He struck an unholy bargain,
and now he’s paying the price….
Again, and again, and again….
Gideon Maybury enjoys a life of wealth and privilege, not to mention the advantages his position offers him in his career as a merchant banker and in his less public life as a high-class, skilled, and very well-paid assassin for Her Majesty’s government. When his brother dies unexpectedly, he becomes the Duke of Westmoreland.
Michael Mathison has hated Gideon since they were at university together. He’s convinced Gideon had a hand in the death of Michael’s college lover, Christopher, and that he had something to do with the death of his own brother. So he gets a job as Gideon’s driver, enabling him to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of the elder Maybury sibling. At first his suspicions seem to be confirmed, but clues come to light that suggest all is not as it appears at Maybury Hall.
As the mystery deepens, so does the attraction between the two implacable enemies. Each has reasons not to trust the other, but neither is averse to a bit of kinky play. Gideon and Michael end up owing each other their lives, and it results in consequences neither could have imagined.
Published: October 5, 2016
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
London, July 2014
CHRIST. WHY can’t they get some decent magazines in here? What sad loser wants to read The Financial Times or Horse and Hound while they wait to have their teeth filled?
Michael Mathison rummaged through the stack of uplifting literature displayed for his perusal on the low table in the center of the dentist’s waiting room. As a medic himself, he ought to have been more sanguine at the prospect of a little dental work. But no. Michael hated dentists, however irrational that dislike might be. It was only the nagging toothache that had plagued him for over three weeks and had finally stopped responding to a heavy slug of paracetamol that had dragged him there. He was not a happy man.READ MORE
Michael shared the room with two other patients. The first of those, seated to Michael’s left, was an elderly gentleman who did appear to entertain a peculiar fondness for the pale pink news pages. He reached for a copy of yesterday’s FT and then proceeded to scan the columns and articles with avid attention. He gave a reasonable impression of a man who understood what he was reading. Michael’s other companion in the waiting room was a harassed younger woman accompanied by two children who appeared to share Michael’s view of dental surgeons. Both small boys were agitating to leave. Michael sympathized, but their mother appeared resolute.
The dental nurse popped her head around the door. “James and Robert Rafferty, please?” she trilled.
“Come on. It’s our turn.” The mother got to her feet and, with an admirable display of maternal fortitude, shepherded her unwilling brood through the door into the dentist’s consulting room. The waiting room was silent. His one remaining companion was immersed in the vagaries of the stock market. Michael gazed around in search of further inspiration.
The large screen television mounted on the wall in front of him was tuned to the BBC News channel, though the volume was muted. The narrative that scrolled across the bottom of the screen told a story illustrated by a succession of pictures and earnest-looking heads talking noiselessly into the cameras. Michael had learned a little lipreading once, so he tried it and checked his efforts against the words at the foot of the screen. He soon arrived at the conclusion that he was rusty, and resolved to look for a class.
All such good intentions fled as a familiar face flashed onto the screen. Richard Maybury, eleventh Duke of Westmoreland, beamed down from the wall, all blond and wholesome, the very picture of wealth, privilege, and rude good health. But according to the relentless procession of words tripping merrily across the screen, that particular duke was dead. As Michael stared at the television, he learned that the duke’s body had been discovered earlier that morning on his estate. He had been thirty-five years old, and foul play was not suspected.
Foul play not suspected? So healthy dukes not yet in middle age just drop dead for no reason? Yeah, right.
Even without his medical degree, he would have thought that much was obvious. Michael leaned forward and waited for more information or some explanation. None was forthcoming. The news broadcast went on to mention that Richard left a widow, Lydia, and would be succeeded to the dukedom by his younger brother, Gideon Maybury, the twelfth to bear that title. Her Majesty the Queen had apparently expressed her sympathies for the bereaved family. The deceased duke had been sixty-ninth in line to the throne. The broadcast moved on to extol the virtues of the latest wonder kid to be signed by Manchester United, and to speculate upon the likely impact of such inspired recruitment in the coming football season.
