Book Detail

Prologue

Hubert Mallinson sat back in his chair and looked at the man across from him in the shadows of the coffee room in a nondescript inn off the Dover Road. The sort of inn suited to couples looking for an anonymous place for an illicit tryst. Or to spies looking for a location for secret discussions. Which were often best conducted in prosaic settings.
Of all the unusual conversations he’d had in the course of his career as a spymaster, he wouldn’t have predicted this one. And yet perhaps it was inevitable. “I assume you have your reasons for risking this.”
“I’m not risking a great deal,” Alistair Rannoch said. “No one’s looking for me. And you won’t make this public.”
“You seem very sure.”
“You don’t want to force it into the open any more than I do.” Alistair leaned back and took a sip of wine. “It doesn’t really make sense that we’re enemies you know.”
“Doesn’t it?” Hubert regarded his opponent across the single candle and the bottle of wine on the table between them. “I’d have said that that’s one of the few things that does make sense.”
Alistair pushed a glass across the table towards Hubert. “We’re aligned on most important issues. And we could accomplish a great deal more as allies.”
“Assuming I had any desire to help you accomplish anything.”
“You’ve always been a pragmatist. Surely it would depend on what I have to offer.”
Hubert reached for his glass but did not take a drink. Much as part of him wanted to toss the wine in Alistair’s face and stride from the tavern, he had to ask the inevitable question. “What do you have to offer?”
“A profitable alliance that will benefit us both. You have much more in common with me than with Malcolm. And God knows more than with O’Roarke.”
“Malcolm’s a very good agent. So’s O’Roarke if it comes to that.”
Alistair grimaced. “I suppose I can’t deny that. But that doesn’t make you allies. You can’t deny O’Roarke stands against everything you believe in.”
“Oh yes. So does Malcolm. But I don’t have to worry about their stabbing me in the back.”
“I should think St. Juste would give you enough to think about in that regard.”
Hubert took a drink of bordeaux. A good vintage, he’d give Alistair the credit of being a good judge of wine. And other things. “You have a point there.”
“Not to mention Mélanie Rannoch. She can’t possibly be as domestic as she appears.”
“I think Mrs. Rannoch would rake you over the coals for suggesting she even appears anything of the sort.”
Alistair gave a short laugh. “She certainly pulled the wool over Malcolm’s eyes. And apparently continues to do so, considering the fact that he’s still living with her.”
“That might signify that he knows her very well indeed.”
“In what way?”
Hubert shifted his glass on the table top. “Malcolm’s a number of things, and God knows I’ve been known to bemoan his impossible delusions about the human race. But I wouldn’t discount what’s between him and his wife. Or his determination to preserve a marriage that means a great deal to him.”
“At what cost?”
“You’ll have to ask him that.” Hubert pushed his spectacles up.
Alistair twirled his glass between his fingers. “I’d assume you think him a fool. But you don’t sound that way.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily play the situation as he’s done . But recent events have perhaps given me an appreciation of why a man might see the value in preserving his marriage.”
Alistair gave a grunt. “Some marriages can’t be preserved.”
“Very likely.” Hubert took a swallow of wine. It had a sharper bite now. Perhaps with the realization that his own marriage might be one of those. “The Rannochs’ isn’t one of them.”
“You sound very sure of that.”
Hubert tugged the left earpiece of his spectacles more firmly behind his ear. “I’m sure of few things in life. But oddly, I think I am sure of that.”
“She married him to spy on him.”
“And managed to deceive all of us. It was ably done. Among other things, Malcolm appreciates her talents. And Mélanie, I rather think, values having a husband who appreciates her.”
“You sound as though you admire her.”
“I do,” Hubert said, for once speaking the unvarnished truth. “And not in the way most men do. It doesn’t mean I trust her. But I’d rather have her at my back than you.”
A shadow flickered across Alistair’s face. He took a drink of wine. “I thought you said you were interested in what I had to offer. Or was that all a hum?”
“Oh, I’m interested. It wouldn’t be prudent not to explore all options.”
Alistair leaned forwards. “I can help you secure the king’s case. There’s a lot to be said for a grateful monarch. It will ensure the Whigs and Radicals retreat and give them no chance of turning the royal divorce to their advantage.”
The new king’s determination to divorce his long-estranged wife was a farce. It also threatened to bring down the government and had normally orderly citizens demonstrating in the street in ways that called up memories of France in the nineties. Hubert took a measured sip of wine. “I’m listening,”
“You can send that upstart Brougham packing with his tail between his legs.”
Hubert grunted at the mention of the Queen Caroline’s attorney general. “Brougham has a tendency to bounce back like a rubber ball. But go on.”
“It will let you consolidate your power against Castlereagh and Sidmouth and anyone else who’s been encroaching.”
