London, April 1806
“Too tight, Your Grace?” my handmaid, Harriet, asked as she stuck the final pearl-tipped pin into my hair.
I had no doubt that the low chignon she’d coiffed my unruly mane into appeared effortless and elegant, for she was quite skilled, but it pulled at my scalp something dreadful. By the end of the night it would likely be unbearable.
“It’s lovely, Harriet. Thank you,” I told her, welcoming the pain to come. I might need it to keep conscious throughout the banquet I was about to attend. Dreadful business, banquets, but made even more unbearable when hosted by a man with political aspirations.
My maid brightened at the compliment, her brown eyes creasing at the corners, a shy smile tugging at her lips. “You’re welcome, Your Grace,” she said with a quick curtsy. Then she turned away to open the top drawer of my bureau and begin sorting through the innumerable ribbons that crowded inside.
Knowing that it might take her some time to find what she sought, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to the novel I had been reading before she arrived at my door. Like a bird in a gilded cage, I only ever felt truly free when I was allowed to spread the wings of my imagination.
I did so now, supplanting myself into the pages of the book. The sounds of my puttering maid were soon subverted by a veritable cacophony of jungle life: the low drone of buzzing insects filled my ears; exotic birdsong echoed from overhead; somewhere off in the distance, barely audible over the insistent susurration of ocean waves, the rhythmic pounding of heathen drums rose to a crescendo.
The air that licked my skin became so laden with humidity that it was stifling. I felt on the verge of perspiration when a welcome, imaginary breeze blew in from the west. I turned my face toward it and breathed deeply, savoring a complex mélange of blossoming flowers, sun-ripened fruit, freshly tilled earth, and the briny tang of sea salt. When next I opened my eyes, it was to see a band of pirates stalking a troupe of unsuspecting castaways through the dense undergrowth that spread out before me. Fur flashed in my periphery, and I lifted my gaze to watch a family of monkeys swing their way through the vine-choked canopy overhead.
I would have given my dowry to step into the scene. No more lies, no more balls, no more insufferably boring dinner parties filled with ladies and gentlemen I could scarcely tolerate. Could this have been my life, if Marcus and I had fled together? It was a question I often asked myself. Who knew where our travels would have taken us. To the tip of the Grecian archipelago on a craggy isle littered with the toppled ruins of a shrine once dedicated to long dead gods. Or to a Caribbean island like the one from my book. Or to a long-forgotten corner of the continent, where the villagers still buried people with bricks between their teeth to keep them from coming back as vampires.
It wasn’t until Harriet bade me to step into my cream-colored gown that I came back to myself.
“Head up please, Your Grace,” she said when I was once again seated in front of my vanity.
I turned toward her like a flower following the arc of the sun through the sky. Her dexterous fingers dusted powder over my face, smoothed pale rouge on my cheeks, and then spread a matching pink salve on my lips before she placed a lead pencil to my brows, using it to both darken and define them. She had selected ribbons of the deepest green to accent the gown I wore, matching them to the heavy emerald carats that dripped from my earlobes and splayed across my décolletage in a necklace so extravagant, it was almost gaudy.
“There you are,” she said when she was finished.
I barely recognized the young woman who stared back at me out of my vanity mirror. This was, in part, because of my parents. I was reminded of both each time I gazed into a looking glass, and so I had taken to avoiding them whenever possible. There was no escaping the one in front of me now.
My mother had been an Irish heiress, and it had been she who had gifted me with my thick red hair and striking green eyes, while my full lips, straight nose, and tall stature had come from my bastard of a father. The freckles I had recklessly earned in my youth had never quite faded, but they were hidden now by the layer of powder Harriet had applied to the bridge of my nose.
Were we truly one in the same, this woman and I? It seemed impossible. Surely my cheeks couldn’t be so rosy and bright when such darkness lay in my heart. I forced myself to grin, and the woman grinned back at me. She looked young, beautiful, wealthy, noble, and haughty. Unless, of course, you looked closely at her eyes. At times like this, they still gave me away, even after all my years of practice. No matter how many smiles I feigned, I could never fully rid myself of the flatness that stared out from them. It was a good thing that no one dared to look too closely at a duchess, for a cunning person might discover the truth, might see the cold, disillusioned creature that dwelt in the depth of my soul. Might see the demons that still lingered there, despite my best efforts to exorcise them.
My grin slipped, a hint of misery sneaking into my expression. Noticing the change, Harriet stepped forward to stand just behind my shoulder. I tore my gaze from my reflection to meet her own. Her brows drew down in concern, and she lifted a hand as if to place it on my shoulder in a gesture of comfort, before thinking better of it and letting it fall again to her side.
