The Dark Heart of Florence by Tasha Alexander: Cover Reveal + Excerpt

Get an early look at the gorgeous cover of The Dark Heart of Florence (Minotaur Books, March 2021), by critically acclaimed author Tasha Alexander. Read on for an excerpt of the latest Lady Emily mystery that transports readers to the legendary city of Florence, where Lady Emily and Colin solve a murder with clues leading back to the time of the Medici.

Chapter One

London, 1903

 Before plunging into my narrative, I must first state categorically that no reasonable person could have anticipated a murdered corpse turning up in my stepdaughter’s bed. I reject all charges of insensitivity lobbed at me following those chaotic and desperate days in Florence. It should also be noted that Kat was not in her room, let alone her bed, during the moment in question, a detail that surely must mitigate the situation.

It all began on a seemingly mundane Tuesday. As a rule, I do not take naps. Much though I appreciate the wisdom of a siesta in hot, southern climates, it can hardly be justified on our sceptered isle. Our rocky shore may beat back the envious siege, but given our geography, we’re more likely to be plagued with cold rain than a lethargy-inducing heat wave. On that day, however, I did succumb to slumber, and I lay the blame entirely on my dear friend Cécile du Lac. A relentlessly elegant Parisian of a certain age who, after more than a dozen years of friendship still hides from me her family’s involvement in the French Revolution, Cécile had long harbored a passion for bohemian sensibilities. The latest manifestation of this leaning was her decision to embrace the designs of a Belgian architect, Henry van de Velde. Not the designs of his buildings, but of ladies’ dresses. For reasons incomprehensible to me, he turned part of his attention to fashioning gowns in a reform sort of style, not requiring a corset. Granted, no one who has spent decades encased in such undergarments would mourn their demise, at least not entirely, yet one might also hope for something rather less frumpy than Mr. van de Velde’s creations.

Cécile, a fellow devotee of the cosmopolitan House of Worth, sent a van de Velde original cut to my measurements and implored me to give myself the gift of comfort at least once before condemning the dress to flames. And so, that morning, Meg, my maid, lowered it over my head, frowning the entire time. Fitted only through the bosom, its fabric—dark red velvet—flowed freely to the floor, enabling the wearer to both breathe freely and slouch. Attractive it might not be, but what did it matter when I planned to spend the day in my library, reading?

I went downstairs intent on doing just that, only to find that for me, certain books might indeed require a corset. Relishing the freedom of movement Mr. van de Velde’s gown allowed, I stretched out on a long Chesterfield sofa and fell asleep before I’d got through a dozen pages. Sometime later, a voice I did not recognize woke me.

“The world can change in an instant. It falls on gentlemen like us to determine the course of that change. What you have done, Hargreaves, is nothing short of saving the Empire. His Majesty is beyond grateful.”

I was about to sit up and announce myself when my husband’s reply stopped me cold.

“I fear it may not be enough,” Colin said. “The danger is alleviated, but not eliminated.”

I do not condone eavesdropping. It is underhanded, dishonorable, and something a lady should never, ever do. It is also undeniably useful. Furthermore, when one is thrust accidentally into a theoretically private conversation, as was the case that October afternoon, it is less morally dubious. I lay perfectly still, not allowing myself even to blink.

“Alleviated enough that you are free to deal with the situation in Florence. Once that’s in hand, you can return your focus to this other business. But while you’re away, the prescribed methods to contact me, yes? This is not the time for open communication.”

“Quite. I’ll spend as little time as possible abroad, sir. This won’t prove a distraction.”

“I’d choose a different tack, Hargreaves. Bring your wife and give every appearance of this being a holiday. Gaze on Michelangelo’s masterpieces and climb the steps to the lantern of Brunelleschi’s dome.”

“You believe there’s a connection between this and the other?” Colin asked.

