Reading Group Discussion Questions
Rifle fire peppered the air. Malcolm Rannoch came awake with a jerk and tightened his grip on his wife. Suzanne froze in his arms, then sat bolt upright in a tangle of Irish linen sheets and embroidered Portuguese satin coverlet, her hair spilling over his arm. Another hail of bullets. One rifle. No, not a rifle. Rapping. On the stout English oak of the door panels.
“I’m sorry, sir. Madam.” It was Valentin, their footman, outside the door. “But Inspector Roth is below.”
Malcolm pushed back the coverlet, letting in a blast of chill air. “Dressing gown,” Suzanne said, which was sensible, as he wasn’t wearing a nightshirt. He grabbed his dressing gown from the bench at the foot of the bed and struggled into it. By the time he got to the door, Suzanne was beside him, tugging at the sash on her own dressing gown.
Valentin’s young, fine-boned face was white above the flame of his candle. “Mr. Roth didn’t say what the trouble was. But he insisted I wake you. I thought—”
“Yes.” Malcolm touched him on the shoulder. “Quite right. Thank you, Valentin.”
He met his wife’s gaze for a moment. A dozen possibilities, each more unpleasant than the last, hovered between them. “Best to know at once,” Suzanne said.
But before they went downstairs they moved to the cradle where Jessica, fifteen months, was sharing her pillow with the family cat, then opened the connecting door to the night nursery. The tin-shaded night light showed Colin, four and a half, tangled in the coverlet, his arm round his stuffed bear. Malcolm heard Suzanne give a sigh of relief he thought only he could have detected. He took her hand, only in part because the house was shrouded in darkness.
The light of his candle jumped and leapt over the stair wall and the curving balustrade as they made their way downstairs. In the ground floor hall, cloud-filtered moonlight spilled through the fanlight over the front door, casting a cool wash of light over the long-case clock, the velvet-covered bench, the hall table with its basket for calling cards. The marble tiles were cold underfoot. When they were close enough to see the dial, the long-case clock said that it was twenty-five minutes past four. Jeremy Roth, now a Bow Street runner, had become a close friend when he was an army sergeant in the Peninsula during the war, but even their closest friends weren’t in the habit of making calls at this hour.
A visit from a Bow Street runner could not but raise a host of unpleasant possibilities. Given the revelations that had recently shaken their marriage, the possibilities reverberated through the air like a cannonade that warns of a coming battle. Outside the carved library doors, Suzanne met Malcolm’s gaze for a moment. Malcolm could see the jolt of terror in the eyes of his usually imperturbable wife, the fear that whatever news Roth had brought would rend the fragile rapprochement between them.
Suzanne gave the bright smile with which Malcolm had seen her face down every crisis from the Battle of Waterloo to an attack on their house when she was about to give birth. “Best see what Jeremy has to say.”
Malcolm nodded and reached for the door handle.
Roth was pacing before the banked coals of the library fireplace, mud-spattered greatcoat whipping about his ankles. He turned at the opening of the double doors and came quickly forwards. The sharp-featured face that Malcolm had seen alight with compassion as Roth closed the eyes of a fallen comrade, and intent with the chase as he raced down a London alley after a suspect, was now set, the mobile features folded into severe lines, the eyes oddly hooded.
“I’m sorry,” Roth said. “But this couldn’t wait.”
“It’s hardly the first time we’ve been awakened in the middle of the night. And I doubt it will be the last.” Suzanne gestured Roth to a chair, as though she wore a morning dress with every hook done up, her hair dressed, and all the accoutrements in place instead of being wrapped in seafoam silk and ivory lace with her feet bare and her dark hair spilling in a tangle over her shoulders.
“I thought you’d finally got round to calling me Suzanne.”
Roth took a step forwards, then checked himself, arms clamped at his sides. “Do you know where Miss Dudley is?”
Of all the names they might have heard, that of their children’s governess was the last Malcolm had expected. “Asleep upstairs,” he said.
Roth’s gaze moved from Malcolm to Suzanne. “When did you last see her?”
“In the drawing room after dinner. We played lottery tickets with Colin.” And then they had all shared a cup of tea while Suzanne nursed Jessica. Laura Dudley was part of the family circle.
“What time did she go up?”
“About half-past ten, I think,” Suzanne said. “I wasn’t looking closely at the clock.” She exchanged a look with Malcolm.
“You’re sure she went to her room?” Roth persisted.
