Our flight from the street was a blur. What little I remembered came in snatches: the terrified faces of men and women; smoke so thick we choked on it; screams rending the air; George yelling at us to go while he turned to slow those who still pursued us.
The last I saw of him, he faced off against three men and was beginning to flag. I prayed that he’d managed to escape somehow, but I feared that he was lost to us, like Isaac.
Adnan’s expression was grim as we ran, and though Haydar set a punishing pace, the smaller man managed to keep up. He still held his knives in that strange grip, gaze casting every which way as he searched for threats.
I huddled within Haydar’s arms, my ears pricked as I waited for the telltale sound of hooves barreling down behind us that would indicate Des Jardins had broken free from the crowd. Blessedly, I never heard them. Maybe we’d gotten lucky and the mob had turned on him, pulled him from his saddle and bludgeoned him to death in the street, but the way my luck had run lately, I doubted it.
Two roads over, Adnan tried to hail a hansom cab. The driver took one look at the three of us, coated in filth and gore, and lashed at his horses to drive on. With a curse, Adnan put on a final burst of speed and leapt to the driver’s seat in a stunning show of athleticism. He disappeared from sight for a moment, but then the unmistakable sound of a fist striking flesh rang out, and the horses slowed to a stop.
Adnan peeked around the front of the hansom to yell, “Get in!”
Haydar tried to set me down once we were inside, but I clung to him so hard that he was forced to abandon his attempt. My body trembled from head to toe, and I worried that the only thing holding me together was the strength of his arms. If he set me down now, there would be nothing to keep me from shaking apart piece by piece.
While the fight to escape had lasted a lifetime, our drive home passed in a blur. I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw shut to keep in the keening sob building in the back of my throat.
I’d stabbed a man. In the neck. And then Haydar had beheaded him in front of me. The sight was burned into the back of my eyelids. I felt like I could never unsee it. What only made it worse were the other snatches of memory that vied for dominance. Adnan slitting someone’s throat. Isaac hacking into that ugly bastard’s arm. Des Jardins, driving the crowd toward us. Haydar, gutting a man. Haydar throwing someone through the air. Haydar, grinning, as he took another man’s arm off at the elbow with all the effort that I might exert swatting a fly.
I studiously ignored the coppery tang that filled my nose, the fact that my gloves had turned stiff and scratchy with that dead man’s drying life force, that Haydar’s shirt was wet beneath me with blood and sweat and God only knew what else. I should have been terrified of the Janissary after what I had just witnessed. Large, violent men had always terrified me, and he’d just proven that he was not only the largest I’d ever known, but the most adept at committing acts of violence.
Perhaps I might have been afraid if the spectacular feats of brutality that crowded my mind hadn’t been performed while saving my life ten times over. Instead of wanting to flee from him, I wanted to grovel at his feet in thanks. Pay him a king’s ransom as reward. Ask him if he’d be willing to spend his every waking moment at my side from this day forward.
But, more than anything, I wanted him to teach me. I would never be able to toss a man through the air, but perhaps, with enough training, I could learn how to bat a sword aside with the flick of my wrist. Feel nothing but grim satisfaction in a job well done after gutting a man.
It might be macabre to want to do those things, but it was better than standing, helpless, in the middle of a riot, dependent on others to save you. Yes, I had stabbed that man, but it had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with quick thinking and the desperate desire to not be abducted.
If it had been two men instead of one…
No, don’t think of that. You made it out. You’re alive.
This aphorism played through my mind over and over again until we turned onto the wide avenue that led home. Adnan had the sense of mind to pull around to the servants’ entrance, so that none of my neighbors would see the state I was in when I was carried from the carriage. There was no one to greet us at the door, as no one would expect a hansom cab arriving at the rear of the house to bear me inside of it.
We were ten steps in before a scullery maid caught sight of us. She took one look at me and Haydar, let out a shriek that threatened to burst my eardrums, and then fainted dead away.
Doors flew open on all sides of the hallway as her cry rebounded through the house. More women screamed. People poured forth to crowd around us. I cringed away from them, hiding my face in Haydar’s chest. I couldn’t be hemmed in right now. Instead of the familiar faces of my servants, I saw the angry ones of the mob.
“Stand aside!” Mrs. Marston barked.
She shoved her way through the onlookers and walked, bold as brass, right up to Haydar, as if the sight that greeted her was no worse than anything she’d seen before. Careless of her own cleanliness, she wiped at me with the apron tied around her waist, slicking the filth from my skin as she searched for wounds.
