Europe's elite have gathered at the glittering Congress of Vienna--princes, ambassadors, the Russian tsar--all negotiating the fate of the continent by day and pursuing pleasure by night. Until Princess Tatiana, the most beautiful and talked about woman in Vienna, is found murdered during an ill-timed rendezvous with three of her most powerful conquests. . .
Suzanne Rannoch has tried to ignore rumors that her new husband, Malcolm, has also been tempted by Tatiana. As a protégé of France's Prince Talleyrand and attaché for Britain's Lord Castlereagh, Malcolm sets out to investigate the murder and must enlist Suzanne's special skills and knowledge if he is to succeed. As a complex dance between husband and wife in the search for the truth ensues, no one's secrets are safe, and the future of Europe may hang in the balance. . .
"A perfect blend of history, mystery, romance, and suspense." --Deborah Crombie
"Meticulous, delightful, and full of surprises." --Tasha Alexander
"Glittering balls, deadly intrigue, sexual scandals. . .the next best thing to actually being there!" --Lauren Willig
"Absolutely gripping. . .historical intrigue at its finest." --Deanna Raybourn
"Shimmers like the finest salons in Vienna." --Deborah Crombie
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Suzanne Rannoch paused on the edge of Schenkengasse. Across the cobbled street, the swinging yellow glare of a street lamp caught the outline of a man, silhouetted against the ink black Vienna sky. Top-hatted, greatcoated, otherwise an undefined blur beneath the wrought iron filigree of the lamppost. He cast a glance up at a bay window in the mansion above. The Palm Palace. The curtains were open. The lit tapers of a candelabrum glittered behind the curved glass. The man stared at the window for a long moment, then looked away as though with an effort. He turned up the collar of his greatcoat and vanished into the night shadows.
From her vantage point in the mouth of an alley on the opposite side of the street, Suzanne willed herself to remain immobile until the man was gone from view. Her silk-gloved hands gripped tight together, she reminded herself that he could have been any of the throng of gentlemen gathered in Vienna for the Congress. Including the most powerful of those men. Prince Metternich. Tsar Alexander. Prince Talleyrand, though then surely he'd have had a walking stick. In the gossip that swirled through Vienna's salons, she had heard them all rumored to be sharing the bed of the occupant of the rooms with the bay window. Of all the women who had come to Vienna for the Congress, that lady was one of the most beautiful and the most talked about. The Russian Diamond. The Eastern Enchantress. The Delilah of the Danube.
Princess Tatiana Kirsanova.
But it wasn't the rumors about Tatiana and the titans of the Congress that chilled Suzanne's soul. It was other talk she had heard. Talk that cut closer to home.
Suzanne pulled the velvet folds of her opera cloak tighter about her shoulders. She could feel the crackle of Princess Tatiana's note where she had tucked it into her glove. Not that she needed to refer to it. The words scrawled on the hot-pressed, violet-scented paper were imprinted on her memory.
If you value your husband's safety, you will call upon me tonight, or rather in the early hours of the morning. At three a.m. You are too sensible a woman to fail me.
Precise instructions for how to enter Princess Tatiana's apartments without detection followed on the back of the note. A footman had pressed the note into Suzanne's hand at the opera several hours before, in the midst of the third act of Idomeneo.
Suzanne drew an uneven breath. When it came to her husband, Malcolm, the obvious explanation was generally not the correct one. Yet even she had not been able to ignore the talk that he was among the throng of Princess Tatiana's lovers. She had smiled with determination in the face of the rumors. A diplomatic wife learns to practice discretion. She had watched women like Princess Metternich turn it into an art. Suzanne might be only two years married, but she knew the rules of a marriage of convenience.
