“There,” I said, passing John the final sheet of paper I’d been writing on.
He took it from me and, with a practiced hand, sifted the finely ground powder over its surface that would absorb any excess ink. He allowed it to dry for several minutes, blotted it for good measure, and added it to the sheaf of other papers I had filled.
They contained all of my recollections from this afternoon, going into great detail about the physical appearance of the man who had handed me the letter as well as every social interaction from the gathering.
My fingers cramped slightly from holding the quill for so long, and I stretched them out as I stood from John’s desk and went to stand by the window. The weather had turned while I had been writing. Dark, billowing clouds roiled in from the west and crouched low over the city in idle threat. A soft, fine mist coated the glass panes in front of me. I reached out a hand to feel the cold coming off of them. In the distance, thunder growled, low and menacing.
“A storm’s blowing in,” Henry said from behind me.
“Both a literal and figurative one,” I replied, gesturing out at the scene beyond the window.
He stepped close then, chest pressing against my back. I leaned into him, relishing in the warmth of his body, savoring the dichotomy of the heat suffusing my back and the chill bracing my front. In response, he wrapped one arm around my waist and the other across my shoulders, using them to pull me closer.
“I’m not touching any bruises, am I?” he asked.
“Slide your left arm a bit lower,” I told him.
He did as I bade.
“Better,” I said.
“I’m so sorry he hurt you,” he said.
“I know,” I answered, leaning more of my weight against him.
“I’m guessing Harriet dressed your wounds.”
“What did you say to her?”
“Not much of anything. Lied about falling into the table and threatened to sack her without reference if she repeated what she saw.”
“Unkind of me, I know, but I was in a panic.”
For a young woman to be dismissed without recommendation from her previous employer wasn’t a death sentence, but it was damn near close to one. It would leave her adrift in a city that was only more than happy to drag women like her into its depths. Work houses, prostitution, they could very likely be the only options for someone in such a circumstance. I would have to make amends to Harriet in some way. Apologize, for starters. Promise I would never leave her to such a fate and insist that I’ll never threaten her in such a way again.
“I’ll set it to rights,” I told Henry, knowing how he’d worry.
“I never thought you wouldn’t,” he rumbled, as much faith in me as he had in John. I hoped it wasn’t misplaced on either if us. “You were glorious, earlier,” he added, softly.
“When earlier, specifically?” I asked.
“When you confronted McNaught. It was very brave to stand up to him like that.”
“Or very stupid,” I said. “Knowing he’s a dangerous spy and all.”
“Brave,” Henry said.
“He called me a coward last night.”
Henry’s arms stiffened around me before he seemed to force himself to relax. “And yet you immediately proved him wrong by outing him even though he had threatened you.”
“Not outright,” I said.
“But the implied threat was there, was it not?”
I nodded in response. I suppose it was. Why else had he tried to bully me into being his silent ally?
Henry’s hand loosened on my shoulder enough for his thumb to stroke my collarbone. “I meant what I said. I am done with him.”
“After so many years of friendship? Just like that?”
“Just like that,” he answered me, his voice sure, steady, as though it was a simple decision for him.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” he answered.
“Well, then I’m sorry that you’ve lost a friend.”
“Don’t be. I mean it, Kit. I’m well shot of a man like that.”
“You were glorious earlier, too,” I told him.
“The way you stood up for me.”
He dropped a kiss on the top of my head before responding. “I’m sorry if I frightened you. I know large men on the verge of violence is not a sight you enjoy and I have never wanted you to see me like that. It must have been difficult so soon after he assaulted you.”
I wrapped my arms around the one he had banded about my waist and squeezed it in response. “No, Henry. For once I wasn’t frightened by it. It was you, after all. I know you’d never harm me, so seeing you like that…it didn’t scare me.”
“No?” he asked, still sounding unsure.
I shook my head. “It was…exciting. Especially since in that moment I wanted to throttle McNaught myself.”
Henry sucked in a breath in response, then leaned down to brush his lips over the shell of my ear. “Is that why you were so wet?” he whispered.
“Yes,” I confessed, the word a little shaky. “You were glorious then, too.”
His index and middle finger joined the thumb stroking back and forth along my collarbone. “If I close my eyes, I can still feel you clenching down on me as you came,” he said, and belatedly, I realized the fingers he touched me with were the same ones that had been inside me.
I closed my own eyes and leaned my head back into his shoulder, reliving the pleasure he had pushed me to. “I don’t think I’ve ever come so hard in my life,” I told him.
In response, his breathing became as shaky as my own.
“Is that how John and I are alike?” I asked. “In moments of frustration and helplessness needing to actively hand over our control to something or someone?”
