Congratulations to Jeanne Pickering, who won last week’s drawing for a copy of Vienna Waltz. Jeanne, watch for an email from me so I can get your mailing details and pop the book in the post.
Only a week until Vienna Waltz is released. I’m getting very excited about having the book out there and seeing how reader react to it. This seems a good time to post another teaser excerpt. Here’s the scene where Charles/Malcolm and Mélanie/Suzanne begin their investigation together. It also includes a brief glimpse of young Colin. I’ll be giving away one more advanced copy of Vienna Waltz to one of this week’s commenters. To be entered in the drawing, comment on this week’s excerpt or post about fictional couples who investigate together.
I’ve also just posted another letter from young Charles in the Fraser Correspondence, this one to Lady Elizabeth.
He took two candles in silver holders from a side table, lit them from the candelabra, and handed one to Mélanie. They went downstairs to the their bedchamber in silence. Charles set his candle on the chest of drawers. Mélanie eased open the door to the tiny adjoining dressing room. Her candle flickered over the cradle where their seventeen-month-old son Colin slept. His eyes were shut, one small first curled beside his tousled dark hair, the other tucked beneath the blankets. In the shadows beyond, her maid Blanca slept on a narrow bed, nearby should Colin wake.
Mélanie pulled the door to and set her own candle on the dressing table. “Charles.”
He had washed his bloodstained hands in the basin on the dressing table and was drying them with a towel. He looked up at her, his gaze black and questioning. A bruise was rising on his cheekbone from the fight in the alley. The events of the evening must have left emotional bruises that went deeper. Her throat thickened with all the words that could not be spoken.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Finding her like that must have been brutal.”
A muscle tightened along his jaw. “Yes.” He glanced away for a moment, drew a harsh breath, then begun to undo his frayed shirt cuffs, suppressed violence in the tugs of his fingers. “Though it’s hardly the worst sight I’ve seen. I suppose I should be grateful what I witnessed in Spain didn’t completely numb me to brutality.” His gaze shifted over her. “Do you need to bandage your hands?”
“I’ll be fine. Only minor scrapes.” She picked up the ewer, splashed water over her hands, and scrubbed them with rosewater soap, staring at the pinkish brown water in the basin. Her blood and Charles’s and very likely Princess Tatiana’s as well. “I can help you.” The words came out quickly, before she could consider a dozen other ways of framing the suggestion.
She turned to look at her husband. He’d pulled his shirt off and was wrapping himself in a wine-colored dressing gown. His fingers stilled on the braid-edged silk. “Mel–“
“I’ve helped you in the past.”
“On several occasions I’d have been lost without you. But–“
“You can’t claim that this will be more dangerous than what we went through in Spain.”
“My God, wasn’t tonight danger enough for you?”
“Tonight proves that if people are after you, I’ll be in danger in any case. I’ll be better able to protect myself if I know what’s going on.”
He grimaced. “To think I thought Vienna would be a safe assignment.”
“And I can be of more help here than I was in Spain. If you want to get at the truth of what’s going on in Vienna’s salons, you’ll have to get a number of ladies to reveal their secrets. They’re more likely to confide in me.”
He regarded her in silence for a long interval. Then he stepped forward, hesitated a moment, and as though yielding to a compulsion, brushed his fingers against her cheek. “You’re an extraordinarily generous woman. After tonight, your help is the last thing I have the right to ask for.”
She caught his hand and drew it away from her face, her fingers gripping his own. “Charles, there are a great many things we don’t know about each other. But whatever I may have blurted out in the moment, I can’t believe you killed Princess Tatiana.”
His fingers clenched round her own, then went still. “You were asking the obvious question. It’s what I’d have asked of you in the same circumstances.” For a moment she saw remembered horror smash through his eyes. The brutal shock of finding Princess Tatiana dead, the stark reality that she was gone. He released her hand. “You have the instincts of an investigator.”
“Well then. I’d rather be in the midst of the investigation helping you than on the sidelines imagining things.” About the dangers he was in. About Princess Tatiana and how deeply her death had shaken him and what she had been to him in life.
A twisted smile played about his lips, though his eyes were dark and raw. “I undoubtedly don’t deserve you. But I can’t deny this will be easier with your help.”
She released a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. “You never fail to surprise me, darling. Thank you.”
He shook his head. “You’re not the one who should be saying thank you.”
A dozen questions trembled on her lips. She bit them back, because she had no right to be that sort of wife. And perhaps because she was afraid of the answers. Instead she turned, putting her back to him. “Can you undo my gown? I don’t want to wake Blanca.”
