Friday, March 31, 2023

#Review - Red Hawk by Helen Harper #Fantasy

Series: A Charade of Magic # 3
Format: Kindle, 297 pages
Release Date: March 14, 2023
Publisher: Helen Harper
Source: Kindle Unlimited
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Mairi Wallace has faced terrible dangers since she discovered her magical abilities. But she's never experienced anything as hazardous as this. An unfamiliar peril has arisen and suddenly the Mages are no longer the biggest threat to Scotland's future. A new King, with the Afflicted hordes at his beck and call, is claiming her country for his own.

From the towering battlements at Edinburgh Castle to the sweeping streets of Glasgow, Mairi and her friends are going to have to draw on every scrap of power they have. And if she doesn't embrace the unthinkable and work with the Mages to save her people, Scotland's future might prove to be very bleak indeed.

Red Hawk, by author Helen Harper, is the third and final installment in the authors A Charade of Magic trilogy. Mairi Wallace has faced terrible dangers since she discovered her magical abilities. She also became the face of the rebellion against the Mages who rule Scotland and she even made it through the Ascendancy Challenge in Edinburgh before a new threat rose up and tossed Scotland on its head. Mages are no longer the biggest threat to Scotland's future. 

A new King, Cadal Righ, with the Afflicted hordes at his beck and call, is claiming her country for his own. 120 years ago, Righ battled the Mages of Scotland for supremacy and lost. A month later, the afflicted rose up and women were blamed for the afflicted. Since then, Mages have killed any woman who shows any inclination for magic. They basically use the women to boost their magical powers. Mages also drain new born babies of their natural magic. For years, the lie that women created the disease has kept women in their place. Until Mairi came along.

While Cadal is slowly slaughtering Mages to enhance his own powers, Mairi and women who have access to magic, including a young woman named Isla, who can see when people are afflicted, are basically ignored. Isla can also combine two spells together which gives Mairi and idea that others may be able to do the same thing. Can Mairi use this fact to defeat Cadal? As Cadal moves closer and closer to her home in Glasgow, Mairi and her friends need to hope that Mages will join with her in order to stop Cadal from cobbling up all the magic in the land, and letting his army of Afflicted spread across the country.

This is a good ending to a great series. It didn’t have quite the flair of earlier books, but it’s hard to add diversion, warmth or uplift to the dystopian direction this series took. The strong characters, their loyalty and resourcefulness of the heroine, kept even this apocalyptic conclusion humming along. Pun intended. It’s happily not drawn out for the insurmountable task Helen set her main characters. 


Thursday, March 30, 2023

#Review - Red London by Alma Katsu #Thrillers #Suspense #Espionage

Series: RED WIDOW (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 352 pages
Release Date: March 14, 2023
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Source: Publisher
Genre: Thrillers / Suspense / Espionage

CIA agent Lyndsey Duncan's newest asset might just be her long-needed confidante...or her greatest betrayal.

After her role in taking down a well-placed mole inside the CIA, Agent Lyndsey Duncan arrives in London fully focused on her newest Russian asset, deadly war criminal Dmitri Tarasenko. That is until her MI6 counterpart, Davis Ranford, personally calls for her help.

Following a suspicious attack on Russian oligarch Mikhail Rotenberg's property in a tony part of London, Davis needs Lyndsey to cozy up to the billionaire's aristocratic British wife, Emily Rotenberg. Fortunately for Lyndsey, there's little to dissuade Emily from taking in a much-needed confidante. Even being one of the richest women in the world is no guarantee of happiness. But before Lyndsey can cover much ground with her newfound friend, the CIA unveils a perturbing connection between Mikhail and Russia's geoplitical past, one that could upend the world order and jeopardize Lyndsey's longtime allegiance to the Agency.

Red London is a sharp and nuanced race-against-the-clock story ripped from today's headlines, a testament to author Alma Katsu’s thirty-five-year career in national security. It’s a rare spy novel written by an insider that feels as prescient as it is page-turning and utterly unforgettable.

Red London, by author Alma Katsu, is the second installment in the authors Red Widow series. After her role in taking down a well-placed mole inside the CIA, Agent Lyndsey Duncan arrives in London fully focused on her newest Russian asset, deadly war criminal Dmitri Tarasenko. That is until her MI6 counterpart, Davis Ranford, who she had an affair with that nearly destroyed her career and made sure she could never go undercover again, personally calls for her help. 

Following a suspicious attack on Russian oligarch Mikhail Rotenberg's property in a tony part of London, Davis needs Lyndsey to cozy up to the billionaire's aristocratic British wife, Emily Rotenberg. Fortunately for Lyndsey, there's little to dissuade Emily from taking in a much-needed confidante. Even being one of the richest women in the world is no guarantee of happiness. But before Lyndsey can cover much ground with her newfound friend, the CIA unveils a perturbing connection between Mikhail and Russia's geopolitical past, one that could upend the world order and jeopardize Lyndsey's longtime allegiance to the Agency.

The other main POV character is Emily Rotenberg. As a mother to two young children, Emily finds herself in a very precarious position once her husband’s misdeeds against the Russian ruling party become known. Emily's willful ignorance made her a difficult character to really feel for. Emily and Lyndsey's relationship is made that much harder when Emily feels as though she is being pushed out of the way by her powerful husband who the current Russian President, Viktor Kosygn, who dethroned Putin, is trying to giving up all the billions he stashed away over the years. 

Ah, yes, let's address that issue shall we? In this book, Putin has been removed from power after his disastrous invasion of Ukraine. If only that would happen in the real world, the US could stop trying to go to war with both Russia and China, let alone Iran and North Korea who hate the US and see the leadership of this country focusing on anything but protecting the country from invasions, or China's threats. Anyway, Katsu is someone you should take seriously. She really understands the intricacy's of the spy business, as well as what is happening in London. 

Katsu spent thirty-plus years as a senior intelligence analyst (8 years with the CIA, twenty-four years with NSA), and is currently an intelligence consultant for a think tank for emerging technologies. She knows the ins and outs of some of the most elusive agencies in the nation, and has received raves for her real-world depictions of how the CIA actually works. She's a rare author of spy novels who actually worked in intelligence, and who knows her stuff.

Chapter 1


It starts after midnight, when most harrowing and horrifying things seem to take place.

Emily Rotenberg has been in bed for about an hour but is still awake. It takes her hours to fall asleep these days, no matter how hard she tries. And she has tried everything to fix the situation, but nothing works-not a dreary book, not prescription pills. Not even a couple glasses of wine.

Emily has no reason to believe that anything was different about this night. After all, she lives at the most desirable address in London. That's what the newspapers say, anyway: the way the media fusses over The Bishops Avenue you'd think God himself lived there. She read about the mile-long stretch just north of Hampstead Heath years before she met her husband, Mikhail, breathless stories in the color Sunday magazines when she was a little girl. It all sounded so grand, like something out of a fairy tale, and she would wonder what it would be like to live there.

She doesn't have to wonder anymore. A huge mansion on Billionaires Row is one of the things her husband, a Russian oligarch, has given her. Though she would say that the only thing of worth he's given her are the twins, Kit and Tatiana, asleep in the adjacent wing.

