Paris, August 1856: An ordinary woman far from home. A plot against the crown. Those she loves in terrible danger…
Livia, a humble doctor’s daughter from the Italian countryside, arrives in Paris with her new husband. At first, she feels alone and isolated among the gray, rain-drenched streets. Until Elisabetta, the Emperor’s clever, beautiful mistress, takes her under her wing, and finally Livia has a true ally.
The two women are soon inseparable, strolling arm in arm down Paris’s wide boulevards and dancing the night away at masked balls. At last, Livia feels happy in her new life.
But when Elisabetta is mysteriously poisoned, the tables turn and it is Livia who has the power to shape the destiny of those around her. She must draw on all her knowledge of herbs and medicine to cure her friend. And the stakes soon become higher than she ever imagined, when her husband is falsely accused of treason and conspiring against the crown.
With Elisabetta close to death and the future of France in peril, Livia will need to draw on all her courage to save the lives of those she loves… as well as her own…
A totally gripping, richly imagined historical novel about the power held by women in a world run by men. Fans of Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton and Marie Benedict will be absolutely hooked from the very first page until the final, breath-taking conclusion.
Readers love Meghan Masterson:
“Wonderfully captivating… An absolute delight to read. Wow… a heart-wrenching and page-turning book. I devoured this one.” @iheartbooks1991, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“WOW! I stayed up all night to finish this incredible book! I was totally gripped… If you are missing Bridgerton, this will be your next obsession! Best book of the year!!!” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“Absolutely brilliant!… I honestly think I have permanent indentations on eReader from gripping it so tightly after reading this thrilling work created by Meghan… a must read.” The Secret Book Sleuth,⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“An addictive story!… I justcould not stop reading… I was swept away by the story… A great choice for readers who love history and romance.” Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐“Sexy, absorbing, and suspenseful, this story sweeps you along to its riveting conclusion…
Release date: August 18, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Paris Wife
– Excerpt from Livia Valenti’s book of herbal studies
Caterina has forgotten her tarot cards on the low side table in front of the window. The bright colors of the deck stand out against the gray sky and silver spatter of rain on the glass, drawing my gaze. I run my finger over the stiff edges of the cards, and a few of them slide free of the stack. I don’t believe in predicting the future through tarot, but I pick up the new top card anyway, idly glancing at the scene painted upon it. The artwork is quite fine. I can understand why Caterina likes to look at them so often.
“Which one is it?” she asks, coming into the room.
I replace the card and straighten the deck, turning away from it. “The Two of Swords.”
“No, it was upright.”
“It makes sense,” Caterina says. “The Two of Swords tends to come up in a stalemate situation, when a person is facing a choice but imagines that if they ignore it long enough, it’ll go away. It could mean you’re in a state of indecision, feeling weighted down and uncertain of how to proceed. You want to protect yourself but are afraid to make the wrong decision.”
I suppress the urge to roll my eyes. Caterina doesn’t deserve my scorn. Although I don’t share her interest in divination—I prefer facts—she doesn’t mean any harm by it. “I’d need two swords for protection, then? What’s the blindfold for?” I ask, referring to the woman painted on the card. Dressed in a white gown, she holds two swords crossed over her breast, which might be a good defense except for the fact she’s also blindfolded by a white ribbon, while a dangerously rock-studded sea churns behind her.
Caterina smiles, knowing I’m humoring her. “It means you can’t see past your indecision, past the situations you’ve found yourself in.”
I scoop up the deck of cards and pass them to her. “How unfortunate for me.” Bitterness winds through my voice, and I immediately feel a pang of regret. It isn’t Caterina’s fault that my first tarot reading promised a drastically different future than the one that fell around me like a net, proving it’s all nonsense. It isn’t Caterina’s fault that I’m not happy. “I’m sorry, Caterina. You know I’m a skeptic.”
She tucks the cards into the pocket of her skirt. “Don’t apologize. I just think they’re rather fun, that’s all.”
Crossing to the other window framing the front of the room, where I keep a pot of mint on the matching side table, I gaze at the wet street below. “It never seems to rain long in Paris, but I wish it would stop now. I’d like some fresh air.”
