Victoria fidgeted at her dressing table. She turned the telescope over and over in her hands, extending and contracting it, balancing it on one hand then the other. The room was silent as Skerrett worked without their usual conversation, the click of the extending mechanism the only sound in the room. Mrs Jenkins was occupied elsewhere in the palace and Dash slept soundly at the foot of the queen’s bed.
Growing tired of her fiddling, Victoria set the telescope down and asked, “Skerrett, tell me: can you keep a secret?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Skerrett, quizzically. She hesitated between removing pins and waited for the queen to continue.
“Good,” said the queen. “I need a co-conspirator, and you might be just the woman.”
“How may I help, ma’am?”
“I wish to borrow your dress, Skerrett.”
Skerrett dropped a pin in surprise. As she bent to pick it up, she asked, “My dress, ma’am? Whatever for?”
“Never you mind,” Victoria said. She did not mean to snap, but the defensiveness was a habit she could not break when she was questioned, even among trusted friends and members of her household.
“Of course, ma’am. I apologise. I…” Skerrett hesitated. “Shall I fetch a clean dress?”
“No, that one will do. We shall have to practice absolute discretion tonight. Give me that one, and you may have one of my nightgowns.” Victoria stood, undisturbed by how absurd she looked with half her hair unpinned and the rest still swept up. She retrieved a clean nightgown from a drawer and held it out to Skerrett.
“There is one further thing I need you to do,” said the queen, beginning to unpin her own hair.
“I need you to sleep in my bed.” She smiled, self-satisfied in her mischief, as Skerrett’s expression shifted from confused to scandalised and back again. “Now, Skerrett: your dress please.”
As Skerrett climbed into bed and settled with the covers around her middle, leaving a cautious foot’s distance between her feet and the sleeping Dash, she asked, “Forgive the impertinence, but are you sure about this, ma’am?”
“Yes, quite sure,” Victoria said. She checked her reflection in the mirror, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ears and pinching her cheeks for colour. Satisfied with her simple bun, the hairstyle of an unambitious housemaid, she turned back to Skerrett and asked, “Will anyone miss you upstairs?”
“No, ma’am, I shouldn’t think so. Mrs Jenkins has her own room and there’s no other assistant for me to share with.”
“Excellent,” Victoria said. She locked the door joining her room to Lehzen’s with a quiet click and moved to the gallery door. “Lock this door behind me,” she said sternly. “Allow no-one to enter, but if you should be discovered, do not worry, you may tell Lehzen I will be back by morning. When I return, I will knock five times altogether so you know it is me. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Skerrett frowned. “What do I do, if we’re discovered?”
“Say nothing. It won’t happen. Get a good night’s rest, Skerrett. Look after my Dash for me.”
Victoria slipped out onto the gallery without a candle and into the night.
Entering through the back door of Dover House after midnight, Victoria met no-one but a hall boy who would not have known the queen without her finery even if she were standing right before him.
The mile’s walk around the edge of St James’ Park had passed without incident. Nobody looked twice at a young woman in servants’ clothing hurrying between great London residences with envelope in hand. It was a delightful novelty to Victoria to truly go unseen in public. She understood now why some of her ancestors were so fond of venturing out incognito, although she had always imagined it as more of an illusion wilfully believed in by both sides, rather than a true deception like hers.
“I have an urgent message from Lady Portman,” she said to the hall boy who answered the back door, taking care to roughen her consonants and flatten her vowels. At the look on the boy’s face she cleared her throat and made a fresh attempt, with a little more subtlety to her modifications and an obliging smile. “It regards the queen.”
“I’ll take it to his lordship, miss,” the boy said, hand out for the missive.
“No!” Victoria said, clutching the envelope to her breast. She thought quickly. “No; that is, her ladyship instructed me to put it into his hands myself, and to wait for the reply.” She offered her most winning smile, not at all regal, and attempted to flatter her way in. “Would you be so kind as to direct me to him, sir?”
The boy stepped back and allowed Victoria to enter but left her far less room to pass than was really decent. He led her far enough into the house for her to recognise that Lord Melbourne was still up and in his study.
