“Your Majesty,” I said, dropping into a deep curtsy.
Beside me, Marcus bowed low. We waited for the command to rise. For one heartbeat, two, ten. It didn’t come. Marcus turned his head just enough to shoot me a wary look. The queen was displeased with one of us.
“Rise,” she finally said.
I swept upward, taking in the scene before me. Queen Charlotte stood in the center of a large group of courtiers. She had never been a tall woman, and now that she neared sixty, her diminutive form was swamped by the layers of muslin she wore. Wigs were fading from fashion, but that hadn’t stopped our monarch from donning an elaborate blonde confection to hide her graying hair.
While Queen Charlotte was born in Germany, her lineage was another matter. She descended from one of the darker-skinned branches of the Portuguese royal family, and if rumor was to be believed, that was due to Moorish ancestry. Of all the portraits I’d seen of her, only Allan Ramsay’s bore a likeness to the woman in front of me. Her doctor once famously said that she was “small and crooked, with a true mulatto face”.
It was true that with overly full lips, heavy lidded eyes, a nose that widened at the tip, and a strong jaw, she didn’t fit within the current bounds of what was considered fashionably beautiful, but I had never thought her ugly, only different. Then again, between the innumerable foreign dignitaries John had hosted over the years and the diversity of our staff, my standard of beauty was a little broader than most of my peers’.
“Duchess,” the queen said, all but ignoring my brother. “And where is your husband?” She spoke with a heavy accent. Still. After living for almost half a century in this country. Many said it was affected. How could it not be, when Amesbury’s English accent was so flawless? I wondered, though. Unlike most of the courtiers gathered around us, I had been a personal guest in her household, where she’d spoken nothing but German unless forced to do otherwise.
“The duke was waylaid by our host, Your Majesty,” I said.
Her gaze sharpened on me. “What’s this I hear about a recital?”
The crowd around us stilled, sensing her displeasure. Ah, so it was me she was displeased with. Amesbury, that gossip-mongering snitch, loomed behind the queen, looking smugly satisfied. I needed to downplay my drawing room rebellion if I was to stay in Charlotte’s good graces. Perhaps I could appeal to her love of music.
“You missed a stirring performance by a very talented young lady, Your Majesty,” I said.
She sniffed. “A stirring performance? By a woman? Doubtful.”
To argue with her would be lunacy, so I tamped down on my indignation and played the part of royal sycophant. “Of course, you must be right. Please forgive me. My own knowledge of music is far inferior to your own.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but something behind me must have caught her eye, for the words died on her lips. As I watched, a rare smile spread over her face.
I turned to see John. He met my eyes, briefly, and then took in the crowd around me. While I prided myself on my ability to read the moods of others, John’s skill still surpassed my own. He saw the open smirks worn by several nearby lords and ladies, the self-satisfaction in Amesbury’s eyes, and marked the queen’s shrewd inspection of me.
He strode forward and bowed deeply. “Please forgive my tardiness, Your Majesty.”
“But of course. I know how Glover can be.” She offered him her hand.
John unfurled from his bow only to press his forehead to her glove in supplication. “Your Majesty is the embodiment of Christian charity.”
From the slight pink that appeared in the queen’s cheeks, she was pleased by the compliment. “And you are just as charming as ever.”
Several people behind her frowned at that. The Devilish Duke? Charming?
John responded to her praise with a rare smile of his own, and the looks of disbelief evaporated. The men in our small crowd appeared confused, perhaps even concerned. And that was because the women wore expressions ranging from startlement to dawning interest.
“I was just addressing the fit of histrionics suffered by your wife in my dear friend Amesbury’s drawing room,” the queen said.
Behind her, Amesbury assumed a put-upon expression as though she were somehow the victim in all of this. My irritation blossomed into anger. What an absolute cow. I hoped her death involved some sort of wasting illness. One that caused her to linger in agony for a small eon before finally succumbing.
John turned his smile down to me, his expression placating. “Please forgive the duchess, Your Majesty. She is still quite young, and therefore prone to bouts of strong emotion.”
Beside me, Marcus’ face turned red, his own emotions getting the better of him. It was only with great focus that I kept a similar angry blush from my cheeks. Over the past two years, John and I had remained the picture of politeness to each other in public. That he chose now to start insulting me was as confusing as it was annoying.
Or did it actually make a strange sort of sense? Had John, like McNaught, turned his intentions toward protecting me? Was this his way of distancing us, publicly, so that if a scandal struck, he could claim my innocence in all of it and actually be believed?
Well, I wasn’t having it.
I wrapped my arm through his and gazed up at him adoringly. Never mind that it was slightly out of character for me. If John was going to break the rules tonight, so was I. “Yes, I was quite overcome with the piece Lady Hartford played. Such a haunting, romantic tune. It reminded me of you, John.”
My display proved too much for Marcus. He bowed to the queen. “Your Majesty, if you’ll excuse me.”
