John’s bedroom was two doors down from my own, on the opposite side of the corridor. The candles that normally illuminated the hallway had long since been banked, and I was forced to lift the one I carried aloft to guide my way. It cast a weak nimbus of gold around me, its soft light unable to fully vanquish the darkness that prowled along its edges.
Memories of my mother still plagued me, rendering once familiar surroundings alien and hostile. A low creak came from somewhere further down the hall, likely the house settling, yet to my troubled mind it sounded all too like a distant wail.
I shuddered and picked up my pace, slipping into the antechamber of John’s bedroom without bothering to knock. A fire burned in the hearth, chasing away the shadows of deep night. The room’s dimensions were similar to my own sitting room, only cluttered with the detritus of a lord. A large desk stood in one corner, with an ornately carved chair that looked made to issue orders from. Maps hung on the walls. Bookshelves stood out at intervals, crammed full of leather-bound folios.
I longed to stay and look my fill, but beneath the crack at the bottom of the door that led to John’s bedchamber, a brighter light shone through. The sound of Henry’s deep baritone pulled me toward it like a moth to a flame.
I paused when I reached it, knocking.
“Come in,” John called.
Fingers trembling, I pushed open the door. I was greeted by the not-so-familiar sight of my husband’s bedroom. Where mine was painted in pastels and draped in creams, his was almost uniformly dark. The walls were papered in a shade of green that reminded me of deep woods, with gilt-framed paintings depicting various hunting scenes hung at staggered intervals, as if I was glimpsing them through a scrim of trees. The mahogany furniture that dominated the room was polished until it gleamed in the candlelight. To my left stood a massive canopy bed with heavy curtains hanging from its rails. They were tied open now, displaying the rumpled blankets that covered his down mattress.
I swallowed my rising pulse and turned away from it to face the fire. John and Henry sat in the high-backed chairs that flanked it. My husband’s expression was unfathomable, where his lover’s was full of concern.
“Kit,” Henry said, rising from his seat. Like John, he wore a dressing gown, and God knew what else beneath it.
I wanted to go to him but felt as though my back had been affixed to the door. Beneath my own dressing gown, I wore nothing but my thin cotton chemise. Almost every other embrace I had shared with him had been padded by layers. His shirt, waistcoat, and jacket. My chemise, undergarments, corset, and dress. With their absence, I felt suddenly vulnerable. They had been like armor, keeping me from feeling too much. I was stripped of it now, and more than a little afraid of being left overexposed and unprepared.
Henry, as if sensing my trepidation, moved toward me slowly. He stopped well short of the doorway, just far enough to reach a long arm across the expanse that separated us. His long, dexterous fingers twirled into a loose strand of my hair. I looked up to see him staring at it as if seeing it for the first time.
It struck me then, that he was, in a way, for I had never worn it unbound in front of him before. As a duchess, it would have been highly improper for me to leave my rooms without being fully dressed and coiffed. And John was always the one to be roused from bed to come wake me from my dreams, as was proper.
A small tendril of fear snaked through me as I thought about the risk I had taken in coming here. What if that creak in the hallway had been a servant disobeying my husband’s orders? I should have turned and checked. Damn my fear for clouding my judgment.
Unbidden, other doubts welled to the surface, the innumerable what-ifs that surrounded the decision we had made earlier crowding my mind.
Stop this, I thought.
I had made my choice. I couldn’t let myself dwell on the possibilities of a negative outcome. To do so would open a Pandora’s Box of unease and indecision. Yes, something could go wrong. Yes, something could sour between us. Yes, a rumor could slip free. But there was risk in all aspects of life. I refused to miss out on the only chance at happiness I had ever had because of my fear.
Henry let my strand of hair go without comment and turned his gaze to mine. “Are you all right?”
“Not quite,” I told him, pushing from the door with my hands, propelling myself toward him.
He wrapped his arms around my shoulders, and I slid my own around his waist. I was right: I had been wholly unprepared for these sensations. Without my corset binding me, my breasts pressed against the hardness of his torso. In the absence of petticoats, I could feel the muscles of his long legs sheltering my own, the swell of his manhood resting against my lower belly.
I turned my head and nestled my cheek into his robe, relishing in the thin veneer of soft fabric covering the heavy muscles of his chest. His jackets and waistcoats and starched shirts were far too scratchy for this kind of closeness. And there was always the risk that I would smear them with rouge.
He lifted a hand and cradled the back of my head, holding me in place. I exhaled deeply and nuzzled closer still, pausing when my ear came to rest over the steady sound of his heartbeat.
If there was a heaven, surely it existed here in his embrace.
“I’m sorry,” he rumbled. “John said it was the one about your mother.”
I nodded, a tear slipping free to be quickly soaked up by his robe.
“You should never have seen that,” he said. “I could kill your father for forcing you to.”
“You’ll have to join the queue behind John,” I said, my voice muffled. “There must be a lengthy waiting list to do the honor at this point.”
“It’s quite surprising that no one has put us out of his misery yet,” John said from behind us.
We pulled apart enough to look at him.
“You should know he’s in town for the season, Katherine,” he said, lip curling in distaste.
