Behind the Marquess's Mask (The Lords of Whitehall Book 1)

BOOK: Behind the Marquess's Mask (The Lords of Whitehall Book 1)
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BEHIND THE MARQUESS’S MASK
The Lords of Whitehall
Kristen McLean

Young Ink Press Publication

YoungInkPress.com

Copyright © 2016 by Kristen McLean

Edited by C&D Editing and Hot Tree Editing

Cover Art by Young Ink Press

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

This work of fiction is intended for mature audiences only. All sexually active characters portrayed in this ebook are eighteen years of age or older. Please do not buy if strong sexual situations, violence, and explicit language offends you.

Connect with Kristen,

twitter.com/kristenlmclean

https://www.facebook.com/kmromance/

https://kmromance.com

Prologue
France 1818

G
rey had been
the Marquess of Ainsley for nigh on a decade, his numerous estates being some of the most profitable in England. Numerous estates with enormous, warm, coma-inducing beds, each one piled high with mountains of pillows.

Why the devil was he now lying on the coldest, most uncomfortable cot in all of Christendom?

“He is awake.”

Someone spoke in French. If anyone were speaking French in his boudoir, it ought to be with a husky, feminine drawl, not the rough growl he had just heard. Now that he thought of it, along with the pillows, there was a shocking lack of silk and feathers.

This was all wrong, very wrong.

He opened his eyes, and the large, cold stones forming the ceiling slowly came into focus. That along with the cool feel of iron at his wrists and ankles and the two men glaring menacingly in his direction made it profoundly clear the nightmare he had been plagued with was quite real.

He was still in France, only now he was in prison. He had been caught.

“We want their names.”

“I have no names,”
Grey lied. “I am utterly nameless.” It wasn’t meant to be a slurred mumble, but his mouth felt stuffed full of cotton, and his lips wouldn’t move. They were swollen, stiff, as was the rest of him.

“Your friend is dead,” one of them said. “Do you wish to join him?”

That meant Johnny had kept silent to the end. He had been a good lad—just a lad—and had died a nobody with no funeral or grave for loved ones to visit. Disappearing without notice, he would have no honor, no glory, no great eulogy commending his bravery in the face of torture and death—all things Grey had told him would happen the day he had signed on.

“Go to hell,” Grey growled.

One of the men, an overly large behemoth with an atrocious moustache, laughed as he brandished a long knife with a thick blade. He moved to stand next to Grey, who was strapped on his back to a wooden table. Arguably, it was not the best position to be in whilst issuing threats.

What shall be first
? Grey wondered. His ears? His fingers, maybe? Not his tongue; they needed that.

“The man you sliced from ear to ear,” the behemoth said, “was my brother.”

Ears, then.

The man in question had been stealing the names of England’s best agents to sell to her enemies. Had he succeeded, the death toll would have been devastating, though more in quality than in quantity. Grey had caught him in a bordello and taken him out the same way the bastard was known to have done to some of Grey’s comrades, drawing notice like a loggerheaded rookie.

Then Grey had been caught, which he had expected. What he had not expected was to find Johnny five feet behind him instead of across the street where he should have been. That was when Grey had learned it was much harder to escape with a green lad hanging on to his coattails.

Grey lifted his head with an icy smile. “He cried, begged for his life.”

A meaty fist pounded into Grey’s face, forcing his head back into the table. His head spun, but he swallowed back the nausea, refusing to give the cur the satisfaction of seeing the impact of the blow or giving the misapprehension that he’d had enough. Grey had not been punished nearly enough.

The coppery taste of blood gathered in his mouth.
How accommodating
. He amassed a glob of blood on his tongue and sent it flying at the commodious mammoth. Then he grinned, no doubt looking utterly ridiculous with crimson covering his teeth and dribbling down his chin.

The man growled, his hand flexing around the knife. “I can make you cry. I can make you beg for your life.”

Grey’s grin turned into a grimace as the knife dug into his shoulder. He was accustomed to pain. He could handle it.

He shut his eyes as the blade slowly began tearing a jagged trail across his chest like a sash, agonizingly deep. Every inch was unbearable. His hands fisted and his teeth ached from the pressure of his jaw, but hell if he would scream so easily. Not out loud, at any rate.

Progress on the new canal halted midway through.

“Rather unsporting to stop now,” Grey forced out. “Carry on.”
Get the bloody thing over with!
was what he meant to say.

He heard voices, people arguing, and then liquid was splashed over the wound, rendering the pain a hair past excruciating. A moment later, the knife was back to finish its work.

