I spent most of the journey home gazing out of the window, huddled within a heavy woolen shall to stave off the chill of the night as I attempted to come to terms with the fact that I had fallen for my husband. Matters were further compounded by how I felt about his lover.
I see the way you look at Henry, John had said.
Did I love him as well? My feelings for the artist – deep affection, comfort, uncomplicated desire – were almost entirely different than those I felt for John, and yet there was no denying that I experienced them just as strongly. Was it even possible to love two people at the same time in such contrasting ways?
I shook my head, trying to clear it. I was beginning to think that I’d had one too many glasses of champagne tonight to properly sort everything out. It felt as though the bubbles had gone straight to my head, scattering rational thought as they bounced around my mind with giddy abandon. It proved difficult to think of all the reasons I should say no to John’s proposal when what was left in the wake of those bubbles were the vivid fantasies of the three of us together that I had struggled to repress.
I was pulled from these thoughts by some subtle motion John made, and, reminded of his nearness, immediately became hyperaware of his every move across from me. I heard a heavy exhale like a sigh. There was a slither of silk. I turned my head just enough to see him straighten his waistcoat in my periphery. He shifted forward in his seat, stirring the air in the carriage. The movement brought a fresh wave of the cologne he wore with it. I breathed deeply, closing my eyes as I savored the scent, imagining pressing my nose to the spot at base of his throat, where I had once glimpsed him applying it.
“Katherine,” he said.
I opened my eyes and turned fully to meet his gaze.
“What are you thinking of to put such a look on your face?” he asked.
I must have been tipsy indeed if my emotions were so transparent. “Of you,” I said, the champagne making me bold.
“What about me?”
“Of what you said earlier. What you did earlier.”
“Are you troubled by these things?”
I was, I realized. Because it seemed too good to be true. “I am.”
“Should I apologize for laying my hand on your leg?”
I shook my head.
“Then do you find what I asked you to consider offensive?”
“No. I won’t bother denying that I want you both. It’s only that I can’t help but wonder…why now? What has changed to make you suggest such a thing?” I said, voicing the nagging suspicion that had been building in the back of my mind.
His gaze shuttered. It made me instantly wary.
“Have you not felt things between us changing?” he asked, his tone as closed as his expression.
“I have,” I said, now able to look back with clarity at the past several months and realize that I hadn’t been imagining things. Henry had steadily become more and more affectionate, while John’s features more expressive as his gaze lingered between his lover and me. The signs had been there all along; I just hadn’t allowed myself to see them. “But nothing you do is so simple or singularly motivated, John.”
“Just as nothing you do is,” he countered.
He stared at me for several heartbeats in silence. I stared right back at him, refusing to give anything away, thinking, again, of those two massive jungle cats squaring off in their cage.
“Perhaps we should wait for Henry to have this discussion,” he said. “He makes everything between us easier.”
It was true. Without him, John and I might remain like this forever, in emotional stasis, each of us refusing to give ground to the other for fear of losing the upper hand.
“Or perhaps we shouldn’t,” I said, suddenly exhausted by it all. By my fear. This crippling inability to fully trust anyone. “Perhaps this should be the end of all discussion regarding the three of us. I can return to Hampshire on the morrow to give us some time away from each other. Time we can use to clear our heads.”
“Is that what you really want?”
Tears of frustration stung my eyes. I blinked several times in quick succession to keep them at bay. My voice was bitter when I answered. “I honestly don’t know.”
It was the wisest course of action, but also the loneliest, and I had already been so lonely for so long that I didn’t know how much more I could stand without losing my mind or becoming so distracted by it that I slipped up in some way that might prove disastrous.
John leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together between them as he stared down toward the carriage floor. I gazed longingly at the top of his head, wanting nothing more than to tug my glove off and thread my fingers through his golden curls.
“We’ve been married for two years,” he said, his voice soft. “And in that time, I’ve been forced to keep things from you. To lie to you. These lies have protected you.” He lifted his gaze to mine. “And Henry. And myself. What has changed is that the threat that forced me to tell some of these lies has lessened in the time that we’ve been married. It no longer felt as necessary to remain so emotionally or physically removed from you, and so my feelings began to evolve.”
