Reading Group Discussion Questions
Suzanne Rannoch regarded her husband across the lamplit interior of their barouche. “It would only have been a quarter-hour walk home from the Hôtel de Talleyrand. Scarcely worth the trouble of ordering the carriage.”
Malcolm Rannoch turned his head against the watered-silk squabs. “It’s December.”
Suzanne smiled into her husband’s gray eyes. Amazing to think that a mere four years ago he had been a challenging stranger and now it was impossible to imagine life without him. “Really, darling. Is this the man I met in the Cantabrian Mountains? I seem to recall camping in the snow the night we met. Civilian life is making you soft.”
Malcolm snorted because he knew as well as she did that there was no such thing as civilian life for an Intelligence Agent. Once a spy always a spy. “One of the advantages of being a diplomatic attaché is a certain amount of comfort. I see no reason to deny ourselves.”
Suzanne watched the way the lamplight slid over the sharp, familiar bones of her husband’s face. The strong nose, the Celtic cheekbones, the full-lipped mouth. She could trace his features from memory. “You dissemble well, dearest. But the truth is you’re being ridiculously overprotective just because I happen to be pregnant.”
Malcolm met her gaze squarely. “If by that you mean I’m trying to avoid unnecessary risks because you’re going to have our child any day now, then I must plead guilty as charged.”
Suzanne smoothed her hands over the satin folds of her gown where they draped over her rounded stomach. The baby had just shifted within her. He or she seemed to be active in the evening. Nocturnal, like his or her parents. “It’s not as though one doesn’t have warning of a baby’s arrival, as I told you before we left for Talleyrand’s ball. And I’d be perfectly capable of walking home in the early stages of labor. In fact, walking can be quite beneficial when the pains start.”
“Second babies often come faster.”
There she had to acknowledge he had a point. “Well, if it came to it, I daresay Talleyrand would have taken it in stride if the baby arrived at his ball.”
Malcolm’s lips twitched. “I daresay he would have done. In fact–”
“It would almost have been worth it to see his reaction?”
“Almost.” Malcolm’s face relaxed into a smile. “Indulge me, Suzette, for another few days. It’s nerve-wracking watching one’s wife go through this.”
She reached across the carriage and took his hand. “Put like that what can I say? I’ll let you act a bit Hotspur-ish.”
“Provided you only try to protect me, not actively keep things from me.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and brushed his mouth over her white-gloved knuckles. “I don’t recall being involved in any dangerous conspiracies at present, but if I am drawn into any, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” She pulled her hand from his clasp and reached up to smooth the thick, dark hair back from his forehead. “I’ll own at times it is rather nice to be fussed over.”
“What a concession.” He grinned, but his gaze said he knew she hadn’t been fussed over enough in her three-and-twenty years. She kept her smile bright, because he didn’t know the half of it, and that sort of tenderness always threatened to be her undoing. Pregnancy had a way of making her eyes well up with tears at the most idiotic provocation. It also had a distressing tendency to bring secrets welling to her lips that she dare not speak.
They drew up before the pale cream house with the gilded black ironwork in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré that had been their home since they had come to Paris in the wake of the battle of Waterloo, a year and a half ago. The longest time they had stayed settled in any location since their marriage in Lisbon four years ago during the tumult of the Peninsular War.
Valentin, the footman who had come to Paris with them from Brussels, hurried out the front door to let down the carriage steps. Suzanne gathered her velvet evening cloak round her and gripped the carriage strap to lever herself to her feet (seven or so pounds of baby did throw off one’s balance). Malcolm helped her up. In fact, he more or less hoisted her, there was simply no way to do this gracefully. Suzanne took Valentin’s proffered hand and put one satin-slippered foot on the top step. Only to feel something hard thud into her shoulder and crash into the carriage behind her.
She fell forwards and landed in Valentin’s arms. Valentin staggered. For one precarious instant they both teetered over the cobblestones, but he kept his balance.
Malcolm sprang down behind her and touched her back. “You’re all right? Good.” He sprinted off down the street in pursuit of a dark blur. Who, Suzanne realized, must have thrown whatever projectile had struck her in the shoulder.
“Thank you, Valentin.” She squeezed his arm. “I’m sorry I nearly sent you toppling.”
He smiled at her with kind dark eyes. He was barely twenty, but in the chaotic days surrounding the battle of Waterloo, their house filled with wounded soldiers, she had seen how resourceful he was. “I’m only glad I was there, madame. Are you–”
“Merely feeling ridiculously awkward.” A few months ago, even in the early stages of pregnancy, she’d have been running down the street at Malcolm’s side.
She turned to the carriage, but whatever had struck her, Malcolm must have snatched it up.
Georges, the coachman, had sprung down from the box. “Perhaps we could help you inside, madame–”
Before she could face a choice between protest and capitulation, Malcolm came sprinting back down the lamplit street. His gaze skimmed over Suzanne as though checking for injuries.
“I’m fine,” she said. “You lost him?”
He grimaced and nodded. “Let’s go inside. I don’t think we have anything more to fear tonight, but be sure the curtains are drawn across all the windows, Valentin, and double-check the locks.”
Malcolm and Suzanne went inside, climbed two flights of stairs in silence, and looked in to see Colin, their three-and-a-half-year-old son, sleeping peacefully in the night nursery. She touched her fingers to his thick hair, already darker than the golden brown of his babyhood. It had only been something like a rock, she reminded herself, carelessly tossed. But for all the risks of their life, it was rare for danger to strike so close to home. Her gaze darted to brown-spotted chintz curtains, drawn securely over the windows.
Malcolm smoothed the quilt and moved Colin’s stuffed bear, Figaro, into the crook of his arm. Without speaking, he and Suzanne stepped into their own bedchamber next door. With the door closed, she turned to him and at last said, “What was it? A rock?”
Malcolm was leaning against the closed door of the nursery. For a moment, she’d have sworn he was reluctant to move. At last he reached into his pocket and drew out a stone. And something else. A piece of paper. “This was wrapped round it.”
His mouth grim, he moved to the table by the bed, lit the Argand lamp, and held the paper out to the light. The words were in French, a scrawl of smudged black ink.
You’ll pay for your crimes.
Suzanne’s hand went to her stomach and the baby, the implications shooting through her. She lifted her gaze from the paper to meet her husband’s eyes, dark with guilt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “My past has caught up with us.”
Her throat closed. “Darling–”
He drew her to him, his fingers gentle, his grip tight. “It will be all right,” he said, his lips against her hair. “No harm will come to you or Colin or the baby.”
She turned her face into the starched linen of Malcolm’s cravat and dug her fingers into the soft cassimere of his evening coat. There was nothing she could say.
Because she was quite sure the crimes referred to in the note weren’t her husband’s.
They were her own.