“We cannot afford to dismiss the possibility. Your daughter is safely at Oxford, is she not?” My husband must have nodded; the other man continued. “I’ll put two on to watch her. She’ll be in no danger while you’re away.”

“Thank you, sir.” Colin’s clipped tone told me he was not wholly convinced.

“Three, if you’ll feel better. And make use of Benton-Smith. He’s at Lake Garda, but could get to Florence easily enough…”

“I shall get in touch with him at once.”

Their conversation descended into social niceties as they parted ways. Only when I heard their footsteps trail through the library and out into the corridor did I sit up and lift the book resting on my chest. I have never hidden my love for sensational literature and have long counted Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novels among my favorite diversions. Today, however, I had turned to Mr. Le Queux, not one of his myriad detective stories, but the breathless tales of Duckworth Drew, “chief confidential agent of the British Government, and next to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State, one of the most powerful and important pillars of England’s supremacy.” They were not quite so engaging as I had hoped—as evidenced by my having fallen asleep reading them—but I could not help notice the similarities between Mr. Drew’s work for his country and that of my husband’s.

From almost the moment he completed his studies at Cambridge—Trinity College—Colin had served as one of Queen Victoria’s most trusted agents, charged with assisting the Crown in matters requiring a modicum of discretion. Or so I had understood early in our relationship. As the years passed, it became clear his work entailed more than helping aristocrats out of embarrassing situations, and since the succession of Edward VII to the throne, official demands on his time had increased steadily. Naturally, he was not at liberty to discuss any of this with me, and naturally, that only heightened my curiosity. As there existed no legitimate method for me to satisfy this curiosity, I indulged my imagination and turned to Le Queux.

I closed the book, rose from the Chesterfield, and crossed the room to my desk, where I was standing when my husband entered.

“Hello, where did you come from?” he asked, drawing a hand through his tousled dark curls, his manner breezy and casual. “I thought you were upstairs.”

“I’ve just come down.” As the words came out of my mouth I wondered why I had decided to lie. “Have we had a visitor? I thought I heard the door.”

“Sir John Burman proffering an invitation to a shooting party. I declined for a multitude of reasons. He sends you his regards.” His own falsehood rendered mine more palatable.

More than a year had passed since Katarina von Lang, Colin’s hitherto-unknown grown daughter, had disrupted our bucolic family life. My initial acquaintance with her proved challenging to us both, but I had done my best to welcome her into our household. Although the specter of her late mother, whom Colin had loved long before we met, still haunted me, Kat’s quick wit and intelligence endeared her to me, at least when she resisted the urge to sermonize about wicked stepmothers. The situation called for understanding. She had lost a mother she’d hardly known; that she would not immediately embrace me came as no shock.

Introducing her to our three sons, Henry, Richard, and Tom (currently all at our country estate; I had come to London alone to meet my husband upon his return from weeks abroad), had proved shockingly easy. At seven years old (technically our ward, Tom, was a few months older than his brothers), none of them had much interest in a girl of any age. They dismissed her as a boring grown-up until Henry realized her potential as a useful ally. In possession of a fortune of her own (albeit one her mother’s solicitor would control until she turned twenty-five), she could buy sweets without begging for spending money. They accepted her without reservation. Less simple was introducing her to my mother.

Lady Catherine Bromley could be accurately described neither as understanding nor accepting, particularly when it came to matters that might prove socially embarrassing, a camp into which illegitimate children unquestionably fall. Colin and I broke the news to her at my parents’ home in Kent. She fainted and refused to be brought around for forty-five minutes; the deep frown held on her face the entire time told me she was not, in fact, unconscious. My father, accustomed to her dramatics, was unmoved. He called for his newspaper and read it without giving her so much as a passing glance until she made a great display of coming round, at which point she insisted we bring Kat to her the next day. Their meeting did not go quite as I had expected.

“No, no, my dear, you must not adopt so coarse a nickname. Katarina is much more elegant, suitable for the daughter of a countess,” my mother had said.