His fingers shook slightly as he unfastened the tapes and pins that held her gown together, but his touch was as gentle as ever. The brush of his hands sent a current through her as it had from their wedding night, unexpected that first night, now familiar but no less strong. It was scarcely the first time he’d helped her undress, though usually it was the prelude to something they couldn’t indulge in tonight. Something he surely wouldn’t want to indulge in, though for a moment she knew an impulse to fling herself into his arms and blot out the events of the evening.
“Did Tatiana really sent you a note?” he asked as he tugged the last tape loose.
An effective antidote to amorous impulse. She turned round, the tattered gauze and satin of her gown slipping down to her waist. “Asking me to call at three in the morning.”
“Do you still have it?”
She hesitated. Easy enough to claim she had lost the note, and deception had become a protective instinct with her. But any evidence might be of help in the investigation. She reached into her corset. She had tucked the note there when she stripped off her gloves during their escape over the roofs.
Charles took the much-creased note and stared at it, his face carefully blanked (a trick he only employed, she had learned, when he was being very careful not to reveal anything).
“Is it her handwriting?” Mélanie asked.
“I can’t swear to it, but I think so.” He folded the note and put it in his dressing gown pocket. “My apologies. I don’t know why Tatiana summoned you, but I’m sorry you were pulled into the middle of this.
Mélanie removed the brooch from the bodice of her gown and placed it carefully on her dressing table. “As things played out, I’m rather glad I was there.”
“It was certainly very fortunate for me.”
She stepped out of her gown and put it in the laundry basket beside the dressing table for Blanca to see what she could salvage. “We never did get our story straight.”
“No. You received Tatiana’s note at the opera?”
She was rather surprised he remembered where she was supposed to have been this evening. “From a footman in the midst of the third act.”
“Who was with you at the opera?”
“Fitzwilliam and Eithne and Aline.” She started on the laces that ran down the front of her corset.
“None of them should make too much trouble.” Lord Fitzwilliam Vaughn, one of Charles’s fellow attachés, and his wife Eithne were close friends. Charles’s cousin Aline was visiting them from England and fiercely loyal to Charles. “What did you tell them about the note?”
“That Colin had been fussing earlier, and Blanca had sent word he was safely asleep. We all went on to Fanny von Arnstein’s after the opera, but Eithne had a headache and Aline was tired, so Fitz took them home soon after we arrived. I said Tommy Belmont would escort me back to the Minoritenplatz later.”
“So we can say I returned from Salzburg and went to Baroness Arnstein’s because I knew you’d be there,” Charles said in a quick, expressionless voice his gaze armored as though to staunch a welling of shock and pain. “With the press of guests her footmen will never be able to say for certain if I was there or not. Tatiana’s note was delivered to me there. You insisted on accompanying me to call on Tatiana, as you explained to the Tsar and Metternich. We came into the Palm Palace through the side entrance just before three to find Tatiana murdered.”
“That seems to account for everything.” She slipped the unlaced corset from her shoulders and added it to the pile of clothing. “Where did you receive Princess Tatiana’s note?”
“She sent it after me.”
“She knew where to find you?”
While his wife hadn’t had the least idea where he was. Of course fellow agents were in many ways more intimate than married couples. Mélanie glanced down at her chemise. Her nightdress was across the room, where Blanca would have left it tucked beneath her pillow. Why on earth should she suddenly feel awkward being naked in front of her husband?
She pulled her chemise over her head, tugging a little too hard. She heard a stitch give way. By the time she emerged from the folds of linen, Charles had crossed to the bed to retrieve her nightdress. She undid the string on her drawers with deliberate unconcern, stepped out of them, and took the nightdress from her husband. She could feel his gaze on her, but she couldn’t have said what he was thinking or feeling.
She dropped the folds of lawn over her head and did up the ties at the neck. The night air cut through the thin fabric. Or perhaps that was reality sinking in. Charles wasn’t the only one feeling the cold shock of the night’s events.
She sat at the dressing table, removed her pearl earrings and necklace, and began to pull the pins she hadn’t lost in their escape over the roofs from her hair. Charles draped her dressing gown over her shoulders, then retreated to perch on the edge of the bed.
“Tell me about Princess Tatiana,” she said.
She heard him draw a breath. She met his gaze in the looking glass. The barriers were up in his eyes as though what he felt was too raw even to contemplate himself let alone to share with his wife.
