I’ll post the winner of last week’s Imperial Scandal ARC contest tomorrow in the comments for that post. Meanwhile, here’s a new teaser, this one the first scene in the book between Charles/Malcolm and Mélanie/Suzanne. It contains mild spoilers, but most of them are given away in the cover copy for the book. Once again, I’ll be giving away a signed ARC to one of this week’s commenters. And be sure to also check out the Fraser Correspondence, where I’ve just posted a new letter from Charles to Lady Frances.
At last he and Mélanie were free to return to the house they had taken in the Rue Ducale. For the first time in their married life, they had a whole house to themselves. They could even, he supposed, have taken separate bedchambers, as was the accepted practice with most couples in their set. He’d wondered, fleetingly, if Mélanie would prefer that when they’d first seen the house. But she’d pointed out the bedchamber she thought could be theirs with just the faintest of questions in her voice and eyes. And he’d nodded matter-of-factly, answering her unvoiced question without addressing it, aware of an unlooked for rush of relief.
The truth was, it would be damnably odd not to have the warmth of her curled beside him, not to smell her scent and face powder when he stepped into the room, not to see lacy bits of her clothing strewn about. But of course he couldn’t say so. There were still certain boundaries they didn’t cross in their marriage.
They looked in on their son, sleeping peacefully in the glow of the tin-shaded nightlight in his room next door to their own. Difficult to believe Colin would turn two tomorrow–or rather today–Charles thought, twitching his son’s blanket straight. It seemed only yesterday he’d been kneeling by Mélanie’s bedside, holding a basin of hot water and holding on to his self-command for all he was worth. Nothing in his life had equaled the wonder of the moment when Geoffrey Blackwell placed the squirming baby in his arms.
When they stepped into the quiet of their bedchamber. Mélanie gave a sigh of relief, as though relinquishing her armor for the first time that evening. She dropped her gauzy shawl and ribboned reticule on the dressing table and began to peel off her gloves. Charles went to a side table that held the whisky he’d brought from Scotland and poured them each a glass.
Mélanie took the glass he gave her, perched on the dressing table bench, and waited for him to speak. Charles shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the damask armchair, then dropped down on the chair arm. He tossed back a smoky draught of whisky and stared into the glass for a moment. “I lost a man tonight. A French soldier who was a contact.”
Concern flashed in Mélanie’s eyes. “That’s whom you went to meet?”
“Wellington got a message from him at the ball. His name was La Fleur.” It was the first time he had mentioned La Fleur specifically to his wife. Even with her, his ingrained instinct to hold his contacts close to his chest held true.
“I’m sorry.” Mélanie got up and moved to perch beside him. She slid her arm round him and leaned her head against his chest. “But you must know it wasn’t your fault.”
“Did I say I thought it was?”
“No, but I can tell what you’re thinking. What you think when you lose anyone you feel remotely responsible for.”
He slid his fingers along the nape of her neck and into her hair. “He flung himself over me. Damned fool. If he hadn’t–“
She sat back, catching his hand in her own. “I’ll be forever grateful to him.”
He recognized the look in her eyes. He’d felt the same on more than one hair-raising occasion when she’d nearly been shot, knifed, drowned fording a river. Circumstances that, more often than not, she’d been in because she happened to be his wife.
“So will I,” he said. For a moment the prospect of Mélanie left alone in a foreign country, their son growing up without a father, hung starkly before him. It was an ever-present risk in this life they lived. “But that doesn’t lessen–“
“Guilt is singularly wasteful, Charles. I’ve heard you say so yourself on more than one occasion.”
“And you expect me to actually take my own advice?” He took another sip of whisky, but the pungent bite couldn’t wash away the bitter taste of the night’s events. Mélanie’s fingers tightened round his own.
“That wasn’t the whole of what happened tonight,” he said and went on to tell his wife about Harry Davenport arriving with the warning that the code had been broken, the ambush, finding Julia Ashton’s body.
“Cordelia Davenport’s sister?” Mélanie said.
He nodded. “And Harry Davenport’s sister-in-law.”
Mélanie’s winged brows drew together. “You know Cordelia Davenport arrived in Brussels tonight? That she was at the ball?”
Charles nodded. “You spoke with her?”
“She was trying to find her sister. Did she–“
“Davenport told her. And showed her Lady Julia’s body.”
