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Chapter 1

Malcolm Rannoch stared at the footman who had just told him his sister had left her home on a snowy New Year’s Day with the agent of his enemies. “Mrs. Thirle got in a carriage with Mr. Belmont and drove off?”

“Yes, sir.” Alec’s gaze was wooden yet somehow at the same time sharp with sympathy.

“Did she say anything?” Gisèle’s husband Andrew had been standing by in white-faced silence, but now his sharp voice cut the still air of the hall. “Give you a message?”

“No, sir.” Alec hesitated. “They appeared to be in a hurry.”

“Did she seem distressed?” Malcolm asked. “Were they—could Mr. Belmont have had a weapon pressed to her side?”

Alec hesitated again, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “No, sir.” Apology shone in his eyes and rang in his voice, as though he wished he could have claimed Gisèle had been coerced. “They were conversing. They appeared to be in a hurry, but I saw Mrs. Thirle turn back to Mr. Belmont and—”

“What?” Andrew asked, voice taut with agony.

“She was laughing,” Alec said, as though admitting to a glimpse of some terrible calamity. Which, in a way, he was.

“What’s happened?” As though responding to a stage cue, Malcolm and Gisèle’s aunt, Lady Frances Davenport, came down the stairs. She had Ian, Gisèle and Andrew’s baby son, in her arms. Malcolm’s wife Mélanie was just behind, holding their two-year-old daughter Jessica by the hand.

Andrew turned to the woman who had raised his wife. “Gelly’s gone off in a carriage with Tommy Belmont.”

In his thirty-one years, Malcolm had rarely seen his aunt’s composure break to display shock or hurt. Now he saw both emotions flash across Frances’s well-groomed features. “Did she—”

“She doesn’t appear to have been coerced,” Malcolm said.

On the step behind Lady Frances, Mélanie’s gaze had also gone white. She picked up Jessica, as though to reassure herself, but her gaze went to Alec. “Did Marjorie go with Mrs. Thirle?”

“No, ma’am,” Alec said.

Marjorie was Gisèle’s maid. Mélanie, as usual, was thinking clearly in a crisis. “Thank you, Alec,” Malcolm said. “Perhaps you could ask Marjorie to join us in the library.”

“Of course, sir. Right away.”

Inside the library, Malcolm poured sherry, despite the early hour, and pressed it into everyone’s hands. Andrew stared into his glass as though he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Frances took a quick swallow, then pressed a kiss to Ian’s forehead. “I take it she didn’t leave any sort of note?”

Andrew shook his head. “Only last night we were talking about taking Ian sledding today. Either something changed very quickly, or she’s an actress on a level I never imagined—” He drew a sharp breath.

“It’s possible,” Mélanie said. “But Gisèle isn’t a trained agent.” Unlike Malcolm and Mélanie herself, and any number of their friends and family. Malcolm met his wife’s gaze over their daughter’s head. Jessica squirmed to be put down and walked over to investigate the chess set by the library windows.

“Andrew.” Frances took another sip of sherry and fixed Gisèle’s husband with a firm stare. “I’m sure I don’t need to point out to you that Gisèle isn’t her mother. Or her aunt.”

Andrew gave a faint smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m sure Gisèle would quite like to be compared to you, ma’am. But she’d be the first to admit she’s different.”

“Well, then.” Lady Frances’s tone was brisk. Perhaps a shade too brisk. “Having grown up with this family and been married into it for almost two years, I’d think you’d understand how often our behavior is inexplicable.”

“And I’d be a fool to claim any insights?” Andrew said. “You make a good point, Lady Frances. But—”

Ian gave a squawk and kicked his legs against Frances’s stomach.

“He’s hungry.” Andrew took his son from Frances’s arms. As though in confirmation, Ian grabbed at the neck of Andrew’s shirt.

“I’ll feed him.” Mélanie held out her arms for the baby. “Jessica’s old enough to share and I think I still have enough milk.”

Andrew looked down at Ian as though the reminder that their son was still nursing made him realize just what Gisèle had walked away from. He put his son in Mélanie’s arms. “I can’t believe she—”

“We don’t know what she’s done.” Frances put a hand on Andrew’s arm. “Drink that sherry, you’re going to need it.

Jessica looked up from the chess pieces as her mother took Ian, then went back to them without concern. Malcolm watched his wife settle Ian at her breast. Mélanie, one of the best agents he had ever met, who had spied on her own husband for years, had never spent the night away from either of their children. Which made Gisèle’s actions even more inexplicable.

A rap sounded on the door and Marjorie slipped into the room. She was scarcely older than Gisèle. Her mother had been a housemaid at Dunmykel in Malcolm’s childhood, and she had grown up playing with Gisèle. Her red hair was pulled into a neat knot, but strands escaped about her face, as though she’d been tugging on them, and her nose was pink beneath the freckles. “I didn’t know, Mr. Thirle. Mr. Rannoch. Mrs. Rannoch. Lady Frances.” Her gaze darted round the company. “I swear it.”

“No one’s suggesting you did,” Malcolm said. “Sit down, Marjorie. When did you realize Mrs. Thirle was gone?”

“This morning when I took in her tea.” Marjorie moved to a chair and twisted her hands in her print skirt. “That is, I saw she wasn’t in her room. But I didn’t think—”

“If she chose to get up early for some reason it wasn’t your place to tell anyone,” Malcolm said with a smile. “I quite understand.”

Marjorie returned his smile, but her lips trembled “I never guessed—”

“Of course not,” Mélanie said, rocking Ian in her arms. “Did she pack a bag?”

Marjorie drew a breath. “I didn’t realize it at first. Not until after I learned she was gone. Then I looked in her trunks, and a small valise is gone with her nightdress and one gown and her dressing case. Nothing else.”

Which made it less likely Tommy Belmont had pressed a pistol to Gisèle’s side. Though it wasn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility for Tommy to have packed for her.

“I know you don’t want to betray Mrs. Thirle’s confidence,” Mélanie said. “But had she seemed—distracted in any way lately? Worried? Concerned?”

“No—that is—She’d had a lot to do with the holidays, of course. And with all the guests.” Marjorie drew a breath, as though realizing that referred to most of the people sitting before her. “She didn’t say anything, but I think she’d been concerned about—”

“All the family issues,” Malcolm said. Such as his grandfather’s efforts to persuade him it was safe to come back to Britain despite the risks of Mélanie’s past as a Bonapartist spy coming to light.

“Yes.” Marjorie met his gaze directly. “But she was happy everyone was here. She was excited about Master Ian’s first Christmas. When I helped her into her nightdress last night she told me ‘Happy New Year.’ I can’t imagine…”

Andrew, who had been staring at his hands, looked up as Marjorie’s voice trailed off. “Did she ever say anything about Mr. Belmont?” He drew a rough breath. “I’m sorry, I know I’m the last person you must want to speak to about that. If it helps if I leave the room—”

“No.” Marjorie shook her head. “I know Mrs. Thirle was worried about Mr. Belmont’s wounds, and relieved he was recovering, but I never heard her say anything to suggest she might—might leave with Mr. Belmont. She loves you very much, Mr. Thirle.”

Andrew gave a twisted smile. “Thank you, Marjorie. I know how loyal you are to Mrs. Thirle.”

Frances put a hand to her head, tucking a blonde curl firmly back into its pins. “There’ll be callers arriving for New Year’s Day in a few hours. And we have a house full of guests who will be down for breakfast soon. I’ll try to put them off. If—”

She broke off as two of those guests stepped into the room. Raoul O’Roarke, who had once been Mélanie’s spymaster and was also—Malcolm had learned a year ago—Malcolm’s own biological father. And Cordelia Davenport, one of Malcolm and Mélanie’s best friends, whose husband Harry was presently in London on a mission. Malcolm wasn’t in the mood to waste time on explanations, but he welcomed their help, and their faces said they had already heard some of it.

“We asked Alec where Gelly was,” Cordelia said, “and he said—”

“She left with Tommy Belmont,” Andrew said. “We don’t know why.”

