TEARS OF PEARL (Chapter 1)
It is always a mistake to underestimate the possibilities of a train compartment. Some newly married couples might prefer luxurious, spacious suites at the Continental in Paris or rooms overlooking Lake Lucerne, but I shall never be convinced that one can find bliss more satisfactory than that to be had in a confined space with the company only of each other. Limitations lend themselves to creativity, and my spouse wasted no time in proving himself adept beyond imagination.
After the death of my first husband, a man I'd barely known, I hadn't expected that I, Lady Emily Ashton, would ever again agree to subject myself to the bonds of matrimony. I'd not believed there was a man alive capable of tempting me to give up even a shred of what I considered my hard-earned independence. More surprising than simply finding such an extraordinary individual was discovering that he was said late husband's best friend. Philip, the viscount Ashton, a dedicated hunter, had gone on safari immediately following our wedding trip, leaving me behind in London. He never returned. Everyone initially accepted his death as natural--it appeared as if he'd fallen victim to fever--but I soon began to believe otherwise and spearheaded the ensuing investigation, suspecting early on that Colin Hargreaves had murdered the man who'd been like a brother to him.
Such are the follies of a novice detective, and in the end I was pleased to have been wholly incorrect about Colin's character. Far from a nefarious criminal, he instead turned out to be a gentleman of the highest morals who spent much of his time working for the Crown--investigating situations that, as he liked to say, required more than a modicum of discretion. This description was too modest. In fact, his services were indispensable to the British Empire, and he was one of Her Majesty's most trusted agents. I do not blame myself entirely for having been so wrong in my suspicions--a man who works in such mysterious ways ought to expect his actions to be, on occasion, misinterpreted.
And so, rather than seeing him off to prison, I fell in love with him, and after refusing his proposals twice, at last was convinced that matrimony was essential to my happiness. This decision came after I'd solved two more crimes in a fashion competent enough to earn Colin's praise and his suggestion that I begin to assist him in a more official capacity. Assuming, of course, his colleagues would agree to such an arrangement. A female investigator was not something much sought after in the halls of Buckingham Palace.
My decision to pursue such a line of work complemented nicely my other so-called eccentricities, in particular a propensity for academic pursuits that at present focused on the study of ancient Greek. All of this greatly vexed my mother, a staunch traditionalist, and strained our already tenuous relationship. When at last I agreed to be Colin's wife, she rejoiced (although she would have preferred for me to catch a duke), but her jovial attitude dissolved the instant she learned we had eloped on the Greek island of Santorini. Philip had left me a villa there, and it was the place to which I fled whenever I was overwhelmed or in need of escape. It also proved the perfect spot for an extremely private wedding.
Afterwards, we returned to England, where we passed an excruciating month with my parents at their estate in Kent. We felt it right to tell them our news in person and wanted to extend the proverbial olive branch. But only the most rare sort of mother could find it in her heart to welcome home a child who had deprived her of the pleasure of planning a society wedding, and Lady Catherine Bromley was not such a woman. The only bright spot in the visit was the fact that my dearest childhood friend, Ivy, in that happy condition that comes inevitably after marriage, was also there. My mother, upon learning that Ivy's parents were in India, had all but carried my friend into Kent, insisting that she needed special care during her confinement.
Much though Colin and I enjoyed seeing Ivy, it had become evident almost at once that escape was necessary. We longed to get away from everyone, to a place where our only pressing business would be to enjoy our honeymoon, and had planned a trip east to visit sites important to me because of my love of classical antiquities and literature. I wanted to see the ruins at Ephesus, and as student of Homer, craved a visit to Troy. Colin, proving himself husband extraordinaire from the first, did not need to be told any of this; he anticipated my every desire. And hence, we soon found ourselves speeding towards Constantinople on the Orient Express.
"I'm not sure your mother will ever forgive me all the way," Colin said as he guided me through narrow, mahogany-paneled corridors to the train's dining car. "I'd no idea how wild she and the queen had run with their wedding plans."
"Well, we did give up our opportunity to be wed in the chapel at Windsor Palace."
"Yes. With fireworks and our two thousand closest friends."
I laughed. "I confess I never thought she had it in her to be so fierce with you."
"Now that we're married, she considers me a safe mark. No more worries that I'll take my affections and my fortune elsewhere."
"Excellent point. But I'd hoped that her desire to charm you into eventually accepting a title from the queen would keep her better in line."
"She's quite amusing," he said.
"Spoken like a man who's never lived with her." A crisply uniformed steward pulled open a door for us, and we stepped into a dining room that, although small, was worthy of the best restaurants in Europe. Soft candles flickered with the gentle motion of the train, sending light undulating across crystal glasses, gold-rimmed porcelain, and damask tablecloths the color of bright moonlight, while the smell of perfectly roasted beef with a tangy claret sauce filled the air.
