Nights filled with lavish balls...lush, bucolic afternoons.... Removed to glamorous Brussels in the wake of Napoleon's escape from Elba, Intelligence Agent Malcolm Rannoch and his wife, Suzanne, warily partake in the country's pleasures. But with the Congress of Vienna in chaos and the Duke of Wellington preparing for battle, the festivities are cut short when Malcolm is sent on a perilous mission that unravels a murderous world of espionage...
No one knows what the demure and respectable Lady Julia Ashton was doing at the château where Malcolm and a fellow British spy were ambushed. But now her enigmatic life has been ended by an equally mysterious death. And as the conflict with Napoleon marches toward Waterloo, and Brussels surrenders to bedlam, Suzanne and Malcolm will be plunged into the search for the truth-revealing an intricate labyrinth of sinister secrets and betrayal within which no one can be trusted...
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Outside Brussels, Belgium Wednesday, 14 June 1815, 1:00 am
Malcolm Rannoch swung down from his horse in the moonlit courtyard. His kid-soled dress shoes made a soft thud on the flagstones. He patted his horse's sweat-dampened neck. It had been a hard half-hour ride from Brussels. A mere half hour. Odd to think that little more than thirty minutes ago he had been holding his wife in his arms, waltzing in the British ambassador's candlelit ballroom. Odder still to think that he had been waltzing at all, rather than hiding out in the library behind the fortifications of a book or newspaper. The past six months had changed him a great deal. Or perhaps the change was owed to his wife.
He slid his hand beneath the Bath superfine of his evening coat and drew out his pistol. The man he was meeting was a friend. In theory. But with the Allied army headquartered round Brussels, and the French army under the recently restored Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris, only a few days' march away, one never knew.
He drew his mare, Perdita, into the shadows of the gatehouse and gave one last pat to her forehead. She nuzzled his hand in response. No need to worry she wouldn't stay where bidden.
The moonlight threw a blue-black sheen on the flagstones and showed the outline of the old iron gate. He turned the handle and eased the gate open. The loamy scent of earth damp and the fragrance of roses and violets greeted him. He paused for a moment to get his bearings, to pick out the dark lines that delineated hedges and benches and statuary. The solid dark blur to his right was the chÃ¢teau itself. He could see the lacy filigree of a balcony railing against the lighter stone of the walls.
He stepped forward along the pale line of a gravel path and gave a low sound close enough to the call of a thrush to fool all but the most adept ornithologist. No answering call greeted him. Well, though there wasn't enough light to see his pocket watch, he was probably a bit early. Wellington had been most insistent when he gave him the message, and he'd ridden hard.
He leaned against the trunk of what he thought was a lime tree, secure in the shadows. A gust of wind rippled through the trees. An owl hooted. A real owl? No way to be certain.
Ten minutes had passed if he counted correctly. He reached beneath his coat and unhooked the watch his wife had given him their second Christmas together. As he snapped it open, his thumb slid over the quote from Romeo & Juliet inscribed on the inside cover. He peered at the dial, his eyes now more accustomed to the moonlight. Nearly one-fifteen. La Fleur was almost a quarter hour late. Anyone could be delayed, especially these days. But in the two months he had been giving intelligence to the British, La Fleur had been almost painfully punctual.
A faint creak sounded from the shadows, followed by three thrush calls in quick succession. Malcolm stepped away from the tree.
"Sorry. Had to reconnoiter." Jean La Fleur, for the past two months one of their best sources of intelligence within the French army, stepped into the garden. He moved without haste, his pale hair gleaming in the moonlight. A few feet off, he stopped and scanned Malcolm in the shadows, taking in the evening coat and white net pantaloons and silver-buckled shoes.
"Dancing?" La Fleur's voice had the ironic lift of a soldier addressing a civilian.
"All in a day's work. Where else does one collect intelligence?"
"I could name you some possibilities. More interesting than a ballroom." La Fleur leaned his arm against a stone statue that looked to be some sort of Greek goddess and cast a glance at the house. "What is this place anyway? Something Wellington keeps for assignations?"
