Secret agent Augustus Whittlesby has spent a decade undercover in France, posing as an insufferably bad poet. The French surveillance officers can't bear to read his work closely enough to recognize the information drowned in a sea of verbiage.
New York-born Emma Morris Delagardie is a thorn in Augustus's side. An old school friend of Napoleon's stepdaughter, she came to France with her uncle, the American envoy; eloped with a Frenchman; and has been rattling around the salons of Paris ever since. Widowed for four years, she entertains herself by drinking too much champagne, holding a weekly salon, and loudly critiquing Augustus's poetry.
As Napoleon pursues his plans for the invasion of England, Whittlesby hears of a top-secret device to be demonstrated at a house party at Malmaison. The catch? The only way in is with Emma, who has been asked to write a masque for the weekend's entertainment.
Emma is at a crossroads: Should she return to the States or remain in France? She'll do anything to postpone the decision-even if it means teaming up with that silly poet Whittlesby to write a masque for Bonaparte's house party. But each soon learns that surface appearances are misleading. In this complicated masque within a masque, nothing goes quite as scripted- especially Augustus's feelings for Emma.
• RT Reviewers' Choice Award 2013
» Kirkus Reviews
"The latest installment in the Pink Carnation historical romantic suspense series is as fresh and charming as its floral theme."
» Library Journal
"Mixing historical and modern-day drama poses no trouble for Willig, and the satisfying, uninterrupted progression within both time frames will please longtime readers. Enlightening and entertaining as always, and full of plenty of romance and intrigue."
» RT Book Reviews
"Willig delights time and again with her clever, witty, intelligent and thoughtful Pink Carnation series. The ninth installment retains all the freshness and vitality of the first. Fans, new and old, will savor the mystery, double romance, and the wondrous appearance of the Pink Carnation."
"Readers will be pleased to see the spy who inspired the series in action and will enjoy the charming, witty rapport between Augustus and Emma."
“Alas!” she cried, “I spy a sail
Hard-by on the wine dark sea.
I know not what it is or bides,
But I fear it comes for me!”
The Perils of the Pulchritudinous Princess of the Azure Toes, Canto XII, 14–17
“For, lo!” proclaimed Augustus Whittlesby from his perch on top of a bench supported by two scowling sphinxes. “In Cytherea’s perfumed sleep / Did she dream of the denizens of the dithery deep. . . .
“Dithery? How can the deep be dithery?” A female voice, lightly accented, cut into Augustus’s stirring rendition of Canto XII of The Perils of the Pulchritudinous Princess of the Azure Toes.
Among the smattering of people who had left the dancing in the ballroom to admire, mock, gossip, or, in the case of an elderly dowager snoring in a chair by the far wall, nap, stood two young women.
One was tall and graceful, garbed simply but elegantly in a white dress that fell in the required classical lines from a pair of admirably shaped shoulders. Her pale brown hair was gathered in a simple twist, her only jewelry a golden locket strung on a ribbon of sky blue silk.
Jane Wooliston was, thought Augustus, all that was finest in womanly charm. He had said so quite frequently in verse, but it held true in prose as well. Not even his execrable effusions could mask her inestimable worth.
She wasn’t the one who had spoken.
It had been the other one. Next to her. Half a head down.
What Emma Delagardie lacked in height, she made up for in the exuberantly curled plumes that rose from her silver spangled headdress. The tall plumes jutted a good foot into the air, bouncing up and down—like great, annoying bouncing things. In Augustus’s annoyance, metaphor failed him. Her dress was white, but it wasn’t the white of innocent maidens and virtuous dreams. It was of silk, sinuous and shiny, overlain with some sort of shimmery stuff that sparkled when she moved, creating the sensation of a constant disturbance in the air around her.
Emma Delagardie was slight, fine-boned, and small-featured, the top of her head barely level with Miss Wooliston’s elegantly curved shoulder, but she took up far more room than her small stature would warrant.
