Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ghost from the Past - Wiggons' School for Elegant Young Ladies (Book 2)

Ghosts from the Past
Second book in the Wiggons' School for Elegant Young Ladies

Anton Kazakov loved one woman and thought to spend the rest of his life with her. Never would he have imagined that she would betray him, leave him for dead, and disappear completely.

When all that she loved was lost, Natalie Pritchard returned to England to hide from her past and teach at The Wiggons School for Elegant Young Ladies. All has gone as planned, until one fateful night threatens the security she thought she’d found.

Now, Anton has found his Natasha and ghosts from both of their pasts emerge. As the web of treachery, deceit and lies are unwoven, will they survive long enough to find the truth?

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Saint Petersburg, Russia, February 1801

Anton Kazakov quietly let himself out of the house. On the street he glanced up to her window. He left Natasha to slumber, a small smile on her lips and their marriage well consummated. Dimitri, her brother, would kill him if he knew what they had done tonight. Anton could no longer deny his desire for her, the woman he loved, the woman he married in haste and in secret. With those thoughts in mind, he began his trek home to gather the last of his belongings. Then, he and Natasha would escape Sankt Peterburg and Russia. 
Time was of the essence and he did not want her caught in middle if anyone learned his secrets. The choice had not been an easy one, but he could not stand by and serve a Czar who aligned himself with a madman like Napoleon. If Czar Paul I kept making such unwise decisions, someone was bound to relieve him of his life. But that was not his concern. He had done his duty and needed to relay the latest information he learned of Paul’s expedition in India. Rumors had already been leaked to him that the Russian soldiers were closing in on the Ghost. It was time to disappear.
His steps quickened down the street. An uncertain, uneasy feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. It had grown as the day grew long. Hair stood up on the back of his neck. Did the discomfort stem from his desire to always be with Natasha and his fear it may be denied him? Or, did it stem from the dangerous game he played? Perhaps he should just turn around and take her from the country now. He could make do with the clothing on his back until they were safe.
Decision made, Anton altered his route to make his way back to her house but was brought up short by four soldiers.
He gulped and tried to remain calm. Maybe they were not after him. He turned again and hastened his steps.
“Anton Kazakov, halt.”
He broke into a run. Their feet pounded behind him. 
“You are under arrest for high treason, Ghost,” one of them called.
Sweat broke out on his brow. Anton spotted the corner up ahead. He could lose them.
A shot rang out. Pain tore through his back and he stumbled. No, this was not happening. His steps faltered. He tried to run, but he could not make his legs work.
The soldiers caught up to him when he fell to the ground. Anton rolled over and looked up at them. “Who?”
A young soldier grinned. “Natasha Petrov and her brother, Dimitri.”
The others laughed.
“I hope you enjoyed her bed tonight, for that was the last pleasure you will ever know.”
Pain pierced his heart at her betrayal. Worse than the shot in his back. But the soldier had to be lying. Neither Natasha nor Dimitri would ever betray him.
His world went black.


But they were happy, for they knew not enough of the world seriously to regret the
want of its enjoyments, though Julia would sometimes sigh for the airy image which
her fancies painted, and a painful curiosity would arise...