The rut the colossus was gouging reached his cracked ribs, and soon, Grey was growling through gritted teeth. His were not the torturous screams Johnny’s had been. Those would come later—he had no doubt—but not yet.

He was distantly aware of a door swinging open and the knife being lifted, but by then he was fading in and out of consciousness. Reality rippled into obscurity. Only the pain kept him rooted in the present, reminding him where he was and what was happening to him.

There was so much blood. He felt it streaming off his torso like a damned waterfall onto the table, but he couldn’t open his eyes to survey the damage. He hadn’t the strength. He had been held in a cell without food and with very little water for days. How could they possibly expect him to rattle off the twenty-two names if he hadn’t the strength to speak?

Of course, he would cut out his own tongue before he gave them a single syllable.

“Greydon!”

The Earl of Grenville’s voice echoed in his head, but Grenville was still in Calais, heading up the other team there. Grey must be dying or already dead.

“Too fast,” he mumbled. “Should hurt more. Don’t deserve—”

“Greydon, goddammit, pull yourself together. It’s merely a flesh wound!”

It was just like Grenville to understate the circumstances. Control panic, he always said, control the situation.

Grey laughed feebly, but it cost him. The pain was monstrous. His fractured bones vied for precedence over the nasty geyser of blood across his chest. Then he was sinking again into the black depths of unconsciousness where the pain ebbed, where the duty and disappointments of this life slipped away to nothingness. There were no more shadows to chase, innocents to protect, or king and country to defend. He had been waiting some time for this kind of black abyss to swallow him up.

Now he let it, gladly.

London 1819

A
rctic winds cut through London
, exacerbating an already harsh winter and causing the snows of February to linger into March. The cobblestones were transformed into a generous layer of muddy slush as horses and carriages passed through the streets with their usual ferocity. The gray sky, thick fog, and slush, which splattered over anything and everything daring to venture out of doors, quickly turned the beautiful capital into a dirty heap of depression.

Kathryn understood exactly why so many decided to quit such a condensed package of cold, miserable filth for the solitude of the country or warmth of Italy.

They were sane.

The unlucky few who were forced to stay or too dense to leave would not part with the warmth of their own parlors without promise of diversion in a well-lit, fashionable, and quite
clean
venue. Kathryn might have been born with enough brains to avoid London’s winters, but she had never had the best of luck, which was why she, along with a couple hundred of her peers, had crammed into Covent Garden to attend an opera they had all been to before.

Kathryn sat patiently in her seat well into the second aria as the latecomers straggled in to take their seats. However, now that everyone was nicely settled and properly pretending to enjoy the production below, Kathryn was slipping out. Thankfully, Lord Huntly and her mother, Lady Grenville, were seated in front of her, so they shouldn’t see her leave. As for the gentleman sitting next to her, well, he ought to wake up in about half an hour.

Kathryn had business to tend to that she had been painstakingly piecing together for weeks, important business for the Home Office. The Home Office might not exactly be aware she was taking care of it for them, but it was something they would be grateful to have done once it was off their plate. Surely.

She was bored with the little tasks the Home Office had been handing her, so she had taken the file from the Director of Covert Affairs’ desk when she had brought him the fruitcakes. Father’s old military crony, he might be; organized, he was not. He hadn’t even noticed it missing. Now she finally had an adventure amidst the humdrum of the London season.

And here she thought this would be just another year of enduring pitying glances and barely veiled insults toward being six and twenty and unwed. As if that were all a female could want in life. A man who could tempt Kathryn to a life of boring matronly duties did not exist, not after the horrors her aunt had faced under a husband’s booted heel.

As she had expected, the crème-paneled hall was empty. She picked up her skirts so she would not trip over them as she hurried through the halls and down the stairs toward the foyer. Thoughts swirled in her head of shadowed figures in capes and hoods, exchanging envelopes in dark alleys and whispering. Surely, it was not truly that exciting, but her heart began racing all the same, and she had to suppress a girlish giggle when her eyes fixed on the large doors opening out into the street.

“Lady Kathryn?”

The masculine voice calling after her had her nearly toppling over her own feet. Then a quick look over her shoulder left her momentarily speechless.

What in heaven’s name did
he
want? The notorious Marquess of Ainsley had said barely ten words to her in all the years she had been in London, for which she was eternally thankful. What could he possibly want with her now?

Why now?

A quick scan of the ornate and overly large foyer confirmed they were the only two occupying it. It was most definitely
her
he was calling after. Could he have made a mistake? Perhaps he had forgotten how respectable ladies did not speak to rakes at the opera, certainly not alone.

