Happy autumn! In celebration of the season, my historical romance, Dark Angel, is .99 cents on Nook and Kindle for the month of November.
And for my October teaser, I thought I’d dip into my current WIP, The Princess’s Secret. It’s set in Paris after Waterloo, a few months later than Imperial Scandal (which will be out next April). I’m having a lot of fun writing it, and enjoying the fact that the Paris setting lets me revisit a lot of the characters from Vienna Waltz.
Here’s a sneak peek of the opening scene:
The hanging oil lamps swayed and gusted at the opening the door. The wind brought in the stench from the Seine. A man and woman stepped into the Trois Amis tavern and stopped just beyond the door. The man was lean and dark-haired and perhaps taller than he looked. He slouched with a casual ease that took off several inches. A greatcoat was flung carelessly over his shoulders. Beneath, his black coat was unbuttoned to reveal a striped crimson waistcoat. A spotted handkerchief was knotted loosely round his neck in place of a cravat.
The woman, who leaned within the circle of his arm, wore a scarlet cloak with the hood pushed back to reveal a cascade of bright red curls, brilliant even in the murky light of the tavern. Glittering earrings swung beside her face, though surely they must be paste rather than diamonds. Her rouged lips were curved in a smile as her gaze drifted round the common room with indolent unconcern.
The other occupants of the tavern glanced at the new arrivals. It was an eclectic crowd, a mix of sailors, dockworkers, merchants, women who plied their wares along the docks, a few young aristocrats in sporting dress. And soldiers, in the uniforms of Russia, Prussia, Austria, Bavaria, and England. These days, less than two months after Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo, one couldn’t go anywhere in Paris without seeing soldiers.
After a moment, the crowd returned to their dice, drinks, and flirtation. The accordion player seated in the center of the room, who had paused briefly, launched into another lively air.
The couple moved to the bar, where the gentleman procured two glasses of red wine. While he was engaged with the barkeep, several men ran appreciative gazes over the lady. One went so far as to put a hand on her back. “How much?” he asked, his head close enough to her own that his brandy-laced breath brushed her skin.
The lady ran her gaze over him. Her eyes were an unusual color between green and blue. She brushed her fingers against his face and then put a gloved hand on his chest. She gave a dazzling smile. “More than you can possibly afford.”
The man regarded her for a moment, then shrugged and grinned. “Can’t blame a man for trying,” he said, and moved toward a fair-haired girl by the fireplace.
The gentleman turned from the bar and put one of the glasses of red wine into the lady’s hand. If he had noticed the man making her an offer, he gaze no sign of it. He touched his glass to hers, and they threaded their way through the crowd to a table neither too obviously in the center of the room nor too deep in the shadows. Experience had taught them that the easiest way to hide was often to remain in plain sight.
The lady tugged at the cords on her cloak and let it slither about her to reveal a low-cut gown of spangled white sarcenet. The gentleman shrugged out of his greatcoat, slouched in his chair, and ran a gaze round the room.
“I don’t see anyone matching the description,” the lady said in unaccented French.
“Nor do I,” the gentleman agreed, in French that was almost a flawless.
“We’re a bit early.”
“So we are. But I’d give even odds on whether he actually puts in an appearance. He’s never been our most reliable asset.”
The lady tossed back a sip of wine. “Oh, well. At least we’ve had a night out.”
The gentleman grinned at her. “I can think of places I’d rather bring you.”
“But this one has a certain piquancy, darling. An evening without diplomatic small talk. Bliss.”
The gentleman lifted his hand to slide his fingers behind her neck, then went still, his fingers taut against her skin.
The lady had seen it too.
The man they had come to meet stood by the door, a short, compact figure enveloped in a dark greatcoat. He removed his hat to reveal hair that was several shades darker than its natural color. A good attempt at disguise, but nervousness still radiated off him.
“Well,” the gentleman murmured to the lady. “People can surprise you.”
The lady touched his arm. “I’ll take care of it, Charles.”
Charles Fraser caught his wife’s wrist. “Be careful.”
Mélanie Fraser turned to look at her husband. “Really, dearest, you’d think you didn’t know me.”
“Sometimes I wonder.” Charles pulled her hand to his lips, the gesture flirtatious to anyone watching, but his grip unexpectedly strong. “Remember, we’re in alien territory.”
