Happy New Year! Hope everyone’s 2012 is off to a wonderful start. Did you read any good books over the holidays? My holidays were mostly about introducing Mélanie to family and friends (fortunately she’s an intrepid little traveler and does great at restaurants and parties – there we are above at a party on New Year’s Eve). But I did find time to read Tasha Alexander’s wonderful latest, A Crimson Warning. As my mom told me, nursing is a great time to read and Emily and Colin’s latest adventures kept me happily enthralled during late night feedings.
Mélanie’s let me get back to work sooner than I anticipated – I wrote 5 k words the week between Christmas and New Year’s. But writing lengthy blog posts is still a bit of a stretch, so here’s another excerpt from Imperial Scandal. It’s the first scene between the estranged couple Cordelia and Harry Davenport, who both play important roles in the book. The except contains minor spoilers, but nothing that isn’t revealed in the cover copy for the book. I’ll again be giving away an ARC to one of this week’s commenters.
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.
It was small room hung with cream silk and lit by a candelabrum and a couple of additional tapers. She caught a whiff of brandy in the air, overlaying the wood polish and lemon oil.
Harry stood on the far side of the room. Though his face was in shadow, she’d have known the mocking angle of his shoulders anywhere. For a moment she was a girl of twenty, her eye caught by the broody looking young man with disordered brown hair and intense blue eyes, hovering on the edge of the Devonshire House dance floor. A quadrille that had been all the rage that season had been playing, and she’d wanted to avoid dancing with Toby Somerton. How different would their lives have been, hers and Harry’s, if she hadn’t crossed the room to speak with him that night?
“Thank you for coming.” He stepped forward as she pushed the door to. The light from the candelabrum fell across him, and she saw that his face had hardened into sharper planes and angles and that lines she didn’t remember bracketed his mouth. He wore riding dress, not his uniform. His coat and breeches were splashed with mud and– Good God, was that blood?
“Harry–“ She crossed to his side in three quick steps, her hand extended. “Are you hurt–“
“No.” His voice forestalled her before she could touch him. “The blood isn’t mine. It belonged to a poor French bastard who was selling us information and got caught. At least that’s what seems to have happened.”
She let her hand fall to her side and clasped her gloved fingers together. “That’s why you’re back in Brussels.”
“Yes, in a round about way. I’m sorry, I don’t suppose you expected to see me.”
“I knew it was a possibility. But then we’re foolish to think we can avoid each other forever. At some point you’ll come back to England.”
“I suppose anything’s possible.”
“Perhaps it’s easier to see each other first here rather than in London with the ton staring at us like fish in a bowl. Was that why you asked to see me?”
“No.” He ran a hand over his hair, an uncharacteristic gesture. “Cordelia– Perhaps you should sit down.” He reached out a hand as though to take her arm, then let it fall to his side and instead pulled a shield-back chair forward.
There was something in his eyes that was suspiciously like pity. She jerked away from it and from the proffered chair. “For God’s sake, Harry, don’t be silly. I’m not some missish girl. Whatever it is you have to tell me say it straight out.”
Harry swallowed. She saw that beneath the grime and blood and the layer of tan from years in the field, his skin had gone pale. “I went to a château just outside Brussels this evening to warn Charles Fraser and this agent of ours that our communications had been rumbled. We were caught in a French ambush. It was only afterwards that we realized someone else had been in the château and had died in the crossfire. A woman.” His gaze fastened on her face with a gentleness she had never thought to see again when he looked at her. “It was Julia. I’m sorry, Cordy.”
For a moment the room swam before her eyes, a dark void she could not look into. A roaring filled her ears and a silent scream echoed in her head.
Strong fingers closed on her arms. She clung to him, her fingers digging into the cloth of his coat. The smell of blood and stale sweat washed over her, and beneath it a whiff of spice, a scent she had not smelled in so long it was half forgot.
His quick intake of breath stirred her hair. Then he steered her to the side and pressed her into the chair. A moment later he put a glass into her hand and guided it to her lips. She choked down a sip of brandy.
“You’re sure it was Julia?” Her sister’s laughing voice echoed in her ears.
“I’m sure.” He knelt beside her, his hand hovering near the glass in her hand.
“You haven’t seen her in four years–“
“Cordy, I’m sure. I don’t forget so easily.”
She darted a quick look at him but saw none of the usual mockery in his expression, only a sympathy that cut her to the quick. “I’d been trying to find her ever since I got to the ball. If I’d arrived sooner–“
His hand closed over her own. No doubt to keep the glass from falling from her fingers. “Guilt will get you nowhere.”
“She left the ball and went– What in God’s name was she doing there?”
