Imperial Scandal Preview
Last week I received a wonderful gift in the form of an envelope filled with coverflats for my next Malcolm & Suzanne Rannoch book release Imperial Scandal (April 2011 ). This week I'm buried in deadlines. So it seemed a good time for post a preview of Imperial Scandal. Here's an excerpt that takes place at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, the iconic entertainment at which Wellington received confirmation that Napoleon was on the march. The ball was on 15 June, 1815. The battle of Waterloo followed on 18 June. This except picks up on Suzanne at the ball with Aline Blackwell, her husband's cousin, and the Duchess of Richmond’s daughter Georgiana Lennox.
Swags of crimson, gold, and black, the Royal colors of the Netherlands, veiled the rose trellis wallpaper in the Duchess of Richmond’s ballroom. Ribbons and flowers garlanded the pillars. The younger Lennoxes had thrown open the windows that ran along one side of the room, letting in a welcome breeze to stir the hot, heavy air. Cool moonlight blended on the parquet floor with warmer light from the brilliant chandeliers. The flames of dozens of branches of candles shimmered in the dark glass of the French windows and the brightly polished gilt-edged mirrors. The strains of a waltz rose above the clink of glasses and buzz of brittle talk. But Suzanne had the oddest sense the delicate atmosphere could shatter as easily as one could break a champagne glass with a silver spoon.
“There are so many dignitaries present, from so many countries,” Georgiana Lennox said. “It’s quite a chore keeping precedence straight.”
“Just like Vienna,” Aline murmured.
Indeed the profusion of medals, braid, and gold and silver lace glittering in the candlelight called to mind scenes at the Congress, as did the perfume, beeswax, and sweat vying with the sweet of aroma from the banks of roses and lilies that decorated the room. But the two hundred some guests crowding Georgiana’s mother’s ballroom were a small crowd compared to the thousand and more Prince and Princess Metternich had entertained at their villa.
“It looks splendid,” Suzanne said.
Georgiana gave a smile slightly strained about the edges. “You’d never guess my sisters use this room as a schoolroom, would you? Or that we’ve been known to play battledore and shuttlecock in here.” She scanned the crowd. “I do wish Wellington would come.”
“He may have ordered the army ready to march,” Aline said, “but he obviously isn’t in a panic. Half his officers are here.”
“But there’s a distinct dearth of Dutch-Belgians.” Georgiana tugged at a loose thread in her sleeve. “None of General Perponcher’s officers has put in an appearance.”
“Lord Hill is saying everything that is reassuring.” Suzanne scanned the soldiers thronging the floor with ladies in gauzy, ribbon-trimmed gowns in a hothouse of colors—lilac, rose, Pomona green, jonquil, cerulean blue. Her gaze settled on a man in Belgian uniform. Good God. Surely that handsome face with the slanting cheekbones belonged to General de la Bédoyère, who had taken his regiment over to Napoleon and was now one of his aides-de-camp. La Bédoyère met her gaze for the briefest moment, a reckless glint in his eyes, then continued to glance round the room.
Aline pulled her lace shawl closer about her shoulders despite the heat in the room. “Georgy’s right, Perponcher’s officers not being here is worrying.”
Georgiana shot a surprised look at her. “You’re always so calm, Allie.”
“Calm?” Aline’s voice turned unwontedly sharp. “My insides are roiling about, and for once I don’t think it’s anything to do with the baby.”
“My husband’s military doctor, Georgy. That means he’ll be near the front. Which does rather strain one’s savoir-faire.”
Suzanne put an arm round Aline and squeezed her shoulders. With everything else going on these past days, she’d quite failed to think about what her young cousin was going through. “Geoff’s been through countless battles.”
“And he’ll be in much less danger than the soldiers. I know.” Aline’s shoulders were taut beneath Suzanne’s arm. “But somehow it doesn’t help.”
Georgiana flicked her fan open and then closed. “The Prince of Orange gave it to me,” she said, fingering the amber sticks. “So odd to think of him commanding troops. I can’t help–“
“If one ignores the smell of nervousness in the air and half the conversation, it could almost be a normal evening.” Cordelia emerged from the crowd to stand beside them. Though Suzanne knew just how little time her friend had had to tend to her toilette, she was as dramatic as always in jet-beaded gossamer net over cream-colored silk.
“Define normal,” Aline said.
“There’s the rub. If–” Cordelia broke off as a tall, sandy-haired man in a colonel’s uniform came toward them. Colonel Peregrine Waterford. Suzanne had met him in the Peninsula and seen him once or twice in Brussels.
