The Stolen Letters
Book 3.5—The Lady Arianna Series
(A Lady Arianna Novella)
A lady is never afraid to match wits with the gentlemen and prove she can best them at their own devious games. . .
With the hunt for a diabolical traitor finally over, Lady Arianna is looking for some peace and quiet in which to resolve lingering tensions with her husband over her daredevil exploits during the final chase. But an unexpected late night visit from The Dragon—Saybrook’s feisty and independent great aunt—puts her in the middle of a very difficult dilemma.
Constantina confesses that some very private personal letters, along with some sensitive diplomatic documents, have been stolen from her French paramour. She’s desperately hoping Arianna can help get them back, but says it must be discreetly and without anyone knowing—including Saybook.
Yes or No? The task is made even more daunting when Arianna discovers that the political intrigue may entangle her with some very dangerous old enemies . . .
Ah, but Arianna can’t resist a challenge, and when she learns that a diplomatic party will provide the perfect opportunity to steal the documents back, she and Constantina, along with their friend Sophia Kirtland, quickly devise a plan to prove the ladies can best the gentlemen at their own devious games . . .
The muted tap-tap on the paneled oak door caused Arianna, the Countess of Saybrook, to look up from studying a sheet of age-faded parchment. A frown pinched at the corners of her mouth, but she quickly banished it with a sigh. The household staff was too well trained to disturb her without good reason.
She set reluctantly aside her quill pen. “Come in.”
“Your pardon, milady.” Her husband’s longtime Spanish butler opened the door just wide enough for his low, sonorous voice to be heard. “Lady Sterling apologizes for the lateness of the hour, but wonders if you might have a moment to speak with her.”
“But of course.” Annoyance gave way to a frisson of alarm. Her husband’s great aunt was a lady of feisty independence—and uncommon good sense. A night time visit could only mean one thing.
Ah, but Trouble seems to run in the family.
Arianna quickly rose and gathered her skirts. Though in all fairness, she thought, it was usually her and her husband who found themselves tangled in a nest of vipers.
“She’s waiting in the Blue Parlor,” murmured Sebastian as she hurried past him into the corridor, the swoosh-swoosh of silk stirring a skittering of dark-on-dark shadows.
“Forgive me for disturbing you, my dear.” The dowager Marchioness of Sterling shifted in her seat.
A great beauty in her youth, she was still a striking woman, exuding an aura of elegance and strength of character that transcended her advancing age. Arianna noted that the dowager had chosen one of the highback leather armchairs closest to the hearth, but despite the cheery glow of the fire reflecting off the polished white marble, her fine-boned face looked pale beneath the dappling of red-gold light.
“I know you’re in the midst of translating the diaries of Sandro’s grandmother, and I wouldn’t interrupt your work unless—”
“As if you ever have to stand on ceremony with me, Aunt Constantina,” interrupted Arianna as she bent to brush a kiss to the dowager’s cheek. Up close, the shadows beneath the luminous aquamarine eyes looked deeper and darker than she had first supposed. Like bruises that lay festering beneath the fragile skin.
“A visit from you is always welcome,” she finished.
Constantina flashed a wry smile. “You may wish to hear me out first before saying that.”
“Well now, this sounds intriguing.” Taking care to mask her concern, Arianna matched the dowager’s note of dry humor as she took a seat in the facing chair. “And thank God for that. Much as I enjoy the quiet world of scholarly books and papers, I confess things have seemed a little too quiet of late.”
The dowager’s brows arched up in surprise. “Indeed? According to Sandro, it was only several days ago that you were involved in a harrowing aerial chase of a dangerous traitor—one that it left you hanging by the skin of your teeth over the English Channel, a mere hairsbreadth from certain death.”
“True,” confirmed Arianna. In fact, it was still a matter of discord between them. “I fear he hasn’t yet forgiven me.”
“Oh, pish.” Constantina flicked an airy wave. “For all their bluster, men are strangely sensitive creatures when it comes to seeing ladies in danger. Just give him a little time to get over the shock.”
She wasn’t quite as sanguine as her great aunt by marriage. Saybrook hadn’t merely been angry, he had been furious, and in an uncharacteristic venting of his ire—in front of an audience, no less—he had called her reckless and all too willing to spit in the Devil’s eye.
That he had later apologized had taken some of the sting out of his words. And yet Arianna couldn’t help but wonder whether he was beginning to regret legshackling himself to such an unrepentantly unconventional wife . . .
Constantina seemed to read her thoughts. “If Sandro rang a peal over your head, it was out of fear, not anger. I think it would drive him half-mad if he were to lose you.”