“Thank you,” she said at the end of the hall, offering the boy another smile. “I can find my way from here, and the reply might take some time. Go back to your bed, I will see myself out.”
“As you like, miss,” the boy said. “Mind you don't be shy about saying goodnight on your way out,” he added with a leer.
Victoria’s smile faltered, but she had dealt with other more frightening lasciviousness before with aplomb and saw him firmly on his way. When he rounded the corner and she heard the back stairs door shut behind him, Victoria knocked at the great oak door with light on the other side.
Victoria entered, shutting the door behind her with a quiet, final click.
Lord Melbourne was facing away from her, bent over his desk and writing at length. No doubt not expecting visitors again, he didn’t turn from his work. Victoria kept her place by the door, watching. This was quite a game they were playing tonight. She felt butterflies swell in her belly and her breath only came with greater effort. She felt a curious tranquility, as if she hadn’t a care in the world while in this room, this company, but also the sensation of balancing on a tightrope, swaying at height above the perilous streets of London. The possibility of a fall was terribly real. It was a strange mix of confidence in her success and irrepressible nerves that left her feeling giddy, like a girl after her first glass of champagne.
After a moment, Lord Melbourne set his pen down and looked up, stretching his neck and arms, but he did not turn. “What is it, man?”
“No man, Lord M,” said Victoria, coquettish and stepping into the centre of the room. She could not suppress her grin. She had to hold back a laugh when Lord Melbourne stood and spun to face her, a leaf or two of paper fluttering off the end of his desk.
He was just as underdressed as the last time she had visited him unannounced in shirtsleeves and sans neckwear. Victoria’s eyes wandered up his arms, over his shoulders and collarbone and up his neck to his eyes. She took a very deep breath.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing here, ma’am?” he asked, shrugging on the jacket that had been slung over the back of his chair. “Not some emergency, I hope?”
“I came to see you, of course.” She laughed at his expression. “Do not look so alarmed, I took care that no-one should know me or notice my absence.”
“We have discussed this before, ma’am,” he said, pulling over a chair for her to sit in. “Your presence here cannot entirely be disguised. You must have been seen by at least one member of my household, unless they are entirely shirking their duties, and you seem to be in the confidence of at least one of yours.” He gestured at her dress as he sat in his own chair, turned to face hers. “What does Your Majesty propose by this visit?”
Now, sat before him with hands folded in her lap, Victoria’s words failed her. “You said I must please myself,” she said. She thought she had – could – overcome this shyness, but it persisted. “I…”
“Perhaps it is best that we get you home, ma’am, before any more damage can be done.”
“Damage?” Victoria said. Sudden ire made her words flow more easily, aimed at that implied distrust of her understanding, her ability to strategize and manage risks and achieve her own ends. Would any man ever trust her to know her own mind, or believe her capable of making her own decisions? “I trust my confidante to keep my secrets and your boy had no clue of who he was dealing with - he made that very clear. What little damage there may be will have already been done; no more can come of my spending an hour or two here with you. Besides, I am not afraid of the consequences.”
“You should be. I am.”
“But I am not,” she insisted. “I wished to enjoy your company for a little while in complete privacy, and I have arranged things just so, don't you think? Do you truly mean to deprive me of what I want most and to cast me out onto the street at this late hour, when I have gone to such effort?”
“No, ma’am, but--”
“No buts.” Victoria leaned forwards. She reached out a hand and ever so carefully placed it on his knee, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “I am where I most wish to be in the world. Are you following my meaning, Lord M?”
“I… You wish to present this as a fait accompli to your mother and your privy council then? The world doesn’t work that way, ma’am. Overlooking the many other considerations, this could be construed as treason.”
“That is debatable,” she said. “No, I have relinquished my hopes in that area; you convinced me. Rather… I would keep this private. No-one ever need know. I know I cannot have this happiness for ever but, I thought, perhaps I may have a taste?”