Mikhail is home. She knows this, even though he is not in bed with her. The fact that he's home is by no means a given: as often as not he spends the night without her at the Knightsbridge apartment, his in-town residence closer to business associates, but that night he is in the house they share. He is downstairs somewhere in the rambling mansion, still awake. The man is famous for never sleeping. When they were dating, Emily used to joke that he was secretly Count Dracula, that he slept during the day and rose refreshed and ready for an evening of wining, dining, and dancing. Though she knew that he'd been working because she saw the evidence of it in the news. He seemed to have a finger in every pie in Russia, not to mention his international interests. Mikhail Rotenberg is a machine for making money.

She hears a muffled noise toward the back of the property. That in itself is a rarity worth noting, but they do live in London, albeit a quieter, sleepier area to the north. It is a Saturday evening-technically, Sunday morning-so you can't rule out the occasional odd bit of noise. Only a curmudgeon would complain on a Saturday night.

What happens next, however, never happens.

There is a burst of gunfire.

She bolts upright in bed. It's just a couple shots but that sound is unmistakable. Pop, pop, pop. While Emily was not wealthy growing up, she came from an upper-class family. She has been to her share of hunting parties, spent many an autumn weekend slogging through the woods of a family friend's Scottish estate, a rifle in her hands, once she was old enough to participate. She wasn't a bad shot. The father had proclaimed her a natural, marked her forehead with the bright vermillion blood of the deer she'd taken down.

The gunfire tonight is nothing like the quaint old hunting rifles she'd used for pheasant or grouse. These first shots are deceptively quiet, however. Nothing like what will happen next.

She's reminded immediately of a murder on Billionaires Row she'd read about. It took place almost four decades ago, a foreign businessman shot dead in his home on New Year's Eve. What made the case so fascinating is that it didn't fit the usual pattern for home robberies. The robbers locked the wife in an upstairs bathroom instead of killing her alongside the husband. The gun used to kill the man was one of those tiny ladies' pistols, the kind that was designed to fit in an evening bag, and-curiouser still-the bullets were made of silver. This last bit makes the whole thing ludicrous, as far as Emily is concerned. They had to be decorative or a conversation piece, unless the man was suspected of being a werewolf. Somehow, the wife managed to escape from the bathroom and run for help, but the assailants were never found.

Because the wife survived, there were rumors that she was involved-of course. Even when a woman is the victim, she can't escape suspicion.

That infamous house is a few doors down. It was eventually sold and now, predictably, stands empty, another of these absentee owners who only comes to London once or twice a year.

It's the peculiar sound of the gunshots that make Emily think of the unsolved case she'd read about. Is that what the ladies' handgun sounded like, soft and dainty? Emily can't help but wonder.

Her first, wishful thought is that it has to do with one of the neighbors. Some have their own security, just as they do-though, unlike the Rotenbergs, the neighbors' security tends to amount to nothing more than one or two personal security guards. One for the husband, maybe one for the wife and children. The bodyguards are discreet and professional, almost always former military. Many are Israeli, the preferred source for security at the moment-though Mikhail uses Russians, of course. The Rotenbergs have more security than most of their neighbors, but that's only to be expected, given who Mikhail is and his special circumstances. Igor Volkov, their chief of security, lives with them. I like to keep my important people close is how Mikhail explained it to Emily when they first started dating. She'd never known anyone as wealthy as Mikhail, so she took the otherwise bizarre situation as a given, assumed that all rich people had a clutch of people following them like a comet's tail. Volkov is an old family friend, to hear Mikhail tell it, and he has been with Mikhail from the very beginning. He is only a few years older than Mikhail but looks a hundred times tougher. Tall and wiry, and covered with scars. One circles his left eye, the circumference of a beer bottle. Like most Russian males, Volkov went right into the army after school. In contrast, Mikhail, due to family connections, avoided conscription and went to college, where he started to build his business empire.

Who else is on duty? she wonders. There's always three or four twitchy young Russian men at the mansion. Emily is never told their full names and refers to them by Anglicized nicknames she gives them. That night, it is Leo, Max, and Mikey.

Then comes the second round of shots, much closer to the house and altogether different in character. They must be automatic-something the police will confirm later. Short bursts of fire-bang, bang, bang, bang-much louder now.

Emily trembles. What is going on? she asks even though deep inside, she knows. Has always been expecting this, if she is honest with herself.

Her first thought is of her babies in the children's wing. Alice Wilkinson is with them, of course, her bedroom next door to the nursery. It is her responsibility to get up in the middle of the night when one of the children coughs or cries or is wakened by a bad dream. But, given the circumstances, it doesn't matter that help is in the same room with them. A nanny isn't enough: Emily has to be with them, to make sure they are all right.

It's funny, the stupid things one does in a moment like this. She takes a few precious seconds to put on a dressing gown. In her defense, what is she wearing is rather sheer and hardly the kind of thing you want to be caught in when armed gunmen descend on your home. She hopes, as she yanks on the dressing gown and ties the belt, that she will be locked in one of the bathrooms. Maybe it is only Mikhail they want.

The house is dark. Why hasn't anyone turned on the lights? Have the burglars cut the power? You hear of robbers doing that sort of thing. Where is everyone? Igor, undoubtedly, has gone to check with his men. Two are supposed to be posted at the back of the estate, but it is ominously quiet back there. Perhaps Igor is taking Mikhail somewhere safe. Where is Mikhail? You'd think he'd be on his way to check on his wife and children but there is no sign of him. Still, she tells herself that he is coming for them and pictures him running down the hall, running toward them, as though she could will it into being. She thinks, too, of Westie-Arthur Westover, Mikhail's funds manager-arguably more important to Mikhail than his wife. Maybe her husband is taking a moment to make sure he is safe.

As she stumbles down the dark hallways, she curses Igor. Isn't it his job to make sure there plans for exigencies like this, for exactly this sort of thing? They have active shooter drills in primary schools, for god's sake, but since moving in she cannot remember being told what to do in the case of emergency. This seemed like a huge oversight on the security chief's part.

It is then Emily remembers the panic room. Of course there is a panic room in this giant, sprawling behemoth of a house; with his typical foresight, Mikhail had had it installed when he'd acquired the place over a decade ago.

Emily hurries through the halls, her dressing gown fluttering around her like a shroud, as she makes her way to the next wing. Noises drift up from the great open foyer in the middle of the ground floor, commands issued in Russian (naturally: it is always Russian) that she doesn't understand. Still, she recognizes the voices. Igor's mostly. Strangely, Mikhail is silent and he is never silent. Where is he?

She has just crossed the main hall when she hears breaking glass below, high and bright and jangly. To Emily, the sound of breaking glass is one of the scariest in the world. It means that they-whoever "they" are, though she has a good idea-have reached the house and successfully breached the outer defenses. The invaders are about to come inside.

Surely, we'll hear sirens soon. This is London, after all. Even though the houses here sit on several acres, sound travels, especially loud, angry sounds like gunshots. Their neighbors will have heard and called the police immediately. That is, if the guards hadn't alerted the police already. (But would they, given that their damnable Russian pride is on the line?) Either way, the police should arrive any minute. All Emily has to do is get the children to the panic room.

She arrives at the unlit nursery to see Miss Wilkinson standing between Kit's and Tatiana's tiny beds. She looks utterly distraught, unraveling from indecision.

The children seem to still be asleep. Emily doesn't want to jump to conclusions about Miss Wilkinson's grasp of the situation. Children can be such heavy sleepers at that age.

"What in the world is going on?" the nanny asks in a loud, frightened whisper.