“I don’t know,” he said. But she saw the flicker in his eyes, a shutter drawn closed over whatever he knew.
“You mean you won’t tell me.”
“Yes, I thought there hadn’t been enough tragedy tonight, I’d throw in some lies to top it off.” Harry sat back on his heels. “Whatever Julia was doing at the château, it had nothing to do with Fraser’s meeting with La Fleur, which was what took me there–“
“That doesn’t mean you don’t have more information.” She jerked her hand away from his and took a quick swallow of brandy. It stung her throat. All her senses came flooding back. “She was there for a rendezvous, wasn’t she?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, why else would a woman slip off in the midst of a ball and go to a lonely château? After all I’m an expert in such matters. Don’t tell me you were avoiding the nasty truth to spare my sensibilities, that would be too rich.” She looked down into his face, closed now as a book in an unknown tongue. “It’s because of whom the rendezvous was with, isn’t it? Someone you think it’s too sensitive for me to know about.”
His gaze remained steady, but she could tell from the quick flash in his eyes that she’d guessed correctly. She could still read Harry well, for all she’d never properly understood him.
“Damn you.” She pushed herself to her feet, scraping the chair against the floorboards. “My sister’s dead and you’re covering it up like a good little soldier.”
He got to his feet as well. “It would seem that way to you, I suppose. Though I doubt any of my commanding officers would agree that I’ve ever been anything remotely approaching a good little soldier.”
He had retreated behind that caustic mask that had always driven her to distraction. One could never air anything with Harry in a proper fight. “Seem? Don’t play your word games with me, Harry. We’re talking about my baby sister. Or are you just as glad to have one less Brooke in the world?”
“I was smiling all the way back to Brussels. For God’s sake, Cordelia.” He didn’t raise his voice, but the words stopped her like a slap to the face. “Julia was–.” Memories cracked open the reserve in his eyes. “Julia welcomed me to the family. She was always kind to me.“
“A great deal kinder than I was.” The anger drained out of her, leaving a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “A pity for you it wasn’t me who died.”
Something jerked in his eyes that might have been anger. “Hardly. That would have entailed entirely too many complications.”
She shot a sharp look at him.
“I’ve never wished you harm, Cordy.” He swallowed. Harry had always been frighteningly honest. “At least not–“
“After the first few weeks?” she asked, the ashes of memory bitter on her tongue.
His mouth twisted. “It’s odd how angry one can be over commonplace trivialities.”
Cordelia swallowed the last of her brandy and clunked the glass down on the nearest table. “None of this changes the facts. My sister’s dead, and you’re under orders to cover it up for fear of embarrassing the army.”
“Quite. With Boney about to march, avoiding embarrassment is obviously Wellington’s top priority.”
“So he’s taking no interest in the matter at all?”
Harry leaned his hand on a chairback. “Wellington’s asked Charles Fraser to look into it. From what I’ve seen of Fraser, he won’t rest until he uncovers the truth.”
“And when he does uncover it?” She closed her fingers on her elbows, nails digging into the silk of her gloves. “Just who will be told this elusive truth?”
He met her gaze without flinching. “I’ll tell you what I can.”
“What you can.”
“You know I can’t promise you more, Cordelia.”
“I suppose if nothing else we’ve learned not to make false promises to each other.” She glanced into the empty depths of her brandy glass. “Does Johnny know?”
“Wellington told him himself.”
“And Johnny’s agreed to hold his tongue. Duty first, stiff upper-lip, lov’d I not honor more and all that. Does he know Julia had a lover?”
Harry’s gaze darkened. “He does now.”
“Poor Johnny. So perhaps love isn’t entering into it so very much.”
“No, I’d say Ashton’s grief for Julia’s loss overwhelmed all else. He reacted much better than I did in similar circumstances,” Harry added, as though he were speaking of someone quite disconnected to him.
“Well, if I’d died, you’d have had more incentive to be noble.”
His gaze moved over her face, sharp and probing. “Did you know, Cordy?”
“That Julia had a lover.”
“We don’t confide in each other as much as we used to. I’m a bit too scandalous for Julia to be seen too much with me, though I have to say Johnny’s always been very kind– Oh, God.” She closed her arms across her chest as nausea welled up in her throat. “Where is she?” she asked, when she could force out the words.
He hesitated, though he did not pretend to misunderstand her. “We brought her back to Lisbon in a cart. It’s in Stuart’s stable at present.”
“I want to see her.”
He gave a curt nod. “I’ll take you.”
She’d been prepared for argument, but then whatever else he’d been as a husband, Harry had never been over protective. He moved to a door that led to the terrace and held it open for her. She swept past him.