“Did you happen to notice the Earl of Sotheby’s youngest daughter?” Aunt Jane asked me some time later.
“No, Aunt,” I answered.
“Her debut was tonight,” she told me.
The Duchess of Amesbury made a tutting sound beside her. “Such a shame.”
She stopped there, waiting for someone to ask the question.
For the love of God, keep your mouths quiet for once, I thought, unkindly, at the small gaggle of women I stood with at the edge of the ballroom.
It was Lady Margaret Hadley, one of the newer members of our group, who was still attempting to curry favor with the dowager, who asked it. “What’s a shame, Your Grace?”
Amesbury shook her head, and though her expression was somewhat obscured by her ornate mask, there was no mistaking the sad, pitying tilt to her thin lips. “That shade of brown hair. Those teeth. Her height. The poor girl takes entirely after her father.”
I had to clench my jaw to keep it shut. The Duchess hadn’t bothered to lower her voice when she answered. Because of the crush, an entire crowd of people had heard her. I glanced around to see several heads already bent together in whispered conversation. The Duchess Did Not Approve. Rumor of this would circulate. Would certainly hurt her chances for a respectable match. Might even get back to the girl.
I longed to point out that my own tragic height and coloring hadn’t kept me from landing a duke, but it would be so out of character for me to correct the dowager that I might never hear the end of it or ever be welcome amongst these women again. If not for the fact that John needed their husbands’ and representatives’ votes, I might even welcome such a fall from grace.
In front of me, the sea of people parted, revealing a tall gentleman in an unmarked mask striding in my direction. It was Henry. Come to rescue me, I prayed.
“My Lady Summer,” he said, bowing low over my hand. He didn’t use my title in an attempt to play at ignorance. To keep the gossip mongerers I kept company with from marking the exchange too closely. “Would you care to dance?”
“I suppose,” I replied, dryly. “Ladies, if you’ll excuse me. Your Grace,” I said with a curtsy to our matriarch. She did outrank me, after all. The cow.
She nodded down at me, a clear dismissal.
“You looked as though you could do with a distraction,” Henry murmured as he led me away.
“You have no idea,” was all I said.
I took in the large expanse of the room as we slowly made our way toward the dancefloor. The Coal Baron was new money. His rise to his title – newly vested upon him by our freehanded king – could only be described as meteoric. This ballroom was the crowning jewel of his fledgling empire, his vast wealth on display either in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the more landed gentry, or to rub their faces in the fact that an upstart like himself was wealthier than they were. Many of my peers seemed unsure which. Me, I hoped for the latter.
The ceiling arched two stories overhead. Upon it spread the most beautifully rendered heavenly host I had seen outside of a Renaissance painting. Cherubs danced and flitted throughout the scene, their chubby arms and round faces lending them a childlike innocence as they stared down at us. Winged angels watched over them, as if guarding the party against the mischief their smaller compatriots were known for. Theirs were not the soft, full limbs of an idle people. No, their hard, sculpted bodies had clearly been forged from endless battles with their fallen brethren.
It might have been my imagination getting the better of me again, but though they were draped in diaphanous fabrics and reclined in various poses upon frothy white clouds, I felt a sense of restlessness while gazing up at them, as if watching our dalliances and machinations was just a momentary distraction. Should a horde of demons suddenly leap into the scene, I had no doubt that these bewinged warriors would pull swords and shields from where they had been concealed within the clouds and rise to greet them with heavenly rage.
I shuddered at the thought and brought my focus back to earth. Beneath our feet was a tiled marble floor that must have cost a small fortune. Around the outer edges of the ballroom, ten-foot-tall, gold gilt candelabras blazed forth with the glow of burning candles, the mirrors hung from the walls behind them catching and reflecting their light back into the room to chase away any lingering shadows that might otherwise have clung to the corners. In sharp contrast to the cool night air, the heat of so many flickering flames added to that of the hundreds of people crowded around them, making the ballroom feel close, cloying, and humid.
