I stood at my open window and stared out at the coming dawn with dread. Fog marched through the street below like an army of phantoms summoned from their watery graves in murk of the Thames. In the east, the sun donned her armor and charged over the horizon to meet them in combat, the resulting bloodshed bathing their battlefield in violent shades of crimson and gold.
The gentle breeze that tugged at my loose hair was thick with coal smoke and rank with the less savory scents of a city crowded to bursting with the seasonal influx of the ton and the migrants that arrived in droves both by sea and by foot, hoping to find a better life for themselves in London than the ones they had left behind in the surrounding countryside or on distant shores.
I had watched McNaught’s shadowy form be swallowed by the deeper gloom nearly half an hour past, but it felt as though some part of him still remained, his breath ghosting over my skin as he whispered “Coward” into my ear.
I pulled my dressing gown tighter to guard against the chill in the air as I contemplated that word. Was I a coward? Had it been cowardice that had driven me to do the things I had? Had it been cowardice that had spurred me into accepting John’s marriage proposal? That forced me to act out my role of aloof snobbery amongst my peers? I couldn’t be sure. The spy’s accusations had me questioning my motives.
One thing I knew for certain: fear, not cowardice, had been the master of my childhood. It had clapped me in irons made of paranoia and lashed me with a cat o’ nine tails tipped with the steely claws of panic. They had raked down my spine for years, stripping the flesh from my bones, draining my reserves of willpower.
In the first few months after marrying John, fear had ruled me still. Fear of not being good enough. Irrational terror that my husband would realize this and send me back to my father. It was why I had done my very best to personify the perfect lady. To make myself useful to him. To be calm, pleasant, polite, proper, well-mannered, soft spoken. I had mimicked those around me, listened to the idle chatter of people like the Duchess of Amesbury and strove to be the antithesis of all the young women they lamented about.
Even if my lingering fear had motivated me to act as I had, I couldn’t regret it now. It might be the one thing that saved me if the truth ever came out. Whatever truth that was, whether it be one of John’s remaining secrets, or the fact that I had agreed to become their lover. Our peers might doubt that rumor if it broke. Might question how such a shining example of good-breeding could ever commit the acts she was accused of. I was sure this same indecisiveness was what had kept their curiosity about John and Henry to scant whispers instead of the talk of the season.
The greedy, selfish creature that lurked at the core of my being suddenly reveled in the triumph of my marriage. I was a duchess. Married to a powerful duke. Throughout history, people of our rank had gotten away with far worse than what we had done. They still did if the stories John told me of our peers were to be believed. Which meant that even if a scandal broke and the ton believed what they heard, we might still manage to weather the resulting storm.
Was fear the same thing as cowardice? If so, then yes, perhaps I was a coward. But my cowardice had kept me alive. It had set me free from my father. It protected me from my peers. If that was the price of being a coward, then I would gladly pay it. Again and again.
The sound of carriage wheels over cobblestones brought me out of my thoughts. While I had been lost to them, the sun had succeeded in driving back the worst of the fog, breaking through the ranks of wraiths to fall upon the city in shattered shafts of amber.
I closed my window and turned to survey the damage to my room. The chairs McNaught had pulled close to the window would need to be returned to their proper places. The mattress was skewed on the bedframe as if we had hit it in our struggle. The table we had struck was lying on its side, with two of the legs broken off from the impact. The top of it was cracked in half, the objects that had been sitting on it strewn about the room. Beneath all this, the carpet was bunched up and off center, a testament to where the spy had pinned me.
I sucked in a deep, ragged breath, my chest complaining at the effort.
“Bastard,” I seethed, curling my fingers into fists.
The stinging pain in my knuckles was as bad as my lungs, and I raised them to see that they were bloody. How was I ever going to explain all this away?
The room first, I told myself. The room at least I could set to rights before Harriet arrived. All except for the table. Nothing could be done about that; I would just have to tell her that I had fallen on it and it must have been weaker than it seemed, for it had collapsed beneath my weight. That could also excuse the bruises that were no doubt blossoming across my left side. My hands, however…well, one thing at a time.