“I know you’re longing to get out into the garden,” says Caterina. “If we were staying here for more than a few months, you’d be planting herbs every day, wouldn’t you, Livia?” She glances at me with affection, knowing the mention of herbs always sparks my interest. Growing up with my doctor father and his medical knowledge, I know dozens of uses for nearly every kind of plant.
“I might begin anyway. There’s not much else to do.” My husband, Niccolo, rented this house in Paris only a fortnight after our marriage. Having to leave the bronzed beauty of my beloved Turin left a bruise against my already wounded spirits, but there wasn’t any choice. Niccolo works for Conte Camillo Cavour, the prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Conte Cavour is a fervent believer in a unified Italy, and he sent his scandalously beautiful cousin, the contessa di Castiglione, to Paris to sway the emperor, Napoleon III, to his cause. To achieve his vision of a united Italy, he’d need the assistance of the French ruler—and his troops—to throw off the Austrian rule in the north. As far as I can surmise, though no one has told me anything, La Castiglione’s mission is not proceeding with enough speed, or she’s else not sending back enough information, since Niccolo is obliged to be here as another diplomatic set of eyes and ears for Cavour.
We live in a large, elegant house on avenue Joséphine, which I’m told is a very fashionable street, located on the right bank of the Seine and not too far from the Bois de Boulogne, but relocating to Paris only a fortnight after our hasty wedding only added to my feeling of rootlessness. I’m curious to meet the contessa, but we’ve been here for two weeks already with no word from her at all.
“If you can’t go outside, you could always sew more swaddling blankets.”
Caterina smiles at the way my lip curls at her teasing suggestion. My fingers already ache from the extra time I’ve devoted to that task over the last week, driven by the reason that the blankets will be needed soon enough.
I stretch my hand toward the pot of mint, brushing my fingertips across the jagged edge of a leaf. The movement stirs its clean, cool scent into the air, and a spark of purpose clears my mind and straightens my spine. I retreat from the window and fetch my shoes. I didn’t choose the circumstances that brought me here, but I won’t let them control my life going forward.
“I’ll be outside.” This house has a small garden, but it’s been neglected and most of the plants are useless flowers, although they’re quite pretty, even now at the end of summer. “You don’t have to come with me—I know you don’t like the rain.”
Caterina and I always speak with companionable bluntness while in the privacy of my room, although we try to be more careful if Niccolo is within earshot. Ostensibly my maid, Caterina is also my dearest friend, and came with me to my married household in Turin, following us to France. She isn’t a very good maid, as the shawls and dresses scattered across the bed can attest, but she is an excellent confidante.
“I’ll tidy up in here instead.” Caterina waves airily toward the disarray of the room. “Or I could finish sewing the red gown you started. It won’t take long, there’s hardly any fabric.” This is true, since it’s a tiny garment for an infant.
My palm sweeps reflexively over my belly, only slightly rounded so far. “Thank you, Caterina. I meant to finish it earlier but my back ached too much.”
“All the more reason to stretch your legs now,” she says kindly.
Downstairs, I hurry past the parlor, seeing Niccolo’s fawn-colored hound, Luce, sprawled in the doorway. He follows Niccolo everywhere, so his presence is a certain signal that my husband is sitting in the parlor, and I don’t particularly want to make small talk with him at the moment.
Once I’ve slipped through the back door into the verdant space of the garden, the misty raindrops feel fresh and invigorating against my cheeks. The damp smell of earth and greenery lifts my spirits. The spears of day lily leaves and the dark purple of violets look decorative, but as I pace around, I imagine where I would plant more useful herbs. There isn’t much space, so I’d need to concentrate on the most common medicines. Calendula, which is good for skin conditions, would grow well in the corner, laden with sunshine on a clear day, and their jaunty orange shade would look pretty against the stone color of the house. I’ve mentally plotted the layout a dozen times already, and yet haven’t started transforming the garden at all. Though it might give me pleasure while we’re here, it seems a possible waste of time when we’re meant to return to Turin within the next year.
Back inside, I don’t manage to avoid Niccolo again. He must have heard the door, for he lingers in the hallway near the parlor, watching for me. It’s the first time I’ve seen him today. I took breakfast alone in my room, using pregnancy nausea as an excuse, although I feel well enough today.
