Likely something terrible, he had said. Who was the note from? What was the meaning of it? Why had it been sent to me? These questions and innumerable others crowded my mind as we endured the short carriage ride home in heavily pregnant silence.
Not wanting to draw suspicion to his actions, Henry had only been able to perform a cursory search of the Coal Baron’s household. Inquiring after the footman to his fellow servants was out of the question, John had told me. It would be too obvious. Between the crush of the guests and the army of staff that served them, it was no wonder the search had proven futile.
“There’s nothing for it. We need him,” John had said when Henry returned.
“I’ll let him know,” Henry had responded before leaving us again.
“Let who know?” I had asked.
“Not here, Katherine,” John had said.
Those were the last words we had spoken to each other. Where had Henry gone? Who was this man we needed? I drummed my fingers impatiently over the seat beside me as we rumbled through late-night London.
Faster, I urged the horses, my fear and anxiety making me impatient.
What a difference between this carriage ride and the last one we had shared. I would have given anything to go back to that.
The moment the vehicle rocked to a stop, John had the door open and was descending from the cabin. He handed me down before the footman could reach us and led me quickly into the house.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” Sherman said as we swept past.
“Mr. Fletcher and Mr. McNaught will be arriving shortly, Sherman. Please send them to the study directly,” John called over his shoulder.
I nearly balked. McNaught. No. I couldn’t face him now. Not so soon after our literal and figurative unmasking. Not so soon after the shock I had suffered upon seeing the note. I was still too unbalanced by it all, too exposed, too visible to someone with as penetrating a gaze as his. I had just let John and Henry in, after two years together. McNaught didn’t belong in their company.
I needed time to myself, time alone to shore up my defenses and set my walls back in place, but damn it, there was none.
Before I knew it, the door to John’s study was closing behind us and he was drawing me away from it. His grip on my hand remained insistent as he pulled me over to the corner of the room. Then he was pressing me into it, leaning his body against mine as he released my hand only to frame my face with his fingers and tilt my head up so that he could press his lips against mine in a searing kiss.
My mouth popped open in a gasp of surprise, and he used it to his advantage, thrusting his tongue forward to ply it against my own. This was nothing like the few, fiery embraces we had so far shared. There was desperation here. Fear, worry.
“Katherine,” he breathed, breaking away. He leaned his forehead against mine and simply stood there, his eyes closed, breathing as though each lungful of air might be his last. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would come to this. I thought Aberdine was the one they were after. I never thought they’d involve you. We only wanted to protect you.”
“You’re frightening me, John,” I said, reaching up to bury my trembling fingers in the lapels of his jacket. If not his words, then his open worry. I had never seen him so visibly afraid, hadn’t even thought it possible.
“Just promise me you’ll hear it all before you condemn me.”
My breathing hitched. “Condemn you?”
He extricated himself from me then, stepping back just enough so that we could meet each other’s gazes. I watched his shutter, as if he were steeling himself.
“Yes. Condemn me. I won’t blame you, after everything, if you do. Just know that I am truly sorry for my part in it.”
“Your part in what?”
“My father’s death wasn’t an accident,” he said, voice low, as if he feared it might carry to unseen ears.
Confusion subverted my anxiety. “How can a fall from a horse not be an accident? Did someone intentionally frighten the animal?”
He shook his head. “No, Kit. There was no fall. He blew his brains out in the study of our house in Hampshire.”
The study that he, Henry and I had passed so many hours in. My knees wobbled ominously thinking of his father’s blood and brain matter splattered across it.
“I think I need to sit,” I said.
Instead of helping me to a chair, John gathered me close and eased us down to the floor, his arm around me as we sat side by side with our backs against the wall. “Better?”
“Yes,” I breathed. “You lied to cover up the scandal it would have caused.”
“We did. I’m sorry I didn’t reveal the truth to you sooner. I should have. I have no excuse for not doing so, other than not wanting to burden you with something like that. It’s one thing for me to lie about it; I didn’t want to force you into having to do the same.”
He hadn’t wanted to force me into lying. I almost laughed at that, but I swallowed it down. In my current mood, it would come out sounding hysterical.
“As if I don’t spend all of my days lying?” I asked instead. “By actions, words, or omission?”
