“You don’t have to go through with this, Kit,” Marcus said from across from me.
I ignored him, my face turned away so that I could stare out at the night-drenched scene beyond the carriage window. The lamps that lined the boulevard outside our London residence had been lit just as the dying rays of the setting sun turned the western sky into an ugly, mottled bruise. Now that full dark had fallen, their flickering light fell in lambent pools on the cobblestones, bathing the street in variegated hues of orange and amber.
My twin leaned forward, closing the distance between us to pluck my gloved hand from where it rested on my knee and press it between his own. “Kit,” he said, his tone pleading.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. “What choice do I have, Marcus?” I said, my voice barely audible over the rattling of the wheels.
“You could flee instead. I could use my allowance to set you up somewhere in the country. A nice little stone cottage with a garden. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
I barked a humorless laugh. “Father would know you had helped me escape,” I said. “He would cut you off. He would bribe anyone who agreed to help us. Sooner or later, he would find me.”
And God help me when he did.
I loathed that I even had to explain this to my brother. Once upon a time, we had been inseparable. Had known each other’s every secret. It had felt like we shared one soul between us. So much had changed since then.
Even though we were both eighteen, Marcus seemed so much younger than me, forever underestimating the man who had sired us, because, though he had heard some of the stories from my own lips, he hadn’t been there. He hadn’t seen with his own eyes all the things that I had. Father and Grandmother had been on their best behavior whenever he came home from Eton, because they knew he would go back, that he might tell someone what he saw. And that person might listen to him. Unlike me and Amelia, who were trapped there, who were girls, whose word no one would believe over a lord’s.
This was like Mother’s death all over again. What would it take to make Marcus understand? The full truth, perhaps? About the letter he had received from Grandmother the day before her death and why he and Father had arrived home to find her dead and not me?
The memories made my fingers tremble; the first sign that an attack was on its way. I wrenched my hand from Marcus’s before he could notice, and then did my best to shove all recollection of the past four years into the darkest corner of my mind. I had survived them, that was what was important.
“There has to be some way out of this,” Marcus said, almost as if to himself.
My gaze snapped to his then, anger burning in my chest. “There’s not. I’m his daughter. His property. He’s free to pass ownership of me to whomever he chooses.”
We had both inherited some part of our father’s temper, and Marcus’s rose up then to meet my own. “So you’re just going to give up? Let him marry you off to that wretch?”
I stared at him a moment before responding, watching the ebb and flow of shadow and light play across features screwed up in anger. He was my brother. My twin. The person I was closest to in this world, regardless of the distance that had grown between us. Regardless of the secrets I must keep from him. At times, the good times, the times when he startled laughter out of me and made me momentarily forget why I so seldom laughed anymore, I still felt as though we might share a soul. And yet, he was also male. The years I had spent pinned beneath our grandmother’s thumb, he had spent at Eton. Learning. Making friends. Having adventures. He was free in a way that I never would be. He would inherit our father’s fortune and title, his properties and the people who lived on them. Perhaps, one day, despite his insistence to the contrary, he would even be passed ownership of a woman.
Sometimes I feared I hated him as much as I loved him.
My jealousy was bitter on my tongue when I finally spoke. “I didn’t say that I was giving up.”
“Tell me what you have planned. I can help you, Kit. I want to help you,” he said, his expression quickly morphing from anger into concern.
He was changeable like that; emotional like our father, only without the extremes and the eventual violence. I was less so, my anger at times feeling like my constant companion. I did my best now to stifle it, for this was just the type of declaration that I had been hoping to exploit.
“Fine then. Tonight, after the ball, you’ll return home with me,” I said. He had a habit of seeing me as far as the carriage and depositing me into the protection of our servants, leaving him free to pursue whatever pretty face had caught his eye that evening.
“I will,” he said.
“And then you’ll tell me every intimacy that can take place between a man and a woman, and which ones might lead to impregnation.”
He frowned at me. “I’ve only ever been with men, Kit. You know that.”
