Olga Novikov is a princess without a throne. Her fiancé and her family slain in the revolution, she flees Russia and finds herself working as the head of housekeeping at London's luxurious Grand Russe Hotel. It's a far cry from the glamour of her former life, but she's grateful for the job-until a guest forces her to question where her loyalty lies. The charming nobleman challenges her at every turn-and arouses dreams of romance she thought she'd abandoned forever . . .
Douglas "Glass" Childers is living a double life. On the surface, he's the indolent Viscount Walling, but in truth he's an intelligence agent searching for a Bolshevik weapons master. The coolly beautiful and headstrong housekeeper is a distraction he doesn't need-unless she's the key piece in the puzzle he must solve. Trusting her could be dangerous-but loving her is an undeniable temptation . . .
Praise for Heather Hiestand's novels
"One Taste of Scandal is a delicious, multi-layered Victorian treat.""
-Gina Robinson, author of The Last Honest Seamstress and the Agent Ex series
"A fast read with a different view point than many novels in the genre."
-Library Journal on His Wicked Smile
"This is definitely one for the keeper shelf." -Historical Romance Lover on His Wicked Smile
"A delightful, sexy glimpse into Victorian life and loving with two wonderfully non traditional lovers." -Jessa Slade, author of Dark Prince's Desire, on His Wicked Smile
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)|
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London, February 23, 1925
Though Lord Walling was his true title, some days it served as an alias. Douglas "Glass" Childers, Viscount Walling, reflected on the irony of his new posting as he surveyed the Artists Suite on the seventh floor of the glorious Grand Russe Hotel on Park Lane. His Hermès steamer trunk, shoe case, and vanity case were piled against the wall between the entryway and the sitting room, along with his Louis Vuitton hat box and a couple of porte-documents voyage — all the accoutrements of the modern traveling nobleman, whether he was a spy or not. He had only needed to transport his luggage a short distance, from Knightsbridge, in fact, where he lived just below Hyde Park.
Not that he liked people to know that. As far as his network of agents was concerned, he worked and possibly even lived out of a one-bedroom flat in Cosway Street, Marylebone.
"Nice digs, eh?" Bill Vall-Grandly, one of his operatives, said. He'd been posted here for a few days, and his less-impressive luggage waited just inside the suite door.
For now, Glass's usual activities were curtailed because of the threat to national security presented by certain hotel guests. Higher priorities prevailed, and he had to take his place as a spy instead of as a spymaster. Surveillance came first. "Indeed. Show me the operation."
Vall-Grandly, a rotund man with a kindly air who nonetheless possessed the steely nerves and stamina required of intelligence work, went into the sitting room and found the clasp holding a painting against the wall. As he opened it, he said, "Behind this is a shelf created by Secret Service technicians. It holds our listening equipment." He pulled on the headset for a moment to ensure that the recording device trained on the Russian trade delegation next door was working properly and pointed out the features to Glass.
Normally Glass supervised secret agents rather than acting as one himself. But staff had been thinned to unacceptable levels since the war ended. The present government didn't want to believe there were any current threats to Great Britain worthy of the expense of spycraft. Glass knew better. The service monitored German intriguers, Irish anarchists, and, worst of all, Russian bomb makers, among others.
For now, he'd had to pass management of his section to his chief and dig into the daily work of a spy himself. He'd lost his last operative installed here full-time in the suite to matrimony and an assignment in the north, monitoring the infiltration of trade unions by the Bolsheviks.
"Thank you. Have you heard anything new regarding this so-called trade delegation's dabbling in human smuggling?"
"No, but they've only been here a month. Plenty more time for mischief before their official meetings commence." Vall-Grandly pressed the painting back against the wall.
