Thanks for the wonderful response to last week’s post about my new book contract. I spent a lot of last week curled up with tea and my laptop getting the book ready for submission. It’s so heartening to know there are people eager to read it. By the way, as of this week, the book has a new title–Vienna Waltz, which I love.
I thought I’d follow up this week with a brief excerpt from the book. This is the opening of Chapter 1 (which is preceded by a prologue). Since most people visiting this site are Charles & Mel fans, I thought I’d leave their names as Charles & Mélanie, which hopefully will help make the continuity of the characters clear.
Mélanie Fraser paused on the edge of Schenkengasse. Across the cobbled street, the swinging yellow glare of a street lamp caught the outline of a man, silhouetted against the ink black Vienna sky. Tophatted, greatcoated, otherwise an undefined blur beneath the wrought iron filigree of the lamppost. He cast a glance up at a bay window in the mansion above. The Palm Palace. The curtains were open. The lit tapers of a candelabra glittered behind the curved glass. The man stared at the window for a long moment, then looked away as though with an effort. He turned up the collar of his greatcoat and vanished into the night shadows.
From her vantage point in the mouth of a lane on the opposite side of the street, Mélanie willed herself to remain immobile until the man was gone from view. Her silk-gloved hands gripped tight together, she reminded herself that he could have been any of the throng of gentlemen gathered in Vienna for the Congress. Including the most powerful of those men. Prince Metternich. Tsar Alexander. Prince Talleyrand, though then surely he’d have had a walking stick. In the gossip that swirled through Vienna’s salons, she had heard them all rumored to be sharing bed of the occupant of the rooms with the bay window. Of all the women who had come to Vienna for the Congress, that lady was one of the most beautiful and the most talked about. The Russian Diamond. The Eastern Enchantress. The Delilah of the Danube.
Princess Tatiana Volkonsky.
But it wasn’t the rumors about Tatiana and the titans of the Congress that chilled Mélanie’s soul. It was other talk she had heard. Talk that cut closer to home.
Mélanie pulled the velvet folds of her opera cloak tighter about her shoulders. She could feel the crackle of Princess Tatiana’s note where she had tucked it between the pearl buttons on her glove. Not that she needed to refer to it. The words scrawled on the hot-pressed, violet-scented paper were imprinted on her memory.
If you value your husband’s safety, you will call upon me tonight, or rather in the early hours of the morning. at two a.m. You are too sensible a woman to fail me.
Precise instructions for how to enter Princess Tatiana’s apartments without detection followed on the back of the note. A footman had pressed the note into Mélanie’s hand at the opera three hours since in the midst of the third act of Idomeneo.
Mélanie drew an uneven breath. When it came to her husband, Charles, the obvious explanation was generally not the correct one. Yet even she had not been able to ignore the talk that he was among the throng of Princess Tatiana’s lovers. Talk she had carefully turned a blind eye to. A diplomatic wife learned to practice discretion. She had watched women like Princess Metternich turn it into an art. Mélanie might be only two years married, but she knew the rules of a marriage of convenience.
Not that theirs was precisely a typical marriage of convenience, in which a gentleman gave a lady his name and title and she gave him her dowry and family connections and they turned a well-bred blind eye to each other’s indiscretions. No, what she and Charles had exchanged was a bit more complicated. He had rescued her not from the ranks of unmarried young ladies on the sidelines at a ball, but from life on the streets in war-torn Spain. And in exchange she had given him– She couldn’t really say what she had given him. Or what lay behind his quixotic offer of his hand and protection. But it had been clear from the start that his heart did not go with his hand. She was supposed to let him go his own way and not make emotional demands.
And now she was breaking the rules. But the alternative was to put Charles at risk. She had woken two days before to find him gone from their bed and a note on the pillow explaining that the Foreign Secretary had sent him to Salzburg on unexpected business. A spare note, as all his communications were, signed with his initials. He was not expected back until the end of the week, so there was no way she could turn to him for advice on Princess Tatiana’s summons. Sometimes, especially since they had come to Vienna, she felt she scarcely knew him. But she could not forget that he had taken her under his protection at a time when she sorely needed it. She had perhaps done him a great wrong in marrying him, but he was her husband and the father of her child.
For a moment, she had a memory, clear as cut glass, of Charles and Princess Tatiana standing together on the balcony at the Zichys’ ball last week. Leaving the dance floor, Mélanie had glimpsed the tableau like a scene from a play, through French windows framed by red velvet curtains. Charles’s hand had been raised, as though to make a point, his fingers not quite touching Princess Tatiana’s white-gloved arm. Something in the angle of his head, tilted down toward Tatiana’s own, had radiated tenderness and intimacy. An intimacy Charles shared with few people. An intimacy he certainly didn’t share with his wife.
Other images followed in quick succession. Charles leaning against Princess Tatiana’s carriage at the Peace Festival last month. Charles bending over Tatiana’s hand in her box at the opera. Charles tossing Tatiana into the saddle on a picnic in the Austrian countryside.
