Hi, all! Only one month and five days to go until the release of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily!
In honor of that benchmark, here, as promised, is the first Eloise and Colin chapter of Betrayal of the Blood Lily (otherwise known as the Prologue):
The food of love isn’t music. It’s grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches.
As the waiter set the plate down in front of me, I could see that the tomato had sunk down into the cheese, creating an edible sculpture in the shape of a heart. It seemed appropriate for the occasion.
Outside, it was the sort of crispy, clear winter day that you get occasionally even in England, beautiful and sunny, without a hint of a cloud. It was the season of white lace doilies and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and teddy bears that squawked mawkish sentiments when you pressed their distended tummies. In other words, it was almost Valentine’s Day, and I had decided to do a little matchmaking of my own. Why should Cupid have all the fun? My boyfriend’s sister was desperately in need of a romantic intervention.
Boyfriend. It still boggled my mind that I had one. I was very aware of Colin’s arm draped casually over the back of my chair, as though it had always belonged there. It gave me a weird little thrill to realize that we were the established couple here, beaming benevolently upon the singles.
It was hard to remember that a mere three months ago both my personal and professional life had been scraping rock bottom. Like many a historian before me, I had come to England on academic pilgrimage, worshipping at that altar of scholarship, the British Library, with its multitudinous manuscript collections, in the hopes that the great god of the archives would prove merciful and shower footnotes down upon me. Surely, I had thought with all the boundless optimism of the fourth-year graduate student, the mere fact that scholars had been through those documents time and again didn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t find anything new. Those scholars hadn’t been me.
Which, in retrospect, probably meant that they were better qualified, but that only occurred to me once it was already too late to turn back.
I should have known something was wrong when my advisor’s parting words were, Good luck. To his credit, he had—very gently—suggested that I might want to consider a different sort of topic. But I didn’t want to consider another topic. I was madly in love with my topic: Aristocratic Espionage during the Wars with France, 1789–1815. It had dash, it had swash, it had buckle.
It also had no primary sources. My life would have been much easier had I followed my advisor’s suggestion and looked more closely into the careers of those men who spied for England under government auspices, and thus might reasonably be expected to show up in government dispatches and payrolls. That was far too easy. What I intended to unravel were the networks of independent adventurers, those daring souls who had struck out on their own for King and country, using their family connections and the benefit of independent income to create elaborate bouquets of flower-named spies: the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the League of the Purple Gentian, and finally, the most intriguing of the them all, the League of the Pink Carnation.
You can see where this is going, can’t you? I had arrived in London in September. By November, my fingernails were all gone, chewed to the quick. I had no footnotes; I had no dissertation. I was stranded in a country where the sun sets at four and I was never ever going to get an academic job, much less a tenure-track one.
They always say execution clarifies the mind wonderfully. So does the prospect of law school. I made one last desperate attempt. I sent out letters to all the known descendants of the Purple Gentian and the Scarlet Pimpernel, politely asking if I might please, pretty, pretty please, have access to any family papers they didn’t mind showing to a humble little Harvard student.
Have I mentioned that Colin is a direct descendant of Lord Richard Selwick, also known as the Purple Gentian?
Three months later, I was still reeling over my good fortune. I had enough footnotes to make my advisor’s eyes go pop; I had been given access to archival material the likes of which I had never dared to dream existed; and I was dating someone who could make my heart do a little tap dance simply by showing up in the room. I was so happy, it was scary.
Oh, I still suffered from the usual slings and arrows to which flesh is heir, like the Tube breaking down on me every other morning and the British Library cafeteria serving potato soup three days in a row. There were also the looming clouds of larger worries, like the fact that, although Colin claimed to be writing a spy novel, I still wasn’t convinced that his so-called research on the subject was entirely fictional in nature.
Colin’s great-great-great-grandparents had founded a school for spies; from what little he had let slip, his father had carried on in the family tradition, under the auspices of the army. Not to mention that Colin had been more than usually resistant to my poking around in his family’s past. Nothing more than that fabled British reticence? Perhaps. But I couldn’t quite exorcise the nagging feeling that there might be something more to it. The spy novel story was just a little too pat. If you were a spy looking for a cover story, wouldn’t the best cover be just that, a story? On the other hand, maybe I was just out-clevering myself, building up complications where there were none. Not like I’d ever done that to myself before.
