Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores September 2021.)

PROLOGUE
THE HUNGARIAN BORDER
APRIL, 1985

One final flash of light caught the faces of the two women hiding in the trees. Then the sun disappeared beyond the hills.

As the air filled with purple light, edges blurred, shadows lengthened. It was the time of day when shapes grew indistinct, when it became much harder to see. It was both a blessing and a curse.

The women crouched beside a tumble of broken stones in a copse of birch trees that stood, close and dark, on the crest of a low hill. Below them, a meadow of waving grasses sloped toward a stream that rushed toward the distant lake. On the stream's far bank, a curve of dirt road. Remnants of rusting barbed wire and broken electric fencing flashed silver in the last of the light.

Beyond the stream, Austria. Freedom.

Donata Kardos, the younger of the two, lifted her chin to listen. No truck engine. But no beat of horse hooves, either. No searchlight spearing the dusk, no howl of the dogs. This land, so close to the natural barrier of Lake Neusiedl, was no longer heavily patrolled. Now the only sounds were the brush of new April leaves in the evening breeze and the whisper of geese wings, high overhead, coming home.

Home. She searched the meadow, the ribbon of road just beyond the fence, the shallow stream where she had played as a child. Water, swollen by spring rains, frothed over stones covered in moss.

Donata turned to gaze over her shoulder. The burned-out shell of the once beautiful old abbey rose behind her, the ancient stones etched black against the darkening sky. She would never study her beloved theology texts within those thick walls or walk in the shaded cloisters. She would never take her vows there and pray freely in the abbey's now-silent gardens.

Her parents rarely spoke of those fearful days after World War II, when the Soviet tanks had invaded her country, rumbling into the towns, imprisoning their leaders, setting fire to schools and churches and culture and lives. The Iron Curtain had slammed down years before she was born, and her future had disappeared like the abbey's red embers, spinning high into the starless night sky. The Soviets—and Hungary's Secret Police—had closed not only the borders, but so many of the minds and hearts of her countrymen as well. If only—

Strong fingers gripped her arm, wrenching her back to the present. "Where is the truck, Donata? You said your cousin would be here by now!"

Donata turned to the young woman who knelt on the earth beside her—her closest friend since the age of two, when Tereza and her family had moved into the Budapest apartment next to hers. If she closed her eyes, she could still hear the gorgeous strains of Tereza's father's violin through the thin walls...

Now Tereza was just eighteen, so petite and rounded, with waist- length hair the color of rubies. While she was just the opposite—three years younger, tall and whip-thin, her shaggy jet hair cropped short. In the gathering dusk, Tereza's ivory skin was almost translucent, her beautiful blaze of hair hidden beneath a drab gray shawl and her body stiff with growing fear.

Donata put a reassuring hand on her friend's arm. "Pavel will come. Have faith, Reza."

She saw the disbelief in the wide blue eyes, too bright with tension above the long dark coat. Tereza Janos turned away with an impatient shake of her head and shifted to pull the over-sized canvas duffel bag closer to her body.

Just hours earlier, in the small bedroom on the outskirts of Sopron, Donata had watched her friend pack and re-pack that bag, knew it held warm clothing, bank notes, photographs, and the treasures Tereza's father had left behind the night the soldiers came for him—his Guarnari violin, now wrapped carefully in a heavy woolen jacket, and a painted canvas, almost one meter in length, rolled inside a silk pillowcase. She'd had just a glimpse of one small corner—two glowing chromium-yellow stars against a swirling sky of deep velvety blue.

Donata sighed, shifted, returned her eyes to the road. Only fifty meters down the slope from their hiding place, but it seemed like an ocean away. It was so open, so exposed. What if...

She forced the fear from her head. Pavel would come.

Still no headlamps. She tried to see her watch in the fading light. The truck was late. The patrol had passed by more than an hour earlier. They would return within twenty minutes. Where was Pavel? She slipped her hand into the deep pocket of her cloak, gripped the small pistol she had stolen just days before from a mason in the village. Could she use it? Yes, if she had to. She would do anything for Tereza. Please, she prayed. We're ready. Let the truck come. Let...

A small wail broke the stillness.
...

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