Not that theirs was precisely a typical marriage of convenience, in which a gentleman gives a lady his name and title and she gives him her dowry and family connections, and they turn a well-bred blind eye to each other's indiscretions. No, what she and Malcolm had exchanged was a bit more complicated. He had rescued her not from the ranks of unmarried young ladies on the sidelines at a ball, but from life on the streets in war-torn Spain. And in exchange she had given him — she couldn't really say what she had given him. Or what lay behind his quixotic offer of his hand and protection. But it had been clear from the start that his heart did not go with his hand. She was supposed to let him go his own way and not make emotional demands.
And now she was breaking the rules. But the alternative was to put Malcolm at risk. She had woken the day before yesterday to find him gone from their bed and a note on the pillow explaining that the foreign secretary had sent him to Pressburg on unexpected business. A spare note, as all his communications were, signed with his initials. He was not expected back for several days, so there was no way she could turn to him for advice on Princess Tatiana's summons. Sometimes, especially since they had come to Vienna, she felt she scarcely knew him. But she could not forget that he had taken her under his protection at a time when she sorely needed it. She had perhaps done him a great wrong in marrying him, but he was her husband and the father of her child.
For a moment, she had a memory, clear as cut glass, of Malcolm and Princess Tatiana standing together on the balcony at the Zichys' reception last week. Suzanne had glimpsed the tableau like a scene from a play, through French windows framed by red velvet curtains. Malcolm's hand had been raised, as though to make a point, his fingers not quite touching Princess Tatiana's white- gloved arm. Something in the angle of his head, tilted down toward Tatiana's own, had radiated tenderness and intimacy. An intimacy Malcolm shared with few people. An intimacy he certainly didn't share with his wife.
Other images followed in quick succession. Malcolm leaning against Princess Tatiana's carriage at the Peace Festival last month. Malcolm bending over Tatiana's hand in her box at the opera. Malcolm tossing Tatiana into the saddle after a picnic in the Austrian countryside.
Suzanne drew a breath, pushed the images to the recesses of her brain, and walked briskly over the cobblestones. A blast of wind cut through the velvet of her cloak and the spider gauze of her gown and settled deep inside her. Fears she would not allow herself to name tightened her throat and squeezed her chest. When one has suspected a thing for weeks, why is being confronted with stark evidence so much worse?
Three of the most beautiful women at the Congress lodged in the Palm Palace. Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan; Princess Catherine Bagration; and Princess Tatiana Kirsanova. The three goddesses, some called them. Though who at the Congress played the role of Paris was anyone's guess. All three were rumored to be or to have been the mistresses of the most powerful men at the Congress. Perhaps at the same time.
So it was no surprise that Princess Tatiana had sent precise instructions for how to enter the palace. She wouldn't wish her visitors to stumble on the Palm Palace's other residents. As instructed, Suzanne went not through the front courtyard but through a wrought iron gate to the side. She found an unlatched side door as indicated and slipped into a narrow passage lit only by a single taper in a wall sconce. The air smelled of beeswax with a faint, lingering whiff of sandalwood. She froze for a moment, one hand on the latch. But Malcolm was not the only man whose shaving soap smelled of sandalwood. She was being the sort of foolish, clinging wife she despised.
Simple pine stairs, of the sort used by servants, led up to the first floor. She climbed them quickly and hesitated outside the green baize door at the top. The instructions had told her not to knock. She turned the handle and opened the door.
The smell slapped her in the face as she stepped over the threshold. Cloying, sickly sweet. Her mind recoiled, even before her gaze took in the sight before her. The images registered in fragments. A single lit candelabrum on a table by the bay window. Shadows. A woman sprawled on the rose and cream carpet in a tangle of bronze-green satin and Titian hair. Blood spilling from a gash in her throat.
A man knelt over the woman, a blur in the shadows. He raised his head, and Suzanne found herself looking at her husband.
Their gazes locked across the room. His gray eyes, so familiar and at the same time so unreadable, were dark with horror.
For a seeming eternity, which might have been minutes or seconds, she was unable to move. Then she took a half step forward and said the words that most needed to be spoken. "Is she dead?"
He stared at her, his eyes like smashed glass. Her controlled husband's gaze glittered with unshed tears.