“Good God.” Cordelia glanced at Mélanie holding Ian. “Did she—”

They quickly brought Cordelia and Raoul up to date, Malcolm and Mélanie doing most of the talking. Malcolm saw the concern in Raoul’s gaze, though he said little. He knew more about secrets than any of them. He had also, like Frances, known Gisèle since she was a baby. And he knew about the Elsinore League, the shadowy organization Malcolm and Gisèle’s mother had spent years trying to bring down, with Raoul’s help, of which they had recently learned Tommy Belmont was a member.

Alec came back into the room. “Forgive me, sir. But the carriage has returned. Not with Mrs. Thirle,” he added quickly, on a note of apology. “She and Mr. Belmont changed to a post chaise at the Griffin & Dragon in the village. They sent the carriage back. With a note for Mr. Thirle.” He held a sealed paper out to Andrew.

Andrew was already on his feet. He took the paper at once, but stared at it for a long moment, as though breaking the seal could smash all his hopes to bits. Then he slit the seal with the opener Alec gave him, scanned the note quickly, and held it out to Malcolm without expression.

Andrew,

I’m quite safe, but there’s something I have to take care of. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Please don’t come after me. Please, please do everything you can to keep Malcolm from coming after me. (I know that’s almost impossible, but try).

I’ll write when I can.

Kiss Ian for me.

I love you.

Gelly

“It sounds like Gelly,” Malcolm said. “And it’s her hand. It doesn’t begin to explain.” At a nod from Andrew, he handed it to Lady Frances.

“Why send a note now instead of leaving one when she left?” Cordelia asked.

“If she’d left a note, someone might have woken early and seen it,” Malcolm said.

Alec gave a discreet cough. “According to the groom who returned the carriage, she left instructions for them to wait until the afternoon to return the carriage and deliver the note. But the staff at the Griffin & Dragon know her and decided not to wait.”

“We should talk to the groom,” Malcolm said.

Andrew nodded. “O’Roarke? Will you come with us? If this is to do with the Elsinore League you know more about them than anyone. And you’ve known Gelly since she was a baby.”

Raoul had been frowning at a glass-fronted bookcase as though it might hold answers, but he gave a crisp nod. “Certainly, if you wish it.”

He hesitated a fraction of a second, as though searching for some way to give Andrew reassurance, then instead simply followed Andrew and Malcolm to the door. Malcolm understood.

Because, given what they knew, there really wasn’t any reassurance to give.

#

Lady Frances watched the men leave the room, an uncharacteristic line between her brows. In the cool January light, her rouge, usually expertly blended, stood out against her ashen skin.

Frances cast a quick glance at Mélanie. “I’ll talk to the others. You tend to Ian, my dear. Keep her company, Cordy.”

She moved to the door, then turned back and touched her fingers to Jessica’s hair. Jessica smiled up at her and went back to arranging the chess pieces. Frances’s hand went to her own stomach for a moment. She was seven months pregnant with twins.

Mélanie swallowed, hard. When she woke this morning, before she learned of Gisèle’s disappearance, she had already known they were confronting multiple crises—their friend Harry in London in search of information, their enemy Tommy Belmont seemingly recuperating upstairs from wounds from an unknown assailant, facing a return to exile themselves. But in the last two hours the world had shifted in ways she could not yet fully comprehend.

“Look, Auntie Cordy,” Jessica said. “The king and queen are getting married.”

Cordelia dropped down beside Jessica for a few moments, her cherry-striped skirts and lace-edged white petticoats billowing about her, then got to her feet and went to join Mélanie on the window seat. “Laura’s with the other children,” Cordy murmured to Mélanie. “She still doesn’t know what’s happened.”

Laura Tarrington had been governess to the Rannoch children and now lived with them, along with her own daughter.  The children would be secure with her, though when they learned Gisèle was gone they were bound to have a flurry of questions Mélanie could not begin to think how to answer.

Cordelia looked at Ian. “I didn’t want to say this in front of Andrew. But Gisèle left a baby. Who’s still nursing. It can be a challenge even to leave a baby at home for an evening. One’s body constantly reminds one of how long one’s been gone, even if one’s head doesn’t. She packed things to be gone overnight at the least—”

“I know.” Mélanie looked down at Ian, who had fallen asleep in her arms. “Some women fall into a depression when their babies are small. Usually earlier than this, but I’ve known women it’s happened to months after the baby was born.”