“Your Grace, if there’s anything else I can do, anything at all…”
I could tell from her tone that she wasn’t speaking of further steps to prepare me for the evening. This was her subtle way of offering me a shoulder to cry on. It was increasingly obvious that the girl was angling to become my confidante.
As I met her gaze, I thought back to the night, nearly two years past, when I had saved her from Aberdine, and how effusively grateful she had been afterward. The outward displays of loyalty she had shown me since then seemed absolute, and still I could not bring myself to trust her. Still I thought the worst; that she spoke these words to manipulate me, to gain my confidence only so that she might turn around and sell my secrets to the cook in hopes of receiving better meals, or the butler in exchange for a bottle of wine, or the housekeeper for something further still. Thanks to my own duplicity, I could no longer discern the honorable intentions of others.
I was untrustworthy; therefore no one was to be trusted.
I did my best to smile at her and feign innocence of her deeper meaning. “I don’t think there’s anything left to be done. I’ll be the most becoming lady at the party, thanks to you. Is the duke ready?”
“He was in his study when I came upstairs, Your Grace. With Mr. Fletcher,” she said.
I stood from the vanity, needing to be away from her and her kind eyes. “I’ll fetch him myself, thank you,” I said, sweeping from the room.
The sun had set an hour past, and the corridors I paced through on the way to my husband’s study were darker than usual because of its absence. Something about the gloom made me feel as though the portraits staring down at me were marking my progress through the shadow-shrouded hallways.
I’ve been reading too much again, I thought, a shiver running down my spine. Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. Unbidden, memories best kept buried bubbled to the surface, momentarily blurring my vision as I was dragged from the hallway back through the years to a time when each and every movement I made truly had been observed, judged, and found wanting.
I picked up my pace as if I could outrun my memories, the silken hem of my skirts swishing angrily over the priceless rugs beneath my feet. To my troubled mind, they sounded like the disapproving whispers of the long dead dukes and duchesses gazing out from their canvases. It was only too easy to imagine their words. She’ll bring ruin upon this house. Harlot. Liar.
Only when I neared the study door did I manage to slow my progress to a stately saunter that was more befitting a woman of my rank. At least I hadn’t passed any servants in my rush. The last thing I wanted was to add more kindling to the gossip pyre.
The darkly stained wood of the door was cool against my ear as I pressed myself against it. Thump-thump, thump-thump, was the only sound that greeted me, my pulse loud in my ears. I took a few deep breaths, silently chiding myself for letting my imagination get the better of me again. Only when I succeeded in calming my racing heartbeat did I hear the rich timbre of male conversation rumbling from within.
“John? Henry?” I called after knocking.
“Come in,” a familiar voice replied.
I slipped through the door, careful to close it behind me. When I turned to face the room I saw that the leather couch had been drawn close to the fire. John sat in the far corner, facing the flames. One of his arms was draped casually over the back of the couch, and in his opposite hand he held a glass full of amber liquid. His features were filled with contentment as he turned toward me. When our gazes met, his full lips lifted in a small, welcoming smile.
Something about the scene triggered another of my memories. From a night long gone, in this very room, when he had held an almost identical glass of scotch, and I had wondered about just such a smile. It was even more beautiful than I could have imagined, for now, after all of this time, I knew just how rare his unguarded smiles were, and just how few people were lucky enough to receive them.
Henry’s large form was sprawled over the rest of the sofa, with his head lying on John’s thigh. He sat up when he caught sight of me, the dark fabric of his jacket straining over the width of his shoulders, the firelight only serving to heighten the sharp angles of his face.
I felt a pang of embarrassment then, that the sight of him had once inspired such fear in me. It had taken me nearly a full year to relax around him, to stop flinching when he moved too quickly or spoke too loudly. I had been like a skittish colt in the first months of my marriage, but Henry had handled me with such unflagging care, gentleness, and patience, that eventually he had won me over.
“Are you all right, Kit?” he asked, in his deep, soothing baritone.
Something in my expression must have given me away.
I shook my head. “Memories,” was the only answer I needed to supply.
It had proven impossible to spend so much time with these men and not reveal some of my past to them. They knew of my father’s physical abuse, and of my grandmother’s dark manipulations of everyone around her. Of how a look, a word from her could corrupt every conversation. Of how she had so deftly turned my father against me and Amelia. I was careful to keep the worst of my experiences to myself though, for John didn’t share my scruples about preserving innocent lives. If he knew it all, he would stop at nothing to ensure that my father’s ruin was both spectacular and absolute.
And then there were the other memories, the ones I must keep to myself.
“Come here, Kit,” Henry said.
