“Are you ready?” John asked.
“Honestly? No,” I said.
Beyond my carriage window, the Duke of Glover’s manse stood out like a beacon in the darkness. We waited in the long queue of arriving guests, and the closer we crept to the front of it, the more anxious I became. It looked as though every candle inside Glover’s home had been lit. Light poured forth from the windows and doors. The glow might have appeared merry and inviting to someone else’s eyes, but to me, it looked like the gates of hell were yawning open.
What if I received another note? In the middle of the ballroom, with a hundred witnesses to mark my reaction? What sort of flirtation did McNaught plan for my brother to see? Was my father already somewhere inside, badgering my twin? Had Amesbury seen the mention of me in The Times? Had the other women I kept company with seen the caricature of John and Henry?
I turned away from the sight to face John. He watched me from the shadows on his side of the carriage. They were too dark to catch his expression, but I could feel the intensity of his focus. Was he plagued by similar thoughts? I’d shown him the crude drawing from The Londoner. He was of the opinion that it was an opening volley. That our blackmailers did plan to use his relationship with Henry against us, and here was the proof. I believed the same, at first. But now I wondered if it could truly be so simple.
John had lied before. John kept secrets still. How could we be sure that our enemy hadn’t uncovered one of them, and while we were distracted by the threat of them outing an illegal relationship, they worked toward their true goal in the background?
The carriage rolled forward several more feet.
John shifted out of the shadows. His expression was guileless. On any other man it might have looked like an open, maybe even inquisitive countenance, but John’s natural inclination for subterfuge made me question the innocence he had coaxed his features into. “Do you remember what to say if you receive another note?” he asked.
“I’ve never seen such a crush,” I answered. I was to speak the words to John or McNaught within minutes of receiving one if possible. I hoped with all my heart that I wouldn’t have to.
“And you’re prepared to act your part with James?”
“I’m resigned to it, at least.”
Heat crept into John’s expression. He half lidded his eyes. Those full lips curled up at the edges. “If you find yourself having difficulty selling your performance with him, you could always let your mind drift back to last night.”
I released a shaky breath. “I’m not sure that’s a wise idea. McNaught may misinterpret my change in manner, and the last thing I need is for him to get ideas about me.”
John looked me over like he was having his own ideas about me. “It may already be too late for that.”
“I doubt his interest extends past conquest. Even if it were more complex than that, there’d be no risk of me succumbing. The only feelings I have toward the man run the gamut from distrust to retaliation.”
John drew his gaze back up to mine. “Perhaps, but James is a man used to getting what he wants.”
The carriage rolled forward again before coming to a stop. I swayed with the motion, staring at John. “Would he force me?”
“No. But he can be quite convincing when he puts his mind to something.”
I frowned. “In that case, perhaps I should petition Adnan to teach me how to wield a knife.”
I’d meant it half in jest, but John didn’t take it that way. The heat of desire fled from his face, leaving contemplation in its wake. “That’s not a bad idea. Knowing that even if an enemy agent slipped past our defenses, you’d be capable of gutting him like a fish might ease my nerves.”
It was uncharacteristic of him to admit to any weakness, let alone fear. I reached out and took his hand in mine. I wanted to find some way to set his mind at ease, or maybe distract him from his thoughts as he had distracted me in his study that morning, but before I could speak, the carriage door was jerked open.
John released me and half stood, his expression icing over as he readied himself to physically eject whomever sought entry.
McNaught swung into view.
John’s posture relaxed only marginally. “Yes?”
The spy’s face was grim as he climbed into the carriage. “The queen is in attendance.”
Without being asked, he shut the door behind himself and moved to sit beside me. I scooted as far away as the cushion would allow. He shot me an amused look and settled in, knees spread wide, crowding me on the seat.
First thing tomorrow morning, I was going straight to Adnan and asking him where to stab a man to cause the most amount of pain.
“I thought the queen was still at Frogmore,” John said.
McNaught shook his head. “Apparently she grew bored with planning her gardens and returned to Buckingham House late last night, the princesses in tow.”
I grimaced. I’d been forced to wait on Queen Charlotte less than a handful of times. From what little I’d gleaned from my time in her household, it was run more like a nunnery. Thanks to the king’s bouts of madness, she was given a free reign with her daughters, and she treated them less like royal princesses and more like her own personal ladies in waiting. Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia were all well over marriageable age. Ranging from late 20s to early 30s, they would have been considered spinsters if not for their royal titles. And now that they were back in town, I might be forced to wait on that dour household again.
