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Chapter 1

Lombardy

August 1818

Jessica Rannoch clutched the worn velvet window ledge of the hired carriage and bounced on the seat. “Almost there?” she asked, face pressed to the glass.

Mélanie Suzanne Rannoch put a steadying hand on her daughter’s back. “Not quite, darling. Soon.”

“At least no one’s chasing us.” Jessica’s brother, Colin, peered out the window on the opposite side of the carriage.

Mélanie’s husband, Malcolm, turned his gaze to their son. “There’s no reason for anyone to be chasing us.”

“Yes, there is, we’re running away,” Colin pointed out, with the irrefutable logic of five.

“We’re not exactly running away.” Colin’s friend, Emily, twisted the end of a red-blonde plait round her fingers. “It’s not like we’re hiding in hampers or anything.”

Mélanie cast a sharp look at Emily, incidents from her own past reverberating through her head. Just how much had Emily heard?

“We sneaked out of an inn in the middle of the night,” Colin pointed out.

“Your parents had seen people they preferred not to converse with.” Laura Tarrington, Emily’s mother, spoke in the firm tone she had once used as a governess.

The seventh occupant of the carriage leaned back in the corner beside Laura, an amused smile on his face. Mélanie met his gaze for a moment. Raoul O’Roarke had made many escapes in the course of his career as a spymaster. In the years when he’d been her spymaster, she’d made a number at his side. Escapes far more hair-raising than their journey from London to France to Switzerland and into Italy. And yet, in many ways, this was the most harrowing of all those journeys. Because of the three children with them.

Jessica turned from the window to smile at the occupants of the carriage. “‘Scape.”

“Jess understands.” Colin grinned at his sister. As if to punctuate the point, Berowne, the cat, lifted his head from Malcolm’s lap and meowed.

Mélanie pulled Jessica into her lap, torn between laughter and tears. Considering that they—four adults, three children, and one cat—had spent weeks crammed together in carriages or on boats, they were managing remarkably well. Colin was right, they had slipped out of an inn in the middle of the night because Malcolm had spotted a fellow British agent. There had been a bit of intrigue in Switzerland when they stopped to visit her friend, Hortense Bonaparte, but they had resolved it. All things considered, their journey—their escape—was going more smoothly than they had any right to expect. Soon they would be at the villa on Lake Como that Malcolm had inherited from his mother. Addison, Malcolm’s valet, and Blanca, Mélanie’s companion, had gone ahead to open the villa. Some of their familiar things would already be unpacked. The children would be able to run about. They could settle into some sort of routine. She should be relieved. But her throat was tight beneath the satin ribbons on her bonnet and her insides twisted beneath the twilled sarcenet of her traveling gown. For she knew full well the dangers they faced. And those dangers could be laid directly at her door.

The carriage skidded to an abrupt stop. Mélanie clutched Jessica and the carriage strap. Malcolm’s hand tightened on her shoulder as Berowne yowled. Laura and Raoul steadied Colin and Emily. Malcolm and Raoul both moved, but they had scarcely pushed themselves to their feet when the door jerked open. A pistol barrel gleamed in the light of the interior lamps. A pistol held in the hand of a dark, masked man.

Mélanie’s arms tightened round her daughter. Bandits were not uncommon in Italy, though they were more prevalent in the south. For that matter, they were not unheard of in Britain and certainly not in Spain, where she and Malcolm had lived during the recent war. This was not the first time they’d been held up. She met her son’s gaze. Colin’s eyes told her he remembered, though beside him Emily was the color of bleached linen.

“We have money,” Malcolm said in an even voice. “This needn’t be difficult. If you’ll let me step outside and open our luggage—”

“You know damn well it isn’t money we want,” the man said in a low voice. “Hand it over.”

Malcolm’s gaze shot to Mélanie and then to Raoul. “It?”

“Don’t play games. Hand it over and this can go easily.”

Mélanie’s gaze locked on her husband’s. This was a scene they’d played before. They were agents, after all. Save that in this case they weren’t carrying anything secret. Unless—But Raoul’s gaze told her he wasn’t either.

The lamplight leapt on the pistol as the man jerked it to the side. “Going to make this difficult, are you? Out. All of you.”

Mélanie’s gaze met Malcolm’s briefly as he handed her from the carriage. They had weapons, but not on them and not loaded. And it wouldn’t be safe with the children anyway. Colin was silent as he climbed from the carriage. Mélanie squeezed his hand and he gave her a quick smile. Emily was shaking and holding tight to Laura’s hand, but her head was high.

The ground was soft from recent rain. The air smelled of loamy earth. They stood in a tight cluster, Colin and Emily between Mélanie and Laura, Malcolm and Raoul on the outer edges.

A second man had a pistol trained on their coachman.

“Down,” the first man said to the coachman. He looked at his confederate. “We can go through the luggage if we have to, but it’s my guess one of them has it on them. Search them. One at a time.”

The second man moved towards Laura.

“Start with me.” Raoul stepped in front of Laura. “You don’t think much of us if you think we’d let the women hide whatever it is.”

Actually, it might be very sensible for her or Laura to be hiding whatever it was. Assuming there really was something to hide. But the man took the bait, shook out the coat Raoul was handing to him, patted Raoul’s shoulders, shook the boots Raoul obligingly removed.

Jessica squirmed and let out a squawk. The first man sent a sharp look at Mélanie. Mélanie murmured to her daughter.

Hoofs pounded against the ground. A gunshot ripped the air. Not from their captors. The first man swung round on instinct. Malcolm sprang and knocked the man to the ground. His pistol scuttered across the leaves. Mélanie grabbed it, still holding Jessica. When she straightened up, Raoul had knocked the second man to the ground and was grappling with him. Laura grabbed one of Raoul’s boots and hit the man on the head.

Footsteps thudded on the leaves. Malcolm’s opponent scrambled to his feet and lurched into the trees. Raoul gave a hoarse cry and his opponent ran after his confederate.

A third man ran into clearing. Malcolm moved in front of the others.

“Are you all right?” The man spoke English, pure Oxbridge with no trace of an accent. He had an unruly shock of sandy hair, and even in the dim light, the Bond Street tailoring of his coat was apparent.

“You scared them off with a timely intervention.” Malcolm dropped his arm round Mélanie’s shoulders.

“I’d heard brigands were rampant in Italy, but somehow I didn’t expect—” The young man shook his head.

Malcolm drew a soft breath. Mélanie could feel his calculations. They hadn’t been ordinary brigands, but he wasn’t ready to share that yet.