Distress flickered through Mélanie’s gaze. “That can’t have been easy. According to Aline and Georgy Lennox, Cordelia and Harry Davenport haven’t seen each other in four years.”
“That’s more or less the story I got from Davenport.”
Mélanie’s frown deepened.
“What?” Charles asked.
“It’s just that Cordelia Davenport seemed more anxious to find her sister than one would expect if it was just a sisterly reunion. Almost as if–“
“She knew Julia was in some sort of trouble?”
“Precisely.” Mélanie fingered a fold of her seafoam gauze overdress. “When a woman slips away from a ball to visit an empty château, there’s an obvious explanation that springs to mind.”
“And apparently in this case the obvious explanation is the correct one.” Charles told her about Julia Ashton’s affair with the Prince of Orange.
Mélanie’s sea green eyes widened. “Oh, dear God. You know I’ve always been fond of Billy, but he does have the most astonishing knack for blundering in just where he can cause problems.”
“With a vengeance.”
Charles told her about the note the prince had received canceling the rendezvous and Davenport’s discovery that the note had been forged.
Mélanie stared into her whisky glass. “Someone went to a great deal of trouble to get Julia Ashton to the château alone.” She looked up at him. “Do you think she was the real target of the ambush?”
“That the shooters’ goal was to kill Julia Ashton and they were just shooting at Davenport and La Fleur and me for cover? I did wonder. Though it’s the devil of a complicated way to try to commit murder. Assuming someone wanted Julia Ashton dead.”
“Did her husband know about the affair?”
“He does now. Unless he’s a very good actor, I’d swear he didn’t know before.” Charles grimaced at the memory of John Ashton’s bewildered expression, like a man who has received a blow in the back from which he’ll never recover. “Poor bastard. I think he was genuinely in love with her.”
Mélanie looked at him for a moment. “It does happen between husbands and wives.”
He curled his fingers behind her neck and tilted her face up to his. “So I’ve heard tell.”
She pressed a light kiss against his lips, lingering for a moment. Her mouth tasted of champagne and marzipan. The bones of her face felt fragile beneath his fingers. “I need to not go on missions so I can make sure you eat at entertainments,” he said, studying the hollows beneath her cheeks, deeper than they’d been in Vienna.
He caught a flash of something in her eyes, then she gave one of her brilliant smiles. “And to think you’re the one who complains about being fussed over. One would think by now you’d have learned how study I am. Could Captain Ashton have sent the note because he was planning to meet his wife at the château alone and confront her about the affair?”
Charles ran his fingers through his wife’s carefully arranged side curls. “Again only if he has the abilities of an actor. Or an agent.”
“Which he isn’t?” Mélanie said, a faint question in her tone.
He tucked a curl behind her ear. “Have you ever heard me mention that he is?”
“No, but you don’t tell me everything. You’re much too good an agent yourself.”
“I try. But unless someone hasn’t let me in on the secret–which is entirely possible–Johnny Ashton isn’t an agent. Besides, if he’d wanted to confront Julia, one would think he’d have tried to catch her with her lover, not on her own.”
Mélanie turned her whisky glass in her hand, watching the crystal catch the candlelight. “Someone else who disapproved of the affair then? Who wanted to warn her off? But even if whoever sent the forged note planned to confront Julia Ashton, they didn’t arrive at the château.”
“Unless they arrived in the midst of the ambush and turned away when they heard the gunfire. Or got there after we left.” Charles went to the side table and splashed more whisky into his glass and Mélanie’s. “Relations are tense enough between the British troops and our Dutch-Belgian allies. Wellington’s concerned about the havoc the news of the affair could wreak on morale. Particularly if Ashton made an issue out of it, which I don’t think he will. One could imagine a Dutch-Belgian or British commander trying to warn Julia Ashton off if they knew. In many ways it’s the likeliest scenario.”
Mélanie scanned his face. “But you don’t believe it?”
Charles returned the decanter to the table, clunking it down a little harder than necessary. The crystal rattled. “Perhaps I’m so used to looking for plots within plots that my vision’s become warped. But it feels too easy. As though there’s a piece we’re not seeing.” He returned to the chair and slid his arm round his wife’s shoulders. “Can you get Cordelia Davenport to confide in you about her sister?”
Mélanie smiled. “I can try.”
“Good,” he said, and pulled her into his arms.