“Is the king still in Weymouth?” John asked.
John’s expression darkened. “What brings the queen out without her husband?” Charlotte wasn’t typically one for fetes or balls.
“I’m assuming her love of music,” McNaught said. “My father invited her latest pet Prussian composer.”
John turned to me. “You’ll be in her company at some point. Can you try to uncover another reason for her attendance?”
I nodded. Amesbury and the queen were friends. Old friends. With Amesbury’s perfect upper crust accent and faultless British snobbery, one often forgot that she wasn’t actually born here. She was originally from Hanover, like the queen, and came over in Charlotte’s retinue when she wed George III. Since I was forced to pay court to the dowager duchess, and she would pay court to the queen, my company tonight would be even more tedious than usual.
“And if you’re approached by someone holding a letter, flee before she can notice,” McNaught added.
Again, I nodded.
Lord, don’t let me receive a note in the queen’s company. Inquisitive by nature – some said nosey as a common barmaid – the queen had been known to snatch missives right out of her courtiers’ hands and read them aloud for all to hear. My head spun at the thought of that happening tonight.
McNaught leaned away from me then, to glance out of the carriage window. “Damn, we’re getting close.” He glanced back at John. “No new notes today?”
John shook his head. “No notes. But Katherine did find two bits of gossip in the papers.”
The carriage rolled forward again, and McNaught swore under his breath. “No time to discuss them now. We’ll talk more after the ball?”
“Yes, fine,” John said, the words clipped.
McNaught rose from his seat with all the quiet grace of a jungle cat. The carriage rocked to another stop, and he paused at the door and turned to me. The smile that spread over his face was taunting. He sent me a wink. “Until later, my sweet.”
I threw my reticule at him.
It bounced harmlessly off the door. He’d disappeared out of it even faster than I could aim. The bastard.
The moment we stepped inside the Duke of Glover’s, I regretted my choice of code phrase. I really hadn’t ever seen such a crush, at least not in recent memory. Word must have spread that the queen would be in attendance, and from the looks of it, the entire aristocracy had turned out to see her. No wonder traffic was so dreadful.
We entered through the front hall. The roar of sound that greeted us felt like a physical barrier that we had to push ourselves through. Beneath our feet, the floor was tiled in pink Venetian marble. I couldn’t even hear the sounds of our heels striking it, so loud was the crowd.
After spending nigh on twenty minutes in the queue of carriages outside, we now found ourselves in yet another line. The older generation of the ton, like Glover,were still in the habit of employing a crier to announce the arrival of every guest, and we were forced to wait with the masses for our turn to be called.
From the hard lines of John’s expression, his tolerance was running thin. I was fighting my own battle, only with discomfort instead of impatience. There were too many people around us. If not for the sheer height of the entryway, I would feel closed in, trapped. The heat of this many bodies was cloying. I attempted to shrug out of the heavy shall draped over my shoulders, and accidentally jostled the man in front of me in the process.
He whipped around to glare, mouth open, and I recognized him as one of John’s political rivals. His gaze landed on my husband. The anger drained away only to be replaced by barely restrained hatred. As the lesser nobleman, he was forced to bow, something that must have rankled. He then had to raise his voice in a most inelegant way to be heard over the din. “Your Grace.”
John simply stared at him, frost in his eyes.
“Apologies, Lord Tremblay,” I all but yelled.
He inclined his head in my direction. “Yes, Your Grace.” And with that, he turned back around.
John helped me unwind my shall without disturbing any of our other neighbors. Ever watchful, a servant appeared out of the crush and bowed to me, offering to take the garment. I gladly handed it over to the young man. He bowed and then swept away, back into the crowd.
It seemed an age passed before we were announced. John and I spent the time in silence. The closer we got to the entrance of the ballroom, the louder the clamor around us became. We would have to shout to hear each other now, and nothing John and I actually wanted to say to each other should ever be spoken at such a volume. Not with so many ears to hear it.
I adopted a bored expression to mask my unease. John wore outright hostility in his expression. The sight of an irritated Hellion of Hampshire kept anyone else from speaking to us, for which I was thankful.
When our names were finally called, John led me down a short staircase. Glover was in his seventies, and while some men remained hale at his age, he appeared fragile. He might have started the evening standing, but now he sat in an ornate, high-backed chair, greeting his guests like a king.
My gaze moved over the crowd as we descended the stairs. Spread out before us was a shifting sea of humanity. The dancers in the center of the ballroom twirled like eddies in a retreating tide. Three massive chandeliers hung above them, supplying the only light in the room. It reminded me of the golden glow from Drury Lane.
