Reading Group Discussion Questions
Suzanne Rannoch’s first glimpse of London lived up to the city’s reputation. Gray. Gray stone walls, gray cobblestones, seen through a curtain of gray mist and drizzle. England. The country of her husband, Malcolm. The country she had spent the last five years fighting against.
“Does it ever stop raining here?” On the opposite seat, Blanca Mendoza, Suzanne’s companion and maid, also had her face pressed to the window.
“Oh, we’re sure to get at least a day or so of sun.” Miles Addison, Malcolm’s valet, gave one of his dry smiles. “It’s summer.”
Colin, Suzanne’s almost one-year-old son, bounced on her lap, also intent on the window. “Russ, russ.”
“Yes, that’s a horse,” Suzanne said, though interpreting Colin’s pronouncements was still largely guesswork.
“There’s the Tower.” Malcolm spoke up, though he’d been more and more silent the closer they got to the city. “They have lions, Colin.”
“La.” Colin turned to his father with a grin.
“That was almost a word,” Suzanne said.
“Almost.” Malcolm caught his son as Colin launched himself across the carriage seat.
It seemed crowded, like all cities. But lacking the formality of Paris or the rambling quality of Lisbon, where Suzanne had lived since her marriage to Malcolm a year and a half ago.
The streets widened slightly. “We’re in Mayfair,” Malcolm said. And then their hired carriage slowed to a stop. Malcolm handed Colin back to Suzanne and moved to open the door. “Aunt Frances’s.”
Holding her son, Suzanne stepped from the carriage to be confronted by a smooth façade of pale gray stone, shiny black area railings, and three polished steps leading to a Doric portico topped by a fanlight. “Which floor is she on?” Blanca asked, as Malcolm handed her down behind Suzanne.
“She has the whole house,” Malcolm said. “It’s actually crowded when all her children are in residence.”
Suzanne’s gaze moved up the building. Four stories. She forgot, dangerously often, just who he was, this man she had married. Oh, she’d always known he was a duke’s grandson, that his father was in Parliament, that his best friend was the son of an earl. But in Lisbon they had shared cramped lodgings. With her scent bottles crowding his shaving things off the dressing table, it was easy to forget the world he had come from. Dear God. The entire traveling theatre troupe she had grown up with would have rattled about on one floor.
Two footmen hurried down the front steps, blue and gold livery, powdered wigs, gleaming buckles that looked to be real silver. As Malcolm took her arm to help her up the steps, a dark-haired young woman carrying a blonde child of about five ran out of the front door towards them. “You’re here, I’m so glad. We’ve been waiting for hours.”
“I’m honored you tore yourself away from your equations, Allie.” Malcolm leaned forwards to kiss the dark-haired woman’s cheek.
“Stuff. You’re my cousin.”
“My cousin, Aline Dacre-Hammond,” Malcolm said to Suzanne. “And her sister, Chloe,” he added, ruffling the little girl’s hair.
Chloe was staring at Colin. “It’s nice not to be the baby.”
Aline Dacre-Hammond had ash-brown hair, wide brown eyes, and a smudge of ink on her nose. She was, Malcolm had told Suzanne, a quite brilliant mathematician. “Malcolm, of course, didn’t say how beautiful you are,” Aline said, shaking Suzanne’s hand. “Colin looks quite splendid.”
“Do bring them in out of the rain, Aline,” a voice said from the doorway.
That must be Malcolm’s Aunt Frances, daughter of a duke, great lady of London society, rumored to have a royal duke among her many lovers. Suzanne drew a breath to steel herself, much as she would going into battle.
They moved beneath the columns of the portico, under the fanlight, into a marble-tiled hall that smelled of lavender and lemon oil and an expertly blended potpourri.
“My dear,” Lady Frances said. “We’re so glad to have met you at last. You’re just as lovely as Malcolm wrote.”
Suzanne would have seriously doubted Malcolm had written anything of the sort, even had Aline not just said as much. He wasn’t given to romanticism.
