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M is for Marquess

By:Grace Callaway


Chapter One



At the stone gate, Gabriel Ridgley, the Marquess of Tremont, pulled his stallion to a stop.

“Easy, Shadow,” he murmured as the animal’s muscles quivered beneath him.

He didn’t blame the steed. At midnight, the moon’s spectral glow and the swirling shroud of mist transformed the Yorkshire moors into an eerie, forbidding landscape. Which was likely what drew Sir August Mondale, former spymaster and Gabriel’s mentor, to build a home here.

Spies, even retired ones, were drawn to obscurity. Gabriel, himself, chose to cloak himself in respectability. It was a source of private amusement that the sticklers of the ton had dubbed him The Angel for what they perceived to be his proper, faultless behavior. Their tongues would wag up a damned storm if they knew the truth. But they wouldn’t—because he didn’t want them to. Concealing his thoughts and desires was second nature to him.

Keep your guard up, and trust no one.

His mentor’s motto and the first lesson of being a spy.

Gabriel dismounted and secured his horse. He scaled the gate with ease, landing soundlessly on the other side. The rear windows of the manor house were dark, but he knew the spymaster was waiting for him. Mondale, known in the old days as Octavian, had sent Gabriel a summons written in the old code. After more than a decade out of the profession, deciphering the message had still come as naturally to Gabriel as breathing.

My study Friday at midnight. Tell no one. Do not be seen.

He made his way through overgrown hedges, his boot steps muffled by the carpet of moss and weeds. Clearly, Octavian hadn’t taken to gardening after retirement… if indeed the old codger had retired at all. Since the disbanding of the Quorum—the spy ring that Octavian had created and recruited Gabriel to—Gabriel had heard nothing from the other. Not surprising as the spymaster had been in high dudgeon at their final meeting.

“What do you mean you want to quit? Over a setback?” Octavian’s rough-hewn features had evinced disbelief.

“Marius’ death was more than a setback.” Though Gabriel’s voice had been quiet, his chest had been tight with rage and guilt. Marius had been his comrade and friend, more of a brother than his own had ever been. “He died protecting me.”

“Missions don’t always go as planned. ’Tis part of the game, Trajan.”

Trajan. Gabriel’s old code name. A good solider, an obedient killer. A reminder that Octavian had trained him, giving him purpose and discipline, the lethal tools to pursue a higher cause.

But that last mission in Normandy had changed all that. Being captured and tortured, seeing your best friend die for you and being helpless to do anything—that made you see clearly.

“The war’s been over for two years,” Gabriel said.

“War is never over.” Octavian’s fist pounded the desk. “We may have defeated Bonaparte, but enemies of England continue to conspire. The Spectre may still live—”

“I killed him,” Gabriel said. “During the escape.”

Flame and mayhem flashed in his mind’s eye. The cloaked figure had stood twenty yards away, shrouded by the billowing grey smoke, but Gabriel’s gut had identified his nemesis. Le Spectre. The French spymaster so called because he was a ghost who eluded capture, who’d kept his identity hidden in the shadows.

Although bloodied and injured, Gabriel had aimed with a steady hand. He’d sent his dagger—one of six forged from Damascus steel—on a lethal flight through the smoke. He’d seen his target fall the instant before an explosion had ripped through the fortress and sent the world crashing down.

“We never found his body. Or your blade.” Shaking his grizzled mane, Octavian said, “Without proof, we don’t know he’s dead. He has survived blades, fire, and explosions before. He’s walked away from death more times than I can count.”

“Chase phantom spymasters if you wish. I’m done.”

Gabriel had walked out of his mentor’s study a dozen years ago. He hadn’t looked back.

Then what the devil are you doing returning here now?

As he approached the back of the manor, his trepidation grew. He’d sensed an underlying urgency in the spymaster’s summons. Loyalty was in his nature; he couldn’t forget Octavian any more than he could forgive him.

Further proof that he could never leave his past behind. That mistakes, despite one’s best efforts, had a way of repeating themselves. Unbidden, his most recent error unfolded in his mind’s eye. From the first, Dorothea Kent’s steady hazel gaze had captivated him, seeming to see straight into his soul. Her fine-boned beauty and lustrous gilded brown hair had reminded him of an etching in one of his son’s storybooks, the one of the princess locked in an ivory tower.