It was impossible to refuse him.
He reached for me as I approached, and, hoping that physical contact would drive away the lingering darkness in my heart, I slipped between his outspread arms and allowed him to pull me onto his lap. I was immediately enveloped by his warmth, his large body cocooning me within his embrace. The muscles of his thighs bunched and shifted beneath me as he leaned in to nuzzle my neck, his five-o’clock shadow rough against my delicate skin. When he butted my chin with his forehead, seeking greater access to my person, I obliged, tipping my head back to stare at the exposed beams of the ceiling.
His lips paused over the vein that pulsed down the side of my neck, and I was forced to close my eyes when he pressed them against it, fearful of what John, who remained unmoving in his corner of the couch, might see within them. Henry kept his lips there for one second, two, ten. There was no way he would miss how my pulse tripped and tumbled in response, and I silently cursed my traitorous heart for giving me away. My mind knew that this flirtation was just Henry’s way, that he showed me such affection because he was an overly affectionate person, and where John was wont to allow such displays, I had never refused them, and so all the moments in which Henry might take his lover’s hand, or shower him with teasing kisses, or wrap him bodily in a rib-cracking hug, were instead visited upon me. My rational mind knew all of this. Just as I knew that these lingering caresses would never lead to anything more. My body, however, was willfully disobedient.
Most of our peers would have considered our unorthodox arrangement an abomination, but the three of us had learned to be comfortable with it in the time that we had lived together. I had grown to think of them both as friends, though sometimes, especially lately, when my loneliness and fear threatened to suffocate me, the lines blurred in a way that left me both confused and ravenously hungry for something that could never be. And it was getting harder and harder for me to hide it.
Henry dropped another kiss on my neck. “Better?” he rumbled into my skin.
I shivered. “Better.”
Over the past year, we had worked out how best to stave off my attacks. Physical contact such as this helped. Acted as a reminder that I was no longer a victim. That in this house no one would ever touch me intending to inflict pain. Distracting conversation was almost equally beneficial, especially in conjunction with the former.
“Those colors suit you, Katherine,” John drawled, right on cue.
“Thank you,” I managed, gathering myself before I looked at him.
He was wearing a simple outfit of black and white, the same somber attire he always wore to political dinners. I would never protest the lack of variety in his wardrobe, for, with no adornment to distract away from his handsome visage, these stark, contrasting colors only served to render him all the more breathtaking.
The firelight danced across the left side of his face as he lifted the glass to his lips and took a long, slow swallow. His eyes remained fixed on the point where Henry’s lips had alighted upon my neck. There was no sign of jealousy or anger in his expression, nor lust, just deep, unflinching concentration. Even after all this time, he was still something of an enigma to me.
Henry chose that moment to nuzzle his nose into my hair. His warm breath ghosted over my skin, raising goosebumps in its wake.
I searched for some distraction. “How long must we remain at the viscount’s?” I asked.
“Too long,” John answered, setting his drink down to come stand beside us.
I reached a gloved hand toward him, thinking that he would help me up, but he took it in his own and turned it over to place a rare kiss on the silk that covered my palm.
If one of the servants walked in now, they would likely die of an apoplectic fit. They kept their knowledge of John and Henry within the household, too loyal or too fearful of John’s wrath to gossip with outsiders. Their fear didn’t keep them from talking amongst themselves, however, and I could only imagine their shock if they thought the men shared me.
“Don’t go,” Henry rumbled up at his lover, his tone filled with affected petulance.
“Alas, we must,” John said, dropping my hand.
“I suppose I should probably paint something,” Henry said as he helped me to my feet and then unfurled to his impressive height.
John looked up at him, a brow arched in derision. “You paint?”
“Ha,” Henry said tonelessly, the creases at the corners of his dark eyes belying his amusement.
I hid my smile behind my glove, but a moment later it was wiped from my face when Henry took John by the shoulders and pulled him close. John stood stiffly within his grasp, staring up at his lover almost in challenge. Undeterred by being glared at by the Hellion of Hampshire in such a way, Henry took John’s chin within his grasp and tilted his head back even further, leaning slowly forward. John’s eyes remained open and locked onto Henry’s the entire time. Until Henry’s cheek pressed against his own. I heard a low, unintelligible bass rumble as Henry whispered something into his ear, and then John’s gaze snapped to mine. I looked quickly away, not for propriety’s sake, but because I was afraid that he might see the open longing on my face.
Damn, damn, damn, I thought, trying and failing to calm my racing heartbeat. Clearly it was time to set aside the more lurid French romance novels I had procured. All that talk of pulsating members and aching channels had obviously done me an ill turn.