“You don’t have to go through with this, Kit.”
I looked across the carriage at my twin brother, Marcus, Lord Rycroft, the future Baron of Northshire. He wore such an open look of optimism that I bit back my snide retort and turned away, choosing instead to stare in frustrated silence at the night-drenched scene beyond the carriage window.
The lamps that lined the boulevard outside our London residence had been lit as the dying rays of the setting sun turned the western sky into an ugly, mottled bruise. Now that full dark had fallen, their flickering light fell in lambent pools on the cobblestones, bathing the street in variegated hues of orange and amber.
Marcus leaned forward, closing the distance between us. He plucked my gloved hand from where it rested on my knee and pressed it between his own. His tone turned pleading. “Kit, speak to me.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked him.
“You could flee instead. I could use my allowance to set you up somewhere in the country. A nice little stone cottage with a garden. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
I shook my head. “It would never last. Father would know you helped me escape. He’d bribe anyone who agreed to help us. Sooner or later, he’d find me.”
And God help me when he did.
I loathed that I even had to explain this to Marcus. Once upon a time, we’d been inseparable, had known each other’s every secret. Years had passed since then, pulling us apart, creating this gaping chasm between us that we now struggled to breach.
We might have both been eighteen, but my brother seemed so much younger than me, forever underestimating the man who had sired us, because, though he had heard some of the stories from my own lips, he hadn’t been there. He hadn’t seen for himself all of the things that I had.
After our mother died and Marcus enrolled in Eton, our father’s indifferent cruelty sharpened into something much worse. My brother still had trouble understanding this. In part, it was because Father was always on his best behavior whenever Marcus returned from school, for he knew that Marcus would eventually go back, that he might tell someone what he saw, and that person might listen to him. Unlike myself, who was trapped in our country estate, who was a girl, whose word no one would believe over a lord’s.
The memories started a fine trembling within my fingers. I wrenched my hand from Marcus’s before he noticed and did my best to shove all recollection of the past into the darkest recess of my mind. It was over. I had survived it. That was all that mattered.
“There has to be some way out of this,” Marcus said.
Anger flared within me like a fire, heating my response. “There is no way out of this. I’m his daughter. His property. He’s free to pass ownership of me to whomever he chooses.”
We had both inherited some part of our father’s temper, and Marcus’s rose to meet my own. “So you’re just going to give up, is that it? Let him marry you off to that wretch?”
I stared at him a moment before responding, watching the ebb and flow of shadow and light play across features screwed up in anger. He was my twin, the person I was closest to in this world, regardless of the distance that had grown between us. At times, the good times, when he startled laughter out of me and made me momentarily forget why I so seldom laughed anymore, I still felt as though we might share a soul. And yet, he was also male. The years I’d spent pinned beneath our father’s thumb, he had spent at school, learning, making friends, having adventures. He was free in a way that I never would be. He would inherit our family’s fortune and title, its properties and the people who lived on them. Perhaps, one day, despite his insistence to the contrary, he would even be passed ownership of a woman in the form of a wife.
Sometimes I feared I hated him as much as I loved him.
“I didn’t say that I was giving up,” I said.
His expression shifted, like quicksilver, from anger to concern. “Tell me what you have planned. I can help you. I want to help you.”
This was precisely the type of declaration I’d been waiting to exploit. “Fine then. Tonight, after the ball, you’ll return home with me.” He had a habit of seeing me as far as the carriage and depositing me into the protection of our servants, leaving him free to pursue whatever pretty face had caught his eye that evening.
“I will,” he said.
“Then you’ll tell me about every intimacy that can take place between a man and a woman, and which ones might lead to impregnation.”
He frowned. “I’ve only ever been with men, Kit. You know that.”
“What I know is that your knowledge on the subject must still surpass my own. The maids I’ve tried to coerce into speaking to me have all been too afraid of Father to take the risk, so my education has been relegated to the books I’ve managed to thieve from Aunt Jane’s library. They’re frustratingly vague. What you don’t know, surely you can find out from friends, or even the bloody footmen.”
