It is set during the turbulent years at the end of the 18th century, when revolution in France was unsettling everyone in England. Fears of invasion, spies and unrest made everyone highly suspicious, and Madeleine Sedgewick is caught up in a dangerous web of intrigue - should she trust her handsome French cousin Camille or the enigmatic Beau Hauxwell?
Here's an extract for you. The Sedgewicks are at the port of Rye to meet their French relative when he arrives from France.....
Mr Sedgewick made a grab for his hat as he finished speaking, for they had reached the waterfront where there was no shelter from the blustery wind. He hurried the ladies along the quay towards the bustle of activity taking place beside the packet, which was by this time safely moored.
'I think I see him!' cried Mr Sedgewick.
He guided the ladies towards a lone figure, standing a little apart from the general crowd. The man was wrapped in a dark surtout, its collar turned up and his hat pulled so low that very little of his countenance was exposed to the chill wind.
'Sir, if you will excuse me, Monsieur le Comte?'
The stranger turned and a flash of white was visible between the hat brim and the collar.
'Ah, mon oncle Sedgewick, n'est-ce pas?' He removed his hat and made a flourishing bow, 'Camille du Vivière, at your service, monsieur.'
Mr Sedgewick grasped his hand and shook it vigorously.
'Camille, my boy, it's very good to see you here at last! You remember your aunt, of course, but perhaps you will not recognise this young lady, eh?'
He drew Madeleine forward and the comte's dark eyes rested upon her for a moment, then with a smile he took her hand and raised it to his lips.
'Madeleine, I could not mistake you.'
'Then your memory is better than mine, monsieur, since I cannot in truth say I remember you at all!' she replied laughingly.
'Ah, but you were a babe, were you not, when we last met?'
'I was all of five years, sir, but you were more than twice my age, and very grown up, as you never ceased to inform me. That much I do recall.'
He squeezed her fingers, smiling ruefully.
'Was I indeed so insolent? It was bad of me, but now I will allow you to be very grown up, and very beautiful, too.'
Madeleine laughed and blushed. She wanted to tease him by saying that she had grown up to be as tall as he, but their acquaintance was too new to risk such a joke. She was grateful to her father for his suggestion that they remove from the area.
'We have rooms at a local inn for tonight,' he continued, taking the Frenchman by the arm and preparing to lead him away. 'I thought it best that we all get a good night's rest before travelling on to Stapley in the morning. Is that your only trunk? Just a moment and I'll have one of these fellows carry it to the Three Barrels…..'
While Mr Sedgewick and the comte went off to find a porter, his wife took the opportunity of a quiet word with her daughter.
'Well, what a pleasant surprise. Whoever would have thought that your cousin would achieve such pleasing manners – he was such a proud, odious little boy.'
'He certainly seems to have changed for the better.'
'And so very personable,' pursued Mrs Sedgewick. 'I fear he will create something of a stir amongst the young ladies of the neighbourhood.'
'That need not worry us, Mama. Since Grandpapa never allows us to entertain at Stapley Hall, no-one will have the chance to meet Camille.'
'I very much fear you are right,' agreed her mama sadly, 'but perhaps it is not such a bad thing after all, for the poor young man cannot be said to be a very eligible parti, can he? And until some sort of order can be brought about in France – and it is no good anyone telling me that the Convention has any proper control, not when people are turned out of houses that have been in their family for generations and forced to fly the country, to say nothing of imprisoning their own king! No, as long as those detestable people are in power I fear your poor cousin can have little chance of regaining his estates.' She sighed. 'But there it is, we cannot change the situation. Now, here comes Camille. He can escort you back to the inn and you must do your best to keep him amused, poor young man, he has had such a sad time of it.'
'But I hardly know him, Mama – ' Madeleine's protest was brushed aside.
'You are never at a loss for words when you meet your grandfather, and if you can stand up to him without trembling I am sure you can entertain a pleasant young man for a few minutes. Hush now. Here he comes.'
There was no time for further protest. Mrs Sedgewick took up her position beside her husband, leaving Madeleine to accept the comte's escort. It did not displease her to have her cousin's company. On the contrary, she found his diffidence very engaging, but having been instructed to amuse him, she could think of nothing entertaining to say and thus it was that after a few moments her companion was moved to enquire if he had in some way offended.
'No, of course not, Monsieur le Comte!'
'Ah – it is perhaps the mode for English ladies to walk along in silence and looking so very serious?'
She smiled at this but shook her head.
'Not at all. In fact, I am failing in my duty, Monsieur le Comte. I should be amusing you with an endless flow of small talk, and alas I can think of nothing to say.'
'A situation that will be remedied, I trust, when we are better acquainted. And perhaps we may begin by dispensing with formality. I will not have you call me "Monsieur le Comte" a moment longer. It must be Camille, if you please or,' he temporized, sensing her hesitation, 'at the very least "cousin".'
'Very well, Cousin! Only tell me what you would like to talk about and I will do my best to accommodate you.'
Gentlemen in Question by Melinda Hammond