“Darling, I’m sorry,” she said, spinning round to look at him directly. “You needn’t–“
“No, you’re right,” he said in the crisp voice he’d use to outline a policy option to the Foreign Secretary. “You know next to nothing about her background, and you’ll need to if you’re to help me investigate.” He braced his hands on the bed behind him. “Tatiana was the daughter of a minor prince from northern Russia. She came to St. Petersburg at eighteen and married Prince Kirsanov, who was four decades her senior and from a considerably wealthier and more powerful family. She became a fashionable St. Petersburg hostess. Kirsanov died when they had scarcely been married two years. The bulk of his fortune went to his son from a prior marriage, but he left Tatiana enough to set up her own household. She took to spending much of her time in Paris.”
Mélanie dropped a handful of hairpins into their porcelain box. If control was what he needed she could match him. “Did her stepson resent her? Were there other stepchildren?”
“Several, I believe, though Tatiana didn’t talk about the family much. Are you suggesting they could have been behind her death?”
“Family often turns out to have the strongest motives when it comes to murder.”
“Very true,” Charles agreed, his voice model of cool dispassion, “but I don’t think Tatiana saw herself as much a part of the Kirsanov family. She even preferred her girlhood style of Princess Tatiana to calling herself Princess Kirsanova. The Kirsanov children had most of the family fortune and seem to have cheerfully ignored her. None of them is in Vienna.”
Mélanie pulled a silver comb through her tangled hair and forced herself to view Princess Tatiana simply as the subject of an investigation. “Was she a Bonapartist or a Royalist when she lived in Paris?”
“Tatiana was a Tatiana-ist. She had friends among Bonaparte’s court and friends among the Royalists.”
“She was dealing in information then?”
Charles nodded. “She was an agent for Talleyrand.”
Mélanie twisted her head round to stare at her husband. “Princess Tatiana worked for the French Foreign Minister?”
“Off and on for a number of years. Talleyrand’s always had excellent sources of information, and Tatiana was connected to powerful people in a number of countries.”
“But you said she worked for the British in Spain.”
Charles leaned back on the bed, resting his weight on his hands. “It was Talleyrand who sent her to us.”
“Talleyrand sent an agent to work with the British when they were at war with France?”
“He’d quarreled with Napoleon and resigned as Foreign Minister. He was still advising Napoleon, but he was afraid Napoleon had overreached himself. Sending Tatiana to us was a sort of peace offering.”
“He was talking to you behind Napoleon’s back.”
“And to the Austrians and the Russians as well I think. Survival tactics.”
“Some would call it treason.”
“If he’d got caught. Talleyrand’s rather good at not getting caught.”
“Was Princess Tatiana working for Talleyrand in Vienna?”
“I think she brought him information occasionally. But for all Talleyrand’s efforts, France isn’t one of the major power brokers at the Congress. Tatiana thought we could offer her more in terms of money and power.”
Mélanie tugged at the comb. The wind had wreaked havoc on her hair during their escape over the roofs. She picked at a snarl that had once been a ringlet, but a knot of dark hair still came away with the comb. “Her affair with Prince Metternich was some time ago, wasn’t it? The gossip isn’t very specific.”
“When he was in Paris for Marie-Louise’s marriage to Bonaparte,” Charles said. If Tatiana’s affair with the other man bothered him, he gave no sign of it.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s marriage to Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise had taken place only four years ago, yet that had been a different world in which Napoleon had ruled a vast empire, and Bonapartist France and Imperial Austria had been allies. Hard sometimes to remember that Austrian Emperor Francis, host of this congress to divide up the remnants of Napoleon’s empire, was also the father of Napoleon’s young second wife Marie-Louise and the grandfather of their small son. These days political alliances broke up as quickly as love affairs.
Mélanie dragged the comb through her side curls. Her eye-blacking had smeared beneath her eyes. Or perhaps that was the strain of the evening already showing up. “And when Metternich and Princess Tatiana saw each other again in Vienna at the Congress–?”
“At the moment Metternich has eyes for no one but the Duchess of Sagan.” Metternich’s obsession with the beautiful duchess was the talk of Vienna. She had recently broken off their love affair, but Metternich plainly remained besotted. “But it’s obvious he’s still very fond of Tatiana. As he is of Catherine Bagration.”
Princess Catherine Bagration, the Duchess of Sagan, and Princess Tatiana Kirsanova. The three beauties who resided in the Palm Palace, all three linked to both Metternich and Tsar Alexander. “Given the number of women in Vienna,” Mélanie said, “one would think Metternich and the Tsar could find inamoratas who hadn’t shared the other’s bed.”
