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Men who know what they want and have no compunction about disciplining young ladies who misbehave are sexy – but this is especially true when it comes to heroes of times past. That’s why we put together six of our best historical tales, taking you on a romantic and suspense-filled journey through medieval, Regency and Victorian England and Scotland. This set includes the following previously published titles:
Lord Barrington’s Minx by Alyssa Bailey
Morgan has loved free-spirited Amelia since their childhood, but now as adults, he must convince her that true happiness and freedom lies in becoming his wife and submitting to his strict but loving rules.
The Gardener by Juliette Banks
Seeing the gardener, Barnes, swimming naked makes Kate's pulse race. Will she let her heart rule her head and break Society's rules?
Sir Thomas’s Bride by Vanessa Brooks
As a Georgian gentleman, Sir Thomas Wiggington expects to be master within his own home – after all, everyone knows that an Englishman’s home is his castle. However, when he weds Lady Margaret Beauchamp, it appears that she has other ideas about who should be in charge...
Renaud by Maryse Dawson
Can the vanquished ever forgive, yet alone find true love? A rebellious Saxon maiden is soon to find out when she is ordered to marry a Norman knight.
Hold Fast by Adrienne Blake
Two Scottish clans, the McDonalds and the McLeods, have been at war for so long that nobody even really remembers how the feud started. When Bonnie McDonald and Rory McLeod fall in love, therefore, there is no way they can be together. Or is there?
The Incorrigible Annabelle Spencer by Louise Taylor
Finding herself over a handsome stranger's knee on a train leads to a lot of fun at a country house party for the incorrigible Annabelle Spencer.
Publisher’s Note: Some of the stories in this set include explicit sexual themes and elements of domestic discipline and power exchange.
Lord Barrington’s Minx
By Alyssa Bailey
The household was more lively this morning as was often the case when His Grace and the Marquess’ young ladies were let free in the drawing room. Blackwell Knoll’s very capable and experienced butler brought in tea and had to stifle an ill-advised smile.
“I absolutely do not accept that there is no other gentleman of consequence with which to spend one’s time,” exclaimed Lady Amelia to her younger sister, Lady Patience, and her friend, Lady Caroline.
Caroline responded quite calmly. “I am afraid, my dear Amelia, this season will be full of nothing but the Earl of Chandler. I have heard his mother is quite tired of his movements amongst the edges of society this last summer. She rebuffed his refusal to even put in an appearance at all for the little season because it is below him. Still, he is considered a bit of a rogue and you know how that excites the young ladies and their mamas.”
Patience, as always, personified her name by sitting and being more of an observer and speaking carefully, preferring to bide her time before adding to conversations.
Finally she added, “I believe I will wait and see what actually plays out after the first few evenings in London. I do not believe speculation is the best way to address gossip. I prefer to see the proof of things.” Patience continued to sip her tea. “Besides,” she added calmly but with a bit of excitement, “have you not found that often the truth is infinitely more interesting?”
“Well,” ended Caroline with a very unladylike sniff, “I am sure I understood that the Marquess is done with his perceived misdeeds and will be demanding he wed come year’s end.” Lady Caroline, the Duke of Rossington’s eldest daughter, was the third child of the Duke. She had an eldest brother, known to his friends as Barrington, and then came carefree, but gentle, Nathaniel and youngest was 13-year-old Hannah, who was coddled by all.
All three young women sat silent for a few moments, digesting their biscuits and that interesting thought.
Patience spoke wistfully, as much to herself as to her companions, “I do wish I would be allowed to come out with you two this year. But Mama says it just won’t do for both of her daughters to be presented together and Father…” she let her sentence end without completing the thought aloud.
“And Father is having trouble with me presenting this year. However, Mama did say you could probably slide into the little season in the fall. So do not despair, my dear. I am sure it will work out famously and Caroline and I will give you all the cues necessary to make your first season a success.”
“Oh yes, it will be just the thing for us to find out all the most excellent bits and let you in on them. That will make it ever so easy for you to know who to set your sights on and who to avoid. That way, you will not waste time on those who are unsuitable,” chimed in Caroline.
“Well, I am a bit nervous about the whole affair of putting one’s self on exhibit for gentlemen to ogle and decide if you will do or not. I fear I am a bit like I am headed for the London meat market to be put on display like the Christmas goose.” The dismay and the slight irritation could be heard in Amelia’s voice.
“Ah, did you hear my sister, Barrington? Amelia has decided we are to be butchers, I see,” declared Blaine, Earl of Clarendon, as he strode with purpose and ownership into the room. While the only male heir to their father’s title and estate proper, which was entailed, Blaine currently enjoyed the traditional courtesy use of his father’s next highest title. It, in fact, was an Earl in more than the name, Earl of Clarendon. This had made many a husband-seeking mama anxious for his good glance and name on their daughter’s announcement card. At four and twenty, he was not at all ready to give up the carefree life of a single man and therefore agreed with Amelia for different, more personal, reasons than his sister.
She was distressed over beginning her presentation to court and having a season. Blaine agreed that were it for that reason alone, he still would not look forward to the next few months. He would need to keep an eye on his sister’s reputation, thereby taking away from his more desired activities. Pursuits that took him away from the fetés and parlor talk. However, in response to that event it would surely make it more difficult for him to avoid those husband seeking young women and their mamas now that they would have Amelia to innocently pave their way.
Of the three children of the Marquess of Lammton, Blaine was the eldest. An unsuccessful pregnancy came two years after his birth. Amelia was born four years later, with Patience coming on her heels eighteen months following, to complete the family. Patience had been well named, being the last in the line; she often trailed after the older children, both siblings, and friends. She did have a number of close cousins and friends, but being the youngest was often a trying event.
Amelia, whose name indicated she did the work of the Lord, was not often thought of in a pious way. She was most headstrong of the three young women having tea in the Marquess’ parlor that day, and indeed, of the immediate female peers of her acquaintance. One would never call the Marquess’ daughter a hoyden. Nor did she truly meet that distasteful description. However, she had often given reason for a sharp intake of breath and cause for scolding from first the nurse, then the nanny and finally the tutor.
She was also the eldest of the three young tea companions having just celebrated her eighteenth birthday before Christmas. Her sister, Patience, was soon to be seventeen in the early summer. However, it was too late to be presented reasonably and Father was not a man to present his girls early. He enjoyed his children around him, even though he was often gone or cloistered away with his different business and estate managers.
“I am to be a butcher now, is it, my Lady Blackwell? I surely hope that, if it is to be the case, there are some very appetizing selections for me to carve up. I shall await your nod when we attend functions so that you will be my approval gauge. You may keep me from choosing too tender of a morsel,” teased Caroline’s eldest brother, Lord Morgan Barrington, otherwise referred to by his friends as Barrington. His eyes twinkled with mirth and he waited to see if Amelia would take the bait he laid out for her. He was not disappointed.
“Or too tough a morsel, my friend,” added Blaine, which was acknowledged with a nod.
“I assure you, my lord, I will certainly keep my eyes attuned to the choices available. I shall carefully indicate those that would be tough enough for your wolfish teeth and carving knife. And those yet too tender to withstand them,” replied Amelia with a snap in her tone and a satisfied smile, as she sipped her tea that was growing cold.
Barrington laughed aloud as he walked over to receive the liquid refreshment Blaine offered him.
“We shall see who decides for whom, my dear Amelia.” Turning to Blaine, Barrington stated, “There may be some entertainment, after all, this season. I believe I may look forward to this year.” To which, Blaine groaned.
Changing the subject, for Caroline was never one to allow her brother the limelight exclusively when he was in the room, she entered the conversation again. Barrington often did that, claimed the attention, especially when Amelia was with her, so she quickly filled the intervening lag in conversation with a resumption of the discussion of the recalcitrant Earl of Chandler. She was unprepared for the resulting issues it presented.
“Clarendon, do you know if Nathaniel has an acquaintance by the name of the Earl of Chandler?” The contrived innocence with which she spoke, which she felt was a nonchalant manner, entirely missed its mark when both her brother and Barrington paused noticeably.
“Of course he knows him,” snapped Barrington. “We are all aware of him, but that does not mean any of you should consider getting to know him yourselves.”
Clarendon continued, “His reputation is very suspect and I cannot allow either of you to stand up with him for anything more than a passing dance the whole of the season. I would actually say with confidence that Father would not be at all agreeable to Amelia giving him leave to call on her. What say you, Barrington, how would His Grace look upon receiving Chandler in his home, on a morning call to Caroline?”
