It had been three days. Three days since I received the threat. Three days since we decided to ignore their demands. Three days since John had taken my virginity and he and Henry had given me the most intense orgasms of my life.
In that time, John and I attended a ball, a large dinner, and then a fete without incident. Henry remained safely ensconced in his art studio, and at last report, nothing untoward or suspicious had happened within our home or the surrounding neighborhood. The mole our enemy had planted in the house had yet to expose themselves. No move had been made against us publicly.
I searched the papers every day with voracity. Not one word had been printed about us since the morning after Glover’s ball. It set me on edge. When would it happen? How would they expose us? Would the caricature be printed in a gossip rag? Or plastered all over London? Every time I stepped out of the house, I expected something dreadful to befall me. To be called out in a parlor by one of the ladies I kept company with. To be ambushed by some unseen agent.
This constant anxiety had started to wear me thin, and I’d spent the last few nights in my own rooms, pacing until the wee hours and sleeping fitfully when I finally took to my bed. I almost prayed that I found the caricature soon. I wanted to get it over with. Because at least I could do something in the fallout of a scandal. This purgatory of helplessness was torture.
With a huff, I set down the last of this morning’s gossip rags. There was nothing in them. At least not in the ones I was tasked with reading. Bracing myself, I took a sip of tea.
A low, amused chuckle came from across the table. “Your face, Kit.”
I choked down the liquid and met Henry’s eyes over the top of the paper he held. “It’s Mrs. Marston. She’s the enemy agent.” I lifted my cup. “This is clearly poison.”
He set his paper down and leaned forward to snatch the cup from my hands. “It can’t be that bad.”
“See for yourself then.”
He drew it toward his mouth and made to take a drink, but then his nostrils twitched and he hesitated, sniffing. Ah yes, that lovely wave of putrescent plant yuck must have hit his nose. With a frown, he took the tiniest sip imaginable. I felt vindicated when he immediately started choking, as if his body was trying to expel the liquid before he could swallow it.
“You’re right,” he said, coughing. “It’s poison.”
I took the cup back from him and forced myself to drink down the last of it in one large gulp. I had to brace my hands against the edge of the table when I was done, willing the contents of my stomach to stay where they were.
“What is in that?” Henry asked.
I shook my head. I couldn’t speak yet. The threat of sicking up was still too strong. Only once I had control of myself – after several deep breaths in and out through my nose – did I answer. “A mixture of herbs that are supposed to keep me from getting with child.”
He glanced at my empty cup as though he expected it to sprout arms and legs and launch an attack against him. “Why don’t you try sweetening it with sugar or honey?”
I shot him a blank look. “I put three cubes of sugar in that.”
“And it’s still so foul?”
His expression softened. “I’m sorry, Kit.”
I glanced at the door. We were in the yellow sitting room, where we’d taken to sharing our morning tea while we combed through newspapers. Adnan was stationed just outside. Not wanting my voice to carry, I leaned forward and dropped it to a near whisper. “For more nights like the one we shared, I would endure far worse than that tea.”
Henry’s gaze fell to my mouth, and he leaned forward too, closing the distance between us. “Please tell me you’re no longer sore.” It was the reason I’d been sequestered to my own rooms. We didn’t trust ourselves not to make me more sore if I stayed with them instead.
“I’m no longer sore,” I told him.
That indefinable something swam to the surface in his dark eyes. The part of himself he’d been so careful to hide from me for so long. It looked ravenous. Insatiable. And not for the first time I wondered if I had seen him yet in his full glory. What he and John had shared while I watched had been passionate, but loving. And, like John, he had been so gentle with me the other night. I wondered what would happen if he wasn’t.
A knock sounded from the door.
Henry blinked, and the look disappeared from his eyes. They were soft and soulful once more. He leaned away from me and picked his paper up. I was slower to recover. My cheeks burned with wanting him, and my pulse fluttered tremulously.
“Yes?” I called after I had composed myself.
Adnan entered the room and closed the door behind him. “There’s a note from your brother.”
Henry and I shared a glance. Was it truly from my brother? Or was it another threat from our enemy in disguise?
