I blogged on History Hoydens last week about the historical background to The Mask of Night, so this seemed like a good time to post another excerpt. Following up on the historical background, here’s Mélanie’s first meeting in the book with Hortense Bonaparte (the Empress Josephine’s daughter, Napoleon’s stepdaughter and his younger brother’s wife). It takes place at the masquerade ball given by Oliver and isobel Lydgate.
I’ve also just added a letter from Evie to Quen to the Fraser Correspondence.
Have a great week and let me know your thoughts on the excerpt!
A hand closed on her arm. She turned round and found herself looking into a pair of clear, bright blue eyes, behind a gilded half-mask. The rest of the woman’s face was covered in white paint, bright lip and cheek rouge, dark brow blacking. A remarkably realistic imitation of Queen Elizabeth completed by a red wig, a crown that glittered with real diamonds, and a stiff cloth of gold gown.
“I must speak to you, Mélanie.”
Mélanie nearly dropped her fan.
“It’s me.” The woman’s fingers bit into her arm. “Please.”
Without wasting time on further speech, Mélanie led the way through the crowd to the far end of the ballroom—ducking behind a statue of Apollo to avoid Lady Jersey—and opened a door onto a small circular ante-chamber hung with cinnamon-striped silk. A fire and two lamps had been lit in case any of the guests wished to retire, but the room was empty and the curtains had been drawn across the French windows to the terrace.
Mélanie closed the door and put her back to it. The woman turned to face her. In the lamplight, the blue gaze was unmistakable, as was the soft, crimson-painted mouth beneath the mask.
“I know this sounds absurd in the circumstances,” Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte said. “But it’s so very good to see you.”
“You too.” And she meant it, even as another part of her brain screamed that she was about to be sucked into a maelstrom.
Hortense gave one of her sudden smiles. “But you’re wondering what in God’s name I’m doing here.”
“On the contrary. I can hazard a very good guess what you’re doing here.”
Hortense drew a shaky breath. “Have you seen him?”
“I could scarcely avoid it. Though he hasn’t been in London much since his marriage.”
Hortense’s fingers tightened on the stiff folds of her gown. “How is he?”
Mélanie saw the Comte de Flahaut as she had glimpsed him in the three years they’d both been in Britain. Sitting beside Margaret Mercer Elphinstone in a box at Drury Lane. Standing by the pianoforte to turn the pages of Miss Mercer’s music. Waltzing with her this evening. Smiling the smile that had dazzled women across the Continent. “Trying to find his way in a hostile world. Like the rest of us.”
“They have a child.”
“Yes. A little girl.”
“I’m glad. I always knew he’d make a good father.” Hortense hesitated, her gaze filled with ghosts. “His wife—does he love her?”
“Oh, chèrie. It’s difficult enough to know if one’s in love oneself let alone if someone else is.”
“His father pushed him into it. He never approved of me, and now he wants Flahaut as far away from the taint of Bonapartism as possible.”
She meant not the late comte, Flahaut’s legal father, but the man widely assumed to have fathered him, his mother’s former lover Talleyrand. Talleyrand had navigated the dangerous waters of the French Revolution to serve as Napoleon’s Foreign Minister and had survived Napoleon’s first exile to represent the French at the Congress of Vienna. He had managed a to survive yet again after Waterloo in the restored Bourbon government.
“M. Talleyrand’s own position is precarious,” Mélanie said.
“As are all of ours. I know I was mad to come here.”
“You want to see Flahaut—”
“On, no. That is, yes of course I do, but I wouldn’t run such a risk for so selfish a reason. Not now.” Hortense sank down on a gilded settee. “I’m not that girl anymore. The girl who tumbled so blindly into love when I should have been old enough to know better. I told Flahaut it had to end after Waterloo. He had to protect himself. I had to protect my children.” She looked up at Mélanie with a gaze as raw as a bullet wound. “I have no right to ask this, but I need your help.”
Mélanie’s fingers tightened round her fan. The plea had been inevitable from the moment she recognized Hortense, but that made it no easier to answer.
“I know it goes beyond any call of friendship,” Hortense said. “I know you can’t afford for your husband to know the truth–”
“My husband does know the truth.”
“I told it him last November.”
“You told him—”
“That I’ve been a French agent since I was sixteen, that I married him to gather intelligence, that everything he thought he knew about my past was a lie.”
“But– You’ve been married for seven years. Why—”
“The past intruded when I least expected it. Our son was in danger. The whys and wherefores don’t matter. Suffice it to say, I saw no alternative.
“And your husband—”
“Charles is a remarkable man.”
“He must adore you.”
What Charles felt for her and she for Charles was too private to be shared, even with Hortense. “Charles was a spy himself. That helped him understand.”
Hortense stared at her as though she’d claimed Charles Fraser was possessed of magical powers. “I can scarcely imagine what Louis would do in such a situation. He’d be furious–”
“I didn’t say Charles wasn’t furious.” The sound of Charles’s fist smashing through the wall of their salon echoed in Mélanie’s head. “At first I couldn’t imagine we’d ever be able to carry on a civil conversation, let alone maintain any semblance of a marriage. Even now– It isn’t easy for him. It’s never going to be easy.”
“I told Charles I stopped spying after Waterloo. Which is the truth. And I promised him I’d indulge in no more intrigues behind his back. I owe it to him to keep my word” And yet she could not deny the pull of that older loyalty, the plea in her friend’s eyes, so like her mother’s. “If you didn’t come to England to see Flahaut, then why?”
Hortense leaned forward. “Believe me, Mélanie, I wouldn’t ask this of you were the situation not dire. I didn’t have anyone else to turn to. Two months ago– Mon Dieu, was that an animal?”
Mélanie had already sprung to her feet. Years of listening for the telltale footsteps of an enemy sniper or the stir of a woken child had trained her to hear sounds beneath the general din. The noise had come not from the ballroom but the garden. And it hadn’t been an animal. It had been a scream that was all too human.