It was worse than I’d predicted. The gossip rags had fallen over themselves to exaggerate my exploits from the night before. I’d read through ten so far, and my mood was now as dark as the storm clouds that hung low and angry over the city. Not even the buttery yellow of my favorite sitting room or the first flush of daffodils blooming in the garden just beyond the window could brighten my outlook.
The Duchess of H______ was seen to be enjoying the company of one of the younger sons of the Duke of G____ last night. The Queen was in attendance, and this paper can’t determine whether her censure of the duchess was due to the rakish company she kept, the amount of champagne she drank, or the scene she created on her way out the door.
I dropped the paper I held and rose from my seat. Our enemy didn’t need spies amongst the ton to report on my behavior. I’d done their work for them last night.
Many of my peers sold secrets to the gossip mongers just to spite those they didn’t like. It seemed I’d earned a lot of ire amongst the aristocracy. A veritable horde of them must have contributed to this morning’s slander. There was even a piece about my interaction with my father in there. The writer had depicted him as some sort of savior who’d only been intervening to keep his daughter from embarrassing herself any further. My stomach still churned to think of him painted as the hero. He would love that. And knowing him, he’d find some way to either throw it in my face or use it to his advantage the next time I saw him.
I still had several more papers to go through, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them. Not now. If I had to read one more line about my alleged drunken debauchery, I was going to scream. For the second time in my adult life, I had acted out of character. The first had been in Amesbury’s drawing room, and look where that had landed me. Last night I had refused to be publicly victimized by both my father and an agent of my blackmailer. And here was the result. My peers had damned my behavior, reported it to slanderous news rags, and those news rags, in turn, had splashed it all over London.
Women shouldn’t speak out. Women shouldn’t ask for help when being assaulted. Women weren’t allowed to have any agency of their own. We were to be quiet, composed, a mirror of good breeding, there to do nothing but act as a complimentary reflection of our husbands. The fact that several of the articles hinted that John needed to take a firmer hand with me proved that.
It made me feel helpless. Powerless. Desperate to reclaim some measure of control over my life.
I turned my back on the papers and strode from the room. Adnan was stationed outside the door, and he fell into step behind me and followed me up the stairs. The fact that he had dropped the act of a simple footman and was openly guarding me in my own home was meant to send a message to the traitor we harbored within it: we know about you.
This was Sherman’s idea. People who felt as though they were close to exposure became distracted, careless. They slipped up in some small way that might be noticed, and our ex-spy of a butler sought to take advantage of that.
I prayed this plan worked swiftly and we could excise the traitor from our house. Knowing that there was someone stationed within these walls working against us made the space between my shoulder blades itch. Like I was being watched by unseen eyes at all times.
I paused at the top of the stairs and turned toward Adnan.
He raised a brow at me in question.
I stepped closer to him and lowered my voice. “Would you be willing to teach me how to wield a knife?”
A grin split his handsome face. His dark eyes sparkled even in the dim light of the hallway. “It would be my pleasure.” He’d dropped the cockney accent and spoke now with a sibilant cadence that belied his native tongue. “Your handmaid too? Something tells me she’d be good with a blade.”
“I’ll ask her,” I said, though it was a given that Harriet would relish learning how to defend herself.
I turned from him and made my way to the room we’d dedicated to Henry’s art. It was a sacred space to him, and one I didn’t regularly trespass upon.
“Can you wait here please?” I said to Adnan when we were still several paces away. I didn’t want his keen ears to pick up on anything I was about to say.
He nodded and took up position in the hallway.
Henry called for me to enter after I knocked, and I slipped into the room and shut the door behind me.
I paused at the threshold and stared with wide eyes at the scene before me. This room sat in a corner of the house. It had originally been designed to function as a music room, with tall, lofting ceilings that would reflect the vibrato of string instruments or the twang of a harpsicord. The windows were taller here than in any other room in the home save the ballroom, and they let in so much illumination that even on a day as cold and dreary as this one, Henry had an abundance of ambient light to paint in.
