“What does it say?” I asked. John held the letter I’d just received in his hands. After the night I’d had, I couldn’t bring myself to open it.
The carriage rounded a corner, streetlight bathing him in a kaleidoscope of oranges and reds. A small crease formed between his brows as he lifted his head from the paper to frown at me. “And you.”
I sat back in my seat.
I know a secret about your husband. And Henry Fletcher. And you.
“There’s a traitor in our household,” John said.
“It would appear so.” How else could the note-sender have discovered the recent change in our relationship? It wasn’t as if we’d acted any differently together in public.
John turned to look out the window, anger etching his soft features into an expression as hard as stone. I didn’t envy the person who had betrayed us. Nor did I think it was wise to question him as to who he thought it might be. If he’d suspected anyone of being disloyal, he would have dismissed them before they could pose a threat to us.
I’d accused McNaught of the hubris of omnipresence, but the same accusation could have been made against my husband. He did as he pleased because he thought he could. Felt as though everyone within our home was safely pinned beneath his thumb. Here was proof that he wasn’t infallible after all.
I swayed along with the motion of the carriage, thinking back over the past few days – Lord, had it only been days? It felt like an eon had passed in that time. When John and Henry had propositioned me, we hadn’t been careful. We hadn’t known we should be. Anyone could have been listening at the door of John’s study. And afterward, in his rooms…
I let out a small sound of frustration. “That first night I went to your bedroom, after you woke me from my nightmare, I heard a creak outside your door and told myself I was being paranoid and it was just the house settling. Thinking back, it might have been someone in the hall with me.”
He shook his head. “Don’t.”
“Don’t try to place any blame on yourself. You didn’t even know of the threat to us at the time. I hadn’t yet told you there might even be one. If anyone should be blaming themselves, it should be me.”
“Has the Letcher of London suddenly developed a conscious?”
He sent me a dry look. “Hardly. I might regret some of my choices, but dwelling on them will do us no good now. We need to focus on moving forward.”
“How do you propose we do that?”
“We can figure it out together once we get home.”
I nodded. “Good. I’m glad you’ve finally seen the error in excluding me and Henry.”
His lips lifted in a wry smile. “I’ve recently been made aware that keeping you both in ignorance didn’t actually do a damn thing to protect you.”
I shifted forward, bridging the gap between us so I could reach out and take his hand. “No one could fault you for wanting to keep us out of it.”
He arched a brow at me. “Does that mean you no longer fault me for doing so?”
“It does. I’ve recently been made aware that by not forgiving you I would be making myself into quite the hypocrite.”
He sighed in what might have been relief.
I gave up on maintaining any space between us and joined him on his side of the carriage. No, he wasn’t one for displays of affection, but so far, he had never rebuffed me when I needed physical comfort, and after tonight, I desperately needed him to be my safe harbor in this storm.
He slid his arm behind my back, bicep bracing me up, and pulled me closer.
I leaned my head against his chest, breathing in the heady scent of his cologne. “Why did you treat me so poorly in front of the queen?”
He was silent a long moment before answering. “I thought it was obvious.”
“No,” I said, thinking of McNaught’s claims that by flirting with me, he’d been offering me a way out of the scandal that threatened. If John had acted cold to me in front of the queen for a similar reason, I would be livid. Hadn’t we moved past this kind of behavior by now? Hadn’t he learned better than to try and take my choices away from me?
“By chastising your behavior in public, I’ve set you up for a swift welcome back into Amesbury’s good graces,” he answered.
Well, his was a better reason than I’d feared, but still marginally annoying. Amesbury, like the queen, needed to feel as though she was in control of things. The queen controlled her little harem of princesses, and Amesbury the ladies she’d gathered beneath her wing, i.e. me. Now that my behavior had been publicly corrected by a man both women held in great esteem, I could go crawling back to Amesbury, tail between my legs, appearing properly chastised of course, and play the part of a woman who had learned her lesson about crossing the dowager.
“You don’t have to follow through with it,” John said, knowing he didn’t have to explain his reasoning to me. “I merely meant to give you an opening.”
“I’ll follow through. If there’s a rift between me and Amesbury, the other ladies would be forced to choose sides. Both of us would lose power and influence if it came to that, and I’d only be able to spy on half the women I currently have access to.”
