There are masques at Malmaison and a film crew at Selwick Hall.
As some of you may recall (spoilers for those who haven’t read The Orchid Affair!), Jeremy has rented out Selwick Hall for a Regency-set production of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Micah Stone and– possibly– involving Regency rap.
Colin is not thrilled.
Without further ado, the complete, unexpurgated first Eloise and Colin chapter of The Garden Intrigue….
“A little to the left. . . . A little to the . . . no!”
Below me, in the gardens of Selwick Hall, someone was trying to maneuver a large black metal contraption down an alleyway of elderly shrubs. From the sound of it, the score was shrubs: 1, cameramen: 0. Like its owner, the grounds of Selwick Hall were putting up a fight against the invasion of an American film crew.
I was one of those barbarian Americans, too, but I fell into a protected category: I was the owner’s girlfriend.
It hadn’t always been that way. There had been a time when Colin regarded me with nearly as much mistrust as he did the members of the DreamStone film team. As I kicked back in Colin’s desk chair, watching the dust motes dance in the May sunshine filtering through the sash window, those grim days of October felt like an entire universe ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In October, I had been just another bedraggled American grad student in London, desperately combing the archives for the materials I needed to turn my dissertation from a vague outline into a heartbreaking work of staggering scholarship.
We had been told to go forth and find a gap in the historiography and that’s just what I had done, smugly certain that I would put together pieces no one else had been able to connect, patting myself on the back for my cleverness in picking as my field of study a country in which the language was my own. One of my best friends was immured in the basement of an Austrian monastery, puzzling out Carolingian charters in a version of Latin that would make a classics professor cry; another was in Brazil, in an archive where the air-conditioning regularly broke down and all the women on the beach were waxed in improbable ways.
But me? I was going to England. The mother country. Home of scones, clotted cream and BBC costume dramas. England, where they speak English better than we do. England, where no one waxes anything because everyone is draped in tweed. It would be just like being home in New York, only with cuter accents. I was going to the land of Mr. Darcy (and Mr. Bean, but, hey, every ointment comes with its flies) to research a dissertation topic that thrilled me down to the polish on my toenails.
Aristocratic espionage during the wars with France: 1789–1815.
Does it get any better than that? There could be little more thrilling than men in knee breeches meeting for huddled conferences in the back rooms of inns from Paris to Calais, smuggling aristocrats out of the clutches of the guillotine, while exchanging terse notes ending with the directive “burn this letter.”
It didn’t occur to me until later that there might be a slight problem. Historians are dependent on documentary evidence for the reconstruction of the past. When the people involved routinely burn the documents in question, there isn’t a lot left to go on. In fact, there was nothing left to go on. I combed through the collections of the British Library, nagged the archivists at the Public Record Office, and tramped through an infinite number of country records offices, all with the same dispiriting result.
All I had were rumors and legend, garbled and inconsistent stories about the exploits of a spy called the Pink Carnation, who, if the London papers and the records of the French Ministry of Police were to be believed, had been a greater thorn in the flesh of the French than anyone with the possible exception of Wellington. And, of the two, the Pink Carnation had been in operation longer. Or so the stories claimed. On the theory that there ain’t no smoke without fire, I had confidently set out for material to verify that. And found nothing.
Until I met Colin. His family archives were the academic equivalent of the Holy Grail.
He wasn’t so bad himself.
Right now, he wasn’t exactly a happy camper. I could hear the snick of rubber-soled shoes on flagstones, and Colin’s voice below, raised over the sound of smashing shrubbery. The word “damage” seemed to figure prominently. The scents of spring wafted through the open window, fresh-cut grass and wildflowers and stale tobacco.
Perched safely above the fray, two stories up, I leaned sideways in Colin’s desk chair, craning my neck to try to see out the window. From my current vantage point, all I could see was a confusion of tree branches, exuberant in their spring foliage, and, if I tried really hard, something long, black, and metallic that I assumed was part of the scaffolding for lighting. Either that or a missing piece of the Death Star.
I hadn’t been in the gardens since the crew had arrived, but from the noises coming from that direction with earsplitting regularity, I feared the worst. The crew had been on location for two days now, setting up equipment and running light tests and doing whatever else it was that film people do. I had resisted the urge to hover and gawk. After all, I was a mature and responsible academic; we weren’t supposed to go all wide-eyed at the sight of things like movie cameras, nor wonder whether anyone would notice if we waved at the camera and mouthed “Hi, Mom!”
Besides, given Colin’s feelings about the proceedings, showing too much interest smacked of disloyalty. To say Colin hadn’t been thrilled about renting out Selwick Hall to American film star Micah Stone for his latest blockbuster would be like saying that Cookie Monster had a slight thing for baked goods. Colin had been presented with the situation as a fait accompli at his mother’s birthday party in Paris two months before, in public, with the cameras flashing. It had not been a good time.
