I managed to hold myself together until the door of my sitting room was firmly closed behind me, though I had no idea what it was I said in response to the maid who greeted me in passing along the way. Judging by the confused look on her face afterward, nothing coherent.
The room that spread out before me was awash in the tawny shades of ocher thrown by the fire. Candles had been lit, providing further illumination, but still I struggled to make out the familiar shapes of my sitting room. I was so caught up in what had just taken place that I was like a blind woman, forced to use my hands to navigate.
I made it through the connecting door that led to my bedroom without incident, and when I saw that I was alone, I locked it behind me and immediately started toward my bed. Halfway there, I tripped over a footstool. A squawk that would have made a goose proud burst from my lips, and I fell in an ungracious sprawl across the Aubusson carpet. At least it was a soft landing.
I burrowed my fingers into the thick rug and curled onto my side, pushing my knees together. An aching pressure had built between my thighs. John’s parting words echoed through my mind, taunting me. It was all I could do to remain where I was instead of leaping up and racing back to the study, to hell with taking our time.
Some still sane part of me recognized the folly of that. There were the servants to think about, and our agreement to take things slowly.
I needed to get up and summon Harriet to help me out of these clothes. Once she was gone and I was tucked safely in my bed, then I could relive what had just happened in vivid detail, and once that was seen to, delve into my feelings about it all.
It was standing up that proved difficult. I shifted my legs, meaning to reposition them before pushing myself from the ground, but my undergarments had bunched between my thighs, and the move dragged them across my over-stimulated sex in a way that found me flat on my back, panting up at the ceiling.
I was in no fit state to be waited upon, that much was clear, and nor did I think I would be until I gave into the all-encompassing desire that still burned beneath my skin. No longer trusting my legs to carry me to my bed, I decided to stay right there on the rug. I wrenched my corset down just enough to free my breasts and then tugged my skirts up over my waist. I slipped my left hand over the flushed skin of my chest, teasing one nipple and then the other into hardened peaks, then continued to ply them while the fingers of my right hand shoved beneath the band of my undergarments to find that I was already, unsurprisingly, soaking wet.
What were John and Henry doing in the study at this moment? Talking? I somehow doubted it. No, after the way they had kissed each other, I had a feeling that the only words being uttered within that room were ones like yes, please, and more.
I had barely slipped a finger inside myself, my palm grazing over the most sensitive part of my anatomy along the way, when the first wave of my release hit. It rolled me over so quickly that I was soon lost in the undertow, my body a slave to the current, my jaw clenched tightly shut to keep in the low, keening moan that threatened.
I lay there for several moments afterward, winded, reeling from the strength of the orgasm, the shudders of which still wracked my body. If I came that hard after kissing them, I almost feared what might happen if either of them brought me to release.
Part of me still struggled to come to terms with the events of this evening. John wanted me. Henry wanted me. They wanted me. Together. The edges of my lips crept up as I remembered the feel of Henry beneath me, the sight of John as he reached past me toward his lover, pressing me between their bodies. I almost couldn’t believe it had happened. My mind was already ascribing a mystical quality to it, as though it was nothing more than a daydream that my subconscious had conjured.
If it had been that erotic fully clothed…
A sigh of pleasure slipped from my lips. I was still wound tight. One release would never be enough to smother the fire that the men had kindled within me. I let my mind wander to what might be taking place between them in the study, imagining them together in full detail as I slid my finger back inside myself. Instead of curtailing my imagination, as I so often did, I cut the fetters that kept it restrained and let it run wild. Henry’s hands became possessive, while John’s turned frantic. Gone from my husband’s face were all traces of art and artifice. The expression he wore now was born solely of need. The kiss they shared, full of love and devotion at first, soon turned downright ruthless, their lips crashing against each other’s as still more articles of clothing hit the floor around them.
It was only after my third orgasm, when I lay panting on the floor in boneless lethargy, that my lust began to dissipate. I had to stop this. I needed to get my scattered wits back together before facing Harriet.
Thinking of her helped to cool my ardor. I could only imagine what she would do if she discovered what had taken place between the three of us. She would likely never look at me the same way again. I was surprised to find that thought bothered me almost as much as the possibility of her telling the rest of the staff. I had grown used to her kind smiles and her easy laughter.