“Yes. Though John sometimes has the opposite reaction, where he is the one that needs to take control to feel less helpless.”
“I can understand that,” I said.
“But do you also feel that need?”
I arched a brow in response, eyes still closed. “Right this moment, I would love nothing more than to tie John to something and leave him there for a while, so perhaps.”
Henry’s chest shook as he chuckled silently.
I smiled along, briefly, before darker thoughts chased it away. “He’s been lying to us.”
Henry’s humor fled. “I know,” he responded with a heavy exhale.
“I worry that he’ll never tell me the whole truth about anything.”
“I’m sorry,” Henry said.
“That’s not your fault.”
“I’m sorry for the part I played,” he amended. “I wanted to be honest with you about the letters two years ago.”
I thought back to that night. “That’s what you meant when you urged him to tell me. You weren’t talking about your relationship. You were talking about why we needed to marry.”
“Yes,” he said. “Afterward, John pointed out that would have been unwise. We didn’t know enough about you. Whether you were just a pawn, or…”
“Or whether I was actively involved. The sender of the threats might have meant for John to marry me because they were placing a spy in his household.”
“Exactly. It sounded reasonable to keep things from you then. We didn’t know if we could trust you.”
“But afterward?” I pressed, opening my eyes and turning slightly so I could look up at Henry. “Let’s say, a year and a half later?”
His expression was writ with guilt and apology, but before he could answer, John joined us.
“I convinced him to keep quiet,” he said. “It was clear the two of you were developing feelings for each other, and I thought you might weather the truth better once those feelings had further solidified. It’s easier to forgive someone you love when the lies they told were to protect you.”
“Is that what you tell yourself when you lie to Henry?” I asked, annoyed and more than a little hurt. The machinations of my husband seemed unending at this point.
“Yes,” John answered without artifice.
“This has to stop,” Henry said.
“I see that now,” John replied.
He turned his body toward us, resting a shoulder against the window frame as he crossed his arms in front of his chest. Instead of looking at us, he turned his gaze out the window, brow drawn down in concentration. In profile, he looked like a king surveying his empire.
“My father didn’t shoot himself,” he said. “He was murdered beforehand and then his body dumped in our house and his brains blown out by someone else, a staged suicide.”
Henry sucked in a harsh breath.
John continued, recounting nearly the same tale that McNaught had the night before.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Henry demanded when he was done.
“I hoped to keep you safe,” John answered, still staring out at the storm. “The less you knew, the less involved you were, the less you might matter to them.”
“McNaught made it seem last night as though there is no way to keep us safe from them,” I said. “He told me as little as possible because he said that my rank and ignorance wouldn’t protect me. That if our enemy believed I was aiding him, they might abduct me right off the street or out of a ballroom. He said that you were too blinded by fear and love to admit this even to yourself.”
John rubbed a hand over his face. “He may have had a point there. Which is why I didn’t fight him on Haydar acting as your guard.”
“Who is Haydar?” I asked.
“A giant of an Ottoman Janissary. One of several who had been stationed in Serbia this past winter and refused to take part in the violence that broke out there. James sent him and his compatriots to me several months ago, for safe keeping, as he put it. They’ve been recovering from the ordeal at a house in the country.”
“My God,” I said, stiffening within Henry’s arms. “This past winter? You’re talking about the Slaughter of the Knezes? When the Pashaluk of Belgrade ordered his troops to execute the nobility there in January?”
John nodded. “Haydar can crack a man’s skull in his fist,” he said, raising his own in demonstration. It fell back to his side as he continued. “But he’s horrified by the thought of harm coming to women and children. Adnan and Doruk have that in common with him. Which James exploited and used to recruit them to whichever cause he was trying to further in Serbia at the time. I didn’t bother asking. I knew he wouldn’t answer.”
“Of course he wouldn’t,” I said. “He lies to you as often as you have to me.”
John turned to regard me. “How so?”
“Well, he knew of my father’s abuse, for one.”
John’s expression had been slightly curious. It flattened into something unreadable now. “Really,” he said, more a statement than a question.
“Yes. He also alluded to the fact that he may have questioned and murdered one of my father’s servants.”
Henry’s arms tightened around me. “That’s it, John,” he said. “We need to sever all ties.”
John grinned in resignation. “Ah, but if only we didn’t need him.”
“We do,” I agreed. “God help us.”
John arched a sardonic brow up at Henry. “And its best to keep your friends close and your friends you thought were friends but are actually self-serving madmen even closer.”
I frowned. “I’m not sure that’s how the saying goes. Or if you’re speaking of James or yourself.”
He inclined his head toward me. “Touché.”