“What I know is that your knowledge on the subject must still be greater than my own. The maids I’ve tried to bribe into talking to me have all been too afraid of Father to take the risk, so my education has been relegated to the few books I’ve managed to thieve from Aunt Jane’s library. They’re frustratingly vague. What you don’t know, surely you can find out from friends, or even the bloody footmen for that matter.” It was my turn to lean forward now, forcing him to meet my gaze. “And after that, you can find out every form of contraception that I could possibly procure. And if those don’t work, you’ll find someone to rid me of the child I might one day be forced to carry.”
My brother’s eyes widened with shock. “Kit, I…”
I lunged forward and grabbed his free hand, terror making my voice tremble when I spoke. “Do not let me die like her, Marcus.”
His features crumpled as he closed the distance between us to wrap his arms around me and pull me from my seat to his. “Never. I’ll do anything,” he whispered into my hair.
We remained like that as the carriage turned a corner and gained speed, huddling together in the shadows like we used to huddle together whenever Father was in a rage. My dress would be creased and my hair slightly disheveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to care, for I was too trapped by the horror of my memories and the terror that I could suffer the same fate. I shook within Marcus’s arms, the attack I had staved off a moment ago threatening to take hold of me once more. Marcus did his best to soothe me, rocking us back and forth like mother had when we were young, humming a lullaby as he stroked my arm.
Don’t think of her. Don’t think of that day. Bury it deep, I coached myself until finally, blessedly, the trembling abated.
“I hate the idea of you married to him,” Marcus said after some time.
“That makes two of us. Have you found out anything new?” I asked.
Marcus had been gathering rumors of the man I would soon be formally betrothed to and relaying them to me. From what we had learned, he was deeply in debt, prone to bouts of drunken debauchery, and currently had not one, but three mistresses. It gave me hope that he would be so preoccupied with them that I might be all but ignored once we were wed.
“The seamstress he keeps might be carrying his bastard in her belly,” Marcus said.
I felt a surge of pity for the woman. “God let her live through the delivery,” I whispered.
“And there was something else,” he said, the words slow, as if he didn’t want to speak them. “A rumored bit of ugliness with one of the dancers from Covent Garden.”
“What manner of ugliness?” I asked.
Marcus remained silent, his arms stiffening around me.
I pulled away to look at him in the dim light. He refused to meet my gaze.
“Marcus,” I said, my tone demanding. “What manner of ugliness?”
He looked at me then, his brows drawn down, his expression filled with traces of both fear and worry. “I don’t want to say yet. I was going to make a few more inquiries into it tonight and tomorrow. Just…if there’s even the slightest chance that these rumors could be true, you will not marry him. Do you hear me, Kit? I’ll drug and kidnap you if I must. Spirit you away to a forgotten part of the continent. We can live like hermits in some small, sea-swept Mediterranean village where Father’s cronies can never find us.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “That bad?”
He looked away again, his jaw clenched. When he answered, it was through his teeth. “That bad.”
The trembling began anew, and I tucked myself beneath my brother’s arm and wrapped my own tighter around his middle. “Tell me a story,” I said. “Anything to distract me.”
Marcus didn’t hesitate even a heartbeat. At this point, he was used to requests like this from me. “Randolph was keeping two lovers at Drury Lane, one a man, and the other a woman. The woman, Lucille, is a dancer. The man, Malcolm, an actor. Two nights past they found out about each other.”
I glanced up at him, latching onto the tale of one of his closest friends’ latest scandals. “What happened? Did they come to blows in the wings?”
He shook his head, the light of a passing torch glinting off his teeth as he smiled. “No. When we went backstage after the final curtain to pay our respects, Lucille used one of those dancer’s legs to kick Randolph between his hard enough to lift him clear off the ground.”
The picture his words painted was enough to tease a grin from me. “What did Malcolm do?”
Marcus’s smile widened as he looked down at me. “Well, naturally, when Randolph’s feet hit the floor again, he fell right to his knees, clutching himself and baying like a hound. That’s when Malcolm used one of his knees to finish him off.” Marcus’s chest shook as he chuckled. “Randolph ended up sprawled in an undignified, unconscious heap in the hallway. Bradford and I were forced to carry him out bodily.”
I was torn between amusement and concern: a common response to most of Randolph’s antics. “Oh, poor Randolph. How is he now?”
