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Chapter 1

London,
April, 1819

Mist swirled through the thick dark of the London night. Malcolm Rannoch shrank back against the rough boards of the dockside warehouse. Old instincts surfaced like hairs rising to an electric current. A spy’s instincts never left him. Or was he a fool to find adventure in what was probably a perfectly commonplace outing? He could hear his wife’s affectionate mockery. You can’t leave it behind anymore than I can, darling.

The river was a shadowy line, mist clinging to the water. The grease and grime so obvious by daylight blended into the shadows, but the smell choked the air, sharp and sour, worse because the night was unusually warm for April. Coal smoke, human waste, sweat, rotting slops. London. So different from standing on the shores of Lake Como. Or in the wind on the Scottish coast. But he was home. The thought, still a novelty after more than three months back from exile, washed over him, bringing a warmth and comfort he hadn’t admitted to anyone. Not even his wife. Especially not his wife.

Yellow pools of lamplight glowed against the cracked cobblestones to either side of him.  He had deliberately taken up this position, in a gap between two warehouses, because it was also in the shadows between the lamps. The boat had pulled up before he arrived, at the base of the stairs that led down from the terrace across from him. But they’d wait until it was a bit later, and ideally until the moon was obscured, before unloading their cargo–or letting their passengers debark.

The wind picked up, bringing the damp of the water and pushing the clouds over the moon. Malcolm moved from his hiding place to the crumbling stone terrace overlooking the river. He could make out the outline of the boat below. A dark figure detached himself from the shadows and made his way to the stairs to the terrace, moving with an economy that somehow made him blend into the night.

Malcolm felt himself smile. Tempting to run down the stairs, but probably foolish given the company in which Raoul O’Roarke had slipped back into Britain. Malcolm melted back towards the gap between the buildings on the far side of the terrace where he had sheltered before. Less than half  a minute later, Raoul appeared at the top of the stairs. Malcolm took a step out of the shadows, just as three figures from the right hurled themselves on O’Roarke.

Raoul whirled round, knocked one of the men backwards, and kicked a second even as the third jumped on his back. Malcolm ran forwards, grabbed the two on the ground by their shoulders as they scrambled to their feet, and knocked their heads together. Raoul had shaken off the third man. As Malcolm turned round, the man launched a blow at Raoul’s jaw. Raoul caught the man’s wrist and used his momentum to hurl him to the pavement.

Of one accord Malcolm and Raoul ran through the alley where Malcolm had been concealed, darted into a dockside tavern, slipped through the crowd of sailors and dockworkers and women with bright hair and overly rouged cheeks, lost themselves long enough to order pints, slap down coins, and swallow a third of the contents, then went out a back door into another alley, round the corner, across two more streets, and at last paused in  the doorway of a shuttered used clothes dealer, both breathing hard. “Damn it, O’Roarke,” Malcolm said, “you can’t get yourself killed. You’re getting married in a week.”

Raoul gave the sort of grin with which he’d been defying danger for as long as Malcolm could remember. “And I have every intention of being at my wedding.”

“Laura’s the calmest bride-to-be imaginable, but she’ll never forgive me if anything happens to you.”

For a moment in Raoul’s gaze Malcolm saw the unreality of the situation. Raoul was a man who had lived his life not believing in happy endings, at least not for himself. He lived in the murky world of a spy, devoted to causes he believed would make the world a better place, but with little time to focus on himself. And the choices he’d made in the service of that cause made him unsure he deserved happiness. Malcolm understood, because he was a bit like that himself. More than a bit. After all, Raoul O’Roarke was his father.

But Raoul, recently divorced from his estranged wife, was about to marry Laura Tarrington, the woman he loved far more than he’d probably ever let himself put into words. And Laura was about to have their child. A positively domestic outcome. Save that O’Roarke, leaning against the cracked boards, a scratch on his cheek and a bruise beginning to form round his eye, didn’t look in the least domestic.

“How is she?” Raoul asked. “I can never be sure she’s putting the truth in her letters.”

“Glowing. Telling everyone who fusses that’s she’s not ill, she’s having a baby.” Malcolm pushed his hair out of his eyes. “And no, there’s no sign she’s going to have the child before the wedding.”

Relief shot through Raoul’s gaze. Much as he, like Malcolm, might fight against the rules of society, in the world in which they lived, legal legitimacy mattered. Of course, Malcolm himself was illegitimate, but he had all the advantages of having legally been born within a marriage, which was all that counted, however many people knew to the contrary.

“What are you doing here, Malcolm?” Raoul asked.

“Meeting you. Rupert told us you were coming in tonight. What happened to Bertrand and the friend you were helping out of Spain?” Their friend Bertrand Laclos helped Bonapartists escape the reprisals of the restored Bourbon regimes in France and Spain.

“We let them off at Wapping without incident. I stayed on the boat to get to home faster. Not that I’m not delighted to see you, but what made you anticipate trouble?”

“Your slipping into London. Need you ask more?”

“My dear Malcolm. I’ve been slipping in and out of London since before you were born. Including when I was a wanted man.”

Malcolm stared at his father in the shifting light of the moon. After all this time, Raoul could still surprise him. “You came into London after the Irish Uprising? When there was still a warrant for your arrest?”

“You don’t really think I’d have gone a year without seeing you, do you?”

Malcolm studied the man who had been there for him since his birth in ways he was only beginning to understand. Or at least to consciously acknowledge. “No. I don’t think so. Not now. You never did go that long.But the risk–“

“Life’s risk.” Raoul touched his arm. “I’m distinctly grateful for your help tonight. I don’t know that I could have managed three on my own. But I think they were just rival smugglers. Or possibly Preventive Waterguard men, thought then I think they’d have announced themselves.”

“Maybe. That is maybe they were rival smugglers.”

Raoul’s hand tightened on his arm. “You worry too much, Malcolm. Let’s go home.”

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