“Is he awake?” McNaught asked.
“No,” I told him. “Keep your voice down.”
“Are you going to invite me in? Or do we have this conversation in the hallway for anyone to hear?”
I glanced past him, at the men who guarded the door. Both were his. Further down, one of our scullery maids lit the candles in hall. I sighed and pulled open the door to John’s sitting room. At least the spy had lowered his voice.
The scent of lemons filled my nose when he swept past me. I expected him to sit in one of the chairs near the fire, but he barreled right by them and let himself into John’s bedroom.
“Get back here!” I hissed.
Whether he didn’t hear me, or he simply chose to ignore the order, I couldn’t tell. Knowing him, it was the latter.
I entered the bedroom right on his heels and was just about to grab hold of his jacket when he pulled up short. I was forced to dodge left to keep from running into him. He stared at the bed, expression troubled.
John lay near the middle of the mattress, beneath a mountain of blankets. He’d always run cold, but since losing so much blood it had become damn near impossible to keep him warm. The fire blazed in the hearth, so much wood heaped upon the flames that the room was downright balmy. Henry sprawled out at John’s side, atop the sheets, wearing nothing but a pair of loose trousers. The gun he’d taken to carrying around with him sat on the nightstand, within easy reach.
There was still an enemy in our house. With John injured and vulnerable, Henry and I had become paranoid in the extreme. We had weapons secreted throughout the room, battle plans drawn for what we would do if someone unknown or unexpected sought entry.
Henry rolled over in his sleep and curled into John’s side with a heavy sigh. It was a small intimacy that I knew he wouldn’t want McNaught to witness.
I grabbed the spy’s arm and tugged, but he stood immobile for another full minute, looking at his injured friend, until he finally relented and let me lead him from the room. I closed the door behind us and turned to see him collapse into one of the arm chairs.
“How long has he been like that?” he asked.
I joined him by the fire. “Unconscious?”
“On and off since he was shot.”
McNaught rubbed a hand over his face. “Six days.”
God, had it only been six? It felt like weeks had passed. Maybe that was due to the fact that I’d barely slept in all this time.
“What does the doctor have to say?” McNaught asked.
“I dismissed him.”
He shot up in his seat. “What?”
“Keep your voice down or leave. I won’t say it again.” Henry was running on even less sleep than I was, and I would never forgive McNaught if he woke him with his shouting.
“Why on earth would you do that?” he demanded. Quietly. I must have looked as close to the edge as I felt.
“Because nothing he did brought John’s fever down, and when he woke up coughing blood, the man’s diagnosis was that his body needed to expel it. He wanted to bleed him. Three days after John nearly bled to death in my arms.”
McNaught settled back into his seat, his features set in hard lines as he glared at the fire. “Goddamn hack.”
“Mrs. Marston took over John’s care after that. She was the one who brought his fever down. She was the one who knew what do to when he was coughing blood. We’ve been packing his wound with an herbal paste she made, and, at least visually, it looks much improved.”
He glanced back to me. “But still he doesn’t wake?”
“He’s come to several times, each more cognizant than the last. This morning he managed to tell me and Henry that we look like hell. But the pain was still…” I closed my eyes tight against the memory of John, pale and gasping, trying valiantly to keep the agony from showing. “He’s on a heavy dose of laudanum now.”
“At least he was in his right mind when he woke up. You do look like hell.”
My eyes flashed open. McNaught grinned at me, and I briefly considered stabbing him. Adnan’s strange brace was strapped to my arm, hidden by the heavy dressing gown I wore. It would be all too easy to flick my wrist and lash out at him. He would make the perfect target to vent my anger on.
McNaught saw the violence in my gaze and held a hand up. “Peace.”
“Stop mocking me at every turn and perhaps there can be some between us.”
He tipped his head forward in acknowledgment. “Fair.” His expression shifted like the sands of a dessert, and I caught a brief look at the grief in his heart before it disappeared. “He’ll be all right?”
I took a deep breath. “Mrs. Marston is hopeful that he’ll make a full recovery.”
It was only when his shoulders relaxed that I realized how stiffly he’d held himself.