What does the silly girl think is going on? Surely, she can't be that naïve. She knows whom she works for. "I'll take Tatiana, you take Kit and follow me," Emily says, not bothering to answer the question. Had either she or Mikhail told the nanny that there is a panic room in the house? Probably not. No sense scaring the girl.

Emily picks up her daughter. She snuggles instinctively against Emily's chest in a drowsy half sleep, burying her face into her mother's clavicle. Drinking in the warm, soft baby smell of her daughter, Emily nearly breaks into tears. To think bad men with weapons are converging on the house at that very minute... Coming for them... The children are innocent. She's innocent, for that matter. Isn't she? Emily thinks again of the dead businessman's wife, locked in a bathroom, forced to shimmy down a drainpipe. There had been no mention of children in the newspaper stories.

She runs through the hall, Tatiana clutched to her chest. Two-year-olds are heavier than you might think. Kit is even heavier than his sister, and Miss Wilkinson, a slight thing, struggles to keep up. Emily probably should've taken Kit, she realizes in hindsight, and left the smaller Tatiana to the nanny, but she'd acted on instinct. She always worries more about Tatiana because she is the girl. Emily knows how hard the world can be on the fairer sex.

The panic room sits on the ground floor next to the kitchen. It is not a family kitchen, not the sort of well-decorated, lived-in room you see in magazines. It's a big industrial place, more the domain of staff, like a modern Downton Abbey. They'd put the panic room there, she supposes, because it was easiest for the builders. She'd been in it once: Mikhail had shown it to her shortly after they were married. He had been leading her around the huge mansion that had become her home. Showing her all the nooks and crannies that he didn't show most people: his second office, the real one with its documents' safe, and the armory in the basement where his bodyguards kept their auxiliary weapons. "God willing, we'll never have to use it," he'd said as they stood in the panic room that night.

There was no panic room in Downton Abbey, she is certain.

Now here she is in the dark with her daughter in her arms, ready to activate the heavy steel doors for the first time, with only the nanny for company. Where is Mikhail?

"Let's go in," Emily says to Miss Wilkinson, whose teeth chatter like she'd seen a ghost. It's understandable, under the circumstances, but a bit surprising, nonetheless. She'd struck Emily as quite no-nonsense when she'd interviewed her.

Wilkinson reads her employer's mind. "What about your husband? Shouldn't we wait until-"

"I'm sure he'd prefer that his children be made safe," Emily says, snapping a little. She is more desperate than she first thought to get behind those bulletproof walls and seal the door. Hand hovering over the keypad, she notices that the gunfire has stopped-for the moment, anyway.

"Would you really close the door without me?" Mikhail's deep voice is beside her, cutting through the darkness. Suddenly, he is standing next to her with Igor behind him holding a gun high, cradled in two hands. Surprisingly, in that moment, Igor seems very nervous. She's never seen him betray even a hint of nerves, and her stomach drops to her feet. It must mean they are in real trouble.

"Thank god you're safe." Emily presses her face to her husband's chest as best she can while holding a child in her arms. She wants to shout at him-Where were you?-because she is afraid and it would be an easy way to vent her fear, but she knows it's better to look like she'd been worried and frightened without him. Tatiana mewls slightly, like a kitten fighting to remain asleep.

A radio crackles to life somewhere on Igor and he steps away, the better to hear. Mikhail begins to shepherd her and Miss Wilkinson into the safe room. His demeanor hits Emily as all wrong. He is angry rather than seriously frightened. Whatever is bothering him, however, he clearly is not about to discuss it in front of the nanny. Emily knows that much about her husband.

Mikhail looks from Kit, now awake and blinking owlishly at his father, to the sleeping Tatiana, and then to his wife, and Emily is grateful for that rare, tender moment. She trusts that means everything will be okay. Then he steps over to a control panel, a large, awkward thing affixed to the wall, incongruous among the bookcases and tufted leather armchairs. He presses the touch screen once to light it up, then holds a finger above a prominent red circle on the screen, the button that would send the room into lockdown.

She realizes in that second that he never taught her how to use the control pad. Perhaps he’d assumed she’d never need to use it—or was it because he didn’t want her using it on her own? Maybe he considers it his panic room, which she and the twins are welcome to occupy only with him.

Where does this strange, uncharitable thought come from?

Mikhail is ashen and grim. He is shaken up. His house—which is definitely his castle, Englishman or no—has been breached. They both understand that, considering his position, this violation can mean many things. The implications must be running through his head.

Someone wants you dead, Mikhail.

Before he can press the button, however, Igor is back and at Mikhail’s elbow, walkie talkie in hand. "I was just informed that the police have arrived. The intruders left when they heard the sirens." Mikhail and his chief of security step aside to confer before he releases Igor to go speak to the police, who are ostensibly rustling around on the floor above them. When he turns to Emily, he looks greatly—but not completely—relieved.

She starts toward the hall. She wants to get the children to the nursery. Tatiana is heavy in her arms; the twins are awake now and fussing to be let down.

He draws her aside."Let the nanny take them upstairs. You and I must talk."

Emily resists."They’ll be upset. They’ll have questions. I need to be with them."

"That’s the nanny’s job. You can go up in a minute, but right now we need to talk."

She does as he asks. She always does. A lump forms in her throat as she watches Miss Wilkinson lead her children away. The sight of another woman caring for her children in that moment tears her heart in two. Never again.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

#Review - Stardust in Their Veins by Laura Sebastian #YA #Fantasy

Series: Castles In Their Bones (#2)
Format: Hardcover, 576 pages
Release Date: February 7, 2023
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Source: Publisher
Genre:Young Adult / Fantasy / Epic

Immerse yourself in the second book in a fantasy trilogy from the New York Times bestselling author of the Ash Princess series. The sequel to Castles in Their Bones is the story of three princesses and the destiny they were born for: seduction, conquest, and the crown.

Princesses Daphne, Beatriz, and Sophronia have trained their entire lives for one purpose: to bring down nations. Their mother, Empress Margaraux of Bessemia, is determined to rule the continent of Vesteria, and her daughters are her weapons. Promised for marriage since birth, they are her ticket across enemy lines. And also her decoys.

Still, not even Empress Margaraux can control the stars. Sent to their new kingdoms, orders in hand, the princesses have found their own paths, changing the course of their mother’s plans entirely—and tragically. Sophronia chose love, and for that, she lost her life. 

Daphne and Beatriz can hardly believe their sister is dead, but both are determined to avenge her. And now, separated by a continent—and their mother’s lies—they see more clearly with every passing day that they might not be working toward the same end.

The stars whisper of death, but Daphne and Beatriz are just beginning to understand the true power coursing through their veins. And their mother will do anything to keep them under her thumb—even if it means killing them all.


Stardust in Their Veins is the second installment in author Laura Sebastian's Castle's In Their Bones trilogy. Key Characters: Empress Margaraux, Princess Beatrix, Daphne, and Violie, a new character who was a secondary character in the previous installment. Violie was witness to Princess Sophronia's murder 5 days before this story begins. This is a world with 4 main Nations: Temarin, Friv, Bessemia, and Cellaria. Princesses Daphne, Beatriz, and Sophronia trained their entire lives for one purpose: to bring down nations.

