To my eternal irritation, McNaught proved to be right about Marcus. My twin did not arrive when I expected him to. Another hour came and went while I waited, and still, nothing. Feeling like an utter fool, I gave up on him. The past two nights had finally caught up with me, and my exhaustion could no longer be ignored. There was no way I would last trying to wait up.
I stood from my chair by the fire and went to the bedroom door. Was Haydar still at his post in my sitting room?
I tightened the ties on my heavy dressing gown and cracked the door open. No, Haydar wasn’t there anymore. Instead, my gaze landed upon Adnan, the man able to mimic accents even better than I could. He was the shortest of the Janissaries, which wasn’t to say that he was slight of stature. Though just my height, his shoulders were so wide he must have had to walk through narrow doorways at an angle. His skin was the darkest of the three, a deep bronze. He was also the most handsome, with glossy black hair, dark brows that arched above caramel-colored eyes, a square jaw, and full lips that seemed forever on the verge of a smile. At least when he knew he was being watched.
Now, all hint of a grin was gone, and his lips had flattened into a hard line. The eyes that looked so warm and inviting in the light of the day had lost their fire. Frost had crept into them now, reminding me of the deadly, wolfish look I had first seen on his face.
He’d pulled one of the armchairs into the far corner, and sat in the shadows there, able to see every crevice in the room around him at once. He held an open blade in one fist. As I watched, he flicked his wrist, twirled the knife over the back of his hand, caught the hilt out of the air, and then spun it the other way. If I tried a maneuver like that, I’d need a surgeon to stitch me up afterward.
“Can I help you, Your Grace?” he spoke out of the gloom.
I jumped. He hadn’t betrayed his knowledge of my presence with so much as a glance in my direction.
“Taking shifts?” I asked.
“When will Haydar’s next turn come?”
“Noon tomorrow,” he said.
“I’ll make sure Harriet is better prepared this time.”
He cracked a smile, teeth flashing white in the darkness. “I heard she tried to brain McNaught with brassware earlier.”
“Er…yes, that about sums it up.”
He smothered his laughter with his free hand, all the while still turning that knife without having to watch it. It was unsettling – a reminder that no matter how jovial he sometimes appeared, this man was dangerous.
“Goodnight then,” I said.
He lifted his chin in farewell, still chuckling.
What strange men the spy had saddled me with.
I locked the door behind me and paced toward my bed. Harriet lay at the foot of it in her cot, clutching a candleholder in her sleep like a babe might a stuffed animal. I paused to pull the covers up over her. She looked so peaceful in her sleep. One might never guess that she’d recently tried to brain a spy with brassware. I smiled, recalling the look on McNaught’s face when he was forced to dive aside or take a candleholder to the face. Her fury at him on my behalf was spectacular, further proof that I should have dropped my walls and let her in years ago.
“I’ll make up for it,” I told her sleeping form. One way or another, I would.
My mattress felt like a cloud when I climbed into it. I rested my head on my pillow, closed my eyes, and knew no more.
I awoke several hours later to the sound of knocking. Harriet scrambled from her cot brandishing her weapon of choice. I was slower to rise, moving stiffly because of my injuries. The clock on the mantel told me it was just past two in the morning.
“Katherine,” John’s voice called through the door. “Your idiot twin has arrived.”
Harriet dropped the candleholder with a sigh of relief.
I pulled my robe on and strode across the room. Idiot twin? What had Marcus said to rile my unflappable husband? I unlatched the door and tugged it open. “Where is he?”
“In my study, helping himself to my best brandy,” John answered.
Harriet joined us then, holding a candle aloft. “Here, Your Grace.”
I turned to take it from her and saw her gaze dart to John and away, a slight flush coloring her cheeks. Was she embarrassed about her earlier outburst? Or, like me, was she simply reacting to the sight of my husband? John’s hair was mussed from sleep, and he must have dressed in haste, because his robe sagged open to reveal the center lines of his chest muscles. The candlelight softened his features to a dangerous degree. He looked like an angel that had recently discovered the sins of the flesh and had come to my rooms in search of more carnal knowledge.
“Lead the way,” I told him.
We walked in silence through hallways dropped into the stygian darkness of deep night, our candles held aloft to light our way. It was not a comfortable silence. The tension between us pulled like a violin string that had been turned too tightly. One quick tug and it would snap, and God alone knew if we would dodge the resulting lash.
My mind was filled with unanswered questions. Who did he think was behind the letters? Why did he and McNaught keep so much from each other? What else was he keeping from me? From Henry?