“I thought I was.” Suzanne had gone still, fingers taut against the folds of her dressing gown. “Colin and Jessica are asleep. But we didn’t look in Laura’s room. I’ll be right back.”
Malcolm watched the doors close behind his wife and turned back to Roth. “What in God’s name—”
“Was Miss Dudley acquainted with the Duke of Trenchard?” Roth asked.
Malcolm rubbed his eyes. The aquiline nose and hawklike features of the duke flickered in his memory. “Trenchard? Good God, no. At least, not to my knowledge.”
“She hadn’t met him at your house?”
“Trenchard doesn’t exactly move in our set.” The last time Malcolm had seen the duke, outside the House of Commons, Trenchard had called Malcolm a dangerous Jacobin whose ideas would lead to the downfall of all that Britain stood for.
“He’s a duke. You’re a duke’s grandson.”
“It’s not a club.”
Roth raised a brow. “Isn’t it?”
Malcolm met his friend’s gaze and inclined his head in acknowledgement of a hit. “Trenchard’s a Tory, a crony of the Prime Minister. I’m a Whig, whose ideas are too radical even for some members of my own party.”
“And his wife’s father is your spymaster.”
Malcolm swallowed. Anything to do with Lord Carfax cut a bit too close to the bone just now. “Former spymaster. But yes, Trenchard’s second wife is Carfax’s daughter and my friend David’s sister.”
“You grew up with the Duchess of Trenchard.”
“In a manner of speaking. I was closer to David and their sister Isobel than to Mary. But she and Trenchard have been here once or twice. I can’t remember Laura ever meeting him, but it’s possible they shook hands at one of our larger parties. We often have her bring the children in. Why is this important?”
The candlelight seemed to bounce off Roth’s dark eyes. “How long has Miss Dudley been in your employ?”
“A year. Suzanne engaged her when we were still in Paris.” Malcolm had been away on a mission, but he could still remember his wife’s relief at having found a governess who would fit into their unconventional household.
Roth moved to the central library table and rested his hands on the marble. “Miss Dudley was living in Paris?”
“She’d gone there with her former employer and found herself without a position when her charge eloped with a junior officer.”
“You saw her references?”
“Suzanne did.” Malcolm moved to face Roth across the brown-veined marble of the table. “I was still an attaché and doing intelligence work. I was gone much of the time.” He could hear Suzanne greeting him on his return home with, I’ve found the perfect governess. She didn’t bat an eyelash when the cat jumped up on the tea tray and started lapping the cream.
“Miss Dudley wasn’t one of your agents?” Roth asked.
“My agents?” Malcolm looked at Roth over the brace of candles that burned on the table. “I don’t have agents.”
Roth stared at him.
Malcolm scraped a hand through his hair. “Yes, all right, when I was more actively involved in intelligence there were people who reported to me. But why on earth would I engage an agent to look after my children?”
“For cover. Or to protect Colin and Jessica. Or to protect Miss Dudley. You take looking after your own seriously.”
“Laura Dudley never worked for me except as governess to Colin and Jessica. Roth—”
The doors swung open. Suzanne hurried back into the room in a swirl of seafoam silk. “Laura’s bed is neatly made up and one of her cloaks is missing. Jeremy, in God’s name where is she?”
Roth turned to survey Suzanne. “Do you recall Miss Dudley ever meeting the Duke of Trenchard?”
Suzanne blinked. “Once, at a reception for the Esterhazys’. She brought the children in. I remember Colin shaking hands with the duke, and Mary—the duchess—holding Jessica. Why?”
“Because Trenchard was found shot to death in his study an hour ago. And Miss Dudley was in the room.”
Malcolm stared into Roth’s hard eyes and bit back an exclamation of disbelief, closely followed by a curse.
“I knew things had been quiet for too long,” Suzanne said. “You’d think by now we’d be used to hearing shocking revelations. But—dear God.” She folded her arms across her chest, gripping her elbows. Malcolm could tell she was remembering the same things he was. Laura Dudley’s titian head bent over a slate or a book with Colin. Laura’s steady hands helping Jessica hold a pastel. Laura crossing from the house to the square garden, Colin and Jessica gripping her gray-gloved fingers. Laura’s reserved face softening when she looked at the children. Colin kissing her cheek and saying, “I love you.” Jessica flinging her arms round Laura’s knees.
Thankfully, at such times the instincts of an agent came to the surface. “What’s Laura said?” Malcolm asked.
