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The Firebird


Whoever dares to seek the firebird may find the journey—and its ending— unexpected.

Nicola Marter was born with a gift. When she touches an object, she sometimes sees images, glimpses of those who have owned it before. It’s never been a gift she wants, and she keeps it a secret from most people, including her practical boss Sebastian, one of London’s premier dealers in Russian art.

But when a woman offers Sebastian a small wooden carving for sale, claiming it belonged to Russia’s Empress Catherine, it’s a problem. There’s no proof. Sebastian believes that the plain carving—known as “The Firebird”—is worthless. But Nicola has held it, and she knows the woman is telling the truth and is in desperate need of the money the sale of the heirloom could bring.

Compelled to help, Nicola turns to a man she once left and still loves: Rob McMorran, whose own psychic gifts are far greater than hers. With Rob to help her “see” the past, she follows a young girl named Anna from Scotland to Belgium and on into Russia. There, in St. Petersburg—the once-glittering capital of Peter the Great’s Russia—Nicola and Rob unearth a tale of love and sacrifice, of courage and redemption . . . an old story that seems personal and small, perhaps, against the greater backdrops of the Jacobite and Russian courts, but one that will forever change their lives.

Chapter 1

He sent his mind in search of me that morning.

I was on the Tube, half a minute out of Holland Park and in

that muzzy not-awake-yet state that always bridged the time between

my breakfast cup of coffee and the one that I’d have shortly at my

desk. I nearly didn’t notice when his thoughts touched mine. It was a

rare thing these days; rarer still that I would let him in, but my own

thoughts were drifting and I knew that his were, too. In fact, from

what I saw of where he was—the angle of the ceiling and the dimly

shadowed walls—I guessed that he was likely still in bed, just waking

up himself.

I didn’t need to push him out. Already he was drawing back, apologizing.

. Not a spoken word, but still I heard the faint regretful

tone of his familiar voice. And then he wasn’t there.

A man sat heavily beside me, squeezed me over on the seat, and

with my senses feeling raw already, even that unwanted contact was

too much. I stood, and braced myself against the bit of wall beside

the nearest door and forced myself to balance till we came to Bond

Street. When the doors slid open I slid safely back into the comfort of

routine, my brisk steps keeping pace with everybody else as we became

a texting, talking, moving mass that flowed together up and out and

through the turnstiles and emerged onto the pavement, where we went

our separate ways, heads down and purposeful.

The morning was a lovely one for August. The oppressive sticky

heat had given way to fresher air that promised warmth but didn’t

threaten, and the sky was a pristine and perfect blue.

I barely saw it. I was thinking of that shadowed room, a greyer light

that spoke of clouds or maybe rain, a hand that had come lazily in view,

to rub his eyes while he was waking. It had been his left hand, and

there’d been no rings on it. At least, I didn’t think I’d seen a ring on it.

I caught my thoughts before they had a chance to wander further

and betray me. Doesn’t matter, I reminded myself firmly, and to make

quite sure I heard myself, I said the words aloud: “It doesn’t matter.”

I could feel the glances of the people walking closest to me, wondering

if I were off my trolley, and I flushed a little, tucking my head

well down as I came round the corner and into South Molton Street, a

little pedestrian haven of upscale shops, cafés, and galleries. Everything

always seemed quieter here, with the mad rush of Bond Street behind

me. I carried on down past the graceful old buildings with beautiful

doors to the one with the freshly white-painted facade where an expensivelooking

brass plaque with fine lettering read: galerie st.-croi x, fine

russian art Efacts and art , third floor .

The naming of the gallery had been one of Sebastian’s little

vanities—in spite of his French surname he was English through and

through, born of a line that likely traced its Hampshire roots back to

the Norman conquest. But Sebastian knew his business, and to art

dealers like him it was essential to create the proper image.

I was part of that, I knew, because I had the proper look, the

proper pedigree, the right credentials, and I always dressed to fit the

part. But when he’d hired me two years ago, he’d also made no secret

of the fact that it had been for my abilities—not only that I held a

master’s degree in Russian Studies and the History of Art, but that I

spoke fluent Russian and besides, my organized nature appealed to his

strong sense of order, and I had, what he’d called then, “potential.”

