Imperial Scandal

One of history’s most famous social engagements was two hundred years ago today. 15 June 1815. The ball given by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels at which Wellington got word that Napoleon’s forces were on the move and Napoleon had “hoodwinked: him by attacking in a different direction from what he had anticipated. Officers rode to battle in ball dress (Waterloo was not the next day but 18 June, with the fighting at Quatre Bras in the interim).

In honor of the anniversary, here is an excerpt of how the scene plays out in Imperial Scandal.

When the meal came to an end, the spell that had held the company under some semblance of illusion that they were at an ordinary ball well and truly broke. Malcolm was claimed by Stuart, Davenport by Colonel Canning. Raoul met Suzanne’s gaze briefly across the supper room. It was, she knew, the only good-bye they would have.

By the time Suzanne and Cordelia stepped back into the hall it was a scene of chaos. Soldiers calling for their horses, girls darting across the floor, tripping over their skirts, shouting the names of their beloveds, parents scanning the crowd for sons. The musicians had begun to play again in the ballroom, but the strains of the waltz vied with the call of bugles and the shrill song of fifes from outside. A broken champagne glass scrunched under Suzanne’s satin slipper. By the dining room door a young captain stood holding the hands of a girl in orange blossom crêpe. A little farther off a girl in pink muslin had sunk to the floor, weeping into her hands. Suzanne felt Cordelia go still beside her.

A man in a rifleman’s uniform brushed past them, a girl in white on his arm. Suzanne suppressed a start at the sight of those finely molded features. Then she forced her gaze away. The ghosts of her past seemed irrelevant in the chaos of the present.

“Suzanne.” Georgiana touched her arm. “I’m going to help March pack up his things.” She glanced toward the ballroom. “I can’t believe people are so heartless as to still be dancing.”

Cordelia drew a harsh breath. “I wouldn’t be too hard on them. It may be their last chance.”

***

“Malcolm. Glad I found you.” Stuart gripped Malcolm’s arm, his face uncharacteristically grim. He jerked his head toward the Duke of Richmond’s study. Malcolm followed the ambassador into the room to find Wellington and the Duke of Richmond already there, amid the ranks of books and the smell of old leather and dusty paper. Richmond was spreading a map out on the desk.

“Napoleon has humbugged me by God!” Wellington glanced at the door as Malcolm and Stuart stepped into the room. “He has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me. And separated us from the Prussians.”

“What do you intend doing?” the Duke of Richmond asked. He was a soldier himself, in command of the reserves in Brussels. Three of his sons were in the army, and Malcolm knew Richmond himself had been displeased not to receive an appointment on Wellington’s staff.

Wellington moved to the desk and stared down at the map. “I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras, but we shan’t stop him there, and if so,” he said, pressing his thumb down on the map, “I must fight him here.”

Malcolm moved to the duke’s side to see what he was pointing at. Wellington’s thumbnail rested on a small village called Waterloo.

***

“Rannoch.” Davenport fell in beside Malcolm outside the door of the duke’s study. “What did Hookey have to say?”

“That Bonaparte has humbugged him. He’s gained a day’s march on us and separated us from the Prussians.”

Davenport grimaced. “Exile apparently hasn’t dulled Boney’s brilliance. It looks as though I’m back to being a staff officer. I’m off to Fleurus with a message. I don’t know if I’ll get back to Brussels before the fighting starts. Tony Chase–”

“I’ll talk to him.” Malcolm nearly said more, but he wasn’t quite ready to share the suspicions roiling in his head. “You need to find Lady Cordelia and make your farewells.”

Two cavalry officers pushed past them. A girl in blue ran up and seized one by the arm. Davenport glanced at them for a moment, then turned his gaze back to Malcolm. “Look, Rannoch.” His voice was clipped. “I know Cordelia. I’ve no illusions she’ll go home or even to Antwerp.”

“I shouldn’t think so. Suzanne wouldn’t, either.”

A smile of acknowledgment tugged at Davenport’s mouth. “And Wellington wouldn’t thank me for considering defeat. But I have a healthy respect for Napoleon Bonaparte. Should the unthinkable happen–”

Malcolm gripped his friend’s shoulder. He had many acquaintances but few friends. He realized Davenport had become one of them. “I’ll make sure Lady Cordelia and your daughter get to safety. My word on it.”

Davenport met his gaze, for once with no hint of mockery. “Thank you.”