In response, there was a stern tone in Lord Barrington’s voice. Amelia saw his manner change to portray the man who would one day take over the vast responsibilities of his father, the Duke of Rossington. His tone was dead quiet, without a hint of the playfulness that it had possessed only moments before. Moreover, with that change, the atmosphere seemed to be stilled and the air appeared to be sucked out of the room.
“That unfortunate man has made, and continues to make, unsavory choices that would have been acceptable if kept amongst his friends. He, however, has chosen to take it out of that realm on no less than two occasions. Caroline, you will not speak to the Earl of Chandler nor give him any encouragement to speak with you. Is that understood?”
Caroline, having grown up with her brother who was her senior by nine years, knew when to challenge him and when to meekly agree. This was one of the agreeing times.
“Yes, Barrington,” Caroline replied with a bit of a pout and showing great interest in her teacup and the contents it once held.
Seemingly satisfied with that response, Barrington turned to look at Amelia, who pretended to busy herself with rearranging the tea tray. She daren’t look up for she knew the look he was casting her way, having been the recipient of that look many a day. She shivered.
“Amelia?” asked Barrington in an expectant tone.
Barrington could not even entertain the notion of Amelia being trolled for, or worse, accosted, by the likes of Chandler. Amelia had held a special place in his heart almost since her birth and his protective instincts were no less strong for her than for his own sisters. Truth be known, he loved his sisters dearly, but he adored Amelia, making his demands of her all the more urgent.
Amelia knew what he was expecting from her, agreement as he had gotten from Caroline. But even though Barrington had protected her as a younger child, and both Barrington and Nathaniel shared the brothering at times with Blaine, that had been years ago, when being nearly nine years older was a significant difference. Now, it did not carry the same weight. Besides, she was about to be presented to court. Soon to be one of the young ladies who were expected to look and possibly take a husband, so it was certainly past time for Barrington to relinquish that role with her.
She pointedly ignored Barrington’s question hanging in the air. She decisively looked past him to Blaine, silently asking him to take up this gauntlet for her as he had done so many times before in his role of brother protector supreme. What she had neglected to remember was that Blaine, with few exceptions, always stood on the side of Barrington, but surely even Blaine could see how ludicrous this was.
To her chagrin, she watched Blaine slightly shrug his shoulders in a manner that said this battle was hers to fight. In fact, he appeared to be more apt to back Barrington than back his sister and had done so the last few years. Almost as though there was an unwritten agreement that Barrington was to bear more responsibility for Amelia than Blaine, as though Blaine had given her over to Barrington somehow. However, that was ridiculous and not to be supported.
Still and all, having thought it unsupported at first, Amelia did acknowledge Barrington often had stepped into the way to allow her to continue her more carefree existence. He shielded her behaviors longer than was technically considered proper, and how she loved that he did that for her. Did she not owe him some allegiance and some high-handed allowances as payment for the protection he had afforded her for this long?
In dismay, she looked back at Barrington, who stood, legs slightly apart, arms crossed, expectantly waiting for her response. In answer to her silence, he cocked his head ever so slightly, tipped it forward just a bit, and raised one eyebrow. Oh, the devil take him, he really did look striking standing there, making her feel the heat rush into her cheeks. She felt even more off balance because she was sure her hot flush would be connected with his demand of obedience. She did not have time to wonder if that was a better alternative than the real reason. Because of the rising color and heat infusing her face, her ire rose with it, taking away what might have been a graceful escape.
How infuriating! She knew she was rather trapped, as she did not want to acquiesce and meekly agree as Caroline did, that was just not Amelia, and Barrington knew it well. She avoided absolutes and edicts from her father at all costs. Yet here she was, because of Caroline’s insistence that the subject of her interest be brought up again, in the exact situation she abhorred, a frontal attack. In addition, anger at her brother for allowing this standoff, in what was turning into a very uncomfortable silence even though it was a mere moment or two, certainly made it worse. Finally, Amelia was angry with herself that she was not clever enough to charm her way out of this situation or smooth over the rough spot. She decided to just charge right into battle hoping she would not be a casualty.
Patience’s eyes were quite round and she knew Amelia was more than capable of giving the Marquess a set down, however, she felt Amelia was trying to not do that and still save face. Patience, ever observant, was sensing that the tension in the room was not merely because Lord Barrington was trying to elicit Amelia’s agreement to follow his command. For Patience felt it was no less of a command than if her father had stated it. She knew it was because there was an unspoken challenge offered and accepted. It had always been the way between Amelia and Barrington for as long as Patience had taken notice.
There had always been a strong kinship between Barrington and Amelia, and she had noticed the change in relationship most recently, when Barrington seemed to insinuate himself, unfettered, into Amelia’s daily life. Silently, she wished her sister good luck, for if the tables were turned, she did not believe she would have done more than Caroline had done and meekly submitted. Patience was so deep in contemplative thought; she was a bit startled when Amelia began to speak.
“Really, my Lord Barrington, do you think I am so addlebrained as to not steer clear of men with less than stellar reputations? While I have been known to step over the lines of what would be considered conventional propriety at home, I would not do so in society, nor would I submit myself to speculation. I am insulted that you deem it necessary to insinuate such a character flaw in myself.”
Amelia then held her breath because she knew she was countering his challenge with a tactic of her own. Social propriety demanded that one never impugn another’s character openly without verified cause and she knew Barrington to be a gentleman.
Barrington continued to stand for a few seconds, seeming to decide his response, and for a moment, Amelia felt her words might not satisfy him. It began to appear as though he was quite ready to engage in a full frontal attack, but then he relaxed his stance and his face softened a bit. Finally, he spoke with the authority her father used when she had crossed the lines of acceptability but did not want to truly chastise her. Her father, as well as Barrington, would, however, want her to understand he knew what she had done and that it was not acceptable. Chastisement was possible at a later date. Her father’s chastisement was always slight, if not forgotten entirely. Barrington’s was always to make a point and he always made it.
Speaking with quiet intention, Lord Barrington responded, “Be assured, Lady Amelia, you will not find it pleasant if you disregard my words.”
Amelia had a moment of trepidation that did not go unnoticed by Barrington before it appeared to vanish. It was enough for him to know she felt the future might include his chastisement, which she knowingly earned. Then after another long moment of intense meaning being communicated in his eyes, enough to cause Amelia to experience another little shiver of understanding and an involuntary clenching of her hindquarters, she debated if she should respond. It was then she gave him a moment of submission in the casting of her eyes downward, which changed his manner to one of satisfied ease.
With an almost imperceivable nod of the head, as in acceptance of her submission, he smoothly began to gather his sister for the return home. He continued bantering with Patience, who seemed visibly relieved, which seemed to further amuse Barrington. Blaine appeared unaffected by any of the exchange, almost as if he expected no less. Amelia wondered what she had expected. She felt the demand of submission from Barrington as though he had voiced the desire, and she had shown a level of submission which seemed to please him. She was confused and perturbed by her almost uncontrolled response to his dominance. Why did relationships have to complicate as one aged?
As the Marquess’ offspring gathered at the foyer door awaiting their guests’ outer cloaks to appear, for the weather had not yet warmed, Patience chimed in a request.
“I hope that you bring Hannah next time, Caroline. She has begun to be great fun now that she is turned thirteen.”
Caroline agreed to make sure to add her to the group next time they paid a visit.
Amelia added, with a bit of maliciousness, still smarting from the earlier conversation with Barrington, “Yes, and try to bring your more agreeable brother next time, Caroline.”
To which simultaneously, Barrington smiled, Caroline giggled, Blaine exclaimed her name and a large hand touched the small of her back making Amelia stiffen and her eyes flew wide open in recognition.
That hand was her father’s and he spoke firmly and quietly in that strongly intense, deep voice that was so familiar to her.
“I am sure my daughter does not mean to insult you, Lord Barrington. I must not have taken her in hand enough when she was a child as I fear she is not quite tame.”
To which Amelia began to protest, but felt her father’s warm, and yet stern, hand still on her back increase slightly in pressure. That was a sure indication that his manner was relaxed, but his words were resolute. It also held the clearly communicated threat of ‘taming’ if she did not immediately mend the situation.
“You are right, Father. Please accept my apology, Lord Barrington, for I was improper,” and she bowed her head in submission accompanied by a minute curtsey.