It was my turn to lean forward now, forcing him to meet my gaze. “After that, you can find out every form of contraception that I could possibly procure. And if those don’t work, you’ll find someone to rid me of the child I might one day be forced to carry.”
His eyes flashed wide. “Kit, I…”
I lunged forward and grabbed his free hand. “Do not let me die like Mother.”
In childbirth. Alone. Terrified.
He leaned forward, wrapped his arms around me, and pulled me from my seat onto his. “Never. I’ll do anything.”
We remained like that as the carriage turned a corner and gained speed, huddled together in the shadows. My dress would be creased and my hair disheveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I was trapped by the horror of memories and the knowledge that I could suffer the same fate as our mother. I shook within my brother’s arms, my panic mounting, breath rasping in a troubling way that told me an attack of the nerves threatened. Marcus did his best to soothe me, rocking us back and forth, humming a familiar lullaby as he stroked my arm.
Don’t think of her. Don’t think of that day. Bury it deep, I told myself, until finally, blessedly, the trembling abated.
“I hate the idea of you married to him,” Marcus said.
“That makes two of us. Have you discovered anything new?”
He had been gathering information about the man I would soon be formally betrothed to and relaying it to me. From what we had learned, he was deeply in debt, prone to bouts of drunken debauchery, and currently had not one, but three mistresses. It gave me hope that he would be so preoccupied with them that I might be all but ignored once we wed.
“The seamstress he keeps may be carrying his bastard in her belly,” Marcus said.
I felt a surge of pity for the woman. “Pray God that she lives through the delivery.”
“And there was something else,” he said, the words soft, as if he didn’t want to speak them. “A rumored bit of ugliness with one of the dancers from Covent Garden.”
“What manner of ugliness?”
He remained silent, his arms stiffening around me.
I pulled free and looked at him in the dim light. “Marcus, what manner of ugliness?”
Begrudgingly, he glanced down at me, brows drawn together, expression filled with worry. “I don’t want to say yet. I planned to make more inquiries into it tonight and tomorrow. Just…if there’s even the slightest chance that these rumors could be true, you will not marry him. Do you hear me, Kit? I’ll drug and kidnap you if I must. Spirit you away to a forgotten part of the continent. We can live like hermits in some small, sea-swept Mediterranean village where Father’s cronies can never find us.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “That bad?”
He looked away again, jaw clenched. When he answered, it was through his teeth. “That bad.”
The trembling began anew in my limbs. I tucked myself beneath my brother’s arm and wrapped my own tighter around his middle. “Tell me a story. Anything to distract me.”
Marcus didn’t hesitate. At this point, he was used to requests like this from me. “Randolph was keeping two lovers at Drury Lane, one a man, and the other a woman. The woman, Lucille, is a dancer. The man, Malcolm, an actor. Two nights past, they found out about each other.”
“What happened? Did they come to blows over him during a performance?”
He shook his head, the light of a passing torch glinting off his teeth when he smiled. “When we went backstage after the final curtain to pay our respects, Lucille used one of those dancer’s legs to kick Randolph between his hard enough to lift him clear off the ground.”
The picture his words painted was enough to tease a grin from me. “What did Malcolm do?”
“Well, naturally, when Randolph’s feet hit the floor again, he fell right to his knees, clutching himself and baying like a bloodhound. That’s when Malcolm used one of his knees to finish him off. Randolph ended up sprawled in an undignified, unconscious heap in the hallway. Bradford and I had to carry him to safety, for there were threats of further unmanning him.”
I was torn between amusement and concern: a common response to most of Randolph’s antics. “Poor Randolph. How is he now?”
Marcus shrugged. “Fair enough. We were able to revive him in the carriage, and he spent the night bemoaning and carrying on so much that he piqued the pity of a serving wench from one of the taverns. I haven’t heard from him since. I think he’s still holed up with her somewhere, licking his wounds.”
An unladylike snort slipped through my lips in response. I might have been frustratingly ignorant of some of the intimacies between men and women, but I’d learned enough from Aunt Jane’s books to doubt that it was Randolph’s pride that was being licked.