“How are you this morning, Livia?” His voice sounds calm and steady. I’ve never seen Niccolo ruffled. His expression does flicker slightly as he notices the streak of mud decorating the hem of my skirt, but his tone remains pleasant. “It must be quite wet in the garden. I hope you aren’t chilled.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” My reply comes out more briskly than I meant, but Niccolo’s tendency to constant solicitude makes me feel like an invalid, or a soft, spoiled lady who doesn’t know how to fluff her own pillows. I daresay he’d be shocked to hear the details of some of the tasks I helped my father with, including stitching up wounds and once cauterizing an amputated arm. A little rain certainly won’t hurt me.
“I’m happy to hear it.” He clears his throat to cover the silence falling between us. “We’ve been invited to visit Virginia Oldoini, the contessa di Castiglione, this afternoon.”
“It isn’t much notice.” I’m caught off guard.
“I’m sorry for that. I have some news from home to pass along to her, and I know she’s curious to meet you, but if you aren’t feeling well enough, I can make excuses.”
“No, I’d like to go. It just caught me by surprise, that’s all.” My cheeks warm as I think of the mud carelessly spattered on my gown, my hair in a loose braid, how my disarrayed appearance would contrast with the contessa’s worldly sophistication. “What time? I must dress more properly for the occasion.”
“Not until three o’clock. You have time.” He lifts his hand as if to brush the stray curl of hair away from my cheek, but checks the motion. “I think you look very well.” His gold lashes fan across his cheekbones as his gaze shifts down, away from mine, and his voice drops to an awkward rumble. “Radiant, even.”
“It’s the rain,” I say, dumbfounded, and awkwardly feeling as though I must make an explanation. Niccolo isn’t usually one for compliments. “Also, I mixed a new skin cream last week. I suppose it must be effective.” I made it to alleviate a fit of pure boredom, being accustomed to helping my father dispense medicines and treatments, and now having almost nothing to do during the day. “I’ll go and get changed,” I say, hastily heading for the stairs.
Caterina clicks her tongue in annoyance at the sight of the mud on my skirt.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “This is an old dress. I’ll just wear it outside again tomorrow, no sense cleaning it yet.” My wardrobe has improved since my marriage, though I sometimes take comfort in wearing my old favorite gowns at home. As I go to the wardrobe and sift through the soft linens and silks, I’m grateful for Niccolo’s generosity since I’ll be able to wear something appropriate for meeting a countess.
Caterina helps me choose a dress in a delicate dove-gray shade, fastening a necklace with a single pearl as a pendant around my throat. Since I’d removed it before going out to the garden, I slip on my wedding ring too, admiring the garnet stone as it manages to glint even in the dull light drizzling through the lacy curtains of my bedroom. I’m still wearing my bracelet—I never take it off.
Niccolo says nothing about my appearance but helps me into the carriage with a polite smile and a reassuring squeeze of my hand. I would have preferred to walk—everyone knows where La Castiglione lives on avenue Montaigne, and it’s a short distance from our house—but the sky darkens anew, slivers of rain darting relentlessly through the air.
“Here we are,” says Niccolo, as we alight from the closed carriage a short while later. If I thought our Parisian residence was stylish, I see now it’s snug compared to the almost daunting sumptuousness of La Castiglione’s house. A requirement for the mistress of the emperor, I suppose, for he must visit her home on occasion.
After we’re admitted by a footman in a formal velvet frock coat, I can’t help staring in awe at the interior. The high ceiling and wide windows let in airy beams of light—or they would, on a sunnier day. In its absence today, the lamps are all lit, reflecting golden light off the marble-tiled floor, and the furniture gleams with polish. Its scent of lemons hovers in the air, a crisper undertone to the heavier, floral aroma of the enormous roses heaped into a vase near the doorway of the drawing room.
“The contessa will be with your shortly,” says the footman. “You may wait for her in the salon.”