“None of it is her blood,” Adnan told her.
She tsked under her breath and brushed gentle fingers across my cheek. “Well, this at least will need tending.”
“Where is she?” a deep voice bellowed from further down the hall.
Someone must have run to fetch him.
The crowd parted, and there he was, striding toward me. His face was a thundercloud at first, but then his eyes landed on mine and shock reigned supreme. He closed the distance between us at a run. I reached for him, the sobs I’d kept at bay finally breaking free. Careless of the onlookers, he scooped me out of Haydar’s arms and crushed me to him.
“Careful!” Mrs. Marson snapped. “She’s injured.”
He loosened his grip only marginally. “Where?” he asked, staring down at me. His gaze roved over my face, my ruined clothes, and my stockinged feet – I had lost my shoes sometime during our flight from the street.
“Just my face and my stomach,” I managed. At least, those were the only injuries I knew of. It felt like my body had been put through a vice, and once I got this dirt off, I’d probably find a dozen other wounds I hadn’t been aware of.
“She needs to be cleaned up and have her injuries seen to,” Mrs. Marston said.
“Gather what you need. I’ll summon you when she’s ready,” Henry told her. Then he turned his head toward the onlookers. I didn’t follow his gaze. I still couldn’t look at them. “Sherman, send word.”
Most likely he meant send word to John and McNaught to come straight here. His circumspect order reminded me that we were trying to avoid further scandal. This situation was bad enough without the entire staff seeing the open look on Henry’s face as he held me. No one watching him right now would ever believe that our relationship was platonic.
I stifled my tears and pushed away from his chest, hoping he would set me down. Instead, he pulled me closer and sent me a flat look of refusal. I was too tired to put up a fight. Too tired to really bring myself to care what anyone thought of me anymore. I could have died today. I could have been abducted and tortured in some forgotten hellhole in the city while John and Henry went out of their minds with worry.
Instead of pushing away again, I wrapped my fingers around his lapels and pressed my face against his chest, replacing the sharp tang of blood and the reek of the horse shite-laden mud with the smell of his cologne.
“You saved her?” he rumbled.
Adnan or Haydar must have nodded in response.
“Thank you,” Henry told them, the words heavy with the weight of feeling.
I kept my eyes closed as he turned on his heel strode down the hallway. He paused somewhere near the foot of the rear stairs.
“Oh, God,” came Harriet’s cry. “What happened? Is she hurt?”
“I’m not sure yet, and no, not badly at least,” Henry said. “Tell the scullery maids to bring up as much hot water as they can carry. And have the footmen haul both tubs in front of the fire in her sitting room.”
The sound of feet slapping over marble told me she took the order at a literal run.
We reached my rooms a few moments later. As soon as the door was shut behind us, Henry collapsed into an armchair, cradling me in his lap.
“You’re all right,” he said. “You’re home.”
I couldn’t stop shaking, and try as I might, the only response I could make was a stuttered, “C…c…cold.”
He pulled me closer, sheltering me in a warmth my body refused to accept. “It’s shock. You’re in shock, Kit.”
“I…almost…Henry, I could have…”
Died. Been abducted. Tortured. Murdered. Raped. Never to see him or John again.
“But you weren’t,” Henry said, as if he knew what I’d been thinking. “You made it out. You’re safe.”
I shook my head, adamant that safety was a luxury I would never again enjoy.
“You are safe,” Henry said, a stubborn edge to his tone. “I have you, and I swear I’ll never let you go again.”
Yes, that sounded nice.
Though I had pitied him the gilded cage that John had locked him in, I would happily clip my own wings and join him in it now. We might harbor a spy within these walls, but it was clear to me that the real danger was outside, and we’d been woefully unprepared to face it. Not even McNaught had anticipated such a bold attack. Broad daylight, a large force of men waiting for us, an entire neighborhood put at risk of violence and destruction. If they had instigated a riot just to get to me, what was next?
Suddenly the bars of this gilded cage seemed too thin. Flimsy.
Des Jardins didn’t care about being identified. Hell, there were a hundred witnesses to his maddened pursuit of us. And clearly he didn’t give a fig for innocent lives either. How many people had fallen beneath the hooves of his horse in that last rush to reach me?
If he was that brazen on a crowded street, what was to stop him from showing up on our doorstep with an army in tow?
We needed more men. Now.
I tried to tell Henry that, but I shook so badly that I almost bit the tip of my tongue off. Adnan and Haydar were as intelligent as they were well trained. They’d seen the trouble before I had, and they’d done whatever they had to in order to get me clear of it. Surely they understood how vulnerable we were here and were already working to correct it.