He was a landscape artist that worked predominantly in oils. Canvases stood on easels throughout the room, some so small I could hold them in my hands, others so large it would take three people to lift them. Sketches stood out on a few, the beginnings of what was to come. Several were half-done. Still more looked as though they were nearly ready to be delivered to the patrons who had paid for them, but Henry, ever the perfectionist when it came to his art, must have held them back because there was still some small flaw, undetectable to my own eyes, that only he could see.
A drop cloth was spread over the floor in the center of the room. On top of it sat two large easels holding an even larger canvas frame. Henry stood in front of it, his back to me. In one hand he held a brush. In the other, a pallet smeared with primary colors. Beneath his skilled hand a village was coming to life. The buildings were wide and squat, their walls whitewashed. Rust-red terracotta tiles covered their roofs. A wall surrounded the town, harkening back to a time of raiders and warring fiefdoms. Behind the village, mountains crouched, low and distant. What few trees and shrubs he’d painted were short and withered. The ground they grew out of looked sunbaked. Here was a place far from the foggy gloom of London, where the land cried out for rain.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
Henry turned to face me. He wore loose black pants and a linen shirt. Both were splattered in paint. “It was my home.”
He nodded. “The village I was born in.” He smiled then, small and a little sad. “Or at least it resembles what I remember from early childhood.”
I pushed away from the door. “You’ve never been back?”
He shook his head. “There’s nothing left for me there. My home is here now.”
In London. With John. And me. That thought made me feel connected to him in yet another way. My home was here too. There was nothing for me in the ancestral manor that I was born and raised in. Even if my father died tomorrow and Marcus inherited his estate, I would never go back there. This was the only place I had ever felt safe, with John and Henry in this house. And the sanctity of that was now under threat.
Something of my troubled thoughts must have shown on my face. Henry set his pallet and brush aside and met me halfway through the room. He frowned as he looked down on me, his gaze roaming over my features. “What is it? Has something happened?”
“The papers were as bad as John said they would be.”
He let out an exasperated sigh. “Why is he always right about these things?”
“Because he always assumes the worst of people.” Maybe there was something to be said for such a cynical outlook on life. Up until this point, I’d been fighting to remain optimistic, but now I wondered why I bothered. Clearly, it was a losing battle. And after all, if I always assumed the worst and the worst didn’t come to pass, I might sometimes be relieved instead of constantly disappointed and angry.
“I’m sorry for whatever the gossip rags said.” He reached forward, as if to comfort me, but paused when he noticed the paint on his hands.
The dress I wore was a pale, pastel green that would be ruined if he touched it.
Good, I thought.
For once it would be nice to choose for myself something to be ruined, instead of someone else choosing for me. I closed the distance between us. Or at least I tried to. Henry, for once, took a step back from me.
“Your dress,” he said.
“Bugger the dress.”
His gaze darkened. He lifted his hand and slipped it around my waist, leaving a streak of mottled red in its wake. It wasn’t enough. I wanted his handprints all over me, the silk of my neckline torn in half, the muslin of my skirts shredded and smeared. That desperation to reclaim control while simultaneously losing it had taken hold of me again, and my entire body thrummed with unspent energy. I felt as though I’d stood outside in a thunderstorm and absorbed the violence and chaos of the lightning.
My intention in coming here was to confide in him. To talk things over as we always did, but now that I was faced with him, the memories of him and John from two nights past had come swimming to the surface, and my desire for him would be denied no longer.
I lifted my chin and stared boldly into his eyes. To hell with being circumspect or shy. To hell with denying myself what I had craved for so long. I wanted release. I wanted him to make me come in any way he pleased. Sprawled out on the settee in the corner. On my hands and knees in the middle of the floor.
“I need you,” I told him. “And if I’m going to be damned by our enemies for being an immoral harlot, I might as well earn it.”
Henry didn’t ask me if I was sure about this. He trusted that I knew my own mind. Instead, he stepped into me. His hand slid further around my waist, until I was banded within one strong arm. The other came up to cradle my back. I stood on my tiptoes within his embrace, staring at his mouth, craving the feel of it on mine.
My lips opened on a wordless plea.
In answer, he tightened his hold and lifted me clear off my feet. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed the side of his face. He hadn’t shaved yet, and the stubble of his beard was rough beneath my lips.