“This is a much larger lie, Katherine. An iceberg of a lie. Only the tip of the danger that lurks beneath the surface of it.”
I took his hand in mine and squeezed it. “Tell me.”
He met my gaze for a long moment, searching my face as if trying to determine how to proceed. “I was the one who found him,” he finally said. “James McNaught and I. We were on a break from school and he was visiting at the time. We were sixteen.”
“I’m sorry. You must have been so scared,” I said.
A muscle in his cheek worked as his jaw clenched. “I wasn’t, actually. I was too confused at first. And then I was very, very angry. Irrationally so. Looking back on it, I think I must have been in shock, because before the gun had even cooled, I forced James into helping me rifle through the discarded papers on my father’s desk in search of some reason he would do that to himself. To me. To mother.”
I blanched. “Death can cause us do strange things,” I said. I knew that better than most.
John continued on as if I hadn’t spoken, his gaze becoming unfocused, as if he was seeing past this room and back through the years to that day. “We found nothing. No outstanding debts, no notes of blackmail, no sign of a lurid affair. Nothing except for a small scrap of expensive paper with a single word on it. James was the one who found it, crumpled up beneath the desk as if it had dropped from my father’s lifeless fingers and rolled there.”
“What did it say?”
John’s hand curled around mine, his grip so tight that it was borderline painful. “Treason,” he said.
I frowned. “An accusation against your father?”
“At the time, I assumed so. Why else would he kill himself? My behavior took a turn then. I tore the study apart in search of further proof while my father’s blood still pooled over his desk. My mother had to force three of our largest footmen to drag me from the room in the end. Then she summoned the doctor and had me drugged with laudanum. For days. I missed his funeral. The only thing she achieved was instilling in me the need for circumspection. When I finally came out of my haze of grief, the obsession to discover the truth was still there, only I learned how to hide it better. I spent years quietly searching for answers, James acting as my second.” He paused then, his gaze refocusing as he looked down at me. “We found nothing. Eventually, I gave up the search.”
I knew him well enough to know how that must have rankled. John was used to getting his way, through right of birth and hard work both. He hated to lose, and so seldom did, which was a large part of why he was admired and disliked in equal measures by those who opposed him in parliament.
“I thought that was the end of it,” he continued. “That I would never know what my father had done, or if he hadn’t been the traitor, who he had been protecting. Then, just under three years ago, I was leaving a dinner party when a footman handed me a letter. He was gone before I could inquire after who had asked him to deliver it.”
He released my hand and pushed himself to standing, taking a key out of his pocket as he strode over to his desk. I watched as he put it into a locked drawer and turned, pulling it open to extract a small stack of letters from within. He rifled through them as he walked back toward me. Then he retook his seat, leaned back against the wall, and handed me the one he had selected.
I stared down at in in shocked recognition. It was small. The same size as the one I had received earlier. The red wax seal was broken, but it was clear that there had been no crest pressed into it.
Anonymous. Just like mine.
I opened it and slid out a small sheet of thick parchment. My fingers went numb as I read it, and it fluttered from my hand to land in my skirts.
Time for you to marry…
I was almost sure that the handwriting was the same as the letter I had received earlier.
“John,” I said, my voice thick with unease.
No. Please God, don’t let this mean what I fear it does.
“It’s worse than it seems,” John said, his brow creasing.
“How could it be?” I demanded.
“Oh, I’ll tell you,” he said, with a bitter laugh that sounded laced with regret. “The first thing I did was seek out James. By some miracle he was in town when this arrived. It was like my father all over again. The obsession, the endless guessing, the search for some sort of clue as to why I had received this note. Why now, after so many years? Did they know I had found the one meant for my father? How could they, we decided. No, this was just some strange coincidence. Someone was toying with me. Someone in the household must have discovered my obsession. Our conspiracy theories were innumerable, contradictory at times. We knew nothing. There was only one choice. I had to wait for a second note to come.”
“Did it?” I forced myself to ask, fearful of the answer.
In response, he pulled another envelope from the pile and handed it to me. My fingers shook as I opened it.
… Lady Katherine Rycroft
I exploded up from sitting, nearly knocking John sideways with the violence of the movement. The blood rushed from my head so fast that I nearly tipped over, but I forced myself away from the wall and halfway through the room in my desperation to put distance between us.
