Imperial Scandal

Following up on yesterday’s post about the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, here’s how a glimpse from Imperial Scandal of the evening of 16 June 1815 following the Battle of Quatre Bras.

Valentin opened the door in the Rue Ducale, a grin on his face. Suzanne saw why when she stepped into the hall. A tall figure appeared in the library doorway, in his shirtsleeves, a whisky glass in one hand.

Suzanne ran down the marble-tiled floor and flung her arms round her husband. Malcolm’s arms closed round her with gratifying force. When she pulled back enough to lift her face to his, he kissed her full on the lips, heedless of the others in the hall. Quite unlike her undemonstrative husband. But then nothing seemed to be the way it had been any longer. Half the whisky spilled over both of them.

She drew back at last, breathless, torn between a desire to laugh and to cry.

“I should go away more often,” Malcolm said with a grin, though his fingers trembled where he still held her. “I told you I was just delivering a message.”

“Liar.” She took his hand and drew him down the hall. “Look who’s joined us.”

Malcolm went forward to embrace his two friends. “I should have known you were madmen enough to journey into a war zone. Glad to see age isn’t rendering us too staid.”

He turned to Aline and Cordelia. “Geoff’s fine. I left him stitching up a wound in a young private’s collarbone while giving instructions about how to set an arm and bring down an attack of wound fever.”

Aline scarcely moved a muscle, but her breath shuddered through the hall.

“I saw Davenport about nine,” Malcolm said to Cordelia. “A musket ball grazed his cheek, but otherwise he was unhurt.”

Cordelia squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. “Thank you.”

“I didn’t see Ashton or George Chase, but most of the British cavalry missed the fighting.”

They removed to the library, where Simon took it upon himself to refill Malcolm’s glass and pour whisky for the others.

“The fighting didn’t begin until about three,” Malcolm said. “God knows why. If Ney had attacked sooner, we’d have been in a pretty plight.”

Suzanne, who had been in the midst of taking a sip of whisky, choked and then swallowed with determination.

“When the fighting started most of our troops still hadn’t arrived. Apparently the orders got muddled. But they were there by three-thirty or so and fought amazingly well after having just marched. A number of officers fought in their ball dress.”

“So we prevailed?” David asked, his face taut.

“We seemed to be prevailing when I left. We were outnumbered much of the day. The highlanders–some of the same fellows who danced at the ball last night–took a savage beating. Picton came up in relief and the Brunswickers and Van Merlen’s cavalry. A few Dutch-Belgians have gone over to the French, but most have stayed loyal to the Allies.”

“What about the Prussians?” Aline asked. “They haven’t been able to join Wellington’s forces?”

“No, they’re about seven miles to the east at Ligny fighting Bonaparte himself. Wellington managed to ride over and confer with Blücher this morning before the fighting started, but it will be the devil’s own work to maintain communication between the two armies.”

Suzanne’s nails bit into her palms. “You’re going back.”

“Technically it’s up to the staff to maintain communication, but practically I think I can be of help.”

“You seem to have been very close to the fighting,” Simon said.

“Oh, I kept a healthy distance. I’m just good at synthesizing reports.”

Aline went up to her room soon after, pleading the exhaustion of pregnancy. Cordelia looked from Malcolm to David and Simon. “Shall I leave as well?”

“No, if you’re up to it, I’d prefer it if you stayed. You’re already well in the middle of this.” Malcolm glanced at David. “Your father sent you, didn’t he?”

David swallowed. “Malcolm–”

“Whatever your message, you can deliver it in front of Suzanne and Cordelia. And Simon. We’re in the midst of an investigation, and your father’s news may have bearing on it.”

David turned his whisky glass in his hand, gaze on the pale gold liquid.

“I’m not involved in the investigation,” Simon said. “Would you feel better if I left?”

David’s mouth relaxed into a reluctant smile. “Don’t be an idiot.” He reached inside his coat and drew out a sealed paper. “Father gave me this for you, Malcolm. I’m to tell you– Father thinks the French are intercepting your communications to him.”

