I know a secret about your husband, the notes read. I had scant time to contemplate them. Anyone here to mark my reaction would notice a prolonged absence.
The letter went back into its envelope and then again into my reticule, the ties of which I knotted to protect the contents. My feet carried me swiftly to the mirror, where I used my reflection to guide me as I forced the trapped look from my eyes and then carved my features into a mask so strong, it could have been sculpted from marble. I quickly retreated behind its safety, hiding my true self, burying my emotions deep.
You can do this, I told myself as I left the room and took the stairs down to the first floor, where laughter and conversation and the tinkling of fine china drifted up from. Only an hour remained of the reception. One hour. What was that to me? How could sixty minutes of internal torture compare to the years of its physical counterpart I had already endured?
This is nothing, I told myself, over and over again, until it became nothing. Until I managed to convince myself that it was easy to smile. Easy to converse with the ladies gathered there with me. The simplest thing on earth to ignore the fact that one of them might be working to bring about my ruin.
You are not a victim, became the hymn that I sung to myself. I would not let them make me one. Never again. Instead, I focused on playing an active part. McNaught had said that it was possible someone here might have been blackmailed or coerced into aiding our enemy. Wouldn’t such a person therefore be an amateur, like myself? Wouldn’t they show signs?
I made it a point to speak to almost every woman in attendance before I left, careful – oh, so careful – to keep my mask in place, hiding my true intent with polite conversation and the flawless manners that came from two years of hard practice. Mentally, I noted every woman who acted out of character or seemed at all suspicious.
The Baroness of Norridgewock was added to my list for prompting me to open the letter in public. The Viscountess of Dover for her overly emotional display of thanks earlier. The Countess of Monmort for the way her gaze strayed toward my reticule. Lady Constance Worthington for prompting me to read this morning’s gossip column in the Times. The Duchess of Amesbury, for, well, for sheer spite. For being such an intolerable bitch.
My plan was to turn this list over to McNaught, so that he could use it to his advantage. I wouldn’t wish his attention on most of the women on it, but the duchess, she deserved him.
I was so consumed with subtly observing my peers that in the end it felt as though the hour drew to a close far too quickly. Once I was safely ensconced in my carriage, I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes, replaying events in my mind, searching for any more signs of guilt or unease I might have missed in the moment.
Lady Worthington stood out the most. Why would she prod me into picking up a gossip column I had only ever heard her vehemently deny reading? True, she was always the most contentious of the women who played court to Amesbury, but never before had she goaded me in such an open manner. The way her painted lips had curled up as she’d spoken had unnerved me, as though she were taking a cruel delight in knowing something that I didn’t.
“Is the duke in his study?” I asked Sherman as soon as I was through our front door.
“He is, Your Grace,” the aging servant answered. “With Mr. Fletcher and Mr. McNaught.”
I smiled my own cruel smile as I took the staircase up. McNaught. Of course he was here.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” I said when I swept into the room.
The men stood from where they were gathered together near the fireplace. I took them in at a glance, my gaze landing on McNaught.
Even though I loathed him, his physical appearance hit me almost like a blow. In the hours since I’d last seen him, I’d convinced myself that it was only because of the shadows thrown by candlelight that his jaw appeared so square, that it was only because of his mask that his eyes appeared so inhumanly bright. That he wasn’t nearly as tall as Henry.
I was relieved to see that at least some of that was true. His shoulders weren’t nearly as broad as the artist’s, his chest wasn’t as wide. But if anything, he was even more handsome in broad daylight, the sun softening his sharp edges, making him seem less like godspawn, and more…attainable. It made me feel slightly ill that I could be so repulsed by someone and so physically attracted to them at the same time.
“Katherine,” John said. “Are you…” His gaze went to the spy, as though suddenly wishing he weren’t there so he might say something further. It was easy to guess what. This was the first time I had seen the men since last night. He wanted to know how I was feeling after my alleged nightmare.
“I’m quite recovered from my…” I looked back to McNaught, steeling myself to the sight of him. “late night escapades, if that’s what you were wondering.”
McNaught’s expression darkened.
“Escapades?” John asked, following my gaze.
