As much as I wanted to hunker down within our home and bar the doors to all outsiders, I couldn’t. John was right. I was a woman of importance. There were appointments to keep and appearances to make. My absence from society would be noticed and remarked upon, and after the libel I’d faced just this morning, now wasn’t the time to give more fodder to the gossip rags.
Hopefully some other scandal would erupt amongst the ton and the “scenes” I had created last night would be forgotten.
I stopped in my tracks, halfway to the front door.
What a terrible thing, to wish ruin upon someone else. I was becoming as bad as John.
“Everything all right, Your Grace?” Adnan asked from behind me.
I shook my head to clear it. “I’m fine.”
One of the footmen who had long been in our employ, a tall man of Indian and English descent, opened the front door for us as we approached.
I glanced up at him. His coal-dark eyes had only ever looked upon me with the detached care one would expect from a servant, but now I wondered if malice had crept into his gaze. The knowledge that there was a traitor in our household had made me distrustful. I’d spent the entire morning, aside from my far too brief liaison with Henry, in a constant state of anxiety. Would Mrs. Marston tell our blackmailers that I didn’t want a child? Would Harriet tell them of my fight with McNaught? Was Sherman merely pretending to help us, but all the while he worked against us?
To my troubled mind, everyone was a suspect. The sanctity of the only true home I’d ever known was under threat. It made me feel unsafe, exposed – a victim once more. Which brought up all the memories I tried to keep buried of life within my father’s household. Of dark hallways filled with remembered abuse. Of servants who had recounted every move I made to my abuser. The fact that he had so recently assaulted me again lent those memories a sort of visceral malice. Like he lurked within every darkened alcove I passed, watching, waiting for his chance to strike.
I tore my gaze from the footman as we approached. “Thank you, Arjun.”
He sketched me a bow in response and gave me a small, kind smile as I passed through the threshold, Adnan at my back. I would regret suspecting him if there wasn’t a need to suspect everyone.
It seemed the sun had given up on trying to drive away the fog. Though it was early afternoon, we stepped outside into a scene more befitting twilight: the streetlamps were still lit; sound was muffled by the false-gloaming; skeletal trees stretched toward the dark sky like twisted creatures. A raven croaked from overhead, sending a shiver down my spine. And then, from out of the mist, a massive figure loomed.
I took a reflexive step back before Haydar’s form became recognizable. Thank goodness Harriet wasn’t with me. If she had shrieked at the sight of him, she might have spooked me into doing the same, and I would have felt terrible afterward.
Haydar didn’t bother bowing or addressing me as “Your Grace” anymore. He’d dropped all pretenses of giving a damn about my nobility. Instead, he stopped just in front of me and shot a wary glance back toward the carriage.
“What is it?” I asked him. “Is there someone waiting inside?”
“McNaught,” he ground out.
I clenched my jaw. “Now is as good a time as any to ask where your true loyalties lay. With him? Or with me?”
Adnan stepped up beside me. “Your husband is paying us to guard you. Not McNaught.”
I turned to regard him. “So if I was to say that McNaught might be a threat to my personal welfare?”
In answer, Adnan grinned wolfishly. I caught a flash of silver out of the corner of my eye and glanced down to see him twirl a knife across the top of his fingers before slipping it away so quickly, I didn’t catch where he’d hidden it. The message was clear. His loyalty lay with me. Hell, from the gleam in his eye, it looked as though he welcomed the thought of being given a chance to do harm to McNaught.
What was the true history here? From John’s description, I’d been led to believe that McNaught had saved them from a traitor’s fate in Belgrade, but now I wondered. Because the spy I’d come to know since then was the farthest thing from a savior I could imagine.
I turned from the Adnan to his towering comrade in arms. “And you, Haydar? Where do your loyalties lay?”
He simply pointed at me in answer.
I nodded and continued my way to the carriage. “Good. If I scream, please intervene.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Adnan drawled.