He stood, shoving the chair back with a squawk and dislodging Victoria’s hand. He paced as Victoria watched him. For all she had been warned he was a disreputable man, he had been very cautious with her honour. She was not quite certain he understood what she was implying, and she knew she was too much a lady and a queen to outright ask.
“If you will not accept my heart,” she tried, as bold as she dared, standing herself. “Perhaps I may offer something else? A different gift?”
From across the room, he wheeled around to face her. “That certainly is treason.”
Victoria thought she appeared outwardly tranquil, regal, but she had to fold her hands together to steady them. “Is that your only concern, sir?”
“My only concern? No, but it does weigh rather heavily, ma’am.”
“And if I insist? Surely, in this most private of matters, I may insist?”
“I cannot possibly dissuade you, can I?”
“No, Lord M, not with arguments about politics or the constitution. Not tonight. If you ask me to leave for your sake and yours alone, I will, but not for any other consideration. And I will know if you are not telling the truth.” She crossed the room and locked eyes with him. They did not touch, although she could feel the heat of him from standing so close. “So, tell me: do you desire that I leave?”
He was the first to look away and Victoria knew she had won.
“Very well,” he said after a moment, taking her hands. “May I propose a compromise, Your Majesty?”
“Victoria here, please.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and Victoria, in spite of the gravity of the moment, raised her eyes to the heavens. She thought that perhaps that had been his aim - to lighten the mood where it had been heavy with indecision. It was one of his gifts, to brighten the darkest moments of her days.
“What is your compromise, sir?” she asked. “I am eager to hear it.”
“You offer me something I cannot accept–”
Victoria tried to interject, but he cut her off and continued.
“No. Instead, I will give you something. Do you trust me?”
“Wholeheartedly,” she said, heart racing with anticipation of claiming her prize. Until that moment, she realised, she had not truly thought this would work.
“Good.” He grasped her by the waist and lifted her easily onto the desk. “Up you go.” And then, hands still on her waist, he kissed her.
Victoria’s eyes drifted closed as his lips brushed over hers once, twice. She leaned into the kiss, splaying her hands on his back and tried to match him as the kiss deepened.
“Yes,” she breathed as they broke apart for air. She felt dizzy with the heat and scent of him, the closeness and anticipation. Still light-headed, she kissed him again and found it much easier the second time, less foreign and more sensual.
After a moment, she felt Lord Melbourne’s unoccupied hand drawing up her skirts and petticoats, lifting them over her knees and up to her waist, his hand slipping underneath into the gap in her drawers. Something shot through her, like lightning through her body from her heart to his hand skimming up her inner thigh. She gasped and broke the kiss, burying her face in his shoulder when she could not focus on his lips. She was driven to distraction by his hand, light fingertips stroking back and forth.
“Look at me,” he gasped. Victoria raised her head and he pressed their foreheads together, panting as his fingers moved up and brushed her entrance. One warm finger pressed tantalisingly inside her, barely an inch, and she shivered all over.
Victoria’s eyes fluttered closed. She couldn’t help it; it was all too much.
With one more bruising kiss, he sank to his knees between hers. Somehow, he telegraphed his intentions well enough that Victoria knew what he meant to do. As the image flashed through her mind, she fell back onto her elbows on his desk and moaned, a sound far beneath the dignity of a queen.
When his mouth touched between her legs, pressing a kiss to her inner thigh, she keened at the shocking unfamiliarity and delight, hand grasping at the edge of the desk.
“Hush,” he said, pulling away for a moment. “Or you’ll wake the household and we shall have to stop.”
Victoria shivered at the very thought of being caught. Perhaps it would not be such a tragedy; if nothing else, it increased the likeliness of them doing this again if honour trumped politics and demanded marriage.
When she felt his tongue between her folds, her heart nearly stopped. Her free hand buried itself in his hair as his tongue lapped upwards to a part of her that sang when he touched it. She bit her lip hard to stay quiet.