Their mother, Empress Margaraux of Bessemia, is determined to rule the continent of Vesteria, and her daughters are her weapons. Promised for marriage since birth, they are her ticket across enemy lines. And also her decoys. As the story beings, Sophronia chose her own fate and has been executed. As Sophie was my favorite in the initial installment, that blow really took me as a shock. Thanks to the events behind what happened to her, things are now going in a direction that I don't think anyone will figure out until the final installment is released.

Beatrix has been sent to Cellarian Prison while her husband Pasquale has been disinherited and imprisoned in yet another prison awaiting judgment. Beatrix has the unusual power of wishing on a star and making wishes. Her wish reunites her with Pasquale where they will eventually find their way back to Bessemia where Beatrix will begin her own plan to gain her revenge against her mother while learning more and more about her gifts, mourning the loss of her sister, and finding allies in the most unlikely of places.

Meanwhile, Daphne in Friv is preparing to marry Bairre. Daphne’s story is also intriguing, though she isn’t as quick to turn against her mother. This isn’t surprising considering she is probably the most similar to the Empress. However, we do see her attitude change as the story progresses. It’s interesting to see how she deals with new and surprising revelations, the grief of losing her sister, and her conflicted feelings toward Bairre. Daphne is forced to choose between what she wants, and what her mother has trained her to be.

To add even more mystery, Violie, who was Sophie's maid, has escaped what happened to Soph with King Leopold. Violie, curious enough, was hired by Margaraux to be her spy. She has a quiet strength about her, and a determination to keep her promises to Sophie. We see her and Leopold and the tension at the beginning of their relationship, as they both feel great guilt that they could not save Sophie's life. We slowly see the beginnings of a friendship between them, built on their shared grief, and grow on the hope that they will make Sophie proud.

The first half of this book is slow. There’s a lot of traveling to get our characters from point A to point B and we have to read about all their traveling even though not a lot of interesting things happen while they travel. The pace picks up in the second half of this book, which was necessary. I do believe the third book will be the best of all three, and I am trusting the author not to let me down in my expectations. A Certain Empress must pay for her machinations.


Bea­triz paces her cell at the Cellarian Sororia nestled in the Alder Mountains, ten steps from wall to wall. It has been five days since she was brought here, sealed away in this sparse chamber with only a narrow bed, a threadbare blanket, and a pitcher of water set on a small wooden stool. It has been five days since she heard her sisters’ voices in her head, as clearly as if they were standing in the room beside her. Five days since she heard Sophronia die.

No. No, she doesn’t know that, not really. There were a dozen explanations for it, a dozen ways Bea­triz could make herself believe that her sister was still out there, still alive. Whenever Bea­triz closes her eyes, she sees Sophronia. In the silence of her room, she hears her laughter. Whenever she manages to sleep for a few hours, her nightmares are haunted by the last words she spoke.

They’re cheering for my execution. . . . There is so much more at play than we realized. I still don’t understand all of it, but please be careful. I love you both so much. I love you all the way to the stars. And I—­

And that had been all.

Bea­triz doesn’t understand the magic that made the com­munication possible—­that was Daphne, who’d done it once before to speak with Bea­triz alone. The magic had cut out then, too, but it was different the second time, like she could still feel Daphne’s presence a few seconds longer, her stunned silence echoing in Bea­triz’s mind before she too cut out.

But Sophronia can’t be dead. The thought is unfathomable. They came into the world together: Bea­triz, Daphne, then Sophronia. Surely none of them could leave it alone.

No matter how many times Bea­triz tells herself that, though, she never fully believes it. She felt it, after all, like a heart clawed out of her chest. Like something vital lost.

The sound of the lock scraping open echoes in Bea­triz’s cell and she turns toward the door, expecting one of the Sisters to bring her next meal, but the woman who enters is empty-­handed.

“Mother Ellaria,” Bea­triz says, her voice rough after so little use these past days.

Mother Ellaria is the Sister who greeted Bea­triz upon her arrival, leading her to her cell and giving her a change of clothes that look identical to what the older woman wears herself. Of those clothes, Bea­triz has only put on the gray wool dress. The headdress still sits at the foot of her bed.

In Bessemia, it was a great honor for Sisters to don their headdresses. There were ceremonies for them—­Bea­triz herself had attended several. It was a celebration to honor a woman’s choice to devote herself to the stars above all else.

But Bea­triz has chosen nothing, so the headdress remains off.

Mother Ellaria notes this, her eyes moving from Bea­triz’s messily braided red hair to the headdress sitting on the bed. She frowns before looking at Bea­triz once more.

“You have a visitor,” she says, disapproval filling every syllable.

“Who?” Bea­triz asks, but Mother Ellaria doesn’t answer, instead turning and walking out of the room, leaving Bea­triz no choice but to follow her down the dark hallway, her imagination running wild.

For an instant, Bea­triz imagines it is Sophronia—­that her sister has traveled from Temarin to assure her that she’s alive and well. But it’s far more likely to be her onetime friend Gisella, come to gloat again, or Gisella’s twin brother, Nico, here to see if a few days in the Sororia have changed her mind about his proposal.

If that’s the case, he’ll leave disappointed. Much as she hates it here, she prefers it to returning to the Cellarian palace while Pasquale lives out the rest of his life in the Fraternia on the other side of the Azina River.

Her chest tightens at the thought of Pasquale—­disinherited and imprisoned because she convinced him to trust the wrong people.

They haven’t seen the last of us, Pasquale said after their sentence for treason had been handed down. And soon enough, they’ll wish they’d killed us when they had a chance.

She lets the words echo in her mind as she follows Mother Ellaria down the dimly lit hallway, running through a mental list of all the ways she could overtake the frail older woman and escape . . . but escape where? The Alder Mountains are treacherous terrain even for those who are prepared to scale them. If Bea­triz were to escape, alone, with nothing more than a dress and cotton slippers, she wouldn’t stand a chance of living through the night.

Her mother always cautioned patience, and while it has never been Bea­triz’s strength, she knows it’s necessary now. So she keeps her hands at her sides and trails after Mother Ellaria as she rounds a corner, then another before stopping at a tall wooden door and fixing Bea­triz with a withering look, like she’s caught the scent of something rotten. Though Bea­triz knows the woman dislikes her, she doesn’t think she’s responsible for that particular look.

“Due to the . . . status of your guest, I’ve allowed the use of my own office for your meeting, but I will return in ten minutes, not a second more.”

Bea­triz nods, even more certain that it will be Gisella or Nicolo awaiting her—­Nicolo, after all, is King of Cellaria now, and as his sister, Gisella’s status has been elevated as well, though Mother Ellaria might disapprove of them every bit as much as she disapproves of Bea­triz.

Ignoring those thoughts, Bea­triz steels herself and pushes the door open, stepping inside. She immediately stops short, blinking as if the figure before her might disappear.

But no matter how many times she blinks, Nigellus remains. Her mother’s empyrea has made himself at home in Mother Ellaria’s chair and watches her over steepled fingers as she enters. Her cell has no windows, and Bea­triz lost track of the time of day soon after she arrived, but now she can see that it’s nighttime, the full moon shining through the window behind Nigellus, the stars brighter and bolder than usual.

It is the first time she has seen them in five days, the first time she has felt their light dance upon her skin. She feels dizzy with it, gripping her hands into fists at her sides. Magic, she thinks, though she still can’t quite believe it, even though she’s used her power twice now, accidentally, to call on the stars.

Nigellus notices the white-­knuckled flex of her hands, but he doesn’t say anything. The door closes behind Bea­triz, leaving them alone, but for a moment they only look at each other, silence stretching between them.