She waved him off with a flick of her fingers and watched him disappear into the crowd. “It seems the duchess isn’t the only one in her family prone to fits.”
Around us, her sycophants laughed.
I ground my teeth and bore their censure, squeezing John’s arm so that he knew he wouldn’t escape from this unscathed. Just wait until I told Henry what he’d done.
I read somewhere once that moods were catching. That people, when gathered en masse, adopted a kind of herd mentality. All it took to incite a stampede or a riot was a few determined instigators.
Tonight proved no exception to this theory. The queen was in a foul mood. Her pet composer was nowhere to be seen, and she fretted and complained the entire evening, albeit quietly. She was said to be shy, but that was a misnomer. She spoke quite animatedly amongst those she knew well, and after the initial onslaught of courtiers, the lesser nobility retreated, leaving just myself, Amesbury, my Aunt Jane, and the other women in our small circle to keep her company. Charlotte trusted us enough to vet her annoyance at the composer on hapless bystanders.
She judged the men to be hedonist or ungodly. The women were found lacking in grace and deportment. The only compliment she gave was to John, whom she praised for having such a deft hand with his infantile wife. Oh, she didn’t outright call me infantile, but it was heavily implied. Aunt Jane had patted my hand afterward in a there, there kind of way that did nothing to stem my irritation. Only years of practice kept it from showing on my face.
Amesbury, always a heartbeat away from an insult, took up the torch of Charlotte’s anger with relish. She lambasted this year’s debutantes. Following this was a diatribe on my own generation, with the Viscountess of Dover singled out for spectacular castigation. Next she moved on to whomever struck her fancy, with a memorable speech on infidelity that made me wonder how many affairs she had caught the late duke in.
By the time my brother came to ask me for a dance, I could have cried in relief.
“I want to apologize for the state I was in last night,” he said as we took our positions on the dance floor.
“It’s quite all right,” I told him.
He shook his head. “I really did mean to leave as soon as I told Antoine the lie I’d concocted about you not feeling well, but these two girls appeared with a bottle of champagne and demanded that I have a drink with them. They were very determined that I do.”
At this point the dance began, and he had to pause as we broke away from each other in a wide circle. We switched partners several times before coming together again.
“Marcus, you told me this last night,” I said.
He frowned. “I don’t think I explained it well, though. I really did try to leave. Several times. But the girls wouldn’t let me. One even grabbed my arm as I tried to slip past and clung to me like she’d been paid to keep me there. It was the damndest thing. I didn’t want to bowl her over, so what choice did I have but to stay?”
We spun away from each other again. I smiled blankly at my new partner, not really seeing him, my mind working like a cog in a wheel. What if…what if she had been paid to keep him there? I trusted Marcus’ judgment, and if he had a strange feeling about being hindered by those chorus girls, then I believed him. Now the question was who had wanted to delay him. And why? Two obvious options laid before me: the note sender, or McNaught. I thought back to last night and how confident the spy had been that my brother wouldn’t arrive straight away. It was as though he had known Marcus would be delayed. McNaught also had the most to gain from Marcus’ absence – time alone with me in the carriage and time alone with me and John afterward.
Perhaps I was being paranoid. It would be too easy to place the blame on a man who so unnerved me. But I didn’t think I was stretching here. McNaught was fully capable of paying those dancers off, and lord knew he wouldn’t hesitate to if it suited his own means.
Several heartbeats later, Marcus was back at my side. I reached out and gripped his arm. “I forgive you, Marcus. And I believe you.”
He let out a heavy breath. “Thank you. I know you must have waited for me, and I hated the idea of letting you down.”
His words hit me hard, underscoring my own duplicity. I tried to tell myself it was all to keep him safe, and then realized this must have been what John told himself when he lied to me and Henry. What a hypocrite I was. And who was to say that my lies would even protect my twin? He might be caught up in this intrigue no matter what I did to keep him free of it.
“Your husband is in rare form tonight,” Marcus said. “The man’s lucky I was sober when he insulted you, otherwise I might have disgraced us both in front of the queen.”
“Be easy on him. He’s under immense pressure right now. No doubt he’ll apologize once we’re home.”
“He doesn’t speak to you like that often, does he?”
I shook my head. “Never.”
My brother remained quiet in response, and I could tell from the mulish expression on his face that he didn’t believe me.
“Marcus, I swear it.”
The dance parted us one final time before bringing us together again. I wanted to say something else, reassure my twin that John had never treated me with anything but kindness, but then McNaught joined us.
“Would you care to dance, Kit?” he asked, using my nickname again. Thank God only Marcus was close enough to hear – something I was sure he had planned.
“Of course,” I returned, unable to bring myself to call him James, hating that I had to spend another minute in this man’s company to sell the lie of us being lovers.
Marcus eyed him for a long moment before releasing me. When he did, it was to bend down and kiss me on the cheek. “Be careful, I don’t trust him.”
That made two of us.
