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London

20 June 1818

Chapter 1

Lady Frances Dacre-Hammond spun round at the opening of her dressing room door. “What do you know?” she demanded.

Archibald Davenport closed the door and leaned against it. “About?”

“Don’t play games.” Frances waved her nephew’s letter at him. “Malcolm and Suzanne have taken the children and left Britain.”

Archie drew a sharp breath. “I didn’t think it would—”

“Didn’t think it would what?” Frances took two quick steps towards him. “Didn’t think it would come to this? What the devil—”

“Fanny, I know less than you.” Archie closed the distance between them and took her wrists in a strong clasp. “I’m very fond of both of them, but I’m not in their confidence.”

“But you have an idea of why they might have felt compelled to leave?” Frances stared down at his hands, closed round her wrists with reassuring warmth. She still held the letter in one hand, much creased from rereading. A jagged remnant of red sealing wax clinging to one corner showed the imprint of Malcolm’s signet ring. “Malcolm says for their own sakes they had to leave at once, and for my sake it was best I knew as little about it as possible. He asks me to convey to others that they’ve gone on a holiday to the villa in Italy. And then he begs me not to think ill of him, whatever I may hear.” She hesitated a moment, then pulled away from Archie’s grip so she could put the letter in his hand.

Archie raised a brow, as though aware of the trust she had placed in him.

“He’s obviously afraid of something coming out,” Frances said. “Is it to do with Raoul?”

At the mention of his friend Raoul O’Roarke, Archie looked up from scanning the letter. “Why on earth—”

“Because you know about it. And Raoul went with them.”

Archie gave a faint smile. “That’s hardly surprising considering I assume Laura Tarrington did as well.”

“Which is odd in and of itself. She’s left her family too. After just finding them again.” Frances pictured the titian-haired woman who had been the Rannoch children’s governess and who recently had proved to be the long-lost widow of the heir to a dukedom. Another story she didn’t believe for a moment. “Surely Malcolm wouldn’t run simply because he thought it was going to come out that Raoul is his father.” She looked at Archie. “Don’t pretend you didn’t know that.”

“I won’t. And I can’t imagine it making either of them run.”

Nor could Frances. But Raoul O’Roarke, who had been her sister’s lover off and on for years, had more than his share of secrets. “If Malcolm is involved in one of Raoul’s intrigues in Spain or Ireland—”

“You can’t imagine Raoul would embroil Malcolm and Suzanne in anything of the sort. Or Laura Tarrington.”

“No. He has scruples, much as he tries to deny it. Too many scruples, actually. But—They’re gone.” Frances put her fist to her mouth. She still could not quite comprehend it. “And Malcolm doesn’t say anything about when they may come back.” She turned away. For some reason, Malcolm’s image as a boy of four hovered in her mind. Bright gray eyes, brown hair falling over his forehead, smile as sweet and unexpected as it was now. Tears stung her eyes. “Damn. I seem to be a watering pot these days.”

“Fanny.” Archie’s arms closed round her. “You know Malcolm has secrets. And you know he can take care of himself.”

For a moment she let herself cling to him, her face buried in his cravat, his lips against her hair. Then she lifted her head to look up at him. “Is it the Elsinore League? Have you and Raoul embroiled him in your fight against them?” Fanny didn’t entirely understand the mysterious organization, but she knew her late sister, Malcolm’s mother, had made it her quest to thwart them and that both Raoul and Archie had worked with her.

“I haven’t,” Archie said. “I’m quite sure O’Roarke wouldn’t.”

Fanny dragged her hand across her eyes, heedless of her blacking. “And yet you suspect something.”

Archie looked down at her. His gaze had softened with tenderness in a way she had come to know in the past months, and yet there was something implacable behind it. “I can’t, Fanny.”

She stared into the blue eyes she now knew so well. From girlhood, she’d been accustomed to being able to twist men round her finger. She couldn’t with Archie. It was one of his attractions. “It’s Suzanne, isn’t it?”

Archie returned her gaze. He was too good an agent to give himself away. “What makes you think that?”

Frances smoothed the crushed lilac silk of her dressing gown. “Malcolm wouldn’t be this afraid for himself. I’ve always known—”

“What?” Archie asked.

Frances saw her nephew’s wife again as she had first seen her four years ago, a dark-haired vision holding her child with complete disregard for creasing her elegant peach-sprigged gown, smiling at Malcolm with obvious love. And perhaps even more surprising, her reserved nephew, who had sworn he would never marry, looking at Suzanne with equal love in his eyes. “Nothing. She’s perfect. Almost too perfect.”

“Fanny—”

“She loves him, I don’t doubt that. But something went wrong between them last Christmas. They seemed better lately. I hoped—But I’m horribly afraid that whatever it is has driven them from England.”

“Fanny,” Archie said again, taking a step towards her. “My darling—”

Damn it, Archie.” Frances started to pull away, then turned back and buried her face in his coat.

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