Vienna Woods - The Imperial Season, Book 2
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Intrigue, suspicion and true love at the Congress of Vienna...
In 1814, with Napoleon finally defeated, the great and the good of Europe descend on Vienna to plan a lasting peace – and to dance.
Esther Lisle, daughter of a general turned diplomat, wakes up in the Vienna Woods to find her royal betrothed dead and an agent of the dreaded Austrian secret police asking her awkward questions.
In trying to protect her father and her country, she enters a battle of wills and wits with the mysterious Agent Z. From masquerade balls to desperate escapes, the more she gets to know him, the more fascinated she becomes, and the more anxious to discover the truth. Is he deceiving her? Who killed the crown prince, and who is threatening her own life?
It seems there is no one she can trust, and yet Agent Z is always there to aid or provoke her. By the time he abducts her to his very odd home in the Vienna Woods, staffed by young and only partially reformed criminals, it breaks her heart to believe he is the villain of the piece.
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Read an excerpt below
Afraid. I should be afraid.
If only she could remember why. Her head hurt as though a regiment of cavalry were charging over it. She seemed to be clawing her way out of a dark, patchy mist, catching only tiny glimpses of her surroundings. A fuzzy tree branch. Frigid gray sky. Grass.
Cold, sharp air battered against her cheek. The damp ground beneath her seeped through her clothes. Just for a moment, she thought she must be back in Spain, with the army, or dreaming... And then memory surged.
Oh no, it was real. All of it.
She wasn’t resting in some army camp on the Peninsula, but lying on her back in the wooded hills above Vienna and something terrible had just happened.
Gasping, she struggled to sit. But a firm hand on her shoulder held her still.
“Stay,” a soft male voice soothed, as if he were gentling a horse. “You’re hurt.”
The blur of her vision resolved into a clearer background of trees, and, much closer, the face of a man shadowed beneath the brim of a tall hat. A stranger. Not Otto.
Reaching desperately, she caught the stranger’s wrist, peering up into his face. Although nobody would have called his cold, gray eyes kind, there was nothing in his countenance to disgust or threaten her. His features were refined, gentlemanly, as was the caped great coat around his shoulders.
For an instant, while she struggled for words, he didn’t move. She could almost have imagined he was surprised, except that the flinty eyes scanning hers were unreadable. Certainly there was no sympathy or softness of any kind there. And yet for some reason, their steadiness calmed her. And when he detached her fingers from his wrist, his touch was gentle as well as firm.
“One moment.” From the pocket of his great coat, he took a large handkerchief and a leather flask. Opening the flask, he poured water on the folded linen, and under her bemused gaze, bathed the side of her face and her head.His touch was sure and painless—until he found the wound that made her wince, but inexorably, while she bit her lip, he bathed that, too.
Beyond him, another man moved around, busy about something she couldn’t see. In the background, horses snorted and shifted their hooves on the soft ground.
The stranger beside her abandoned the throbbing tenderness of her head at last. Refolding the handkerchief to hide the blood, he poured more water on it from the flask.
“Hold it over the wound,” he said, placing the pad of linen in her hand. Instinctively, her fingers curled around it, and he guided it to the wound in her head. “It should help the swelling. What happened here?”
Images flashed through her mind. Otto, threatening, more frightening than she’d ever seen him, his eyes blood-shot and glittering. His laughter when she pointed her pistol at him. A whirling, unfocused confusion, a blinding pain at the side of her head and the grass rushing up to meet her.
“Where is he?” she gasped.
The stranger lifted one eyebrow. “Who?”
“Otto. Prince Otto.”
She struggled to sit up once more, and this time he rose smoothly to his feet, and let her. She still held the cold, wet handkerchief to her wound. After a moment, she inched backward to lean against the most convenient tree. At her back, her scrunched up cloak rustled, as if she’d pressed something, a packet of letters perhaps, between her body and the tree trunk. Clearly, she’d been lying on something.
The stranger stepped to one side and gestured to the ground his body had previously blocked. “Prince Otto is here, I’m afraid.”