“But Gisèle wasn’t depressed. We both saw her. Laughing on Christmas morning. Kissing Andrew at midnight only last night. I know she’s Malcolm’s sister, but I can’t believe she’s a good enough actress to have deceived us all about that.”

“They’re a talented family,” Mélanie said, “but no, I wouldn’t think so.”

Cordelia regarded her for a moment. “What is it? Don’t tell me you thought she was depressed.”

Mélanie drew the folds of Ian’s yellow blanket about him. “Not depressed. Preoccupied. Restless, perhaps. When I first met Gisèle I don’t think she saw herself running an estate in the Highlands.”

Cordelia laughed despite the situation. “When I was eighteen I didn’t see myself married to a classical scholar and former spy and quite ready to turn my back on London society and live in exile.”

“Cordy. You aren’t—”

“Not yet, not precisely, but I wouldn’t mind it in the least if we did. And I’m quite sure at eighteen you didn’t envision yourself married to a British politician and living in Britain, let alone going into exile in Italy with him. I doubt Laura saw herself as the mistress of a married revolutionary. I’m quite sure even a year ago Lady Frances didn’t see herself married again and expecting twins. The point is life takes us unexpected places. Unexpected and often surprisingly happy places. I know it may sound odd coming from a woman who once ran off with another man, but I love my husband quite desperately enough to recognize the emotion in another woman.”

Mélanie stroked Ian’s hair. She saw Gisèle on her wedding day. “I do think she loves Andrew. But loving one’s husband doesn’t stop one from wanting other things in life. As I’m sure Mary Shelley would tell us.”

Cordelia snorted. “Gisèle is much happier in her marriage than Mary Shelley.”

“You’ve felt it, Cordy.”

“Restlessness?” Cordelia wrinkled her nose. “I suppose so. Yes, all right, I have. Certainly when Harry and I were apart. Even now we’re together. I love Harry. I never thought I’d love being a wife so much. I love being a mother. But it’s not enough in and of itself.”

“No. And nor is being a hostess or running a household. Even a household like Dunmykel.”

“Yes, but I’d never leave Harry or my children—”

“Of course not. And we don’t know that Gisèle intends to. At least not permanently.”

Cordelia watched her for a moment. “You’re very matter-of-fact about it.”

Mélanie met her friend’s gaze. “I’m not. I’m worried sick. But I’m trying damnably hard to think it through from Gisèle’s perspective. Something has to account for what she did. And she doesn’t appear to have been coerced.”

Cordelia pleated a fold of her cherry-striped gown between her fingers. “They seemed so in love. Only a few days ago I was thinking—” She shook her head. “How fortunate Gisèle was to have found that sort of love the first time. Perhaps a part of me wanted to believe in the fairy tale.”

“As I did. As I did with Bel and Oliver as well. But we, of all people, should know love is much more complicated than a fairy tale. “

Chapter 2

The groom who had brought the carriage and Gisèle’s note back from the Griffin & Dragon was Rory Drummond, the younger brother of Malcolm and Andrew’s childhood friend Stephen Drummond, who had inherited the inn from his father a few years ago. The Drummond family had been at Dunmykel only last night, the first guests over the threshold at midnight.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Thirle, Mr. Rannoch,” Rory said. Malcolm remembered Rory as a gangly teenager with spots. Now he was a young man past twenty, but he had the same bright, steady gaze. “We weren’t sure what to do.”

“You couldn’t have done otherwise,” Andrew said. “Thank you for letting us know.”

“Do you have any idea where they were bound?” Malcolm asked.

Rory shifted his weight from one foot to the other. They were in the slate-floored kitchen where Alec had brought Rory to have a cup of ale and warm up from the cold. “I confess I was concerned enough I was listening for clues. I heard Mr. Belmont say something about Glasgow. But I had the sense he meant me to hear it, if you take my meaning.”

“Quite,” Malcolm said. “Well done.” Rory was an astute young man if he could outthink Tommy Belmont.

Rory’s brows drew together. His blue eyes were dark with concern. “I wish—”

Malcolm touched his arm. “You’ve done well, Rory. Thank you.”