“Where have you been?” I asked. This was the first I’d seen of him since John’s injury.
“Keeping Des Jardins distracted.”
I rounded the back of the empty armchair and sat opposite him. “All this time?”
“No. I returned to the city as soon as I heard what happened.”
“And what have you been doing?”
“Trying to figure out how your father got hold of that caricature. And then once the papers started publishing it, trying to control the fallout.”
I sucked in a breath. “Tell me they didn’t.” I’d been so preoccupied with John that I’d hardly left his rooms since he was shot, let alone sat down to look at something so trivial as a newspaper.
“It appeared in the gossip rags the next morning, with the insinuation that your father had come here to defend your honor and was killed for his efforts.”
“So they didn’t believe our side of the story?”
He shook his head.
There had been no chance of hiding what had happened. Our house had been full of servants when Father fired his pistol. Everyone would have heard it. And staff members would have known my father was here. A footman had to open the door for him. Sherman needed to direct him to John’s study. No doubt a scullery maid saw him as he paced through the halls.
Sure, we could have found some way to sneak his charred body out, but when he turned up dead somewhere else the next day, someone on the staff would suspect. Maybe several someone’s, who might talk amongst themselves about their fears. Our servants were loyal. They kept silent about many of the goings on in this house. But asking them to keep quiet when they suspected a murder had been committed…
Instead, I had summoned the constables and fed them a partial truth that Henry, Adnan and I concocted. I told them that my father had come here, enraged that we were trying to intervene on my brother’s behalf with him, had lost his temper, and shot John.
It didn’t take much for them to believe me. They knew my father’s reputation. Likely they’d received enough complaints about him to fill an entire storage room, but seeing as he was a peer of the realm, there was little they could do about it. They almost looked relieved to hear that he was dead, and didn’t seem to give a damn how he had died.
I told them that John had managed to push him after being shot, completely removing Henry, Adnan, and Haydar from the equation, and that Father’s heel had caught on the rug. He fell backward into the fire, hitting his head on the mantle on his way down, which was why he hadn’t immediately scrambled free. John collapsed at the same time, which left me to try and pull my father out. As I was a woman, and therefore considered weak, they seemed to believe that I had difficulty, and I hadn’t been quick enough to save him.
The story would have been published in the papers on the same day that the caricature hit them. The timing was devastating. It pit my word against the dark minds of my peers. I had lost. If McNaught was right, they had sided with my abuser.
I suddenly understood John’s desire to set the entire world on fire.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
The spy didn’t try to dissemble or soften the blow. He simply held my gaze and said, “Ruin.”
I sat back in my seat, turning toward the fire. “Not even John’s letter to The Times was enough to give them pause before they condemned me?”
“They never printed his letter.”
I whipped back around to face him. “What?”
His cerulean gaze bored into mine. “You heard me. They didn’t print it. And when put to the question, their editor claims he never received it. A claim that is backed up by the employees in their receipts department.”
It never even arrived? “And you believe them?”
He nodded. Because he knew. While I’d been trapped up here with my fear and my grief, he had been out there hunting down information.
“How did it go astray?” I asked.
I frowned. “Seamus? John’s valet?”
“The very one. Turns out he was the spy in the house. Confessed everything to Sherman after John was shot.”
“Comfort yourself in the knowledge that he wasn’t a true traitor. He worked for them under duress. They have his sister.”
“Why didn’t he just tell John at the outset?”
McNaught canted his head to the right and eyed me. “Why indeed?”
I met his gaze and thought about it for a moment. “Because he didn’t think John would do anything to free her.” Like so many others, he knew John only on a surface level, despite the fact that he had served him for years. He saw what John wanted him to see: a cold-hearted, selfish, ruthless duke. He didn’t realize that John’s pride was the biggest reason he would intervene on his sister’s behalf. That by taking her, they had proven that John was vulnerable, that he couldn’t protect the people he thought of as his people. John would do everything in his power to get her back just to reassert his control.
“Correct,” McNaught said. “When the valet realized how far the people would go that he was being blackmailed by, he could no longer remain silent.”
“You didn’t torture him, did you?”