The world reeled again and righted itself. Otto lay on the ground, only yards away from her. The other man she’d noticed so vaguely, paused in his act of covering the prince with a blanket. She caught a glimpse of the gory, scarlet wound in Otto’s chest, bright, obscene against the white and gold of the military uniform he liked to affect.
Esther swallowed. “Is he dead?” she asked hoarsely.
“As you see,” the stranger said expressionlessly.
Esther dragged her free hand to her forehead, trying to take it all in, to think. Her whole body trembled. Even her teeth were chattering.
“What happened?” her rescuer repeated.
“I can’t quite…someone hit me. I thought it was—” She broke off. This was all too much, too sordid to explain to a stranger.
“You thought it was Prince Otto.”
She gave in. “But it couldn’t have been, could it?” she reasoned, waving one hand at the body, now covered. The other man hefted it and carried it out of her line of vision.
“Her” stranger stirred, still gazing down at her. “That rather depends on the order the attacks happened.” Unexpectedly, he crouched beside her once more and offered her the flask.
She took it almost numbly, and drank. The cold water soothed her parched lips, seemed to refresh the dullness of her mind and body. S
She could almost forget about the battering headache. At least enough to think, to realize she needed more time.
“I think we need the police,” she said, cunningly. “I will fetch my father and go to—”
“There is no need,” he interrupted.
She gestured impatiently to where Otto had lain. “Sir, I disagree!”
“Miss Lisle, I am the police.”
She was very afraid her jaw fell vulgarly open. Certainly her head reeled once more. This couldn’t get any worse… could it?
“Oh good,” she said faintly.
His lip twitched, as if he understood. How could she have misunderstood so badly? Her vision of the Austrian police as grubby little men opening people’s letters and sneaking around their rooms while they were out had nothing in common with the sheer, implacable strength that emanated from this man. Along with his refined appearance which had made her imagine him a gentleman. But now that she considered him afresh, his hard, gray eyes were anything but open, his lips too thin for the gentleness she’d so foolishly attributed to him. And he already knew her name.
Now, every nerve in her body tightened with awareness of this new danger. Rows of pitfalls stretched out before her.
The police agent said, “You rode out here from Vienna with Prince Otto. Alone.”
Of course he knew that. The joke circulating among the visitors to Vienna’s peace Congress—that you couldn’t sneeze before dinner without Metternich knowing about it by supper—was based on truth.
She lifted her chin. “My groom was with me. Otto sent him away at the foot of the hill.”
“Did the prince have the command of all your servants?”
“Only those from Kriegenstein,” she said wryly. “They were his ‘gifts’, if you like.”
“There is no betrothal,” she said automatically.
“Miss Lisle, the world knows—and wonders—all about your engagement to the Crown Prince of Kriegenstein.”
“It’s unofficial, for now.” She bit her lip, dragging her gaze free of his. “Or at least, it was…”
“Why was that?”
“Because the King of Kriegenstein, his father, wished it.”
“Why?” he asked again.
She shrugged impatiently. “Presumably so that we could change our minds. A commoner of little fortune is not a great catch for a crown prince.”
At least he didn’t have the indelicacy to point out that Otto had been a conversely excellent one for her. “Then yours was a love match?” he asked without emphasis.
Dear God, no. Forcing herself, she raised her haughty gaze to his. “It was a match which suited us for reasons I have no intention of explaining. I believe they are not your concern.”
“They might be,” he said, not noticeably cowed. Before she could pursue it, he said, “Go on. You rode up here alone together, and dismounted.”
She nodded. “Yes. For a short rest and to let the horses drink before we returned.”
“Did you quarrel?”
“Actually, yes.” It struck her, as the sun peeped through the clouded sky, that very little time could actually have elapsed. The police agents could have been close enough even then to hear the quarrel. Her blood ran cold. They might even have seen—
His quiet voice interrupted her speculation. “About what?” he asked.
She stared at him. “The prince grew over-familiar. I objected.”
“Is that when you threatened him with this?”
Her gaze flew to his hands, which now held a familiar black and silver pistol. Her father had given it to her years ago, in Spain, for her protection. Appalled fear overwhelmed her.