Or so I prayed.
Henry shushed me the next time I tried to talk and then rose to his feet. “We need to get you out of these clothes.” He strode from the sitting room into my bedroom. “Can you stand?”
Could I? I didn’t know. I couldn’t even form complete sentences right now. Standing would take a monumental effort.
In answer, I forced myself to nod. Forced my eyes to see the room spread out in front of me instead of an endless loop of Haydar killing one man after another.
Oh, God. There’d been a hundred witnesses to that too. Forget about the gossip rags. Every newspaper in the city would have a field day with this. There was no avoiding a scandal now.
My head swam as Henry loosened one arm and my feet swung toward the floor. I could barely feel them beneath me. My body was quickly becoming as numb as it was cold. I stumbled, and he tightened his other arm around my shoulders, bracing me up.
“Gloves first,” he said.
I closed my eyes and held my hands out. I had studiously avoided looking down at myself. The reminder of what I had done was there waiting for me. Bad enough that I could feel arterial spray tightening my skin as it dried. Looking at it might tip me toward the breaking point.
Henry tugged my gloves off and then got to work on my dress. There was so much dirt caked in my stays that in the end, he had to cut me free. I heard him tossing garments somewhere behind me as he removed each one, until finally I stood in nothing but my thin chemise.
“It’s safe to look,” he said. If he judged me for my cowardice, I didn’t hear it in his soft tone. “Come, over by the fire.”
He helped me into a heavy dressing gown and held onto my arm as I stumbled toward the hearth. My knees gave out when I reached it, and I sank down to the flagstones and sat so close to the screen protecting the nearby floorboards from stray sparks that finally, blessedly, heat began to suffuse my body.
A knock sounded from the bedroom door.
Henry rose to answer it, but I grabbed onto his leg and clutched him to me.
“It’s all right,” he said, dropping a hand and stroking my matted hair from my face. “It’s probably the footmen with the tub.”
I shook my head and clung to him harder. Because what if it wasn’t? What if Des Jardins had finally caught up to us? I might have survived the alley, but I wouldn’t survive watching him be murdered right in front of me.
Part of me knew my terror was illogical. If the house had been invaded, we would have had warning, heard the shouting and the distant crashes, like I had in the carriage. But logic can’t hold a candle to terror, and clasped within its grip, I was like a mad thing.
Henry must have seen the desperation in my eyes, because his expression softened and instead of trying to pull free, he called out instead. “What is it?”
“The tubs, Mr. Fletcher,” Harriet yelled back.
He turned to glance down at me. “I need help cleaning the worst of the blood off of you. Can she come in?”
Could she? Yes, part of me said, but my greater self, which had succumbed to my fear, argued against it. What if she was the spy? What if she had a knife hidden on her person and she used it against me, or worse, Henry? How many times had she beaten me to the draw in that silly game we had played to practice pulling our blades? Enough for me to wonder at how much faster than me she seemed to be with hers. Like it wasn’t a new skill she was learning, but an old one she enjoyed practicing.
Henry frowned and then crouched down, forcing me to let go of his leg. “It’s just Harriet. Your handmaid. You saved her from Aberdine. She’s blindly loyal to you, Kit. She isn’t the spy.”
He spoke to me in a tone one might use on a deranged invalid – cautious, placating – and it was that, more than anything else, that finally broke through to me.
Belatedly, I nodded.
Henry turned toward the door. “Have the footmen place them close to the fire and then come in!”
A few moments later, the door cracked open. Harriet slipped in, schooling her features as she looked me over. She joined us by the hearth, and, still staring at me, addressed Henry. “Has she said anything about what happened?”
He shook his head.
“Adnan told me a little,” she said, crouching down on my other side. Her eyes landed on me, and her tone was steely when she spoke again. “It was you or him, Katherine.”
Henry sucked in a harsh breath, guessing at her meaning.
I tried to respond, but she cut off my stuttering.
“If you hadn’t done what you did, he would have taken you, and instead of being home, you would be God knows where suffering the devil knows what.”
The hand Henry placed on my shoulder trembled slightly.
“Y…you d…don’t need to remind m…me,” I said.
She sent me a look that said she clearly thought otherwise and then dropped her gaze to take in the state of me. “Right. We need to clean you up.”
It took both of them together. I tried to help, but my limbs were sluggish, and every time I moved even a foot from the fire, I started shaking again. They bade me to stay where I was while they dirtied countless towels washing the worst of the filth from my skin. By the time they were done, the bathtubs had been filled.
