9:15 A.M. EST, Tuesday, April 13
Downtown 6 platform
East Seventy-seventh Street and Lexington Avenue
New York, New York
It was a miracle.
Meena hurried onto the subway car and grabbed hold of one of the gleaming silver poles,
hardly daring to believe her good fortune.
It was morning rush hour, and she was running late.
She’d expected to have to cram herself into a car packed with hundreds of other
commuters who were also running late.
But here she was, still panting a little from having run all the way to the station, stepping
into a car that was practically empty.
Maybe, she thought, things are going to go my way for a change.
Meena didn’t look around. She kept her gaze fastened on the ad above her head, which
declared that she could have beautiful, clear skin if she called a certain Dr. Zizmor right away.
Don’t look, Meena told herself. Whatever you do, don’t look, don’t look, don’t look….
With luck, she thought, she might make it all the way to her stop at Fifty-first Street
without making eye contact or having any interaction at all with another human being….
It was the butterflies—life-size—that caught Meena’s attention at first. No city girl
would wear white pumps with huge plastic insects on the toes. The romance novel (Meena
assumed it was a romance, based on the helpless-looking, doe-eyed young woman on the
cover) the girl was reading had Cyrillic writing on it. The giant roller suitcase parked in front
of her was an additional clue that the girl was from out of town.
Though none of that—including the fact that she’d pinned her long blond braids onto the
top of her head, Sound of Music style, and had paired her cheap yellow polyester dress with
purple leggings—was as dead a giveaway to her new-in-town status as what the girl did next.
“Oh, I sorry,” she said, looking up at Meena with a smile that changed her whole face
and made her go from merely pretty to almost beautiful. “Please, you want sit?”
The girl moved her purse, which she’d left on the seat next to her, so that Meena could
sit down beside her. No New Yorker would ever have done such a thing. Not when there were
a dozen other empty seats on the train.
Meena’s heart sank.
Because now she knew two things with absolute certainty: One was that, despite the
miracle of the nearly empty subway car, things definitely weren’t going to go her way that day.
The other was that the girl with the plastic butterflies on her shoes was going to be dead
before the end of the week.
9:30 A.M. EST, Tuesday, April 13
New York, New York
Meena hoped she was wrong about Miss Butterfly.
Except that Meena was never wrong. Not about death. Giving in to the inevitable, Meena
let go of the gleaming metal pole and slid into the seat the girl had offered.
“So, is this your first time visiting the city?” Meena asked Miss Butterfly, even though
she already knew the answer.
The girl, still smiling, cocked her head. “Yes. New York City!” she cried
Great. Her English was basically nonexistent.
Miss Butterfly had pulled out a cell phone and was scrolling through some photos on it.
She stopped on one and held it up for Meena to see.
“See?” Miss Butterfly said proudly. “Boyfriend. My American boyfriend, Gerald.”
Meena looked at the grainy picture. Oh, brother, she thought.
Why? Meena asked herself. Why today, of all days? She didn’t have time for this. She
had a meeting. And a story to pitch. There was that head writing position, vacant now that Ned
had had that very public nervous breakdown in the network dining room during spring sweeps.
Head writer was really where the money was on a show like Insatiable.
Meena needed money. And she was sure the pressure wouldn’t cause her to have a
nervous breakdown. She hadn’t had one so far, and she had plenty of things to worry about
besides Insatiable’s ratings.
A woman’s voice came over the subway car’s loudspeakers to warn that the doors were
closing. The next stop, she announced, would be Forty-second Street, Grand Central Station.
Meena, having missed her own stop, stayed where she was.
God, Meena thought. When will my life stop sucking? “He looks very nice,” she lied to
Miss Butterfly about Gerald. “You’re here to visit him?”
Miss Butterfly nodded energetically.
“He help me get visa,” she said. “And—” She used the cell phone to mimic taking
photos of herself.
“Head shots,” Meena said. She worked in the business. She understood exactly what
Miss Butterfly was talking about. And her heart sank even more. “So you want to be a model.
Or an actress?”
Miss Butterfly beamed and nodded. “Yes, yes. Actress.”
Of course. Of course this pretty girl wanted to be an actress.
Fantastic, Meena thought cynically. So Gerald was her manager, too. That explained a
lot about the baseball cap—pulled down so low that Meena couldn’t see his eyes—and the
number of gold chains around his neck in the photo.