"The property of one of our Belgian allies. Conveniently empty and conveniently close to Brussels." Malcolm studied La Fleur in the shadows. The negligent line of his arm, the self-assured tilt of his shoulders. In all their months of dealings, of passing papers and money back and forth, Malcolm had never asked the Frenchman what drove him to betray his comrades. The thought left a faint tang of distaste in Malcolm's mouth. Which was absurd. What was intelligence if not betrayal, often of multiple people at once? "La Fleur? What's happened? Wellington said you indicated it was urgent."
La Fleur shook his head. "Sounds like a cliché, doesn't it, but for once I don't think I'm exaggerating. Listen, Rannoch —"
Malcolm grabbed La Fleur's arm and went still, senses keyed to every creak and vibration in the garden. Then he heard the sound again. A faint scrape and stir. Not an animal. Boot steps. In the garden of the supposedly empty château.
Malcolm leveled his pistol.
Suzanne Rannoch stirred the heavy perfumed air with her silk-painted fan. The youth and beauty of the Allied army swirled on the dance floor before her. Hussars, dragoons, Horse Guards, and Life Guards in brilliant crimson or blue and gold or silver lace, staff officers in dark blue coats, riflemen in dark green, Dutch-Belgians in green or blue, and a host of other uniforms. The soldiers circled the floor with girls in gauzy frocks of white and pink, primrose and forget-me-not, champagne and ivory. The candlelight glanced off gold and silver braid, gleaming medals and decorations, pearl necklaces, diamond eardrops, silver thread embroidered on sleeves and hems.
It might have been any ball in any elegant house. Save for the profusion of military brilliance and the dearth of sober dark civilian coats. This waltz had been a favorite at the Congress of Vienna, where Suzanne and her husband had spent the fall and winter. But even in Vienna military uniforms had not so predominated. The threat of war had hung over the Congress, but as a consequence of council chamber quarrels, a constant ripple beneath the surface of balls and masquerades and champagne-filled salons. Then Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped his exile on the island of Elba and returned to power in France and everything had changed.
The British, the Dutch-Belgians, and the Prussians were spread out along the border between Belgium (now part of the Netherlands) and France, the British and their Dutch-Belgian allies to the west of the old Roman road from Bavay to Maastricht, the Prussians to the east. Eventually, when their Austrian allies were ready, they would move into France. But if Napoleon, as seemed likely, crossed the border first they would close in and trap him. At least that was the plan. It was a long border and there were any number of ways the master strategist Napoleon Bonaparte could move. Together, the Allies and the Prussians outnumbered the French. But if he could separate them, Napoleon would have the advantage.
Suzanne's fingers tightened round her fan. Whatever the outcome of the confrontation between the Allies and Napoleon, it was sure to shake her to the core and test the limits of everything she was. And it could not leave her unchanged. Or her marriage.
"Standing about?" Sir Charles Stuart, Britain's ambassador to the Hague and the evening's host, put a glass of champagne into her hand. "We can't have that. Where's your husband got to?"
Suzanne took a sip of champagne and gave Stuart her most dazzling smile. "Surely you don't believe my husband and I spend the evening in each other's pockets, sir? Have I learned nothing in two and a half years as a diplomatic wife?"
"Off on an errand, is he?" Stuart gave her a lazy grin. "Wonder who sent him."
"It wasn't you?"
"In the middle of my own ball? No, ten to one he's been seconded by the military."
Malcolm had met her gaze across the ballroom an hour since, raised his champagne glass to her, and then slipped between two stands of candles and melted away through one of the French windows. Even she didn't know where he had gone. Malcolm had come to trust her a great deal in the two and a half years since they had entered into their oddly begun marriage of convenience, but there were some secrets a good intelligence agent didn't share, even with a spouse. She understood that better than anyone.