I glanced over at him and then away, just as Harriet had. The sight of him was too much right now. It made me want to kiss him as much as I wanted to slap him, and that couldn’t be healthy.
“I’ll leave you here,” John said when we reached his study door.
I nodded and went in.
Marcus stood near the fire, one arm braced on the mantle as he stared down into the flames. At the sound of the door closing, he turned to me with bloodshot eyes. Good God. Had he been crying? Had something happened between him and Antoine? Was that why he was so late? I felt terrible now, for doubting his loyalty. For my negative thoughts toward him when he didn’t arrive when I’d predicted.
He straightened from the fire. “Don’t try to dissemsemble.”
I frowned at him. What on earth…? “Dissemble, do you mean?”
He pushed off the mantle and swayed toward me. The reek of alcohol burned my nose. He hadn’t been crying; he’d been drinking. He was absolutely foxed. No wonder John was so annoyed. And now I was too. There I’d been, just a moment before, feeling sorry for doubting him, and he’d been out celebrating after all.
“What the hell is going on?” he all but shouted.
“Sit down and lower your voice,” I said, my irritation sharp on my tongue.
He collapsed onto the couch and crossed his arms over his chest to glare at me.
The nerve of him, to come here, hours later than promised, buggered out of his mind with drink, demanding answers. My irritation swelled into anger. “You look like Father right now.”
He unwound his arms, his expression falling into remorse.
I might have regretted the comment if it hadn’t been true. I took up his place by the fire and looked down at him. “You have to promise to keep this to yourself, Marcus. I could be ruined if it gets out.”
“I would never tell anyone,” he said, the words slightly slurred.
“Maybe not intentionally.”
His expression darkened again. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“That secret keeping isn’t your forte. And your tongue loosens when you drink. Now promise me.”
“I promise,” he grumbled, squirming down into the couch.
With his petulant expression, ruffled hair, and disheveled clothes, he looked like a sullen youth. We might have been the same age, but in that moment, I felt decades older than him.
“I’ve taken a lover,” I said.
He shot to his feet. “What?!”
He’d moved too fast in his inebriated state, and I had to grab his arm to steady him. “Sit back down before you topple both of us.” He sat. “And for God’s sake, keep your voice down.”
He peered up at me in disbelief, but at least his voice was quieter when he spoke. “Have you really?”
“Yes. And the man’s sister found out. She’s been sending me notes telling me to cut him loose. Her latest was left on my seat at the theater, and since she was in attendance, I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing my reaction. Or yours.”
He shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”
John had passed the fabricated letters to me earlier, and I pulled them from the pocket of my dressing gown and handed them over. “See for yourself.”
He took them from me and opened the first one, reading aloud. “I know what you’re up to, you floozy.” He shot me a look. “Floozy?” A grin lifted his lips as he dropped his focus back to the page. “You’ve bewitched my brother with your wantonly ways. I’ll not have his good name besmirched by such a scandalous slattern.”
I turned away from him, my face burning. Wantonly ways? Scandalous slattern? I should have read the letters after McNaught had written them.
Marcus laughed. “Christ, where does she get these invectives?” A ripping sound came from behind me as he tore into another letter. “Horrid harpy?” His laughter gained a wheezing edge. “Noxious doxie! Kit, is she serious?”
I would murder McNaught the next time I saw him.
“She’s quite young,” I said, turning back around. “I imagine she’s doing the best she can with her choice of insults.”
“How kind of you to say so, you,” he glanced down at the page he held, “contemptible courtesan.”
I leaned forward and snatched the letter out of his hand.
He fell back on the couch, clutching his sides.
“I’m glad you find my threat of ruin so amusing, Marcus.”
He straightened, rubbing at his eyes. “Give way, Kit. Who would believe such a silly chit?”
“She’s the daughter of a duke,” I said. “An accusation from her could pose a real threat to me.”
That sobered him. “Who’s her father?”
“Which of his sons are you taking to your bed?”
I had to school my features against a rush of nausea when I answered. The thought of actually taking such a man to bed was…no. “James McNaught.”
Marcus frowned. “I thought he was sniffing around the skirts of the Marchioness of Sotheby.”
Poor woman. “He’s merely toying with her to keep suspicion away from us,” I said. What was one more fallacy atop the mountain of lies I’d built?