Intent on knowing more, Michael dug in his pocket for his phone and tried to log on to the Wi-Fi connection that was available for “guests.” He abandoned the attempt when another dental nurse, face decorated with a smile artfully designed to instill confidence and a sense of well-being, announced the dentist was ready for him. Michael shoved his phone away, stood up, and trudged after her.
Forty minutes later he sat in his car. His jaw ached despite the lingering numbness of the local anesthetic, but the awful throbbing was gone. Again he peered at the tiny screen of his iPhone. He logged on to the BBC news and found the story again, but with more detail.
He learned that Richard Maybury had not returned home the previous evening. His wife, the Duchess of Westmoreland, raised the alarm, and a search was mounted, but the body was not discovered until after dawn. He was found in woodland on his vast estate in Cumbria, maybe a mile or so from Maybury Hall. The article went on to say that a postmortem would be carried out, but it was thought the duke died of natural causes. Michael leaned back in his seat, and images of the Richard Maybury he had known ran through his mind.
They had been at the same school, though Richard was a couple of years older than he. Michael remembered Richard as a bright, pleasant-enough lad, kind to younger boys and with a ready smile. He was athletic—the sporty type—fond of rugby but better at cricket. Michael was something of a decent bowler himself, and their paths had often crossed in the practice nets at Eton. Certainly Richard had not appeared the type to drop dead in his own woods two decades later. He was health conscious, the poster boy for the five-a-day brigade. He didn’t smoke and didn’t even drink, as far as Michael could recall. Perhaps the duke tripped or became trapped and died of exposure, though that seemed unlikely in the middle of July, even in the wilds of the Cumbrian hills.
Michael wanted to know. Had to know. It made no sense. None of it. Unless….
RICHARD MAY have been just an acquaintance, but Michael knew his brother very well indeed. Or rather he knew of Gideon Maybury, who had suddenly catapulted into greatness as the twelfth Duke.
Michael had left Eton and gone on to Cambridge, where he met Christopher, who was to be the love of his life. Within a fortnight of arriving at Magdalene College, the two men were introduced at a meeting of the rambling society. It was love at first sight. They were inseparable. Michael was studying medicine and Christopher was reading philosophy and theology. They should have had nothing in common, but somehow they clicked. It may have been the twenty-first century, but Magdalene remained a bastion of conservative tradition, so they kept the nature of their relationship discreet. Friends were aware, but the pair kept their heads down and just got on with their studies and with being in love.
Until Gideon came along, and everything changed. During their second year at Magdalene, Christopher joined the chess society, a passion not shared by Michael. There Christopher met the captain of the college chess team, Gideon Maybury. Wickedly handsome and rich as Croesus, the son of one duke and younger brother of the next, Gideon turned on the charm and had Christopher in bed within the first week.
It wasn’t long before Michael found out what was going on. He was pretty certain Gideon engineered it that way. He always texted Christopher when Michael was around and sure to ask questions. Michael confronted his lover, and of course Christopher was distraught. He begged Michael’s forgiveness, which he naturally gave. He loved Christopher. It was that simple. They were meant to be together, and he was determined that no interfering whore with too much money and a dick he couldn’t keep in his pants was going to come between them.
Gideon Maybury had other ideas. He pursued Christopher relentlessly, and for reasons Michael couldn’t fathom, his lover was mesmerized by the dark good looks of the brilliant, aristocratic mathematician. Michael was astonished that his rival should turn out to be the brother of the popular and just plain nice Richard he remembered from Eton. The two were complete opposites, physically and in temperament. Michael was certain that Richard was straight, but even if he wasn’t, there was no way he would have steamed in and wrecked someone else’s relationship.
Not so Gideon. He was determined to have Christopher. Over the months that Michael battled to save his doomed love affair, it became apparent that Christopher was just as eager to be had. He took to sneaking off and lying. Increasingly he just stopped coming home to the tiny bedsit they shared just half a mile from the college. Eventually Christopher announced he was moving out and would be going to live with Gideon in his college-mews apartment. Christopher gathered his belongings, which more or less filled two bags, and despite tearful pleading from Michael, he was gone within half an hour. Michael watched as the man he adored sauntered down the street to hop into a waiting taxi. Christopher never even looked back.