Her words and manner were appropriate, but her eyes, which her father could not see but could sense, were ablaze with anger. Barrington had done it to her twice. Sure, it was really her fault for not checking the corridors first before speaking, and more for speaking out of bounds of what was deemed proper, but what was done was done.
Beside her, Lord Blackwell, the Marquess of Lammton, was exhibiting a twitch at the corners of his mouth because he knew what this was costing his daughter. He also knew she needed to learn to rein in her tongue more often. This would be especially critical as in a month she would need to be on her best behavior for an extended period. He knew that Barrington and Amelia had a special relationship and wondered if Amelia knew it to be so, as it was obvious to his Lordship that Barrington knew it.
However, what she did see, as Barrington was taking his leave after putting his sister into one of the family coaches, was the answering twinge of his lips.
With laughter in his eye as he bowed elegantly, he said, “All is forgiven, my lady.”
He then gave a bow to Patience, who had to bite her lip to keep from giggling, a nod of his head to the Marquess and Blaine, before he stepped inside the coach and they pulled away.
The door was closed and Amelia sighed and leaned against her sire and said, “I am truly sorry Father, but he can be so trying at times.”
To which both of Amelia's siblings, knowing there to be a parental lecture on its way, quickly found another place to be out of earshot of their sister and father.
“Hmmm,” was her father’s response, allowing her to continue unimpeded by further comment.
“Do you know that he actually demanded that I all but give the cut direct to a gentleman when we go to London?” Amelia’s ire was rising and her color heightening to the level of her earlier indignation and she could hear it in her voice; so could her father and he merely rubbed her back slightly.
“And who, pray tell, is this gentleman?” asked the Marquess expectantly, as he guided his daughter down the great hallway to his library.
Amelia stopped short for a second because she suddenly worried that she would get the same reaction from her father as Barrington had given. However, her father would not allow her to respond the way she did with Barrington, and it appeared as though nothing would do for her sire but for her to give the Marquess his name. She braced for the response.
“The Earl of Chandler.” She waited for his reaction.
For, even as an adult, she was sure her sire would demonstrate his displeasure or make a decidedly sharp point on her sit-upon if needed, should he be displeased.
“I see. And what is it that Lord Barrington said to you?”
The change from familiar to formal in reference to Barrington was not lost on Amelia. Possibly her father was irritated at him, thinking him impertinent, but maybe he was giving her the indication that there should be more deference paid to him, she did not know, but tell she must.
“Well, actually, he instructed Caroline that she was not to attend to Lord Chandler at all and to not spare any time with the Earl, nor was she to encourage him in any way.”
“And what was Caroline’s response?”
“She agreed. Which is fine if he wants to warn his sister, she belongs to him as his sister, but I do not. When he turned to me, expecting me to agree as easily, I...I told him that I was not so addlebrained as to risk my reputation on any man.”
“I am relieved to hear that—you put my mind at ease. Continue.” The Marquess had to work hard at keeping the amusement out of his voice and off his face, but his eyes betrayed him.
“And I thought he was going to be angry, but then he just said I would be sorry if I did not heed him, whatever that was to mean. So I had good reason to wish him gone, and to send his brother next time, did I not, Father?” Amelia finished a bit breathless, as though she had run through the moors.
Her father did not answer for a moment, just resumed rubbing her back. When he spoke, it was in that quiet strong voice that she had always been comforted by.
“I think that the Marquess has always treated you as a younger sister and it is difficult for him to do otherwise now. He has been your Lord Protector, alongside Blaine, for the whole of your life. I assume that Blaine had no response in all of this?” The Marquess nodded when she said he did not.
“Then I must assume that Blaine agreed and did not consider Lord Barrington was out of order. I do not know much of this Earl of Chandler, but what I have heard has not always pleased me. I would agree that you have a good head, but that is not always enough. Your mother will fill you in on those things, but let me say that because of his care over you for the whole of your life, I would heed his words and do not be angry. You will need to lean on him, Nathaniel, and Blaine for the season to help you keep that pristine reputation you have now. At times, you can be too outspoken for your own good, Amelia. So, for your sake, and my peace of mind, will you try to heed their advice when offered, in whatever manner they offer it, and not overreact? They have had more experience and know more things, things you should never know about, so if I trust them, will you?”
“I do trust them, Father, I just don’t like to be told what to do. Nevertheless, I will promise to do my best to heed their advice, no matter how difficult that is or how it is given.”
The Marquess hugged his daughter, kissed the top of her head, and sent her upstairs while he continued back to his study to work.
By Juliette Banks
Surrey, England, 1804
Kate squeezed under the overhanging branches of the laurel bush until she was hidden from the sight of anyone passing by. She wanted to see, but not to be seen. She fervently hoped that Barnes, the gardener, would walk past today, and if she was fortunate, he might even stop nearby. The fact that she had waited for three consecutive days and had not seen anyone pass, let alone the attractive man who had worked in her father's garden for the past year, did not deter her. Surely, he would have to pass this way at some time during the afternoon? All she had to do was wait and her patients would be rewarded.
Today she was in luck. After just twenty minutes of a rather boring wait on a hot, summer's afternoon, she heard the distinctive noise of the squeaky wheelbarrow that Barnes used all the time to carry his tools and plants coming her way. She gently pushed aside a couple of leaves and peered through the small gap, her heart beating furiously in her chest for fear of being caught. All she wanted to do was to look at him. She would be mortified if he, or anyone else, caught her doing that.
The squeaking barrow suddenly stopped just feet from the laurel bush and Kate held her breath, lest she be heard. She saw Barnes take a swig from a bottle of water he was carrying and then wipe his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt. He had his back to her and even though he wore a shirt, Kate could see the ripple of his muscles as he raised and lowered the glass bottle, and it caused a shiver to run down her spine. That man was too darned good looking for his own good.
Kate knew that she would be missed by now and if she didn't get back to the house soon she would be in trouble. But as long as Barnes remained stationery just feet away from her there was no way that she could move, without the humiliation of being caught in her undercover observations.
Barnes turned towards the laurel bush and for a moment, Kate thought that he had seen her. His eyes seemed to bore straight into hers for a second or two, before they moved away and towards someone shouting from the big lawn in front of the house.
"Catherine, Catherine, where are you? Come here, you tiresome girl."
Kate recognized the voice of her aunt as it came closer to the shrubbery where Kate was hiding.
"Ah, Barnes, have you seen Miss Winters," her aunt asked. "I've been searching for her everywhere."
"No Madam, I've not seen her today at all. Perhaps she is in the field at the back of the house. There is a new foal and I saw her looking at it yesterday. A pretty little thing it is, and Miss Winters seemed quite taken with it."
"Very well, I will look there. If you see her, Barnes, please tell her to come back to the house at once. Her uncle is most displeased with her."
All went quiet as Kate's aunt left the shrubbery and headed towards the back of the house. There was silence for a moment—broken when the gardener spoke aloud. "You can come out now, Miss. Your aunt has left."
Kate froze. Barnes had seen her there after all. Now she had to face the humiliation of walking out in front of him. She pushed aside the branches of the laurel and stepped out into the open in front of the gardener, trying, but failing, to look nonchalant, as though she had a very good reason to be lurking in the bushes. He had an amused expression on his face.
"Did you like what you saw?"
Kate was stung into a reply as the man clearly thought she was there to spy on him—which she was, of course. But no need to let him know that. "I don't know what you mean. I was merely trying to get away from my aunt."
"Of course you were, Miss. I know you wouldn't tell me any untruths, because we all know the penalty for that, don't we?"
Kate's face registered the confusion that she felt. She should have pushed past him and ignored his remark but something within her wouldn't let the matter drop. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "And what penalty is that, Barnes?"
"Well I might have to put you across my knee for a spanking, Miss, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"
Though he spoke it as a question, Kate knew that it was a statement of intent. The thought of being spanked by Barnes disturbed her and gave her a strange feeling in her belly. She wanted desperately to escape and return to the safety of the house before the handsome young gardener could disturb her equilibrium any more than it was already. She ignored Barnes' question and looked for a way forward.
The way that he had positioned the wheelbarrow left her with the choice of walking past him in a small gap between him and the bush, or going back into the bush and coming out of the opposite side, which would have made her look foolish. She stepped in the narrow space at the exact moment as Barnes turned. She found herself inches from his chest, her forward passage blocked.
