Looking forward to the joys of connubial bliss, newlyweds Lady Emily and Colin Hargreaves set out toward Turkey for an exotic honeymoon. But on their first night in the city, a harem girl is found murdered--strangled in the courtyard of the Sultan's lavish Topkapi Palace. Sir Richard St. Clare, an Englishman who works at the embassy in Constantinople, is present and recognizes the girl as his own daughter who was kidnapped twenty years earlier. Emily and Colin promise the heartbroken father they'll find her killer.
As a woman, Emily is given access to the forbidden world of the harem and quickly discovers that its mysterious, sheltered walls offer no protection from a ruthless murderer. Soon, the Valide (mother to the Sultan) is found strangled with a silken bowstring and the head Eunuch is brutally slain.
When the killer strikes again, kidnapping a concubine and threatening to kill her unless Emily agrees to meet him in secret, she cannot wait for Colin or the authorities to come to her rescue. In a heart-stopping finale, Emily must rely on her own sharp wits if she is to stop a killer bent on taking revenge no matter how many innocent lives he leaves in his wake.
In Alexander's lackluster fourth Lady Emily historical (after A Fatal Waltz), Emily and her new husband, British intelligence agent Colin Hargreaves, are honeymooning in Constantinople when a half-English harem girl is murdered. After Colin is charged with the investigation, the British crown reluctantly allows Emily to handle questioning within the harem. Emily follows the clues much farther afield, exploring the tangled histories of the victim's diplomat father from whom she was abducted many years before, her troubled archeologist brother and sultans both current and deposed. The author deftly handles the exotic setting and a subplot in which Emily worries she may be pregnant, but a lack of tension and a number of implausibilities, starting with the ease with which a Western woman can play detective in despotic, late 19th-century Constantinople, make this a relatively weak entry. Hopefully, Emily will recover her usual sparkle once the newlyweds return to more familiar ground. Author tour.(Sept.)
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August 31, 2009
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Excerpt from Tears of Pearl by Tasha Alexander
I fain would go, yet beauty calls me back.
To leave her so and not once say farewell
Were to transgress against all laws of love,
But if I use such ceremonious thanks
As parting friends accustom on the shore,
Her silver arms will coil me round about
And tears of pearl cry, "Stay, Aeneas, stay."
Each word she says will then contain a crown,
And every speech be ended with a kiss.
I may not 'dure this female drudgery.
To sea, Aeneas! Find out Italy!
--Christopher Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage
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, 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 suspect 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 indispensible to the 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 vexed my mother, a staunch traditionalist, greatly 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 down 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 Sardeis 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 but reach 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 thought of 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 Topkap? 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.