Book One—The Lady Arianna Series
Danger, deception, devilry,
spiced with a dash of chocolate . . .
London, 1813. Lady Arianna Hadley’s desire to discover her disgraced father’s murderer has brought her back to London from exile in the Caribbean. Masquerading as a male chef, she is working in one of London’s aristocratic households in order to get close to her main suspect. But when the Prince Regent is taken ill after consuming Arianna’s special chocolate dessert, she unexpectedly finds herself at the center of a dangerous scandal.
Because of his expertise in chocolate, the eccentric Earl of Saybrook, a former military intelligence officer, is asked by the top brass at Horse Guards to investigate the suspected poisoning. But during his first interrogation of Arianna, someone tries to assassinate both of them, and it quickly becomes clear that something very sinister is afoot within the highest circles of government. They each have very different reasons for wanting to uncover the truth, yet to have any chance of doing so they must become allies.
Trust. Treachery. Arianna must assume yet another identity as their search takes them from the glittering ballrooms of Mayfair to the slums of St. Giles. And their reluctant alliance is tested in more ways that one as it becomes clear that someone is looking to plunge England into chaos . . .
The scent of burnt sugar swirled in the air, its sweetness melting with the darker spice of cacao and cinnamon. Candles flickered, the tiny tongues of flame licking out as the footman set the plate on the dining table.
“Ahhhh.” The gentleman leaned down and inhaled deeply, his fleshy face wreathing in a sybaritic smile. “Why, my dear Catherine, it smells . . . good enough to eat.”
Laughter greeted the bon mot.
“Oh, indeed it is, poppet. I’ve had my chef create it specially for you.” The heavily rouged lady by his side parted her lips, just enough to show a peek of teeth. “And only you.”
“How delicious.” Plumes of pale smoke floated up toward the painted ceiling and slowly dissolved in the shadows. His lazy, lidded gaze slid past the glittering silver candelabra and took in the empty place settings of the other half dozen guests. “And what, may I ask, is it?”
“Chocolate,” he echoed, sounding a little puzzled. “But—”
“Edible chocolate,” explained Catherine. “A new innovation, fresh from Paris. Where, as you know, the French have refined sumptuous indulgence to an artform in itself.” She lowered her voice to a sultry murmur. “Aren’t you tempted to try it?”
All eyes fixed hungrily on the unusual confection. Soft mounds of Chantilly cream ringed the porcelain plate, accentuating the dark, decadent richness of the thick wafers arranged at its center. Ranging in hue from café au lait to burnished ebony, they rose up from a pool of port-soaked cherries.
“I must warn you, though,” she teased. “Chocolate is said to stimulate the appetite for other pleasures.” Her lashes fluttered. “But perhaps you are already sated after such a rich meal.”
“One can never have enough pleasure,” replied the gentleman as he plucked the top piece from its buttery perch and popped it into his mouth.
A collective sigh sounded from the others as he gave a blissful little moan, squeezed his eyes shut . . .
And promptly pitched face-first into sticky sweetness.
There was a moment of dead silence, followed by a slow, slurping shudder that sent a spray of ruby-red drops and pink-tinged cream over the pristine tablecloth.
“Good God, send for a physician!” screamed one of the guests. “The Prince Regent has been poisoned!”
* * * *
Steam rose from the boiling water, enveloping the stove in a cloud of moist, tropical heat.
“Hell.” A hand shot out and shoved the kettle off the hob.
Cleaning up after such a feast would likely take another few hours, thought the chef irritably. But that was the price—or was it penance—for choosing to work alone. A baleful glance lingered for a moment on the kitchen’s work table, the dirty dishes and pots yet another reminder that the aristocratic asses upstairs were gluttons for decadent foods.
More, always more—their hunger seemed insatiable.
But it wasn’t as if their appetite for sumptuous pleasures came as any great surprise to Arianna Hadley. Contempt curled the corners of her mouth. Indeed, she had counted on it.
Turning away from the puddles of melted butter and clotted cream, she wiped her hands and carefully collected the scraps of paper containing her recipes. The edges were yellowing, the spidery script had faded to the color of weak tea, and yet she could not quite bring herself to copy them onto fresh sheets of foolscap. They were like old friends—her only friends, if truth be told—and together they had traveled . . .
Her hands clenched, crackling the papers. Not that she cared to dwell on the sordid details. They were, after all, too numerous to count.
She closed her eyes for an instant. For as far back as she could remember, life had been one never-ending journey. Jamaica, St. Kitts, Barbados, Martinique, along with all the specks of Caribbean coral and rock too small to have a name. Foam-flecked, rum-drenched hellholes awash in rutting pirates and saucy whores. And from there across the ocean to the glittering bastion of civilized society.