“Yes,” I said, moving closer toward them. “Tell me, Mr. McNaught,” I spat, hating the taste of his name on my tongue. “However did you manage to cover your scratches so well? You’ll have to share your cosmetic secrets with me.” I began to pull off my gloves then. “For I’m having the devil of a time hiding my own bruises.” I let the silk fall to the floor, then shoved up the sleeves of my dress, revealing my bandaged knuckles and the patchwork of black and blue painted over my skin.
Henry took one look at my arms and then stepped toward the spy, intercepted when John leapt between them and shot his arm out. His hand landed in the middle of Henry’s chest with an echoing thud, elbow locking to hold the larger man him in place. From the slight tremble in his shoulder, the effort it took to keep him there must have been immense.
I had no doubt that Henry could have shrugged him off, but instead he froze, allowing my husband to take hold of the situation, and yet, not backing away at all, pushing, still, into John’s hand as though to remind him that he was there, and he was ready.
It was with an eerie calm that John turned to stare at McNaught, a slight smile playing about his lips like a challenge. “What did he do to you, Katherine?” he asked me, his tone deceptively civil.
“He broke into my bedchamber last night,” I answered.
McNaught shot me a look of warning. “Don’t do this, Kit.”
“No one is speaking to you, Sir,” John said, still staring at him. “Katherine, please, continue.”
Kit? Kit?! The nerve of the man. To call me that, here, now. After I had already told him not to. As though he knew me. As though we had shared some friendship or intimacy that would allow it.
Anger burned in my belly. I wanted to lash out. Hurt him as he had hurt me. But that would be like my father. I had to be rational. Logical. Why had he called me by my nickname? To assert himself in some way? Attempt to soften me against him? Cause John and Henry to likewise question the informality? To make them wonder if violence had been the only thing that had passed between us last night?
I knew there had to be some reason for him calling me Kit. James McNaught didn’t seem like a man who spoke or acted without some hidden ulterior motive.
Instead of rising to his bait, I took a deep breath and responded in an even, measured tone, “At first, he didn’t hurt me; he merely subdued me. As you might imagine, I reacted rather violently to this, thinking that – ” I paused to take another steadying breath and finished in a smaller voice, “that maybe it was my father.”
Henry’s expression was torn as he looked over at me. As if he couldn’t decide if he should come put his arms around me in comfort, or his hands around the spy’s throat.
John’s smile only widened as he stared at McNaught, revealing his canines. It was more of a baring of teeth now.
I fought a small internal battle myself then. Part of me wanted nothing more than to downplay what had happened, make this easier for everyone, maybe not destroy the friendships of these men. A much larger part of me mutinied against that. I’d been silent for too long already. And lies had already done more to tear us asunder than truth had.
“I hit him as hard as I could, many times,” I continued. “He didn’t hit me back. The bruises are from where he blocked my assaults. Eventually, I bit his hand and struggled free, then ran to the bell pull. That was the screaming you heard. I hoped to wake the house. But then he caught me from behind again and pulled me off of my feet.”
At this, Henry returned his focus to McNaught and made a small movement, pressing forward slightly as if to test John’s restraining hand.
“I struggled harder still, and caused him to stumble and drop me. He landed on me quite hard. And then he put a pistol to my cheek and cocked the trigger. I stopped fighting.”
Henry made a sound like a growl, the deep, base rumble of it raising the hair on the back of my neck. “We’re done, you and I,” he told McNaught, gazing upon him with a fury that stole my breath away.
“It wasn’t loaded,” McNaught said.
Henry laughed, taking a staggering step back in disbelief. “As though that makes it better?” he demanded. “My God, man!”
“What would you like to happen now?” John asked me, his voice still frighteningly calm. His tone implied that I could ask for anything, and he would grant it. Maybe even McNaught’s death.
“I would like him to apologize,” I said.
We probably needed him, after all. His lifeless body would be much less useful to us, and from what little he’d told me, would only be a boon to our enemy.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace,” McNaught intoned, without any of the sarcasm he’d laced my title with before.
“And I would like him to promise to never break into my rooms again.”
“You have my word,” he said, his expression open and honest and apologetic.
