Several hours later, I managed to escape the queen’s company by using the tried and tested excuse of needing the powder room. It took me an age to navigate through the crowd. A duchess couldn’t simply walk anywhere unencumbered. As one of the highest-ranking members of the ton, those with less status were always looking to curry favor with me.
I was forced to stop several times to speak with men asking after my husband or women wanting to know which dress shop I’d purchased my gloves in. Despite my impatience for a few minutes alone, I took my time with every person. Now, more than ever, I needed them to think well of me.
So many guests had flocked to Glover’s expansive home that even the hallways were crowded, the party spilling over as the night wound on. I’d imbibed in several glasses of champagne, and from the sound of low, masculine laughter and the higher pitched giggles of my own sex, I wasn’t the only one. Couples stood close together in shadowed alcoves. Young ladies looking to land a husband flirted shamelessly. The lords they pursued listened to them with half an ear, their gazes roving over the crush in search of older women with looser morals.
My, what the queen must think of us now…
There were several powder rooms in the home, places where a woman could relieve herself in peace, and afterward see to her outward appearance. I glanced down the hallway the first was located in and was met with a long queue of women waiting their turn.
“Laud, what a crush,” someone said from behind me.
I turned to see the Viscountess of Dover. Her cheeks were red from exertion – she’d laughed and danced most of the night away – and her thick hair was coming loose from its pins.
“There’s another two floors up,” I said. “Shall we?”
She nodded, and together, we took the stairs.
“Did you receive your brooch, Your Grace?” She’d sent it back to me yesterday, with a letter of profusive thanks.
“I did. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. And thank you again for saving me at Amesbury’s.”
I waved her off. “It was nothing.”
“Not to me,” she said, voice soft. She glanced around us as we rounded the bend in the stairs and took the second flight upward. “And what you did afterward, for my cousin, Elizabeth, I’ll never forget it.”
“Lady Elizabeth deserved the praise.”
“Amesbury didn’t seem to agree.”
I shook my head. “No, she didn’t. And I’m paying for that now.”
The viscountess laughed without humor. “I noticed. Did the old witch tattle on you to the queen?”
“That woman,” she muttered.
Blessedly, there was no line for the third-floor powder room. Even more surprising was that we had it to ourselves. Glover’s latest wife – a woman thirty years his junior – had impeccable taste, and she’d outfitted the home in the height of fashion. This room was no exception. It was papered in cream-colored damask and draped in soft, feminine fabrics. The ceiling rose nearly fifteen feet overhead. Paintings depicting flirtatious nymphs and wily dryads hung in gold-gilt frames on the walls. There was a chaise lounge in one corner that looked like a welcome spot to rest one’s feet after a long night of standing. The even smaller inner room that held a very modern looking toilet shone with cleanliness. No doubt a maid was stationed nearby to check in on the state of it every so often.
The tension in my shoulders eased as I moved toward the large, mirrored vanity. My lip stain had faded, and several strands of hair had slipped free from my low chignon during the course of the evening. I popped open the reticule I carried and started setting myself to rights.
A click rang through the room. I paused and glanced toward the sound. The viscountess stood at the door, hand falling away from the lock she had just turned.
My tension returned tenfold. “What are you doing?”
She held a finger to her lips and strode inside. She glanced inside the toilet room, looked beneath the chaise lounge, pulled back the curtains, and then threw open the doors to the balcony and checked outside. These were the actions of a woman who feared she was being watched, who worried about being overheard.
She’s one of them, I realized.
Either a willing spy for our enemy or an unwilling accomplice to their threats. Disbelief and hurt coursed through me. Her? Of all women? Someone who I had always been envious of? Who I’d thought was as free as Marcus and had helped because I didn’t want to see anything tarnish her glow? She was working against me?
I glanced around, looking for anything nearby that could serve as a weapon. There was a heavy marble bookend on a small table to my right. I stepped over and snatched it up just as she came back inside. I held it behind my back and turned to face her.
“Whatever they want, just give it to them,” she said.
“Whatever who wants?” I countered, taking a careful step backward. I had misjudged her, thought her carefree and innocent. I wouldn’t repeat the mistake. She might not give off an aura of violence, but I couldn’t discount that this was some ruse and she was intent on harming me.
She shook her head. “We don’t have time for this. Just being alone in your company is a risk I shouldn’t be taking.”
I locked my jaw and stared at her.
She let out a sound of exasperation. “The note senders. Do whatever they tell you to.”
“I don’t know what they want us to do.”
“They’re still in the threat stage?”
Begrudgingly, I nodded.
She shuddered. “God help you.”
“You’re working for them.” I didn’t phrase it as a question.
