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A Spring Deception (Seasons Book 2)

By:Jess Michaels

Chapter One

February 1811

John Dane pulled his horse up in the circular drive and looked up and up and up at the castle before him. The stone fortress was an ostentatious display of a man's power if he'd ever seen one, and he had seen many in his thirty-two years.

Of course, power hadn't helped this particular man much. In fact, quite the opposite.

As he swung down from his mount a young man rushed through the imposing front doors and down the steps to greet him. "Good evening, Mr. Dane," he said.

He sent the man a sharp look. "What have I told you, Corbett? There's no mister. Hell, there's hardly a Dane."

"Of course, sir, I-I'm sorry," Corbett stammered, motioning up the stairs to the entryway. "Lord Stalwood is waiting for you."

Dane pursed his lips. He was not looking forward to this. "Lead the way."

Corbett nodded and did just that, scuttling back up to the house with Dane on his heels. He was engaged in a ceaseless stream of chatter as they walked, but Dane blocked it out. He preferred to determine facts by his own senses, not through someone else's perceptions. Especially someone so young and inexperienced as Corbett.

Inside he let his gaze dart around as his companion led him through dark, twisting, gloomy halls. It was certainly an interesting aesthetic, like something out of a gothic novel. Or a nightmare.

" … here." Corbett finished whatever he was saying and smiled before he pushed open a large door and indicated that Dane should enter.

He forced himself to focus back on the man before him. "Thank you, Corbett."

The thanks seemed to light up Corbett from the inside, and he grinned. "You're welcome, sir. Anything I can do, I'm happy to serve. You're a legend, you know."

Dane arched a brow, uncertain if he should show gratitude for the praise or mistrust it. His first reaction was generally mistrust, though he sensed nothing false about Corbett.

The young man blushed. "A-and now I'm off to help the boys outside."

He took off like a puppy who hadn't quite grown into his legs. Dane shook his head. The young ones were always like that. Thrilled by the hunt, he supposed. Though he didn't recall ever being so eager. Of course, his background was likely far, far different from Corbett's and he'd come to this place with a much different view of it.

He pushed the thoughts aside, drew in a deep breath and entered the room. It appeared to be a library, with tall shelves brimming with books. A bright fire was burning in one corner of the room, and unlike the rest of the dark, moody house, lanterns and candles brought significant light to the chamber.

Behind a settee with a high back, a man stood, and his presence elicited the first hint of a smile on Dane's face.

"Hello, Stalwood," he said.

Stalwood looked up, and his wrinkled face brightened with his own smile. "Dane. Thank you for coming so swiftly. We were lucky you were close by."

Dane took a breath. He could smell it now. The metallic tang of blood that filled his nose and brought back memories of many a terrible day. He moved forward and around the settee.

And there it was. The body. A man, lying in a huge pool of blood. His face was twisted in pain and fear. Dane had seen the dead many a time before, but it remained a jarring experience. He often wondered what their last moments had been like. What they had thought of as they struggled to stay alive, then realized that struggle would be in vain. What did a man wish for in that moment?

As for the man lying before him, Dane couldn't believe many thoughts had plagued him, at least at the very last moments. The victim's head had been crushed by some kind of bludgeoning weapon. Probably the fire poker that lay beside him, caked with blood and slightly bent from the force of the blows it had struck.

"A weapon of opportunity," Dane said softly.

Stalwood glanced up at him with a nod. "Yes, I thought the same. It leads me to believe his attacker might not have intended for this outcome tonight."

"All the better for us if the murder wasn't planned. There are more chances that the perpetrator left traces of himself behind. And who is the victim? I assume the War Department wouldn't be involved if he weren't important."

Stalwood nodded slowly. "Oh, yes, he is very important. This is … or was, I suppose, the Duke of Clairemont." Dane's eyes went wide as he jerked his face toward Stalwood. The earl nodded. "You know the name."

