A Swirl of Shadows
Book Seven—The Lady Arianna Series
St. Petersburg. A city where dangerous deceptions swirl beneath the sumptuous splendor of Tsar Alexander’s Imperial Court. With an unknown adversary threatening to destroy all she holds dear, Arianna must summon all of her courage and find a way to save the day . . .
A traumatic personal crisis has left Lady Arianna bedeviled by guilt and questioning whether she has lost her nerve. Saybrook and her circle of friends can’t seem to help rekindle her fire. Even a challenge from Lord Grentham, Britain’s shadowy head spymaster, to undertake a vital mission to Russia in aid of her old friend, Tsar Alexander, fails to spark any interest . . . Until Grentham mentions that Arianna’s half-brother has gone in her place and may be in mortal danger.
Arianna is furious. She only recently discovered that she had a sibling when her father’s illegitimate son was recruited to play a small role in their previous mission, and she resents the minister’s attempt to manipulate her emotions. So she refuses yet again to be drawn back into the fray.
But when the murder of a mysterious Russian baroness in London entangles her friend Sophia in the byzantine intrigue surrounding a stolen Imperial medallion and a legendary curse that may topple the Tsar from his throne if it’s not recovered, Arianna finds she can’t turn her back on family and friends—especially as the tensions within her closeknit circle are threatening to fray the bonds of all she holds dear.
And so Arianna and Saybrook—along with Sophia—head off to St. Petersburg, where dangerous deceptions and duplicity swirl beneath the sumptuous splendor of the Imperial Court. An American adventuress, an old nemesis, a possible traitor within their own allies . . . Suspects abound—treachery is everywhere, and when her brother goes missing, Arianna know that for her and Saybrook to have any hope catching the conning conspirators, she’ll have to learn to trust herself again. But the clock is ticking . . .
Wind lashed at her face, its dagger-sharp pain spasming through her flesh. The night was black as Hades, and as she hurtled down the steep descent at breakneck speed—buffeted and bounced by the nightmare fury of the bumps and jolts—the darkness was horribly disorienting.
Terror gripped every fiber of her being
The noise—an unholy cacophony of clanging and whooshing—roared in her ears, resonating with unseen fire and ice . . . as if Hephaestus and all his legions of underworld blacksmiths were forging a special hell to trap her—
Arianna, Lady Saybrook, awoke with a scream about to tear from her throat. She choked it down and lay very still in the velvety quiet of the room, willing her heart to stop pounding like a steel cudgel against her ribs.
A bad dream. They were coming more often.
She looked over at her husband, praying her distress hadn’t woken him.
A rush of guilt prickled through her limbs at the thought. I should be stronger than this, she told herself. And yet . . .
Saybrook stirred and shifted, but to her relief, the glimmer of moonglow from the windows showed that his eyes were closed, his chiseled features softened in peaceful repose. For a long moment, Arianna stared at his face, framed by the unruly tangle of dark hair curling against the rumpled pillow, and then slipped free of the sheets and crept out of the bedchamber.
She moved noiselessly over the night-chilled corridor floor and ducked into her study, quelling a shiver as she went to stand by the bank of diamond-paned glass overlooking the back garden of their Berkeley Square townhouse. The last lushness of summer was already wilting. Colors were fading, leaves were falling, and soon the season’s life would give way to autumn . . . and then the bare bones of winter.
A prickling of gooseflesh rose on her arms. Arianna chafed her palms over the light cotton of her nightrail, trying to dispel the feeling of despair. Of late, it seemed wrapped around her like a shroud, tightening, tightening—
The heat of Saybrook’s body suddenly tingled down her spine as he came up behind her and placed his hands on her hips. “Another nightmare?”
“Just thinking about the upcoming book,” she lied, “and trying to decide on which artist to choose for the illustrations.” Her longtime project of researching the culinary history Cacao Theobroma—or chocolate—and editing the recipes and diaries of Saybrook’s Spanish grandmother had recently attracted the attention of a prominent London bookseller, who had made a proposal to publish it, complete with botanical engravings. The offer should have pleased her immensely, and yet she felt nothing but a niggling sense of malaise.
“A big decision,” he murmured. “But both women are very talented. You can’t go wrong.”
Arianna nodded, not daring to look around and see the look of worry in his eyes. She hated what she was doing to him.
“Come back to bed,” he said, pulling her closer and brushing a kiss to the nape of her neck.
