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Prologue

The oil lamps swayed with the opening of the door. A gust of wind rushed into the tavern bringing the salt tang of the sea. He didn’t let himself look at the door, but he knew the man he had come here to meet had arrived.

He took a sip of wine and stared at the red liquid and the dark wood of the table until his visitor dropped into the chair opposite him. Then, secure in the shadows, he risked a look. At the man who had shaped so much of his life, but whom he had only really come to understand recently. “No difficulties?” he asked his visitor.

“None. Easy to go undetected when no one is looking for you.” His visitor picked up the bottle from the table and poured himself a glass of wine.

“This must be important if you risked a meeting.”

“It is.” His visitor took a sip of wine. “We’re going to have to take action. She’s become too great a liability.”

His own glass tilted in his fingers. He righted it. “Surely after all these years—”

“The situation in Spain has changed things. Questions are going to be asked. We can’t afford to have secrets bubbling to the surface, now of all times.”

“But if they haven’t before—”

“It’s too great a risk. Especially with Malcolm back in Britain. Back in Parliament And that wife of his. Do you really want the pair of them asking questions?”

The wine turned sour on his tongue. “Malcolm—”

“Malcolm is a threat. We’d both be fools to think otherwise. With just a few of the pieces, he could put the whole puzzle together alarmingly quickly. So we need to make sure he doesn’t get any at all.”

“Meaning?”

His visitor sat back in his chair and look a long drink of wine. “Before she can talk to Malcolm—or anyone else—you need to silence her. Permanently.”

 

Chapter 1

London
September, 1819

Malcolm Rannoch cast a glance round the ballroom. Gilded moldings. Potted palms. Vases of hothouse roses. Pale gowns adorned with ribbons and rosettes. Jewels flashing in the light of wax tapers, round necks and wrists, dangling from earlobes, wound through elaborately dressed hair. Dark coats. The gleam of starched cravats. The clink of crystal glasses holding champagne that would have grown warm despite an exorbitant expense on ice. The strains of a waltz played too loudly to try to compete with buzz of conversation. The heat of too many bodies pressed into too small a room.

“Remind me again what we’re doing here?” he murmured.

Mélanie curled her gloved fingers round his arm. “You need Sir Winston for your anti-enclosure bill. You promised Rupert.”

Malcolm looked down into his wife’s sea-green eyes. “And we were going to stop playing these games.”

Mélanie smiled. From her glossy side curls to her pearl-and-diamond earrings to the perfect folds of her gown she had the polished look of a beau monde wife. A look he hadn’t seen on her for a long time. “We can’t entirely stop playing them,” she said. “You’re an MP.”

Malcolm turned to Laura and Raoul O’Roarke. “And somehow you got pulled into it.”

“There are a number of Spaniards here,” Raoul said. He had a diamond pin in his cravat. A lot of evenings at home he didn’t even wear a cravat. “And a number of British politicians I can talk to about Spain.”

“And James and Hetty,” Laura said.

“Besides it was an excuse to order a new gown,” Mélanie said.

“Oh, well.” Malcolm smiled at his wife. “Why didn’t you say so to begin with? Such a charming gown certainly deserves an outing.”

A smile totally unlike her polished look of a moment before broke across Mélanie’s face. “Confess it, Malcolm. You didn’t realize it was new until just now.”

Malcolm took in the rose gauze, softly pleated and fastened with pearl clasps over ivory satin. “But I did notice you were looking particularly lovely.”

“The perfect answer.” Laura looked at Raoul. “I hope you’re taking notes.”

“He’d have noticed you had a new gown,” Malcolm said. “O’Roarke’s attention to detail is flawless.”

Mélanie unfurled a silk fan he’d given her in Vienna. “Laura’s is new too.”

“Of course it is,” Raoul said. “And stunning.”

“Liar.” Laura smiled at her husband.

Raoul lifted her gloved hand to his lips. “I’m not lying about your being stunning.”

“Heavens, only a few months, and I seem to have forgot how crowded Mayfair ballrooms get.” Cordelia Davenport joined them in a swirl of azure satin, her arm linked through her husband Harry’s.