Ah, yes. Here in London the scurvy scum and sluts were swathed in fancy silks and elegant manners. Fine-cut jewels and satin smiles. All thin veneers that hid a black-hearted core of corruption.
Tracing a finger over a waterstained page, Arianna felt the faint grit of salt and wondered whether it was residue from the ocean voyage or one of the rare moments when she had allowed a weak-willed tear. Of late, she had disciplined herself to be tougher. Harder. But as the steam wafted over the sticky pots, stirring a sudden, haunting hint of island spices, she blinked and the words blurred. Light and dark, spinning into a vortex of jumbled memories.
Fire. Smoke. The lush scent of sweetness licking up from the flames.
“Breathe deeply, ma petite.” Her voice lush with the lilt of the tropics, the mulatto cook leaned closer to the copper cauldron. “Drink in its essence.” She sprinkled a grating of cinnamon, a pinch of anchiote over the roasting nibs. “Watch carefully, Arianna. Like life itself, the cacao is even better with a bit of spice, but the mix must be just right. Let me show you . . .”
Dark as ebony, Oribe’s hands fluttered through the tendril of steam. “Theobroma cacao—food of the gods,” she murmured. “Now we must wait for just the right moment to douse the flames. Remember—its magic cannot be rushed.” From a smaller pot, the cook poured a measure of hot milk into a ceramic cup. Adding a spoonful of ground beans, thickened with sugar, she whipped the concoction to a foaming froth with her molinillo. “But patience will be rewarded. Drink this—”
Then the image of the old servant dissolved, and Arianna found herself staring into the shadows.
Shadows. She remembered shifting shapes of menacing black, and the rumblings of thunder from a fast-approaching storm. Dancing to the drumming of the wind against the shutters, a tendril of smoke had swirled up from the lone candle, casting a trail of twisted patterns over a bloodstained sheet.
“Drink this, papa.” She was holding a glass of cheap rum to her father’s trembling lips. “A physician will be here soon with laudanum to help ease the pain,” she lied, knowing full well that not a soul would come rushing to help two penniless vagabonds.
“I would rather have a sip of your special chocolate, my dear.” He tried to smile, despite the jagged knife wound gouged between his ribs.
So much blood, so much blood. Cursing the stinking wharfside alleys and the shabby tavern room, she pressed her palm to the scarlet-soaked handkerchief, trying to staunch the flow.
“I—I shall always savor the sweet memory of you,” he went on in a whisper. “I . . .” A groan gurgled deep in his throat. “God in heaven, forgive me for being such a wretched parent. And for sinking you in such a sordid life.”
“You are not to blame! You were falsely accused.”
“Yes, I was—I swear it,” he rasped. “But . . . it doesn’t matter. Not for me.” He coughed. “But you—you deserve better . . .”
“Never mind that. You deserve justice, Papa. Tell me who did this to you.”
“I . . .” But there was no answer, only a spasm of his icy fingers and then a silence louder than the wailing wind.
Arianna shifted on her stool, recalled back to the present by the clatter of footsteps on the stairs. Her skin was sheened in sweat and yet she was chilled to the bone.
“Chef! Chef!” Fists pounded on the closed door. “Monsieur Alphonse, open up! Something terrible has happened!”
Smoothing at the ends of her false mustache, Arianna quickly tucked the papers into her smock and rose.
Perhaps it was too late for justice. Perhaps all that mattered now was vengeance.
* * * *
“Indeed?” Lord Percival Grentham’s expression remained impassive. A senior government minister in Whitehall’s War Office, he was in charge of security for London, which included keeping watch over the royal family. And with the King lingering in the netherworld of madness and his grown children mired in one scandal after another, it was a task designed to test his legendary sangfroid.
Grentham’s assistant nervously cleared his throat. “But he’s going to survive, milord,” he added hastily. “A physician happened to be treating a patient next door and was summoned in time to purge the poison from the prince’s stomach.
“More’s the pity,” snapped Grentham’s military attaché, who was standing by his superior’s desk, arranging the daily surveillance reports. “Bloody hell, if Prinny can’t control his prodigious appetites, he could at least have the decency to fall victim in his own establishment.”
The assistant didn’t dare respond.
Leaning back in his chair, Grentham tapped his elegant fingertips together and stared out the bank of windows overlooking the parade ground. Rain pelted against the misted glass, turning the vast expanse of gravel to a blur of watery grey. Beyond it, the bare trees in St. James’s Park jutted up through the fog, dark and menacing, like the jagged teeth of some ancient dragon.
“How long until he can be moved from Lady Spencer’s townhouse?” he asked slowly.
“Er . . .” The assistant consulted the sheaf of papers in his hands. “Another two or three days.”