Marcus shrugged. “Fair enough. We were able to revive him in the carriage, and he spent the night bemoaning and carrying on so much that he piqued the pity of a serving wench from one of the taverns.” Marcus raised a hand and ruffled his hair a little as he chuckled. “I haven’t heard from him since. I think he’s still holed up with her somewhere, licking his wounds.”
I snorted. “Right.” I might have been a virgin, but I’d learned enough from Aunt Jane’s books that I somehow doubted that it was Randolph’s pride that was being licked.
We moved on from his scandal to other gossip, passing the remainder of the carriage ride chatting about nothing but frivolities, anything to keep the mood light. When we finally slowed to a stop outside the Duke of Hampshire’s house, I was much better prepared for the night to come.
Marcus opened the door and leaped from the carriage without waiting for the footmen, as athletic and graceful as one would expect from a man who’d had riding and fencing lessons since he was old enough to sit a horse and hold a saber. Another pang of envy shot through me. Beneath my ethereal, cream-colored empire dress, my corset dug into my ribs something fierce, ensuring that I would never be able to leap like him, let alone run if I had to. In that moment it felt like nothing more than one of the many of the innumerable bars that formed the inescapable cage that surrounded me.
“My lady,” Marcus said as he bowed up at me with his hand extended in wait. His tone was overly formal, his expression goading. He was teasing me, attempting to keep the mood light, unaware of my torment and envy.
I drew a deep, calming breath – well, as much of one as I could thanks to the constriction of the whalebone that girdled my lungs – and exhaled it slowly. Then I forced the smile I had spent countless hours practicing in the mirror onto my face and put my hand into his.
He helped me down and then proffered his arm. I slipped mine through his and gazed up at the towering stone façade in front of us. Light and sound poured forth from the many windows, giving us glimpses of the crush inside.
This ball was an annual affair, the only social event of the season that the venerable Duke of Hampshire threw, and the ton were known to descend upon his manor en masse for the rare chance to glimpse and possibly even interact with him. Rumor was that some years he didn’t even deign to attend it, forcing his aging mother, the Dowager Duchess of Hampshire, to play hostess in his stead. I wondered if tonight would be one of those nights, if he was somewhere inside, or else at the palace, aiding the ailing king and playing an intricate, dangerous game of political chess with his fellow dukes and the Crowned Prince as they vied for power and prestige.
“Shall we?” Marcus asked.
Awed and a little intimidated, I nodded up at him, and he led us inside.
“Honestly, can you believe the nerve of that woman?” the Dowager Duchess of Amesbury asked the group of ladies I stood with an hour later, her tone reflecting the outrage displayed between the lines of her ancient, craggy face.
I made a tutting sound, hoping she interpreted it as agreement. Several women made similar sounds around me, while others verbalized their accord. One would think I could simply keep silent, that my tutting would be lost in the chorus of responses. One would be wrong. As usual, I stood on the outskirts of the event with the most matronly members in attendance. The Duchess of Amesbury ruled them all. I had no doubt that she marked every noise of ascent, noted every word of agreement. Those who disagreed, or who declined to comment, would be noted, and exorcised from the group like the cancer she saw them as.
The company I kept was calculated. As a young lady in search of a husband, I should have spent my time circling the room, engaged in conversation with the other young women who had made their debuts this year, or dancing with the men who would be my suitors, but I had learned the folly of that from Aunt Jane, Lady Cloverfell, my mother’s sister, just before the beginning of the season. She was my sponsor into society, since my father, thank God, had refused to rouse himself from our country estate to do so. He was still too busy grieving over the death of the monster who had birthed him, even though our formal mourning period had ended in late winter.
Aunt Jane doted on the duchess as though she were a lady in waiting to the queen herself. She also had a tongue for gossip, and, hoping to impart some knowledge unto me regarding the men and women I would soon be face to face with, had told me all manner of tales about them. I had learned a very valuable lesson from her hearsay: to be female was to be fragile. As if my mother’s fate hadn’t already taught me that. Aunt Jane’s tales only reinforced my belief, for, from her own lips, any sign of gracelessness was seen as ill breeding, too keen an intelligence was thought of as overreaching, too little intelligence was treated with disdain and derision, and any perceived inappropriate flirtation was nothing short of a fatal flaw.
