This month’s teaser is another excerpt from Imperial Scandal. This excerpt introduces a new character who plays an important role in Imperial Scandal and will also appear in subsequent books in the series, Lady Cordelia Davenport. Last year, readers of this blog were very helpful in helping me select names for Cordelia and her estranged husband Harry.
This scene comes in on Lady Cordelia at the British ambassador’s ball in Brussels at which Imperial Scandal opens (also featured in last month’s teaser), talking to her friend Lady Caroline Lamb and to Mélanie, to whom she’s just been introduced.
“Cordelia. What in God’s name are you doing here?”
Cordelia Davenport turned from her conversation with Caro and Mélanie Fraser to see a tall, broad-shouldered man with close cropped golden-brown hair and an all-too familiar smile striding along the edge of the dance floor.
“Major Chase.” Cordelia extended her hand. “Why shouldn’t I come to Brussels? All the world seems to have flocked here. I’m not usually so behind the fashion.
George brushed his lips over her hand, a bit stiffly. He met her gaze as he straightened up. “For God’s sake, Cordy, it’s dangerous.”
“I doubt Wellington would care to hear you say so. You know Lady Caroline, of course,” Cordelia said, grateful for the mask of social convention. “May I present Mrs. Fraser? Her husband is on Stuart’s staff.”
George nodded at the other two ladies with one of his quick, disarming smiles. “Forgive my informality. Cord-Lady Cordelia and I have known each other since we were children. I’m in the habit of worrying about her.”
“A fatal mistake, Major Chase,” Caro said. “Cordelia could look after herself at the age of six, and nothing puts her in such a temper as being fussed over.”
George grinned. “With Cordy I’ve always been slow to learn my lessons.” The look he turned to Cordelia was a mix of ruefulness and regret. It reminded her of the way he’d used to turn his head to meet her gaze one last time before he stepped into the carriage to return to Eton or Oxford, knowing it would be many months before they met again. Against all instincts to the contrary, her throat went tight.
George turned to Mélanie Fraser. “You’re Charles Fraser’s wife, aren’t you? I knew him a bit as a boy when he used to visit the Mallinsons at Carfax Court in Derbyshire. Always thought he’d do something remarkable.”
“He was frighteningly clever,” Cordelia said, recalling the tall, gangly boy with intent eyes and a quick wit. “And inclined to spend all his time in the library.”
Mélanie Fraser smiled. “Some things don’t change.”
“I hear Wellington claims Fraser’s the civilian he could least do without,” George said.
“My husband would say one can’t believe everything one hears in Brussels theses days.”
“You seem very sanguine, Mrs. Fraser.”
“As a diplomat’s wife, one of my first duties is to calm the panic.”
“And yet”—George cast a glance at the couples circling the floor—“I fear life in Brussels is not the picnic it appears.”
Cordelia unfurled her fan, willing her fingers to hold steady against the ebony sticks. “Have you sent your own wife back to England?”
She heard George suck in his breath. He looked directly into her eyes, his own shadowed with—guilt? Apology? “No, Annabel’s somewhere in the ballroom as it happens. We talked about her taking the children back to England, but we— She felt it would be harder to be separated at such a time.”
“How sweet.” Cordelia took a sip of champagne and then cursed herself. She was being spiteful and neither George nor Annabel deserved that.
“It’s different for Annabel,” George said quickly. “She’s a soldier’s wife—“
“So am I if it comes to that. I don’t suppose it occurred to you that I came to Brussels to see Harry?”
The look on George’s face might have been comical had she been able to muster up anything remotely approaching laughter. “I’m sorry, Cordy,” he said, “I should have realized—“
“Oh, don’t look so apologetic, George. Harry isn’t even in Brussels as it happens. I came here to see Julia, only I can’t seem to find her anywhere in the ballroom or salons. Have you seen her?”
George frowned. “Not since supper, I think. But she’s bound to turn up before long. Julia’s not the sort to fade into the woodwork. She’ll be glad to see you.”
“I hope so,” Cordelia said, for once speaking the unvarnished truth.
George touched her arm. “Don’t be silly, Cordy. Whatever else, Julia will always be your sister. Ladies.”
George inclined his head to Caro and Mélanie Fraser and walked off along the edge of the dance floor.
Cordelia felt Caro’s concerned gaze on her and Mélanie Fraser’s appraising one. How much of the story had Mrs. Fraser heard? Not that it mattered. She was damned in any case. “George and I’ve known each other since we were both in the nursery,” she said.
“Old friends know one in a way no one else quite does,” Mélanie Fraser said. Cordelia could see her trying to piece together the past, yet there was a surprising lack of judgment in her gaze. Not what Cordelia was accustomed to from respectable happily married women.
“Damnable isn’t it?” Cordelia said, throwing out the curse like a challenge. George was talking with two of his fellow cavalry officers, head bent at a serious angle. A bit of a change. The old George would have been dancing with a pretty girl.
“Quite damnable.” With two words Mélanie Fraser, picked up the challenge and rendered it irrelevant.
Caro touched Cordelia’s arm. “Cordy—“
“It’s quite all right, Caro. If I couldn’t confront my past I’d never be able to go out in society.”
Cordelia turned to tell the footman she didn’t need any more champagne and saw that he was holing out a square of paper. “A gentleman asked me to give you this.”
Cordelia took the paper.
I’m sure you find this as awkward as I do, but I have important news to impart. I beg you will grant me a few moments of your time. I fear I’m not fit for the ballroom.
She knew the precise, slanted handwriting at once. Speaking of confronting one’s past. She folded the paper between fingers that had gone nerveless. “Where is he?”
“In one of the salons.”
Cordelia turned to Caro and Mrs. Fraser. “Pray excuse me. It seems I need speak with my husband.”
Caro made a quick move toward her. “Dearest- Do you want me to go with you?”
Cordelia drew together defenses carefully built over the past four years. “No, I shall be quite all right. I knew I might encounter Harry in Brussels after all. And I’ve just dealt with George. How bad can this be?”
The footman guided her along the edge of the ballroom and then held open a white-painted door. Cordelia stepped beneath the gilt pediment, feeling like Anne Boleyn on her way to her execution.
Oh, that was absurd. She wasn’t a fanciful girl anymore.
Do let me know what you think of Cordelia and the excerpt. Also, as a follow up to the wonderful discussion on my sympathetic characters post, I’m curious to know how many of you who read Vienna Waltz believed Malcolm/Charles might have actually been Princess Tatiana’s lover (before or after his marriage to Mel/Suzanne).
Speaking of Princess Tatiana, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Charles to David about the rumors surrounding the princess and her murder.