A Sicilian Romance
Ann Radcliffe

Cornwall, England, April, 1803

The hair stood up on the back of Natalie Pritchard’s neck. Wind howled and rocked the carriage. She pulled the collar of her pelisse tight. A feeling of foreboding had stayed with her since she and her three students left Lord Hopkins’ estate and she wished it would go away.
Miss Rosemary Fairview and Miss Eliza Weston sat across from her, snuggled against each other and sound asleep. Lady Sophia Trent, whose home had just served as the location for a short holiday, rested next to Natalie. The troublesome trio seemed to be without a care in the world and completely oblivious to the tension engulfing their teacher, though she had no real cause to be on edge. 
It was the travel. Ever since her escape from Russia, she was never comfortable venturing too far from the school, especially if the journey required them to be anywhere near the ocean. It was silly, of course, since one could hear waves crash against the Cornish coast and view the expanse of water from her bedroom window at Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies.  
Natalie just wanted to arrive at the school without incident. They were already hours behind schedule, having been delayed this morning. And she hated to travel at night with the girls, but there was little choice. She certainly wasn’t going to stop at an inn. Not only did they travel without a man for protection, other than their driver, but those three would attract too much attention and who knew what kind of mischief they would get up to in an inn.
She held her small pocket watch up to the lantern inside the carriage. In less than an hour they would arrive home. She rubbed her thumb against the smooth surface and resisted the urge to tap her foot before letting out a sigh.
“Halt!” The sound of a deep male voice rang out and the carriage slowed.
Natalie startled and sat forward to peek out the window. It was so dark she couldn’t see a thing.
“Stand and deliver.”
This could not be happening. Her stomach clenched in panic. Was this why she was on edge? Had she sensed the danger?
The girls stirred. Natalie held up a hand, hoping to keep them calm. “Please, be very, very quiet and do not make a fuss,” she whispered in a voice, which bordered on a plea. She never knew when they would behave docile or foolish, and right now she prayed for docile.
Eliza strained to look out toward the front of the carriage. Rosemary yanked her back. “What are you doing?” she demanded in a hushed tone.
“What do you think?” Eliza countered. “I am trying to see if it is the Ghost.”
 Natalie’s heart seized at the mere mention of the rumored apparition, yet she couldn’t help but think of a different Ghost or a different time and place. While her Ghost, a Russian working as a spy for England, stole into diplomats’ houses for documents in Sankt Peterburg, this one stopped carriages in the English countryside and relieved gentlemen of their important papers. 
Besides taking documents, the two shared another trait. They both stole a kiss before disappearing into the night. The Ghost haunting the roads in England never harmed anyone, which caused the three girls in the carriage to romanticize him. 
Yet, why would the English Ghost stop this carriage? They weren’t carrying any important papers as Natalie was certain Eliza’s journal would not qualify.
Natalie stiffened. What if it were a different highwayman, one who would demand jewels, funds, or worse? Her heartbeat increased with mounting fear. The fact she had three innocent young women in her care put her all the more on edge.
Boots crunched against gravel as the man approached the carriage door. She slipped a hand into her pocket and grasped the small pistol she carried. None of the students knew she possessed such a weapon, and she hoped she did not need to use it, yet it brought her comfort all the same.
The door swung open. The stranger grabbed the lantern and thrust it into the confines of the carriage. The occupants gasped. Sophia clung to Natalie’s arm while Rosemary cowered against the squabs. Eliza, ever the bravest of them all, leaned forward and tried to peer around the light. Natalie stared at the intruder to see if she could determine any visible features, but it was impossible. Not only did having the light being so close to her face almost blind her, a dark hat was pulled over the highwayman’s head and a scarf covered all but his eyes. He slowly moved the lantern around the carriage, starting with Rosemary, then Eliza and finally Sophia, as if studying the girls’ faces. When the light stopped before her, Natalie could have sworn she heard a small gasp from the man, but she couldn’t be sure. He held the light before her for several moments, much longer than his study of the three girls combined. 
She raised a hand up to block the heat of the flame when she could not take any more.  “Would you mind removing that from my eyes?”
The man stepped back. “Come.”
Natalie gaped at his outstretched arm before snapping her gaze back to his shielded face.  “I will not leave this carriage.”
Without a word, the man placed the lantern back on the hook just inside the door, then reached in and grabbed Natalie’s wrist. 
Panic seized her throat, but she tried to remain calm for the sake of the girls. “Unhand me!” Her demand came out more of a croak than with the air of authority she was hoping for.
He laughed and gently yanked her arm. He did not hurt her, but his strength was evident when he pulled her from the seat. She attempted to jerk her arm back, but he would not give. Natalie planted her feet against the floor and refused to budge. The click of a gun resonated through the silence.
She wished she could see his eyes, or even a patch of skin for that matter. As far as she knew, the Ghost never hurt anyone. Then again, how could she be so certain this was the Ghost? Was she being foolish in not obeying him? If he were the Ghost, all he wanted was a kiss and would be on his way. A kiss was hardly consequential compared to the safety of the girls.
Her hand tightened around the gun in her pocket and she slipped her index finger around the trigger. The weight of the weapon offered comfort and calmed her nerves. Natalie rose from her seat and allowed the highwayman to assist her to the ground. She took a step away from the carriage, and he stuck his head back inside. She could not hear if he said anything, but he pointed to each one of her students. She could only see Eliza from this vantage point. The girl’s eyes grew large and she shrank away from him. 
Natalie did not hear a single sound from the girls when the stranger gently grasped her elbow and led her into the darkness. She glanced back and noted a second man sat poised on a horse facing the driver, a pistol in his hand. She always suspected the Ghost didn’t work alone.
Any wise person would take off the moment the assailant dismounted.
Her pulse increased the farther they walked. He didn’t stop until they were under a copse of trees and any light from the slight sliver of the moon was obliterated by the lush foliage above. 
“Close your eyes.” The tone of his low command sounded somewhat familiar. If she could only see his face, or if he would speak a little louder she might recognize him. As it was, she barely heard him.
“I will not.” She had no idea where the nerve came from. This strange man had a gun, though she saw no evidence of it at the moment, but she refused to do his bidding. He just stood there, as if waiting for her to do as ordered.
Since they were at a standstill and she had no desire to be out in the dampness all night, Natalie turned on her heel, ready to march away. She managed one step before he grabbed her elbow and whipped her around. She gasped at the sudden jerk that pulled her arm up and hand out of her pocket. Her finger involuntarily pulled the trigger. 
She stifled a scream and looked to see if the man was injured. His right hand covered his upper arm, but it was too dark to see if there was any blood. She forced herself to breathe past the constriction in her throat and slowly backed away. What would he do now? Her gun carried only one shot so she had nothing else with which to defend herself, or the girls. 
The highwayman stood there, not moving nor raising his weapon against her. Maybe he was too stunned.
Natalie continued to walk backward, her heart beating an erratic rhythm. When she was halfway between the highwayman and the carriage she turned and sprinted toward the girls.  With each step she expected to hear the sound of his gun and feel the burning sensation of a ball in her back, but it never came. The man on horseback raced past her toward her assailant with another steed in tow. Natalie lifted her skirt and ran, thankful the rider was more concerned with the Ghost than punishing them.
The girls were in the doorway, their faces pale. They backed away and Natalie launched herself inside, closed the door, and banged on the roof to alert the driver. In the breath of a moment the horses were racing to take them away from this area.

