To save the woman he loves he must step back into the shadows of his past
Dangerous Deceptions Book Two
(This is the second in the Dangerous Deceptions linked series. All the books may be read as stand-alone novels. For more about the series, please see the Book Series page.)
His old employer, the Duke of Calderbrook (Loving the Lost Duke) is clear of the danger that haunted him but Jared Hunt is a man for hire – a swordmaster who is quite happy to take on the duties of a temporary bodyguard while he is waiting for his new salle d’armes to be finished.
What he doesn’t expect is to have his new employer murdered within days and the widow, who he was hired to protect, left vulnerable, both to the killer and to charges of murder.
To protect Guinevere, Lady Northam, Jared must return to the county of his birth, risk his carefully-constructed identity, his pride, his life – and his heart.
The Viscount’s butler took him through to Northam without delay, pausing only to take the scabbard and sword belt he was handed. The promptness was interesting. Most gentlemen, in Jared’s experience, liked to assert their superiority by keeping an inferior waiting a while. True, swordmasters were several steps up on dancing masters, apothecaries and curates. They were equivalent, in most gentlemen’s eyes if not those of their wives, to lawyers, doctors and the vicar. But of a certainly they were not equals. Cal treated him as one because they were friends: Jared did not make the error of expecting any other aristocrat to do the same.
‘Mr Hunt, thank you for obliging me with your attendance.’
Well that was amiable enough. Jared contented himself with a polite inclination of the head, settled his feet apart, put his hands behind his back and waited, apparently all his attention on the man in front of him. He also noted the other doors into the room, the quality of the furnishings, the books on the side table, the faint sounds of the household beyond the closed doors and, automatically, the various escape routes. A pleasant room, in good taste, a little cluttered with the accumulation of years of living, a little worn around the edges for ease, not from want of funds. A warm, comfortable space that spoke well of its owner.
‘Come, take a seat.’ Lord Northam lowered himself stiffly into one of the wing chairs before the cold fireplace, using the back and the arm as props. It was the first real sign that betrayed his age that Jared had noticed, beyond the sagging skin and the grey hairs.
Jared took the seat opposite, crossed his legs and waited. He was good at waiting.
‘You were recommended to me,’ Northam said abruptly.
‘Might I ask, by whom?’
‘I set my valet the task of finding me the man I needed. He heard rumours and spoke to the Duke of Calderbrook’s man Flynn and then I had a word with a number of people who were at a certain house party. You made a very definite impression in a most discreet manner, Mr Hunt.’
Michael Flynn was Cal’s valet, their companion on their travels and a very good friend to both of them. He would have vouched for Jared even if Jared had been putting himself forward as Archbishop of Canterbury. But as for anyone else – those must have been the male guests at the house party where Cal almost lost his life and the mystery of the near-fatal illnesses that had sent him abroad as a young man was finally solved. It was troubling that guests had realised there was a situation to be dealt with. Cal’s injuries and the death of another house guest had been ascribed to accidental causes and at the time no-one had shown any sign of believing otherwise.
‘Indeed. Nobody was quite sure what was going on, but something was and they described you as the deus ex machina who ensured that things stayed like that – ambiguous. From the very little Tonkin could glean from Flynn I was more inclined to ask whether you had Italian blood – there was a distinct hint of stilettos behind the arras about the matter.’
Jared kept his expression bland, despite the urge to snort with laughter at being described as the god in the machine. ‘Knives and an arras, my lord? That is as much Hamlet as Machiavelli. No-one was knifed, you have my assurance.’ Poisoned and shot, yes. Knifed, no.
‘I will not ask for details and I know I would get short shrift if did, which is as it should be.’ He shot Jared a sharp glance from beneath unruly eyebrows several shades darker than his hair. ‘Tonkin summed you up as a dangerous man to be on the wrong side of, absolutely loyal and worryingly intelligent. I have great need of a man like that, Mr Hunt, even if you take extreme pains to hide your past.’
‘My past?’ Jared lifted one eyebrow. Absolute stillness was as betraying as fidgeting. ‘It is an open book. I was apprenticed in arms to Monsieur Jacques Favel, then, on his recommendation, secured a position as swordmaster and companion to the young Viscount Castledale, later Duke of Calderbrook. I spent almost seven years abroad with him on his travels and have, within the year, returned with him to England.’
He crossed his legs. ‘His Grace no longer requires a travelling companion and I am therefore free to set up my own salle d’armes.’
‘And before your apprenticeship?’
‘I hardly think my childhood is relevant, my lord. It was not spent in prison, in a slum or engaged in felony, you have my word.’
‘Then why the secrecy?’
Persistent old bugger, aren’t you? Jared considered ending the interview there and then. He could not afford rumours to spread that he was sensitive about his origins, that there was intriguing tale to be told. ‘Because it is my business, my lord.’ He smiled, taking care that the warmth reached his eyes. ‘A certain mystery is part of my persona, my calling card, if you will. If you chose to employ me I will keep your secrets as close as my own. But if my privacy is a stumbling block for you, then I will remove myself forthwith.’
He waited. One heartbeat, two… Ah well, I will just have to hope the old man is not a gossip. He placed his hands on the arms of the chair and prepared to stand.
‘Fair enough.’ The Viscount waved him back into the seat. ‘Either I trust you, or I do not and I find that I do.’ He picked up a folded paper from the table by his chair and handed it to Jared. ‘That is what I am prepared to pay you, in addition to your expenses.’
Jared unfolded it and found himself holding a bank draft. An exceedingly large bank draft. He lifted his gaze to meet that of the old man steadily watching him across the few feet between them. ‘And what would I have to do to earn this?’ It seemed to be about half the going rate for assassinating a royal duke or robbing the Bank of England.
‘Someone is attempting to kill my wife. Find them and stop them by whatever means necessary.’