The neighborhoods became grander until Simon drew up in front of a substantial town house in a square with a small green park in the center. Turning the curricle over to the young groom who'd ridden on the back of the vehicle, he helped Suzanne from the carriage and up the few steps to a dark green painted door. The door knocker was a polished brass lion that glinted confidently in the afternoon light.
Simon hesitated for a long moment, visibly steeling himself as he produced a heavy key from his pocket. "The old knocker was an eagle that looked too much like Napoleon's imperial eagle standard, which French troops carried into battle. I had it changed to a British lion."
"Symbols matter." After a long silence, she asked quietly, "Are you reluctant to return because the house holds too many bad memories?"
"Too many good ones. This is part of the golden past that is forever gone." Face set, he unlocked the door and ushered her into the small vestibule.
A gilt-framed mirror hung above a polished mahogany table opposite the door. Suzanne and Simon were reflected there and she felt a jolt of surprise, as if he was a stranger. When he'd first greeted her, for a stunned moment she'd thought he was her late husband. Then she remembered him as Simon, a charming young man she'd liked very much in the golden days before her marriage.
But the image in the mirror reflected the man he was now. Austerely handsome. Quietly masterful. A man at ease in any situation, as dangerous as he needed to be—and carrying a bone-deep weariness that was eating away at his soul.
She drew a shaky breath as she absorbed this fuller understanding of the man who wanted her for his wife. Oddly, in that mirror they seemed well matched: She looked attractive and had the cool elegance of the countess she'd once been even though she wore an altered, secondhand gown.
But the strongest resemblance was that she shared his weariness. Was soul deep fatigue a foundation strong enough to support a marriage, or reason for her to run in the opposite direction?
Her thoughts were interrupted when Simon opened a door on the right and revealed a drawing room. The draperies were drawn so the light was dim, but she could see the elegant lines of the furniture and appreciate the softness of the Turkish carpet beneath her feet.
As she entered, she brushed her fingertips across the gleaming surface of a satinwood table. "It's a handsome house. Has it been empty for years?"
"No, a French couple who served my father's family for many years live here." Simon moved to a window and drew the draperies back, allowing the pale winter sunshine into the room. "When war erupted after the Peace of Amiens, I helped the Merciers out of France. They needed a new home and the house needed caretakers. A fortnight ago I sent a message that I'd be returning soon, and asked that they take the Holland covers off the furniture and prepare the house for me to take up residence."
He crossed the room and pulled the bell rope by the fireplace. A distant ringing sounded on the floor below in the servants' quarters. "I haven't been here in years. It's rather eerie to see how nothing has changed."
Well-proportioned tables, chairs, and sofas were clustered into conversational groupings, the upholstery only a little faded with time. Her gaze was drawn to the portrait that hung above the fireplace. A dark-haired woman with a warm smile sat in a chair in this very room, an older man standing behind her with his hand on her shoulder.
"Your parents," she said. "I met them briefly before my wedding, but I met so many of Jean-Louis's relatives then that I did no more than exchange a few words." There was a strong resemblance between Simon and his father, a resemblance shared by her husband. The Duval family blood ran strong.
Simon joined her, his gaze on the portrait. "This was painted at a happy time. My father was French to the bone, but he was philosophical and made the best of his exile to England. The world would be changing, he said, so he made sure I was equally fluent in French and English. The plan was that I would attend school here and university in Paris if the wars were over by then, but that wasn't possible."
"What school?" She searched her memory for the names of the most famous British schools and came up with only one. "Eton?"
"Harrow. Like Eton, it's close to London." He smiled a little. "As an old Harrovian, I am honor bound to say that my school was superior to Eton, but in truth they are much the same."
Her brow furrowed as new memories surfaced. "Do you have a brother? I remember you talking warmly about a Lucas."
"He was my cousin, but yes, as close as a brother. Our mothers were sisters. He was orphaned young and came to live with my family." He gestured to a smaller portrait that hung over a sofa. It showed two young boys, perhaps ten years old. One was clearly Simon, and the other a boy with fair coloring and mischief in his eyes. "We attended Harrow together and looked out for each other."
"Is he...gone?" she asked softly. "Another victim of the wars?"
"Yes," Simon said bleakly. "Lucas was in the Royal Navy. His ship was sunk with no known survivors, though I've never quite given up hope that he might be a prisoner of war somewhere in France."
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa.