An excerpt from…
Secrets of a Lady
by Tracy Grant
“All the world may be a stage, but sometimes the dialogue’s too bloody ridiculous for any self-respecting playwright.” Charles Fraser set down his candle and shrugged out of his evening coat, sparing a silent curse for the close-fitting fashions of the day. “What is it about diplomatic receptions that always brings on the most god-awful lapses in tact?”
“Don’t tell me you expect diplomats to be diplomatic, darling.” Mélanie unwound the voluminous cashmere folds of her shawl from her shoulders and began to peel off her gloves. “That would be much too logical.”
Charles tossed his coat over a tapestry chair back, turned up the crystal Agrand lamp that had been left lit in readiness for them, and moved to the fireplace. They never had his valet and Mélanie’s maid wait up, but a fire was laid in the grate. He picked up the poker and stirred the coals.
“What particularly appalling dialogue caught your attention tonight?” Mélanie asked.
Charles turned from the fire to look at his wife. She was sitting at her dressing table, her feet drawn up onto the striped damask chair so she could remove her evening slippers. Her glossy dark ringlets fell about her face, exposing the curve of her neck. The pearl-embroidered skirt of her gown was tucked up as she unwound the ivory satin ribbons that crisscrossed her silk-stockinged ankles. Strange, when he knew every inch of her, that his breath still caught at the sight. “Lady Bury told Ned Ellison that his wife looked charming dancing with Peter Grantham and hadn’t they been dancing to the same waltz at the Cowpers’ only two nights ago?”
Mélanie looked up, one slipper dangling by the ribbons from her fingers. “Oh, dear. That would seem glaringly obvious on any stage. Though if Ellison doesn’t know his wife’s sleeping with Peter Grantham, he’s the last person in London not to be in on the secret.”
Charles moved to the satinwood table that held his greatgrandmother’s Irish crystal decanter and glasses. “Poor bastard. One of those mad fools besotted with his own wife.” He shot her a glance. “Not that I’d know anything about that.”
She returned the glance, a glint in her eyes. “Of course not.”
He took the stopper from the decanter. Ellison’s gaze, as he watched his wife circle the floor with her lover, had stirred images of a past Charles would just as soon forget. He paused, the heavy cut-glass stopper in his hand, an uncomfortable weight in his memory.
Mélanie flexed her foot. “I rather think his adoration may be the problem. Too much can be smothering. Literally. Think of Othello.”
Charles jerked himself out of the past. “Ellison doesn’t strike me as the violent sort.” He poured an inch of whisky into two glasses.
“He’s a quiet brooder.” She dropped her slippers to the floor and got to her feet. “They’re the ones who snap.”
Seven years of marriage and her perceptiveness about people could still surprise him. He set down the decanter and replaced the stopper. “Am I the sort who’d snap?”
She turned from lighting the tapers on her dressing table, laughter in her eyes. “Controlled, dispassionate Charles Fraser? Oh, no, darling. Anyone who’s been to bed with you knows you aren’t nearly as cold as you let on.”
He walked over to her, carrying the glasses of whisky. “So I’m the perfect sort of husband to betray?”
“Not quite.” Her gaze was appraising, but her lips trembled with humor. “You’re much too intelligent, dearest. You’d be damnably difficult to deceive.”
He put one of the glasses into her hand. “Sounds as though you’ve considered it.”
She leaned against the dressing table and took a meditative sip of whisky. “Well, I might.” Her eyes, a color between blue agate and the green of Iona marble, gleamed in her pale face. “Except that it would be quite impossible to find anyone who’s your equal, my love.”
He regarded her, aware of a smile playing about his mouth. “Good answer.”
“Yes, I rather thought it was.”
He lifted one hand and ran his fingers down the familiar line of her throat. The puffed gossamer that was an excuse for a sleeve slipped from her shoulder. His fingers molded to her skin. The scent of her perfume filled his senses, roses and vanilla and some other fragrance that still remained elusive after all these years.
A lump of coal fell from the grate and hissed against the fender. He swore, shrugged his shoulders, and went to pick up the poker.
“You warned me about it,” Mélanie said from the dressing table. “The night you proposed.”
He pushed the coal into the grate. “Warned you about what? ”
“That — in your words — you weren’t a demonstrative man. That you’d thought you’d never marry, your parents had set a miserable example, and you weren’t sure how good you’d be at it.”
He looked at her over his shoulder. “I didn’t really say that.”
“You did.” She curled up, catlike, on her dressing table chair. “You pointed out all the potential pitfalls with scrupulous care. It might have been a white paper you’d drawn up for the ambassador on the advantages and disadvantages of a treaty. You didn’t even try to kiss me.”
