Smoke & Lies
Book 4—The Lady Arianna Series
As old ghosts and new enemies rise up to tangle in a serpentine coil of treachery and deception, can a lady count on Luck?
Now that peace reigns in Europe and Napoleon has been exiled to the island of Elba, Lady Arianna and her husband, the Earl of Saybrook, are determined to put government sleuthing aside. But the head of British security has other ideas . . .
Rumors are rife that Napoleon may be plotting to take back the French throne and plunge the Continent into another war. So when Saybrook learns that his Spanish cousin has gone missing on the island under mysterious circumstances, he and Arianna feel they have no choice but to undertake a secret mission to Elba for the government and unravel the serpentine tangle of truth and lies.
Friend or Foe? With the dangers escalating, things become even more difficult for Arianna as their traveling companions include ghosts from her past, forcing her to make choices about love, loyalty, and friendship. Once they reach Elba, she and Saybrook—along with some unexpected allies—must match wits with a deadly enemy and the great Napoleon himself. And with the clock ticking, all the last-minute machinations come down to a question of Luck . . .
Leaden clouds hung heavy in the sullen sky, squeezing out all but a weak glimmer of the dawn’s light. Overhead, the icy crackling of the bare branches, black silhouettes shivering against the grey-on-grey hues, punctuated the fitful whistling of the wind.
Hyde Park appeared deserted, but then the thud of hooves suddenly joined the other sounds as two riders broke free of the mist, their horses kicking up dark clots of frozen earth as they cantered along the deserted stretch of Rotten Row.
“Damnation,” muttered Arianna, the Countess of Saybrook, as they slowed to a sedate walk at the far end of the bridle pathway. Steam rose from the sweating flanks of the animals, and their snorts sent plumes of pale vapor curling up into the swirling shadows. “I swear, sidesaddles are the Devil’s own insidious invention.”
“Be that as it may, you need to rein in your tongue—it’s very unladylike to curse,” chided her companion, though a glint of amusement flashed in her eyes. “And since I’ve given up my cozy comforts in the dead of winter to teach you the fine points of how a gently-bred female rides, let’s make a point of practicing all the requirements.”
“If I was truly intent on cursing, I know far worse words than damnation.” It was beastly cold, and the frigid-fingered breeze was brazenly probing beneath every fold of Arianna’s woolen riding habit. Shifting uncomfortably on the pommel, she proceeded to prove it.
In exquisitely colorful detail.
Sophia Kirtland arched her brows. However, she refrained from further comment—no small feat, as her tongue was usually the sharper of the two. “You must try to relax,” she counseled, turning her attention back to their riding luxury lesson. “And learn to move in harmony with the motion of your mount, rather than trying to fight it.”
“Seeing as I’ve never responded well to the bit or the bridle, it’s no wonder that I’m not well-suited to equestrian activities,” groused Arianna. It was true. She possessed a fierce independence—a result, no doubt, of a highly unconventional upbringing that had forced her to fend for herself from a young age. Which made her a rough-edged square peg in a world that expected ladies to fit into smoothly rounded holes.
Deep and dark holes, thought Arianna grimly, where they stayed trapped in the shadows from cradle to grave.
Sophia’s laugh drew her from such dark musings. “You would rather be bouncing around in Mr. Sadler’s bucking balloon above the clouds?” demanded her friend. The two of them had recently undertaken a harrowing aerial flight in pursuit of a dangerous traitor to King and country. For a short while, their lives had hung by a mere thread over the English Channel, but the aviator’s prodigious skill—and a bit of luck—had carried them to safety.
“To be honest, yes,” replied Arianna. “I found that rather exhilarating, while this is merely irritating in the extreme.” A bitter gust of wind tugged at her fur-trimmed shako. After freeing the jaunty plume from her collar with an impatient swat, she added, “However unstable, a balloon gondola doesn’t rub one’s backside raw.”
“Your riding skills are improving,” murmured Sophia.
“Ha!” Her friend’s uncharacteristic show of tact drew a wry smile. “It’s not like you to dress up the truth in faux silks and satins.”
