John stood framed within the doorway for half a second, just long enough to see me and Henry in the tub together. He shut the door behind him with almost as much force as he had barged through it, then immediately began pacing.
“She’s all right, John,” Henry said, speaking to him in the same way he had me when I was still in the throes of shock.
John showed no reaction, just kept pacing. In all my years, I’d only ever seen people pace out of fear or worry. Their steps had been fast and jerky, their faces troubled as they wrung their hands. John did none of those things. His pace was more like a prowl. Slow, measured. Lethal. Those aristocratic hands, with their long, dexterous fingers, hung loose at his sides, ready. And his expression – it was terrifying. Not because it was filled with terror or rage, but because it was empty. Void of all human emotion. A flat mask of…nothingness.
A chill slipped up my spine despite the warmth of Henry at my back and the heat of the water. All my years spent studying his features, noting any small twitch or crease that might give his mood away, were for naught. There was nothing there to read. He had retreated deep within himself, and I worried that he dwelt now in that dark place that made up the core of his being. That, like me, he was breaking, and the creature about to emerge, triumphant from the wreckage, was one who would set the whole world on fire in its rage.
“John,” I said. “I made it home. I’m fine.”
John stopped in his tracks and sent me a withering look. “You’re not fine.” He turned to Henry. “And I don’t appreciate being spoken to as though you’re talking me down from a ledge.”
Henry waved a hand in his direction. “Pardon us, Your Grace, for our concern over your violent entrance and black mood.”
John reached the tub in three quick strides, and when he stared down at us, I realized I preferred the nothingness from a moment before to the fury I saw now. “They tried to take her, Henry.”
“Yes. They did,” he said. “And what are we going to do about it?”
John’s fingers trembled, once, and then went still again, like he’d fought off the urge to curl his hands into fists. “Kill everyone they’ve ever loved and leave them alive to wonder when we’ll come for them.”
The look in his eyes as he spoke those words…good God, he was serious.
I reached out and took his hand. His skin was ice. It felt as though he’d just stepped out of a subarctic gale and the frigid wind still had hold of his body. I squeezed, trying to press some warmth, some humanity, back into him.
His eyes didn’t soften as they met my own. “I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” I said. Because I knew that there was no other way to assuage his guilt. I could tell him over and over again that what happened today wasn’t his fault and he would never believe me. He would always blame himself for suggesting that I go about my life like it wasn’t under threat, for not quadrupling my guard, for each and every turn of events, no matter how small, that had ended with me in that alley facing down an enemy force.
John, as a duke, was used to being in charge, being responsible for the people who worked our fields, dwelled within the towns and hamlets of Hampshire, lived and died within the duchy’s borders. The mantle of responsibility sat heavy on his shoulders. He spent much of his day planning to improve the lives of those people, anticipating their needs before they did, and getting ahead of any future pitfalls he saw that might impact their health and happiness. That he hadn’t been able to do the same for me, his wife, would be unforgivable in his eyes.
I squeezed his hand again. “I swear that I forgive you.”
Finally, he tipped his head forward in recognition, though whether he accepted my forgiveness or not, it was too early to tell. He glanced between me and Henry. “McNaught is here, waiting in the study with Adnan and Haydar. I’ve ordered them not to say anything to him about what happened until we’re all together.”
“You want to watch his reaction,” Henry said.
I gave his hand another squeeze and then released him. “Why?”
“I want to see his face the first time he hears Des Jardins’ name.”
Henry shifted behind me. “Des Jardins?”
“He led the men who attacked us,” I told him. Then, to John, “What do you suspect? That McNaught has known it was the French behind the letters all along and has been keeping it from you?”
John lifted his gaze and stared at the wall as though he could look through it straight toward his study. “I haven’t discounted that.”
“Or do you fear this is unrelated?” I pressed on. “From everything you’ve said, our enemy operates in the shadows. Sly threats snuck into newspapers, notes delivered via agents ten times removed from command level. An outright attack is uncharacteristic.”
Henry let out a low sound of anger. “How twisted is it that I pray it isn’t unrelated?”
“It’s not twisted,” I said. “We have enough on our plates without adding a rogue madman to the equation. Perhaps, like the escalation of the timeline, our enemy has been emboldened by desperation.”
I could tell by the look on John’s face that he didn’t agree. “Let me lead with McNaught?” he asked us.
Henry rumbled his ascent. I nodded, wondering what was going on inside John’s mind. Whatever it was, I didn’t envy McNaught the conversation to come. John might place most of the blame on himself, but I was sure that he reserved at least some small portion for the spy.