“My name is Montagu,” the young man said. “We—my sisters and brother-in-law and I—” He broke off, peering at Malcolm through the shadows. “Rannoch?”

For a moment, Malcolm went taut as a bowstring. Mélanie felt the reactions shoot through him. Recognition, followed by doubt. They had been using aliases on their journey. But if they had been recognized, there was no help for it. “Kit? Last I saw you was in a field hospital outside Waterloo.”

“I’ve sold out. Explanations later. We’re on our way to our father’s villa. It’s just beyond those trees. We can give you shelter.”

“Thank you,” Malcolm said, “but our own villa—”

“That would be most welcome.” Laura had her arms round Colin and Emily, but her gaze was on Raoul. “Mr. O’Roarke is wounded.”

Raoul, Mélanie realized, was still on the ground. He drew a breath, but she could tell it pained him. “It’s only—”

“It’s not only a scratch,” Laura said. “But even if it were, it could fester.”

Malcolm’s gaze moved from Raoul to Laura to Colin and Emily, silent but white-faced within Laura’s arms. He nodded.

In the carriage, Jessica snuggled into Mélanie, arms like a vice round her neck. Colin and Emily watched intently as Laura used Raoul’s cravat to bind a makeshift handkerchief bandage round his chest. Mélanie studied Raoul long enough to satisfy herself that he wasn’t about to collapse from loss of blood, then turned her gaze to her husband. “Do you meet people from your past everywhere, darling, even in foreign climes? Did you go to school with Mr. Montagu too?”

Malcolm grinned, though his brows were drawn together. “Hardly. Kit’s five years my junior. He was an ensign at the time of Waterloo. We met once or twice. He wasn’t in Brussels much. I doubt you ever crossed paths with him.”

“And his father is staying in Italy?” Laura knotted the cravat round Raoul’s chest.

“I believe his father has been in Italy for over a decade.” Raoul’s voice was hoarse but steady. “If I’m right about the names, his father is Lord Thurston.”

Malcolm frowned. “I don’t think I ever knew—There was some scandal, wasn’t there?”

“When you were still at Harrow. Thurston left England and settled in Italy.”

“Did he run away too?” Emily asked.

“In a sense.” Raoul smiled at her. “There was a duel. And a lady he wanted to spend time with. Who lived in Italy.”

“The children stayed in England with Lady Thurston?” Malcolm asked. “Unusual.” It was not unheard of for aristocratic marriages to end, but usually the husband retained custody of the children. And if anyone fled the country it was usually the wife.

“I don’t know the details,” Raoul said.

And in front of their own children it was impossible to speculate.

“So we’re being ourselves again?” Emily asked.

“For the moment.” Malcolm smiled at her. “Easier that way, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so.” Emily frowned at the muddy toes of her shoes. “I liked Uncle Raoul being my daddy.”

Raoul touched her hand. “What we call each other doesn’t change how any of us feels, sweetheart.”

Emily gave him a quick smile.

Colin’s dark brows were drawn together. “I was afraid they’d try to take one of us away.”

“What makes you think that, darling?” Mélanie shifted Jessica, who was pulling at her dress to indicate she wanted to nurse.

Colin met her gaze across the carriage. “Those men who stopped us in Paris tried to take Pierre.”

Mélanie drew in her breath. “I wasn’t sure how much you remembered.” Colin had only been two.

“You stopped them,” Colin said simply. “So I knew we were safe today.”

Mélanie released her breath. She didn’t dare risk a glance at Malcolm for fear she would cry. Colin’s simple trust must mean they were doing something right. And it was a terrifying burden.

The carriage pulled up in a forecourt. White walls and columns flashed into view beyond the window. The coachman let down the steps and handed her from the carriage. A columned portico met her gaze, the white stone washed golden by the torchlight. Imitations of this type of façade were a standard feature of the English countryside, but the Palladian original never failed to take her breath way. The wind from the lake brought the scent of the water.

The coachman handed Laura down and then the others. Colin ran to Mélanie’s side. Malcolm put a steadying hand at her waist.

Kit Montagu’s carriage was already drawn up in the forecourt. Footmen in blue and gold livery hurried from the house to assist them. Mélanie had a brief impression of an entrance hall tiled in cool cream-colored marble and a gilt-railed staircase as they were conducted upstairs. There was still no sign of their host. Or a hostess. They had been running away from Malcolm’s world, something she had felt no small measure of guilt about. Yet they seemed, for the moment at least, to have landed smack dab in the middle of it.

She could converse in Italian, though not as fluently as in French, Spanish, or German. Malcolm’s Italian was quite good, and he was comfortable in the local Milanese. Raoul, predictably, could speak a number of Italian dialects without accent. Laura knew the least, though even she could make herself understood. Colin and Emily could already chatter away in the tongue with the ease of the very young.

The footman conducted them to a suite of well-appointed rooms. Laura took the children into one of the rooms where the footman promised to deliver refreshments directly. Malcolm went to speak with Kit, while Mélanie got out the medical supply box she’d retrieved from the coach and attended to Raoul’s wound.

It was worse than he had let on, though not as bad as she’d feared. She shot a look at him. Raoul lifted a brow. “I was careless. And too slow. Not as young as I once was.”

“You were reckless and as quick on your feet as ever.” She secured a dressing over the jagged cut. “I thought—”

“We were in for monotony?”

“Yes. No. One type of it, I suppose.”

“I don’t think you or Malcolm need ever fear monotony.”

It had been her greatest fear in their hurried departure from London. That once they were settled in Italy, in the idyllic but quiet villa, without Malcolm’s work in Parliament, without her role as a political wife, boredom would set in. Malcolm would have all too much leisure to dwell on what he had lost. And that he had lost it because he had been forced to flee to protect his wife, a former Bonapartist agent who had originally married him to spy on him.

“I knew we’d meet other expatriates here.” She kept her gaze on the bandage as she knotted off the ends. “But I didn’t think, so quickly—”

“Thurston’s been out of Britain for a long time,” Raoul said. “And we’ve no reason to think the truth about your past has become generally known, in any case.”

“No,” Mélanie said, though she lived with that dread whenever they got the English papers. After all, the rational part of her said, they had fled not because the truth of her past as a Bonapartist spy had come out in the open but because they had learned Malcolm’s spymaster, Lord Carfax, knew it. Which gave Carfax an intolerable hold over both of them. All of them, for he almost certainly knew about Raoul’s past, as well.

