Congratulations to Andrea Clark, who won last week’s drawing for a Vienna Waltz ARC. Andrea, watch for an email from me so I can get your address and send the ARC on its way.
As I mentioned last week, I’ll be giving away an ARC each week through the end of the year. This week’s post is an excerpt from Vienna Waltz. This is Chapter 3. It’s the middle of a November night in Vienna. Charles/Malcolm and Mélanie/Suzanne have left the Palm Palace, where they found the murdered Princess Tatiana Kirsanova and encountered Prince Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister, and Tsar Alexander of Russia. Since most of the readers of this site are readers of the Charles & Mel series, I’ve left the original names for this post.
Let me know what you think of the exceprt, ask a question about Vienna Waltz, or share what you’re reading this holiday season. Next weekend I’ll draw another name for another Vienna Waltz ARC.
Mélanie stole a glance at her husband as they walked down the Schenkengasse. His gaze was fixed straight ahead, his mouth set in a hard line. Before they had left Princess Tatiana’s salon, he’d turned, almost as though under compulsion, and looked back at the dead woman for a long moment. Mélanie had the oddest sense he’d have knelt and closed Tatiana’s eyes if Metternich would have permitted it. Instead, he’d held the door open for Mélanie and strode from the room.
Now he walked close beside her, but he’d made no move to offer her his arm. He hadn’t touched her since that moment when he’d grabbed her hand as he knelt by Princess Tatiana’s body.
“Do you think Metternich will put Baron Hager in charge of the investigation?” Mélanie asked, in as level a voice as she could manage. Baron Hager was the head of Austria’s secret service.
“I expect so.” Charles didn’t pause or turn to look at her. “Hager’s agents have bungled some things, but he’s an able man. And Metternich knows Hager will understand the need for discretion.”
“I still don’t understand why Metternich let us leave without giving statements.”
“I suspect he wanted a chance to search Tatiana’s rooms unobserved.”
Mélanie looked up at her husband in the yellow glow of a street lap. “For what? Love letters?”
“Among other things.” A carriage clattered by, bringing the glow of flambeaux and the smell of pitch. Charles continued to walk, his gaze shifting over the dark street ahead. The moonlight gleamed blue-black on the cobblestones, but the narrower side streets were in shadows. “We need to get our story straight. We’re damned lucky we didn’t trip over each other making things up as we went along.”
She swallowed a host of emotions that tore at her chest. “It was dangerous to lie to the Tsar. I spoke on impulse. I should have thought things through.”
“Perhaps.” He stopped abruptly and turned his head to look at her. The lamplight bounced off the pewter of his eyes. “But your impulsiveness probably saved my liberty and quite possibly my life. To say thank you seems shockingly inadequate. It was a generous thing to do. Particularly given what you think of me.”
“Charles–“ The words caught in her throat. She put out her hand, then let it fall to her side. “I know how much I owe you.”
He drew a breath and released it. His dark hair fell over his forehead in that way that gave him the unexpected look of a schoolboy. Save that the ghosts that haunted his gaze made him seem years older. When he spoke, his voice was harsh. “I don’t believe in calling in debts. And if you owed me anything, it’s been repaid long since. Simply by the fact that you put up with me.”
He turned and began walking again, scanning the streets ahead. A carriage had drawn up before a tall house at the corner. Three young men with silk hats decidedly askew stumbled out and clambered up the steps of the house. Attachés no doubt, home after a night of revelry, though at this distance it was impossible to make out who they were or what country they represented. Of one accord, she and Charles fell back in the shadows until the young men had vanished into the house.
“Charles,” she said as they started forward again. “Were you really in Salzburg?”
They turned down a side street. The overhanging balconies on either side encased them in darkness. “No,” he said at last, as though he already half-regretted the words. “But I was gone from Vienna from the night before last until this evening. Castlereagh set me to rendezvous with a contact who had information about the disposition of Prussian troops in Saxony.”
“Did you really receive a note from Princess Tatiana? Or–“
His hand moved to her elbow. He didn’t quicken his pace, but he turned his head toward her, his voice conversational. “Don’t look round. We’re being followed.”
Even as he framed the words, she could hear the faint footfalls against the cobblestones behind them. One man. No, two. Moving carefully and almost in unison but with slightly different gaits.
Mélanie had spent part of her life on streets like this. Not the best preparation for a diplomatic wife, but excellent training for other aspects of Charles’s life. Like her husband, she knew better than to quicken her pace. They turned down another street, lined with shuttered shops and cafés warm with candlelight despite the hour.
