1821St. Petersburg, Russia
Countess Nadia Karkoff's house just off the Nevsky Prospect was not the largest mansion in the neighborhood, but it was by far the most luxurious.
In the finest tradition, the facade was designed along sleek, classical lines with a great number of windows and a wide, columned terrace. From the roof, Greek statues overlooked the upper balustrade with cold expressions of superiority. Or perhaps they were revealing their disapproval of the large gardens that surrounded the house. There was nothing classical about the brilliant profusion of flowers and ornamental shrubs and marble fountains that the Russian aristocracy adored.
The interior was equally elegant, with large rooms and soaring ceilings that were decorated in rich golds and crimsons and sapphires. Lush colors that created a sense of warmth during the long, dreary months of winter.
The furnishings were a mixture of satinwood and cherry, the style more French than Russian as suited the Countess's current fancy and contrasted nicely with the dark, brooding paintings by Flemish masters. Only the jewel-encrusted ornaments and jade figurines scattered through the rooms were entirely native.
It was the view, however, that was the crowning glory of the house.
From the upper windows it was possible to admire the churches and lavish palaces, with their glittering spires and golden domes, that adorned St. Petersburg. The stunning panorama allowed one to appreciate the beauty of the city without sensing the brittle tensions that ran rampant through the busy streets.
Having lived her entire two and twenty years in the house, Miss Leonida Karkoff offered only a brief admiring glance out the window of her bedchamber, more pleased with the late-spring sunlight than the familiar landscape.
Moving to seat herself before the mirrored dresser, she allowed her maid, Sophy, to smooth her long, golden tresses into a complicated knot atop her head, leaving a few curls to brush her temple. The severe style complemented the perfect oval of her alabaster skin, emphasizing her delicate bone structure and the starting blue of her heavily lashed eyes.
She would never possess her mother's dark, smoldering beauty, but she had always been considered quite pretty, and perhaps more importantly, her golden hair and clear blue eyes so closely resembled her father that there could be no mistaking her parentage.
Rather an odd circumstance considering that for all practical purposes she was a bastard.
Oh, Count Karkoff willingly claimed her as his child. And he was indeed married to her mother when she was born, which made Leonida entirely legitimate in the eyes of society. But there were few in all of Russia, and perhaps beyond, who did not know that her mother had been involved in a torrid affair with Alexander Pavlovich, the Emperor, when she had been hurriedly wed to the Count. Or that the Count had suddenly come into enough rubles to restore his crumbling estate outside of Moscow, an estate he rarely left, while the Countess was gifted with this lovely house and a large enough allowance to keep her in elegant style.
It was one of those secrets that was known by all, but spoken by no one, and while Alexander Pavlovich did occasionally send an invitation to Leonida to visit him when he was in St. Petersburg, he was more a vague, benevolent figure that drifted in and out of her life than a parental figure.
Not that she desired any additional parental figures, she ruefully acknowledged as her mother swept into the room, her lush form swathed in cherry gauze over a slip of silver satin with matching silver ribbons in her dark, glossy curls.
Her beauty was as dramatic as her entrance, although it was rather ruined by her grimace as her dark eyes glanced about the blue and ivory damask that Leonida had insisted be used for her private chambers.
Nadia Karkoff would never comprehend Leonida's preference for simplicity.
"Mother." Leonida turned on her seat to regard the Countess in wary surprise. There was never a doubt that the two loved one another deeply, but Nadia possessed a ruthless will and a habit of squashing anything that might stand in her path. Including Leonida. "Whatever are you doing here?"
"Sophy, I will speak with my daughter alone," Nadia announced.
The plump maid, who was the daughter of Leonida's English nurse, bobbed a curtsy, sending Leonida a covert wink. She was all too accustomed to Nadia's love of melodrama to take offense.
Waiting until the maid had left the room and closed the door behind her, Leonida rose from her chair and squared her shoulders.
It was always better to face the Countess on her feet.
Not that she was any less likely to be bowled over.
"Has something occurred?" she demanded bluntly.
Now that she had her daughter alone, Nadia appeared oddly reluctant to come to the point. Instead she drifted toward the wide bed canopied with ivory silk.