She cast a glance round the room. The plasterwork and marble tiles were unmistakably Italian. But the sofa Raoul sat on and the small table where she’d put her medical supply box were solid English oak. Odd the emotions evoked by that sturdy wood and the faint whiff of lemon oil. “I’ll get used to it. I lived all those years without Malcolm knowing the truth. I lived all the months Malcolm knew the truth and our friends didn’t. It’s just a bit odd being Suzanne again.” She snipped off the ends of the bandage. “Stepping back into old roles.”

Especially when those roles had been smashed to bits.

Chapter 2

A footman directed Malcolm to a different wing, where he found Kit in a small sitting room hung with light blue silk. Kit had changed from his dusty travel clothes into cream-colored breeches, a dark coat, and a silver-striped waistcoat, and had a half-full glass of brandy beside him. He turned round at the opening of the door and took a quick step towards Malcolm. “I trust you have everything you need? Is there need to send for a doctor?”

“I don’t think so. My wife’s quite excellent at tending wounds.”

“Yes, I remember hearing accounts of her talents. A ministering angel, one fellow called her.”

“Don’t tell Suzanne that. She’d cringe at the very words.” Odd to be calling her Suzanne again. He was going to have to watch himself. Malcolm regarded Kit for a moment. “O’Roarke’s wound isn’t serious, as these things go, but it needed prompt tending. You have our deepest thanks.”

“I could hardly have done otherwise. My father was most concerned when I told him.” Kit moved to a table by the window with a set of decanters and poured Malcolm a glass of brandy. “They’ve held dinner back in anticipation of our arrival, and hope you can join us. Though I didn’t consider—” Kit’s gaze shifted from side to side. “If you’re concerned about your wife and Lady Tarrington—”

“Why would I be concerned about Suzanne and Laura?” Malcolm took the glass Kit was holding out to him. “I suspect even O’Roarke will be in condition to sit at table.”

“It’s not that.” Kit took a drink of brandy, then stared at a blue-and-white vase on the mantel, as though it could give him the words he was struggling for. “My father left Britain a decade and a half ago.”

“I know. That is, I didn’t, or I’d forgot, but O’Roarke did.”

“Oh, God.” Kit grimaced. The gaze he turned to Malcolm was that of a boy who has had his eyes opened too young to harsh truths. “So you know Father left my mother.”

“Yes. It can’t have been easy.”

“He lives here with her. The Contessa Vincenzo. The woman—”

“He left your mother for.”

Kit nodded. “Your wife—”

“I’m sorrier than I can say for what you and your sisters must have gone through, Kit. I’m sorry we’ve disrupted what must be a sensitive time for your family. But you must have seen enough of society by now to realize my wife and Laura would scarcely be shocked at sitting down to dinner with your father and the contessa. And certainly wouldn’t judge them.”

“Gentlemen’s mistresses don’t dine with their friends’ wives.”

“Not their acknowledged mistresses perhaps. But then I’d hardly laud hypocrisy. Nor would my wife or Laura.”

Kit released his breath. “You always said rum things, Rannoch.”

“My parents remained married until my mother died. But it was hardly an easy relationship. For anyone. Including their children.”

Kit scraped a hand over his hair. “I was at Eton when it happened. I don’t know much. They tried to keep the details from us. I remember meeting her once at a house party at my parents’ when I was home from school. But I never guessed—”

“One doesn’t think those things about one’s parents,” Malcolm said, thinking of what he had and hadn’t sensed about his mother and Raoul O’Roarke.

Kit nodded. “Then there were rumors. I ignored them at first. You know the sort of thing schoolboys say to torment each other.”

“Quite.” Echoes of taunts across the commons at Harrow resounded in Malcolm’s ears.

Kit gave another curt nod, gaze on the blues and reds of the carpet. “I tended to be focused on my own concerns, as one is at that age. Then one night Father came to Eton.” Kit nudged the andiron with the toe of his boot, as though it held untold secrets. “I’ll never forget. They rousted me out of bed. Father had only visited a handful of times since I’d started school, and here he was arriving in the middle of the night. He told me he was leaving England. That he couldn’t explain all of it, but it would be better this way for all of us. That I should be kind to my mother. And never doubt that he loved us.” Kit stared out across the dark water of the lake as he said that last, repeating it as though from memory in a curiously flat voice. “I’m not sure he’d ever used those words before. Not that he was a bad parent. Just not—effusive. Any more than most of my friends’ fathers were.”

“Mine certainly wasn’t.” At least not his putative father, Alistair Rannoch. O’Roarke, in his own way, had been more affectionate, though Malcolm hadn’t learned the truth of their relationship until recently.

“As the days went on, I pieced together bits of it. There was a duel, I think, though they hushed it up pretty well.” Kit downed another swallow of brandy. “Mama wouldn’t talk about him at all. But somehow I learned he was living with the contessa.”

“When did you see him again?” Malcolm asked.

“Tonight.”

Malcolm drew a breath.

“He left during the Peace of Amiens. Then war broke out again, and it was hard to travel. He did write.” Kit hunched his shoulders, pulling the glossy black fabric of his coat and putting Malcolm in mind of his friends David and Simon’s schoolboy nephews. “My mother seems all right. Has her friends, fusses about the girls’ come-outs and the like. For weeks—months—at a time I’d forget—” He shook his head. “With the war, plenty of chaps don’t have fathers.”

“Different knowing one has a living father somewhere one can’t see.”

“I suppose so. To own the truth, I can’t credit it. He was Lord Thurston. He is Lord Thurston. To walk away from his responsibilities for—”

“Love can be a powerful emotion.”

Kit met Malcolm’s gaze with the look of one who did not yet fully understand the meaning of the word. “But whatever she means to him—”

“I assume she means an incalculable amount. They’ve both given up a great deal to be together.”

Kit tossed down the last of his brandy and stared into the glass. “There’ve been times I thought I never wanted to see him again. But I’m not a boy anymore. There’s no sense in holding grudges,” said the young man who, to Malcolm, still seemed little more than a boy.

“A very adult attitude,” Malcolm said.

Kit crossed to the decanters and splashed some more brandy into his glass, shoulders hunched. “I wasn’t sure about bringing the girls. Especially Selena. She’s only eighteen. But she can be very insistent. She said it was her right as much as mine or Diana’s.”

“She had a point.”

“I suppose so.”

Malcolm crossed to Kit’s side and clapped him on the shoulder. “I doubt you’ll any of you regret seeing him. Or the contessa.”