“You might have the dire deep,” Mme. Delagardie suggested, her American accent very much in evidence, “or the dreadful deep, but not dithery. It’s not even a proper word.”
“Your deep may be dire, but my deep is dithery. There is such a thing as poetic license, Madame Delagardie,” said Augustus grandly.
“License or laziness? Surely, another word might serve your purpose better. The deep is a rather stationary thing.”
Who had appointed Emma Delagardie the Grand Inquisitor for Poetical Excellence, Greater Paris Branch? It had been a sad, sad day for France when her uncle had been appointed American envoy to Paris and an even sadder one when she had decided to outlast his tenure and stay.
Perhaps America would like to take her back?
“The waves, Madame Delagardie, maintain a constant flow, back and forth, just so.” Augustus used the flowy fabric of his sleeves to illustrate, rocked back and forth on the bench. “And on and on they go.”
With a hey nonny nonny and a ho ho ho.
Christ, he made himself sick sometimes. You’re doing it for England, old chap, he used to tell himself, but the for-England bit had been rubbed bare over time, torn to shreds on the detritus of rhyme.
Oh, bugger. He was thinking in rhyme again. Was there no way to turn it off? To end the adjectives that infected his consciousness? That bedeviled his brain? That assaulted his . . .
Next time, Augustus promised himself. The next time he was recruited for a life of espionage, he was posing as a philosopher or a student of ancient languages, as someone staid and sober, someone who expressed himself in prose rather than verse, and fourth-rate verse at that.
They had warned him of this, his mentors at the War Office. Choose your persona wisely, they had said. Over time, you might just become what you pretend to be. Augustus had scoffed at it at the time. Nineteen and fearless he had been then, confident of the power of both his sword and his pen. It had seemed like such a lark, a decade ago, to couch his reports to the War Office in poetry so bad that even the Ministry of Police wouldn’t want to read it. Even fanatical devotion only went so far. For the French surveillance officers, so far generally ended somewhere around the thirty-ninth canto.
What a stroke of brilliance, a code no one could break—because there was no code. No count-ten-letters-and-subtract-one, no book of code words and phrases, no messy paper trails to trip one up, just the information itself couched in terms of purest absurdity, truth drowned in a sea of verbiage.
Sometimes, it felt like truth wasn’t the only one drowning. He had been doing this for too long; he felt the weariness of it to his very bones.
Augustus looked at Jane Wooliston, his buoy, his anchor, his island in a turbulent sea. Until she had arrived in Paris, he had been giving serious thought to throwing it all in.
Clasping his hands to his breast, Augustus looked meaningfully at Miss Wooliston. “What can one say about the sea? Oh, the sea! The inconstant sea! As indeterminate as a lady’s affections and as unfathomable as the female heart.”
Miss Wooliston hid her smile behind her fan. “Beautifully said, Monsieur Whittlesby, but I would urge you to credit our sex with somewhat more resoluteness of character than that.”
She managed to make her voice carry without seeming to try. What a lovely voice it was, too, a fine, clear contralto, neither too high nor too low.
Augustus clapped the back of his hand to his forehead, just managing not to gag on his own sleeve. They had played this game before, he and Miss Wooliston. “Resolute in cruelty! Obdurate in obfuscation!”
“Ornate in ormolu?” It was the American again. Of course.
“Ormolu,” Augustus repeated. “Ormolu?”
Emma Delagardie gave a little bounce that made her silver spangles scintillate. “Just helping out. You are doing Os, aren’t you? “
Augustus would have loved to tell her exactly what she could do with her As, Es and Us—in prose—but he had spent years perfecting his pose of poetic otherworldliness. He wasn’t about to ruin it for one noisy chit from the colonies. The former colonies, that was. If Emma Delagardie was a representative example, good riddance to them.
“If I may continue?” he said.
Emma Delagardie fluttered her fan. Augustus sneezed. The fan was made of feathers. Feathers with silver spangles. They had a long reach.