Davenport strode off in search of his wife. Malcolm spared a brief thought for what it would be like to say farewell to Suzanne with such a nightmare of estrangement between them. Then he pushed the thought to where personal thoughts had to go at times like these and glanced round the chaos of the hall for Anthony Chase. Soldiers pushed past, white-gloved fingers clutched scarlet-coated arms, shouts for horses and calls to husbands, wives, sweethearts, children, parents cut the air. Malcolm saw a flash of green and a bright gold head near the front door and pushed his way through the crowd, only to find it was a lieutenant in the 95th rather than Chase.

He turned back toward the ballroom and saw a familiar face. “March. Are you off?”

“When I’ve seen my parents,” Lord March said. “Georgy helped me pack.”

“You haven’t seen Tony Chase by any chance, have you?”

“Not since supper, I think. Probably slipped off to say good-bye to his latest mistress.” March grimaced with distaste. “I’ve always thought Jane Chase deserved better.”

“I won’t argue with you there. Though one can’t deny Chase’s bravery at Truxhillo.”

“No, though if you ask me half of his success was the French being so bloody incompetent.”

“I was in Andalusia at the time,” Malcolm said. “I think the accounts I’ve heard were rather exaggerated.”

March frowned. “It’s odd. Tony Chase asked me about that.”

“About the accounts being exaggerated?”

“Where you were at the time, of all things. Seemed to think you were on a mission near Truxhillo.”

Malcolm felt his pulse quicken. “When was this?”

“Fortnight or so ago. Wellington’s ball for Blücher perhaps? One of the endless round of parties we’ve been attending. The days have a way of running together.”

Malcolm gripped the other man’s arm. “Thank you, March. Look after yourself.”

“Always do, old fellow.”

Malcolm scanned the hall for Tony Chase again. Finding him had suddenly become a matter of pressing urgency.

***

“Harry.” Cordelia skidded over fallen roses and shards of broken champagne glasses on the hall floor. “Thank God. I was afraid you’d left.”

“Cordy.” He was standing by the base of the stairs, drawing on his gloves. She thought, inconsequentially, that he must have had them off since supper. Absurd the way one’s mind worked at such moments. “You’re staying in Brussels?” he asked.

“Don’t try to argue me out of–”

He gave a faint smile. “I wouldn’t dream of it. This is no time to waste one’s breath. But in the event it becomes necessary, Rannoch can help you get back to England.”

She nodded, swallowing her surprise.

Harry continued pulling on his gloves. “Should I– In the event I don’t see you again, my man of business has all the necessary documents. Alford-Smith in St. Albans Lane. There’s a portion for you and everything else is in trust for Livia with you as trustee. Neither of you should want for anything.”

She stared at him. It was as though she was looking at a stranger, and yet she sensed he had never spoken so genuinely. “Harry– I didn’t expect–”

He tugged the second glove smooth. “What did you think I’d do? Support you and Livia in life and abandon you in death?”

“No, of course not. But I wish you wouldn’t talk about–”

“Merely taking precautions. I’ve lived through a tiresome number of battles, I daresay I shall live through this one.”

Beneath his easy tone and cool gaze something belied his words. She looked at him for a moment, every nerve stretched taut beneath her skin. This could be the last time she would ever see him. She reached up and curled her gloved fingers behind his neck.

He stiffened beneath her touch. “Cordy–”

“I have no right to ask you to come back to me, Harry. But for God’s sake, please come back.” She drew his head down and pressed her mouth to his.

For a moment he went completely still. Then his arms closed about her, as though he would meld her to him. His mouth tasted of wine. His hair was soft beneath her gloved fingers, his hands taut and urgent through the net and silk of her gown, his mouth desperate yet oddly tender against her own.

When he raised his head, his eyes were like dark glass. He stared down at her with the wonder and fear of a man who has stepped into an alien world. “I’m sorry. I didn’t–”

She put her hand against the side of his face. Her fingers trembled. “Thank you. That is, I didn’t mean to–”

He seized her hand and pressed it to his lips with a fervor equal to his kiss. “Tell Livia–”

“You can tell her yourself when you come back.”

He gave a twisted smile. “Look after yourself, Cordy.”

She swallowed. “That’s one thing I’ve always been good at.”

***

A few couples were still waltzing in the ballroom. Cordelia found Suzanne beside a gilded table that held a porcelain bowl of wilting roses and a brace of candles dripping wax onto the marble tabletop.

“Did you find Harry?” Suzanne asked.