"Excuse me, Barnes, I need to get back to the house. Would you please step aside?" She could feel her heart beating rapidly at the close proximity of the handsome man blocking her path, and noticed a small trickle of sweat going down the open collar of Barnes' shirt. She had a sudden urge to stick her tongue out and lick the trickle of sweat before it dropped out of sight. How foolish, how foolish, she chided herself. Why did I let myself get caught like this? She waited for Barnes to step aside for her.
As he did so, his face came close and a quiet voice whispered into her ear. "I think you did like what you saw. Next time I will take my shirt off for you if you like."
Kate's face went red and she pushed past the gardener and hurried across the lawn towards the house, furious both with herself and with Barnes for being so familiar. But isn't that what I want—for this man to be familiar with me? A hot flush ran over her entire body as very strange feeling took root deep in her belly. How did the man know she was there? Had he seen her on previous occasions when she had gone into the garden with the express purpose of seeing him?
As Kate entered the front hallway, she met Mrs. Colefax, the housekeeper.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Winters. Your aunt has been looking all over for you. Your uncle wants to speak with you. He is in the Library."
Kate reluctantly climbed the stairs and along the corridor that led to where her uncle awaited her. She wondered what she had done now. Was she in trouble again? It seemed as though she was always in trouble since she had come to live with her uncle and aunt a month ago. It didn't matter what she did or said, she was always in their bad books. It hadn't been so bad when she had come home from boarding school over holidays, but now that she had finished school and this was her permanent home, she couldn't seem to do anything right.
Kate knocked on the Library door and waited for her uncle to tell her to come in. She had made the mistake of walking straight in once and got a severe telling off for not knocking.
"Come." Her uncle was often a little brusque with his instructions.
She pushed the door open and walked into the room and paused in front of the desk where her uncle was writing. "You wanted me, Uncle Henry?"
Her uncle did not immediately reply and Kate stood and waited for his response. After what seemed an eternity, but was probably only ten seconds, Henry Winters put down his pen and looked up from his desk. He did not direct Kate to sit down, which she considered rather ominous.
"Where have you been? Your aunt tells me that she can never find you when she wants you." He didn't wait for Kate to reply, but carried on speaking. "As you know, your father's will made me your legal guardian and I undertook to look after your welfare until you came of age. Now that you have finished your education, it is time to think of your future. You are now eighteen, a year older than your aunt was when she married me. I cannot afford to keep you in idleness until you come of age and can make your own way in the world, so I propose to find you a suitable husband."
"But Uncle I…" she stammered.
"Be quiet girl, I haven't finished talking," her uncle barked. "Your aunt and I will, at our expense, pay for a coming out ball for you, to which we shall invite prospective husbands to be introduced to you, and from whom we hope that, if you play your part right, there might be one or more proposals of marriage. That is all I need to discuss with you at this time. The ball will be held one month from Saturday, so you have adequate time to prepare. Now, go and find your aunt so that you can discuss arrangements."
Henry's interest ended as abruptly as his conversation and he resumed writing.
Kate knew from experience that there was little point arguing with him. He was a stubborn man, and once his mind was made up, there was no changing it.
Her father had been Henry's younger brother. They had never been close, being fifteen years different in age, and living some distance from each other. However, when Kate's father had been diagnosed with a serious and fatal disease five years earlier, he had approached his brother and begged him to take care of his only child. His wife, Kate's mother, had died many years before and he had struggled to bring up his daughter. Unfortunately, Kate's father had not left much of a legacy and Henry had been forced to pay for the schooling of his niece—that resulted in some resentment towards his deceased brother, and by proximity, his niece. In his opinion, the sooner he could get her married and off his hands, the better. Kate was blessed with a fair countenance and a shapely figure and he did not anticipate too great a difficulty in finding someone suitable.
Kate withdrew from the Library and went to find her Aunt Miranda, still in a state of shock at the news just imparted by her uncle. She had known that marriage was a probability at some stage in her life, but could not dream it would come quite so suddenly after leaving school. Supposing her uncle compelled her to marry the first man to ask, regardless of her views on the matter? The thought horrified Kate, who had greatly looked forward to a little fun and frivolity after the austerity of her school years. She had pictured in her mind the excitement of attending balls and house parties, and being able to wear clothes that were a little more fashionable than the ones she currently possessed. She dreamed of making friends with other young women of the district and of flirtations with the local young men before having to consider the serious subject of matrimony.
Now, if her uncle had his way, there would be none of this. Her mind was so engaged in those matters that she almost walked into her aunt in the hallway.
"There you are, Catherine, I've searched high and low for you," Aunt Miranda scolded. "Have you seen your uncle yet?"
Her aunt insisted on calling her Catherine, despite Kate's own preference for the diminutive version of her name. "Yes, I have been to the Library, aunt. I am somewhat taken aback. I had no idea that uncle was planning for me to come out and be engaged within the month. Are you able to persuade him, aunt, to give me a little more time? It has come as rather a shock and I was greatly looking forward to a little freedom before getting married. After all I am only just turned eighteen."
"Nonsense, girl. When I was your age I was already married to your uncle, and I considered it a great honour when my father told me that he had chosen your uncle to be my husband. I have never had cause to regret his choice. You must realize, Catherine, your father did not leave you any wealth and your uncle and I have used our own funds to pay for your education. It is time now, my girl, for you stand on your own two feet. We will assist you in finding a husband by providing you with a coming out ball. But after that, it is up to you. If you do not find a suitable husband, then I am afraid that you will have to consider the possibility of taking a post as a governess as we cannot continue to support you indefinitely. Now come along, we must start to plan for your ball. Your uncle is adamant that it should take place within the month."
The statement that Miranda had never had cause to regret her father's choice in husbands was, in fact, untrue. Kate knew that Miranda had often regretted being married to a man who was sometimes so cold and unfeeling. She had seen the scornful looks that her aunt cast in the fleeting shadows as her uncle walked away. At the same time, Kate also knew that Miranda would never reveal her true feelings towards Henry to her young niece. She wondered if her aunt had felt as trapped as she did right now when her father informed her of the impending marriage.
Kate followed her aunt to the drawing room feeling both sad and anxious. This had all been the furthest from her mind earlier in the day when she had gone to hide in the shrubbery to catch a sight of the handsome young gardener. She thought of the moment when Barnes had threatened to take off his shirt the next time they met and the delicious and strange feeling she had felt in the depths of her body. She again shivered with a strange delight at reliving the event. Would she meet anyone at her coming out ball that would make her feel like that? She desperately hoped so. The idea of marrying someone she did not love simply to provide her with a home and income filled her with gloom.
The discussion with her aunt over the ball was more of a one-sided debate, with Kate's opinions hardly even sought, let alone acted upon. Aunt Miranda barely paused for breath as she sat at her desk and wrote long lists, whilst Kate sat on a chair at her side.
"Now, Catherine, I think we must pay a visit to the dressmaker in a day or two so that they can make a start on your ball gown, and a few other items you will need if you are to be courted by any of the gentlemen who might come calling. I will make a list of the people we need to invite, and I will ask my friend, Lady Fitzwilliam, if she has any recommendations on that matter. She is one of the most prominent people in the county and anyone she does not know, is not worth knowing. I think we can fit fifty people into our the drawing room and dining room, although it will be a bit of a squeeze, but hopefully the weather will be warm and we will be able to spill out onto the terrace. Now I will talk to cook in the morning about planning the supper menu, and I must have a word with Barnes to ensure that there will be plenty of fresh flowers for decorating the rooms."
At the mention of Barnes, Kate once again felt the strange tingle in her body that she had felt earlier. She drifted off into thought as her aunt continued to chatter away on arrangements for the ball.
* * *
"Are you listening, Catherine," Miranda said sharply. She watched the girl jar out of her daydreams and she frowned. "I asked about colour schemes. Do you have any preference? I think that pastel shades would be appropriate for the floral displays. We don't want anything too bold or vivid."
Miranda hurried on without waiting to hear if Kate had any preference. She was in full flow now and nothing would stop her plans now that the ball was an actuality. She had no daughters and had been robbed of the pleasure of planning a coming out ball for a girl of her own. As such, she was determined to make the most of this one, even if it was for a girl who had been foisted on them by circumstance.
She had given Henry a son, John, but had not been able to have any more children, which had not been too great a misfortune for her. She had never really enjoyed the intimate side of marriage and was quietly relieved when Henry had stopped coming to her bed. Miranda had a vague suspicion that there had been the occasional straying by her husband, but he had always been discreet and there had never been the hint of scandal. She was content with the way things were.