My hand was steady when I took the missive from the Janissary. I’d been so afraid for so long that my body no longer betrayed my fear. The paper was different from what our enemy preferred: thinner, cheaper. And though the handwriting on top definitely looked like my brother’s, I couldn’t trust it. I had seen McNaught forge notes from his sister and learned that it was nothing at all to simulate another’s script.
I tore the envelope open. Inside was a single scrap of paper.
“What is it?” Henry asked.
“He wants me to go to his apartment as soon as I can,” I said, still staring down at the note. Marcus’ penmanship had always been atrocious, but it was even worse now: scrawled sideways like he had rushed it; blotted here and there because he hadn’t allowed the ink to dry. “He seems almost desperate, Henry.”
“Do you think they could have gotten to him?”
It was Adnan who answered. “Not the last that I had heard.”
“What do you mean?” Henry asked.
I let out a low, scornful laugh. “McNaught is having my brother watched.” Adnan’s face confirmed it when I looked up. Later I could be angry about that. Right now, I was too worried about my twin. “I have to go. If our enemy didn’t get to him, then it could be something my father did.”
Adnan nodded. “We’ll double the guard. Haydar and I can go in the carriage with you, and we’ll have two of the new footmen take our places without.”
I reached across the table and grabbed my pen and quill from where they lay beside a stack of letters I still had to answer. “I’ll send notes round to John and McNaught telling them where I’ve gone and why.”
“I’ll have the carriage readied,” Adnan said, turning on his heel and striding toward the door.
Henry waited until he’d gone before he rose from his seat and came to crouch by mine. I’d told Harriet that I’d simply fallen asleep on John’s couch the other night, having stayed up too late talking to him and Henry. She believed the lie easily. After all, it had happened before. Since then the three of us had been more careful around the staff and our new allies within the house.
“I don’t like this,” Henry said.
I paused in my writing to glance over at him. He was so large that even crouched like this, he still came to eye level. I set my quill down and laid my hand on his shoulder. “I don’t like this either.”
“But you’re still going.” It wasn’t a question.
“I have to. You know how Marcus is. His moods can be as black as my father’s.”
He frowned at me. “What if it’s a trap?”
“I’ll have the men arm themselves for bear. That way, even if we do encounter trouble, we can fight our way out of it.”
He frowned. “We?”
I brandished my knife at him.
He sat back on his heels, surprised by the sudden appearance of it.
“Turns out I’m a quick learner,” I said.
A smile tugged at his lips. “Where did you even pull that from?”
“I have a harness strapped to my thigh that holds it. This dress has pockets, and I stitched a hole into the bottom of one so I could reach in and pull the knife from there.”
He glanced toward my thigh. “Very impressive. You must be practicing quite a lot to be so fast with it already.”
My cheeks heated. “I have.”
Harriet and I had made a game out of it. Every so often, while we went about our usual tasks in my rooms, one of us would yell, “Draw!” and whoever pulled their knife first won. I’d cut myself twice so far in my haste, just small scratches, but it was worth it. She and I were getting faster every day.
My cheeks heated even more when Henry sent a searching hand up my skirts. “Where, exactly, is this harness?”
I pointed my knife at him. “Don’t think I’ll let you seduce me into staying.”
He grinned, unintimidated, and pushed his hand up my stockinged leg, skipping over my knee, stroking along my thigh. My breath hitched when he found the bottom of the harness and traced its edge.
His gaze darkened. “Wear it the next time you come to John’s room at night.”
I nodded, breathless.
Another knock sounded from the door, ruining the moment. I was really beginning to hate these interruptions. The next time Henry started something between us, there damn well better be an opportunity to finish it.
He rose from his crouch, putting his obvious arousal inches from my face for a scant second before retaking his seat. I wanted to growl in frustration.
“Come in,” I called, rising from my own chair. The knife was easy to pull, but it could be tricky to put away.
Adnan slipped in the door and frowned when he noticed my trouble. “Blunted edge canted in first,” he said, coming over. For all of his outward nonchalance, the man had proven to be a strict instructor.
“I know,” I told him.
He grabbed my wrist when he reached me. “Stop. You’re going to stab yourself, and then Doruk will never let me live it down. Why are your hands shaking?”
I sent a glance at Henry, who hid his smile behind his paper. I was being taken to task and it was all his fault.
“I must be peckish,” I said.
Lord, what a terrible excuse.