“Oh, do. Please do,” she said, far too enthusiastically for Augustus’s peace of mind. No one wanted to hear his poetry that badly. In fact, no one wanted to hear his poetry at all. This boded ill.
Augustus brooded. He brooded quite effectively. He bloody well ought to. He had spent hours practicing. “My soul shies back! To flourish, the delicate blooms of poetry must be gently nurtured and watered from the well of an understanding spirit, not withered in the harsh glare of unfeeling criticism.”
“Do go on, Mr. Whittlesby,” said Miss Wooliston soothingly. “I assure you, we are all attention to hear how Cytherea comes about.”
“All thirty dithery cantos,” added her friend cheerfully.
Did she think it was easy to consistently perpetrate works of such poetic awfulness?
He could have told Emma Delagardie a thing or two about that. Years, it had taken, years of grueling practice and downright hard work. It was a hard balance to maintain, writing poetry dreadful enough to be laughable but just credible enough to be believable.
Augustus rustled his roll of papers. “Shall I go on? Or need I fear the slings and arrows of outrageous interruptions?”
“We’ll be good,” promised Emma Delagardie, in a way that signaled anything but. “Mum as church mice.”
The church mice he had known had been rather noisy, actually, in the walls of the vicarage of his youth, but that was beside the point. He wasn’t going to let himself be drawn into yet another pointless argument.
“In that case . . .” Augustus made a show of scrolling down his page, searching his place. The gilded doors to the music room racketed open and someone skidded into the room, dressed inappropriately for an evening entertainment. in boots with the mud of travel still on them. He was a young man, cheeks flushed, hair mussed, cravat askew. He was dressed in the glorified riding dress that the upper classes had made their common clothing, a tightly fitted coat over a bright waistcoat, tight pantaloons tucked into Hessian boots. The difference was, these clothes had obviously been used for riding, and recently.
A few of the ladies whispered and giggled behind their fans. The dowager made a snorting noise in her sleep and burrowed deeper into her chair.
What in the hell was Horace de Lilly doing here? As a very junior sort of agent, employed for the sole purpose of his aristocratic connections, de Lilly was meant to be at Saint-Cloud, hanging about the fringes of Bonaparte’s semi-regal court, not in Paris, attending a ball at the Hotel de Balcourt.
This did not bode well.
With a wary eye on his young associate, Augustus returned to his poetry. “For in the lady’s youth was told/ A tale of prophecies ancient and old—”
Horace began to bounce on the balls of his feet, striving to be seen over Mme. Delagardie’s plumes. He mouthed something.
Augustus frowned in his general direction. Raising his voice, he proclaimed, “That once in Triton’s court did dwell / And ring a nasty watery knell, / With a clangety clang and an awesome—”
“Yell?” suggested Emma Delagardie, in something that strove to be, but was not quite, sotto voce. “Knell? Mell?”
If Augustus had been holding a book, he would have slammed it. Instead, he jammed the roll of poetry under his arm. “No more! My sensitive soul can endure no further interruptions! The Muse has fled. The Graces have left the building .”
He jumped down off the settee, landing with a thump on the parquet floor, and had the satisfaction of seeing Mme. Delagardie take a step back. He had landed rather close to her feet, inadequately shod in Grecian sandals that showed off the diamond rings on her toes.
Augustus wafted a trembling hand in the air. “I beg you, good people! Do not attempt to follow! I must soothe myself and my muse in the only way available to one of my delicate temperament, with a spell of solitude and solitary reflection, making humble homage to the Muses in the hopes that they will once again heed my call after so brutal and rude a series of interruptions of their delicate endeavors.”
The excess fabric in his sleeves made a highly gratifying swishing noise as he swept towards the door.
As he passed de Lilly, he murmured, “In the study. Five minutes.”
He didn’t wait to see if de Lilly would answer. Casting a lingering backwards glance at Miss Wooliston—exaggerated yearning with just a hint of lustful smolder —he paused only long enough to give the footmen time to open the doors before swanning out into the throng in the next room, where refreshments had been set out among Balcourt’s collection of faux Egyptological artifacts. At least, Augustus hoped they were faux. A selection of pastries had been set out on a sarcophagus that served as sideboard, while uniformed footmen scooped champagne punch from bowls constructed of Canopic jars.