"Twenty-eight days was more than enough," Colin said.
"Was it only twenty-eight?" I asked.
"And a half. Why do you think I insisted we take the morning train to Paris?"
I slipped into a chair across from him at a table where a silver-haired gentleman was already settled. He'd risen and bowed to me--over me, more like, as his height was extraordinary--and then offered his hand to my husband. "Sir Richard St. Clare," he said, introducing himself with a stiff nod. Colin shook his hand and introduced us both. "Hargreaves, eh? I know of your work. Your reputation is sterling in diplomatic circles."
"The compliment is much appreciated," Colin said, sitting next to me.
"And much deserved. But we shan't bore your lovely wife with talk of business." He turned to me. "How far are you traveling?"
"All the way to Constantinople," I said, then leaned forward, a broad smile stretching across my face. "First real stop on our wedding trip."
"Excellent." He rubbed together thick-knuckled hands. "And where else shall you visit?"
"I've been promised Ephesus," I said, raising an eyebrow at Colin, who was a vision of handsome perfection in his evening kit.
"I'll take you to Philadelphia and Sardis as well," Colin said. "So long as you have clothing suitable for exploring ruins."
"You wouldn't have married me if I didn't," I said, wishing I could grab his knee under the table and feeling a hot rush of color flood my cheeks at this reference to a conversation we'd had nearly two years ago on the Pont Neuf in Paris, the night he'd fallen in love with me in spite of his erroneous belief I was not in possession of a wardrobe suitable for adventurous travel. The gown I was wearing now--of the palest pink silk embroidered with silver thread from which hung teardrop-shaped crystals--did not suggest I was a lady ready for the wilderness, but I was not the sort of woman who should be judged by her clothing. An appreciation for high fashion does not preclude possession of common sense.
"A rather wild agenda, isn't it?" Sir Richard asked. "You might find you'd prefer Rome for ruins. It's far safer."
"I was not aware of problems at Ephesus," Colin said, pointedly not looking at me as I raised an eyebrow.
"My son, Benjamin, is an archaeologist and spent some months with the team excavating there a year or so ago," Sir Richard said. "There's no longer the trouble they had there in the past, but I can't say it's a place I'd bring a new bride."
This line of thought did not surprise me in the least. It was precisely what I expected from an ordinary Englishman and precisely the sort of reaction I had grown accustomed to dismissing without reply. "What has induced you to visit the Ottomans, Sir Richard?" I asked.
"Constantinople is my home. I work at the embassy."
"Then you must tell us all the inside secrets of the city," Colin said. "The places we shouldn't miss."
"You might consider hiring a guide to keep track of you unless you plan on staying in the Westernized parts of the city."
"I'd much prefer an adventurous approach," I said. "I want to have no doubt in my mind that I'm far from England."
"You remind me of my wife. Not that she ever went to England--that she preferred adventure. An explorer like no other, my Assia."
"Will she be dining with us tonight?" I asked.
"I'm afraid I lost her many years ago."
"I'm so sorry," I said, a shard of grief piercing my stomach, bringing with it memories of Philip, whom I'd come to love only after he was gone. I owed my happiness with Colin in no small part to him. We would never have come to know each other were it not first for their friendship and second for Philip's murder. And this was a realization that carried with it a large dose of complicated and bittersweet emotion.
"It's a terrible thing to lose someone you love," Colin said.
"Quite," Sir Richard said, looking down and tapping a finger against the tines of his fork as an awkward silence enveloped us. I had thought of and rejected no fewer than fourteen ways to change the direction of the conversation before our dinner companion surprised me by continuing. "My son goes sour whenever the subject of his mother comes up--we lost her and his sister the same day. He was only eight years old and in ways has never fully recovered. Neither of us has, I suppose."
"Condolences are not enough," Colin said.
"But they are appreciated nonetheless," Sir Richard said, the words heavy with the sound of forced strength. "Assia was an Algerian Berber, and a more beautiful woman has never walked the earth. She had been educated in Paris--I imagine you, Lady Emily, would approve of the value placed on cultured women in Kabilya, the region in which she grew up. She loved adventure, and we traveled constantly. I took her to India and Egypt. After our children were born, we brought them with us."
"What a marvelous childhood," I said.
"I thought it would be." He squared his jaw. "Until bandits attacked our camp near the dig at Ephesus. This was twenty-odd years ago, soon after John Turtle Wood started excavating. He was plagued with problems--warned us not to come--but I would have none of it. I was a young fool."
"Redundant," Colin said, drawing a hard laugh from our visitor.
"Quite. We were in two tents. Ceyden, my daughter, had been sick, so Assia was sleeping next to her. I didn't know what was happening until I heard my wife screaming as they cut her throat. She'd struggled too much."
