James McNaught, known spy, suspected master manipulator, closed the door behind him and paused just inside the threshold of the room. In the wane, sickly glow of the dying fire, he looked even more intimidating than he had in the ballroom; larger, paler, that ruthlessly handsome visage as cold as if he had been quarried and carved from ice.
His piercing gaze swept methodically over his new surroundings, assessing and dismissing each object in turn, just as it had at the Coal Baron’s. If he was surprised to find the three of us huddled together on the floor, it didn’t show in his expression.
Henry’s arms shifted around me, as though shielding me from the spy’s sight. Belatedly, I remembered my loosened bodice and pulled it tighter to myself. I should have been embarrassed to be seen this way by a man such as he, and in any other circumstance, I would have been, but in that moment, I found there was little room in my mind for any emotion aside from the sudden, overwhelming resurgence of my fear.
Are you behind this? I wanted to demand.
“I’ll pour myself a scotch while you set the duchess to rights,” he drawled, striding toward the liquor service.
He moved with uncanny silence for a man so large. Though I watched his boots connecting with the carpet, I couldn’t detect even the faintest trace of a footfall. The only sound that came from him was the whisper of his cloak as it fluttered around his calves. It reminded me of the rustling of feathers. Given the color of the garment, it was easy to think of it as a pair of folded raven wings, and he that dark-plumed bird of ill-portents and evil omens.
He turned away from us when he reached his destination, allowing us some small semblance of privacy. I watched his back while trepidation trickled down my own. John said he had spied upon me. Had he followed me as well? A man who could move with such wraithlike grace might have dogged my steps for months without me realizing it. Might spy upon me still.
An image of this black-clad man lurking outside my bedroom door while I tossed and turned in within my sheets surfaced in my mind. I saw myself calling out into the darkness, all my secrets and fears spilling from my unconscious lips to fall with destructive force upon his ears.
“Go,” Henry said, pulling me from my thoughts. It was a moment before I realized he was speaking to John. “I’ll see to Kit.”
John cast an unreadable look in my direction and then rose to join the spy in the opposite corner of the room.
I closed my eyes and put my head in my hands as Henry began to retighten my corset, trying and failing to corral my imagination back into its pen.
The soft murmurs of masculine voices came from the corner. I heard the sounds of bottles being opened, glassware clinking.
“I’m sorry, Kit,” Henry said, voice so low I could barely hear him from a foot away. “I’m sorry to have hurt you. And to have lied to you.” His fingers stilled for a moment in their work. “But I’m not sorry for ensuring you knew the truth about Aberdine. And I’m not sorry that you and John were forced together. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us for our deceptions, but if you only find room there to forgive one of us, let it be John. He never meant to marry, but then he married you. To save you. Just…remember that before you condemn him. He meant to give you a good life. He meant to give you safety and security. He never thought that you would be snared in this web alongside him.”
How foolish of him, I almost blurted. With no knowledge of who had sent the letters and only assumptions as to what their purpose and who their target was, I would have spent every day of the past three years waiting for the next one to arrive. That John hadn’t was frankly…unbelievable.
It made me wonder if he was still lying. To me and to Henry.
Unbidden, a memory surfaced of John’s words from so long ago. When I had begged to be sent away instead of marrying him.
“Much better to have someone such as yourself tucked close, within sight at all times,” he had told me. “Out on the continent, my enemies might find and make use of you against me.”
I had been confused by this declaration then, but now it seemed clear what he had meant.
Henry was wrong. I was sure of it. John had known something like this would happen, or, at the very least, he had suspected it might, and had decided it was better to tie himself to me than to leave me to my fate or send me some place this unseen enemy might find me.
Henry’s fingers resumed their work when it became clear I wouldn’t respond.
I glanced up toward my husband to see him and James standing shoulder to shoulder with their backs to us, their heads bowed as they spoke. John said something I couldn’t catch, and McNaught raised a hand and placed it on his shoulder as if consoling him. It was a comforting gesture. A friendly gesture. One I didn’t believe for even so much as a heartbeat. John glanced back at me then, his expression as indecipherable as ever.
What are you still hiding? I wondered.
His gaze shuttered even further, as if locking down his secrets.
This was the difference between Henry and us. The artist wasn’t naïve, merely an inherently good human being who expected decency and honor because he was decent and honorable, while John and I were not, and therefore did not.
“All set, Kit,” Henry said, giving my ties a final tug. “It’s not too constrictive, is it?”
“It’s fine,” I managed.
“I didn’t want to overdo it so soon after you had trouble breathing.”
He released me then, and I scooted away from him.