Her mother had told her, the night before she wed, that there were certain matters she needed to know about men and marriage, but that her husband would explain it all to her. All she had to do was submit to her husband's wishes and eventually, once a son and heir had been produced, then the need for her to submit would diminish and fade, and she need not bother about such matters again.
Abruptly, Miranda realized that it would fall to her to have the same conversation with Catherine before her wedding. She frowned. It wasn't exactly a conversation she was looking forward to. She had tried to get along with the girl, for her husband's sake, but had not enjoyed having a young, attractive woman around the house since Catherine had returned from school. It reminded her too much that her own youthful looks were now behind her and she had settled into a middle-aged rut. She and Henry hardly conversed now, except for the odd word at mealtimes. He didn't approve of her going to tea with her friend, Lady Fitzwilliam, a former classmate who had married well, so she kept her visits to a minimum and only had her friend back for tea when she knew that Henry was going to be away from home for the day.
She sighed and brought her thoughts back to the matter in hand. "I think I will send a message to Lady Fitzwilliam and ask her over for tea in the next few days. I don't think that your uncle will mind if it is for such a good cause. Now get along, Catherine, and leave me to write a note. I will ask Barnes to take it over to her, together with a basket of flowers from the garden."
With that, she dismissed her niece.* * *
Kate left her aunt quickly, relieved that the discussion was over for the moment. She went to her room and lay on the bed, mulling over the events of the past few hours. From the excitement of her encounter with Barnes in the garden, to the news from her uncle and aunt that she was to find a husband, and be quick about it, the day had certainly been noteworthy.
Her thoughts drifted back to Barnes and the feelings that his proximity to her had revealed. Her hand drifted down her body and she had a burning desire to touch herself between her legs. Slowly, with some trepidation, she pulled up her skirt and petticoat and then slipped her hand down the front of her drawers to the triangle of soft, dark hair that covered that part of her.
Touching it lightly with her fingers did not satisfy the need that had built up within her so Kate allowed her fingers to creep down still further until they reached the soft lips of her sex. A tremor of anticipation ran through her and she recognized that the place from where the need arose was within her sex. She parted her lips, slipped her fingers inside, and felt the moisture within. She rotated her fingers in a circular motion, which brought forth a deep longing within her, but she did not know what she was longing for. The more she circled the area with her fingers the greater the excitement that came from within. She knew what she was doing was considered forbidden—the headmistress of her school had hinted as such—but she was powerless to stop her actions.
She thought of the way that Barnes had spoken softly into her ear as she passed him, and the way he had spoken about spanking her, and without warning, the sensations she was feeling came to a great crescendo as she trembled and shook with pleasure. It was the most wonderful feeling she had ever experienced and she wanted it to go on forever.
Kate was so engrossed in the pleasure flooding her body that she did not hear the bedroom door open and her aunt came into the room.
Too late, she noticed her aunt's abrupt halt, a look of shock frozen on her face when she realised what she was witnessing. When Miranda finally found her voice, it was sharp and shrill, several octaves above her normal tone. "Catherine, what are you doing? Stop that disgusting behaviour immediately. You should be ashamed of yourself!"
The shock of being discovered brought a tear to Kate's eye and she pulled down her dress very quickly and sat up on the bed, devastated that her aunt should have found her in such a compromising position. "Aunt, I…I…"she stammered.
"I don't want to hear any excuses from you, you hussy. Is this the sort of behaviour they encourage at that expensive boarding school we sent you to? I really do not know what to say to you, Catherine, except that I am very disappointed in you. I shall have to consider whether your uncle needs to be informed about your behaviour."
"Aunt, I beg you, please don't say anything to Uncle Henry. I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me. I promise it won't happen again."
"I should think not, young lady. Really, I am quite lost for words. I will consider very carefully whether your uncle needs to know about this, and I will talk to you later. Don't imagine that I shall dismiss this lightly. Now, the reason for my presence is to ask you to take this note to Barnes and have him to deliver it to Lady Fitzwilliam, together with a basket of flowers. You are to tell him that he should wait for Lady Fitzwilliam to send a reply back with him. Can you remember that, girl? Now be off with you. I will see you later about the other matter."
Her aunt left the room, grumbling under her breath, leaving Kate with a slightly nauseated feeling in her stomach, left over from the shock of her discovery. The last person she wanted to see whilst feeling like this was the man who was the cause of her discomfort. But she didn't want to antagonize her aunt any further, so she slipped on her shoes and smoothed down her dress before setting off to locate the gardener.
Kate tracked Barnes down to the potting shed, where he was planting up some seedlings into clay pots. He looked up as Kate entered and gave her a slow half smile once he knew she was unaccompanied.
"So you can't leave me alone, Miss? Must be my devastating charm. I'm not so sure it's safe for you to be alone in the potting shed with me though."
Kate knew from the grin as he spoke that he was teasing her. She had never felt any fear of being alone with the gardener. In fact, the only fear she felt was that of making a complete fool of herself, causing her face to flush bright pink.
"I have a letter for Lady Fitzwilliam. Aunt says that you are to take it to her, together with a basket of flowers, and that you are to wait for a reply." She handed over the note that her aunt had written.
"Well now, I suppose I could do that without too much trouble. But I would be a lot quicker if you would care to assist me in picking some flowers, Miss. Why don't you bring that basket over there and we can go to the rose garden. There are some nice early blooms that I'm sure she would like."
He didn't wait for an answer from Kate, but turned and picked up a pair of clippers and exited the shed. Kate grabbed the basket and ran after him.
"Right, Miss, you hold out the basket and I will put the blooms into it. Let's have a few of these pink ones. They have a lovely smell."
He held out one of the blooms and Kate breathed in the delicious fragrance that always reminded her of summer. She began to relax a little.
It took just five minutes for Barnes to select a mixture of two shades of pink and some white blooms, and soon the basket was full.
Barnes leaned over and took the basket from her, giving her a wink as he did so. "I think I will have to promote you to my assistant, Miss Winters. Only problem is that I don't think we would be getting much work done, because I would spend all day staring at your pretty face."
Kate could feel the heat on her face as she turned red. Damn this man and his ability to turn her into a hesitant fool. Why could she not be the cool, elegant woman she admired in her aunt's friend, Lady Fitzwilliam? A woman like her would not colour up like this whenever a man spoke to her. In fact, on the one or two rare occasions that she had seen Lady Fitzwilliam socially, she noted that she had the men eating out of her hand. Her elegant charm and soft, tinkling laugh seemed to mesmerise the men around her. Kate could not imagine what on earth she and her aunt had in common to maintain their friendship. Whilst Aunt Miranda was a pleasant-looking woman, the idea of her flirting with a group of men like her friend was impossible to imagine.
Barnes gave Kate a broad grin and went off on his errand to deliver the note and flowers, whilst Kate made her way slowly back to the house. She wasn't looking forward to seeing her aunt again after the bedroom embarrassment, so she went into the house by the back door and along to the kitchen where she hoped to bump into the cook. Bertha had always been kind to Kate and would provide a cheery face that never failed to make her feel a little happier. She found her baking scones and was happy to accept the offer of a cup of tea and a freshly baked scone.
"I hear that you are to have a coming out ball, Miss. I saw Mrs. Colefax earlier when she came to discuss possible supper menus. You must be very excited, although by the look on your face just now it is hard to see you as being pleased. You look as though someone has just sentenced you to five years hard labour."
Kate smiled. It was hard to feel miserable when in the company of the rosy-cheeked cook. "Well the idea of a coming out ball is not entirely displeasing, Bertha. It's just that my uncle and aunt are hoping that I will meet my future husband there, and I'm not so sure that I am ready for marriage just yet."
"I'm sure that the cream of the county's gentlemen will be queuing up to dance with a pretty young woman like you. You will have them talking about this ball for months to come."
Kate smiled, despite her reluctance to consider the cream of the county's gentlemen as potential husbands – at least, not just yet. She was halfway through eating one of Bertha's delicious scones when Mrs. Colefax entered the kitchen carrying several sheets of paper and wearing a harassed look on her face. It was clear that Aunt Miranda was continuing with the plans for the ball. Kate's biggest dread was that her aunt might have changed her mind about the ball after witnessing her niece's earlier behaviour and that such behaviour somehow became common knowledge. She didn't think that was something she could ever live down.