“I shall rely on you, Lady Bromley, to guide me through society. London is so different from a convent school.”

Kat’s effort to torment me by manufacturing a closeness to my own mother could not have been more misguided. She tried, though, and spent several months under a most unpleasant tutelage before recognizing her error and decamping to St. Hilda’s in Oxford. This suited me well, as my friend Margaret Michaels, wife of an Oxford don, had recently given birth to an adorable baby boy. This having led to inconceivably tragic boredom (her words), she welcomed Kat into her household, delighted at having someone new to converse with, even if Kat’s interests did not intersect with Margaret’s passion for Latin.

“I do wish I hadn’t missed Sir John,” I said to my husband, turning my thoughts back to the present. “Such an amusing gentleman.”

Colin’s eyebrows shot nearly to his hairline. “I’m afraid I see rather less of his humor than of his devotion to King and country.”

I fluttered my eyes. “Surely you don’t expect a silly girl like me to be more concerned with work than amusement?”

“You’re dreadful, Emily.” He took my hand and raised it to his lips, his dark eyes intense. “You know I would tell you more about my work if it were possible. That I can’t is in no way a comment on either your intelligence or your gender.”

“I know, I know, it’s not me. You can’t take anyone into your confidence.”

He shifted uneasily and sighed. “It’s a matter of—”

I put my palm on his cheek. “I’m only teasing you. I know how important your work is.” I felt guilty for having overheard his conversation. “Surely Sir John wouldn’t object to you taking a little holiday after all the weeks you’ve just spent doing heaven-only-knows-what while I waited, not asking a single question.”

“My dear, in all the years that I have known you, you’ve never gone more than two hours together without asking impertinent questions about my work.”

“I had rather hoped you find it endearing,” I said.

“I do.” He pulled me close and kissed me. “As things stand, Sir John himself made the same suggestion of a holiday. What would you say to Florence?”

“A busman’s holiday, then, that involves determining who broke into Kat’s house there?”

“How do you know about that?” he asked.

“Davis knows better than to hide burglaries from me.” My incomparable butler had been with me longer than Colin, and while he objected to some—many—of my unconventional habits, I never doubted his stalwart devotion. My husband raised his eyebrows again and now it was my turn to sigh. “I can’t wrongly impugn Davis. He didn’t tell me. I knew you’d received a telegram. When you didn’t mention it, I read it for myself.”

“When? It was in my study—”

“On your desk where I perched while watching you solve a particularly egregious chess problem. You were too focused to notice me pick it up.”

“I’m ashamed it was chess, not you, that distracted me so,” he said, pulling me even closer.

“I wouldn’t be so underhanded as to use my wiles to distract you,” I said. “That would be unfair.”

“No secret of the realm could remain safe.”

“I shall bear that in mind. Now, tell me everything.”

Along with a substantial fortune, Kat’s mother had left her daughter a palazzo in Florence not far from the Uffizi Gallery. Kat had planned to live there, but upon learning the identity of her father the previous year, decided to locate him first. Needless to say, Colin objected to the idea of his newly-found offspring living abroad, alone and unprotected. He persuaded her to come to England with us and was confident her studies at Oxford would keep her from returning to the continent. At least for now.

“If you read the telegram, you know as much as I,” he said. “The house has been broken into twice, but so far as anyone can tell, nothing was stolen either time.”

“Which suggests something other than an ordinary burglar.”

“It might be nothing more than an incompetent thief who is easily scared off. I’d feel better looking into it myself, and it gives us an excuse to explore Florence,” he said. “You ought to invite Cécile to accompany us. It’s been too long since we’ve seen her.”

I kept every muscle in my face as still as a statue. Cécile had not only spent New Year with us, but had hosted us for a fortnight in Paris not two months earlier. That Colin wanted her to join us told me in no uncertain terms that there was more to this break-in than he was letting on; he wanted me to have a friend to keep me occupied while he worked. I once again resorted to fluttering my eyelashes and then cooed over his suggestion, leaving him in no doubt that I was onto him. He said nothing, only leaned forward as if to kiss me, before changing course and sweeping me into his arms so that he could carry me upstairs to our room.

