dispel her thoughts. “Anyway,” he said. “I’ll put the post office to work and alert the cell, see if we can find something about the new man in charge.”
The “post office” was the Golden Lion tavern near the castle, which the Organization had purchased and Ivan now ran. It was where their couriers met, how they planned missions, and where they took deliveries of everything from printing ink to small weapons. They also received information about possible “windows” along the borders, where their people might escape into the west.
“I had three new recruits,” Antonia said.
“Have,” Ivan said. “You have three. Don’t second-guess yourself. We still need the numbers.”
Stilling her doubts, she retrieved the briefcase and flipped it open, unsealing the false bottom. She removed the folder and took the articles and announcements to Oksana for stenciling before showing Ivan the files.
“All of them are clean,” she said quietly. “The families aren’t listed anywhere.”
“Have you decided what roles you want them in?”
Antonia pointed out the young woman and her boyfriend. “Couriers within the university grounds. Both are excellent writers—I’ve brought articles from both of them. The third one, Pavlo should meet. The young man’s family owns a hotel in the Carpathians, near the Slovakian border. Could be a potential safe house. And they have automobiles. Three of them.”
Ivan grunted with approval. “I trust your judgment. If you say they are trustworthy, then take them on.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Now, let’s get this newspaper out.”
Antonia presented Oksana with the few black-and-white photos she’d received from their headquarters in Berlin via courier. They wouldn’t have time to prepare stencils for them now. She examined a picture of their commander, Andrij Melnyk.
“The exile seems to have aged him,” she said, handing it over.
“He and Viktor could almost be related,” Oksana remarked.
She held the photo of Melnyk a little higher and Antonia compared it to Viktor. Both had similar noses, keen eyes, and strong features. The two men had met during Melnyk’s first exile from Ukraine, when he took refuge with Viktor’s family in Salzburg. Years later, when Viktor’s outspoken defense of Jewish academics made him a target for the SS, Melnyk returned the favor, securing him a position teaching political science and history at the university in Lviv, which now fell within the Soviet bloc. Dr. Gruber was not the first Austrian national to escape fascist Germany, but he was the first Austrian-Ukrainian member of Antonia’s secret cell.
Viktor’s first task within the Organization had been to punch a hole into the west, to create those windows on the borders. An alpinist and veteran of the Great War, he accomplished this with ease. Antonia had come to idolize him almost as much as she did Melnyk. He was currently engaged in drawing up a manifesto that would set out a new framework for the Organization, based on less autocratic, more democratic principles. The challenge was finding a way to reach out to every section of Ukraine’s multi-ethnic population, including Polish and Jewish citizens, at a time when the country resembled a tinder box with sparks flying all around it.
“This is good,” said Oksana, looking up from typing Antonia’s article.
Curious, Ivan peered over his sister’s shoulder, his expression quizzical.
“I’m appealing to émigrés in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France,” she explained. “We need them to understand our situation under the Soviet regime and align with our—”
Suddenly Viktor cleared his throat and raised his pen in the air, his brow furrowed—a sure sign that they were disturbing his process.
Ivan, who clearly had something he wanted to say, waved for her to come closer.
“Hitler and Stalin have fallen out,” he said, keeping his voice low. “There are some within the Organization who feel we ought to plead our case to the Germans.”
“What? Why?” Antonia demanded.
“To offer ourselves up as an ally against the Soviets,” Ivan said.
Viktor’s pen slowed down, as if he were straining to listen in.
“If diplomatic relations fail,” she said, turning her attention back to Ivan, “Germany will likely break its pact with Russia and declare war. But uniting with the Nazis? Have you forgotten Kristallnacht?”
“With Germany, not the Nazis,” he stressed.
“Ivan, Germany is Nazi.” She saw Viktor raise his head slightly. “The Aryans call Slavs Untermenschen. You’re saying the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists should associate with that? I don’t believe it! That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that has poisoned us. We’re here, in this cellar, to rectify it.”