“What did you and John decide?” I whispered into his skin.
Last night, just before I’d left them and returned to my own rooms, I’d declared my intention to stay the course, reiterated how much I wanted both of them. Told them that I would have them in whatever capacity they saw to include me, and I would be satisfied by whatever they decided.
Henry turned his face into me and brushed his lips across my own. “We want you still. Like you said, if we’re to be slandered, we might as well earn it.”
Something broke inside me then. I’d been half prepared for rejection, despite the obvious signs that they desired me. My life had taught me that nothing good could last, and being with them made me feel more alive, more sated and at peace, than anything else ever had. If this happiness would one day be wrested from me, as all good things had so far been, then I would drink up every moment with them like ambrosia, satiate myself full to bursting with them both, and cherish the memories we created until my dying day.
I tightened my arms around Henry’s neck and pressed my lips hard to his. He opened beneath me, allowing me entry, seeking access of his own. Something of my desperation must have passed between us as his tongue brushed over mine, because his grip on me became crushing, and with several great strides of his long legs, my back hit the wall.
He set me down only long enough to wrench my skirts up, and then I was back in the air, legs wrapped round his waist as he pressed me into the wood paneling. His arousal stood long and thick between my legs. I flexed my hips and rubbed the most intimate part of myself over the length of it. Henry made a low sound of satisfaction, and I did it again.
“Put your hands over your head,” he commanded.
I hesitated, because I was sure my grip on his shoulders was the only thing keeping me fully upright.
“Trust me,” he said, before kissing a rough path down my neck.
I let out a shaky breath and released him. Our bodies adjusted to the change immediately. My legs tightened around his thick waist. He used his hips to brace me up. As I lifted my arms, so too did Henry lift one of his own, gathering my wrists in his much larger grip until my hands were pinned above me. He hefted me even higher still, putting my chest near his eye level. With dark focus, he gripped the neckline of my gown with his teeth and tugged it down, freeing my breasts.
He paused and glanced up at me. Desire and possession and a hint of smug male satisfaction stirred in his gaze, reminding me of the way he had looked at me from atop John’s bed – as a dark god would gaze upon his supplicant. With our gazes still locked, he parted his lips and stroked his tongue over my nipple.
I sucked in a harsh breath, the heat of lust gathering low inside me.
He repeated the motion, just once, and then pulled away enough to speak. “You must always tell me if it’s too much. If I ever get close to hurting you.”
“I will,” I said. “But you must always trust that I’ll speak the words. And until I do, treat me how I want to be treated.”
His voice dropped to a base rumble. “How do you want to be treated, Kit?”
In answer, I shifted my hips against him again, harder this time. “Right now? I want to be helpless beneath you.”
He fastened his lips over my nipple with a growl. His tongue laved at me, sending waves of heat and need crashing through my body. I was forced to arch my back off the wall when he snaked his free arm behind me, holding me in place as he thrust his manhood up the length of my seam. He held me so tightly that I could barely move. Even yesterday this would have been too much, my bruised ribs would have been too sore for such treatment, but now that the pain had faded to a slight ache, it only seemed to drive my pleasure higher.
I moved in the only way I could, urging him on with the roll of my hips, making small sounds of want as I pressed my breast into his mouth.
He let go of one of my wrists, and as he switched from one nipple to the other, he spoke. “Free my cock.”
It was a struggle to do so, for though both of us wanted this, neither of us seemed willing to break contact. Instead, I was forced, one-handed, to slip his buttons free in the limited space between us. I paused several times, shuddering with need as his tongue plied my breasts and his facial hair roughed over my delicate skin. Finally, blessedly, I had the last button undone and was able to slip my hand into the falls of his trousers to grip his heated length.
He shook his head against my chest. “No. Hold your undergarments aside instead,” he rumbled.
I did as he asked, my hand half-crushed between our hips as he thrust his length up over me again. With no barrier between us, the heat of his manhood was exquisite. The dichotomy of his soft, flushed skin and the hardness it covered was divine. Evidence of my arousal slicked over him with the motion, and the friction between us evaporated.