I didn’t believe it for a second. “Or to harass, threaten, or assault me.”
“Upon my honor, I will not,” he said with a bow. It didn’t even look mocking.
“And I would like to offer him the chance to explain to you why he was there. Before I do it for him.”
The spy nodded at me then, much as Amesbury had, as though marking an adversary. Tonight, I would have Harriet sleep in my chamber with me. I’d lock my door and windows, line my sills with broken glass, and fall asleep with a fire iron in my fist. That’s how little I trusted the look.
“As I told your wife last night,” McNaught said, folding himself back into his chair, relaxing into the cushion as though the tension in the room wasn’t wound tight enough to snap. “I meant her no harm. I only aimed to keep her from alerting the house of my presence.”
John, sensing it was safe to step away from his lover, likewise retook his seat, in the chair opposite the spy. “What were you doing here? I thought you had left to track down the Coal Baron’s servant.”
I moved to sit on the leather sofa, on the end closest to John. Henry immediately joined me, pressing himself against the side of my body that faced McNaught, as if shielding me from him.
“I had people waiting for me outside the house,” McNaught answered. “The moment I was free, I sent them running. Agents dressed as commoners, beggars, and servants have a much better chance at ferreting out the secrets of the lower classes than I do.”
He shifted in his seat, crossing an ankle over his knee like a man at his leisure. My skin still crawled just to be so near to him. The fact that he could manage to appear unperturbed in this moment made me so angry I thought I might sick up. If he actually was unperturbed…no, I couldn’t fathom that.
“When they were gone, I doubled back through the rear garden. It was quite easy to scale the wall to reach the duchess’s rooms. You need to trim those rambling roses, cut back the trellises, maybe even reseal some of the cracks in the mortar,” he said, conversationally.
Beside me, Henry stiffened.
“Why did you break into her quarters?” John asked, his posture relaxed, his expression open.
This was John at his most dangerous. I wondered if McNaught knew.
As though he were oblivious to the threat, the spy turned his head toward me then.
Henry leaned forward, blocking me from his view with his large body.
As McNaught wouldn’t be able to see it, I reached out my ungloved hand and rested it gently on Henry’s lower back. Partly in thanks, partly to comfort him, but mostly because I craved the contact in that moment. He sat so close that our hips touched. His long leg pressed against mine. It wasn’t enough. If not for the unwelcome audience, I would have been curled into his lap, trying to find some moment of peace and solace from all this chaos and confusion.
“I broke into her quarters to recruit her aid,” McNaught finally answered. “I knew that you would attempt to deter her if I asked in your presence.”
“She’s her own person,” John answered. “Able to make her own decisions.” He said it like he meant it. Like he’d learned well the lesson of taking choices away from me.
“I couldn’t take the risk that you would be successful in dissuading her. And regardless, she needed to be prepared to receive another note.”
“It’s too soon for her to receive another note,” John answered, his gaze sliding to mine, brow arching, just slightly, in question.
I pulled my hand from Henry and unknotted my reticule.
“Goddamn it,” John breathed as I brought forth the letter, his calm mask finally slipping.
“It arrived just after the recital,” I told them. “A servant delivered it to me. He said an urchin gave it to him, claiming it was urgent.”
“What does it say?” came McNaught’s disembodied voice from the other side of Henry’s wide shoulders.
“No, no,” John said. “We’ll get to that in a moment. What else did you tell my wife?”
Was that a hint of trepidation in his tone?
“The truth of what happened to your father,” McNaught answered.
Beside me, Henry stiffened. “John?”
John, in answer, smiled at McNaught. “Oh, James. Sowing the seeds of distrust in my own household? Attempting to turn my wife against me? And I thought we were friends. Tut-tut.” His tone was savage in its delivery. As though he were disappointed in a hound. Then he turned then toward Henry. “I’ll tell you everything. Tonight,” he promised.
Henry relaxed a little back into his seat, trusting John as I still couldn’t.
“I’m not sorry,” McNaught had the audacity to declare.
“Of course you’re not,” John said, his smile a little pinched.
“I needed some way to instill the proper fear of what you are facing in your wife.”