I might scream just for the sheer pleasure of watching Haydar physically eject McNaught from my presence. The sight of him flying through the air would be immensely satisfying. Most of the gossip this morning had been about the two of us. He’d played his part too well for our peers, and the papers portrayed him as the besotted fool and me the heartless adulterer. Why was it that no matter what the scandal, women were always the ones to be blamed?
It made me doubly resolved to learn how to fend for myself. I might not be able to affect what was said about me in public, but I could damn well make sure that no more physical harm befell me without being able to put up one hell of a fight.
Adnan opened the carriage door, and I climbed in before he could offer me his hand.
“What do you want?” I said, taking my seat across from McNaught.
He looked…off. The usual smug air he cloaked himself in was gone. Now he wore exhaustion openly in his expression. His clothes were disheveled, jacket creased, shirt untucked, cravat askew. Good Lord, was that blood on his collar? I lifted my gaze to his bloodshot eyes. It looked as though he’d been awake all night. Doing what? Torturing the man who’d posed as a servant?
“What did the note say?” he asked.
“And you,” I answered without preamble. I’d meant to badger him about how damning the gossip had been about us, but now I wanted him out of this carriage as quickly as possible. He seemed dangerous like this. Close to the edge of some cliff. Sitting here in the closed space of the cabin, I felt as though he’d dragged me to the precipice with him and now both of us were at risk of falling.
“I know a secret about your husband, and Henry Fletcher, and you,” he said.
He sat up a little straighter and rubbed a hand over his face. “I expect them to start listing their demands soon. Maybe even today. Be on your guard at your dressmakers.”
I didn’t bother asking how he knew my schedule so well. Either John had told him, or he’d found out some back-alley way that would only infuriate me if I learned of it.
“What happened with your father?” he asked.
“Nothing of importance,” I said, my disquiet making my tone sharper than I intended.
McNaught took it as a challenge, leaning over the divide to pin me with a glare. “Everything that happens to you could be of importance. For all you know, he’s an enemy agent.”
My answering laugh held no humor. “He’s an enemy. Period.”
“Then what did he say?” he ground out.
I signed. There was no point evading the question. John would readily recount the tale if asked, likely with the hope that McNaught would solve the problem of my father for us.
“That I need to end things with you,” I said. “And when I refused to submit myself to him, he tried to drag me away.” I yanked up the sleeve of my dress to reveal the near-perfect imprint of a hand that was bruised into my skin. Despite my resolve to stay calm, my voice gained a hard edge of anger. “I suggest that the next time I tell you to back down, you do so, or whatever harm is visited upon me because of your actions, so help me God, I will pay it back to you tenfold.”
McNaught’s expression softened some, and he lifted a hand as if to touch my bruise.
I dragged my sleeve down and sat back in my seat, away from him. “Don’t touch me.”
He let his hand fall to his side, eyes darkening. “He’ll answer for what he did.”
Not, “I’m sorry for the part I played,” or, “You’re right, I should have listened to you.” No, instead he went straight to vengeance.
“I don’t need you to defend me,” I said.
“You do and you know it.” His tone turned mocking. “Kitten is a good nickname for you. You’re about as helpless as one.”
I cocked my head sideways and stared at him in imitation of the way John sometimes did, because I knew firsthand how small it could make people feel. “Have you so quickly forgotten about the bruises I left on you?”
To my horror, he burst out laughing in response. “Touché, Kitten. How silly of me to forget about your claws.”
“You don’t get to call me that,” I seethed.
How the hell did he even know that Kitten was what Henry called me? He’d only ever done so in the privacy of our own home, barring that one time at the Coal Baron’s when he had whispered it in my ear, and I could swear that no one was close enough to overhear.
I stiffened in my seat. McNaught would do anything to protect John. Did that include placing his own spy within our household? Or another that dogged my steps each time I stepped out into a public setting? I didn’t see how else he could know the things he did.
“What happened between you and the Viscountess in the powder room?” he asked.
All thoughts of his duplicity vanished. This was the very question I had feared. I shot him a haughty glance, hiding my mounting terror. “Nothing.”