“Oh dear God,” she whispered, clutching her face between her hands. “Did I…? Did I kill him?”
Those icy, gray eyes could turn your soul inside out. Through her ridiculous imagining, they remained still and steady on her face.
He stirred. “And then struck yourself unconscious? It’s possible. But it seems likelier someone else was here.”
“Were they?” she demanded, glancing uneasily around her once more. The other man seemed to have vanished. Hoof beats were fading into the distance, no doubt bearing Otto’s body back to his people in Vienna. The King of Kriegenstein had lost his son and heir…
“You saw no one?”
She frowned with the effort of remembrance, then shook her head. “No. I’m sorry, I still feel very…vague. It all happened so quickly.”
He was silent a moment, his unblinking gaze never leaving her face. Then he asked, “Where was Otto when you were struck? Could you see him?”
She rubbed her temple. “No. He was behind me.”
“And where was your pistol at this stage?”
“I can’t…” She drew in a shuddering breath. “In my hand. I think it was still in my hand.”
“Then the prince had walked away from you? Or you’d turned your back on him?”
“Both, I think. I’d made my point. I thought it was over.”
“Your quarrel or your engagement?”
His insolence took her breath away, and yet brought hysterical laughter surging up her throat. She swallowed it back down. “Both.”
Still, those merciless eyes didn’t blink. “Perhaps you pointed the pistol at someone else.”
“I don’t think so,” she said doubtfully. “Surely I would remember that?”
“One would hope so. Would the prince have had any reason to hit you at that point? Other than sheer temper.”
Her eyes widened. “Did you know Otto?”
“What a revealing question. Of course. I know everyone.”
“Are you being facetious?”
“No. I work hard.”
“I’m not convinced that you aren’t joking,” she observed. “Which would be most inappropriate.”
“Most,” he agreed. “So the prince could have hit you.”
“He could.” She frowned. “But I doubt he could then have shot himself in the chest.”
He blinked, which Esther regarded as something of a minor triumph. “You speak of such things—and look upon them—with surprising calm for a young lady.”
“I’m a soldier’s daughter,” she retorted. “I grew up with the British army in the Peninsular War. I don’t faint at the sight of blood. Someone else must have been here! Thieves, robbers. Shouldn’t you be looking for them?”
“My men already are.” He rose once more and gazed down at her. “Can you stand?”
“Of course! Why?”
“I’ll take you back to Vienna.”
“I don’t need to be taken,” she objected with as much dignity as she could muster. “I prefer to go alone.”
“That isn’t an option, since there’s only one horse.” He stretched down one hand to her.
She took it gingerly and allowed him to help her to her feet. Unlike his eyes, his skin was warm, the pads of his fingers a little rough, although his hands had the appearance of a gentleman’s, the nails cut short and neat.
He was tall-ish without being distinctively so, his build neither broad nor slight inside the caped great coat. It struck her that he wasn’t really dressed for riding, that he probably wasn’t a wealthy nobleman with an expensive costume for every activity. But his speech was educated, even in English, which he spoke fluently with only a faint accent. His veiled, gray eyes seemed undeniably intelligent. Behind them lurked a formidable personality she felt a sudden urge to know. And yet, the urge came with a little thrill of danger. He didn’t pretend to be her friend and he wasn’t.
And yet, he didn’t release her until she was steady on her feet, as if he made sure she wouldn’t collapse again before he dropped her hand. He was probably right. She really wasn’t up to travelling on her own.
He bent and picked up her elegant little hat from the ground. Well, it had once been elegant, a charming match for her green riding habit. Now it was squashed and torn, as if someone had stood on it and covered in grass, twigs and mud.
“Perhaps not,” she said, taking it from him and thrusting it under her arm. Instead, she drew the hood of her cloak up over her probably wild hair. The stranger had already turned toward the horse loosely tied to a tree branch some yards away. It quite clearly wasn’t her own white mare.
“Oh no, where is Blanca?” she wondered anxiously.
“Perhaps she bolted when the pistol was fired.”