He, Andrew, and Raoul left the kitchen, but of one accord paused in the passage by the base of the service stairs. A window high in the wall let in the winter light and a lantern hung in the stairwell warmed the whitewashed walls.

“Where do you think they’ve gone?” Andrew asked.

“At a guess, London,” Malcolm said. “Though it’s difficult to speculate without knowing why they’ve gone.”

“We should look at Belmont’s room,” Raoul said. “Though I doubt he’s left anything there.”

The room in which Tommy Belmont had spent the past fortnight convalescing still smelled vaguely of Tommy’s citrus shaving soap and the favorite brandy that he’d relied on to get past the pain of a serious chest wound. The blue-flowered coverlet was pulled neatly over the embroidered sheets. A dressing gown Malcolm had lent him hung from one of the oak bed posts. The dressing case Malcolm remembered standing on the chest of drawers was gone. Inspection of the wardrobe and chest of drawers also showed those bare. Malcolm and Raoul looked beneath things and tapped the paneling to be thorough, but Tommy was too seasoned an agent to have overlooked anything. Malcolm held the writing paper on the escritoire up to the light of the windows. “If he wrote anything, he managed not to leave an impression in the sheets below.”

Raoul set down the poker after a fruitless examination of the ashes in the grate. “If he had, I’d think it was meant to mislead us.”

“Quite,” Malcolm said.

“You worked with Belmont in the Peninsula.” Andrew was frowning at the leaded glass panes of the window. He’d only met Tommy Belmont once or twice before Tommy’s recent unexpected arrival at Dunmykel.

“We were both attachés officially,” Malcolm said. “And agents unofficially. At the Congress in Vienna, as well.”

“But now you’ve learned he’s working for this Elsinore League you’re all investigating.” Andrew turned his gaze to Malcolm.

“Tommy admitted as much to me in this very room.” Malcolm grimaced, wondering just what he had let into the house and all their lives when they gave shelter to Tommy. He had inherited Dunmykel with the death of his putative father a year and a half ago, but Andrew and Gisèle managed the estate, and in many ways it was theirs. Malcolm had hoped it could be a haven for them away from the intrigues that engulfed the rest of the family.

“Do you think the League have something to do with why Gisèle left with Tommy?” Andrew asked.

“Did Gelly ever talk about them to you?” Malcolm kept his voice level, but he felt the tension that ran through Raoul. His mother had done her best to keep her children away from the League. Malcolm hadn’t known of it himself until a year ago. His putative father, Alistair Rannoch, had begun the organization with a group of friends at Oxford over three decades ago, with the aim of manipulating the world to their advantage. The League remained mysterious, though in Italy they had acquired a list of the membership.

Andrew shook his head. “Only to say a few days ago that the more she learned about her mother, the more surprised she was.”

“Do you think she could have been trying to discover more?” Raoul asked.

“I wouldn’t have thought so.” Andrew drew a breath. “Now I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about her.”

For an instant, Malcolm was thrown back a year ago to the moment he’d discovered that his own wife was a French agent who had married him to gather information. And that the man he’d recently learned was his father had been her spymaster. He’d been sure he’d never trust anyone again.

“Gisèle has a good head on her shoulders,” Raoul said. The faint roughness in his voice told Malcolm he was having some of the same memories. “And there’s no reason to think Belmont intends harm to her.”

“She trusts him,” Andrew murmured.

“Andrew.” Malcolm took a step towards his brother-in-law. “You read her note.”

“She’d have written something like that no matter what,” Andrew said. “I may not be a spy, but I can tell that much. She was doing her best to have us not follow them, though she probably knew there was little chance it would work.” He met Malcolm’s gaze. “I have to go to London. Or wherever else their trail takes me.”

Malcolm, who had been determined from the moment three weeks ago when he stepped off the boat on the Dunmykel dock to get his family back to Italy as quickly as possible, inclined his head. “And I need to go with you.”

#

“Damn it.” Malcolm pushed the door to and took a turn about the bedchamber. “She wouldn’t just disappear.”

“Darling.” Mélanie studied her husband’s face, the tension in his jaw, in the set of his shoulders. They were alone in the room. Ian was asleep in the care of his nurse. Jessica was with Laura and Cordy and the other children while Cordy updated Laura on recent events.