Hubert stretched his legs out under the table and cupped this hands round his glass. “I wasn’t aware that anyone had been encroaching. I must be slipping.”
“You know damn well you’re not slipping. But you can’t deny certain people have been taking advantage of the recent changes in our circumstances.”
Hubert’s hands tightened round the wine glass, though he flattered himself no one could tell. “My power never rested on being Lord Carfax.”
“But you turned being Carfax to your advantage. You’re good at turning things to your advantage. I’m offering you the chance to do so again.”
Hubert took a deliberate drink of wine. “And in exchange?”
His companion reached for the bottle and refilled their glasses. “I want what Fanny got for O’Roarke and Mélanie. I want a pardon.”
“For what?”
“For everything.”
“I don’t even know what everything is.”
“No, that’s true. You don’t.”
Hubert scanned the other man’s face. He was good at reading clues in an expression. An agent had to be. But his companion was a master at hiding things. “It’s asking a great deal.”
“If the king gets what he wants it will be worth a great deal.”
“To him.”
“And to you if you bring it about.”
Hubert twisted the stem of his glass between his fingers. “You could of course be setting all this up to ruin me. You’ve tried to enough in the past.”
“That’s because you were trying to destroy us. If you join us you wouldn’t be an enemy anymore. After all isn’t joining us what you always wanted?”
“Joining you?” Hubert laughed at the thought of ever having been part of the Elsinore League. “I wanted to stop you from wreaking havoc on Britain and the Continent. Just like O’Roarke and Malcolm and their Leveller friends.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t jealousy of your brother?”
The word lingered in the air. “I never paid enough heed to my brother to be jealous.”
Alistair leaned back in his chair. “Can you really say you wouldn’t have joined us all those years ago if we’d asked you?”
“Oh, I daresay I would have done. To keep an eye on you. I daresay O’Roarke would have done for the same reasons.”
“You’re talking about O’Roarke as though he’s a friend.”
“He is after a fashion. I’m not particularly pleased that you’ve tried to have him killed.”
“You’ve done the same yourself.”
“Possibly. With better cause. I wouldn’t do so now unless things change drastically.”
“Things have a way of changing, don’t they?” Alistair took a drink of wine. “And given our current circumstances, I’d have no reason to move against you. Not if I could secure your cooperation.”
Hubert held his companion’s gaze. “Unless you wanted to destroy me for the same reason you wanted to destroy O’Roarke.”
Alistair returned the gaze like a duelist returning fire. His hand remained steady on the wine glass, but Hubert fancied it cost him an effort to keep it so. Because the one thing Alistair, Hubert, and Raoul O’Roarke shared was a connection to Arabella Rannoch, who had been Alistair’s wife and Hubert’s and Raoul’s lover. “In your case it was a mission,” Alistair said. “In Arabella’s too.”
“Difficult to tell sometimes where the mission leaves off. I imagine Mélanie could tell us something about that. And I imagine Malcolm and my wife could tell us something about whether or not it’s being a mission negates the impact on others involved.”
Alistair’s gaze hardened. “Don’t make the mistake of confusing me with Malcolm, who for all his apparent coldness is entirely too likely to dwell on the emotions involved. O’Roarke has always been my opponent. Our tactics could never align. Yours and mine could. That’s all it comes down to.”
“There’s rarely any ‘all’ anything comes down to.” Hubert tugged at his right earpiece. “And while I agree it’s a tiresome waste to dwell too much on emotions, I think one ignores them at one’s peril. I’d never make the mistake of assuming you were entirely rational.”
“I think I should be insulted by that.”
“Don’t be. I don’t claim I could be entirely rational if you’d seduced Amelia.” Hubert’s fingers froze on the frame of his spectacles.
“No,” Alistair said. “That never occurred to me. Proof perhaps of my own rationality in such matters.”
“Or of the fact that you can deceive even yourself.” Hubert took a drink of wine, gaze steady on the other man’s face. “Take it from one who knows.”
“You’re talking like a fool, Hubert.”
“We’re all fools at times.” Hubert continued to watch the man who had been his opponent for so long. The man whose wife had briefly been his mistress. “For what it’s worth. I can imagine Arabella upsetting a man’s best laid plans. She’d be worth it.”
Alistair’s fingers tightened round his wine glass.
“That isn’t what she meant to me,” Hubert said. “Or I to her. But I liked her. And there aren’t many people I’d say that about.”
Alistair tossed down a drink of wine and drummed his fingers on the table. “You’re very good at prevaricating. Which I admit can be a useful talent. But this is a business proposition. I wouldn’t attack you or O’Roarke or anyone else simply for personal reasons. Do you want what I have to offer? If not, I’ll make other arrangements.”
Hubert sat back in his chair and took a slow, deliberate drink of wine. Because what he said could change everything.