When Colin hit the Times bestseller list, I’d be the first in line applauding.
Even leaving aside all the cloak-and-dagger stuff, there were practical problems on the horizon. Colin’s life was based three quarters in Sussex and one quarter in London, while I was due to return to Cambridge—the American one—in May.
But it was only February now. May felt a very long time away. I could deal with May when I got there. And in the meantime, I had extended visits with Colin both in London and Sussex, a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on my plate, and a full cup of coffee in front of me, with free refills to come. Life was good. Life was very, very good.
It only seemed fair to pass some of the happiness along.
I beamed across the table at Colin’s sister, Serena, who was doing a very good job of toying with her salad without actually eating any of it. Next to her, Colin’s friend Martin was devouring his pasta Bolognese as though personally determined to eat enough for both of them.
That wasn’t exactly how I had planned for lunch to go when I decided to take Serena up as my personal project.
It wasn’t that Serena was frumpy or dowdy or any of the usual devices of those teen movies where the more popular girl takes on the plainer one and makes her into prom queen. When it came to sartorial sense, Serena was several steps ahead of me. She had that fragile thinness so beloved of fashion magazines and whoever those cruel people are who create designer jeans: long, elegant bones with only the bare rudiments of skin over them. Her hair was long and soft and shiny and naturally straight and her face had the sorts of interesting hollows one gets from weighing about twenty percent below one’s recommended body weight. She was the sort of girl whose hair never frizzes and whose skirt never gets rumpled.
She was also painfully shy, borderline anorexic, potentially bulimic, and a disaster when it came to dealing with men.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Serena was an emotional train wreck. She might be an aesthetically pleasing and sweet-natured train wreck, but those are the most dangerous kind. Their looks attract all sorts of bottom-feeding predators, while their innate gentleness of spirit makes it impossible for them to stand up for themselves (see bottom-feeding predators, above). Her last boyfriend, whom I had had the misfortune to meet, had been a classic example of the type. He had used her and dumped her, but not before taking the opportunity to deliver a few more completely gratuitous blows to Serena’s already tottering self-esteem.
Serena needed a massive ego boost. And I, in my infinite matchmaking wisdom, had decided that boost was Martin.
If you’re wondering why I was taking such a touching concern in my very recent boyfriend’s sister, I’d like to claim it’s because I’m such a nice person. And I usually do like to think of myself as at least a reasonably nice person—I don’t kick puppies or cut the tails off kittens, and when I remember to, I generally slip some spare change into the Salvation Army collection box. But in this case, my interest was less altruism than self-defense. There’s nothing like competing for your boyfriend’s attention with an emotionally needy sibling to make you feel like the worst sort of evil psycho-bitch.
I know, I know. We’re supposed to be glad when the men we’re dating show a proper sense of concern for their fellow family members. It shows a heartwarming sense of responsibility and says good things about their potential husbanding skills. In the short term, however, it’s a pain in the ass. It was not that I wished Serena ill. Quite the contrary. I wanted her to be as happy as I was, so that when Colin and I went to parties, I wouldn’t have to worry whether she was going to have a meltdown in the middle of it.
Easier said than done.
I looked across the table, where Serena and Martin were doing a pretty good impression of two strangers at a Tube station, shoulders a safe twelve inches apart, profiles carefully averted. God forbid any spontaneous eye contact might occur. From there it was just a slippery slope to conversation. And heaven only knew what that might lead to. Nothing less than the fall of the British Empire, I was sure. Oh, wait, that had already happened.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Colin’s friend Martin was another of your common garden-variety emotional disaster areas. Just this past November, he had been dumped by the girlfriend he had met during his first week at University lo these many years ago. Martin was a broken man. From what Colin had said, I gathered that he was brilliant at accountancy, but after seven years of cohabitation, things like picking his own socks sent him into a full-blown panic attack.
Serena would choose lovely socks for him. After all, she worked in a gallery. After dealing with Degas and Renoir, the question of argyle or solid would be like a walk in the park. And it might, I had thought, be rather pleasant for each to have someone else to look after for a change. Serena could fuss over Martin and Colin wouldn’t have to keep fussing over her. It would be perfect.
Ha. It could have been perfect. I had forgotten that I was setting up two finalists in Britain’s Most Reserved Person contest. I bet they didn’t even talk to themselves in the mirror at home, much less to other people. At the moment, each was doing a fairly good job of pretending the other didn’t exist. My brilliant idea was tanking faster than the Hindenburg.