“Bloody, bloody hell,” swore the attaché. “If word of this reaches the newspapers—”
“Thank you, Major Crandall.” The tapping ceased—as did all other sounds in the room. Turning to his assistant, Grentham continued with his inquiries. “I take it that the other guests have been sworn to absolute secrecy, Jenkins?”
“Yes, milord. And they’ve all promised to be silent as the grave.”
“Excellent,” he replied mildly. “Oh, and do remind them that they had better be, else their carcasses will be rotting on a transport ship bound for the Antipodes.”
“Y-yes, milord.” The young man was new to the job and hadn’t yet dared ask what had become of his predecessor. Rumors of Grentham’s ruthlessness were rife throughout the halls of the Horse Guards building, and it was whispered that even the Prime Minister feared to provoke his ire.
Taking up his pen, Grentham jotted several lines on a fresh sheet of foolscap. “Do we know for certain what poison was used?”
“Not as yet, sir. The physician says it is difficult to discern, on account of the, er . . . substance that the Prince ingested.” The young man paused, looking uncertain of whether to go on.
“Well, do you intend to keep me in suspense all afternoon?” asked Grentham softly. “Or is this meant to be an amusing little guessing game, seeing as I have nothing else to do with my time?”
“N-n-o, sir.” The assistant gave another glance at his notes. “It was . . . chocolate.”
“Chocolate?” repeated Crandall incredulously. “If this is your idea of joke, Jenkins—”
“It’s n-no joke, sir, it’s the God-honest truth.” Jenkins held out a piece of paper with a suspicious-looking stain streaked across its bottom. “You may see for yourself.”
Grentham waved away the offending document with a flick of his wrist. “I am a trifle confused, Jenkins,” he murmured. “I thought you said Prinny ate the stuff, not drank it.”
“He did, sir. It says here in the physician’s report that the Prince Regent collapsed after eating a disk of solid, sweetened chocolate.” Seeking to forestall another acerbic attack, he quickly went on. “Apparently the confection is a recent culinary creation, developed in France. It is said to be very popular in Paris.”
“Chacun a son gout,” said Grentham under his breath.
“Never mind. Go on—anything else of interest in the report?”
“Well, milord, the man does mention the possibility that the Prince might have sickened from overindulgence, and not from any toxin.” Jenkins swallowed hard. “But the prince’s private physician questions whether chocolate in this new, solid form, might have naturally-occurring poisonous properties.”
Grentham thought for a moment. “So in fact, we don’t have a clue as to whether this was an attempt on the reigning sovereign’s life, or merely another example of his appetite for pleasure getting him in trouble.”
Looking unhappy, Jenkins nodded. His superior was known as man who preferred to view the world in black and white. An infinite range of greys merely muddied the subject—which did not bode well for whoever presented the ill-formed picture.
“I should be tempted to let him stew in his own juices . . .” began the Major, but a sharp look from Grentham speared him to silence.
The minister fingered one of the leather document cases piled on his desk. “Given the current situation, it is imperative—imperative—that we ascertain whether foul play was involved. What with the upcoming arrival of the Allied delegation and our troubles with the upstart Americans, the death of the Prince Regent could be catastrophic for the interests of England.”
The assistant instinctively backed into the shadows of the dark oak filing cabinets, though he had a feeling that the basilisk stare of his superior could see straight through to the deepest coal-back pit of hell.
“And so,” he mused, “however unpleasant a task, we must extract the truth from this sticky mess.”
Jenkins gave a sickly smile, unsure whether the minister had just attempted a witticism.
“The question is, who among our operatives is best equipped to handle such an investigation.” Grentham pursed his lips. “Any suggestions?”
The Major quickly shot a look at Jenkins.
“Well, milord, I . . . I . . .”
“Spit it out, man,” ordered the Major. “We haven’t got all day.”
Sweat beaded on the assistant’s brow, though his throat remained bone-dry. “I was just going to say, perhaps one of our Peninsular allies might prove u-u-useful. Seeing as it was the Spanish who brought cacao to Europe from the New World, it would seem logical that they would be the most knowledgeable on the subject.”
Grentham looked thoughtful.
The Major’s gaze narrowed to a crafty squint. “Yes, I was just going to say that I think it an excellent idea to look outside our own circle of intelligence officers,” he said quickly. “They are all personally acquainted with the prince, and we wouldn’t want any question of impartiality to color the conclusion of the investigation. I mean, sir, if anything were to . . .” He let his voice trail off.
Grentham flashed a semblance of a smile. “Good God, I may actually have body or two around me with a brain.” Setting down his pen, he contemplated his well-manicured hand for a bit before slowly buffing his nails on his other sleeve.
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. The sound was soft as a raptor’s wingbeat, honing in on its kill.
“Send a messenger to Charles Mellon. Tell him that I wish to see him as soon as possible.”