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Authors: Kate Furnivall

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The Concubine's Secret

BOOK: The Concubine's Secret
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An epic journey of love and discovery from the national bestselling author of The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf.
China, 1929. For years Lydia Ivanova believed her father was killed by the Bolsheviks. But when she learns he is imprisoned in Stalin-controlled Russia, the fiery girl is willing to leave everything behind – even her Chinese lover, Chang An Lo.
Lydia begins a dangerous search, journeying to Moscow with her half-brother Alexei. But when Alexei abruptly disappears, Lydia is left alone, penniless in Soviet Russia.
All seems lost, but Chang An Lo has not forgotten Lydia. He knows things about her father that she does not. And while he races to protect her, she is prepared to risk treacherous consequences to discover the truth.
Kate Furnivall
The Concubine's Secret
The Girl from Junchow

 

Copyright © Kate Furnivall 2009
For
Edward and Richard
Liz and Anne
with all my love

 

Acknowledgements
A big thank you to Joanne Dickinson and all at Little, Brown UK for their sensitive editorial support and elegant artwork. Especially to Emma Stonex for her fine attention to the detail of the manuscript and to Catherine Duncan for getting me out among my readers.

 

Special thanks to my agent Teresa Chris for always being there and always knowing when to listen or encourage or bully – depending on which I need at the time.

 

Many thanks also to Elena Shifrina for her dedicated research in Moscow and help with the Russian language.

 

Finally my love and thanks to Norman for everything else.
1
Russia, 1930

 

Lydia Ivanova couldn’t sleep. Tiny rats were taking bites out of her brain. Ever since she’d arrived in Soviet Russia the nights had been hard, and through the long dark hours it felt as though sharp yellow teeth were gnawing through her skull. Sometimes she could smell them. Worse, sometimes she could hear them. Chip, chip, chip.
She was angry with herself for listening to them. At seventeen years old she should know better. She sat up in the narrow bed and dragged her fingers through her tangled mane to rid herself of the noise, yanking any rats out by their tails. She had to keep her mind clear. But nights were never quiet in this hotel, one of Stalin’s new breed of concrete rabbit warrens which she found impossible to navigate. She was always getting lost in it and that startled her. She couldn’t afford to get lost. She tucked her chin tightly to her chest and closed her eyes, trying to find the bright warm place she kept in there, but tonight it was impossible. Snores were rattling in from the next room and a couple were arguing further up the corridor.
Lydia was impatient now for the morning to arrive. She was tempted to leave her bed and prowl up and down the scrap of floor space in her room, eager to push on to the next step. But she was learning to keep herself in check, to curb her instinct to seize each day by the throat. So to fill the dead time she unzipped the moneybelt at her waist, which she didn’t take off even at night. It felt warm and soft to the touch. From it she extracted first her Russian passport. In the trickle of yellow light that spilled through the window from the gas lamp outside, it looked genuine enough. But it was forged. It was a good one and had cost her more than she could afford to pay, but every time she had to hand it over for inspection her heart clawed at her chest.
Next she pulled out her British passport and ran a finger over its embossed lion. It was ironic. This one really was genuine because of her English stepfather, but it was even more dangerous to her than the Russian one. She kept it well hidden in the moneybelt among the roubles, because all foreigners foolish enough to set foot on the black soil of Soviet Russia were at best watched like hawks; at worst interrogated and interned.
Finally she took out the bundle of rouble notes and considered counting them yet again, but resisted the temptation. Instead she weighed them in her hand. The bundle was growing lighter. She made a low sound, almost a growl, in the back of her throat and thought of what it would mean if they ran out. Quickly she pushed everything back into the moneybelt and zipped it up hard, as if to zip up her fear.
Her hand slid instinctively to the thong around her neck and the amulet that hung there. It was a quartz dragon. A powerful Chinese symbol, rose pink and nestling against her flesh. She circled her fingers around it.
‘Chang An Lo,’ she whispered.
Her mouth curled into a smile as she saw the bright warm place rise into view. She closed her eyes and her feet started to run, flying over ice and snow, feeling the morning sun reach out its golden fingers to stroke her skin, her toes suddenly bare in soft treacly sand, and beside the shimmering sheet of water a figure…
A door banged and the image slipped from Lydia ’s grasp. Chyort! Outside the sky was still as dark and dense as her own secrets, but she’d had enough of waiting and rolled out of bed. She pulled on her long brown coat which she used in place of a dressing gown and padded barefoot down the hall to the communal washroom. With a yawn she pushed open the door and was surprised to find the overhead light already on. Someone was standing at one of the washbasins.
The room smelled. An odd mix of lavender, disinfectant and layers of something more unsavoury underneath. But Lydia wasn’t complaining because she’d smelled worse. Much worse. This was better than most of the communal bathrooms she had trawled through recently. White tiles covered the walls right up to the ceiling, mottled black ones on the floor, and three basins lined one wall. Yes, one was chipped and another had lost its plug, probably stolen, but everything was spotless, including the mirror above the basins. In the corner a tall cupboard door stood half open, revealing a damp mop, bucket and disinfectant bottle inside. Obviously a cleaner had been in early.
Brushing back her unruly hair, Lydia headed towards one of the three cubicles and glanced with only casual interest at the figure by the basin. Instantly she froze. The other occupant of the room was a woman in her thirties. Average height, slender, wearing a burgundy woollen dressing gown, her feet in stylish little maroon and gold slippers. On her finger a thick gold wedding band looked too heavy for her delicate hands. But Lydia saw none of that. All she saw was the swirl of dark silky hair that was twisted into a loose knot at the back of her head. A narrow neck, long and fragile.
For one blinding moment Lydia believed it was her mother. Returned from the dead. Valentina, come to join in the search for her missing husband, Jens Friis.
An ice pick of pain under Lydia ’s ribs wrenched her back to reality and she turned away abruptly, hurried into the first cubicle, locked the door and sat down. It wasn’t Valentina, of course it wasn’t. Reason told her it couldn’t be. Just someone of similar age with similar hair. And the neck. That same creamy vulnerable neck.
Lydia shook her head and blinked hard. Valentina was dead. Died in China last year, so why was her mind playing such tricks? Her mother had been the victim of a hand grenade meant for someone else; she’d been just a beautiful innocent bystander. Lydia had cradled her shattered and lifeless body in her arms. So why this? This sudden confusion? She placed one hand over her mouth to hold in any screams that rattled around inside her throat.