“I’m not yet ready to tell you everything,” he said. “Nor do I think it’s safe to.”
He had just admitted to lying to me. I should have felt betrayed. Perhaps I would have if I had been easier to trust, but it’s hard to betray someone that never put their faith in you. I also believed him when he said he did it to protect the three of us, and that, more than anything eased what small sting of deceit I initially felt.
“I would apologize for lying, but I don’t regret it,” he continued. “I’m not a decent man, Katherine. I have destroyed lives. Some of them were the few sacrificed for the good of the many as Glover and I attempt to drag this country forward into the modern age, but others have been ruined for my own benefit and advancement. You know this, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I told him. God help me.
“And yet you still desire me?”
My voice dropped to a whisper. “Yes.” I couldn’t even bring myself to be ashamed of it.
“Because we’re much alike, you and I. Beneath your pretty face and your polite manners, something altogether different hides. Another facet of your personality. One much like my own. One that would do almost anything if pushed too far. You’ve allowed me glimpses of it here and there. And still I desire you. Perhaps even more so because of it.” He paused then, his gaze running over me in open perusal. “I wonder sometimes if even you realize how deep that dark streak runs. It makes me want to invite it out to play.”
I sucked in a harsh breath and leaned away from him, afraid of what might happen if I leaned forward instead. I was desperate now, feeling like I stood on the edge of some high precipice, a dangerous drop on either side. “But what if someone finds out about the three of us?”
We passed into the darkness between streetlamps. His answer came from the shadows, spoken in a voice that seemed to be born from them. “Do you think I would allow anyone to threaten us?”
The hair on the back of my neck prickled in warning. Beneath us, the carriage wheels rattled over the cobblestones, bringing us closer to light. The expression he wore was entirely open, allowing me what I feared was my first real glimpse of what he kept hidden behind his usual mask of bored cynicism. At first I thought it was the way the shadows played across his visage that made him look so utterly lacking in humanity, but then we rattled past a merry torch, and its bright light did nothing to dispel the darkness radiating out of him.
I had been wrong. He and I were alike, yes, but until this moment, I had missed a critical difference. I loved books, craved closeness with Henry, wanted a friend like Mary Ainsley, missed my brother, and pined for days filled with laughter and frivolity. The savage part of me that I kept so well hidden was but a small piece of this greater self. As I stared into my husband’s deadened eyes, I realized that while we might share this aspect of our personalities, his own savagery encompassed a much greater part of his being. And still I loved him. Perhaps even more because of it. Here was someone who would do absolutely anything to protect me if pushed too far.
“God help us,” I breathed.
He blinked and life returned to his features. “God help everyone else, for I want nothing to do with him.”
“This could all end very badly.”
He leaned closer. “Adds an exciting element of danger, doesn’t it?”
It did. A sudden pulse of lust blew through me at the thought. If there was a hell, I was likely bound for it, but in that moment I couldn’t bring myself to care.
“What about Henry?” I pressed. “He’ll be hurt if it does.”
“Henry is an intelligent, insightful man capable of making his own decisions,” he said. “He sees just as much as we do. He knows me for what I am. And he knows you for what you really are, too. We may be slightly mad for wanting each other, but Henry wants us both. What do you think that says about what lurks at his core?” He smiled then, showing me all of his teeth. The streetlight glanced off his canines, turning the look wolfish.
I found myself grinning back at him in response. It felt feral.
“There she is,” he said.
My fear, my guilt, my concern for bringing ruin onto his household, they all disappeared, banished to the recesses of my mind by the way that he was looking at me. By the way he so easily accepted the part of myself that I had spent years denying. By the thought of Henry being able to do the same.
The carriage began to slow. I came back to myself to find that I was on the very edge of my seat, as though I’d been about to launch myself across the divide.