“Are they still behind us?” she asked as they passed a brilliantly lit building with fashionably dressed women visible through the windows. Quite definitely a brothel. The strains of a waltz played on the pianoforte spilled out a first-floor window, making it difficult to pick out the sound of the footsteps.
Charles nodded. They turned another corner, past three boys roasting chestnuts over a fire in the street. Charles pulled her into a shop doorway and into his arms.
His lips were warm. His mouth tasted of wine. She clung to him, with an urgency that took her by surprise, even as she listened for noise from the street behind, heard him fumbling in his pocket, heard the scrape of metal and the jiggle of tumblers.
He pushed the door open and pulled her inside. “Very old ruse,” she said. Her voice was just a shade less steady than she would have liked.
“But nearly always effective.”
The smell of dust and beeswax and lemon oil engulfed them. The lamplight seeping through the thick, old glass of the windows showed dark rectangular shapes and larger triangular ones with slender tapered legs. They were in a pianoforte-maker’s. Trust Charles to find music even in the midst of an escape.
Charles returned his picklocks to his pocket. They threaded their way over the worn floorboards, mindful of the fact that the shop owner probably lived upstairs.
Charles paused in the middle of the room and glanced round the darkened shop. “You didn’t by any chance think to bring a weapon, did you?” he said in a low voice.
“I could make do with the brooch that fastens my cloak.”
“Resourceful as always. But I think we can do better.” He scanned the shadowy room. His fingers hovered over the keys of one of the pianofortes, though he didn’t dare strike a note.
Mélanie’s eye had fallen on another shape, too low and broad to be an upright, too rectangular to be a grand. A worktable. Her eyes growing accustomed to the dark, she found a drawer and tugged it open. “Surely a pianoforte-maker would have–“ Her fingers closed round them. “Wire clippers.”
“That’s the woman I married.” Charles spared her a brief smile, a white gleam in the shadows. He reached inside his coat and pulled out two dark objects. She caught a whiff of sulfur and heard the familiar scrape of a pistol being loaded.
He pressed the loaded pistol into her hand. “If we’re attacked, hang back and try to wait until you have a clean shot. But look after yourself. I’ll do the same.”
She nodded, though she knew perfectly well he wouldn’t leave her. It was one of the reasons she’d risked herself and lied to the Tsar, and that she’d risk herself again now. She tucked the pistol beneath her cloak and gave him the wire clippers. Their eyes met in the darkness. Something wild and fierce sparked between them, drowning out for the moment all the poisoned questions.
Charles bent his head and pressed his lips over hers again in a brief, hard kiss. “I deserve some of the things you think about me, sweetheart. But not nearly all. Try to trust me until we get out of this.”
A door at the back of the shop gave onto a cobbled alley. A few lights shone down from first-floor lodgings. Charles glanced to either side, then jerked his head to the right, the longer, more shadowy way. They stepped into the alley. A casement was flung open above. They jumped back against the wall just as contents of chamberpot spattered onto the cobblestones.
A half-dozen paces from the mouth of the alley, two dark forms hurtled at them out of the shadows. Charles had a split second to step forward and take the brunt of the attack. The impact sent him crashing into the wall behind him. One man drew back his fist and struck Charles a blow to the jaw. The other turned toward Mélanie. She leveled her arm and shot him in the shoulder.
The man screamed, clutched his arm, and stumbled into the street beyond. The shot had made his compatriot cast a quick glance over his shoulder. It was enough opening for Charles. Seconds later he had spun the man round and was holding him against his chest, a length of piano wire clamped round the man’s throat.
“Who sent you?” Charles’s soft voice held an edge of naked steel.
“I advise you not to trifle with me. I might overlook an attack on myself. But you had the bad sense to attack my wife as well.”
“They’ll kill me.“ The man’s voice was a harsh whisper.
“So will I. Sooner.” Through the darkness, Mélanie saw Charles tighten the piano wire round his captive’s throat.
The man was stone still in Charles’s grip but his gaze shifted to the street. “Fool. You don’t know them. You’re as good as dead yourself.”
“I’m rather good at protecting myself. I can protect you too if you’ll talk.”
The man gave a desperate laugh. “There’s no such thing–“
Another shot ripped through the night air, this one from the street beyond. The man went limp in Charles’s arms. Charles staggered, eased his captive to the ground, and put his fingers to the man’s throat. He looked up at Mélanie and gave a quick shake of his head. Then he caught her hand and raced to the opposite end of the alley.