It made simply existing as a young lady of the ton a precarious position. And one I most certainly couldn’t afford to be in. No, I needed to be beyond reproach. I needed to be seen as the height of propriety. I didn’t want to be thought of as beautiful, but boring, nor sweet, but rather snobbish. For it was the safest course of action. Because a day may come when I might be judged in the court of public opinion, and I needed the public’s opinion of me to be as a faultless, well-bred, highly respected member of the aristocracy. So I spent my time putting all my powers of observation – which were nigh preternatural thanks to all the years I had spent inspecting every minute change in my grandmother’s expression, attempting to gauge her mood, predicting when the next blow, whether it be physical or mental, would fall – toward watching the Duchess of Amesbury and those of her ilk, and mimicking them to the best of my ability.
It left me in haughty, tedious company. Over the past hour I had been subjected to speech after speech concerning the impropriety of those around us, had been informed just how vapid this year’s debutantes were – myself excluded, of course – and had listened to endless rumors regurgitated from the gossip rags they all denied reading. It was the same drivel I had listened to last night, and the night before that, and the night before that, and I was growing increasingly weary of it.
My gaze drifted to the latest lady the Dowager Duchess of Amesbury had taken to lambasting: the Viscountess of Dover. She was dressed in a beautiful gown of emerald green, her silken shift scandalously clinging to her voluptuous form, the freedom of her upper body making it all too apparent that she wasn’t wearing a proper corset beneath the garment. Her thick, chestnut tresses were done up in an intricate knot, a few spilling forth to tickle her cheeks and flit over her ample décolletage. Her expression was a mixture of rapt attention, amusement, and love, which was directed toward the handsome, tall, blonde man she was dancing far too close with. That man was her husband. Quite shocking indeed. How scandalous.
I rolled my eyes inwardly.
The viscountess threw back her head and laughed loudly, causing the elderly duchess to make a noise of derision in response. “I would have thought the viscount at least above such public displays. How plebian of him,” she sneered.
I couldn’t have disagreed with her more. The young couple looked deliriously happy. It was such a welcome sight in a sea full of adulterers and deceivers that I hoped they danced together again and again, damn the gossip.
“Yes, how plebian,” I echoed, hating myself a little for it.
The Viscount and Viscountess of Dover broke apart as they made another turn in the dance. Through the space that widened between them, I caught sight of a short man with thick, lustrous dark hair and a face more pretty than handsome. It was my soon-to-be betrothed, the Earl of Aberdine, and he was watching the couple just as closely as I had been. He held a glass of champagne in one hand, and as the couple spun toward him, his gaze narrowed. I immediately grew suspicious of the look, thinking back to what Marcus had said in the carriage.
The couple drew close together again, and Aberdine must have made eye contact with one of the pair, for he raised his glass in salute toward them, a lecherous smile spreading over his face. I shifted my gaze to follow his. The viscountess had stiffened, her body so rigid that I feared she might trip as she moved through the dance. The viscount’s expression turned murderous as he glanced toward the smaller man. Aberdine must have been taunting them. There was a history there for them to have reacted so strongly, I just knew there was.
As I watched, Aberdine drained his glass of champagne and cast his gaze around the ballroom. It lurched to a stop on something or someone I couldn’t see and turned downright predatory. My spine stiffened, a sliver of fear snaking down it. No good would come of that look. I’d seen similar in my youth. There was violence there, and something else I didn’t want to recognize at first. Lust. I had seen Father look at Mother that way, right before –
Don’t think of that! I scolded myself, cutting the thought off, hard.
Aberdine slipped through the crowd toward the back wall, and I made a hasty excuse about needing to speak with my brother, dipped a curtsy to the other ladies, and circled back around the ballroom through the crowd until I was out of sight from them, all the while making my way toward where I had lost sight of Aberdine.
I came around a group of men to see that he had cornered a maid near a hallway, proffering his cuff to her as though there were something upon it that he needed cleaning or fixing. The young woman, perhaps just my age, with thick blonde hair and a pleasing face, wore a look of confusion, her gaze casting around as though searching for aid. Aberdine’s began to follow it, and I leapt behind the men just before it landed upon me, my heart pounding beneath my breast.