Beside the stark, plain costumes of the gentlemen, the women sparkled like rare gemstones. The full spectrum of the rainbow was spread out before us, the fabrics plain or patterned, ruched or artfully draped. We passed a flirtatious Aphrodite, a wine-drunk Dionysius, and a giggling milk maid, among others, all of the costumes intricate and expensive. Paste gems adorned everything, turning this explosion of color into a glittering wonderland.
The next dance began before we could reach the open floor, so Henry plucked two champagne flutes from a passing footman and handed one over to me. It was my third glass of the evening. Midnight was quickly approaching, and I prayed that we would depart soon after the unmasking, leaving the wilder set of the ton to carry the party into the wee hours.
“You look tired, Kit,” Henry said, leaning down so that his words wouldn’t carry.
It was unnecessary; I doubted anyone could have picked out his voice amongst the cacophony that now surrounded us. I welcomed his nearness nonetheless, for when he spoke, his heated breath alighted on my skin, raising goosebumps in its wake.
“I’m fine,” I told him. “I found my usual company particularly trying this evening is all.”
“Ah. I was worried the carriage ride might have worn you out,” he murmured, his deep voice carrying a hint of flirtation.
A small shiver trembled through my body at the memories his words invoked. It was only with monumental effort that I managed to keep my expression cool as I lifted my glass to my lips before responding. “In all the years I’ve known you, sir, I can’t believe I never realized what a terrible tease you are.”
He dropped his voice lower still, into that delicious baritone that rumbled like thunder. “Come now. All those times I slid my arms around your waist, held you close, felt your heart flutter beneath my fingertips, you never realized it was foreplay?”
His words hit me like a blow, the breath knocked from my body in a thready torrent that was dangerously close to a moan.
“Careful, Kitten. Your mask is slipping,” he said.
He wasn’t speaking of the one covered in paste gems.
“Cad,” I shot back at him.
He hid his twitching lips behind a long sip of champagne, knowing that it would be unwise for him to be seen laughing at something the Duchess of Hampshire said. Everyone knew that nothing humorous had ever come out of my mouth, and therefore anyone amused by me would draw unnecessary attention.
The music began to come to a close then, leaving me enough time to down the rest of my drink. A waiter swept away with our empty glasses just before the next round began.
Henry led me out of the crowd and into the less populated center of the ballroom. A slower-paced country melody rose up from the string section on the raised dais in the corner, and he and I joined a long line of characters queued up for the dance, men on the left, women on the right.
I was thankful for the slower tune. I wouldn’t have to be as careful as I would have had we joined in a faster-paced piece. Anything involving hopping or sharp turns would set my décolletage to jiggling again, and the Duchess of Hampshire did not jiggle.
The dance was like a slow torture, for it kept Henry and I just far enough apart that we could stare at each other, and only drew us close in short intervals, so that I was left wanting more. My gaze strayed to his lips far too often, remembering the sight of them locked around my husband’s shaft.
“Another?” Henry asked as the final notes tapered off and we bowed to each other.
I was about to answer yes, damn the gossips, when I noticed John beckon to us from the edge of the crowd. Instead I declined, nodding my head in his direction. Henry turned to see his summons, then put his large body to use clearing the way for us as he advanced into the fray.
When we reached John, it was to see that he wasn’t alone. Beside him stood a hooded man dressed in the same uninterrupted black as most of the other gentlemen in attendance, a half mask hiding the upper part of his face from view. He and Henry were of a similar height, putting him over a head taller than me. I searched what features the mask left exposed as we slowed to a stop in front of him, trying to imagine who it was that stood hidden beneath this hooded cape.
My mind remained frustratingly blank. None of my innumerable male acquaintances matched his appearance. Oh, sure, one or two of the more scholarly set might have shared such skin, for only a man more inclined to indoor activities than horseback riding, or who maintained a nocturnal schedule, could have such a fair, flawless complexion. Still others I knew had the same slight cleft in their chins, or had strong, defined jaws that resembled this stranger’s. The eyes, however…none had the eyes. I was sure, like with John’s, it was only the surrounding black of the mask that made them seem so inhuman, a trick of the light that rendered them such a stunning blue, but this knowledge did little to keep me from being struck dumb by the sight of them. They reminded me of a painting I had once seen, in which sunlight slanted off the shallow waters of the Aegean as a storm gathered in the distance.