"Is she dead?" Suzanne said again, her voice a harsh rasp.
"Without question." Malcolm spoke in the flat tone he used when he was holding all feeling at bay. "Perhaps an hour since or a bit more."
Suzanne crossed to his side with quick, jerky steps. Her limbs felt not quite under her control. "You found her like this?"
He looked up at her. It was a moment before he understood. Disbelief filled his eyes, followed by shock and a desperate hurt that cut bone deep. "My God, have we come to this?" His voice was low and rough, like nothing she had ever heard. "How can you ask —"
"How can I not?" She stopped at his side. The folds of her cloak nearly brushed Princess Tatiana's body. Blood had pooled on the carpet, glistening in the candlelight as it began to congeal.
He reached out as though to grip her wrist, then let his hand fall to his side. She recalled, with meticulous clarity, his fingers trailing over her skin three nights ago. The last time they had made love.
"Dear Christ, Suzanne," he said. "We've —"
"Lain in each other's arms. And more." She forced the words from her raw throat. "Though why that's supposed to make two people know each other in any but the carnal sense is beyond me."
His gaze remained steady on her face, imprinted with memories of every intimacy they had shared. "I came into the room less than five minutes ago to find Princess Tatiana like this, with her throat cut."
Air rushed into her lungs. Why his putting it into words reassured her, when there was no way to verify that he spoke the truth, she could not have said. Yet it did. "Did you see any trace of another visitor?"
"No whiff of scent other than her own, no footprints in the carpet, no conveniently dropped objects." His voice turned crisp, falling back on details. "But I think someone searched the room. Look at the escritoire."
Suzanne glanced at the gilt-wood escritoire. The drawer was slightly crooked, as though it had been pushed back into place too quickly. She looked round the rest of the room. Dark splotches that must be blood showed on the carpet. Spatters clung to the watered-silk wall hangings opposite. So much of it. She put a hand to her mouth, forcing down a welling of nausea.
Her eyes growing accustomed to darkness, she saw that one of the splotches was actually a dagger, flung on the floor some two feet from the body. The candlelight sparked off what looked to be rubies and emeralds in the antique gold of the hilt. Blood clung to the blade.
"It was displayed on top of the curio table." Malcolm nodded toward another dark blur a few feet farther off that Suzanne realized was the scabbard. "Easy enough for the killer to snatch it up."
"I saw a man slip out of the palace. Greatcoat, top hat. Indistinguishable. He stopped and looked up at this window, then vanished."
"Suzanne —" This time he caught hold of her hand. "What in God's name are you —"
She looked down at his fingers twisted round her own. Fingers that knew every inch of her body, though the innermost recesses of his mind were closed to her.
Before she could answer, the door swung open behind them and quick footsteps thudded against the carpet. She turned to see a tall, sandy-haired man in an olive-drab greatcoat stride into the room. She had met him many times since they had come to Vienna, but it was a moment before her brain registered that she was looking at Tsar Alexander of Russia.
"Tatiana —" The tsar froze, his gaze on the princess's lifeless body. Beneath his side-whiskers, his face drained of color. He ran forward, then stopped, gaze fixed on Malcolm. "Rannoch. God in heaven, what have you done?"
Malcolm pushed himself to his feet in one move. "Your Majesty —"
Alexander's fist slammed into Malcolm's jaw.
Malcolm fell back on the carpet. Suzanne ran between her husband and the tsar. Alexander drew back his fist again. She caught the tsar's arm. He jerked against her hold. For a moment she thought he would strike her as well. Then he went still.
Suzanne looked steadily at the Tsar of all the Russias. "It's a terrible tragedy, Your Majesty. But the princess was dead before Malcolm and I got here."
The tsar's gaze raked her face. "You arrived here together?"
Suzanne met his hot, desperate gaze, aware of nothing save that she was standing before one of the most powerful men in the world, and her husband's life might be at stake. The lie came to her lips without hesitation. "Yes."
