A Teaser from Mission for a Queen
In July I blogged about Hortense Bonaparte, who is an important character in my new historical mystery novella, Mission for a Queen.
With Mission for a Queen out in just over two weeks (November 3), here is teaser, a scene between Hortense and Mélanie Suzanne Rannoch. Mélanie Suzanne (the fictional heroine of my series) met Hortense on a mission seven years before. Now Hortense is in exile in Switzerland following Waterloo and Mélanie and her British husband Malcolm are exiles themselves due to Mélanie's past a French spy being exposed. They have stopped to see Hortense on their way to Italy and find Hortense one again in need of their services.
Hortense watched the door close behind Malcolm and Raoul and drew a shuddering breath. She glanced down at her hands, then seemed to force herself to meet Mélanie's gaze.
"You're right to trust Malcolm," Mélanie said.
"I don't doubt it. He's plainly a remarkable man." Hortense gathered the paisley folds of her shawl about her shoulders. "I'm sure you could read between the lines of what I didn't say."
Mélanie reached for her cooling coffee and took a sip. "Some of it."
"You must despise me."
"Darling. Of course not."
Hortense gave a bitter smile, twisting her fingers in the fringe on the shawl. "Aren't you going to say it?"
Mélanie returned the cup to its saucer with care. "Say what, dearest?"
"That you thought I'd already met the love of my life. Having thrown away so much of my life for him, how could I possibly look elsewhere?"
"Hortense—" Mélanie put her hand over her friend's. Hortense's fingers were cold to the touch. "I'd never presume to claim I knew who was the love of someone's life. And even if one does talk in those terms, losing that person doesn't mean one can't feel for someone else."
Hortense glanced away. Silhouetted against the French windows, her face was drawn with anguish. "Does he love her?"
No need to ask whom Hortense meant by "her." Mélanie saw Auguste-Charles-Joseph, Comte de Flahaut, bending over his bride's chair in the supper room at her ball in Berkeley Square two months since, handing his wife into her chair at the opera, circling the floor with her in a waltz. "He cares for her." She saw the look in Flahaut's gaze as it rested on Margaret's perfectly coiffed hair. "There's been gossip, of course—"
"There always is about Flahaut and his women." Hortense's mouth twisted in a wry smile. There had been a string of women in Flahaut's past, long before their scandalous affair ("More beautiful women than I," Hortense had said to Mélanie seven years ago). "And of course, given his situation and her fortune, people were bound to draw obvious conclusions. But I know him. I can't believe that's all—"
The gaze she turned to Mélanie was wide with fear, but whether fear that her former lover had fallen in love or that he hadn't, Mélanie couldn't have said. She wasn't sure Hortense could have done. "I don't think that is all," Mélanie said truthfully. "He told me he cares for her, and seeing them together, I believe it. But—" She hesitated, wondering how much to say, how much might bring the most comfort. "I don't think it's the same as what you shared. I don't think anything ever will be."
Hortense's mouth twisted again, this time with sorrow. "You're kind, chérie. But now which of us is talking like a romantic?"
"I'm not in the least romantic." Mélanie had a sharp image in her mind of Flahaut, lifting Hortense's hand to his lips, tenderness writ in the angle of his head as it bent over her own. "But I understand love rather better than I did seven years ago."
"Oh, ma chère." Hortense gripped her hand. "Here I am going on about myself when you're facing—"
"We're safe." Mélanie reached for her coffee again, taking refuge behind the gilt-rimmed porcelain. Coffee in Britain never quite tasted the same, even when she or Blanca made it. "Which is more than most of my compatriots can say." She took a fortifying sip of coffee and explained briefly that Malcolm had discovered Carfax knew of her past, leaving out mention of David and Simon. "It's no more than I deserve." She squeezed Hortense's hand, determined not to be coddled. "But I hate what's it's doing to Malcolm."
"I can't imagine he wants to be anywhere but where he is. He's head over ears in love with you."
"My dear." Mélanie straightened up and drew the gauze folds of her scarf about her shoulders. "You've been little more than a half hour in his company."
"And I've seen the way he looks at you."
"Malcolm is loyal."
