Half an hour later, John and I were seated in the familiar confines of the smaller of our two carriages as we began the short drive to the Viscount Delmar’s. Full night had descended upon London, bringing with it a fog that rendered the darkness outside the window murky and strange. It played tricks with my ears and eyes, muffled the clamor of the surrounding city and amplified sounds that were closest to us, making me feel as though we were traveling in our own little world: the horses’ hooves rang out like musket fire on the cobblestones; the rattling of the carriage seemed deafening; streetlights stood out at intervals like waypoints, there to aid the weary traveler, illuminate the safest course. It was easy to imagine what twisted creatures waited in the gloom for us if we wandered off of it.
“Do you ever feel as though you made the wrong decision, Katherine?” John asked.
I swung my head around to look at him, wondering where this was coming from. He was leaned back against the opposite wall, a shadow obscuring his face, making it impossible to read his expression. Had I not looked away fast enough when Henry embraced him? And what had Henry whispered into his ear to make his gaze snap to me in such a way in the first place?
“Of course not, John,” I lied, praying that he would believe me.
Silence stretched between us, and I became nervous that he did not. He was easily the most intelligent man that I had ever met, and sometimes I wondered if he saw past my mask to what hid beneath it, or if he simply thought that the things I kept from him and Henry were but more tales of my father’s household.
My mind raced as I tried to think of some way to reassure him. Yes, I regretted my decision, but not for the reason he might believe. Our marriage had been mutually beneficial. John had been considered the most eligible bachelor among the ton at the time, and even his fearsome reputation hadn’t provided him armor against mothers eager to marry their daughters off, or young ladies desperate to catch a handsome duke. By marrying me, he had done away with this annoyance and also gained a spy amongst the ladies of the ton. Each time a vote came up in the Houses of Commons or Lords that John needed to pass, I was tasked with subtly gathering information from the ladies about how their representatives in the Commons would vote, or how their lordly husbands would. Information which he was able to put to great use.
Yet it was obvious that I had gained the most from our union: protection from my father, an elevated status, wealth beyond my wildest dreams, and all the weight and power of a four-hundred-year-old dynastic household. The day we had married, I had been deliriously, selfishly, soullessly happy. And I had spent every one since then lamenting my decision, because the more I came to know and care for John and Henry, the more I realized the danger I had placed them in.
How self-deluded had I been? How uncaring? For surely my own downfall would drag them with me into ridicule and possibly ruin. The duchy would most likely survive, but such a scandal would leave a tarnish on its name that could take generations to scrub clean.
“You’re not lonely?” John said, pulling me from my thoughts.
“Sometimes,” I admitted to him.
All the time, I admitted to myself.
“You don’t feel as though you’re being wasted on me, Katherine? As though I’m holding you back from the life you could have led?” His voice almost entirely lacked inflection, and where once I had thought him utterly devoid of human emotion, I now knew the opposite to be true. He spoke like this when he was hiding emotions. If only I could determine which ones and why.
“No, John. I much prefer our friendship to a match that could have soured and left both parties miserable. And where is this coming from, might I ask? Has the Hellion of Hampshire suddenly sprouted a conscious?” I said, hoping to turn the mood.
He was quiet for a long moment, and because he remained reclined, his expression was still frustratingly shrouded in shadow. “I see the way you look at Henry.”
It felt as though my heart shuddered to a stop. “John, I-”
“And I know you see the way that Henry looks at you.”
I stared into his darkened corner rather stupidly as I struggled to determine whether or not he had truly spoken. I hadn’t seen his lips form the words, and so I couldn’t fully trust that my imagination hadn’t run away with me again and my mind hadn’t somehow managed to fill my ears with the very words I so longed to hear.
“I thought he didn’t fancy women,” I said.
John shifted out of the darkness then, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees. The expression on his face was as closed as it ever was, and I searched his eyes for some sign of what he was thinking. Was he jealous? Did he loathe me for desiring his lover? Did he fear that Henry harbored some secret desire for me as well, and that he might lose him to me? Had he noticed that it wasn’t just Henry I stared longingly at? Was he about to cast me off? Send me and the threat I presented to our country home in Hampshire to live out my life in obscurity after all?
I couldn’t blame him if he did. If anything, that was likely the safest course of action. For all of us.
“Henry and I have both been with women,” John said, turning my surprise into outright shock. “Before you and I married, before he and I met.”
His features shifted then, subtly, just enough that his expression became a near match for the contemplative one he had worn when studying me and Henry earlier. We rattled past a streetlight, the crackling glow alighting on his forehead and cheekbones, rendering his pale brown eyes a deep amber that seemed lit from within. My God, he was beautiful. Heavenly where his lover was earthly, unattainable where Henry was innately sensual. It made me want him all the more. For to see one such as him brought down to our level, laid low by lust –
Stop these thoughts, I begged myself. Later, when I was all alone, I could think them. Not here, not now. Not in my weakened state, when my mask might slip and my expression might give me away.
“I’m sorry, John,” I said. “It’s…it’s just my loneliness getting the better of me.”
His contemplative look snapped into finer focus. Liar, it seemed to say, as if in challenge.
I felt a small thrill of fear, wondering, for the hundredth time, just how much he had guessed.
“I don’t want you to be lonely, Katherine,” he said after a moment. “I care for you.”
“I care for you too, John,” I said.
“In the same way, I wonder?”
Unable to respond thanks to the strange combination confusion and hope I was now experiencing, I sat in silence and watched his gaze slip from my own to trace the line of my neck downward. I became suddenly, overly aware of the tightness of my corset, of how my quickening breaths only served to press my breasts higher, as if offering them up for his regard. His gaze dipped to them and darkened a fraction with some unknown emotion – my traitorous mind ascribed it to desire – and beneath my shock, something more primal began to surface in response.