We moved on from his scandal to other gossip, passing the remainder of the carriage ride focused on frivolities, anything to keep the darkness at bay. By the time we slowed to a stop outside the Duke of Hampshire’s, I felt better prepared for the night to come.
Marcus opened the door and leapt from the carriage without waiting for the footman, as agile as one would expect from a man who’d had riding and fencing lessons since he was old enough to sit a horse and hold a saber. Another pang of envy shot through me to see such effortless grace. Beneath my ethereal, cream-colored gown, my corset dug into my ribs something fierce, ensuring that I would never be able to leap like him. In that moment, it felt like nothing more than one of the innumerable bars that formed the inescapable cage that surrounded me.
Marcus bowed toward me, his hand extended in wait. “My lady.” His tone was overly formal, his expression goading. He was teasing me, attempting to keep the mood light, unaware of my torment and jealousy.
I took a calming breath and reminded myself that none of this was his fault. “Thank you, my lord,” I said, giving him a practiced smile as I put my gloved hand into his.
He helped me down and then proffered his arm. I slipped mine through it and gazed up at the towering stone façade in front of us. Light and sound poured forth from every window, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the crush inside.
This ball was an annual affair, the only social event of the season that the venerable Duke of Hampshire hosted. The ton were known to descend upon his manor en masse for the rare chance to see and possibly – if one were very lucky – interact with him. Rumor was that some years he didn’t even deign to attend it, forcing his aging mother, the Dowager Duchess of Hampshire, to play hostess in his stead. I wondered if tonight would be one of those nights. Was he somewhere inside? Or else at the palace, aiding the ailing king while playing an intricate, dangerous game of political chess with his fellow dukes and the reagent as they vied for power and prestige?
“Shall we?” Marcus asked.
Awed and more than a little intimidated, I nodded, and he led us inside.
“Honestly, can you believe the nerve of that woman?” the Dowager Duchess of Amesbury asked the group of ladies I stood with an hour later. Her tone reflected the outrage displayed between the lines of her ancient, craggy face.
I made a tutting noise and hoped that she interpreted it as agreement. Several women made similar sounds around me, while others went so far as to verbalize their accord. One would think I could simply keep silent, that my tutting would be lost in the chorus of responses. One would be wrong.
As usual, I stood on the outskirts of the event with the most matronly members in attendance. The Duchess of Amesbury ruled them all. I had no doubt that she marked every sound of ascent, noted every word of agreement. Those who disagreed, or who declined to comment, would be noted and excised from the group like the cancer she saw them as.
The company I kept was calculated. As a young lady in search of a husband, I should have spent my time circling the room, engaged in conversation with the other young women who had made their debuts this year, or dancing with the men who would be my suitors, but I had learned the folly of that from my mother’s sister, informally Aunt Jane, formally Lady Cloverfell, just before the beginning of the season. She was my sponsor into society, since my father – thank God – had refused to rouse himself from our country estate to act as such. He was still too busy grieving over the death of the man who had sired him, even though our formal mourning period for Grandfather had ended in late winter.
Aunt Jane doted on the duchess as though she was a lady in waiting to the queen herself. She also had a tongue for gossip, and, hoping to impart some knowledge unto me regarding the men and women I would soon be faced with, had told me all manner of tales about them. I had learned a very valuable lesson from her hearsay: to be female was to be fragile. As if my mother’s fate hadn’t already taught me that.
Aunt Jane’s gossip only reinforced my belief in this. From her own lips, any sign of gracelessness was seen as ill-breeding, too keen an intelligence was thought of as overreaching, too little intelligence was treated with disdain, and any perceived inappropriate flirtation was nothing short of a fatal flaw.
It made simply existing as a young lady of the ton a precarious position. One I most certainly couldn’t afford to be in. No, I needed to be beyond reproach. I needed to be seen as the height of propriety. I didn’t want to be thought of as beautiful, but boring, nor sweet, but rather snobbish. It was the safest course of action, because even though my father wasn’t here in person, I had no doubt that any misdeed on my behalf would somehow get back to him, and he would find a way to make me pay for it.