He turned to glance at the door. “I don’t trust McNaught alone with them for long.” His eyes came back to me. “How much time do you need before you’re able to recount what happened?”
I sat up, away from Henry. “Mrs. Marston will want to look me over, and then I can dress and be down.”
John nodded. “I’ll leave you to it then.”
He slipped out the door.
“He loves you too, you know,” Henry said.
I sighed. “In his own strange way, perhaps.”
“Yes.” Henry’s laugh was low and amused. “John’s love is…difficult at times. He might not express it or declare it the way that others might, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel it.”
“I’m beginning to see that,” I said. We were quiet a moment, but my mind was anything but. “I’m worried about him, Henry.”
He rubbed my shoulder with a large hand. “Your concern is misplaced. It’s everyone else you should be worried about.”
Perhaps he was right. Though I had lived with John for two years now, this was the first time I had been privy to his more volatile emotions. Before, he’d kept them to himself, or shared them with Henry, not me. For all I knew, this was simply the way that John expressed himself…or, more like, didn’t express himself when he experienced high states of emotion.
Henry climbed out of the tub first, leaving me time for a final soap down, which he supervised with close attention to ensure I didn’t scrub my skin raw again. Once I was clean, I hauled my aching carcass out of the water, dried myself off, and rang for Harriet.
Henry had redressed by the time she arrived, and he strode from the room not long after, impatient to join John in the study – likely because he feared what he might do to McNaught if left alone with him for too long. Sure, Haydar and Adnan might be there, but would they step in between an acting duke and the son of another if it came to blows?
I summoned Mrs. Marson before I dressed. She appeared at my doorway carrying a tray full of tinctures and unguents. Once inside, she poked and prodded at my ribs until she was sure they weren’t broken, only bruised. Again. At this rate I would never heal. Her inspection complete, she spread a paste over my side that would stem the worst of the bruising and ease my pain, and she advised Harriet to bind my breasts in lieu of tying me in a corset.
While Harriet wound the linen around my chest, Mrs. Marston saw to the myriad litany of smaller injuries that marred my body. I had slices on my leg and hand from my own knife, and she cleaned them out with a liquid that wreaked of alcohol and burned to high heaven. Next, she spread still more paste over my scraped knees and elbows, then wrapped them in bandages. She clucked over the bruise on my face, and with delicate fingers, pushed at my swollen cheek to test how bad the injury was.
“Not even cosmetics will cover this one,” she said. “There will be no grand balls for you for the next week or so. Your eye is already turning black around the edges.”
“Fine by me,” I said. “I’m happy to stay inside this house for the rest of my life.”
Her brow creased. “I felt the same way, once.”
“When?” I asked.
Her fingers fell away from my face. “After I was dragged from my house and nearly stoned to death.”
“How did you recover from that?” I asked, a hint of desperation in my tone. The mere thought of stepping outside again brought on the threat of panic.
“I recovered in the duke’s home in Hampshire, after he hauled me out of my village and gave me a position in his household.” A small smile played about her lips. “He told me that if anyone ever harmed me again, they would regret it for the rest of their short, miserable lives.”
And she had believed him. Because John seemed infallible. I wouldn’t disillusion her. If her trust in his vengeance was what gave her the courage to go about her life as though she would never be harmed again, then who was I to ruin that?
I tried to return her smile, but ended up wincing in pain.
She dipped her hand into the same paste she’d spread on my ribs and coated the side of my face in a thinner layer. It smelled medicinal and was cool against my skin. “Try to keep your face free from expression while this heals,” she said.
“I will,” I told her, because, lord, did it hurt when I didn’t.
She left us once she was done, with more instruction for Harriet concerning when to change my bandages and a strict order for me to send for her if my pain got worse instead of better. Harriet took her time readying me afterward. I’d told Mrs. Marston about that man nearly yanking my head off, and Harriet dried my hair with gentle care before combing out my long locks with delicate strokes of the brush. My scalp still prickled with pain, but I held back a wince because I didn’t want my cheek to start smarting again. Instead of pulling my hair up in a complicated chignon, Harriet braided it loose down my back.
The dress she picked out was a little large on me, and once she helped me into it, I saw that it hid the fact that I wasn’t wearing proper undergarments.
“A shall will mask it even better,” she said, turning toward my wardrobe.
“I’d rather the blue cloak,” I told her. It was made of heavy wool and lined with silk. Though the worst of my shock had worn off, I was still cold, still felt as though I would never be fully warm again, like instead of pressing my heat into John’s hand, some of his ice had leached into my veins.
She pulled the garment free and then flung it over my shoulders. She stared down at her fingers as she tied it shut.
“In the morning, I plan on asking Haydar to add swordplay to my instruction,” I said. “Would you like to join those lessons too?”
