You never know how you’ll deal with violence or the threat of it until you actually face it. You can contemplate your reactions, make assumptions as to whether you’ll fight or flee or freeze, but these idle musings will never be anything more than speculation. Until someone lays their hands on you.
To late I realized my blunder. For once, it hadn’t been my imagination. The gathered darkness outside my window had been a human form crouching on the ledge. The cracking sound I assumed was the fire was actually that of the latch being opened. The following sigh was the night breeze rushing in behind the intruder.
This was not some sort of romantic midnight liaison. Neither John nor Henry would ever come to me like this, knowing my past. And especially not after what had just transpired between the three of us. This was some unknown trespasser. I was in danger.
I spent my youth in what had felt like a madhouse. This was far from the first time a person had laid hands upon me. Then, I had frozen or fled. Now, I fought, my years of pent up fury bursting forth from me like a flood overflowing the banks of a river.
I sucked in a ragged breath as my pulse roared to life, my panic ceding to the rage that infused me with the strength I needed to rail at my attacker. Though I had no leverage, I still remembered how to throw a punch, just like Marcus had taught me, and so I formed my unpracticed hand into a fist, jerked away from the person who held me, and swung my arm with every ounce of force I could muster at the black hood that obscured their face. I caught my assailant in the ear, knocking the dark mask they wore beneath the hood askew with a satisfying crunch.
They swore viciously. A man’s voice. As it wasn’t immediately recognizable, I swung again. This time he blocked me with his forearm. Easily. His other hand clamped down firmly on mouth again, keeping in my muffled shouts. He had to push it forward to keep it there, forcing me back across the room. It left his right side open, and seeing my chance, I threw my left fist toward it.
“Goddamn it, Katherine,” the intruder growled when I caught him on the cheek.
I still didn’t recognize his voice, which meant there would be no respite for him. I drew my arm back again and began pummeling his ribs. He flinched away from each strike, and I knew that even with my poor angle of attack I was landing my punches with enough force to cause him at least some small measure of pain. The blows were beginning to hurt me. The soft skin of my knuckles stung from the abuse, but I had too much fear and anger coursing through me to pay them any mind.
He tried to subdue me then, one-handed because he was still muffling my screams – the fool – and so I took advantage of this mistake by swinging my fists toward every opening he offered. My savagery seemed to surprise him at first, and I was able to land several quick strikes to his black-clad torso, chest, and even the side of his head. I didn’t know which was harder, his skull or his stomach – both felt as though they had been forged from steel.
He recovered faster than I could have imagined, his free hand moving with impossible speed and dexterity as he began to block nearly every blow I lobbed at him. Nearly being the critical word. I had two free fists to his one, and so I still managed to land one out of four punches, but I was quickly beginning to tire while he fought on with unflagging resolve.
I realized then that I had no hope of besting him, not alone at least, which meant that I had to find some way to call for help. If only he hadn’t been so quick to silence me, someone might have already heard the commotion and gone running for John.
Though he had appeared out of the gloom like a phantom, it was clear this man was human, which meant that his free hand couldn’t be everywhere at once. I did the only thing I could think of: I aimed twin punches at either side of his face, knowing he could only block one of them. I also sank my teeth into his palm at the same time.
My three-fronted assault worked. He released me with a strangled curse, and the moment I was free, I threw myself toward the bell pull and started shrieking like a banshee.
Just as I was about to reach it, he grabbed me from behind, an arm wrapping around my waist to pull me up short as a hand clamped over my mouth to stifle my screams. He lifted me off the floor as though I were a rag doll. All thoughts of biting him again momentarily fled from my mind as terror surged through me. His strength was surreal; the bicep banding around me felt as wide as my waist, and the heavy muscles of his stomach and chest were overwhelming even through the layers of clothing that separated us.
With dawning horror, I realized that he had been holding back. All those punches I had landed and he hadn’t thrown a single one of his own, only defended himself. He was so much larger than I was, so much stronger, that I knew from experience if I let him gain the advantage and actually deal me a blow in return, I might never get it back.
Oh, God. Was it him?