"I'm so sorry." I could not help reaching out to take his hand, but he pulled it from the table.
"I had to protect Benjamin. Helped him hide before I grabbed my rifle and went on the offensive, but at the first gunshot, the cowards started to retreat. They took Ceyden with them. She was a beauty, even at three years old. That striking red gold hair, blue eyes. Looked like her mother."
"You must have been frantic," I said. I considered the poor girl, terrified, torn from her family, and my heart ached at the thought of her carrying so much pain and such horrific images.
"I spent years and a fortune searching for her, but never uncovered a trace. All my efforts were futile. I've always assumed that she must have been sold into slavery. So you see, adventurous travel isn't all romance. You'd be better off, Hargreaves, keeping your wife safely in sight." He drained his wine, slammed the glass down with a thump, and laid his hands flat on the table.
"I of course appreciate the advice and shall heed it," Colin said. I resisted the urge to kick him under the table, restraining myself only out of respect for the tragedies suffered by Sir Richard.
"I'm afraid I've--I've quite ruined the mood of the evening. Apologies." His words sounded almost slurred as he reached for the half-empty bottle of wine in front of him, filled his glass, and took a long drink, sweat beading on his forehead. "I'm sure that between Topkapi Palace and . . . ah . . . yes, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, you'll find yourselves quite well diverted. I'll see what I can do about arranging invitations to any parties in the diplomatic community as well as--"
His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped over in his chair, still only for an instant before his body convulsed, sending him crashing to the floor.
The speed with which the ensuing chaos was calmed is a testament to the efficiency of the staff of La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Within a quarter of an hour, Colin and I were crowded into the corridor outside the sleeping compartment, where a doctor, who had been traveling in the next car, was examining Sir Richard. The physician ducked out and took a short step towards Colin.
"May I talk to you privately?" He shot a glance at me. "I don't think it's appropriate--"
"You may speak freely in front of my wife," Colin said, his dark eyes serious.
The doctor clenched his jaw and scrunched his eyebrows together. "Sir Richard took an extremely high dose of chloral hydrate. A not uncommon occurrence among those dependent on the medication--it's given as a sleeping aid. I believe he'd mixed it in with his wine at dinner. He's lucky to be alive."
"Will he be all right?" I asked.
"There's not much to do but wait, and I'll sit with him as long as necessary. You need not stay."
Colin scribbled the number of our compartment on a piece of paper and handed it to the doctor. "Please alert us if the situation changes."
"Of course." He went back to Sir Richard, leaving us alone.
"I don't feel hungry anymore," I said as Colin and I started down the corridor.
"I've not the slightest interest in the dining car." He stopped walking and pressed me against the wall, kissing me.
"That's not what I meant. You're a beast to kiss me at a time like this," I said, twining my fingers through his. "Perhaps we should be doing more for him."
"A man who can't properly dose his own medicine has no right to interrupt our honeymoon."
"Could we contact his son?" I asked. "I don't feel right leaving him so alone."
"When we get to Constantinople. We're on a train, Emily."
"I had noticed that," I said.
"Perceptive girl." He kissed my forehead. "I do adore your compassion for Sir Richard. But right now, forgive me, I think you should direct it to me, your husband, who by unfortunate coincidence of seating arrangements has been forced to deal with doctors and train stewards all evening instead of being left to his violently elegant and relentlessly charming wife."
"Sounds delicious," I said. "I should have married you ages ago."
The two remaining days of our trip passed without further incident. We saw Sir Richard the following evening in the dining car. He was in fine health, full of apologies, and all easy charm for the rest of the trip--no more criticism of our itinerary or of my yearning for adventure. More important, no more signs that he was using too heavy a hand when dosing his medicine.
"Perhaps he's a changed man after his near brush with death," Colin said, gathering the few remaining books strewn about our compartment as the train pulled into the station at Constantinople.
"I don't believe in sudden transformations," I said.
"That's because you're so very cynical. It's one of your best qualities. You know . . ." He looked around. "I'm almost sorry to leave the train. It's effortless to lock this door and shut out the world. No house full of servants bothering us."
"Just overzealous stewards."
"Who were quick to learn that we wanted our privacy." He ran a hand through the thick, dark waves of his hair. "I think that's everything. Ready to have the Ottoman Empire at your feet?"
Excitement surged through me as we stepped onto the platform, and I looked around, eager to take in a culture so very foreign to me. Despite the fact that my guidebook told me it had been designed by a Prussian architect, the Müir Ahmet Paa Station, with its elaborately decorated façade, looked satisfyingly Oriental to me. Bright reddish pink bricks were arranged in rectangular patterns between wide stone borders along the lower portion of the building, the rest of the walls painted pink. Stained glass curved over the doors and long windows, above which there were more, these large and round, fashioned from leaded glass. The center of the structure was low, its sides anchored by taller sections, one with a flat roof edged with stone decoration, the other domed.