“Maybe,” Esther said doubtfully. As she stuffed the damaged hat into the large pocket she had sewn into her cloak, her hand found the rustling packet of papers in there, too. She’d no idea what they were. She only knew they hadn’t been there when she’d set out this morning. “But I had her in Spain. She’s used to gunfire. Perhaps whoever attacked us, stole her.”
“Perhaps,” he allowed without commitment as he untied the chestnut horse.
Esther walked toward him, still holding the not-quite-so-cold handkerchief under her hood to her head. He glanced up and drew the horse with him to meet her half way.
“Do you feel sick or dizzy?” he asked dispassionately.
“No. But my head throbs.”
“I’m afraid it will for a little longer. I suspect you’ll have a monumental headache for a day or so. May I?”
Reluctantly, she took the handkerchief off the wound and let him look. His fingers parted her hair, causing her scalp to tingle with awareness. She found she was holding her breath and forced herself to exhale.
His hand fell away. “The bleeding has stopped and the swelling has gone down a little. Providing you rest for a day or so, I think you’ll be fine.”
“Are you a physician?” she asked, just a little tartly.
“No. But like you, I have considerable experience of wounds. Place your foot on my hands and I’ll boost you into the saddle.”
She obeyed. And as she landed accurately in place, it crossed her mind to seize the reins and bolt. It was tempting. But he represented the police and he might regard her escape as suspicious rather than simply haughty. Besides, with this headache and feeling as shaky as she did, she couldn’t honestly be sure of reaching Vienna without falling off.
“A good decision,” he murmured, landing behind her.
She didn’t pretend, merely cast him a sardonic smile over her shoulder. “You can’t blame me for thinking about it. You do ask impertinent questions.”
“I do,” he agreed. He twisted around, apparently drawing something from the saddle roll behind him. A blanket, which he shook out and placed around her shoulders without comment or excessive familiarity.
She clutched it about her shivering person. “Thank you,” she said fervently.
His arms reached around her as he settled the reins and nudged the horse with his heels.
In only moments, they emerged from the trees and she could see Vienna spread out before her, surrounded on three sides by gently rolling hills, and on the fourth by the wide, curving ribbon of the Danube. The spacious suburbs and summer palaces seemed gradually to contract into narrower streets and closer buildings as she gazed farther on to the old city walls and the inner city beyond. The magnificent Hofburg palace and the glittering spires of the city churches had become familiar, if not quite home to Esther. Neither London nor Kriegenstein had felt like home either.
Despite her feelings of guilt and her mistrust of her companion, and despite the enforced closeness of riding together on one horse, she discovered her trembling had almost stopped. No doubt that was due to the blanket and the heat of his body protecting her from the cold of the autumn day. Or perhaps his unshakable calm soothed her troubled spirit.
As the horse picked its way down the well-worn path, she asked, “What will happen now? About Prince Otto.”
His breath stirred her hair, and again, her scalp tingled. It wasn’t unpleasant.
“That rather depends on you,” he said unexpectedly.
She twisted round to stare at him, blinking as the pain in her head sharpened and died back. “It does?”
His gaze drifted briefly to the path ahead, then back to her. “Yes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it strikes me you’re not emotionally devastated by what happened to Prince Otto.”
“No,” she agreed. She thought about it. “I’m shocked. Appalled, even. God knows there has been enough death over the last decade. More people should not be dying at the peace Congress!”
“Then you will not miss your crown?” he asked with a hint of mockery.
“No,” she said candidly. “I would never have worn one, you know, even if Otto and I had married. Kriegenstein is only a kingdom because it amused Bonaparte to promote a minor Margrave over the heads of much more powerful princelings. I presume he was teaching them all to know their place. But the Congress will never endorse it now. Kriegenstein will be swallowed by Prussia or Saxony or whoever else the truly powerful countries want to compensate. Otto would never have been king.”
Although his expression didn’t change, she had the impression she’d surprised him. “You have a swift grasp of politics.”
“Not particularly,” she said, facing straight ahead once more. “My father was sent to Kriegenstein as the British ambassador, to persuade the king to desert Bonaparte for the allies. I went with him. It was impossible not to grasp a few truths. I find it harder to understand how I may influence events following Otto’s death.”