“Not willingly,” she said, mouth turning down at the corners. “You have to believe that I wouldn’t do something like this unless forced to.”
“I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“I swear it,” she said, taking a step forward. Her hands were held out in front of her as if in supplication. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this. But after what you did for me…and for Elizabeth…I couldn’t in good conscious continue to spy on you without warning you to be careful in public.”
She was either telling me the truth, or was the world’s best actress. My intuition told me she spoke truly, but it had already led me astray so many times that I didn’t know whether or not I could trust myself anymore. And I also didn’t know whether I should be furious with her, pity her for being under their thumb, or grateful for the risk she claimed to be taking by speaking to me.
I took a deep, steadying breath. She said we didn’t have much time. That meant how I felt had to come second place. Right now, my priority needed to be getting as much information from her as possible.
“Do you know of other lords or ladies set to spy on us?” I asked.
Her hands fell back to her sides as shock registered on her face. “I’m not the only one they’ve blackmailed?”
I shook my head. Looked like I wasn’t the only one learning something tonight.
“Who else?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “How do they relay messages to you?”
“They’re brought to my house by urchins. I’m forced to deliver my replies the same way.”
Just like the urchin who’d delivered my letter at Amesbury’s. “Always the same urchin?”
She shook her head. “A different boy every time.”
How clever. Using innocent street children to do their dirty work. Kids who likely knew nothing and were less likely to be pursued and questioned by people like McNaught.
“What have you told them so far?” I asked.
“They only recently forced me to work against you. All I’ve told them was how you responded to receiving the note at Amesbury’s, and about your fallout with the dowager duchess after the recital.”
“And tomorrow, what will you say?” I had no doubt she would be forced to recount still more after every future interaction we had. At least now I knew to be on my guard around her.
“I’ll tell them about the queen’s anger. Of how the duke snubbed you in front of her. And that it seems like you may be having an affair with Mr. McNaught.”
God – damn – it. “I’m not having an affair with him.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m still going to tell them that it looks like you are.”
“Do you really have to?”
Her face crumpled. “I don’t have a choice. If I withhold anything, they could learn of it from someone else and know I was duplicitous. It’s not worth my own ruin.”
I began to believe her then. “What do they have on you?”
The icy caress of fear slithered up my spine. “What about him?”
“My son isn’t my husband’s. Aberdine is the father.”
Her words hit me like a blow to the gut. I let out a harsh expulsion of air. “What?”
“The year I came out, he pursued me like he did you. But I already loved the viscount, my husband, Thomas. Aberdine was deep in debt and determined to land an heiress. He sought to entrap me with ruin. He…he raped me at a house party thrown by the Baron and Baroness of Norridgewock.”
I was going to kill the man. McNaught must know of some untraceable toxin. John could acquire it and use his influence to place a spy in Aberdine’s household, someone close to him that would have the means to slowly murder the man for us. Or maybe I could petition Adnan to teach me more than how to wield a knife, and that way I might see to his demise myself.
“How did you manage to escape marrying him?” I asked.
“I went to my mother afterward and told her what happened. She convinced my father not to say anything about the incident. To lie if Aberdine tried to claim he’d ruined me.”
What uncommonly brave and compassionate parents she had. “And the viscount? Does he know?”
She nodded. “Thomas offered for my hand a week later, and I told him then. We rushed the wedding as soon as I realized I was with child, and it’s only because of Thomas’s promise for retribution that Aberdine kept quiet about what happened. Though that hasn’t stopped the man from taunting us every chance he gets.”
“Does he know the child is his?”
She shook her head.
“But the note senders do?”
Anger swept over her face. “Yes.”
“And what are they threatening to do to you if you don’t aid them?”
“Tell Aberdine. And if that doesn’t work, tell a gossip rag.”
I shook my head, my mounting anger rising to join hers. “How did they even discover the secret?”
“I have no idea.”
“Who else knows besides the viscount?”
“Only my parents.”
“Would they have mentioned it to anyone? A maid? A valet? From everything I’ve learned, the person or people behind the notes has a dizzying amount of influence and reach. For all we know, one of your parents was already under their thumb and they were forced to betray you.”
She shook her head. “They wouldn’t do that. They would die first.”
“You’re certain of that?” My own history had taught me not to trust parents. They either abandoned you, or hurt you.
“I’m certain,” she said.
A loud burst of laughter rang through the hallway outside the room.
The viscountess flinched. “I’ve been here too long. I have to go.”
I took a step toward her. “Is there anything else you can tell me? Anything that might point to who’s behind this?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. No.”
I took another step forward. “Please.”