It was an excellent attempt at a distraction, one that worked almost flawlessly. He forgot, however, that despite his talent as a cricketer, I could play the long game better than he. After he’d drifted into a blissful sleep, I remained awake, already plotting my strategy for Florence.        

 

Chapter Two

Florence, 1480

 Any discussion of Florence in those already fabled days must begin with the acknowledgment of it as the most glorious city in the world. Here, learned men debated Neo-Platonism while the most sublime artists in history brought their work to ever-greater heights. There was no better time—or place—to be alive. Only a year or so ago, our leader, Lorenzo de’ Medici, il Magnifico, upon learning that King Ferrante of Naples was scheming to assassinate him, rushed straight to the citadel of his enemy to demand an explanation. Not only did he survive the encounter, he emerged with the king as an ally. This is the sort of character necessary to impress us Florentines.

These were days when anything seemed possible. We did not feel bound by the rules that governed the world’s more mundane places; we took for granted our exceptionalism. Our building materials came from our city, the sandstone of our houses quarried within the town’s medieval walls and held together with mortar formed with sand from the Arno. Those golden-brown façades hid the monstrous arrogance behind the quest for our cathedral’s magnificent dome, designed before anyone knew how it might be built. Yes, the duomo glorified God, but one could not separate the achievement from the genius of the men behind it. We all marveled at Brunelleschi’s creation, never balking at his background as a goldsmith and clockmaker. We were not trapped by our pasts. At least our men weren’t.

For most girls, the city was less vibrant. They stayed inside, where they would not risk bringing dishonor to their families, waiting to be told who they would marry, warned against even being seen looking out the windows of the palazzi in which they dwelled. But I, Mina Portinari, had grown up with a freedom shared by few of my peers, thanks to my unconventional grandfather, Teo Portinari, an extraordinarily learned man who, after serving the pope, embarked on a quest to help Cosimo de’ Medici and his heirs find books lost since the days of antiquity. When he returned to his native city, the upper echelons of society embraced him. While my friends learned how to run complicated households, my grandfather taught me to read Latin and Greek and took me to il Magnifico’s villa to visit his giraffe. I fed it an apple, delighted at the feeling of the beast’s impossibly long tongue against my hand. Nonno let me dine at his table with artists and great thinkers, my parents too busy with their own lives to take much notice. His guests called me charming and complimented my bright blonde hair, competing to see who could bring forth my eager laughter. Until I grew old enough to stir in them other longings.

That was when my mother interfered. Which explains why I have no more intellectual evenings. Instead, I help her balance household accounts, manage servants and slaves, and am only allowed out of our palazzo to go to church or, accompanied by my mother, to visit friends. When I complained to my compatriots, they teased me mercilessly. I was living the way they had always done, and they had no sympathy for my plight, leaving me to wonder if never having known the delights of academic conversation would be preferable to missing it so keenly.

Almost by accident, I started spending more time in the confessional, an action that bore no relation to the sin, or lack thereof, in my life. I was not always kind to my brothers. I sometimes disobeyed my mother. I often fell asleep while at my prayers. But, fundamentally, I considered myself a virtuous person. I feared God and obeyed His commandments. Yet I found I was saying more in confession than I intended. Not that I had been hiding sins. Rather, I had settled into a habit of giving arduous explanations for my misdeeds, to the point that Father Cambio, a priest at Santa Trinita, the church where my family heard mass, started to laugh.

“How old are you, Mina?” he asked.

“Sixteen last month. How old are you?”

“Thirty-two.”

“So ancient! I would not have guessed.”

He did not balk at my impertinence. “You’re old enough to be married. Has your mother spoken to you about this?”

“More than I would like.”