“Katherine,” he said, rising slowly to his feet. “Please, hear me out.”
“Hear you out?” I seethed, pulling at my corset as I began to pace.
Damn it. Damn it!
I had spent my entire young adulthood broken to the will of the man who had ruled over me, subjected to his sick machinations, a helpless victim of his sometimes pointless, sometimes brutal, lessons. Then, after escaping to London for my debut, I had finally, for the first time in my life, risked his wrath by disobeying him and instead making a decision for myself. By choosing John.
Or so I had thought. To find out that my marriage was the result of yet another plot, that he, or I, or both of us had been manipulated into it…it was too much. Too goddamn much.
The only reason I hadn’t felt betrayed yesterday when he had told me he had lied to me was because I could never have understood the magnitude of the lie.
In my rising panic, my corset felt even tighter than it was. Just like it had that night two years past in this very room, it seemed intent on choking me. I leaned over, hands on John’s desk as I struggled to breathe.
“Katherine,” he said, stepping toward me.
I jerked away, hissing. “Don’t touch me.”
He stepped back, arms raised in supplication.
It was then that the door to the study opened and Henry strode in. He shut the door behind him and stayed there, staring at us, McNaught nowhere to be seen.
“Did you know?” I choked out.
The look he gave John was accusatory. “You told her without me?”
John shook his head. “Not all of it. I had hoped to take the brunt of her wrath myself. I earned it, after all.”
“Don’t speak about me as though I’m not in the room,” I said, wheezing.
I saw John open his mouth and answer then, but I couldn’t catch the words. His voice was too far away, muffled and muted as though my ears had been stuffed with cotton. Darkness closed around the edges of my vision. There was a pain in my chest as though my heart were seizing.
Anything that seems too good to be true usually is.
I could have laughed if only I had enough breath for it.
If only I had any breath.
Two years ago, it had been John who caught me when I fainted. Tonight, it was Henry. I came back to myself braced upright in his arms, John tearing at my stays. And then the corset was loosening and my lungs were able to inflate. I spent several minutes just sucking down breaths, one of their hands – I couldn’t tell who’s – rubbing a slow circle on my back.
“What happened next, John?” I croaked.
“Kit, we don’t have to do this now,” Henry said, shifting me in his arms, easing us back to the floor.
“Tell me,” I demanded as he gathered me close.
I let him pull me onto his lap and hold me, even though he had betrayed me. Lied to me, like John had. Because, and I felt pathetic just for admitting it to myself, I still craved his embrace. Still wanted the strength of his arms around me, as though they could somehow hold me together through this.
John sat down across from us, rubbing a hand over his face. Unlike his lover, he didn’t try to dissuade me.
“James and I redoubled our efforts to discover where the notes were coming from,” he said. “He accompanied me everywhere, in secret, sneaking into every ball, banquet, and recital I attended, watching from the shadows, putting all his years of training to use for me.”
“Years of training?” I asked.
“He’s a spy, Katherine,” he answered.
“Of course he is,” I said. His behavior at the ball suddenly made sense. The way he had watched everyone, including me. How he had seemed intent on ferreting out my true self. His distrust, his challenge.
“At the time of the second letter, I didn’t know who you were,” John said. “Despite my mother’s bullying, I had no thoughts of marrying, and therefore hadn’t paid proper attention to that year’s debutantes. James took it upon himself to learn as much about you as possible.”
My sense of betrayal only swelled. The man I had just met had spied on me? What had he learned? About my father’s abuse? The horror of my mother’s death? The neglect that had led to my younger sister’s? I suddenly felt overexposed. I had only told these two some of my past, after months spent in each other’s near constant company. That a stranger might know so much about me made me sick to my stomach.
“He told me that you were an heiress,” John continued. “That you had been raised in the country. That your father was more concerned with the price of wool than with politics.”
“What else?” I pressed. “Did he tell you more about my father? Did you already know all my secrets when I was pouring them out to you both?”
John frowned. “No. If James learned of his mistreatment of you, he kept it to himself. All I knew before our marriage was your father’s reputation and the marks I saw on your back.”
“Swear it,” I said.
“I do,” he said easily.
