“Is the Duke home, Sherman?” I asked the butler.
Sherman stood aside from the door as I entered, his gaze sliding from me to the man at my back. “Yes, Your Grace. He’s in his study.”
I could only imagine how this looked, me leaving with my brother and arriving home, much earlier than expected, with this strange friend of John’s. From Sherman’s expression, he distrusted the spy nearly as much as I did. Sherman always was a good judge of character.
I patted the elderly man on the shoulder in reassurance as I passed, then led McNaught toward the main staircase. I was forced to lift my skirts as we ascended, and the sound of my heeled shoes striking the marble rang through the entryway. McNaught followed close behind me. I knew, because every now and then the sound of shifting fabric gave him away. His footfalls were so quiet I had to strain my ears to pick them out over my own. It made my skin crawl to have him at my back.
I held my spine straight and my head high as we moved down the hallway. My gaze remained fixed on the path in front of me, regardless of the fact that McNaught had pulled even and now strode along at my side. I could see his long legs in my periphery, smell a hint of lemon with every inhale, but I’d be damned if I let this man know how much he affected me. The way that he both repulsed and attracted, as though he were a magnet in which the positive and negative fields had gone haywire, was beyond disturbing.
I nearly sighed in relief when we reached John’s study. My relief vanished when McNaught stepped between me and the door, blocking my entry. He dropped his head, as though to whisper in my ear, and I stepped back, out of his reach.
A curled lock of his hair had fallen forward to shade his eyes. He stared out at me from behind it like a wolf sighting a deer. When he spoke, his voice was pitched low so it wouldn’t carry through the door to John, and it came out sounding far too intimate. “We don’t have to be enemies, Katherine.”
“Would you have us be friends instead?”
In answer, he nodded.
I laughed. It wasn’t a nice sound. “Never.”
His expression darkened. “You may one day change your mind.”
“I doubt it,” I said. Then, at the door, “John!”
McNaught stepped smoothly aside just before my husband opened the door, donning an innocent expression only a fool would fall for.
John was no fool. He took one look at the spy’s face and then stepped between us, ushering me in. “You’re quite lucky,” he tossed over his shoulder.
“What makes you say that?” McNaught asked.
“Henry isn’t here,” John answered.
Too bad. I would relish the sight of Henry following through on John’s earlier threat. But more than that, Henry made things easier for me. Not just around John, but in a grander way that only now, in his absence, could I truly appreciate. He put me at ease. Made me feel safe. Protected. The opposite of the way the spy, and sometimes even my husband made me feel.
I took a seat on the couch and eyed the men I now kept company with. The last time I sat here, I’d been in Henry’s lap, his fingers plying my sex, John across from us, nearly driven mad as he was forced to play voyeur. In any other circumstance, I might have been distracted by my memories of what we’d shared, but not tonight. I was too angry. With whoever had sent me the note, and the spy for more reasons than I could list. I didn’t entirely trust myself to remain civil right now. I may have softened slightly toward my husband, but I hadn’t forgiven him, and the addition of McNaught did nothing to make me feel better. The letter I’d just received and the resulting hour of terror I’d endured were the final nails on the coffin containing my mood.
“Where is Henry?” I asked.
John folded himself down on the opposite side of the couch and turned to me. This close to the fire, his skin was burnished in shades of red and gold. “He elected to spend the night in his own apartments. We thought it best he be seen coming and going from them, to lessen the spread of tales.”
“Do you truly think it matters at this point?” I asked. “That it will stop our harassers? Or stop our peers who want us pulled down?”
John shrugged, somehow managing to make the motion seem elegant even while seated. “Perhaps not, but it would offer us contradictory witnesses as to where Henry spends his time. Sow the seeds of doubt about us being lovers.”
“Yes, I would like a glass of scotch,” McNaught drawled from somewhere behind us. “Thank you so much for offering, John.”