He put a hand to his chest. “Do you truly think that I would torture that poor man after everything he’d already been through?”
I eyed him. Yes. Yes, I did think that.
The beatific smile that split his face did nothing to comfort me or change my opinion. “It’s too bad you’ve gotten it into your head that you and I are enemies.”
“I tend to feel that way toward people who have assaulted me.” I took a deep breath. “Stop goading me and say what you came here to say.” I longed to be back inside the bedroom, with John and Henry. I didn’t want to miss it if John woke again.
The smile fled from McNaught’s face. “I need you to tell me what happened.”
“You didn’t get the tale from Haydar and Adnan before coming up here?”
“Of course I did. But they weren’t in the room the entire time.”
I sighed. There was no way around this. He was going to force me to go back to that day, when I’d been steadfastly ignoring it, pushing the dark memories to the far reaches of my mind. “You’ll need to talk to Henry too. He was in here with John and my father a full hour before I joined them.”
“When he wakes up,” McNaught said.
I nodded. “There isn’t much for me to say. Everything happened so quickly.” I did the best I could recounting what had happened. Unlike the fight in the alley, I’d been keyed in the entire time. I thought the memories would fade after ignoring them for so long, but once I unlocked the prison I’d kept them in, they swelled to the surface in such detail that I longed to push them back into their cage.
“And after Haydar pulled your father from the flames?” McNaught asked.
“John fainted. I thought he’d died, and…” I shuddered, feeling another scream building. “But Adnan assured me he still breathed. Henry went into shock, I think. He fell to his knees beside my father’s corpse and sat there staring at it until the surgeon arrived.”
“And all your father said was that he had someone’s word that the caricature was real?”
“That’s all there was time for. He was highly agitated when I arrived.” I glanced at the bedroom door. “I think John must have spent the previous hour goading him.”
McNaught let out a low, humorless laugh. “Of course he did. Playing the bloody hero.”
“He almost died for his efforts.”
“But he didn’t. And now, even though he lives, he’s still at risk.” He stared at me for a few heartbeats, as if trying to pick out his next words. “I want to move him.”
I shook my head. “Absolutely not.”
“Not now,” he said. “Once he’s healed up a bit more. Think about it, Katherine. He’s too vulnerable here. This goddamn house stands open on all sides. We’re lucky that someone hasn’t scaled the roof, taken out our guards there, and repelled down through an upper story window to reach you.”
I blinked at him. That method of infiltration had never even occurred to me. Because what kind of madman would willingly dangle themselves off the side of a four-story building? Then I remembered the night that McNaught had crept into my room and I realized that I was looking at that kind of madman.
“Where do you want to move him to?” I asked.
“I have a house outside of the city. In the middle of the woods. No one knows it belongs to me. Not even my superior officers.”
“And you think you can get him there without anyone following us?”
“Yes. If we left in the dead of night and took all the necessary precautions.”
“Several carriages departing from here at the same time. Men on horseback to guard them. Scouts ahead and behind each party. We’ll set false trails, double back on the journey.”
“Won’t all that travel be painful for John?”
He shook his head. “We’ll make sure he’s in the best sprung carriage and rig up a hammock for him inside of it. While the rest of us have our teeth rattled out, he’ll be rocked to sleep like a baby.”
“I don’t know,” I said, my mind a muddle.
“You don’t have to decide yet.” His tone was soft, and I realized then that we’d gone a full minute without antagonizing each other. Miracle of miracles.
“She’s there, isn’t she?”
His focus sharpened. “Who?”
“You know who. The woman Des Jardins is after.”
Still eyeing me, he nodded.
“What’s her name?”
“Does she have a surname?”
He shook his head, lips falling into a familiar, stubborn line.
“Who is she to you?”
“I told you before, she’s a fellow spy.”
I shook my head. “She’s more than that.”
“She is,” I said, adamant. “You broke into a French prison to free her. When she was under threat, you dropped everything to lead Des Jardins off her trail. Even though it meant you were abandoning John.”
“I didn’t abandon John. There were guards stationed at every door.”
“And yet, the moment you left, they struck, and now John is in the next room over, fighting for his life. So tell me, who is she to you? Really?”