 

She had no idea how long she remained like that in the stuffy little cubicle, but it felt like for ever. Eventually she unlocked the door, walked over to one of the spare washbasins, rinsed her hands and splashed cold water over her face. Her cheeks were burning. Beside her, to Lydia ’s astonishment, the woman was still washing her hands. Lydia avoided looking in the long mirror above the basins because she didn’t want to see her own face, never mind the other woman’s. But her eyes were drawn to the movements the woman was performing next to her. They were hypnotic.
With firm rhythmic strokes she was dragging a wooden nail brush down her arms from elbow to fingertips, over and over again. Smooth and unhurried, but relentless. Slowly she rotated each arm so that the soapy bristles scraped over the soft underside as well as the upper skin, first one, then the other. Then back to the first one. Strong, stern strokes. Lydia couldn’t make herself look away. The woman was using a bar of lavender soap that scented the air, and the water in the basin foamed with bubbles. Not Russian soap then, that was certain. Bubbles were almost impossible to create with the greasy Soviet utility soap. More likely French, from one of the shops open only to the Communist Party elite. On a smattering of the bubbles gleamed tiny specks of scarlet. Her skin looked raw.
Without looking up from her task, the woman asked, ‘Are you all right?’
The voice was completely calm, totally composed, and took Lydia by surprise.

Da
,’ Lydia said. ‘Yes.’
‘You were a long time in there.’
‘Was I?’
‘Have you been crying?’
‘No.’
The woman sank one whole forearm into the basin, let the soapy water swirl over it and murmured a long, drawn out, ‘Aah!’
Lydia wasn’t sure whether it was pain or pleasure. The woman flicked a glance in her direction and for the first time Lydia saw her eyes. They were dark brown, deep-set and not a bit like Valentina’s. She had pale skin, as if she had lived her life indoors.
‘Don’t stare,’ the woman said in a sharp tone.
Lydia blinked, leaning back against the washbasin. ‘We all do things,’ she said, and folded her coat tight across her chest. The room was chill. ‘To make ourselves feel better, I mean.’
‘Like shutting yourself in a lavatory?’
‘No. Not that.’
‘So,’ the speculative eyes slid again to Lydia, ‘what does a young girl like you do to make herself feel better?’
‘I steal.’ Lydia hadn’t meant to say it. She was appalled that the words had crept out. It had something to do with the unreal hour of the morning.
One dark arched eyebrow shot up. ‘Why?’
Lydia shrugged. It was too late to take the words back. ‘The usual. My mother and I were poor, so we needed money.’
‘And now?’
Lydia shrugged once more, a gesture her brother was always pointing out made her seem unthinking. Was he right? Did it? She stared thoughtfully at the neat maroon slippers.
‘It became a habit?’ the woman asked.
‘Something like that, I suppose.’ She glanced up and caught the woman’s gaze intent on her, saw it slide away self-consciously from Lydia ’s smooth pale hands to her own scuffed ones. In the mirror reflection, she saw something falter deep in the dark eyes, a crack open up somewhere. Lydia gave her a smile. At this unearthly hour of the morning normal rules of conduct didn’t quite apply. The woman returned the smile, lifted her arm from the water and gestured towards a smart leather bag on the windowsill.
BOOK: The Concubine's Secret
5.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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