I almost believed him.
“James also told me of your engagement to Aberdine. I had already known about the earl’s gambling debts. But not about the liens levied against his estate. Was he the reason I had been told to marry you? The true target of the notes? Was someone trying to ruin him as they had ruined my father? And if so, why? We were desperate to discover the truth. James called upon every agent who owed him a favor to discreetly look into Aberdine. Who held his debts? How far were they willing to go to secure payment? Was there a past offense in his life that warranted this level of vengeance?”
“All that searching must have taken time,” I said, staring at him.
He nodded. “It took time. Too much time, it would seem. Enough for me to receive another note.”
He opened it for me, as I was preoccupied with holding the top of my dress together to preserve what little modesty remained to me.
You have until the end of the season…
“Here, at last, was the beginning of a threat,” John continued. “You have until the end of the season to do what we say. The “or else” was obviously implied. Or else, what? Would they reveal my father’s shame to the world? Ruin me if I didn’t cave to their demands? I began watching you at the social gatherings we attended. Henry and I both. It seemed to us as though Aberdine was on his best behavior with you, his most charming. You seemed quite taken with him.”
“Oh, I had been at first. Until the gossip began to reach my ears.”
John and Henry shared a look between them.
I frowned, ill at ease with the sight. “What is it?”
“We were the ones that made sure the gossip reached your ears,” John finally said.
I leaned my head back against Henry’s chest and closed my eyes. Of course they were. As if this couldn’t get any worse.
“It’s not how it seems, Katherine,” John said.
“Oh, really? Because I think it’s exactly how it seems,” I shot back. “Once again I was manipulated by those around me into behaving as they wanted me to. I’m wondering now, have I ever come to a conclusion on my own? Have I ever made a decision that I wasn’t subtly forced into?”
“I can think of one, I hope,” Henry said, tightening his hold on me slightly.
Ah, yes. Agreeing to become their lover. I could believe Henry wouldn’t manipulate me into that. John, however…
I opened my eyes to stare at him. “Did I, though? Or was I somehow coerced into that as well?”
“I wasn’t trying to manipulate you, Katherine,” he insisted. “Then, or now. At that point, we didn’t realize how high the stakes were in the game we had been obliged to play, and I had no plans to cave to the demands of the letters. During our time watching you, Henry and I had come to a conclusion. We couldn’t, in good conscious, let you marry Aberdine. We only meant for you to see the truth of the man before your marriage and make your own decision.”
“Was Harriet part of the plan? Did you intentionally put her in harm’s way that night?”
“That’s unfair, Kit,” Henry said.
Is it? I wondered, staring at John, thinking back to our carriage ride – god, was that only yesterday? The look on his face had told me he would do anything he thought necessary to reach a means to an end.
“I wouldn’t do that, Katherine,” he assured me. “Aberdine just couldn’t help himself, it seemed. I’d been too open about my dislike of the man, and he thought to teach me a lesson by ruining a maid in my own household.”
I shuddered within Henry’s arms. “Whatever you did to him wasn’t enough.”
“I’m not done with him yet,” he said.
“What happened that night?” I asked. “Afterward, when you proposed to me? Why? What changed?”
“It’s simple. We found out what the stakes of the game were,” he answered.
He lifted another letter and began opening it.
Henry tightened his arms around me, as if to shield me from what it contained.
A knife blade of fear sliced through me, my heart beating a frantic rhythm, poised on the edge of flight.
John lifted the first letter and turned it toward me.
…or the lady will meet the same end as your father
My head swam. They had been prepared to kill me. Or force me to kill myself.
Before I had time to recover, John held up the next sheet of paper. It wasn’t a letter at all, but a drawing. Of our study in Hampshire. There were three people in the room, or rather, two people and one body. John’s father’s corpse was spread out over the desk, blood dripping down the front of it. To the right, a young man – John I was guessing – riffled through papers, while to the left, was another. McNaught. He was crouched down, reaching beneath the desk, frowning.
It was then that a cold certainty stole through me. McNaught. There at the beginning. Here in London when John received the second note. Here now when I received another. Him. It could be him. Why didn’t they see it?
Summon the devil and he will come.
The door to the study opened, and in strode James McNaught.
Copyright © 2018 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.
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