“The Organization is already split in two,” Ivan argued. “The hard-liners won’t like being ignored.”
Antonia stared at him. “You mean Stepan Bandera and his radical mob? He never, ever accepted Melnyk’s election as commander.” She slapped her thigh, then pointed to Viktor. “Bandera says Ukrainians for Ukraine. Dr. Gruber here is Austrian and I’ve never met a man who has fought harder for our country.”
At the sight of Ivan’s expression, Antonia deflated. “Viktor is one of those outsiders Stepan Bandera wants to see expelled! How can anyone take him seriously?”
Oksana’s attention had also gravitated to their conversation. Ivan’s sister had separate compartments in that head of hers, Antonia thought. She worked as if she were three different people, which was why she could join the discussion while typing the final lines on the stencil.
“There’s real momentum building behind Bandera’s more radical ideas,” she warned. “I wouldn’t dismiss him or his followers so easily. The same thing happened in Germany with Hitler, and look what happened there.”
With a flourish, she extended Antonia’s finished page to Ivan.
He scanned it and Antonia caught a glimpse of something in his eye, something that was torturing him.
“It’s very, very good,” he said. “But what if those allies you are looking to align with decide, strategically, they need Russia on their side?”
Even Viktor looked up at this, his eyes darkening as he examined the Cossack. Antonia stiffened. She saw something she’d never have expected to see: Viktor was seriously considering Ivan’s theory, and it scared him.
“This is a joke, right?” Antonia turned back to Ivan. “Ukraine on the side of the Axis?”
Ivan folded his arms across his chest. “The Nazis are the ruling and controlling party, sure.”
“Emphasis on controlling,” Oksana interjected, the typewriter clacking away again.
Viktor’s gaze returned to his manifesto, but Antonia could tell he’d lost focus.
“Power comes and goes. It shifts,” Ivan continued. “And when it does, we want Germany on our side.”
Antonia raised her eyebrows. “Truly?”
Oksana stopped typing this time. “France and England waffled far too long over Poland, even the Sudetenland. They blow a whole lot of hot air and let Hitler do what he wants. It’s like tying up a wolf on a five-meter leash, then forgetting to fasten the other end to a post. Now he’s running amok in the woods and there’s no calling him back.”
Ivan placed a gentle hand on Antonia’s arm. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t try, but we need to be realistic and keep our options open. If Germany recognizes us as an independent country—”
“They’ll play you for a fool,” Viktor said angrily. He whipped off his glasses and Antonia saw his blue-gray eyes were glazed over with worry.
She went to him as he began arranging the sheets, tapping them together and then laying the pile aside as if all his efforts were for naught.
“What is it?” she asked softly.
Slowly, Viktor focused on her. He covered the top page with his hand, scowling. “I had one idea I wanted to add to what you’d written last night.”
“One idea,” she teased gently. “Are you going to show me?”
“I’m almost ready to start printing,” Ivan warned.
Viktor ignored him. “You’re not going to be pleased. You’ll say I’m trying too hard to placate the Banderites.”
Antonia lifted his hand and he offered no resistance as she picked up the top sheet. It was in German.
Oksana cocked an eyebrow as she handed the next stencil to Ivan. “See? Banderites. Bandera’s followers already have a label. I’ll say it again: I don’t think we should brush Bandera or his followers off. We ignore them, they’ll take hold and run a javelin right through us Melnykites.”
Ivan tipped his head and scratched the back of his neck. “Melnykites?”
Oksana shrugged, but Antonia could see she had a point. The Organization was splitting and if nothing was done to prevent it, they would soon be pitted against one another. Melnykites. Banderites. Those who followed their elected leader. Those who followed the radical rebel. What hope was there if even the four of them could not agree on what to do if Germany invaded Soviet Ukraine? How were they to withstand anything that came their way?