Kit looked at Malcolm with the gaze of an untried soldier on the eve of his first battle. “I wouldn’t for the world have had you go through what you went through tonight, but it’s actually rather a relief to have you here. A bit of a buffer. I suppose that makes me a coward.”

“Nothing cowardly about wanting to ease into things.”

Kit met his gaze. “I’ve faced battle. But I learned what to expect. This is—”

“Uncharted territory.”

Kit took a long drink of brandy. “Quite.”

#

Mélanie looked up from closing her medical supply box as her husband came back into the room. “They’ve invited us to join them for dinner in half an hour,” Malcolm said.

“They?” Mélanie asked, fastening the brass closure.

“Lord Thurston and the Contessa Vincenzo. The woman he left Britain and his whole life for.” Malcolm looked at Raoul. “Are you all right, O’Roarke?” He put up a hand. “Why am I asking you? Is he all right, Mel?”

“He will be.” Mélanie sent Raoul a mock-sharp look that wasn’t entirely in fun. “With proper rest.”

Laura came in from the adjoining room. “A sensible-seeming young maid is sitting with the children. They seem quite matter-of-fact about the whole thing.” Her gaze fastened on Raoul.

“I’ll live,” he said, smiling into her eyes.

“If I doubted that, I wouldn’t have left the room.” She echoed the smile and dropped down on the sofa beside him.

Malcolm perched on the edge of the table near where Mélanie sat on the floor. “Kit and his sisters haven’t seen their father since he left Britain fifteen years ago.”

“Dear God.” Laura said.

“Quite. Though Kit says it’s a relief to have us here as a buffer. Dinner and a night’s sleep and we’ll be off to our own house. We’d have seen them at some point in any case.”

“I’m not objecting.” Mélanie leaned against her husband’s legs and twisted her head round to look up at him. “You’re always the one who’s more cautious than I am. But we still don’t know what the devil the thieves were so convinced we had.”

“No.” Malcolm shot a look at Raoul. “You didn’t—”

Raoul lifted a brow. “Smuggle dangerous information with everything else we’re facing?”

“Are you telling me you wouldn’t if you thought it important enough?”

Raoul gave a faint smile. “Possibly. But in this case I didn’t.”

“Something convinced them we had it,” Mélanie said.

“You think they knew who you were?” Laura asked. “And assumed you must have something of value? Because of your position or because you were agents? Or were they—”

Mélanie met her friend’s gaze. “Were they looking for a party of English travelers?”

“And the Montagu party were the actual targets?” Raoul asked. “Interesting.”

Malcolm frowned. “I didn’t know Kit well, but he didn’t strike me as the sort to be carrying secret documents. Though you’d think by now I’d know better than to take anyone at face value.”

“And the sisters and brother-in-law?” Mélanie asked.

“The younger sister is eighteen. The elder is just younger than Kit and has been married for some years.”

“Of course there’s another possibility.” Raoul draped his arm across Laura’s shoulders without seeming to pull on the wound in his side. “Assuming the bandits were looking for an English party, they were actually trying to find Thurston, on his way home.”

Laura looked at her lover. “He wasn’t—”

“An agent? Certainly not, at least far as I ever knew. He wasn’t even particularly politically active. But people can change.”

Mélanie got to her feet and shook out the creased folds of her traveling gown. “If we’re dining with them, we’d all best dress.”

They scattered to their chambers and went through the business of dressing for dinner. Except for their stay in d’Arenberg with Hortense Bonaparte, they hadn’t been in the habit of fully dressing for dinner since they’d left Britain. Some nights she’d not change at all, other nights she’d put on a dinner dress or even an evening gown for morale’s sake but leave her hair tumbling down her back. Tonight, without Blanca to assist her or time to heat her curling tongs, Mélanie twisted her hair into a chignon and wound her side curls round her fingers. She stared at her reflection in the dressing-table looking glass. The high standing lace collar of her rose sarcenet gown framed her face. Pearl and diamond earrings swung from her ears. Pearls glowed round her throat. Ivory gloves lay on the dressing table. Subtle changes, but taken all together she was Suzanne Rannoch, the political hostess and wife of a duke’s grandson, again, not Mélanie Suzanne Lescaut Rannoch, the former spy in exile.

“Do you need help?” Malcolm was tying his cravat with quick competence, if without Addison’s flair.

“No, I managed all the strings.” Mélanie reached for her gloves. They were, after all, only stepping back into the world in which they had lived for five and a half years. When Malcolm had essentially given up that whole world for her, the least she could do was keep her qualms about stepping back into it to herself.

Chapter 3

Mélanie picked up the amethyst Norwich shawl Malcolm had given her last Christmas and a beaded reticule Hortense had given her when they left d’Arenberg, and they went next door to check on the children. The maid, a young woman with a direct, friendly gaze who also struck Mélanie as sensible, assured them she would stay with the children until they returned from dinner. She had produced a doll and blocks from somewhere and Emily and Colin were already building a block castle and attempting to keep Jessica from knocking it down.

“It’s odd not to have dinner with you,” Colin said, when Mélanie went over to scoop up Jessica before she could toddle into the tower.

Mélanie touched her son’s hair. “It’s just for tonight.” Except for their stay in d’Arenberg, the children had been accustomed to dining with their parents on the journey. “We can make our own rules at the villa.”

Colin grinned. So did Emily. Then she ran across the room as Laura and Raoul joined them.

A few minutes later, the footman who had shown them to their rooms returned and conducted the adults back downstairs, where he opened a pair of double doors onto an airy salon with French windows opening onto the terrace. White and gold walls set off crimson silk upholstery and soared to a ceiling where cherubs disported. A tall man with a keen blue gaze and sandy hair that was still thick, an older version of Kit, came towards them. “Welcome. Always glad to meet new neighbors, though I’m sorry for these circumstances.”

A slender woman, with thick dark hair coiled round her fine-boned face, stepped to his side.

“May I present the Contessa Vincenzo?” Thurston said.

“Contessa.” Malcolm bowed, as did Raoul. “Thank you for having us in your home.”

The contessa gave a warm smile. “We are delighted to have you, and only sorry for what you have been through, as Bernard said. Have your children settled in?”

“They are hardy travelers,” Mélanie said, shaking hands with the woman for whom Thurston had abandoned his life and family and all he was. Much as Malcolm was now doing, though they had their children with them. Thurston and the contessa stood a handsbreadth apart, not quite touching, but the intimacy between them was palpable. A stranger entering the room would have known them for a couple. On closer terms than many married couples within the beau monde.