This left me in haughty, tedious company. Over the past hour, I’d been subjected to speech after speech concerning the impropriety of those around us, had been informed just how vapid this year’s debutantes were – myself excluded, of course – and listened to endless rumors regurgitated from the gossip rags they all denied reading. It was the same drivel I’d heard last night, and the night before that, and the night before that, and I was growing increasingly weary of it.
My gaze drifted to the latest lady the Dowager Duchess of Amesbury had taken to lambasting: the Viscountess of Dover. She wore a beautiful gown of emerald green, her silken shift clinging to her voluptuous form, the freedom of her upper body making it all too apparent that she wasn’t wearing a proper corset beneath the garment. Her thick, chestnut tresses were pulled up in an intricate knot, a few spilling forth to tickle her cheeks and flit over her ample décolletage. Her expression was a mixture of rapt attention, amusement, and devotion, her gaze directed toward the handsome blonde man with whom she was dancing far too closely.
That man was her husband.
Quite shocking indeed. How scandalous.
I would have rolled my eyes if Amesbury wasn’t close enough to catch me.
As we watched, the viscount leaned in and whispered something to his wife. The vivacious young woman threw back her head and laughed, uncaring of the crowd.
Amesbury made a sound of derision. “I would have thought the viscount at least above such public displays. How plebeian of him.”
I couldn’t have disagreed with her more. The couple looked deliriously happy. It was such a welcome sight in a sea full of adulterers and deceivers that I hoped they danced together again and again, damn the gossip.
“Yes, how plebeian,” I said, hating myself a little for it.
The Viscount and Viscountess of Dover broke apart as they made another turn in the dance. Through the space that widened between them, I caught sight of a short man with thick, lustrous dark hair and a face more pretty than handsome. It was my soon-to-be betrothed, the Earl of Aberdine.
He watched the couple as closely as I had, a glass of champagne clutched in one hand. As they drew together again and spun toward him, his gaze sharpened. Something about his focus was deeply unsettling. It reminded me of a predator sighting his quarry. Aberdine must have made eye contact with the couple, for he raised his glass in salute toward them, a lecherous smile spreading over his face.
I shifted my gaze to follow his and was shocked by what I found. A complete change had come over the pair. The viscountess stood stiff within her husband’s arms, her body so rigid that I feared she might trip as she moved through the dance. Gone was all hint of flirtation from the viscount’s face. Ruddy splotches of red colored his cheeks now. His gaze cut left, back to Aberdine, the look he gave the smaller man filled with the threat of violence.
What in heaven’s name had taken place between the three of them that a mere look from the earl caused such a drastic response? There was history there for them to have reacted so strongly; I just knew there was.
Aberdine grinned as though he found the viscount’s anger humorous, then drained his champagne and cast his gaze around the ballroom. It lurched to a stop on something or someone I couldn’t see and turned downright rapacious. My spine stiffened, a sliver of fear snaking up it. No good would come from that look. I’d seen similar in my youth. There was violence there, and something else I didn’t want to recognize at first: lust.
I had seen Father look at Mother that way.
Aberdine slipped through the crowd toward the back wall. I dipped a curtsy to the other ladies, made a hasty excuse about needing to speak with my brother, and then circled back through the room until I was out of sight from them, all the while making my way toward where I’d last spotted Aberdine.
I rounded a group of men and saw that he had cornered a maid near a hallway, proffering his cuff to her as though there was something upon it that needed cleaning or repairing. The young woman, close to my age, had light brown skin and features that hinted at African and European descent. She wore her mahogany curls pulled tightly back, with a few small tendrils framing her face. She was stunning, even with her face screwed up into a look of confusion. As I watched, she stammered out a response to Aberdine and looked past him as though searching for aid in the crowd. Aberdine followed her gaze, and I ducked behind the group of people I stood near just before it landed on me.
“May I help you, my lady?” a painfully low voice asked.
Oh, no. I must have brushed against one of the men.
