I sped blindly around the corner in the hallway, not knowing where I was going, only that I needed to escape. A set of stairs, their narrowness marking them as the servants’ stairs, appeared at my right, and I wrenched my skirts up and climbed them, shocking a maid into a high-pitched shriek when I burst through the door at the top. I didn’t stop to apologize or give her a chance to mark my appearance. Well, beyond the obvious.
Damn this hair of mine, I thought for the second time in so few minutes. It all but ensured that I would be recognized wherever I went. I might not be the only redhead in the ton, but no other ladies had quite the flame-colored hue as I did, only Marcus.
The hallway I sped down was claustrophobic and dimly lit, most likely the staff quarters or some part of the house designed for their use alone. There would be too many eyes here for me to linger without notice, so I found another set of stairs and took it upward, to the top floor of the house. They deposited me in a much grander corridor. One meant to display the wealth of the home’s owner. Long, intricately woven carpets spread out over the wide-planked wood floor; small tables holding obscure relics stood along the walls at intervals; priceless portraits painted in oils hung beside watercolors depicting country scenes.
The end of the hallway loomed ahead of me, a door to both the left and the right. I chose the one on the left and quickly slipped inside, craving a quiet space where I might subdue my rising panic, gather my thoughts, and think of some way out of this debacle.
A fire smoldered in the large stone hearth. Its dying embers allowed me a glimpse of a room made up of heavy furniture and dark fabrics. It smelled of wood smoke, leather, and the particular mustiness of books: a study, most likely. Opposite me was a pair of glass doors, leading to what I could only hope was a balcony.
I propelled myself through the room, one hand clutched to my middle as I knuckled a cramp in my low abdomen, the other reached out in front of me, ready to brace myself on whatever was closest if I stumbled.
Fresh air. I needed fresh air. My breaths came in short little pants after my race through the house, and the darkened room seemed to tunnel around me ominously. Never again would I allow my handmaid to tie me into a corset so tightly.
I pushed through the doors and out into the night beyond. The midsummer air was warm and stagnant, and it did little to ease my labored breathing. My knees wobbled, the world tilted, and I sunk to the flagstones in an ungracious heap, leaning back as far as possible to keep my corset from strangling me.
Mr. Fletcher had seen me. The servants had seen me. I believed that the housekeeper would hold her tongue, but I couldn’t trust that she would successfully bully the rest into silence. If they gossiped anything like those in my father’s house, I was doomed. They would tell the other members of the staff, who, in turn, might repeat the tale to friends and acquaintances in other households, who would, in turn, tell their masters in hopes of bettering their positions.
A young lady such as myself shouldn’t know what rape was, and certainly shouldn’t have intervened to save a servant from it. Such a tale would spread like a conflagration through the ton. All my weeks of mimicking Amesbury would be for naught.
Father, I thought, choking back a sob.
Oh, God, what would he do to me? I could never go back there, to that place. The day I left our country home for London, I swore to myself it would be the last time I looked upon it. Father would try to summon me there when he heard, away from society, where he could dole out his punishment in private.
No. I would refuse the summons. If I went back there, I might never escape again. Knowing Father’s temper, my refusal would only stay my sentence. Word of my ruination would rouse him from the manor. Eventually, he would come here and create some public scene so shocking that the scandal that had triggered it would seem like nothing but the gentle breeze that precipitates a mighty gale.
I couldn’t be in London when he arrived. I had to find Marcus. We could do as he said, flee the country, seek refuge in some far-flung fishing village. We both favored dark-haired men. Perhaps a seaside settlement in Italy or Spain wouldn’t be quite so intolerable. But could I really do that? Damn him to that fate when he stood to inherit everything?
No. I couldn’t. Not after living a life where I had never been free to make my own decisions. I would have to make it clear that joining me would be his choice and his choice alone. I must reassure him that I was a survivor, and after surviving the household I was raised in, I could survive anything.
My mind made up, I stumbled to my feet. Unfortunately, my legs weren’t quite as resolved, and I pitched sideways into the banister, wheezing as I caught myself on it. A few moments. I simply required a few more moments to gather myself. I couldn’t succumb to one of my fits. Not now. Not when I had no one to loosen my corset. I knew from experience that if my breathing became more labored, I might swoon, and then anyone could find me here.
The thought of being so vulnerable did nothing to soothe me. Soon I was bent over double, clutching at the railing, unable to stand because I couldn’t catch my breath, unable to catch my breath, because, folded over like this, my corset made it impossible for my lungs to expand fully. It was a vicious circle, one that spiraled lower and lower until darkness gathered at the edges of my periphery and trailed murky fingers of shadow across my sight in casual threat.