I went first to the bed, straightening out the mattress and covers before moving on. As I worked, my anger built. McNaught, the letters, our unseen enemy, they were all trying to force me to become something that I had sworn I would never be again: a victim. Already I had suffered threats and abuse. Already I had been manipulated and bullied into doing what others wanted. Already I had been made to feel helpless.
I would do as the spy instructed today. It was logical to seek the help of someone more experienced in these matters. I also desperately wanted to take action. To feel as though I wasn’t powerless in all of this. To feel as though I had some agency of my own.
But I had learned the lesson of keeping secrets well. Last night, I had realized the true power of their destructive force. John and I were bound together by law, for life. The hope of shared love I had once harbored seemed far out of reach now. All I could pray for in this moment was that the partnership we had forged would remain intact.
Yes, he had betrayed me. Yes, he had lied to me. I couldn’t forgive him for what he had done. Not yet. But I needed him. And he needed me. Just as with McNaught, I could go places my husband couldn’t. I had already passed him critical information garnered from the women of the ton that he otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. We needed to find some way to continue to work together to advance our causes.
If our marriage had any hope of remaining civil, of not descending into distrust and bitterness and paranoia and fear, then there was only one thing for it.
No more lies. No more cowardice.
I would prove the spy wrong about me.
I would tell John what had just happened.
“A Mrs. Mary Ainsley to see you, Your Grace,” Sherman announced a few hours later.
Far too few hours. It had taken me an exorbitant amount of time to set my room to rights. Harriet had arrived not long after, and I had sent her away in the hopes that I might steal just a few scant hours of sleep. I’d barely managed two.
I was exhausted, in pain, and still reeling from the events of the past twenty four hours, so it was no wonder I struggled to recognize the name on Sherman’s lips.
“Who?” I asked, straightening in my seat.
“Mrs. Mary Ainsley, Your Grace,” he repeated.
It took a long moment for my sluggish mind to turn the name over until a face appeared. Oh. The wife of John’s head clerk. The woman I had told to visit me at the Viscount Delmar’s. She had acted swiftly on my invitation, no doubt fearing she would be forgotten if she didn’t. I was glad for her haste, in that moment.
“Shall I tell her you’re out, Your Grace?” Sherman prompted.
“No, that won’t be necessary. Show her in, please,” I instructed.
From what I remembered, the young woman was as sweet as she was innocent, just the antidote for the venomous darkness of McNaught. Just the distraction I needed.
Sherman retreated to fetch her, and in his absence, I inspected my appearance to ensure that all was in order. The gown I had on was new, a pale, robin’s egg blue with a demure neckline and long sleeves. I wore it because it hid my bruises. Beneath my gloves, my bandaged knuckles were already turning a horrid shade of puce. More contusions climbed my forearms, from where McNaught had blocked my blows with his own. My ribs ached from when I’d hit the floor, and the entire left side of my torso was still sore to the touch, a lingering reminder of the spy’s crushing weight.
There were still more scrapes and bruises on my arms and legs, remnants of the fury with which I’d fought to escape. No wonder Harriet had looked on me with such disbelief and worry when I’d told her I’d earned them toppling that table.
Desperate to keep her from spreading word of my state, I’d threatened to sack her if she told anyone. It was only because she had broken down in tears as she swore she wouldn’t that I believed her. Afterward, she had become my accomplice, helping me to clean and bandage my cuts, choosing this gown, pinning my hair sparingly to save my throbbing scalp, tying my corset as loose as propriety would allow so that it didn’t further constrict my battered body.
I could only pray now that she would keep her word to me.
I rose from my seat when I was sure no hint of discoloration showed on my skin, quickly sorting the various sheaths of correspondence spread out over the table in front of me into read and unread stacks, the latter of which would have to be dealt with later.
Typically, I spent my mornings in the yellow drawing room upstairs, but today I had elected to take up occupancy in the small first-floor study that I preferred when the weather turned cold and dreary. It seemed better suited for a bachelor’s hunting lodge than a London manse, and its sturdy furniture and rich palate of tans, reds, and browns were part of why I found such comfort in it when the rest of the house became drafty.