He’d worked to transform me, to mentor me, teaching me how to

get on the right side of the bid at an auction, and how to finesse our

more difficult clients. I’d come a long way from the rather unworldly

young woman I’d been when he’d taken me on.

He had transformed the gallery building as well. We were on the

third floor, in a space that today was as richly detailed as a penthouse.

Even the lift was mirrored, which this morning didn’t thrill me.

I was frowning as it opened to the elegant reception room where

a flower-seller painted by Natalia Goncharova hung above the desk at

which our previous receptionist had sat. She’d had to leave us unexpectedly,

and I’d been interviewing this past week to fill the vacancy,

while Sebastian and I shared out the extra duties.

It was not an easy thing to hire a person who could suit Sebastian’s

tastes, aesthetically. He wanted something more than simple competence,

or class. He wanted someone who embodied what the Goncharova

painting did—the painting he had hung above that desk, where

it would be the first thing noticed by each customer who stepped into

the gallery.

He’d had offers for it. Several of our clients could afford to pay a

million pounds with ease, but then Sebastian didn’t need the money.

“If I sell the thing,” he’d told me once, “then I’ll have only satisfied

one client. If I leave it where it is, then every one of them will think it

can be theirs one day.”

It didn’t only work with art. It wasn’t a coincidence that many of

our loyal and best customers were women, and they looked upon Sebastian

as they did that Goncharova flower-seller, as a prize that could

be won, with time and effort.

In fact, as I passed by his glass-walled office on the way down to

my own, I saw he had a woman with him now. I would have left them

to their business, but he saw me and beckoned me in, so I pushed the

door open and joined them.

Sebastian’s smile was all professional, with me, and even if it hadn’t

been, I would have been immune to it. He was too rich to be my type.

A gold watch flashed beneath his tailored sleeve as he leaned forward,

looking so immaculate I half-suspected that he had a team of stylists

working on him every morning, from his polished shoes right to the

tousled toffee-coloured hair that had been combed with just the right

amount of carelessness. “Nicola,” he introduced me, “this is Margaret

Ross. Miss Ross, my associate, Nicola Marter.”

Miss Margaret Ross was not what I’d expected, not our usual sort

of client. For one thing she was plainly dressed, but dressed with so

much care I knew she’d taken pains to look her best. And although I

was usually quite good at guessing ages, I had trouble guessing hers.

She had to be at least a decade older than myself, so nearing forty at

the least, but while her clothing and the way she held herself suggested

she might be still older, there was something in her quiet gaze that

seemed distinctly youthful, even innocent.

“Good morning.” She was Scottish. “I’m afraid that I’ve been wasting

Mr. St.-Croix’s time.”

Sebastian, ever charming, shook his head. “No, not at all. That’s

what I’m here for. And even if it can’t be proved, you still have a fascinating

story to tell your grandchildren.”

She cast her eyes down as though she were hiding disappointment.


“Tell Nicola.” Sebastian’s tone was meant to salve her feelings,

make her feel that what she had to say was fascinating, even if it wasn’t.

He was good, that way. To me, he said, “She brought this carving in

for an appraisal.”

It looked to me, at first, an undistinguished lump of wood that

curved to fit his upraised palm, but when I looked again I saw it was a

small carved bird, wings folded tightly to its sides, a sparrow or a wren.

Sebastian was saying, “It’s been in her family . . . how long?”

Margaret Ross roused herself to his smooth prompting. “Nearly

three hundred years, so I’m told. It was given to one of my ancestors

by Empress Catherine of Russia. Not Catherine the Great,” she said,

showing her knowledge. “The first Catherine.”

Sebastian smiled encouragement. “Peter the Great’s widow, yes. So,

the 1720s, sometime. And it very well might have been.” Holding the

carving as though it were priceless, he studied it.

