I had fun writing the glimpses into the Frasers’ holidays last week, so I’ve continued the series into the New Year. This week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence shows how Charles, Mélanie, Colin, and Jessica spent Christmas and the week after, including Boxing Day, 26 December. I also blogged about the history of Boxing Day on the History Hoydens holiday post, which is full of wonderful contributions about the history of holiday traditions from a number of the hoydens.
Here’s a new excerpt from “The Mask of Night,” which shows how Raoul O’Roarke comes into the story. “The Mask of Night” begins at a Twelfth Night masquerade, so I’ll post one more excerpt next week for Twelfth Night (and because I’m giving my annual holiday party on 5 January and can use the break from blogging🙂.
Warmest wishes for the New Year!
Charles leaned back against the greasy squabs of the hackney he had flagged down in Little St. Andrew Street. “Where do you think he is?”
“Raoul?” Mélanie’s voice was level, but he could sense the worn places beneath the polished veneer.
“He seems to be the pertinent person at the moment,” Charles said, pleased his own voice sounded quite normal. “If he’s here in secret, I doubt he’s be staying at Mivart’s.”
“No.” Mélanie smoothed the folds of the scarlet cloak Bet had lent her. The yellowed ivory of her borrowed gloves pulled over her taut fingers.
“Have you met him anywhere else in London?”
She turned to him with a gaze as steady as the sea on a windless day. “A coffeehouse in Bloomsbury called the Crystal Heart. Two years ago.”
He didn’t move a muscle, but his senses quickened, as they did when he heard an unexpected rustle in territory beset with snipers. “Not to be overly inquisitive, but I thought you stopped working for O’Roarke after Waterloo.”
“Stopping working for him didn’t cut all my old ties. He needed help setting one of our former associates up in London.”
“Fair enough,” Charles said, even as an image of his wife and her former lover huddled together at a table in a dimly lit coffeehouse hung in his mind.
“That damned mad man,” Mélanie said.
“Raoul. He had to have known I’d recognize him if I saw him at the ball last night.”
“You didn’t see him?”
“Darling.” Her mouth lifted in an approximation of her usual smile. “I’d have told you.”
“Probably. After we found St. Juste, any way.”
“Suppose that’s why O’Roarke was at the ball. Not to see St. Juste but to seek you out.”
“But I just told you he didn’t.”
“He could have changed his mind after St. Juste’s body was discovered and the ball erupted into chaos.”
“Possibly. But why would he have sought me out?”
“Because he needs your help as he did two years ago?”
Her dark brows, so carefully plucked into a delicate arch, drew together.
“Wondering which side you’re on?” Charles asked.
“Wondering what the hell Raoul is doing. I don’t think he’d employ a man like St. Juste were the stakes not high.”
“Nor do I.”
Her brows lifted.
“After all,” Charles said gently, “he is my father.”
She stared at him for a long moment. He returned her gaze, not letting his own waver. “Easier to say it straight out, don’t you think?”
That of course was the core of what made O’Roarke’s involvement in the matter such a cruel jest. Thirty some years ago, Raoul O’Roarke had been the lover of Lady Elizabeth Fraser, and he, rather than her husband, had fathered her firstborn child. Twenty years later, O’Roarke had become Mélanie’s spymaster and lover and was the father of the baby she’d been carrying when she married Charles. Which meant that in strict biology he was not only Charles’s father but Colin’s as well. All of which Charles had learned a scant two months since.
Mélanie’s mouth curved in an unexpected smile. “That’s the wonderful thing about you, Charles. You’re never afraid of the truth.”
“On the contrary. I’m frequently bloody terrified of it. But I don’t see what’s to be gained from ignoring it.” He shifted his position on the lumpy carriage seat. “We were going to have to deal with O’Roarke again sooner or later. It’s just turned out to be sooner.”
She drew a breath, as though her throat hurt. “Raoul taught me that when one’s attempting untangle someone’s motivation one has to try to think like the person in question.”
“Can you think like O’Roarke?”
“I worked for him for three years. I shared his bed, I plotted missions with him, I soaked up whatever he had to teach me. But some of the things I learned about him last November make me wonder if I ever knew him at all.”
“Yet like all of us he has a code, of sorts.”
“Whatever his sins, he’s driven by what he believes in. Freedom to think and speak without fear of arrest. A say in one’s own government. A world in which people don’t starve in the street.”
“The same things you and I believe in.”
“But Raoul’s willing to go to great lengths if he thinks he can achieve success.”
“Such as having the woman he loved seduce St. Juste?”
“That’s unfair, Charles. Raoul always left tactical decisions to me.”
They rounded a corner. He gripped the carriage strap harder than was necessary. “Do you recognize the description of the young man with the dark hair and spectacles whom Lucan saw with O’Roake?”
She shook her head. “The only associates of ours I can think of in London who wear spectacles are older. That’s the truth, Charles.”
“I didn’t question it. You said O’Roarke came to you two years ago for help in settling former Bonapartist agents in London. Was he just finding them a safe haven or was he setting up a network?”
“Why would he want a network in London?”
“Don’t play the innocent, Mel. Waterloo didn’t end Bonapartist hopes.”
“My dear Charles. You’re starting to sound like Carfax.”
“Don’t worry, I’m a long way from checking for enemy agents behind the bed curtains. Except for the one I sleep with, of course. But London has her share of former Bonapartists. The Comte de Flahaut was at the ball last night.”
“Flahaut seems to have turned his back on all things Bonapartist.”
“Seems. A number of people who seemed to have turned their backs on Bonaparte the first time went over to him during the Hundred Days.”
“And you think all these people are part of some vast conspiracy—”
“I’m exploring options. Has O’Roarke been in contact with Bonaparte since he was sent to St. Helena?”
Mélanie’s indrawn breath was like the snick of a blade. “Not that I know of. But he’d hardly have confided in me after I stopped working for him. Raoul thought Bonaparte was preferable to the alternatives, but he saw the Emperor’s faults as clearly as anyone.”
“His loyalty to the Empress Josephine goes back a long way.”
“That’s a personal loyalty. One of the few I’ve known him to admit to. He never talked much about their days in prison during the Terror, but it forged an unshakable bond.”
“Did O’Roarke know the contents of the paper he sent you to steal from St. Juste ten years ago?”
“I think so.”
“Did he ever mention it in the succeeding years?”
“Not in so many words. But he and Josephine corresponded regularly until her death.”
“If he thought Josephine was threatened—”
“Her memory isn’t.”
Mélanie pulled the scarlet cloak closed at her throat. The light from the window illumined a mended rent in the fabric. “The truth is, how can I guess how far Raoul would go for something he believed in when I can’t be sure how far I’d go myself?”
Her gaze held the scars of what she’d done, the knowledge that she’d probably do the same again, and a host of unanswered questions about choices she had not yet faced.
“I don’t think any of us can be sure,” Charles said. “Not until we face the choice.” He tilted his head back against the squabs. “’Working within the system can be next to impossible when the system itself is corrupt.’”
She swung her gaze to him. “Raoul said that to me.”
“He said it to me as well. When I was ten years old. Before the uprising of ’98 had forced him to leave Ireland for Spain. When he seems to have been trying to be a father to me, though I didn’t have the least idea of the truth of the matter at the time.” He drew a breath. His throat was raw with things he couldn’t define. “We wouldn’t have got Colin back without O’Roarke’s help. I’m not insensible of what we owe him. I’m not insensible of—other things. But I can’t answer for what I’ll do if he and I find ourselves on opposite sides.”
Mélanie folded her hands in her lap. “Nor can I.”