Henry moaned, so low that the sound vibrated through me. He released my nipple with one last, gentle bite, and brought his lips to my ear. “If you weren’t a virgin and we didn’t have to take care, I would bury myself to the hilt in you right now.”
Now it was my turn to moan. Between his words and the feel of his cock slicking through my wetness, I was quickly coming undone.
“I would shift my grip to your hips,” he said, his voice rough. “Hold you in place as I fucked you. And instead of the wall at your back, it would be John holding you up.”
In my head, I saw what he described. Imagined myself pinned between them.
“Henry, please,” I all but sobbed, meeting his next thrust with near desperation.
He captured my mouth with his own and set a hard pace with his hips, thrusting his manhood higher, until our contact centered on my clitoris. Despite my need, I was still new to this, and though my body demanded I move with him, my motions were unpracticed and clumsy at first.
He broke our kiss and bit my earlobe. “Ride me. Keep your spine straight and lift and let fall your hips like you do in a saddle.”
He slowed his movements so that I might learn the rhythm my own body demanded, and soon it was me who set our pace. He held almost entirely still while I shifted my hips up and down.
“There,” he growled with satisfaction.
When he moved again, we were as one, our hips rising and falling in contradiction, so that even with my desire coating us both, the friction against my clitoris sent low, hot pulses of lust through my entire body.
I began to shiver within his grip. He covered my mouth with his own again and drank down the sounds of need I was making. I didn’t think we could be any closer, but he shifted his grip around my back, changed the angle of our joined hips, and crushed our chests together. His loosely woven linen shirt was rough against my nipples, dragging over them with every thrust of his hips.
Pleasure tore through me. It was almost too much to bear. A spring had coiled in my core, and I feared what would happen when it snapped.
Henry, sensing the precipice I perched upon, shortened his strokes but drove his hips into me even faster. My reality fractured then, ripped apart at the seams by the strength of my pleasure. The world went dark, narrowed down to a pinprick, and then exploded outward again as he tore my release from my body. He crushed his mouth to mine as I came, smothering my scream. I tasted the coppery tang of blood on my tongue and realized I’d bitten him.
From the way his hips still worked against mine, he liked it.
Now it was my turn to smother the noise he made. The low, growling moan that rumbled up from his chest as his manhood swelled even larger between us. He made to step away from me then, but I latched my legs around him, released the hold I had on my undergarments, and wrapped my fingers around his girth, stroking him in the way I already knew that he liked.
A heartbeat later, he spilled himself into my fist, the heat of his seed slicking over my fingers. He kissed me slow and hard afterward, our lips bruising each other’s with lingering desire.
As it faded, he gathered me close and stepped away from the wall. He carried me to the settee and set me gently down, leaving me for only a moment to grab a fresh cloth so that we might clean ourselves up.
The grin he gave me as he returned was a wicked thing. “John will be mad with envy when he learns I made you come again.”
“Will he be angry?” I asked. I’d assumed that they’d discussed what was and wasn’t allowed to transpire between the three of us, but now I wasn’t sure. Did Henry and I just betray John in some way? Break his trust because he wasn’t here?
Henry shook his head. “He won’t be angry, only jealous that he was stuck in his office in town while we pleasured each other.”
“We’ll have to make it up to him later.”
He reached out and stroked his thumb over my swollen mouth. “Yes. We will.” His gaze dropped from my lips lower still, and the dark smile he wore transformed into true amusement. “Bugger the dress indeed.”
I glanced down at myself. My neckline was stretched beyond repair. The muslin of my skirts was rumpled and paint stained. There was a wet spot near my waist from where Henry’s seed had spilled over.
“I’m glad its ruined,” I said, raising my gaze.
His dark, soulful eyes stared steadily into my own. “Because it was your choice for it to be?”
I nodded and dropped the cloth I held. He reached out for me as I moved toward him. Deep affection subverted my desire as I settled onto his lap. He knew me so well.
“We’ll get through this,” he said, stroking a hand up my back.
He made no more promises. He knew better than to boast that no harm would befall us. Instead, he held me close and reminded me that no matter how dangerous the world outside these walls was, here in his arms, I was safe.
If only I could have stayed there forever.
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 book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.