This week brought a lovely gift courtesy of UPS – ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of The Paris Affair. In honor of their arrival, I’m posting a teaser from the book and one commenter on the teaser will receive an ARC of The Paris Affair. This is a scene between Malcolm and one of the real historical characters in the series who is a major presence in his life – Prince Talleyrand. I love writing scenes with Talleryrand, and it was a delight to return to him in this book.
Let me know what you think! And be sure to also check out the new Fraser Correspondence letter I just posted from Charles/Malcolm to David in January 1816.
“Malcolm.” Prince Talleyrand extended his hand. He was, as usual, faultlessly arrayed, in a frock coat that would have been quite at home in the ancien régime, a frilled shirt, a starched satin cravat, and diamond-buckled shoes. “I saw you dancing with your exquisite wife. You make a charming couple.”
“I thought you had far more important things to observe in a diplomatic ballroom.”
Talleyrand turned his walking stick so the diamonds on the handle flashed in the candlelight. “I’d scarcely have survived as long as I have could I not observe more than one thing at once. I’m glad you dance more than you used to.”
“Even if it is with my own wife?”
Talleyrand’s thin mouth curved in a smile that also lit his pale blue eyes. “On the contrary Unfashionable, perhaps, but then you’ve never been one to care about the fashion. It’s good to find you circulating instead of spending the evening in the library.”
Malcolm had been four when he first met Talleyrand. It was both an advantage and a disadvantage in their relationship. It gave Malcolm inside knowledge of the prince, but it also gave Talleyrand inside knowledge of Malcolm, and Talleyrand was a master at using it. “I’m not quite such a recluse, sir,” Malcolm said. “Though as it happens I was hoping I could have a word with you in private.”
Talleyrand’s shrewd gaze slid over him, but the prince merely said, “Of course. I confess I frequently find society stifling myself these days.”
They moved along the edge of the dance floor, Talleyrand stopping several times to exchange greetings, and at last reached a white-and-gold antechamber, empty though the candles were lit. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” Talleyrand asked.
“Do I need an excuse to talk to you?”
“These days none of us does anything without an excuse.” Talleyrand dropped into a gilded armchair. “Is it to do with Rivère’s death last night?”
“What do you know about Rivère?” Malcolm asked, settling into the chair across from the prince.
Talleyrand leaned back in his own chair, stirring a faint dusting of powder from his hair. “I’d hardly be doing my job if I wasn’t aware that Rivère was selling information to the British.”
“You didn’t tell anyone. Did you?”
“By the time I acquired the knowledge I was dealing with the British myself.”
Malcolm set his hands on the arms of his chair, his gaze steady on Talleyrand’s face. “Who killed him?”
“My dear boy. I’m not as omniscient as you think.” Talleyrand smoothed his frilled cuff over his fingers. “I assume Rivère wanted you to get him out of France?”
“Was he about to be arrested?”
Talleyrand pressed a crease in the frill. “You’d have to ask Fouché.”
“Rivère’s cousin had been pressuring to have him arrested.”
“Yes, I believe so.” Talleyrand crossed his clubfoot over his good leg. The diamond buckle on his shoe flashed in the light from the branch of candles. “What did he threaten if you didn’t help him?”
“Vague claims to wreak havoc on the British delegation. What did Rivère have to do with Bertrand Laclos?”
Talleyrand’s brows drew together. His hooded eyes were suddenly more hawk-like than usual. “What did Rivère tell you?”
“Nothing specific. But his threats of havoc centered on Laclos.”
Talleyrand stared at his signet ring. “Laclos was an embarrassment. We were so proud when he returned to the fold. We should have suspected he might be a British asset from the first. I should have. I pride myself on knowing how the British think.”
“But in the end he wasn’t.”
Talleyrand frowned. “As is often the case, you’re too quick for me, Malcolm.”
Malcolm swallowed. Unease coiled within him. “Laclos was a double. I intercepted the communication that betrayed his work for the French myself.”
Rare surprise shot through Talleyrand’s blue eyes. “My word. So his death—”
“He was deemed to know too much.”
Talleyrand settled back in his chair. “Either I am a lamentable fool—which is entirely possible—or you’ve been deceived.”
Unease gave way to sick certainty. “You didn’t know Laclos was a double?”
“No. Of course I scarcely know the name of every French agent, but I like to think I would have done with someone so high profile.”
Guilt tightened Malcolm’s throat. “When did you learn he’d been working for the British?”
“Not until after his death. I could hardly fail to investigate with so important an asset. I had someone go through his papers. There was evidence he’d been working for the British. Given the embarrassed ripples that sent through French intelligence, if he’d actually been one of ours someone would have spoken up.”
Malcolm pushed himself to his feet and strode to the unlit fireplace. “I was afraid of this.”
He could feel Talleryand’s gaze on him. “You blame yourself too much, Malcolm.”
Malcolm spun round and looked at the man he had known since boyhood, his grandfather’s and mother’s friend. “An innocent man may have been killed because of me.”
“And in your line of work, I highly doubt he was the first. Or the last. You reported the evidence, Malcolm. Evidence which must have been fabricated.”
“A fascinating question.” Talleyrand tented his fingers together. “I must say this is interesting. I can certainly understand Rivère’s claims that he could shake the British delegation.”
“I’m glad our difficulties amuse you, sir.”
“You must allow me to take my amusements where I can, Malcolm. There are few enough of them these days.”
Malcolm crossed back to Talleyrand. “Laclos was friendly with your nephew.”
“So he was.”