No! Not now! I raged against the abyss.
I had survived so much worse than the threat of ruin. What was a scandal to me? What was an irreparable reputation? I would still have my life. I could still flee, with or without Marcus. And if I fled far enough, not even Father could find me.
All was not lost.
I forced myself upright with heroic effort, bracing my hands on the cool stone beneath my palms and locking my elbows and knees to keep myself vertical. My breathing eased some, and, slowly, my vision cleared.
You can survive this, I told myself, over and over again, the words becoming a mantra.
It was only when my racing pulse began to calm that other noises started to penetrate. Soft murmurs floated on the night breeze. The clink of champagne flutes meeting in a toast reached my ears. I leaned forward and glanced down. A small army of torches lit up the garden below my balcony. From my vantage point, they looked like enchanted fairy lights. Their warm glow illuminated the grassy avenues that wound lazily through the flowering shrubs. The hidden alcoves that branched off from the paths were cast in deep shadow as a result, as if designed for dalliances.
Almost directly under me, a man and a woman sat together within one on a marble bench, engaged in a passionate kiss, hidden from view by the hedge that towered around them. Unaware of the liaison that took place just a pace away, ladies and gentlemen meandered past in pairs, trios, and groups, their conversation echoing up the stone façade of the house. The smell of flowers in full bloom followed in their wake, filling my nose with a heady bouquet of jasmine, lavender, and roses.
It was a reminder that life went on, as yet unaware of my ruin. It gave me a small glimmer of hope that my life, too, might continue in such a peaceful manner.
“You forgot to bribe the servants,” a cool, cultured voice said from behind me, shattering my momentary optimism.
I whipped around. A shadowy figure emerged from the doorway. His hand appeared first, long, tapered fingers wrapped around a glass filled with amber liquid. Then his crisply starched cuffs. The black arm of his dinner jacket. His torso, narrow waist flaring up into broad shoulders. Finally, his face.
His features were Botticellian in nature, as if rendered by a master artist intent on exaggerating the possibilities of male beauty. Atop his head was a tangle of close-cropped blond curls. His eyes were half-lidded as he gazed at me, so light a brown that they were a near match for the drink he held. His arrow-straight nose pointed downward, drawing my gaze to full lips set in a hard, unforgiving line. What a sight he would be if he ever smiled. If he ever looked upon a person with any expression other than this one – the only one I had ever seen him wear: boredom mixed with a hint of derision.
He was none other than our host, the Duke of Hampshire.
I sucked in a strangled breath of recognition, which spurred my heartbeat back into a wild, reckless gallop. What little control I had gained over my emotions evaporated at the sight of him. The Hellion of Hampshire. The Duke of Deceit. The papers had given him innumerable, ominous nicknames, each one more fearsome than the last. To cross him was to court disaster, to offend him was to ensure your own demise. He was vicious, vindictive, power-hungry, cold, and cruel. And, judging from his presence and his words, he knew everything that had just transpired downstairs and the role I had played in it.
I was now at his complete mercy. If he had any.
The attack hit me full force then. I had fought it off for too long, had suffered one too many shocks tonight. The trembling overtook me first, followed by a final, harsh expulsion of air from my lungs. Try as I might, I couldn’t force any breath back into them. My corset felt like a malicious, living thing, tightening with sinister intent, delighting in my pain as it squeezed the very life from me. Beneath it, my heart ached as if it was fit to burst.
I dug at the corset with numb fingers, and when I found I was unable to loosen its hold on me, I looked toward my only hope of aid, the duke, in a silent plea for help.
“Goddamn it,” he said, monotone, before draining his drink. He set the empty glass on the railing and strode forward.
My legs buckled. I fell sideways, unable to stop my descent.
He scooped me up just before my head hit the flagstones, one arm beneath my knees, the other behind my back, annoyance writ across his countenance. It seemed I blinked, and I was back inside the room, sprawled on my stomach on a settee. I was yanked several inches up off the cushion. A great tearing sound came from behind me.
“What the bloody hell are you doing, John?” a deep voice boomed.
“Attacking her, obviously,” was the sarcastic response. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. She ceased breathing.” There was another yank on my back. “Damn these stays. Hand me that knife.”
I blinked again and opened my eyes to stare up at a ceiling. Darkly stained beams stood out like the ribs of some great beast. Undulations of orange and red danced over them, as if the beast was bleeding. Firelight, I realized. I must have lost consciousness. For how long?