The door was pulled open a moment later. John helped me out himself, clasping my hand so tightly that it was almost painful. We walked side by side into the house, tension drawn taut between us like a bowstring. My heartbeat was loud in my ears, my breath harsh. Our pace was slow and steady, but it felt as though we raced each other up the stairs. The wild gallop of my heartbeat might have had something to do with it.
We met Henry in the third-floor hallway. A servant must have informed him of our return, for he stepped from the room he used as his art studio still wiping paint from his hands.
“You’re home early,” he said. His gaze dropped to our intertwined fingers, and he froze, a slow smile spreading over his face. “I’m guessing that it went well?”
The question was clearly directed at John. It sent my mind spinning. Did he mean with the Duke of Glover? Or was this something else? Had they discussed propositioning me earlier? Was that what Henry had whispered in my husband’s ear?
John nodded at him. “The study.”
I met Henry’s gaze as we pulled even with him. Something stirred in those dark, soulful eyes. Something I had never seen before. Something, I thought, he might have been holding back. It was like watching a leviathan rumble awake in the unfathomable depths of the ocean. He had been wise to hide it. Had I seen such a look just half a year past, I would have misinterpreted it, drew parallels between his size and my father, become fearful of him all over again. But now I saw that look and instead of being afraid, I was startlingly aware of how a man that large might use his body to inflict pleasure instead of pain.
I broke eye contact as we moved past him. The nearness of his heavy footfalls told me that he had fallen into step just behind me. I could feel him there, at my back, feel the heat radiating off of him, feel his gaze running down the nape of my neck, tracing the curve of my waist, caressing the swell of my hips.
I shuddered. John’s fingers tightened on mine in response. I squeezed his hand back as hard as I could, feeling his knuckles grind together in my grip. The tension between the two of us had swelled to include Henry. It was no longer a bowstring threatening to snap, but a lit fuse, only a millimeter away from detonation.
John shoved the study door open. Henry shut it more carefully behind us. And then my hand was wrenched from my husband’s and I was up off the ground, the room blurring past me as Henry strode across it, his large legs making quick work of the space between the door and the settee. If any other man had picked me up bodily and attempted to manhandle me in such a way, he would have found that the woman he thought he held was in fact a wildcat, all tooth and claw. But this was not just some man. This was a man that I longed for with a desperation that bordered on need. I wrapped my arms around his neck and held on tight, relishing the feel of his own, much larger arms holding me so easily within their grip.
“Henry, we haven’t settled anything yet,” John said, amusement in his voice. “She’s only just agreed. You’re going to frighten the woman off, you great beast.”
“Are you frightened of me, Kit?” Henry rumbled, slowing.
He turned then, to face the room, and sat on the settee with me still in his arms. I snuggled closer into him and laid my head on his heavy shoulder, the raging fire of lust from a moment before calming to a low roar because of John’s words. He was right; nothing was settled. I knew then that it needed to be before we could proceed. It would be all too easy to leap blindly into this if we let ourselves, but with three people involved, I thought there was a lengthy discourse ahead of us. How could I possibly fit into the relationship these two men shared? Or did I at all? Was this purely physical? Would I only be called upon to join them once in a blue moon? Or would I spend every evening in their company?
John approached the settee at a slower pace than his lover had, his gaze running over Henry and I with careful consideration I was beginning to think that I had been misinterpreting.
“What does that look mean, I wonder,” I said.
“He’s imagining the two of us together,” Henry answered.
His words burst a dam in my mind, flooding it with scenes of he and I, of his large body twined around mine, of the joining of pale flesh and dark skin, of John there, watching us, eventually joining us. I twisted my fingers into Henry’s shirt and turned to gaze up at him.
He looked down at me in the same way he had in the hallway, something profound and insatiable in his expression. His large hand rose to caress my cheek, his calluses hard against my delicate skin. I closed my eyes and leaned into him, exhaling deeply when he shifted forward to press his lips against my forehead.
“How do we move forward from here?” I asked.
“Are you saying that you want to move forward from here?” John asked, much nearer than before.