“Sophronia’s dead, isn’t she?” Bea­triz asks, breaking the silence first.

Nigellus doesn’t answer right away, but after what feels like an eternity, he nods.

“Queen Sophronia was executed five days ago,” he says, his voice level and without any kind of inflection. “Along with most of the Temarinian nobility. Your mother had armies waiting at the border and amid the chaos, they seized the capital. With no ruler to surrender, she’s simply claimed it as her own.”

Bea­triz sinks into the chair opposite the desk, all of the life leaving her in that moment. Sophronia is dead. She should have been prepared, should have expected that. Didn’t their mother always tell them never to ask a question they didn’t know the answer to? But hearing her biggest fear confirmed saps everything from her. Bea­triz feels like a husk of a person.

“Sophie’s dead,” she says again, not caring about the rest of it. Not caring about her mother or her armies or the new crown she’s added to her collection.

“It is by pure luck that you and Daphne are not,” Nigellus says, drawing her out of her thoughts.

She looks up at him, wondering what he would do if she were to launch herself across the desk and pummel him. Before she can, though, he continues.

“It isn’t a coincidence, Bea­triz,” he says. “The rebellions, the plots, the dead kings. The chaos.”

“Of course not,” Bea­triz says, lifting her chin. “Mother raised us to create chaos, to plot, to stoke fires of rebellion.”

“She raised you to die,” Nigellus corrects.

The breath leaves Bea­triz’s lungs, but after a moment, she nods. “Yes, I suppose she did,” she says, because it makes sense. “She must be terribly disappointed to have only gotten one out of three.”

“Your mother is playing a long game,” Nigellus says, shaking his head. “She’s waited seventeen years. She can wait a little longer.”

Bea­triz swallows. “Why are you telling me this? To taunt me? I’m locked away in this miserable place. Isn’t that enough?”

Nigellus considers his next words carefully. “Do you know how I’ve lived this long, Bea­triz?” he asks. He doesn’t give her a chance to answer. “By not underestimating anyone. I’m not about to start with you.”

Bea­triz laughs. “I might not be dead, but I can assure you, my mother’s beaten me quite soundly.”

Even as she says the words, Bea­triz doesn’t believe them. She promised Pasquale they would find a way out of this, and she knows that is the truth. But it is far better that Nigellus—­and by extension the empress—­believe her to be hopelessly broken.

Nigellus surprises her by shaking his head, a wry smile curling his lips. “You aren’t beaten, Bea­triz. I think we both know that. You’re waiting to strike out, picking your moment.” Bea­triz purses her lips but doesn’t deny it. He continues. “I’d like to help you.”

Bea­triz considers him for a moment. She does not trust him, has never liked him, and there is a part of her that still feels like a child in his presence, small and afraid. But she is trapped in a deep hole and he is offering her a rope. There is nothing to lose by taking hold of it.

“Why?” she asks him.

Nigellus leans across the desk, resting on his elbows. “We have the same eyes, you know,” he says. “I’m sure you heard the rumors in Bessemia, that you and your sisters were fathered by me.”

If that was a rumor, it had never made it to Bea­triz’s ears. But he’s right—­his eyes are like hers, like Daphne’s are, like Sophronia’s were: a pure, distilled silver. Star-­touched, the eyes of children whose parents wished for them using stardust or, in much rarer cases, when an empyrea wished on a star, causing it to fall from the sky. When Bea­triz was sent to Cellaria, her mother gave her eye drops to hide the hue of her eyes, a hue that would mark her as a heretic in a country that viewed star magic as sacrilegious. When she was sent to the Sororia, she wasn’t allowed to bring any possessions with her, including the eye drops, so her eyes have returned to their natural silver, but she supposes that after using a wish to break a man out of prison, star-­touched eyes are the least of her problems.

As if reading her mind, Nigellus nods. “We have been touched by stars, you and I. Made, in part, by the stars. Your mother wished for you and your sisters, and I pulled down stars to make her wish come true. I assume my own mother used stardust to wish for me, though she died before I could ask her.”

Your mother wished for you. It was a rumor Bea­triz had heard, of course, but while wishing with stardust was relatively common, the wishes empyreas made on stars, bringing them down from the sky in the process, created strong enough magic to make miracles happen. Miracles like her mother becoming pregnant with triplets when her father had notoriously never before fathered a child, legitimate or not even with the assistance of copious amounts of stardust, in his eighty years. But even though an empyrea wishing on stars is rare, because stars themselves are a finite resource, Bea­triz isn’t surprised her mother crossed that line. If anything, it is one of the smallest trespasses she’s made.

“And,” Nigellus continues, watching her closely, “being star-­touched sometimes comes with its own gift from the stars.”

Bea­triz forces her face to remain impassive, her thoughts sealed away. Twice now she has wished upon the stars and twice those wishes have come true, leaving stardust in their wake. One in ten thousand people can bring down the stars with magic—­Bea­triz never thought she’d be one of them, yet now she is sure of it. But they are in Cellaria, where sorcery is a crime punishable by execution, and Nigellus has already admitted that her mother wants her dead. She isn’t about to hand him a dagger to turn on her.

“If every silver-­eyed child were an empyrea, the world would be a mad place,” she says after a moment.

“Not every silver-­eyed child,” he says, shaking his head. “Not every star-­touched child—­in most the talent lies dormant, like in your sisters, never woken. But it isn’t dormant in you.”

When Bea­triz’s expression doesn’t change, his eyebrows lift. “You know,” he says, leaning back in his chair and looking at her with appraising eyes. “How many times have you done it?”

“Twice,” she admits. “Both times accidentally.”

“That’s how it is at first,” he says. “The magic comes in fits, often brought on by extreme bouts of emotion.”

Bea­triz thinks of the first time she called on the stars, when she was so overcome with homesickness she thought it might break her. And the second time, when she wanted nothing more in the world than for Nicolo to kiss her. Painful as it is to admit now, in light of his betrayal, she knows she was quite overcome with emotion then, too. She was such a fool.

“It doesn’t matter what talents I may or may not have,” she says, pushing to her feet. “They suspect what I can do and so I’m kept in a windowless room all night. Unless you have a way of getting me out of this place—­”

“I do,” he interrupts, inclining his head toward her. “If you agree to my offer, you and I will walk out of here tomorrow night. You could be back in Bessemia in just a few days.”

Bea­triz tilts her head, eyeing him thoughtfully for a moment as she weighs his offer. It isn’t that it is a bad one, but she suspects she can push him further. “No.”

Nigellus snorts. “You don’t even know what I want,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t want you and me to walk out of here. If you’re getting me out, you need to get Pasquale out as well.”

Bea­triz doesn’t know if she’s ever seen Nigellus surprised, but he’s surprised now. “The Cellarian prince?” he asks, frowning.

“My husband,” she says, because while the marriage has never been consummated—­never will be consummated—­they made vows to each other, both during and after their wedding. And they are vows Bea­triz intends to keep. “He’s being held by the Fraternia on the other side of the Azina River, just as I am here, on trumped-­up charges of treason.”

Nigellus gives her a knowing look. “From what I’ve heard, the charges had merit.”

Bea­triz clenches her jaw but doesn’t deny it. They had plotted to overthrow Pasquale’s mad father, that was true. Treason might even be considered a modest description—­they’d also taken part in a jailbreak of another traitor, and Bea­triz was guilty of violating Cellaria’s religious laws by using magic. “All the same. If you can get both of us out, then maybe we can talk about your terms.”