“Do you need help with the rest?” Harriet asked as Henry helped me to stand.
He shook his head. “I’ll take it from here. Thank you.”
Meaning he would strip me naked and help me bathe.
Whatever feelings Harriet had about that, they didn’t show on her face. She nodded curtly and then turned to me. Her eyes dipped to my cheek, where I could see it swelling in my periphery. The shock had driven away the worst of my injuries, but now that I started to come back to myself, I was painfully aware of every scrape and contusion on my body. No doubt I would have a spectacular black eye, and I’d be lucky if my ribs weren’t fractured.
A flicker of fear and worry showed in her gaze as she lifted her eyes back to mine. She seemed to gather herself then, and forced the emotions aside. “I’m just a bell pull away if you need anything,” she told me.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
Her voice was soft when she spoke next. “I’m glad you made it home.”
“Me too,” I told her.
And then she was gone, leaving me and Henry alone. He helped me to the sitting room. My ribs hurt so badly that I couldn’t lift my arms over my head. Seeing my trouble, he slipped the chemise from my shoulders. I braced my hands on his shoulders as I stepped out of it. There was nothing romantic about the way he touched me now. His care for me was more like that of a loved one looking over a sick relative.
Gently, he led me to the first tub and helped me in. I nearly sobbed as I sank into the water. It was still piping hot, and thanks to the sheet that had been draped over the interior, the metal liner didn’t bite at my skin or leach away any of the warmth.
Though Henry and Harriet had done their best to clean me off, they had kept their touches gentle, not knowing where I was hurt. Flecks of dried blood and dirt still clung to me, and now I understood the meaning of both bathtubs. After I dirtied the water in this one, I could wipe myself down and then get fully clean in the second. To that end, I took the washcloth Henry offered and scrubbed at my skin until the filth began to fleck away.
“Kit,” Henry said, countless minutes later. He was crouched down beside me, expression troubled.
I spared him a glance and went back to scrubbing. “What?”
He reached over and stilled my hand. “You’re scraping your skin raw.”
“I need to get the blood off.”
I tried to pull free from his grip, but he held my wrist fast.
“There’s no more blood, Kit.”
“What are you on about?” I asked. It was there, right there, coating my hands. Why couldn’t he see it? Why was he keeping me from cleaning it off?
He pried my fingers open and took the washcloth from me. “It’s not there. Not really. Only in your mind.”
He was wrong. It was there. I could see it.
“It’s not there,” he said again. “Your mind is playing tricks on you.”
“Don’t speak to me as though I’m addled,” I snapped. Then I sighed and pressed my palms to my eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” he said. “Come now, dip your head back so I can wash your hair.”
“The blood is really gone?” I asked in a small voice.
“It’s gone. I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”
I pulled my hands away and opened my eyes, and this time my vision was true. The blood really was gone. My skin looked pink and angry, but clean. I dipped my head back into the water and stared up at him. “Why did I see it still?”
He shucked his jacket off and began to fold up the sleeves of his shirt as he answered. “Sometimes, after trauma or shock, the mind can supplant images in front of your eyes that aren’t really there. Sounds too. After Castlebar, every loud noise sounded like musket fire to my ears.”
I gazed up at him, wondering if he would say any more. Henry had served as a lieutenant in a regiment of the British army during the Irish rebellion half a decade gone. Though it had been a long and arduous campaign with many gains and losses on both sides, the worst of the fighting had come after French troops landed on Irish shores to buoy up their rebellion against the crown. Castlebar was the last, and bloodiest, battle Henry had fought in. He rarely spoke about that time, and what little he’d said had conveyed a belief that war was evil. It ended the lives of good, common men, all so that those in power could gain more land, or wealth, or status. A pointless, endless cycle of violence and heartache that only led to more violence and heartache.
“How long did it take for you to stop hearing musket fire?” I asked him.
He crouched down by the head of the tub and gave me a wary look. “Sometimes I still hear it.”
I closed my eyes in resignation. It had taken me two solid years of feeling safe and cared for to overcome the worst of the panic attacks brought on by my father’s abuse. After today, I anticipated them returning with a vengeance, and now Henry was telling me that on top of that, I might see blood on my skin every time I looked at myself.
Henry rifled through the small collection of soaps and shampoos that had been set on a small table nearby. I did my best to dampen my thoughts and focus on the sounds that filled the room. A log cracked and fizzled in the fireplace. Water lapped at my shoulders. Henry’s breaths came one after another, deep and even. I heard the clink of glass, the scrape of metal as a bottle was opened. The smell of lavender and lemon hit my nose. I breathed deeply, cleansing the lingering memory of other, less savory smells from my nose.