“I had some of our children’s toys sent in,” the contessa said.

So they had children of their own. Half-siblings to Kit and his sisters. Young enough to still play with blocks and dolls.

Thurston waved them to chairs and a sofa by the French windows, open onto the warm evening air. “You’re traveling on the Continent?” he asked, as they disposed themselves about the room.

“It seemed a good time to make a journey,” Malcolm said in an easy voice, settling back on the sofa beside Mélanie. “We haven’t had much chance to travel free of my work.”

“Italy has much to recommend it.” Thurston’s voice was equally easy.

Mélanie settled her skirt and shawl and folded her gloved hands round her reticule. Thurston commented on the dangers of bandits in the countryside. The contessa asked after their journey and remarked on the temperate summer weather. In many ways it was similar to countless evenings Mélanie had spent since she’d become Malcolm’s wife. Save for the fact that they were all exiles, for reasons acknowledged and unacknowledged.

Malcolm responded to questions from Thurston about Britain with no indication that he was wondering when he’d see his homeland again. Laura accepted condolences on the deaths of her husband and father-in-law with an equanimity that offered no clue to her true relationship with either of them. Raoul, who had always had a knack for blending into any setting, gave an excellent impression of being a British gentleman rather than a revolutionary.

The footman threw open the double doors again to admit a young woman with thick honey-blonde hair looped and curled round a heart-shaped face, and a taller, slighter, younger woman with glossy brown ringlets and a direct blue gaze. They were followed by Kit and another young man, perhaps a few years older, with close-cropped brown hair and stiff posture.

Thurston got to his feet. So did the contessa, though she hung back as Thurston went forwards to greet his children. The children he hadn’t seen in a decade and a half. They had had their first reunion earlier, while Mélanie, Malcolm, and the others were upstairs, but judging by the way Thurston paused a few feet off and the formal nods that were exchanged, much remained unexpressed.

It was Kit, not his father, who presented his sisters, Diana and Selena, and Diana’s husband, John Smythe.

Chairs scraped discreetly against the thick pile of the carpet as the company rearranged themselves.

“We’re so very grateful to you for making the journey,” the contessa said. “You stopped in Milan on the way here?”

Diana smoothed her skirt over her knees. She wore pale blue crêpe, cut fashionably but with a much more modest neckline than Mélanie’s rose sarcenet. Or the contessa’s dark red silk. “We had a very agreeable time. My husband’s godmother’s sister is living there, and we wanted to call on her,” she added, as though an explanation for why they had spent time in Milan first was called for. Her gloved fingers tightened on the blue crêpe, perhaps at the realization that calling on a godmother’s sister before a father might seem odd.

“We met Lord Byron.” Selena leaned forwards, her face brightening, cherry-colored ribbons bouncing on her shoulders. “And his friends Mr. and Mrs. Shelley. Mr. Shelley is a poet, as well.” She glanced at Thurston. “They’re all exiles like you.”

John Smythe frowned at his young sister-in-law. “It’s not precisely the same, Selena.”

“I don’t see how,” Selena said. “The Shelleys seem to have left partly because of their debts and to see Byron, but it also must be because of all the scandal about his first wife killing herself and the two of them having a baby before they married. And everyone knows Byron left because of the scandal with his wife.”

Smythe drew a sharp breath. Lord Byron had left Britain in the wake of the breakup of his marriage of scarcely a year, amid accusations by his wife of sexual depravity rumored to involve other men and possibly his half-sister.

“Lord Byron and the Shelleys were very kind to us,” Diana said, in a tone intended to end the conversation. “Though of course we don’t move in their circles. Literary circles, that is.”

Her husband cast an apologetic look at Thurston. “Abroad. Fellow Englishmen. Couldn’t escape the connection.”

“Of course not,” Thurston said. “We haven’t met the Shelleys yet, but we have met Lord Bryon several times. Very entertaining fellow.”

Selena put up her chin. “They said they may come to Lake Como later in the summer.”

“Then we shall certainly invite them to call,” the contessa said. “All the English on the lake are very friendly.”

Kit turned to Malcolm, like one seeking a refuge from sniper fire. “You were at Harrow with Byron, weren’t you, Rannoch?”

“We overlapped,” Malcolm said. “I didn’t know him well. But then, I tended to keep to myself at school. I believe our friend Simon Tanner knows the Shelleys.”

“The playwright?” Selena asked. “Who writes the plays the censor shuts down?”

“Occasionally.” Malcolm smiled, though talking about Simon could not but stir thoughts of why they had left Britain.

Selena returned his smile. “There are so many interesting people in Italy. Even if a lot of the ones we’ve met so far are English. I’m so glad I insisted Kit and Diana bring me. Though to own the truth, I don’t think Mama wanted me left home alone with her.”

Her mother’s name hung in the air, like smoke from a silent shot.

“How is she?” Thurston asked.

For an instant, Diana’s gaze met Kit’s. “She has her friends,” Diana said. “She enjoyed Selena’s come-out.”

Selena snorted. “She nearly strangled me a dozen times. If—”

“She’s just redone the London drawing room,” Diana said.

“It’s rather hideous,” Selena said. “Too much Egyptian. But she seems to like it, and it did keep her busy.” She glanced round at the crimson upholstery and the rich but subdued tones of the Aubusson carpet. “I must say you have much better taste, Contessa.”

“You’re very kind,” the contessa said. “I understand the fashion is quite different in England.”

Silence fell over the room. Pity it was the wrong time of day for tea, Mélanie thought. They all could have used something to do with their hands.

“Such a difference between what works for entertaining and what’s good for a family,” Laura said. “My sister-in-law has been struggling with what to do with Trenchard House.” She met Mélanie’s gaze for a moment. Mélanie could almost hear the laugh her friend must be biting back. Who would have thought the Trenchard family would ever be a source of small talk to smooth over another family’s difficulties?

“Very true. I confess we tidied away a few toys in anticipation of our guests.” The contessa smiled at Laura and then turned her gaze back to her lover’s children. “Your brother and sisters wanted to wait up. But we weren’t sure how late it would be. I hope you’ll have time with them tomorrow.”

“That will be lovely,” Diana said with a bright smile. “We’ve heard so much about them.”

“Not really,” Selena said. “I mean, where would we have heard it? Except for letters from—” She stared at Thurston, carefully plucked brows drawn together. “I don’t know what to call you.”

Thurston hesitated a moment. “You were quite proud of yourself for having mastered ‘Papa’ the last time you saw me.”