He broke his gaze and looked toward the fire. Light and darkness passed over his features like clouds moving across the sun. “She’s someone to me. Let’s leave it at that.”
Ah. So it was complicated. Wasn’t it always?
I could tell that I would get no more from him, and so I let the subject drop. After all, if he had his way, I would meet her soon enough. Perhaps I’d get lucky and she would prove to be more forthcoming than McNaught.
I stared at his profile for several minutes, his good looks rendered breathtaking in the light of the fire. For once, they didn’t distract me. For once, I wasn’t torn between attraction and dislike. Something far more important occupied me now.
Over the past several days, I’d spent my time divided. I’d fretted over John, I’d reinforced the defenses inside these rooms, and I’d thought.
I’d thought about the notes. I’d thought about who could be sending them.
McNaught said that it wasn’t the French, and I believed him. I didn’t think it was any of our nation’s other adversaries either. Our enemy was too well-informed for that. They acted too swiftly on their intelligence. My own experience with the letters had proven that. A noble stepped a toe out of line, or committed some perceived folly, and there they were, ready to swoop in and take immediate advantage of the situation. Which meant that there wasn’t time for their agents to draft letters and send them south to the continent, or east to the Dutch, where the head of the organization would receive them and write out an order that would take still more weeks to arrive.
Our enemy was here, on our shores. Of that I was certain.
So who was it?
Not the king. His madness wasn’t affected. John was adamant about that, and John would know. He’d spent more time with the man than any other politician. He’d had long, detailed conversations with his doctors. He had sat, sequestered, with several other of the nation’s most powerful men just last year and drawn contingency plans for what to do if the king never regained his sanity. I trusted John in this. If he said the king was mad, the king was mad.
It wasn’t the reagent either. The Crown Prince was a fool. I knew that first-hand. The things I had heard that man say…Lord. And no one would put themselves in the amount of debt that he was in just to make the ruse of idiocy stick. Perhaps it was some elaborate act, but I was nearly as good at reading people as John, and I didn’t believe it was.
Who else in this country had access to the resources necessary to head an organization of such size and reach? Who else had access to the funds necessary to pay so many agents? Who was old enough? John’s father received his notes when John was just a teenager.
It might have been one of the reagent’s siblings, or even the king’s, but I didn’t think so. My mind kept coming back around and around, circling like a tidal pool, to one person.
The last person people would suspect. Or more importantly, the last person that men would suspect.
A woman that everyone knew was nothing more than a poorly educated immigrant. A woman who had been raised in isolation and chosen to be a bride to her husband because no one thought such an upbringing would leave her interested in intrigue or world events. A woman who still spoke in heavily accented English and had boorish manners that I now realized were meant to mask the keen mind that lurked beneath the surface.
One who had famously been ordered to stay out of politics by her husband after she accidentally blundered into them. A husband who then went on to lose the kingdom’s greatest asset because of his pride. And then he lost his mind, leaving an idiot to inherit an empire.
She was expected to sit there, quietly, on the sidelines, while the country crumbled around her, and produce a small army of children like some brood mare. And that was what she had done, by all appearances, her only concerns her gardens and her pet composers and her daughters.
McNaught turned and met my gaze. “Say it.”
“It’s the queen, isn’t it?”
I didn’t think he would answer. Silence stretched between us, long and tense. But then his teeth flashed white in the firelight, lips parting in a small, pleased smile. “It’s the queen.”
Thank you all SO MUCH for coming with me on this twisty, turny, lusty journey. I first wrote Scandal back in 2013 and have been working on various rewrites throughout the SEVEN YEARS since. As I write The End on this final version, I’m getting all teary-eyed and nostalgic and so unbelievably overwhelmed by the sheer amount of wonderful people who have read along, voted, commented, and really, kept me going when all I wanted to do was lay down and rest for a little while. You will never know how much your kind words, corrections, advice, and encouragement meant to me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
And keep an eye out for Betrayal, which is Scandal 1.5. It tells Anne’s story, an interlude and a character introduction both, before we continue on with Kit’s story in what is tentatively titled Ruin.
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 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.