She glanced up at me. “He saved you today?”
“Countless times,” I told her. Hopefully no one ever told her how exactly he’d done that.
She nodded. “I’ll join you.”
“Good,” I said. Her hands fell away, and I turned to the door, hesitating. “Walk with me to the duke’s study?”
I didn’t want to be alone right now. No doubt one or many of our guards were stationed outside my door, but I needed the presence of someone I knew and trusted at my side, and now that my paranoia had abated, I remembered that Harriet numbered amongst the few I did.
She was at my side in an instant. Together, we left my room and made our slow way to far end of the second floor. I lamented the size of the house as we walked. Every step hurt. This was like the morning after my brawl with McNaught all over again. For some reason, even my feet were throbbing, like I had bruised the bottoms of them as we’d fled. I cursed my taste in footwear once more and made a note to have Harriet order me a sturdy pair of boots.
She and I paused at the door.
I turned to her. “Thank you. For everything.”
She nodded gravely. “You’re welcome.”
“I probably won’t return to my rooms tonight,” I said. From now on, I would sleep sandwiched between John and Henry every night that they would let me. Circumspection was overrated. Let the servants gossip. What was their judgment or censure compared to what I had faced today? Nothing. I felt silly for ever caring.
“I’ll stay in my quarters then,” she said. “With Molly.”
She shared a room with another of our maids. No doubt she would be happy to return to her own bed instead of the flimsy cot she’d spent the past sennight on.
We parted ways, and I turned and entered the room without knocking. The scene that met me was tense. Adnan and Haydar had cleaned themselves off and changed out of their ruined clothing. They sat beside each other on John’s couch, and though their gazes remained mostly on the fire in front of them, every now and then their eyes skimmed left or right, to where McNaught and John and Henry flanked them. From their expressions, they were preparing themselves for another battle.
On one side of the couch, John and Henry sat beside each other in armchairs. Henry looked not at the room, but at John, whose expression was inscrutable. His gaze, reflecting the flames as though a fire had been lit within his eyes, stared unblinking across from him, where McNaught sat in a third chair.
Judging by the way the spy relaxed in his seat, he didn’t yet realize that there was danger here for him, and that one false step might lead to his peril.
I strode toward the Janissaries. “Can I join you?”
Haydar shot me a surprised look but shifted aside.
Adnan patted the space between them and sent me a saucy grin. “Right here, luv,” he said in his affected cockney accent.
I nearly laughed, so relieved was I that someone had broken the tension. If we were about to fight another battle, I knew who I wanted to act as my guard. To separate the other men if they came to blows. To brace me up when the story of what happened became too hard for me to tell alone.
There were gaps in my memory. Snatches of our flight home that I had no recollection of. I was sure that I missed half of the real fight to distraction and confusion and fear. My focus had been split between Des Jardins’ attack and the street around us as the riot erupted. God, those poor people. To be used like that. Manipulated into venting their simmering rage by a foreign force there to capture a single woman.
“How much of the street burned?” I asked.
It was McNaught who answered, his melodious voice calm and steady. “Not much. Only two buildings were lost and another three charred. The residents realized what was happening and quelled their own outrage in time to save the rest of the neighborhood from the flames.”
“That’s good,” I said, nodding. I braced myself and asked my next question. “How many dead?”
His Aegean gaze latched onto mine. “Twenty-five at last count, not including Des Jardins’ men.”
Henry made a low sound of annoyance. So much for surprising McNaught by dropping the name on him like a bomb. I glanced at John, expecting to see irritation writ across his countenance. Instead, I found him smiling.
“You didn’t tell me you had men trailing the duchess,” he said.
I blinked. I should have realized that myself. How else would McNaught have learned so much about what happened before arriving here?
McNaught waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “An oversight on my part.”
John’s grin widened. “Liar.”
The spy’s gaze shuttered. “Believe what you will.”
“I believe I’d like to know why they didn’t aid my wife when she was attacked.”
Yes, why didn’t they? I fixed my gaze on McNaught.
He shrugged one shoulder. “They believed her guard had things well in hand.”
The sound Henry made was so close to a growl that the hair on my arms stood on end. Did McNaught’s hubris know no bounds? How was he so blind that he didn’t see how close to the edge he had pushed us? Perhaps he needed to learn that lesson the hard way.
I put my hand out toward Adnan. “Give me one of your throwing knives.”
The Janissary threw his head back in laughter. Then, to everyone’s shock, he produced a blade with a flourish and handed it over to me. “Aim for the bollucks,” he advised.