“Katherine, I’d like you to meet an old acquaintance of mine, recently returned to England. This is Mr. James McNaught, youngest son of the Duke of Glover. James, my wife,” he introduced.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace,” Mr. McNaught said with a bow. His voice was low and melodious.
“And you as well, Mr. McNaught,” I replied, offering him my gloved hand.
He smiled up at me as he took it in his own, much larger one, his white teeth flashing as his lips parted. Perhaps it was the way the shadows thrown by the hood of his cape shaded his face, but there was something about the sight of him bowed over my hand that unsettled me, something predatory, dangerous, a darkness lingering in the deep pools of those impossible eyes.
Run, some baser part of myself urged.
“James and I were at Eton together,” John said, distracting me away from my sudden, inexplicable fear.
Mr. McNaught dropped my hand and straightened, turning to face my husband. “The stories I could tell,” he teased.
“Yes, well, I’d rather you didn’t,” John said, clearly amused and struggling to hide it.
His response caught me off guard. Who was this man that my husband would slacken his rigid public persona? Was he a true friend? A past love? I looked from him to Henry to try and gauge the other man’s thoughts, to see if his face held any jealousy or unease. It didn’t; he was merely looking at Mr. McNaught as though entertained, as though he, too, knew him well. It only further unbalanced me, and not knowing how to proceed, I chose to remain a silent witness to their conversation.
“When did you arrive back on English shores, James?” Henry asked, his familiar address confirming my suspicions that they were well acquainted.
“Just last week,” he said before launching into a description of his homecoming.
I tuned his words out, trying to search my mind for some hidden knowledge of him. If he was the youngest son of Glover, then he was from the man’s third marriage. I remembered the aging duke mentioning once in passing that one of his sons worked for the war department, and as I knew the other four, I had to assume he had been referencing James. Was that why I had never been introduced to him before? Why I hadn’t seen him at the endless society functions we attended each season? What exactly did he do that kept him away so long? What exactly had he done in his life that caused me to be so instantly wary of him? And why did it feel as though I were the only one who was?
I snuck a quick glance at the crowd around us. More than one woman was openly staring at him. Not at Henry’s strong, wide shoulders, not at John’s angelic visage, but at Mr. McNaught. And with an intensity that baffled me. I returned my focus to the man, wondering what they saw that I didn’t. Or was it what they knew? Had my elevated rank kept me from hearing some scrap of gossip about this man that made him irresistible to my fellow noblewomen? Was he some slayer of rogues or rescuer of lost puppies? Was he some prodigy of cunnilingus, perhaps?
“War hero,” I heard the closest lady whisper beneath the drone of male conversation.
I surreptitiously snuck a glance at her beneath my lashes to see her gaze fixed upon Mr. McNaught. Ah, so that was it; the irresistible pull of heroism. Hoping to catch more of her words, I tilted my head slightly and pointed my ear in her direction.
“And where will you be going next?” John asked from beside me, drowning her out. “Or can you not say?”
“There is no next for me quite yet. I fear I’m to remain at home for the duration of the season,” Mr. McNaught answered.
“Much to the delight of unmarried ladies everywhere,” Henry teased.
“Well, if they’re half as stunning as the duchess here, I doubt I’ll have cause for complaint,” Mr. McNaught returned, raising his glass to me.
“How kind of you to say,” I replied with little inflection, wishing I had my own glass to sip from so I might mask my growing unease.
“Would you care to dance, Your Grace?” he surprised me by asking. “You would be doing me quite a favor, for I must admit that my manners are shamefully rusty and I could do with a bit of practice.”
Damn, damn, damn. To refuse him would be uncommonly rude, despite every instinct in my body shouting NO!
“I would be happy to oblige,” I answered.