"Malcolm plainly adores you." Hortense hesitated a moment. "Speaking of which, Raoul—"
"Oh, yes." Mélanie smiled despite everything. "He's head over ears in love with Laura."
Despite her words, Hortense gave a start of surprise. "I think even he'd admit it," Mélanie said. "Or, if not, it's only because words like that don't come easily to him, and he's trying to protect Laura."
"I never saw him—"
"People change. Which doesn't mean he's any better than the rest of us at letting himself be happy." Mélanie leaned forwards. "Right now we aren't the ones with the problems. Tell me about Pierre Amouret."
Hortense drew a breath, a scrape of sound in the lace and crystal of the room. "As you must have guessed, I let myself grow—close to him."
Mélanie had guessed, and though she could never despise Hortense, she owned to having felt a start of surprise she would not for the world let her friend see. Throughout their friendship, she had seen Hortense as single-mindedly in love with one man. Laughable, given her own past and views on love, to feel such surprise, but—"I'm sorry for how it ended, though I'm glad you haven't been entirely lonely."
Hortense's laugh was bitter as stewed tea. "He—we—I enjoyed the admiration. I let myself feel things I hadn't for a long time. Things I shouldn't."
"No one should have to live without—"
"It wasn't love. I don't know about Flahaut, but I'm quite sure I couldn't follow that road again. We weren't even—" Hortense colored. "But I can't deny it was agreeable. Having a man's admiration. Letting myself flirt. What harm could it do? I thought." She gripped her elbows, hugging her arms across her chest. "God, I was a fool."
"You're hardly the first person to have been taken in by someone's romantic attentions." Mélanie swallowed. Hard.
"I should have seen—"
"It's hard to spot when you're not trained to see it. Or even when you are. And he may—"
Mélanie smoothed the links of her bracelet, the slender white-gold chain with diamonds that Malcolm had given her for her most recent birthday. Before he knew the truth about her. "He may really have cared for you."
"I'm not imagining things, Mélanie. I know what he took from me."
"I'm not suggesting you're imagining things. It doesn't mean he didn't care."
"He—" Hortense shook her head. "I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't left. If I hadn't learned the truth. How far I'd have let it go. Not far, I think. But after being alone for so long—I was enjoying the soap bubble. And then yesterday he went out for a ride and never came back." She pushed herself to her feet. "I thought it was odd. I thought"—she shook her head—"that perhaps I'd gone too far. Offended him in some way. He was so courteous and well mannered. It was only that night when I opened my jewel box that I realized my bracelet was missing." She locked her hands together, her knuckles white.
Mélanie pushed herself to her feet as well. "Don't panic just yet. We don't even know why he took the bracelet."
Hortense rubbed her bare arms. "That almost makes it worse. He went to such lengths, it must be important. Which is rather terrifying.
"We'll find it, dearest. Before any damage is done."
"You can't be sure of that."
"No." Mélanie put an arm round Hortense's shoulders. "But the odds are very good. If you don't trust me, trust Raoul. Not to mention Malcolm."
Hortense shook her head. "You and Raoul are expert at fixing things. I'm sure your husband is too. And I'm the sort of person who gets things fixed for her." She stared at a painting of a young Napoleon in gleaming uniform, brilliant and defiant. "But you can't fix everything. Perhaps it's time I learn to be responsible for some of my own mistakes."
Mélanie squeezed Hortense's shoulders. "Life is complicated enough, sweetheart. Take help where you can."
"Spoken by the most self-reliant woman I know."
"Dearest, I wouldn't have survived half this long if I hadn't learned to accept help."
"So I should simply sit here and let you rescue me again?"
"You're one of the strongest people I know, Hortense." Mélanie drew her friend back over to the sofa. "You're keeping your children safe in a dangerous world. There's no challenge more important than that."
Hortense's gaze went to the French windows. Indistinct childish voices echoed through the glass. A blur of movement indicated the game of tag was still in progress. "Both the boys are safe, thank God. And—"
She broke off, but Mélanie knew she was thinking of her third surviving son, Flahaut's child, who lived in secret with his grandmother. And with that realization came the knowledge of something else she had to share with her friend. Not the best time for such news, but perhaps it would at least give Hortense another focus for her thoughts. "Hortense—I saw someone else we both know in England."