Chapter 1

Scandalous. Shocking. Impressive. Never thought I could feel sympathy for her. Remember the evidence about the bedsheets? Whatever else one thinks, he can hold a room’s attention. Didn’t he run off to Italy himself with someone’s wife? Non mi ricordo! What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
The fragments carried through the crowd on the stairs outside the House of Lords chamber, thick as a flurry of autumn leaves, bouncing off bonnets and cravats, walking sticks and reticules, ruched skirts and padded coats, half boots and Hessians.
“What’s more exciting?” Cordelia Davenport asked over the patter of voices and footfalls on marble stairs. “Having your words spoken on stage at the Tavistock or in the House of Lords?”
Mélanie Rannoch tightened her grip on her son Colin’s hand as they negotiated the crowd on the stairs outside the House of Lords. “Those were hardly my words just now.”
“Some of them were,” Laura Dudley said, keeping pace beside them, holding her daughter Emily’s hand. “I can attest that you and Malcolm spent hours editing Brougham’s speech. I made two pots of coffee while you were at it.”
“We maybe sharpened it a bit.” Mélanie righted her bonnet as someone jostled into her and dug an elbow into her spencer. Parliament was as crowded today as the Tavistock or Covent Garden on a first night. Perhaps not surprising given the drama playing out in the chamber, though it would be difficult to say if it was tragedy or farce. Henry Brougham had just given the opening speech for the defense in the trial before the Lords in which George IV, the new, as yet uncrowned king, was attempting to divorce his long-estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick.
“Where’s Aunt Kitty?” Colin asked, looking round at the crowd pressing past.
“We’re here.” Kitty Mallinson and her elder on Leo slipped between two men earnestly debating the merits of Brougham’s speech. The four women had each brought their eldest child to the ladies’ gallery to hear the opening of the defense. Mad as the events unfolding in London now were, they were shaping history, and it seemed important for the children to see it unfold.
More people were spilling onto the stairs from the chamber. Mélanie caught Emily’s hand in her free hand while Cordelia and Kitty joined hands, and the four of them and the children tried to stay close together. It was harder than trying to keep a group of fighters together in a skirmish in foggy terrain. As Mélanie could attest from personal experience.
They turned a corner and were halfway down the last flight of stairs when the crowd stopped abruptly. A dark-coated man in front of Mélanie surged backwards, knocking into her. Her half boots skidded on the step. Emily clutched her hand.
“That man fell!” Colin yelled.
Mélanie could see a man’s bootlegs sprawled a few steps down. Someone screamed. Mélanie cast a quick glance at Laura. Laura grabbed Colin’s hand. Mélanie pushed forwards and dropped down beside the man who had fallen. He had tumbled on the steps at a haphazard angle. She tugged off her gloves and went still sight of his familiar features. But there was no time to focus on that. His blue eyes were open but already glazed. She put her hand to his chest to check for his pulse and felt something damp and sticky. Blood was seeping through the side of his waistcoat. She pulled off her spencer and pressed it to his chest. “Can you hear me? Try to stay with me.”
He shuddered. “Cor–Cordelia,” His eyes were clouding. She could feel spreading dampness through the velvet of her spencer. Someone else screamed. She pressed her hands to his chest, heard him gasp, saw the light go from his eyes. She looked up to see a circle of people gathered round and met Kitty’s gaze, though Kitty could not possibly understand the full implications. “He’s dead.”
Cordelia pushed forwards beside Kitty. She’d gone completely still, as though she was looking into a gaping chasm. “George.”

“For someone used to weapons, I’m coming to appreciate the power of the spoken word.” Julien Mallinson, now Earl Carfax and one of the newest members of the House of Lords, pulled off his hat and leaned his sleek blond head close to Malcolm Rannoch to make his voice heard in the crush outside the Lords chamber. “I don’t know how it seemed from the gallery, but you could have heard a pin drop on the floor.”
“In the gallery as well. But it won’t be enough. Not on its own.” Malcolm scanned the crowd. Probably fruitless to try to catch sight of Mélanie, Laura, Cordy, and Kitty and the children in the thong. He’d told her he’d see her at home later tonight, since he’d be caught up in the endless Whig strategy discussions at Brooks’s after today’s session.
“They’re all good at navigating chaos,” Harry Davenport said, reading his thoughts. “Better than we are. This is nothing to the crush at a first night or a successful ball.”
That was true. And no need to worry, Malcolm told himself. London was on edge, but it seemed excessive to fear violence inside the Houses of Parliament. So far the protests had been confined to the streets. And it was the Tory opposition and people like his former spymaster, Julien’s uncle Hubert Mallinson, who worried about the protests, while Malcolm was inclined to think they were a release of very understandable frustrations by a populace suffering from high corn prices and unemployment after years of war. But recent events had left Malcolm on edge.
“A lot of long Tory faces.” Raoul O’Roarke, Malcolm’s father, slid through the crowd to join them. “At the risk of sounding small-minded, I confess it’s quite satisfying.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Malcolm said. “But however dour they look, we haven’t won anything unless they change their votes.”
Harry clapped Malcolm on the shoulder. “Take your victories while you can. Our side has at least won the day. And you and Mélanie helped hone the winning speech.”
“Just round the edges,” Malcolm said.
The crowd had eddied enough to allow them to inch forwards. Julien was slightly in the lead. He went still suddenly, nearly making Malcolm stumble. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” Malcolm asked. Julien had catlike senses.
“A scream.”
“Probably Tory frustration,” Harry said. “Though it’s difficult to tell the Tory screams of frustration from Whig shouts of glee.”
“No.” Julien was frowning with a seriousness he rarely showed. “I don’t know if it was a Whig or a Tory, but someone shouted murder.”