Though this morning had dawned bright and clear, I had nevertheless craved the coziness of the close quarters this study provided. There was a fire going in the hearth, and because of the diminutive scale of the room, it had quickly warmed the interior to the point needed to drive out the chill that had lingered within me.
I just managed to gather myself together when Sherman knocked and then opened the door. Mrs. Ainsley stood two steps behind him, a nervous but curious expression on her face. She was wearing a delicate pink morning gown, and her pale blonde hair had been pulled back in a more modern chignon than the gaudy up-do I’d last seen her in.
“Mrs. Ainsley to see you, Your Grace,” Sherman said with a bow.
Mrs. Ainsley took a hesitant step forward and then dropped into a deep curtsy. “Good morning, Your Grace.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Ainsley,” I responded. “Won’t you please join me?”
I indicated one of the two chairs near the fire. She nodded and made her way carefully toward it, as though worried she might bump a table or upset some priceless artifact.
I hid my small smile by turning toward Sherman. “Could you have more tea sent up, please?”
“Of course, Your Grace,” he said with a bow.
Mrs. Ainsley stood by her seat, waiting for me to take mine before she did hers. I had seen the Duchess of Amesbury force women to stand for long minutes while she dallied before sitting, simply because she could. It was mean and petty, and as much as I mimicked her other behaviors, I would never, ever adopt her cruelty.
I swiftly joined Mrs. Ainsley and sank, carefully, down onto the cushion. My left hip still twinged with pain, despite my caution, and I had to struggle to hide my wince.
“Thank you so much for receiving me, Your Grace,” she said. “I’d only meant to leave my card, assuming you were out making your own morning calls.”
Her naivete was showing. Duchesses did not call on others; they called on us.
“You’re quite welcome. And please, call me Katherine,” I told her. “It’s just the two of us here, no need for such formality.”
The grateful smile she gave me in return was absolutely lovely. She really was a beautiful young woman, with a face like that of a porcelain doll. I couldn’t help but think that if she’d been born into nobility, she would have made an excellent match. Not that Benjamin Ainsley wasn’t. He showed great promise; enough that John felt he might one day represent Hampshire in the House of Commons. As competition for such intelligent, competent men could become quite vicious, John would welcome anything that bound the Ainsley’s closer to us. Like me befriending his wife.
“May I call you Mary?” I asked when she remained quiet.
“Oh, yes! Of course!” she responded, realizing her error.
I smiled at her then, my real smile, as I tried to set her at ease. “Thank you for calling. I had hoped you would after the pleasant evening we passed at the viscount’s.”
She beamed in response. “Truly, Your Gra – er, Katherine?”
“Truly,” I assured her.
Our tea arrived then, and we fell quiet as the maid set the service on the small table between us. When she was gone, I paused, waiting for Mary, who etiquette dictated should pour the tea. She was too busy taking in the sight of the room around us, and I had no desire to embarrass the woman by correcting her.
Instead, I set about pouring the tea myself.
“Do you take sugar?” I asked.
Her head whipped back around. “Oh, heavens. I’m so sorry. Please let me do that, Your Grace.”
“It’s Katherine,” I gently reminded her. “And there’s no need to apologize. As I said, it’s just the two of us. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.”
“Thank you,” she said, blushing furiously. “Two lumps please.”
I dropped the sugar cubes into her drink, gave it a stir, and passed it over to her before pouring my own.
“Do you have much family?” I asked, hoping to set her at ease.
“I do,” she responded. “My father is in trade, and he and Mother had five surviving children before she passed on. He’s had four more with his new wife.”
My brows rose at this. “Good heavens. That must have made for a lively household.”
“It did. Especially since my stepmother is rather unconventional and allows the younger children to eat with the rest of the family.”
“No,” I said, trying to picture such a scene in my head. My own family dinners had always been dreadfully quiet, emphasis on the dread. We’d sat around in muted silence sneaking surreptitious glances toward the head of the table, at Father, as we attempted to gauge his mood.
“Oh yes,” she answered. “My younger brother George once brought a frog to supper when he was five.”
“He didn’t,” I said.
“He did indeed,” she said, smiling.
“Did anything come of it?” I asked.