His gaze dropped to my chest and then over to the corner of the room. “It’s quite loose. Here,” he said, unbuttoning his jacket.
Pain blossomed through my breast. Not from my lungs, but from my heart. It was just like him to always think of the safety and wellbeing of others. To know that I wouldn’t want to be so exposed in front of a stranger.
“This will have to do for now,” he said, undoing the last button.
Beneath the jacket he wore a fitted white shirt that clung to his broad chest in a way that only hours before would have shot shivers of awareness racing through my body. I felt nothing but regret now. Even when he shrugged out of it in a move that put those heavy, rolling muscles on display.
Had it truly been the night before that we had sprawled on the sofa in this very room and taken the first steps toward becoming lovers? It felt as though a year had passed since then. One fraught with hardship and peril.
“Thank you,” I said, slipping my arms into the sleeves as he helped me into it. It was warm, like him, and smelled of his cologne. I had a swift and overwhelming desire to burrow down in it and hide from the world. Forever.
It struck me then, that I longed for nothing more than to immediately and unequivocally forgive him for what, just moments ago, seemed like a monumental betrayal. He was a victim in all of this, just as I was. I believed him when he said that he had lied only to keep me safe. Just as I believed that John’s lies still endangered us all.
I reached out and took Henry’s hand in mine before gazing up at him in the dying light. My God, he was handsome. Though he had shaved that morning, his beard had already filled in so that a shadow of stubble covered the lower half of his face, giving him a rough edge that was nothing but an illusion. He was kindness incarnate. Compassionate, loving, gentle, sweet. It almost hurt to look at him, knowing that I might never again feel those lips upon my own.
“I forgive you,” I said. His calluses were rough under my fingers as I turned his hand over and placed a kiss on his palm.
“What do you think the notes will demand of you this time?” McNaught asked John across the room. His tone was far too light for the topic of conversation, as if those notes hadn’t already led to the death of one person and threatened the life of another.
I dropped Henry’s hand to look over at the spy. If he was indeed behind the notes, he was playing a dangerous game by speaking so boldly. Was this why John still lied? Did he suspect this man he called friend? Was he trying to protect me and Henry from him while he took the risk of ferreting out the truth himself?
John was quiet a moment as he poured himself two fingers of scotch. “I have no notion of their intent. I fear they mean to blackmail my wife. Do what we say, or else we’ll expose your husband for the depraved sodomite that he is.” He raised his glass and tossed the contents down in one swallow.
McNaught waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Too many of your peers have already guessed at that for it to have the kind of impact our enemy typically angles for.”
John stiffened and turned to stare at him.
“Come now, John,” McNaught said. “Married two years to a healthy, beautiful woman with no children to show for it, no hint of a mistress to excuse your lack of attention to your wife, and yet always in the company of your unlikely artist friend, Mr. Fletcher? You didn’t exactly think you were being circumspect, did you?”
John frowned, then opened his mouth to answer.
I missed his response, for a sort of numbing calm was beginning to descend upon me, muting his words. The letter. John’s father. Suicide. Treason. The notes. McNaught a spy. My father here in London. The manipulations. The threats. The ton gossiping about John and Henry. It was all too much. I had finally reached my limit.
I felt as though I had been plucked from my reality and dropped into a misty world of nothingness. It was a pleasant world. One where the churning storm of my emotions quieted from the violent roar of waves crashing against a rocky shore to the gentle lapping of a low tide. Unable to bear the clawing panic of my current reality, I opened myself up to the peaceful lie I was offered and let it sweep me out to sea. I could feel the tempest raging just beneath the surface, but here, where I floated above it, I remained untouched, an untroubled spectator to the events that were taking place around me.
No. This is not good. You’re in shock, a voice ghosted through my mind. With it came a swell of emotion that surged up over my face and down into my throat in an icy torrent. I viciously silenced the voice before it could drown me.
It seemed as though someone else’s hand accepted Henry’s offer to stand and escort me to the sofa. Someone else’s fingers slipped around the drink John offered when he and McNaught rejoined us some moments later. I barely even felt the burn of the alcohol when I took those first few fortifying sips.
How odd, I thought, taking an even further step back from myself. And then I was completely removed from the scene. In that moment, I became she. Me became her.
I was but a spectator as John and McNaught pulled the leather chairs away from the fire and arranged them opposite the couch. I watched from afar as the three men poured over the notes, comparing the handwriting, the color of the wax, the thickness of the parchment, and found them all to be identical.
“Why do they always wait until you’re in town to send the notes? Do they think we would ever believe you were the one behind them?” Henry asked afterward.
