“She’s very lovely, Malcolm. The question is, what are we going to do with her?”
Malcolm Rannoch regarded Sir Charles Stuart, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal and Brazil, across the paper-strewn desk in Stuart’s study. The paintings on the walls and the silver candlesticks on the desk were Portuguese. The programme tossed on top of a pile of diplomatic correspondence was from the opera last night here in Lisbon. The sherry in the decanters on the table across the room was Spanish. But the desk was well-worn English oak. This was, after all, the British embassy. “I wasn’t aware that we needed to do anything. She’s very self-sufficient.”
“Don’t be obtuse, Malcolm. Her parents were killed by the French, her home is destroyed. She has no surviving family to speak of, and even if we could track any connections down, her father’s people would be in France under Bonaparte and her mother’s people would be in Spain under French occupation.”
“Are you planning to throw her out of the embassy after a certain number of days?”
“Of course not.” Stuart picked up the programme, which appeared to have been autographed by the fair Brunet, leading lady at the Lisbon opera, and frowned at it. “But you know damn well if she stays here too long people will talk.”
That, Malcolm knew, was all too true. Stuart, unmarried and a month shy of four-and-thirty, was known for his flirtations. “Perhaps one of the officers’ wives would take her in.”
Stuart tucked the programme underneath a sheaf of papers. “Ticklish. She’s much too pretty. They won’t like the thought of her being round their husbands in close quarters.” He moved a crystal paperweight on top of the papers. “It would be better if we could find someone to marry her.”
For some reason, tension shot through Malcolm. “Are you volunteering?”
“Lord, no.” Stuart flung himself back in his chair and loosened his cravat. “She’s a darling, but I’d make her a damnable husband. I should think I’m the last man in Lisbon you’d be wishing on her.”
Malcolm shifted against the shield back of his chair. “Except possibly for myself.”
Stuart propped his booted feet up on the edge of the desk and regarded Malcolm. A sword-sharp wit glinted beneath his affable, easygoing persona. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“I’m doing no such thing. When it comes to what I do and don’t have to offer, I think my assessment is entirely realistic. Suzanne de Saint-Vallier deserves better.”
“She likes you.” Stuart’s gaze continued steady on Malcolm’s face.
“She’s grateful to me.”
Malcolm had come across Suzanne de Saint-Vallier while on a mission in the Cantabrian Mountains, the sort of mission where his work crossed the line from diplomat to intelligence agent. Suzanne—he’d long since stopped thinking of her as Mademoiselle de Saint-Vallier—was a Franco-Spaniard whose family had moved to her mother’s Spain from her father’s France during the Reign of Terror twenty years ago. Her parents had been killed a few weeks ago in an attack by the French on their village. Guilt bit Malcolm in the throat at the thought of that attack and what had caused it. Homeless and penniless, Suzanne had escaped with her maid and literally stumbled across Malcolm and his party on a mountain path. Malcolm had brought her back to Lisbon because there was nowhere else safe to take her. On their return journey, they had combined wits to fight off a French patrol. Suzanne de Saint-Vallier was a tough and resourceful woman. But that didn’t necessarily mean she was equipped to navigate the treacherous waters of British expatriate society in Lisbon. Society wasn’t kind to a penniless woman on her own.
For a moment a vision of a future he’d never let himself contemplate swam before Malcolm’s eyes. A home that was more than just lodgings, a beautiful woman who might be a partner and friend, a small hand gripping his fingers. He shut his mind to the brush of the seductive thoughts and focused his gaze on Stuart. “Did you only ask to see me because of Miss Saint-Vallier? Or is there something more?”
Stuart grimaced and reached for a paper from one of the piles on his desk. “More, unfortunately.” He frowned at the paper, set it down, and rummaged through another stack. “The Marquesa de Flores came to see me yesterday.”
The Marques de Flores was a general in the Spanish army, fighting the occupying French forces alongside the British. Three years ago, he had married Isabella Armstrong, daughter of a British colonel. Isabella Flores and their young son were residing in Lisbon during the conflict. Malcolm had met Isabella a handful of times, as a girl in England and in Lisbon before and after her marriage, a vibrant young woman with glossy dark hair and restless dark eyes. “Is she concerned about her husband?”
“No.” Stuart swung his booted feet to the floor with a thud. “At least not in the way you mean. She’s concerned about a certain paper falling into her husband’s hands.”
“A letter?” Malcolm asked, beginning to see where this was heading.
“A letter,” Stuart confirmed. “A letter which she should never have written.”
Malcolm swallowed, the ashes of his own past bitter in his mouth. “But why come to you?” He stared at Stuart, aware of a hitherto unforeseen possibility. “Unless—”
“Oh no.” Stuart spread his hands in denial. “I know my reputation, but she’s too high strung for my taste, and in general I try to avoid entanglements that could bring about a breach in
international relations. I believe she came to me because she felt she had few other choices. Her father is in England on leave—thank God—but she thought I’d appreciate the dangers. Which I do. I wish the same could be said for her lover.”
“Oh, dear God.” Edward Linford was a captain in the British army. Handsome, brave, popular with the ladies, but inclined to blunder into trouble.
