I fled blindly around the corner in the hallway, not knowing where I was going, only that I needed to escape. A set of stairs, their narrowness marking them as the servants’ stairs, appeared at my right, and I wrenched my skirts up and climbed them, shocking a maid into a high-pitched shriek when I burst through the door at the top.
I didn’t stop to apologize or give her a chance to mark my appearance. Well, beyond the obvious. Damn this hair of mine, I thought for the second time in so few minutes. It all but ensured that I would be recognized wherever I went. True, I wasn’t the only redhead in the ton, but no other ladies had quite the flame-colored hue as I did, only Marcus.
The hallway I sped down was claustrophobic and dimly lit, most likely the servants’ quarters or some part of the house designed for their use alone. There would be too many eyes here for me linger without notice, so I found another set of stairs and took it upward, to the top floor of the house. They deposited me in a much wider corridor, one clearly meant to display the wealth of the home’s owner: long, intricately woven carpets spread out over the wide-planked wood floor; small tables holding obscure relics stood along the walls at intervals; priceless portraits painted in oils hung beside bucolic watercolors depicting country scenes.
The end of the hallway loomed suddenly ahead of me, a door to both the left and the right. I chose the one on the left and quickly slipped inside, craving a quiet space where I might subdue my rising panic, gather my thoughts, and discover some way out of this debacle.
There was a fire smoldering in the large stone hearth. What little I could see of the room was made up of heavy furniture and dark fabrics. It smelled of wood smoke, leather, and the particular mustiness of books. A study, most likely. Opposite me was a pair of glass doors, leading to what I could only hope was a balcony.
I propelled myself forward through the room, one hand clutched to my middle as I knuckled a cramp in my low abdomen, the other reached out in front of me, ready to brace myself on whatever was closest if I stumbled.
Fresh air. I needed fresh air. My breaths were coming in short little wheezing pants after my race through the house, and the darkened room seemed to tunnel around me ominously. Never again would I allow my handmaid to tie me into a corset so tightly.
I pushed through the doors and out into the night beyond. The mid-summer air was warm and stagnant, and it did little to ease my labored breathing. My knees wobbled, the world tilted, and I sunk to the stone floor in an ungracious heap, leaning backward as far as possible to keep my corset from further strangling me.
Mr. Fletcher had seen me. The servants had seen me. I believed that the housekeeper would hold her tongue, but I couldn’t trust that she would successfully bully the rest into silence. If they gossiped anything like those I had been raised around, I was doomed. They would tell the other members of the staff, who, in turn, might repeat the tale to friends and acquaintances in other households, who would, in turn, tell their masters in hopes of bettering their positions. A young lady such as myself shouldn’t know what rape is, and certainly shouldn’t have intervened to save a servant from it. Before it could be contained, the tale would spread like a conflagration through the ton. All my weeks of mimicking Amesbury would be for naught. I would be utterly ruined. If the ghosts of my past ever resurfaced, I would have no safety net of good opinion.
Father, I thought, a choking sob slipping through my lips. Oh, God, what would he do to me? I could never go back there. To that place. The day I had left our country home for London, I had sworn to myself it would be the last time I looked upon it. Father would try to summon me there when he heard, away from society, where he could dole out his punishment in private. No. I would refuse it. But then, knowing his temper and his pride, he would come here, and create some public scene so shocking that the scandal that had triggered it would seem like nothing but a gentle breeze that precipitates a mighty storm.
I couldn’t be in London when he arrived. I had to find Marcus. We could do as he said; flee the country, seek refuge in some far flung fishing village. We both favored dark-haired men. Perhaps a seaside settlement in Italy or Spain wouldn’t be quite so intolerable. But could I do that? Damn him to that fate when he stood to inherit everything? No. No, I could not. Not after living a life where I had never been free to make my own decisions. I would have to make it perfectly clear that joining me would be his choice and his choice alone. I must reassure him that I was a survivor. If I had survived the house of horrors I was raised in, I could survive anything.
I stumbled to my feet. My legs were still unsteady beneath me, and I pitched sideways into the banister, my breaths wheezing in and out of me. A few moments. I simply required a few more moments to gather myself. I couldn’t succumb to one of my fits. Not now. Not when I had no one to loosen my corset. I knew from experience that if my breaths became more labored, I might swoon, and then anyone might find me here.
The thought did nothing to soothe my wheezing, and soon I was bent over double, clutching at the railing, unable to stand because I couldn’t catch my breath, and unable to catch my breath, because, folded over like this, my corset made it impossible for my lungs to fully expand. It was a vicious circle. Darkness loomed at the edges of my vision, began trailing murky tendrils of shadow across my sight.
