This past Friday, December 7, was Charles and Mélanie’s wedding anniversary (you can figure out the date from Charles’s letter to David the day after the wedding in the A+ section of “Secrets of a Lady”). Because they met in November, it made sense that they would have married in early December, and so I gave them the same wedding anniversary as my parents. I have a lot of happy memories of early December anniversary celebrations with my mom and dad (somehow, when I was a child, their anniversary didn’t seem that close to Christmas, whereas now I’m in a state of mild panic about holiday preparations :-). This week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a letter Charles writes to Mélanie on their first anniversary, which finds them in Southern France with Wellington and the British Army, who have driven the French forces, under Soult, across the Pyrenees. Needless to say, Charles and Mélanie have a great many more pressing things to think about than the stress of holiday shopping and cards and decorating.
I’m thrilled that people seem to have been enjoying the sneak peeks I’ve been posting from “The Mask of Night.” I’ve been asked if I’ll post more, and I definitely will. In fact, for the holiday season, I’ve decided I’ll post brief snippets every week through the end of the year. If anyone has any particular type of scene they’d like to see, do let me know by leaving a comment. I’d love suggestions. Meanwhile, this week’s excerpt comes from the first scene between them in the book.
Mélanie Fraser hesitated in the vast, empty reaches of the bedchamber. Despite the coals burning behind the satin-stitched firescreen and the tapers sparkling in their girandole candlesticks, the room felt cold. Or perhaps the cold came from anticipation of the evening ahead. She crossed eight feet of Savonnèrie carpet and turned the handle on the dressing room door.
The candlelight wavered, shifting over a tall figure in the act of fastening the cuffs on his black velvet doublet. The pier glass and the mirrored panels on the wardrobe doors reflected his image. For a moment she felt as though she had stumbled into one of her children’s picture books and was looking at some sort of fantastical creature of the night. A study in slashed black velvet and starched white linen, his face reduced to a full-lipped mouth and a shock of dark hair with a mesh of jet beads covering the space in between.
“I can’t manage the clasp on my necklace,” she said, “and I sent Blanca downstairs.”
He tugged off the mask, revealing sharp, Celtic cheekbones, deepset gray eyes, slanting dark brows. A collection of features as familiar to her as the parched slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains or the intricacies of a set of picklocks. But for another disconcerting moment she felt she was looking at a stranger. A stranger who happened to be her husband.
Charles Malcolm Kenneth Fraser, the man to whom she was bound by circumstance, a yellowing set of marriage lines, and a tangle of emotions she could not begin to unravel crossed to her side and took the necklace from her fingers. His hands closed round her throat for a moment as he set the cool pearls against her skin. He lifted the curls her maid had so carefully arranged from the nape of her neck and reached beneath her stiff, high standing lace ruff to fasten the gold links of the clasp.
“I never realized what an effective weapon a strand of pearls could make,” he said.
“Fatal lack of imagination, darling. And you’re usually so inventive.”
“We all have our blind spots.” He pressed his lips to the nape of her neck.
“Thank you, dearest.” She turned round and summoned up a bright smile. “It’s nice to have all the armor safely in place.”
“Don’t be pessimistic, Mel. For once, there’s no reason to think we’re going onto a battlefield.”
“That depends on how one defines a London ballroom. Bel told me she didn’t know what to be more worried about tonight–Whigs and Tories coming to blows over the Corn Laws or Russian and Austrian attachés quarreling about the Polish situation.”
“Or Bonapartists and Ultra Royalists debating the future of France?”
“It seemed politic not to mention that.”
“Tactful as always, wife.”
He lifted his cloak from a shield-back chair and watched her for a moment, with that look he’d so often worn in the last two months. As though she were a code he was searching for the key to.
Her throat went tight. A betraying weakness. She turned, perhaps a little too quickly, and went back into the bedroom. Her cloak and mask and beaded reticule lay decorously on the striped green satin bench at the foot of the bed. She picked up the mask and found herself looking at the mahogany four-poster. In the shifting balance of power that was their marriage, it too had been a battlefield, more often than she cared to admit.
She draped the cloak over her arm, slipped her wrist through the silver strap on the reticule, and returned to the dressing room doorway. Her husband was settling his cloak over his shoulders with the ease of one used to disguises. “Charles—”
She pressed her finger over a wrinkle in her glove. “Thank you.”
“For what?” He knotted the silk cords on his cloak.
“If you have to ask, you aren’t the man I take you for.”
“Which is entirely possible.” His gaze moved over face, her pearl-dressed hair, her black velvet Elizabethan gown. “We’re only going to a ball given by two of our closest friends.”
“Did I say otherwise?”
“I can read your silences rather well.”
She tucked a curl behind her ear. “It’s nothing.”
“Surely you can lie better than that.”
“I’m afraid”—the words caught for a moment, because she wasn’t used to admitting to being afraid of anything—”I’m afraid it’s too early.”
“We can’t hide forever.” He stretched out a hand and cupped her cheek. “Do you want to send our regrets?”
She let herself lean her cheek against his palm. “No, I was just indulging in a craven moment. I promised Bel we wouldn’t fail her. She said she needed some friendly faces. There’s a throng of new attachés and charges d’affaires on the guest list. I’m not going to recognize half of them.”
“I shouldn’t worry. They’ll all be wearing masks.”
She gathered up her skirt and moved to the door. “Oh, my darling. In this world, who doesn’t?”