Chapter 38

Suzanne’s whisky glass tilted in her fingers. She tightened her grip, so hard she nearly snapped the stem. Don’t forget to breathe. She could hear Raoul’s voice in her ear. That’s the key to preserving one’s equilibrium.

<TXT>Malcolm took the paper David was holding out to him. “Did your father say why he thought our communications were compromised?”

“Something to do with Upper Wimpole Street. Is that a code for something?”

Malcolm frowned at the paper. “It’s the address where a French spy ring was meeting in London.”

Suzanne choked down another sip of whisky.

Malcolm opened Carfax’s letter and glanced through it, then moved to the desk and reached for ink and paper. “Drink some more whisky. It will take a bit of time to decode this. Suzette, get the David Hume.”

It was a book code. Suzanne read out from the appropriate page in the volume of David Hume, her voice eerily calm to her own ears as she helped Malcolm decode the message. A message, she well knew, that might lead directly back to her. Her palms were damp, but her voice remained steady. Never had she so valued her early acting training.

When the letter was transformed to plaintext, Malcolm frowned at it but didn’t seem overly surprised.

“Well?” Simon asked. “Was it worth our rushing into a war zone?”

“Most definitely, though as it happens I’d already worked some of it out on my own. With the disruption to our courier system, Carfax decided it was important I know about one of his double agents. Who has since been murdered.”

Cordelia clunked her glass down. “Do you mean–”

Malcolm crossed the room and dropped down beside Cordelia. “I’ve learned a number of things in the past twenty-four hours. It wasn’t the Comte de Vedrin who tried to blackmail your sister into spying for the French. It was Tony Chase.”

Cordelia’s eyes went wide and still in her pale face. “Dear God.”

“And so Julia went to Tony’s brother. Who, unbeknownst to me, is in intelligence himself, reporting directly to Lord Carfax. Julia wasn’t spying for the French. She was spying for us and reporting to George.”

“And George–” Cordelia squeezed her eyes shut. “George had my sister whoring herself to the Prince of Orange to get information.”

“Intelligence is a dirty business. As George reminded me only hours ago.” Malcolm looked at Simon and David, then back at Cordelia. “With your permission–”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Of course. They already know so much.”

Malcolm quickly brought David and Simon up to date on the investigation into Julia Ashton’s death, with Suzanne filling in bits and pieces. Cordelia sipped her whisky in silence, her fingers white-knuckled round the glass.

“You know what I find the greatest relief?” she said. “Not that my sister wasn’t a traitor. That she wasn’t fool enough to contemplate leaving her husband child and running off with Tony Chase.”

“I can understand that,” Malcolm said.

David was frowning. “So Anthony Chase wants you dead?”

“Apparently. Presumably because he thinks I understand what really happened at Truxhillo. Which I don’t.”

“And the ambush that killed Lady Julia,” Simon said. “We’re they shooting at you? Or at Lady Julia?”

“We still don’t know.”

Cordelia hunched forward, shivering. “I didn’t think I had any illusions about Tony. I always knew he was selfish and arrogant. But I never–”

Suzanne moved to the sofa beside Cordelia and dropped an arm round her. “You grew up with him.”

“I don’t know why that should make a difference.”

“But it does.”

Cordelia swallowed. “Yes.”

“Where’s Anthony Chase now?” David asked.

Malcolm turned his whisky glass in his hand. “That would seem to be the question. I spent the better part of today looking for him.”

Cordelia rubbed her hand over her eyes. “You think he’s joined the French?”

“Perhaps. I’m more worried he’s still here to make difficulties for the British.”

“I’m more worried he hasn’t given up on killing you,” Suzanne said. She could breathe again now the message had been decoded, but she knew that wasn’t the end of it. Her blood seemed to have frozen and no amount of whisky could warm her.

David shook his head. “God in heaven–”

Malcolm gave him a crooked grin. “It’s all right. After a few years of living our life, you get used to insanity.”

Cordelia was frowning into her whisky glass. “I couldn’t understand Julia’s fancying herself head over heels in love with Tony. But I can understand this. Feeling the need to find something to do with oneself.”

“And that makes it easier?” Suzanne asked.

“I don’t know that it should,” Cordelia said. “But it does.”