“I’m not so sure,” she replied softly. “But be that as it may, you haven’t come here to discuss my marital stresses.”
“No.” There followed a very un-Constantina hesitation. The dowager possessed a very sharp mind—and an even sharper tongue. Her outspokenness was legendary throughout the beau monde, and few people dared to provoke her ire.
With good reason.
“I’ve come to you for help in the past, and you’ve never batted an eyelash, no matter how strange the request,” said Arianna, after the silence had stretched on for several long moments. “Please, allow me to return the favor.” A pause. “Though I’m sorry to say Sandro isn’t here to offer his counsel. Tonight is the monthly meeting of the Botanical Fellows at the Royal Society.”
“Yes, I know.” The dowager’s lips quirked. “That’s why I chose to come now.”
Dio Madre. Intrigue entangling with intrigue. The strands seemed to be coiling around the cozy parlor like unseen serpents . . .
“It’s imperative that he know nothing about my predicament,” went on Constantina. “Of course, I realize that puts you between a rock and a stone, so if it’s too uncomfortable, I—I can seek help elsewhere.”
“I think you know I’m made of sterner stuff than that.” Arianna smiled. “Besides, what fun is a challenge if it’s not a difficult one.”
“You may be eating your words, along with your sinfully sweet chocolate confections,” quipped the dowager before surrendering to nervous sigh. “Nonetheless, I’m very grateful.”
Arianna rose and moved to the sideboard where she carefully poured two glasses of the earl’s fiery Spanish brandy. Given the circumstances, it seemed a better choice than ladylike sherry.
“Salud,” she murmured, after handing one to Constantina.
Crystal clinked against crystal.
“Now, tell me what the trouble is.”
“Some documents have been stolen from a friend of mine,” intoned Constantina after taking a small sip. “Along with some personal correspondence between us.” A pause. “Of a private nature.”
Arianna cleared her throat with a cough. “How private?”
“Rather intimately private,” answered Constantina.
An unexpected answer, but she took care to mask her surprise. “I take it there’s no chance they were simply misplaced?”
On hearing a low—and distinctly dismissive—snort, Arianna quickly added, “No, I thought not.” She pondered the matter for a moment. “The documents—”
“Forgive me, I don’t mean to be shilly-shallying with you. Allow me to explain things in a more coherent sequence.” Constantina allowed an uncomfortable smile. “The current envoy in London from the newly restored Bourbon king of France—a senior aide to Talleyrand named Gerard Dampierre—is an old friend of mine, and since his posting here, we have come to be seeing quite a lot of each other.”
Talleyrand. Arianna and Saybrook had encountered the legendary French diplomat during their time in Vienna the previous autumn. A master of international intrigue, Talleyrand was the consummate pragmatist. Like a cat with nine lives, he had managed to survive the travails of French politics for over three decades with his neck still intact, serving Louis XVI, Napoleon and now the new King.
“If Monsieur Dampierre is half as clever as Talleyrand, he must be a fascinating companion,” said Arianna carefully.
“He is,” replied the dowager. “As well as witty, charming and amusing.” Her mouth twitched. “He makes me laugh.”
“He sounds quite delightful.”
Constantina shifted her gaze to the flames dancing up in the hearth. For a brief instant, sparks of gold lit the darkness pooled in her eyes. “To someone of your age, it may seem ridiculous that it’s possible to feel love and desire when one’s body is sliding and sagging into mortality.” A rueful grimace. “Guffaw if you wish, but I make no bones about it—at least to you, my dear.” A sigh. “I would, however, prefer that Charles and Sandro don’t learn of the affair. Not only would they would be shocked that I’m fraternizing with the enemy.”
She hesitated, a hint of vulnerability flickering beneath her lashes. “They would likely think me . . . deranged. Or perhaps pathetic.”
“I think you may underestimate their understanding,” said Arianna softly. “As for my own feelings, I fervently hope that love and desire are possible right down to our dying breath. Those elemental joys are what makes life worth living.” She raised a small a salute with her brandy, the swirling amber spirits adding a blaze of gold. “Brava for you.”
The two of them exchanged a quick, silent smile. The coals crackled, setting off tiny flashes of fire-bright light. As they died away, Constantina slowed turned the cut crystal glass in her frail fingers.
“Now that that I’ve made the personal connection clear, I shall get to the crux of the problem. Last night, someone broke into Gerard’s residence and stole some sensitive documents, along with a packet of personal letters which could prove terribly embarrassing if made public.” The dowager drew in a steadying breath. “Not for me, I might add. I’m too old to give a fig about the tittle-tattle of Society’s gossips. However Charles could be gravely damaged by the revelation of my liaison.”