“Did you arrange it?” Malcolm dropped back into his chair and leaned towards the prince.
“My dear Malcolm. I choose my agents with care, for their keen understanding and discretion. Which is why I’ve always regretted I couldn’t have you for an agent. And why I’d never want Edmond for one. I did suggest it might be a good idea for Edmond to show Laclos round Paris.”
“And you got reports on Laclos from him.”
“I found it useful to get Edmond’s rather unsophisticated view of Laclos. Later when I learned Laclos had been working for the British, I wondered if Laclos had encouraged the friendship because Edmond was my nephew. Perhaps he thought my avuncular affections went further than they do.”
“You got Edmond his wife,” Malcolm said, perhaps unwisely.
“So I did.” Talleyrand’s fingers tightened. He unclenched them and curved them round the arms of his chair. “Speaking of actions which haunt one.”
“Actually knowing Dorothée makes it clear she’s not a chess piece?”
“Regrets come with age. God knows what that means lies in store for you, considering the number you already appear to have at—what? Eight-and-twenty?”
“When I was eight-and-twenty—” Memories drifted through Talleyrand’s eyes. “I thought I knew a great deal, but in many ways I think I was much younger than you. I certainly hadn’t yet learned the meaning of regret. Or of love.”
Malcolm watched the prince for a moment. “Sometimes the two go hand in hand.”
“Yes.” Talleyrand’s fingers tensed on the chair arms. “So they do.”
“Rivère said one thing more.” Malcolm drew a breath, his throat raw. “Sir, is it possible Tatiana had a child?”
Talleyrand went still. His eyes became even more hooded than usual. “Rivère knew how to wound.”
Talleyrand folded his hands together. “It’s possible Tatiana did any number of things.”
Malcolm studied the man his grandfather had trusted with the secret of his unmarried mother’s pregnancy thirty-some years ago, the man his mother had trusted to keep an eye on her secret daughter in France. The man who had made Tatiana his agent. “Are you saying you knew—”
“My dear Malcolm. If I’d known your sister had a child I’d have told you.”
“After Tatiana died.” Talleyrand’s gaze was now unusually open.
“You might have thought I was better off not knowing. You might have made a promise to Tania.”
Talleyrand’s mouth curved in a rueful smile. “I’m not as protective as you think me. And I’ve learned to take a flexible attitude towards promises.”
Malcolm pushed himself to his feet, crossed the room in two strides, and leaned over the prince’s chair. “What do you know?”
Talleyrand looked up at him with the same open gaze. “A few stray comments, that might, in retrospect, mean something.”
“What comments?” Malcolm’s fingers bit into the fabric of the chair.
“An uncharacteristically wistful look in her eyes when she saw a small child once or twice. A comment, on hearing of a courtesan or actress who’d found herself in a delicate situation, that at least she herself had learned the value of precautions. And—”
“What?” Malcolm tightened his grip on the chair, holding Talleyrand’s gaze with his own.
“She asked me to help arrange time away from Paris for her. She needed a rest, she said. She needed not to be troubled by any of her various lovers. She was gone for about five months.”
“When was this?” Malcolm did calculations in his head.
“The spring of 1807.”
Malcolm straightened up and paced across the room. “More than three years after Tania left Russia. So the father couldn’t have been Tsar Alexander . Who could have fathered the child?”
“My dear boy. No offense meant to your sister—I hardly consider such behavior offensive—but keeping track of Tatiana’s conquests would have left me quite without time to tend to the business of France. I was still foreign minister at the time.”
“And Tatiana was your agent. Whom else did you have her collecting information from?”
“You can’t be so crude as to think the only way of collecting information—”
“Perhaps not the only but certainly one of the most likely with a beautiful woman like Tatiana.”
“She was establishing herself in Parisian society. She was indulging in flirtations with attachés from the Austrian and Prussian embassies. I don’t know if they went further. Even if they did, I see no reason for a child born of such a liaison to be kept secret.”
Malcolm locked his gaze on the prince’s own, trying to see behind that enigmatic stare. “Is there any chance Tania was involved with Napoleon Bonaparte that early?”
Talleyrand hesitated a fraction too long before he answered. “Not that I know of.”
“Not that you know of?”
Talleyrand smoothed his ruffled shirt cuff over his fingers. “I’d be lying if I said Bonaparte hadn’t noticed her. And it was like Tania to set her sights on men in the highest positions of power. It’s possible something had begun and she had reasons for keeping it from me. But even if it had, even if he was the father of her child, there’d have been no need then for such excessive secrecy. Bonaparte was generous with his bastards.”
Malcolm paced back to Talleyrand’s side and stood looking down at him. “What else?”
Talleyrand looked up at him, gaze bland as butter. “I don’t believe there is anything else.”
“Doing it much too brown, sir. You admit yourself you suspected Tania had had a child. And that she might have been Bonaparte’s mistress. You can’t expect me to believe you didn’t ask her about the child’s parentage.”
Talleyrand’s mouth curved with appreciation. “I could deny it, but I suppose there’s no point now. Yes, as it happens I did ask her. Tatiana didn’t deny there was a child. But she went as serious as I’ve ever seen her. She begged me not to ask any questions about the baby’s parentage. Not for her sake, but for the child’s.” He shook his head. “I’ve never been the sort to take vows seriously.”
“She made you swear not to ask more about the child’s parentage?” Malcolm asked.
“She made me swear not to tell anyone there was a child.” Talleyrand met Malcolm’s gaze, his own deceptively clear and direct. “Especially you.”