McNaught was forced to leap from his chair when I threw it. It thunked harmlessly, handle first, onto the cushion where his pretentious ass had just been planted.
He stood with his hands on his hips and sent me a look that promised I would regret unseating him.
“Who is Des Jardins?” John asked.
McNaught retook his seat. “Later. First I need Kit to tell me what happened from start to finish.”
I held my hand out again.
Adnan happily placed another blade in it.
McNaught was forced from his chair once more.
“Have you lost your mind, woman?” he demanded.
“I told you not to call me that again. It seems the order didn’t stick.”
The couch shook. A sound not unlike a rockfall came from beside me. I glanced to my right and saw Haydar fighting the urge to laugh. I didn’t know what was funny about this situation. I was dead serious. If McNaught wouldn’t listen to reason and insisted on antagonizing us at every turn, then I was going to antagonize him back. With knives.
“Your aim was off,” Adnan said, grinning. “Hair to the right and it might have struck true. We’ll work on that in the morning. Your speed too. So that next time, you might not miss.”
Good lord, the Janissaries had macabre senses of humor.
“Who is Des Jardins?” John repeated.
“The story first,” McNaught returned, adamant.
John cocked his head to the side and studied him. “Why? So you can compare Katherine’s story to what you’ve already heard and then accuse her of keeping more from you?”
A hard glint entered the spy’s eyes. “I know something happened with the viscountess.”
“Hypocrite,” I spat. “You tell us nothing while expecting we divulge every conversation we have in minute detail?”
Anger lashed his features. “I tell you nothing to keep you safe!”
“And how has that played out for you?” John asked, the question low and dangerous.
McNaught collapsed back into his seat. “I’m sorry, John,” he said on a sigh. For once, it sounded like he meant the words.
John pressed on as though he hadn’t spoken. “You said that she would be safe.”
“I know what I said.”
“Remember?” John’s tone was still perilously soft. “I told you I didn’t think the number of guards you set would be enough, and you said-”
“I know what I said!” McNaught snapped. He sat back in his chair and wiped a hand over his face. “I didn’t anticipate this.”
“So Des Jardins isn’t working for our enemy?” John asked.
“He’s not,” McNaught said, with conviction.
John nodded, as if McNaught had just confirmed something for him. “And you’re certain of this, because you’re certain it isn’t the French. Which means you’ve known who’s been behind the notes this entire time.”
Shock ripped through me.
McNaught clenched his jaw shut against further incriminating himself. His expression gave nothing away, guilt, nor innocence. Whatever secrets he kept, he would take them to the grave. I saw it there, in his eyes. His stubborn refusal to give ground.
I wanted to scream at him. How many times must he be shown that keeping secrets only put others in harm’s way before it finally sank through his thick skull? What would it take for him to learn that lesson?
“It might be me next,” John told him.
McNaught’s face became a thundercloud.
I, on the other hand, had to fight back the urge to smile.
John, so adept at manipulating his political rivals, was putting all of his conversational weapons to use now. A moment ago, he had badgered McNaught into giving something away. Now he knew the perfect thing to say to lay the guilt on thick and heavy. Throughout my limited interactions with the spy, one thing rang clear: John truly mattered to McNaught. Likely he had few friends left in the world, and those still living, he coveted.
“You realize that, don’t you?” John said. “Whether our enemy, or Des Jardins, someone could kill me tomorrow, and then everything you’ve done to keep us safe will be for nothing.”
McNaught turned to glare at the fire, jaw set in a hard line.
“Unless, of course,” John went on, “you can’t say anything.”
At this, McNaught glanced back, expression wary.
“Because you’ve been ordered not to.”
McNaught went utterly still in his seat.
My head spun. He had orders? Meaning what? Someone in the war department who outranked him knew the truth as well and had banned him from saying anything? What sort of repercussions would be needed to make that order stick? McNaught was the kind of man who did what he wanted, guided by his own moral compass. A compass that sure as hell didn’t point due north. So what would it take to bring him to heel?
John spread his hands and smiled. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
The blood drained from my face. No, he couldn’t really be saying…
John sat forward in his chair. “Keep your secrets from us and you put us in danger. Tell us, and your superior officer will have us killed to keep the knowledge from spreading.”
I swayed in my seat. Plots within plots.
McNaught caught sight of my horrified expression and sent me a flat look. “You think I’ve just been here, acting of my own free will? That I’d gone rogue and my commanding officer was perfectly fine with me sneaking spies into half of the households of the ton?”
I hadn’t thought of it at all, actually. I’d been too preoccupied with everything else that was happening.
He chuckled darkly and looked between me and John. “Tell me what happened and I’ll tell you what I can of Des Jardins.”
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
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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.