In the looking glass, she saw Charles’s mouth tighten. “I rather suspect that’s part of the attraction. Metternich and Alexander compete in everything, whether it’s women or who will draw the borders of Poland.”
Mélanie set down her comb. “Was Princess Tatiana involved with the Tsar before they came to Vienna?”
“Their affair began when Alexander was in Paris last spring at the time of Napoleon’s abdication. Though there may have been something between them in Russia years ago.”
Charles spoke in the same cool tones he had used to describe Princess Tatiana’s affair with Metternich. That seemed to be what was enabling him to get through from moment to moment. Mélanie watched him in the glass for a moment, then blew out her candle, moved to the bed, and climbed beneath the coverlet. “Did Princess Tatiana have enemies?”
“Everyone at the Congress has enemies.” Charles shrugged out of his dressing gown and slid under the covers beside her. Though they were talking about Princess Tatiana, something had eased between them. This, she had learned early in their marriage, was the place they could communicate best, putting their heads together over a shared problem. This and sometimes when they reached for each other in their darkened bed, where words weren’t necessary at all.
“Other former lovers?” Mélanie was pleased with how cool she managed to keep her voice.
“A great many I suspect. But I hadn’t heard of any being particularly jealous.”
“She never mentioned to you that she was afraid?”
He shook his head, though in the light of the single candle she caught the flash of anger in his eyes. Berating himself for not having seen the danger to the princess coming. “Tatiana was one of the least fearful people I’ve ever encountered. She had that in common with you.”
Mélanie drew her legs up beneath the coverlet and locked her hands about her knees. She wasn’t sure what she thought of her husband comparing her with Princess Tatiana. “Her lovers’ wives would have had reason to be jealous, though goodness knows both Princess Metternich and Tsarina Elisabeth must be inured to infidelities by now. And Princess Tatiana and Catherine Bagration were rivals for the Tsar’s affections. Could a woman have killed her do you think?”
“I’m not sure,” he said in the quick, taut, tones of an investigator. “I want to get a medical opinion from Geoffrey Blackwell tomorrow. On that and a few other details.”
Mélanie stared at the shiny green and gold threads in the silk coverlet. “Do you think she really summoned all of us this evening–you, me, Metternich, the Tsar? Or was her killer trying to arrange an incident?”
“To set the Tsar and Metternich at each other’s throats? It’s an interesting possibility. I wish I could have got a look the handwriting on the notes they received. But the killer snatched up a dagger that was already in the room instead of bringing a weapon. Which suggests a crime of impulse rather than something planned in advance.”
“Was the dagger an heirloom?” Mélanie conjured up a memory of the antique gold studded with rubies and emeralds. “It looked old but more Spanish than Russian.”
“I’m not sure,” Charles said. “She may have acquired it in the Peninsula.”
“The use of the dagger suggests it was a crime of impulse, but someone searched the room where she was killed. She could have been killed because of some piece of information she’d uncovered.”
Charles nodded. “You might call on Dorothée Périgord and see what you can learn.”
“We’re going to a dress fitting tomorrow.” Dorothée, Comtesse de Périgord, was Prince Talleyrand’s niece by marriage and his hostess at the Congress. She was also one of the few true friends Mélanie had made in Vienna.
Charles reached out and pinched the candle out between his fingers. “Do you think you can sleep?”
“If I can sleep with gunfire in the distance, you’d think I could manage it now.” Mélanie settled back against the pillows. “Charles.”
“Her locket being gone suggests the motive could be personal. Do you know what’s in the locket?”
“No.” The single word held sterling certainty. But it rang just a shade too bright. Or was she imagining things? For all her skills at reading people, sometimes she couldn’t be sure, even with Charles. Especially with Charles.
“Was the locket a gift from a lover?” she asked.
“Perhaps. It obviously meant a great deal to her.”
The bed creaked as Charles dropped back against the pillows, inches away from her. She could hear the controlled intake of his breath, but she knew he wasn’t sleeping either. She stared up at the dark frame of the canopy. Her muscles screamed at the night’s exertions, but it was her mind that would not be still. Charles had agreed to let her help with the investigation. He had answered her questions about Princess Tatiana with every appearance of frankness, had volunteered information of his own, had speculated over the mystery with comforting ease.
And yet she was quite certain that her husband was lying about something.