Mélanie drew a breath, pushed the images to the recesses of her brain, and walked briskly over the cobblestones. A blast of wind cut through the velvet of her cloak and the spider gauze of her gown and settled deep inside her. Fears she would not allow herself to name tightened her throat and squeezed her chest. When one has suspected a thing for weeks, why is being confronted with stark evidence so much worse?
Three of the most beautiful women at the Congress lodged in the Palm Palace. The Duchess of Sagan, Princess Catherine Bagration, and Princess Tatiana Volkonsky. The three goddesses some called them. Though who at the Congress played the role of Paris was anyone’s guess. All three were rumored to be or to have been the mistresses of the most powerful men at the Congress. Perhaps at the same time.
So it was no surprise that Princess Tatiana had sent precise instructions for how to enter the palace. She wouldn’t wish her visitors to stumble on the Palm Palace’s other residents. As instructed, Mélanie went through a wrought-iron gate and found an unlatched side door. She slipped into a narrow passage lit only by a single taper in a wall sconce. The air smelled of beeswax with a faint, lingering whiff of sandalwood. She froze for a moment, one hand on the latch. But Charles was not the only man whose shaving soap smelled of sandalwood. She was being the sort of foolish, clinging wife she despised.
Simple pine stairs, of the sort used by servants, led up to the first floor. She climbed them quickly and hesitated outside the green baize door at the top. The instructions had told her not to knock. She turned the handle and opened the door.
The smell slapped her in the face as she stepped over the threshold. Cloying, sickly sweet. Her mind recoiled, even before her gaze took in the sight before her. The images registered in fragments, her mind refusing to make sense of the whole. A single lit candelabra on a table by the bay window. Shadows. A woman sprawled on the rose-and-cream carpet in a tangle of peacock blue fabric and Titian hair. Blood spilling from a gash in her throat.
A man knelt over the woman, a blur in the shadows. He raised his head, and Mélanie found herself looking at her husband.
Their gazes locked across the room. His gray eyes, so familiar and at the same time so unreadable, were dark with horror.
For a seeming eternity, that might have been minutes or seconds, she was unable to move. Then she took a half-step forward and said the words that most needed to be spoken. “Is she dead?”
He stared at her, his eyes like smashed glass. Her controlled husband’s gaze glittered with unshed tears.
“Is she dead?” Mélanie said again, her voice a harsh rasp.
“Without question.” Charles spoke quickly, in the flat tone he used when he was holding all feeling at bay. “Perhaps an hour since or a bit more .”
Mélanie crossed to his side with quick, jerky steps. Her limbs felt not quite under her control. “You found her like this?”
He looked up at her. It was a moment before he understood. Disbelief filled his eyes, followed by shock and a desperate hurt that cut bone deep. “My God, have we come to this?” His voice was low and rough, like nothing she had ever heard. “How can you ask—“
“How can I not?” She stopped at his side. The folds of her cloak nearly brushed Princess Tatiana’s body. Blood had pooled on the carpet, glistening in the candlelight as it began to congeal.
He reached out as though to grip her wrist, then let his hand fall to his side. She recalled, with meticulous clarity, his fingers trailing over her skin three nights ago. The last time they had made love.
“Dear, Christ, Mel,” he said. “We’ve—“
“Lain in each other arms. And more.” She forced the words from her raw throat. “Though why that’s supposed to make two people know each other in any but the carnal sense is beyond me.”
His gaze remained steady on her face, imprinted with memories of every intimacy they had shared. “I came into the room less than five minutes ago to find Princess Tatiana like this, with her throat cut.”
Air rushed into her lungs. Why his putting it into words reassured her, when there was no way to verify that he spoke the truth, she could not have said. Yet it did. “Did you see any trace of another visitor?”
“No whiff of scent other than her own, no footprints in the carpet, no conveniently dropped objects.” His voice turned crisp, falling back on details. “But I think someone searched the room. Look at the escritoire.”
Mélanie glanced at the giltwood escritoire. The drawer was slightly crooked, as though it had been pushed back into place too quickly. She looked round the rest of the room. Dark splotches that must be blood showed on the carpet. Spatters clung to the watered-silk wall hangings opposite. So much of it. She put a hand to her mouth, forcing down a welling of nausea. “I saw a man slip out of the house less than ten minutes since. Greatcoat, top hat. Undistinguishable. He stopped and looked up at this window, then vanished.”
“Mélanie—“ This time he caught hold of her hand. “What in God’s name are you—“
She looked down at his fingers twisted round her own. Fingers that knew every inch of her body, though the innermost recesses of his mind were closed to her.
Before she could answer, the door swung open behind them and booted feet thudded against the carpet. She turned to see a tall, sandy-haired man in an olive-drab greatcoat stride into the room. She had met him many times since they had come to Vienna, but it was a moment before her brain registered that she was looking at Tsar Alexander of Russia.
I’d be happy to answer any questions raised by the excerpt or about the book in general. I’ve just posted a new letter for the Fraser Correspondence from Mel to Raoul, following Twelfth Night, 1813, (the holiday season before Vienna Waltz takes place).