He stopped at the house on the corner, gaze on the rococo balcony. “Burgos,” he said.
His eyes glittered in the shadows. Mélanie nodded, her memory of their escape from the medieval Spanish city fresh in her mind.
She returned the spent pistol to him. He stuck it in the waistband of his breeches and lifted her in his arms, as though they were dancing a highland reel at a regimental ball. She gripped the balusters. He boosted her higher, and she pulled herself up, grasped the railing, and half levered herself, half fell over the balustrade.
She landed with a thud on the cold, hard stone of the balcony. She stripped off her cloak, twisted it into a rope, and held it down to Charles, bracing her feet against the plaster balustrade. Charles had shrugged out of his greatcoat and the tightly fitting coat beneath. He caught the end of the cloak and pulled himself up, hand over hand. Her muscles screamed in protest. She tightened her grip.
His fingers scrabbled against the edge of the balcony. She released the cloak and caught his hand. He grasped a baluster and then the railing, got a booted leg over the balustrade, and collapsed beside her on the balcony floor.
“How the devil Romeo ever managed to do that and spout poetry is beyond me,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Not to mention that he’d have needed Juliet to haul him up.”
“I think it was easier last time we did it,” she said. Softly, because the occupants of the house were probably sleeping behind the French windows.
“We were younger last time.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m only one-and-twenty.” And he was just six years her senior. She forgot sometimes that he was barely twenty-seven.
Charles had gone still. Booted footsteps thudded against the cobblestones a street over. “No way to be sure it’s our pursuers,” he said. “Still, better safe than sorry.”
She removed the brooch from her cloak and stuck it to her bodice. He pushed himself to his feet and steadied her as she climbed onto the railing and pulled herself onto the slick, red-tiled roof. The spider gauze of her gown caught on the tiles. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first gown she’d ruined. Or the last, no doubt. She crouched on the edge of the roof and stretched down a hand to help Charles up after her.
His shirt tore on the tiles as her gown had done. For a moment they both crouched on their hands and knees, breathing hard. A blast of wind cut against them. Chimney smoke stung their eyes. Mélanie looked at her husband and found him grinning at her, eyes glinting in the moonlight. She grinned back, laughing with a crazy, wine-sweet rush of exhilaration.
Vienna’s old town was spread before them beneath cloud-filtered moonlight. Shiny roof tiles, candlelit windows, glowing street lamps. The gleaming pillars of palaces and the grimy white walls of lodging houses. Winding medieval streets. Columned monuments, broad, tree-lined squares, tiny courtyards. All surrounded by the many-times rebuilt medieval walls that, according the legend, had originally been constructed with the ransom payment the Austrians exacted for the release of Richard the Lionheart. The glittering city in which the future of Europe was being decided. And in which Tatiana Kirsanova’s murderer lurked. Not to mention other unseen enemies.
Their first attacker’s crumpled form lay at the other end of the alley. Two shadowy figures bent over him, as though conferring. As she and Charles watched from their perch, one man ran back into the street, while the other ran down the alley, directly beneath the balcony they had just climbed. He passed within a few feet of Charles’s discarded coat and greatcoat, a dark blur against the wall of the house, but he didn’t stop to examine them.
She and Charles stayed stone still until he had passed, then moved to the darkest part of the roof and crept over the sloping tiles, crouched low. Up the slope and then down and over to the next roof, which was slightly higher. She pulled off her gloves. She scraped her palm on a broken tile, but bare hands gave her a better purchase.
They made their way to the next corner, turned and went along another line of roofs, jumped a narrow gap between buildings, turned again.
At last, Charles paused, gripped her arm, and leaned down over the edge of the roof they were on.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“The Minoritenplatz. The British delegation’s lodgings. I hope.” He swung his legs down, lowered himself onto another balcony, and reached up to her. She slid down into his arms. His palms were damp when he took her hands. Blood, she realized. He’d scraped his hands raw. She looked down and saw a gash on her own forearm.
Were they at their lodgings? The plaster curlicues over the French window looked familiar, though from this angle she couldn’t be sure. Charles unlatched the French window with his picklocks and pushed aside the curtains.
An unexpected flare of candlelight greeted them.
“Charles, thank goodness you’re back.” The decisive tones of Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, came from the room beyond. “We’re in the devil of a fix.”
I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mélanie to Raoul.