“There has to be an explanation.” Malcolm scowled at a Boucher oil of two young girls in a garden on the wall opposite. “She must have been coerced. If Carfax thought he could use her against us. Or the League—”

“Malcolm.” Mélanie crossed to her husband’s side and put her hands on his shoulders. “I’m as worried as you. But Tommy’s with her.” Whatever else one might say about Tommy Belmont, he could take care of himself and anyone with him.

“Precisely. So the League are probably behind it.”

“That’s one explanation.”

“Mel, for God’s sake—”

“It didn’t sound as though she was coerced. And we have her note.”

“Christ, Mel.” Malcolm broke away from her hold. “You know as well as I do not to be taken in by appearances.”

“Of course.”

He stared at her. “But? What?”

“Only that we need to consider every possible explanation.”

“I know. But she’s my sister.” He started pacing again. “You’ve only seen her a handful of times. I know her.” He stopped short, staring at the Boucher oil again. “God, that’s rich, I suppose, coming from the brother who abandoned her.”

“Darling.” Mélanie stepped up behind him and slid her arms round his shoulders. “No one would say you abandoned her.”

Malcolm gave a short laugh. “Gelly did. More than once. But I thought we’d mended matters.”

“And you had. I saw you together. I saw her with Andrew and Ian. I’d have sworn she was happy.”

Malcolm turned in her arms. His gaze darted across her face. “But?” His voice was gentler as he said it, but inexorable.

Mélanie drew a breath. “I caught a restlessness sometimes. Nothing I could define. Nothing that made me think she intended anything. But in retrospect—”

“You’re wondering if Gelly ran because you once thought about running?”

Mélanie held her husband’s gaze with her own. “I never thought about leaving you, Malcolm.”

“Never?”

“Only in the sense I knew I needed a plan if you ever learned the truth and tried to take the children away. But I know—”

“What?”

Mélanie drew a breath, seeing the flashes she’d sometimes caught in her young sister-in-law’s gaze. Remembering moments from her own life as a London hostess. “What it’s like to be happy in one’s life and still be restless. To be happy, but feel society’s constraint.”

A muscle tensed beside his jaw, but he merely gave a crisp nod.

“Darling, I’m not—”

“I know. You’d never run out on your responsibilities. I suppose one could argue Gelly’s a bit less responsible than you. At least she was. She was still throwing tantrums when you were an agent stealing papers from the ministry of police. I’d have said she changed. It could be argued that I wanted her to have changed. That I wasn’t the best judge.” He scraped a hand over his hair. “But Tommy was wounded and bent on the Elsinore League’s business. Even granted he wouldn’t cavil at much, it’s hard to see him as bent on seduction.”

“No,” Mélanie agreed. “Unless it was part of his mission.”

“To use Gelly against us?” Malcolm drew a hard breath. “That, I confess, has the ring of the League. And Tommy. But how—”

“They might want to get you to London.”

“And I’m playing right into their hands? But I don’t see how I can do otherwise but follow her.” Malcolm’s gray gaze settled on her own, at once determined and tender. “I need to leave with Andrew at once. For London or wherever her trail takes us.”

Mélanie nodded.

Malcolm stared at her. Usually any suggestion that he take action without her met with quick resistance.

“Andrew will need your help and support. I don’t want to leave the children, and you’ll travel more quickly without us.” Mélanie put her hands on her husband’s chest. “Besides, you’re in relatively little danger in London. I’m the problematic one.”

His brows drew together. “If you get the least hint you’re unsafe here—”

“I can pack up the children and go back to Italy. Don’t worry, darling. I don’t like to run, but I’ve never been afraid to do it when the situation calls for it.”

“Ha.”

“Seriously, darling. I may be reckless, but I’ve never been foolhardy. I wouldn’t have survived in the game this long if I was. I’ll pack a valise for you. If you need more, you can get it from Berkeley Square. Valentin will be there. Assuming the trail takes you to London.”

Malcolm nodded. “We’ll change horses at the first posting house and send the team back.” He put his hands over her own and gathered them into a hard clasp. “This is serious. I know we’ve said that before. But this may be the most serious foe we’ve ever faced.”

“We’re equal to it.”

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