“I’m sorry if you felt patronized. You know I don’t really feel that way about you.”
His chest rose and fell with a heavy sigh. “Fit of histrionics. My god, that woman hates her own sex.”
“You should have heard her before you arrived. According to our queen, women aren’t able to have any true musical talent.”
He made a low sound of irritation.
“Do you think it will get better one day?” I asked. “That women will be able to do anything that men can?”
“I believe that women already can. The question is, will our society let them, or will you be forced to take what you want for yourselves?”
“We’ll probably forced to take it ourselves,” I said. It was bad enough that most men thought women inferior, but that so many women did too…I had a feeling it would be decades before we gained more rights.
“That was quick thinking as we were leaving,” John said.
I picked my head up to look at him. Our gazes met from inches away. In the dim light thrown by the carriage’s lanterns, his eyes looked closer to brown than the multifaceted orbs I knew them to be. His lips were quirked up in a half smile, amusement and affection warming his expression. I didn’t know if he was being open with me now because he knew I needed it after such a horrid night, or if he was finally letting me in. I prayed it was the latter.
“He winked at me,” I said. “The bastard actually winked at me.”
John grinned. “I’ll make sure to send a note round to James when we get home so he can add another ten lashes to the man’s torture.”
“You don’t really think he’s torturing him, do you?”
“Yes. I do, Katherine,” John said, speaking the words with slow intention. “It’s unlikely the man would give anything up except under extreme duress.”
He rubbed a hand up my back, as if soothing the past sting of my own whipping. “It was a poor choice of words. In truth, I have no idea what the man’s torment will entail.”
I leaned back into him and let him draw me close again.
Torture. If I was being honest, it’s what I had hoped would await the man after I’d singled him out. My anger had turned me vicious. But now…how did I feel about the fact that I was responsible for a man being abducted and brutalized?
I…I didn’t know. Too much had happened tonight. I’d run the gamut of emotions and was left strung out and oddly detached. The feeling was akin to the night John had shown me the notes, and, in my shock, I had suffered that strange out-of-body experience. Was that what this was? Did a similar fit threaten now?
I snuggled closer to John and wrapped my arms around his waist, burrowing into his warmth. A deep chill had sunk into my bones, like I’d been out too long on a damp winter’s day. Not even my heavy shall or the heat of John could drive it away. I worried I might never be warm again. It was a mark of how wrung out I was that even curled around my husband I didn’t feel the slightest stir of desire.
There was so much I needed to tell him still. I was bursting with what had happened between me and the viscountess. And afterward, with my father…I needed to speak the words and be rid of them, as if by telling John and Henry what he had done to me, what he had almost done to me, I could spit the memory out like a bad taste.
“Do you think McNaught will learn anything from the man?” I asked.
“If I’m being honest, very little,” John said. “The man who delivered it is likely a foot soldier of sorts, one of the lower ranking members of our enemy’s troops. The note sender is both intelligent and careful. If it was me, I would maintain several layers of agents between myself and my foot soldiers. The lower rungs would have handlers they reported to. They wouldn’t know much else besides the name of their superior officer and the missions they’d been assigned. I wouldn’t tell them what the notes contained or why they were delivering them.”
“The man tonight wasn’t the one who gave me my first letter at the coal baron’s,” I said.
I nodded against his chest.
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
My mind churned. “Because if you have a different man deliver each, and you don’t even tell them there are others, they can’t put anything together for themselves and get ideas. Or give anything away.”
John dropped a rare kiss on the top of my head. “You’d make a good spy.”
I shivered, remembering that McNaught had implied the same. Now, more than ever, I was determined not to give the viscountess up to him.
We fell silent then, knowing that Henry needed to be present for any further discussion. John held me close in the dark confines of the carriage. Outside its windows, the torches we passed burned with a wane, sickly glow. The fog that had descended upon the city lingered, smothering their light and turning the air dense and acrid.
I stared out at the scene, my thoughts troubled. With this last letter, it seemed the declaration had been made. Our enemy knew a secret about me. Next would come their demand that I do what they wanted. Or that John did. Or Henry. We assumed the true target was John, but my discourse with the Viscountess of Dover had me questioning that now. What if instead of ordering John to kill a bill in parliament, they forced me into acting as their agent?