Margaret Ross told him, “We call it the Firebird. That’s what it’s

always been called, in our family. It sat under glass in my grandmother’s

house, and we children were never allowed to come near it. My

mother said”—there was the tiniest break in her voice, but she covered

it over—“she said, with Andrew gone—Andrew’s my brother, he died

in Afghanistan—with him gone, and me not likely to have any family

myself now, my mother said there was no point in the Firebird sitting

there, going to waste. She said I should sell it, and use all the money to

travel, like I’d always wanted to do.”

“Miss Ross,” said Sebastian, to me, “lost her mother quite recently.”

I understood his manner now, his sympathy. I told her, “I’m so


“That’s all right. She had MS, it wasn’t the easiest life for her. And

she felt guilty for having me there to look after her. But,” she said, trying

to smile, “I looked after my aunties as well, till they passed, and

she was my own mother. I couldn’t have left her alone, could I?”

Looking again at her eyes, I decided their youthfulness came from

the fact that she’d never been able to live her own life as a woman.

She’d put her own life into limbo while caring for others. I felt for her.

And I felt, too, for the mother who’d hoped that her daughter would

sell their one prized family heirloom, and finally have money and comfort

to live just a little. To travel.

“The thing is,” Sebastian said, kindly, “without any documentation

or proof, what we dealers call provenance, we simply can’t know for

certain. And without that provenance, I’m afraid this poor creature

has little real value. We can’t even tell if it’s Russian.” He looked at me.

“Nicola? What would you say?”

He passed it to me and I took it, not thinking, forgetting my mind

had already been breached once this morning. It wasn’t until I was

holding it, light in my hands, that I realized I’d made a mistake.

Instantly I felt a warmth that had nothing to do with the carving

itself. I closed my eyes to try to stop the vision, but that only made it

worse. I saw a slanting fall of light, with fine dust dancing through it.

Two women, one ageing but lovely, with heavy black eyebrows; the

other respectfully bent, perhaps kneeling, her young face upturned in

uncertainty. “My darling Anna,” the first woman said to the other in

elegant Russian, and smiled. “You were never a nobody.”

I opened my eyes quickly, maybe a little too quickly, but to my relief

no one seemed to have noticed. “I really don’t know,” I said, giving

the small carved bird back to Sebastian.

He looked at it with a commendable blend of admiration and


“The trouble is,” he told our would-be client, “it’s so difficult to

date this sort of thing with any certainty. If it is Russian, it was very

likely peasant made; there is no maker’s mark or factory stamp to

go by, and without any documentation . . .” He raised one shoulder

slightly in a shrug that seemed to speak to the unfairness of it all. “If

she had brought you back an icon, now, this ancestor of yours, or

some small piece of jewellery—that I might have helped you with.”

“I understand,” said Margaret Ross. Her tone was bleak.

Sebastian turned the little carving over in his hands one final time,

and I knew he was searching for some small thing to praise, to let this

woman down as gently as he could. “Certainly it’s very old,” was what

he ended up with, “and I’m sure it’s had a few adventures.”

Margaret Ross wasn’t sure about that. “It’s been sitting there under

that glass for as long as I’ve known it, and likely it sat there a good

while before that.”

The twist of her faint smile held sympathy, as though she knew

how that felt, to be there on the mantelpiece watching the bright

world pass by, and I saw the small sag of defeat in her shoulders as,

accepting Sebastian’s return of the carved bird, she started to carefully

wrap it back up in its layers of yellowed, creased tissue.

Impulse drove me to ask aloud, “What was her name?”

She looked up. “Sorry?”

“Your ancestor. The one who brought your Firebird back from


“Anna. That’s all we know of her, really, we don’t know her surname.

It was her daughter married into the Ross family, that’s how the

Firebird came down to us.”

. Something tingled warmly up my arm. My darling Anna . . .

“Because maybe,” I suggested, “you could try a bit of research, to

establish some connection between her and Empress Catherine.”

From Sebastian’s glance I couldn’t tell if he was grateful or annoyed,

but he chimed in with, “Yes, if you were able to find proof of any kind,

that would be useful.”