I perch on the edge of a green velvet couch, while Niccolo stands in front of an unlit fireplace, hands clasped behind his back. Though he tilts his head as if studying the lavish painting of a gauze-draped, rosy-skinned nymph, his fingers tap together with impatience. He turns away all at once, the jerkiness of his motion and the faint redness creeping along his collar making me think that perhaps he wasn’t really seeing the painting at all—until he realized it might seem strange to stare at a large portrait of a scantily clad nymph in front of his wife.
“The painting is well done,” I say, to reassure him. It doesn’t bother me if he admires it. “The apple in her hand is particularly lifelike.”
He opens his mouth to reply, and then from somewhere else in the house, a door slams closed, and two male voices drift through the corridor: the footman and a man who has evidently just arrived at the house.
Niccolo’s attention swerves toward the sound. His feet already move toward the doorway as he glances back over his shoulder at me. “I’m so sorry—you must excuse me for a moment. I’ll return quickly.”
Before I can speak, he disappears down the hallway, leaving me alone in La Castiglione’s salon. Without him, the opulence of the room feels cold, its lavish decorations impersonal. The nymph looks insufferable, her rosebud mouth twisted into a smug little smile. I’d be very surprised if the contessa uses this room often. It has the feel of a space kept mostly empty.
After a moment or two, I feel as stiff as the overstuffed sofa cushion, as out of place as the sheet of paper lying crookedly on the otherwise spotless table across the room. I rise and let my curiosity lead me toward it.
The paper turns out to be a photograph, one of the finest I’ve ever seen, the image clear and vivid. I don’t touch it—I haven’t seen many photographs this close before—but after only a casual glance, the portrait captures my attention fully. The woman in the picture stares out of the frame, right at the viewer, her expression aloof yet somehow enticing. Her dress, a lavish and voluminous affair of black tulle, spills down to her feet, but leaves her shoulders scandalously bare to show the drapery of pearls at her throat, only a little paler than the exposed swathe of her flawless skin. I’ve never seen such sultry confidence, and though I can’t imagine wearing such a frivolous, beautiful gown, I admire the intricate style of her hair, braided into a diadem.
“I see you’re admiring my portrait. I’m quite fond of that one; I posed for it only a few months after I arrived in Paris.”
Startled by the sound of a woman’s voice, I straighten and turn to see the newcomer so quickly that my head spins. The cascade of her golden hair and the narrow waist of her glimmering scarlet gown can only belong to La Castiglione. As I take a step forward to greet her, hoping it hasn’t seemed like I was snooping through her salon, my belly lurches, twisting into a knot that tickles my throat. I freeze, grabbing at the back of a chair, and pray I don’t vomit.
“Are you well, Livia?” Dimly, I register she knows who I am. She must have run into Niccolo in the hall. She reaches my side in an instant, seizing my elbow to offer support. My heartbeat drums in my ears while dark spots dance in front of my vision and my head spins. I take a deep breath, and the feeling slowly ebbs, leaving only an irritating trace of nausea. And a healthy dose of embarrassment. From the scalding heat of them, I’m sure my cheeks must be crimson.
“My apologies, signora,” I say breathlessly. “I get moments of dizziness sometimes. It has passed now.”
“You must eat something,” she announces. “I get lightheaded when I’m hungry, too. I often have a bite to eat at this time of day myself, but I haven’t called for anything yet.” The contessa grips my arm between her slender, strong fingers. The scent of lilies clouds around her, and for a moment I think my dizziness will return, but it passes as she steers me toward the kitchen. “Won’t they be surprised?” Delight turns her voice as musical and dainty as wind chimes, and her blue eyes gleam. “I almost never venture into the kitchen. I daresay it’ll give poor Marco a fit of nerves. I hired an Italian cook recently, you know. I lasted the first six months with a French one, but in the end I missed cantuccini too much. Those little almond biscuits always make me feel warm somehow.”
“I understand that feeling,” I say. “I’m a bit homesick myself.”
“Don’t worry. It passes.” She pushes the door open. “Paris is a remarkable city. And now you must tell me what you want to eat.”
The bustle of the kitchen nearly overwhelms my senses, with the clang of pots and the smell of garlic and fish and smoke. Though the oven stands at the far end from me, I feel the dry caress of its heat curling through the bread-scented air. A tidy bunch of sage lies on the table, ready for chopping, and a stray parchment of garlic skin floats across the floor in the wake of the apprentice’s steps as he carries spices.