John tilted his head sideways, like a bird inspecting an insect. “Was that what you were doing? Interesting. To me, it sounds more like one of your other favorite tactics, of cutting a person off from everyone else around them so that the only one they have left to depend on or turn to is you.”
It sounded as though he were speaking from experience. I suddenly longed to lean forward. To look at McNaught. To read whatever undercurrents were passing between them.
“The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war,” McNaught quoted.
“At least we know where we stand,” John replied. It sounded like a declaration. Of what I couldn’t tell. He turned to me then. “What did the letter say, Katherine?”
“About your husband,” I answered, leaning forward to hand it to him. I surreptitiously rubbed my hand against my skirts afterward, my fingers feeling dirty just from touching it.
Beside me, Henry murmured, “I know a secret about your husband.”
“Then it would appear I’m their target,” John said. “James, how did you know it would arrive so soon?”
“Their timelines have been accelerating,” he answered. “And so have their subtle threats. Look here.” He leaned forward in his seat, so that I had a clear view of him as he pulled a newssheet from amongst the papers on the table.
The Times. Oh, God.
As I watched, he flipped to the back, where the gossip section was.
Then he read aloud, “The Duke and Duchess of H_____ were seen leaving the ball of the Baron of R____ with their friend, the painter, Mr. F_____.”
“Merda,” Henry said in Portuguese.
I couldn’t agree with him more. This was not good. The gossip sections never spelled out entire names – it was the one thing that kept them from getting shut down – but everyone in London knew who was being slandered, and followed their exploits ravenously. John and I were almost never in them, and so any mention of us would stand out.
“It’s added, almost offhand,” McNaught said, passing the paper to John, “in a larger article about the evening, but –”
“But we didn’t leave with Henry,” John said.
The spy leaned back then, blessedly out of my sight once more. “Which means that someone put this in for another reason.”
“To start the rumors,” John answered, his eyes flying over the page.
“To encourage the rumors,” the spy corrected. “Until this point, our peers have kept their questions about the two of you quiet, but now, after this, those questions will get louder. And now your wife’s name is tied to it as well. Does she know, they’ll wonder. Is she a willing accomplice? Or is she taking a more active ro-”
“Don’t,” John said, flicking is fingers toward McNaught as though shoeing a fly.
The spy fell silent, as passive as he’d remained throughout this conversation. I distrusted this newfound submissiveness immensely.
“That gossip-mongering clatteran,” I said, thinking back to earlier. Only my bruised knuckles kept me from curling my fingers into fists.
John glanced at me in question.
“Lady Worthington advised me to read the rag section of the Times,” I told him. “This is what she meant. I know it. You should have seen the expression on her smug face.”
“What else did she say?” McNaught asked, coming back into my view.
“Oh, no. You do not speak to her,” John said, his tone as smooth as glass, before turning back to me. “Katherine, could you write down everything that happened today?”
I nodded in answer. And in thanks. I might still be angry with him, I might still distrust him, but his reaction to my treatment at the hands of his lifelong friend had gone a long way toward healing some of the damage his lies had done.
“I’ll pass that along to you when she’s finished, James,” John said. Then, moving on, conversationally, “Do you think this is the angle they’ll take to attack me? The illegality of my relationship with Henry?”
“It’s certainly one tactic that could damage you. You need to tamp down on those rumors, spend less time with Henry.”
“No,” three of chorused, at once and without hesitation.
McNaught sighed. “Then at least in public. It would also help if you were more circumspect about his comings and goings in this house.”
“Fair,” John replied, looking to his lover.
Henry nodded in agreement.
“The fact that an urchin delivered a letter to your wife at Amesbury’s will not have gone unnoticed either,” McNaught said.
Now it was my turn to sigh. “Or unremarked,” I added.
“Kit?” Henry asked, managing to turn toward me and still obscure the spy from sight.
“I may have…annoyed the dowager this afternoon.”
“What’s done is done,” John said. “What else do you recommend, James?”
“Their plan seems straightforward enough at this point, and effective. Bring down one of the most lauded couples in the land by trying them in the court of public opinion. The ton are a greedy, grasping, covetous bunch. They’re jealous that you have the king’s trust. Envious that you have the prince’s ear. They crave the power you wield. Most of them must be slavering at this hint of a scandal. They’d like nothing greater than to see you fall so that they might rise in your absence.”