He leaned forward again, tone pitched dangerously low, exhaustion clearing from his eyes to be replaced by an intensity that made my skin crawl. “I don’t believe you.”
He was not going to intimidate me. Or make me back down. Not on this. I would protect the viscountess with the same ferocity that I would John or Henry. Instead of moving away from him, I leaned forward in my own seat and lied to his face. “Nothing happened that concerns you in any possible way. Now get out of my carriage.”
He hesitated, seemingly on the verge of rushing me.
“If you so much as make a move toward me, I will scream,” I said. “Then I’ll get to watch Haydar toss you out onto your arse. And once I return home, I’ll have John bar you from our house and our lives for breaking your promise. Do not push me on this. I have had enough of your games and your intimidations.”
The carriage slowed as we took a corner.
With a warning growl that sounded like a promise of retribution to come, McNaught slipped from the door, leaving the lingering scent of lemons and copper in his wake.
I let out a shaky breath and collapsed back into my seat. That man got under my skin in a way that no one else did. It was a constant struggle to control myself in his presence. John might revel in my darkness, Henry might make me feel like I had the power to roar, but McNaught was the one who seemed to bring out the very worst in me. His mere presence put my guard up. Made me want to hiss like the cat he likened me to. God only knew what I would turn into if he ever managed to get his hands on me. I would work with him if forced to. I would submit myself to his training if anything happened to John or Henry. But I would likely neither recognize nor like the woman I’d become as a result.
I turned from the sight of him fading into the gloom and set my focus on the streets outside my window. They were paved with cobblestones here, but soon would turn to dirt. My dressmaker held shop near the center of London, and that was where I was headed now. I’d received a note from her two days past of new fashions just arrived from Paris.
Though we warred with France, contraband still flowed freely between our two nations. Their shining capital city was the epicenter of fashion, and the women of the ton were willing to pay a fool’s ransom for the latest patterns and fabrics released by their designers. The smugglers must be growing fat and happy from our coin, and it made me wonder if anyone within our war department had thought to slip an agent in among them. It would be all too easy to hide missives and orders within the pages of a seamstress’s book of patterns.
A flash of movement caught my eye, and I shifted my gaze down a side street to see a group of guilty-looking children with sticky blue jam smeared around their mouths running from an irate woman brandishing a half-eaten pie. As I watched, the woman gave up on the chase and chucked the dessert at the nearest child, hitting the boy upside the head with pastry. He stood in stunned surprise for half a second, blueberries dripping down his face, before turning to her with a scandalized, “Mum!”
The last I saw, she was bent over at the waist, laughing, before being obscured from my sight by the corner of the nearest building.
I grinned to myself as my carriage rolled on. Here was a reminder that life flourished. That no matter what befell me and John and Henry and all the other people caught within the web of our enemy, laughter and love could never be banished from the world.
The smile was wiped from my face a heartbeat later as we passed from cobblestone to dirt and one of the wheels hit a pothole. I reached for the leather grip above me and braced myself for the ride to come. With the other hand, I dug a perfumed handkerchief from my reticule and held it to my nose.
While it was true that this road was predominantly made up of dirt, a large percentage of that was being taken over by horse shite. There were hundreds of thousands of them stabled in and around the city, each and every one leaving a trail of excrement behind them as they hauled goods or ferried people about in carriages. It reeked to high heaven now, even with the cooler temperatures this spring had visited upon us. In the height of summer, the stench became unbearable. It was just one of the reasons why so many aristocrats made their homes outside of the city center.
In Highgate, we employed boys to keep the streets clean of filth. They did so here, too, from what I had read, but with so much traffic, those poor boys were fighting a loosing battle. At least the city’s sewer system meant that human waste was now being flung down privy chambers and flushed down toilets instead of into the gutters like the olden days. I’d heard several horror stories from John’s decrepitly old grandmother about having to always look up while walking in London, or risk catching the contents of a chamber pot to the face.
With that sickening thought, I lifted my gaze from the streets up toward the sky, where buildings towered around me. The sound of construction was constant within the city limits. The staggering number of incoming immigrants, meant that housing couldn’t be built fast enough. The Times even made the claim that at our current rate of growth, London would have two million souls living within it by the end of the century, making it the largest city in the world.
