I did the brunt of the story telling, beginning with my visit to Marcus and my father’s intent to disinherit him.
“We’ll prevent it from coming to pass,” John said. “Whether through blackmail, coercion, or deceit. If that fails, I’ll have him knifed by a footpad as he leaves the brothel he frequents.”
I blanched at that statement. John had my father watched while he was in town. We agreed early on in our marriage that he would only share what was pertinent – when I might see him at a function being chief among that information – and while I had recently balked at keeping secrets from each other, this was a revelation I wish John had never brought to light. If my father’s interactions with my mother were anything to go by, he was as cruel inside the bedroom as he was without. The fact that he frequented a brothel, and that the women of said brothel were at his mercy on a regular basis, made my blood boil.
If I had any say in the decision about what to do with him, we would skip blackmail and deceit and go straight to assassination. By ending his miserable life, we might save those of myself, Marcus, and God knew how many others. Perhaps I should feel…something about the fact that I was ready to have my father murdered, but I was no longer the woman I had been. All I felt now was regret that I hadn’t let John ruin him years ago.
I continued with the story from there, detailing my departure from my brother’s apartment, the brief carriage ride, and the instigation of the riot. Adnan spoke up several times to provide details that I missed, either because I had remained inside the carriage or because I’d been blocked from seeing the events by my guards.
“His men were there from the onset?” McNaught asked.
“They were,” Adnan said.
On my other side, Haydar grunted his agreement.
John drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “So they knew where she was and had time to stage an ambush.”
McNaught nodded. “Which meant they must have been alerted to her whereabouts almost as soon as she set out.”
Henry and I met each other’s eyes across the room. His frown was a near match for my own as he turned to John. “We either have more than one spy in the house, or Des Jardins has been watching us and waiting for a moment like this.”
John’s eyes sparked with fury. “It would appear so.” He rose from his seat and went to the bell pull. The maid who appeared a moment later was sent away again, to summon Sherman.
The elderly butler arrived several minutes later. “Yes, Your Grace?”
“There may be two spies in the house instead of one. Find out if anyone stepped out around the same time the duchess did, or posted a letter. And have someone check with the men and women posted in the neighborhood around the time that the duchess departed for her brother’s and find out if any of them noted anything suspicious.”
Sherman’s expression darkened. “Of course. Anything else?”
John hesitated. “Not yet.”
With a bow, Sherman left us.
It took an hour to tell the rest of the story, with myself and Adnan sharing the brunt of the work. There were even more holes in my memory than I realized. Or perhaps my mind, in the same way it had with that baby deer and my mother, attempted to protect me from the worst of the carnage. Perhaps it didn’t let me truly see all of the horrors that had unfolded around me.
John listened with wolfish intensity, his head rarely turning, only his eyes moving within his face as they darted back and forth between me and Adnan. His expression remained almost entirely unreadable, but from the slight curl of his upper lip, I thought he might be fighting off the urge to snarl.
Henry, on the other hand, stood from his seat and came over to crouch by my feet when I got around to the part where I had been forced to fight that man off. His hands enveloped mine in my lap.
“Never again,” he said, voice raw with emotion. There was so much conviction in his words that I actually believed he might be capable of keeping that promise.
I prayed that he could, but the practical side of me planned for the inevitable return of violence. Even if I spent the rest of my days surrounded by guards, I would still demand lessons in knife work and swordplay. Hell, I would even learn how to heft a shield and wield a spear if it meant that I would never feel so helpless again.
Instead of retaking his seat, Henry planted himself on the floor in front of me. I widened my legs as much as my skirts would allow, and he settled between them, his back resting against the couch. It seemed he meant to take his promise of keeping me close from now on quite literally.
McNaught took the most active role in the story out of our three listeners. He pestered me and Adnan with question after question. When exactly had Des Jardins slip from the alleyway? How many men did he have in total? What were his exact words to me?
We answered every one in as much detail as we could, filling in the gaps for each other. He continued to ply our memories long after the story was over, searching for any small scrap of information we might have overlooked because we didn’t deem it critical enough to mention.
“No, I don’t remember the color of the stitching in his saddle,” I said, at wit’s end. “Why on earth would that be of any importance?”
“Because I might be able to use it to find where he’s keeping his horse stabled,” McNaught answered.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. There were thousands of public stables in the city where one might rent a stall. But the hotels within London mostly had their own stables, and Des Jardins could be keeping his horse there for all McNaught knew. It would be near impossible to track him down via the color of the stitching in his goddamn saddle, and I began to feel like McNaught was interrogating us simply because he enjoyed frustrating others.
“Enough,” John said. “Who is Des Jardins?”