Augustus was no antiquarian, but he did recall hearing somewhere that those jars had been used to contain the internal organs of the deceased. He made a mental note to stay away from the punch.
The same couldn’t be said for the rest of the company. The punch was flowing freely, the party the sort that would be termed in England “a sad crush,” fashionable people jostling one against the other, doing their best to see and be seen. Balcourt might not be admired, but he was known to set a lavish table and he was not without his contacts at court.
It was easy enough to waft his way through the crowd, the eccentric poet in his own private fog, with the occasional murmur of “The Muse! I must set it down!”
No one would think anything of finding him in Balcourt’s study. When the Muse demanded . . .
Augustus closed the door of Balcourt’s study behind him, shutting out the revelry without. It was quiet here, the drapes closed, the only light the candles that had been left burning, as a matter of course, in the sconces above the hearth. Balcourt was no scholar. The only thing in the room that didn’t show a fine film of dust was the decanter.
The man couldn’t be more different from his cousin, Miss Jane Wooliston.
The Pink Carnation.
The door racketed open as Horace de Lilly came charging in as though all the hounds of hell were behind him, the nasty, yippy ones with particularly pointy teeth.
Augustus slammed the door behind him, turning the key in the lock. “What in the blazes was that all about? Aren’t you supposed to be in Saint-Cloud?”
“It is of the most urgent!” Horace declared importantly.
It had bloody well better be. Junior agents weren’t meant to make direct contact with their seniors. Especially not in such an exuberant and noisy fashion. If Horace had something to report to him, there were channels for that. Quiet channels. Discreet channels. Unfortunately, to ignore the other man out now would serve nothing. Whatever damage had been done was done.
“If anyone asks, you’re here to commission a poem. You, lover. Me, Cyrano. Understood? You’re mad with love for—someone. You can pick the girl; I won’t dictate that part—”
For how can one dictate the dictates of the heart? whispered the poet in Augustus’s head.
Shut up, Augustus told it.
“—but you’d better make a good show of being lovelorn. That will explain your”—Augustus looked pointedly at Horace’s muddy boots, his inappropriate attire—“exuberant arrival. Everyone understands young love.”
For a moment, Horace looked as though he might argue. Augustus Whittlesby was universally agreed to be the worst poet in Paris, and, like so many young men, Horace harbored vague poetic aspirations of his own. But sacrifices must be made from time to time.
“So it will be,” he said manfully. “I’m here to commission a verse. Now, wait until you hear—”
“Did anyone follow you?” Augustus cut him off.
Horace shook his head. “No one suspects me.”
Augustus wished that he could share the younger man’s assurance. Ever since a plot to assassinate the First Consul had been uncovered last month, Bonaparte’s police force had been working overtime, cracking down on threats anywhere they found them, and sometimes even where they hadn’t.
Augustus knew he was lucky to have escaped the net this long. Ironically enough, that very longevity was a large part of his protection. He was like an old oak table or a particularly dingy patch of carpet; the Ministry of Police was so used to him that they scarcely noticed he was there.
Horace, on the other hand, had come over with a wave of émigrés who were being invited, in bits and pieces, back into Paris to lend aristocratic polish to Bonaparte’s new court. He was new and therefore automatically suspect. Bonaparte craved the recognition of the old aristocracy, but he also mistrusted them. With reason, in this case.
“Well, they don’t!” Horace said indignantly. “I have been of the most subtle.”
“Right.” Augustus eyed de Lilly’s pink and green striped waistcoat. Not exactly what he would call subtle. “What was it that sent you running to Paris?”