Above me, Henry made a small sound of disapproval. As though her were the incarnation of an angel sitting on my shoulder, goading me into better behavior.
I sighed. “I’m sorry, that was unfair.”
John shrugged. “If you say so. But I have never been at all concerned for the feelings of those I don’t consider…mine, and am forever surprised by certain emotional responses in others, so you may not be far off your mark.”
I frowned at him, wondering if I should be worried about this, or if herein was the verbal equivalent of the lack of humanity I had witnessed from him in our carriage yesterday.
“I would point out that statement is slightly at odds with how much effort you put into improving the lives of commoners,” I finally managed.
“Simple explanation,” he responded. “The commoners of Hampshire are mine. I want them to be healthy. And prosperous. And if something should happen to me, I want there to be a global law in place that keeps them that way. The thought of being forced to rely on future dukes to see to their welfare doesn’t sit well with me.”
Because it’s out of his control, I realized, beginning to understand him a little more.
“So we work with James,” Henry said.
“We work with James,” John replied.
Henry began to rub his thumb over my collarbone again, as if to distract himself. “What a mess,” he rumbled before placing his chin on the top of my head.
I took a deep breath. “One that we need to find our way out of. I, for one, intend to work as close as necessary with McNaught until this is over. Madman or not. I cannot just sit idly by any longer while my fate is decided for me.”
John nodded. “I understand that. But you’ll need to be careful, Katherine. It’s clear that while I’m their target, you’re their avenue of delivering the threats. Just because we think we understand their pattern, doesn’t mean that we’re right. They can always change it. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”
“I don’t plan to,” I told him.
“Have you thought any more about why you’re receiving these threats all of a sudden?” Henry asked.
John turned back to the window, lips flattening. “A bill I’ve been working on.”
Above me, Henry made an impatient sound. “Which bill?”
“My guess? The one that grants workers better rights. If it passes, our peers will be out a quite a bit of sterling.”
“Yes, what a shame,” I said, feeling unkind toward the lot of them. “How deep their suffering when robbed of some of the money they could be spending in gambling dens and on other such debauchery.”
“Rule, Britannia,” John said, tone laced with sarcasm.
“Is this a trend, then?” I asked. “Does our enemy only target those who threaten the status quo?”
John shrugged. “I wouldn’t bet on that. My father was hardly a libertine. Sedition seemed so out of character for him that I am still unsure why the word treason was written on the note.”
“Did his murderers assume you’d be the one to find him?” Henry asked. “Was the note really for you? To sow doubt?”
John straightened from the windowsill, his arms falling to his sides as he faced us. “McNaught and I asked ourselves the same thing many times. What a long game they were playing, if that was the case. And to what purpose? Or was it meant for someone else? My mother, perhaps? One of the servants? If they had found it and gossiped, rumor could have spread that my father was a traitor, ruining our house. There’s no way to know.”
I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against Henry’s chest. What a mess indeed. “I think it’s a long game,” I said after several minutes of silence. “It’s been two years since they forced you to marry me and we still don’t know why. For this reason? To use me against you eventually? Or was Aberdine really one of their other victims and they sought to ruin him via his debts?”
“Again,” John said, “there’s no way to know.”
“Plots within plots,” Henry added.
“I’m sorry for lying to you,” John said.
I cracked my eyes open to see him staring up at his lover.
“I understand why you did,” Henry said. “And I forgive you.”
A sound of derision slipped through my lips. “Just like that,” I said.
“Just like that,” Henry answered. “I love him, Kit. I believe he did it for his own oddly moral reasons. And I believe he won’t do it again. Right, John?” he asked, voice as dark as the storm clouds that loomed outside.
“Right,” John said, expression once more frustratingly blank.
While I distrusted the look, Henry seemed to accept it, because he loosened the arm from around my shoulders and reached out to grip one of John’s, briefly, before letting go.
In response, John’s face crumpled in what looked like a rare show of relief. I felt a momentary, unwanted pang of sympathy for him. He hid his emotions so well, but at times like this I was reminded that it didn’t mean he didn’t feel them. They must be especially intense since he let so few people in. How terrified he must be for his lover. Maybe even a little bit for me.
“You two need time to yourselves,” I said, pulling free from Henry.
John caught my wrist as I made to leave, loosening his grip immediately when I winced. “We should talk about what happened after James left. And there’s still more I need to tell you both,” he said, glancing from me to Henry.
“Is it critical?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Then it can wait. Henry might have forgiven you, but I haven’t. I won’t deny that I want you. But I don’t trust you. And right now, I need time to myself.”
John nodded and released me, and I left them to their reconciliation.
Copyright © 2019 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.
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