“I presume you want to know who shot him and why?”
She considered, then nodded decisively. “Yes.”
“I could blunder about asking questions of—”
“Do you blunder?” she interrupted. “Somehow I can’t imagine it.”
“I can blunder,” he said firmly. “Which would warn everyone concerned to keep quiet. Or we could pretend this never happened until we uncover the truth.”
Again, she twisted around to stare at him. This time, her vision remained steady as the full meaning of his suggestion spread through her mind.
“You don’t believe it was common thieves,” she said slowly.
“It might have been,” he allowed. “The woods are isolated up here, a good spot for an early-morning ambush, if the prince’s habits were observed. And certainly, I found no wallet, no money, jewelry or papers of any kind on him.”
The packet of papers in her cloak pocket seemed to grow heavier against her thigh. Were they Otto’s? How had they got into her pocket? Whatever, she couldn’t tell the police agent about them until she knew what they were…
He said, “I’m happy to—er—blunder among thieves until I discover if that’s the case. Until then, I’d rather take a subtler approach in the higher echelons of society.”
Rubbing the crick in her neck with one hand, she hung on to the pommel with the other. “Someone murdered him for political reasons?”
“Or personal,” he said without emphasis.
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you accusing me?”
“I’ve already said I find you an unlikely suspect.”
“But you haven’t ruled me out,” she said shrewdly.
A spark of something, amusement or perhaps simple surprise, shone momentarily in the hard, gray eyes. “I rarely rule anyone out. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that I’m asking for your help.”
“I’m not sure that is a comfort! Or a guide to your suspicions. You’re incredibly devious, aren’t you?”
“Utterly.” He pulled on the left rein, guiding the horse away from uneven, stony ground. “I doubt it will come as much surprise to you if I say that Prince Otto was a man with many enemies. Personally, he was arrogant, faithless, frequently abusive, and in debt to moneylenders and others even less pleasant. Politically, he was like a bull in a china shop and a danger to negotiations which have become somewhat…edgy.”
“Saxony,” she said. “Kriegenstein kept the old alliance with Saxony, even after ditching Bonaparte for the allies. Prussia would swallow Saxony if it could, and Kriegenstein with it. Otto’s solution was to negotiate with Prussia, though I doubt it did him or Kriegenstein much good… Would someone really have killed him for such a reason?”
Her companion shrugged. “Someone who regarded him as a traitor, or someone who knew rather more than I do at this stage. That is what I would like to find out.”
“Because it could have harmed Austria,” she guessed.
“I work for the Emperor. Who is,” he pointed out, “a close ally of the British.”
She thought about it. “What do you want me to do?”
“Pretend nothing has happened to Otto. Carry on with your life. Dance. Listen. And tell me if you learn anything.”
Her breath caught. “You’re trying to turn me into a spy, too!”
“I’m trying to obtain your help in discovering the murderer of your betrothed,” he said mildly. “I’m not asking for British diplomatic secrets or those of Kriegenstein. Just for any information relating to Otto and his death.”
“And what will you do?” she demanded. They were approaching the suburbs of the city.
“What I always do.”
She cast him a withering glance which seemed to bounce off him. She sighed. “I suppose I owe Otto this much.”
He looked away. “Then you’ll keep silent about his death for now?”
“For now,” she agreed, “but I can’t think it’s fair to the king or his family—”
“It won’t be for long. And it will be worth it to find his killer.”
"Intrigue and romance is a heady mix... I really enjoyed this book! ...filled with conspiracy, colorful characters, marvelous visual descriptions of the settings, and longing."
"Good pacing in plot, interesting characters, adventurous and romantic."
"full of mystery, princes, secret police, a secret hideout, love and so much more."
"Ever so delightful... Mary Lancaster did it again! I fell in love with characters and relationships faster than I could read. She truly has an excellent grasp of the human condition."
"Lively, spirited, engaging read of intrigue and death!"
"A swoonworthy hero, a strong, capable heroine, suspense, and intrigue..." - Amazon reader reviews