Dancing the tango. The safest way to keep under the radar of the rising tide of anti-Jewish sentiment in Berlin. Paula knew this. Helga's kindness kept her safe - her and Emile both. Their older half-sister had owned Club Rozenkreuz since their father died, and was well-established in the city. That she was the favorite of the SA's captain Lehm kept the whole family from being more closely scrutinized by the rising Nazi party. But most nights, the tango was a torture. It was all right for the first part of the evening, when the club's dancers partnered each other to demonstrate and give the SA a show. Not even the rowdiest of that brute squad would draw Lehm's wrath by interrupting the dances. It was when she was forced to leave the safety of the club's dancers and partner with one of the Germans - when she had to pretend he didn't reek of wine or brandy, that his anti-Jewish jokes were funny, that his hands weren't wandering too far down her back - that was when the tango was torture. She might not suffer the physical abuses others did - and heaven knew she saw enough people who did when she was out running errands - but every night, she died a little all the same.
"Paula, there's someone I want you to partner tonight," Helga told her over supper. Both she and Emile looked up from the simple stew Paula had made, and they exchanged a glance across the table.
"Yes?" Her voice was carefully neutral. Had that horrible Klaus paid her sister for a guaranteed dance? It wouldn't surprise her if he tried to, given his too-wide smiles on the evenings he could claim her as a partner. But Helga knew of her dislike for the soldier. She wouldn't take such a bribe, would she? Not unless Captain Lehm had strongly encouraged it. From the look in her brother's eye, she knew Emile was worrying over the same thing.
Their sister's expression was also carefully neutral. "A Russian expatriate. The captain is bringing him as a guest tonight. He is an exiled nobleman - he escaped the revolution with more of his fortune than most. According to Captain Lehm, he is looking for businesses to patronize."
"A Russian nobleman?"
Paula looked over to her brother. Something in Emile's voice made her wonder if he knew something about this already, but hadn't told Helga.
Helga nodded. "A marquis." She kept her attention on Paula. "To have a nobleman, even an exiled nobleman, as a patron of our club would be a very good thing for us all. Lehm seems to think he's a good man. Paula, I trust you to convince him to help us."
"Of course." There could be no other answer, not when her survival depended on the club's popularity. The better it did, the more Germans who patronized it, the less likely anyone would look too closely at its staff and their heritage. And if the captain was recommending the club to someone with money, he both trusted this man to an extent, and wanted Helga to do well. For her own safety, she would pray he behaved better than Klaus, dance another tango, die a little more.
Helga smiled. "Then let's hurry and get ready for the evening."
Paula took up the bowls and cups and set them in the sink. She turned the tap and began to scrub as her sister slipped off to her room to change. As matron of the Rozenkreuz, she had to be there, smile plastered onto her face, before either Paula or Emile. Paula washed the bowls without seeing them. Her head was full of conjectures about this foreign marquis.
"Paula." Emil stepped up beside her. "If this Russian marquis is what he claims, he'll be a even bigger help to us than Helga realizes."
She turned to her brother, eyebrow raised. He had known something.
"Wait until you find out his name before you get your hopes up, but this marquis, if his name is Korsavsky - I've been in correspondence with him for some time. He wants to help the Jews leave Berlin, leave Germany entirely, before the Nazis make things even worse for us."
Paula shook her head. "But, Helga said he was friends with Lehm." She didn't dare hope that Emile's marquis and Helga's could be the same man. But, what were the odds there were two Russian expatriates in Berlin, both interested in the Rosenkreuz?
"How else could he get near the club? The SA frequent it every night, and in increasing numbers. They intimidate some of our other guests. Imagine if he tried to get near it without Lehm's approval. A foreigner, in an SA club. It would be suspicious, and he'd never be able to help us."
The argument made sense, but still, Paula worried. Why would an exiled aristocrat want to help people who the Germans claimed were the cause of troubles plaguing the country? There were whispers that some among the ruling elite didn't even consider the Jews people, and those whispers grew louder and spread farther every day. If this marquis was friendly with the captain, his reaching out to Emile might be a trap. He might suspect that the Rosenkreuz had sympathizers among its staff, that their sister hired Jews and gave them false papers so they could work in relative safety. Emile might become a scapegoat, especially if Lehm did suspect, but didn't want the truth of the situation to harm Helga. Partnering this foreign marquis was suddenly far more important than even Emile realized. He could save them all. Or he could condemn them. The only way to determine his true intentions was to dance the tango.
Paula found herself distracted during the opening dances. Her footwork wasn't as sharp as usual, prompting Emile to hiss at her during a dip. But she couldn't focus. Her large brown eyes scanned the crowd for unfamiliar faces. She caught Klaus's eye once or twice without meaning to, and suppressed a shudder at the leering grin he gave her whenever she did. Better that she was reserved for the Russian marquis tonight. She couldn't afford to slip up around Klaus.
There! As Emile twirled her, she caught sight of a dark-haired man in a tuxedo standing near Lehm and Helga. She didn't get more than a glance, though, because the dance took her away from them. She did notice Lehm's arm around her sister's waist, though, and wondered how in the world Helga could stand to be touched by him like that.
As the band finished playing, everyone applauded, and the dancers parted, mingling with the crowd and looking for the first paying customers of the evening.
