A Fatal Waltz
For Anastasia Sertl,
Who I wish was here to see it
Anybody can be good in the country.
There are no temptations there.
Cast of Characters
Emily, Lady Ashton (Kallista): daughter of Earl Bromley, widow of the Viscount Ashton (Philip), and a scholar of Greek language and art.
Colin Hargreaves: a gentleman of independent means who is frequently called upon by Buckingham Palace to investigate matters requiring discretion.
Cécile du Lac: a French woman of a certain age, iconoclast, patron of the arts.
Ivy Brandon: Emily's childhood friend, a perfect English rose.
Robert Brandon: Ivy's husband, an up-and-coming politician and very traditional gentleman.
Margaret Seward: daughter of an American railroad tycoon, she is a Bryn Mawr-educated Latinist who has little tolerance for society's rules.
Catherine, Lady Bromley: Emily's mother, wife of Earl Bromley, former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.
Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge: childhood friend of Emily's whose twin goals are to avoid marriage and to be the most useless man in England.
Basil, Lord Fortescue: Queen Victoria's most trusted political advisor, widely considered the most powerful man in the empire.
Mrs. Reynold-Plympton: a lady who takes great interest in politics; Lord Fortescue's longtime mistress.
Mary Fortescue: Lord Fortescue's third wife.
MR. Harrison: a political ally of Lord Fortescue.
Mr. Michaels: an Oxford don, Latinist.
Kristiana, Countess von Lange: an extremely elegant Viennese lady.
Gustav Schröder: the leader of a group of Austrian anarchists.
Elisabeth, Empress of Austria: Sissi, Cécile's friend since they were girls. A famous beauty during her youth.
Meg: Emily's maid.
Davis: Emily's incomparable butler.
I had not noticed it when she first arrived: the way she leaned too far towards him as he kissed her hand, the hint of surprised recognition in his eyes. But having spent an afternoon in the same room as them, watching the effortless manner in which they fell into familiar conversation—two striking individuals against an equally spectacular backdrop—I could not deny that they were more than casual acquaintances. Never had I suspected my fiancé was so close to another woman.
I was accustomed to, and often amused by, the parade of young ladies who flirted with Colin Hargreaves at every opportunity. The fact that he looked something like a Greek statue of ideal man—by Praxiteles, of course—made him irresistible to debutantes. His enormous fortune, family lineage that could be traced to the time of William the Conqueror, and well-tended estate ensured that he was equally attractive to their parents. But until today, I’d never seen him react to a woman the way he did to the Countess von Lange.
“And you know, Schatz, the Baroness Meinz thought that Tintoretto had done the doors of the Duomo in Florence. Can you imagine?” she asked. Schatz? I was shocked to hear her use a term of endearment in such an intimate tone of voice.
“Well, perhaps she’s no scholar of art, but—,” Colin began.
“Scholar? Darling, she’s absolutely hopeless. Why, even you know who Tintoretto is, don’t you, Lady Ashton?”
“Of course,” I said, my lack of knowledge of Renaissance art making it impossible for me to add anything more.
“You understand, I hope, why Tintoretto couldn’t have done the doors?” she asked, her green eyes dancing as she looked at me.
“My expertise is in classical art, countess,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m unable to discuss the nuances of the Italian Renaissance.”
“Nuance has nothing to do with it. Tintoretto was a painter. Ghiberti was a sculptor. He did the doors—Michelangelo called them ‘gates of paradise.’” She pushed against Colin’s arm playfully. “You are going to have to educate her. I can’t have you married to someone who’s as foolish as the baroness. It would be unconscionable.”
“You’ve nothing to fear on that count,” he said. “Emily’s brilliant.”
“Spoken like a man in love.” She had turned so that her back was almost to me, cutting me out of the conversation.
“Will you excuse me?” I asked. There are moments when one is overwhelmed with a feeling of awkwardness, when grace and sophistication and even coherence are goals more remote than that of a woman in evening dress climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or of my mother convincing me to adopt her definition of a successful life. This was one of those moments, and I had no desire to prolong it. As I stood up, my heel caught the silk hem of my gown, and I tripped. Not daring to look at the countess, I mustered as much dignity as possible following what was a decidedly inelegant recovery and headed for the tea table.