Hortense's gaze flew to Mélanie's face.
Hortense stared at her. Seven years ago, when Mélanie had traveled into Switzerland with Hortense so she could give birth to her illegitimate child by Flahaut in secret, Julien St. Juste had escorted them. "He was there on a mission?"
"He was working for Lord Carfax. Malcolm's former spymaster."
"The man you're running from now." Hortense's voice shook with disbelief.
"In a nutshell. Apparently Julien has worked for Carfax for some time."
"Good God." The color drained from Hortense's face. "So Carfax knows about me? About the baby?"
Much as she wanted to deny it, Mélanie knew she had to be honest. "I'm not sure. I don't think so. Julien says he's still loyal to you and your mother."
"And you believe him?"
Mélanie saw the white gleam of Julien's smile and the hard brilliance of his gaze at their last meeting in Hyde Park. "Yes, actually. Julien's always had a code of sorts, difficult as it is to decipher. But he says Flahaut stopped being off-limits when he left you."
Hortense's shoulders snapped straight. "He didn't leave me. We—"
"So I told Julien. Julien asked if I thought you'd have made the choice on your own."
Hortense reached for her coffee and tossed down a swallow. "We have to warn Flahaut."
"Julien's left Britain. I don't think he's a threat for the moment."
"For the moment—"
"We've all learned to live with risk."
"Flahaut isn't an agent. And you aren't in Britain to protect him."
"But I still have friends there. If Julien shows his face again, if it seems we need to warn Flahaut, we can. Meanwhile, you're right. He's not trained at dissembling. Better for him not to know."
Hortense shook her head as though her world had tilted on its axis. "Has Julien always worked for this Carfax? He was my mother's lover. Did Carfax arrange that?"
"I don't know."
"Dear God. To have such an intimate relationship be controlled by a spymaster—"
Mélanie drew in her breath. "Quite."
Hortense's gaze shot to her face. "I didn't mean—"
"It's an apt comparison. In some ways there isn't much to choose between Julien and me."
"Don't be absurd." Hortense returned her cup to its saucer with a crisp click. "You couldn't be like Julien if you tried."
Mélanie reached for her coffee. "Carfax has some hold on Julien, but Julien hasn't worked for him exclusively. And to the extent Julien has feelings at all, he had them for your mother."
Hortense gave a harsh laugh. "Even my mother didn't trust him entirely, though I think she trusted him more than she should have done. Was it Julien who betrayed you to Carfax?"
"He says not, and he seems to have been telling the truth."
Hortense nodded. "If there's one person I'd have expected him not to betray, it's you."
Mélanie's fingers jerked, spattering coffee on her rose-and-ivory-striped sarcenet skirt. "Why—"
"He was half in love with you on that journey into Switzerland."
The cup clattered against the saucer in her nerveless fingers. "Hortense, that's ridiculous—"
"Perhaps more than half."
Mélanie snatched up a napkin and blotted the spilled coffee on her skirt. "Julien isn't the sort to fall in love with anyone."
"You just said his feelings for my mother were real."
"And I think you were right, in a way. He was certainly loyal to her, and because of that I think he's loyal to me. At least to a degree. But you fascinated him."
Mélanie gave a short laugh, Julien's mocking voice ringing in her memory. "Perhaps because he couldn't get me back into bed after that first mission."
"You know perfectly well it was more than that." Hortense sat back against the cushions and regarded Mélanie. "I always thought he wasn't sure what to make of his feelings for you. That you were a challenge to the way he views the world."
Mélanie folded the stained napkin into neat quarters. "You always had a weakness for novels, Hortense."
"There are insights to be found in novels. Not that I think Julien wanted to run off with you and live in a rose-covered cottage—"
"I should hope not. We'd have killed each other inside a week."
"But I doubt the way he felt about you has changed, either. There's something oddly steadfast about Julien."
"That's true when it comes to your mother and you." And yet Julien's voice echoed in her memory. In the right circumstances. With the right woman. You could come close. She'd dismissed his words a few weeks ago. She still dismissed them. And yet, for an unaccountable reason, a chill ran through her.