“What’s your name?” Meena asked.
Miss Butterfly pointed at herself, as if surprised Meena cared to discuss her as opposed
to the ultra-fantastic Gerald.
“I? I am Yalena.”
“Great,” Meena said. She opened her bag, dug around the mess inside it, and came up
with a business card. She always had one handy for exactly this kind of situation, which
unfortunately came up all too often…especially when Meena rode the subway. “Yalena, if you
need anything—anything at all—I want you to call me. My cell phone number is on there. See
it?” She pointed to the number. “You can call me anytime. My name is Meena. If things don’t
work out with your boyfriend—if he turns out to be mean to you, or hurts you in any way—I
want you to know you can call me. I’ll come get you, wherever you are. Day or night. And
listen…,” she added. “Don’t show this card to your boyfriend. This is a secret card. For
emergencies. Between girlfriends. Do you understand?”
Yalena just gazed at her, smiling happily.
She didn’t understand. She didn’t understand at all that Meena’s number might literally
mean the difference between life and death for her.
They never understood.
The train pulled up to Forty-second Street station. Yalena jumped up.
“Grand Central?” she asked, looking panicky.
“Yes,” Meena said. “This is Grand Central.”
“I meet my boyfriend here,” Yalena said excitedly, grabbing her huge roller bag and
giving it a yank. She took Meena’s card in her other hand, beaming. “Thank you! I call.”
She meant she’d call to get together for coffee sometime.
But Meena knew Yalena would call her for something totally different. If she didn’t lose
the card…or if Gerald didn’t find it and take it away. Then give her a fist sandwich.
“Remember,” Meena repeated, following her off the train. “Don’t tell your boyfriend
you have that. Hide it somewhere.”
“I do,” Yalena said, and scrambled toward the nearest flight of stairs, lugging her
suitcase behind her. It was so huge, and Yalena was so small, she could barely drag it. Meena,
giving in to the inevitable, picked up the bottom of the girl’s incredibly heavy suitcase and
helped her carry it up the steep and crowded staircase. Then she pointed Yalena in the
direction the girl needed to go—the boyfriend was meeting her “under the clock” in the “big
Then, with a sigh, Meena turned around and headed for a train back uptown, so she
could get to Madison and Fifty-third Street, where her office building was located.
Meena knew Yalena hadn’t understood a word she’d said. Well, maybe one in five.
And even if she had, there wouldn’t have been any point in telling the girl the truth. She
wouldn’t have believed Meena, anyway.
Just like there was no point in following her now, seeing the boyfriend for herself, and
then saying something to him like, “I know what you really are and what you do for a living.
And I’m going to call the police.”
Because you can’t call the cops on someone for something they’re going to do. Any
more than you can tell someone that they’re going to die.
Meena had learned this the hard way.
She sighed again. She was going to have to run now if she wanted to catch the next train
She just prayed there wouldn’t be too many people on it.
6:00 P.M. EET, Tuesday, April 13
University of Bucharest
Lucien Antonescu smiled up at her from the enormous antique desk behind which he sat,
grading papers. “Yes?”
“So is it true,” Natalia asked, grasping at the first question she could think of, since she’d
completely forgotten what she’d meant to ask him the moment his dark-eyed gaze fell upon
her, “that the oldest human remains ever found were discovered in Romania?”
Oh, no! Human remains? How disgusting! How could she ask something so stupid?
“The oldest human remains found in Europe, ” Professor Antonescu said, correcting her
gently. “The oldest human remains ever found were discovered in Ethiopia. And they’re
roughly a hundred and fifty thousand years older than the remains found in what we consider
modern-day Romania, in the Cave with Bones.”
The girl was only half listening. He was the sexiest of all her instructors, and that
included teaching assistants. On the University of Bucharest’s equivalent of Rateyourprof.com,
Professor Lucien Antonescu had been given all 10s in the looks category.
And justifiably so, since he was over six feet tall, lean and broad shouldered, with thick
dark hair that he wore brushed back from his temples and a smooth, gorgeous forehead.
As if all that weren’t enough, he had dark brown eyes that, in certain lights, when he was
lecturing and grew excited about his subject matter—which happened frequently, because he
was impassioned about Eastern European history—flashed red.