The thought made me frantic to escape, and I exploded into a frenzy of elbows and kicks, my humanity draining away as the threat of what he might do to me took hold and the need to survive reigned supreme.
I fought like a mad thing, even going so far as to claw and bite at him. He had to duck his face into my shoulder when I went for his eyes. The mask came away in my hands instead, and I threw myself to the side to try and catch a glimpse of his face. I caught a flash of dark hair, the glow of pale skin. Nothing more.
“Will. You. Stop. This?” he ground out, struggling to keep his hold on me.
“No!” I shouted into his hand.
I gave an almighty wrench of my body, managing to unbalance him. Together, we went crashing to the floor, splintering a side table on the way down. He landed half on top of me, knocking the air from my lungs as he crushed my left side. Suddenly it was all I could do just to breathe, and though I knew I was hurt, I was also elated. Someone downstairs must have heard all this noise and would come to make sure that everything was all right. I was saved!
“Katherine, it’s James. Stop this,” the man above me said, using his weight to pin me to the floor.
It was then that his voice registered. McNaught. Here, in my bedroom.
On top of me.
If he had meant to calm me, he had utterly failed. My panic increased tenfold, and I began thrashing even more violently to get free.
Until his fingers tangled through my hair and bent my neck painfully backward.
Until I felt the cool graze of metal against my cheek.
Until I heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked.
He pressed his lips to my ear, his voice low and guttural when he spoke. “Stop fucking moving.”
I stopped moving.
“Quite the fight for a snooty duchess. I’m going to have bruises tomorrow,” he spat, pulling his hand from my mouth.
It was far too late to play my usual role with this man, so I abandoned it in favor of the honesty of my rage. “You deserve worse,” I told him. “What kind of morally depraved reprobate breaks into a house in the middle of the night to attack their friend’s wife?”
“I didn’t attack you, Your Grace. I merely meant to keep you from screaming when you realized there was an intruder in your bedchamber.”
“As if I would believe anything you have to say,” I said, seething.
“Liars seldom believe the truth when they hear it,” he countered.
God, he was heavy. As big as Henry, yes, but somehow denser, more compact. “Get. Off. Me.” I ground out.
His body stiffened. “Shut up.”
Only the threat of the gun kept me quiet.
A frantic knock sounded from the bedroom door a heartbeat later. “Your Grace? Is everything all right?” came a voice. It was Harriet.
“She must have been awfully close to arrive here so quickly,” McNaught whispered.
So quickly? I thought as I lay there, panting, sweat beading along my skin, my limbs trembling from exertion. It felt as though we had been fighting for hours.
He hauled me up by my hair, tears springing to my eyes at the sharp pain that flared over the back of my head. I was reminded again of my father pulling me from that closet, and my hatred for McNaught swelled to something primal.
The barrel of his pistol pressed into my cheek as he leaned in again, his chest pressed to my back. His breath came in hot bursts along upon my neck. I would have cringed away from him if only I could move.
“Tell her you’re fine,” he said. “You had a nightmare and rose to get a glass of water and upended a table.”
“I’m fine!” I called out. “I had a nightmare and rose for a glass of water afterward only to stumble into the table!”
“Do you need help righting it?” she called back.
“Katherine? What’s going on?” came the sound of John’s voice.
John! I opened my mouth to call for him, but McNaught gave my hair a sharp tug in warning. At this rate, I would be missing another clump of it come morning. If I survived until morning.
“She stumbled into a table,” Harriet explained, her voice muffled by the door.
“I thought I heard screaming,” he said.
“A nightmare,” she answered.
“Let me in, Katherine,” John called, rattling the handle when he found it was locked.
“I’m fine, John. Just a little woozy from all the champagne,” I told him.
“Kit, please open the door,” he said, his voice low.
Kit. Even though I was mad at him, even though he had betrayed me, something in me still softened to hear him call me that.
“Send them away,” McNaught whispered into my ear, his lips brushing against my skin.
I jerked back from such intimacy. The only thing that saved me from ripping out half my hair was the slackening of his grip. “I don’t want to see you right now, John,” I said, casting around for some excuse that might actually work. “I need…I need some time away from you. Do you really want me to tell you why with Harriet here?”