Could I do that? Be another one of their pawns? I already spied and manipulated on my peers for the sake of John’s political ambitions. Would it really be so different doing the same for someone else?
I sighed. Yes. Yes, it would. Because I could never know what villainous plot I aided. Nor what dark entity I served. And still, I would do what they wanted. Not to keep our secret from spilling out onto the gossip rags – I truly believed that was a scandal the three of us could survive intact – but to keep John and Henry safe. Once we refused to bow to the threat of exposure, the threats would escalate to violence. John’s father was proof. The promise of my own demise two years ago supplied even more evidence.
The fear that had been my near constant companion these past few days swelled to the point that I felt I could choke on it. How long would it take them to threaten one of our lives? And how quickly would they act on that threat if we didn’t cave to it? According to McNaught, their timetable had escalated. What would the coming days bring? Instead of being nestled into the warmth of John’s side, might I be forced to stare down at his cold, lifeless body?
“Katherine,” he said, his grip on me tightening.
I struggled free from my dark thoughts. The sound of my ragged breathing filled the cabin. With great effort, I forced myself to take slow, even breaths. Panicking would gain me nothing now. It wouldn’t stop whatever was to come. It wouldn’t save the men I loved. Only calm logic, great caution, and careful planning might.
“I’m all right,” I told John.
I wasn’t. Not truly. And I might never be again. Because even if we escaped this threat unscathed, there would be another, and another, and God knew how many more to face. John’s history with the note senders told the story of a predator that liked to play with its victims. Like a cat with a mouse, they might leave us alone just long enough to feel like we could escape, only to pounce again the moment we made a break for it.
I promised myself in that moment, that if any harm befell John or Henry, I would gladly join forces with McNaught and give my life over to bringing our enemy down.
Henry was in John’s study when we arrived home. I opened the door to see his large frame sprawled out over the couch. He’d fallen asleep reading. One arm was bent behind his head, acting as a pillow. The other lay dangling at his side, his discarded book splayed on the floor just past his fingers.
John stopped behind me in the doorway, and together we watched Henry slumbering. He wore a white linen shirt and black breeches that clung to his muscular legs. The russet glow from the fireplace bathed him in warm light. His wide chest rose and fell in deep, even breaths. The sight was comforting. Grounding. Even in his sleep, Henry had a steadying presence that made me feel like I was somehow more than I was.
John wrapped an arm around my waist. I leaned against him and reveled in this fleeting, perfect moment. At my back was a man who thought I was a lioness. Who actively encouraged me to bare my teeth at our enemies. And in front of me was a man who made me feel like I could roar.
“I hate to wake him,” I said.
“Especially since it’s dark tidings we carry,” John added.
At the sound of our voices, Henry stirred. He blinked his eyes open, caught sight of us, and stretched his long body out in a yawn, hands curling into fists overhead, back arching, giving us an incredible view of the grace and power of the male form. Both John and I sighed to see it.
“Did you just get back?” Henry asked, sitting up. His voice was gravelly from sleep, his hair disheveled in a way that made me long to bury my fingers in it.
“We did,” I said.
I swayed toward him as I spoke, and John, sensing my need, released me and gently pushed at my lower back, urging me forward. I went without hesitation.
Henry pulled me onto his lap and frowned as he settled us in the corner of the couch. “By the look on your face, tonight wasn’t pleasant.”
I kicked my shoes off and drew my knees up, wanting to be as close to him as possible. To remind myself that while our enemies swarmed outside these walls, here, in this room, in his arms, I was safe, if only as long as I remained here. “No, it wasn’t a pleasant evening.”
From the doorway, John issued a command to Adnan and Doruk, who were stationed in the hallway, and then came in and shut the door behind himself. “They’re going to watch from opposite ends of the corridor. Too far to catch our words, but close enough to ensure no one else does either.”
Henry’s chest rose and fell beneath me in a deep, even rhythm. The linen shirt he wore was loosely tied, and I slipped my hand into the gap and pressed my palm over his chest, searching out his steady pulse.
“What happened?” he rumbled.
John folded himself down into the opposite side of the couch and rubbed a hand over his face, looking as tired as I felt. “The queen was there.”
“What brought her out?”
