I woke at sunrise the next morning. We’d pulled the curtains open after our escapades last night to watch the gibbous moon rise over the treetops and paint the city in broad strokes of black and white. A beam of liquid gold spilled through them now and fell across the floor. Dust motes twirled and eddied in the light. The muffled sounds of a city waking reached my ears.
I yawned and turned my head. Henry lay sprawled at my side, between me and John, heroically shielding me from John’s nocturnal flailing – I’d learned the hard way our first night together that my husband could kick like a mule when he dreamt.
The sheets were tangled around Henry’s waist, revealing a long expanse of torso. His chest rose and fell in a deep, even rhythm. Beside him, John lay on his stomach, arms curled around his pillow, head turned away. Whatever fevered nightmares caused his midnight histrionics had long since passed, and he lay still now in untroubled sleep. One of Henry’s hands rested on his back, as though even unconscious Henry wanted to know where he was. His other hand warmed my upper thigh beneath the sheets, and though I longed to linger here, the shaft of sunlight was creeping closer and closer toward the bed, and I didn’t want it to wake them.
I carefully extricated myself and went to draw the curtains together. An armchair sat just in front of the window. Instead of sliding back beneath the sheets, I slipped on John’s heavy dressing gown, pausing to breathe deep the smell of his cologne, before I folded myself down into the chair to watch the men slumber.
It had only been a few days since I’d last been here, but with everything that had happened in that time, it felt more like weeks. I could barely fathom the fact that less than a fortnight had passed since John propositioned me.
I frowned at that thought. What if he hadn’t? Would our unknown enemy – well, unknown to everyone but McNaught – have found some other way to harass us? Or would they have chosen another noble household to snare in their trap? Instead of John being coerced into pushing Addington from office, would it have been Glover? Or even Amesbury?
I sighed and cut that line of thought off. In the end, it didn’t matter. John had propositioned me, I had said yes, and now here we were. Yet even after everything that had happened since that fateful night, I wouldn’t change my answer. If given a second, or third, or fourth chance, I would always say yes to him. Nothing worth fighting for ever came easy in my experience. And if everyone who lived outside the norms set by society caved beneath the weight of adversity, humankind would never advance. We would be stuck, forever, in this limited, narrow-minded prison we had built for ourselves.
Henry shifted in his sleep, the hand that had rested on my thigh reaching out through the lingering warmth I had left in the bed, as though searching for me. My troubled mind found solace in the sight, in the beauty and the peace that radiated from his sleeping form. I would do whatever it took to keep him like this. Things I once thought monstrous I no longer discounted. Today I planned to ask John to have my father assassinated. Tomorrow we might begin searching for the right poison to rid the world of Addington. Who knew, in two days’ time, I might help Haydar murder another poor soul.
What was that biblical passage quoted ad nauseum at weddings? I’d heard it so many times I should have committed it to memory by now. Ah, yes:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
I had to fight back an ugly laugh. Maybe what I felt for the men wasn’t love. Maybe it was obsession paired with possession. Because I was not patient, and my feelings for them sure as hell hadn’t made me a kinder woman. True, I might not delight in acts of evil, but to keep these men safe? Oh, I would commit them.
The only lines that struck any sort of chord within me were the last two. My love had helped me to forgive and to trust my husband. It had seen me through a riot yesterday, and it was what made me believe that no matter what happened from here on out, I would survive it, if only to return here, to this.
“This is how you’ve been spending your mornings?” John asked.
The three of us sat in the yellow drawing room, a tall stack of newspapers set in the center of the table. John had decided not to go in to his office and instead spend today at home.
Henry set aside the paper he’d been reading and picked up another. “Yes. What did you think we’d been doing?”
John turned his head, but not before I caught a slight hint of pink in his cheeks.
Henry saw it too. He let out a low chuckle. “What? You thought I’ve been bending Kit over the tea table every morning and not telling you about it?”
John’s flush deepened.
Henry crowed with laughter.
I was forced to stifle my own. Beneath my fresh bandages, my skin was painted in puce and vermillion and sickening green. My ribs hurt like the devil, every deep breath a reminder of the hit I had taken yesterday. Somehow, my cheek was worse. The swelling had gone down, but I had an even uglier black eye than Mrs. Marston had predicted, and an hour past she had poked and prodded at me again to double check that nothing was fractured.
“Trust me, I would have preferred being bent over this table to reading through every gossip rag printed in the city,” I said, setting my paper down to pick up my tea.
John wrinkled his nose, sniffing. He’d done this thrice now, searching out the source of the stink. “What is that? Did someone step in something?”
Henry and I shared a glance as he lifted his foot and checked the sole of his boot.
“It’s Kit’s tea,” Henry said.