“What would you prefer?”

“I’d prefer she let me return to dining with my grandfather and his humanist friends. Is that a sin?”

He laughed again. “No, in and of itself, it is not a sin. But you ought to be careful about the company you keep, lest you be led astray.”

“So far as I can surmise, the only imminent danger I face is succumbing to boredom after repeated exposure to the minutiae of household management.”

“When you marry, your husband will rely on you to handle all such matters. It is a critical responsibility. We are not all so fortunate as your grandfather when it comes to our daily lives. Most of us will never comb the libraries of German monasteries in search of ancient manuscripts.”

“I never dared hope for a life half so interesting.”

He studied my face, his eyes full of sympathy. “I have an idea that might help. When I see you next for confession, I will have a book for you, something we can read and discuss.”

I felt a thrill of emotion as I walked up the church steps the following week. Books had always held an important place in my life, and there had never been a shortage of them in our home. My father, a wealthy wool merchant, considered them essential household objects, but more out of a desire to appear cosmopolitan and educated than because they stirred his intellect. Like all successful businessmen in Florence, he cared very much about enhancing his family’s reputation, and our city valued a classical education almost as much as it did money. For me, though, books spoke to my soul. I needed them more than food or water. Or so I believed at the time. But when I saw the title of the slim volume Father Cambio pressed into my hand, I felt only disappointment.

“You do not like it?” he asked.

“It’s not that,” I said. Petrarch’s De Vita SolitariaOn the Life of Solitude—was not what I had expected. “Petrarch…”

“You wanted his poetry.” Father Cambio smiled. Despite his age, he was an attractive man, with dark hair and green eyes, built more like a knight than a priest. A bit of a waste, I thought. “I could hardly be the one to encourage you to drink in his adulation of the fair-haired Laura, whose own locks couldn’t have been brighter than yours.”

My face flamed. “No, it’s only—”

“We neither of us is here for poetry. Come, I shall hear your confession.”

That day, I did not speak so long to him as had become my habit, nor did I feel lighter after he granted me absolution. This left me with a lingering confusion. Back at home, I opened the book. I believe that a noble spirit will never find repose save in God, in whom is our end, or in himself and his private thoughts, or in some intellect united by a close sympathy with his own. Petrarch suggested that leaving a crowded city was an excellent idea for one seeking repose in God, no doubt a view influenced by his own family’s exile from Florence. But how did this pertain to my life? I could no more leave Florence than I could choose my own husband; what was the point to contemplating either? Furthermore, the concept of finding repose in God sounded tedious to me. I did not much care for solitude in those days. Then, the poet suggested that solitude did not preclude friendship, and as I continued to read, his prose offered a welcome balm for my turbulent emotions. It will never be my view that solitude is disturbed by the presence of a friend, but that it is enriched. If I had the choice of doing without one or the other, I should prefer to be deprived of solitude rather than of my friend.

These sentences grabbed me, opening my mind to the idea that two seemingly contradictory positions might be reconciled in a most satisfactory manner. I longed to speak to someone about this, longed for the company of my grandfather and his friends, but had no one but my brothers to whom I could turn.

Until I went back to confession, where Father Cambio awaited me, ready to discuss more than my as-yet underwhelming sins.

 

Chapter Three 

Florence, 1903

 Despite the multitudinous descriptions penned in both poetry and prose, no account of Florence can adequately capture the serene essence of the place. It possesses none of the outlandish beauty for which Venice is famous, instead sitting elegantly awash in soft gold on the banks of the Arno River, its backdrop the blue peaks of the Chianti mountains. The Piazzale Michelangelo—built above the city on a hill in 1869, when Florence was the capital of the newly-unified Italy—provides an incomparable view, and is where one ought to begin every visit, letting the home of Dante and Michelangelo, Botticelli and DaVinci, sink into one’s soul. For that is what Florence does, undulating gently through one’s body, taking possession of everything it touches, satisfied only once it has reached the core. Venice grabs one in an instant; Florence seduces more slowly.