McNaught looked as though he wanted to ignore the order and continue badgering me, but one look at John’s face convinced him of the folly of that. “He’s the fourth son of a Marquis. A captain in Napoleon’s gendarmerie nationale. His father and elder brother were royalists during the revolution. It’s likely he was too, at first, but after they were both beheaded, he quickly aligned himself with the revolutionists and saved his own skin.”
“Why did he try to abduct my wife?” John asked.
McNaught sighed. “I could guess, but I might be wrong.”
“Do your best.”
“He wanted to hold her as a hostage in exchange for what I took from him.”
“Who you took from him,” John corrected.
John stared him down, the hard line of his lips belying his impatience. “And who is that?”
“A fellow spy,” McNaught answered, reluctantly. For all his promise to tell us about Des Jardins, he sure was dragging his feet.
“Go on,” John ordered, his tone brooking no argument.
“She was working for the crown in France,” McNaught said. “Last summer she was compromised. Her French counterpart was executed in front of her and she was dragged off to the prison that Des Jardins had command of.”
John arched a brow. “And he’s come all the way to an enemy nation to recover a single prisoner? She must have knowledge Napoleon desperately wants.”
“No,” McNaught said. “She doesn’t.”
Henry leaned forward. “Then why?”
McNaught shrugged. “The man is as mad as a March hare. He believes this woman was given to him by God. A gift.” I must have made some subtle movement, because he turned his head in my direction and caught sight of my confusion. “Des Jardins’ talent is for breaking people. Much like the Marquis de Sade, he relishes in causing pain in others. She was at his mercy for four months before I was able to locate and free her, and she didn’t break. To him, she is an exquisite delight, and he would do anything to get her back. I believe he thinks himself in love with her.”
Des Jardins’ words from the alleyway had struck me as strange at first, but now they turned my stomach. “McNaught took her from me and I want her back. He must be holding her somewhere against her will. Otherwise she would have already returned to me.”
I shuddered. “And he believes that she’s in love with him too.”
McNaught spread his hands. “As I said, mad as a March hare.”
John finally broke, a low sound of frustration slipping through his lips. “Which means he’s unpredictable, dangerous, and doesn’t give a damn about anything but finding her. What’s to stop him from coming here with his men?”
“Nothing,” McNaught admitted. “Which is why once we’re finished here, I plan to lead him out of the city.”
“How long will you be gone?” John asked.
“Several days, at least.”
John eyed him.
McNaught’s lips lifted in a mocking grin. “Concerned about my welfare?”
John let out an uncharacteristic snort. “Hardly. My only concern is who will head your network of cohorts while you’re gone.”
I frowned. “George is dead.”
He shook his head.
Relief and irritation ripped through me. “You could have said something sooner.”
He sent me an infuriatingly flippant look. “I’m telling you now.”
A flash of metal caught the corner of my eye. I looked down to see Adnan offering me another knife. Despite myself, I grinned. Perhaps he and Haydar were on to something with their dark humor. If one didn’t find some way to laugh in these moments, one might soon forget how to laugh altogether.
I pushed the blade back toward him. “Thanks, but no. If I start throwing knives at him every time he annoys me, you’ll soon run out of blades.”
He chuckled as he slipped it beneath his jacket.
John stared at the closed door that Adnan, Haydar, and McNaught had just filed out of. We’d spent much of the evening drafting battle plans, and between the level of detail we had put into them and the fatigue of a body pushed to its physical limits, I was exhausted.
“I need a drink,” John said.
I rubbed at my temples. “I need several.”
Henry, still seated at my feet, turned to glance at me. “I second that motion.” His dark eyes, usually wide open so that he could take in as much of the world around him as possible, were half shuttered now. Shadows had gathered beneath them. His swarthy skin looked three shades lighter than normal.
I reached out and brushed the back of my fingers over the stubble that stood out on his cheek. He caught my hand and turned it, placing a soft kiss on my bandaged palm.
“I’m so proud of you,” he said.
John, still by the door, was the one who answered. “For choosing yourself.”
I frowned at him.
He waved a hand toward me. “Many people would hesitate in those circumstances. Balk at seriously harming another, even if it meant saving themselves. You did whatever you had to in order to escape.”
I nodded, thinking back. “A little of Des Jardins madness showed, even before he attempted to ride over the crowd to reach me. I knew that if I let them take me, I might never return.”
Henry’s fingers twitched around my hand, and he dropped it before accidentally crushing it in the fist he so clearly wanted to form. “Part of me hopes he tries to come for you.”