With quick movements, Adnan helped me slip my hand into my pocket and guide the knife back into its sheath. Henry let a corner of the paper fall so he could watch, and he arched a brow at the Janissary’s familiarity with my person.
I subtly shook my head at him. There was nothing sexual between me and Adnan. The man was clinical in his instruction of me and Harriet, like a groom with a set of fresh hunting hounds.
“Don’t pull it again unless you can put it away yourself,” he snapped, proving my point.
Though I couldn’t see Henry’s mouth, I knew his smile had widened thanks to the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. I shot him a glare and then turned fully to Adnan. “I won’t.”
He nodded. “The carriage should be ready in a few moments. The men are already waiting. Do you need more time?”
“I just need to finish my notes and then fetch a shall.”
Marcus opened the door for me himself when I arrived. He looked…rough. His dressing gown was open, revealing the rumpled night rail beneath. From the stains that marred it, he’d been wearing it for some time. His hair was so disheveled it looked less like a style and more like he was trying to imitate a lit match. He held a bottle of brandy loosely in his fingers, and he swayed a little in the doorway. His breath was sour with the smell of alcohol.
He took one look at Haydar standing just behind me and shut the door in my face.
I knocked on it again. “Marcus!”
“Go away! And don’t come back until you have prettier company.”
Oh, for the love of God.
I knocked harder. “Marcus, you’re being small.”
“Everything must seem small to you compared to that giant!”
“Fine then. Call me when you’re done throwing this fit.”
I turned to go, motioning Haydar to start toward the stairs.
The sound of a door creaking open echoed through the hall, but I kept walking, knowing my twin well.
“Only if you promise he won’t try to stuff me in a cookpot,” he called.
Haydar turned back first, expression flat. I didn’t know the man well enough to judge whether he found my brother endearingly annoying, like I did, or unforgivably insulting.
I turned and pointed a finger at him. “That’s the last quip you make about Haydar.”
He pulled the door open and rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
“Where’s Seamus?” I asked as I walked inside. His valet usually kept both Marcus’ appearance and his apartment spotless. The place was a mess now. Papers and books littered the tables. Dishes sat stacked and dirty in his small kitchenette. The moldering fire struggled to put out any heat.
“His mother is ill,” he said.
“So you’ve just been here…” I lifted a pair of trousers from an armchair and brushed crumbs from the cushion before sitting, “…alone?”
He nodded and collapsed into the chair across from me, legs akimbo in front of him, arms hanging over the sides.
“I’ll have Sherman send someone around to help you until he gets back.”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“You smell,” I countered.
He lifted an arm and sniffed, grimacing. “How soon can they be here?”
“An hour after I get back home. Now tell me, what was so urgent?”
Marcus took a swig straight from the bottle he held before answering. “Father is going to disinherit me.”
“No, he won’t. That would leave cousin Jacob to inherit and he hates cousin Jacob even more than he hates me.”
“He’s serious this time, Kit.”
I took in Marcus’ disheveled state. The resignation in his bloodshot eyes. He truly believed his words. “What makes you say that?”
“He ordered me to marry. Some young chit making her debut this year. Her father owns a coal factory and our father thinks he’ll get a good deal on refinement out of the marriage.”
“And you said no.”
He nodded. “I said no.”
“Have you met the girl?”
“Don’t need to. I won’t marry.”
“But if you met her, you might be able to judge her character. She might be willing to agree to an unorthodox agreement and then you wouldn’t have to sacrifice your inheritance for your principles.”
He took another swig of brandy, eyeing me over the bottle. As he lowered it, he dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. “Like you did with John?”
A tendril of fear curled itself around my heart, and my pulse fluttered frantically in response. By the doorway, Haydar cut a glance at Marcus as though he suddenly found my brother much more interesting than before.
“What do you mean?” I asked. He couldn’t have meant what I thought he did.
He straightened in his seat, eyes boring into mine. Disgust marred his features. “I know, Katherine.”
I turned to Haydar. “Can you please wait outside?”
The Janissary hesitated a moment, glancing at my twin. He didn’t know Marcus, couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t get violent with drink.
“I’ll be fine,” I told him.
With a nod, he left us.
I braced myself and turned back to my brother, unease stiffening my spine. I had to play this carefully. “What exactly do you think you know?”