Slipping free, she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I will shortly. I’m just going to go downstairs and brew a cup of chocolate.”
* * *
“How is she?” After flashing a smile of thanks at the butler who had announced her, Sophia Kirtland entered the earl’s library later that morning and made herself at home in one of the leather armchairs by the hearth. A fire was lit, the red-gold coals crackling with a mellow cheer as the flames danced up from the grate.
“Unchanged,” answered Saybrook. He put down his pen and leaned back from his desk. “I confess, I am hard-pressed to know what to do next.”
Sophia nodded in sympathy. She had known the earl for some years through their mutual scientific interests, and despite a fraught beginning, she and Arianna and become the closest of friends—and partners in more than a few dangerous intrigues. “Does Baz have no further suggestions?”
Basil Henning, a crusty former military surgeon who had served with Saybrook during the Peninsular wars, was also part of their close-knit circle of friends, as was the earl’s great aunt Constantina, the dowager Marchioness of Sterling.
“His latest counsel is that time will heal.” A muscle twitched as Saybrook’s jaw tightened. “And as he loathes platitudes even more than I do, it’s a sign that he, too, is baffled.”
“It’s as if the life has gone out of her,” said Sophia softly.
Saybrook bowed his head, wreathing his face in shadows.
“Merciful heavens—forgive me. I didn’t mean . . .” Sophia gave him an anguished look. “What a horribly insensitive thing to say.”
He closed his eyes for an instant. “But no less true.”
Arianna had suffered an unfortunate trauma in her youth that had apparently left her incapable of conceiving a child. But this past summer, much to the couple’s surprised delight, she had found herself pregnant . . .
Only to suffer a miscarriage.
“It’s clear that she blames herself,” added Saybrook. “And ignores any suggestion otherwise.”
“But Baz has explained that had the mishap on the montaigne russe in Paris could not have been the cause . . .” Sophia hesitated.
The mention of the elaborate wooden mountain—complete with wheeled sleds that hurtled down a steep incline on railed tracks—caused both of them to draw in a troubled breath. A popular entertainment in parks of Paris, brought to the city by the Russian soldiers of the Allied army just after their momentous victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, the so-called Russian Mountain had been the scene of terrible accident. In chasing a treasonous enemy whose diabolical plot threatened to throw Britain into chaos, Arianna had found herself hurtling down the tracks on a sled whose safety ropes had been cut. Certain death had loomed. But Lord Grentham, the shadowy head of state security, had managed to catch up and pull her to safety, though not without a tumbling fall.
“If it had, the miscarriage would have happened within the next few days.” Sophia twisted at the fringe of her shawl. “The fact that we had all been back in London nearly a fortnight means that wasn’t to blame”
“Emotion rarely listens to reason,” said Saybrook tightly. “We need to find a way to pull her back to her real self.” He pressed a hand to his brow. “But damned if I know how.”
“We’ll find a way,” replied Sophia, though her voice betrayed a quiver of uncertainty. “For now, she needs some fresh air and sunshine to bring the color back to her face.” She rose. “Shall I go see if I can convince her to accompany me on a walk to the park?”
“I would be grateful if you could get her to leave the cave-like confines of her study,” he admitted. “She’s drawn all the draperies, so it’s dark as a crypt.”
“Leave it to me.” Sophia rose. “Perhaps,” she mused, a martial frown narrowing her eyes, “it’s time we stopped handling her with kidskin gloves.”
Saybrook looked surprised . . . and then thoughtful.
Sophie didn’t wait for a reply. She hurried from the room and headed up the stairs.
The door to Arianna’s study was closed. When a discreet knock brought no response, she rapped again, this time a little louder.
“Damnation,” she muttered under her breath, then clicked the latch open and shouldered her way in. The room was dark save for a single oil lamp lit on worktable. Arianna looked around from the pile of paper, her face ghostly pale in its glow.
“I’m afraid I’m busy right now—” began Arianna.
Ignoring her friend, Sophia marched to the windows and threw open the draperies.
Arianna winced and turned away from the sunlight.
“No wonder you’re withering on the vine,” said Sophia. “Living, breathing organisms need air and light and sustenance in order to thrive!”
“Thank you for the biology lesson,” came the taut reply. “May I now get back to my work?”
“No. you may not.” Sophia cast a critical look at the silk wrapper covering Arianna’s nightgown. “You are going to get dressed and come take a walk with me in the park.”