I was well-acquainted with many of the intimacies that took place between a man and a woman, and a man and a man, and a woman and a woman, for that matter. Marcus, as promised, had discovered and told me much. And once, thinking that we would soon be wed, I had allowed Aberdine to take privileges with my person when he had cornered me in an alcove at a recital. I had felt his fingers slip into the bodice of my dress while those of his other hand slid beneath my gown to tease their way to the apex of my thighs.
The memories had become nauseating since I had learned the truth of that man, but as my husband’s regard lingered on my décolletage, I erased Aberdine’s repulsive presence by supplanting John into that memory, feeling his fingers like a brand on my skin, imagining Henry into the scene beside him, his large hands following in his lover’s wake. Warmth gathered low in my belly and spread further south, forcing me to press my thighs together to ease the ache that was building between them.
John noticed the movement, his gaze lowering to trace the outlines of my legs beneath the muslin of my gown. “Have you considered taking a lover?”
“I…I couldn’t, John,” I said. “They would find me a virgin and know that our marriage hadn’t been consummated. They would see my scars and either ask questions about them or make assumptions of their own. Your enemies would make great use of these pieces of information. And,” I took a deep, steadying breath, “you know my feelings about child birth.”
Seeing the rising panic in my gaze, for it was the one emotion I still had trouble suppressing, John slid from his seat to mine. He didn’t touch me – he almost never touched me – for that was the role that Henry filled. Still, his nearness helped to bring me back to myself, and his unshakeable, commanding presence eased the rest of my panic.
“There is a very simple way around your reasons for declining,” John said. “Don’t take a stranger for a lover. Take someone who has seen your scars, who knows of your fears, and your past.”
I turned my head to stare up at him in disbelief. Was he suggesting that I take Henry as a lover? Or him? Or – oh, God – both?
“I don’t…I don’t understand what you’re saying. Nor why you would say it.”
“It is possible, though rarely spoken of or acted upon in most of polite society, to desire more than one person at a time,” he said.
I knew this. Through the tales that Marcus had told me, and later, through a highly illicit and likely illegal book he had procured for me. The latter had proven to be something of an apple of Eden to me, the pictures contained within it now burned into my mind. It had imparted upon me a great host of thoughts and desires I hadn’t previously known that I could think or feel. They soon filled my daydreams with light and darkness, tangled limbs, pale thighs, deeply tanned forearms, masculine fingers wrapped in long, flame colored hair…
John’s gaze suddenly darkened, bringing me back to myself. Oh, no. What had he seen in my expression? Had something other than desire slipped through?
I felt a pressure then, and looked down to glimpse his pale, ungloved hand in the darkness. It was pressed flat against the top of my thigh, just above my knee. His fingers splayed wide, held for a moment, and then wrapped themselves one by one around my leg.
He had never, ever, touched me thusly. And something about the way he squeezed made it apparent that this was not a gesture of comfort. No, it was something else entirely. And nothing short of the most erotic thing that I had ever seen. None of the explicitly detailed drawings in my book could even compare. How was it that he was only touching my leg, and yet it felt as though his hands were all over me? Gently cupping my breasts, stroking their way up the inside of my thighs, towards –
“Kit,” he said.
Kit. Not Katherine. Had I ever heard him call me by my nickname before?
I jerked my head up to see that we were closer than we had been, whether he had been the one to lean in or I had, I couldn’t tell, only that in the closed space of the carriage our breathing sounded harsh and ragged.
His breaths were the only thing that gave him away, for his expression was still inscrutable, hiding, as always, his true thoughts and emotions. We were so alike sometimes that I almost feared what would happen if ever I was allowed to give into my desire for him. I had a feeling that we would be like the two great lions I had once seen at the zoo, stalking around each other in circles within our shared cage, keeping apart as long as possible, the tension between us building and building, until it snapped and we both moved as one toward each other in an explosive movement as destructive as it was beautiful.
“John. We…we can’t,” I forced myself to say. The words tasted like ash in my mouth.
“Why not?” he asked.
Because of all the reasons I couldn’t tell him. Because of all the lies I had.
“What if it ruins what we have?” I said instead, still struggling to clear the lust-filled fog from my mind.
“What if it doesn’t?” he countered, gazing downward as he slid his hand upward a few inches.
I nearly moaned aloud.
It was then that the carriage started to slow. John moved swiftly over to his side of the cabin, putting a swift end to the moment we had just shared. I was grateful for it, because it saved me from having to think up a suitable response, or worse, giving in to my desires and touching him back.
I kept my gaze away from his as he pulled on his gloves and I smoothed the wrinkles from my skirts, as he straightened his cravat and I carefully patted down my hair to make sure that every strand was in place. But then the carriage rolled to a stop, and, unable to help myself, I lifted my eyes to meet his.
“Tell me you’ll consider it,” John said.
“What, exactly, am I considering?” I asked. It was the bravest thing I had done all year.
“Consider having us.”
US. US. US. The word seemed to ricochet like a gunshot through my mind.
It’s been three years. Stop letting the dead keep you from living.
No, I can’t.
You want this more than anything you’ve ever wanted.
No. I wanted to be free more.
You’re free now.
I was quiet for too long while arguing with myself. The door opened, and John descended. The footman helped me down before passing me to my husband in a gesture I had always thought ridiculous. As if I couldn’t take even a step myself unaided without faltering.
“I’ll consider it,” I said, as John led me inside.
His only response was a slow, audible exhale.