Anton Kazakov grinned into the darkness and watched the carriage pull away. He still could not believe she shot him. Though his arm throbbed from the initial impact, he expected the injury was nothing serious. He should be insulted, but Natasha could not have known it was him. Heaven knew, she had never objected to his kisses before. However, how could he be sure any of their past was true? Perhaps he should be glad for the disguise, because had she known it was him, she may have aimed for his heart.
“Did I hear gunshot?” Vanko Michalovic asked as he reached Anton, ever the loyal companion. Vanko had spent nearly a year in a Russian prison cell with him. When the opportunity for escape came, Anton took his friend and brought him to England. The man was younger, but they bonded, nearly as close as brothers in that hellhole.
He grimaced. “You did, my friend.”
“This is dangerous. Is it worth being killed over?”
Anton laughed. “I will no longer be stopping carriages.”
Vanko sighed, probably with relief and dismounted. “I’m glad to hear. I’m sure you will come up with plan.”
Anton grabbed the reins and mounted his horse. He clenched his jaw against the pain that shot through his arm. “No need.”
“You found her?” the other man asked with astonishment.
“Tonight,” he answered with a grin. “She shot me.”
Vanko’s laughter followed him as Anton turned his horse back toward the road and set off after the carriage. He couldn’t believe he’d finally found Natasha and he’d almost given himself away when her grey eyes had met his.
He shifted in his seat and adjusted the reins. His left hand grew numb and he glanced down at his arm, now drenched in blood. Had Natasha done more harm than he initially suspected? One would think he would be able to tell if he were seriously injured. Then again, perhaps not. How many times had he been convinced he was about to take his last breath while in prison only to live another day? Had the torture he endured numbed to him the pain of a life-threatening injury? He didn’t think it was possible. Still, he would check his arm once he returned to his new home. But first, he would follow Natasha. He needed to know where she lived and determine if Dimitri Petrov, her brother, was with her. He couldn’t imagine Dimitri would be far, but he never expected it to take almost a year to find her either.   
Did she and her brother still spy for the government? If so, why was she hiding here when she could have a comfortable life in Sankt Peterburg?

On reflection, he doubted either of them retained ties to Russia. The ruler they supported was now dead. Paul I had been assassinated shortly after Anton’s arrest. Natasha and Dimitri probably decided to return to England, comfortable and away from anyone who would ask questions. Not that it mattered to him. He wasn’t out to find Natasha for the pleasure of it. He was out for revenge. After nearly a year of searching the English countryside, he finally found her. The woman who betrayed him.  His wife.

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