I didn’t even need to look over at Colin to read the I-told-you-so there. When I had broached the plan, his reply had been, manlike, “If anything were to happen between them, wouldn’t it just happen?”
Sometimes, they just have no clue at all.
It was rather sweet, really. Adorably naïve, even. Our relationship had “just happened” in much the same way as the Treaty of Versailles had just happened, after months of plotting, scheming, maneuvering, and significant reversals.
Like I said, rather sweet really.
“So, Martin,” I asked, in the overly loud voice you use when asking friends’ children about school, “how is work going?”
“Not bad,” he said. It might have been the most positive statement I had ever heard him make.
“What is it exactly that you do?” I urged, leaning slightly forward in my chair and trying to feign an expression of interest in the hopes that it would inspire Serena to do the same. It inspired Serena to undertake a careful inspection of her arugula. “I’m not sure Colin’s ever told me.”
He told me. As my eyes glazed over, I wondered if that had really been quite the right technique. Asking an accountant to explain—in depth—what he does for a living isn’t the sort of movecalculated to cause the impressionable to swoon. Not the right kind of swoon, at any rate. The arugula was far more interesting.
But perhaps Serena didn’t think so. As I snuck a peek at her averted face, her eyes suddenly lit up like the Fourth of July. A becoming hint of color bloomed in her cheeks and the hollows under her eyes didn’t seem quite so pronounced as usual.
I’d never seen anyone react that way to accounting principles before, but, hey, if it worked for Serena . . .
It wasn’t the accounting. Half-rising from her chair, Serena angled her wrist in a tentative wave. Martin petered to a belated stop. Scraping my chair around, I saw Colin’s friend Nick loping his way towards us.
“Hello, all,” said Nick, dragging up a chair from another table and plunking himself unceremoniously down into it. “How goes it?”
Our table was quite definitely meant for four—a cozy four—but that didn’t bother Nick. He cheerfully tilted backwards in his purloined chair, blocking the aisle.
An outraged waiter made a noise that wanted to be a growl when it grew up. Hearing it, Nick glanced up and raised a casual hand. “I’ll have a coffee. And can you toss me a menu? Cheers.”
Frigidly, the waiter handed over a menu with only a little less ceremony than Lord Lytton presiding at the official durbar proclaiming Queen Victoria Empress of India.
Letting his chair rock forwards with a clunk, Nick flicked open the menu, leaving the waiter with no choice but to retreat, speechless, to the nether regions of the kitchen to procure the desired caffeinated beverage. I presume he spat in it a few times in the privacy of the kitchen.
I felt like spitting myself. Serena wasn’t supposed to be twinkling for Nick; she was supposed to be twinkling for Martin.
Aside from the fact that Martin and she were Just Perfect for Each Other (if only they would wake up and realize it), I was pretty sure our mutual friend Pammy had designs on Nick. That was all I needed, for Serena to get herself mashed flat in Pammy’s wake. And we all knew what that meant: Colin having to swoop in to pick up the pieces again, while I gritted my teeth and did my best to be patient and understanding. Even though she might be technically the prettier of the two, Serena didn’t stand a chance against Pammy. No one did. Pammy was the romantic equivalent of an artillery barrage. There was nothing to do but dive for cover as soon as you saw it—I mean, her—coming. Resistance was futile.
Pammy had tried to impress the wisdom of this approach upon me, but I had proved a poor student in that. I was more of the princess-in-tower school of dating, where you drop your hair out the tower window and desperately hope your chosen prince will take the hint and choose to climb up. If he doesn’t, you hastily coil your hair back up, retreat into the tower, and pretend you never meant it in the first place. Hair, what hair? Never seen that hair in my life.
I leaned more comfortably into the crook of Colin’s arm, marveling at the wonder of having an arm to lean into. Under those circumstances, it was hard to get too worked up about Nick’s gate-crashing.
Letting the menu drop to the table, Nick grinned at me. “Eloise, right?”
We’d only met two times before. They do say third time is the charm. Maybe it takes three times for boys to assume that you’re there to stay and it’s worth their while to remember your name. Not exactly a pleasant thought. I bitterly disliked the thought of any other girl sitting there beneath Colin’s arm.
“That it is,” I said cheerfully. “Nigel?”