She squeezed his fingers. “When are we not?”
Mélanie moved into the room, her spangled skirts stirring about her, and bent over the accordion player. He gave her a quick smile. A moment later, he launched into a lilting rendition of La ci darem la mano. Melanie began to sing, her voice slightly huskier than usual. She moved toward the nearest table and brushed her fingers against the face of the portly man who sat there, then bent over a young Russian lieutenant at the next table, her burnished ringlets spilling over his shoulder.
The buzz of conversation stilled. The dice ceased to rattle.
Charles allowed himself a moment to appreciate his wife’s skill, then picked up his greatcoat and glass of wine and strolled across the room to the corner deep in the shadows of the oak-beamed ceiling where the man he was to meet had taken up his position.
“My compliments, Rivere.” Charles dropped into a chair across from him. “I gave even odds on whether or not you’d actually put in an appearance.”
Antoine, Comte de Rivere, cast a quick glance about. “For God’s sake, Fraser, what do you mean coming up to me openly?”
“You were thinking we’d pass coded messages back and forth instead of having a conversation?”
“If we’re noticed–“
“My wife has things in hand.”
“Your–” Rivere stared at Mélanie, who was now perched on the edge of a table, leaning back, her weight resting on her hands, her skirt pulled up the reveal the pink clocks embroidered on her silk stockings. “Good God.”
“Yes, I don’t think you’ve seen Mélanie in action before. We’re both more accustomed to disguise than you are.”
Rivere looked from Mélanie to Charles. “Neither of you seems to have much sense of the need for secrecy. You’re both dressed to attract attention.”
“But the man and woman people will remember seeing tonight will seem nothing like Charles Fraser, attaché at the British embassy, and his charming wife.” Charles pushed his glass of wine across the table to Rivere. “You look as though you need it more than I do.”
Rivere took a sip of wine. His fingers tightened round the stem of the glass. “I pass messages. I don’t–“
“Indulge in this cloak and dagger business. Quite.”
“It’s all very well for you British.” Rivere twisted the glass on the scarred wood of the table. The yellow light from the oil lamps glowed in the red wine. “You’re protected by embassy walls and diplomatic passports. It’s getting more and more dangerous for the rest of us. The Ultra Royalists have been out for blood ever since the news from Waterloo. I sometimes think they won’t rest until they’ve rid the country of every last taint of Bonapartism. I’m not sure even Talleyrand and Fouché can hold them in check.” He grimaced. “Mon Dieu. That I’d ever be calling Fouché the voice of moderation.”
“If nothing else he’s survivor,” Charles said. “As is Talleyrand.” Prince Talleyrand, who had once been Napoleon Bonaparte’s foreign minister, and Fouché, who had been his minister of police, had both managed to survive in the restored Royalist government.
“Even they can’t hold back the tide,” Rivere said. “Look at la Bédoyère. The man just slipped back into France to say farewell to his wife and baby son, and they threw him in prison and executed him.”
“La Bedoyere was the first officer to go over to Bonaparte when he escape from Elba. You aren’t on the proscribed list.”
“Yet.” Rivere cast a glance about and leaned forward, shoulders hunched, voice lowered. “Fouché receives more denunciations every day. You’ve heard Royalists in the Chamber of Deputies clamoring for blood. Cleansing they call it. It’s the Terror all over again.”
Charles cast an involuntary protective glance toward Mélanie, who was tugging playfully at the cravat of a Prussian major. He looked harmless enough, but these days Charles’s every sense was keyed to danger. There was no denying France in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat was a dangerous place. Frenchmen clashed in the street daily with soldiers from the occupying armies of Prussia, Russia, Austria, Bavaria. And, Charles could not deny, England as well. Royalist gangs had ravaged Marseilles and Toulon and other cities. “It’s dangerous,” Charles conceded. “But that doesn’t mean you—“
“My cousin’s in the Chamber, and he wants me dead. My father got the title when his father was guillotined in the Terror. He wants it back.”
“There are legal avenues he could pursue.”
“But getting rid of me would be quicker. And it would be vengeance for his father. He’s worked his way into the Comte d’Artois’s set. It’s only a matter of time before I’m arrested.”