Again that faint twist of a smile that spoke volumes about how

much hope she held now of discovering that. She admitted, “My

granny tried once, so she said, but no joy. Common people, they don’t

make the history books. And on our side of the family, there’s nobody


I saw the warm smile in my mind. Heard the voice. You were never

a nobody

“Well,” said Sebastian, beginning to stand, “I am sorry we couldn’t

be more of a help to you. But if you’ll leave us your address, we’ll keep

it in mind, and if ever a client requests something like it . . .”

I felt like a traitor, as Margaret Ross stood, too, and shook both our

hands. The feeling held as we escorted her back out into reception, and

Sebastian, with full chivalry and charm, gave her his card and wished

her well and said goodbye, and as the lift doors closed he turned to me

and, reading the expression in my eyes, said, “Yes, I know.”

Except he didn’t.

There was no way that he could have known. In all the time I’d

worked for him I’d never told him anything about what I could do,

and even if I’d told him, he’d have rubbished the idea. “Woo-woo

stuff,” he would have called it, as he’d done the day our previous receptionist

had told us she was visiting a psychic.

“No,” she’d said, “she really sees things. It’s this gift she has—she

holds a thing you’ve owned, see, like a necklace, or a ring, and she can

tell you things about yourself. It’s called psychometry.” She’d said the

term with confident authority.

Sebastian, with a sidelong look, had said, “It’s called a scam. There

is no way that anyone can be a psychic. It’s not possible.”

I’d offered him no argument, although I could have told him he

was wrong. I could have told him I was psychic, and had been for as

long as I remembered. Could have told him that I, too, saw detailed

visions, if I concentrated on an object someone else had held. And

sometimes, like today, I saw the visions even when I didn’t try, or concentrate,

although that happened very, very rarely now.

The flashes of unwanted visions had been more a feature of my

childhood, and I had to close my eyes and truly focus now to use my

“gift”—my curse, I would have called it. I had chosen not to use it

now for years.

Two years, to be exact.

I’d chosen to be normal, and I meant to go on being normal, having

the respect of those I worked with, not their nudges or their stares.

So there was no good reason why, when I sat down at the computer in

my office, I ignored the string of waiting emails and began an image

search instead.

I found three portraits, different in their poses and the sitter’s age,

but in all three I recognized the woman easily because of her black

hair, her heavy arching eyebrows, and her warm brown eyes. The same

eyes that had smiled this morning in the brief flash of a vision I had

viewed when I had held the wooden Firebird.

There could be no mistaking her: the first Empress Catherine, the

widow of Peter the Great.
“Damn,” I whispered. And meant it.
This reading group guide for The Firebird includes an introduction, discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Nicola observes at the beginning of the book that her “image” is what compelled Sebastian to hire her. Sebastian cultivates his own image as a Frenchman in order to seem more attractive to clients, despite his proud English heritage. The difference between the “image” of a person and his or her true nature is obviously a very important theme in this book; how normal do you think it is for people to perform different “images,” or versions, of themselves? When do you feel comfortable just being your natural self?
2. Nicola says of her need to help Margaret: “I couldn’t not help her. I’d never have lived through the shame” (page 17). Do you think her reaction was appropriate? When and where should we draw the line when it comes to helping others? Finally, do you think Nicola unconsciously knew that helping Margaret would bring Rob back into her life?
3. Rob may be able to read Nicola’s mind, but he also seems to be able to read her (he completely knows who she is and how best to love her). How much of this do you think is owed to his psychic ability? Is true intimacy being able to read the people you love?
4. “The world becomes a wider place, with but a little learning” (page 178). The Firebird brings to life so many beautiful different settings; which was your favourite? If you had to choose, would you prefer visiting England, Scotland or Russia? Why?
5. “It was what my mother always told my brother and myself that she missed most of all about St Petersburg—the beauty that lay everywhere, in unexpected places, if you only had the eyes to see it” (page 277). Have you discovered any unexpectedly beautiful places? If so, what are they?
6. “Since the Tsar’s death the Prince had kept close to [Empress Catherine’s] side, and the usual whispers had started to spread. General Lacey had recently said in disgust, of the gossips: ‘They’d have the poor Empress so busy with lovers she’d never be left with a moment to sleep. ’Tis the curse of a woman of influence that she must always be reckoned unvirtuous.’” (page 427). How well do you think this statement applies to today’s “women of influence”? Have we made progress, or do women still have stereotypes and prejudices to battle?
7. As both women’s stories progress, Nicola begins to draw from Anna’s bravery in order to be braver herself. Is there anyone in your own life that makes you feel brave, or inspires you?
8. Rob says to Nicola, “‘If we cannae be what we were born to be, the whole of it, we die a little on the inside, every day we live the lie. I’d die for you in every other way…but not like that. I’m sorry, Nick.’” Do you agree with Rob’s decision to leave Nick at that point of the story? When, if ever, is it appropriate to compromise your sense of self, values, faith, etc., in order to be with another person?
9. Do you think Rob overreacted when Nicola didn't want to publicly admit that she used her psychometric abilities to determine that the Surikov painting was a forgery? If you had such an ability, would you want others to know or would you too want to keep it a secret?
10. Just for fun: do you believe in psychics, or clairvoyants? Have you ever had your fortune told? Did it come true?
Photo by Wendy McAlpine