"There you are, Miss. I've recently been with your aunt and she told me that, were I to run into you, she would like you to join her for afternoon tea in the drawing room. I've just come to ask Cook to send it up, although I see you have already partaken of one of her scones."
"Don't worry, Mrs. Colefax, they are so delicious I am sure that I could manage another one. I had better go and join my aunt."
Her aunt was the last person that Kate wished to see at the moment, let alone sit and take tea with, but she knew that there was no way of avoiding it and made her reluctant way to face her aunt once again and find out if there were to be consequences for the earlier scene in the bedroom.
By Adrienne Blake
The Sound of Sleat
It wasn't that I disliked Rory Mòr MacLeod. What I felt was more akin to pure hatred. I watched as the boy my cousins and I had all called the wee terror of the glen skipped along the banks of the Sound of Sleat as if he owned them. My stomach turned. My father warned me not to mess with the MacLeod scum, and I knew his warning was not without cause. Rory was the favorite son of his father, and the MacLeod clan had been warring with my family forever. What's more, I had cause of my own, for the spoiled brat liked nothing better than to tear my skirts and pull at my braids.
He scampered along, driving an ancient, scrawny cow ahead of him. Rory held his head high, like a strutting peacock, all the while urging the decrepit beast on from the lush green pasture located a short distance from the shore. I had no time to spare for the black-haired, black-fingered, ill-mannered ruffian that he was, so I turned away, pretending I hadn't seen him, and carried on with my work.
"I see you, Bonnie MacDonald. 'Tis a fine day, is it not?"
"Aye, it was, before you came along, Rory Mòr MacLeod."
He paused, a cocky grin spread across his young face, and he leaned upon his staff and looked down at me. "Now that's no way for a lass to talk to a Highland clansman."
"Away with you, you gormless fool." I looked at the poor beast at his side, noting the sharp contours of her bony ribs. "I see that your betters have entrusted you with the pick of the MacLeod crop. It would be better to put that poor animal out of her misery, would it not? What are you thinking, driving such a wretched thing this far south and in this heat? 'Tis a wonder she doesn't die of old age before she makes it home."
He shrugged and watched as I continued to wash the wool in the sea. I kept my head down, hoping he would go away, afraid he would set on me as he had so often done before and make me cry. His silence made me uncomfortable.
"What are you doing so far from the safety of Dunvegan? These lands were taken from you long ago, you've no business here now."
He looked across the land to the distance peaks of the Red Cuillin. Swinging on his staff, he addressed me as if I were still a child.
"A traveler has the right of passage, whichever way his path takes him, does he not? If you must know, the cow is old, and belongs to a kinswoman who lives not too far from these parts. She bade me slaughter her, for she could not. I'm taking her to the market in Saaisag, as I'll get a fair price for her there. As you see there's not much meat on her bones, but she's added plenty of calves to my aunt's stock over the years; so don't judge her by how she looks now, Bonnie."
"It's not the cow I'm judging. What is your aunt thinking, living this far south, so far away from the protection of her kinsmen?"
"The MacDonald's have their people in the north, do they not? Or would you draw a line across the island and keep everyone in their proper place? Any road, if it were not for my childless aunt’s love of me, you would like as never have had the good fortune to meet me. Many a summer she begged me play at her heels, to drive out the loneliness in her heart. I was glad of it. She’s a fine woman, and I do whatever I can to ease her burdens, no matter how far beyond the castle wall she lives."
I looked up, my hands still in the cool water as I scrubbed the freshly cut fleece. There was a swagger about him I didn't like and I wished with all my heart he would go away and leave me to my business.
"Look, is there something you're wanting or are you going to make that wretched cow stand in the sun all day?"
"Ah, well, she'll be well enough, I'm thinking. I was wondering about your good cousin, Donald? He has been the talk of my clansmen of late."
My eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I can tell you he's not been asking after you. Why would he? Are you up to more of your treachery, Rory MacLeod? Do you and your clansmen have nothing better to do than continually plot against mine?"
"Oh, our business would be nothing to a wee sprite of a lass like you." He cocked his head to one side. "You look different. Your hair? You used to braid it."
"I'm not a little child anymore."
"No, Bonnie, I see that you're not."
In an instant I was self-conscious. I pulled the fleece out of the water and stretched it out on the grass to dry. All the while I prayed he would go away. Whatever his words, if my father or cousin saw him here with me, we'd both be in for it. The MacLeod's were our enemy after all. I kept my head down, squeezing the excess water out of the wool, yet the obstinate ruffian just stood there, watching me.
I looked up. "Talking of my cousin, he said he might walk by this way. He could be here at any moment."
Rory stiffened in mock defiance. "Oh, he's going to claim my girl, I suppose? I shall have to fight him for you, to the death if need be."
I gave him the evil eye. "Your girl? Ha! If you're referring to me, you should get that nonsense out of your head. Who do you think you are, any road? Making such statements as you've no call to be making."
His shoulders slumped a little. "You're sweet on this Donald then?"
I rose to my feet and put my hands on my hips. "I never said I was, and I never said I wasn't. I'm not seeing how this is any business of yours. Now, get off to market and return to your fine castle at Dunvegan as soon as you can. And if its love you're looking for, I'm sure that old cow by your side has some life in her yet."
He laughed. "You've a wicked mind and a sharp tongue, Bonnie MacDonald."
I could see his eyes running the length of me, and his gaze made me uneasy. I decided to brave out my fears with words.
"There's no point you hanging about any longer. My kinsman Donald will run you though first, and ask questions later. If you want to reach your maturity then I suggest you scurry back to whatever hole you crawled out from."
Rory looked over my shoulder, as if the man himself would suddenly appear out of thin air behind me.
"I've no fear of the MacDonalds."
"Then tarry a while, so we can see the class of your sword arm. I must say Donald is adept with the claymore. But no doubt you've wielded a few weapons in your time. Either way, it will be a pleasant diversion, and then I can get back to washing these fleeces." I looked down at the half-finished pile at my feet, and Rory followed my gaze.
To give him his due, he didn't run away, as I thought he might. Instead, he laid his hand down on the old cow's rump as she chewed quietly at the grass. I was surprised by the gentleness with which he stroked her, but was in no mood to pay him compliments.
"Well, I'll be seeing you, Mistress Bonnie MacDonald, have no fear."
I snorted. "I'll try not to."
I remained standing as he drove the cow on, and only when he was out of sight did my mind return to my work. Of the four fleeces I had set out to clean, I had only finished the one. Throughout the whole exchange my poor pony had stood quietly in the shade of a tree, occasionally drinking his fill from a stream beside him.
"Now what do you think to that?" I asked the tethered beast.
Barley paid no heed to me; instead he just pulled his head out of the cool stream and grazed on the grass at his feet.
"Much help you are," I chided. "Och, will you look at all this work! If I don't get them done my father will flay me."
I dropped to my knees and dragged the next fleece from the pile to the bay. Though well-respected members of the MacDonald clan, my late mother and I had the gift for cloth making, and our family were famed throughout Scotland for the quality of our yarn. But if I didn't get these fleeces washed and hanging before the heat of the day went, I'd be for it. So for the next hour I put my back into the task, cleaning out all the dirt and excrement matted into the fibers. I liked the work, for it gave me the chance to think and dream, something that I rarely had time for back at our little cottage set into the hillside. There were altogether too many chores to be done to allow peace and quiet in my day.
I had just thrown the last fleece over the branch of Barley's tree when I heard horse hooves approaching. I turned and, sure enough, my cousin, Donald MacDonald rode directly toward me. I smiled as he stopped beside my Barley, and he tipped his cap to me in greeting. He looked at the wool as it dried on the branch, shook his head, then dismounted.
"Good day to you, cousin," I said. I had rinsed the last of the wool off my hands and now dried it on the folds of my dress. "Have you come to check up on me?" I said it without malice, for I was happy to see him. Donald was a handsome young man, with blond hair and eyes that reflected the sea before him. As always I hid my calf-love eyes behind my sharp mouth. "I can more than take care of myself."
He ignored the bravado and moved to inspect the fleeces as they swayed on the light breeze. "Do I need a reason to visit my dear cousin, the most beautiful daughter of Skye?"
I rewarded his flattery with a smile. "No, dear Donald, you do not, though the same cannot be said for all."
He turned, those beautiful eyes narrowing, his warrior mind sensing a threat. "Someone else has been to see you?"
"Not just someone. It was Rory Mòr MacLeod himself, the wee terror of the glen, on his way to market from Dunvegan."