Henry deftly plucked the champagne flute from Mr. McNaught’s fingers, freeing him up to offer me his arm. I had to force myself to take it, my eyes meeting John’s as I was led away. They no longer held that amused gleam, but had shuttered as though he was ill pleased by this turn of events. He may have simply picked up on my reaction to his friend, but as our gaze’s held, I thought it might have been more than that.
Be careful, his eyes cautioned.
Why? I longed to ask.
“I’m so pleased to finally meet you, Your Grace,” Mr. McNaught said, drawing my focus back to him as we moved away. “I heard of John’s marriage while abroad and thought it must have taken a very special lady to convince him to settle down. It would seem my assumption was correct,” he added as we took our places on the dancefloor.
“Thank you, Mr. McNaught,” I returned, wondering if there was a deeper meaning to his words.
Did he know of John’s true nature? Was he taunting me in some way? Or perhaps testing my knowledge of the duke?
A violin sang out then, its soft, plaintive vibrato signaling the start of a dance full of slow turns and intricate steps that would draw us away from each other over and over again before forcing us back together. It was a song meant for star-crossed lovers, not near strangers, and I lamented that this was the one we would share.
Throughout the movements we kept up a steady stream of idle chatter, exchanging the usual inane pleasantries about the weather, the crush of the crowd, the anticipation of the season to come, and so forth. At times we had to pause our discussion when the dance drew us apart or briefly partnered us with those closest to us, and though I prayed he would let it die off, Mr. McNaught revived it each time I was near enough to hear him again.
Several times the dance called for us to raise our hands and touch them palm to palm as we passed one another. I began to dread these moments, for I had finally determined what it was that so unsettled me about this man. He smiled when one was expected to smile, flirted with me as any man of his rank might, had all the correct replies to my polite questions, asked all the proper questions in response, and yet…and yet there was something not quite right about his actions. As if his face displayed only the reflection of a smile, cold, distant, lacking the warmth of a real one. He had said that his manners were rusty, but I found them to be near-perfect, too perfect, as flawless as his dancing form.
Then there was the way those unearthly eyes of his seemed to somehow take in me, the woman beside me, her dancing partner, as well as the rest of the ballroom in a single glance, as though looking for enemies hidden amongst the splendor.
It was all just slightly…off. Try as I might to tell myself that I was overreacting, or letting my imagination run wild again, there was an obstinate, unbreakable certainty inside me that this man was merely acting out the part of a gentleman, mimicking the behavior required for the role, his true self hidden deep within.
My unease began to creep into our conversation, my responses becoming short, my polite questions few and far between. Soon he was holding it up on his own, and try as I might to force myself back into the haughty role I had cultured for myself over the years, I found my mask slipping further and further from my grip.
We bowed to each other as the song came to an end, my fingers clutched within my gown to keep from having to touch him again. Away. I wanted away from this man and this place. I craved the safety and comfort of my bedroom, desired nothing more than to pull my chair close to a roaring fire and warm the chill that suddenly pervaded my bones.
It was as we were departing the dancefloor that the announcement was made that it was midnight. All around us people paused and began doffing capes and removing masks, shouting surprise! at their neighbors, as if we didn’t already know them for who they were.
Mr. McNaught and I suddenly found ourselves caged in by a throng of revelers. My anxiety peaked as he pulled his hood back. His hair was black, with a slight curl to it as it flared back off his forehead. The mask came next, and the sight of his exposed face made me want to flee in earnest. It hadn’t been a trick of the light. His eyes really were that blue. The rest of his face was…indescribable.
He looked like some Greek god’s by-blow, too handsome to be real. If John and Henry were angels come to earth, then this man had been spawned by Hades himself, unleashed upon London to populate the underworld with the souls of the women laid low by his beauty. The unmarried ladies of the ton were going to come to blows over him as they battled each other for even the smallest scraps of his affection. As for the married ones, I feared the depths that they would descend to as they attempted to lure him into their bedchambers.
God help them all.
My hands trembled as they rose to my own mask, the gloves making it difficult to remove the pins that held it in place.