Susanna Kearsley is a New York Times, USA TODAY, and Globe and Mail bestselling author and former museum curator who loves restoring the lost voices of real people to the page, interweaving historical intrigue with modern suspense. Her books, published in translation in more than twenty countries, have won the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize, RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards, a RITA Award, and National Readers’ Choice Awards, and have finaled for the UK’s Romantic Novel of the Year and the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. She lives near Toronto. Visit her at or follow her on Twitter @SusannaKearsley.

"Susanna Kearsley brings historical figures and events to life in this artfully crafted, exquisitely detailed tale, laced with a heady mix of intrigue and romance."

– Chatelaine

"…Susanna Kearsley deftly interweaves a compelling contemporary romance with a sweeping historical drama, and the fantastic with the realistic, to create a richly nuanced, delicately balanced novel that will not only satisfy her regular readers but seems well-positioned to win new converts to her unique approach to fiction…The Firebird is the sort of book one wants to curl up within and savour.”

– The Globe and Mail

“…an enchanting story told with wit and dexterity…The Firebird has it all: love, intrigue, twists, betrayal, and unexpected outcomes…This is a book to remember.”

– Toronto Star

“…compelling characters, an intricate plot, and just the right balance of intrigue, romance, and historical detail…In a winning combination of historical treasure hunt and romantic tightrope, The Firebird is another page-turner for Kearsley.”

– Waterloo Region Record

“The latest historical romance from acclaimed Ontario author Susanna Kearsley crackles with imagination…With intrigue and verve, Kearsley has penned what is sure to become another bestseller.”

– Winnipeg Free Press

Praise for A Desperate Fortune

“Susanna Kearsley is a nothing less than a magician weaving together the past and the present in yet another marvelous, genre bending, romantic, mysterious, and utterly unputdownable novel. You’ll be captivated by the history, the secrets, the memorable heroines, and one of the cutest dogs to show up on the pages in a long time. Kearsley raises the bar book to book, and this is one of her most ambitious and successful ever. Bravo!”

– M.J. Rose, New York Times bestselling author of Seduction

“In A Desperate Fortune, Susanna Kearsley has conjured a story that will stay with you long after you put it down. Her deft touch with historical intrigue is matched only by her delivery of a contemporary heroine who is as unique as she is memorable.” 

– Deanna Raybourn, New York Time bestselling author of The Dark Enquiry

“A new Susanna Kearsley novel is always a cause for rejoicing—and for turning off the ringer on the phone and canceling all appointments.” 

– Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series

“Gorgeously romantic! One of the best books I’ve read this year!”

– Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens

More books from this author: Susanna Kearsley