The settee shifted, and I opened my eyes to see John settling into the far side of it, one knee resting on the cushions as he turned toward us. Verbal consent was what he was after, in the presence of a witness.
A month, a week, even a day before, I would have declined this proposition, falling prey to my fear and distrust. But so much had changed in the past few hours that my head still spun from all the revelations. While part of me still worried that physical intimacy might ruin the friendships I had forged with these men, another part decided that it was worth the risk. Happiness. That was what had been missing from my life. I would be a self-sacrificing fool to let a chance at it slip through my fingers now, regardless of the risks I must take in pursuit of it.
“I want to move forward from here,” I said.
“Then we should proceed slowly and carefully,” Henry said. “It’s one thing to verbalize our attraction to each other, another thing entirely to act upon it. Kit, I take it you’re a virgin?” he asked, glancing down at me.
I nodded up at him.
“And how much do you know of physical intimacy?”
I felt a flush of embarrassment and immediately attempted to tamp down on it. There was no room for the emotion here, between us. Nor deception. This would never work if I couldn’t freely speak my mind.
I took a deep, steadying breath before answering. “I know more than the average virgin, I wager. I once forced Marcus to ferret out information for me on every act that could take place between two willing participants. I now have several books on the subjects, some with quite detailed drawings, at least one of which is likely contraband.”
“Two willing participants?” John said. “An interesting choice of words. I’m guessing that you used them on purpose, because it’s not just men and women you’re speaking of, but men and men, and women and women?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“How do you feel about the thought of Henry and I together? Without you?”
I dropped my gaze from him, refusing to give into the awkwardness that threatened. If I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable just speaking about it, I doubted I would be able to face them after something physical transpired.
Feeling John and Henry’s eyes on me, I closed my own and took several deep breaths, willing my unease to dissipate with every exhale. It proved surprisingly easy once I set my mind to it, and I opened my eyes to gaze at my husband as the last remnants fled. I was left with a clear head to fully consider the question that he had posed.
“For starters, I don’t think of you and Henry together as an amoral, sinful act,” I told him. “The way I see it, if there is a God, he doesn’t trouble himself with the way two individuals love each other. He probably has much more important matters to worry over. But past that?”
I looked to Henry then, leaning away from him slightly to take in the way his perfectly tailored shirt pulled tight across the definition of his chest. Of how his shoulders strained against the fabric. Though I knew that he had shaved this morning, the stubble on his jaw now looked like a two-day beard, and only served to darken his already swarthy complexion, reminding me of the pirate lord in the novel I had been reading earlier in the day. He was as attractive as my husband, just in a different way.
I turned my focus to John, wondering how to define him. With Henry, it was easy. A series of strong, masculine lines combined to create a man of large stature and bold features that turned heads wherever he went. John was something else entirely. Beautiful where Henry was handsome. The softness of his features contrasting with the hard lines he forced them into.
In my mind, I saw Henry embrace him just as he had before we departed for the viscount’s, light meeting dark. I imagined the look of challenge melting from John’s expression as their lips met in a slow, exploratory kiss. Strong hands came up to slip off jackets and shirts, roamed over newly exposed skin with quiet fervor.
“I think it’s beautiful and natural. And exciting,” I said, fighting the blush that threatened.
The arm Henry had banded around my waist tightened a fraction, and I felt his manhood begin to stir to life beneath me. He shifted then, as if to slide his pelvis away to keep me from noticing. I reached down and grabbed his leg, stopping him. The knowledge that my excitement stirred him into arousal was a powerful, heady realization, and I wouldn’t have him hide it from me.
John’s focus snapped to my hand on his lover’s thigh. A slow, sensual smile lit his features. I stared at the sight in open wonder, once again drawing comparisons between his heavy-lidded gaze and the masters of the Renaissance. In that moment he looked like an angel come to earth, only someone had painted the devil into his grin.
“What of your own pleasure?” he asked.
I thought of Aberdine and almost mentioned our dalliance, how it had spurred me to discover la petite mort for myself, but ultimately decided against it. He didn’t belong in this room with us. “I know how to find my own pleasure,” I told them.