Marcus collapsed back into his chair and glared daggers at me. “I can always tell when you’re lying. You might be able to fool the rest of the world, but not me. Did you really think that I would believe you and McNaught are lovers?”
“We are,” I said.
Rage transformed his expression. “Stop lying to me!”
The door cracked open and Adnan stuck his head in.
I waved him away. “I’m fine.”
With a warning glance at the back of my twin’s head, he shut it, disappearing from view.
“Please keep your voice down,” I said.
Marcus snorted. “Right. Wouldn’t want the rest of the world to find out what a depraved whore my sister is.”
The sound of my slap rang through the room.
Marcus blinked at me, caught off guard by how quickly I’d leapt out of my seat.
I stood over him and balled my fists at my sides. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have struck you,” I said, trying to reign in my temper. “But if you persist in speaking to me like Father does, then I will walk out of this door and you will never see me again.”
Marcus rubbed at his cheek and nodded.
I retook my seat, hands shaking, stomach in knots.
“That’s some slap you have,” he said.
“I’ve had practice with it lately,” I answered in a black tone.
“I’m sorry, too. I know you’re not a whore.”
I nodded, both relieved and saddened by this entire interaction. How low we had fallen, to treat each other like this.
And then Marcus spoke and made everything worse. “I understand why you never told me that John was like me, and I even understand that you’re trying to protect me from whatever is happening to you right now, but don’t lie to me anymore, I can’t stand it.”
My heart gave a final, sluggish pump, turned to glass, and shattered. Unfortunately, it re-animated itself, sending slivers of its broken pieces to infect my blood. They left a thousand tiny cuts in their wake, and soon I felt as though I was nothing more than one open, bleeding wound.
He’d known about John all along and he hadn’t said anything. He’d never even betrayed his knowledge of it to me. And I hadn’t been able to trust him enough to tell him. Him. My twin brother. The person I once thought I shared a soul with.
What did that say about the rest of my life? The others that were in it?
What had I let myself become?
I wanted to say something to him, apologize again, but I knew that those words couldn’t mend the chasm that I had rent between us. How could I even hope to make things right?
“Well?” he asked. “Not going to defend yourself? Maybe try to lie to me some more?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He turned his face away and stared out the window. We sat in silence for several minutes that felt like they had stalled into a small eternity. I watched his profile, stumbling over what to say.
“I don’t expect forgiveness,” I told him. “Nor will I ask for it. And though the words feel incredibly insufficient for what I’ve done, I’m sorry.”
He kept his gaze fixed on the window, like he wished he could sprout wings and fly away from this conversation. “Do you know what the worst part is? Not that you lied to me for two years about John, but that you didn’t trust me enough to tell the truth.”
A tear slipped down my cheek. I rubbed it away before he could see. If anyone had the right to cry right now, it wasn’t me; it was him. “I didn’t. And I won’t try to defend that either. But you should know, John and you are different. While he prefers men, he’s been with women.”
He cut his gaze back to me. “With you?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes.”
He looked me over. “It must have been recently then.”
God, he still knew me so well. What a fool I had been. “Yes.”
“So McNaught is what?”
“You’re not having an affair with him.”
I shook my head. “That was a lie he concocted to excuse the note I received at the theatre.”
“What a scurrilous scoundrel that man is.”
“And fond of alliteration, apparently. I nearly murdered him after you read the notes aloud to me.”
“I can imagine,” he said. “Can you tell me what was really in the one you got at Drury Lane?”
I hesitated. “I…I want to, Marcus, but I’m not sure if it’s safe.”
“What do you mean?” He straightened in his seat. “Are you in danger?”
“Yes, and you are too, by proxy. Someone is blackmailing us, and I don’t know who else they’ll drag into their schemes just to hurt me.”
He frowned. “What do they have on you?”
There was no use lying. Marcus would see the caricature and know. Just as he knew how recently my relationship with John had changed. Better he heard it from my own lips. “They know about me and John…and Henry.”
I’d surprised my brother. His eyebrows shot up, and his mouth dropped open. Then he let out a whoop of laughter. “I knew you could never be happy in a typical society marriage.”
“Yes, well,” I said, fidgeting. “You were right on that account.”