John sent him a wary look. Almost like he feared that coming to pass, and not because of the threat of Des Jardins, but because of what Henry might do. This was the second time that someone had looked at Henry in such a way. The first had been all those nights ago, in this very room. John had told McNaught he would watch Henry dismember him “with giddy abandon” if he ever laid a hand on me again, and from McNaught’s expression, he had believed Henry capable of such violence. It was the only time I had ever seen McNaught fully unbalanced, and that, more than anything, made me wonder about the man seated at my feet. A man who I loved with all of my heart, who I thought I knew so well, but had lately become as much of an enigma to me as my husband was.
I stroked my fingers over his cheek. “If he comes for us, we’ll be ready.”
He nodded, gaze shaded by the dying firelight, so that he stared up at me with eyes that were haloed in penumbral darkness.
A shiver slipped up my spine, but I refused to acknowledge it. I’d been afraid of him once. Never again. This was Henry, and no matter what he did, he would do it with the intent to protect me and John.
I leaned forward as far as my bruised ribs would allow and brushed my lips over his.
Conscious of my bruised face, he pressed his own against mine softly, briefly, before pulling away.
John made some small movement, and I glanced in his direction. He was watching us with that fixated intensity that meant he was picturing me and Henry together. Despite my injuries, my pulse thrummed with awareness and mingling lust.
“The bedroom,” John said. “The scotch there is better than what I have in here, and I want multiple doors between the three of us and anyone trying to reach us.”
Henry pushed up from the floor and unfurled to his impressive height.
“Please tell me you have brandy there, too,” I said, rising from my own seat.
John nodded. “Brand new bottle. Just for you.”
A flush of warmth sighed through me. No, he might not be openly affectionate, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t care for me me, didn’t think about me in ways that resulted in this, the obvious result of his attention to my wants and needs.
John led the way to his room, with me and Henry following behind. Henry slipped his large hand into mine as we walked, and, careless of what the servants we passed might think, I wrapped my free hand around his bicep and leaned my head against his shoulder. Every now and then he dropped his lips to the top of my head.
Doruk stood watch outside John’s sitting room.
We were forced to pause in the hallway while he disappeared inside and performed a thorough search of the rooms. One of the decisions that we’d made earlier was that every room would be searched before one of us entered it, to ensure an ambush didn’t wait within. The spy in our house might be ordered to attack us. Or that some unseen agent might sneak in through a window, like McNaught had.
“No one,” Doruk said when he re-emerged.
“Don’t let anyone through this door,” John said. “I don’t care if James returns with some critical piece of knowledge; turn him away.”
Doruk nodded. His eyes dropped to where Henry and I held hands, then flitted back to John. I knew from the way his expression shuttered that he had feelings about what he saw, but he wisely stood aside from the door and kept them to himself.
I met his gaze as I passed, boldly, daring him to judge me, sending the message that I would never be shamed again. Not for pursuing what I wanted, loving who I loved, and certainly not for refusing to conform to society’s harsh limits of that love.
Henry caught sight of my expression and grinned as he tugged me inside the sitting room.
A moment later, we were through the threshold into the bedchamber, the door shut and latched behind us.
John had seemed so hell bent on needing a drink that I expected him to go straight to the liquor cabinet, but instead, he paced halfway to it, then turned on his heel and barreled straight toward me.
I was so caught off guard that I pulled my hand free from Henry’s grasp and backed away. My spine hit the wall, sending a flash of protest through my bruised ribs. John’s hands landed on my shoulders and held me there. He pressed a single, hard kiss to my forehead and then bent forward, searing the skin of my neck with his hot, demanding lips. I didn’t miss the way he avoided my bruised face, knowing it would hurt, and that small hint of care, more than anything else, set my blood on fire.
I reached up and gripped his wrists. “I almost died today.”
“I know,” he growled into my skin. His mouth was feverish, kisses insistent as he worked his way down toward my collarbone.
“I helped to kill a man today.”
He paused, breath stirring the hair that had pulled free from my braid. “I’ll teach you how to do it in a more painful manner in case there’s a next time.”
From the hard edge in his tone, he was dead serious. God, I loved him. Loved that instead of wanting to keep me helpless and weak, he wanted to aid me in my journey to get stronger, deadlier. What I had decided earlier about unspoken words surged to the forefront of my mind.
“I love you,” I told him.
Several paces behind him, Henry grinned and gave me a nod of encouragement.
John placed one last, deliberate kiss against my neck and then straightened, forcing me to tilt my head back to look up at him. His amber gaze was hard and steady. “I won’t stop until every one of the men from earlier are hunted down like dogs.”
He loved me too. I saw it there, in his eyes. But more than that, I understood that to John, actions were everything. He might not say the words back to me. Maybe ever. Because what were words? Instead, he would set the world on fire to prove his love if I let him.
“I know,” I said, sinking my true meaning into the words. I know you love me.