Three weeks later Christopher was dead.
According to that smirking bastard, Gideon, there had been a row. Lots of rows. They weren’t compatible, he told the police. Michael imagined a cruel sneer on his face. Christopher was clingy and too needy. Gideon was quickly bored with him and realized he’d made a mistake when he invited Christopher to move in. It wasn’t working, so he ordered him to leave the apartment. The next thing he knew, Christopher had flung himself from the balcony. They were five floors up, and the courtyard below was cobbled. It was a mess.
Michael learned of his ex-lover’s death and lost his mind with grief. He had adored Christopher, despite everything that had happened. If only he had come back to him after Maybury’s rejection. They would have worked something out. He knew it. He just knew it. But Christopher was dead, and his life was wasted because some evil bastard had to have what wasn’t his, only to fling it away as soon as he got what he was after. The whole thing was just a game to Gideon Maybury—a twisted, macabre form of amusement. He played with people, messed with their heads and their lives, and then tossed them aside.
The fierce agony of grief subsided eventually. Michael learned to live with it. He got on with his life and his studies. He was numb, but he functioned. He moved on… more or less.
Michael was convinced Christopher didn’t kill himself as Gideon claimed. Christopher wasn’t blessed with such a well-developed sense of self-preservation that he would never contemplate such a self-destructive act. Far from it. He was always a bit weak and easily manipulated—qualities that Michael was convinced had made him fair game to Maybury. But Christopher was scared of heights. He was completely phobic about them and couldn’t stand on a chair without having a panic attack. There was no way he would even venture onto a fifth-floor veranda, let alone hurl himself over the railings to his death. That left just two possibilities. He either wandered out onto the balcony without realizing and fell from it by accident, or he was dragged out there and pushed.
There were no signs of a struggle and nothing to suggest Maybury had any hand in Christopher’s death apart from breaking his heart and trampling on it, but Michael knew better.
Other undergraduates in their circle had their suspicions too. Gideon was known to be a cruel, cold bastard—a reputation he seemed to relish. He was a loner, brilliant but solitary, but odd things happened around Gideon. People disappeared or suddenly decided they weren’t cut out for the academic life after all and dropped out of university. There were always rumors, whispers, and conjecture.
There was that party where half the revelers ended up spending the next few days in intensive care after a bad batch of cocaine found its way in. Gideon was there, but he was unaffected, though everyone was certain he had sniffed a line or two himself. Then there was the time a group of students went parascending, and one of them ended up with a femur broken in four places when his chute malfunctioned and he crashed into the hillside. Gideon was there on that occasion too. He expressed his bewilderment at the investigation, the same as the rest, but you had to wonder. Trouble just followed him, and the more it did, the more he grinned and appeared to love it. He had the protection of his aristocratic connections, and nothing ever stuck to him.
Michael hated Gideon, and that loathing hadn’t diminished one iota over the intervening decade. He knew Gideon Maybury to be cunning and calculating, ruthless and malicious. He might have managed to give the gullible Christopher the impression that he desired company at nights, but that had all been part of his callous scheme to lure Christopher into his orbit. Michael knew it. Back at Cambridge he was convinced of it, down to his toenails, but couldn’t prove anything.
And now another person close to Gideon Maybury had turned up dead. All of the old hatred flooded back. The memories and cruel, biting grief were as fresh as ever, though it had been almost ten years since Christopher died. Michael’s suspicions were rekindled as he gazed at the smiling, superior features of the new Duke of Westmoreland pictured on the news website.
It all made sense to Michael. Maybury had killed Christopher for fun, just because it amused him and he could. His brother was different. Gideon stood to gain substantially from that crime. He had a real motive.
As he gazed on the hated features of his nemesis, something crystallized in Michael’s heart. He might not be able to make the bastard pay for what he did to Christopher, but fate had handed him another chance. He would go to Cumbria and ask around a bit. Someone was sure to know something. Gideon Maybury would not get away with it again.