I turned my head. I was still in the study, reclining on the settee. A pair of armchairs faced me. Behind them, the fire had been rekindled, illuminating the room. Because of the backlight, the chairs were cast into shadow, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust. When they did, I saw that both seats were occupied: one by Henry Fletcher, and the other by the Duke of Hampshire.
Fractured memories of my dress and corset being cut away flooded my mind. I glanced down. My modesty had been spared thanks to the blanket that one of the men had draped over me. Beneath it, I could still feel whalebone girdling the lower part of my torso, but the upper part was now loose, blessedly so, enough that I was able to take deep, even breaths.
I returned my focus to the two men. They knew what I had done this night. There was no point in trying to salvage this situation.
“The maid?” I asked.
It was Mr. Fletcher who answered. “Harriet. Her name is Harriet. She’s a little bruised, and understandably shaken, but you reached the door before Aberdine could do any lasting damage.” He shrugged a great shoulder, looking chagrined. “Well, physical damage.”
“I’m curious,” the duke said. “How did this all came about?”
I glanced at him and then away, unable to meet his unnerving eyes. “Aberdine, Your Grace,” I said, my manners coming back to me. “I am to be betrothed to him. My brother, Lord Rycroft, told me earlier that there might be reason to flee England rather than marry him. I was in the ballroom below when I caught sight of him wearing an expression that I distrusted after such a declaration, so I sought him out when he slipped from the crowd. I saw him with the maid, with Harriet, and followed. It was clear what his intent was. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“Rape,” the duke said.
I flinched away from the word.
“John,” Mr. Fletcher said, his tone cautioning.
I glanced up and saw him staring at the duke in open disapproval. Who was this man to speak to and look at the Hellion of Hampshire in such a way?
“Come, Henry,” the duke said, turning to regard the larger man. “You know her father. His reputation. No one could abide in his household for any length of time without learning the reality of words like that and worse.” His focus returned to me, cold gaze assessing as it roamed over my blanket-covered body. “Judging by the scars on her back, she hasn’t been spared from his barbary.”
Mr. Fletcher followed his gaze, frowning. “Scars?”
“She’s been whipped. At least twice,” the duke said, and if he felt anything about that fact, it didn’t show in his tone or expression.
Mr. Fletcher made a sound that was torn between anger and outrage as he rose from his seat. I shrank away when he took a step toward me. Logically, I knew that he must have meant to comfort me, but in my current state of panic and undress, I couldn’t stand to be near a man so large.
My open fear and the duke’s restraining hand on his arm gave Mr. Fletcher pause, and he sat almost immediately back down. His gaze shuttered, brown eyes sorrowful. “My deepest apologies, my lady. What happened to you was…”
“Quite commonplace?” I said. My tone was venomous, the same ugly, bitter part of myself that hated my own twin rising up to choke me.
“Monstrous,” Mr. Fletcher said. He spoke the word like one accustomed to its real meaning might.
The duke waved a hand in my direction. “I’m guessing this isn’t the first such attack you’ve suffered?”
Still unable to meet his gaze, I turned my focus to the fire beyond him and shook my head.
“You see it sometimes,” he said. “In those who have experienced such trauma. My butler fought in the colonies when they were warring for independence. Loud bangs trigger similar breathing fits in him.”
The war had ended nigh on twenty years past. His butler still suffered attacks? Did that mean I might have to endure this crippling panic for the same length of time? Uncomfortable with this prospect and having trouble breathing again because of the memories that still threatened, I tried to sit up. I was forced to carefully wriggle my way into a seated position thanks to my state of undress.
My state of undress.
A slow, dawning realization struck me, of who had put me in said state, and what it could mean. I was a maiden. An unmarried young lady of noble birth. In a duke’s study. A duke who had just cut me out of my corset. I couldn’t have engineered a more opportune moment for extortion if I had spent months planning it. This was the perfect recipe for entrapment. And yet, knowing the duke’s reputation, I would be an utter fool for attempting to use it to my advantage. As skilled as I was at deception, political machinations and maneuverings were unfamiliar to me. A man with a reputation as dark as his would likely leave me to face my ruin alone rather than do the honorable thing and marry me. Perhaps I could appeal to some deeply buried empathetic side of him.
I met his gaze and let my true emotions play across my features, allowing him a glimpse of the desperate, terrified creature that lurked beneath the façade of good breeding I had meticulously cultivated.