The clink of glassware told us he was helping himself. John and I went back to studiously ignoring his presence.
“In that case,” I said, “do we know a woman who would be willing to be seen entering Henry’s quarters at night?”
John raised a single brow in question. “No reputable unmarried woman would agree to be seen doing so.”
I grinned at him. “Who said anything about asking someone reputable?”
John’s expression softened just enough for him to send me a small smile. With his back to the room, there was no threat of McNaught seeing it.
You should do that more, I almost blurted. A man as handsome as he was could get away with murder if he turned that look on the right person. He wouldn’t even need my help amongst the women of the ton if he employed it against them. One such smile and they would tell him all of their husbands’ secrets.
“That’s not a bad plan,” McNaught said, joining us. He took a seat in a nearby chair and looked at me like he was sizing up a prize mare at a horse market. My thoughts returned to two nights past and his declaration that I had the makings of a good spy. Slowly, he turned his gaze away, back toward my husband. “I don’t see the harm in it. I’ll make inquiries.”
John nodded. “Why did you escort my wife home? I thought we agreed you were only there to act as an extra set of eyes.”
I shook my head in frustration. I had agreed to allow Adnan and Doruk to accompany me. No one had said anything about McNaught being there. The men must have decided it for me. Not even one of John’s rare smiles would soften me to him now.
“She received another note,” the spy answered.
“What did it say?” John asked.
“And Henry Fletcher,” McNaught quoted.
“Did you see who delivered it?”
“I believe so. I watched your box during intermission. The only person to enter it was an usher.”
“Did you find the man afterward?”
McNaught shook his head. “I went to search him out as soon as Katherine passed me the note. There was no sign of him. I even went to the head usher to make my inquiries, and he told me that no one working at the theater matched the description I provided.”
John frowned. “So, unlike the servant at Amesbury’s, this usher wasn’t simply the means of delivery, but an agent himself?”
“It would appear so. And the same may be true for the alleged servant at the Baron of Rochester’s.” McNaught turned to me. “There was no footman working there that fit the description you gave me. I thought you’d simply misremembered his appearance at first.”
I set aside my animosity for a moment. Determining who was behind these notes was more important than my dislike of the spy. “Were they the same man?”
“I don’t believe so. They seem to be of different heights and builds.”
“Two enemy agents, at least,” John said. “Further proof that this is something far grander than a single person harboring multiple grudges against members of the ton.”
The implications of his declaration were staggering, but instead of being surprised by them, I felt vindicated in my assumptions. In the wee hours of last night, I’d stood by my window and wondered who might have such reach. They either had someone on the staff of the papers contributing to the gossip columns, or they’d paid them off. That took money. There were two enemy agents targeting us. How many more simply acted as watchers and spies? How many more harassed our peers? Further funds would be needed to support their salaries.
I could think of only one British family with enough reach and wealth, and the thought froze my blood in my veins. Because if I was correct, the person behind these dark manipulations wore a crown upon their head.
It made a strange sort of sense. If John’s assumption that this latest parliamentary bill was the reason for the attack, then who had more to gain from quashing it, and, as a consequence, ensuring the status quo remained? We had seen firsthand what happened in other countries where peasants sought more and more freedoms. Revolt. Revolution. Chaos. War. A monarch might do anything, even go so far as to ruin their own errant aristocrats, to prevent something similar from happening in their homeland.
Silence reigned in the room. I looked from McNaught to John, wondering if they’d come to the same conclusions I had. If this was why they still kept secrets from each other, why they didn’t voice their suspicions aloud. Because if it was the King or the Regent behind everything, we were not only doomed, but we’d be traitors if we continued to fight against them.
Or…what if my other assumption proved true? That it wasn’t our own royals manipulating us in an effort to keep hold of their power, but an enemy nation trying to pull them down.
“So,” I said. “George? Or Napoleon?” I’d had about enough of secret keeping. If they wouldn’t put it out in the open, I would.
