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?”

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