“That she called on the duke to discuss some private business she won’t reveal, and that he was already shot when she walked into the room.”
Malcolm scanned Roth’s closed face. “Surely when the footman brought her in—”
“A footman didn’t bring her in.” Roth’s gaze was as hard and unyielding as a steel buckler. “There’s a hidden panel in Trenchard’s study that leads to a secret entrance from the back garden. Miss Dudley used that.”
Malcolm heard Suzanne draw in her breath. In a world of thinly veiled amorous intrigue, that Trenchard had had a secret passage leading to his study was not so surprising. That Laura had known about it was.
Suzanne’s fingers dug into the lace of her sleeves. “And Laura says she came through this secret passage to find the duke dead—”
“Dying. She summoned one of Trenchard’s footmen. He confirms that he came into the room to find the duke mortally wounded. His Grace expired before a doctor could arrive. Miss Dudley then gave the footman a note to send to Bow Street and addressed it to me.”
“That doesn’t sound like the action of a murderer,” Suzanne said.
“It might be the action of a very cool-headed murderer. Miss Dudley, from what I’ve seen of her, is exceedingly cool-headed,” Roth said. Malcolm had a clear memory of Roth laughing with Laura Dudley over the tea tray only last week, but Roth’s gaze betrayed none of that. “When I arrived she gave me a very brief statement and suggested I remove her to Bow Street before I woke the duchess. She refused to explain further.”
“If she’d entered through a secret passage she could have left that way and left the duke to die without summoning help,” Suzanne said.
“She could,” Roth conceded.
“But?” Malcolm asked.
Roth’s gaze shifted from Malcolm to Suzanne. “When I examined Miss Dudley’s possessions I found this in her reticule.” He reached inside his coat and pulled out a small pistol. The silver filigree mounting gleamed in the candlelight.
Malcolm felt the start of surprise that ran through his wife, the impulse to lie, the quick decision that it was impracticable.
“When did you last see it, Mrs. Rannoch?” Roth asked.
Suzanne met Roth’s gaze. “When I locked it in my dressing table a fortnight ago.”
Malcolm remembered the night vividly. He’d gone to the London docks with Suzanne, who was meeting a former fellow Bonapartist agent slipping into London on shipboard. There was, he told himself, no reason for Roth to suspect any of that.
“Did Miss Dudley have a key to your dressing table?” Roth asked.
“Did she know you kept your pistol there?”
“Not to my knowledge.” Suzanne clasped her hands in front of her. “Why did Laura say she brought it with her?”
“That it could be dangerous for a woman to be abroad alone at night.”
“Did she claim it was her own?”
“No, she said ten to one I either knew it was yours already or would soon discover it.”
Suzanne cast a glance at Malcolm, an acknowledgment of presenting a united front, then looked back at Roth. “The pistol hasn’t been fired. Trenchard wasn’t killed with this.”
“No,” Roth conceded. “But you have to admit the pistol raises more questions than it answers.”
“Where is Laura now?” Malcolm asked.
“At the Brown Bear with one of my constables.”
The Brown Bear was a tavern adjacent to the Bow Street Public Office. The runners often went there to compare notes over a pint, but they also frequently commandeered the rooms above to interview and detain suspects. With Laura accounted for, Malcolm knew gathering evidence was critical. “The room where Trenchard died—”
“I’ve kept people out of it. There’s no sign of forced entry. And the servants say they admitted no one else to the house.”
“Someone else could have come in through the secret entrance,” Suzanne said.
“They could,” Roth conceded.
Malcolm recalled the flashes of wry amusement he’d glimpsed in Laura Dudley’s gaze when she didn’t think she was being observed. And the way she would retreat behind her governess façade if the conversation began to verge remotely on the personal. “Who else knows?” he asked.
“I woke the duchess and informed her. She had no idea why Miss Dudley might have had business with the duke.”
Malcolm drew a breath. “Does Carfax know?”
“I haven’t informed him yet. Or the home secretary or the prime minister or anyone else. I came to you first.”
Malcolm met his friend’s gaze, knowing full well the risk Roth had run. “Thank you.”
Roth inclined his head. “I’ve always liked Miss Dudley. I can’t ignore the obvious implications of tonight’s events, but I agree they’re confusing on the surface.”
“We want to see Laura,” Suzanne said.
“I assumed you would. Though I should warn you she says she won’t talk.”
“Not surprising.” Suzanne stood and shook out the folds of her dressing gown.
