THE DUKE AND THE ASSASSIN
An MI6 agent falling for the wrong woman.
A Russian with secrets to hide.
And the passion that defies the rules...
My team. My family. My allegiance. As a duke, the boundaries and loyalties are clear. I may be the Marquess of Wells with a stoic and rigid father on his deathbed, but I have desires and needs that break those boundaries. Falling for an assassin may be an issue. But I haven’t faced a problem yet that I can’t solve—other than assembling a crib.
Secrets. Lies. Deception. As a Russian assassin, I’m riddled with it all. Now, with a ten-million-dollar bounty on my head, there’s no way I can get out alive. But the irresistible and incorrigible duke thinks otherwise. He wants me in his life, in his arms, and in his bed. There’s no declining the desires of a duke. And quite frankly, I have no intentions of denying him anything.
“Thornton, are you listening?”
I turned away from the window where I’d been looking out at the dormant gardens of Whittaker Abbey. The land had been handed down, heir to heir, since 1547 when the former Cistern abbey was taken over by Henry VIII. Shortly afterward, the estate was given to John Whittaker as a gift from the king for his service.
As a boy, I’d explored every acre of the forested estate and its gardens, knowing that one day, the care and maintenance of the land would be my responsibility. It had seemed a long way off then—not until I was an old man, when my father, the fourteenth Duke, passed away.
Until then, I would remain the Marquess of Wells and, more importantly to me, a high-ranking agent in the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as Military Intelligence Section 6, or MI6.
“I beg your pardon, Duchess,” I answered, looking lovingly at my mother, the woman who had been the guiding force of our family in the months since my father had suffered a debilitating stroke.
“What news of Sutton?”
Like me, my younger brother by two years, known to most as Wilder, was employed by Her Majesty’s Secret Service. However, he was on the national security side—MI5.
I sneaked a look at my phone. “He’s expected this afternoon.”
“Very good. You and he will get the trees.”
My first thought was to ask why the groundskeepers couldn’t handle it on their own, as they’d had even before my father’s illness, but I understood my mother was grasping for any semblance of what she considered normalcy. Choosing the trees that would be brought into the abbey and decorated for the holidays was something my father, brother, and I had done together until I’d turned eighteen and left for university.
“We will do,” I muttered, wondering how many trees my mother planned to decorate this year. Was more than one really necessary? It wasn’t as though she would entertain this holiday season.
Duchess Victoria was the eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland and still practiced what some believed to be archaic traditions of the English nobility.
“Come, sit with me,” she said, holding her hand out to me. “Tell me what’s troubling you.”
I sat, but had no intention of confiding in her. I also had no intention of lying, so chose not to say anything.
“Have you seen your father this morning?” she asked.
“I read the news to him.”
My mother patted my hand. “You know how much he likes to catch up over his morning tea.”
I doubted my father had heard a word I read, and he’d certainly not had any tea, but as the doctors had told us, the important thing was that the family spent time with him and conversed whether the duke was able to respond or not.
“There’s more,” she murmured.
“Something is on your mind, Thornton, and whatever it is, its weight is heavy.”
Even if I wanted to discuss it with my mother, I wouldn’t know where to begin.
“It’s a woman.”
I leaned closer. “It’s nothing,” I said softly. “Let it be, Duchess.”
“For now,” she said, standing and leaning down to kiss my cheek. “I’ll check on your father.”
I nodded and stood too, walking back over to the window.
It had been over a month since United Russia lifted the ten-million-dollar bounty they had on Orina “Losha” Kuznetsov’s head, and yet I had no idea where she was and why she insisted on staying so far underground that no one could find her.
I’d called in every favor—and there had been many—but so far, I didn’t have a single lead as to where the bloody woman was hiding.
“You best be driving in the gate,” I said when I answered my brother’s call a couple of hours later.
Wilder laughed. “At least an hour out, but before you blast me, I’ve spent the last thirty minutes listening to Sir Ranald tell me how he intends to fire you.”
I laughed too. “My Christmas wish come true.”
“What the bloody hell did you do?”
The memory of it made me cringe.
* * *
I pounded my fist on the desk of the office I’d been holed up in, cursing the impotence I felt as much as the walls surrounding me.
Ten minutes ago, my boss had summoned me, but I wasn’t any closer to giving him the answer he sought than I had been two weeks ago when Rivet had first asked for my decision.
Sir Ranald “Rivet” Caird was a career British Intelligence officer for MI6 who, nine years prior, had been named chief. At the time, he’d been candid about his refusal to serve beyond a ten-year term.
The first in line to succeed him had been Merrigan Shaw, who was now Merrigan Shaw-Butler, happily married to Kade “Doc” Butler, the founding partner of the private security and intelligence firm made up primarily of former CIA operatives—K19 Security Solutions. Merrigan had taken over as managing partner of the firm and had made it perfectly clear that she wouldn’t return to MI6 regardless of the position offered.
As much as that had infuriated our boss, Rivet had seen her departure coming in the same way I had, and couldn’t begrudge her the happiness she and Doc had in their lives.
With Merrigan out of the picture, I’d moved to the top spot to succeed Sir Ranald. My lack of enthusiasm, along with my refusal to give the man an answer, incensed my boss.
“He’s pacing,” said Patsy, sticking her head in my office. “Would you mind?”
“In a minute,” I snapped, immediately regretting my tone. Patsy was Rivet’s assistant and didn’t deserve my or anyone else’s wrath.
“I take it you haven’t heard anything.”
Patsy was well aware of my search for Losha Kuznetsov, and had done everything she could to help. While her level of security clearance was high or higher than mine, she couldn’t do too much digging without getting in trouble with Rivet herself.
“Sorry, Pats. Not your fault or your problem.”
“Go talk to him. Get it over with so we can all start enjoying the holiday.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I muttered, cursing myself again for my thoughtlessness.
Patsy motioned with her head toward Rivet’s office, and I stood.
“You’re not a duke yet,” Rivet barked when I walked in. “Until you are, I outrank you, and I expect you to respond appropriately.”
“Yes, sir. My apologies.”
“The resources of the Secret Intelligence Service are not yours to make use of for personal matters.”
“Understood.” Now wasn’t the time to argue with Rivet, but other than making contact with several of our operatives, I hadn’t used SIS “resources” to search for Kuznetsov.
“That being said, I am authorizing a fact-finding mission.”
Rivet raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not ready to give you an answer.”
“You’re under the assumption that I’m authorizing the mission in exchange for your acceptance of the position?”
“To a certain extent.”
“Get the hell out of my office! In fact, get the hell out of the building.”
“Rivet, I meant no—”
* * *
At the end of my recount, my brother laughed. “Did you wish him a happy Christmas on your way out?”
I ran my hand through my hair. “He’s frustrated that I won’t give him an answer.”
“No, Shiver, he’s pissed off that you thought so little of him,” he said, referring to me by the code name used by most outside my family.
When my brother didn’t say anything else, I thought perhaps our call had dropped, but then I heard him take a deep breath.
“We’ll find her, but in the meantime, you have to find a way to compartmentalize.”
If my brother were standing in front of me, I’d likely belt him, after which I’d feel equally as guilty as I did about my conversation with Rivet. However, I had no restraint despite knowing I’d experience regret.
“Where the hell is she?” I said in a way I wouldn’t to anyone but my brother.
“I wish I had the answer, Shiv.”