Her nephew, Charles Mellon was a highly placed and highly respected diplomat in the British Foreign Office. For the world to know that his father’s sister was dallying with a Frenchman who had served Napoleon would make him the subject of ridicule.
Arianna gave an inward shudder. She could just imagine the mocking drawings flowing from the sharp-pointed pen of A. J. Quill, London’s most scathing satirical artist.
“Not a pleasant thought,” she observed.
“No,” agreed Constantina in a small voice.
“And what about the documents?” asked Arianna. In order to help, she needed to know all the pieces of the puzzle. “What sort of information do they contain?”
The dowager’s expression turned troubled, the skin drawing tight over the delicate bones of her face. “Gerard will only say they are sensitive communications pertaining to government matters, and he’s not at liberty to reveal anything more. But he seems very worried.”
“Does he have any idea who might have reason to steal them?”
“No,” answered Constantina. She made a face. “But Good Heavens, let’s face it—London is a hotbed of political intrigue. Given all the brangling going on between the Allied powers at the Peace Conference in Vienna, it could be anyone.”
“Even our own government,” muttered Arianna.
The color leached from the dowager’s cheeks leaving her looking like death warmed over.
She wasn’t quite sure what Constantina thought she could do, based on naught but half-hearted conjectures. Without a magical scrying glass in which to see into the unknown . . .
As if reading her thoughts, Constantina let out a self-mocking snort. “I know, I know—now that I’ve put it all in words, I don’t know what I was thinking in coming to you for help. I know how clever and skilled you are at clandestine activities, so I suppose I was hoping you might . . .” A chuffed sigh. “You might be able to steal the documents and letters back from whoever took them in the first place. But I see that’s impossible.”
The dowager was always such a pillar of strength and tart wisdom. Arianna hated hearing the note of defeat in her voice.
And fear. Love made one vulnerable in so many ways.
“Let us not lose heart. We haven’t yet begun to attack the problem,” she countered with more confidence than she really felt. “I suggest we both think more about the situation tonight and regroup in the morning to see if we can begin to narrow down the suspects. It’s imperative for you to think of anything—any detail, no matter how small, any casual comment from Dampierre—that might provide a clue as to the culprit.”
The dowager nodded, the shadows in her eyes lightening ever so slightly with hope. “I understand.”
Another thought suddenly occurred to Arianna. “And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask Sophia to join us.” Sophia Kirtland, a brilliant chemist and longtime scientific colleague of Saybrook, had proved her mettle during the recent hunt for a traitor within the British government. Constantina had partnered with her on several occasions to ferret out key information.
“As you know, she’s smart, logical and imaginative—all qualities that will be very helpful in trying to see a way to solve the conundrum.”
For a brief moment, the dowager looked loath to share her problem. Arianna didn’t blame her. The more people who knew a secret, the more chances of it inadvertently slipping out of the shadows. In this case, however, she believed the risks were outweighed by the possible rewards.”
“I understand your reservations,” she added. “But think on it—if ever someone can be trusted, it’s Sophia.” She didn’t need to add that their friend’s own dangerous dilemma had been solved because Sophia had trusted them to help her.
Constantina dropped her gaze to her lap and slowly wound the silky dove-grey fringe of her shawl around her fingers. “I—I would be a fool to refuse her help out of misplaced pride, wouldn’t I?”
“There is nothing embarrassing about love,” said Arianna. “It is complicated and confusing, but we should never be ashamed that our hearts are capable of giving themselves to another.”
A touch of humor softened the pinch of the dowager’s face. “Though I suppose my heart would have been wiser to choose someone uninvolved in politics.”
“I’m not sure choice or wisdom have much sway over emotion. Much as we might wish the contrary, it is a force unto itself.”
The dowager eyed her thoughtfully. “I . . .” she began, then hesitated, as if changing her mind on what she was going to say. “I would very much welcome Sophia’s help, if she’s willing.”
Arianna rose, deciding Constantine looked emotionally spent and would be grateful to have the meeting come to an end. “I think I’ve been a very bad influence on her—I’d be very surprised if she says no.”
The dowager rose too. “Thank you, my dear,” she said, her voice shaky with relief as she reached out and touched a hand to Arianna’s cheek. “It may be all for naught, but I confess it feels less hopeless now that I’ve got you for an ally.”
“Hope, like love and desire, is a very elemental force of nature. We ought not underestimate its power,” she quipped. Though to herself she admitted they would likely need more than hope to recover the stolen documents and letters.
We will need a bloody miracle.
But miracles did, on occasion, happen.