At least staying at the listening post should be uncomplicated work. Only last month this hotel had nearly been damaged by Bolsheviks, but they'd caught wind of the plot in time. The Metropolitan Police's Special Branch had sealed off the tunnels beneath the hotel proper, which had once harbored the tools of the bomb maker's trade, including a nice little nest where at least one Russian had been hiding. The hidey-hole in the basement had been dank and dark, as unpleasant as any Great War trench. Nothing like the rest of the hotel.
"I'll be going now, Glass. I have a dead drop that I have to monitor rather closely to pickup time, or the messages tend to be destroyed. Waste bin near a nursery playground. You need a break, just let me know. I'll be happy to give up a few hours of sleep to keep the operation going."
"Thanks, Bill. It is men like you who are going to keep these bloody Russians from wreaking any more havoc on London."
Lines creased diagonally under Vall-Grandly's eyes as he smiled. "Thank you, sir." They shook hands before the operative picked up his modest bag and glanced over the sitting room one last time.
Glass took in the luxury of the Artists Suite as he stepped away from the Russian-style painting of a dancer dressed as the Firebird. The furniture glowed starkly, all white to highlight the richly decorative Russian artwork on the walls. He had no knowledge of the artists' names or styles, but he could appreciate the sheer exuberance of the jewel tones. Reds, purples, blues, and greens all blazed as brightly as any stained-glass window letting in the sun. The stenciling high on the walls of the hotel's public spaces was absent here, so the eye could feast strictly on what was inside the frames.
"Be a pity if this place was destroyed," Vall-Grandly ruminated. "I've been told that ballet is the primary theme of the hotel, but art in general is a strong second."
"I recognize the Firebird as being a character in a ballet, but I have no idea who the sleeping lovely in the next painting is meant to be," Glass said. In a blue-and-white ball gown, the sleeper rested on a dainty pillow, her blond curls done up in a sapphire ribbon. The settee holding her petite body was upholstered in blue, pink, and cream stripes. It would never work at the Grand Russe Hotel, which had been decorated in reds and greens. He took in the rest of the painting at a glance, having trained his eye to detail: olive walls, floral screen, gold occasional table, a window, the bottom half of a painting, a bookcase.
A knock at the door made him turn away from his fledgling art appreciation. The floor butler, he expected, or the hotel's head of security, ready to verify his communication needs. He opened the door ready for one of these men.
Instead, he found a tall, ash-blond beauty in a severe black dress — a serviceable dress. Despite the bearing of an empress, she must have been an employee.
"Yes?" he asked.
"My lord," the woman said in an imperious Russian accent as she stepped in. "My apologies. I have come to collect a painting from the suite."
Vall-Grandly smiled broadly at the woman and laid a finger next to his nose before sliding out of the door and shutting it behind him.
The Russian accent lifted the tiny hairs on the back of Glass's neck. Yes, some of the hotel employees were Russian, but their employment didn't mean they were above suspicion. "Who are you?" "I am Olga Novikov, the head of housekeeping."
"Novikov," he said slowly. "Shouldn't it be Novikova?"
"The English do not feminize their surnames, so I do not either."
She was trying to prove a point, but he wasn't sure what the point was. Unfortunately for her, Novikov was also the surname of the bomber his section was searching for. This woman could be a connection to the man he sought, but the cool beauty did not appear to be a woman who would give up her secrets easily.
He remembered a time when it was suggested that she be developed as a source for the Secret Intelligence Service. Now, her surname made her more of a point of suspicion rather than someone they'd pay money to for information. Besides, he had no one to run her as a source. He'd have to take her on himself.
"I've heard of you. Serene Highness, correct?"
"I am a great-great-great-granddaughter of Nicholas the First," she said, tilting her head.
"A distinguished lineage," he murmured, noting the perfection of her nose and her slim neck. He suspected a chain of ancestors who only married the most beautiful women in Russia. "I have just moved in, Your Serene Highness. The suite is satisfactory to me as it is."
She frowned. "I am merely Olga here. Titles are for guests, not staff."
