London, April 1804
“Too tight, Your Grace?” my handmaid, Harriet, asked me after she stuck the final pearl-tipped pin into my hair.
I turned my head, inspecting her handiwork in the vanity mirror. The low chignon she’d coiffed my unruly mane into appeared effortless and elegant, and I was reluctant to tell her that it pulled mercilessly at my scalp. If anything, I welcomed the pain to come, hoping it might keep me conscious throughout the banquet I was about to attend. Dreadful business, banquets, but rendered even more unbearable when hosted by a man with political aspirations.
“It’s lovely, Harriet. Thank you,” I told her.
She brightened at the compliment, eyes creasing at the corners, a shy smile tugging at her lips. “You’re welcome, Your Grace. Now I just need to find the right shade of green to match that necklace.”
She turned away, opened the top drawer of my bureau, and started sifting through the ribbons that crowded inside. Knowing it might take some time to find what she was after, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander to the novel I’d been reading before she arrived. My imagination – judged far too overactive throughout my youth – gave me wings, and I spread them wide and lifted myself from the bench I sat upon to fly into the pages of my book.
The sounds of my maid were soon subverted by a veritable cacophony of jungle life: the low drone of buzzing insects filled my ears; exotic birdsong echoed from overhead; somewhere off in the distance, barely audible over the insistent susurration of ocean waves, the rhythmic pounding of heathen drums rose to a crescendo.
The air that licked my skin became so laden with humidity that it was stifling. I felt on the verge of perspiration when a welcome breeze blew in from the west. I turned my face toward it and breathed deeply, savoring a complex mélange of blossoming flowers, sun-ripened fruit, and the briny tang of sea salt. When next I opened my eyes, it was to see a band of pirates stalking a troupe of unsuspecting castaways through the dense undergrowth that spread out before me. Fur flashed in my periphery, and I lifted my gaze to watch a family of monkeys swinging through the vine-choked canopy overhead.
I would have given my dowry to step into the scene. No more lies, no more balls, no more insufferably boring dinner parties filled with ladies and gentlemen I could scarcely tolerate. Could this have been my life, if Marcus and I had fled together? Who knew where our travels would have taken us? To the tip of the Grecian archipelago, on a craggy isle littered with the toppled ruins of a shrine once dedicated to long-dead gods? Or to a Caribbean island like the one from my book? Or to a long-forgotten corner of the continent, where the villagers still buried people with bricks between their teeth to keep them from rising from the grave as vampires?
It wasn’t until Harriet bade me to step into my cream-colored gown that I came back to myself.
“Head up, please, Your Grace,” she said when I was once again seated in front of my vanity.
I turned toward her like a flower following the arc of the sun through the sky. Her dexterous fingers dusted powder over my face, smoothed pale rouge on my cheeks, and then spread a matching pink salve on my lips before she placed a lead pencil to my brows, using it to both darken and define them. She had selected ribbons of the deepest green to accent the gown I wore, matching them to the heavy emerald carats that dripped from my earlobes and splayed across my décolletage in a necklace so extravagant, it was almost gaudy.
“There you are,” she said when she was finished.
I barely recognized the young woman who stared back at me out of my vanity mirror. This was, in part, because of my parents. I was reminded of both each time I gazed into a looking glass, and so I avoided them whenever possible. Unfortunately, there was no escaping the one in front of me now.
My mother had been an Irish heiress, and it had been she who had gifted me with my thick red hair and striking green eyes, while my wide mouth, straight nose, and tall stature came from my bastard of a father. The freckles I’d recklessly earned in my youth had never quite faded, but they were hidden now by the layer of powder Harriet had applied to the bridge of my nose.
Were we truly one in the same, this woman and I? It seemed impossible. Surely my cheeks couldn’t be so rosy and bright when such darkness lay in my heart. I forced myself to grin, and the woman grinned back at me. She looked young, beautiful, wealthy, noble, and haughty. Unless, of course, you looked closely at her eyes. At times like this, they still gave me away, even after all my years of practice. No matter how many smiles I feigned, I could never fully rid myself of the haunted look that stared out from them. It was a good thing that no one dared to peer too closely at a duchess, for a cunning person might discover the truth, might see the cold, disillusioned creature that dwelt in the depth of my soul. Might glimpse the demons that still lurked there, despite my best efforts to exorcise them.
My grin slipped, a hint of misery sneaking into my expression. Harriet stepped forward and stood just behind me. I tore my gaze from my reflection and met her eyes. Her brows drew down in concern. She lifted a hand as if to place it on my shoulder in a gesture of comfort, before thinking better of it and letting it fall again to her side.