“Let me guess,” Malcolm said. “You have a new gown.”

“How very perceptive of you, Malcolm.” Cordelia smiled at him. “Harry didn’t notice.”

“Deduction. I didn’t notice Mel’s or Laura’s, but it finally occurred to me that the three of you went shopping together.”

“One would almost think you were a spy,” Harry said. “But then I’d never think you all bought new gowns simply to intrigue your husbands. If so, you’d know you have no need of gowns to do so.”

“You’re brilliant, Harry.” Mélanie smiled at him.

Harry stopped a waiter and procured glasses of champagne to hand round. “Remind me why we’re here. Besides the gowns.”

“Politics,” Mélanie said.

“Spain,” Raoul said.

“Family,” Laura said.

“And tracking the League,” Malcolm added. “If—”

“I’m so glad you’re all here. You must know I count it quite a social coup to have captured you.” Emily Cowper, their hostess, swept up beside them. Her gown of peacock satin was almost certainly new as well and her dark ringlets were threaded through with a turquoise bandeau, but she had the same mischievous smile of the girl Malcolm had known since the nursery.

Malcolm kissed her cheek. “I don’t think having some of your oldest friends enjoy your bountiful hospitality can quite be called a coup, Em. Not by your standards.”

“It can when my friends have made themselves as woefully scarce as all of you in recent months. It’s quite a trick for increasing social capital. Not that I imagine that occurred to you for a moment.” She turned to Laura and Raoul. “You look as though you’re finding marriage agreeable. I can’t tell you how happy I am that things worked out so well for you. Cordy, I count on you to help me with Caro if she’s difficult tonight. Malcolm, Rupert Caruthers is looking for you. Something about Sir Winston Featherstone and enclosures. I sometimes think more political business is transacted in my reception rooms than in the halls of Westminster. Which does rather make all the fuss and bother worth it.” She looked at Mélanie. “You can’t tell me you don’t miss it.”

“I miss the political whirl,” Mélanie said.

“Not that you’ve precisely left it,” Emily said. “There’s something wonderfully bohemian about the parties you give now. I’m rather envious.”

“Nonsense. Tonight couldn’t be more perfect,” Mélanie said.

Emily cast an appraising glance round the ballroom. “It’s a dreadful squeeze, but people would say the turnout was insipid if it wasn’t. You may laugh, but your presence really is adding caché. A number of people have asked me how I coaxed all of you to come We have several Spanish guests. I thought perhaps that was the lure. Ah, yes.” She glanced across the room and smiled.

Even as Emily spoke, a flash a movement across the room caught Malcolm’s eye. An echo of memory that sent him spinning back eight years, even before the rich gold of the hair and the swirling green of the gown quite registered.

Candlelight shimmered off damask wallhangings and gilded paint. Champagne glasses clinked. Voices and the strains of a waltz pinged off the coffered ceiling. The sights and sounds he had known all his life, here and abroad. People he had known all his life were all round him. And for a moment, like a trick of theatrical illusion, it was all gone and he was rooted to the ground, staring across the ballroom at a ghost.

“Darling?” His wife’s familiar voice cut the stillness.

“Sorry. Someone I haven’t seen for a long time. I had no notion she was back in London.”

“Of course,” Emily said, in a bright voice that was perhaps a shade too bright. “You must have known Mrs. Ashford in the Peninsula.”

“A bit,” Malcolm said.

“The Ashfords are connected on my husband’s side,” Emily said. “But I only met her this evening myself.”

Raoul, Laura, Harry, and Cordy had gone completely still, their gazes carefully not quite on him or Mélanie. Mélanie’s own gaze was a little questioning. He’d seen their friends in similar situations. He should warn Mélanie. But how to do it so quickly? He and Mel had always been quick to communicate, but this was something he scarcely even had the language for.

He met her gaze for a moment and saw a glimmering of understanding flash in her eyes. And then it was too late, because his ghost was no longer across the room but standing before them.

“Mrs. Ashford.” Emily stepped into the conversational breech. “I’m so glad you could join us. And so glad you’ve found old friends.”