"Be brave, Paula," Emile whispered, kissing her on the cheek before he turned to a woman with short blonde curls, smiling his most charming smile for her. One of his regulars. Louise, if Paula remembered correctly.
"Paula! Dance with me!"
She turned, forcing a sympathetic smile on her face as Klaus approached. He had toned down the leering smile, but she could smell the brandy when he was still a few steps away. "I'm so sorry, soldier. I have another engagement this evening."
Klaus frowned, and Paula gestured to his commanding officer. "I can't say no to the captain." She cringed inside at the amount of false regret tinging her voice. But her tone, coupled with a disapproving look from Lehm, kept Klaus from protesting. Instead, he straightened up and offered her his arm to escort her across the room. She smiled and took it. There was nothing else she could do, even though the smile he gave her made her skin crawl.
"There you are, Paula." Helga smiled and chided only a little - for the captain's sake.
"Klaus, you aren't bothering the girl, are you?" There was mirth in Lehm's voice - he always had a jovial tone - but there was an edge underneath his humor. An SA captain had to be ruthless, with his own men as well as with the criminal element.
"Your men are never a bother, captain," Paula said, patting Klaus's arm before she let go of him. Beside Lehm, the dark-haired man hid a smile.
"Paula, Captain Lehm would like to introduce you to someone," Helga said. The stranger schooled his expression as Lehm gestured toward him.
"This is Marquis Aleksei Korsavsky. He is visiting from Russia." Again, there was an undertone to Lehm's voice. If Paula was reading the captain correctly, they weren't as friendly as her sister had assumed.
"I might be persuaded to stay," the marquis said, his gaze fixed on Paula. He held out his hand, and when Paula took it, he raised her hand to his lips. Her smile didn't falter. Now she had to give her best performance.
"Do you dance, Marquis?" she asked. He wasn't as easy to read as most of the people in the club, her sister and the captain included.
An odd look crossed his face for a moment, then he smiled. "A little." He stepped forward, as the band began to play another song, and she took his arm automatically. "Shall we?" She gave him her most charming smile as they stepped onto the dance floor, but it didn't reach her eyes. It never did. Unlike the SA men, however, the marquis noticed.
"You don't trust me," he said quietly as they began to dance, gliding easily between the other couples on the floor. 'A little' had been an understatement. "I can understand why."
Paula held her tongue. What could she say to that? Her smile remained firmly in place.
"I want to help you, if I can," the marquis continued. "What these men - these Nazis - are doing, I've seen it before. Persecution of groups of people like this. Nothing good can come of it."
"Why?" Her smile didn't falter as she spoke, but her eyes held the question in full.
He gave her such a serious look, such a sad look, that she nearly missed a step. He compensated without missing a beat. "No one should be scapegoated like this, hurt like this. I have the means and desire to help. I need someone brave enough to help me."
"Foolish enough, you mean." His eyes widened at her words, but Paula continued speaking as if he hadn't reacted at all. "I am no fool, Marquis. You're hunting. There is no prey here."
The dance ended, cutting off further conversation for the moment. Paula stepped back, her performer's smile back in place, and clapped politely for the band along with everyone else.
"Can we speak in private?" the marquis asked.
She raised an eyebrow at him, but nodded. "There are rooms upstairs for private conversations." The marquis put a hand at the small of her back and led her toward the stairs, his fingers brushing her skin where the two halves of her dress met in back. She glanced back, noting Helga's and Emile's hopeful faces, Klaus's frustrated glare, and Lehm's calculating gaze. This was more than a simple conversation.
"I am a hunter," the marquis said once they were safely closed off in a little room meant for private dining. "But I'm not hunting in the way that you think."
"What are you hunting?"
The marquis smirked. "Roses."
Paula's eyes flashed. "You're making fun."
"You are brave enough, aren't you?" The marquise stepped closer, his expression unguarded. "You and your brother both. You wouldn't speak out if you weren't."
Paula gave him an assessing gaze. "I've met a few Russian men before, relatives of some of the club's staff. You don't have a proper Russian accent."
"And you don't have entirely Aryan features." The marquis smiled. "Both of us hiding in plain sight. But it isn't as easy for everyone as it is for us. We can help the ones who need it." He smirked. "Even the name of your club is perfect - Rosenkreuz."
Paula couldn't help but smile at that. He was serious about his desire to help. She would bet her life on it. "It is fitting, isn't it? I don't think this is what Father had in mind when he named it, though."
"But we can make it something better, you and I. And your brother. Your elder sister's taken the first step, giving jobs to people who can't find work elsewhere. With my resources, we can continue what you've already begun. Who would suspect an SA club was hiding and helping Jewish people out of Germany? The idea is preposterous. Your brother trusts me enough to help, and your sister will be easily convinced, given what she does already. But something like this, something that could become big and dangerous - I'd want to know the three of you were in agreement. Do you trust me?"
Paula looked up into his dark eyes, studying them with the careful assessing gaze she gave most of the soldiers who asked her to dance. "It's already big and dangerous. Just talking like this, it's dangerous. But if we can help others feel safer, then it is worth the risk."
It was just another dance, after all. And though she might still die a little every time she danced with a Nazi, knowing that she was doing so to help a man or woman escape from them would help her to live again.