“Your Grace, if there’s anything else I can do, anything at all…”
I knew from her tone that she wasn’t speaking of further steps to prepare me for the evening. This was her subtle way of offering me a shoulder to cry on. It was increasingly apparent that the young woman hoped to become my confidante.
I thought back to the night, nearly two years past, when I’d saved her from Aberdine, and how effusively grateful she’d been afterward. The outward displays of loyalty she had shown me since seemed absolute, and still I couldn’t bring myself to trust her. Still I thought the worst. That she spoke these words to manipulate me, to gain my confidence only so she could turn around and sell my secrets to our cook, Mrs. Marson, in hopes of receiving better meals, or the butler, Sherman, in exchange for a bottle of wine, or the housekeeper for something further still. Because that was what happened to me in my youth. My father’s entire staff had worked together to not only serve him, but to keep me trapped and helpless and friendless.
I did my best to smile up at Harriet. “I don’t think there’s anything left to be done. I’ll be the most becoming lady at the party, thanks to you,” I said, feigning ignorance of her deeper meaning. “Is the duke ready?”
“He was in his study when I came upstairs, Your Grace. With Mr. Fletcher.”
I rose from the vanity and went to the door, needing to be away from her and her kind eyes. “I’ll fetch him myself, thank you.”
Though the sun had already slipped over the horizon, a lingering illumination remained in the western sky. Gloaming, this was called. These brief moments between day and night when darkness went to battle with the light. It was a magical time, where the veil between what was real and what was imaginary thinned. Something about the gloom of the halls I paced through made me feel as though the portraits staring down at me marked my progress through the shadow-shrouded hallways.
I’ve been reading too much again, I thought, a shiver running down my spine.
Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched, and as I picked up my pace, the silk of my hem whispered angrily over the priceless rugs beneath my feet, sounding disturbingly like the disapproving whispers of the long-dead dukes and duchesses that had come before me.
Only when I neared the study door did I manage to slow my progress to the stately saunter more befitting a woman of my rank. At least I hadn’t passed any servants in my rush. The last thing I wanted was to add more kindling to their gossip pyre.
The darkly stained wood of the door was cool against my ear when I pressed myself against it. Thump-thump, thump-thump, was the only sound that greeted me, my pulse loud in my ears. I took a few deep breaths, silently chiding myself for letting my imagination get the better of me again. Once my heartbeat calmed, I was able to detect the rich timbre of male conversation rumbling from within.
I raised my gloved hand and rapped my knuckles against the heavy wood. “John? Henry?”
“Come in,” a familiar voice replied.
I slipped through the door, careful to close it behind me. The leather couch that dominated the room had been drawn close to the fire. John sat in the far corner of it, facing the flames. One of his arms was draped casually over the back of the couch. He held a glass of scotch in his other hand. His features were filled with contentment as he turned toward me. Our gazes met, and his full lips lifted in a small, welcoming smile.
Something about the scene triggered another of my memories, from a night long gone, in this very room, when he had held an identical glass of amber liquor, and I had wondered about just such a look. It was even more beautiful than I could have imagined, for now, after all of this time, I knew how rare his unguarded smiles were, and how few people were lucky enough to receive them.
Henry’s large form was sprawled over the rest of the sofa, his head lying on John’s thigh. He sat up when he caught sight of me, the dark fabric of his jacket straining over the width of his shoulders, the firelight only serving to heighten the sharp angles of his face.
I felt a pang of embarrassment, thinking back to how I’d spent the first few months of my marriage terrified of him. It had taken me nearly a full year to stop flinching when he moved too fast or spoke too loud. I’d been like a skittish colt back then, but Henry had handled me with such unflagging care, gentleness, and patience, that eventually he had won me over.
“Are you all right, Kit?” he asked. Something in my expression must have given me away.
I shook my head. “Memories.”
It had proven impossible to spend so much time with these men and not reveal some of my past to them. They knew of both my father’s physical abuse and his dark manipulations of everyone around him, of how a look, a word from him could corrupt every conversation. I was careful to keep the worst of my experiences to myself. John didn’t share my scruples about preserving innocent lives. If he knew it all, he would stop at nothing to ensure that my father’s ruin was both spectacular and absolute.
“Come here,” Henry said.