Alexander stared down at Malcolm for a moment, then spun away and fell to his knees beside Princess Tatiana. He touched his fingers to her brow, her hair, the line of her jaw. The blue eyes that were a legacy from his grandmother, Catherine the Great, clouded with pain. Womanizer he might be, but whatever he had felt for Princess Tatiana went beyond a fleeting fancy.
"Who could have — What the hell are you doing here, Rannoch?"
Malcolm got to his feet with quiet economy. "I received a message from the princess saying she had something to discuss with me."
Alexander pinned Malcolm with a gaze like a poniard. Malcolm was leaner than the tsar but slightly taller. "What sort of 'something'?"
"I never got the chance to find out."
"Don't expect me to believe that. I know how you felt about her." Alexander's brows drew together. "I thought you'd gone to Pressburg."
"I returned home this evening," Malcolm said without blinking.
"And Madame Rannoch —?" Alexander's gaze slid to Suzanne.
"I insisted on accompanying Malcolm. I'm sure you can appreciate a woman preferring that her husband not pay such a call alone."
The tsar stared at her for a moment. His gaze shot back to Malcolm. "Why the devil —"
Before he could finish, the door from the passage swung open. "Tatiana —" said a light, firm voice.
For the second time in ten minutes, a man stopped short on the threshold, staring down at Princess Tatiana's body. He, too, wore a greatcoat, this one tan. He was shorter and slighter than the tsar, with golden hair that curled round his elegant features. He, too, was unmistakable to anyone at the Congress of Vienna.
It was Austria's foreign minister, Prince Metternich.CHAPTER 2
Metternich slammed his hand against his mouth. His gaze went from Tatiana's body to Alexander, and then to Malcolm and Suzanne. Suzanne had never seen such utter bewilderment on the urbane foreign minister's face.
Malcolm stepped toward Metternich. "There's been a terrible tragedy, Prince. Princess Tatiana was murdered, seemingly in the last hour or two."
Metternich, who normally moved with a fencer's grace, crossed to the princess in two jerky strides. The cold reality settled in his eyes, like a wound so painful one's senses refuse to acknowledge it. He lifted his head, his gaze hardening. "What the devil are you doing here, Rannoch?"
"I received a message from Princess Tatiana saying she had information for me."
"And you?" Metternich's gaze snapped to Alexander, who ha pushed himself to his feet. The foreign minister and the tsar regarded each other, incalculable rivalries taut between them. The tension between the two of them at the negotiating table was known throughout Vienna. They had reportedly come close to blows in a private interview a month since. All three of the beautiful women who lodged in the Palm Palace had connections to both men. Princess Tatiana was the tsar's mistress and had been Metternich's lover in the past. Princess Catherine Bagration, also presently assumed to share the tsar's bed, had borne Metternich an illegitimate daughter over a decade ago. And the tsar was commonly assumed to have played a role in the recent spectacular end of Metternich's love affair with the Duchess of Sagan. Now one of those three women they shared lay dead between them.
Suzanne stared at the tableau, struck by the sheer unreality of the situation. A beautiful, brilliant woman sprawled on the floor with her throat cut, and two men who had loved her — three, if one included Malcolm, and she had a desperate, gnawing fear that he should be included — stood over the body. That in itself was strange enough. When one took into account that two of those men represented two of the victorious countries deciding Europe's future at the Congress, and the third man was a diplomat in the employ of yet another triumphant country, the scene was well-nigh fantastical.
In the crossfire of jealousy and recrimination, Tatiana herself had almost been forgotten. Suzanne looked down at the dead princess. Beneath her carefully applied rouge, her skin had a faint bluish tinge. Her eyes, artfully lined with blacking, were frozen open in shock. She had crumpled on the carpet with no sign of a struggle. As though whoever had killed her had taken her unawares. As though it was someone she had trusted. Someone who perhaps had been able to embrace her as a lover.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vienna Waltz"
Copyright © 2011 Tracy Grant.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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