“I should think not. That might have risked biasing your judgment. One way or the other.” He returned the poker to its stand. “Of course, if I had, perhaps you’d have given me an answer straightaway, instead of going off to think about it for the most uncomfortable three days I have ever spent.”
“Charles, given what you’ve been through in your life, that has to be hyperbole.”
He kept his gaze on her face. “Not necessarily.”
She unfastened her pearl earrings without breaking eye contact. “Terrified I’d accept?”
“Mel, the most terrifying thing I can imagine is life without you.”
Mélanie looked at him a moment longer, her eyes dark. Then she gave one of her wonderful smiles. The smile she’d given him after their first, awkward kiss in a drafty embassy corridor, with a military band blaring in the street outside. The smile he’d opened his eyes upon when he’d recovered consciousness after a gunshot wound to find her sitting beside his camp bed, three months into their strangely begun marriage.
Charles returned the smile, then looked away, because sometimes, even now, what they had together was so miraculous it scared him. He stared into the leaping flames in the grate. Thinking about their betrothal made him think about their son and the scene that had been enacted earlier tonight. “Were we too hard on Colin, do you think? I hate to ring a peal over him to no purpose.”
“Is that what your father would have done?” Mélanie said.
His fingers curled round the glass. The Fraser crest, etched into the crystal, bit into his skin. “Hardly. Father wouldn’t have come to the nursery at all, unless Edgar or I were spilling our lifeblood onto the carpet. And even then he’d have taken care the blood didn’t seep onto his boots. More likely he’d have summoned me to his study when the dust had settled and told me if I must murder my brother could I have the decency to do it outside on the lawn.”
“And you’d have much preferred it if he’d beaten you?”
He swirled the whisky in his glass. “At least that would have implied he had a passing interest in whether we lived or died.”
An emotion he couldn’t have defined flickered like a shadow across Mélanie’s face. She unclasped the pendant he’d commissioned from a Lisbon jeweler for their first anniversary. The candlelight gleamed against the rose gold of the Celtic knotwork and the green gold of the Spanish poppy at the center. “It’s never easy to be betrayed, least of all by those one should be able to trust the most.”
“Even at my most maudlin, I can hardly claim either of my parents betrayed me. Unless you consider lack of affection a betrayal.”
“The worst betrayal of all. Your father was certainly guilty of it.”
Charles took a sip of whisky, savoring the smoky bite of the liquor. He was seized by a sudden longing for their estate in Scotland — clean air and open space and cool, peaty streams. The house he loved, though he could hardly claim to love the man from whom he had inherited it.
“Always assuming that he was my father,” Charles said. It was something he had questioned more and more in the two and a half years since the death of Kenneth Fraser, the man he had grown up calling Father.
“He claimed you as his son,” Mélanie said. “He owed you his love. Just as you love Colin.”
Charles looked into her eyes. She returned his gaze steadily. After a long moment, he said, “I’m not sure Kenneth Fraser was capable of loving anyone.”
“That’s no excuse. Damn the man, if he hadn’t got himself killed I could cheerfully strangle him.”
Charles smiled in spite of himself. “Bloodthirsty tonight, aren’t you?” He hadn’t meant to mention his mother, but he found himself saying, “As for Mother, whatever her faults I wouldn’t claim she didn’t love her children.”
“No. But one could say suicide is the worst betrayal of all.”
Charles’s fingers tightened on the whisky glass. For a moment, he thought it would shatter in his hand. The image of his parents’ faces pierced years of denial: the cool, ironic arch of his father’s brows, the cutting line of his mouth; the hectic flush of his mother’s cheeks, the brilliant, quixotic torment of her eyes. It almost seemed that he could reach out and demand the answers they had never given him. Answers that shouldn’t matter, but that did, far more than he would admit, even to Mélanie.
The images of his parents gave way to the careless, handsome features of his brother, from whom he was estranged for reasons he himself did not fully understand. And then he thought fleetingly of a honey-haired woman, whom he had failed and who had left him, as surely as his mother had.
He looked at his wife. A crooked smile came to his lips, because that seemed the only possible response to what could not be changed. “Put that way, you could say you’re practically the only person I’ve trusted who hasn’t betrayed me, one way or another.”
Mélanie’s eyes turned unexpectedly luminous. “Darling–” She put out a hand, then let it fall to her side. “Thank you. That’s one of the nicest things you’ve ever said to me. Though it’s rather a large burden to place on any one person.”
“Never mind, I’m sure you’re equal to the task.” He held her gaze for a moment, then shook his head and raked a hand through his hair. “Sorry. I must have had more to drink than I realized. Usually I have to be three sheets to the wind before I give way to self-pity.”