David looked at Malcolm. “What does Upper Wimpole Street have to do with all this?”

“About a fortnight ago I sent your father information about a French spy ring operating there. But apparently they’d all flown the coop before Carfax could take them into custody. He thinks the only way they could have known to flee is if someone intercepted our communications and passed along a warning.” Malcolm glanced down at the plaintext of Carfax’s message again. “Your father also says he counts upon my discretion involving the family matter he mentioned, and that he hopes we can speak further after Bonaparte is dispatched. Do you know what he’s talking about?”

David’s brows rose. “You don’t?”

“Not in the least.”

David gave a slow nod. “More proof the French are intercepting your communications perhaps. Father wrote to you over a month since.”

“About?”

David looked from Suzanne to Cordelia to Simon. Apparently even his lover wasn’t privy to this particular piece of information.

“Do you want us to leave?” Suzanne asked.

David hesitated a moment, then shook his head. “An old instinct to protect family secrets. But it’s foolish to hold back when we’ve confided so much. In fact, we were talking about it earlier today.” He drew a breath. “It’s Amelia. Father’s taken it into his head her death wasn’t an accident.”

Cordelia gasped. Simon went very still.

“What makes Carfax suddenly suspect that?” Malcolm asked.

“One of the gardeners at Carfax Court fell ill recently. On his deathbed he confessed to his wife that he’d seen Amelia arguing with a man by the stream the day she died.”

“Did he say why he’d kept quiet about it?”

David shook his head. “One suspects money was involved, though the man’s widow claims to have found no evidence of it. Father thought– He knows how ably you investigated Princess Tatiana’s murder in Vienna last autumn. He wants you to look into Amy’s death.”

“David,” Simon said in a voice like rope pulled to the breaking point.

David cast a quick glance at his lover.

Simon was staring at David with dawning horror on his face. “All this happened a month since?”

“I would have–” David’s fingers curled inward. “I’d have told you, but it was . . . a family matter.”

Simon returned David’s gaze for a long moment. “Quite.”

“Simon–”

Simon sat back in his chair, his knuckles white round his whisky glass. “You know I try to stay out of matters involving your family. But in this case, it might have saved time if you’d told me.”

David’s brows drew together, dark slashes against his pale skin. “I don’t see–”

“What do you know about Amy’s death, Simon?” Malcolm asked.

Simon took a deliberate sip of whisky. “I wasn’t at Carfax Court or Carfax House in London a great deal, but I was there enough to get to know Amelia.”

David’s family turned a blind eye to David’s relationship with Simon, keeping up the pretense that they were friends who shared rooms, though Suzanne knew Lord Carfax was increasingly eager for David to marry and produce an heir.

“There was a certain sympathy between Amelia and me,” Simon continued. “We both knew what it was to be outsiders in that world.”

Simon’s father, the son of a wealthy brewer from Northumberland, had gone off to Paris to paint and married an artist’s model, Simon’s mother. After they both died, the ten-year-old Simon had been sent back to England, to a family that didn’t know what to make of him and packed him off to Westminster and then Oxford. He’d always had a comfortable fortune, but he was an outsider in David’s aristocratic world and his Radical politics rendered him even more so. It was one of the reasons Suzanne had felt an instant kinship with him.

“So we’d talk,” Simon said. “About inconsequential things usually, but we got in the habit of turning to each other when we felt particularly out in the cold. Turn of phrase,” he added, in response to a look from David. “That winter– God, there’s no easy way to say this.” He met David’s gaze across the library. “The day before she died, Amelia had confided to me that she was expecting a child.”

David went as still as a sculpture carved in ice. For seconds together he simply stared at Simon. When he spoke at last, he seemed to have difficulty forcing the words from his throat. “And you never–”

“I told her I was sure there was a way out of her predicament.” Simon pushed himself to his feet but checked himself, accepting the fire in David’s gaze like a duelist taking a pistol shot. “I thought I had a bit of time. I was trying to figure out how to tell you, if there was a way we could get her away for long enough without your parents knowing, how we could manage things if she wanted to keep the child. I was walking across the grounds looking for you the next day so I could tell you, when the gardener’s boy came running with her body in his arms.”