He let his eyebrows settle over his eye sockets, knowing that when his eyes narrowed it gave him a most forbidding look. "If you say so. Are you the only Novikov on staff here, or is it a common name?" "I have no relatives at the Grand Russe."
"Did many of your family escape the revolution?" he inquired.
"My family can be of no interest to you, Lord Walling." She took a step closer to him, enough that he could smell bleach and orange oil. "If I could collect what I need I shall leave you to settle in."
"A distinguished name doesn't mean I can allow you to take a painting from the suite."
She placed one hand over another, on top of the keys that she wore at her waist. "Not only am I head of housekeeping; I am also a personal friend of the hotel owner."
"And your point?"
"I am curating a Russian art exhibit for the hotel. I require the Firebird."
Glass might have let her take a painting but not that one. He was glad to know the woman, with her suspicious surname, had no idea that the Firebird had been permanently installed over the surveillance equipment. "I am convinced that the hotel manager did not give you permission to take that particular piece. It is the centerpiece of the room."
The princess drew herself up. "I'm well aware of the importance of Mr. Bakst's work," the princess said. "But it is not the room's centerpiece. That is the Konstantin Somov watercolor over the fireplace."
Glass stiffened at the name "Konstantin." Konstantin Novikov was the name of the bomber. He could not bring himself to merely send away the self-assured princess. "Let us take a look and see if I agree with you."
He stepped back so that she could enter the foyer and went into the sitting room. Above the fireplace was the work she had mentioned.
"It is a study for Somov's masterwork Echo of Bygone Days," she said, gesturing. "You can see the bodice is unfinished, as is the garden off to the right, yet the pale dress, and the dark walls to her right, makes this the perfect painting for this room."
Glass said nothing and merely stepped toward the Firebird, grateful his equipment didn't make any noise, at least until the recording device came to the end of the disk and turned itself off. "How can you say such a thing? This Echo girl is nothing but a bland apparition next to the doll face of the Firebird. Look at the dark eyes. And her dress! All those vibrant oranges and reds."
"You are teasing me, my lord," she said. "While I am a mere servant now, I assure you that I know art. Removing the Firebird will harmonize this room."
"I don't want it harmonized." He forced the corners of his lips up and turned them down again, knowing she was intelligent enough to pick up the falseness of his expression.
"My lord." She attempted to stare him down.
"Don't be headstrong," he chided. "I am a guest in one of the most expensive suites in this hotel. I expect my wishes to be respected."
Very deliberately, she bobbed into a curtsy.
"I must say you are far more beautiful than any of the women depicted in these paintings, though I can see the resemblance between you and this painting next to the Firebird. A relative of yours?"
The princess went to the sleeping beauty painting. "It is another Somov," she said. "But I do not know its history. Somov was a part of the Miriskusstva group, and I didn't know any of those artists."
"Why not?" he asked. He observed that the fiery light behind her eyes had softened. She'd gone deep, into the past.
"The artists I knew were Symbolists, friends of my late fiancé, not the homosexual crowd Somov ran in. They are mostly in Paris now, the survivors."
"Why aren't you there?"
"I —" She swallowed hard. "It is a long story, my lord. And I am taking too much of your time."
The smile he flashed was genuine this time. "I assumed you would refuse to leave until you had what you wanted."
"No, I need to return to work. I had a break, but that is long past now."
"Then you will have to leave empty-handed."
Her gaze sharpened again; the melancholy faded. "I insist we discuss the matter of the painting with Peter Eyre," she said, all show of obsequiousness departing the lines of her Athena-like body.
"I am sure the hotel manager will side with me," Glass said, "but I will not object to the conversation. Do you want to take the time now?"
She hesitated. "I should have someone come and unpack for you."
"That is the floor butler's duty, surely."
Her head swiveled toward the door just as he heard a click behind the Firebird. The disk was full. But she didn't seem to notice the out-of-place sound. "I can't imagine why he hasn't stopped by."