“Nick,” he corrected, without rancor. Okay, fine, so it had been petty of me. He was so good-natured, it was hard to be annoyed, even if Serena’s chair was now angled a good forty-five degrees away from Martin, towards Nick. Martin had a resigned expression on his face, as though he was used to this happening. Since they had all gone to University together, he probably was.
“And what do you do, again?” Nick asked, keeping the charm on high.
“I’m a grad student. I’m working on my dissertation.”
“About spies during the Napoleonic Wars,” Colin contributed for me, squeezing my shoulder affectionately.
Martin looked away. It must be hard for him, I thought, when he had been used to being the one in the couple, now suddenly being on his own, forced to watch other people being all couple-y. I knew how that felt.
“Napoleonic spies? That sounds right up your alley,” said Nick to Colin. Turning back to me, he added, “Did you know that Colin’s family—”
“Ah, your coffee,” said Colin rather gratuitously. It was hard to avoid noticing Nick’s coffee, as the waiter set it down in front of him with an audible clunk that sent coffee swimming over the rim and into the saucer. “Nick works at the BBC,” he informed me, as the waiter retreated in a glow of petty triumph.
“Can you make them put Monarch of the Glen back on?” I suggested, pouring more cream into my own coffee. “I’m sick of Emmerdale.”
“That’s ITV,” said Nick unapologetically, “Not us. So I’m afraid you’re stuck at it.” He threw a wink at Serena, who actually produced a small giggle.
“We should have a show about your spies,” suggested Nick, raising his coffee cup. “What have they been up to?”
“Oh, all sorts of skullduggery,” I replied, in the same bantering tone. “Kidnapping King George, blowing up theatres, plotting mayhem in India . . . You’re right. It would make a brilliant series. Much more fun than a dissertation.”
“India?” asked Colin curiously, leaning sideways to look at me.
“Oh.” What with one thing and another, I hadn’t quite gotten around to mentioning that to him yet. There had been other things to do last night. Flushing, I admitted, “It’s sort of a tangent. You see,” I explained to the others, “my dissertation mostly focuses on the behavior of spy networks in England and France during the Napoleonic Wars. But, recently, I came across a reference to a French spy network deployed in India during the period. It might make an interesting chapter. History departments are big on the non-Western these days.”
At least, that’s what I had been telling myself. You can always find an excuse for doing what you feel like doing if you try hard enough. And it was true that having a non-Western angle played well in the academic job market. Mostly, though, my curiosity had been piqued.
“What were the Frogs doing in India?” asked Nick idly, rocking his chair back and forth.
“They’d always been there,” I said, with a confidence that came of having spent the last week reading up on the topic. “Well, since the 1660s, at any rate. They had trading posts there, just as the British did. When Bonaparte rose to power, in the 1790s, they still had strongholds in Mauritius and Pondicherry and a lot of the local rulers had French officers in charge of their armed forces. It’s kind of neat, actually,” I added, twisting my head to look back at Colin. “In Hyderabad, the Nizam—that’s the ruler—employed both an English force and a French force, with their own separate camps on different sides of the river. I guess he thought the competition would keep them on their toes.”
I shrugged. “It kept a lot of spies in business. The French had people in the English camp and the English had people in the French camp and the Nizam had people in both camps.”
“It sounds like fashion designers,” suggested Serena tentatively.
“Or celebrity chefs,” contributed Nick, grinning at her, “guarding their top-secret recipes.”
“The English Resident—that’s a sort of ambassador—persuaded the Nizam to get rid of the French camp eventually, but it was all very touch and go. In fact, Lord Wellesley made it a condition of a bunch of peace treaties with local rulers in 1803 that anyone who had hired French officers had to ship them back to France.”
“Wellesley as in Wellington?” asked Colin.
“Right family, wrong brother. This Wellesley was the older brother. He was the Governor General of India right around the turn of the nineteenth century. Little Wellesley—the one who became Wellington—got his start soldiering under him in India.”
I considered trying to explain about the Mahratta Wars, but thought better of it. People’s eyes were beginning to glaze over the same way mine had when Martin was talking about accounting. I would bore Colin with it later.
“I’m sorry,” I said, grimacing apologetically around the table. “I’ve been doing background reading on this all week, so I’m a little obsessed right now. I’ve sort of hit a dead end, though.”