Two million people. That was a staggering number.
Many of these newly arrived Londoners hailed from far distant shores, and the city had turned into a veritable melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. I passed a group of sailors in vibrantly colored uniforms as we neared the docks. They walked with rolling gaits that were more fitted for high seas than flat streets. All of the men had dark skin, though half were merely suntanned. One or two others looked to be of African ancestry. Several more had deep olive skin tones that hinted at middle-eastern descent. They laughed and jostled each other as they made their way down the avenue, pausing in their banter to call a greeting at three women, two Indian, wearing sarees, and the third a fair-skinned lass with red hair a few shades darker than my own. The women waved back at them distractedly, so busy were they with their own conversation that they couldn’t be bothered with these young braggarts.
The two groups passed out of my sight as the carriage rolled on. My journey took me through streets thronged with vendors hawking their wares, to wide avenues that housed government buildings, and finally, to a narrower lane lined with well-stocked shops.
I stayed inside the carriage even after it had slowed to a stop. Out here in the city I was exposed, and now more than ever – thanks to McNaught’s remarks – I felt vulnerable, aware of my own physical shortcomings and lack of defensive training. As much as I put up a good face in front of him, I doubted my ability to truly protect myself from harm.
Not for long, I promised. I would learn how to wield a blade and use even my fists for weapons if forced to.
I clenched them in my lap as I waited. Adnan had gone over safety protocols as we’d made ready to leave the house. He and Haydar were out there now, scouting the surrounding street. Only once they were relatively certain that there was no immediate threat would they open the door for me. If, for any reason, either of them felt there was danger here, the driver would instead be directed to move on, and I would be forced to skip my appointment.
The minutes ticked by while I remained locked inside. My pulse picked up, ears straining to catch what sounds came from beyond. What was happening out there? What was taking so long? Had they found something? Noticed a suspicious character lurking nearby?
I was so wound up that I jumped when Adnan finally jerked the door open.
Gone was his wolfish demeanor and lupine grace. He was once again a jaunty footman with a heavy cockney accent, and he sketched me a flawless bow as he handed me down from the carriage. I managed to murmur a belated, “Thank you,” to him as he released me. His transformation was as jarring as ever, but more than being caught off guard by it, I was intrigued by it. With all my practice at deception, would I be capable of affecting the same sort of disguise?
If I stopped powdering my face and let my freckles shine through, darkened my hair with one of the dyes sold in a nearby shop, and adopted an accent of my own, could I pass for a commoner? An Irish immigrant perhaps, with my green eyes. It had been years since I’d imitated the tongue of my mother’s homeland, but I had a feeling I might still be capable of pulling it off. I made a note to practice it later tonight. McNaught had said that spies horde their knowledge like dragons guarding gold, and I would be a fool not to cultivate my own skills, limited though they may be.
These thoughts and more crowded the back of my mind as I stepped into my dressmaker’s shop. There were several other patrons already inside, and while etiquette dictate that they curtsy to me, they were too busy staring with wide eyes at Haydar, who towered just behind my back.
The woman who owned the store, a statuesque brunette named Vivian that still turned heads even though she was well into her fifties, caught sight of me almost immediately and wound her way in my direction, skirting display stands and racks of fabric with the grace of a woman who’d once been on stage. She spared a quick glance at my Janissary guard and sketched me a curtsy. When she rose, she folded her hands in front of her and acted as though nothing was amiss. She was a woman well used to the eccentricities of the ton, and if one of her clients chose to flit around London with a living mountain in her wake, who was she to remark upon it?
“I have the latest booklet in the drawing room, Your Grace, if you would care to follow me?” she said. Her voice was strong and melodic, which only reinforced my belief that she’d once been an actress.
“Of course,” I answered.
She led me to an elegantly appointed private room that was reserved for her more elite clientele. I would have the space to myself, with the exception of Haydar, while I browsed her latest acquisition of Parisian fashion.
