Over the next two weeks, between now and my publication date, I’m going to publish a few excerpts from The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. In the following scene, Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte—who previously met at a dinner party—have their first dance together.
As they entered the ballroom, Betsy was pleased to see that many people broke off their conversations to watch them. The first dance of the evening was to be a contradanse, which would have the advantage of pairing them for at least ten minutes and of having periods when they could converse because they were not required to take part in the moves. The first time they were an inactive couple, Betsy said, “Lieutenant Bonaparte, I have never seen a uniform like yours. Is it a naval dress uniform?”
Jerome laughed. “No, it is a hussar’s uniform.”
“But, hussars are cavalry. I thought you were in the navy.”
“I am.” He shrugged. “But I like the way this one looks. It is debonair, is it not?”
Before Betsy could answer, it was their turn to take part in the next movement, and by the time they could speak again, she decided not to pursue the subject. She suspected that it was a tremendous breach of protocol for a military officer to wear the uniform of a different branch of service. Clearly, being Napoleon’s brother came with unusual privileges, liberties that the youngest Bonaparte did not hesitate to enjoy.
As she pondered these things, Jerome complimented her on her elegant gown. “It is—très à la mode,” he said after a moment of searching for an equivalent English phrase.
“Merci, monsieur,” Betsy answered, gratified that he considered her stylish.
“Ah, parlez-vous français?” he exclaimed, sounding like a boy in his excitement that she spoke his language.
Betsy nodded, and he gave her gloved hand a quick squeeze of approval. Then returning to the previous subject, he said, “Your taste in clothing reminds me of ma belle-soeur Josephine. She truly knows how to set Paris on its ear.”
“Oh, please tell me about her.”
He chuckled and said in French, “A while back, she started a new fashion of wearing sheer gowns such as yours but with nothing underneath.”
Betsy’s cheeks burned as Jerome continued, “Napoleon considered the style too immodest. One day, finding Josephine and her ladies sitting in the drawing room in such flimsy attire, he gave orders for the servants to pile wood on the fire. When Josephine complained that she was roasting alive, he said, ‘My dear, I was afraid you might catch cold sitting here naked.’”
In spite of her discomfort with the indiscreet topic, Betsy found herself joining in Jerome’s laughter. Then, after her first wave of self-consciousness passed, she felt a delicious sense of freedom in being able to talk so openly of things forbidden in Baltimore society.
The last move of the dance required Jerome to grasp her hands and swing her through several revolutions. After the last twirl, he flirtatiously pulled her closer to his body than was proper before releasing her. As they pulled apart, Betsy found herself halted. Her gold chain had caught on one of his buttons.
She dared not look up at him. With the rapidity of lightning, she felt as embarrassed as if she had found herself publicly wearing one of Josephine’s revealing gowns.
“Permit me.” Jerome used his index finger to unhook her necklace. Instead of releasing the chain, however, he kept it on the crook of his finger and whispered, “Do you see, chére mademoiselle? Fate has brought us together, and we are destined never to part.”
Betsy caught her breath at the romantic perfection of the moment, but then her natural skepticism reasserted itself. She perceived that this man to whom she was temporarily joined—handsome, warm-hearted, and fun loving though he might be—lacked the steely resolve of his famous older brother. He seemed content to glide through life feasting on whatever privileges fell to him in Napoleon’s wake.
“Fate seems to have forgotten that I promised my next dance to someone else.”
Jerome released her gold chain. “If that is your wish.”
“My wish, sir, is for a partner who understands that I am a kingdom that must be won rather than claimed as a birthright.”
For a moment, he seemed perplexed and she feared the sentiment was too complex for him to understand it in English, but then laughter returned to his eyes. “Truly, Mademoiselle, that is a challenge worthy of a Bonaparte.” He bowed and watched her walk away.