Kathryn let down her skirts and began a sedate pace toward the door. Only twenty feet or so to the street, it took all her willpower not to run.

“Lady Kathryn Bryant,” he repeated, sounding pleasantly surprised and a great deal closer.

Oh, fishtails!

Kathryn turned with the most pleasant smile she could manage. Whoever had ended up with her portion of luck, she hoped to God, they needed every confounded ounce of it.

“Lord Ainsley, what a pleasure,” she greeted politely.

He dipped his chin in lieu of a bow when he reached her. Piercing, gray eyes studied her from underneath a tousled mop of waves as pitch-black as his reputation. The man was far too attractive for his own good. The tall, hard body attached to that face was quite simply unfair.

“Have you no escort this evening?” he asked with a hint of a smile.

“Of course I do,” she answered simply. It wasn’t exactly a lie. She did have an escort, just not a conscious one.

“Indeed? And where is this elusive person?”

“Mr. Jeffery Peters is attending the performance,” she said. “It’s one of our favorites.”

“Is that so?” he mused. Then his brow knit. “Wait… what?”

“He’s attending the performance,” she repeated reluctantly.
Attending
wasn’t quite the word.

He shook his head. “No, the other bit.”

“It’s one of our favorites?” Kathryn frowned, uncertain why it should matter.

“That’s what I thought you said,” he muttered. He shot a quick glance down the hall toward the boxes. Then his quizzical expression turned back to her. “We
are
attending the same abomination, are we not?”

“It’s a wonderful production!” she shot back.

“Is it?”

Her lips pursed into a mutinous line. He was waiting for an explanation, but Kathryn was not about to waste a lifetime explaining art to a caveman.

He sighed. “Opera is an art, Kathryn. Not all of it is good, but few can discern between brilliant and god-awful. Take this one, for example.”

As he spoke, her jaw nearly dropped. She stood speechlessly as the Marquess of Ainsley went on to explain what made this opera so insufferable to him. Most of his issue was with the lyrics. Apparently, the marquess spoke Italian, and he was less than impressed with what he called
nonsensical dribble assaulting his ears
.

Kathryn bit the inside of her cheek, managing to control herself with a blank look. “Incredible,” she muttered when he paused. “In that case, I would hate to keep you from leaving such a disgrace, my lord. Good evening.”

She turned to go, but he stepped around her, blocking her path to the street.

“Are you not leaving?” she asked with forced calm.

He shook his head, looking at her as though she were mad. “A gentleman could never allow a lady to wander off on her own. I am afraid your Jonas Pickles—”

“Jeffrey Peters,” she muttered.

“—whomever he is, acted terribly deficient as an escort and a gentleman,” he went on. “I can’t imagine what sort of riffraff your mother is allowing you to associate with.”

A
rake
was lecturing her on her choice of companions? Of all the insufferable, arrogant boneheads!

“I am no longer a child for you to lecture, Ainsley,” she reminded him coolly.

“Not that it ever did any good,” he muttered.

“Because they were unnecessary—
are
unnecessary.”

He watched her silently, looking unconvinced.

“Don’t you have a club or something to attend?” she asked. “I assumed gentlemen of your ilk stayed out all night, drinking, gaming, and whoring.”

“It will wait.”

“Of course it will.”

He would obviously rather frustrate her all night.

She looked past him to the door. It had begun to drizzle during their little chat. Just brilliant. Bad luck was one thing, but this? This was about as unlucky as one could get without being dead.

He shifted, tilting his head to the side. “Are you not afraid of the monsters and goblins walking about London at night?”

“Of course not.”

“You ought to be,” he mused, “conversing as you are with one of the worst monsters of them all.”

Her attention snapped back to him. “What a ridiculous claim.”

Ainsley might have grown up to become a libertine with not a shred of honor, but she wouldn’t consider him the
worst
.

He assessed her with the barest hint of amusement. “Is it proof you want?”

“No, thank you,” she said flatly. “In this particular field, you may strive for excellence. I shall not be responsible for challenging you to become worse than you are.”

He laughed, and Kathryn’s heart did an uncomfortable flip in her chest.

“Good night, Lord Ainsley,” she said, hastily pushing the painfully familiar feeling to the back of her mind. Once again, she stepped around him, and once again, she found him blocking her way.

He offered his arm. “Am I escorting you back to your box or to your carriage, Lady Kathryn?”

Her choices were very clear: her box, her carriage, or stand here to be annoyed by him for all eternity, or at least until the end of the opera, which would feel like an eternity.