“I was three.”

For a moment, in Thurston’s gaze, Mélanie thought she caught a flash of what he had lost. Then he gave one of his easy smiles. “Just so. You’re quite welcome to call me Thurston if you prefer. Or Bernard.”

“I’ll think about it,” Selena said.

Thurston inclined his head. “You were quite sensible, even at three.”

“We’re pleased to be here, sir,” Smythe said into the silence that followed. “We were sorry you couldn’t be at the wedding.”

“‘John.” Diana shot a look at her husband.

“No sense avoiding the fact that it would have been distinctly awkward,” Thurston said. “But I was sorry not be there, as well.”

“Kit’s going to be married,” Selena said.

Thurston turned his gaze to his son. “Wonderful news. My felicitations. May I ask your betrothed’s name?”

Kit shifted on the sofa. “It’s not official yet.”

Thurston leaned back on the settee, one arm trailing along its back, just barely brushing the contessa’s shoulder. “You needn’t feel you need to share anything you don’t wish to. But I’m delighted to hear you’ve found a lady you can love.”

“If you ask me, he’s not in the least in love with her,” Selena muttered.

“Selena!” Diana said.

“I don’t think Kit would say any differently. Would you, Kit?”

“I’m very fond of her,” Kit said in repressive tones. “We have every chance of being happy together.” He looked at his father. “It’s Elinor Dormer. She was only a child when you left. But you know the family.”

“Of course. George Dormer and I were at school together.”

“Elinor and I’ve always got on well. I think it’s been apparent to both of us for some time that we’d be a good match.”

“Mama seems quite happy with the idea of Elinor as her daughter-in-law.” Selena looked at her father. “Does that set you against the match?”

“Of course not.” Thurston met his daughter’s gaze without blinking. “Your mother has always had excellent instincts.”

“We’re delighted to welcome her to the family,” Diana said.

“And we’re none of us romantics,” Selena said, “given our parents’ example. I suppose it could have gone the other way and made us all convinced that anything that caused you to abandon your family must be worth it, but it doesn’t seem to have worked that way. I shouldn’t worry, though. Kit isn’t the sort to desert his family.”

The door opened again on the silence that greeted this pronouncement. A stout man with gray-streaked dark hair and a young woman whose delicate features and wide cheekbones were like a copy of the contessa’s own stepped into the room.

Again, both the contessa and Thurston got to their feet, but it was the contessa who stepped forwards. “Just in time for dinner.” She turned to the others. “My daughter, Sofia, and her father, the Conte Vincenzo.”

Malcolm, Raoul, Kit, and Smythe all bowed.

Selena was staring. “Your husband?” she blurted out, less this time to create a reaction than out of genuine disbelief, Mélanie thought.

Thurston looked with a smile from his daughter to his mistress’s husband and daughter. “We’re all quite friendly these days. Elena and I are very grateful to Vincenzo for bringing Sofia to stay with us.”

Mélanie felt Malcolm’s stillness beside her. Hard not to be rooted in fascination; at the same time one was aware of a distinct desire to disappear into the tapestry sofa cushions.

“It may be hard for you young people to understand,” Vincenzo said, “but though there was a time Thurston and I were scarcely the best of friends, as one grows older one begins to see the folly of such quarrels.”

“The folly of believing in fidelity?” Selena asked.

“Selena!” Diana said. “Please excuse my sister.”

“On the contrary,” Vincenzo said. “I’ve always admired plain speaking. The folly of trying to hold on to what is no longer one’s to keep.”

Selena frowned, then cast a glance at Sofia, who was sitting decorously, her face a study in careful serenity. “So you grew up—”

“Going back and forth between my parents,” Sofia said.

“We didn’t realize you’d all be here at the same time when you first wrote of your visit,” the contessa said to Kit and his sisters. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.” Kit drew a breath. “We’re all family in a way.”

“Quite so.” The contessa smiled.

Vincenzo settled back in his chair and turned to Malcolm. “Prince Metternich speaks highly of you.”

In the breakup of the Napoleonic empire, Italy had once again become a mishmash of states. Lombardy, where Lake Como stood, and Venetia were part of the Austrian Empire. Malcolm, who had crossed swords with the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich, at the Congress of Vienna, gave a smile that would have appeared free of irony to all but those closest to him. “The prince is kind.”

“On the contrary. I’ve never known Metternich to give idle praise.” Vincenzo’s smile was equally pleasant, but the gleam in his eyes made Mélanie quite sure he knew more than a bit about their adventures at the Congress.

“How lovely to have friends in common.” The contessa turned her gaze to the door. The footman had just stepped back into the room. “It seems dinner is served.”

Chapter 4

Music drifted through the blue-framed French windows from the salon. Mozart. The contessa was at the pianoforte. Mélanie and Laura had gone upstairs to look in on the children. The rest of the guests had wandered onto the terrace. The footmen had lit lanterns that cast warm light across the stone. Malcolm paused for a moment, hands on the balustrade. The lapping of the lake sounded below. He looked out over the long, winding ribbon of water. It was not, would never be, the same as Dunmykel Bay at his home in Scotland, but there was a certain magic in water, and the lake had its own memories for him.

Thurston stopped beside him. “I never get tired of the view.”

Malcolm turned to smile at their host. “I can understand why.”

Thurston met his gaze. “I’m sorry you had to arrive in the midst of our—family drama.”

“I’m no stranger to family drama. I’m sorry we added to the complications for you.”

“On the contrary. Having you here probably made things a good deal more restrained than they might otherwise have been.” Thurston cast a glance down the terrace. Raoul was making conversation with Conte Vincenzo while Selena looked over the balustrade, and Kit, Diana, and Smythe spoke with Sofia. Then he glanced through the French windows at the contessa at the pianoforte. His gaze softened. For a moment, it held the glow of a young man in the throes of first love. “I never expected it,” he said in a low voice. “Oh, I’d had—adventures—before. But I never thought an amorous impulse could make me forget what I owed to my family. To my name.”

He looked at Malcolm as though he expected Malcolm to understand. Which Malcolm did, in a way, though he wasn’t given to thinking in that manner himself. He gave a slight nod.

“Then I met Elena.” Thurston shook his head, a trace of the wonder of unlooked-for love still in his gaze. “I’d never known anything like it.” He shot a look at Malcolm. “I think you know something about that.”

“Do you?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at your wife.”

“It took me by surprise, as well.”

