You don’t usually see much of my books while they’re in progress. They change around on me too much for me to risk showing you something that might not be there in the final version.
In this case, though, you’re getting that rare beast: a hot off the presses outtake from Pink X, aka The Passion of the Purple Plumeria.
A bit of context: when I started writing Plumeria (for so it shall henceforth be called), the plan was to have a few chapters in Jane’s voice, even though it is technically Miss Gwen’s book. I wrote the first of those chapters last week and realized… that it was a bad, bad idea.
It wasn’t that it was a particularly bad chapter. (Trust me, you don’t see those.) But it had no place in this book. Putting Jane’s voice in there distracted from the main story, which is focused around Gwen and Colonel William Reid. We’ll still see a lot of Jane, but through Gwen’s eyes.
Here, in this outtake, the one and only surviving “Jane” chapter:
To set the scene: Jane and Gwen have come back from France because Agnes has disappeared from her Bath boarding school, Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary. While Gwen pursues a potential lead in Bristol, back at the ranch (er, boarding school), Jane decides to take a closer look around the school….
Amarantha circled slowly around her tower prison. Save for the narrow arrow slits, there were no windows, no doors, no break in the stones that encircled her. There had to be some way out. Fear sharpened her search. For, if there were a way out, it also meant that there was a way in….
– From The Convent of Orsino by A Lady
“May I be of assistance?”
It was a male voice, lightly accented, from somewhere behind her. Only her training kept Jane from bumping her head on the window frame. Kneeling on the window sill, half out the window, she was not in the most dignified of positions.
Slowly and carefully, Jane eased back out of the window.
A hand appeared. “If I might be so bold?”
The man belonging to the hand was, Jane guessed, in his late twenties or early thirties, with curling brown hair and laughing hazel eyes. His attire was what Jane’s little brother would have called bang up to the mark, with a high, starched collar and tightly tailored coat, the elaborate folds of his cravat held in place with a cameo pin.
“Call it charitable rather than bold.” Jane accepted the hand he held out to her as she stepped lightly down from the sill. “I’m afraid you have caught me at a disadvantage. Monsieur—?”
“You have a quick ear, Madameoiselle.” He deliberately separated the word in two, ma demoiselle, turning the simple appellation into a courtly tribute. “I had thought myself nearly rid of my accent.”
He was. Nearly. But she had made a practice of noticing such things. It was also always invariably better to turn the focus away from oneself, especially when one had been caught standing with one’s head stuck out the window of the drawing room of a young ladies’ select seminary.
She had been inspecting a curious scratch along the outside of the window frame, just such a scratch as one might find if someone had forced the catch. On the other hand, the school was so permeable that looking for another way in—or out—was a matter of coals to Newcastle.
She had received Miss Gwen’s letter with a trepidation borne out by its contents. Hastily written, in pencil, on a torn sheet of paper, it had confirmed all of her worst fears. Not that she had truly allowed herself to hope that the case could be so simple as the girls running away to Bristol, but that small hope, that false hope, had still been there.
She had never felt so truly alone as now.
Yes, her parents were with her in the hired house at Laura Place, but they were, as they had always been, entirely immersed in their own pursuits, her mother in her embroidery, her father in his agricultural journals. They were concerned for Agnes, yes, but not as she was concerned; they had no idea of the dangers Agnes might be facing.
Nor did they lie awake in the wee hours of the morning wondering if they were the cause.
Jane had never realized before just how much she relied on Miss Gwen, Miss Gwen and her caustic tongue and her deadly parasol. Somehow, nothing seemed quite so insurmountable with Miss Gwen sniping away at it. She had a knack for rendering the impossible mundane. With Miss Gwen, Jane could be the cool voice of common sense and reason.
Alone, she wasn’t feeling quite so cool and commonsensical, especially after a search of Agnes’s room had revealed nothing of interest other than an impressive scrapbook on the subject of flower named spies. She hadn’t missed a single clipping. They were all there, all of the public mentions of the Pink Carnation’s escapades, some true, some false, and several twisted so far out of recognition that they might well have been false. The less sensational and more important missions had never made it into print: there was nothing about the scuttling of Napoleon’s plans for a submarine, nothing about the rescue of the heir to the French throne, and certainly not of the mundane but necessary work funneling information from France to England. Only the more sensational acts, the ones she most regretted, remained as a record of the past two years’ work.