Nigellus pauses for a moment before nodding. “Very well. I will get you and your prince to safety, out of Cellaria.”

She looks at Nigellus, trying to size him up, but it is impossible. There is no understanding Nigellus, and she would be a fool if she didn’t expect that he is two steps ahead of her, playing a game she doesn’t know the rules of. They are not on the same side in this, they do not have the same goals.

She should not trust him. But she doesn’t have a choice.

“We have a deal.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

#Review - The Stolen Heir by Holly Black #YA #Fantasy

Series: The Stolen Heir (#1)
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Release Date: January 3, 2023
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Dark Fantasy

Return to the opulent world of Elfhame, filled with intrigue, betrayal, and dangerous desires, with this first book of a captivating new duology from the #1 New York Times bestselling author Holly Black. 

A runaway queen. A reluctant prince. And a quest that may destroy them both.
Eight years have passed since the Battle of the Serpent. But in the icy north, Lady Nore of the Court of Teeth has reclaimed the Ice Needle Citadel. There, she is using an ancient relic to create monsters of stick and snow who will do her bidding and exact her revenge.
Suren, child queen of the Court of Teeth, and the one person with power over her mother, fled to the human world. There, she lives feral in the woods. Lonely, and still haunted by the merciless torments she endured in the Court of Teeth, she bides her time by releasing mortals from foolish bargains. She believes herself forgotten until the storm hag, Bogdana chases her through the night streets. Suren is saved by none other than Prince Oak, heir to Elfhame, to whom she was once promised in marriage and who she has resented for years. 
Now seventeen, Oak is charming, beautiful, and manipulative. He’s on a mission that will lead him into the north, and he wants Suren’s help. But if she agrees, it will mean guarding her heart against the boy she once knew and a prince she cannot trust, as well as confronting all the horrors she thought she left behind.


The Stolen Heir is the first installment in author Holly Black's The Stolen Heir duology. Eight years have passed since the Battle of the Serpent. But in the icy north, Lady Nore of the Court of Teeth has reclaimed the Ice Needle Citadel. There, she is using an ancient relic to create monsters of stick and snow who will do her bidding and exact her revenge. This story starts as Oak seeks Wren out along with his knight, Tiernan, and a disgraced follower of Madoc’s, Hyacinthe, to ask for her help. 

Lady Nore, Suren/Wren’s mother, is planning an attack on Elfhame, and, in order to stop it, they need her help to command her to surrender (a power which Jude granted her in The Queen of Nothing). Suren, child queen of the Court of Teeth, and the one person with power over her mother, fled to the human world. There, she lives feral in the woods. Lonely, and still haunted by the merciless torments she endured in the Court of Teeth, she bides her time by releasing mortals from foolish bargains. 

She believes herself forgotten until the storm hag, Bogdana chases her through the night streets. Suren/Wren is saved by none other than Prince Oak, heir to Elfhame, to whom she was once promised in marriage and who she has resented for years. Now seventeen, Oak is charming, beautiful, and manipulative. He’s on a mission that will lead him into the north, and he wants Suren/Wren’s help. But if she agrees, it will mean guarding her heart against the boy she once knew and a prince she cannot trust, as well as confronting all the horrors she thought she left behind.  

Oak is often the target of assassination attempts, as well as false flattery and disingenuous relationships, and he doesn’t know which of those is more annoying. He hopes that Suren/Wren is the answer to what he is searching for. In many ways Suren/Wren reminded me of Jude, specifically her distrust of the Folk who hurt her badly, Oak in particular, as well as her constant need to outwit those around her and be accepted by them, at last. This journey is mind blowing. 

The ending to the story is incredible and you will have no choice into following Suren/Wren into her next journey. So, apparently, my sources are now saying that book 2, which will be the finale, will feature Oak's narrative. If you are searching for Jude or Cardan, don't. This book is all about Oak and Suren/Wren and their fight to defeat the Queen of Teeth who is as villainous as ever.

Monday, March 27, 2023

#Review - Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth #SyFy #Apocalyptic

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 128 pages
Release Date: February 21, 2023
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: Library
Genre: Science Fiction / Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic

In this gripping and atmospheric reimagining of Antigone, #1 New York Times bestselling author Veronica Roth reaches back to the root of legend and delivers a world of tomorrow both timeless and unexpected.

“I’m cursed, haven’t you heard?”

Outside the last city on Earth, the planet is a wasteland. Without the Archive, where the genes of the dead are stored, humanity will end.

Antigone’s parents—Oedipus and Jocasta—are dead. Passing into the Archive should be cause for celebration, but with her militant uncle Kreon rising to claim her father's vacant throne, all Antigone feels is rage.

When he welcomes her and her siblings into his mansion, Antigone sees it for what it really is: a gilded cage, where she is a captive as well as a guest.

But her uncle will soon learn that no cage is unbreakable. And neither is he.

In Arch-Conspirator, Roth reaches back to the root of legend and delivers a world of tomorrow both timeless and unexpected. Roth creates an unusual reimagining of Antigone in a futuristic sci-fi world. Antigone is an Athenian tragedy written by Sophocles in (or before) 441 BC and first performed at the Festival of Dionysus of the same year. It is thought to be the second oldest surviving play of Sophocles, preceded by Ajax, which was written around the same period.  

Outside the last city on Earth, the planet is a wasteland. All goods are scarce, buildings are decaying, and blowing dust covers everything. Without the Archive, where the genes of the dead are stored, humanity will end. A quasi-religious value is attached to these Archives — the stored samples represent immortality for the dead, a way of saving and then resurrecting their souls.

Antigone and her siblings are considered soulless abominations — their parents conceived them naturally, rather than going through genetic manipulation to achieve best results. They’re scorned and shunned, but as the living children of the murdered king and queen, they also represent power and legitimacy. Antigone’s parents—Oedipus and Jocasta—are dead. Passing into the Archive should be cause for celebration, but Antigone’s parents were murdered, leaving her father’s throne vacant. 

As her militant uncle Kreon rises to claim it, all Antigone feels is rage. When he welcomes her and her siblings into his mansion, Antigone sees it for what it really is: a gilded cage, where she is a captive as well as a guest. But her uncle will soon learn that no cage is unbreakable. And neither is he.  

Roth provides multiple viewpoints to the characters which add complexity to the story. Arch-Conspirator is also a thin volume coming in at a little over 100 pages, which made for a quick read. I have no knowledge of the original story but I don't think that hampered my understanding of this. The main flaw with this was the amount of different perspectives there was for such a short text.

Friday, March 10, 2023

#Review - A Tempest at Sea by Sherry Thomas #Historical #Victorian #Mystery

Series: Lady Sherlock # 7
Format: Paperback, 368 pages
Release Date: March 14, 2023
Publisher: Berkley
Source: Publisher
Genre: Historical / Victorian / Mystery

Charlotte Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive skills are pulled into a dangerous investigation at sea in this new mystery of the bestselling Lady Sherlock series.

After feigning her own death in Cornwall to escape from Moriarty’s perilous attention, Charlotte Holmes goes into hiding. But then she receives a tempting offer: Find a dossier the crown is desperately seeking, and she might be able to go back to a normal life.