“I couldn’t imagine leaving her. I couldn’t imagine what I felt for her going away. For a while I simply ignored thoughts of the future in that blind way young lovers do. That men my age—or even the age I was then—should know to avoid. Then Vincenzo tumbled to the truth.” Thurston’s brows drew together as he looked down the terrace at his mistress’s husband, laughing at something Raoul had just said. “I can’t really blame him. If it had been my wife—not that I can imagine Maria—Though perhaps that’s a failure on my part. You may not think it to have seen him tonight, but Vincenzo was far from a complacent husband at the time. Of course, I had no choice but to meet him.”

Malcolm bit back the comment that there were a number of alternatives to fighting a duel. He abhorred dueling, but he had once accepted a challenge himself.

“Vincenzo winged me, but it wasn’t serious. We could have hushed the whole thing up. Very nearly did. It wasn’t the actual duel itself, so much as that it forced me to face our options for the future.” Thurston turned to Malcolm with a gaze that seemed oddly to will him to understand. “I couldn’t set Elena up in a house in Half Moon Street and visit her after an evening at White’s. Divorce—I might have gone through with it, but Vincenzo would never free Elena, so there was no point in even considering it. Leaving seemed the only option.” He drew a breath. “Taking the children would have uprooted them from everything they knew. And I’d already dealt enough hurt to Maria as it was.”

“It can’t have been easy,” Malcolm said.

“You’re a good father, Rannoch. I suspect you despise me.”

“I think you and the contessa were in a hellishly difficult situation.”

Thurston gave a quick, defensive smile. “I wasn’t counting on war breaking out again. On travel becoming almost impossible. Not that it would have been easy to return in any case.”

“Do you miss it?” Malcolm asked, before he could think better of it.

Thurston’s eyes narrowed. “Not as much as I’d have thought. The rain. The dashed dull evenings at the club. The same people one’s known since the nursery, encountered again and again. And yet—sometimes. A good cup of tea. The scent of the grass after it rains. The taste of sherry before riding to hounds. Some things will never be the same.” He smiled again, the same armored smile. “Don’t tell Elena.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Mélanie and Laura had come out onto the terrace. Laura’s shawl slipped from her shoulders as she crossed the terrace. Kit hurried to retrieve it.

“You knew Kit when he was in the army?” Thurston asked.

“A bit. He’s a fine young man.”

“He’ll do well by the family. Though I could wish—” Thurston jammed his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t really think about it before I married Maria. What I was committing to. What I was giving up by committing to it. I fear Kit is making the same commitments without understanding either.”

“Not everyone finds what you found with the contessa.”

“No. But am I wrong to want my son to have the chance to try?”

“Have you thought of talking to him?”

Thurston cast another glance at his son. “Given his current view of me, I rather suspect my talking to him would only convince him all the more of the wisdom of adopting the opposite course of action.”

#

Conte Vincenzo took a puff on his cigarillo and leaned against the stone balustrade of the terrace. “Beautiful place here. Used to visit friends in the lake district fairly regularly. But then for quite a few years after”—he let out a puff of smoke and watched it dissipate in the warm evening air—”after Elena left me, I avoided the whole region like the plague.”

“Understandable.” Raoul braced his hands on the balustrade. He’d refused Vincenzo’s offer of a cigarillo. He’d never acquired a taste for them, for all his time in Spain.

Vincenzo glanced through the French windows to the salon where the woman who was still his wife sat playing the pianoforte, bathed in the warm glow of lamplight. “There was a time I’d have sworn Thurston and I would never sit down at table together.” His gaze moved down the terrace to his wife’s lover, talking with Malcolm. “I quite liked Thurston when I first met him. Before I tumbled to what was happening. I should have seen it sooner, of course. But one doesn’t think of one’s own wife—Are you married, O’Roarke?”

Raoul’s fingers tightened on the moss-covered stone. A simple question that stirred a tangle of guilt and regret. “I haven’t lived with my wife in twenty years. By mutual choice.” Though it had been quite obvious to him when Margaret fell in love with another man and took him to her bed. Obvious and, in a way, a relief.

Vincenzo gave a grunt, half of sympathy, half of acknowledgment. “Children?”

For a moment, Raoul was keenly aware of Malcolm, a dozen paces down the terrace talking to Thurston. Of Colin and Emily asleep upstairs. “No.” At least not with Margaret.

“Easier that way, perhaps. Hard for Sofia and Enrico to be without a mother.”

“It’s the greatest challenge, I would think, when a marriage disintegrates.” Or when the children were born outside the marriage.

Vincenzo grimaced. “Counterproductive really, trying to raise a girl without her mother. And no point in making Sofia suffer for her mother’s mistakes. Besides, at a certain point, one starts to feel a bit of a fool. Trying to retrieve a woman who has no desire to be one’s wife anymore. What’s the point, really? It’s not as though I’ve gone unconsoled.” He cast a glance round the terrace and grinned. “To own the truth, at times I think it’s easier, living alone, not having to keep up appearances with one’s wife. Do you find that true?”

Raoul drew a careful breath. Laura had come onto the terrace. Kit Montagu was retrieving her fallen shawl. He wished he could cross the terrace and take her hand in the easy way he’d been able to on the journey. “In some ways. My wife and I were spectacularly unsuited. We each saw the other as something we weren’t or we’d never have married in the first place.”

Vincenzo’s brows drew together. “Can’t quite say what I saw Elena as. Save obviously a very pretty girl. Fancied myself in love with her when we married. Believed in fidelity and the rest of it. But as one grows older love begins to look more and more like an illusion, don’t you find?”

“Love’s never been a word I’ve used easily,” Raoul said with truth. Though he wouldn’t say that meant he didn’t believe in it. Quite the reverse in fact.

“Wise man,” Vincenzo said, deaf to the subtext. “Life’s easier without the illusions, all in all. Though I suppose Thurston and Elena must still believe in love. Hard to have given up what they have if they didn’t. I’m happy enough to leave that nonsense to them now. And I can’t say I envy Thurston what he’ll have to go through with his children.”

“They can be pardoned for feeling abandoned.”

Vincenzo regarded him, cigarillo held in one hand. “I thought you’d be in sympathy with Thurston.”

“I am, to a large degree. But I can see how the situation could appear quite different from his children’s perspective.” Without shifting his gaze, Raoul was aware of Malcolm shoulder to shoulder with Thurston. For all his own sins, he’d never gone even a year without seeing Malcolm. Or Colin. They’d probably not have noticed, but he would have. Keenly.

