The Cocoa Conspiracy
Book Two—The Lady Arianna Series
Chocolate mixed with conspiracy
is a recipe for death . . .
Lady Arianna Hadley, now the Countess of Saybrook, is slowly settling into married life with her new husband, the Earl of Saybrook. To celebrate his birthday, she finds the perfect gift—a rare volume of botanical engravings on Theobroma cacao, or chocolate . . . but she is forced to fight off a mysterious stranger who tries to steal it away from her in the bookstore.
The incident is forgotten until Arianna and Saybrook are asked to attend a gathering of international dignitaries at a country estate, where she is shocked to discover that her erstwhile assailant is among the guests. But other events quickly prove even more ominous. And when the chocolate book yields a bitter surprise, someone they hold dear is incriminated in a plot to betray Great Britain at the upcoming Peace Congress in Vienna.
Murder, treason, money, power. Once again, Arianna and Saybrook find themselves drawn into a deadly web of international intrigue. To unmask the real traitor, they journey to Vienna where amidst the seductive pomp and pageantry of Europe’s reigning royalty they must root out a cunning conspiracy—armed only with their wits and their expertise in chocolate…
The book’s binding was crafted out of dark, finegrained calfskin, its richly tooled embossings age-mellowed to the color of . . .
“Chocolate,” murmured Arianna Hadley. Removing her gloves, which were still sticky from foraging through the food stalls at Covent Garden, she traced the delicate leaf design centered beneath the gilded title. “How lovely,” she added, and then carefully opened the cover.
Dust motes danced up into the air, tiny sparkles of sunlight in the shadowed corner of the alcove. As she shifted a step closer to the diamond-paned window, the scrape of her sturdy half-boots on the Aubusson carpet momentarily disturbed the hush that hung over the ornate bookcases.
Her heel snagged, and to her dismay she realized that a streak of mud—and something that looked suspiciously like squashed pumpkin—now marred the stately pattern.
Hell and damnation.
Arianna gave a guilty glance around, but the room appeared deserted. The only stirring was a small flutter of breeze wafting in through the casement. It teased over the polished oak, mingling the scents of beeswax, ink, paper and leather.
The smell of money.
A wry smile twitched on her lips as she turned her attention back to the book. Set discreetly within the marbled endpapers was a small slip of paper which noted the price. It was expensive. Very expensive—as was every volume and manuscript offered for sale by Mssrs. Harvey & Watkins Rare Book Emporium.
But then, Arianna could now afford such luxuries.
She slowly turned the pages, savoring the feel of the creamy, deckle-edged paper and the subtle colors of the illustrations. With her new husband’s birthday fast approaching, she was looking for a special gift. And the intricate engravings of Theobroma cacao were, to her eye, exquisite.
“Chocolate,” repeated Arianna, pausing to study the details of a criolla tree and its fruit. Her husband was, among other things, a serious scholar of botany, and cacao—or chocolate—was his particular field of expertise. The text was Spanish, and the date looked to be—
A sudden nudge from behind nearly knocked the book from her grasp.
“I beg your pardon.” The deep voice was edged with a foreign accent.
Arianna turned, about to acknowledge the apology with a polite smile, when the man gave her another little shove.
“I beg your pardon, but that book is mine,” he growled. “Hand it over at once.”
Sliding back a step, she instinctively threw up a forearm to parry his grab. “I’m afraid you are mistaken, sir. It was lying on the display table, free for anyone to choose.”
“I assure you, there is no mistake,” he replied. “I must have it.”
Turn over her treasure to a lout who thought to frighten her with physical force? Her pulse kicked up a notch, its hot surge thrumming angrily in her ears.
“Sorry, but I saw it first.”
Her husband had jestingly warned her that serious book collectors were an odd, obsessive lot, and this one in particular sounded slightly deranged. Or demented. But be that as it may, Arianna was not about to be intimidated by his bullying tactics.
“You will have to look around for something else, for I intend to purchase it,” she added, and not just for spite. She had already decided that the engravings were the perfect present for her husband.
“You can’t!” he exclaimed in a taut whisper.