John’s head snapped around. “You’re drinking the thing giving off that odor?”
I nodded and lifted it toward him, studiously keeping my eyes from Henry now. The other day we’d argued about whether or not human curiosity would always win out, even in John. Most of us couldn’t hear another person say, “Lord, this is the worst thing I’ve ever tasted” without wanting to try it for ourselves, but John had more self-control than anyone I’d ever met.
He leaned forward, sniffed the tea, and then sat as far back in his seat as he could. “You should send it back to the kitchen. There’s got to be a better way to keep from getting child than drinking that every day.”
I set my teacup on the table and pushed it toward him. “You don’t want to try it?”
He shook his head and shoved it back hard enough that some of the noxious liquid slopped over the side. “Christ, no. Why on earth would I want to do that?”
Henry held a hand out in my direction, looking smug. “Pay me.”
I sighed. Why had I agreed to bet on whether or not John would want to drink it? Henry knew him better than I did. I should have remembered that, but I was so sure that even John possessed the macabre instinct to verify the vileness of something.
“You had a wager on whether or not I would drink that gutter water?” John demanded.
“Yes,” I told him, before looking to Henry. “All of my money is in my rooms. I’ll pay you later.”
His gaze dropped to the neckline of my dress, and then lower, eyes narrowing like he could seethrough the fabric. “Until then, I’ll consider you in my debt.”
Oof. The words hit me like a sledgehammer. He was learning my cues too, and he knew how much I liked it when he sunk his voice low like this and filled it with innuendo.
John snapped a fresh paper open and said, beneath his breath, “I knew you’d been bending her over.”
His words surprised me into laughter, which lasted all of a heartbeat before it cut off in a wheeze. “Damn it, John. That hurts.”
He glanced sideways at me. “My apologies. I’ll try to keep the sarcasm to a minimum until you’ve healed.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
He inclined his head in my direction imperiously and then went back to reading.
Henry and I shared another look, shook our heads, and returned to our own papers.
I thought the press would have a field day when they found out I’d been caught in the riot, but this was something else. The more liberal papers had put in a momentous effort to cover the story with the care it deserved. They interviewed people who had been there, highlighted the fact that they had stopped the riot themselves and saved their neighborhood, and hinted that there may have been paid instigators planted in the crowd to stoke the flames of rebellion. The more conservative papers, however…if they did any research, it didn’t show. Instead of attempting to discover what had truly happened, they chose to make me into a victim, with the poorer residents of the neighborhood playing the villains.
It is a sad day indeed when a member of the ton is forced to employ armed guards to escort them through the streets of London. If not for the Duke of Hampshire’s foresight, the duchess might have been left undefended, and instead of reading an account of her harrowing escape, you, dear reader, might be reading an obituary instead.
That was from The Times. As always, it was one of the tamer articles about the previous day’s events. In other papers, the men set upon me were depicted as everything from members of a criminal organization to unionized factory workers to petty thieves to rapists. As if rapists had taken to roving the streets of the city in groups. People would read these articles and be infuriated. The ton because of what had happened to a member of their own class. The poor because of how unfairly and inaccurately the papers reported the events. The riot had been sensationalized and splashed across so many front pages that I lost count, each headline more ridiculous and bombastic than the next.
John laid out the one he was reading on the table. “We need to be selfish right now,” he said. His tone was caged, as though he expected an argument over what came next. “They want to portray Katherine as a victim, and it would be to our advantage to play that up.”
Henry sent him a wary look. “Vilify the people in the mob? Bad enough that Des Jardins manipulated them into rioting. Now you want to crucify them for it?”
John met his censure with a steady gaze. “Yes.”
“He’s right,” I told him. “I don’t like it, but he is.”
John nodded. “Any day now, that caricature could be published. If we portray Katherine as a victim, people will sympathize with her. Feel bad for her. Thank God that she was able to escape with her life. Think her brave and heroic for surviving. People who feel those things will see the caricature and have a knee-jerk reaction of outrage and disbelief over the fact that a woman who has recently been through so much is now being slandered. They’ll be more likely to defend her against that slander than believe it.”
“What is it you want to do?” Henry asked.
“I want to write to The Times,” John said. “It’s the most widely read paper. I’ll buy a full page in tomorrow’s edition and have them print a letter thanking everyone for their concern over the welfare of my wife, praise God for her safety – like the good Christian I’m not – and then reinforce the message that she was a victim and is lucky to be alive.”
“There will be consequences,” Henry said. “Innocent people might pay the price for your words.”
“Yes,” John said, voice flat.