The spy shook his head in negation. He looked furious. It was the first true emotion I thought I had seen from him. It sent another swell of awareness surging up over my head, and I floundered in it for a few brief moments before I mastered my panic and let the calm reclaim me.
“They’re taunting me.” McNaught said. “My inability to rout them out. The inability of my peers to make any progress in my absence. There have been several developments while I’ve been away that I need to speak with you about in full, once more pressing matters have been dealt with tonight.”
“Are you all right, Kit?” Henry whispered down at the woman beside him.
She smiled up at him as though she was and patted his hand in reassurance. It did nothing to smooth the worry lines from his brow, I noticed.
And then McNaught was asking her questions, so very many questions, and she was answering him with calm, measured responses. Yes, I had a clear look at the footman. Yes, he was taller than me. About half a head. Brown hair, yes. What shade of brown? Oh, not quite so dark as Henry’s. His eyes? Well, they were also brown, and this time darker than Henry’s. Why yes, now that you mention it, there was something about his voice. His accent. He spoke not like a servant, but with the cultured tones of the ton. Was the man attractive? No, but nor was he unattractive. He was remarkably average. What’s that you say? You expect I’ll be sent other notes? Of course I’ll make sure to pay better attention the next time one is delivered.
And then McNaught was gone, off to chase down the footman fitting the description she had provided him with. It left her alone with John and Henry. Though the letters were sitting where they had been haphazardly discarded on the table between the couch and the chairs, I felt as though the weight of them were bearing down on me, threatening to sink me back into my body. Desperate to flee before that should happen, I heard the woman making her excuses to leave.
I’m so very tired. No, I do not want to stay and talk. Yes, I do understand that you have things you still need to say to me, John, but they’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Henry, I’m fine, I swear it. I’ll see you both in the morning. Yes, I’m fine to be alone right now. Yes, I’m sure. Goodnight.
She marched back to my room, where Harriet awaited her. I watched her through the vanity mirror as she smiled serenely at her handmaid.
“How was the masquerade, Your Grace?” Harriet asked.
Wonderful, thank you for asking. There were so many lovely costumes, so much champagne, so much laughter and frivolity. Exactly what I needed after that dreadfully boring dinner party last night. And you should have seen the ballroom. Such a stunning ceiling. Such beautifully gilded decoration.
On and on she went. Harriet must have assumed she was intoxicated, for she made sure she had plenty of water, and insisted on helping her into bed.
And then the handmaid was gone. And she was alone. With no one left to lie to.
It started in her fingers. That fine trembling that gives away one’s true emotional state. She clasped them together in her lap, but that was no good, for it soon worked its way into her arms. Piece by piece, the shaking dismantled the safety of the numbness I had sought refuge in. It fractured and shattered, falling down around me to drop me back into my body with savage contempt.
The icy sea of fear surged up to greet me.
I scrambled from my bed and then stumbled to the fire on legs still numb with shock. A small stack of firewood was gathered in a neat pile beside it, and I frantically began adding log after log. I didn’t stop until it burned bright enough to drive the darkness away. Until it became a furnace hot enough to warm my trembling limbs.
I sat in front of it and stared into the flames as though watching it burn my chance at happiness to cinders. McNaught. John. The lies. My father. Aberdine. The notes. Henry.
My breathing hitched ominously. I stood and began to pace, clutching my arms around myself to stop their trembling.
I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to believe. Why had I been the one to receive the note? What could they possibly want from me? Why now? Why after all this time? Did they even know about Henry, John, and I? Or was the secret they alluded to something else? John’s father’s suicide? It could have been anything. Who knew what other lies my husband had told us. What other omissions had come back to bite us.
Was I foolish to suspect McNaught? It seemed too obvious now, that the notes always appeared when he was in town. Or was that intentional? Had he contrived it to make us dismiss him because of the fact that it was too obvious? Could he truly be behind them after all?
John. I wanted to go to him. Rage at him. Demand he answer all of my questions. Without Henry there to calm me or to still my husband’s tongue. I wanted to slap that handsome face. Curse at him for making me feel so helpless again.
I paced toward the wide bank of windows in my room, dragging my hands through my hair as I tried to reason with myself. As I tried to simply think past my fear and paranoia. Tried to breathe around my mounting panic.
The darkness beyond my windowpanes seemed to crouch there, as if waiting for me to come to close. Cursing my imagination, I turned from them and paced toward the door again.
A small sound came from the fireplace after I passed it, a log crackling in the hearth.
Then a sigh like a breeze or the shifting of fabric.
I froze, turning toward it in confusion.
In my periphery, a shadow surged forth from the darkness.
And then a large hand clamped over my mouth.
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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