I looked up, having to tilt my head way back to meet the gaze of the gentleman who spoke to me. His skin was a shade darker than the maid’s, his eyes deep pools of brown. He wore his black hair cropped close to his head in the military style. His features could have been carved from marble: an expressive mouth, Grecian nose, square jaw. The muscles of his upper body strained against the fabric of his fitted jacket in a way that was damn near improprietous. It was none other than Henry Fletcher.
I was considered almost tragically tall for a young woman, and yet he stood a head and a half above me still. His size was further magnified by the fact that he was so broad one might easily mistake him for a blacksmith instead of the renowned artist that he was.
My father had used his stature for intimidation and violence, and so I had a general distrust for men his size and larger. Because of this, I found Henry Fletcher downright terrifying, and, regardless of the fact that his soulful brown eyes had never looked upon me with anything but kindness, I avoided him at all costs.
“No, I beg your pardon, sir,” I said with a curtsy.
Ever polite, he dipped me a bow and turned back to the group of men.
I stepped away from them. In my moment of distraction, Aberdine and the maid had disappeared. The nearby hallway seemed the likeliest of routes for them to have taken. I strode toward it with forced nonchalance and then turned my back to it when I reached the threshold. I cast my gaze over the crush. Not a single person looked my way. I took a steadying breath and then strode into the hallway. The deep shadows engulfed me, and when I was sure that I was no longer visible to the room I’d left behind, I slipped my shoes off, picked them up in one hand, lifted my skirts a few inches from the ground with my other to give my legs a measure of freedom, and paced deeper into the darkness.
I didn’t have much time. For a young lady like myself to be alone for even a short period was to court scandal. I lengthened my stride, feet moving silently across the cold stone tiles. Over the past four years, I had learned how to sneak and spy. They had been necessary skills to avoid my father.
I found my mark quickly, for the maid was putting up a fight, albeit a polite one.
“My lord, this isn’t the way. Please release me. I can run and gather the items needed to clean it. I’ll be but a moment,” she said, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
They were just around the bend in the hall. I slowed my pace and stopped before it, trying to determine the wisdom of attempting a glance around the corner.
Aberdine’s voice was low and cajoling. “Come, now, you didn’t really think this was about the spot of champagne on my cuff, did you? I saw the way you looked at me.”
“My lord, I didn’t…I don’t know your meaning, my lord.”
I could damn near hear his libidinous smile when he responded. “Oh, I think you know exactly what I mean.”
“No, p-please don’t. I don’t wa-”
“Stop squirming,” Aberdine hissed, dropping all pretense of charm. “Do you know who I am? A baseborn bitch like you should be begging for my attentions.”
There was a quiet sob, followed by, “I…yes, of course, I know who you are. Please, my lord, please let me go.”
Fire burned in my belly as I listened to the sounds of a brief struggle, followed by a sharp slap. I hoped she hit him good and hard, but then I heard her strangled cry and realized with dawning horror that she was the one who’d been struck. I glanced the other way, down the corridor, toward the light and music of the ballroom. The crowd that filled it was just a scream away.
Scream, goddamn you, I urged her.
“Hush, now,” Aberdine crooned. “I’ll make it better. Let’s go just inside here, and I can see to it.”
The girl sobbed a little louder.
Rape. That was his intent. That was the ugly rumor Marcus had heard. Or was it? Was there something worse? If Aberdine was depraved enough to assault a servant just a scream away from a ballroom, what would he do in private?
Bile rose in my throat, choking me. Oh, God. I was to marry him. What would he do to me in private? Was this to be my life, inheriting the same fate that my mother had suffered?
I barely managed to keep my gorge down as I whirled away and sped back toward the party. I slipped my shoes on just before stepping into the light and beelined toward the first female servant I spotted at a relaxed pace that took every ounce of my willpower to affect.
She dipped a quick curtsy. “My lady?” She was even younger than me, with mousy brown hair and hazel eyes.
I glanced around to see that no one was near enough to overhear us and then slipped my arm through hers. “Come with me. Now.”