“But if you can get her to talk, there’s one thing you might ask her about,” Roth said.
“Yes?” Malcolm asked.
“The footman said that as he bent over the dying duke, Trenchard whispered the name ‘Emily.'”
“I’m coming with you, Malcolm.” In their bedchamber, Suzanne dragged a chemise over her head and pulled on a front-lacing corset.
“Of course. Laura’s more likely to talk to you than me.”
“I’m afraid she won’t talk to either of us.” Suzanne tugged at the corset laces. “Which is going to make it damnably difficult to help her.”
Suzanne looked up to find her husband staring at her, waistcoat unbuttoned over his shirt, cravat dangling from his fingers, gaze dark with suspicions neither had yet dared voice.
“You’re right.” Suzanne tied the laces in a quick bow and reached for the mulberry sarcenet gown she had pulled from the wardrobe and thrown over a chairback.
“We can’t be sure Laura didn’t kill Trenchard. But I’m sure if she did there were extenuating circumstances.”
Malcolm wound the cravat round his neck and knotted the ends with a haste that would horrify his valet. “You can’t be sure of that, Suzette. I’ve come to think of
Laura as one of the family, but one can never really know what another person is capable of—”
He broke off. Suzanne met his gaze in the suddenly taut air. There it was, the truth they rarely voiced but that underlay their every interaction now. She looked into her husband’s gray eyes, which she knew would never again meet her own quite so openly as they once had. They’d only get through this by confronting the ugly truth head on. “As I myself showed you,” she said.
His mouth twisted in a way that cut her in two. “Believe it or not, I wasn’t thinking of that.”
“No, but we always seem to circle back to it, one way and another.” She dropped into a chair, clutching her gown. “It would be understandable if you didn’t trust anyone just now, darling.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Malcolm began to button his waistcoat, fingers quick and precise. “But I can’t but be aware that one can be blind to truths even about those to whom one is closest. We don’t know Laura anywhere near as well as I’d have said I knew you.”
Suzanne gripped the silk braid that edged the sarcenet sleeves of the gown. She wasn’t sure if it made it better or worse that he could speak about it so calmly. She stood up, dropped the dress over her head, and slid her arms into the long, tight sleeves. “I know it sounds absurd for me to be so certain. But for all Laura’s reserve, I can’t believe she’s a cold-blooded killer.”
“Why such certainty?”
Suzanne’s fingers froze on the jet buttons on her waistcoat bodice. “Because I trusted her with our children.” She gave a laugh sharp with despair.
Malcolm’s mouth curved in rueful acknowledgement. “So did I.”
“But it’s more than that.” Suzanne did up the last button. “Laura might kill in self-defense or to protect someone she loved, but not in cold blood.”
Malcolm reached for his coat. “So you’re a better judge of people than I am?”
“Of course not. I’m a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m a cold-blooded killer either.” She regarded her husband, hands at her sides. It seemed unfair to barricade herself in any way. “I’ve told you I’m not nearly as nice a person as you thought I was, Malcolm. But fundamentally, I am the person you thought you knew.”
“So you can’t believe Laura is a cold-blooded murderer, but you wouldn’t be shocked by her being a French spy?” Malcolm stared at Suzanne a moment. She felt the force of those first moments after he’d learned she had been a Bonapartist agent, but his gaze was now ruthlessly neutral. “Is Laura a French spy?”
“Good God, darling, I’d have told you.”
Suzanne drew a breath. “Probably. That is—”
“I don’t think so. I think you’d have reasoned why ruin Laura’s life as well as your own.”
“Perhaps. But as it happens, she isn’t a French agent.” Suzanne met her husband’s gaze. So many moments between them these days seemed to be tests that could take them forwards or backwards on the fragile neutral ground that was their marriage. “Do you believe me?”
“God help me, yes.” He crossed to her side and took her face between his hands. “You’re my wife. I’m your husband. We’ve made it through three months. The hardest part is behind us.”
“We haven’t had to cope with an investigation.”
“Especially one that involves Carfax, however tangentially.” His eyes darkened, but he stroked his thumb against her cheek. “But an investigation could be a good distraction.”
She swallowed, a metallic tang in her throat. “That depends on what it uncovers.”
For a moment, she saw the fear that coiled within her reflected in his eyes. Then he smiled and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You’ve assured me Laura isn’t a French spy. We should be safe.”
She returned his smile, because that was the only thing to do. But the fear coiled tighter in her chest.
Because when had anything about their marriage ever been safe?