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Chapter 1

Off the coast of Scotland
11 December 1818

Malcolm Rannoch drew the collar of his greatcoat up about his throat. “I don’t like it,” he said, for probably the hundredth time since they’d left the villa in Italy that had been their home in exile for almost four months.

Mélanie Suzanne Rannoch tucked her arm through her husband’s as a gust of wind cut across the prow of the boat. A shower of salt spray shot beneath the hood of her cloak. Probably madness to be on deck in the North Sea in December. Save that the fresh air was welcome after days in the small cabins. And there was no risk of being overheard. Even the crew on deck couldn’t make out their words over the wind and sea. Besides, when had she and Malcolm ever been immune to madness?

“There wasn’t any option.” Mélanie said. “Your grandfather is ill. You need to see him.”

“There were a lot of options.” Malcolm’s gaze was fixed on the rolling gray-green of the sea. “You and the children could have stayed in Italy.”

“We’ve been over this, Malcolm. We’re safer together.”

“So I let myself be convinced.”

“You know it’s true, darling. You’ll never convince me the children and I are safer without you.”

His gaze swung from the sea to fasten on her face. “Leaving aside a number of factors. Such as the fact that we’re returning to a country where you could be arrested for being a former Bonapartist spy.”

She met his granite-hard gray gaze without flinching. “We’re going to be in the north of Scotland. We’ll be gone before Carfax even knows we’re there.”

“Ha.” Malcolm’s bitter laugh cut through the roar of the wind. “Carfax knows everything that happens in Britain.”

That, Mélanie acknowledged, considering the head of British intelligence and her husband’s former spymaster, was a point. She tried a different tack. “Besides, Carfax doesn’t want to have me arrested.”

“Didn’t when we left six months ago. God knows what he wants now.”

“Carfax may know the truth about me, but it still isn’t public knowledge. Aunt Frances made that clear when she wrote.”

“No.” Malcolm’s gaze moved back to the shifting water. “But we still don’t know who knows. And how or when they may act.”

Mélanie pressed her face against Malcolm’s shoulder. “I want the children to see their great-grandfather. Dunmykel’s on the coast. Half the smugglers in the area are friendly with your family. We can be on a boat at a moment’s notice.”

“Again, so I allowed you to convince me.” Malcolm disengaged his arm from her own so he could wrap it round her shoulders. “I’ve never been so grateful you’re such a formidable agent. I have a feeling we’re going to need every skill we both possess.”

Mélanie leaned against her husband. She and Malcolm had faced any number of dangerous situations. Highwaymen. Thieves. Enemy agents on both sides. But for all the apparent risks of their return to Britain, those risks weren’t what worried her. Malcolm’s grandfather, the seemingly indomitable Duke of Strathdon, was ill. Ill enough that Malcolm’s sister Gisèle had summoned them out of exile. For all his seeming detachment, Malcolm loved his family. He had changed in the six years of their marriage, and particularly in the past year, in ways she wouldn’t have thought possible. But he still held his feelings close. Particularly about his family—not her and their children, but his family in Britain, the family from whom he was separated because of her, the family to whom she was still, in many ways, an outsider. She could guess what he must be feeling, but she knew he wouldn’t share it with her. And for all the barriers that had come down between them, she was at a loss as to how to comfort him.

Adventure seemed simple compared to the family drama that lay ahead.


Malcolm held the door against the battering of the wind and steadied his wife as she stepped over the threshold. He ducked his head and followed Mélanie into the tiny main cabin. A remarkably domestic scene greeted them. Harry Davenport, one of the most brilliant agents Malcolm had known in the course of the Peninsular War, was playing a modified version of chess against his own daughter Livia, Malcolm and Mélanie’s son Colin, and their friend Emily. Harry’s wife Cordelia, once the scandal of the beau monde, was on the opposite bench, reading a story to her toddler Drusilla, and Malcolm and Mélanie’s almost-two-year-old Jessica. Laura Tarrington, Emily’s mother, who had once been governess to the Rannoch children and was now part of the family, was mending a rent in a small white dress by the swaying light of the oil lamp. Berowne, the cat, was curled up beside her on the bench, batting at the thread.

Malcolm shrugged out of his greatcoat, trying not to spatter water on the floorboards. “We should make land tonight.”

Colin looked up, a rook in one hand. “And we’ll be able to see Great-Grandpapa?”

“In the morning, if not tonight. He may need to rest. Though knowing my grandfather, ten to one he’ll be up and about by the time we get there.”
Colin’s gaze told Malcolm his son saw this for the fiction it was, but, at the advanced age of five and a half, he wasn’t going to say so in front of the younger children.

Malcolm smiled at his son.

“I like Dunmykel,” Livia said.

“The weather will be a lot different from when you saw it in the summer, sweetheart,” Harry told his daughter.

“I know,” Livia said. “I like snow.”

Drusilla bounced on the opposite seat. “Christmas!”