“I don’t want to intrude on your hospitality.” My voice sounds as timid and tentative as I feel. “It’s very kind of you, of course, to offer—”
“Don’t be absurd. Choose something. I’m rather fond of berries, myself. Perhaps you’d like to eat some of those? Or maybe the cantuccini?”
The cook, Marco, lays his paring knife amid ribbons of lemon peel, and smiles. Though his gaze skates over me with cursory politeness, his attention focuses on the contessa, gravitating toward her the way a flower follows a beam of afternoon sunshine.
“Signora contessa, I can put together a plate of cantuccini, as well as fresh baci di dama, or perhaps some berries. We have some nice, ripe currants, or the bread is freshly baked.” He gestures toward a selection of food piled to the side of the counter, clearly in preparation for the contessa to request her afternoon food preferences.
I slide my gaze over a basket of small, fist-sized rolls of white bread, next to a plate of golden cantuccini, dusted with fine white sugar, and the baci di dama, crisp hazelnut biscuits pressed together with chocolate filling. The cluster of rosy grapes and a white bowl of dark berries, probably the currants he mentioned, hold more appeal than I expected. My gaze turns longing as I stare at the luscious, dark berries and my mouth waters at the memory of the sharp-sweet flavor of currants. A hunger pang shakes my insides as if the baby is leaching everything from me, down to the marrow of my bones.
“The currants,” says the contessa gaily. “I might have made the same choice. Go on—help yourself.”
Marco slides the bowl across the counter toward me, still watching the contessa. As I reach for the dish of currants, my eyes narrow. About half of the berries are larger and blacker than most of the currants. Not many would notice, especially since they’re well-mingled, but I’m not a doctor’s daughter for nothing. A pang runs through my body that makes my blood feel slow and thick in my veins.
Those are deadly nightshade berries. I would swear it.
Thornapple is too bitter to eat, but the seeds could be made into a tea or sprinkled over bread. Signs of thornapple poisoning include dilated pupils, delirium, and drowsiness.
– Excerpt from Livia Valenti’s book of herbal studies
Marco sees me staring at the berries, and I catch a flash of his grin as he reaches for an apple, twirling his knife. “They look tasty, don’t they?”
“I’m not sure they’re currants.” I hate the uncertain tone of my voice but can’t quite erase the cautious note.
He glances at them again, his gaze sweeping and quick. “Forgive me, signora, but perhaps you would prefer to eat something else if the berries are not to your liking.” His knife snicks cleanly through the apple, and he proffers half of it. “An apple?” His courteous smile feels grating, as if he humors me like a child.
Beside me, La Castiglione fidgets, sweeping her finger through a splash of flour on the counter, and then wiping it against the gauzy shawl draped carelessly over her shoulders. “Please, choose anything you like, and then we’ll go back upstairs.” Her charming smile lights up her face, making her eyes seem almost violet, but I catch a brittle edge to her tone. She shifts closer toward the door, calling a command to one of the maids hurrying through the hallway.
I examine the berries again. It would be easy for an amateur to pick deadly nightshade berries, completely oblivious to their danger, and I almost doubt my instincts. Surely such carelessness wouldn’t happen in such a prestigious kitchen as this? But as I inspect them, my certainty only grows. Dread spikes along my skin and my heart beats faster. These berries look luscious and tempting, but they’re sickness and death wrapped in juicy purple ripeness.
My warning freezes in my throat as I look up, and neither the cook nor the contessa are paying the slightest attention to me. I can’t think how to tell them without sounding paranoid or foolish. After Marco’s dismissal, I don’t think they’ll believe me. Caterina’s tarot card, the Two of Swords upright, flits into my mind unbidden, and I remember her description that it means being trapped in stasis, avoiding choices and responsibility. Resentment burns under my skin; I’ve been helpless and indecisive for too long. I can’t be that way any longer.