Colin had only just started speaking to his mother again. He still wasn’t speaking to his sister, Serena, the weak link, the deciding one-third vote that had enabled his stepfather, Jeremy, to get away with inviting DreamStone to film at Selwick Hall. It was Serena’s defection that hurt Colin the most, even more than seeing his beloved home, the one he had gone to such trouble to restore and maintain, trampled under the feet of Micah Stone and his merry men.
Both Colin’s great-aunt Arabella and I had made tentative gestures towards a reconciliation with Serena, but Colin had shot down all of our attempts. I wasn’t pushing it. My own position in his life was too new and too tenuous to risk.
Tenuous and possibly about to end.
Abandoning the window, I turned back reluctantly to the computer screen. The e-mail was still there. It hadn’t obligingly zapped itself back into cyberspace in the past five minutes.
On the face of it, there was nothing about the e-mail to occasion forebodings of dread and gloom. No threats, no dire warnings, no offers to make my manhood throb more manfully or share a bank account in Rwanda. It was a perfectly pleasant e-mail from the modern Germany professor offering me two sections and the position of head Teaching Fellow for his modern Europe course.
Not entirely my area of expertise, but still better than that semester I had wound up teaching Charlemagne, unable to tell my Carolingians from my Carolinas. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the twentieth century, but I had done a field in it, so I could teach it, and the head TF position came with an extra financial incentive, payback for being the one in the unenviable position of playing middleman between a busy professor, demanding students, angsty teaching staff, and the entire administrative panoply involved in booking rooms, scheduling sections, printing course packets, and making nice to the A/V people.
My fellowship, the one that had sent me to England, would run out in June. Two sections and the head TF post meant my rent would be paid. It also meant I wouldn’t be piecing together teaching jobs in different courses, a section here, a section there, which meant triple the effort learning the material and keeping up with the coursework. All in all, it was an exceedingly handsome offer.
So why did it make me feel like I’d swallowed a bucket of lead?
I rested my head on my balled-up hands, letting my hair swing around my face. It was growing out, I thought inconsequentially. Yet another sign of just how long I had been in England. It had been over eight months now, September to May. It had seemed like plenty of time, back in Cambridge. The other Cambridge. Ten months in England. I would get my material and go back to America to write it up, proceeding smoothly through the paces like a good little academic in training.
I hadn’t factored in the addition of another person. I hadn’t counted on Colin.
Ten months. What was that? Nothing but a whisper in time, over before it had begun. I hadn’t met Colin until I was two months in. Then there had been this and that and suddenly we were down to a month and a half and it just wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go back to my studio apartment in Cambridge, with all its accoutrements for one: one twin bed, one dresser, one desk. It didn’t matter that I liked my apartment, that it had my books, my pictures, my coffeemaker. It didn’t matter that just five months ago I had been yearning for Cambridge with homesick fervor, for the smell of Peet’s Coffee and the peculiar slant of late afternoon light across the floor of the history department library, for the cranberry muffins at Broadway Market and the smell of sweat and suntan lotion on the banks of the Charles on a sunny day.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go back ever. My life was there, I knew that. I just wasn’t ready yet.
I’d successfully avoided thinking about it or talking about it. I had dodged questions from my parents about summer plans and from my colleagues about finishing fellowships and fall teaching. Colin and I had never discussed the fact that my fellowship was finite. We had never talked about the future at all. Most of the time I was too busy living in the past—his past.
If I didn’t want the head TF job, it was only fair to give Blackburn time to offer it to someone else.
What was I thinking? If I told my friends or my parents that I was planning to stay in England and that I was planning to stay not for professional reasons but because of a guy . . .
I could already hear the howls of outrage coming down the transatlantic pipeline. Changing my plans for a man went against everything I had been raised to believe. Professional women weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. We were supposed to be strong and independent and make our own decisions without reference to the opposite sex. I could come up with a plausible excuse to stay in England through August, especially if I were able to give up my flat and live rent-free with Colin. I could make noises about needing the extra time to tie up loose ends and follow up on crucial research. But August was as far as I could push it.
Besides, Colin hadn’t invited me to stay.
There was a squeak of old hinges and the brush of swollen wood against wool as the door pushed against the stained carpet.
I looked up to see the man in question standing in the doorframe. It was warm outside, so he had rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing a pair of arms already sun-browned from outdoor activity. His dark blond hair was wind tousled, and he brought with him the scent of the outdoors, garden loam and fresh-cut grass and rich new soil. It was his study, but he paused in the doorway as though waiting for me to give the okay for him to come in.
“Hey,” he said, that universal male greeting that can mean anything from “hi” to “didn’t see you there” to “thank you for last night.” This was a decidedly dispirited “hey.”