"Busy with other guests. All those Russians next door must keep his schedule full."
She shook her head. "I do not understand why that party has not been removed. Boorish, my lord. They are not our kind."
He inclined his head. "Thank you for the advice, Olga. I shall endeavor to steer clear of them."
"Let us go downstairs, if it pleases you, and see if Mr. Eyre is available."
"Excellent. I am very curious to know exactly how close your friendship is."
Her gaze darted frantically to his face, a quick movement of her eyes like a trapped bird trying to escape the otherwise serene expression. What was she afraid of?
All of a sudden, his curiosity was thoroughly piqued. The princess had secrets.
Olga rarely felt petite. At twenty-five, she was a statuesque lady hovering on the edge of youth. Her nightclub days were about over, not that she'd ever been to one, not even May stone's, the venue that was part of the Grand Russe Hotel, despite the separate entrance.
Viscount Walling, though, was a giant of a man. Not just his height gave that impression but also his bearing. She guessed he was over thirty and had been an officer in the war. He still carried himself like a soldier, with that upheld chest and shoulders that made a man seem massive.
He had thick, springy black hair, creating a further impression of height, and hadn't put a hat on when he'd left the suite to follow her along to the lift. His black brows matched the hair on his head in thickness and intensity, though the right one had a visible scar running through it, creating a space in the center that made the perfect symmetry of his features even more obvious.
Why was he staying at the hotel? Normally incurious about the guests, she was dying to know. With a title herself, and hoping to find some version of her old Russian life here in England, she'd studied Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage when she arrived. She knew Walling was the heir to the earl of St. Martin's. The earldom had plenty of money and surely still owned St. Martin's House on Hanover Square.
Maybe he had argued with his father. While she hadn't had brothers, she'd had cousins and could remember the fights the boys had had when first in the age of young manhood. They'd all died one way or another, in the war or the revolution. So many ghosts.
Lord Walling smiled at her as the lift operator held open the door for them. They exited onto the ground floor of the hotel. Her senses came to life as they turned the corner and arrived in the Grand Hall. The marble checkerboard floor and vaulted ceilings exaggerated every noise, from tapping ladies' shoes to men's canes to bellboys shouting guests' names. Words seemed to echo in the space, meaning secrets were never meant to be shared here. Everyone was bundled in thick coats, hats, and furs, trying to stay warm and dry in the incessant rain London had experienced recently. It seemed that spring would never come.
She slipped in a puddle someone's umbrella had left on the floor. Lord Walling captured her elbow to keep her upright. She felt more ungainly than ever as she struggled to stay on her feet. It served her right for the vanity of wearing inappropriate shoes. When Peter had promoted her officially to head of housekeeping, she'd stopped wearing her lace-up shoes and replaced them with black leather pumps. While she grimaced less when she caught her image in the wall mirrors on every floor of the hotel, she did present a hazard for herself on the marble floors.
"You can let go of me now," she said once she felt secure.
"Maybe I don't want to," he said.
She saw the twinkle in his eyes. It was far from the first time a guest had been fresh with her. Usually her manner and less-than-youthful age put them off, but not the bolder souls. "I want you to," she said with a direct stare.
He nodded and let her arm drop. "I apologize if I offended you."
"It is not my place to be offended. We'll have to pass behind the reception desk to reach Peter's office." They arrived at the desk. Hugh Moth, the front desk clerk, stood over his guest ledger. He was a nice boy, but next to him was Frank Russell, the concierge, who was a rougher character. She couldn't figure out how to stop him from asking her to attend the pictures with him. He'd been asking her for weeks on an annoyingly regular basis.
"Let us through, please," she said to Hugh. "Lord Walling has business with Mr. Eyre."
Hugh sneezed. He pulled a large white handkerchief from inside his coat pocket and wiped his nose. "Sorry, Olga."
Excerpted from "Lady Be Good"
Copyright © 2017 Heather Hiestand.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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