Half an hour later, John and I sat in the familiar confines of the smaller of our two carriages as we 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 window murky and strange. It played tricks with my senses, muffled the clamor of the surrounding city and amplified 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. The rattling of the carriage seemed deafening. Streetlights stood out at intervals like waypoints, there to aid the weary traveler, illuminate the safest course. It was easy to imagine what twisted creatures waited in the gloom for us if we wandered off of it.
“Do you ever feel as though you made the wrong decision, Katherine?” John asked, pulling me from my troubled thoughts.
I swung my head around to look at him. He leaned against the opposite wall, a shadow obscuring his face, making it impossible to read his expression. Had I not looked away fast enough when his lover embraced him? And what had Henry whispered into his ear to make John 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 easily 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 among 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 this 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 subtly 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 had 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 voice almost entirely lacked inflection, and where once I had thought him devoid of most 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 much prefer our partnership to a match that could have soured and left both parties miserable. And where is this coming from, might I ask? 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 just to ruin you.” 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 was quiet for a long moment, and because he remained reclined in the confines of his corner, his expression was still frustratingly obscured. When next he spoke, the words seemed to ghost 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 the shadows rather stupidly as I struggled to determine whether or not he had truly spoken. I hadn’t seen his lips form the words, so I couldn’t trust that my imagination hadn’t run away with me again and my mind hadn’t somehow managed to fill my ears with the very words I so longed to hear.
“I thought he didn’t fancy women,” I said.
John moved, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees as he shifted into the light. The expression on his face was as closed as it ever was, 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. If anything, 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 me and Henry 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 all 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…it’s just my loneliness getting the better of me.”
His contemplative look snapped into finer focus. Liar, it seemed to say, as if in challenge.
I felt a small thrill of fear, wondering, for what seemed like 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,” I said.
“In the same way, I wonder?”
No. He couldn’t mean…
I sat in silence and watched his gaze slip from my own to trace the line of my neck downward. I became overly aware of the tightness of my corset, 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 in response.
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 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 had 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 most of polite society, to desire more than one person at a time,” he said.
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 then and looked down to glimpse his pale, ungloved hand in the darkness. The tips of his fingers brushed gently over my knee. He spread them wide, held for a moment, and then pressed his palm to my thigh and wrapped them one by one around my leg, each point searing me like a brand.
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. No, 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 before?
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 in the closed space of the carriage our breathing suddenly sounded harsh and ragged.
His breaths were the only thing that gave him away, for 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 lions I had once seen at the menagerie, stalking round each other in circles within our shared cage, keeping apart as long as possible, the tension between us building and building, until it snapped and we both moved as one toward 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 – both of them?
“John. We…we can’t,” I forced myself to say. The words tasted like ash in my mouth.
“Why not?” he asked.
“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, almost a growl, and slid back to his side of the cabin, putting a swift end to the moment we had shared. 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 without faltering.
It made me feel rebellious enough for bravery.
“I’ll consider it,” I said.
Copyright © 2018 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.