Henry, looking supremely uncomfortable, glanced from John to me. He knew John was right. It was a horrible thing to do, to use the people of that neighborhood as Des Jardens had used them. To put them in harm’s way. But John was willing to do it to help us through the incoming scandal, and God help me, so was I.
It took Henry a long moment to mull it over. If he said no, John wouldn’t go through with it. This was something we would choose to do, together, united in our complicity, or not at all. Henry’s gaze fell to my bruised cheek, and his expression hardened as if seeing it decided things for him.
“Fine,” he bit out. “But I don’t want to know the details.”
John nodded and wisely let the conversation drop, picking his paper up instead.
I turned my focus back to my own, every now and then stealing glances at Henry’s troubled expression. John and I were descending happily into our damnation, but he seemed to be struggling with it. It served as a reminder that while Henry might love me and John, despite our darkness, he was a creature of the light, a man who still saw some good in the world, who believed in truth and fairness. I prayed that he was able to retain that optimism. Lord knew that John and I would need him to check our more vicious impulses.
A knock sounded from the door.
John called the command to enter, and a footman – one of our own – swept in carrying a tray in his hands.
“For Your Grace,” he said, setting it on the table at my elbow.
“Thank you,” I said, staring down at it.
The man left us, and Henry sat higher in his seat to peer at the contents. “Are those all letters?”
“Calling cards, mostly,” I said, lifting the top one from the largest pile of correspondence I had ever received.
John spared it a brief glance. “Our acquaintances must read their papers earlier than we do.”
I opened the calling card I held and read a note from Aunt Jane that had clearly been written in haste. She lamented over what had happened to me and begged to come calling, going so far as to insinuate she stay with us until whatever injuries I had sustained in the riot had healed.
“Good God,” I said, setting it aside only to read an equally effusive letter from Lady Constance Worthington of all people. Lady Constance Worthington. The very same woman who had turned to me with a self-righteous smile after the recital at the Duchess of Amesbury’s and hinted that I needed to read the gossip rag that had slyly portrayed John and Henry as lovers.
No less than fifty other notes lay beneath hers, and I rifled through them checking over seals and signatures. There were missives from those I considered close acquaintances as well as women I had barely spoken to, and…
Oh no. There was one from the queen.
John caught sight of it as I freed it from the others. “Is that a royal seal I see?”
I nodded, holding it by the corner, carefully, like it might come to life and bite me. “You read it,” I said, flinging it in his direction.
He managed to snatch it right out of the air. Show off.
With a quick flick of his fingers, he broke the seal and had it open.
“What does it say?” I asked.
His eyes scanned the page. “She wants you to call on her.”
And I would have to. One did not say no to the queen.
I pressed my fingertips to my temples. “How long can I delay?”
John glanced at my bruised cheek. “You’ll need to answer the letter immediately.”
I nodded. “I figured.”
He eyed me a moment longer. “I would only delay a few days, at most.”
“I’ll tell her I’m too injured to travel,” I said, pulling my writing implements toward me.
“Wait to visit until your bruises are at their worst,” he said.
“Why’s that?” Henry asked.
John turned to him. “The queen is an overprotective mother. She’ll see Katherine, a woman younger than most of her own daughters, bruised and battered, and will want to protect her.”
“And I need that response,” I added. “I have to get back in her good graces after my revolt at Amesbury’s.”
“About that,” John said. “You don’t plan on attending the Baroness of Norridgewock’s recital, do you?”
“I had planned to, yes.”
He eyed me.
“You think I should cancel.”
“You might consider it,” he said. “Lady Jane seems to have enough women to shelter and support her without you. Wouldn’t want to anger Amesbury any further.”
“Heaven forbid,” I muttered.
“You won’t have to cow-tow to her forever,” John said.
He shook his head. “That old crone can’t have more than three good years left in her.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her to live to a hundred just to spite me.”
John made a face. “Yes. Well. That does seem like something she would do.”
I scrawled a quick response to the queen and summoned a footman to see it delivered immediately.
We spent the rest of the day together. At noon we shared lunch. Afterward we retreated to the seldom used music room, and John sat at the piano and played for me and Henry. That afternoon John and I curled up together on the couch in his study so that Henry could sketch the two of us together. We laughed and flirted through all three courses of dinner. Later, once we’d retired, John demonstrated how best to get Henry off with his mouth, and then saw to my own pleasure before allowing Henry and I to lavish as much affection on him as we had the night before.
If one ignored the fact that we were forced to stay inside because of what lurked without, one could be mistaken for thinking it was a perfect day. Peaceful. Damn near domestic at times.
I should have appreciated it more. I should pushed the dark thoughts that had plagued me throughout it to the very back of my mind and instead committed every blissful minute I spent with John and Henry to memory.
I would have, if I had known what was coming.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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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.