“Thank you, Lady Cowper.” Kitty turned to Malcolm. “Mr. Rannoch.” Her voice was more restrained than he remembered, but it still held that faint under current that hinted she was laughing, both at the world and at herself. “It’s been a long time.”

“Mrs. Ashford.” Rather to his own surprise, his voice came out sounding close to normal. “I had no notion you were in Britain.”

She smiled, a practiced smile that belonged in the ballroom. Very different from the ironic tilt of her mouth burned in his memory. “We’ve only just arrived from the Argentine.”

“So fascinating,” Emily said. “I should quite like—oh, dear, I see one of the footman beckoning. Malcolm, may I leave it to you to make introductions?”

“May I present my wife Mélanie?” The familiar social ritual came to his rescue like lines from a well-rehearsed play. “Darling, Katelina Ashford. I knew her in Lisbon, but she and her husband left for the Argentine before I met you.”

“Mrs. Ashford.” Mélanie’s smile was faultless.

“Mrs. Rannoch.” So was Kitty’s.

“I believe you met Colonel Davenport in Lisbon,” Malcolm said. “Though not Lady Cordelia. And of course you know O’Roarke,” he added, wondering just how much Raoul knew about Kitty and her activities, and Malcolm’s own involvement with her. “But I don’t believe you’ve met his wife, Laura.”

Kitty shook hands with Laura and Cordelia. Was it his imagination, Malcolm wondered, that their interaction was subtly different from the same one between Kitty and Mélanie?

“I heard Malcolm had married,” Kitty said. “I didn’t realize you had as well, Mr. O’Roarke. My felicitations.”

“Thank you. It was very recent,” Raoul said.

Kitty gave another of her practiced smiles. “A number of things have changed for all of us. But then I imagine the end of the war shifted things for everyone. Especially those of you who who remained in Britain. We felt very far from things in Argentina, though we did get news from home, of course.” Kitty turned to Mélanie. “I was so pleased to hear Malcolm had found happiness. Your brilliance is talked of even in South America.”

Mélanie’s answering the smile was also one she reserved for social occasions. “You’re very kind, Mrs. Ashford, though I know exaggeration is part of the language of diplomacy.”

“But not among friends.” Kitty gave another smile, slightly less controlled. “I confess it is quite a relief to meet old friends from the Peninsula.”

“Are you in Britain long?” Malcolm asked.

“I’m not quite sure yet.” Kitty fingered the sticks of her fan. “I decided to bring my children back rather suddenly. My husband died nine months ago.”

It was like cold water sluicing down his back. Of course, at this point, her being a widow could hardly matter. Not to him. Not except that it might give Kit a chance for a happier life.

“I’m sorry,” he said, also using the language of diplomacy. “My deepest condolences.”

“Thank you.” Kitty’s voice was steady, her gaze composed. “It was a shock. Though when one is married to a soldier, one is always prepared to some degree.”

“I’m very so sorry,” Laura said. “My father is a former soldier. And my first husband was one as well, though he didn’t die in battle. Much as one knows the risks I don’t think one is ever quite prepared for it.”

Laura almost never talked about her first husband. Malcolm had the oddest sense she was attempting to come to everyone’s conversational rescue.

“We saw so many of our friends fall in the Peninsula and at Waterloo.” Mélanie’s voice was warm with sympathy. Malcolm thought only he would have caught the slight tremor that ran through her. “I’m so very sorry. It must be particularly hard for your children.”

“Yes,” Kitty said, “though they are also a great comfort. I’m sure having been married to Malcolm for almost seven years you aren’t a stranger to fearing for your husband. Lady Cordelia can’t be. I imagine Mrs. O’Roarke isn’t either though she’s been married for a shorter time.”

Laura tucked her arm through Raoul’s. “I would almost say the fears are commonplace. Except that they never could be.”

“I greatly relieved when Harry sold out,” Cordelia said.

“I confess I was terrified for Malcolm, particularly at Waterloo, for all he wasn’t a soldier,” Mélanie said.

“Malcolm always ran his own risks,” Kitty said.

“Not so much anymore.” Malcolm pressed Mélanie’s arm closer to his side.