Her search leads her aboard the RMS Provence. But on the night Charlotte makes her move to retrieve the dossier, in the midst of a terrifying storm in the Bay of Biscay, a brutal murder takes place on the ship.

Instead of solving the crime, as she is accustomed to doing, Charlotte must take care not to be embroiled in this investigation, lest it become known to those who harbor ill intentions that Sherlock Holmes is abroad and still very much alive.

A Tempest at Sea is the Seventh installment in author Sherry Thomas's Lady Sherlock series. Key Characters: Charlotte Holmes who has been solving mysteries under the name of Sherlock Holmes and has been extremely successful to the point of earning her very own nemesis. Lord Ingram Ashburton who has become Charlotte's secret lover after divorcing. Mrs Watson is Charlotte's trusty sidekick and the woman who has risked everything to help Charlotte become the person she is now. Livia Holmes is Charlotte's older sister, and the woman who is slowly becoming a force of her own.

After feigning her own death in Cornwall *(See Miss Moriarty, I Presume) to escape from Moriarty’s perilous attention, Charlotte Holmes has gone into hiding for fear that Moriarty's people will find her and end any hope of Charlotte finding a way to defeat him. After receiving a tempting offer from Lord Remington Ashburton, who is an agent of the British government and Lord Ingram's older brother, Charlotte has an option to stop hiding. Find a dossier the crown is desperately seeking and she and Mrs Watson can expect a measure of safety from Moriarty.

Her search leads her aboard the RMS Provence a ship that appears to be heading for Australia.
Charlotte disguises herself as an elderly lady and boards a ship along with her partner, Mrs. Watson. But on the night Charlotte makes her move to retrieve the dossier, in the midst of a terrifying storm in the Bay of Biscay, a brutal murder takes place on the ship. Instead of solving the crime, as she is accustomed to doing, Charlotte must take care not to be embroiled in this investigation lest it become known to those who harbor ill intentions that Sherlock Holmes is abroad and still very much alive.

So, the mystery falls on Lord Ash, who is onboard with his children and their governess to work with Inspector Brighton, who first appeared in Murder on Cold Street and tried to ruin the life of a friend of Ash and Charlotte's, to solve the mystery. But this mystery has many suspects. Suspects who may or may not be working for Moriarty. Suspects like the Shrewsbury's who tried to ruin Charlotte's life way back in the beginning of this series. To top things off and to make things even more crazier, Charlotte and Livia's mother Mrs Holmes as well as Norbert, her ladies maid, also show up for the trip! And Mrs Holmes may be a murder suspect!!

The ending of this story leaves your imagination to run wild. Is this the final book in the series? Is this the final time that Charlotte will have to deal with Moriarty? Can Charlotte trust that nobody onboard found out who she was, and that she's still alive? Many, many questions still remain, and it appears that Livia is well on her way to her own adventure and maybe a reunion with a man who she fell in love with not that long ago. 


April 1887

There's something you're not telling me, Ash," said Charlotte Holmes.

The night was starless, the sky low and heavy. But spring was beginning to make itself felt as a certain fullness in the air, the swelling of blackthorn buds on the cusp of flowering.

Charlotte was warmly wrapped in an Inverness cape, a deerstalker cap on her head. No one who saw her in her masculine attire now-if anyone could see in the pitch-blackness-would have mistaken her for the pink silk-clad vixen who had successfully ambushed Lord Ingram Ashburton earlier in the evening.

It had been their first meeting since her terribly inauspicious "death" in Cornwall, where her body was said to have been dissolved in a vat of perchloric acid. Her closest associates had "mourned" in a manner befitting those who could not publicly acknowledge their grief. But they had also worried in truth as weeks wore on with no news from her.

Charlotte, even before she had been advised to stay away from her usual haunts following that spectacle on the Cornish coast, had decided on a safe haven: none other than Eastleigh Park, the country seat of the Duke of Wycliffe, Lord Ingram's eldest brother. The estate's hunting lodge had proved a peaceful abode for her and, of course, an excellent location in which to lie in wait for Lord Ingram to turn up for his annual Easter visit.

And now, after a few highly pleasurable hours becoming reacquainted in his bedroom in the main residence, he was escorting her back to the hunting lodge, as she could not be seen in his quarters come morning, whether as a man or a woman. The night was thick as a wall. She walked nearly blindly, but he had grown up on this estate and ambled along, guiding her with an occasional touch on her elbow or the small of her back.

"I'll tell you when we're inside," he said, in response to her earlier comment, his tone deliberately light.

But when they'd entered the hunting lodge and lit a few sconces, he did not divulge what he'd kept from her. Instead, he left with a hand candle to make sure that the structure, bigger than her ancestral home, was free from hidden intruders. Charlotte removed her caped coat and prosthetic paunch, strolled into the drawing room, and stretched out on a settee, the gold brocade upholstery of which was visibly fraying-the hunting lodge, an opulent addition to the estate a hundred and fifty years ago, had not been improved in at least two generations.

He returned, handed a biscuit tin to her, crossed the room to a padded chair upholstered in the same worn brocade, and leaned against its rounded armrest, one leg straight, the other half-bent. He was rarely so informal in his posture. But even so, his shoulders remained open, his weight evenly distributed. He lifted his head and seemed about to speak-but didn't.

A single lamp bronzed the antlers mounted above the door and delineated shadows in the hollow of his cheeks. Charlotte opened the tin, nibbled on an almond macaroon, and waited, though she had already guessed what he was about to tell her.

It was not about Moriarty-her lover was distracted, but not yet alarmed. Still the matter had made him concerned for her safety. A task that required her to leave Eastleigh Park then-a task for Sherlock Holmes? And who could make such a request and be sure that he would, in fact, relay it to her?

When she'd polished off the slightly too sweet macaroon and he still hadn't spoken, she flicked crumbs from her fingertips and said, "What does my lord Remington want, exactly? And is he not aware that the estimable consulting detective of 18 Upper Baker Street is not currently offering 'his' services to the public?"

Lord Remington, Lord Ingram's brother, was responsible for much of the intelligence gathering in the far-flung corners of the empire. But in recent months, he had taken a greater interest in the domestic side of things.

Lord Ingram expelled a breath. "Oh, Remington is more than aware of your absence from London. I believe he is of the view that rather than rusticating, you might as well lend him a helping hand."

No one who had attracted Moriarty as an enemy could afford to merely rusticate. Charlotte had been busy. "Is my lord Remington dangling safety from Moriarty as a lure?"

She had no plans to venture abroad on someone else's behalf for a lesser prize.

Her lover looked grumpy, very nearly irate. "At this moment, I'm not sure even the power of the crown-let alone Remington, merely a servant of the crown-could keep anyone safe from Moriarty."

"Surely that's too pessimistic an outlook?"

"Surely you're right, madam. All the same, I find it difficult to be pleased about anything that involves risk to you."

She smiled to herself, opened the biscuit tin again, and took out a jam tart. "What exactly is Lord Remington offering me?"

"More or less what Moriarty thought he might: When you decide to reemerge into the world, Remington will let it be known that to harm you would be to injure him."

A magical amulet it wasn't, but neither was it something to sneeze at.

"And in exchange," continued Lord Ingram, "he wants you to find a dossier that has gone missing-Remington has judged you very good at finding things."

"He is not wrong about that." Ever since her toddlerhood, Charlotte had always known not only where everything was located in the house but also if any items had been misplaced. "However, I imagine that what he wants found would not be as easy to locate as Mrs. Watson's reading glasses."