Having exhausted the Institute of Historical Research’s collection of monographs on late-eighteenth-century India, I wasn’t quite sure where to go for the primary sources. It was my time period, but quite definitely not my field.
“I wonder what happened to all the old East India Company documents,” mused Colin, his fingers tapping against the back of my chair. “They had to go somewhere after they tore the East India House down.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done any work with Indian documents.” There was a very nice new professor in the history department back at Harvard whose specialty was eighteenth-century India, but I had only met him very briefly at a department cocktail party the previous spring, hardly enough of an acquaintance to feel comfortable emailing and nagging him for advice. I was sure he would have no idea who I was. After the first thirty or so introductions, one grad student begins to look much like another.
“You could ask Aunt Arabella,” suggested Serena. “She spent a good deal of time in that part of the world.”
“Really?” I remembered Mrs. Selwick-Alderly’s flat, with its chintz and white moldings and unexpectedly exotic accoutrements, relics of the last gasp of Empire. There had been a tufted Zulu spear and many-legged Indian gods sitting side by side with the usual Dresden shepherdesses and Minton candy dishes.
Because it had been Mrs. Selwick-Alderly who had introduced me to Colin—so to speak—I had warm and fuzzy feelings for her, even if we weren’t quite on “Aunt Arabella” terms yet.
“Her husband was stationed out there during World War Two,” said Colin. “And they stayed on until the transfer of power in 1947. If nothing else, she should at least have some idea of where you can start to look.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll do that.”
Feeling like I had hogged the conversation long enough, I quickly turned to Serena and asked her a question about the party her gallery was throwing for Valentine’s Day. Nick and Martin both pledged their attendance. I knew Serena had invited Pammy, too. This was going to get very interesting very quickly. I wondered, distractedly, whether Pammy might be rerouted to Martin. But he wasn’t really her type. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good-looking; he was pleasant enough with his close-cropped, curly dark hair and broad-shouldered build. But Pammy tended to go more for Masters of the Universe types, not Eeyore. As she was fond of saying, she didn’t take on reclamation projects.
I decided to table the whole question for later. It was still a good week till Valentine’s Day. I had time to sound out Pammy and lay my plans. In the meantime, I was just happy. Happy to be out on a sunny Sunday, happy to be with Colin, happy, happy, happy. It helped that I had had about seven cups of coffee at lunch. I was flying high on caffeine and contentment.
I hugged Colin’s arm close to my side as we strolled away from the restaurant. “That was fun.”
It was frigid cold out, but without having to arrange it between us, we set out to walk back to my flat. That was another thing we had in common, I thought happily; we both liked walking places. It would have been a shame to waste all that lovely sunshine by going down into the dark depths of the Tube. With Colin going back to Sussex tomorrow morning, I didn’t want to waste a single, golden moment.
“I hadn’t realized you were researching India,” he said, as we walked down a street lined with stucco town houses.
“I wasn’t,” I admitted. “But the last time I was up at Selwick Hall with you, I found a couple of letters from Penelope Deveraux.”
I wasn’t surprised by the blank look. Colin had mentioned that as a young man he had read through some of the family papers related to the Pink Carnation, but there was no reason for him to remember Penelope. She had been only peripherally involved in the Pink Carnation’s activities. “She was a friend of the Purple Gentian’s younger sister.”
“And that makes her—?” prompted Colin.
“Absolutely nothing,” I replied, quoting Spaceballs. “Actually, what it makes her is Henrietta’s correspondent. She got herself into a bit of trouble and was married off in a hurry and sent to India until the scandal could die down at home. When I was rooting around in your archives, I found a couple of letters from her to Henrietta.”
There had been two letters, both from the autumn of 1804, one marked Calcutta, the second, written a month later, from Hyderabad. It was the second letter that had mentioned a spy called the Marigold.
I had come across a previous reference to the Marigold in a different set of papers, connected to the same group who had tried to kidnap King George and replace him with an imposter under the guise of a recurrence of his old madness. The connection had piqued my interest. Plus, I kind of wanted to know what happened to Penelope. It is amazing how attached one can get to the historical subjects in the course of research. It becomes a bit like gossiping about old friends. You want to know how things turned out for them.
Boy that he was, Colin wasn’t interested in the personal bits, like just how Penelope had gotten herself into trouble and with whom. He cut straight to the chase. “Where do the spies come in?”
“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Here’s what I have so far. . . .”