No! Not now! I raged against the panic. I had survived so much worse than this. I had cheated death. What was a scandal to me? What was a ruined reputation? I would still have my life. I could still flee, with or without Marcus. And if I fled far enough, not even the ghosts of my past could find me.
All was not lost.
I forced myself to straighten, bracing my hands on the cool stone beneath my palms, locking my elbows to keep myself upright. My breathing eased some, and slowly, my vision cleared.
You can survive this, I repeated to myself, over and over again, the words becoming a mantra.
It was only when my raging heartbeat and labored breathing began to calm that other noises penetrated my consciousness. Soft murmurs. Twinkling laughter. I glanced down to see that beneath me, the gardens that spread outward from the rear of the house were lit with a small army of torches. From my vantage point, they looked like enchanted fairy lights. Their warm glow illuminated the grassy avenues that wound lazily through the flowering shrubs and cast the hidden alcoves that branched off of them in deep shadow. These hideaways seemed designed for dalliances. Almost directly under my balcony, a man and a woman were seated together within one on a marble bench, hidden from view of the rest of the garden by the bushes that towered around them as they embraced in a passionate kiss. Beyond them, unaware of the liaison that was taking place just a pace away, ladies and gentlemen meandered past in pairs, trios, and groups, their conversation echoing up the stone façade of the house. The smell of flowers in full bloom followed in their wake, filling my nose with a heady bouquet of jasmine, lavender, and roses.
It was a reminder that life went on, as yet unaware of my ruin. It gave me a small glimmer of hope that my life, too, could continue in such a peaceful manner.
“You forgot to bribe them,” a cool, cultured voice said from behind me, shredding my momentary optimism. “The servants.”
I whipped around, my heart pounding, to see a shadowy figure emerge from the darkened doorway. Piece by piece he was illuminated by the flickering light of the garden below. His hand appeared first, long, tapered fingers wrapped around a glass filled with amber liquid. Then his crisply starched white cuffs. The black arm of his dinner jacket. His torso, narrow waist flaring up into wide shoulders. Finally, his face.
His features were Botticellian in nature; as if rendered by a master intent on exaggerating the possibilities of male beauty. Atop his head was a tangle of close-cropped blond curls. His large eyes were half lidded as they gazed at me, so light a brown that they were a near match for the drink he held. His arrow-straight nose seemed to point downward as if to draw the gaze to his full lips, which were currently set in a hard, unforgiving line. What a sight he would be if he ever smiled. If he ever looked upon a person with any expression other than this one – the only one I had ever seen him wear – boredom mixed with a hint of derision.
He was none other than our host, the Duke of Hampshire.
I sucked in a strangled breath of recognition, which spurred my heartbeat into a wild, reckless gallop. What little control I had gained over my emotions evaporated at the sight of him. The Hellion of Hampshire. The Duke of Deceit. The papers had given him innumerable, ominous nicknames, each one more fearsome than the last. To cross him was to court with disaster, to offend him was to ensure your own demise. He was vicious, vindictive, power hungry, cold, and cruel.
And, judging from his presence and his words, he knew of everything that had just transpired downstairs, and the role I had played in it. I was now at his complete mercy. If he had any.
The attack hit me full force then. I had fought it off for too long. Had suffered one too many shocks tonight. The trembling overtook me first, followed by a final, harsh expulsion of air from my lungs. Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t seem to force any breath back into them. My corset felt like a malicious, living thing, tightening with sinister intent, delighting in my pain as it squeezed the very life from me.
I dug at it with fingers quickly going numb, and when I found I was unable to loosen its hold on me, looked toward my only hope of aid, the duke, in a silent plea for help as I gasped like a fish out of water.
“Goddamn it,” he said, monotone, before draining his drink, setting the empty glass on the railing, and then striding over to me.
My knees buckled then, and I fell, sideways, unable to stop my descent. He scooped me up just before my head hit the flagstones, one arm beneath my knees, the other behind my back, annoyance writ across his countenance.
It seemed I blinked and I was inside the room, sprawled on my stomach on a settee. A great tearing sound came from behind me just as my torso was yanked an inch off the cushion.
“What the bloody hell are you doing, John?” a deep voice rumbled.
“Attacking her, obviously,” was the sarcastic response. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. She ceased breathing.” There was another yank on my back. “Damn these stays. Hand me that knife.”
I blinked again and opened my eyes to stare up at a ceiling. Darkly stained beams stood out like the ribs of some great beast in between wide expanses of white plaster. Undulations of orange and red danced over it all, as if the beast was bleeding. Firelight, I realized belatedly. I must have lost consciousness. For how long?