Silence came from the other side of the door. Then, “I understand. Do you want Harriet to remain?”
“No,” I answered.
“Well done,” McNaught whispered.
The spy released me then, aiming the barrel of his weapon at my head as he came into view. He put a finger to his lips in quiet command and then began backing toward the door in that strange, soundless gait of his.
With his large form gone from my back, a blast of cold air chilled the sweat on my skin. I turned my head to see my curtains blowing in a breeze. From now on I would leave my windows locked. Or better yet, leave them unlatched and line their frames with broken glass each night.
I turned back as McNaught put his ear to the door, listening, as if to make sure John and Harriet had truly withdrawn. Unwilling to continue facing him without a weapon of my own, I moved furtively toward my bureau. He tracked the movement with his pistol. I watched it warily, pausing just long enough to lift the largest, heaviest candleholder I could find. Then I slowly made my way toward the broken table, thinking that if I was forced to put my makeshift club down, I might be able to pick up a splintered leg and stab the bastard with it.
McNaught’s lips twitched then, as though he knew what I was about and was amused by it. I nearly hurled the candleholder at that smug face. Then his gaze dropped, moving down over me with an entirely different look.
Damn. I was in nothing but my nightgown. The blazing fire I had kindled lent more than enough light to see by. The garment was creamy white and sleeveless, the silk so thin that it was practically transparent. Shaking with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, I backed away from him, to where I had left my heavy dressing gown draped over the arm of a chair. I pulled it on one-handed, refusing to set my club down for so much as a second lest he choose that moment to leap at me again.
McNaught stepped from the door. “Don’t move. Don’t scream. Don’t even breathe,” he said.
He paused as if waiting for a response. As if he wanted me to verbalize my understanding. I locked my jaw and held my tongue, glaring at him. He could rot, for all I cared.
He let out a low chuckle and pulled the door open to expose the empty sitting room just beyond. Then he strode silently toward the outer door, barred it, and grabbed a nearby blanket from the back of a chair to stuff beneath the crack. Only then did he rejoin me in my bedroom.
I backed away as he came, the candleholder ready at my side even though he no longer had his pistol pointed at me. He aligned an armchair so that he could see both the closed door of the sitting room and the open window, then he took another chair and placed it opposite the first.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing me forward.
“I’d rather stand,” I replied, filling my words with malice.
“Damn it, woman,” he growled, striding toward me.
I raised my club threateningly. “Touch me again and I will brain you.”
He leaned in close, as if daring me to swing. His eyes were like twin pools of ice. Just as hard, just as unforgiving, just as cold. “Let’s get one thing straight. You will do as I say, when I say it. This is not a democracy, this is a goddamn dictatorship. I know everything. About your father. About your mother. About Amelia. About you and John and Henry. Everything.”
The candleholder began to shake in my hands. “And what? If I don’t to as you say, you’ll prove me right about you and threaten to expose all of my greatest secrets?”
He straightened then, frowning in disgust. “You think I’m behind the notes?”
“I think it would be foolish not to consider it.”
“I assure you I am not. Now would you please sit?”
“Fine. Remain standing like a stubborn fool.”
His expression was once again that mask of cool politeness as he retreated from me and took his seat. Only his ruffled hair and the scratches on the side of his face marred his perfection.
It was wrong. So wrong. A man such as he should have a face to match his soul. It should be pitted and scarred, half his nose missing, hair falling out, teeth rotten, eyes rheumy.
“Believe it or not, I’m trying to help you, Kit,” he said.
“Don’t call me that,” I spat.
“I’ll have you know I was in the middle of a rather delicate mission in France when I also received a note, ordering me here to London. If I didn’t come post haste, they would murder John and frame Henry for it.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
His voice gained a dangerous edge. “I tire of your accusations. I am not now, nor have I ever been, the one behind the threats.”
“I don’t believe you,” I repeated, slowly, enunciating each word.
His gaze narrowed. “Of course you don’t. You’re a liar. We’ve already established that,” he said, leaning forward. “Tell me then, if I am the one sending the notes, what is the point of me confronting you now? Mere hours after you received the first? Think, Katherine. Think past your distrust of me. Where is the ingenuity that saw you survive your father’s household? It must not have been easy to avoid him. And yet from the servants I…interviewed…you excelled at it. That takes a sort of keen intelligence that might very well see you through this.”