Cumbria, July 2014
GIDEON MAYBURY stood in the front pew and gazed straight ahead. Behind him half the aristocracy in the country and plenty from farther afield had gathered to pay their last respects to his brother, the late duke. Their heads were bowed, their voices hushed as they repeated the amens at the required junctures. The Bishop of Carlisle had been prevailed upon to lead the service, though Gideon’s sister-in-law had insisted it take place at the Priory Church in Cartmel rather than at the cathedral. Lydia set great store by family tradition and history, and as the Priory Church was founded in 1190 by her ancestor William Marshall, the first earl of Pembroke, she saw no justification in going elsewhere for such a momentous occasion.
Gideon let her have her way. It made no difference to him. His brother was gone and would soon melt into the annals of history, forgotten by all but his closest family. Richard left a distraught widow, but no children. So Gideon was now elevated to the lofty status of twelfth Duke of Westmoreland.
It had been that easy.
Lydia, his sister-in-law and, he supposed, the dowager duchess of sorts, sniffed at his side. Gideon produced a beautifully embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of his stark black suit jacket and handed it to her. She took it with a grateful but somewhat watery little smile and dabbed at her nose. Her movements were delicate, and her long, slender fingers appeared fragile as she struggled to contain her grief. Gideon knew it to be an illusion. Few people in his acquaintance were tougher than the lovely Lydia, though her sudden widowhood had dislodged even her usually unshakable composure.
Gideon had a lot of time for Lydia. He liked her, and more importantly, he respected her. Lydia Maybury was a lawyer. The firm where she was a partner dealt mainly with corporate clients, because that was where the serious money was to be had, but they would make occasional forays into the murkier world of criminal defense when something interesting—or lucrative—came up. She had been married to his brother for almost five years, and they’d been disgustingly happy together, though that came as something of a surprise to Gideon. Lydia always struck him as too tough and uncompromising for the softhearted, affable Richard—or so Gideon thought when they announced their engagement. He had expected them to separate within a year, but he’d been wrong.
Their union turned out to be a happy example of opposites attracting. Gideon was amazed, but dismissed the picture of domestic bliss as an aberration. He performed his duties as best man at their wedding, made a few crude jokes, cultivated some useful contacts among the gathered dignitaries, left Richard and Lydia to bask in a mutual adoration that he found somewhat sickly, and returned to his own, rather stellar, career in merchant banking.
Five years later he was back in the same church where his brother and Lydia were married to play his part as chief mourner.
Gideon seldom returned to Cumbria. His life was in London, and he preferred to remain there when not jetting around the corporate hot spots of the globe to represent the interests of his firm, Perennial Capital Holdings Limited, in the boardrooms of New York, Beijing, and Sydney. But as luck would have it—specifically bad luck, though he was not especially given to believing in either variety—he had been at Maybury Hall for one of his infrequent visits when Richard went missing. Lydia was frantic when her husband didn’t return home for dinner that evening and insisted they mount an immediate search of the grounds. That was easier said than done, given it was already dark, the grounds extended to several hundred thousand acres, and Richard was a grown man who had only been missing for a couple of hours. But in response to his sister-in-law’s determined pleading, Gideon telephoned the chief constable, and the police were immediately dispatched. Even so the grim discovery was not made until first light.
Richard died of anaphylactic shock. An allergy to bee stings had first made itself known when Richard was about ten years old, and for as long as Gideon could remember, his elder brother had carried his adrenaline pen with him at all times. It would seem he didn’t have it on his person on the fateful day when he actually needed it, though, and that was the cause of his sudden and untimely demise.
Lydia expressed horrified disbelief. Her husband was always so careful. He never forgot. But the autopsy results were definitive. He’d been stung by some little bug, and without the medical aid he needed to counteract his body’s insane response, he had died within minutes.
Gideon expressed no opinion on his brother’s uncharacteristic lapse in memory, and refused to join in the chorus of bewildered incredulity as those close to Richard took in the news. His was a more fatalistic approach. Shit happened. Sometimes shit happened because he engineered it that way and sometimes not. But it happened anyway, so there was no point fretting. It was a shame of course. Richard was a nice guy, but he was dead, and those who were left behind had to get on. There was a dukedom to run. And a funeral to organize.