Kitty gave a lopsided smile, very different from her practiced smiles earlier. It had the familiarity of a favorite book suddenly falling open to a well worn page. “But then you never would admit to them, would you?”

“If you mean I always avoided exaggeration, then you are perfectly correct.”

“My point precisely. I imagine Mrs. Rannoch is quite familiar with your habit of understatement.”

“Perfectly.” Mélanie smiled at Kitty.

“Whereas Mr. O’Roarke never made a secret of the dangers he ran,” Kitty said. “Merely the details of those dangers.”

“My work is much less dangerous these days,” Raoul said.

“Which doesn’t mean not dangerous.” Laura smiled at him with ironic affection. “All things are relative.”

“Or perhaps the dangers we all face are simply different these days,” Kitty said.

“Well put, Mrs. Ashford,” Harry said.

“You must call on us while you are in London, Mrs Ashford,” Mélanie said. “And bring your children. Our son and daughter would love to meet them. The O’Roarkes and their daughters live with us as well, and the Davenports and their daughters are frequently at our house.”

“That would be delightful. Perhaps—Lord Palmerston.” Kitty turned to to smile at Palmerston, the Secretary at War, who had strolled up to join them. “I’ve found some old friends.”

“Delighted to see it.” Palmerston leaned against one of the gilded columns, legs crossed at the ankle. He was very much at home in this house. “You’ve also found some of the most convivial company in the ballroom. No risk of boredom is this circle. Which is more than can be said of most conversational groupings in a Mayfair ballroom.”

“I didn’t realize you were acquainted,” Malcolm said. There were, it seemed, any number of things he didn’t know about Kitty.

“We just met this evening,” Kitty said. “Lady Cowper introduced us.”

That was somewhat surprising, given that Emily and Palmerston had been lovers for close to a decade and that Palmerston obviously appreciated Kitty.

“I’ve been fascinated to hear more about the situation in Argentina,” Palmerston said.

“And I’ve heard that you’re the government minister with the keenest insights in foreign affairs,” Kitty said.

Palmerston laughed. “Don’t let Castlereagh hear you say so. But I’ll admit the developments in South America recently are of particular interest. They seem to have discovered revolution just when it’s gone out of fashion on the Continent. Though I imagine O’Roarke would like nothing better than for us all to jump in and support a revolution in Spain.”

“There’s no revolution to support,” Raoul said.

“Yet.” Palmerston’s smile was easy and razor sharp. “With someone of your expertise working there, I doubt the situation will continue indefinitely, which will leave Britain with some interesting choices. But tonight we have more pleasant pursuits to indulge in. I came to claim Mrs. Ashford for a waltz she promised me.”

“Of course.” Kitty put her hand on Palmerston’s arm. “Do pray excuse me,” she said to the others in general. “I look forward to talking later.”

A few civil words, and Kitty was gone in a swirl of silk and sparkling green, leaving silence in her wake.

“I hadn’t heard about Ashford.” Harry stepped into the conversational void with his usual keenness. “But we were in different regiments. I didn’t know him well.”

Malcolm also hadn’t known Harry all that well at eight years ago. There was no reason Harry should know about Malcolm’s relationship with Kitty. None except that he was Harry.

“I had no notion she was back,” Malcolm said, aware of the need to fill the void with something approaching normality. He glanced at Raoul. “Did you?”

“No,” Raoul said in an easy voice that gave little away. “Like you I hadn’t even heard Ashford had died.”

And there was no particular reason Raoul should know. None except that he was Raoul.

“Has she ever been to England before?” Laura asked.

“I don’t think so,” Malcolm said. “She married Ashford in the Peninsula.”

“Rannoch.” Rupert Caruthers clapped Malcolm on the shoulder. “Thank you for being here. Or perhaps I should thank Mélanie.” He shot a smile at her. “Come with me. Sir Winston is in the card room and he’s just won a hand so he’s in an agreeable mood. Forgive us..” He gave a smile that encompassed the others. “Believe me, I’d like nothing more than to talk with friends. I promise I’ll return him in time to dance, Mélanie.”

“No need to worry about that.” Mélanie gave an easy smile and released Malcolm’s arm. “The last reason an MP goes to a political party is to dance with his own wife.”