“How cunning.” A lopsided grin tugged at his lips. “Can’t fault your taste in men. That hair. Those eyes.” He shuddered. “You must be a brave woman to bed him. That man looks made to ravage. Tell me, is he pale all ove-”
I covered his mouth with my hand to keep the rest of his words locked safely away. I did not need thoughts of McNaught’s naked body in my mind. “Will you keep your voice down? I’m not discussing the details of my affair with you.” Only when Marcus nodded did I release my hold on him.
“Fine. Keep the details to yourself,” he said. “Honestly, it’s about time, Kit. I knew you couldn’t be satisfied with stuffy old John.”
Despite my relief that he believed the lie so easily, I was heartbroken. Because it served as further proof that we no longer knew each other as we once had. A rift had formed between us, widening with each passing year. It was all too easy to look ahead, to think that in another decade we might stare across the chasm at each other and not recognize the person who stood on the other side.
I sank down beside him on the couch and took up one of his hands in both of mine. We fell silent, staring together into the fire.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come right away,” he said after a while. “Antoine convinced me to have a glass of champagne with him. We were joined by a few dancers, and I had another. The time got away from me after that.”
I squeezed his hand. “I forgive you.”
And I did. Better to think of him alive and happy and free from the clutches of my invisible tormentors. Surrounded by friends and merriment. Unburdened by the darkness in my life. I wouldn’t wish this fate on my worst enemy, let alone my twin.
“Do you want to sleep it off here?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Antoine is waiting for me back home.”
“Take our carriage then, so I know you get there safely.”
“I will. Thank you.”
We remained a few more minutes, but when Marcus’ eyes strayed to the clock, I knew our time was up. I accompanied him to the front door and waited while the carriage was fetched. It rolled out from the rear of the house and through the gloom into the torchlight.
Marcus took a staggering step backward when he caught sight of the behemoth seated beside the driver atop it. “Who the bloody hell is that?”
“Haydar,” I said, not bothering to try and pass him off as a footman. Marcus would never believe that lie. “The streets can be a dangerous place this late. He’ll see that you make it home safely.”
Marcus eyed him. “Hopefully he doesn’t get hungry along the way.”
I frowned at him in question.
He leaned close and quoted, “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’ve spent too much time among actors. You’re becoming dramatic.”
Marcus shot me a look before climbing up into the cabin. Just before he shut the door, he shouted, “If I’m never heard from again, tell Antoine I love him!”
I smiled as the carriage pulled away. It fled from my face the moment I stepped back inside. John waited for me there, holding a candelabra aloft.
“We need to talk,” he said.
I nodded and followed him up the stairs. I expected we’d return to his study, but he surprised me by leading me all the way to his chambers. He shut the door of his sitting room behind us and set his candelabra on the desk. Several empty bottles already sat upon it, and I wondered why the maid who saw to his rooms hadn’t swept them away earlier. A lapse like this would land her in the bad graces of our housekeeper.
John scooped up the bottles and carried them to the sitting room door, where he crouched down and placed them in a row on the floor right in front of it.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“An old trick my friend the spy taught me. If anyone attempts to open this, the resulting racket will alert us to their presence.”
“I’ve taken to doing something similar,” I told him.
He paused in his work and glanced up at me.
“Ever since McNaught broke into my rooms, I’ve been sleeping with the windows unlatched and their frames lined with broken glass.”
I’d surprised him with that. His answering grin was so wide that his dimples appeared. “How devious. Was it your idea? Or Harriet’s?”
“Let’s call it a joint effort.” I had proposed the idea offhand, but Harriet had enthusiastically agreed we do it.
John placed the last bottle on the floor and stood. We moved into his bedroom. I took one of the chairs by the fire while he shut his door and stuffed a blanket beneath it much as McNaught had done in my own rooms. What other tricks had my husband learned from the spy?
“Drink?” John asked when he was done.
“Might as well,” I said. I needed a bit of liquid courage to face the conversation I feared to come.
John poured brandy into two glasses and came back over.
“Thank you,” I said, taking my drink from him. I fished the letters out of my pocket with my other hand. “Did you actually read these?”
John set his drink on the small table between us and took them. “No.”
“I warn you, I may recreate Harriet’s attempt on McNaught’s life the next time I see the man.”
He swiftly unfolded the first letter. “Why? What do they s…” He frowned down at the page. As I watched, the corner of his mouth twitched.
“Don’t, John. This isn’t funny.”
He bit his lower lip and read on. His cheek twinged.
“If you laugh right now, so help me God.”
In answer, he set the letters in his lap and cleared his throat. “What a pair we make. The Hellion of Hampshire and his Horrid Harpy.”