Her gaze dropped to my hand, and I realized I still held the marble bookend.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said.
Before I could react, she threw herself past me toward the door. I was two steps too late, and she unlocked it and slipped through before I could reach her.
I wanted to yell an apology after her, but I couldn’t risk some nefarious person being near enough to hear it. God, she must have thought I meant to hit her with the marble. Yes, I was angry with her, but my true rage was reserved for whoever had done this to all of us. What kind of reprehensible monster would use a woman’s rape against her?
If it really was the king, then maybe I was about to turn traitor after all. The ends would never justify the means for me. I already struggled with the monarchy and aristocracy, despite being a peer of the realm myself. So much of our nation’s wealth was being amassed on the back of slave labor and the gross practice of claiming other nations as our own. The way we treated the native populations of those countries was beyond deplorable. It was inhumane. Other members of the ton had spoken out against these policies and been silenced. The king was a staunch detractor of the abolitionist movement. Was he behind their falls from grace?
I set the bookend back on the table with shaking fingers. Though Harriet had tied my corset loose tonight to save my aching ribs, it felt like it had gained a life of its own and decided to use its new found consciousness to suffocate me. My breaths came out sounding more like the labored panting of a wounded animal.
No. Not here.
I couldn’t succumb to one of my fits. John had to be told what just happened. He and McNaught both. We needed to leave. Now.
I took a deep breath and left the room. It could have been worse, I told myself. I could have received a note in front of the queen, or the viscountess could have meant me harm. Instead, she had not only warned me, but let slip several vital pieces of information that we’d been lacking: she was working against us, someone close to her or her parents had betrayed their trust, urchins were a favored means of communication, and here was another instance where Aberdine was somehow involved in our enemy’s ploys. What would John make of the news? What would McNaught?
My steps faltered. During our brief interlude downstairs, he’d told me he would do anything to keep John safe, and even before that, John had driven home how far the spy might go to follow through on that promise. Hell, McNaught had likely murdered one of my father’s servants just to learn more about me.
What would he do to someone in his quest to learn more about the note sender? If I repeated what the viscountess had told me, who was to say he wouldn’t target her? Abduct her right off the street and torture her until he’d wrung every last piece of information from her broken body?
I paused at the bottom of the stairs. The noise of the nearby ballroom sounded strangely muted, as though I’d stuffed cotton in my ears. My head swam. McNaught had told me he would do anything. I should believe him. Which meant I couldn’t tell him what just happened. This was why John kept secrets from him. To keep people like the viscountess, who had not only been raped, but was now being blackmailed about it, free from further pain.
I needed to forgive John and Henry for lying to me. I would be a massive hypocrite not to.
The sound of that horribly familiar voice broke through the din. I blinked and came back to myself. Standing two feet away from me was my father. He wore an impeccably cut evening coat over tight breeches that showed off his large, muscular form. His blond hair had been brushed back from his face. When he smiled at me, no one at a distance would think this was anything other than a pleasant familial exchange, but anyone close enough to get a good look at his eyes would know better.
“Say whatever it is you planned to say to me and then be gone,” I told him, my anger making me brave. “I’m in no mood for you tonight.”
He took a step toward me. I longed for the bookend I’d left in the powder room. Instead of retreating, like I always did, I remained rooted where I was at the bottom of the stairs. I’d had just about enough of being bullied and belittled tonight. I had to put up with it when it came from the queen, but I was under no such obligation when it came to him, and that savage part of me I tried so hard to hold at bay came roaring to the surface.
My father smiled wider to see it. He always did enjoy the promise of a struggle. “You look so much like your mother now.” His tone was soft, expression wistful, as if he truly missed her.
A memory of him leaning across the dinner table one evening and casually backhanding her rose in my mind. “You dare speak of her to me?”
His eyes flashed with a dangerous light, but his tone took on a placating ring. “Come now, I loved your mother.”
My fingers itched to slap the smile from his face. “The only thing you loved was the power you held over her. It must rankle, knowing that in death she escaped you, and in marriage, so did I.”
He clapped a hand on my upper arm and adopted an expression fatherly affection, but his fingers gripped me in a painful vice, and when I tried to shrug him off, his nails bit into my skin.
He squeezed harder, holding me in place. His eyes danced with anger, even as his smile softened around the edges with mock affection. “Listen, you little bitch, I saw you with Glover’s son. Whatever immorality you’ve engaged in with the man will stop now. I’ll not have our family’s good name dragged through the mud by some upstart slut that I should have smothered when she was still in the cradle.”