Yet even upon first arriving, one understands, in some fundamental, almost primal, way that this is a city of bankers, bankers and merchants who held most of the wealth in the Renaissance world. Perhaps this is why its beauty is more reserved than that of Venice. At least on the exterior.

Colin and I had broken our journey in Paris, where we collected Cécile (along with her two tiny dogs, Caesar and Brutus). We arrived in Florence at the Stazione Centrale Santa Maria Novella in the midst of a downpour—not the time to take in the view from the Piazzale Michelangelo—so I ordered our carriage straight to Kat’s house, a mile away in the Via Porta Rossa. Its imposing medieval sandstone façade towered above as we ducked through large arched doors into a vaulted loggia where a serious-looking middle-aged woman, as wide as she was tall, and a willowy young maid welcomed us. The latter grinned and nodded a greeting; the former frowned at my husband.

“Signore Hargreaves, it has been many years. This is your wife, I presume?” Her withering glare left no doubt as to her opinion of me.

Colin kissed her on both cheeks. “Yes, Signora Orlandi, and there’s no need to be severe. If you can’t behave, I’ll book us rooms at the Grand Hotel Continental and never see you again.”

The signora flitted her hand in a quick, dismissive gesture. “You men are even worse about deciding who to love than we women. Who am I to judge? It has been many, many years since we lost the contessa.” She gestured to the girl next to her. “This is Tessa. She is learning English, but only knows a bit so you will have to be patient with her.”

“A very little inglese,” the girl said, smiling. Her golden hair and slim figure brought to mind Botticelli’s depiction of Venus in his Primavera. I extended my hand to her and introduced myself in Italian, which prompted an excited response from her, only half of which I could understand.

“Tessa grew up in a small village near Pisa. She speaks the dialetto tuscano—the Tuscan dialect,” Signora Orlandi said. “Your Italian is good, Lady Emily. You will have no trouble picking it up. It is not so different from what you already know.” There was a begrudging admiration in her tone.

“I’ve long admired your nation for adopting Dante’s vernacular as its own,” I said. “I will always prefer the sound of Tuscan to that of Neapolitan.”

She squinted her dark, almost black, eyes. “Il diavolo non è nero come si dipigne.” The devil is not as black as he is painted.

“That’s a proverb, Signora Orlandi, not Dante,” Colin said. “Ella è quanto de ben pò far natura; per essemplo di lei bieltà si prova.” She is the sum of nature’s universe. / To her perfection all of beauty tends.

She threw back her head and laughed. “I will never argue with a man so much in love. It is good to have you back, signore, especially after these dreadful break-ins. Come inside before you catch a chill in this damp. Signora du Lac, your champagne arrived yesterday. I have a bottle ready for you.”

Cécile, who on principle refused to drink anything but champagne except first thing in the morning, sent her preferred vintage ahead whenever she traveled. She nodded appreciatively at the housekeeper. “I find myself already innamorato with Firenze.” Caesar barked, as if agreeing with his mistress. Brutus showed no sign of interest.

The housekeeper led us out of the loggia and into a courtyard, where we mounted a staircase and climbed up one flight. At the top, a covered gallery landing skirted the perimeter of the house’s interior. Each floor above was arranged identically.

“The Sala dei Pappagalli—the room of parrots—is the warmest in the house at the moment,” Signora Orlandi said, ushering inside, where a large stone fireplace boasted a most welcome roaring blaze. “Tomorrow the sun will come out and all will be better. October is not usually so cold.” The ceiling loomed high above us, its heavy beams and painted trusses complementing the walls, which were decorated in red and blue geometric shapes that would have felt familiar to any fourteenth-century resident of the city. Above the pattern, the artist had painted a lush band of trees with parrots in them.