“You finding your own pleasure,” John mused. “I would very much like to watch that.”
I went still within Henry’s grip. Thanks to the way he had positioned me on his lap, my feet faced John. It was all too easy to imagine drawing off my undergarments, slipping my skirts up over my knees, and spreading my legs wide to give him an unencumbered view of the most intimate part of myself while my fingers slid into it.
“Now?” I breathed, not knowing what I would do if he said yes. Could I be that bold? I certainly was in my fantasies, but would that bravery translate into reality? I wet my lips as I considered this, and John’s gaze dropped to watch my tongue with obvious interest. The look on his face decided it for me: I would do it.
Our eyes met once more, and his own darkened as if he sensed my decision. “Not now. A cooler head than my own advised us to take our time. Perhaps we begin with a kiss.”
He moved toward me across the cushions. I had three options: I could position my legs behind him, onto his lap, or apart, letting his forward momentum bunch my dress up as he slid between them. A thrill of lust swept through me at the thought of the latter, and so I did as I willed, placing one foot along the back of the couch and the other in front of him.
His smile was a wicked thing as he closed the distance between us. The fingers of his left hand slipped over the top of the settee until they reached the back of his lover’s neck. I watched them tangle into Henry’s dark hair, and felt an answering hardening of his lover’s manhood beneath me. My gaze snapped down when John gripped my left knee with his free hand, much as he had in the carriage. The hem of my skirts was raised all the way to my thighs now, and the only barrier between his skin and my own the whisper-thin silk stockings that I wore.
I wanted to reach up and draw him closer, but when I lifted my gaze and caught sight of his own, I froze. It wasn’t on my face, but sliding lower. I could almost feel where it alighted. His eyes dropped to where the tops of my breasts threatened to overflow from the fabric of my dress. My nipples tightened in awareness, rubbing against the inside of my corset. I began to breathe deeper just to pull more pleasure from the motion.
John’s thumb slid up my inner thigh before twirling in slow, languorous circles that felt more like torture than pleasure. A few inches higher and he would be right where I needed him.
“John,” I said, not knowing if I was pleading for him to stop or continue.
He took my tone as encouragement, using his grip on my knee to slowly pry it away from him enough that he could close the distance between us. He stopped a breath away from me.
I stared at his full lips in anticipation, wondering if they were as soft as they looked, how they would feel pressed against my own. Beneath me, it felt as if his lover was now fully aroused, and though I had no real reference to gauge the size of his manhood, it seemed proportional to the largeness of the rest of him. I was at once fully aware of not only Henry, but also John, my head swimming with thoughts of the three of us, my entire body so hypersensitive with desire that it was painful.
I raised my gaze from John’s lips to see him staring past me, beyond my shoulder, where Henry no doubt stared back at him. They were once again having one of their silent discussions. John’s eyes darkened with what might have been a command, and I felt Henry’s arm slide from my waist. His hand smoothed up the silk that covered my lower back, tripped up the buttons that held the gown in place, and then threaded into my hair.
I thought John meant to kiss me, but at a soft, gentle tug from Henry, I realized that he intended for his lover to. While he watched.
I leaned my head back, allowing Henry to hold it aloft as his mouth descended toward my own. My eyes closed when our lips met, and deprived of sight, my other senses came into finer focus. His mouth was feverishly warm, gentle, yet firm.
John’s hand slid higher on my thigh, his grip tighter, his thumb still working in agonizing circles over my stocking. “Open your lips, Katherine,” he said. “Let him in.”
Something about being instructed in such a way while knowing that his entire focus was upon Henry and me drove me to the brink of madness. I opened my lips to the larger man willingly, and though I knew what was coming, I still gasped a little when his tongue slid against my own. He used it to deepen the kiss, and it became impossible to form rational thought as his mouth worked against mine.
Want. Need. Now. Singular words filled my mind; singular desires became my entire being.