A gust blew through the nearby copse of trees, whipping up a swirl of dead leaves
“Admit it,” went on Sophia. “Danger is something that sends a frisson of fire through your blood.”
The comment caused Arianna to frown in thought. Granted, most of her life had been spent dancing along a deadly-sharp razor’s edge. From exile in the West Indies to a vagabond existence as a chef and sometimes swindler, to returning to England to seek vengeance for the murder of her father, she had risked her life more times than she could count.
But . . .
The frown slowly surrendered to a grimace. “You have a point. I find there is something about danger that makes one feel . . . more alive.” She slanted a curious look at Sophia. “And now that you’ve had a taste of it, I sense you understand what I mean.”
Her friend, who had until recently led a solitary, sequestered life as a bookish scholar, looked ready to argue. But then she, too, allowed a reluctant grin. “You’ve been a bad influence on me.” A pause. “Thank God. Chemical research and the quiet company of my lovely cat are all very edifying. However, I can’t deny that it does the spirit good to get out of the laboratory and thump a few heads. I won’t soon forget the look on Prince Orlov’s face . . .”
“We were lucky to have dodged disaster,” replied Arianna. “To be honest, I’m not proud of that whole affair.” Her sigh was swallowed in another gust of chill air. “I still feel guilty over keeping our actions a secret from Sandro. I understand Constantina’s reasons for it, but loyalty . . .” Her hands tightened on the reins. “Loyalty is not always so simple to define.”
Sophia nodded thoughtfully.
“Be that as it may, there’s little likelihood of any further danger in the foreseeable future. Sandro and I have determined to lead a quiet life here in Town for the foreseeable future. He’s intent on finishing his botanical treatise on Cacao theobroma. And I have much work to do on completing the book of his grandmother’s recipes and research. So, no exotic travels, no clandestine missions.”
“I thought Grentham was pressing the two of you—” began Sophia.
Arianna shook her head. “Lord Grentham can go to Hell—”
Her horse suddenly shied as a branch snapped in the wind, and her boot slipped from the stirrup. Huffing another unladylike curse, Arianna leaned down and reached for the—
It took half a heartbeat for her to realize the sound was a gunshot. In the same instant, a bullet whistled by her ear and her shako went flying.
Somehow, she managed to grab hold of the animal’s mane and keep her seat as the spooked mare reared and raced off at a panicked gallop.
Pounding hooves upon the frozen ground, helter-pelter blurs of browns and greys, stinging cold slapping against her flesh—caught up in a whirling dervish spin of sensations, Arianna ducked low and clung on for dear life. There was no time to think—
Above the cacophony of sounds, she thought she heard Sophia shout. Or maybe it was just the blood roaring in her ears.
The mare thrashed through another angled turn and suddenly stumbled over the rutted ground. Arianna’s fingers had gone numb and her grip was slipping. Damn, damn, damn. She could feel herself sliding, sliding, sliding . . . The hardscrabble ground was streaking by in a disorienting rush perilously close to her nose.
Of all the bloody ways to give up the ghost.
The irony of it tore a gurgle of laughter from her throat. She hated horses.
A hand suddenly caught her coat collar, jerking her upright.
“Arianna! Arianna!” Her voice shrill with fear, Sophia added, “Hell’s bells—are your hurt?” as she got control of the mare and expertly slowed the spooked animal to a halt.
Dizzy and disoriented, Arianna needed to suck in several shuddering breaths before her wits stopped turning cartwheels.
“Aside to the grievous blow to my pride?” she wheezed, after a none-too-elegant dismount. The frozen clots of terra firma felt surprisingly comforting beneath her boots.
“Do not make light of the moment, milady!” Her groom Jose, who had been following at discreet distance before the gunshot, reined to a skittering halt beside Sophia and vaulted out of his saddle. After a quick assessment satisfied him that no damage had been done, he tucked away his pistol and held up her hat—one finger poked accusing through the gaping bullet hole in its crown. “This is no jesting matter!”
Sophia let out a low whistle. “Ye God, what nest of vipers have you and Saybrook kicked up this time?”