“Here, allow me,” he said, his hands coming up to help.
Don’t touch me! I wanted to scream. Instead, I forced my arms to my sides and tilted my head down to stare at the floor between us, giving him easier access to the ties at the back. He stepped so close that I could feel the warmth radiating off his large body. I was reminded of Aberdine then. Of how he too had used society to silence me. Was Mr. McNaught like him? Was that why John had sent a look of warning my way? Or was he like my father? One to wield his size as a weapon against those who were smaller than him?
A few more tugs and he had the mask loose. He pulled it off and handed it to me along with the pins he had been forced to remove.
“John’s a lucky man,” he said in a low voice. “To have found a woman as beautiful as she is perceptive.”
It didn’t sound like a compliment. It sounded like an opening volley – shots fired across the bow to test how I would respond.
I could feel his regard, and I slowly raised my eyes to meet it, trying to school my features, trying to prepare myself for the sight of his face. His eyes were no longer that hollow reflection of a kind stranger; they no longer mimicked amusement or held a hint of flirtation as they had on the dancefloor. Something else had crept into their edges. It made the predatory look I thought I had glimpsed earlier seem tame in comparison. It wasn’t a look of violence or malevolence, but one of something else entirely: recognition.
Of an adversary.
Perceptive, he had called me. He must have noticed me noticing him. The real him. The one he had done his best to hide. All my years of stalking John’s moods, of looking past his mask to the twitch of lips or slight arch to a brow that might betray his true feelings, were now bearing fruit.
I was suddenly terrified that I had been noticed in return. Where John welcomed my true self, I felt a man like McNaught might want to destroy it.
Unable to stand his presence any longer, I sketched him a quick curtsy and all but fled from him.
Halfway back to the safety of John and Henry, I was waylaid by my father.
He must have been watching me, to have suddenly stepped out of the crowd directly into my path. I had to pull up short to keep from running into him. He had no such compunctions about our proximity, and as I stepped back to give myself some space from him, he stepped forward, in pursuit.
He was large. As large as McNaught and Henry. And still, somehow, nearly as handsome. He looked ten years younger than he was, broad shouldered, in possession of all his teeth, with thick, dark blonde hair pulled back in a queue.
His full lips were pulled tight in a cruel smile as he stared down at me, the devil in his eyes. “Katherine,” came the voice that haunted my nightmares.
“I believe you mean, Your Grace,” I corrected him, my voice shaking slightly with a mixture of fear and rage.
“Of course. My mistake, Your Grace,” he said, bowing as low as he would for the king.
Too low. People turned to us with curious glances to watch my father goad me. He stayed there too long. So long that I was torn between mockingly bidding him to rise, or sweeping away.
Over his prostrated form, I caught sight of John making his way toward us, his expression still and deadly. Seeing him decided it for me.
Without a word, I swept past my father to intercept him.
“What did he say?” he asked as I slipped my arm through his.
“Nothing. He had no time,” I answered.
“Your expression belies you, Katherine.”
“He doesn’t have to say anything at all, John. Seeing him is enough.”
“I wish you’d let me ruin him,” he said, voice low.
I was quiet as I contemplated his words. Was there a way to? Without inflicting too much collateral damage?
“Please, let’s just leave,” I said.
He directed me toward the door without another word.
Though we passed innumerable acquaintances along the way, I hardly paid attention to our brief exchanges, trusting that my years of lessons on deportment and manners had summoned the appropriate words to my mouth and expressions to my face.
“Will you be all right a moment here by yourself?” John asked as we neared the front door. “I don’t know if Henry noticed our hasty departure.”
“Yes, I’ll just duck into this alcove,” I told him.
“I’ll be right back, Katherine,” he promised.
I nodded, and he disappeared back into the fray to gather our third. As soon as he was out of sight, I took a few steps backward, so that my figure would be at least somewhat hidden from those who were likewise making their exits.
My father. No amount of preparation would ready me to look upon him. No amount of distraction would be enough to keep my memories at bay. It was only two years past that I’d been at his complete mercy. Mercy that he didn’t possess.