Malcolm looked at Mélanie and then at Harry, as a crossfire of glances shot between the adults. Two more days until Jessica’s birthday on 13 December. Two more weeks until Christmas. And while holidays might seem of little moment to the adults with everything else that was going on, they were as important as ever to the children.

“And we’ll have Christmas in Scotland in the snow,” Cordelia said. “What could be more agreeable? A roaring fire in that marvelous fireplace and garlands on the stair rail.”

“And mistletoe,” Livia said. “You can kiss Daddy.”

“Quite right,” Cordelia said. “Not that I need an excuse.”

“Hot chocolate,” Colin said.

“Mulled wine,” Harry murmured.

“Do you have oranges?” Emily asked. “We used to at the school.”

Emily had spent her first four years at an orphanage, lost to her mother. This would be her first Christmas with her mother and the Rannochs.

Laura smiled at her daughter, though Malcolm caught the brightness in her eyes. “Always, darling. Lots and lots of them.”

“Presents,” Jessica said.

“Lots and lots of presents,” Malcolm said with a smile.

The boat swayed. Mélanie, who had gone to scoop up Berowne, turned and met Malcolm’s gaze, the cat draped over her shoulder, her blue-green eyes dark as a midnight sea. Malcolm knew the trunks they had brought with them were more than half-filled with presents. They had that part taken care of. But somehow, whatever faced them at Dunmykel, they were going to have to capture holiday magic for the children.


Dunmykel surged on a cliff above the bay, its walls, a brilliant white by day, now a dark outline against a darker sky, illumined by an almost full moon that had broken through the clouds as they pulled up to the dock. Torches burned on either side of the wrought-metal gate that led to his mother’s gardens, their light sparking off the gilding. The air smelled of salt and cold and home.

Malcolm drew a deep breath. His senses quickened and something tugged in his chest that might have been recognition, or relief. Or fear. This was hardly the way he’d been accustomed to arrive at Dunmykel. But as boys, he and his friend Andrew Thirle (now his brother-in-law) had gone out on more than one late-night expedition. And he’d left or returned this way from the occasional mission. Once or twice he’d slipped across the sea accompanied by his mother, on what he now realized were missions of her own.

Mélanie slipped her gloved hand into his own and squeezed his fingers. She was holding Jessica. Colin, Emily, and Livia were at the rail, heedless of the cold, eyes fixed on the sight before them.

“It’s a castle.” Emily’s voice carried on the wind.

“There’s a sliding panel,” Colin said. “And a secret passage down to the beach.”

“But we’ll go in the conventional way, at least this first time,” Malcolm said.

Laura, Harry, and Cordy, with Drusilla in her arms, joined them.

“Down.” Drusilla wriggled against Cordelia’s hold.

“Wait until we dock, darling. The deck’s slippery.”

And the wind strong enough to topple a toddler. Malcolm was keeping a sharp eye on the older three at the rail.

“Here.” Harry took Drusilla from his wife and swung her up on his shoulders, hands firmly grasping her booted ankles. “You can see better this way.”

Drusilla gave a crow of delight. She was fearless, like her father. Malcolm half expected Jessica to demand the same, but she was clinging to Mélanie, fingers tight on her mother’s cloak, head pressed to Mélanie’s shoulder, as though on some level she grasped the implications of their arrival.

Two of the crew lashed ropes round the pilings as they pulled up to the dock, then handed the passengers from the swaying boat. In the moonlight, Malcolm saw three figures hurrying along the steep steps down the cliffside from the house. He and Harry lifted the older children onto the dock and debarked last, Malcolm carrying Berowne’s covered basket. By that time, the three figures were on the gravel path approaching the gates. The torchlight caught the bright hair of a woman who was in the lead.

“Malcolm!” His sister Gisèle pushed open the gate and ran forwards to fling her arms round him.

Malcolm hugged his sister tightly. The top of her head still barely reached his shoulder, but she was twenty, almost two years married, and the mother of a nine-month-old. He’d seen her in Italy only two months ago, but being countries apart made the separation seem greater.

“The boat signaled us. We’ve been watching for days.” Gisèle drew back to look up at him. Her blue eyes, so like their mother’s, held both relief and worry. And something else, as though she wasn’t sure quite how much she should say. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. All of you.”

Gisèle ran to hug Mélanie and the children. Malcolm set down Berowne’s basket and went to embrace his boyhood friend Andrew, now Gisèle’s husband. That was when he recognized the second man, standing a bit in the shadows. Good God.

“O’Roarke.” Malcolm said. “Why am I not surprised?”

Since childhood, Malcolm had been used to Raoul O’Roarke’s unexpected appearances and disappearances. That was even more the case in recent years, when he had learned that O’Roarke was his biological father and also that he had been a French spy and Mélanie’s spymaster. A tangle of revelations from which they had somehow emerged a fragile family.

Malcolm moved to hug his father. Raoul’s arms closed quick and hard round him. His fingers pressed against the back of Malcolm’s head for a moment, in a way that brought a shock of memory from childhood. But before either could speak, a cry cut the air.