Her smile widened as she nodded in response. “No one knew he had it at first, but then our older brother Stanley said something George didn’t like and George threw the frog at him. It hit the bowl of pudding halfway there, which flipped its contents forward, all over me and my eldest sister.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed, and not my usual practiced chuckle either. The sound that was surprised forth from my lips was something much louder and less cultivated. Thanks to my bruises, it also hurt, but, my God, the pain was worth it in that moment. I could have kissed her for making me laugh on a day that had started with me fearing I never would again.
Mary looked amazed at first, that she had cracked the stolid Duchess of Hampshire’s icy persona, but soon she was joining in.
“What happened afterward?” I asked.
“Well, naturally Father was furious,” she said. “He forced George to clean the mess himself and then banned all animals from the house for a week. Poor George had to turn out his pockets for months afterward to prove he wasn’t harboring another aquatic interloper before being admitted into the dining room.”
I grinned, even though part of me felt like frowning. How interesting, that fury could have such a different meaning for her than it did me. My own father’s definition of the word would likely give her nightmares.
“You must tell me more of these antics,” I said. “I have just one sibling, a brother who was away at Eton, and so my own childhood was quite tame in comparison.” The lie came easily and selfishly. I needed her stories. Her warmth and light.
“Oh, how I envy you for that solitude,” she said.
You really shouldn’t, I thought.
“Did you spend your youth in town?” I asked.
She shook her head. “We were lucky in that father was prosperous enough to afford a country home. I can only imagine the chaos our merry band of feral miscreants would have wreaked in the city.”
I smiled again. Merry band of feral miscreants. I could picture such a horde of wild children easily. Laud, she was even more diverting than I hoped.
“I imagine you still found your fair share of trouble in the country,” I said.
Her blue eyes sparkled as they met mine over her teacup. She took a sip and then set it down, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Endless amounts of trouble. It’s a wonder all of us survived to adulthood.”
We spent the rest of the morning in each other’s company, with me asking her question after question, eating up as much time as I could before I was forced to leave for the Duchess of Amesbury’s. The thought of receiving another note terrified me. The thought that one of my peers might be there solely to spy on me was even worse. So I selfishly kept her there as long as possible, absorbing as much of her warmth and light as I could.
She was really quite funny when I coaxed her into opening up, and I spent most of the visit guarding myself against her humor in case she surprised another hard laugh out of me and I accidentally cracked on of my bruised ribs.
Only at her gentle prodding did I tell her any stories of my own youth, and those I kept strictly to the days when Mother still lived. Of the many ways in which Marcus had helped me to evade my governesses so we could traipse through the surrounding forest or play with a new litter of puppies that one of our father’s hounds had whelped.
Throughout it all, I couldn’t help but be jealous of her. Her childhood sounded marvelous. How I wished I had roamed her family’s acreage alongside her and her siblings in a band of troublesome children. No wonder she was so kind, so open, and honest. I envied her for that as well. Even now I had to be careful what I said, had to keep a part of myself from relaxing entirely lest I let slip some small but vital piece of contraband information.
As she was leaving, I asked her to please call again soon.
“You are far too kind, Katherine,” she had said, seeming close to tears.
I could only imagine what it would feel like to be in her shoes, a young woman, with no title, acquainted with one of the most upstanding and notoriously snobbish peers of the realm. Even if I had fatally misjudged her character and she was secretly a horrid gossip, the worst she could say about me was that I wasn’t nearly as standoffish as everyone thought. God knew that no one who had met me would believe that.
I was sad to see her go, watching her from the window of the study as our footman hailed her a carriage. For the first time in my adult life, I felt as though I had a female friend. Sure, I already had numerous acquaintances of my own sex amongst the ton, but I always played a part around them, and I believed many of them played parts as well. It put distance between us. An insurmountable chasm filled with pitfalls and snares. With Mary, the opposite proved true. Her gentle, steadfast nature made it easy to be at peace around her. She reminded me a little of Henry, in that way.
What I wouldn’t have given in that moment, to seek him out. To bury myself in the warmth of his embrace.
My gaze went to the clock on the mantle. There was no time. My dallying with Mary left me scant minutes to prepare myself and leave for Amesbury’s.
Where I would find that no amount of stolen light could keep the menace of darkness at bay.
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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