Stuart put a familiar arm round her and squeezed her shoulders, left fashionably bare by the ruffled neck of her gown of pomegranate gauze over a slip of pale pink satin. "You're a damned fine hostess, Suzanne. Couldn't have pulled the party off without you."
"Nonsense. You were an excellent host long before I met you."
"Lisbon was different from Brussels." Stuart kissed her cheek, managing at once to be flirtatious and brotherly. "He'll be safely back before dawn, never fear. We're weeks away from fighting."
"Weeks?" Even were Napoleon really still in Paris, he was only a short march from Brussels.
"Well, days at any rate."
"Mrs. Rannoch." A tall man in an austere black evening coat, his fine-boned face distinguished by a distinctive hook nose and piercing blue eyes, materialized out of the crowd. "You look lovelier every time I see you."
Suzanne held out her hand to the commander of the Allied army. "Is that the secret of your success, Your Grace? Always knowing precisely the right thing to say?"
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, gave one of his brusque laughs. "Hardly. My brother's the diplomat in the family. Like your husband. Where's he disappeared to?"
"I fear I haven't the least idea," Suzanne said. "Though I thought perhaps Your Grace might."
Wellington gave her a shrewd look. "Possibly, my dear. Possibly. Don't let it get about that I said so, but diplomats can often prove remarkably useful."
Despite the heat in the candle-warmed room, a chill coursed through her. She knew Wellington was fond of Malcolm. And she also knew the duke wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice her husband or anyone else if he thought it necessary to achieve victory.
Malcolm tightened his grip on La Fleur's arm and kept stone-still until he could make out the shadowy form standing just inside the gate. Then he hurled himself across the garden in three strides, kicking up a hail of gravel, and knocked the man to the ground. They crashed through a hedge. Branches broke. Something prickly jabbed Malcolm in the eye. He gripped his fallen adversary by the shoulders. "Qui êtes-vous?"
"Easy, Rannoch. Don't take my head off." The other man's voice was hoarse but acerbic. "Your French is impeccable, but I know damn well it's you."
Those incisive, mocking tones were unmistakable. Malcolm sat back on his heels. "Davenport. What the devil are you doing here?"
"Warning you." Harry Davenport pushed himself up to a sitting position and stared at La Fleur, who had crossed the garden to them. "You must be La Fleur. Hanging back from a fight that isn't yours?"
"Never know what the hell Rannoch's up to. Seemed better to stay back. Who the devil are you?"
"Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Davenport," Malcolm said. "Aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. Currently seconded to Colonel Grant."
Colquhoun Grant was the head of British military intelligence, keeping watch for movement of French troops near the border.
"Grant sent me." Davenport pulled himself free of the hedge and reached for his hat. "He intercepted a dispatch that implies the French may have broken one of our codes. Which means you could be compromised, La Fleur. We need to extract you tonight and get you back to Brussels."
"See here," La Fleur said, "selling you information's one thing. If you think I'm going to turn my back on everything —"
"You should have thought of that before you started selling out your fellows," Davenport said.
La Fleur whirled on him, hand raised. "Damn you —"
Malcolm grabbed La Fleur's arm. "Who knows where —"
Shots rang out. Malcolm flung himself down and heard Davenport and La Fleur slam into the gravel beside him.
Davenport lifted his head. "What the devil —"
Another shot whistled overhead from the direction of the garden wall. Malcolm rolled onto his back and fired off an answering shot.
"Compromised, you say?" La Fleur aimed a shot at the wall. "What the hell have you got me into?"
"Risks of the trade." Davenport fired as well, as a fresh hail answered from the wall. Whoever they were, they had the devil's own skill at reloading.
Malcolm jammed fresh powder into his pistol. A cry sounded from above, and he caught a glimpse of stirring blue fabric and pale hair. A light glowed behind one of the windows of the château. What the devil —
La Fleur flung himself over Malcolm just as a fresh volley rang out. Malcolm felt the impact of the bullet that struck La Fleur, an instant before the other man collapsed on top of him.CHAPTER 2
"Suzanne." Georgiana Lennox, the petite, elfin-faced third daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond, fell upon Suzanne, dragging Malcolm's cousin Aline Blackwell by the hand. "What have you learned? What was the duke saying?"