Henry’s fingers were strong and sure as he lathered my hair and then massaged the shampoo into my scalp. I sank back into his touch, letting him hold me up above the water. When he was done, he filled a cup and ran it over my head, rinsing away the last of the suds.
“Ready to move to the next tub?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
The warmth of the water had driven away the deleterious chill of shock, but a deep, aching soreness had settled throughout my limbs in its wake, and I was stiff as I rose from the tub and accepted the towel he handed me. I dried myself a little, so as not to leave a trail of water on the floor, and as I patted my skin down, Henry pulled the hem of his shirt free from his trousers, reached behind his back, and tugged it off.
I stilled, watching him. “Are you getting in with me?”
His fingers fell to the buttons at his waist, but his eyes were steady on mine. “You nearly died today. I need to hold onto you for a while.”
His words caught me off guard. He’d been so calm, so steady up until now. It was only as he spoke that I noticed the tightness around his eyes, the pinched line his lips had settled into. If he unraveled right now, so would I.
“I might break if you hold me,” I said.
His eyes bored into mine, dark, unfathomable once more. “Sometimes you have to let yourself shatter. Only afterward can you put the pieces back together in a way that will make it harder to break you again.”
“You’ll be there to help me?”
He nodded. “Always.”
I let out a heavy breath. “All right.”
He shucked off the rest of his clothing and stepped into the water. His hands landed on the sides of the tub, the muscles in his arms flexing from shoulder to wrist as he lowered himself down. He turned to me. “Come here.”
I dropped my towel. He widened his knees to make room for me, and I stepped into the tub. The water rose perilously high as I sank down, lapping at the edges, threatening to overrun its bounds. We moved slowly to keep it from spilling over, Henry pulling me close, until my back rested against his chest and his body made a cage around mine.
I leaned my head on his chest and closed my eyes. He dropped his lips to my temple and pressed a hard kiss against my skin. His arms, distorted beneath the surface of the water, snaked around me, one settling heavy on my waist, the other banding across my shoulders. I raised my hands and gripped his forearm.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” he rumbled.
I shook my head. “I can’t. Not yet. I need this moment with you, Henry.”
“I love you, you know,” I said, because it was stupid to hold the words in any longer. Today had proven to me that life was fleeting, and whether it be a sword to the stomach, a carriage accident, or sudden illness, any day could be my last. If I was going to die, I would go to my grave with no regrets. With nothing left unspoken.
Henry tightened his arms around me. “I love you too. I think I have since that first night in John’s study, when you saved Harriet and then stared down the Duke of Deceit, flinging aside your pride and asking him to save you from ruin. You were so brave.”
How did he do this? Make me feel, even in my weakest moments, like I was better than I was? Like I was more than I was? I struggled to find something to say to him in return, but it was then that the damn burst and reality set in. He loved me. And earlier, I almost lost him. There was no doubt in my mind that had Des Jardins taken me, I would have died, alone and in pain, without ever having told Henry or John how I truly felt or what I really wanted.
I clapped a hand over my mouth to muffle my sobs. Henry pulled me close and held on while I cried. Instead of trying to master my emotions, I let them reign supreme. I thought about everything I would have lost had I been taken. John, Henry, Marcus, my home, Harriet, my budding friendship with Mrs. Ainsley, all of the hopes and dreams for the rest of my life. And then I remembered what I had seen in that alley and the street beyond. What I had done. How my hand, so small and dainty where it rested against Henry’s forearm, had just hours before driven a knife into a man’s spine.
With a final, strangled sob, I did what Henry said. I let myself break.
It turned out he was wrong about something. I didn’t need to rebuild myself again. As the pieces fell away, they revealed another presence, already fully formed beneath. It was the part of me that John wanted to coax out, the part of me that wanted to learn how to gut a man with a sword. She had been there, all along, ready and waiting for this moment, and she smiled to see my former self disintegrate around her.
The spill of tears over my cheeks slowed and then stilled. I took a deep, measured breath and let go of the person I had been up until today. I shed her like a snake who had outgrown its skin. What was left in its wake was a woman who was harder and meaner than the one who came before. She was strong. Fierce.
I stroked my fingers over Henry’s forearm. “I’m all right now.”
Something in my tone must have tipped him off. “You are, aren’t you?”
He loosened his hold on me and was just starting to speak when the door to the room crashed open.
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.