It was impossible to resist his command. He reached for me when I approached, and, hoping that physical contact would drive away the lingering fear in my heart, I slipped between his outspread arms and allowed him to pull me onto his lap. His warmth enveloped me, heavy arms cocooning me within his embrace. The muscles of his thighs bunched beneath my bottom as he leaned in to nuzzle my neck. His nose brushed over my sensitive skin first, but his lips soon followed in its wake, his five-o’clock shadow rough against my delicate skin. He leaned closer and butted my chin with his forehead, seeking greater access to my person, and I shamelessly obliged, tipping my head back to stare up at the ceiling.
The warmth of his breath paused over the vein that pulsed down the side of my neck. I was forced to close my eyes when he pressed his lips against it, fearful of what John, who remained unmoving in his corner of the couch, might see within them. Henry kept his lips there for one second, two, ten. There was no way he would miss the way my pulse tripped and tumbled in response, and I silently cursed my traitorous heart for giving me away.
My mind knew that this flirtation was just Henry’s way, that he showed me such affection because he was an overtly physical person, and where John was wont to allow such displays, I had never refused them. As a consequence, all the moments in which Henry might take his lover’s hand, or shower him with teasing kisses, or wrap him bodily in a rib-cracking hug, were instead visited upon me. My rational mind knew all of this. Just as I knew that these lingering caresses would never lead to anything more. My body, however, was willfully disobedient.
Most of our peers would have considered our unorthodox arrangement an abomination, but the three of us had learned to be comfortable with it in the time that we had lived together. I’d grown to think of them both as friends, though sometimes, especially lately, when my loneliness threatened to suffocate me, the lines blurred in a way that left me both confused and ravenously hungry for something that could never be, and it was getting harder and harder for me to hide it.
Henry dropped another kiss on my neck. “Better?” he rumbled into my skin.
I shivered. “Better.”
Over the past year, we had worked out how best to stave off my attacks. Physical contact such as this helped. It acted as a reminder that I was no longer a victim. That in this house no one would ever touch me intending to inflict pain or without my consent. Diverting conversation was almost equally beneficial, especially in conjunction with the former.
“Those colors suit you, Katherine,” John drawled, right on cue.
I shifted within Henry’s embrace. He was forced to lift his lips away as I moved, and I was grateful that the distraction of them was gone when I looked to my husband. “Thank you.”
John nodded. He wore a simple outfit of black and white, the same somber attire he always wore to political dinners. I never protested the lack of variety in his wardrobe. Without any adornment to detract away from his handsome visage, these plain colors only served to render him all the more breathtaking.
He lifted his glass to his lips and took a long, slow swallow, half of his face obscured by shadow, the other bathed in the flickering light of the fire. His gaze remained fixed on the point where Henry’s lips had alighted upon my neck. There was no sign of jealousy or anger in his expression, nor lust, just deep, unflinching concentration. What was he thinking? What did he feel? Even after all this time, he was still something of an enigma to me.
Henry chose that moment to nuzzle his nose into my hair. His warm breath ghosted over my skin, raising goosebumps in its wake.
“How long must we remain at the viscount’s?” I asked, hoping to break the silence.
“Too long,” John answered. He set his drink down and came to stand beside us.
I reached for him, assuming that he meant to help me up, but he surprised me by taking my hand and turning it over to place a rare kiss on the silk that covered my palm.
If one of the servants walked in now, they would likely die of an apoplectic fit. They kept their knowledge of John and Henry within the household, too loyal or too fearful of John’s wrath to gossip with outsiders. Their fear didn’t keep them from talking amongst themselves, however, and I could only imagine their shock if they thought the men shared me between them.
“Don’t go,” Henry said, his tone filled with affected petulance.
John released my hand and stepped back. “Alas, we must.”
Henry helped me to my feet and then unfurled to his impressive height. “In that case, I suppose I should paint something.”
John looked up at him, one brow arched in derision. “You paint?”
“Ha,” Henry said, tonelessly, but the creases at the corners of his dark eyes belied his amusement.
I hid my smile behind my glove. It was wiped from my face a moment later when Henry took John by the shoulders and pulled him close. John stood stiffly within his grasp, staring up at his lover almost in challenge.
Undeterred by being glared at by the Duke of Deceit in such a way, Henry took John’s chin within his grasp and tilted his head back even further, leaning slowly forward. John’s eyes remained open and locked onto Henry’s the entire time. Henry’s cheek pressed against his as his lips slid toward John’s ear. I heard a low, unintelligible bass rumble as Henry whispered something.
In response, John’s gaze snapped to mine.
I looked away, not for propriety’s sake, but because I was afraid that he might glimpse the open longing on my face.
Damn, damn, damn.
It was time to set aside the more lurid French romance novels I had procured. All that talk of pulsating members and aching channels had obviously done me an ill turn.
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.