I couldn’t let her find out. If the servants ever discovered the truth, their fear of John might not be enough to keep them from gossiping to those outside the household. After John’s display in the carriage, I was left less worried about rumor successfully escaping and more fearful of what might befall the person whose lips it passed through. He must have spies planted in this very house to watch the staff. How else was he so confident that he could control the spread of tales? And what would be done to a disloyal servant? Would they be paid off? Moved to our house in the country where they would do less damage? Or would they disappear altogether? How far would John go?
I thought back to his expression in the carriage, or lack thereof. He would go as far as he thought necessary to keep us safe.
The need to protect the lives of our staff far outweighed my desire to keep our reputations intact, and with this reality now firmly planted in my mind, it was easy to set aside my feelings for John and Henry and do what must be done. I gathered myself up off the floor and rang for my handmaid. I spent the time waiting for her arrival concocting a likely story for my disheveled state, taking a seat on the bench that faced my vanity and using the aid of the mirror to arrange my face into an exhausted expression. For the first time in months, I was thankful for all my practice hiding my true emotions.
A knock sounded at my door.
“Come in,” I called.
My nerves rose as Harriet entered the room and strode toward me.
Please let her believe my lies, I prayed, hoping that some deity, any deity, would hear my prayer and honor it.
Her gaze went immediately to my wild hair and rumpled dress. A flash of what might have been surprise or curiosity blossomed in her expression before she managed to blank it. “Good evening, Your Grace.”
I propped my elbows on the vanity and covered my mouth as I yawned. “Good evening.”
She moved behind me and began pulling the pins from my hair. “I expected you to ring an hour ago.”
Of course she had. A footman would have alerted her of our return home. Most handmaids would never be so bold as to speak to their employers this plainly, but despite our difference in rank and the distance I must hold myself apart from her, I had encouraged this informality between us. I kept company with so few women that I craved this closeness. Fraternizing with my fellow noblewomen was out of the question thanks to the veneer of snobbery I had cultivated, and so it was Harriet I turned to instead.
“I wish that had been the case,” I told her. “I was in the duke’s study with him and Mr. Fletcher. They began speaking of politics almost the moment we walked through the door. I only meant to sit down on the couch to warm my feet by the fire, but I nodded straight off. I woke just a few minutes ago. I do hope you can get the creases out of the gown.”
“It shouldn’t prove a burden, Your Grace. They don’t look deep.” She met my eyes in the mirror and smiled. “And I have to say all that talk of politics would have done the same to me.”
I joined in with a soft chuckle, the end of which turned into a yawn I didn’t have to fake.
It took nearly half an hour to prepare me for bed. Harriet helped me out of my layers before I scrubbed myself down using the washcloth and basin of hot, soapy water that a scullery maid brought up. Afterward, I slipped on a cotton chemise and dressing gown. Harriet brushed out my long hair while I busied myself by spreading Pommade de Seville – a French concoction for brightening the skin, made of lemon juice and egg whites – over my face and neck as she worked.
After the events of the evening, I was wrung out, both emotionally and physically. It was a struggle to keep my eyes open until my maid left. I fell deeply asleep almost the moment my head hit my pillow. Not long after, the nightmare began.
Somewhere far below, deep in the belly of the manor, my mother was screaming.
Even huddled on my bed, with the heavy curtains of the canopy drawn tight and the door to my room firmly closed, I couldn’t escape her terror. These were not the stifled groans I remembered from when she’d delivered my younger sister, Amelia, into the world. These were the ungodly howls of the damned. They were inescapable, insidious, and the longer they persisted, the more pervasive they became.
Soon I struggled to differentiate between my mother’s pain and my own. With every tortured wail that echoed up the stone hallway, I felt another stratum of my psyche stripped away, another layer of flesh flayed from my bones. Shivers racked my body. I clamped my hands over my ears in an effort to muffle the screaming, but if anything, the absence of other sounds only amplified my mother’s agony, and I immediately pulled them away again.
I’d been with her when the birthing pains first began. She and I had been sitting in the drawing room when a small gasp had slipped from her lips. I had looked up to see the most beatific smile on her face.
“The baby’s coming. Go fetch Mrs. Norris,” she told me.
I’d torn from the room in a frenzy of flying limbs, tripping over my skirts as I shouted down the halls in search of our housekeeper.
“It’s only a baby. No need to panic,” the aging woman had scolded when I found her.
I wondered if I should be panicking now. How long must this go on? How much torment could someone endure before succumbing to the abyss?
The door to my room crashed open, startling me so violently that I nearly toppled from my mattress.
“Kit?” came the frantic call of my twin brother, Marcus.