Returning to Viktor’s work, Antonia sought comfort in a task with which she was more familiar. Identifying three troublesome lines, she made amendments in Ukrainian and handed the text back to him. “This is more moderate. You’re disenfranchising Melnyk’s supporters if you say it the way you had it.”
“Melnykites,” Viktor muttered, squinting at her handwriting. He gave the slightest shake of his head.
“It has to be in the language of those fighting for the cause,” Antonia added. “The German culture and your values are too different to ours, Viktor. Our readership here will understand this better if I translate it. We have to ensure there’s as little room for misinterpretation as possible. If we’re to prevent this split—”
“It’s already here,” Ivan grumbled.
Antonia pressed on: “Then we must formulate this so that our vision calls to everyone.”
Viktor swept his glasses off again, clamping one end between his teeth, but he looked chastised rather than angry. “If you think this is right… Fine.”
She sighed. Fine. In private, he would have made her work harder for it, made her be more precise with her meaning. He never challenged her when others were in the room.
“You’re the political expert,” Ivan called to him. “But she is the wordsmith.”
Viktor made as if to protest but something suddenly banged above them. A door. Everyone gazed up at the ceiling. Footsteps crossed the parquet floor of the sculpture hall above. Antonia exchanged a wary look with Oksana as the floor creaked. Someone rolled something heavy across the room. Oksana reached behind her and flicked the light switch. They waited in the dark now. Antonia laid a hand on Viktor’s shoulder.
She could feel Viktor’s anger simmering as he leaned into her. “Ivan doesn’t even read what I wrote and he defends your changes,” he muttered. “What does he—”
Ivan shushed them.
Antonia stepped away and waited. The party above did not lock up and leave for a good half hour. It was almost one in the morning when Oksana turned on the light and the four of them wordlessly went back to work. They finished the copies of Our Nation’s Voice just before dawn fanned across the cityscape.
At Viktor’s apartment Antonia put on a pot of coffee and pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. She glanced out the window at a view dominated by the domed roof of the opera house, then turned her attention to Viktor, who sat opposite her, cleaning his glasses. When he was tired, the rims of his eyes turned bright pink. Today, they were almost red. She’d raised her concerns about Agent 1309 on the way home and he had defended himself. She had not intended to apportion blame, but he’d reacted as if she had.
“Oksana and Ivan will get the latest issue to the couriers today,” she said to lighten the mood.
Viktor slipped his glasses back on and blinked. “He loves you.”
Antonia scoffed. “Of course he does. He feels he must replace my older brother.”
“You think he’s interested in playing your big brother? That’s where you’re mistaken.”
“Stop it, will you?” Her laugh was terse. “Jealousy is very unbecoming of you.”
The coffee began boiling. She rose and waited a moment. “He and Pavlo have been in my life for as long as I can remember.”
“Yes, yes, your brother’s friends.”
“They are also my friends. We all grew up together. Oksana is like everyone’s baby sister.”
The four of them had shared more than a few tragedies together. Oleh’s death, however, had wedged something rock-solid and impenetrable between Ivan and herself. She wished they could get around it.
She turned to Viktor and examined his expression, but he was already lost in thought. Despite her exhaustion, her mind tortured her with the image of Oleh running through the orchard, then flying forward, arms spread out in that awful dive as the shot sent him tumbling into the tall grass. A cello case. He’d been carrying a cello in that case, not guns.
Antonia poured Viktor a cup of coffee and sat down across from him. “I think he feels it’s necessary to protect me, for whatever reason, and never expected that I would soften the way I have with you. You are as much a surprise to me as I am to you. But I believe that Melnyk may have been the only one who could have foreseen how well suited we are when he assigned us to work together.”
Viktor laughed softly and reached across the table for her hand. “From the first day I met Melnyk, he spoke of you. He’s terribly proud of you. And so am I.”
“He saw your drive, your commitment,” she said. “If Ivan is correct and our only chance to rid ourselves of the Soviets is by collaborating with the Third Reich, it could strengthen th
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