The feel of movement between my legs told me that John had leaned closer. I broke the kiss with Henry, fisted my hands into my husband’s lapels, and pulled him toward me. He was forced to release my thigh and brace his hand beside my hip to keep from falling forward. Our mouths crashed into each other. God, but his lips were soft. So soft, and so full that they completely cushioned my own. The dichotomy between them and the hardness of his lover beneath me was striking, only serving to push me higher.
John broke the kiss and used the hand that still held the back of his lover’s neck to force their lips together instead. He had to slide closer still to reach Henry, only stopping when his hip met my groin. I stared up at the two of them hungrily as their mouths moved against each others, giving in to the urge to slide my pelvis forward slightly. Henry and I moaned at the same time, for the motion caused my rear to slide over his manhood even as my sex ground against John’s hip.
“Enough,” John said, breaking away from Henry.
We stilled then, only inches apart, all three of us breathing as though we had just finished a footrace. I felt Henry’s chest shudder then. He still cupped the back of my neck, and I leaned backward to see that he was struggling to keep from laughing.
“You might need to bar the door tonight to keep us out, Kit,” he said, his eyes creasing at the corners.
“Or to keep herself locked in,” John said.
I turned my head to see him grinning in amusement, his lips even fuller than usual because they had so recently been used. His hair was slightly disheveled, his cravat askew. There was an answering laughter in his eyes as he gazed at Henry, and something else. Love, I thought. Trust, perhaps.
“I should leave now,” I said.
Seeing John so at ease suddenly made me question how on earth I could ever fit in to this dynamic, made me realize just how differently he looked at the two of us. The thought cleared the heat of desire from my body and left me feeling cold in its wake. We hadn’t yet discussed the emotional aspect of this endeavor. Could I truly go forward with this, knowing that it might only ever be physical, that they might never return the love I felt for them?
John looked down at me, desire and amusement still etched in his features. How long had I wanted to see him so unguarded? What would I do to see him further undone? Whatever they wanted, I realized. I would agree to whatever they asked of me. I was so desperate for this that I would settle for mere scraps. One night in twenty with them, if that was all they desired.
My thoughts must have given me away, for the light began to fade from John’s expression. I loathed to see it go, regretted that I caused it, and so, hoping to keep the mood light, I plastered a smile on my face and straightened in Henry’s lap. “Right. Someone is going to have to help me up. I don’t think my knees will hold.”
Henry’s answering chuckle rumbled through me.
John was the one to do it, biding the larger man to remain seated while he escorted me to the door. When we reached it, he used his grip on my arm to turn me so my back was toward it. Then he stepped so close that the tips of his shoes slid beneath my skirts. He raised his hands and braced them on the door on either side of me, effectively caging me in. I had to crane my head back to look up at him. His features had once again settled into their mask of impassivity.
“Henry will think we’re sharing some flirtation,” he said, so low that his voice wouldn’t carry. “What was that look I just saw?”
“Trepidation,” I said. “Momentary worry. Please think nothing of it. I want this.”
“And we want you,” he told me.
Did he really though? Not a hint of emotion slipped through to reveal his true feelings. I felt like I had taken one step forward only to take two more back.
My own mask started to slip over my features in response, but I quickly cast it aside. One of us would have to give ground if we had any hope of moving forward. I doubted that John could, and so I must be the one to bridge this gap. I found it easier than I would have anticipated. These brief few moments of unguarded passion had turned me into an addict, craving his smiles, hungering for his looks of open longing. Whatever prideful competition I’d been locked in with him up until this point meant nothing in comparison.
“Take tonight to fully think it over,” he told me. “We can all do so, and decide in the morning whether we’re still comfortable with it.”
A low chuckle slipped through my lips. I shook my head. “The only thing I’ll be thinking of tonight is the three of us together on that couch.”
His full lips lifted slightly, a crack in the mask. “Will you pleasure yourself to the thought of it?”
“Yes,” I said, staring boldly up at him.
He half lidded his eyes and leaned in, whispering, “Begone then, before I think better of it and try to trap you here.”
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.