"He's a long way from home, then. What did he want from you?"
"Nothing more than to taunt me, as ever."
I walked to stand beside him. My first fleece had almost dried in the heat, so I lifted it off the branch and tossed it over Barley's back.
Donald clasped the hilt of his sword a little too tightly. "You must be watchful of such encounters, Bonnie. You're not a young girl anymore, and the MacLeods are not the kind to treat our kinsmen with respect."
"I have nothing to fear from that ruffian, Donald. I've known him all my life, for he was often in these parts as a child."
He put his hand on my shoulder, and I looked up, fighting the blush as it crept into my cheeks. "Rory MacLeod has come of age now. He's a man. He'll have a man's appetites." He took a lock of my hair in his hand and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger. "You need to be more careful, Bonnie."
He stooped low and, just for a moment, I thought he might kiss me. I held my breath and rose on my heels, leaning toward him, waiting for his lips to brush mine. But instead he just smiled and veered away. In an instant I felt awkward, clumsy, a little girl once more. I looked down to the floor, trying to collect my thoughts.
"I'll, er, I'll be more careful, I promise, cousin Donald."
He was already remounting his horse. "Come. I promised your father I would bring you back. Gather your work and follow me; there is a gathering of the clan this evening, and I don't intend to miss it."
There had been many gatherings of late. Tensions between the MacDonalds and the MacLeods had never been more fraught, and whispers of a fresh clan war were heavy on the air. As a woman it was not my place to comment, so I set about pulling the damp fleeces from the tree and tossing them onto Barley. Let the men make idle mischief; I had work to do. As soon as I was done, I led my little pony by the bridle and walked as fast as I could behind Donald. We lived on the outskirts of a small village called Saaisag. My father's cottage was not very far from the shore, but we traveled at such a pace, and the late afternoon was so hot, I was short of breath when we got home.
My father was at the door, already looking out for me. He smiled as we approached, and the natural anxious set of his brow eased a little.
"Thank you, Donald. I was beginning to wonder what you two were about." He spoke jovially, though I knew him well enough to know there had been real anxiety behind his words. He always fretted after me when I was late returning home.
"Och, wist, your daughter is safe with me, James, as well you know. If there was anything to fear, it was from the MacLeod boy. It seemed he stopped by to taunt her."
"The very same."
"What business had he here in the south?"
My father looked me up and down appraisingly, as if looking for some injury. While the men had been greeting, I had started to hang the fleeces over a bar made specifically for this purpose. I looked fixedly into my father's eyes, hoping my boldness would reassure him.
"'Twas nothing, Father. He was just passing by and stopped to talk for a while. I can handle the likes of Rory MacLeod, have no fear."
"But I do fear, child. You're not a wee lass anymore."
"So everyone keeps reminding me today. Now if you're done with your blathering, I have my work to attend to as well as a dinner to get on the table. I'll leave you two men to talk your nonsense."
Donald had climbed off his horse and was now standing just a few feet away from me. As I pushed past him he gave me a broad grin.
"There's a wicked tongue on that daughter of yours, James. She'll lead a husband a merry dance, I've no doubt of it."
"Aye. Her mother was the same, God rest her soul." It was said with affection, and when I knew Donald wasn't looking I shot my father a mischievous smile. He stood to one side and ushered Donald into the cottage. "Will you stay and sup with us, Donald? She's a fair cook, in spite of that sharp little tongue."
Donald was a tall man, and he had to bend down to pass through the doorway. I quickly finished what I was doing and followed them inside. The cold stone walls of the cottage made it cooler inside than out, but I left the door open to allow fresh air to pass through.
Both men were already seated at the table, so I went over to the fire and spooned them both a bowl of the venison stew I had cooked earlier.
"Ah, it smells divine, Bonnie. My stomach has been lathering since we crossed into the dale. But just a small bowl for me. We men have much to discuss, and I find too much food addles a man's mind. I want to keep my wits about me for this gathering."
I looked into his wooden bowl, already filled to the brim. I set it down before him and straightened my back.
"You'll take what I give you and be thankful, Donald MacDonald!"
"Mind your manners, child," said my father.
I rolled my eyes and served my father, though did not say another word. Instead, I set about fixing my own supper, and was soon sitting beside them at the table.
"Do you think this business with the MacLeod's will ever be settled?"
My father looked to Donald, who was his clan superior, for an answer. Donald put down his spoon and looked at me thoughtfully.
"Perhaps. Though the clans have been at each other's throats for so long I can scarce remember how it all began. You, James?"
"Nay, we've been warring for a hundred years and more. Like most battles, whatever the true cause, in the end it's about power and land, mark my words. Why, the MacLeods built even our stronghold at Knock Castle. But we took it from them more than a hundred years ago, so you can be sure the fighting started long before then."
I pushed my bowl away, not hungry. "Well I think it's stupid. Nothing ever comes of it, save a line of fine corpses in lieu of our strong Highland men. I say 'tis nothing but a pity and a lot of foolishness."
"Aye, well, those are the words of a woman, and I'd expect nothing different. While we do the warring, you do the weeping. That is and always shall be the way of it."
Donald's words irked me, but to argue would be futile, so instead I rose from the table and made myself busy cleaning my plate. The men would have it their way, whatever I said to the contrary.
In a few minutes, both kinsmen had taken their fill, and the scraping of chairs on my stone floor heralded their imminent departure. In spite of my words, I was sorry to see them go, and moved to the open door, ready to see them safely off. I kissed my father cordially on the cheek, and as Donald passed through, I reached up to do the same. He accepted my embrace cordially, but passed me by more quickly than I had hoped he would. My heart sank, though my smile remained fixed on my face.
"Have a care, the both of you," I said. "And try not to get carried away by any foolishness."
"We are both men of honor, Bonnie," said my father. "And will do whatever needs to be done. But have no fear, my sweet child. Neither Donald or myself will do anything rash."
With that assurance, the two men mounted their horses, and I watched as they rode slowly away toward the MacDonald stronghold of Knock Castle, where the gathering was to take place. I would not see them again that day, and possibly not the next, so I looked at a casket beside the door, which contained other washed and dried fleeces. As always, I had work to do. So while the men went off to talk of war, I pulled a fresh fleece from the barrel, and took it inside to my spindle. As I settled down for the evening, I thought of Donald MacDonald's crystal blue eyes, and was soon lost in pleasant thoughts of how it would be if he kissed me.
Sir Thomas’s Bride
Masterful Husbands, Book One
By Vanessa Brooks
Lady Margaret shifted uncomfortably. Not for the first time, did she wonder how she came to be in this awkward predicament. She mournfully supposed that fate had dealt her a cruel hand when it coupled her with Sir Thomas Wiggington. How unfair the world could be, she mused with sorrowful self-pity.
A soft swishing noise caught her attention and then the stinging whap of a cane slashed her across the tender skin of her virgin buttocks. Lady Margaret was both a virgin to spanking and, as yet, to the touch of a man. She laid face down, silent with shock, as a searing line of pain bit into both her bottom cheeks. Before she could suck any air into her lungs to yell, another strike fell. However, this time she did manage to scream and rather vocally.
Sadly, no one came to her aid—no one cared enough for her person to rush to her side. The only other person in this entire world who might have cared was her mother, Lady Amelia Beauchamp. However, she was many miles away, ensconced in the Dowager House at Longetlestone in the county of Sussex, banished from London by the King at the request of Margaret's bridegroom, the very man who was presently setting fire to her buttocks.
Lady Margaret was all alone and, in her view, at the mercy of a madman, a brute of a man, a man whom she now called husband.
Sir Thomas Wiggington admired his handiwork; he was as skilled with a cane as he was with a rapier in his hand. A row of tidy livid red stripes lay neatly across his bride's pearlescent skin; the next punishing stripe would land on the crease at the top of her legs, twixt her bottom and her thighs. Thomas knew that it would be the most stinging blow of them all. He raised the cane high and flicked his wrist with a practiced hand, the strike coming down with a satisfying whoosh; the ear splitting shriek that his wife gave was most gratifying to the much-beleaguered bridegroom.
"Arise now, Margaret, but leave your skirts tucked up to your waist and go and stand in that far corner of the room. Perhaps, madam, the next time you chose to spit in my eye you will understand the consequences of taking such heinous action."
Thomas watched, amused, as his peevish, vinegar tongued wife scuttled over to the far corner of his study without as much as a glance in his direction. She put her face into her hands and wept self piteously.