“What do you mean you interviewed my father’s servants? And why did you hesitate like that?”
“He was a footman, I believe. Large fellow. Held you down for your father once, if I recall.”
“Frances,” I hissed. He’d been there the first time I’d been whipped, visibly horrified at what was happening and yet doing nothing to stop it. Afterward, he had snuck me medicine. Tried to help me then as if it could somehow make up for not helping me when I had truly needed it. And then he had been dismissed for it, when my father had discovered his duplicity.
“Bit of a coward there, at the end,” McNaught said.
My grip on the candleholder tightened until my knuckles turned white. At the end? Had…had he killed him?
“Think of what John told you tonight,” he went on, as if he hadn’t just confessed to murder. “About that last note we found of his father’s. About the notes he received before he was forced into marrying you. What did you learn from them? That your enemy plays the long game. First, the vague instructions, then they get clearer, then the vague threats, and then the final move. You have two options: comply, or face the consequences. There is a pattern there. It’s the same every time. With John’s father, with John, with the handful of other targeted nobles I’ve discovered caught within their web, and now with you. If I am the spider spinning this silken trap, then I have just sprung it prematurely. What could I gain by outing myself in such a way? I’ve already exposed the endgame by revealing to you the fact that I know your secrets. You could go straight to your husband with this information and out me. Why would I so willingly hand myself over to you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, still reeling.
“Of course you don’t. Because you have no logical reason for such behavior. And, as of yet, I haven’t made a move to harm or threaten you. I’ve given you no motive.”
“Oh, you’ve harmed me,” I said, my scalp still sore, a deep, aching throb forming where he had crushed me to the ground.
“Not purposefully,” he said. “I was merely trying to subdue you. How could I have guessed the level of force needed to do so?”
“Don’t you dare try to shift the blame of your actions onto me.”
“That was not my intent. Nor was harming you, truly,” he said, with no inflection, so I had no idea if he meant the words or not. “Do you know what type of training spies receive?” he continued, changing the subject with such ease that I felt as though I had conversational whiplash. “Surprisingly little,” he answered himself. “If you want to live past your first few assignments, you have to search out your own instruction. Spies are as covetous of their skills as they are secretive, and so I found little aid within their quarter. I was forced to learn evasion and tracking from hunters and fur trappers, swordplay and marksmanship from weapon masters. Tailoring, cooking, rudimentary plant lore; you’d be amazed what skills one finds they need in the field. Coroner training would have come in quite handy, but you see, the thing is, few of our coroners have any medical background. Most of them come from tradesman stock. Ironmongers, builders, and their ilk. Can you imagine?” he asked.
I couldn’t, actually. I couldn’t think past this moment, this conversation, the strange spell his words had put me under. Why was he telling me all of this?
“Naturally, I instead sought out a physician to gain instruction from, and he taught me the most illuminating things. For instance, if a man were to, say, blow his brains out, one would expect to find only a single wound on his person. That day in John’s father’s parlor, while he’d been rifling through papers, I’d noticed something strange. Dirt on the duke’s clothes. Tears in them. More blood. We hadn’t thought he’d been home, and then – boom! – the sound of the gunshot. His head injury bled very little considering he’d blown half his brains out. And when I’d gone to shift the body to help John search, I found it to be cool to the touch. As though he’d been dead for hours at least.”
“What are you saying? That someone put the duke there and then faked his suicide?”
“There’s that intelligence I was told about.”
I ignored his obnoxious tone. “Does John know?”
“Yes. I told him once he’d calmed down enough to listen to reason.”
McNaught expelled a sharp breath through his nose then, a sound of derision. “No. John still thinks to shield you two from the worst of this.”
“Then why are you telling me these things?”
He turned his head slightly, silver moonlight flashing against his pale features. “Because your husband is obsessed. And in love. And blinded by both. He refuses to see that you and Henry are already as caught up in this as he is. To the sender of the notes, you’re merely chess pieces to play against him or me or whoever they’re hoping to defeat. How much or how little you know makes no difference to them. Your innocence won’t save you.”
