18 April 1814
British Encampment, Just Outside of the City
Gabriel slammed his fist into General Wellington’s office door, splintering the wood and sending pain radiating up his arm. At first he worried he might have shattered the bones, but a quick flex of his fingers proved everything was in relative working order.
Twenty years of forging a new life and pretending to be someone else was all for naught. The vow he had made as a child to never assume his father's title was being wiped away. One day after the war had ended, a day after the Corsican had abdicated, fate had caught up with Gabe.
"You are returning to England as she asked," Damien Whittermann said, his voice cold and unfeeling. It was a statement, not a question, and Gabe knew it.
Gabe turned and glared at the man. Damien had summoned him to the regimental headquarters just outside Toulouse. General Wellington had commandeered the elegant manor house that had somehow survived the ravages of war, for his use. And Damien had used his position with the Home Office to usurp General Wellington. Which Gabe knew that Wellington would not appreciate that, especially now that Gabe had put a hole through the general's door.
"And how is it, that a letter addressed to me finds its way into your hands?" Gabe demanded. "Never mind," he quickly added.
Damien was one of the War Department's most feared spies, and since his boss had learned of Gabe's existence two years ago, Damien had become a frequent visitor. One that probed into every aspect of Gabe's life. At times the man had acted like a close friend. At other times, he was Gabe's worst enemy.
Damien was always aloof and mysterious and well suited to his profession. Several inches under six feet, Damien was the most nondescript man Gabe had ever met. He wasn't even sure of the man's true hair color as it seemed to change with his assignments. The only remarkable thing about Damien Whittermann were his emotionless black eyes that seemed to belong to the devil himself.
Damien answered anyway, "The War Department has taken an interest in you and your brother, my friend. And that includes any and all correspondences you and Lucien might receive. Especially those coming from London."
In other words, anything Damien and his boss, Sir Walter Fletcher, might use to further blackmail Gabe and his little brother into doing their bidding. On this, however, he had no choice. He had to return to England now, no matter the consequences.
Gabe dropped his head and glared at the missive once again.
Dear Sergeant-Major Gordon Campbell,
Gabe felt his insides cringe. For twenty years he had been pretending to be Gordon Campbell, a name he found on a gravestone in Scotland. A child who had died at the age of eleven, the same age Gabe had been at the time. A name he would now have to give up.
He re-read the salutation and then continued reading.
I am not sure you will remember me, as we have not seen each other in nine years, but my name is Miss Katherine McNair, the only daughter of Colonel Lord McNair.
Not remember her? Gabe shook his head. He had met the girl when she was eleven and she had come to live with her father, and they had known each other for four years. That first year he had served as her de facto governess and tutor. And then Gabe had been a frequent visitor of her father's, as Colonel McNair had been his commanding officer during those following years.
Returning to the letter, he read the words that would change his life forever.
Last year, my father took me aside and told me that if I was ever in trouble to contact you and ask for your help. Which I fear I am now in need of.
Gabe knew when he must have told her that. It was the same time Colonel McNair had approached him and revealed that he knew Gabe's true identity. He then begged Gabe that if anything should ever happen to the colonel, that Gabe would take care of and protect his only daughter if she was ever in danger. Gabe had given his vow to protect the girl, as the man had saved his life on more than one occasion. And now his daughter was in trouble and asking for his help. But it wasn't the only reason he must return to England. It was also because of who was threatening the young girl.
For you see, Sergeant Campbell, before my father's death he granted me the right to choose my own husband. Which I had yet to do when he was killed six months ago. My Aunt Chloe, who has been my sponsor and guardian these last nine years, was willing to honor my father's request that I be allowed to choose my own spouse.
But disaster has struck my family once again, as last month my aunt was taken from me in a carriage accident. Since then I have been residing with my uncle, Willard McNair. Two nights ago, I was summoned to my uncle's office and forced to sign a marriage contract between myself and a Mr. Reginald Stoughton, a most despicable and dangerous man. I cannot put into writing how I know these things about Mr. Stoughton, but be assured I have found the evidence to be most credible.
I cannot, and will not, marry this man. But there is nothing I can do at present without help. To be precise, without your help, Sergeant-Major. For you see, Mr. Stoughton is claiming he is now the presumptive heir to the Duke of Belfort title. Captain Lord Lucien Stoughton, the brother of the missing Duke of Belfort, was reportedly fatally wounded, and Mr. Stoughton now only needs confirmation from the War Department for him to be declared the new presumptive heir and given control over the Belfort fortune. He has also informed my uncle that proof has been found that the missing Duke of Belfort is in fact dead, and therefore he will shortly be made the next Duke of Belfort.