A maid came in just after I sat and offered me a tea service that I politely accepted. I didn’t indulge in the scrumptious looking spread until after she had left and Haydar had sampled every item on the tray to ensure that nothing was poisoned. That’s how paranoid we had all become.
I chewed on a madeleine as I flipped through the pages of the book, not really seeing the patterns in front of my face. Was this to be my life from now on? Forced to employ a food tester like some old-world Tudor king fearful of his rivals for the throne? My every move guarded by dangerous men?
I was suddenly exhausted by it all. I’d kept this appointment; I’d made my appearance. My duty was done, and now I wanted nothing more than to escape into the oblivion of sleep for a few hours before being forced back into public later tonight.
I picked two of the designs at random to have made and rose from my chair to leave. Vivian took my order before I departed on the tail of handmaid laden down with boxes filled with her employer’s finery.
There was a commotion just outside the door, and Haydar tugged me backward into him as a young, rough-looking street youth sprinted toward us. A pair of constables were hot on his heels, shouting for him to stop.
The maid wasn’t quick enough to get out of his path, and though they tried to avoid each other, they both lurched in the same direction. The urchin bounced off of her and staggered away in a different direction before getting his feet beneath him and taking off at a dead sprint. The maid’s boxes tumbled from her hands, half of them spilling open, her employer’s silken dresses and chemises instantly soiled by the filth on the sidewalk. What made matters worse were the constables, who trod roughshod over the garments in their haste to chase the urchin.
There were tears in the maid’s eyes as she bent to retrieve her wares.
“Don’t worry,” Vivian said from the doorway, rushing out to help the young woman.
I bent down myself, but not to help: to snatch up a familiar looking, red-stamped envelope that lay just beside a pile of ribbons.
That was no chance collision. The urchin must have dropped this when he careened into the maid. But how could he have known that I would see it? As I turned it over, I realized that he hadn’t, but there would be no doubt it would find me. Because my name was written on the front.
“We need to leave,” I said to Haydar. “Now.”
He swept me away and up into the carriage. I tore open the envelope the moment I was inside.
Two pieces of paper tumbled free. One contained a demand.
Force Addington out.
The other was a threat. There were no words written upon the second page. Instead, a horrible pen and ink caricature splashed across it. Three figures were in the scene, with me dead center on all fours. My skirts were hacked up to my waist, and from the looks of it, John pumped furiously into me from behind while Henry pumped furiously into him. Our features were all exaggerated. The smiles on our faces were drawn as rictus, brainless grins, like we were nothing more than rutting beasts.
I dropped the papers to the carriage floor and pressed my hand to my mouth, worried I might be sick. That cartoon was an abomination. The worst sort of depiction of what John and Henry and I shared that I could imagine. And unless John did what they asked, it would no doubt be spread all over London.
Force Addington out.
By Addington, they must have meant Lord Addington, the first Viscount of Sidmoth, who was our current Prime Minister. From everything I knew, he already had one foot halfway out the door. His policies on the war with France were wildly unpopular, and as his star faded, William Pitt the Younger’s began to rise again.
Was that who our blackmailer wanted in his place as Prime Minister? Why? I supposed that answer depended on who our blackmailer was. If it was Napoleon, was Pitt an agent of our enemy? If it was the King, was his loyalty to the crown firmly established?
The caricature had landed face up, and it sat on the floor at my feet as if mocking me. Before I could think better of it, I reached down and snatched it up, tearing it to pieces in a matter of seconds.
My chest heaved as I breathed in angry, ragged breaths. I had been a victim long enough. Last night, I learned how it felt to finally fight back, and I would be damned if I ever let them take that power away from me again.
I had balked at the thought of torture at first, but no more. It was the least these bastards deserved for playing a part in our ruin. For the death of John’s father. For what they were doing to the Viscountess of Dover and who knew how many others.
Let them come for us. We would surround ourselves with agents of our own and snatch theirs up one by one until McNaught had wrung enough information from them that we could finally strike back.
And God help them when we did, for they would find no mercy in me.
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.