Lady Frances Dacre-Hammond was far from the grand dame Suzanne had been expecting. She must be past forty, but the lines in her face were barely perceptible. Her gown of lilac sarcenet was cut in what Suzanne recognized as the latest Paris fashion, her buttery blonde hair was dressed with artful abandon, her brows were carefully plucked, her cheeks delicately rouged, her smile careless but warm.
“You’re very kind, ma’am,” Suzanne said.
“I fear I’m not in the least kind, but I am excessively grateful to you for making my nephew happy. And to you, young chap.” Lady Frances touched her fingers to Colin’s hair. “Now, do meet the rest of the family.”
She turned to the two girls who stood behind her. One, petite, with golden brown ringlets and a pretty face redeemed from the commonplace by a determined chin, folded her arms across her chest. “Welcome home, Malcolm. If you still consider this home anymore.”
“It’s good to see you too, Gelly,” Malcolm said.
So the girl was Gisèle, Malcolm’s sixteen-year-old sister, who had made her home with Lady Frances since their mother’s death.
“My sister Gisèle,” Malcolm said, turning to Suzanne. “And my cousin Judith, Aunt Frances’s second daughter,” he added, indicating the other girl, taller, with pale blonde ringlets.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Judith said in the careful voice of a fifteen-year-old practicing her grownup manners. “I hope you realize we aren’t as odd as we seem.”
“Don’t you believe it for a moment,” Aline murmured under her breath.
“You must have all sorts of news from the Continent,” Judith said. “Only think, Tsar Alexander will be here any day now. They say he’s fearfully handsome. His sister has created the most dreadful kick up since she’s been here. She didn’t get on at all well with the regent and she quite turned Princess Charlotte against the Prince of Orange— Oh, I say, you know him from the Peninsula, don’t you? Is he—”
“Judith,” Lady Frances said in a quelling voice. “Time enough to talk when they’ve had a chance to settle in. We’ve put you in the yellow bedroom,” she added, turning back to Malcolm and Suzanne. “I trust you don’t mind sharing, we’re rather overflowing the house. And we’ve put a cradle in for young Colin. I thought you might prefer that to putting him in the nursery with Chloe. I hope you won’t be too crowded.”
“We’re used to sharing,” Suzanne said. “We don’t have a lot of space in our lodgings in Lisbon.” She and Malcolm had always shared a bedchamber, though she knew it was unusual for couples in the beau monde. It had been odd at first, for she was used to being solitary, but now the thought of being on her own brought on a wave of panic, particularly in this alien world.
“Splendid,” Lady Frances said. “We’ll be informal at dinner, just Malcolm’s friends David and Simon. I know they’re longing to meet you. And Colin, of course.”
The yellow bedroom was hung with yellow-striped wallpaper and boasted a mahogany four-poster with yellow damask curtains, a dressing table, and an escritoire. The footmen had already brought up their bandboxes.
“It shouldn’t be too crowded,” Malcolm said, looking round.
Suzanne put a squirming Colin against her shoulder. He grasped hold of her pearls. “Darling, it’s bigger than our bedchamber in Lisbon was.”
Suzanne studied her husband. The sharp-boned, Celtic features she had grown to know so well. The deep-set gray eyes. The dark hair that fell over his forehead in a way that made him seem unexpectedly boyish. The man she had married in an airless sitting room in Lisbon. The man she had nursed back to health sitting by a camp bed. The man who had held her hand through the pangs of childbirth. He was outwardly unchanged, but something had begun to shift in him even before they crossed the Channel. She had been aware of it on that bumpy crossing, watching him standing on deck, wrapped in his greatcoat, but she hadn’t really understood until they were rattling over the Dover Road towards London. The mantle of home was settling over his shoulders.
She couldn’t exactly say what his family and England meant to him. His silence told more than the meager crumbs of information he dropped. But she knew his feelings were complicated. And she knew the world he came from was an unfathomable distance from the world she came from and everything she was fighting for.
Malcolm had turned from the window and was watching her with a smile that at once was sweet and made him seem oddly distant. “Have I told you how much I appreciate this, Suzette?”
Suzanne shifted Colin against her shoulder. She could feel a baby drool kiss soaking through the sarcenet of her spencer. “Appreciate what, darling?”
“Your being here.”