I looked heavenward, praying for patience.
“Did Marcus believe your story?” he asked, wisely changing topics.
I brought my gaze back to earth and stared into the fire. “He did.”
“You don’t seem happy about it.”
“No. We used to share everything between us. I could read his face like a book, and he mine. Now I lie to him more than I tell him the truth. And he believes me.”
“I’m sorry,” John said.
“At least the letters gave him a laugh. Though why McNaught feels the need to goad me I don’t understand. It’s trying enough to work with him as it is.”
“You’ll need to be careful around him, Katherine. The way he sometimes looks at you…”
“Like he’s assessing me? Don’t worry, I see it too. There’s no threat of me falling prey to him. I find nothing attractive about a man who enjoys abusing women, if that was what he was truly implying earlier.”
“He doesn’t enjoy abusing women…exactly.”
I turned to him. “Care to clarify?”
“Some people find pleasure in pain. McNaught is one of them. He sometimes seeks out like minded individuals to share his proclivities with.”
I was quiet in response.
John’s gaze sharpened, and his full lips lifted in a small, pleased smile. “Ah, you understand.”
I nodded. “When I had my arms around Henry’s neck, my bruised ribs ached. So did my hands. But the contrast of feelings…it felt…good.”
“Don’t let Henry know you lied.” Oh. That’s right, I’d told him it didn’t hurt. “He might feel the need to punish you for it.”
I shivered. The way he said “punish” made it clear that he expected me to enjoy the chastisement. “Are you trying to distract me away from being angry with you?”
John grinned. “Yes. Is it working?”
I shook my head.
He sighed and leaned back into his seat. “Ask your questions.”
“Who do you think is behind the letters?”
His gaze dropped to his drink. He twirled his hand, and the liquid inside swilled around the edges as he spoke. “I am…divided on that count.”
“Let’s look to Napoleon. From all reports, he’s on the cusp of being declared emperor. France isn’t enough for him. He wants England. He and his spies are doing everything they can to destabilize us. We just learned of his treaty with Spain.” He lifted his gaze to mine. “For every year they don’t declare war on us, Spain has to pay France 72 million francs.”
I sat back in my chair and stared at him. “When do you expect them to declare war?”
“Does McNaught know?”
“Does he think the French are behind these letters?”
“Like me, I believe he still has his doubts.”
“My father’s suicide was staged in 1790, the year after the French Revolution broke out. The country was in utter chaos. Most of the royal spies had been pulled back to focus their attentions on their own people. Why would they have kept someone here just to harass my father?”
I leveled my gaze at him. “I have no idea, John. I haven’t spent the past 14 years looking into it. Why don’t you answer the question yourself?”
He let out a humorless laugh. “I wasn’t lying when I said I hadn’t uncovered our enemy’s motivations.”
“If it’s not Napoleon, what about King George?”
“He was…not well in 1790. The crisis of the regency took place just two years prior, and though the king was no longer a threat to himself, nor was he fully recovered. A plot this grand needs a functioning helmsman, and George couldn’t even be trusted with his own welfare at the time. Past that, his tentative grasp on lucidity makes me doubt why we even consider him a candidate.”
“Then why do you?”
“Because, when he is lucid, he’s one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met.”
“Couldn’t someone he trusts be taking up the mantle in his stead? The regent?”
John shook his head. “You’ve met the Prince of Wales.”
Sadly, I had.
“The man is an idiot,” John said. “He can’t be trusted with his own purse strings let alone something of this magnitude.”
“And yet he may one day rule us all,” I said.
John’s mouth turned down in distaste. “The current ministers, myself included, have agreed that when he dons the mantle of sovereign, it will be one made of limited power. The rest, we’ll share amongst ourselves.”
“So if not Napoleon or George, then who? Has one of the nation’s spy departments gone rogue? Or have you considered the Dutch or America?”
John drained the rest of his glass. “At one point or another, I’ve considered every nation we’ve ever warred with. What concerns me now is less who is behind these notes, and more why we’re being targeted. And why now. The answers to those questions, at least, may be within our reach, and they need to be our focus.”
“Why do you still keep so much from McNaught? I thought he was your friend.”
“He is my friend,” John said. “But a friend who wouldn’t think twice about sneaking into my wife’s quarters. One who would kill one of her father’s servants for information. Would lie, cheat, and steal to keep me safe.”
I sent him a meaningful look. “Sounds a lot like someone I know.”