John and I answered him together, recounting the tale of her absent composer, her censure of me, John correcting me publicly, Marcus’s irritation at that, McNaught’s shameless flirting, and the litany of smaller interactions we’d shared throughout the course of the night.
Afterward, it was my turn to take the lead. “The Viscountess of Dover is in our enemy’s employ.”
John’s gaze sharpened on me. “How did you discover that?”
“She locked us into the upstairs powder room,” I said, before launching into a full retelling of our brief encounter.
“And you’re sure she was acting out of a good heart?” Henry asked afterward. “That she wasn’t ordered to warn you for some hidden reason?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think she’s that good of an actress. She seemed genuinely upset, and the shock that registered when I let slip there were others forced to spy alongside her…I’ve never seen anyone able to intentionally drain their face of color like that.”
“Still, we can’t trust her,” John said.
I turned toward him. “No. And nor can we tell McNaught about her.”
John hesitated half a second. “Not yet, at least.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“If Aberdine were out of the picture, she could prove useful to us.”
Henry let out a low, dark chuckle. “Without him to back up any claims of the child being his, that would leave the gossip sheets to circulate the tale. She’d look like an innocent victim, the paper that published it would face great scrutiny, if not be forced to close for spreading such disgusting slander, and afterward, with the threat lifted, the viscountess could be convinced to work for us instead.”
Like me, Henry would be equally well-suited as a spy. Or maybe a general. I’d back him on a battlefield over any adversary he might face.
“How quickly can we have Aberdine silenced?” I asked.
John tilted his head a little to study me. His gaze was sharp, unrepentant, and tinged with a heat that reinforced the way his desire ran towards darkness. “Tomorrow.”
“Do it,” I said.
In answer, he lifted his lips in a smile so radiant it was nearly blinding.
“Kit, be sure of what you’re asking,” Henry said.
I turned to look up at him. “He assaulted me. He tried to rape Harriet. He did rape the viscountess, and God alone knows how many other women he’s preyed upon or will do if he continues to live and breathe.”
“I know,” Henry said. His dark eyes bore steadily down into mine. There was no censure in his gaze, only caution. “But ordering the murder of a man isn’t a line that can be uncrossed. His death might not come at your hands, but it may still settle onto your consciousness in a way you might not anticipate.”
I lifted a hand to trace the line that had formed between his brows. “You speak like a man who learned that firsthand.”
His eyes went past me, to John. “Because I did.”
I turned to follow his gaze. My husband stared at him, and from the looks of it, they were having another one of their silent exchanges. Later, I would ask Henry what he’d meant by that comment, who he had ordered to death. I still knew so little about the life he had led before meeting John. He gave so much of himself and offered so little that I wondered now if he had been shielding me as much as my husband had.
John blinked and returned his focus to me. “Are you certain about this, Katherine?”
“I’ll risk my own damnation to free the viscountess from the threat of Aberdine,” I said. Because I would. And in that moment, I felt no remorse about it.
John nodded. “Done. Now, what did your father say to you?”
I took a deep breath and attempted to move on, to not think about the many ways in which Aberdine might meet his – hopefully – painful end. “He found me just after I returned downstairs. I was out of sorts or I never would have let him corner me. He must have seen me with McNaught, because he told me to end it with him.”
Henry gathered me close. His tone was hard when he spoke. “Did he threaten you?”
I shook my head. “He didn’t have to. I stood up to him, and he tried to drag me off. I had to beg for help, and even then, he almost swayed my would-be rescuers to his side. In the end, I ran off before they could trap me there.”
“Their names,” John bit out.
“You can’t have them killed too,” I said.
His expression hardened. “The hell I can’t.”
“You’d be no better than our unseen enemy.”
He barked a laugh. “You think I give a damn about that, Katherine?”
No, I didn’t. Not with this wildness in his eyes. Not with the hint of a smile still playing about his full lips. This was John at his most reckless. He’d been pushed too far by someone he couldn’t wreak his vengeance on, and now he sought others to target.
I shifted forward out of Henry’s arms and braced my palms on his shoulders. “It wouldn’t make you feel better.”
He leaned closer to me, voice dropping so low he purred. “Yes, it would.”
I shivered and pushed aside the way my body reacted to his tone. “Not for long. And those men don’t matter.”
“It matters to me that they would have let you be dragged away.”