“And then?” David stared at his lover, a pulse beating in his jaw.

“It never occurred to me that anyone had done her harm. But I feared she might have taken her own life.” Simon swallowed, his gaze fixed on David’s face. “I was going to tell you when we were alone that night, and then I realized–what the hell good would it have done?”

“What good would it have done for me to know the truth about my foster sister’s death?” David’s voice shook with disbelief. “If I’d known what she’d been going through–”

“That’s just it. It was too late for you to protect her. All knowing her plight would have done is make you torture yourself. You might even have tried to find her lover–”

“Damned right, I would have,” said David, who rarely swore in the presence of ladies.

“To what end?”

“So I could make the bastard pay.”

“Yes, that’s what I was afraid of. You might even have been mad enough to challenge him to a duel.”

“I–” David, as opposed in theory to dueling as Malcolm was, opened his mouth to deny this, then went silent.

“Precisely,” Simon said. “As reform-minded as you are you’re still an English gentleman. Forgive me if I had no desire to see the man I love breaking the law and risking his life.”

David kept his gaze on Simon. There might have been no one else in the room. David didn’t even seem to notice that Simon had alluded directly to their relationship, something that in the general course of things neither of them did in front of others. “If you’d told me even a few hours sooner–”

“Don’t you think I haven’t said that to myself every day for the past four and a half years?”

David drew a harsh breath. “She didn’t give you any clue to who it was?”

“No.”

“Damn it, Simon, you can’t think I’d challenge the man to a duel now.”

“I’m not entirely convinced of it. But as it happens, she truly didn’t tell me.”

David looked at Cordelia. “Do you think Amelia confided in your sister?”

“Julia never mentioned anything about it to me. But–” Cordelia looked at Malcolm. “Do you think this is really all coincidence? Lord Carfax became suspicious that Julia’s childhood friend was murdered. And shortly afterwards Julia was killed herself.”

“Which of your friends was in Derbyshire in the winter of 1810 to 1811?” Malcolm asked.

Cordelia swallowed. “All of them. George and Tony both were home on leave, and Johnny was there.”

“Did Amelia seem particularly close to any of them?”

Cordelia shook her head. “Not that I remember. I was only in Derbyshire for a short time myself. Harry and I went to a house party in the Lake District. Truth to tell, George had just come back to England, and I was trying to avoid him. Much good it did me.”

Malcolm nodded. “I was at Carfax Court myself briefly that winter, but I can’t say I was aware of any particular sympathy between Amelia and anyone.” He looked at David and Simon. Both shook their heads.

“I’ve gone over all my memories of that winter time and time again,” Simon said. “If–”

A rumbling sound interrupted him. Carriages moving over cobblestones. Shouts quickly followed from the street outside. Without so much as exchanging glances, they all ran into the hall and out into the street. People spilled from the houses on either side of the street, some in nightclothes, some clutching glasses of wine or handfuls of cards. Shouts and questions in English and French cut the air. At last Suzanne made out that supposedly an artillery train had just retreated through the city, the British were in retreat, and the French were within a half hour’s march.

She shook her head, sure it couldn’t be over so simply. Though a part of her hoped against hope that it was.

“I think the artillery was going to the front,” Malcolm said. “Wellington wouldn’t retreat so easily.”

Suzanne knew the duke well enough to realize that was all too true.

Malcolm turned back toward the house while their neighbors continued to argue. Cordelia moved to Suzanne’s side. David and Simon followed, walking a few feet apart, the distance between them palpable.

“We’ll get no more intelligence tonight,” Malcolm said as they stepped into the hall.

Cordelia cast a glance at David and Simon, then moved toward the stairs. “I don’t know that I can sleep, but I suppose we should try.”

They all took candles and climbed the stairs. On the landing, they murmured subdued good nights. David and Simon hadn’t so much as met each other’s gaze. “Cordelia,” Malcolm said softly, when he and Suzanne and Cordelia were alone on the first-floor landing.

Cordelia looked at him in inquiry over the flame of her candle.

“George says Julia worked for him, but they weren’t lovers.”