Which was a shame, because last night really had been pretty good.
“Hey,” I responded in kind, trying to infuse as much sympathy as possible into the one syllable. I pushed aside my own worries about next year. We could deal with that later. Colin had enough on his plate right now. “So, um, how are things going down there?”
Colin pulled a face and jerked two thumbs downward.
“That good, huh?” Let’s pretend I hadn’t been listening at the window.
“The idiots wanted to cut down a three-hundred-year-old oak because it was in the way of their shot.” His voice dripped with disgust. “Then they wanted to know if we could move the folly. It’s only been there since 1732.”
“Two days down!” I said with forced cheerfulness. If I smiled any wider, my face would probably crack in two.
Colin grimaced. “How many more does that leave?”
I tucked my legs up under me in the chair, making the ancient springs creak. “Don’t make me do math.”
“That’s because you know I won’t like the number.”
Too true. The director—via Jeremy—had estimated two weeks on location. I wouldn’t have put money on Colin making it through one. It was a good thing he lived a healthy, outdoor life, because his arteries were doing overtime.
I peered at him over the computer screen. “Would you—I don’t know—like to go somewhere? Away? We could stay at my flat for a couple of days.”
True, my basement flat was small even by London standards and Colin banged his head on the sloping bathroom ceiling every time he washed his hands, but even a week’s worth of lumps on the noggin was preferable to his going into cardiac arrest every time one of the film crew wandered through the wrong door. Forget his nerves; I wasn’t sure mine could stand another week of this.
Colin’s hand rose reflexively to the back of his head. “Not your flat.”
“Your aunt Arabella’s, then. Or we could take a mini-break somewhere.” It would have to be somewhere cheap, since neither of us was exactly flush with funds, but there had to be some moldering seaside resort that had seen better days and would be willing to take us in for the price of a large London dinner. Or we could go to one of the old Regency watering holes and I could drag Colin to Jane Austen re-enactments. “It could be fun.”
A loud crash and a curse resonated from the flagstone path below. At least, I was assuming there was still a flagstone path below.
Our eyes met over the computer monitor.
I sighed. “Or we could stay here and keep an eye on the film crew.”
One side of Colin’s mouth pulled up in something that wanted to be a smile but didn’t quite make it. “Thanks. You’re a brick.”
I would have preferred to be something more decorative, but I appreciated the sentiment. “Look, it will all be fine. It’s only two weeks and you can charge them double for every shrub they squish.”
Colin didn’t look convinced. He nodded towards the computer. “Anything interesting?” he asked, with forced heartiness.
I hastily moved the monitor. “Oh, just this and that.”
“What is it?” Colin was way too sharp sometimes.
“Nothing!” I staggered clumsily to my feet. My legs had gone numb from sitting on them. “But I probably should get back to work if I don’t want to be one of those five-thousand-year-old grad students.”
Colin smoothed my hair back, turning my face this way and that as he examined it for lines and wrinkles. “You still have a ways to go yet.”
Another crash. I could feel the muscles in Colin’s arm stiffen under my hand. “I’m aging rapidly,” I said.
Colin raised an eyebrow. “Best gather your rosebuds while you may, then.”
“Smooth,” I managed to say, and then his lips touched mine, and speech became a decidedly uninteresting commodity. Rosebuds, on the other hand . . . They weren’t in bloom yet, and yet I could have sworn I smelled their heady scent wafting up from the garden, as much of a cliché as the stereotypical violins.
“Oh, sorry,” someone said, and I realized that I did smell rosebuds, preserved in alcohol and condensed into perfume. One of the film crew was standing in the doorway, younger than me at a guess and inappropriately attired for an English spring, in tight jeans and tighter shirt. “I was just looking for the computer. It’s in here, right?”
I came down to earth with a crash. Literally. Colin is a fair bit taller than I am. My heels hit carpet with a jarring thump.
“This computer is off-limits,” I said, since Colin seemed incapable of saying anything at all. “This whole wing is off-limits.”
“But the computer . . .”
Why does whining sound worse in an American accent?
“Is not available,” I said. “Please close the door on your way out.”
I’ll say this for her, she did take direction. She pulled the door smartly shut behind her.
I leaned back against Colin. “We’re going to hear about this from Jeremy, aren’t we?”
“Bugger that,” said Colin elegantly. “They’re supposed to have their own Internet connection set up. Since when does Private mean ‘Hey! Come on in!’?” Colin’s voice shifted on the last words into a parody of the film people.
His fake American accent was truly atrocious. I wondered if my fake English accent sounded as awful to him. Probably. Huh.
Colin glowered at the door, as if it had personally offended him by allowing itself to be opened. “What do we have to do, put up an electric fence?”