Surely the posts on the message boards were exaggerated…especially the ones hinting
that he was related to the Romanian royal family and was a duke or a prince or something.
But since taking Professor Antonescu’s class, Natalia could see why he—and his
course—was so popular. And why the line of girls—and some boys, though when he showed
pictures of ancient Romanian art, Professor Antonescu spoke so appreciatively of the lush lines
of the female form that there was no possible way he could be gay—at his office hours was so
long. He was a gifted orator, with a regal yet very engaging presence….
And he was so very, very hot.
“So,” Natalia said hesitantly, taking in the way his perfectly tailored black cashmere
blazer molded those shoulders. She wondered why she couldn’t see his eyes—those dark,
flashing eyes—better and realized it was because he had the shades to his office windows
pulled down. She hoped he’d still notice that she’d worn a new shirt, one that showed off her
cleavage to its best advantage. She’d bought it at a steep discount at H&M, but it still made her
look irresistible. “It would be correct to say that Romania is the cradle of civilization in
This, Natalia thought, sounded very intelligent.
“It would be a lovely idea, of course,” Professor Antonescu said, looking thoughtful.
“Certainly there have been human beings living here for over two millennia, and this land has
been the site of many bloody invasions, from the Romans to the Huns, until finally we had
what today makes up modern-day Romania…Moldavia and Wallachia, and of course
Transylvania. But the cradle of civilization…I don’t know that we can say that.” He was even
better looking when he smiled, if such a thing were possible.
The smile caused her to come undone. She knew she was not the first. His bachelor
status was legendary, the intrigue heightening whenever he was spotted with a woman—never
the same one twice—in the posher restaurants downtown. How many had he asked back to his
castle—he owned a castle!—outside of Sighi oara, or to his enormous loft apartment in the
trendiest district of Bucharest?
No one knew. Maybe hundreds. Maybe none. He didn’t seem to care to marry and start a
Well, all that would change when he tasted her cooking. Iliana, behind her in line to see
him just now, had teased her for saying she was going to invite him over. So old-fashioned!
She said Natalia should just offer to sleep with him right there, in his office, like Iliana was
going to, and get it over with.
But Natalia’s mother had always told her she made the best sarmale of anyone in the
family. One taste, her mother said, and any man would be hers.
“Yes?” Professor Antonescu asked, one of those thick dark eyebrows raising.
Natalia wished he hadn’t done this. It only made him look more attractive and made her
feel more foolish for what she was about to do.
“Would you like to come to my place for a home-cooked meal sometime?” she asked, all
in a rush. Her heart was beating wildly. She was sure he could see it thrumming behind her
breast, considering how low-cut her new blouse was.
Something in the dimly lit office made a chirping sound.
“I beg your pardon,” Professor Antonescu said. He reached into the inside pocket of his
expensive coat and produced a slim cell phone…top of the line, of course. “I thought I’d
turned this off.”
Natalia stood there, wondering if she ought to say something about the sarmale or
perhaps undo another button of her blouse, as Iliana would have done…
…but she hesitated when she saw Professor Antonescu’s expression change as his gaze
fell on the name on the caller identification.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “This is an important call. I have to take it. Could we
discuss this at another time?”
Natalia felt her cheeks growing red. It was merely because he was looking at her…and
yet had never once lowered his gaze below her neck.
“Of course,” she said shamefacedly.
“And please tell the others,” Professor Antonescu said as he accepted the call, “that
unfortunately I’ll have to end office hours early this evening. A family emergency.”
Family emergency. He had family?
“I’ll let them know,” the girl said, pleased. He trusted her! That would put Iliana in her
“Thank you,” Professor Antonescu said politely as she slunk from the dark, lushly
decorated room, all in richly appointed leather-trimmed furniture and filled with manuscripts
that were many centuries older than she was. Even Professor Antonescu’s office was different
from the offices of her other instructors, which were as barren as a politburo’s and just as grim.
She opened the door, slipped through it, and turned to close it….
But not before she heard him say, in a voice she had never heard him use before, and in
English, “What? When?” Then, “Not again.”
Natalia turned then to see a look on his face that made her heart turn over in her chest.
But not in the joyful way it did when she spied him coming down the corridor toward the
Now she was afraid.
Because those beautiful eyes of his had gone vermilion…the same color her shower