I crawled to the edge of my bed and wrenched the curtains open, nearly blinding myself. I hadn’t expected the sun to be shining. I had expected the gloom of night. Locked in the prison of my mother’s pain, I had lost all sense of time and reason.
Marcus stood just inside the doorway, mouth open as if he were about to speak, when another shriek rent the air. He hunched over and wrapped his arms around his head as though he could shield himself from the noise. In that moment, he looked much younger than thirteen.
The scream fell away, and he lowered his arms. His face was drained of color. The green eyes that met mine were haunted. “She’s dying, isn’t she?”
His words mirrored my thoughts from a moment before, and my fear increased tenfold because of them. I barely managed to choke out a strangled, “No,” as I slid from the bed and went to him. She couldn’t be dying. She wouldn’t do that to us.
“Amelia’s crying,” he said when I reached him.
I’d been so focused on drowning out our mother’s pain that I had failed to detect the softer cries answering hers. I heard them now, echoing down from our sister’s nursery on the top floor. They were as tortured as our mother’s, like some part of her infant mind understood what was happening.
Unable to meet my brother’s gaze for fear of what I would find there, I took up his hand and led him from the room. Another ragged screech bubbled up from the depths the moment we passed through the threshold. We broke into a run and fled from it, but it chased us down the hallway and up a flight of stairs with sinister disregard. By the time we reached the nursery, we were both out of breath.
I pushed the door open without knocking, channeling my fear for Mother into anger at the nursemaid for her inability to sooth Amelia. Our sister stood in her crib, facing us, her small hands gripping the railing as she sobbed. Her cherubic visage was twisted into a travesty of itself: skin red and splotchy; tears streaming from swollen eyes; snot dripping from her nose.
Her nurse was nowhere to be seen. My blood ran cold. How dire was our mother’s fate that even her infant daughter had been abandoned?
Amelia’s wailing gained a frantic edge as she released the railing and palmed the air, signaling her desire to be picked up. I forced myself to move forward through my confusion and fear, wiped her face off as best I could, and then lifted her from the crib. She quieted immediately.
“The closet,” Marcus said, shutting the door to the nursery.
I glanced toward the opposite side of the room, where another, smaller door was half-concealed by a footstool. It led to a rectangular crawlspace that served as a makeshift linen closet. Marcus and I had played within its confines when we were young enough to share this room, and I still remembered how quiet it had been inside.
I followed him toward it and waited as he shoved aside the stool and pulled the door open. Below us, Mother screamed again. Marcus shot a terrified look toward the noise and then ducked inside. I extricated Amelia’s arms from around my neck and handed her to him before I followed, pulling the door shut behind us. We were dropped into darkness, and in the closed space, the only sound I could hear was that of our movements as we settled ourselves on the floor.
The exposed stone wall behind me was cool to the touch. I shifted so that I could lean my cheek against it and soothe my fevered skin. Beside me, Marcus made cooing noises at Amelia. I closed my eyes and pressed the heels of my palms to my lids as I listened, willing myself not to cry. Sunbursts erupted from the pressure, and in them, I saw visions of our mother, of her red hair flying out around her as she twirled with me beneath the boughs of an apple tree. Of her teasing smile as she tickled Amelia until she squealed with delight. Of Mother and Marcus swinging sticks at each other as they waged a mock-war on the back lawn.
My brother’s disembodied whisper pulled me from my memories. “I can still hear her.”
I pulled my hands away and listened. Oh, God. I could too.
“Please sing something, Kit. I can’t bear this,” he said.
I immediately obliged, choosing one of the nursery rhymes our mother had lulled us to sleep with when we were little.
“Dance a baby diddy; what can mammy do wid’e?
Sit in her lap, give it some pap, and dance a baby diddy.
Smile, my baby bonnie; what will time bring on ‘e?
Sorrow and care, frowns and gray hair; so smile, my baby bonnie.
Laugh my baby beauty; what will time do to ye?
Furrow your cheek, wrinkle your neck; so laugh, my baby beauty.
Dance, my baby dearie; Mother will never be weary.
Frolic and play, now while you may; so dance, my baby deary.”
I ended with a strangled sob, clamping a hand over my mouth to keep in my pitiful mewling. What a foolish song to have chosen.
A soft sniffle came from beside me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, twining my fingers through my brother’s.
A moment later, another dampened wail reached my ears, and I began to sing again, this time a more uplifting tune. When it was over, I sang another.
