Read Star of the East: A Lady Emily Christmas Story Online

Authors: Tasha Alexander

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery, #Short, #Thriller & Suspense, #Women Sleuth

Star of the East: A Lady Emily Christmas Story

BOOK: Star of the East: A Lady Emily Christmas Story
13.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Star of the East

A Lady Emily Christmas Story

Tasha Alexander

Minotaur Books
New York

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Title Page
Copyright Notice
Star of the East
Excerpt from
The Counterfeit Heiress
Also by Tasha Alexander
About the Author

“It is gone—the whole set—gone!” The Right Honorable the Countess Bromley clutched at her throat as she spoke, her face drained of color, her eyes flashing outrage. Not distress, not shock, only outrage. “I cannot believe there is a soul alive who would dare steal the maharaja’s jewels from

“It appears, Mother, that you will have to try harder to believe,” I said, “for there is no other explanation.” We had been in Kent for fewer than twenty-four hours and, so far as I was concerned, the jewelry having gone missing should have surprised no one. It was, after all, cursed.

Our journey had been, up to that point, more or less unremarkable, at least to anyone accustomed to life in our family. The previous morning, after my mother’s coachman had collected us at the railway station, I had peered out the carriage window at the snow-covered landscape and had been moved to recite poetry.

“O winter! bar thine adamantine doors:/The north is thine!”

My husband, one of our twin boys balanced on each of his knees, sighed. “I hardly think Kent qualifies as the north, Emily, no matter how liberal a definition one is willing to apply to the location.”

“How was Mr. Blake to anticipate our location when he was writing his poem a century ago?” I asked, turning away from the blurred scenery and back to his handsome face, which was—uncharacteristically—clouded with displeasure. “It is not like you to be so out of sorts. Can it be that you are as distressed as I at having been summoned by my mother so close to Christmas? Or is it simply that Henry’s filthiness has at last penetrated your implacable calm?”

Henry and his brother Richard, now twenty months old, had already begun to develop distinct personalities. While Richard was quiet and generally well behaved, Henry had begun talking early and with alarming precociousness. Furthermore, he was in possession of an uncanny ability to make a melee out of nearly any situation. The black streaks marring the firm line of my husband’s jaw were a souvenir of Henry’s last adventure before we had departed London. No one could quite ascertain how he had managed to escape from Nanny, but rather than pursue explanations, I had marched directly to the front of our train, where, as I suspected, I found my son using his little hands to measure the height of the engine’s driving wheels. He had asked his father how big they would be, and when the answer proved vague and, hence, less than satisfactory—as evidenced by the firm set of Henry’s small lips—I anticipated he would do whatever he felt necessary to gain the information he required.

Richard, who all but refused to speak more than the odd word here and there, looked like a miniature version of his father, with dark, curly hair, and liquid eyes. The contrast with Henry’s fair hair and bright blue eyes made few people suspect they were twins, especially if they also saw our third son—our ward, technically, but we treated him as if he were our own—Tomaso, who had inherited his Italian mother’s dark good looks. Fortunately, he had not also inherited her disposition. She had befriended me in an attempt to keep me from discovering that she had committed murder, and crushing though it was to have been so deceived by a friend, I could not deny her request that I look after her son, who was born some months after her arrest.

Most people assumed Tom and Richard were the twins, and that Henry was our ward, not only because of the difference in his appearance, but also because of his tendency towards wildness. The English upper class prefer to believe the children of their own are all credits to the Empire, while surely the natural son of a murderer would have numerous deficiencies when it came to civilized behavior. It was this judgment that endeared me to my disheveled son, and I did my best to treat him with the patience and reason it was so easy to give to Richard and Tom.

Tom, who was sitting next to me on the smooth leather seat, had been looking out the window and pointing to, with great delight, animals whenever he saw them. No bird, horse, dog, cow, or sheep escaped his notice. He was a sweet boy, cherubic in both appearance and nature.

My husband, Colin Hargreaves, tightened his grip on Henry and Richard as the carriage turned into the long drive that led to Darnley House, seat of the Earl Bromley, my father. The earl did not manage the household, nor did he organize holiday plans. Those tasks were left to my mother, who tended to them in a manner that would have made an ancient Roman tyrant tremble with giddy approval. An iron fist, she had always believed, was nothing more than a good start.

“Your mother’s summons had the weight of the queen behind it,” Colin said, “and it is that which causes me concern. I have a feeling we are here to keep an eye on the maharaja.”

“That may well be Her Majesty’s intended purpose for you, but I have no doubt that my own is nothing more than to be present to personally bear the brunt of all of my mother’s criticisms. It is her favorite entertainment.” Colin was a trusted agent of the crown. Together, we had worked to bring to justice no fewer than nine heinous murderers, and though the queen might have preferred to see Colin tend to matters on his own, even she could not deny my skills as an investigator. This did not mean, however, that she wholeheartedly approved of my role. More often than not, she ignored it entirely.

“I was only teasing, my dear,” Colin said. We had nearly reached the front of the house. I pulled out a handkerchief and motioned for him to lean towards me so that I might attempt to remove the grime from his face before my mother saw him. “The maharaja does not need looking after. He rules one of the most important states in India and has proven himself devoted to the queen—or, rather, the Empress of India—on many occasions. I shudder at the thought of what your mother has in store for him.”