"Can I not simply desire a private conversation with my daughter?"
"You rarely do," Leonida murmured. "And never at this hour of the morning."
Nadia chuckled. "Tell me, ma petite,
am I being chided for my indolent habits or for being a less than devoted mother?"
"Neither. I am merely seeking an explanation for this unexpected visit.""Mon Dieu."
Nadia plucked the delicate fawn-colored muslin gown from the bed, studying the double row of garnets stitched along the demure neckline. "I wish you would allow my modiste
to make your gowns. One could easily be forgiven for mistaking you for a member of the tedious bourgeois rather than a young and beautiful member of Russian nobility. You must think of your position, Leonida."
It was a familiar argument, and hardly one to lure her mother from her bed at such an early hour.
"As if I am ever allowed to forget," Leonida muttered.
Nadia turned her dark gaze in Leonida's direction. "What did you say?"
"I prefer my dressmaker, Mother," Leonida said, her voice firm. On this subject she would not budge. "She comprehends that my tastes are more modest than other females'."
"Modest." Nadia heaved an impatient sigh, her gaze flicking over Leonida's slender form, which would never possess the seductive softness that most men preferred. "How many occasions must I remind you that a woman in society has no power unless she is wise enough to use what few weapons God has given her?"
"My gown is a weapon?"
"When designed to tantalize a man's hunger."
"I prefer warmth to tantalizing," Leonida retorted with unapologetic honesty. Despite the spring weather that had grudgingly arrived, there was a blazing fire in the white, gold-veined fireplace. She was always cold.
Nadia tossed the dress aside with a shake of her head. "Foolish child. I have done everything possible to ensure your future. You could have your pick of the most influential gentlemen in the empire. You could become a princess if only you would follow my lead."
"I have told you I have no desire to become a princess. That is your ambition, not mine."
Without warning, Nadia crossed to stand directly before Leonida, her expression hard.
"That is because you have never known what it is to be without wealth or an established position among society, Leonida. You may sneer at my ambition, but I assure you that your precious pride will swiftly be forgotten if you are impetuous enough to believe you can survive on love. There is nothing charming in being cold during the winter or darning your gowns to hide frayed hems." Her eyes darkened with remembered pain. "Or being excluded from society."
"Forgive me, Mother," she said softly. "It is not that I do not appreciate the sacrifices you have made for me, but
Leonida blinked in confusion at the abrupt interruption. "I beg your pardon?"
"Do you appreciate all I have done?"
Nadia reached to take her hands in a tight grip. "Then you will agree to do what I must ask of you."
Leonida hastily tugged her hands free. "I love you, Mother, but my appreciation is not without boundaries. I have told you that I will not accept Prince Orvoleski's proposal. Not only is he old enough to be my father, but he reeks of onions."
"This has nothing to do with the Prince."
Leonida's wariness deepened to outright anxiety. There was something in her mother's expression that warned her that this was more than just another of the theatrical scenes Nadia adored.
"Something has happened."
Nadia twisted her hands together, jeweled rings glinting in the morning light.
Instead of answering, Nadia drifted toward the window, the scent of expensive perfume drifting behind her.
"You know a small part of my childhood."
Confused, Leonida turned to study her mother's stiff back. Countess Karkoff never discussed her humble beginnings.
"You have told me that you were raised in Yaroslavl' before coming to St. Petersburg," she answered, her words tentative.
"My father possessed distant ties to the Romanovs, but after he argued with Emperor Paul he was too filled with stubborn pride to apologize and he was forever banished from court." Nadia's scornful laugh echoed through the room. "Stupid man. We lived in a frozen monstrosity of a house, miles from the nearest village, with only a handful of peasants to keep it from utter ruin. I was buried in the midst of savages with only my nurse to bear me company."
Leonida's heart softened with sympathy. This vivacious, extroverted, highly fashionable woman stuck alone in a gloomy old house? It must have seemed like hell to her.
"I cannot imagine you in such a setting," she breathed.
Nadia shuddered, one hand lifting to stroke the diamond necklace around her neck, as if to reassure herself that her grim memories had not stolen it away.
"It was a misery, but it ...