I turned my head to see that I was still in the study, a pair of armchairs pulled up close to me. Behind them, the fire had been rekindled, illuminating the room. Because of the backlight, the chairs were thrown into shadow, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, I saw that both seats were occupied: one by Henry Fletcher, and the other by the Duke of Hampshire. Fractured memories of my dress and corset being cut away flooded my mind. I glanced down to see that my modesty had been spared thanks to the blanket that had been draped over me. Beneath it, I could still feel whalebone girdling the lower part of my torso, but the upper part was now loose, blessedly so, enough that I could take deep, even breaths.
I returned my focus to the two men. They knew what I had done this night. There was no point trying to salvage this situation. “The maid?” I asked.
It was Mr. Fletcher who answered, surprising me. “Harriet,” he said. “Her name is Harriet. She’s a little bruised, and understandably shaken, but you reached the door before Aberdine could do any lasting damage.” He shrugged a great shoulder, looking chagrined. “Well, physical damage, anyhow.”
“I’m curious,” the duke said to me. “How this all came about.”
I glanced at him and then away, unable to meet his eyes. I had too many secrets to hold the searching gaze of one such as he. “Aberdine, Your Grace,” I said, my manners coming back to me. “I was to be betrothed to him. My brother, Marcus, Lord Rycroft, told me earlier that there might be reason to flee England rather than marry him. Downstairs, I caught sight of him wearing an expression that I distrusted after such a declaration, so I sought him out when he slipped from the crowd. I saw him with the maid, with Harriet,” I amended, “and followed. It was clear what his intent was. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“Rape,” the duke said.
I flinched away from the word.
“John,” Mr. Fletcher said, his tone cautioning.
I glanced up to see him staring at the duke in open disapproval. Who was this man to speak to and look at the Duke of Hampshire in such a way?
“Come, Henry,” the duke said, regarding the larger man. “You know her father. His reputation. Do you truly believe that anyone could abide in his household for any length of time and not know the reality of words like that and worse?” His focus turned to me, his cold gaze assessing as it roamed over my blanket-covered body. “Judging by the scars on her back, she hasn’t been spared from his barbary.”
“Scars?” Mr. Fletcher said, his voice filled with horror as he looked at me.
“She’s been flayed. At least twice,” the duke said, his tone only slightly less emotionless than a moment before.
Mr. Fletcher made a sound that was torn between anger and outrage as he jerked his head in my direction. He rose out of his chair as if to join me on the settee in some motion of solidarity or comfort.
I shrank away, pushing backward into the cushions, wanting nothing to do with being near a man so large in my current state of undress.
I’m not sure if it was my open fear, or the duke’s restraining hand on his arm, but he sat almost immediately back down, his gaze shuttered, his eyes sorrowful. “My deepest apologies, my lady,” he said. “What was done to you was…”
“Quite commonplace?” I supplied, my tone venomous, the same ugly, bitter part of myself that hated my own twin rising up to choke me.
“Monstrous,” Mr. Fletcher said, gazing upon me with what looked like pity.
He spoke the word like one unaccustomed to its real meaning might. I wondered then, how he would react if he learned the truth of it. The truth of how I earned these scars. That it wasn’t my father who had given them to me, but my –
Don’t think of her! I raged internally. I couldn’t afford to lose myself to the past. Not now.
“I’m guessing this isn’t the first such attack you’ve suffered?” the duke asked.
Still unable to meet his gaze, I turned my focus to the fire beyond him and shook my head.
“You see it sometimes,” he said, in a low voice. I couldn’t tell if he was speaking to me, in consolation, or Mr. Fletcher, in explanation. “In those who have experienced such trauma. My butler fought in the colonies when they were warring for independence. Loud bangs trigger similar breathing fits in him.”
The war had been nigh on twenty years past. His butler still suffered similar attacks? Did that mean that I might be forced to endure this crippling panic for the same length of time? Uncomfortable with this prospect and having trouble breathing again because of the memories that still threatened, I tried to sit up, forced to wriggle my way into a seated position thanks to my state of undress.
My state of undress. A slow, dawning realization struck me, of who had put me in said state, and what it could mean. I was a maiden. An unmarried young lady of noble birth. In a duke’s study. A duke who had just cut me out of my corset. I couldn’t have engineered a more opportune moment for extortion if I had spent months planning it. This was the perfect recipe for entrapment. And yet, knowing the duke’s reputation, I would be an utter fool for attempting to use it to my advantage. As skilled as I was at deception, political machinations and maneuverings were unknown to me. A man with a reputation as dark as his would likely leave me to face my ruination alone rather than do the honorable thing and marry me. Perhaps I could appeal to some deeply buried empathetic side of him.
I met his gaze then, allowing him a glimpse inside of myself, to the desperate, terrified creature that lurked beneath the façade of good breeding that I had meticulously cultivated. The one who would do anything to survive. “Your Grace, I am terribly sorry to beg this of you, but would you be willing to aid me this evening? I would avoid a scandal if I could, and…I cannot return to my father’s house. Ever. My brother has spoken of joining me in flight from him, but I won’t, in good consciousness, allow him to make such a sacrifice if there’s another alternative.”