I led her to the closest server, a fellow only my height, with guileless blue eyes. He bowed to me when we reached him.
“The housekeeper or butler, or whichever servant of authority you find first, tell them to come into that hall as fast as they can,” I told him, pointing toward the one I meant. “Do not delay. Do not tell anyone. Once they’re on their way, find the two largest footmen you can and send them right after. On the life of one of your fellow servants, do as you’re told.”
“On…on the life, my lady?” he asked, eyes wide.
“Yes. Leave the room at a normal pace, and then run, do you hear me?”
The boy followed my order, turning on his heel and weaving away from us. I couldn’t trust that he would be quick enough.
“My lady, what do you mean? What is happening?” the young woman I clutched asked.
“Hurry. One of your fellow maids will be raped if we’re not quick enough,” I said, nearly wrenching her shoulder out of socket as I wheeled us toward the hallway.
“Oh, God,” she said, a sliver of terror in her voice.
“What do I look like?”
“W-what?” she asked. No doubt my abrupt subject change had thrown her.
“My face. My features. What is my expression?”
“Calm. How are you so calm, my lady?”
Relief surged through me. All my years of forcing my expression to neutral while under extreme duress were finally coming to fruition. “I assure you, I am not calm,” I said. “Now look toward the ball with as casual an air as you can muster. Is anyone watching us leave it?”
In my periphery, she turned her head. “A few are.”
“What are their expressions?”
“Curious? Concerned, perhaps?”
“Fine. It’ll have to be fine. They see me with you. They know I am accompanied.”
We gained the mouth of the hall and picked up speed. Once we hit the darkness, I slipped off my shoes again and moved as fast as I could manage. I had no plan, no thought for how to smooth this scandal or keep Aberdine from ruining me if my involvement was discovered – for I knew he could, it was his word against mine, and I had learned the hard way long ago that no one would believe my word over a lord’s.
We rounded the corner. There was no one in sight. Doors lined either side of the hallway.
I grabbed the maid’s arm and slowed her to a walk. “He must have dragged her into one of the rooms. Listen now.”
She did as I bade.
We crept down the hallway as quickly as possible. My ears strained to detect anything over the sound of my roaring pulse. A few paces later, I heard a soft, muffled cry from the nearest doorway, and without thinking, ran forward and twisted the handle. It was locked. I raised my fist and banged on it as hard as possible.
“Oi!” I yelled, mimicking one of the common accents I had heard in the streets of London. I spent so much time manipulating my voice to hide what I was feeling from those around me that I had grown quite adept at altering it to impersonate others. “Mary, that you in there? Mrs. Putnam been asking fer ya, she has. Ya best come out now an’ quit yer caterwauling. She migh’ go easier on ya, ifn’ ya go to her afore she finds ya here.”
Silence fell on the other side of the door. Good. That meant whatever had been happening had stopped.
I banged on it again. “Oi! Ye hear me, ya daft wench?”
Just then, a portly older woman in the duke’s livery came running around the opposite corner of the hallway. She huffed and puffed something awful. Right on her heels were two brutishly large men I could only hope were the footmen I had summoned.
“What is the meaning of this, my-”
She cut off at the sight of me desperately waving my hands. Thank God for that. My lady, she had been about to say. Aberdine could have heard her.
“Keep knocking,” I told the maid who aided me.
I pulled the older woman, who I assumed was the housekeeper, away from the others and told her what I thought was taking place within the chamber beyond. Her face blanched while she listened to me. I didn’t envy her. Aberdine was a peer of the realm; it was his word against all of theirs. He could have them fired, or worse. It was dangerous just for them to interfere, but I could tell by the set of her jaw that she was willing to do it.
“Is everything all right?” a voice asked from somewhere behind me – a painfully deep, familiar voice.
“I wasn’t here. You didn’t see me. You don’t know who I am.” I told the housekeeper. “Please.”
I fled, careful to keep my back to Mr. Fletcher, though my gown and my flame-red hair no doubt gave me away.
It was over. I was ruined.
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.