A Tangle of Serpents
Book Six—The Lady Arianna Series
A treacherous betrayal causes Arianna and Saybrook to question just how far they can trust their close circle of friends . . .
and threatens to plunge them back into the serpentine intrigue of international politics.
With the epic victory at Waterloo behind them, Arianna and Saybrook are looking forward to a quiet summer of scholarship, far from the turmoil of war and politics. But little do they know that an even more dangerous battle is about to test their mettle.
The shocking news that Lord Grentham, the steely minister of state security, has been accused of treason and is on the run from arrest takes them and their close circle of friends by surprise. Arianna and Saybrook don’t want to believe it. Despite their fraught past with the minister, they’ve developed a grudging friendship . . .
Or has Grentham deceived them? They’re shown damning evidence that proves his guilt beyond question. And yet, their friend Sophia Kirtland refuses to accept it. Arianna can’t help but have her doubts, too—even when a midnight encounter with the fugitive minister tells her otherwise. Saybrook is less certain, but his sense of honor compels him to join their quest to prove Grentham innocent . . .
The trail leads to Paris, a city now seething with international intrigue. Rumors are rife; loyalties are for sale as the European powers scheme against each other. Can they uncoil the tangle of serpents and find the truth? The challenges turn even more dangerous when Arianna is forced to confront an old Russian enemy . . . and a sin from her father’s past.
And so begin a wild ride through the high and lows of Paris, where tempting pleasures can turn lethal at any moment. For at every turn lies a cunning enemy who’ll stop at nothing to win the battle of wits . . .
With a last little flutter of rosy light, the pink and gold hues of sunset were fading to evening. A breeze, redolent with the hint of impending rain, ruffled through the twines of ivy framing the diamond-paned windows, the soft swish-swish of the dark leaves brushing a gentle caress against the glass.
“Dio madre, it’s good to be home,” murmured Arianna, the Countess of Saybrook, as she looked up from the age-dark sheets of paper spread across her desk and set aside her pen. The lamplight filled the study room with a cheery glow, illuminating all the familiar shapes and textures—the carved bookcases, the burnished leather bindings, the curio cabinet . . .
A smile touched her lips as she watched a silvery plume of steam rise up from the mug of spiced hot chocolate that she had just brought up from the kitchen.
“At last . . .” A sigh stirred the mist. “Peace and quiet.”
Which in the next instant was suddenly shattered by an explosion of metal banging against metal.
Arianna shot up from her chair, cursing herself for a bloody fool. One should know better than to spit in the eye of Fate.
The banging came again. It was, she realized, the sound of the heavy brass knocker rapping against the front door.
Fisting her skirts, she hurried into the corridor and down the grand curling staircase. The butler was already at the entrance portal—a cudgel, noted Arianna, gripped in one hand as he clicked the latch open.
Alas, Trouble is no stranger to our household, she thought wryly. Though it didn’t usually seek to come in through the front door.
Quickening her steps, Arianna started to cross the foyer’s black and white checkered tiles just as a cloaked figure slipped in from the misty twilight.
“Oh, thank Heavens you’re home!” Pushing back her hood, Sophia Kirtland turned into the fluttering candlelight. Her face was pale as death. “But where is Saybrook?”
A clench of fear squeezed the air from Arianna’s lungs. It had been barely more than a fortnight since she and her husband—along with Sophia and the earl’s great aunt Constantina, the dowager Marchioness of Sterling—had returned from Brussels, where international intrigue had forced them to spin a whirlwind dance along the razor’s edge of death. After matching wits with Napoleon on the bloody battlefield of Waterloo, she had thought the threats were finally over.
But the look on her friend’s face said otherwise. And Sophia wasn’t given to flights of fancy.
“He . . . He’s attending a lecture at the Royal Society on—”
Sophia’s ragged oath cut her off.
“What’s wrong?” Arianna demanded, forcing herself to stay calm.
Before her friend could answer, the bang-bang of metal against metal sounded again. The echo rippled through the shadows, like a serpent in search of unsuspecting prey.
“Milady?” The butler raised his brows in question.
Out of the corner of her eye, Arianna caught a flicker of movement in the side corridor as the household’s two senior footmen quietly positioned themselves on either side of the archway.
The unspoken word burned like bile in her throat as she signaled for Sophia to hide herself in the foyer, and then answered, “You may go ahead and answer it.”
The latch rattled and paneled oak swung open on its well-oiled hinges.
An officer of the Royal Horse Guards stood stiff as a ramrod, his fleshy face schooled into an officious scowl.
Something about him immediately had her senses on full alert. His pristine gold epaulettes and artfully arranged decorative medals brought to mind a toy soldier.
A thin veneer of pomp and polish filled with naught but self-important hubris, she thought, looking up to meet his gaze.
His dark eyes seemed to shimmer with malice. “We are looking for Lord Grentham,” came the surly demand. “Is he here?”
Grentham? Holy Hell . . .
Masking her surprise, Arianna hardened her stare and countered with a question of her own. “Who are you? And by what authority are you intruding on the Earl of Saybrook’s residence to make such queries?”
A flicker of hesitation. “I have my orders, madam. You would do well not to interfere with government business.”
“Whose orders?” she pressed.
The officer appeared nonplussed at her refusal to be intimidated. “I’m not at liberty to say,” he replied stiffly.
“In that case, I’ve no intention of answering your impertinent questions.” Arianna turned in dismissal and addressed the butler “You may close the door, Jose.”
“Madam!” The officer set his boot on the threshold, but the butler quickly shifted to block his way. “I tell you, this is official government business! I have the authority to search this house.”
“Then show me your official papers.”
“A female has no need—”
“I’m not a female,” she snapped in her most imperious tone. “I’m a countess. And you are . . .” Her gaze flicked over his gaudy uniform, “. . . some sort of toy soldier who will now march yourself and your minions back to the street.”
The officer’s face flushed with anger. His hands clenched, and for a moment he seemed to be contemplating whether to attempt entering the townhouse by force.
Arianna gave a small nod to her two footmen, who silently slipped out from the shadows.
It was fashionable within the beau monde to choose such servants for their height and handsome looks—and it was considered even more stylish if one could find a pair that matched each other in build and hair color. However, on his return to London from wartime duties, her husband had brought with him former Spanish partisan fighters from the Peninsular campaign, where he had served as a military intelligence officer on the staff of General Arthur Wellesley—now the Duke of Wellington.
Unlike the parade ground soldiers on her doorstep, their household footmen were heavily muscled fellows with hard faces, and calloused hands that looked capable of crushing a skull with one blow.
“When your husband returns—” blustered the officer.
“Be glad that my husband isn’t here,” interrupted Arianna. “He would have already thrown you out on your arse.” A pause. “Which I shall have my footmen do in a moment if you and your minions don’t remove yourselves from the premises.”
The officer touched the hilt of his sword, but seemed to think better of it, and merely muttered an order to his men. “We’ll be back,” he snarled before pivoting on his heel and stomping off down the marble steps.
Arianna waited for the door to close and the lock to click shut, and then released a shaky breath.
“Ye gods.” She spun around as Sophia hurried out from her hiding place. “What the devil is going on?”