As one, their gazes snapped to the door.
McNaught pushed out of his chair, his long legs carrying him swiftly across the room. He wrenched the door open and disappeared out into the hallway.
I turned to John in confusion.
He shook his head and held a finger to his lips, signaling for silence.
“No one,” McNaught said when he reappeared.
“I thought you trusted our servants,” I said to John once the door was safely closed.
“Not with this,” he answered. Then he moved on, returning to our thread of conversation before I had asked my damning question. “This is a much more accelerated timeline than I expected.”
“We’re not going to discuss who might be behind it?” I pressed.
John shook his head, firelight flashing across features that had hardened into an unbreakable mask. “Not here. Not now.”
Then when? I wanted to ask. Did John simply not want to speak of his suspicions where McNaught might overhear them? Or had the men already discussed the possibilities years ago and now refused to share them with me? Did Henry know? If so, he might tell me. If not, it was yet another betrayal by John.
“I warned you the timelines had accelerated,” McNaught said.
John nodded. “Yes, but I didn’t expect to receive one a day.”
“Maybe there’s a time constraint,” I said. “When is the bill to be presented in parliament?”
John’s eyes flicked to McNaught and then back to me.
“Bill?” the spy drawled, his voice dangerously low.
Wonder of wonders, John hadn’t shared his suspicions on why he was being targeted with McNaught. And I had just blurted it out. Why hadn’t John shared this information? Did he believe it was King George after all, and because McNaught was an agent of the crown, he couldn’t be trusted? That he had secretly been working against us all along?
Damn these men and all their lies! They were going to drive me mad. Couldn’t they see that the ropes of them lay coiled around our necks? And that all it would take was one good tug for the nooses to tighten?
John met McNaught’s challenging gaze with calm neutrality. “The bill is in its early stages yet, but if all goes according to plan, it will build upon the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. Myself, your father, and Sir Robert Peel are championing it.”
“Sounds too boring to be the reason you’re being targeted,” McNaught drawled.
Boring? How dare the man? My fingers trembled, itching to slap at him. Or John. Both would make good targets right now. I had to clutch my skirts to keep my hands at my sides. “There are over 20,000 apprentices in our country’s cotton mills,” I told the spy. “Nearly a fifth of them are under the age of 13. They’re paid a pittance and forced to work marathon shifts. It’s not boring. It’s inhumane and barbarous, and something needs to be done about it.”
McNaught spared me a glance and then returned his attention to John. “What will your bill do about it?”
“It expands upon the original.”
McNaught grinned at John in a placating way that rankled. “I’ve been away. Remind me again what the original was designed for?”
If John was annoyed, it didn’t show in his countenance. “That no one under the age of 21 could be forced into working nights or shifts longer than 12 hours. And that they would be provided some basic care and education.”
“How was it enforced?”
“Through the local Justices of the Peace and clergymen,” John said. “They were to report any breaches to authorities.”
McNaught shook his head and took a sip of his scotch before answering. “If they were local, that means they were friendly with the factory owners. I’m guessing most were paid off and the…” his gaze cut to me “…inhumane and barbarous treatment of minors continued?”
To slap him, or not to slap him, that was the question.
“Your guess is correct,” John said. “The coming bill is set to lift the age cap, so that no one is forced to work nights or shifts longer than 12 hours. And it makes any breach of the agreement criminal.”
McNaught frowned. “Many of our peers own factories. You’ll make enemies among them if it passes.”
“Precisely,” John said in a clipped tone. “Not as boring as you originally thought?”
McNaught met his gaze. “I’ll need a list of its more vocal opponents.”
“But you still doubt it’s the reason I’m being targeted,” John said. It wasn’t a question; it was a statement.
“Why?” John asked.
“If it’s this bill causing all the fracas, then why haven’t my father or Sir Peel likewise been targeted?”
“Who’s to say they haven’t been?” I asked.