I do not know what you, a mere sergeant in the army, can do to prevent this marriage but my father gained my promise that if I ever found myself in an unattainable position then I was to contact you immediately.
Consequently, Sergeant-Major, I am forced to write and ask, nae, beg you for your help in this matter. Please come to me at your earliest opportunity.
The Honorable Miss Katherine Genevieve McNair
The end of the life Gabe had created laid scrolled across that letter. The moment he read those words, the person he had invented no longer existed. Word by word, Sergeant-Major Gordon Campbell, of His Majesty's First Royal Grenadiers, perished as surely as if one of Napoleon's bullets had finally found its mark.
Damien spoke when Gabe looked up. "She is not your responsibility. Nor is it your responsibility to take care of this matter."
Gabe glared at the man who had brought the damning letter. Unconsciously, he clenched his fist and welcomed the pain it caused to his injured hand.
"Then whose responsibility is it, Damien?" he demanded.
"The Home Office," the man calmly answered, infuriating Gabe even more.
"Reginald Stoughton might be your responsibility, but Colonel McNair's daughter is mine. And you know that, if you and your handler read her letter. Which I know both of you have," he shot back.
"You were told the conditions under which you would not be charged for the murder of your father," Damien replied.
Yes, he understood the conditions of not being charged with murdering his father. It was simple blackmail. Or maybe not so simple. Nothing Damien and his boss did was ever simple.
"And yet you still insist on returning to England?" Damien asked.
"Yes, damn you. As soon as Luc has recovered enough from his wounds," Gabe snapped. "And don't try to tell me that that wasn't your plan all along."
The man shuffled through a number of the reports and dispatches on Wellington's desk, stopping to peruse one in particular. Then without looking up he asked, in a blasé tone, "How do you think your brother will react to the news that he has been reported dead?"
"As far as I know, Luc has not been reported killed-in-action by the War Department," Gabe replied. "And you are avoiding my question, Mr. Whittermann."
Damien glanced up and fixed Gabe with a cold, soulless gaze. "It serves our purposes for you to keep Miss McNair safe and away from her intended for the time being."
That was not surprising. Gabe knew Damien had ulterior motives for showing him Katie McNair's letter.
"And the charge of murder for killing my father?" Gabe asked.
Damien straightened up and turned to face him. A feeling of trepidation washed over him as he stared back at the cold-hearted spy.
"As I told you before, the only surviving witness to the murder is in our employ. He will continue to say nothing, so long as you continue to cooperate with this investigation. As far as the world knows, you witnessed the murder of your father, fled the scene with members of your mother's family, boarded a ship bound for the continent, and have not been seen since. And that will remain the only version of the story how eleven-year-old Gabriel Stoughton disappeared twenty years ago.
Gabe's hatred for this man and his boss soared. On occasion Damien had proven to be a reliable ally. But Gabe had never been able to trust him completely. Damien always seemed to have a hidden agenda for everything he did. Including giving him Katie McNair's letter.
Gabe glanced down at the letter and noted the date once again. "You have had this for over a month. How do I know she is still safe and unwed?"
A flicker of amusement crossed the man's face. "Give me some credit, we have made sure that no harm has come to the girl, and that the wedding has not taken place. We’ve even made sure Mr. Stoughton was not able to post the notices about his engagement yet."
The girl, as Damien had called her, was now a grown woman. And she had been correct in her letter, they had not seen each other in nine years. Or at least she hadn't seen him. Last year, she and her aunt had made a trip to Spain during the short armistice to visit Colonel McNair. Since he was pretending to be a commoner, Gabe had not been allowed to attend the ball that had been held in June. But he had seen her on his former commander's arm as they entered the ball.
He still remembered his physical reaction to seeing the enchantingly beautiful woman the girl he had always thought of as ‘Little Katie’ had become. Her hair was still as fiery red as it had been the last time he had seen her. And he suspected her eyes were still the enchanting, mischievous emerald green they had been when she had been five and ten. But there the similarities ended. Katherine McNair had grown up. She was nearly as tall as her father and had a woman's luscious body.
Like a recalcitrant boy, Gabe had lurked in the shadows and watched her dance by, admiring the woman she had become. He had wanted her as his own, but knew he could never have her. She was a nobleman's daughter and he was pretending to be a commoner. And even if the class distinctions were not true, he could never marry. Not as long as the possibility of a murder charge hung over his head.
"How do you suggest I keep her safe?" Gabe asked.
Damien shrugged. "That, your Grace, is your problem and not mine."
And with those words, the world Gabe had constructed and the vow he had made twenty years ago were gone. Because in order to save the woman he had fallen in love with, he would have to become what he had vowed to never become, the Fifth Duke of Belfort, and heir to the most depraved man that had ever walked the face of the earth, his father.