It was such a strangely intimate thing; the intensity of it made her certain of her continued regard for him. Perhaps he would not accept it, but her Lord M had her heart firmly in the palms of his hands. She thought only of him, of the daydream of doing this again often and at their leisure, of somehow returning his attentions, until the rising waves of pleasure began to overwhelm her and she felt as though she was shattering. With little warning, everything reached a crescendo. Her hips lurched against Lord M’s bruising grip and she trembled all over, sobbing out his name as the pleasure washed over her. She lay there, gasping for breath against the bounds of her corset, until he kissed her damp thigh and pulled away.
Standing up between her legs, he helped Victoria up and together they attempted to right her skirts again between kisses, with little success.
“And now we must get you home,” Lord Melbourne said, when a basic standard of decency had been reached between them.
“What? Already? Surely not.” Victoria stood and shook out her skirts and petticoats for herself until they were arranged properly. She thought back to her reveries on his desk. “Surely there must be, I think, some way to… reciprocate? It is only fair.”
“You'll be the death of me, ma’am.” He kissed her again, brief and sweet, pressing their foreheads together again. Victoria closed her eyes to savour such closeness, a superior touch to the occasional brush of hands they were allowed in public. “Won't you take pity on a foolish old man and allow him to merely walk you home? That is all I could desire.”
“Nonsense, you're not old at all, although I may agree with you being a fool.” With newfound bold confidence, she brushed one hand up the front of his trousers, to where instinct and coarse common knowledge told her his pleasure might be found. She found a hardness there and drew a gasp from him when she ran her hand over it. She repeated the motion. “Tell me what to do.”
With one of his hands to guide her, Victoria fumbled with the buttons of his trousers until they were open, and then with the button and ties of his drawers until he was bare and hot in her hand.
They kissed, just gentle, distracted brushes of lips, as his hand guided hers in strength and speed. After a minute, Victoria had grasped the essentials and was determined to unravel the remaining mysteries for herself, brushing the guiding hand away so she could move as she pleased. She wrapped her free hand around his neck and kissed him deeper as she experimented, testing new ways to draw those huffs and grunts from his throat.
“Oh, Victoria …”
A thrill shot through her at the sound of her name so intimately used. She twisted her wrist just so again - nobody had ever accused her of being slow-witted - and was rewarded with his groaning her name again into her shoulder, then he shuddered and stilled and Victoria felt a damp stickiness on her hand between them. They panted against each other.
“Oh, how I should like to do that again,” she sighed. She wiped her hand on his trousers, which were quite beyond saving and fit only for an immediate trip to the laundry. Her dress had been spared the worst of it and she borrowed an obliging handkerchief to make herself presentable.
“But we cannot,” he said, cupping her cheek. “You do see that?”
“Yes,” she agreed. She wrapped her arms around his back and held on, face pressed into his chest. She closed her eyes against the world, aching with her wish for the moment to last.
Lord Melbourne embraced her back and pressed a gentle kiss into her hair.
“We really must get you home now,” Lord Melbourne said, pushing her away to arm’s length. “No more excuses, ma’am. Come.”
Charmed as she was by his unprecedented disarray and continuing protection of her honour, she refused his company for the return journey on the grounds that he could not be seen in public in such a state, and that she would attract less attention walking alone. "If you insist," she said, "I will allow you to see me to the door but no further.”
He acquiesced and let Victoria out through one of the family’s doors to the garden rather than necessitating her exit through the kitchens. On the threshold, she stretched up for one last kiss, but could not find any words.
Outside in the cold, Victoria wrapped her arms around herself for warmth and made her way back to the road, and to real life and her duty.
Perhaps, if another man could set her aflame like that, she would marry. Perhaps it was true that she could have companions, even on occasion enjoy such pleasures as those, but she knew now that Lord Melbourne was right about it all. She would be lonely in a cold spinster’s bed. She had ignored the warnings and begun to wander, headstrong, down this path not supposed to be taken. She had been curious to see where it might lead, and instead she found herself caught in the brambles of unwelcome knowledge and complications, with a crack in her heart. Now, before it broke entirely, she turned back onto the path laid out before her since her birth.
Eyes resolutely dry, she refused to look back.