McNaught shot me a look that might have incinerated a lesser mortal. “I would know if they had.”
I met his glare with one of my own. “You claim omniscience now?”
His lips lifted in a way that was too sharp to be a smile. “I have eyes and ears in both their houses.”
I stared back at him, dumbfounded. “You spy on your own father?”
He shrugged one large shoulder in answer and took another sip of scotch.
I shut my eyes against the sight of him and pinched the bridge of my nose. Of course he spied on his father. Why would I expect anything better from a man such as he?
John’s voice was clipped when he spoke, evidence of his own mounting annoyance with McNaught. “If not that bill, then what else could it be?”
“And why, for the love of God, are they sending them to me instead of John?” I demanded.
McNaught hesitated only a second, but it was long enough for my husband to realize what it signified.
John chuckled. “I knew it. You’re not convinced they’re after me. You think Katherine might be their true target.”
Me? What the hell had I done to incur such wrath? I was a woman. I didn’t own land. I wasn’t involved in industry. I held little true power. Or…was I simply a pawn? Like John had been when forced to marry me for reasons that were still unclear.
Plots within plots, Henry had said. It turned out he was right. About our enemies – I cast my gaze to the men I shared the room with – and our alleged allies. What gain did these two see in keeping so much from each other?
“I can’t stomach this anymore,” I said, beyond irritated at the both of them. “I’ll leave you two to play your mind games alone. Marcus should be arriving soon anyway.”
“I wouldn’t expect him for some time yet,” McNaught said.
I took a deep breath before responding, near wit’s end. “And why do you say that?”
He lifted a shoulder in a gallic shrug. “It’s closing night, they’ll want to celebrate.”
I doubted his words, knowing my brother well. This secret between us would turn him into a dog with a bone, and he’d be knocking on the door within the hour. It irritated me that McNaught thought he knew better.
“Katherine,” John said. “Why are you expecting your brother?”
I sighed. “He saw my reaction to the note and demanded an explanation.”
“I feared that someone in the crowd might be watching our box,” I told him. “I begged him to calm himself, and only the promise that I would tell him all afterward did the trick.”
“What do you plan on telling him?” John asked.
“I haven’t had time to formulate a believable lie.”
“Tell him that you’ve taken a lover,” McNaught said. “And that the man’s sister has discovered the liaison and has sent you letters demanding that you stop, or else.”
John let out a low, humorless chuckle. “Let me guess, you’ll play the part of her lover?”
“Who better than someone in on the deception?” McNaught asked. “It’ll be simple enough to draft a few notes written in a feminine hand to corroborate the story before he gets here.”
“What a horrifying idea,” I said, looking between the men. “John, tell me don’t agree with this lunacy.”
John sent me a guarded look.
Now it was my turn to swear.
“If you have a better idea, please, do let me know,” McNaught said.
Damn it all to bloody hell. As much as I hated to admit it, I didn’t have a better one. And this…it would work. Marcus would want to believe it. Because it would play into his own certainty that I couldn’t truly be happy married to someone he considered such an absolute bore.
I sighed. “He’ll need to see the two of us together to fully believe it.”
McNaught nodded, taking my words for confirmation that I would play along. “We’ll formulate some flirtation for him to observe tomorrow night at my father’s ball.”
The spy drained his scotch and set the empty glass aside before standing. John got to his own feet and went to his desk, where he handed McNaught parchment. The spy pulled out the note I’d received at the theater and traced its outline onto the paper. He trimmed the fresh parchment down to size and then leaned over the desk, writing in a quick, steady hand. I didn’t see the words he wrote upon it, but when he handed the first sheet to John, I caught sight of a delicate and definitively feminine script. So he could change his handwriting at whim? I could see how that would be a useful skill. How it might allow him to fake all manner of documents and forge innumerable signatures. What other tricks did this man have up his sleeves? How much had his training taught him?