“You can’t have every idiot in London killed,” I told him. “The streets would stand empty if you did that.”
“Let it go, John,” Henry said from behind me, a hint of command in his tone.
With a deep breath, John seemed to get himself back under control. Reeled in the violence that threatened. Caged the feral creature he kept hidden beneath his layers of refinement. As I watched, his gaze shuttered, and he leaned away, out of my grip, to settle back into his side of the couch.
I let Henry pull me back onto his lap, but I sat there stiffly, half waiting for John to leap up from his seat and race out into the night to slake his bloodlust.
“A footman handed me a letter just as we were leaving,” I said, continuing to recount the night. “Came right up to me, with John stood there and McNaught a dozen paces away, shoved it into my hand, and winked.”
Henry let out a low noise that was so close to a growl, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
“He thought I would just take it and be quiet,” I said. “But after the night I had, I grabbed him and all but yelled the code phrase we came up with.” Lord only knew how giddy the gossip rags would be when they learned of the night I’d had. Tomorrow morning’s papers would be filled with my name even without the interference of our anonymous blackmailer.
“Where is he now?” Henry asked.
“No doubt with James,” John answered. His tone was cool, the heat of anger gone from his eyes.
Belatedly, I settled back into Henry.
“Do you think anything useful will come of his questioning?” Henry asked.
A similar discussion to the one John and I had in the carriage passed then. Only afterward did Henry ask what the note said.
“So we have a spy in the household,” he said when we told him.
John nodded. “I’ll let Sherman know in the morning.”
“Sherman?” I said. What did our elderly butler have to do with this?
“Sherman was a spy during the revolution,” John said. “I took him on as a favor to James when he retired.”
I shook my head. “Sherman a spy. Mrs. Marston a witch. What next? You’ll tell me your valet is an ex-assassin?”
“Freddy?” John said, half smiling. “Christ, no. That man is about as stealthy as an elephant.”
“What do we do now?” Henry asked.
The smile fled from John’s face. “I think you should stay here from now on. You’re too exposed at your new apartment. Here, at least, we have some measure of protection. And if you never leave the house, no one can gossip as to your comings and goings. They might as easily assume we’ve parted ways than that I’ve trapped you in this gilded cage.”
Henry made a low sound of amusement. “At least you’re not trying to dress up my captivity by calling it anything thing else than what it is.”
John fingers curled onto the back of the couch, the whitening of his knuckles the only betraying hint of his worry. “You’ll agree to it then?”
“I will,” Henry said. “Because I agree that I’d make an easier target for them in the city.”
John’s grip on the couch relaxed. He turned his gaze to me. “Our peers would notice your absence, however.”
“I can take Haydar with me wherever I go.”
Henry smoothed a hand up my back. “You’re at ease with him now?”
“Hardly,” I said. “But the man is…not how I thought he would be. I don’t think he would ever harm me, so I’m willing to work through my discomfort.”
John nodded. “We’ll add Adnan or Doruk to your retinue. It’s easy enough to mask them as a footman. As for Haydar, we can find some way to explain him away. George I had a pair of large Ottoman guards. We’ll say we’re bringing it back into fashion. No one would think anything of such eccentricity from us.”
“Do you think two guards will be enough?” Henry asked, his arms tightening around my waist.
“I think only a fool would go up against Haydar,” I said. “You should have seen the way he caught the candlestick Harriet threw right out of the air.”
John’s expression turned contemplative. “Yes, that was…something. I begin to understand the rumors about him.”
“Rumors?” I asked.
John waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “Some of his compatriots amongst the Janissaries thought him a half-djinn, or an ifrit. Nothing fully human.”
“Superstitious fools,” Henry murmured.
I remained quiet. While I didn’t believe in spirits, after seeing the way Haydar moved, hearing him talk, I could understand how someone might think that there was something supernatural about him. But anyone who looked deeper would learn the truth. That he was a complex man who had likely trained to the point that his body was capable of things the rest of us could never achieve.
I had no way of knowing then that in just a few short days, I would learn firsthand what Haydar’s training had forged him into. I would see with my own eyes the kind of impossible speed and heart-stopping brutality that triggered rumors of the supernatural. And half of London would bare witness to it with me.
Copyright © 2019 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.