"Everyone in the game knows that name. I've seen it in a dozen reports. Clairemont has been long suspected of involvement in weapons trade with France, behind war lines, a direct violation of embargo and an act of treason. And worse, the man has been trading in information. When Smith was unmasked and executed in Napoleon's court, wasn't that rumored to be Clairemont's doing?"         



Stalwood's face grew grim. "Indeed, it was."

"Then someone has done the War Department a favor, it seems," Dane said, glancing over the dead man again, this time with more disdain than pity. How many lives had Clairemont cost, either by providing instruments of death or information to the enemy? A bludgeoning seemed too good a fate.

"Not much of one," Stalwood said.

"What do you mean?"

His superior motioned Dane to a desk beside a window. A thick book of poetry rested there, opened to reveal a hidden chamber within the tome. It was filled with letters.

"Ah, so His Grace wasn't as much of a reader as he might have seemed," Dane said. "At least not of books."

Stalwood shook his head. "No. Once we clear the body away, we'll have half a dozen agents searching through every book looking for more hidden correspondence. Right now, though, what this tells us is that Clairemont was involved in a great many dealings with a great many people. Even more connections than we thought. And certainly, though he was a villain, there are many branches to this poisonous vine, and cutting away one piece will do us little good."

Dane nodded, understanding. "You need the root."

"Yes. And alive, Clairemont might have helped us with that, whether willingly or not. But now … "

Dane clenched his fists. "Yes, I see. Do the servants have any information?"

"They are gathered away in the kitchen, but after a brief interrogation I would say no. Clairemont was secretive and he had only three servants."

"Even in this castle?" Dane said in disbelief. "It's huge."

"Apparently most of it was closed off years ago. Those who serve here are overworked and abused, it seems, with no love for their master, especially the maid and the housekeeper. They say Clairemont was not expecting anyone they knew of last night, but that he ran his own schedule, keeping them away from his plans. He didn't employ a butler and managed his own correspondence."

"And you believe them?"

Stalwood inclined his head. "You may speak to them, of course-in fact, I very much want you to. I trust your instincts, you've always been able to smell a liar. But I have some small skill in that area, myself, and I have no reason to doubt them, especially given their abject terror at what transpired here tonight."

Dane moved toward him. "My lord, I was not implying-"

"Of course you weren't, my boy." Stalwood smiled, and it was a genuine and warm expression. "I take great pride in your mastery of this work. I'm very happy to have you surpass me in skill."

Dane let out a burst of laughter. "No one shall ever do that, my lord."

Stalwood shrugged, but his smile faded. "I was very pleased to have you close by, but not only because you are my best spy, Dane. Have you looked carefully at the man on the rug there?"

Dane turned and glanced at the body again. "I haven't taken a huge amount of time, but I have my impressions, yes."

"Have you taken note of Clairemont's appearance?"

Dane wrinkled his brow and took a few steps toward the fallen duke. "I see that the blows were struck on both sides of the head, indicating a swinging back and forth. There was a great deal of force, there-"

"Not that. His face." Stalwood tilted his head. "Who does he look like?"

"Hard to say with half his head bashed in," Dane said with a shrug.

Stalwood sighed and motioned Dane out of the room. He was just as happy to leave the bloody scene behind him. Yes, he had been trained for such things, and in his life he'd seen a great deal of death, both violent and otherwise. But it wasn't an enjoyable aspect of his occupation as a spy in the War Department. He much preferred investigating, becoming another person, needling into a situation until all the facts became clear.

Stalwood stepped into a long hall where pictures had been hung. He caught up a lantern from the wall and moved to one of them, lifting his light up to the face depicted there.

"Our victim," his mentor said.

Dane stared but could see nothing unusual about the appearance of the man who lay dead on the floor. He had dark blond hair, light eyes and an entirely arrogant expression that made Dane even less sorry for the bastard's bitter end in the library.

"Looks like a prick. What of it?"

"You don't see it, which is fascinating considering your attention to detail." Stalwood shook his head. "Very well, I shall guide you until you do. You two do not look dissimilar, Dane. Surely you must see the resemblance."