“Thurston admitted to me once that he’d always feel guilty for walking away from it all. Not just his children, but his position and responsibilities at home. I was surprised he confided in me. But I suppose after a fashion we’re friends now.” Vincenzo’s gaze went from Thurston to the younger generation, separated by the length of the terrace. “I think he hoped this visit would improve matters. But I can’t help but worry it will bring old hurts to the surface.”

#

Mélanie stepped through the French windows into the salon and paused, leaning against a chairback, until the last notes of “Soave sia il vento” died away.

“That was lovely,” she said softly.

The contessa laughed and turned round on the pianoforte bench. “Are your children asleep?”

“Yes, which is rather remarkable. They none of them settle down easily.”

“It’s always so challenging when children’s routines are disrupted.”

“Mine have never been used to much of a routine, for better or worse. Colin was born in Lisbon and went through Spain to Paris, London, Vienna, and Brussels before he turned two. And our house in Paris was attacked the night Jessica was born.”

“You’ve had an adventurous life.” The contessa got to her feet, gathering the folds of her flowered silk shawl about her. “Ours has been quite contained for many years.” Her gaze went to the French windows. Laura had gone over to Selena and was attempting to coax her to join the others. “I’m sorry you had to see tonight.”

“It’s hardly the first family drama we’ve been in the midst of. To own the truth, I think we were all relieved to be on the outside for once.”

The contessa smiled and gestured towards two chairs set on either side of a small marquetry table. “I knew it would be difficult. I thought I had no illusions. But I didn’t quite envision—”

“It’s difficult to envision.” Mélanie dropped into one of the chairs. “I suspect the children will settle in. Selena reminds me of my husband’s sister when he returned to Britain after years abroad. At first she seemed determined to push him away.” Mélanie could still see the anger in Gisèle Rannoch’s gaze and hear the sharpness of her voice. “I think because she couldn’t forgive him for being gone for so long and was also terrified she’d let herself care about him only to have him leave again.”

“That must have been terribly hard.” The contessa sat opposite Mélanie. “For you as well as your husband.”

“I think it made Malcolm question the years he’d spent away.”

“Without those years he wouldn’t have met you.”

“No.” Wouldn’t have tied himself to an enemy agent, wouldn’t now have to flee his country and give up his career, his home, his family and friends. “Fortunately Malcolm and Gisèle have mended their relationship,” Mélanie continued, keeping her voice steady. “They’re excellent friends now. I think perhaps that was what Gisèle wanted all along but was afraid to reach out for.”

“I hope that happens with Selena. I think it may be easier for her than for Kit and Diana. They’re so very polite, but they seem so much more—I suppose one would say armored. Diana in particular.”

The contessa was a shrewd judge of character. “Give them time,” Mélanie said. “I don’t think one ever really stops needing a parent.”

The contessa nodded, her gaze going back to the terrace. “I so want Bernard to have time with his children.” She spread her hands over her lap. “It can’t make up for what he’s lost, but at least it will give him a foundation for the future. He’s given up so much. Because of me.”

Mélanie kept her hands steady on the folds of her shawl. “He doesn’t look like a man who regrets it. And you gave up a great deal for him, as well.”

“But we’re in my country. Bernard would say Italy is his country now. He’d say it doesn’t really matter. But he’ll always be an Englishman.”

Mélanie’s gloved fingers tightened on her shawl. How often had she said the same about Malcolm? “Have you had time with your children?” she asked. Outside, Sofia was laughing at something Kit was saying. Even her laughter was decorous, as if she kept herself contained somehow.

The contessa’s gaze also went to her daughter. “More than Bernard’s had with his children. It was—difficult at first. Vincenzo was angry and keeping Sofia and her brother Enrico from me was a way to express that anger. I even paid their nurse to bring them to meet me in the piazza in secret for a time.”

Mélanie suppressed a shiver. In a life not short on terrors, losing her children was one of the things that most haunted her. “It must have been very difficult.”

“And you wonder how I could have done it?” The contessa’s gaze lingered on her daughter, but she seemed to be seeing into the past. “I’ve wondered myself at times. A dozen times I changed my mind. I couldn’t imagine how I could be happy away from my children. Or away from Bernard. And then I learned I was expecting another child. And my husband couldn’t be the father.”

“So you didn’t have a choice.”

“Not really, not in the end. But Bernard did. And he chose me.” She touched a ring she wore on her left hand, a ruby set in a gold band. “I’ll never forget that.”

She drew a quick breath. “But with time, Vincenzo relented. Sofia and Enrico come to us for months at a time now. And Vincenzo visits.” She shrugged. “He was always a proud man, but not a fool. At our age he probably sees the folly of holding a grudge. Two middle-aged men dueling over a middle-aged mistress seems the stuff of comedy, not romantic drama. I understand he has a quite lovely mistress set up in Milan who is ten years my junior. And I suspect he thought it would help for Sofia to have her mother’s influence. Though she’s a very easy child. Too easy, I sometimes think. It’s as though she’s afraid of repeating her mother’s mistakes.”

“Children often react against their parents,” Mélanie said. And then wondered what that might mean for her own children. It might depend on how much of the truth they knew about their mother when they reached adulthood. When she tried to imagine that far ahead, the possibilities shimmered before her eyes, like images at the onset of a headache.

“I shouldn’t complain,” the contessa said quickly. “We’re far more fortunate than most.”

“It’s admirable that you’ve worked it out so well,” Mélanie said. “And it should give you hope for Lord Thurston and his children.”

“In my optimistic moments. But I think the English take these matters more seriously than we do on the Continent.”

Mélanie gave the question honest consideration. She might be lying about her past, but she wasn’t lying about being an outsider in the English ton. “They take appearances more seriously,” she said. “Gentlemen may set up their mistresses fairly openly, but they don’t go about in society with them. And ladies certainly don’t go about with their lovers. Not if the relationship is known. But as long as everyone can pretend to turn a blind eye, it’s amazing what goes on.”

“You’re kind,” the contessa said in a matter-of-fact voice. “Or brave, or both. I know in London it would be scandal for you to sit at table with a gentleman and his mistress.”

Oh, dear God, if this kind woman knew the truth of her past. “Nonsense,” Mélanie said. “We’d never take such tiresome conventions seriously.”

“Perhaps not. But I suspect my husband’s children do. Kit was quite concerned, I think, about you and Lady Tarrington being exposed to me.” The contessa smiled with composure and smoothed her hands over her lap. “Which I suppose should make me all the more grateful that he and his sisters are here at all.”

 

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