“Your Grace, I’m sorry to beg this of you, but would you be willing to aid me this evening? I would avoid a scandal if I could, and…I can’t return to my father’s house. Ever. My brother has spoken of joining me in flight from him, but I won’t, in good consciousness, allow him to make such a sacrifice if there’s another alternative.”
The duke’s lips crooked up on one side, whether in amusement or disdain I couldn’t tell. “Are you asking me to set you up somewhere? To live out your life in impoverished obscurity far from the sphere of your father’s influence?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” I said, my voice barely rising above a shame-filled whisper.
“Rather than angle for the far more obvious and beneficial avenue of marriage via blackmail?”
“I would never be so foolish as to attempt to blackmail you, Your Grace.”
The duke and Mr. Fletcher looked at each other, sharing a long, silent exchange filled with an unspoken conversation that I wasn’t privy to.
After what felt like an age, the duke turned back to me. He shook his head, lips pressed into a hard line. They parted, briefly. “No.”
My heart sank, tears of frustration prickling the corner of my eyes. It was to be ruin after all.
“John,” Mr. Fletcher said. “Just tell h-”
The duke cut him off with an impatient gesture, his gaze burning into mine. “We’ll wed.”
I stared at him. “You…you can’t mean that, Your Grace.”
“Oh, but I do,” he said, leaning forward. “Much better to have someone such as yourself tucked close, within sight at all times. Out on the continent, my enemies might find and make use of you against me.”
Make use of me against him? His words were baffling. Why would his enemies have any interest in someone like me?
His full lips parted in a dangerous grin. “And wouldn’t it be much more satisfying to remain here in London? Think about it. You’d be close to your brother. Within your father’s sights and yet outside of his reach, elevated so high above his rank that you could ruin him if you chose to. Slowly. Using my influence to pull him apart piece by piece, dismantling his empire, souring every one of his political ambitions and business transactions.”
I clutched the blanket tighter around my chest, envisioning what he said, wanting it more than I had ever wanted anything else. Against my will, I felt a strange sort of kinship for the duke then. We were made of some similar materials, he and I. Beneath these fine clothes and gentile faces lurked dark, greedy, grasping, manipulative beings.
I shook my head against such thoughts. There would be too many innocent victims sacrificed on the altar of my vengeance if I moved against my father in such a way. Those he did business with. The commoners who lived upon his lands. My twin.
“Marcus,” I said. “What would that leave for my brother to inherit?”
The duke sat back and shrugged dismissively. “Empires can be rebuilt just as easily as they are torn asunder.”
God, the arrogance of the man. The power he must wield to speak this way.
“No,” I said.
His expression twisted into one of dark amusement. “No?”
“No. Too many others would be hurt. And I don’t want this,” I said, releasing the blanket to gesture between us. “Marriage. Children. A life spent ruled by a man. I want freedom. Just pay to send me away. Please.” My voice broke on the last word, and I bit my lip to hide its quivering. I sounded as desperate as I was, but I was past caring. I would get down on my knees and beg if that was what it took.
“John. Tell her,” Mr. Fletcher said.
The duke turned to regard the larger man for a moment. “As you will,” he said, then, to me, “Your brother, Marcus, he’s a sodomite.”
“He prefers men,” I said, reproof heavy in my tone.
“Myself as well. Henry here, specifically,” the duke said.
I clenched my jaw to keep it from dropping open. I hadn’t heard so much as a hint of a whisper of this, but now that I glanced between them, thought back over the past few moments, the way they had spoken to each other, looked at each other, I began to see it.
“There will be no children if we marry,” the duke continued. “You will be much left to your own devices, for I have no desire to rule over you, as you put it. I will simply ask that you aid me in one endeavor or another now and again.”
My mind reeled. I’d been facing ruin just moments before, and here was a duke, offering me a lifeline that I never would have anticipated.
I remained quiet for several minutes as I weighed my options against one another. No, I wouldn’t destroy my father, but I could use the threat of it to force him to do a great number of things. Keep far, far away from me, for a start. Increase Marcus’s allowance. Maybe even abdicate his title early. The possibilities were endless.
And I would be a duchess.
“Yes,” I said.
We were married in less than a month. Without a whiff of scandal, thanks to my new husband’s influence and reputation.
Only years later would we realize our folly. That the lies we had told, the truths we had kept hidden, would one day come back to haunt us. That the ruin we had staved off was a vicious, vindictive creature. We hadn’t truly escaped it. No, it had merely retreated, biding its time, gathering its strength. It would come for us again, and we would be wholly unprepared for its wrath when it did.
Copyright © 2020 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 book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.