“Yes, yes,” John said, his tone bored. “We understand all this.”
“Do you, though?” McNaught pressed. “Do you really, John? With them against you, the public could turn. And with no support, you become vulnerable.”
“As you said, I have both the prince and the king on my side, and not many others can claim that.”
“But the king is ailing. And the prince’s hold on power is tentative at best. Neither can afford a scandal, or to be tied to closely with scandalous men while they battle each other for power. They might not stand with you if something broke.”
This, finally, gave John pause. “Then what are our options?”
“There are two, as I see them,” McNaught answered. He hesitated then, briefly, before continuing. “The first is to have the duchess and Henry take the fall. You’ve been cuckolded by the artist. Your wife is an adulterer. You become the innocent victim the ton rallies to.”
“No,” John and Henry responded with fierce dismissal.
“Consider it, before you dismiss it. We love to crucify women. She would make an easy target. And when that scandal hits, you can send her and Henry away, together, to the safety of Hampshire. There’s nothing to say that you can’t rejoin them at the end of every season and live a few months of unseen bliss together in the country during the off season. Then, after several years have passed, you can feign public reconciliation and go back to life as you now know it.”
John hesitated then, looking to Henry and I. After McNaught’s confession last night I knew what tempted him: our safety.
“No, John,” Henry said, as if he did to.
John nodded at him. “As you wish.” He turned back to the spy. “What else?”
“We attempt to diffuse the situation. Be seen less with Henry and more with your wife,” McNaught responded. “Be affectionate toward her around the staff. Pay those you’ve placed among them to circulate those rumors in other households. Better yet, get a child on her, or at least pretend that you have.”
John studiously kept his gaze from mine, knowing my feelings on children and refusing to give anything away to the spy. “Sound advice,” he said.
I softened a little more toward him then.
“I would also recommend battening down the hatches,” McNaught added. “The staff that you know is loyal, keep close. Those that might be bribable, send to Hampshire.”
“I’ve long since excised anyone who doesn’t owe us their lives or sanity from the staff,” John answered.
I stared at him in surprise.
“Are you sure of that? Absolutely positive, John?” McNaught pressed. “We have no room for error here.”
John smiled then. It looked forced. “Don’t you think that a man of my intelligence and experience with these people understands that at this point?”
“I think that a man of your intelligence isn’t infallible. I think you’re still trying too hard to protect Henry and Katherine, and that they’re your weakness. So listen to me. Inspect your staff. Closely. Pull back those agents you have spying on our peers and instead employ them around Highgate. Fill your servant ranks with them. Have them watch this home from every angle. I can even lend you some of my own.”
John’s gaze sharpened then. “Who?”
“Adnan, Doruk, and Haydar.”
“Aren’t they a little…conspicuous?” John asked.
“You have several darker skinned staff members already in employment here.”
John waved him away. “Adnan and Doruk, fine. They would blend. But not a seven-foot-tall giant who looks as though he’s just stepped from the Olympic ring.”
“Exactly. Haydar would never fit in. I’m not suggesting you attempt that.”
John’s gaze slid to me again. “You want me to place him at her side. Because though I am the target, she is the one they’re fixated on.”
“You know he would never harm her. And anyone else thinking to would need to bring an army with them.”
“I’ll consider it,” John said.
Who was this seven-foot-tall man? How did John know him? Why did he trust him to guard me? Why did he trust anything that came out of McNaught’s mouth, for that matter? Or was he simply patronizing him? Baiting him? Playing some greater game whose board I couldn’t yet see?
I had so many questions running through my mind that I barely heard McNaught making his excuses to leave. It wasn’t until he was moving past me, the slight hint of lemons on the air, that I came back to myself.
“Oh, and James,” John called.
McNaught paused, his hand on the door handle, and looked back.
The smile John gave him was sharp enough to cut. “Don’t think for one moment that I have fallen for this repentant front that you’ve affected. If you ever touch my wife again, I’ll gladly watch with giddy abandon as Henry fucking dismembers you.”
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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