I sang until our eyes adjusted to the darkness. I sang as Marcus made a bed of blankets for Amelia to nestle in. I sang until her eyes closed and her breathing deepened. I sang as Marcus lied down beside her and placed his head on my thigh. I sang as I petted his hair. I sang until he, too, fell asleep.
I sang until my voice went hoarse.
I sang until the screaming stopped.
I sang until our father came to tell us our mother was dead, and the baby along with her.
Marcus, having slept through the ordeal, refused to come to terms with it, and took his confusion and his anger out on the worst person possible.
“I don’t believe you!” he screamed, kicking at Father’s shins.
“Do you think I’m lying, boy?” Father shouted, grabbing Marcus by the shoulders and giving him a savage shake.
Amelia howled in my arms.
“Marcus, stop,” I croaked, my voice ravaged from overuse.
Where Mother had been kind and caring, our father was indifferent and callous toward his children. Marcus knew better than to provoke his temper. We had all learned what came of it. But my twin was mad with grief and deaf to my warning.
“Yes! You’re lying! You always lie!” Marcus raged.
Father went dangerously quiet, hands still gripping my brother’s shoulders. I stood a few feet away, off to the side of them, and because of this, only his profile was visible to me. Strands of his dark blond hair had come loose from the leather thong that usually held it back, further obscuring my view. Whatever expression he wore, it was enough to scare Marcus into silence.
“Fine,” Father said as if coming to some decision. “You’ll see for yourself then.”
He grabbed Marcus by the arm and hauled him toward the door.
I should have known better than to stand within striking distance of Father when he was in a mood. I should have stepped back. I should have moved out of their path. Any other day I would have. But shock and grief had slowed my responses to a sluggish standstill, and so there was no escaping him when he reached out and latched onto my arm, wrenching it away from Amelia.
I nearly dropped her. Only my vicelike grip with my other hand and Amelia’s desperate clutching at my neck kept her from hitting the floor.
I was forced to yell over her terrified wails. “Father, stop this!”
My plea fell on uncaring ears.
He dragged us bodily from the room and out into the hallway. Marcus continued to fight him, hurling insults and spitting like a cornered cat. I let my arm relax in Father’s grip, my entire concentration on my sister.
“Let me just put her down, Father, please,” I said, my voice laced with panic. We were heading toward the stairs. “Father, I can’t hold her like this. She could fall.”
“One less mouth to feed,” he said. “One less dowry to pay for.”
My mind went numb at his words. I had known he was apathetic toward us. I had known he could be cruel when in a rage, but I never realized the depth of his depravity. Marcus was likewise struck silent, ceasing his protestations to stare at me with eyes gone wide with shock.
Down the stairs we went.
I put my whole focus into holding onto Amelia. She did her own part to stay in my arms, wrapping her little legs around me in a vicelike grip. At one point, Father jerked us around the bend of a landing, and Amelia slipped a fraction in my arms. Marcus darted forward to catch her, but Amelia scrabbled back up me like one of the infant monkeys I had seen at a London menagerie and held on tighter still, her tiny fingernails digging into my skin so hard that I knew from the sting alone she was drawing blood.
Two more flights and we were on the first floor. My arm began to shake with exertion.
The butler met us at the base of the stairs, his eyes flashing round in what might have been surprise before his face settled back into its usual flat expression. He had never been kind to me, but distant, formal, and unflinchingly loyal to Father, tattling on Marcus and me at nearly every turn. I had always despised him, but I was desperate for help.
“Mr. Hawkins,” I said. “Please.”
Without a word, he stepped forward and scooped Amelia up just as my grip on her began to slacken. I didn’t even have a chance to thank him, for Father never paused. Not even when he came to a group of maids gathered around an open doorway. They scattered like hens running from a fox when they saw him. He swept us into the room and shoved us forward.
“Still think I’m lying?” he asked.
The human mind is capable of incredible things. It can conjure all sorts of images. It can create whole worlds out of dreams. It can even try to save you from yourself. I had learned this the hard way just last summer. Marcus had been home from Eton for the school break, and he had helped me escape the watchful eye of my governess so we could go traipsing through the forest that surrounded the manor. I’d stumbled upon a newborn fawn sleeping in a spill of sunlight.
The smell should have warned me that not all was as it seemed, but I’d been so excited to find a baby deer that I ignored it. I’d recently read about a long-dead queen who had kept them as pets and even ridden a stag like it was a horse, and had desperately wanted one myself. Here was my chance.