She had never before questioned the value of her work in France, but now, sitting on her sister’s deserted bed, wincing at the recital of mocking notes and daring (for which read “ill planned”) escapes, she couldn’t quite find that same certainty.
It was one thing to risk her own neck, quite another to risk her sister’s. She had chosen this life. Agnes hadn’t.
In the guise of concerned sister, she had questioned the headmistresses, questioned the other girls. All had fantastical stories and wild rumors. None had said anything of any use.
If Agnes and Lizzy had planned their departure, they had made no mention of those plans to their peers.
“I had thought that male masters were no longer allowed at the school,” Jane said, all wide-eyed innocence.
No schoolmaster would have a coat that perfectly tailored, but her sally did exactly what she had intended. The man’s face went through a perfect arc of confusion, horror and amusement.
“Master—you think I am—but no. What an idea!” He had an actor’s face, flexible and expressive. He cocked his head, considering her, “Shall we start over, fair demoiselle?”
“There is no one here to introduce us,” said Jane, primly.
“Then we shall simply have to invent someone, shan’t we?” The twinkle in the man’s eyes was irresistible. He bowed to an imaginary dowager. “Most worthy madam, who is that peerless pearl of beauty across the room? A mystery, you say?”
“Ought I drop a shoe so that you might have the pleasure of following it?” suggested Jane mildly.
The gentleman wafted her comment aside. “What is that you say, madame? No, that beauty is certainly no Cendrillon. Not a trace of the hearth about her.”
Jane gravely dipped a shallow curtsy in acknowledgment.
He regarded her through an equally imaginary quizzing glass. “The voice is English, and yet, unless I miss my guess, the gown is French. She is far too elegant to be a schoolgirl, and too unlined to be one of their keepers, which would make her—a sister, perhaps?”
Jane wasn’t entirely sure she liked this game.
“You are too keen, sir,” she said.
“And her voice,” said the man gravely, still speaking to his imaginary companion, “is as the fluting of a company of doves.” He gestured imperiously. “Have her know that the Chevalier de la Tour d’Argent desires to make her acquaintance.”
The name was known to her. Like the British government, Jane made it her business to keep track of the French émigrés who had flooded to London after the Revolution, some exacrtly the refugees they seemed, others… not. The Chevalier de la Tour d’Argent made one of the Comte d’Artois’s circle, the old aristocratic elite who made it a practice to live in England as they once had in France.
Jane feigned ignorance. “The Knight of the Silver Tower? Surely, such a name must be a nom de guerre”—she deliberately put an English emphasis on the French words, the schoolgirl French of any well-bred English miss—“designed to deceive impressionable maidens. Such a deceit deserves no honesty in return.”
The Chevalier pressed a hand to his heart. A heavy gold signet ring showed bright against the dark superfine of his jacket. “I protest, fair lady, that is the name with which my birth burdened me, no less and no more.”
“There could hardly be more,” said Jane, “unless one wished to add a few adjectives to it for ballast.”
A hint of a dimple appeared in the Chevalier’s cheek. “The Knight of the Exceedingly High and Rather Unwieldy Silver Tower? My acquaintances should expire of boredom before the introduction was complete.”
“If one were to choose a tower,” said Jane, “why not gold?”
“I believe,” said the Chevalier gravely, “that the appellation was originally awarded to a great-great-great-grandparent during the Crusades.”
Jane raised a brow. “For deeds of great valor?”
“No,” said the Chevalier sadly, but there was a glint in his eyes. “For cupidity beyond imagining. It was, I fear, the ill-famed fourth crusade, and this most unprincipled knight returned from the sack of Byzantium with so much purloined silver plate that his peers enviously dubbed him the knight of the silver tower. I assure you, it was no honor, but those of his line have stubbornly held to it ever since.”
“Most families have equally ignominious origins when one comes down to it,” said Jane.
“And yours? You have neatly evaded all my efforts to discover your identity.”
“Since you have been so forthcoming, how can I be less? My family has no stories so dramatic as yours. None of them took up the cross or answered the call of the bugle.” The Chevalier’s conversational habits were catching. Jane could hear her speech becoming alarmingly elliptical. She hastily returned to the mundane. “We’re quite dull, really. A great-grandparent too many greats back to remember took a fancy to a particular patch of soil in Shropshire and we’ve been there ever since.”
“Bucolic, perhaps,” said the Chevalier gallantly, “but never dull. And the name of this rather sedentary clan?”
It was time to bring the game to an end, diverting though it might be.