He wrote several more notes, handing the pages over to John as he finished them. John dusted powder on them and set them aside to dry.
When McNaught was done, he straightened from the desk and stretched out his fingers. His gaze fell on me as John began folding the letters into envelopes. He sent me a wink that made me itch to slap him again. “Don’t look so perturbed, Katherine. I promise our next flirtation will be more enjoyable than our last.”
“Our last…flirtation?” The man was out of his mind. “You mean the one that left that bruise on your chin?” His cosmetics were beginning to fade, and I could just see a hint of purple peeking through. “That is assuming that I was the one to leave it there, and that you haven’t assaulted some other poor woman in the last forty-eight hours.”
He leaned back against John’s desk and crossed one leg over the other at the ankle. His posture was languid. The smile that spread over his impossibly beautiful face was downright salacious. “The only other woman I’ve assaulted in the last forty-eight hours welcomed it with open arms.”
Behind him, John eyed his quill as though contemplating stabbing the man in the back with it. “That’s enough, James.”
McNaught’s words sounded like an innuendo, but that couldn’t be right. Who on earth would want to be assaulted? I stood from the couch and turned away, feeling a flush creep into my cheeks. Damn the man for embarrassing me.
John came around the desk and placed himself between me and the spy. “If you want to return to your quarters, I’ll make sure someone rouses you when your twin eventually shows face.”
“Fine,” I said, moving toward the door. I wanted out of here. Now.
“As a precaution, we’ve stationed Haydar in your sitting room,” he added. “Do you want me to escort you?”
I froze with my hand on the latch. John, knowing my distrust for large men, offered to escort me so I wouldn’t feel so vulnerable in the Janissary’s company. I might have been grateful if not for my irritation.
Another thought struck me then. Harriet. She would have been waiting in my rooms for my return. Her distrust of men seemed to extend past my own and was instead applied to the entire sex. And now the largest, most overtly dangerous one I had ever laid eyes on was keeping her company.
I wrenched the door open and raced from John’s study, my fear driving me through the halls and up the stairs to the floor our bedrooms were on. From the sound of the footfalls that followed me, John and McNaught weren’t far behind.
I burst into my sitting room and staggered to a stop just inside. Haydar sat by the fire in one of my armchairs. He was so large that in comparison, the chair looked like something designed for a child. A book was braced in one big hand, while the other hastily tucked a pair of spectacles into his shirt pocket.
This was…not what I had expected to find.
I was so surprised that I momentarily forgot my fear of the man and addressed him for the first time. “My maid?”
He unfurled from the chair and pointed a finger toward my closed bedroom door.
Unsurprisingly, I found it barred. I knocked.
“You’ll have to break it, you brute!” Harriet yelled. “I warn you; I’ll not go down without a fight!”
Behind me, McNaught started to laugh.
I glared at him and then knocked again. “Harriet, it’s me. You’re in no threat of harm. Please unbar the door.”
The unmistakable click of the lock being thrown echoed through the room. I pushed the door open. Harriet stood just inside, duel-wielding candleholders as though they were swords.
McNaught’s laughter turned uproarious. “What were you planning to do with those?”
Harriet’s gaze latched onto him. Her expression darkened ominously.
Uh-oh. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told her that he was the one who attacked me.
“I’ll show you,” she said. She cocked her arm back and threw one of the heavy bronze candleholders at his head with surprising accuracy.
McNaught’s laughter cut off as he was forced to duck to avoid it.
Ha! Serves you right, you bastard!
My amusement fled as Haydar…moved. I have no other way to describe it. The large man stood just behind McNaught, but instead of stepping aside to likewise avoid being hit, his long arm shot out with shocking speed and he grabbed the makeshift weapon straight out of the air.
“Control your servant!” McNaught growled as he straightened.
In answer, I stepped into my room, turned to face my maid, and said, “Well done.”
Then I shut the door in their faces and barred it for good measure.
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.