I remained silent, still gripping the candleholder. I didn’t trust this eerie calm of his. He seemed a man ever-poised on the knife’s edge of violence.
“If you’re lying to me about all of this, if you’re the one behind it and you hurt either John or Henry, I will find some way to destroy you,” I told him, because, against my better judgement, I was beginning to believe him.
He chuckled. “I have no doubt you would try. Under different circumstances I might even find such a threat charming. You show real promise, you know. You’re a fighter. Like me.”
I stared down at him, feeling ill at the prospect. “I am nothing like you.”
His lips lifted in what looked like a real smile. It wasn’t the cool, cultured one I had so far seen. It was warm. Beatific. “Do you know, I think I could really make something of you? Perhaps when this is all over and you get bored when the excitement dies down, I’ll train you up myself and take you out into the field.”
I frowned in response. “What? Make me your protégé?”
“Perhaps,” he said, his expression turning contemplative. “For now, I could simply use your help.”
The nerve of the man.
“You desire my aid? After what you just did to me? After this horrid discussion? Why would I ever help you?”
“Because you’re not really helping me,” he said. “You’re helping your husband.”
“What if I don’t feel that charitable toward him at the moment?” I asked, my tone darkening.
“That will change. I see the way you two look at each other. You can’t stay mad at him forever. And I see the way you look at Henry. If not for John’s sake, then for his, you should be more than willing to help.”
He had me there.
“You can go places my people seldom can,” he continued. “For instance, you’re attending the Duchess of Amesbury’s recital this afternoon, yes?”
This afternoon? I glanced out the window. Pinks and oranges were bleeding into the sky, driving away the darkness of night.
“I am,” I answered.
“The Duchess is…particular about her staff. I have so far been unsuccessful in sneaking in one of my agents or acquaintances. Therefore, I doubt our unknown foe will be able to slip an interloper into the recital as easily as they did at the Coal Baron’s. That said, you may still receive a note. You need to prepare yourself for it. People will be there to see it arrive, to gauge the effect the missive has on you. Not all of them will be friendly. Some may be working with our enemy and will most assuredly report back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember what I said earlier. You aren’t the only members of the ton who have been targeted. Some may be being actively blackmailed into becoming enemy agents, working against us, there to relay your reaction to the letter.”
My head swam at that thought.
“You are to appear unaffected by it if this happens, do you understand?”
I was so caught off guard by this latest revelation that I nodded.
“And then you will make an excuse to go to the second story powder room no sooner than half an hour afterward. You will crack open the far right window and then return to the recital if this happens. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said, my mind reeling. “Is that all?”
“Yes. Will you be able to follow this instruction?”
“I believe so.”
“Then we are done for now,” he said, standing.
I reached out and grabbed him. The muscles of his forearm were corded beneath my fingers, straining with tension or the desire to throw me off. He didn’t. Instead, he stood stalk still and stared down at me.
“What?” he ground out.
“You haven’t told me anything. Not really. What else do you know? Who is after us? Why?”
“I’ve told you exactly what they already know. That I know John and his father aren’t the only targets. That I’m hunting them. Nothing more. John might think he’s protecting you with his omissions, but I actually am. They might ruin you for what John knows, but for what I know…”
He turned then, leaning down to brace his hands on the arms of the chair, penning me in. I let him go and leaned as far back in the seat as I could manage. He stopped, his nose an inch away from my own. I caught the subtle scent of lemons – hair balm, most likely.
“These people would go to any lengths to contain what I know. They might even abduct you off the street and torture you if they thought we were in collusion. Because though you think you are important because you are a duchess, you are nothing but a pawn to these people.” His expression darkened. “I refuse to let you give them anything on me. So I will tell you nothing more. Ever. And you will not go to John about my presence here, or what I have asked you to do. Because like all liars, you are also a coward.”
And then he was gone. Away from me and out of my window so quickly that it was like he hadn’t even been there at all. Like I had dreamt the whole exchange. Only the lingering scent of lemon on the breeze and the crushing weight of the words he had left me with belied the truth.
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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