"No. Not only does Remington not know where it is, he cannot even be sure who has it."

Apparently, Lord Remington's underlings had been cultivating in secret a Prussian embassy attaché. But perhaps their practice of secrecy left something to be desired, for Herr Klein, the attaché, was abruptly recalled to the fatherland. Lord Remington's underlings, however, were convinced that before Herr Klein's hasty departure, he'd left them something.

But Herr Klein had not stepped out of his hired house in the days immediately preceding his removal. Moreover, his house had been watched by parties both British and Prussian. So, to whom had he entrusted this dossier?

The Kleins-husband, wife, and two young children-were no longer in Britain and would not have been available for questioning even if Herr Klein had remained at his post. Their servants, relying on delivery for foodstuff and laundered garments, had also not left the place during the period of greatest interest.

By the time Charlotte officially took on the commission, the house-and the servants-would have been searched multiple times by agents of the German Empire.

Moreover, while she would be furnished with a list of names, individuals who had entered and departed the consular assistant's household during the most critical span of time, she would not be permitted to question anyone on the list for their connection to the Kleins or their reasons for visiting the Klein household. She was only to observe and search-while keeping her involvement an absolute secret, naturally.

Lord Ingram's lips thinned as he finished enumerating the parameters of the task.

"Well," said Charlotte dryly, "it is understood that the task must be arduous for a reward as Olympian as my lord Remington's protective aegis."

Her lover snorted. "You'll take it?"

"I can't decide on that until I hear more details and speak to Lord Remington's emissary myself."

"You should keep in mind that by assigning you this task, he is sparing his own agents the risks that you would face."

"And I've never said that I'll accept an incomplete assurance of safety as my entire payment. Worry not, I shall name a commensurate price."

On that, Mrs. Watson had trained her well.

"Now tell me your other news," she said, weighing the jam tart in her hand. It was small but felt substantial, exactly how she liked her jam tarts. "The one that you considered, however briefly, as a substitute answer."

At this her lover betrayed a slight surprise, but only for a moment. They'd observed each other for years. He would have expected her to have noticed that he'd been about to speak and thought better of it.

He sighed. "The other news is that Mrs. Newell, Miss Olivia, my children, and myself are going on a voyage together."

Charlotte's chest constricted. She felt . . . wistful.

I have my sisters to think of, and you your children. But if-if someday the conditions should be conducive, would you like for all of us to go away together? Spain, Majorca, Egypt, the Levant? By the time we reach India, it will probably be unbearably hot in the plains, but the hill stations should still be pleasant.

When she had uttered those words the year before, it had been less a proposal of itinerary than a statement of hope, that perhaps many things would be possible in a lovelier, more idyllic future. Many things had indeed changed for the better since then, not the least that they were now lovers, but they also found themselves in circumstances far more dangerous than she could have anticipated a mere six months ago.

The pang in her heart was as much regret for not being able to join everyone on the trip as nostalgia for a time when she'd believed the world to be a safer, simpler place.

She exhaled. "Livia has always yearned to travel."

"A change in scenery seemed a good idea for us all," he said quietly.

She left the settee. But when she stood before him, she didn't know what to say, precisely. So she offered him the jam tart in her hand, expecting him to turn it down. Instead, he pulled her closer by the wrist and took a bite. And then he took the jam tart from her and offered it back to her.

The pastry was short and crumbly, the jam sticky and sweet.

"We were hoping you could join us for a segment of the journey-or several segments, if safety allows," he murmured.

He brought the jam tart to his own lips again, but this time, he only kissed the spot she'd bitten. Charlotte reacted more strongly than she thought she would, and with a hunger that was not only for his delectable self.

"Perhaps-perhaps I still could," she said after a minute. "After all, how long can it take to find this thing of Remington's?"

Three weeks later

Livia Holmes stepped out of her hotel room, feeling as if she were in a dream.

All her life, she had longed to travel. And not just to London, or Cowes, or someone's country house for a fortnight, but far, far away, a voyage for no other reason than to comprehend the height and breadth of the known world.

And now that the moment was here, now that she had but to walk down the stairs, exit the hotel, and head for the Port of Southampton, she was desperately afraid that she might wake up after all and find that everything was but a dream.

Like all those dreams she'd had as a child, running away from home, just Charlotte and her. And all those dreams she'd had of late, of holding her Mr. Marbleton by the hand and sprinting toward a carriage, a train, a ship, and once, even a hot air balloon, which only needed its ballast removed to float into the sky.

She tightened her fingers around the handle of her satchel. Perhaps she was all the more anxious because it had already been such a lovely trip.

According to Lord Ingram, who had arrived first, he and his children had spent a few wet, chilly days in the port city. But as soon as Livia and Mrs. Newell reached Southampton, the weather had turned sunny and mild. Together, everyone had driven out to nearby New Forest and visited the ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey. They had made a tour of Southampton's stretches of medieval town walls. And yesterday afternoon they had strolled along the sinuous River Itchen, then flown kites in a nearby park. Livia, who had only intended to watch, had found herself with a spool in hand, running on bright new grass, laughing as her butterfly kite caught the current and shot straight up.

On the way back to their hotel, young Master Carlisle, Lord Ingram's son, had leaned against his father in the carriage, and Lord Ingram had pulled the boy closer. And Livia had felt almost as warm and safely ensconced.

"Are you ready, my dear?" asked Mrs. Newell, stepping into the passage after Livia. She was both Livia's second cousin and her official sponsor for this trip.

Livia took Mrs. Newell's arm and felt steadier. She loved the dear old lady, and it was her very great fortune to set out with someone who had always watched out for her. "Yes, ma'am. I'm ready."

With a smile, Mrs. Newell patted Livia's hand. They walked down the passage in the direction of the stairs. May I stride ever closer to the journey of a lifetime, Livia silently petitioned the universe. May I begin a new life altogether.

They reached the stair landing. A man and a woman descended from above, the woman clad in the most beautiful traveling costume Livia had ever beheld.

The cut of the dress was impeccable, the construction precise, the material understated yet luxurious. It moved with the smoothness of cream pouring from a pitcher, but more sumptuously-the simple-looking grey skirt was lined with several layers of tissue-thin blush pink silk chiffon. Together the pink and grey were delicate and evocative, reminiscent of a cherry sprig in blossom just visible in a spring mist.

The only imperfection, Livia was sorry to note, was the wearer of this sartorial sorcery.

She was about Livia's age, twenty-eight or so. Her figure served the dress well, but her features were more prominent than pretty. Had she evinced some vivacity or a steeliness of character, she might have made for an unconventional beauty. But she was simply . . . there. To say the dress overwhelmed her would be too generous. The dress, in all its splendor, existed independently of her.

Her companion was a tall, broad man whose day coat nearly burst at the seams to accommodate his shoulders and upper arms. His features, like hers, were oversized. On some men, that translated into a brooding handsomeness. But this man's countenance seemed only ferocious-and vaguely misaligned, as if God had been in a hurry on the day of his creation.

Livia and Mrs. Newell emerged onto the stair landing as the man and the woman reached the bottom of their flight of steps. Everyone hesitated. Then the man motioned toward the next flight, indicating that Livia and Mrs. Newell should proceed. A courteous gesture, but it came across to Livia-who, granted, was wildly sensitive about such things-as tinged with a trace of impatience.