The Comte d’Artois, younger brother of the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII, was known for his zeal in exacting retribution on those who had supported Napoleon Bonaparte. It has been easier when Napoleon was exiled the first time. After his escape from Elba and his second defeat at Waterloo, the Ultra Royalists wanted blood.
Charles studied Rivere’s usually cool blue eyes. “The irony being that while you served Bonaparte you passed messages to the British.”
“But there’s no way I can prove it, damn it.”
“We could help. But being a British spy isn’t likely to gain you favor with the French, even the Royalists.”
“Precisely. I’m damned either way.”
“You’re not generally one to talk in such melodramatic terms.”
“I don’t generally fear for my life.” Rivere cast another glance round the tavern. Mélanie was now standing on one of the tables, arms stretched in a way that pulled the bodice of her gown taut across her breasts. A whistle cut the air.
Charles reclaimed his glass and took another sip of wine. “What do you want, Rivere?”
“Safe passage out of France.”
“I can talk to the embassy—“
“Not through official channels. That will take too long. Get me out of Paris and across the Channel within the week. Once in England I want a pension, a house in the country, and rooms in London.”
“You don’t set your sights low, do you?”
“Do you have any idea how much I’m giving up leaving France?”
For a moment, Charles could smell the salt air at Dunmykel, his family home in Scotland, and hear the sound of the waves breaking on the granite cliffs. It wasn’t easy to be an exile. Even if one had chosen the exile oneself, as he had done. “We don’t turn our back on our own, Rivere.”
“No?” Rivere gave a short laugh. “What about Valmay and St. Cyr and—“
“I don’t turn my back on our own,” Charles said. Far be it from him to defend the sins of British intelligence. “But I can’t make you guarantees of that nature on my own authority.”
“Take it to Wellington or Castlereagh or whomever you damn well have to. But I want an answer within twenty-four hours.”
“You seem very confidant.”
“I am.” Rivere reached for the glass and took a long drink of wine.
A whoosh sounded through the tavern. Mélanie had jumped off the table and landed in the lap of a red-faced gentleman in a blue coat.
Rivere set the glass down but retained hold of the stem. “Tell your masters that if they don’t meet my demands, the information I reveal will shake the British delegation to its core.”
Charles leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. It was not the first time he’d heard such a claim. “It’s not as though the British delegation has never weathered scandal. And the behavior of most delegations at the Congress of Vienna rather changed the definition of scandal.”
“This goes beyond personal scandal.”
Charles pulled the glass from Rivere’s fingers and tossed down a swallow. “Enlighten me.”
“Oh, no, Fraser. I’m not giving up my bargaining chip. But mention the Laclos affair to Wellington, and I think you’ll find the hero of Waterloo is all too ready to accede to my demands.”
Charles’s fingers went taut round the glass. “What the devil does Bertrand Laclos have to do with this?”
Rivere’s brows lifted. “That’s right. I forgot you were involved in the Laclos affair. I think I’ve said enough for now. Just take my message to Wellington and Castlereagh. I doubt either of them wants to see England and France at war again.”
Charles kept his gaze steady on Rivere, trying to discern how much was bluff, how much was real.
“I may only be a clerk,” Rivere said, “but clerks are privy to a number of secrets. I didn’t just ask you to meet me because you’re Wellington’s best agent. I asked you because what I know about you should guarantee you’ll help me.”
“Oh, for God’s sake—“
“For the sake of your family.”
“A bit extreme, surely,” Charles said in a light voice that sounded forced to his own ears. “My family are a long way from Paris.”
Rivere leaned back, holding Charles’s gaze with his own. “Given her varied career, it never occurred to you that she might have had a child?”
Oh, God. Rivere knew—
“Your sister,” Rivere said.
For a moment, the blood seemed to freeze in Charles’s veins. His acknowledged sister, Gisèle, was seventeen and safely in England with their aunt, where she had made her home since their mother’s death. Even given Aunt Frances’s penchant for scandal and his own absence, he couldn’t believe Gelly had had a child without his knowledge. So Rivere must mean–
“Yes.” Rivere reached for the glass and tossed down the last of the wine. “Tatiana Kirsanova.”
The blood roared in Charles’s head.
So that it took a split second for him to register the gun shot that had ripped through the tavern.
Let me know what you think. I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Charles/Malcolm to Mélanie/Suzanne written on their wedding anniversary in 1814 after the events of Vienna Waltz.