I put my back to the wall of the alcove and leaned against it, pulling at my corset. I hadn’t noticed how restrictive it was during my hours spent in the tedious company of Amesbury and the women who flocked around her. I hadn’t noticed it when dancing with Henry, or even with the unsettling McNaught. But now I was all too aware of it.
My darkened corner began to take on the appearance of another hiding spot. That of the first-floor closet in my father’s country home where I had once concealed myself amongst the brooms. The last time I’d sought shelter there, my father had hauled me out of it by my hair. I still had a small patch near the base of my skull where it had never grown back.
I put my hands on my hips as I attempted to pull in a breath. Damn this corset. I couldn’t get enough air in. If only I had more room, if only I could breathe, I might find some way to stem this rising tide of panic.
I stumbled forward, back into the light, and nearly collided with a footman.
“Pardon me, Your Grace, but I was asked to deliver this to you,” he said with a bow.
In his hand he proffered a small, white envelope.
I took it from him in confusion. “Who sent it?” I asked, my voice as weak as I still felt.
“He didn’t say, Your Grace,” he answered me, straightening.
“Well, did you recognize the man?”
“I’m sorry, Your Grace, but no. He was wearing a mask and a cloak,” he said.
Oh, God. Oh, God. It was from my father, wasn’t it?
I don’t know what caused the thought to enter my mind – there were hundreds of guests, any one of them could have sent this to me – but once it settled into my psyche no amount of logic could dislodge it.
“Thank you,” I choked out.
With a bow, the footman left me. I turned the envelope over in my hands and saw that it was sealed with red wax. The stamp that had been pressed into it bore no decoration, making it anonymous. I ducked back into the alcove for some privacy as I opened it. It took me just a moment to read it, as it was only a single line.
I know a secret.
In all my years, I had never swooned outside of having a breathing fit. Whenever I had witnessed other ladies drop dramatically toward the ground, they had always been near enough to a handsome gentleman that they were scooped up before they ever reached it. I had therefore assumed that it was all an act, and that fainting was some sort of myth created by silly girls to hide their flirtatious intentions.
I no longer thought it was a myth, for the way my pulse roared in my ears and the alcove tilted dangerously made me think I was on the brink of losing consciousness. Only my hand braced against the wall kept me upright.
I took slow, even breaths and forced myself to look at the note again. It wasn’t signed, and though I didn’t recognize the handwriting as my father’s, it looked distinctly masculine to my eyes.
What secret did he know? About me, John, and Henry? No, he couldn’t have possibly found out so soon.
“Katherine,” came John’s voice.
I snapped my head up to see him and Henry standing beside each other at the entrance of the alcove, both of their gazes locked on the paper in my fingers. How long had they been there?
John reached out his hand, and something in his expression had me raising my own before I could stop myself. They were both intelligent men. Not only had they seen the note, but I doubted they had missed the impact it had upon me. It was too late to hide it. Still, I found I had to force my fingers open to drop the damning piece of paper onto his palm. He kept his hand flat as he brought it close enough so that he could read what was written upon it, as if he couldn’t tolerate touching it any more than he absolutely must.
“Where did you get this?” John demanded.
“From a footman,” I answered.
“What did he look like?”
I frowned in confusion, but answered him nonetheless. “Tall. Taller than me, at least. With brown hair and…I think brown eyes as well.”
“Henry,” John said, turning toward his lover.
“I’ll search for him,” he answered, dashing off.
“John?” I asked, my confusion deepening.
His gaze came back to mine, and it was only then that I realized what I had seen in his expression a moment before.
My husband was afraid.
“I know who sent you this, Katherine. And I am sorry for what’s about to happen.”
“My father?” I blurted.
“No. Not him.”
Relief rushed through me in a tidal wave. It took me a moment to recover enough to realize what else he had said.
“What’s about to happen?” I demanded.
His voice dropped to a whisper. “Likely something terrible.”
Copyright © 2018 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 is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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