“I’m going to need for you to start at the beginning and work up to how the hell my stuffy sister has a more scandalous love life than I do.”
“In that case, I’ll need some of that brandy.”
He handed the bottle over. “Sorry. All of my glasses are dirty.”
I grimaced and took a long pull from the bottle. Then I spent the next half an hour talking. In that time, I didn’t once try to justify my previous behavior toward him. There was no justification; what I had done was inexcusable. I simply told him everything, starting with the night John and I agreed to marry.
“So that’s why you were married so quickly,” he interrupted. “John took you to wife to avoid a scandal”
“Yes,” I told him. It was true after all, just not the scandal he thought. “And after what Aberdine tried to do to my maid, I didn’t need you to tell me anymore rumors. If John hadn’t married me, I would have fled.”
“Well, whatever John did to the man must have scared him straight. I haven’t heard any more rumors about him since that night.”
I shook my head. “Aberdine is a monster, Marcus. I’d bet my dowry that he hasn’t stopped preying on women, just not women of importance with husbands and fathers who can do something about it.”
His face darkened. “If I ever see him again…”
“You won’t. John and I are going to get to him first.”
Marcus blinked at me.
Damn it. I’d said too much.
“You’re not speaking of having the man murdered, are you?”
“Why would you think that?” I dissembled. “I might have meant having him jailed or dumped on some abandoned island in the Caribbean.”
He eyed me. “But you didn’t.”
I waved away his question. We’d said no more lies. And if I didn’t tell him what I had planned, he wouldn’t be complicit in my crimes.
What a creature I was turning into. Apparently I didn’t need McNaught to make me unrecognizable to my past self.
I moved on from there before Marcus could demand I answer him, detailing the unconventional agreement John and I had come to and then recounting the early days of our marriage. I talked about my initial fear of Henry, which Marcus understood without need for further explanation.
“Why do you think I only take lovers who are smaller than me?” he said.
Father had left scars on him too. They might not be visible, like mine were, but they were there nonetheless.
I told him more than I’d even told John. How I’d felt like I’d been slowly losing myself to my public persona. How I’d felt friendless and desperately lonely most days. Marcus interrupted me again to apologize for not spending more time with me, but I told him he had no reason to apologize. If our roles had been reversed, I wouldn’t want to spend much time with someone who continuously lied to me either.
Finally I talked about the change in my relationship with John and Henry, and then the ominous notes I’d been receiving. I stopped short of telling him more. That McNaught was a spy, our blackmailer was likely a head of state or someone with similar power, or that we weren’t the only peers of the realm within their grasp.
Though there was still a divide between us, Marcus had softened a little as I’d spoken. I knew it would be weeks, perhaps even months before I could start to heal what I had broken, but I now harbored hope that our relationship could, in time, be healed.
“Who do you think is sending the notes?” he asked.
“Honestly? I haven’t got a clue.” And that really was the truth. “Right now, that matters less than the imminent threat of a scandal.”
“What can I do to help?”
I reached out and grabbed his hand. “You can be careful. If something happened to you because of me, I would never forgive myself.”
He squeezed my fingers and then let me go. “I will be.”
I sat back in my seat. “And quash any rumors you hear?”
He nodded. “Done.”
“Thank you, Marcus. I don’t deserve your aid, not after everything I’ve done.”
“No. You don’t. But you’re my twin. What hurts you, hurts me,” he said. “I might be angry with you, I might not like you very much right now, but I love you more than anyone else in the world.”
I grinned. “Even Antoine?”
He nodded, expression still stoic. “Even Antoine.”
“I still want to meet him.”
“And you will. When he won’t be put in harm’s way just by meeting you.”
The smile fled from my face. “I don’t know when that will be.”
“Then until then, stay away from us.”
My heart breaking once more, I nodded. “I understand. Do you want to have some sort of public rift to explain our distance?”
He shook his head. “Unlike you and Antoine, acting isn’t my forte.”
Ouch. Though I’d earned those words, they still cut deep.
I stood from my seat. “Until we can speak again, please stay safe.”
“I will,” he told me.
As I left, I resolved to ask McNaught to set more men to watching him. Because I felt the same way. I loved him more than anyone else, and if anything ever happened to him, I would be lost.
next chapter coming soon
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.