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At her friend Ivy's behest, Emily reluctantly agrees to attend a party at the sprawling English country estate of Lord Fortescue, a man she finds as odious as he is powerful. But if Emily is expecting Lord Fortescue to be the greatest of her problems, she is wrong. Her host has also invited Kristiana von Lange, an Austrian countess who was once linked romantically with Emily's fiancé, the debonair Colin Hargreaves. What Emily believes will be a tedious evening turns deadly when Fortescue is found murdered, and his protégé, Robert BrandonâIvy's husbandâis arrested for the crime.
Determined to right this terrible wrong and clear Robert's name, Emily begins to dig for answers, a quest that will lead her from London's glittering ballrooms to Vienna's sordid backstreets. Not until she engages a notorious anarchist in a game of wits does the shocking truth begin to emerge: the price of exonerating Robert can be paid only by placing Colin in deadly peril. To save her fiancé, Emily must do the unthinkable: bargain with her nemesis, the Countess von Lange.
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I had not noticed it when she first arrived: the way she leaned too far towards him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes. But having spent an afternoon in the same room as them, watching the effortless manner in which they fell into familiar conversationâtwo striking individuals against an equally spectacular backdropâI could not deny that they were more than casual acquaintances. Never had I suspected my fiancé was so close to another woman.
I was accustomed to, and often amused by, the parade of young ladies who flirted with Colin Hargreaves at every opportunity. The fact that he looked something like a Greek statue of ideal manâby Praxiteles, of courseâmade him irresistible to debutantes. His enormous fortune, family lineage that could be traced to the time of William the Conqueror, and well-tended estate ensured that he was equally attractive to their parents. But until today, I'd never seen him react to a woman the way he did to the Countess von Lange.
"And you know, Schatz, the Baroness Meinz thought that Tintoretto had done the doors of the Duomo in Florence. Can you imagine?" she asked. Schatz? I was shocked to hear her use a term of endearment in such an intimate tone of voice.
"Well, perhaps she's no scholar of art, butâ," Colin began.
"Scholar? Darling, she's absolutely hopeless. Why, even you know who Tintoretto is, don't you, Lady Ashton?"
"Of course," I said, my lack of knowledge of Renaissance art making it impossible for me to add anything more.
"You understand, I hope, why Tintoretto couldn't have done the doors?" she asked, her green eyes dancing as she looked at me.
"My expertise is in classical art, countess," I said. "I'm afraid I'm unable to discuss the nuances of the Italian Renaissance."
"Nuance has nothing to do with it. Tintoretto was a painter. Ghiberti was a sculptor. He did the doorsâMichelangelo called them gates of paradise.'" She pushed against Colin's arm playfully. "You are going to have to educate her. I can't have you married to someone who's as foolish as the baroness. It would be unconscionable."
"You've nothing to fear on that count," he said. "Emily's brilliant."
"Spoken like a man in love." She had turned so that her back was almost to me, cutting me out of the conversation.
"Will you excuse me?" I asked. There are moments when one is overwhelmed with a feeling of awkwardness, when grace and sophistication and even coherence are goals more remote than that of a woman in evening dress climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or of my mother convincing me to adopt her definition of a successful life. This was one of those moments, and I had no desire to prolong it. As I stood up, my heel caught the silk hem of my gown, and I tripped. Not daring to look at the countess, I mustered as much dignity as possible following what was a decidedly inelegant recovery and headed for the tea table.
Every inch of the mahogany surface was covered by dainty china platters heaped with sandwiches, biscuits, and cakes. Although I did not doubt for an instant that it was all delectable, none of it appealed to a stomach seared by embarrassment. I poured myself a cup of tea, my unsteady hands sloshing the golden liquid onto the saucer, and took a seat on the other side of the parlor.
"Stunning woman, the countess, wouldn't you say, Lady Ashton?" Lord Fortescue dropped onto the chair across from me, its delicate frame bowing under his weight. "Great friend of Hargreaves's. They've known each other for years. Inseparable when he's on the Continent."
I'd had the misfortune in the past year of drawing the attention and ire of Lord Fortescue, confidant of Queen Victoria and broadly...
A Fatal WaltzBy: Tasha Alexander