"Everything to be charming and reassuring, nothing of substance." Suzanne met the gaze of the chief footman and nodded to him to open more champagne.
Georgiana groaned. "No matter now much ice water Wellington has in his veins he can't be completely sanguine."
"I am quite sure that he isn't." Suzanne glanced at the dance floor. A quadrille had just begun. The nearest set was made up of two young lieutenants partnering a blond girl in white and a brunette in pink. The soldiers were laughing as though they hadn't a care in the world.
Suzanne took Georgiana and Aline by the arm and steered them to an ivory damask bench against the wall.
"Have you thought of leaving?" Georgiana asked as she sank down on the bench, her eyes wide and candid. "Going to Antwerp or even back to England?"
England. An alien land Suzanne had only visited once and to which she only belonged by marriage. She touched the younger girl's arm. "It's not as though there's a great deal waiting for me there."
"It's Malcolm's family's home." Georgiana cast a glance at Aline. "They'd look after you."
"Yes, the Rannochs and the Dacre-Hammonds could be counted on for that." Aline settled the peach muslin folds of her skirt. "At least some of us. But no sense pretending it's easy living among the English ton, Georgy. Goodness knows I've never felt I properly belonged, and I was born one of their number."
"Are you thinking of leaving, Georgy?" Suzanne asked.
Georgiana shook her head. "My parents wouldn't dream of it, with Father in command of the reserve forces and my brothers in the army. But the Mertons and Grandisons have left. Does Dr. Blackwell want you to go home, Allie?"
Aline snorted. "Geoff knows better than to tell me what to do." Her cool, dark gaze turned serious as it settled on the young soldiers in the quadrille. "I didn't marry a military doctor to sit across the Channel wondering what would become of him."
"But you're going to have a baby. And Suzanne already has one."
Aline touched her stomach, nearly flat beneath her embroidered muslin gown, as though she still couldn't quite make sense of the fact that she was pregnant.
Suzanne saw her son's bright-eyed face when she'd kissed him good night before they left for the party. "Colin was born in the midst of a war, and Malcolm and I dragged him across the Peninsula. Perhaps it was selfish of us to have kept him with us, but he seemed to thrive on it. I often think that's why he sleeps so well through the night. He's used to being jolted over rough roads in an ill-sprung carriage with musket fire in the distance."
Aline's gaze moved from the young lieutenants in the quadrille to a group of riflemen talking on the edge of the dance floor. "The French aren't monsters if it comes to that. Even if we're taken prisoner, there's another seven months before my baby's born. And more of a chance Geoff will be here to deliver it."
Georgiana shuddered. "How can you joke about it?"
"Difficult to do much else," Aline said, her smile sharp with irony.
"I'm sorry." Georgiana pushed a light brown ringlet behind her ear with an impatient tug. "I'm all right most of the time. And then I look at my brothers and Lord Hay and our other friends —"
Suzanne squeezed Georgiana's shoulders. "We're all frightened, Georgy. We just have different ways of showing it."
Georgiana smiled. "Where's Malcolm? He's always so wonderfully sensible."
"Hiding out in the library I suspect," Suzanne said, shutting her mind to images of the danger her husband might be in. "I got one waltz out of him and count myself fortunate."
"I saw you dancing. I'd give a great deal to have a gentleman look at me the way Malcolm was looking at you. I wish — Good heavens!" Georgiana exclaimed. "I didn't realize she'd come to Brussels."
"Who?" Aline asked, looking round the ballroom.
"Cordelia Davenport. By the door with Caro Lamb. They're great friends. Not surprisingly, they share a penchant for scandal. But I wouldn't have thought Lady Cordelia would dare show her face here."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Imperial Scandal"
Copyright © 2012 Tracy Grant.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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