Every inch of the mahogany surface was covered by dainty china platters heaped with sandwiches, biscuits, and cakes. Although I did not doubt for an instant that it was all delectable, none of it appealed to a stomach seared by embarrassment. I poured myself a cup of tea, my unsteady hands sloshing the golden liquid onto the saucer, and took a seat on the other side of the parlor.
“Stunning woman, the countess, wouldn’t you say, Lady Ashton?” Lord Fortescue dropped onto the chair across from me, its delicate frame bowing under his weight. “Great friend of Hargreaves’s. They’ve known each other for years. Inseparable when he’s on the Continent.”
I’d had the misfortune in the past year of drawing the attention and ire of Lord Fortescue, confidant of Queen Victoria and broadly considered to be the most powerful man in the empire. I despised him as much as he despised me, and wondered how I would survive for days on end trapped at Beaumont Towers, his extravagant estate in Yorkshire. Ignoring his question, I looked across the drawing room at a gentleman sprawled on a moss green velvet settee. “Is Sir Thomas asleep? That can’t bode well for this party.”
“So unfortunate that you had to postpone your wedding,” Fortescue drawled. “But we needed Hargreaves in Russia. Couldn’t be avoided.” Colin and I had planned to be married as soon as possible after I’d accepted his proposal, but he was called away just two days before the wedding—no doubt by Lord Fortescue—to assist with a delicate situation in St. Petersburg. This had caused a considerable amount of gossip, as we’d bowed to family pressure to invite several hundred guests.
“Mrs. Brandon tells me that Sir Thomas has a terrible habit of dozing in Parliament. I marvel that his constituents continue to reelect him.” I turned my head to stare out the window across the moors.
“I wouldn’t expect Hargreaves to be in a hurry to marry you now that he’s renewing his acquaintance with the countess.” He tapped on the side of his empty glass, which a footman immediately refilled with scotch. As soon as the servant had stepped away, my adversary resumed his offensive. “I’ve no interest in protecting your feelings, Lady Ashton. You will never make an appropriate wife for him, and I shall do everything in my power to make sure that he never marries you.”
“I wonder if I could fall asleep in Parliament,” I said, refusing to engage him. “I shouldn’t think the benches are that comfortable, though it’s not difficult to believe many of the speeches are tedious enough to induce even the most hearty soul to slumber. But I’d wager the House of Commons is more lively than the House of Lords.” Across the room, the countess had pulled her chair closer to Colin’s, her hand draped elegantly over his armrest.
“You will not avoid conversation on this topic,” Lord Fortescue said, his voice sharp, his already ruddy complexion taking on an even brighter hue.
“You’re quite mistaken.” At last I allowed my eyes to meet his. “Let me assure you that I have every intention of avoiding it entirely. My private life is exactly that: private.” I was resolved to let this man see me as nothing but unflappable. “It’s rather cold in here, isn’t it? It can be so difficult to heat large houses.”
“The sooner you learn your place, the better,” he said.
“Lord Fortescue, there is little less appealing to me than having to pass even an hour in close quarters with you. But we’re both here, and rather than spending the duration of this party bickering, I shall do all I can to be pleasant.” I gave him my most charming smile. “Let’s begin again. I was surprised to receive your invitation. It was good of you to acquiesce to Mr. Brandon’s request.” Robert Brandon, who was married to one of my dearest friends, Ivy, had recently entered politics. His quick mind and steady character appealed to Lord Fortescue, who decided to groom the younger man for greatness. It was Ivy who had wanted me at this party.
“Do you really think I agreed to invite you to amuse Brandon’s wife? For a woman who claims an above-average intelligence, you are rather dim-witted.”
There was no point in replying to this. Unfortunately the only thing I could focus on other than Lord Fortescue was not a welcome distraction: the intent look on Colin’s face as he listened to his beautifully sophisticated companion. Thick, dark lashes framed eyes that sparkled when she spoke, with lips more red than should be found in nature. I bit my own, hoping to deepen their hue, then applied myself to my rapidly cooling tea. I was thankful when Flora Clavell sat next to me.