Oh, so carefully, I reached down and picked it up by the back of the neck. Half of the pelt came away in my hand, exposing the rotting meat beneath, teeming with maggots. It had taken nearly a solid minute for what I was seeing to dawn on me. In the end, Marcus had to pry my fingers open and force me, gagging, to release the skin before pulling me away from the scene.
Something similar happened now. I stood, transfixed, staring into the center of the room, my mind refusing to fit the shapes and objects together into something coherent.
“My Lord, what are you doing?” a woman shrieked. “The children shouldn’t be here!”
But it was too late. I saw. I understood. And I would never be the same again.
Mother’s corpse was sprawled on top of the bed, her thin linen shift bunched up around her waist so that the ruin of her lower body was fully visible. There was blood everywhere. Rags full of it were strewn around the floor. Mother’s stomach was still big like she hadn’t given birth, but there, coiled over her leg was a blue-black cord, attached to a small, unmoving, gore-splattered thing that must have been a baby.
Beside me, Marcus began to wretch.
A gentle hand took hold of my arm and led me away. Outside, the hallway seemed to tunnel and then collapse on itself. My vision went dark, and I knew no more.
I awoke to gentle shaking and the sound of my name being called.
“Katherine. Katherine. Kit, wake up!”
Oh, God. Mother. The baby. Amelia. Still struggling to free myself from the familiar nightmare, I rolled toward the voice, praying they might pull me from it. Amelia, never a healthy child, hadn’t survived long after Mother’s passing. The dream had been so real it felt as though I were reliving all of their deaths. I reached out for solace. The sobs that tore free from my throat were wild, desperate things.
“Leave us,” a voice said.
I barely heard the sound of the door closing over that of my cries.
“Katherine, you’re safe. You’re in your bed in London. Your father can’t hurt you here.”
I didn’t feel safe. And he could still hurt me. Every time I thought of him, the pain was immense.
Hands braced either side of my face, turning my head.
“Open your eyes.” The words were a command. From John, I realized.
I did as he bade, unable to stem the flow of tears as I stared up at him. He looked furious, so angry that I pulled free from his grip and struggled away, my progress hampered by the tangle of sweat-damp sheets that clung to me.
“Katherine,” he said, crawling onto the bed after me. “You’re safe. I’m not mad at you. I would never harm you.”
I willed myself to stop, battling with my baser instincts, forcing logic and reason to supplant my panic. John, seeing me still, settled onto the mattress beside me, his dressing gown falling open to reveal a pale strip of chest. He sat with his back against the headboard and then leaned forward and pulled me toward him. I wrapped my shaking arms around his waist and buried my face in the mattress beside him.
“It’s your father I want to murder,” he said.
My answer came out muffled. “It wasn’t a dream of him. It was my mother’s death.”
“It doesn’t matter whether or not it was of him. The urge to kill him slowly and painfully is always there.” His tone softened. “And I guessed it was your mother. That’s the only one that makes you cry instead of scream.” Over the course of our marriage, he had woken me from enough nightmares that he would know.
“Who heard me this time?” I asked.
“One of the scullery maids. She was adding another log to the fire in your sitting room when she heard you call out.”
“Thank you for being here. Please tell Henry I’m all right. I know how he worries.”
“Tell him yourself,” John said.
I rolled onto my back and frowned up at him. His eyes remained on mine, despite the fact that my hair was loose and I wore nothing but a thin chemise, which had bunched halfway up my thighs.
“And I quote,” he said, before deepening his voice dramatically. “You are rubbish at consolation. Bring her back here.”
I smiled, despite the torrent of emotions the dream left in its wake. “You’re not rubbish,” I told him. “I’ll be fine. I promise.”
A small line formed between his brows. “Perhaps. But you’d be better after he fretted over you for a while. Have you never thought that he might need the intimacy as much as you do? To reassure himself that you’re okay? To make him feel like he was able to help you in some small way?”
I released a shaky breath. No, I hadn’t thought of that. And now that John had put this knowledge into my mind, I couldn’t refuse such summons.
“What will the servants think?” I asked.
“Nothing. There will be nothing for them to see or hear. I’ll clear them from the hallways.” He pulled away from me and paced toward the door. He paused there to retie his robe, and I caught another flash of pale skin. “Wait ten minutes, and then follow.”
There was nothing for me to do but rise from the bed and do as he bid.
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.