“Quite.” Stuart picked up the penknife and slammed it down on the papers on his desk, sending two haphazard stacks cascading into each other. “We could have a Spanish general challenging a British officer to a duel. And their comrades lining up against each other. Right as Wellington’s planning a push into Spain in the spring campaigning season.”
“Does Isabella Flores have any idea who took the letter?”
“No.” Stuart picked up the penknife and tossed it from hand to hand. Apparently she left it tucked into a book on a table in the library at my rout Wednesday last. Close on a hundred people could have taken it. This has disaster written all over it. Find the letter before Flores does, Malcolm. It shouldn’t be a difficult mission. You can stay right here in Lisbon.”
“Sometimes the most dangerous missions are close to home, sir.”
“I have no doubt you’re equal to the task.” Stuart dropped the penknife on top of the jumble of papers. “And while you’re about it, think about Miss Saint-Vallier. Don’t be so damned afraid to take a risk.”
Malcolm got to his feet. The sound of his parents’ raised voices, the thud of his mother hurling a vase against a silk-hung wall, echoed in his head. Marriage in his experience was not pretty. But
Stuart was right, Suzanne de Saint-Vallier had to marry. Malcolm knew that even better than Stuart. For he knew more about her situation.
He knew she was carrying a child.
“We can’t stay here forever.”
“Who said anything about forever? I’m taking it one day at a time. Like always.” Suzanne Lescaut, who currently went by the name Suzanne de Saint-Vallier, looked across the embassy sitting room at Blanca Mendoza, her friend and comrade, who was currently posing as her maid.
Blanca snorted. “It’s dangerous—”
“We’ve already uncovered invaluable information.”
“The longer a masquerade lasts the more dangerous it becomes.”
Suzanne bit back a retort. As a seasoned agent she knew full well that Blanca spoke the truth. She had only been supposed to stumble across Malcolm Rannoch in the Cantabrian Mountains and intercept a valuable package he was purchasing from a band of bandits. The mission had gone awry, and the package had been lost to both of them. But Malcolm had insisted on escorting her back to Lisbon and installing her at the British embassy. Where she’d been able to discover very useful information about Wellington’s plans for the spring campaign. “It’s a risk,” she admitted. “But that’s true of every mission I’ve undertaken.”
“But on the other ones you weren’t pregnant.”
Suzanne dropped down on the sofa, harder than she intended. Her hand went instinctively to her stomach. The fact that there was a baby growing inside still seemed almost unreal.
“It changes everything,” Blanca said.
Suzanne’s fingers tightened over the ruched moss green gros de Naples of her gown. Was it just her imagination or was her stomach already beginning to curve beneath? “It doesn’t change what I believe in.”
And that was what had driven her for the past three years. Orphaned and alone she had clung to the Republican ideals she’d been raised on. Napoleon Bonaparte might have tarnished himself by taking an imperial crown, but his reforms were still real, and he was still the best hope of maintaining some vestiges of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Those ideals had kept her going in the face of loss and brutality. Those ideals and, she had to confess, a love of the game she’d learned to play. “I’m not going to turn my back on my comrades and my cause just because I’m a mother.”
Blanca dropped down beside her. “Mr. Rannoch knows you’re going to have a baby. That changes things.”
“Yes, that was a tactical error.” Malcolm Rannoch had found her being sick early one morning, outside their camp. It would have been no use denying her condition. Only of course Malcolm—Mr. Rannoch—believed that her condition was owed to her story of the French soldiers who had supposedly attacked her home and killed her parents.
“He’s worried about you.”
Suzanne swallowed an upwelling of guilt, bitter as stewed coffee. She should be used to it by now. “Malcolm Rannoch is a very decent man. He offered to arrange for me to go away and then find a home for the child if that’s what I wanted. Or to help me get rid of the child now if I couldn’t bear to carry it. But I’ve assured him I want to keep the baby. He won’t reveal that I’m with child.
He knows that would spell my ruin. We have time before we need to disappear.”
Blanca fixed her with an intent dark gaze. “When we do disappear he’ll look for you. He’s made you his responsibility.”
And he would feel guilty when he failed to learn what had become of her. He was the sort who took his responsibilities seriously and his failures hard. For a moment Suzanne could feel the concern in his gaze as it rested upon her across the embassy dinner table the night before. She swallowed another pang. “He’ll look, but we’ll cover our tracks.”
“I wouldn’t count on that working,” Blanca said. “He’s a very good agent himself.”
Surprisingly so for a duke’s grandson with a gentleman’s education. “He’s far too decent a man for this game.”
“That won’t be hindrance when it comes to looking for you.”
Suzanne picked up one of the sofa cushions. Something about the shiny yellow-striped chintz was so very English. “No, but it will keep him from guessing the truth. It won’t occur to him that I could be capable of such a deception.”
Blancas eyes narrowed. Dark ringlets fell about her elfin face with fashionable frivolity, but her gaze was glass sharp. “You’re fond of him.”
Agents weren’t supposed to grow fond of people, but of course it happened. “I’m fond of him. “ Suzanne plucked at the fringe on the cushion. “That doesn’t change anything.”
“What are you going to do?” Blanca demanded.
Suzanne smiled at her friend, one of the few people with whom she could be her unvarnished self. “What we always do. Make it up as we go along.”