“Dearest, if you can’t indulge in self-pity in front of your wife, when can you?”
“Even the most patient of wives must have her limits.” Charles flung himself into his favorite wing chair, the moss-green velvet he steadily resisted reupholstering. Even now, even with Mélanie, talking about his parents cut through too many defenses, until it nicked at feelings he preferred to keep buried.
Mélanie turned back to her dressing table, as though she were quite unaware of the undercurrents in the room. He rested his head against the worn velvet of the chair and watched as she went through the familiar ritual of taking down her hair. Amazing how many pins it took to create that elaborate arrangement of curls and loops. The walnut-brown strands fell one by one about her shoulders. The metal pins clattered as she returned them to their porcelain box. Her face was reflected three ways in the trio of looking-glass panels. The fine bones and ivory skin of her French father, the vivid hair and eyes and brows of her Spanish mother. Mélanie’s parents hadn’t been beastly and she had loved them and they’d both been killed before her eyes. What she had gone through then had been worse than anything he or his brother and sister had endured.
He saw her for a moment as he had first seen her in Spain, in the Cantabrian Mountains, her face smeared with dirt and blood, her eyes bright with a reckless will to live. In a dank, moldering alley, aiming a pistol at a fleeing man with one arm and cradling their one-year-old son with the other. In a makeshift hospital, face blue-shadowed with exhaustion, hands steady as she stitched up a wound. He wondered, not for the first time, where he’d be if they hadn’t met. Dead, more than likely, one way or another. Certainly alone.
The brush swept rhythmically through her hair. The firelight flickered over the gray and cream wall hangings, the French blue upholstery, the theatrical prints on the walls. Airy, soothing, yet whimsical. Mélanie’s touch was everywhere in the room. He felt it lap away the painful memories, as surely as a soothing caress.
He loved the Perthshire house, but he had never thought he would live here, in the house that had been the center of his parents’ lives, the house he had only visited rarely, the house in which he had never felt at home. After his father’s death, his first impulse had been to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Mélanie, he knew, had fully expected him to do so. But he’d caught the wistful look in her eye at the beautifully proportioned rooms, the Robert Adam ceilings, the graceful plasterwork and moldings. He’d realized how wonderful it would be for the children to have to walk only a few paces from the house to the square garden. He’d thought of the rare luxury of a house that looked out on the leafy expanse of a square rather than the narrow width of a street. There were few spots in London as lovely as Berkeley Square.
And so they’d moved into his parents’ house, and Mélanie had engaged painters and plasterers and knocked out walls and hung wallpaper and laid tile until it was no longer his parents’ house but their own.
“Speaking of being undiplomatic,” Mélanie said, “don’t you think your talents might have been better employed than spending the entire evening hiding out in the library with Henry Brougham and David Mallinson?”
“On the contrary.” He tugged his cravat loose and unwound the confining folds of muslin, unstarched in defiance of fashion, from about his throat. “We rehashed the slavery issue and the abolition of rotten boroughs. By the time we broached the second bottle of port we were quite impressed with our own eloquence.”
“You see them practically every day.”
“They were two of the only people at the reception who had anything remotely interesting to say. Present company excluded, of course, but I see you even more frequently.”
She made a face at him in the mirror. “Charles Fraser, for a politician, your social skills are positively atrocious.”
“Why do you think I need a wife?”
She pretended to throw her rouge pot at him. He ducked. “Speaking of infidelity,” he said, “what was Antonio de Carevalo whispering in your ear after supper?”
“Darling.” She set the rouge pot back on the dressing table. “I didn’t think you were paying attention.”
He stretched his legs out in front of him. “My dear wife. I would hardly have been any use in military intelligence if I wasn’t able to observe without being seen to do so.”
She cast a glance at him over her shoulder. “Carevalo whispered a variety of suggestions, most of which seemed to have been cribbed from bawdier bits of Lope de Vega. I’ll say this for him, his flirtation is as good-natured as it is crude.”
“Did he say anything about his reasons for coming to England?”
“He said a great deal about the Elgin Marbles and the female form, quite as if he’d come to England expressly to view them.” She propped her arm on the back of the chair and rested her chin in her hand. “Do you suppose he really thinks anyone doesn’t know he’s here to muster support for an uprising in Spain?”
“I shouldn’t think so. Carevalo’s a shrewd politician.” Charles looked into his glass, watching the crystal and the pale gold liquid catch the light of the fire. “I must have been asked a dozen times tonight if I thought Spain was going to erupt into revolution.”
Mélanie pushed her hair back from her face. “What did you answer?”
“That I couldn’t say, but that if I were Spanish I wouldn’t be overjoyed to have spent six years fighting the French only to be stuck with the same corrupt monarchy I’d had before Napoleon invaded.”