I dropped onto one of the leather chairs in front of the fire while Colin opened the bottle of champagne chilling on a table in the middle of the room and poured a glass for Cécile.

“You would prefer something warm?” Signora Orlandi asked me. I thanked her and requested tea. She and Tessa set off for the kitchen just as the third member of the household staff, a young man called Fredo, entered. He explained that he was responsible for all work requiring a masculine touch and that he was the only person to have nearly seen the intruder who had twice broken into the house.

“There is little to tell that you do not already know from my telegram, signore. I only noticed the first incident because the intruder knocked over a stack of pots in the kitchen. The noise woke me and I made chase, but he had already fled downstairs and out the front door.”

“Is the kitchen not downstairs?” I asked.

“No, Lady Emily, it is on the third floor.”

“How curious you Italians are,” Cécile said, taking stock of the young man. His age precluded him from being of much interest to her—she believed strongly that no man was worth anything before the age of forty—but that would not stop her from enjoying his swarthy good looks. Fredo met her appreciative gaze without hesitation and grinned.

“After the second time he came in, I took to sleeping in the loggia,” he said.  “That way I could hear anyone who tried to get in.”

“Assuming they entered through the front door,” Colin said.

“There’s no other point of entry. There are no windows on the ground floor except in the loggia.”

“What about a door from the alley?” Colin asked. “Is there no servants’ entrance?”

“The Contessa von Lang did not want anyone to enter the house except from the front. She had every other door bricked up.”

Kat’s mother, the countess in question, had met Colin in the course of her work as an agent of the Austrian government. The house in Florence was the place to which she could escape, unnoticed, when she wanted respite and privacy. Possessing a sharp intelligence and fully aware of the dangers of her work—she was eventually killed in the line of duty—she would never have tolerated an unsecure residence.

Signora Orlandi returned, but not with my tea. “Signore Hargreaves, there is a gentleman here to see you.” She handed Colin a card, which he glanced at and nodded.

“Excellent. Send him in at once.” He turned to Fredo, dismissing him. “We will speak again. Thank you.”

“Were you expecting someone?” I asked.

“Yes, a colleague, Darius Benton-Smith. He was at school and then Cambridge, but before me. He’s quite possibly the most charming gentleman on earth. You’ll adore him, Cécile.”

“How old is he?” she asked.

“Old enough,” Colin said, knowing her proclivities.

“I do believe, Monsieur Hargreaves, that you, too, are finally now old enough. I had not realized that until this moment. How very interesting.”

The door swung open and Mr. Benton-Smith stepped into the room, pausing to bow the moment he saw Cécile and me. “Good heavens, Hargreaves, you should have warned me you’d brought ladies with you. I was not prepared for such an onslaught of loveliness.”

My husband made introductions, while the newcomer kissed our hands and bestowed upon my friend and me a barrage of earnest compliments. He was ever so slightly taller than Colin, with dark blonde hair and green eyes that flashed with flecks of amber. His features could be lauded as a study of English handsomeness.

“I’m more than sorry to arrive and disrupt this enchanting party. Can you ladies ever forgive me?”

“Has a woman yet been born who could answer that question in the negative when posed by you, Monsieur Benton-Smith?” Caesar and Brutus, seeing their mistress’s attention so thoroughly fixed on someone other than themselves, rushed for Mr. Benton-Smith’s ankles and nipped at them furiously. He crouched down and spoke to the little dogs in a voice that would have soothed even an enraged lion. Caesar succumbed to him at once, Brutus following half a heartbeat later, neither objecting when he scooped them up and lifted them to his face, accepting their enthusiastic kisses. “You need do nothing more to prove your worthiness to me, monsieur,” Cécile said. “They do not usually welcome newcomers with such eager passion.”

“You must call me Darius.”

“I wouldn’t hold out much hope,” Colin said. “I’ve known her for more than a dozen years and she still won’t call me by my Christian name.”