"Where shall we go first?" Colin asked.
"Meg is perfectly capable of seeing to it that our trunks get to the house. My plan is to get a spectacular view of the city, unless you've a mad desire to go to our quarters first." Meg, my maid, was traveling with us, despite my husband's protests that he'd prefer we be alone. I, too, liked very much the idea of privacy, but a lady must deal with hard realities, and there was simply no way my hair could be made presentable on a daily basis without skilled assistance. Furthermore, I'd spent a not inconsiderable effort to show her the merits of places beyond England. Her provincial attitude had begun to thaw in Paris more than a year ago, and I had every intention of continuing her enlightenment.
"If we go to the house first, you're not likely to see much of the city today." He pulled me close, his arm around my waist.
"I cannot tolerate that," I said, a delightful flash of heat shooting from toes to fingertips. I straightened my hat--a jaunty little thing, devoid of the ornamentation favored by many of my peers. So far as I was concerned, stuffed birds had no place in the world of fashion. I was too eager in making the adjustment, and the tip of my hat pin jabbed into my scalp, causing me to jump, knocking into a gentleman walking behind me.
"Oh, Sir Richard, I'm so sorry," I said. "I didn't see you."
"I'm afraid I wasn't paying attention, either." A gruff edge cut through his already rough voice.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Yes, actually. It appears I've been robbed. Nothing serious, just unsettling."
"What happened?" Colin stepped closer to me and began a methodical study of the area around us.
"I've no idea. When I was gathering my belongings to leave the train, I realized a sheaf of papers I was bringing from London to the embassy is gone."
"What sort of papers?" I asked.
Sir Richard narrowed his eyes, seeming to appraise my competence as I asked the question. "Standard diplomatic fare. Nothing of pressing confidentiality. More of a nuisance and embarrassment to lose them than anything else."
"Do you have any idea when they went missing?" I asked.
"Not at all," Sir Richard said. "I didn't need to deal with them during the trip and never pulled them out. It could have happened anytime."
"Who had access to your compartment?" I asked. "We should question the stewards at once and try to locate the physician who treated you. We know he was there."
"I assure you, there's no need, Lady Emily--"
I interrupted him. "Every possibility must be considered."
"Have you reported this to the local police?" Colin asked.
"No," Sir Richard said, shielding his eyes from the sun. "It's entirely unnecessary. This may be nothing more than a prank."
"I can't see that making any sense." I shook my head, harder than I ought to have, sending my already maligned hat off-kilter. "And if that were the case, wouldn't you have some idea who would do such a thing? Did you have any colleagues on the train? Did anyone even know you had the papers?"
"No. I saw none of my colleagues. But I'm a diplomat. It's reasonable to assume I'd be carrying papers. Someone--a Turk, perhaps--who's less than pleased with Britain could have done it to make a point."
"An awfully oblique point," I said, frowning. "We'd be happy to assist you--"
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary," he said. "As I said on the train, I know well your husband's reputation, but I assure you this is nothing more than an aggravating inconvenience and quite out of the sphere of his interest. I do, however, hope to be in touch soon with an invitation to something I think you'll both enjoy."
I watched, dissatisfied, as he walked away from us. "We are going back to the train, aren't we?" Sir Richard might refuse to investigate, but I could not do the same. My experience, while limited, had given me a taste for detecting.
Colin gave a short laugh. "This is not in the least what I want from a honeymoon, but I know you must be pacified."
"Yes, I must." I looped my arm through his and led him to the platform. He flashed some sort of identification, and within a short while we had conducted a quick but thorough interrogation of stewards and lingering passengers. Our efforts, however, were in vain: no suspicious characters, no overlooked clues, and certainly no breathless confession.
"I can't escape the feeling we've missed something," I said when, finished, we crossed back through the station.
"It's possible." Colin took my hand. "But there's no harm done, Emily. He might have mislaid the papers himself. There was no sign of forced entry into his compartment."
"He could have forgotten to lock the door."
"He's too competent to have done that."
"Doesn't it make you wonder about the chloral hydrate?" I asked. "Perhaps someone dosed his wine, knowing the subsequent commotion would provide an opportunity to snatch the papers."
"I understand the suspicion, my dear, but why would anyone go to so much trouble to take something that, by all accounts, is of no particular value?"
"Perhaps the papers were not the goal," I continued. "Perhaps harming Sir Richard was, and the theft was meant to set the investigation on the wrong course. We may be dealing with a matter entirely personal, not professional."
"We, my dear, are not at present dealing with any matter whatsoever other than enjoying our wedding trip."
"No, Emily. Let this go. Come. The Golden Horn awaits you."
TEARS OF PEARL. Copyright 2009 by Tasha Alexander.