“Are you asking me to set you up somewhere? To live out your life in impoverished obscurity far from the sphere of your father’s influence?” he asked.
“Yes, Your Grace,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.
“Rather than angle for the far more obvious and beneficial avenue of marriage via blackmail?”
“I would never be so foolish as to attempt to blackmail you, Your Grace.”
The duke and Mr. Fletcher turned to each other, sharing a long look filled with a silent conversation that I wasn’t privy to. After what felt like an age, the duke looked back at me. He shook his head, his lips pressed into a hard line. They parted, briefly. “No,” he said.
My heart sank, tears of frustration prickling the corner of my eyes. It was to be ruin after all.
“John,” Mr. Fletcher said. “Just tell h-”
The duke cut him off with an impatient hand gesture, his gaze burning into mine. “I think we should wed.”
My head spun as his words sank in.
“You…you can’t mean that, Your Grace,” I managed after several false starts.
“Oh, but I do,” he said, leaning forward. “Much better to have someone such as yourself, an obviously intelligent young lady, capable of the level of deception that you’ve been weaving tucked close, within sight at all times. Out on the continent, my enemies might find and make use of you against me.” He paused then, his full lips parting in what could only be described as a feral grin. I thought he would be breathtakingly beautiful when he smiled. I was wrong; he was terrifying. “And, wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to remain here in London, close to your brother, at once within your father’s sights and yet outside of his reach, elevated so high above his rank that you could ruin him if you chose to? Slowly. Using my influence to pull him apart piece by piece. To dismantle his empire. To sour each and every one of his political ambitions and business transactions.”
I clutched the blanket tighter around my chest, envisioning it. Wanting it more than I had ever wanted anything else. Against my will, I felt a strange sort of kinship for the duke then. We were made of the same dark matter, he and I. Beneath these fine clothes and gentile faces lurked dark, greedy, grasping, manipulative, black cores.
I shook my head against such thoughts. There would be too many innocent victims sacrificed upon the altar of my vengeance if I moved against my father in such a way. Those he did business with. The commoners who lived upon his lands. My twin.
“Marcus,” I said. “What would that leave for my brother to inherit?”
The duke sat back and shrugged dismissively. “Empires can be rebuilt just as easily as they can be torn asunder.”
God, the arrogance of the man. The power he must wield to speak this way.
“No,” I said, the word sour on my tongue.
His expression twisted into one of dark amusement. “No?”
“No. Too many others would be hurt. And I don’t want this,” I said, releasing one hand from the blanket to gesture between he and I. “Marriage. Children. A life spent ruled by a man. I want freedom. Just pay to send me away. Please.” My voice broke on the last word, and I bit my lip to hide its quivering.
“John. Tell her,” Mr. Fletcher said.
The duke turned to regard the larger man for a moment. “As you will,” he said, before returning his focus to me. “Your brother, Marcus, he’s a sodomite.”
I cringed at the word and all the negative connotations associated with it. “He prefers men,” I said, reproof heavy in my tone.
“Myself as well. Henry here, specifically,” the duke said.
I clenched my jaw to keep it from dropping open. I hadn’t heard so much as a hint of a whisper of this, but now that I glanced between them, thought back over the past few moments, the way they had spoken to each other, looked at each other, I began to see it.
“There will be no children if we marry,” the duke continued. “You will be much left to your own devices, for I have no desire to rule over you, as you put it. I will simply ask that you use these skills of deception you’ve developed to aid me in one endeavor or another every now and again.”
I was reeling. Ruin. I had been facing ruin just moments before, and now, here was the duke, offering me a salvation that I never could have anticipated. I remained quite a few moments as I weighed all of my options against one another. No, I wouldn’t destroy my father, but I could use the threat of it to force him to do a great number of things. Keep far, far away from me, for a start. Increase Marcus’s allowance.
A duchess. I would be a duchess. No one could topple me then. My ghosts could be dug out from their shallow graves and stalk me bodily through the streets of London, and those who had unearthed them would be helpless to move against me. Aberdine was proof of that. And several others among the ton, if some of the darker rumors that surrounded them could be believed.
“Yes,” I said, finally.
We were married in less than a month. Without a whiff of scandal, thanks to my new husband’s influence and reputation.
Only years later would we realize our folly. That the lies we had told, the truths we had kept hidden, would one day come back to haunt us. That the ruin we had staved off was a vicious, vindictive creature. We hadn’t truly escaped it. No, it had simply retreated, biding its time, gathering its strength. It would come for us again, and we would be wholly unprepared for its vengeance when it did.