I decided that this was not a good time to tell Colin that amusing story about the guy who had blundered into our bathroom while I was showering. Picture Psycho, only without the axe and with more Herbal Essences.
“I was thinking more buckets of water on the doorjamb,” I said. “If I could figure out how to rig it without getting soaked.”
“Pots and pans,” contributed Colin. “For them to trip over.”
We exchanged rueful smiles.
I stood on my tiptoes to press a quick kiss to his cheek. “Are you going to be okay in here?”
Colin’s eyes drifted to the window. “I’ll put my headphones on,” he promised. “If I can’t hear it, it’s not happening.”
“That’s the spirit!” I cheered. I paused with one hand on the doorknob. “If you get to the point where you can’t take it anymore, you know where to find me. We can drop water balloons on the film crew from the library windows. Or not.”
“Hmph,” said Colin, and pulled his headphones firmly down over his ears. They made him look a bit like Princess Leia.
I decided not to share that observation.
I grinned and waved and drew the door shut behind me, making my way back down the corridor, past the door to the master bedroom, over to the center of the house and the wing that housed the library. We’d taped signs that said “Private” on the door of the master bedroom, the bathroom, Colin’s study, and the library, but, so far, those signs had been just about as effective as the paper they were printed on, when it came to keeping people out.
It was going to be even worse starting this evening.
The high mucky-mucks were showing up tonight and we were all going to have a great big get-to-know-one-another shindig in the dining room, catered courtesy of DreamStone. With big names to be found, Jeremy had condescended to come out to the wilds of Sussex for it.
I only hoped that whoever did the seating chart had the sense to place Jeremy and Colin at opposite ends of the table. Not that I really thought Colin was going to go after Jeremy with his fish knife . . . but, hey, why take unnecessary risks? I’d been tempted to go after Jeremy with something sharp a time or two myself.
In the meantime, we were both trying to go on pretty much as usual, Colin working on the spy novel he claimed he was writing, me making my way through his collection of family papers, taking notes for a dissertation that was turning out to be much more detailed than I could ever have dreamed.
With the threat of imminent return to America hanging over me, though, I had to force myself to focus. With all the rich resources available via Colin, I had let myself meander down some pretty random byways, researching rogue French spies, plots and schemes in India, and even a plot to kidnap George III. It was time to get back to basics, i.e., the Pink Carnation. I knew she had been in operation in Paris in 1804. There was evidence that she had been involved—albeit peripherally—in the famous plot to assassinate Napoleon that had resulted in the execution of the duc d’Enghien in the spring of 1804.
But what had happened after?
The hallway was mercifully empty, all the crew members outside, making mincemeat of Colin’s ancestral shrubbery. Someone, however, had been inside. The door to the library, with its hand-lettered sign reading “No Admittance,” was ajar.
I had closed it when I left, I knew I had.
I closed the door firmly behind me, resisting the urge to prop a chair up against it for good measure. My notebook wasn’t on my favorite desk anymore. Instead, it was on the chair, and the folio I had taken out to look at before taking my e-mail break was open, when I was pretty sure I had left it closed.
One of the film guys must have been looking for a spare sheet of paper, I decided, rearranging my materials the way I liked them. If any of them had torn out one of the precious documents in the folio and used it for scrap, I would personally tear out his masculine bits and feed them to the dogs.
Colin didn’t have any dogs, but I was sure we could find some in the neighborhood.
Nope. I flipped quickly through. No sign of tearing. The neighborhood dogs were safe. And so, thank goodness, was the correspondence of Lady Henrietta Dorrington with her cousin by marriage Miss Jane Wooliston, aka the Pink Carnation. The two ladies had constructed an ingenious code, devised around just the sort of frivolous goings-on designed to make the eyes of your average Ministry of Police employee—aka your average male—glaze over, ranging from the new cut of bonnets to the refreshments at the Venetian breakfast. Each of these terms was carefully calibrated to a double meaning designed to convey information back to the authorities in England.
Jane, the mastermind of the piece, collected her information in Paris and sent it back to Henrietta under the guise of frivolity. Henrietta passed it on to her husband, Miles, who in turn saw that it made it to the authorities at the War Office.
I had an advantage the French Ministry of Police lacked. No, not just a reliable coffeemaker. I had Henrietta’s code book. I had been steadily working my way through Jane’s reports through the spring of 1804, the spring of the duc d’Enghien’s execution, the spring Napoleon declared himself Emperor, and the spring when invasion of England seemed imminent.
Stuck among the papers was a fragment of poetry in a surprisingly tidy hand, addressed to Jane but forwarded to Henrietta. I shook out the page and read.
For, lo, in Cytherea’s perfumed sleep
Did she dream of the denizens of the dithery deep. . . .
Only three days left to go until Garden Intrigue!!!