I lowered my eyes to our host. Much to my chagrin, McNaught stood to his left. Even worse, the favorable lighting rendered him breathtakingly handsome. He’d done something to his dark hair since leaving our carriage, and it looked artfully disheveled now. Touchable. Flecks of cerulean whorled through his cravat, perfectly matched to the color of his eyes. Several nearby women shot him covetous glances from beneath their lashes. God help me, I couldn’t blame them.
Not for the first time, I lamented his good looks. It would be so much easier to be around the spy if his exterior accurately represented the dark creature that lurked beneath. Even though my rational mind recognized that he wasn’t a good man, my fluttering pulse chose to ignore it. What did it say about me that I both loathed and lusted after the man at the same time?
Tyger, tyger burning bright.
Here was proof of the duality of human nature that William Blake pointed to in his poems. How innocence and instinct were two sides of the same coin, rotating end over end, battling for supremacy. What side would land up when the coin fell, I wondered.
We stopped in front of the spy and his father to pay our respects to the aging duke.
“I wanted to have a word with you about Addington,” Glover said to my husband, speaking of the current prime minister.
McNaught offered me his arm. “I’ll escort Her Grace the rest of the way in.”
John met my gaze with a subtle look of warning.
I nodded at him and stepped forward to take his friend’s arm. “Thank you, Mr. McNaught.”
“You look lovely tonight, Your Grace,” he said when we were a short distance away. His melodic voice was just loud enough to carry, and several heads turned in our direction.
It took a great deal of effort on my part to keep from frowning. “Thank you, Mr. McNaught.”
He leaned closer. “Smile. Marcus is within sight.”
I thought of Henry then. Not of Henry from last night, gloriously unclothed, but Henry from the past two years. My friend, my confidante, the man who always found excuses to touch me. Who made me feel safe and valued and less alone in this world. Holding the feeling close, I turned my head to smile a real smile at McNaught.
His breath left him in a harsh exhale, as though he’d taken a hit to his stomach. “I’d be careful who you look upon like that.”
My smile gained a sharp edge as I leaned in and imitated his softer tone. “You misinterpret my expression, sir. I was thinking of the satisfying way your head jerked back when I landed that first punch the other night.”
He laughed. The bastard actually laughed. Uproariously. At something I said. In public. Where everyone could see.
on his arm, leading him toward the refreshment table. “You go too far,” I hissed.
“We only need to be seen together by my brother, not start rumors of our own. Don’t you think we have enough to contend with as it is?”
“Think of it as insurance,” he said, sobering.
This time I couldn’t keep the frown from my face. There was no need for further explanation of that comment. My mind already skipped ahead. If the vultures around us thought I was having an affair with McNaught, they’d be less likely to think me a willing accomplice to my husband’s depravity. I might escape any scandal that befell our household. McNaught thought to give me a way out. No doubt so that he could scoop me up the moment I was free and ensnare me in some trap of his own devising.
“Don’t do that again,” I said to him as the crowd opened up around us. Just ahead stood a table laden down with pre-poured glasses of champagne. I dropped his arm and went to it.
He reached the table before I did, with three strides of his long legs, and scooped up a glass, offering it up to me as I joined him. His expression was pure innocence. “Do what?”
I took the champagne from him without touching his fingers. “Laugh like that.”
“I can’t help that I find you amusing.”
I turned my back to the crowd and let my features reflect the depth of my annoyance. “I am not amusing. Just ask any of our peers.”
His answering smile was as warm as the summer sun, and fully visible to anyone looking. Unlike me, he still faced the ballroom. “Our peers know nothing about you.”
I opened my mouth, a snide retort on the tip of my tongue, but then I realized what he’d said. What he was really saying.
“No, they don’t know anything about me,” I said, stepping close to him. I had to relax my grip on my glass or risk shattering it. “But then, they didn’t spend months spying on me.”
His gaze flicked past me, over my shoulder, then back again. His smile transformed into a goading grin. “You snore in your sleep.”
I was going to murder him. “I do not snore.”
“Yes you do,” said a voice from behind me.
McNaught’s expression was triumphant. With a slight bow, he slipped away into the crowd.
I turned toward the speaker. “Marcus.”
He joined me by the table and snagged his own glass. “You may be new to…” he cast his gaze around to make sure he wouldn’t be overheard “…extramarital activities, but you may want to watch where you have your lovers quarrels. Anyone might have heard that.”