“Wooliston,” said Jane, and held out her hand that he might bow over it. “Miss Jane Wooliston.”
He paused, mid-bow, her hand still resting on his. “Then you are the—sister of the girl who ran away?”
“Of one of the girls, yes.” He was just a little too interested. Jane turned wide, innocent eyes on him. “Did you know them?”
“Only in passing,” he said. “My cousin, Mlle de Fayette, had charge of their hall. She—”
“Nicholas!” Mlle de Fayette hurried into the blue parlor, a notebook in one hand. “I thought it was your voice I heard. When did you return?”
The Chevalier greeted her with a kiss on either cheek. “Late last night.”
Mlle de Fayette pulled back, her face a study in concern. “You should not be here.”
“Whyever not?” The Chevalier’s voice was just a bit too jovial. Jane felt as though she were watching a production of Moliere, the actor declaiming for his audience. In this case, her. “I have come to take you for a ride. You have been too much inside. Soon, you shall be as pale as one of those execrable pieces of porcelain.” His gesture encompassed Miss Climpson’s treasure collection of white porcelain cupids, which simpered from every imaginable surface.
Mlle de Fayette didn’t seem the least bit mollified. Her smooth brow puckered. “You know the new rules.”
Jane’s ears pricked. “What new rules?” she asked, taking a step forward.
Mlle de Fayette clutched her notebook just before it fell. “Miss Wooliston! I did not see you there.”
“Miss Climpson said I might look about,” said Jane. “I had hoped I might find something that would cast some light on why Agnes—” She held out her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “You know. What are these new rules?”
The Chevalier raised his brows. “After such a rash of runaways, the house has been purged of all potential temptations. Male visitors are allowed only in the front hall, no farther. I believe there may be some sort of quarantine area just off the hall, should a father wish to speak to his daughter in private, but a mere cousin is by no means of sufficient standing.”
“It is not just that,” said Mlle de Fayette worriedly. “And you should not joke.”
A curious expression passed across the Chevalier’s face. “No, I shouldn’t, should I?” He turned to Jane. “Has your sister still not been found? I had thought there was news that they were in Bristol.”
Jane primly folded her gloved hands. “You are very well informed, sir.”
The Chevalier cast an affecting glance at his cousin. “Anything that touches Delphine touches me.”
Mlle de Fayette seemed scarcely to notice her cousin’s solicitude. “Then they were not found?” she said.
“No,” said Jane shortly.
Somewhere, here on the grounds of the school, there had to be something, some overlooked clue, that would signal the how and the why of the girls’ departure. Something that would at least tell her whether they had left of their own volition, been cozened into custody, or dragged away against their will.
If only they had been told sooner! After three weeks, there was no telling how much evidence had been lost.
Jane forced a false, social smile. “If you will excuse me, I was just about to take a turn about the grounds.”
Too late to look for footprints in the flowerbeds, but at least she would have a better sense of the lay of the land.
“Will you allow me to escort you?” The Chevalier was all that charming and entirely inconvenient.
Jane fell back on social niceties. “I shouldn’t wish to deprive Mlle de Fayette of her carriage ride.”
“No, no,” said Mlle de Fayette. “I have the class to teach. Which I should have thought you might have remembered, Nicholas.”
“Forgive me,” he said. “I am nothing but a flibbertigibbet. Being underemployed myself, I forget that others might be bound by their obligations. Shall we, Miss Wooliston?”
She was being manipulated. She didn’t like it. “I had thought you weren’t supposed to be here,” she said mildly. “The new rules?”
“Not in the school building, no.” He held out his arm to her and, reluctantly, Jane placed her fingers on the back of it. “But the grounds are outside the edict.”
Outwardly, Jane’s smile was all that was serene. “In that case, Chevalier, I should be honored to have your escort.”
Unobtrusively, she let her shawl slip from her shoulders. She could send him back for that once they were across the yard.
Bending over, the Chevalier fished up her shawl, presenting it to her with a courtly sweet of the arm.
“You shouldn’t wish to forget this,” he said solicitously. “It is a trifle chill outside.”
“Thank you,” said Jane, through gritted teeth. “You are too good.”
“That,” said the Chevalier, his mouth turning up at the sides, “is not something of which even my fondest cousin would accuse me.” He led her, not out the entrance through which she had come, but farther along the hallway, to a back entrance leading directly out into the garden, such as it was. “Watch your step. The path is uneven.”
Jane noted the presence of a back stair that let out just beside the door. “You know the grounds well.”