Acting out of pure, visceral instinct, I knock the bowl from the table. It takes only a small nudge, and neither Marco nor La Castiglione notice the movement. It clatters to the floor, breaking into three triangular pieces. The berries scatter, pooling amid the broken glass and rolling under the table. I can’t risk anyone thriftily scooping them up and rinsing them off, so with an exclamation of dismay, I crouch as if to clean up the mess, making sure to shuffle my feet and crush many of them. The purple juice ruins my fine white shoes, but I don’t care.
Marco rushes to my side. “Signora, let me!”
“I’m sorry. My hand slipped as I picked up the dish.”
He clucks soothingly. “It’s no matter. It will be easy to clean up.” He glances toward the contessa, making sure she sees his helpfulness. He reminds me of a puppy eager for praise. It unfurls a shadow of regret for the mess, but at least I know no one will ingest the berries now. That shadow darkens to suspicion when I realize Marco himself could have procured the berries. Or perhaps they were picked accidentally, which would not be an unheard-of error, though a tragic one. Filled with confusion, and cheeks scalding from the acute glare the countess levels in my direction, I can hardly steady my voice as I ask if there are any more berries.
Apparently assuming I wanted to eat them, Marco shakes his head with regret. “I’m afraid not, signora. Please, take this plate of cantuccini instead. I will send up something to drink shortly.”
“Perhaps you ought to sit down.” The contessa herds me through the door with a regal sweep of her arm. I don’t dare resist. “I hope you won’t suffer so much dizziness for the entirety of your pregnancy.”
I glance at her in surprise. My belly doesn’t show yet, at least not under the loose sweep of my skirt, with my special maternity corset holding my waist just above its swell, and I haven’t spoken of it to anyone outside the household. It’s difficult to imagine serious, reserved Niccolo announcing it, but now I wonder if he has.
Her mercurial smile flashes again, unexpectedly kind. “I’m right, am I not? I have a young son of my own; I recognize the signs in another woman.”
“You are. And I hope so, too. The illness is mostly sporadic.”
“Good. Of course, you must know how to treat it. I’m told your father is doctor to my cousin Camillo’s household.” In spite of the return of her friendly tone, I feel as though I’m trailing after her down the hall, always one step behind her elegant, hip-swaying steps, her long, slender neck half turned to address me as she hurries back to the salon.
“Yes,” I confirm, glancing around the room. Niccolo is still absent.
“If you’re like me, the nausea and dizziness will be all over after the first three months. And then the next three—they can be quite diverting.” Her smile takes on a wicked edge, and laughter rolls from her throat, rich and sweet as burnt sugar. “I never expected that a child in the womb would give me such desire, even for my husband.”
A sliver of heat burns along my cheekbones, and I hope she doesn’t notice me blushing. Her free-spirited worldliness makes me dread appearing shy and prudish by contrast. “Er, is he in Paris with you?” I ask.
“Yes, but after a few months I insisted on my own residence. It was too awkward having him hanging about the house during the emperor’s visits.” His title falls from her lips as if gilded, the words ringing with a possessive kind of pride. “We’re separated now. I can’t say I miss Francesco, particularly. Ours was not a love match, though it was a good marriage. It’s because of him I can call myself Contessa di Castiglione. My father was a marchese, of course, but Francesco was appointed aide-de-camp to the king back in Piedmont, so he’s quite well connected.” She proffers the plate of cantuccini, and I take one obediently. “And you? Are you fond of your husband?”
The almond biscuit feels dry and rock-hard between my fingertips. “We are so recently married, it is too soon to say.” I regret my candor almost at once. “That is, he’s good to me and I’m trying to settle in here, in Paris.”
She nods sympathetically, her lips pursed. She sits on the sofa as if she’ll be photographed or painted any moment, her arm bent, chin resting on her hand, head somehow still tilted at a graceful angle so her golden hair falls over her shoulder like a waterfall. With her place at court and the emperor’s side, I imagine she must be accustomed to being watched constantly. Life must be a performance to her, and I can’t believe I confessed anything of my disappointments in marriage.
“I hope you’ll let me help you settle in,” she says. “We must be friends, of course. It’s such a comfort to have another Italian woman to converse with. I can introduce you to the best dressmakers, take you around to the most fashionable places. Are you interested in photography? I’m quite fascinated with it. You saw my portrait on the table over there, but I have a few others. I. . .
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