Cordelia returned Malcolm’s gaze for a long moment and inclined her head. “Thank you. Though oddly, I find that it doesn’t matter very much anymore.”

“I hope David and Simon talk,” Suzanne said to Malcolm in the privacy of their bedchamber.

“I doubt they will.” Malcolm set his candle on the chest of drawers. “David’s the sort who shuts down instead of fighting.”

“There’s a reason you’re such good friends. You’re much alike.” Suzanne used her candle to light the tapers on her dressing table. “Did you know Amelia Beckwith?”

“A bit. But in those days I was even more inclined to retreat to the library with a book than I am now. I certainly never guessed–” He shrugged out of his coat, the same black evening coat he’d worn to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, and stared at the dusty superfine with drawn brows.

Suzanne peeled off her gloves and dropped them on the dressing table. “Cordelia’s right. The connection to Julia is suspiciously coincidental.”

“So it is.” Malcolm tugged at his crumpled cravat. “And if Julia Ashton’s killer is the person who intercepted messages between Carfax and me it narrows the field.”

Suzanne froze in the midst of removing her pearl earrings. “You think Tony Chase was intercepting your communications with Carfax?”

“Possibly.” Malcolm began to unbutton his stained ivory brocade waistcoat. “But George Chase is the one who knew Carfax’s courier system.”

“Tony Chase could have learned about courier system from his brother somehow.”

“He could. Or I could have been wrong to believe George’s denials that he’s working for the French as well.”

Suzanne dropped the second earring in its velvet-lined compartment beside the first, biting back all the objections she couldn’t possibly make. “Damn George for not telling you Tony was trying to kill you.”

Malcolm shrugged out of his waistcoat, wincing at the pull on the wound in his side. “I’m not feeling particularly charitable toward him myself. But I think I do understand.”

Suzanne’s fingers froze on the silver filigree clasp of her necklace. “Are you saying you’d protect Edgar, even at the risk of someone else’s life?”

“No. At least I hope not. But I can understand the impulse. And then there’s–” He broke off, frowning at the shirt cuff he’d been unfastening.

“Fitz.” Suzanne carefully aligned the pearl necklace against the black velvet in her jewelry box. Fitzwilliam Vaughn, Malcolm’s friend and fellow attaché from Vienna, was now on a mission in India. Talking about him at all was like touching a half-healed wound

“Difficult not to make the comparison.” Malcolm tugged the button free. “I need to find Tony Chase. For a whole host of reasons.”

Suzanne crossed the room to her husband. “I can’t believe you can actually stay the night.”

Malcolm pulled his shirt over his head with tired fingers. Someone, she was pleased to see, probably Geoffrey Blackwell, had changed his bandages. “I’m scarcely fit for anything else.”

Her gaze moved over the hollow of his throat, the angle of his shoulders, the lean lines of muscle picked out by the candlelight. “Not anything?”

His eyes widened in genuine surprise. “Suzette–”

“If there ever was a time to take pleasure where we can find it–” She took his face between her hands and covered his mouth with her own. When the pull of competing loyalties threatened to tear her in two, she’d always been able to find solace in his arms. A communication that bridged all differences and drove out treacherous thoughts. Once, when she’d feared Malcolm would never let down the barriers that kept them apart, she’d thought this was the only sort of knowledge she’d ever have of him. Even now it was the easiest way to reach him. And the only way she knew to drive the demons from her mind.

His arms closed tight round her, but she felt his moment of hesitation, as though he feared to take advantage of her humor. She deepened the kiss and sank her fingers into his hair, leaving no doubt of what she wanted. When his lips moved to her cheek, she heard the edge of desperation in his breath. The desperation of a man who wonders if he’s making love to his wife for the last time. His fingers shook as he lifted her in his arms and moved to the bed. She pulled him down to her and surrendered to welcome oblivion. Later she even slept for a time, curled against his chest, one hand clasping his own, his heartbeat steady beneath her ear.

A cry jerked her from her sleep. Malcolm was already on his feet, pulling on his dressing gown and pushing up the window. She scrambled into her own dressing gown and ran to his side. She could make out the words now. “Les Français sont ici! Les Français sont ici!”

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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.