She got to her feet. “Talk about being undiplomatic, darling.”
He let his shoulders sink deeper into the chair. “I’m not a diplomat anymore, I’m a politician. An opposition politician. I’m supposed to raise people’s hackles.”
“And you do it superbly, love.” She crossed the room and dropped into his lap with a swish of her skirt. “Strings. They’re beginning to pinch. I must have had too many lobster patties. Thérese’s chef has a heavy hand with the cream.”
The light fabric of her gown was gathered into dozens of pleats at the back, where the bodice was closed by impossibly tiny silk strings. He pressed a kiss to the nape of her neck and went to work on the strings. She gave a contented sigh. “Mmm… You have witchcraft in your fingers, Charles.”
He loosened the last string. The bodice slithered down over her shoulders. He brushed aside the champagne-colored silk, turned her in his arms, smiled into her eyes, and put his mouth to hers.
Her arms came round him at once. Her body curved into his own. The passion was familiar. The urgency took him by surprise. He lifted his head and looked at her with the faintest of questions.
Her eyes were like rain-streaked glass. “Charles.” There was a slight catch in her voice.
He took her face between his hands. “Soul’s idol?”
She regarded him for a moment, her brows drawn together. Then she smiled in an awkward sort of apology. “Nothing.” She touched her fingers to his lips. “Just — I love you.”
He stroked her cheek. “That’s hardly nothing, at least not to me. Will it sound hopelessly redundant if I say I love you, too?”
She leaned her cheek against his hand. “Amazing how easily those words come to your lips, considering how much trouble you once had saying them.”
“You’ve changed me in a number of ways, mo chridh.” He caught her hand and lifted it to his lips. “I’m sorry. I should say it more often.”
“Save your impassioned speeches for Parliament, dearest.” She smiled again, but there were still demons lurking in her eyes. The same demons that made her wake trembling, her nightdress plastered to her skin, from nightmares she never fully described.
He didn’t question the nightmares and he didn’t question what had brought on her change of mood now. They had an unspoken rule not to press each other for confidences. They both had too many ghosts in their pasts. Instead he brushed his lips against her temple, the tip of her nose, the corner of her mouth. Gentle, feather-light kisses such as he’d given her on their wedding night, when for all her vitality he’d felt as though he held something made of spun glass in his arms, something that had been shattered once and was barely mended.
She twisted her head so his kisses fell on her lips. He stood, cradling her in his arms. She curled against him and wrapped her arm round his neck. Her laughter vibrated through the silk of his waistcoat and the linen of his shirt. “Don’t drop me.”
“Don’t insult my abilities, mo chridh. When have I ever dropped you?”
“The inn in Pamplona.”
“I tripped on the carpet. I hung on to you.”
“The Granvilles’ house party.”
“We collapsed on the sofa together.”
“Scotland last Christmas Eve.”
“Ah, there you have me.” He set her down on the embroidered coverlet they’d brought back from Lisbon. “As I recall, we never made it to the bed that time.”
“That’s what I mean. I don’t like the floor.” She caught hold of the loose ends of his cravat and pulled him down for a kiss. “That’s better.” Her vulnerable moment was gone. She went to work on the buttons on his waistcoat. She was still half-wearing her gown. He decided it was in the way. He helped her wriggle out of it, carefully, because he knew it was one of her favorites. His sleeve-link caught on one of the gauzy sleeves. She made him hold still while she disentangled it.
He lost his balance and half fell on top of her. Her chemise had slipped down over her shoulders. He pushed up the hem and reached for the string on her drawers. Even now his fingers shook when he touched her.
He was kissing the underside of her arm and she was trying to pull his shirt over his head when the knock sounded on the door. The blood was pounding so loudly in his head that it was a moment before he heard it.
“Mr. Fraser? Mrs. Fraser?”
It was Laura Dudley, the children’s governess. Mélanie was on her feet in an instant. She ran across the room clad only in her chemise and pulled the door open. “What is it?” Charles, two steps behind her, heard the sharpness in her voice. “Is Jessica worse?”
Laura shook her head. “No. She’s asleep. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I thought–” She swallowed. Her blue eyes were dark with worry. The light from the candle she held flickered and jumped, as though her hands were shaking. Laura Dudley could cope with scraped knees and bumped heads and pencils up children’s noses without batting an eyelash.
“We always wish to be informed when there’s anything amiss with the children,” Charles said. “What is it?”
“It’s Colin.” Candle wax dribbled onto Laura’s fingers, but she didn’t seem to notice. “He’s missing.”
The foregoing is excerpted from Secrets of a Lady by Tracy Grant. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.