“May I help you?” an almost painfully low voice asked.
Oh, no, I had brushed against one of them.
I looked up, having to tilt my head back to meet the gaze of the gentleman who spoke to me. I took him in at a glance: swarthy skin; dark eyes; a shock of thick black hair; an expressive mouth; a Grecian nose; square jaw; neck muscles straining against the collar of his jacket. It was Henry Fletcher.
I was considered almost tragically tall for a young woman, and yet he stood a head and a half above me still. His size was further magnified by the fact that he was so broad one might easily mistake him for a blacksmith instead of the renowned artist that he was. My father had used his stature for intimidation and violence, and so I had a general distrust for men his size and larger. Because of that, I found Henry Fletcher downright terrifying, and regardless of the fact that his large, soulful brown eyes had never looked upon me with anything but kindness, I avoided him at all costs.
“No, I beg your pardon, sir,” I said with a cursty.
Ever polite, he dipped me a bow, nodded, and turned back to the group of men he had been speaking with.
I stepped away from them to see that in my moment of distraction, Aberdine and the maid had disappeared. The hallway seemed the likeliest of routes for them to have taken. I took a few steps toward it, casually, and then turned my back to it. When it appeared that no one in the crush was looking my way, I took the final, quick steps backward into it, and when I was out of sight from the ball, faced forward, slipped my shoes off, picked them up in one hand, lifted my skirts a few inches from the ground with my other to give my legs a measure of freedom, and paced quickly up it.
I didn’t have much time. For a young lady like myself to be alone for even a short period was to court scandal. With this in mind, I picked up my pace, my feet moving silently over the cold stone tiles. Over the past four years I had learned how to sneak and spy. It had been a necessary skill to avoid both my father and grandmother.
I found my prey quickly, for the maid was now putting up a fight, albeit a polite one.
“My lord, this isn’t the way. Please release me. I can run quickly and gather the necessary items to clean it. I’ll be but a moment,” she said, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
They were just around the bend in the hall now, and I slowed my pace and stopped right before it, trying to determine whether or not it would be wise to attempt a glance around the corner.
“Come, now, you didn’t really think this was about the spot of champagne on my cuff, did you? I saw the way you looked at me,” Aberdine said, his voice low and cajoling.
“My lord, I didn’t…I don’t know what you mean, my lord. Please,” she said.
“Oh, I think you know exactly,” he said.
“N-no, p-please don’t, my lord. I don’t wa-”
“Stop squirming, you slut,” Aberdine hissed. “Do you know who I am? A baseborn bitch like you should be begging for my attentions.”
“I…yes, of course I know who you are. Please, my lord, please let me go.”
I heard a brief struggle, followed by what sounded like a slap. I hoped she hit him good and hard, but when I heard her strangled sob, I realized with dawning horror that it had been she who was hit. I glanced the other way down the corridor, where light and music poured into the mouth of its darkened confines. The ball was just a scream away.
“Hush, now,” Aberdine crooned. “I’ll make it better.”
The girl sobbed a little louder.
Rape. That was his intent. That was the ugliness Marcus had heard rumor of. Or was it? Was there something worse? If Aberdine was depraved enough to assault a servant just a corner away from a ballroom, what would he do in private? Bile rose in my throat, choking me. Oh, God, I was to marry him. What would he do to me in private? Was this to be my life? Exchanging one nightmare for another, even darker one? Inheriting nearly the exact life that my mother had had?
I somehow managed to keep my stomach down as I whirled away and sped back toward the party as fast as my ridiculous clothing would allow. I slipped my shoes on just as before stepping back into the light, and beelined toward the first female servant I spotted at a relaxed, stately pace that took every ounce of my willpower to affect.
“My lady,” she said with a quick curtsy, her mousy brown hair bobbing as she rose, her hazel eyes looking curiously up at me.