He heard my tone, saw the understanding in my gaze, and his icy demeanor began to melt. He glanced over his shoulder, toward Henry. “I need…”
Henry nodded. “I know. Take your clothes off.”
Desire sparked within me and flared forth like a conflagration. I had almost died. And now I wanted desperately to be reminded that I lived and breathed and wanted. Today had been full of pain and terror. Let tonight be filled with pleasure.
John tugged at his cravat as he stepped away from me. He pulled it free with impatient fingers and let it fall to the floor. His eyes bored into mine. “How injured are you?”
“Too injured for a repeat of the other night,” I told him. Though he’d infected me with his fever, I knew the difference between soreness and true injury. The throbbing in my ribs told me that I wouldn’t be able to push through this amount of pain to find pleasure if I took one of them inside me.
“Which part of the other night?” Henry asked. “Would it pain you too much to lay still on the bed and spread your legs for me?”
The thought of his mouth on my most intimate parts made it worth the risk. “I believe I could manage that.”
Beside me, fabric fluttered to the ground. John stood shirtless, light playing across the definition in his chest and shoulders, shadows undulating over abdominal muscles that looked like they’d been quarried from granite. I kept forgetting how dense he was. Where Henry was large all over, John’s compact muscles were less obvious. At least when he was wearing clothes. Now I reveled in the sight of them, wanted to run my hands over his silken flesh. The fact that his chest and torso were nearly hairless only made him look more touchable.
He watched me watching him as he kicked off his Hessian boots. His eyes went to Henry when his fingers fell to the falls of his trousers. With several quick movements, they were tugged loose and pushed down. He stood there completely nude, radiant in the firelight. “What now?”
“Come here,” Henry said.
John went to him, expression rapt, like a supplicant on the cusp of prayer.
Henry took hold of his chin and stared down at him. “On your back tonight. I want to look at you as I fuck you.”
John’s shoulders stiffened. A hint of trepidation flitted through his gaze.
“We need this, John,” Henry said.
John nodded, and I began to understand, then, a little more of their dynamic. While John longed to lose control, vulnerability was difficult for him.
Was that why he’d been so keen to turn me toward Henry the other night? Why Henry had taken him from behind when they’d made love in front of me? If so, I was glad to see Henry push him now. With his demand, the stiffness had fled from John’s spine, and his expression had fully defrosted. The hard lines he forced his Botticellian features into had gone pliant, turning supple and inviting. His lips looked impossibly soft. With his eyes half-lidded like this, he became the corrupted angel I had likened him to, dark, carnal knowledge sparkling in his gaze as he stared up at his lover.
I moved toward the bed, stopping at the foot of it. “I need help with the dress.”
Seeing John like this had pushed me over the edge. I wanted their hands on me, now, damn the pain it might cause. I wanted to stroke John’s cock while Henry thrust into him.
It was John who came to help me, while Henry pulled back the covers and set the oil on the night stand. John worked quickly, as impatient as I was. He unfastened the long row of buttons that ran along my spine and then pushed my dress down. As he straightened, he caught hold of the hem of my chemise, and soon I was as naked as he was.
Well, naked despite the bandages.
John placed a delicate touch against the one banding my ribs. He didn’t say anything, simply kept his hand there a moment before moving on, but something about the gesture had tears forming in my eyes. His touch had felt like both an apology and a promise. I had already told him that I forgave him. But John was hard on himself, and words held little meaning. I needed to find some way to show him.
His fingers found the fastening on the linen that bound my breasts. He loosened it and threaded his arms beneath my own as he unwound it. His lips landed on my shoulder as he worked. The kiss he placed there was long and soft but no less ardent than the ones from a moment before. When the last strand of linen fell away, he stepped forward, closing the distance between us. The head of his cock jutted against my lower back, signaling his arousal.
I could have groaned in frustration. These past few days I had been inundated by memories of him pushing into me. At the height of them, I could almost feel him there between my legs. I wanted that now. Wanted that delicious tightness as my body stretched around him. That glorious fullness I’d experienced when he was fully seated.
I leaned back into him, framing his cock with my buttocks.
He reached down and cupped my cheeks, pulling them gently apart to make more room for him. “We should begin training your ass,” he said, with a gentle thrust. “So that we can take you together.”
“Now?” I asked, breathless.
At the head of the bed, Henry tugged his shirt off. “If you think you’re ready for that.”
I nodded. Yes, I was ready. I wanted them both inside of me, every way I could take them. With my mouth, with my cunt, with my ass. I wanted to be so full of them both that I couldn’t think. That I stopped knowing where they began and I ended.
Henry seared me with his gaze. “Then get on the bed, Kitten.”
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 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.