My mother, whom I had considered a formidable opponent since approximately the time of my fifth birthday, disapproved of virtually everything I did. Until the birthday in question, I had not known her views on young girls and tree climbing. Her opinion on the topic, once made clear, destroyed my (admittedly juvenile) last hope that we might agree on something. Now, we saw each other as infrequently as possible.

The carriage slowed and stopped. Outside, waiting to greet us, stood my mother’s housekeeper, butler, cook (who had brought a gingerbread man for each of our boys), five parlor maids, three footmen, and a groom. My father remained in the doorway, but gave a hearty wave. I believe I may have heard him shout “Huzzah!” as we descended to the drive. My mother, who seemed not quite ready to commit to stepping out in the snow, hovered behind him, coming forward only when she saw that I did not, as she would have preferred, curtly greet the staff and go to her. Instead, I went directly to the groom, who had taught me to ride when I was a tiny girl, and embraced him before saying hello to the rest of the poor servants standing in the cold.

Soon enough we were inside the Great Hall of Darnley House, beneath the disapproving stares of my ancestors, whose portraits lined the walls. “I do wish you had managed to arrive earlier,” my mother said. She gave every appearance of having the goal of dispensing as many disapproving stares as possible while she was still alive, undoubtedly so they could be accompanied by disparaging comments that were beyond what any portrait could communicate. “The maharaja and his family have been here for hours. His son, Ranjit, has been traveling with a chum from Oxford, whose arrival we still anticipate, and we are expecting a few of our neighbors for dinner as well.”

Henry, who had wriggled from his father’s grasp, was now climbing on his grandpapa while Tom and Richard were standing, awestruck, in front of the enormous Christmas tree at the foot of the Grand Staircase. Tin ornaments twinkled and large glass balls danced on the branches between the scores of candles that would not be lit until Christmas Eve. Garlands of yew and holly hung across every fireplace and every doorway in the house, their scent mingling with that of the bunches of cinnamon sticks and clove-studded oranges scattered in their midst, and bright red poinsettias from my mother’s hothouse dotted the room. I took my mother’s arm and pulled her through the hall into a sitting room so that she would not immediately notice the effects of my son’s grimy hands on her husband’s waistcoat. “I am most eager to meet the maharini,” I said. “Is she as beautiful as everyone says?”

My mother delighted in all forms of what she described as
social discourse
—I called it gossip—and took the bait without hesitation. “She is exquisite. And her daughter—oh, Emily! What I might have made of you if you had been half so pretty.” She paused for a moment, and stepped back to better critically appraise me. “You are not in a delicate condition, are you?”

“No, Mother,” I said. “I refuse to be tightly laced when I shall be spending the better part of the day in various uncomfortable means of transport.”

“It is not your waist that concerns me, child. That, thankfully, has remained trim. Well. Trim enough.” Scowling, she reached for a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles that were hanging from a chain around her neck, put them on, and leaned close to my face. “You have not rouged your cheeks, have you?”

“Of course not.”

“Your complexion is positively aglow. Whatever will people think? I do not ordinarily approve of pearl powder, but in this case I must insist that you apply whatever amount necessary to—”

“Is this your daughter, Lady Bromley?” I had not heard the woman enter the room, but I was mesmerized as I watched a petite form glide across the carpeted floor to us. She was dressed like any fashionable lady of the time—I should not have been surprised to learn that the House of Worth designed her gown—but the musical rhythm of her accent combined with the exquisite shade of her skin, pale and smooth but with the slightest hint of coffee, rendered her exotic.

“It is indeed, your highness,” my mother said, and introduced me.

“Do please call me Parsan,” the maharini said, the warmth of her smile captivating, “so that I might call you Catherine. I feel as if we are already friends.” She turned to me. “Your mother has made us feel so very welcome in her beautiful home.”

I confess, this astonished me, but I ought to have expected as much. My mother was as fond of the subcontinent as is our own queen, and a maharini was, after all, royal, and hence, her exotic nature was an asset rather than a liability. “I am most pleased to hear it,” I said. “My mother’s hospitality is legendary.”

“So I understand,” the maharini said, and then took a companionable step toward me and winked. “If one can wrangle an invitation from her, that is. I cannot tell you what an honor it is to be here. Osborne is certain to prove a disappointment after Darnley House. I cannot imagine that even the queen has as many Christmas trees. I have counted nearly twenty here.”

“The queen has insisted that Parsan and her family come to Osborne for Christmas,” my mother said, excitement brimming in her eyes. “What a wonderful thing, don’t you think?”

“Quite,” I said, wondering how the maharini would find the notoriously cold rooms found in all of the queen’s houses. The last time I had stayed at Balmoral, I had slept wearing a coat.

“Her Majesty has been so kind to us all,” the maharini said. “She is most fond of my husband and has done him a great honor by giving him the Order of the Star of India. I, too, enjoy her company very much.”

“I am looking forward to meeting your daughter, your highness,” I said. “Is she with you now?”

“She is upstairs in her room,” the maharini said. “I abandoned her there because she is in such a state of agitation over what she will wear this evening. It was exhausting to even sit with her. I don’t suppose you, Emily, would be willing to go to her? I know she would be extremely grateful for any advice you could offer.”

“Eighteen is the most difficult age,” my mother said. “At least in my experience with girls.”

“Is she in the Blue Room?” I asked, ignoring the pointed dig she made at me, the only girl of her experience.

“I thought it appropriate. I have put you and Colin in the Chinese Bedroom.” My mother made no attempt to hide the smug satisfaction she got from telling me this.

BOOK: Star of the East: A Lady Emily Christmas Story
13.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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