“When did he arrive?” I asked. I had no doubt that John could answer me down to the minute if pressed.
“Yesterday afternoon. I thought to keep it from you a while longer so that you might enjoy at least a few functions without the threat of seeing him, but he’ll be in attendance at the Coal Baron’s tomorrow.”
My focus fell to the glass he was holding. “Is that scotch?” I asked, pulling away from Henry.
John nodded and offered it up to me in answer.
I took it from him and drained it in one gulp, pressing the back of my hand to my mouth as the liquid burned down my throat. The moment it hit my belly, I started coughing, feeling like I’d breathed the liquor in instead of swallowing it.
How did they drink this swill?
Henry gripped my shoulder with one hand, holding me upright while he patted my back with the other. The fire began to clear from my lungs.
“You’re supposed to sip it,” John said, a hint of amusement playing around the corners of his eyes. It fled a heartbeat later. “You don’t have to see him, you know. We could always stay in. Or force him not to attend.”
“No,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Henry asked. “It wouldn’t be cowardice. More like self-preservation. No one could fault you for that.”
I shook my head. “It feels too much like conceding defeat. I can’t let him believe he still holds so much power over me. I’d rather look him in the eyes and pretend to feel nothing. I’d rather shame him by snubbing him publicly.”
“He might lash out in response,” John said.
I handed the glass back to him. “And wouldn’t that give you a lovely opportunity to respond in kind?”
He moved so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to react. As he took the glass from me, his other hand shot out and latched onto my wrist. He used his grip to tug me onto his lap. His fingers found my chin, and our gazes caught from inches away.
“Please provoke him,” he said, running his thumb over my lower lip. “I would very much welcome an excuse to teach him the true meaning of lashing out.”
“You can’t ruin him,” I said.
“But anything shy of that is fair game?” he asked, his focus following the movement of his thumb across my mouth.
I forced myself to think past the warmth spreading through me, unsure if it was from his touch or the alcohol. “Are you trying to divert me? Fill my mind with desire so that in my distracted state, I agree to let you do terrible things that might make innocent people into cannon fodder?”
His gaze rose back to my own, expression unrepentant. “Is it working?”
Henry chuckled from behind me.
I pulled my chin free and turned toward the larger man. “Does he attempt this sort of shameless coercion with you?”
“All the time,” Henry answered.
“And does he ever succeed?”
John let out a small, sad sigh. “Almost never.”
I grinned and turned back to him. He really was quite entertaining when he allowed himself to be. A strong urge to press my lips to his forehead overcame me, and for once, I didn’t bother checking the emotion. I kissed him hard and quick, still smiling as I pulled away.
“Thank you,” I said.
“For?” he asked, brows raised a little in surprise.
“For knowing exactly how to make me feel better.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, his features settling back into unreadable lines.
I marked the change well. So far this night, I had learned two new ways to unmask my husband’s true feelings. Lust was one. Surprise was the other. I wondered if there were more. If I turned them against him and employed one tactic after the other, how long could I string these glimpses together? How much could I soften him toward me? Was this the method that Henry had used to burrow beneath John’s impenetrable walls? Or had he met my husband before the brick and mortar that comprised them had fully hardened?
Henry retook his seat beside us. Beneath me, John shifted slightly, so we faced him. I did my best to settle in, as though my heart wasn’t racing to be held like this by him for the first time.
“Have you given any more thought to our proposal?” Henry asked.
“Yes,” I said. It was a lie, but then, I hadn’t needed to give it much thought when I’d already decided that I would settle for anything they were willing to share with me. “Have you?”
Henry grinned in response.
“No need,” John said, running his fingers up my spine.
I shivered in response. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve been discussing this for what feels like months,” he answered.
I stiffened in his lap.
Henry gave him an unreadable look and then shifted his focus to me. “Blame your husband for being so obstinate.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but that didn’t keep me from answering in a mocking tone, “Naturally.”
John’s hand fell from my back to my bottom. I was just deciding that I liked it there when he goosed me.
I jumped out of his lap.
“You were getting heavy anyway,” he said, plucking at his dressing gown as he resettled himself.
Henry reached out and drew me toward him.
I rubbed my backside and shot my husband a look as I settled onto his lover’s lap. “Your thighs are bony.”
“Play nice, children,” Henry said.
John’s lips lifted a little as our gazes met.
Feeling playful and wanting to deploy one of the new tactics I had learned, I stuck my tongue out at him. In response, he shook his head at me, grinning wide enough for his dimples to show. A small thrill of victory shot through me.
Henry must have caught my juvenile display because he chuckled and drew me closer. Unbound by the stiffness of whalebone, I sank into his embrace, curling my knees up as I nestled my cheek against his shoulder. He drew his arms around me, one hand settling on my outer thigh, the other smoothing over my back as if he too were reveling in this newfound freedom.
John’s expression sobered as he watched the two of us. “What did you decide, Katherine?”
“The truth?” For once. “That I’m willing to do whatever you ask of me.”
Henry’s hand froze on my back.
The fire guttered then, rendering John’s answering grin slightly fiendish. “In that case-”
“John,” Henry cautioned.
John rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, though she might be corrupted of mind, she is innocent of flesh.”
“Mostly,” I amended.
John arched a brow in question.
“Aberdine,” I told him.
I had surprised him. Enough that I caught a flash of rage before his features smoothed.
“We should have taken care of him properly that night,” he said to Henry.
Henry’s grip on my thigh tightened, as though he was trying to curl his fingers into a fist. His voice was colored with savagery when he answered. “For once, I agree with you.”
What had they done to Aberdine? I’d barely seen the man since that fateful night. All rumors of his debauchery had ceased. Whenever he did make an appearance, he seemed a changed man, always on his best behavior.
“He didn’t force me,” I told them.
“No?” John asked.
I shook my head. “Not exactly.”
“You don’t have to tell us, Kit,” Henry said, as if sensing my hesitation. His words decided it for me.
“No, I want to. It happened at a recital just after our informal betrothal agreement.”
“And by agreement, you mean the day your father’s letter arrived ordering you to marry him?” John asked.
“Yes.” I turned from him to stare into the fire. I had so much to hate my father for, and not only for his brutality, but the more insidious ways in which he’d dominated and sublimated my entire existence. “I took the news poorly and indulged in one too many sherries. Aberdine found me on a rear balcony, trying to clear my head. He was flattering and charming, but still insistent. We kissed. Before I realized what was happening, he had backed me into an alcove, lifted my skirts, and slipped a hand into my undergarments.”
The sound of leather creaking drew my gaze back to John. His fingers were white-knuckled on the arms of his chair. “Without acquiring your permission first or assessing your sobriety or willingness?”
“I never told him no, John. Or to stop.”
“But were you willing, Kit?” Henry asked, his tone soft. “Did you want him to do those things, or did you simply allow him to?”
“Allowed it,” I answered in a small voice. “The party was just inside, and I didn’t want to…”
“Katherine?” John said.
I stared at him blankly for a moment before answering, feeling nauseous. “I hadn’t wanted to make a scene by denying him. Just as Harriet hadn’t in that hallway.”
Henry pulled me closer as if he could shelter me from my dawning horror with his body. But he couldn’t.
“Oh, God,” I said. “Am I one of Aberdine’s victims and just never realized it because what he did to me lacked the violence I would expect of an assault? It even felt good toward the end, before someone passed too close to the balcony, and we were forced to break apart.”
It was Henry who answered. John’s jaw was clenched too tight to speak. “There are men amongst the ton, Aberdine one of them, who use good breeding and our strict social rules against women, to corner them, keep them quiet.”
Angry tears stung my eyes as I thought back to the events of that night. I was one of those women. It was clear to me now. How I hated Aberdine and all the other men of his ilk. It made me hope that there was a hell and that one of the lower rungs of fire and brimstone had been reserved for these bastards.
Here was another lesson that taught me that to be a woman was to be vulnerable.
It made me want to be dangerous instead.
I dashed the tears from my eyes and looked at my husband. “Whatever you’re planning to do to Aberdine, I want to be part of it.”
He didn’t bother denying what he’d been considering, only nodded in response.
“Just be careful,” Henry said.
“Always,” John responded.
Henry’s arms tightened around me again. “I am so sorry he did that to you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I can’t…I don’t think I can talk about this anymore right now.”
I squirmed upright in his arms, having trouble pulling in a full breath. I hadn’t had an attack in months, but with my surging heartbeat and rising panic, I could sense one looming on the distant horizon.
Henry shifted along with me, the heavy muscle of his arm bracing me up as he snaked it behind my shoulders, his other hand coming back to rest on my leg.
“You don’t have to talk about it,” John said. “Not until you’re ready. I’d say we could return to the discussion that led to this revelation, but now doesn’t feel like the time for that.”
I shook my head, agreeing with him.
John scrubbed a hand over his face and then through his hair, mussing it. “I don’t know about the two of you, but I’m exhausted. Katherine, you’re welcome to sleep here.”
I knew he meant sleep and only sleep, and in that moment, I was grateful for it. After the conversation we’d just had, it might be days before I was ready for anything physical between us. It felt as though there was ice forming in my veins, even with Henry’s heat buffeting me. I couldn’t stomach the thought of returning to my cold, empty bed. God only knew what nightmares would plague me if I did.
“As long as it’s not an imposition,” I said.
Henry stroked his thumb over my thigh. “Never. Stay.”
I nodded and let him pull me closer.
I didn’t ask about the servants. I didn’t worry about discovery. I couldn’t even feel nervous about sleeping next to a man for the first time. My sudden exhaustion was so absolute that there was little room for anything else. It was a struggle just to stand. Henry had to help me. And then up onto the mattress as well.
The sheets were rumpled and carried a scent unlike anything I’d ever smelled before – the mixture of two types of cologne, musk, perhaps a hint of sweat. It wasn’t a bad smell, just different, enough to wake me up some.
“Cold,” I said, reaching toward Henry.
He climbed into the bed with me, prompted me to roll onto my side, and then fit his large body behind mine, cradling me in his warmth.
I fell asleep to the feel of him threading his fingers through my unbound hair.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.