The band struck up a slower tune as Marcus left us, and I nearly groaned. It was the waltz, a dance born in Vienna that was thought by some to be indecent in the extreme. Two partners were to stay with each other throughout the entire dance? Hold hands? With the man’s other arm around the woman’s waist and her free hand on his shoulder, forcing them to maintain a voluptuous proximity? How scandalous! This was only the second time I had heard it played in a ballroom, and I could already see the articles that would be published about it tomorrow. Strangely, the men who wrote them always took the angle of protesting the waltz because of the delicate respectabilities of the women forced to endure it. As if our feeble minds might be corrupted by a single dance and down we’d fall into a life of sin and depravity. Lord.
McNaught, catching my frustration, smiled in a way that seemed calculating to my distrustful eyes. Was this somehow his doing too? Had he bribed the musicians into playing it just to force me closer to him? If so, he would be frustrated in his endeavor.
“Not this one,” I said, and without waiting for him, I turned and walked back toward the crowd.
We weren’t the only ones to abandon the dance floor. Only the wilder set of the ton, who’s reputations had already been dragged through the mud by the gossip rags, would dare to partake in a waltz. I noted the Viscount and Viscountess of Dover in the very middle of the floor, both grinning in a devil-may-carekind of way that made me want to applaud them.
“Such a charming young man, your brother,” McNaught said as the dance started without us.
“Did you have something to do with his delay last night?” I asked him point blank.
He sent me a smug smile. “Of course.”
“How?” I ground out.
He glanced around us. There were people nearby, but they were engaged in their own boisterous conversations; the champagne had flowed freely tonight. Still, he leaned closer to me before answering. “It was easy enough. Since you were there to meet his lover, I assumed you planned to go backstage together after the show. I saw your expression when you received the note, and I imagined that the plan had changed. And because young Antoine means so much to your twin, I thought Marcus might apologize before leaving. I also believed that he’d want answers from you and would try to get them as soon as possible. I needed time to talk to you and John, so we could get our story straight before he arrived, and so I had an associate of mine bribe the chorus girls to keep him there.”
I struggled to school my features. He not only knew about how much Antoine meant to my twin, but he had correctly guessed at damn near all of our plans from the night before. I wanted to demand “How?!” again and again, until I uncovered the devilry behind his knowledge.
“That’s quite a lot of assumptions,” I said. “What if our plans had been different? What if he had gotten in the carriage with me instead of going backstage?”
“I had contingencies in place for numerous scenarios,” he replied smoothly.
“You can’t go around manipulating people like this.”
“I can and I will. My goal is to keep you and John free from scandal. I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that end.”
My answering grin was humorless. “Oh, I have no doubt of that.”
“Now, shall we discuss more pleasant things?” McNaught said, smiling down at me with all the warmth my own expression lacked. “Like how the green of your ribbons exactly matches that of your eyes?”
“Or how the shade of your jacket matches that of your soul?” I countered.
His jacket was black.
He froze for half a heartbeat before his humor got the better of him and he laughed even louder than he had earlier. It was a less cultivated sound, like he’d been caught off guard by the quickness of my retort and was truly amused by it. His eyes crinkled up at the corners. His smile was mesmerizing. It drew focus to us that I didn’t welcome, and I kept my face carefully blank so as not to be seen encouraging him.
“It’s too bad you don’t let these people know the real duchess,” he said. “I think they’d all adore you as I do.”
I dropped my voice to an angry whisper. “For the love of God, would you shut up?”
He laughed again.
It was then that the Marchioness of Sotheby joined us. This was the woman Marcus had thought McNaught was actually bedding, and after what McNaught had said about not assaulting anyone that didn’t want to be…I checked her over for bruises. She was shorter than me, with natural curves that I could only achieve with the aid of a corset. Her mother was an Italian heiress, and she’d inherited her olive complexion and highly arched brows. Her thick, dark hair framed a face that was both unique and striking. Her nose was slightly hooked, but not overly large. What kept it from dominating her face was a set of lusciously full lips. The dark eyes that met mine were heavily lidded, like the queen’s, and shone with intelligence. I didn’t see any bruises on her, thank God.
She dropped into a deep curtsy as she reached me, giving me a front row view of her enviable cleavage. “Your Grace,” she said, the words low and intimate.
Despite myself, I felt a low thrum of awareness. Here was a woman who wore her sexuality on her sleeve, and wasn’t ashamed of it. “Marchioness, it’s such a pleasure to see you again.”
She rose with the grace of a ballerina, folding her hands in front of her as she looked back and forth between me and the spy. One of her brows arched even higher. “Is it?”
I smiled. Her boldness was refreshing. “It is. Please, if you’ll excuse me, I was just taking my leave of Mr. McNaught.”
She glanced back and forth between us once more and then nodded. “Of course, Your Grace. I hope you have a pleasant evening.”
With that, I ceded the field to the Marchioness and returned to my station beside the queen.
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.