I glanced around to see that no one was near enough to overhear. “Come with me. Now,” I said, slipping my arm through hers. I quickly led her over to the nearest server, a fellow only my height, with large, guileless blue eyes. “The housekeeper or butler, or whichever servant of authority you find first, tell them to come into that hall as fast as they physically can,” I said, pointing toward it. “Do not delay. Do not tell anyone. Once they are on their way, find the two largest footmen you can and send them right after. On the life of one of your fellow servants do as you’re told.”
“On…on the life, my lady?” he asked, his eyes going even wider.
“Yes. Leave the room at a normal pace, and then run, do you hear me?” I said, my voice shaking now. It wasn’t just my voice, it was all of me.
The boy did as he was told, spinning on his heel and weaving away from us. I couldn’t trust that he would be quick enough.
“My lady, what do you mean? What is happening?” the maid I was clutching asked.
“Hurry. One of your fellow maids will be raped if we’re not quick enough,” I said to her, nearly wrenching her shoulder out of socket as I wheeled us toward the hallway.
“Oh, God,” she said, a note of fear in her voice.
“What do I look like?”
“W-what?” she said, her arm now trembling right along with mine.
“My face. My features. What is my expression?” I demanded.
“C-calm? How are you so calm?”
A note of relief zinged through me. All my years of forcing my expression to neutral while under extreme duress were finally coming to fruition. “I assure you I am not,” I told her. “Now look toward the ball with as normal an expression as you can muster. Is anyone watching us leave it?”
I saw her turn her head out of the corner of my eye. “A few are,” she answered.
“What are their expressions?”
“Curious? Concerned, perhaps.”
“Fine. It’ll have to be fine. They see me with you. They know I am accompanied.”
We gained the mouth of the hall and picked up speed, and once we hit the darkness I slipped off my shoes and we were moving as fast as I could manage. I had no plan, no thought for how to smooth this scandal or keep Aberdine from ruining me if I was discovered to be involved – for I knew he could, it was his word against mine, and I had already learned the hard way long ago that no one would believe my word over a lord’s.
We rounded the corner; there was no one in sight. Doors lined either side of the hallway.
I grabbed the maid’s arm and slowed her to a walk. “He must have dragged her into one of the rooms. Listen now,” I said.
She did as I bade her.
We crept down the hallway as quickly as possible, my ears straining to detect anything other than the sound of my own roaring pulse.
A few paces later, I heard a soft, muffled cry from the nearest doorway, and without thinking, ran forward and twisted the handle. It was locked, so I clenched my fist and banged on it as hard as possible.
“Oy!” I yelled, mimicking one of the common accents I had heard so often in the streets of London since arriving here. I had spent so much time manipulating my voice to hide what I was feeling from those around me that I had grown quite adept at altering it to impersonate others as well. “Mary, is that you in there? Mrs. Putnam’s been asking fer ya, she has. Ya best come out now an’ quit yer caterwauling. She migh’ go easier on ye, ifn’ yer go to her afore she finds yer here.”
On the other side of the door there was silence. Well, at least that meant that whatever had been happening had stopped.
I banged on the door again. “Oy! Ye hear me, ye daft wench?”
Just then a portly, older woman came running around the opposite side of the hallway that we had entered from. She was huffing and puffing something awful, and right on her heels were two brutishly large men I could only hope were the footmen I had asked for.
“What is the meaning of this, my-”
She cut off at the sight of me desperately waving my hands. And thank God for that. My lady, she had been about to say. Aberdine could have heard her.
“Keep knocking,” I told the maid who was with me.
I pulled the older woman, who I assumed was the housekeeper, away from the others and told her what I thought was taking place within the bedchamber. Her face blanched as she listened to me. I didn’t envy her. Aberdine was a peer of the realm. It was his word against all of theirs. He could have them all fired or worse. It was dangerous just for them to interfere, but I could tell by the set of her jaw that she was willing to do it.
“Is everything all right?” a voice asked from somewhere behind me. A painfully deep, familiar voice. Henry Fletcher.
“I wasn’t here. You didn’t see me. You don’t know who I am.” I told the housekeeper. “Please.”
She nodded, once.
I fled, careful to keep my back to Mr. Fletcher, though my gown and my flame-red hair no doubt gave me away.
It was over. I was ruined.