“I’m your wife. This is your home.”
His smile was wry and a keen reminder of just how much she didn’t know about him. “It hasn’t been my home for a long time. But it is where I grew up.”
Colin was pulling at her bodice. She dropped down on the dressing table bench, unfastened her spencer, and undid the tapes on her gown so he could nurse. “Colin should get to know your family. So should I. They’re our family now too.”
How odd. When she’d married him, the tie between them had seemed one of expedience, the future something she could scarcely contemplate, the word “family” as distant as her lost childhood. Yet now the word sprang easily to her lips. Even though she was still an agent working against him.
Malcolm stood for a moment watching her as she settled Colin at her breast. She had learned to read her husband’s gaze well, but there were times when it was maddeningly opaque. “The English ton are an odd world. And our family have their quirks.” He glanced at the unlit grate below the carved white marble of the mantel. “They’ve grown up so much. Chloe was barely older than Colin is now the last time I was home. Allie still seemed like a child, albeit a brilliant one. Judith had scraped knees. And Gelly—”
“I think your sister has missed you.”
A shadow crossed his face, though his gaze remained unreadable. “She had a lot to blame me for. She was still a child when I went to the Peninsula. I fear I haven’t been the best of brothers.”
“You’ve both had to adjust to losing your mother.” Suzanne had been eight when she lost her own mother, though Malcolm thought she had been older in the fictionalized account of her life she’d given him. It had been so long since she’d spoken to anyone openly about the real details of her life that sometimes her fictional persona seemed more real.
“I was the adult. I should have—” He shook his head. “No sense refining upon it now.”
“It’s particularly hard for a child to lose a parent, but difficult at any age, I think.” She studied his face, wishing she could reach the wounds behind the layers of defense. As a spy, she knew just how hard it was to be married to a spy. “You were barely grown up yourself.”
“Old enough to have known what I owed to my little sister. Or to have known in theory. I wasn’t in the best condition myself. I thought Gelly would do better without me. Aunt Frances may not seem the most maternal person, but she’s more nurturing than most people in our family. More so than our mother was, except perhaps on occasion.” He moved to the chest of drawers and picked up his shaving kit. “It’s just David and Simon tonight, thank God. Tomorrow we’re invited to a reception at Emily Cowper’s.”
“Another cousin?” Suzanne still couldn’t quite keep track of the family tree.
“A childhood friend. Emily Lamb, that was. We grew up with the Lambs. You’ve heard me talk about her brother William, who was in Parliament until recently.” Malcolm paused a moment. “Alistair will probably be there.”
Alistair Rannoch, the man Malcolm almost never referred to as “father.” “I imagine seeing him will be more difficult for you than me.”
“One can never know quite what Alistair will do. Fortunately, I think you’re quite equal to coping with him. And if it’s any comfort, anything he says to you will undoubtedly be directed at me. We shouldn’t have to see much of him.”
Suzanne slid her fingers through Colin’s downy brown hair. Surely he’ll want to meet his grandson. The words echoed in her head, but she knew better than to speak them. From the silences, she was beginning to suspect why Alistair Rannoch might have little interest in Malcolm’s son.
“It doesn’t matter ultimately,” Malcolm said. “We’ll leave and go back to our life.”
Their life. Chaos and lies and danger. And unexpected moments that might almost be called domestic harmony. Their transient life abroad, where he was a British diplomat and intelligence agent and she was officially a diplomat’s wife and unofficially a Bonapartist agent. They had left Lisbon, which had been their home for the past year and a half, unsettled as their life had been. In a few weeks, they were to go to Vienna, for the Congress that was to decide the fate of France and the Continent in the wake of Bonaparte’s downfall. While she worked to mitigate the damage. Or to restore Bonaparte to power.
In London Malcolm would be assisting Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, with the negotiations in advance of the Congress. But there would be a break between those negotiations and the start of the Congress. A break in the pattern, a sort of neutral ground in which, if they weren’t on the same side, at least they weren’t actively working against each other. Yet that neutral ground was set with mines.
“It’s a strange world,” Malcolm said. “But there’s nothing to fear.”
Suzanne smiled because there was nothing else she could do.