Half an hour later, John and I began the short drive to the Viscount Delmar’s. Full night had descended upon London, bringing with it a fog that rendered the darkness outside the carriage windows murky and strange. It played tricks with my senses, muffled the clamor of the surrounding city and amplified the sounds that were closest to us, making me feel as though we traveled in our own little world.
The horses’ hooves rang out like musket fire on the cobblestones. Streetlights appeared at intervals like waypoints, illuminating the safest course. It was easy to imagine what twisted creatures waited in the brume for us if we went astray.
“Do you ever feel as though you made the wrong decision, Katherine?” John asked, pulling me from my troubled thoughts.
I turned to him. He leaned against the opposite wall, a shadow obscuring his face so that I couldn’t read his expression. Had I not looked away fast enough when his lover embraced him? And what had Henry whispered into his ear that made him sear me with such a gaze?
“Of course not,” I lied, praying that he would believe me.
Silence stretched between us, and I became nervous that he did not. He was the most intelligent man that I had ever met, and sometimes I wondered if he saw past my mask to what hid beneath it, or if he simply thought that the things I kept from him and Henry were but more tales of my father’s household.
My mind raced as I tried to think of some way to reassure him. Yes, I regretted my decision, but not for the reason he might believe. Our marriage had been mutually beneficial. John had been considered the most eligible bachelor of the ton at the time, and even his fearsome reputation hadn’t provided enough armor against mothers eager to marry their daughters off or young ladies desperate to catch a handsome duke.
By marrying me, he had done away with that annoyance and also gained a spy amongst the ladies of the ton. Each time a vote came up in Parliament that John needed to pass, I was tasked with gathering information from the ladies about how their representatives in the Commons would vote, or how their husbands would in the House of Lords – information which John was then able to put to great use.
Yet it was obvious that I had gained the most from our union: protection from my father, an elevated status, wealth beyond my wildest dreams, and all the weight and power of a four-hundred-year-old dynastic household. The day we’d married, I had been deliriously, selfishly happy. And I had spent every one since then lamenting my decision, because the more I came to know and care for John and Henry, the more I worried that I was unworthy. The more I began to fear that some tragedy would befall us that would take it all away from me. My youth had taught me that if something seemed too good to be true, it was.
“You’re not lonely?” John pressed, bringing me back to the present.
“Sometimes,” I admitted to him.
All the time, I admitted to myself.
“You don’t feel as though you’re being wasted on me? As though I’m holding you back from the life you could have led?” His tone was almost entirely lacking in inflection, and where once I had thought him devoid of human emotion, our years of marriage had taught me the opposite was true. He spoke like this when he was hiding emotions. If only I could determine which ones and why.
“No,” I said. “I much prefer our partnership to a match that could have soured and left both parties miserable. Where is this coming from? Has the Devilish Duke suddenly sprouted a conscious?”
“Have you considered taking a lover?” he asked, undeterred.
A humorless laugh slipped from my lips. “And have them find me a virgin? What if they passed the information to one of your enemies? They could use it to force an annulment between us.” He opened his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “And if not a scandal? What if I were to find myself with child? What if I had a son? Do you welcome the thought of a bastard inheriting the duchy?”
This gave him pause. “There are ways to avoid pregnancy.”
“I won’t risk it,” I told him.
He fell silent, expression still frustratingly obscured by shadows. A moment later, his next words ghosted out from the darkness. “I see the way you look at Henry.”
It felt as though my heart shuddered to a stop. “John, I-”
“And I know you see the way that Henry looks at you.”
I stared into his corner rather stupidly as I struggled to determine whether or not he had truly spoken. I hadn’t seen his lips form the words, and I feared that my imagination had run away with me again and my mind had somehow managed to fill my ears with the very thing I so longed to hear.
“I thought he didn’t fancy women,” I said.
John leaned forward into the light and braced his elbows on his knees. The expression on his face was unreadable, and I searched his eyes for some sign of what he was thinking. Was he jealous? Did he loathe me for desiring his lover? Did he fear that Henry harbored some secret desire for me as well, and that he might lose him to me? Had he noticed that it wasn’t just Henry I stared longingly at? Was he about to cast me off? Send me and the threat I presented to our country home in Hampshire to live out my life in the obscurity I had once begged him for? I couldn’t blame him if he did. That was likely the safest course of action. For all of us. But especially for my heart.
“Henry and I have both been with women,” John said. “Before you and I married, before he and I met.”
I stared at him in shock. His features changed, subtly, just enough that his expression became a near match for the contemplative one he had worn when studying Henry and me earlier. The carriage rattled past a streetlight, the crackling glow alighting on his forehead and cheekbones, rendering his pale brown eyes a deep topaz that seemed lit from within. My God, he was beautiful. Heavenly where his lover was earthly, unattainable where Henry was innately sensual. It made me want him all the more. For to see one such as him brought down to our level, laid low by lust –
Stop these thoughts, I begged myself.
Later, when I was alone, I could think them. Not here, not now. Not in my weakened state, when my expressions might give me away.
“I’m sorry, John,” I said. “It’s my loneliness getting the better of me.”
His contemplative look snapped into finer focus. Liar, it seemed to say.
A small thrill of fear swept through me, and I wondered, for what must have been the hundredth time, just how much he had guessed.
“I don’t want you to be lonely,” he said after a moment. “I care for you.”
“I care for you too, John.”
“In the same way, I wonder?”