Oh, but I can.
Closing the covers, Arianna drew the book close to her chest.
As the man edged closer, a blade of light cut across his pale face. Sweat was beading his forehead, and several drops hung on his russet lashes. “I tell you, that book is meant for me.”
“Then you should have asked the clerk to put it aside.” She gestured at the other volumes arrayed on the square of dark velvet. “Come, there is no need to squabble like savages. You have plenty of other lovely choices.”
He snarled an obscenity.
“Be advised, sir, I know plenty of worse words than that,” responded Arianna with a grim smile, and she added a very unladylike curse to prove it.
His eyes widened for an instant, then narrowed to a slitted stare. “Give me that book,” he repeated. “Or you will be sorry.”
His strike was quick—but not quick enough.
Her reactions honed by half a lifetime of fighting off drunks and pimps, Arianna caught his wrist and pivoted, twisting hard enough to draw a grunt of pain. “I wouldn’t wager on that.”
“Poxy slut.” Breaking away, the man clenched a fist and threw a wild punch at her head.
She ducked the blow and countered with a kick that buckled his knee. “True—if I were a real lady, I would be falling into a dead swoon.” Her jab clipped him flush on the chin. “But as you see, I’m not. Not a lady, that is.”
Staggered, the man fell against the display table, knocking several books to the floor. His curses were now coming in a language she didn’t recognize, but the edge of panic was unmistakable.
What madness possessed him? It was only a book, albeit a lovely one.
Arianna glanced at the archway, intent on making a strategic retreat. The last thing she wanted to do was to ruffle the rarified feathers of Mssrs. Harvey & Watkins by brawling among their rare books. Such a scene would only embarrass her husband, who, ye Gods, had suffered enough gossip on her account . . .
Bloody hell. A glint of steel drew her eye back to her assailant.
His fumblings inside his coat revealed not only a book hidden in the waistband of his trousers but a slim-bladed knife.
“Try to use that on me, and you’ll find your cods cut off,” she warned softly.
He blinked, looking torn between anger and fear.
The sliver of silence was broken by the sound of hurried steps in the adjoining room. “Is someone in need of assistance?” called a shop clerk loudly.
Her assailant hesitated for an instant, then whirled and darted for the archway, bumping into the other man as they crossed paths.
Smoothing the wrinkles from his sleeve, the clerk frowned at Arianna. “This is not a place for sordid assignations, Miss,” he chided, looking down his long nose at her chipped straw bonnet and drab serge gown. As his gaze slid to the fallen books, he added a sharp sniff. “I must ask you to leave—immediately. We cater to a very dignified clientele who expect an atmosphere of decorum when they visit us.”
Ah, no good deed goes unpunished, thought Arianna sardonically. On her way home from the rough-and-tumble markets, she had stopped her carriage on impulse to browse through the fancy books. Better to have waited until she had swathed herself in silk and satin for the requisite morning calls in Mayfair.
“First of all, it is Missus,” she corrected. “And secondly, I am quite aware of what sort of patrons frequent your shop.”
The clerk winced at the word ‘shop.’
“However, you might want to take a closer look at the so-called Quality you allow through your door,” went on Arianna, assuming an air of icy hauteur. “That man was certainly no gentleman. He had a knife, and was probably cutting prints out of your precious volumes.” Her husband had explained how some unscrupulous collectors sliced up rare books for the maps or prints, which were sold individually to art dealers for a much higher profit.
The clerk’s look of disdain now pinched into one of horror.
“He also stole a book,” she added. “I saw it hidden under his coat.”
“B—but he has made several purchases recently, all properly paid for,” protested the clerk. Another glance, another sniff. “You must be mistaken. By all appearances, he is a perfect gentleman, no matter that he is a foreigner.”
“Well he’s not,” shot back Arianna. “You may take my word for it.”
His mouth thinned. “And who, might I ask, are you?”
“The Countess of Saybrook.” Arianna held out the chocolate book. “Now, before you toss me out on my arse, kindly wrap that and write up a receipt. And do make it quick. My carriage is waiting and the earl does not like for his prime cattle to take a chill.”