She sighed with grudging resignation. She didn’t have time for this. “You may hail me a hack.”

Kathryn curled her hand into the crook of his elbow, his heat burning through her glove. As they stepped out into the drizzling night, she did her best to ignore the hard, attractive male blocking most of the wind.

Ainsley turned up his coat collar against the biting wind and whistled loudly to alert a nearby hackney. Across the street, the coachman urged his reluctant horses toward the theater. When the small, two-seater carriage stopped, and the danger of becoming unforgivably covered in mud was at least lessened, he walked her to the door and helped her in.

“Thank you for your escort, Lord Ainsley,” she said. “I am sure I never would have found a carriage without you.”

Without him, she wouldn’t have needed one.

He leaned into the open doorway, his broad frame blocking the wind from entering the small space. “It isn’t finding a hack that’s dangerous.”

“Ah, yes. Monsters and goblins.” She nodded. “Although, strangely enough, I saw none, my lord.”

“No?” One dark brow winged high.

“You mean you?” She choked back the laughter the thought evoked. There was absolutely no danger of her falling prey to Ainsley’s charms, despite his Olympian body and the annoying little thing his smile did to her chest. She was more likely to brain him with whatever was handy.

His mouth opened, but no sound came out, and he clamped it shut, regarding her soberly. Then he climbed into the carriage and pulled her into him. Kathryn felt a wave of panic as his arms surrounded her, his heat seeping into her, burning her.

“Get your hands off me,” she managed calmly, trying to ignore how very close his face was to hers, how very close
all
of him was.

“What will you do if I don’t?” he asked with a smug grin. “Scream?”

If someone found them together now, she would be ruined. She had no choice except to stay silent, and he knew it, the beast.

“I gave you fair warning.” His low murmur rumbled over her as his breath fanned her lips, leaving them tingling. Confident gray eyes bore into hers. “You might enjoy it,” he added. “The things I can do with my hands, my lips… my tongue.”

He was teasing her, and it was working. Her pulse quickened when his cheek brushed against hers, grazing her skin with just a hint of stubble. The scent of sandalwood, musk, and male seemed to fill the entire carriage, muddling her mind. Her fingers drummed against his chest impatiently in an attempt to hide the tremble in the traitorous things.

“By gad, I might enjoy it even more,” he murmured just below her ear. “When did you become so lovely?” His lips lightly grazed her neck, and her breath hitched.

They were the empty words of a rake, which he quite possibly used on hundreds before her, just as her uncle had her aunt.

She had always thought herself above such insincere flattery, so why did she have to fight the urge to melt into him? Perhaps it was because she had been dreaming of doing just that ever since she was sixteen when she had realized he was very attractive and possibly good for more than just riding and stealing sweet rolls with.

Kathryn closed her eyes, feeling the heat of his breath on her lips. His fingers lifted her chin and his thumb brushed her bottom lip. She felt his nose just barely touching hers.

The beautiful, irritating rake was going to kiss her. Now—after he had run off to war and returned a debauched rascal, losing every drop of chivalry, which had first endeared him to her—
now
he was going to kiss her.

The rogue.

Even as she thought she would rather slap him silly than suffer the kiss she ought not to want, the intimate touch fell away, and his arm around her loosened.

“I hope you have learned your lesson,” he said as he relaxed beside her.

Kathryn glared back at him, speechless, as she warred between scratching his eyes out and attempting to strangle him.

“You should have struck me,” he said casually.

“The thought had occurred to me.”

“With your habits, I imagine you will have the opportunity with another unlucky fellow in the not so distant future.” He made a thrusting motion, touching the heel of his hand to the underside of his nose. “Do it like this. Chances are it won’t stop him, but at least someone might catch him if they have a blood trail to follow.”

“How comforting,” she ground out as he stepped down from the carriage.

“I advise against gallivanting about alone altogether,” he said, propping his elbows on either side of the carriage door. “London is riddled with monsters.”

“Yes,” she glowered. “I see that now.”

He laughed. “Good evening, Lady Kathryn. I wish you safe travels home.” He snapped the door firmly shut then turned back toward the theater.

He was gone. Finally. Now if only the dashed fluttering in her stomach had gone with him.

With a shuddering breath, she gave her directions to the coachman. The carriage lurched in motion for only a few minutes then creaked to a stop, and she was let out. The hack had taken her around to the opposite side of the theater. She was not expecting to leave Covent Garden, so she had set the meeting up nearby. She might have lost a little time with the detour, but her contact would have waited.

BOOK: Behind the Marquess's Mask (The Lords of Whitehall Book 1)
10.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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