The bishop came to the end of the ceremony, the assembled mourners shuffled from the Priory, and the procession was headed by the ornate coffin securely placed on the broad shoulders of six stout bearers. The casket containing the deceased duke’s remains was loaded solemnly into the rear of the hearse to be conveyed back to the Maybury estate some twenty miles north of Cartmel, and there to be laid to rest in the private ducal chapel. The final interment would be a secluded affair, witnessed only by the Mayburys’ closest family and friends.
Outside the church, Gideon, supported by Lydia, did the rounds of polite handshakes and murmured thank-yous to acknowledge the ranks of assembled great and good who had made the trip to see his brother off in style. For those who wished to continue the gathering, a restaurant in the bustling tourist village had been hired for the day with instructions to feed and water all who chose to remain together for a couple more hours in Richard’s name. Gideon just wanted to get back to the peace and solitude of the Hall. For once he appreciated the quiet dignity of the Maybury estate.
He made his excuses as soon as he decently could and slid into the backseat of the waiting limousine where Lydia had already taken refuge. He reached for her hand and squeezed it.
“Soon be over. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine. Or I will be.” She looked up at him. Her usually immaculate makeup had been wrecked by the extremes of the day. Her large hazel eyes were ringed in dark smudges, and her lip gloss had dulled as she had gnawed on her mouth during the interminable succession of prayers, hymns, and eulogies. “I just need to get home.”
“Not long now. We don’t need to stay long at the chapel.”
“I know. I’ll go back later on my own, when everything quietens down.”
“Of course. Just take all the time you need. You know I’ll be there for you, if you need anything.” Gideon’s solicitousness surprised even him, but he shrugged it away. It was personal, and he genuinely liked Lydia.
“Thank you. And I won’t be in your way for long. I just need to find somewhere else to live, and then I’ll be gone.”
“What? Why?” It had not occurred to Gideon that she might not remain at Maybury Hall. In truth he had given no thought at all to Lydia’s future as a widow. “I thought you loved it at the Hall.”
“I do, but it’s your home now.”
“Bollocks. I’m not going to live there. The place is yours for as long as you want it.”
She shook her head, and the beautifully coiffed waves barely moved under her black pillbox hat and half veil. “Don’t be ridiculous, Gid. I might thank you for a dowager apartment in one of the underused wings, I dare say, but the Hall is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Westmoreland, and that’s you now.”
“It might be me, but there’ll be no duchess. We both know that. I see no reason why you shouldn’t just carry on as you are.”
“You’ll need to marry, like it or not. You’re the duke now, and you have to produce an heir. That’s how we do things.”
“People like us.”
Gideon gave an impatient snort. “Do I look to you as though I give a fuck about dynastic immortality?” He cast a wry glance at her. “Are you quite sure you’re not pregnant? That would be more convenient.”
“No. I’m not.”
“Could you not just—”
“Gid, shut up. You are despicable.”
“Did I say otherwise? Seriously. I won’t be marrying and producing a legitimate heir, you and I both know that. So unless you want Maybury to go to some distant cousin, I suggest you get busy and solve the problem. I’ll back you up and legitimize any sprog you manage to produce—girl or boy—but please, nothing too outlandish. It’d be nice if the next duke at least resembled me.”
“I can’t believe you. Richard’s hardly cold, and already you’d have me screwing around. I’m not a broodmare, you know.”
He shrugged. “No rush. Take your time. Come to think of it, I’m sure I recall seeing a turkey baster in the kitchen. Maybe we could…? Unless you want me to check out the cousins, that is.”
“I’m practical, that’s all. And only thinking of you. You could call it an annuity for your old age.”
As the car glided gracefully through the huge gates that led from the Priory, the hairs on the back of Gideon’s neck prickled. He knew better than to ignore his instincts. Indeed he would have been dead long before but for his innate ability to sense danger. He was being watched, and he knew with unerring clarity that whoever observed him from the shadows had hostile intent. Gideon swiveled in the seat to look back over his shoulder, but saw no one.
He faced front again and tension crackled from every pore. Something was wrong. For the first time he could recall, he sensed events unfolding over which he had no control.COLLAPSE