“My cousin has been employed here for three years now. I try to bring her what diversion I can.”
Was it his cousin who was the attraction, or the presence of a house full of nubile young ladies? The Chevalier didn’t strike her as a despoiler of innocents, but if there was anything Jane had learned during her time in France, it was that the most charming facades often hid the darkest secrets.
The Chevalier lowered his voice. “I did not wish to say anything in front of Delphine, but if there is any way I can be of aid to you in your quest, any way at all, I wish that you would not hesitate to call on me. My sword, as it were, is at your command. Or, in this instance, my curricle and my escort.”
His eagerness to accompany her might be a compliment. Or it might be something else entirely. He wouldn’t be the first among Artois’s circle to switch sides for the promise of a wealthy return to France.
“That is exceedingly kind of you, sir,” said Jane guardedly.
The Chevalier laughed, a frank, cheerful sound. “No,” he said with a disarming smile. “It is not kind at all. It is entirely self-serving of me.”
“Oh?” Jane picked her way carefully across a dilapidated flower bed.
“How often does one have the excuse to dwell in the presence of such loveliness?”
“Quite frequently, I would imagine,” said Jane, “and far lovelier than I.”
He took in her face, looking just a little bit too long. “You do yourself too little credit, Miss Wooliston.”
She had been the object of masculine admiration before, too many times to count, courtly odes and limping sonnets and the less euphonious tributes of the exceedingly inebriated. That her features were pleasing, she knew; it was one of the best weapons in her arsenal, lulling men into confiding far more than they ought. She had used her face more than once to her own ends.
So why did she feel like blushing now?
She took refuge in a question. “Mlle de Fayette is your cousin, you said?”
“My mother’s sister’s daughter.” The sun shone in Jane’s eyes, turning the Chevalier’s face to shadow. “My mother was the Comtesse de Brillac.”
“An old and honorable line,” Jane said diplomatically. The Comte de Brillac had often featured in satires of the ancien regime, a brutal landlord, but much feted at court, a favorite of the Queen. Of the Comtesse, she knew nothing.
The Chevalier shrugged. “Once. Perhaps. Of all my family, Delphine and I were the only ones to escape the bite of the guillotine.”
“I am so very sorry.” There was one problem with his story. “Why are you then not the Comte de Brillac rather than the knight of the so lengthy silver tower?”
All the merriment was gone from the Chevalier’s face. “I would not take his title.” He seemed to shake himself back to the present. He raised his eyebrows at Jane with a wry expression, the charm firmly back in place. “How could I, knowing the end he met? I had a brother, too. That title would one day have been his. I will not profit from his death.”
“Forgive me,” said Jane quietly. “I should not have asked.”
“A wound is a wound only so long as it remains open. That life was a lifetime ago—and I find nothing to complain of in my existence here. It is Delphine who has suffered most, and if I can make her easier in any way, I shall.”
The Chevalier’s coat alone probably cost more than Mlle de Fayette’s salary for the year. “How is it that she came to be a teacher here?”
“You mean when I have every worldly good, all of which I am prepared to shower upon her?”
“If you wish to put it that way, yes.”
“She refuses to accept my aid. She escaped only with the clothes on her back, through the good offices of your—how was it again?—your Purple Gentian.”
“I believe I have heard the name,” said Jane demurely. “His exploits were much in the papers in my youth. I cannot imagine that the half of them were true.”
“You would not be wise to express that view to my cousin! You would surely come to blows. The man is her hero in all things—and given the fate from which he saved her, one cannot really fault her for that.”
“I can see how she might think so,” said Jane, in tones of polite boredom.
There was a teasing light in the Chevalier’s eyes. “You are not a follower of these flowery spies?”
Jane made a moue of distaste. “All that palaver about spies swinging into windows on ropes and leaving mocking notes on peoples’ pillows—it does seem like something out of a novel, doesn’t it? And not a very good novel,” she added.
The Chevalier was regarding her with more interest than she liked. “But very romantic.”
Jane kept her voice light. “What is romantic is seldom what is pragmatic.”
“But who would want to be pragmatic in all things? It would be decidedly dull.”
“Dull, but far more comfortable.”
“Is comfort, then, the measure of all things? What of adventure?”
When “The Passion of the Purple Plumeria” comes out next summer, you may recognize some of this material repurposed in the chapter where Jane tells Gwen what’s been going on in Gwen’s absence– but you got the original Jane’s-eye view!