Waterford greeted all the women, but his gaze lingered on Cordelia, warm with memories. “I was hoping I could persuade you to dance.” His voice was a bit slurred, as though he’d been dipping too deep into the Richmonds’ excellent champagne.
Cordelia’s answering smile was as distant as it was polite. “Thank you, Colonel, but I won’t dance tonight. My sister died only two days ago.”
Embarrassment shot through the colonel’s eyes. He murmured an apology and his condolences on her loss, then quickly took himself off.
“How ill-mannered,” Georgiana said. “I’m sorry, Cordelia.”
“I’m the one who should apologize, Georgy. Your mother wouldn’t thank me for letting you so close to one of my scandals.”
“Oh, stuff.” Georgiana gave a quick flick of her fan. A great deal had changed in her attitude toward Cordelia since Stuart’s ball two days ago. “Scandal seems quite irrelevant now.”
“Scandal is sadly never irrelevant. And the past seems to be always with us. Oh, good, here’s someone who should know something. Lord Uxbridge.” Cordelia held out her hand to the cavalry commander, who was walking toward them. “Do tell us you have news.”
“I’m afraid not.” Uxbridge bowed over her hand. “But surely you don’t think all the officers would have leave to be here were the situation really dire?”
“Yes,” Cordelia said, “if Wellington wanted people to believe the situation less dire than it is.”
Uxbridge threw back his head and laughed. “Touché. It’s a pity you couldn’t have joined the cavalry, Cordy. I could have made something of you.”
“It’s just so hard not knowing,” Georgiana said. “Three of my brothers are in the army, as is Mrs. Blackwell’s husband.”
“And my husband,” Cordelia said.
Georgiana cast a quick glance at her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think–”
“Quite understandable. But Harry is my husband and the father of my daughter, and as it happens his fate is a matter of some concern to me.”
Uxbridge looked at her, brows drawing together. “Cordelia-”
“Lord Uxbridge.” Cordelia put her hands on his shoulders with the familiarity of an old friend. “Tell us the truth.”
Uxbridge smiled down at her. “The truth, my dear Cordelia, is that I know little more than you.”
“But you rather think Wellington should have told you more as second in command.”
“You never heard me say so, Cordy.”
Georgiana shivered. “How can you laugh at a time like this?”
Cordelia smiled at the younger woman and put an arm round her. “My dear Georgy. It’s difficult to see what else we can do.”
“Spoken like a soldier’s wife,” Uxbridge said. He smiled as he spoke, but Suzanne caught a flicker in his gaze. She suspected he was thinking of his own wife, home in England with their children, and the chances that she’d find herself a widow.
The waltz on the dance floor had come to an end. A wail cut the air that took Suzanne back to the previous summer. Dunmykel, Malcolm’s family estate in Perthshire. Granite cliffs, the tang of salt water, clean pine-scented air. and the unmistakable sound of bagpipes. Kilted sergeants and privates from the 92nd Foot and the 42nd Royal Highlanders marched into the room. The candlelight gleamed off their white sporrans and the brilliant tartans that trailed over their shoulders.
The crowd drew back and broke into applause. “Mama wanted to show off Highland dances,” Georgiana murmured. Her mother was a daughter of the Duke of Gordon. “She did so want the evening to be memorable.” Georgiana bit her lip, for the evening was almost bound to be memorable for reasons that had nothing to do with the entertainment.
Yet when crossed swords glinted on the parquet floor and the Highlanders danced over them to the wail of the pipes, it was almost enough to drive out thoughts of the coming battle. Except that those swords looked all too lethal.
Suzanne felt a light touch at her waist as the sword dance gave way to a strathspey. “I could almost imagine I’m home,” Malcolm murmured.
She twisted her head round to glimpse an ache of longing in her husband’s eyes. She’d seen last summer how much Dunmykel meant to him. Even after their visit she didn’t understand the reasons for his self-imposed exile from his home and family. A homesickness he would never admit to was sharp in his gaze now. With a chill, she realized he was wondering if he’d ever see Dunmykel again.
She caught his hand in her own and squeezed it hard. He smiled at her. “You’re missing the show.”
She turned back to the dancers. Their legs, clad in red-checkered stockings, seemed to move ever faster. The sound of the pipes swirled through the candle-warmed air and bounced off the ballroom ceiling. Incredible to think that these musicians and dancers would soon be marching off to battle. On her husband’s side. And against her own.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________Any favorite real historical balls or parties in fiction? What makes them come to life for you? Writers, do you find it nerve-wracking to take on an iconic historical event? I'll give away a signed coverflat for Imperial Scandal to one commenter on today's post.