He couldn’t recall if that drawing had possessed Thea’s sweetly formed breasts or her nicely rounded bottom. Or if the princess in the story had smelled of honeysuckle, her skin smoother than cream. Or if one kiss had made the hero of the story harder than a steel pike.

He shut down that line of thought, which would only lead to trouble. He’d been right in putting distance between himself and Thea; in truth, he’d allowed things to go too far. Getting involved with a virgin—and one with a delicate constitution at that—was the last thing he needed. He’d gone down that road before, and it’d led to disastrous consequences for all involved.

Besides, he had more pressing considerations: an estate to run… a son to raise.

Jaw tautening, he focused on the task at hand. His gloved fingers found the seam of a window left ajar. He saw a faint glow through a slit in the drapes, a flash of leather spines that told him he’d found the study. He lifted the pane, eased silently inside, brushing aside velvet as he assessed the room at a glance.

Lamp on the desk, half-burned. Scent of Octavian’s favorite tobacco. And something else...

Gabriel unsheathed his blades, the metal glinting. He scanned the room. No movement. No hiding place. Keeping close to the wall, he crept forward—and saw the hand on the ground by the bookshelves. Another three steps brought the body, which had been obscured by the desk, into full view. A grey-haired figure lying on his belly, one arm outstretched, his face turned to the side and pale eyes unseeing.

Octavian.

Emotion welled; at the same time, Gabriel’s training kicked in. Sleet coated his insides, blocking out sentiment as his brain analyzed details with detached clarity. The spymaster’s throat had been slit. From behind and without warning, judging from the clean incision. The poor bastard hadn’t seen it coming, hadn’t struggled. There were no signs of forced entry. The murderer had come and gone like a ghost.

Clinging to the last thread of life, Octavian had had perhaps a minute or two before he’d suffocated in his own blood. The trail of scarlet indicated that he’d taken that precious time, used monumental effort, to drag himself the distance from the desk to the bookshelf.

Why?

Crouching, Gabriel rolled the body over. Saw the book clutched in his mentor’s hand, fingers curled between the pages. With care, he freed the leather volume from Octavian’s death grip.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Gabriel scanned the marked page. Act III, Scene I, Caesar’s words anointed with Octavian’s blood. Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!

Caesar’s famous words denouncing the ultimate betrayal by a member of his inner circle. Had Octavian, too, been deceived by someone close to him? The spymaster had no surviving relatives or friends and over the past years had become a virtual recluse. He belonged to no group, except the one that, like Caesar, he’d led.

The Quorum.

Ice ran through Gabriel’s veins. Why would one of the Quorum—one of Gabriel’s former colleagues—want Octavian dead? Had the old spymaster known that danger was coming? Was that the reason behind his mysterious summons to Gabriel this eve?

Gabriel ran a gloved hand over his mentor’s eyes, closing them.

“Rest now, old friend,” he said quietly. “Your travails are over.”

His own had just begun. He left the way he came, through the window and into the garden. Blending into the shadows, he went in search of answers.





Chapter Two



Three weeks later

Passing the entrance gate, Dorothea Kent took in the gardens of the Zoological Society with wide-eyed wonder. Located at the eastern edge of Regent’s Park, the collection of animals stretched as far as the eye could see. All around her, creatures sporting fur, feathers, or scales roamed in pens of sun-gilded grass. Up ahead, she spied fluttering shapes within a glass-domed aviary and, to the left of it, exotic beasts of burden grazing around an Arabian-styled house.

“This is the tops.” Violet, Thea’s middle sister, stood on tiptoe, chestnut curls bobbing as she craned her neck to get a better view. “Let’s see the leopards first. No, make that the bears.”

“We’ve all afternoon, Vi.” Their eldest sister Emma shook out the map she’d purchased at the entry hut. “If we follow the walking path in a clockwise manner, then we’ll be sure to see everything—”

“Gadzooks, are those llamas?” With a shriek of excitement, Vi bounded off.

“Shall I follow her, pet?” the Duke of Strathaven quirked an eyebrow.

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