Horace flung himself into Balcourt’s desk chair, his spurs digging into the imported Persian carpet. “It was like this,” he began, clearly determined to milk every moment of glory from the retelling. Augustus remembered when he had been like that. A very long time ago. Horace’s beardless face shone with excitement. “I was with the court of the First Consul in Saint-Cloud, when the Consul received a visit from Admiral Decres—”
A sound caught Augustus’s attention. A creak, as of a floorboard being depressed slowly and carefully by a person trying very hard not to be heard.
Augustus held up a hand, signaling Horace to silence.
“Edouard?” It was a female voice, raised in a questioning tone. A fingernail scratched against the wood of the door. “Edouaaaard?”
Augustus deliberately rustled the papers on the desk. “Who disturbs me?” he called out, stretching out the vowels in the most annoying way he could. “Who disturbs me in my poetic reverie?”
The scratching stopped. “Pardon?”
“Is it too much to ask for a humble poet to find a bit of peace to court the muse in private?” Augustus inquired mournfully. “Oh, the world is too much with us! Chattering and clattering, we lay waste our talents, consigning our patrimony of poetry to the wasted wind of the idle hour. Oh, woe! Woe it is to be—me.”
He broke off as he heard the floorboards creak in rapid retreat.
Horace leaned forward. “Was that—?” he hissed.
“Oh.” Horace shrugged off the intrusion. Mistresses were an inconsequential part of urban existence, like tavern owners or those annoying little people who collected bills. “As I was saying, I was at Saint-Cloud, when—”
Augustus cut him off. “Balcourt’s mistress is an informer of the Ministry of Police.”
It took Horace a moment for the words to register. “Is she?” He seemed more intrigued than alarmed.
De Lilly’s insouciance set Augustus’s teeth on edge. “Madame Perdite is just one of thousands, but any one of those, no matter how insignificant they may seem, can be your downfall. A landlady, a chambermaid, the boy who holds your horse. Fouché has half of Paris in his pay.” An exaggeration, but not by much. “Say nothing in front of anyone, not even the servants. Particularly not the servants. Do you understand?”
Horace nodded, but Augustus could see he didn’t understand, not viscerally, not in that place in one’s gut that shouted danger long before the conscious senses perceived a threat. Horace had been a boy during the Terror, an adolescent in the safety of London. He had no memory of the stench of blood and sweat, the buzzing of the blood-gorged flies in the Place de la Concorde; he had never spent a night in the damp-walled hospitality of the Conciergerie, never heard the screams of a man being put to the question as he moved from begging for life to praying for death. The prisons of Paris were just names to him, names and blank facades; he had no real understanding of the true nature of the terrors within.
This was what happened of hiring boys who were still wet behind the ears and sending them out into the field with nothing more than a few vague instructions and a slightly outdated map of central Paris.
Augustus preferred not to address the fact that he had been equally amateur when William Wickham had first recruited him for covert operations, fresh out of Cambridge. At the time, he had been an aspiring poet by vocation, a fledgling clergyman by necessity, resigned to the prospect of taking a parish and sandwiching verse between his sermons. His encounter with Wickham had changed all that.
Twelve years later, Augustus could hardly imagine having been that young or that naïve. That young, that naïve, and that eager.
Augustus cocked his head, listening. After this many years in the field, he could discern the subtleties of a silence, the way a painter could distinguish between the various forms of black. There was no listening presence from behind the door; he would have known her from the breathing.
Augustus turned back to Horace. “She’s gone,” he said. “What do you know?”
Leaning forward, Horace braced his palms on the knees of his breeches. His hands were too large for his frame, as if he hadn’t quite yet grown into his height. “The First Consul summoned Admiral Decres to Saint-Cloud. It was a warm day, so he left the window ajar. I,” he added modestly, “was beneath it.”
“What did you hear?”
“The fleet. They’re readying it.”
“Which fleet?” There was more than one.
“All of them!” Horace said excitedly. “The plan, it has been approved at last. I heard it direct from the First Consul’s lips. Save just one thing, all is readiness.”
Augustus didn’t need to ask, but he did. “For?”
“The First Consul, he is giving the orders for the invasion of England!”