“He’s just left. You’re staying in Brussels?”

“Of course.”

Cordelia smiled, more relieved than she would care to admit to know she would have her friend to rely upon in what was to come. “I knew you could be depended upon. Livia and I will be at the Hôtel d’Angleterre.”

“Lady Caroline’s leaving?”

“Along with half the expatriates in Brussels. I can’t quarrel with her. But I feel compelled to stay.”

“Of course. But not in an hôtel. You and Livia must come to us.”

Cordelia shook her head. “That isn’t why I told you–”

“I know that. But it’s the logical solution.”

“It’s not just Livia and me. I’ve told Johnny I’ll take Robbie and his nurse in.”

“Aline’s coming to us as well. We have plenty of room.” Suzanne touched Cordelia’s arm. “You’ll be doing me a great favor. Malcolm is bound to be off on an errand, and God knows when he’ll be back. I’ll be going mad with worry, and I suspect you will as well.”

Cordelia looked at her for a moment, a dozen polite denials trembling on her lips. Then she said simply, “Thank you.”

“Splendid. I daresay–” Suzanne broke off as a tall, fair-haired man in a colonel’s uniform brushed past them.

The colonel went stock-still, his gaze locked on Suzanne’s. “Suz– Mrs. Rannoch.”

“Colonel Radley.” Suzanne’s voice was as icy as Cordelia had ever heard it. She turned to Cordelia and performed a quick introduction.

Radley inclined his head. He had an elegantly boned face and a self-assured blue gaze that implied he was quite aware of how handsome he was. But that confident gaze shifted over Suzanne as though she was a cipher he could not solve. “I’m off to join my regiment. Are you staying in Brussels?”

“Of course,” Suzanne said. “My husband’s here.”

“Your devotion continues to be remarkable.” Radley regarded Suzanne a moment longer, half- speculative, half-challenging. Then he nodded and moved off.

Cordelia adjusted the folds of her Grecian scarf. Suzanne Rannoch was a surprising woman, but Cordelia had never thought to find her friend playing out the equivalent of her own scene with Peregrine Waterford.

“I knew Frederick Radley in the Peninsula,” Suzanne said. “Before I married I Malcolm.” She gave a faint smile and looked directly into Cordelia’s eyes. “You aren’t the only one with ghosts, Cordy.”

***

Suzanne studied Malcolm’s face. “You’re not going home to change?”

He shook his head. “There’s no time. Richmond’s lending me a horse. I need to find Anthony Chase or at the very least warn his commanding officer. It’s not precisely a message I can trust to someone else.”

Beside them, a dragoon was pulling a flower from a girl’s gold ringlets, while a fresh-faced young Foot Guard lifted a dark-haired girl’s hand to his lips. Suzanne’s hands closed on her husband’s arms. “Be careful.”

A smile pulled at his mouth, the familiar, maddening smile he employed when going into danger without her. “I’m only delivering a message.”

“You’re looking for a man who means to kill you.”

“He won’t try to do it himself.”

“You don’t know what he’ll attempt if he’s driven to desperation.”

His gripped her shoulders. “I’ll try to be back tomorrow. I think it will be a day or so before anything decisive occurs.”

She leaned into him and put her mouth to his. His arms closed round her with the force of everything he couldn’t put into words. Bugle calls sounded in the distance. The French had gained valuable time. Something sang within her at the knowledge, and yet at the same time her heart twisted at the danger her husband faced.

He drew back and set his hands on her shoulders. “Should the news not be good, you should have plenty of time to get to Antwerp. I’ll find you there. Or back in England if necessary.”

She gave a quick nod. “Cordelia is coming to stay with me. Allie as well.”

“Good.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “There are still papers in the compartment in the bottom of my dispatch box. Where I told you to look when we were in Vienna. Travel documents, letters for Aunt Frances and David. And for you and Colin.”

A chill shot through the gauze and satin of her gown. “Malcolm–”

“In our line of work, it’s always wise to be prepared.”

She had letters for him and Colin as well, but Raoul had them in safekeeping. One in case she died and took her secrets to the grave, one in case she died and Malcolm had already learned the truth of her work. Since she’d married and become a mother she feared death as never before, but even more she feared a future in which she was gone and her husband and son hated her.

She reached up and kissed Malcolm again, branding him with a memory meant to survive whatever was to come.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Excerpted from Imperial Scandal by TERESA GRANT Copyright © 2012 by Tracy Grant. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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