“Daddy!” Emily ran to throw her arms round Raoul’s legs. O’Roarke might not be her biological father, but he was certainly her parent now. He scooped her up as

Colin ran to join them, and Jessica and Drusilla wriggled to be put down. One of the most formidable spymasters in the Peninsular War dropped to his knees on the dock, enveloped in a cluster of small children. When he stood up, he somehow had Jessica on his shoulders, Drusilla in one arm, and Emily holding his other hand.

They met the other adults in the middle of the dock.

With his arms still full of children, Raoul leaned in to kiss Laura, making no pretense that their relationship was anything other than it was. “You look well.”

“So do you,” Laura said, relief evident in her voice.

“She doesn’t get sick to her stomach anymore,” Emily said.

“I’m relieved to hear it,” Raoul said. Though his eyes held the wonder and terror of an incipient father. And the guilt of a man who has been too long away from the mother of his child.

Malcolm studied his father. “Our letter got to you quickly. Or did Gelly write to you as well?” And is Grandfather really that ill? was the subtext, though Malcolm wouldn’t say so in front of the children.

“Gisèle wrote to me.” Raoul’s voice was level, his gaze warm and steady on Malcolm’s own.

Which meant the situation was even more serious than Malcolm had believed.

“Great-Grandpapa’s sick.” Colin rarely missed anything in adult interactions.

“I know.” Raoul smiled at him. “Your Great-Grandpapa’s always had a remarkable constitution, so I daresay we’re all fussing about nothing, but it’s too long since we’ve all seen him. And each other.”

“He’ll be glad you’re here. All of you.” Gisèle hugged her arms over her chest.

Andrew shot a quick look at her but merely went to give the sailors directions about the luggage. Two footmen who had followed Andrew, Gisèle, and Raoul from the house came forwards now the family greetings were over.

“Do come in out of the cold,” Gisèle said. “We have refreshments in the house.”

They went through the metal gates into a world at once familiar and alien. It was more than a year since Malcolm had seen his mother’s gardens, and they were mostly dormant in December. But he could name each flower bed by memory, trace a path through the hedged walkways even in the shadows, pick out the griffin and dragon from the Rannoch arms in the knotted parterre, see the shadowy outline of the sundial and the reflecting pool surrounded by roses pruned back for winter. The steps were the same, the worn granite he’d run up and down so often as a boy. That he’d slipped down at night to warn the locals who were smuggling.

Lanterns lit their way from the terrace and candles burned in the drawing room beyond the French windows. But Gisèle led the way through this room and down the passage beyond to the breakfast parlor. Though it was dark out, pots of tea and coffee steamed on the table, a bottle of wine was open on the sideboard, and plates of bannocks, cheese, fruit, and nuts filled the table. Malcolm met his sister’s gaze. Funny how the smell of bannocks brought back childhood. “You’re an angel, Gelly.”

Gisèle smiled, “We weren’t sure when you’d get here, but we thought you’d be hungry. It’s all cold but there’s plenty of it.”

The children fell on the food with enthusiasm. Malcolm sipped a cup of coffee and buttered a bannock but didn’t take more than a few bites. After a short time, Gisèle excused herself. The children peppered Raoul with questions about when he’d left Spain, and what his journey had been like, and asked Andrew about baby Ian and when they could see the sliding panel, in between recounting highlights of their own journey. Easy enough to sip coffee and nod while the childish voices covered any awkwardness. He hadn’t missed the measured look Gisèle and Andrew had exchanged before she left the room.

Gisèle slipped back into the room, stood listening to the children with a smile for a moment, then said, “Grandfather’s awake. He’s not up to a lot of visitors, but he’d like to see you, Malcolm—”

“Of course.” Malcolm pushed his chair back.

“And Mélanie. And Raoul.”

Mélanie put Jessica in Cordelia’s arms and got to her feet, but Raoul stared at Gisèle. “My dear Gisèle, I hardly think—”

“Please, Raoul.” Gisèle’s voice held an edge of desperation. “He was quite definite. And I don’t want to do anything to upset him just now.”

Raoul cast a quick look at Laura, then nodded and got to his feet while Andrew promised the children some cakes to make up for their having to wait to see the duke.

In truth, smiling at the children, Malcolm thought their feelings were mixed. Illness could be frightening to confront.

“How about some more milk?” Harry said. “And I think we have enough salt and pepper pots for a siege.”

Gisèle conducted Malcolm, Mélanie, and Raoul up the main stairs to the suite of rooms the Duke of Strathdon had occupied on visits to Dunmykel for as long as

Malcolm could remember. For all Strathdon was a reclusive scholar, he’d always been tough, Malcolm reminded himself. Difficult to imagine the world without his acerbic presence.

Mélanie reached for his hand again and squeezed his fingers. Malcolm cast a quick smile at her, warmed by what he saw in her eyes, and drew a breath to confront whatever faced them in his grandfather’s room.