I sat in stunned silence as he broke eye contact. His gaze fell to my lips and then dropped lower still. I was suddenly aware of the tightness of my corset in a way I hadn’t been a moment ago, of how my quickening breaths only served to press my breasts higher, as if offering them up for his regard. His gaze dipped to them and darkened a fraction with some unknown emotion – my traitorous mind ascribed it to desire – and beneath my shock, something more primal began to surface.
I was well-acquainted with many of the intimacies that could take place between a man and a woman, and a man and a man, and a woman and a woman, for that matter. Marcus, as promised, had discovered and told me much. He’d also procured for me an innumerable number of erotic novels and instructional pamphlets. And once, thinking that we would soon be wed, I had allowed Aberdine to take privileges with my person when he had cornered me in an alcove at a recital. I had felt his fingers slip into the bodice of my dress while those of his other hand slid beneath my gown to tease their way to the apex of my thighs.
The memories had become nauseating since I learned the truth of that man, but as my husband’s regard lingered on my décolletage, I erased Aberdine’s repulsive presence and supplanted John into that memory, feeling his fingers like a brand on my skin, imagining Henry into the scene beside him, his large hands following in his lover’s wake. Warmth gathered low in my belly and spread further south, forcing me to press my thighs together to ease the ache that built between them.
John noticed the movement, and his gaze dropped to trace the outline of my legs beneath the muslin of my gown. “There’s a simple solution for your earlier arguments,” he said. “Don’t take a stranger for a lover. Take someone loyal to you who knows all the risks involved.”
No. He can’t mean… I thought, cutting myself short.
He arched a brow at me. His tone was borderline mocking when he spoke. “Yes, who indeed, Katherine?”
I stared at him in disbelief. Was he truly suggesting that I take Henry as a lover?
“I don’t…I don’t know that I understand what you’re saying, John. Nor why you would say it.”
“It is possible, though rarely spoken of in polite society, to desire more than one person at a time.”
I knew this. I had learned it from a highly illicit and likely illegal book my twin had procured for me, and even before that, from the tales that Marcus had told me of his friends’ debauchery. The former had proven to be something of an apple of Eden to me, the pictures contained within it now burned into my mind. It had imparted upon me a great host of thoughts and desires I hadn’t previously known that I could think or feel. They soon filled my daydreams with light and darkness, tangled limbs, pale thighs, deeply tanned forearms, masculine fingers wrapped in long, flame-colored hair…
John shifted forward, the motion bringing me back to myself. Oh, no. What had he seen in my expression?
I felt a pressure on my knee and looked down to glimpse his pale, ungloved hand in the darkness. The tips of his fingers brushed gently over my leg. He spread them wide, held for a moment, and then pressed his palm to my dress and wrapped them one by one around my thigh, each point searing me like a brand.
Always it had been Henry who offered me physical comfort, while John held himself apart. He had never, ever, touched me thusly. The way his thumb scorched its way back and forth along the inside of my knee made it apparent that this was not a gesture of comfort; it was something else entirely. And nothing short of the most erotic thing that I had ever seen. None of the explicitly detailed drawings in my books could even compare to the sight of the dangerous, untouchable Duke of Hampshire stroking his thumb over my leg.
“Kit,” he said.
Kit. Not Katherine. Had I ever heard him call me by my nickname?
I lifted my gaze. We were closer than a moment before. Whether he had been the one to lean in, or I had, I didn’t know, only that our breathing suddenly sounded harsh within the closed space of the carriage.
His breaths were the only thing that gave him away. His expression remained inscrutable, hiding, as always, his true thoughts and emotions. We were so alike sometimes that I almost feared what would happen if I ever gave into my desire for him. I had a feeling that we would be like the two great jungle cats I’d seen at the London menagerie, stalking round each other within our shared cage, keeping apart as long as possible, the tension between us building and building, until it snapped and we rushed each other in an explosive movement as destructive as it was beautiful.
Confusion colored my desire. Had he really been advising that I take Henry as a lover? Or had he meant himself? Or – oh, God – bothof them?
“John. We…we can’t,” I forced myself to say. The words tasted like ash in my mouth.
“What if it ruins what we have?”
“What if it doesn’t?” He dropped his gaze and slid his hand a few inches closer toward the apex of my thighs.
I nearly moaned aloud.
It was then that the carriage started to slow. John made a low sound of aggravation and slid back to his side of the cabin, putting a swift end to the moment. I was grateful for it, because it saved me from having to think up a suitable response to the question that echoed through my mind.
What if it doesn’t?
We were silent as we set ourselves to rights. He pulled on his gloves. I smoothed the wrinkles from my skirts. He straightened his cravat. I carefully patted down my hair to ensure that every strand was in place. He brushed at his jacket sleeve.
But then the carriage rolled to a stop, and, unable to help myself, I lifted my eyes to meet his.
“Tell me you’ll consider it,” he said.
I needed him to spell this out for me. If not, I would worry that my mind had conjured this exchange like something from a fever dream. “What, exactly, am I considering?”
“Consider having us.”
I drew in a ragged breath.
No. I can’t, my mind declared.
You can and you should, my heart replied.
I was quiet for a long moment while I argued with myself. The door opened, and John descended. I rose from my seat. The footman helped me down before passing me to my husband in a gesture I had always thought ridiculous. As if I couldn’t take even a step unaided by men without faltering.
It made me feel rebellious enough for bravery.
“I’ll consider it,” I said.
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.