He was wrong. McNaught had seen him coming and raised his voice just loud enough to be heard. In my anger, I had fallen for his goading and matched his tone, just like he wanted me to, just loud enough for Marcus to overhear. Damn that man and his manipulations. And damn me for rising to the bait. It would be the last time, I promised myself.
“Thanks for the advice,” I said.
Marcus tipped his head toward the left. “Father’s here.”
I didn’t bother looking. I had no desire to see that monster in my current state. Instead, I wound my arm through my brother’s and moved us in the opposite direction. “Has he said anything to you?”
Marcus shook his head. “He hasn’t had the chance. I’ve stayed three steps ahead all night.”
“What about since he came to town?”
His brows drew down, a small line forming between them. “We had a rather memorable spat in his solicitor’s office.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“No point. What could you have done about it after the fact?”
I remained quiet. Marcus didn’t know that I’d already interceded on his behalf through John. That it was only the threat of complete ruin that kept the worst of our father’s behavior in check when he was in town.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He tipped his glass back and took a long drink, looking miserable.
“Have you seen the queen yet?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. She’s surrounded by your lot, and I didn’t want to face the gauntlet of Aunt Jane, Amesbury, and the rest of those harridans without a little liquid courage.”
“Well, finish your glass and we’ll go together. It will be noticed if I don’t bend the knee right away.”
He did as I bade, and I followed suit. We handed our empty champagne flutes to a passing servant when we were finished and then made our way to the far side of the ballroom, where the queen held court. Halfway there, we were delayed when a pretty young woman, perhaps seventeen at most, stepped into our path. Her name was Olivia. She was McNaught’s youngest sister.
Oh, no. Of all the times for her to approach me…
“Your Grace,” she said with a deep curtsy.
“Lady Olivia,” I said. “You look lovely this evening.”
She rose and smiled at me, and I realized that “lovely” was actually an understatement. Her hair was as dark as the spy’s, thick and lustrous in the candlelight. The eyes that looked up at me were a few shades lighter than his, the pale blue of a winter sky. She wore a becoming white muslin gown, with a pink ribbon tied just beneath her full bosom. This was her debut year, and if she didn’t make a stellar match, I’d be shocked. Her beauty alone assured it, but her kind nature and quick wit was just as desirable.
Marcus narrowed his eyes at her, no doubt remembering the many names she had allegedly called me in the letters he’d read last night.
“Lady Olivia, might I introduce my brother, Lord Rycroft,” I said.
He tipped his head toward her. “Lady Olivia.” There was almost no inflection in his tone.
She lifted her hand. “Lord Rycroft.”
Marcus hesitated to take it until I gently prodded his foot with my own. In a fluid movement, he bowed over her gloved hand. “What a lovely lady,” he said. “Such a demure debutante.”
The desire to elbow him was overwhelming. “Yes, well, I think that’s enough alliteration for one evening, don’t you?”
Olivia grinned when he dropped her hand, and it was then the resemblance to her brother truly became apparent. When she smiled, you felt as though you’d become her whole world. “Your Grace, I wanted to thank you for what you did the other day.” She glanced around us, lowering her voice. “For Jane. She’s my dearest friend.”
I softened even more toward the girl. Damn McNaught for dragging her into our drama. “You’re very welcome. Lady Jane is a rare talent. I hope to hear more from her soon.”
Olivia nodded. “You may indeed. The Baroness of Norridgewock is planning another recital.”
“I’ll be there,” I told her.
Her smile was nearly blinding. “Thank you, Your Grace. Have you seen my brother?”
Marcus stiffened beside me.
I wrapped my arm through his and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Which one?”
“The youngest, most difficult one to pin down,” she said, turning to look around us. “I thought I saw you enter on his arm, but then I lost sight of him. He promised me a dance.”
“I’m sorry, I haven’t seen him for several minutes.”
She shook her head, sending a loose curl swaying. “Thank you anyway. If you’ll excuse me, Your Grace, he might have returned to Father.”
With another curtsy, she left us.
“Can you believe the nerve?” Marcus said when the threat of her hearing him had passed. “Coming over here with that doe-eyed expression. Feigning innocence. And then slyly dropping hints about you still being seen in McNaught’s company. No doubt she’ll send another insulting letter round to yours later, filled to bursting with more bad alliteration.” He narrowed his eyes at her retreated back. “What a diabolical little wench.”
I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. It was either laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation or cry over the fact that it had all been brought about by my lies.
My brief bout of humor fled a few minutes later, when we came face-to-face with The Queen of England.
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.