My ears rang with his words. The anger I’d struggled to contain broke its bonds and swelled into fury. To hell with propriety. To hell with not making a scene. I shouldn’t have stopped John from ruining him. I should have helped him instead. That way, we could have done it in a way that hurt the least amount of people but still saw my father’s life torn asunder.
We’d been speaking in harsh whispers so the conversation wouldn’t carry, but I responded now at full volume. “Smothered me when I was still in the cradle? You mean kill me like you killed my sister?”
My words echoed through the hallway. Shocked silence spread out around us. Several people turned in our direction and openly stared. This time I put up a bigger struggle trying to break free, so that our witnesses would see that he was restraining me. “Let me go!”
My father turned a practiced smile toward those nearest us. “My daughter has had too much champagne. If you’ll excuse us.”
He tried to drag me away then, no doubt to dole out my punishment in private, uncaring of the threats John had made toward him about what would happen if he ever hurt me again.
I dug my heels in. “I haven’t had too much champagne. He has. Someone help, please!”
A portly gentleman stepped forward. “Sir, you need to unhand the duchess.”
My father froze. That’s right. I wasn’t just his wayward child. It was a powerful member of the peerage he now assaulted. And he’d been a fool to forget that in his anger. I would make him regret his slip with my last breath if forced to.
Several more men joined the first, and my father finally let me go.
He smiled at them in a placating manner, hands raised. “You heard what she said. That I killed her sister.” He laughed then, making a joke out of Amelia’s death. “My other daughter died of a fever. The duchess is clearly befuddled. Please, allow me to escort her somewhere she might calm down without making a further scene.”
The men who’d come to my aid glanced back and forth between the two of us. They’d been trained their whole lives that women were flighty and prone to histrionics, and I could see that my father’s words were working on them.
I seethed with anger. Had they forgotten the black reputation of his youth? That he’d been forced to flee London and hide his depravities away in the north, where fewer witnesses could mark his behavior?
“Well,” the portly man said. He looked slightly embarrassed for intervening now.
They’d either forgotten, or they didn’t care. It was up to me to save myself.
My father reached for me again.
I sidestepped him, and before the men could think to stop me, I slipped through their ranks and hurried down the hallway. I had to get back to the crowd and the relative safety of the ballroom. I had to find my husband.
Fearing that any moment I might hear the sound of pursuit, I broke into a near-run. People frowned as I passed by, but I ignored them. I found John on the far side of the ballroom, where he stood in quiet conversation with McNaught.
“John,” I called out as I approached.
He turned toward me, gaze falling immediately to my arm. “What happened”
I looked down to see several pricks of blood welling up. My skin, which had always been sensitive, was red and swollen. “My father happened. We need to leave.”
John turned away from me, not toward the door, but toward where I’d come from. His face was a thundercloud.
McNaught grabbed his arm. “Not here.”
John clenched his jaw, but instead of pulling away, he nodded. Then he turned back to me. “He can’t get away with this.”
“I don’t intend to let him,” I said. “Now please, can we leave?”
McNaught followed us all the way to the entryway, pausing at the threshold of the room, no doubt to stand witness to our departure and see to it that we left without further harassment.
He was several steps away when a servant appeared, carrying my shawl.
“Thank you,” I said.
He handed me the garment, and using its voluminous fabric as a shield, he shoved a letter into my hand unseen.
I froze. A normal servant wouldn’t go to such lengths. They would have approached me outright with their delivery. This man was an agent of our enemy.
The audacity of him, to deliver his missive in this way, with my husband right here, and McNaught, a known spy, only a shout away.
He saw my shock and sent me a saucy wink as he bowed. Because what could I do in this crowded entryway? Clearly, he expected me to play by the rules. To not make a scene. He was using society against me like Aberdine had. Like my father just had. If I’d let myself be silenced a moment ago, I might even now be crying in a back room somewhere while he beat me.
I bared my teeth at the servant, more in a look of rage than a smile. He was in for a surprise. I had gone rogue, and I was done playing by everyone else’s rules.
He must have sensed the danger, for he tried to step away then. I lunged forward and grabbed his forearm. John stiffened in surprise beside me, no doubt wondering what the hell had come over his wife.
“Have you ever seen such a crush?” I said, voice raised.
My words carried through the vaulted entryway, echoing off of the marble floor and tall ceiling before coming back to land with devastating consequence on the ears of one James McNaught. The spy, who had been turning to re-enter the ballroom, swiveled his head back around and sighted the servant like a deerhound.
The man I held flicked his wrist in a strange motion that broke my grip. Without bowing, he fled. McNaught slithered through the crowd like a snake through grass as he followed him. God help the man when he was caught, for I held no pity for him. “I guess she really has had too much champagne,” someone said from nearby.
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.