Mr. Benton-Smith returned the dogs to the floor. “Hargreaves, is there somewhere we speak privately? I’m afraid work is rearing its unfortunate head.”

“There’s no need,” Cécile said. “Kallista and I will make a little exploration of the house and leave you to your work.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Colin said. “I shall have your tea brought to wherever you wind up.”

“Monsieur Hargreaves, I would deny you very little, but must ask, in return, that you never, ever suggest I would drink tea.” Cécile took her empty glass and the bottle of champagne, smiling at Mr. Benton-Smith as she glided out of the room. I came behind, raising an eyebrow at my husband as I passed him before closing the door behind us.

Tessa, tea tray in hand, was upon us almost at once, so we postponed our exploration for the moment and followed her up two flights of stairs, across the gallery landing, and past the kitchen to a narrow and brightly-painted corridor that led to a cozy room. Like the one in which we’d left the gentlemen, its walls were covered in elaborate painted designs. Wooden shutters in the wall near the stone fireplace stood open to reveal a niche that held a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. A single chandelier hung between painted beams on the ceiling, glowing gold, but not providing a great deal of light. After depositing her tray on a convenient table, Tessa stoked the fire and then left us alone.

“Kallista, Kallista. We live in such interesting times, do we not?” Almost the moment she met me, Cécile had adopted the nickname bestowed on me by my late first husband and since had never called me Emily. She took away the tea I had poured, picked up the remaining cup from the tray and filled it with champagne before passing it to me. “The addition of Monsieur Benton-Smith to our party is a welcome one. I did not suspect your husband’s interest in coming here had to do with his work, but that is now undeniable. I assume you know more. What’s going on?”

“My knowledge of the situation is limited in the extreme.” I recounted for her the conversation I’d overhead between Colin and Sir John.

“Ah, as if Monsieur Hargreaves, who is already impossibly handsome, needed something to make him even more intriguing. We’ve known all along his work was both secret and important, but are you telling me he holds the fate of his beloved British Empire in his hands?”

“I wouldn’t go quite that far, Cécile, but these break-ins are more significant than we’re being led to believe.”

“Bien sûr, particularly if they require the services of two agents of the Crown. I must say, Kallista, I had never expected to be faced with a pair of such handsome spies. Are they spies, do you think?”

“I don’t know that I’d go that far,” I said, “although I have been reading a book that is starting to make me think otherwise—”

A piercing scream interrupted, startling me so that I dropped my champagne-filled teacup. I raced out of the room and looked down to the courtyard below. There, sprawled at impossible angles, lay a dark-haired man, his eyes open but vacant, staring but not seeing, a frayed rope tied around his torso.

 

Copyright © 2021 by Tasha Alexander. All rights reserved.


About The Dark Heart of Florence by Tasha Alexander:

In 1903, tensions between Britain and Germany are starting to loom over Europe, something that has not gone unnoticed by Lady Emily and her husband, Colin Hargreaves. An agent of the Crown, Colin carries the weight of the Empire, but his focus is drawn to Italy by a series of burglaries at his daughter’s palazzo in Florence—burglaries that might have international ramifications. He and Emily travel to Tuscany where, soon after their arrival, a stranger is thrown to his death from the roof onto the marble palazzo floor.

Colin’s trusted colleague and fellow agent, Darius Benton-Stone, arrives to assist Colin, who insists their mission must remain top secret. Finding herself excluded from the investigation, Emily secretly launches her own clandestine inquiry into the murder, aided by her spirited and witty friend, Cécile. They soon discover that the palazzo may contain a hidden treasure dating back to the days of the Medici and the violent reign of the fanatic monk, Savonarola—days that resonate in the troubled early twentieth century, an uneasy time full of intrigue, duplicity, and warring ideologies.

Emily and Cécile race to untangle the cryptic clues leading them through the Renaissance city, but an unimagined danger follows closely behind. And when another violent death puts Emily directly in the path of a killer, there’s much more than treasure at stake…

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