“There’s a key difference between us. I won’t move against your father without your permission. In my stead, James would have strangled him with his bare hands the moment he learned what he’d done to you.” His gaze bored into mine, driving his next point home. “And then maybe moved onto your brother for not doing anything to protect you.”
I shivered and turned back to the warmth of the fire. There was too much darkness in his tone. Too much censure. Marcus might think John a bore, but after that, I feared that John’s feelings toward my brother were what should truly concern me. He didn’t move against my father without my permission. Had the same always been true about my twin and I just hadn’t known it?
“Marcus was just a boy,” I said.
“A boy who will one day be a lord has power. I know that firsthand. His voice is heard when he speaks,” John’s tone was merciless. “And now that boy is a man. What has he done to avenge you?”
“If you seek to turn me against him, you won’t succeed. He was a victim of my father just as I was,” I said. “You have no idea the kind of terror we lived in. Amelia withered and died under Father’s care, and the circumstances of her death were more due to neglect than anything else. We felt we were in very real danger. Who knows what might have happened if Marcus had tried to tell anyone what went on in our household?”
John remained silent.
“Remember, unlike me, Marcus is still under Father’s thumb,” I continued, feeling the need to defend him. “Our promises for retribution have kept the worst of my father’s perversions from him, but he must still endure Father’s near-constant attention and criticisms. It’s hard to seek vengeance for a loved one when you’re still struggling just to keep your head above water.”
John only nodded in response, so that I had no idea whether or not I had swayed his opinion of my brother. I sought to say something further, drive my point home in a way he might understand, but he spoke before I could.
“My original point was that in McNaught’s line of work, he sees a lot of death. I have no doubt he’s lost countless friends and allies. It makes a person cold, hard. Slow to make new acquaintances. Covetous of those few he still has. I keep things from McNaught because I fear what he would do with the knowledge. And he keeps things from me because he fears for my life. It’s as simple as that.”
“And you both put each other in danger because of it,” I said. “Imagine how much further along you might be in discovering why we were being threatened if only you would talk to each other.”
John met my wrath with a steady gaze. “That’s easy for you to say. Wait until the day you pass him the name of someone you suspect to be involved, only for them to turn up dead the next morning.”
Shock ripped through me. “That…did that happen?”
He nodded. “He denied any involvement in the death, but…” He shrugged.
I leaned forward and placed my head in my hands. No. No, no, no. I had given McNaught an entire list of women to look into. Had added Amesbury only because I thought the woman deserved him.
God help me.
The fire popped, loud in the quiet that had fallen between us. I dropped my hands and looked at John. “Why didn’t you warn me about him earlier? And if you tell me you didn’t because you were protecting me, I swear I might slap you.”
“You’ll have to slap me then,” he said.
I stood from my chair and moved away from him. “No. I can’t be like my father.” To my shame, it came out more like a question than a statement.
John rose from his own seat and came to me. “Wanting to slap someone doesn’t make you like him.”
I took several steps back, not trusting myself to be so close to him right now. “You can’t know that.”
“I know you. And I know him. Your darkness isn’t the same.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because, unlike your father, I think you would only strike out in defense or extreme anger. You wouldn’t revel in the pain you caused.”
I took another step back. “I liked hurting McNaught.”
There. It was out. The terrifying truth I’d been tried to bury since that night. The reason I had goaded him about his bruises and scratches. Deep down, I really was like the monster who had sired me.
John held my gaze and took a deliberate step forward. “A chance to finally vent your wrath on a large man who dared to lay his hands on you? Who could blame you for finding pleasure in that?”
“It’s wrong, John. Twisted.”
He took another step forward. “I did it to protect you, Katherine.”
Another step and he raised his voice. “I lied to protect you.”
“John, I mean it,” I said, backing away.
Two more steps.
My back hit the wall.
John bore down on me. The next words hit my ears like a roar. “I did it to protect you, goddamn it!”
It was then that I realized he was as angry as I was. With McNaught. With our enemies. Maybe even with me and Henry for not letting him coddle us. And more than anything else, with himself for not being able to protect us. He sought an outlet. Thought he deserved to be slapped.
I kissed him instead.
He grabbed my shoulders and pulled me forward.
Our mouths ground together, painfully.
I bit his lip.
He kicked my feet out from under me and took me down to the floor.
I spread my legs for him.
He ground his erection into the V at the top of my thighs.
I broke the kiss to arch up into him, moaning.
It was then that we heard the bottles lining the sitting room door go clattering across the floorboards as someone tried to open it.
Copyright © 2019 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.