Thomas took his seat behind the large yew desk and studied her. Thomas knew when he ensnared Lady Margaret that she would take some sweetening. He also knew that she needed to be strongly taken in hand by a man, a man such as himself in fact. A man who had experience of dealing with ill-humoured and badly behaved women. Hoydens and hellions had become his study of preference. Thomas had not found one such woman yet who had not responded to his method of a cane as deterrent and his loving attention as reward; carrot and stick in fact.
However, Margaret was made in a mould all of her own; this woman, now his wife, was a veritable viper! Thomas crossed a leg over his knee and sat back enjoying the view of his wife's naked and punished rear end. It was a nicely shaped bottom, round and well padded and scarlet in hue, just as Thomas preferred a woman's arse to be. He grinned; he knew he would turn his peevish Margaret about eventually. Thomas loved teaching nasty, spiteful women of the haute ton to change their ways and a cane was indeed a great deterrent, and ultimately, a sweetener of such sour natured creatures.
Now he had a permanent project—a wife and one that Thomas hoped would eventually come to love him and would produce a family with him. He should have realised that it was too soon to show any romantic gesture toward his bride but it was tradition to carry one's bride over the threshold and Thomas had not expected the gob of saliva that had hit him rather painfully in his eye. He had quite honestly not expected to be spat at by his gently born wife, Lady Margaret Wiggington, nee Beauchamp.
Lady Margaret was unaware of her husband's perusal of her pert rear-end. She was truly shocked by the sudden turn of events that had led to this painful eye opener. One minute Thomas was the mild mannered, stuttering nincompoop who she had previously mocked and derided, and the next, he was this overbearing tyrant who reacted to her mocking remarks by taking the severe punitive measure of caning her. To top it all, this was her wedding day, the only day in her life that she felt she should be treated like a queen!
The startling fact that he had spanked her with a cane even before he had consummated their marriage meant that there was absolutely no question of her accepting him into her boudoir this night. Certainly not after this brutal attack on her poor derriere.
After building herself up into an indignant and self-righteous fit of pique, Margaret tossed her head and prepared to shake down her skirts. She would leave this room and this very house. He could not force her to stay. She would leave before he was in truth and before God, her husband. What she wasn't prepared for was the knowledge and experience that Sir Thomas had of churlish ladies such as herself.
As Margaret spun around ready to run, she was met by the wall of Sir Thomas's chest. He placed a hand behind her head to hold her steady and brought his mouth down upon hers. Margaret had never been kissed upon her lips before now, nor anywhere other than upon her hand and so she was unprepared and caught completely by surprise.
The kiss was surprisingly enjoyable and she forgot her temper tantrum and her painful stinging bottom. That was until Sir Thomas chose to remind her of it, by squeezing her seared buttock cheeks. Margaret broke away and lifted her hand to strike Thomas's hateful face but she found her wrist caught fast in his. She was spun about as Sir Thomas walked from the room, towing his venomous and spitting bride along with him. Margaret, furious, had no choice but to follow her new husband. She realised that he was a much stronger man than she had given him credit for and she could not shake his inexorable grip on her wrist.
Thomas dragged Margaret into the withdrawing room and lowered her onto the scroll-ended settee, designed in the Greek style that Thomas so admired. He stalked over to the Tantalus and unlocked it with a key, one which he kept safely hidden away from the staff, tucked into his waistcoat pocket at all times. He poured himself a much-needed brandy. He did not offer his wife a drink for he knew that she would refuse it. He downed his brandy and left the room, standing behind the door to observe Lady Margaret's actions after his departure.
Sir Thomas watched as his new wife first glanced at the door and then rose, nimbly making her way over to the open decanter holder. She looked tentatively over her shoulder and then picked up the heavy crystal sherry decanter and poured herself a generous measure.
Thomas grinned, jolly good show, he wanted her to have a drink—it would steady her nerves for what was yet to come. He wandered back to his study and tugged on the bell pull and within moments, Gates, his butler, appeared.
"Gates, please see to it that the cold collation supper that I requested is laid out in the dining room, ready for Lady Margaret and myself to partake of as we wish."
"Certainly sir... I wondered if the staff might take the opportunity to greet their new mistress before supper this evening, sir?"
"No, Gates, not this evening. Lady Wiggington is somewhat overwrought tonight. I think perhaps tomorrow before luncheon might be a better time for that. She will be calmer and more subdued by then."
The butler bowed his head. "Certainly, sir, will there be anything else, sir?"
"No, Gates, not tonight. Tell Grisson that I shall not require his valet services this evening. I shall manage perfectly well on my own. Please inform Lady Margaret's lady's maid, er..."
"Ah yes, Hockley. Her services will not be required by my wife this evening either."
"Certainly, sir. Might I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your marriage, sir?"
Thomas beamed at Gates, "How very good of you, Gates, thank you. I think that eventually we shall deal very nicely together, the Lady Margaret and I."
The butler bowed and left the room. He and the household were very familiar with their master's choice in the type of lady he chose to call 'friend'. The previous lady that their master had been involved with, a widow, had visited the house on occasion. She had been of unpleasant disposition at the beginning of their association, but by the time she and Sir Thomas had ended their affair, she was both polite and pleasant to all the staff that she came in contact with above stairs.
Their master's choice of bride did not surprise the household but they did speculate, wondering if, on this occasion, he might have 'bitten off more than he could chew'. Gates shook his head, as once again he wondered that very thing as he returned below stairs.
Thomas thought that Margaret should have had ample time to down at least three sherries, surely making her more than a little squiffy by now. It was time to return to the withdrawing room and assess her mood.
Knights of Normandy Book One
By Maryse Dawson
A Norman Conquest
Somerset, England 1071
"Wherefore doth thou love him?" huffed Cynwise, staring hard at her sister.
Elfreda Golderon looked at her younger sister and sighed.
"Cynwise, desist! Sir Gerard de Clairvoy will become my husband, despite thy misgivings. Think of our future." She paced the small dwelling they shared and flung her arm around. "Just look around thee, Cynwise. No longer will we hath to live in such a small abode. When I make this marriage, we shall both live in comfort at Ilchester Castle."
"But Elfreda...a Norman? Wherefore cannot thee marry a man of noble Saxon birth?"
"Cynwise, the Normans hath conquered us nigh on five years...'tis time thee accepted thy fate. Gerard loves me, and I am thankful for that. 'Twill mean a goodly future for us both."
"Goodly? When we must adhere to Norman rule! Nay, 'tis not a good thing thee do, sister. I shall remain here. Go to thy castle and forget me!" she stated dramatically, turning away to stare blankly out of the small cottage window.
Elfreda walked over to her and, placing a hand on her shoulder, spoke softly. "Cynwise, I wouldst never let thee live alone here; wherefore doth thou think I hath been teaching thee Norman French? Thou knowest thou art dearer to me than anyone. The thought of thee living on thy own doth not bear thinking about. Times are troubled, and thee will be safe behind the thick walls of Ilchester Castle. Here, alone...anything could happen."
Cynwise, hearing the concern in her sister's voice, softened slightly and patted her hand. "Forgive me, Elfreda. But we hath seen so many of our kinsmen die at the hands of these bastard Normans. To think thee could marry one – 'tis hard to accept."
"Mayhap, one day thee, too, will marry a Norman."
Cynwise gasped and whirled around, spitting on the floor in disgust. "Nay! Those Norman bastards will never conquer me!"
Elfreda rolled her eyes. "I fear no one wouldst marry thee, with such a temper."
"Algar, son of Eldred, would."
"Algar? He is but a mere blacksmith. Thou knowest Father wouldst never hath let thee marry so low."
"Father is no longer here."
"As thy elder sister, I wouldst never give permission for such a marriage. When I marry, the decision-making will be made by my husband, Gerard."
Cynwise gasped. "Thou wouldst let a Norman decide whom I marry?"
"Aye. 'Tis the way of things, Cynwise. The sooner thou learn to abide by their rule, the better." She tugged on Cynwise's hand and pulled her towards the door. "Come, we need to pick some meadow flowers if I am to look my best for my wedding, tomorrow."
The next day arrived much too soon for Cynwise. She opened her eyes and groaned as the bright sunlight filtered in through the small window. Elfreda, lying beside her, stretched and blinked slowly as she also awoke. This was to be the last morning they spent in their ancestral home. Humble it might be, but it was the only home they'd ever had.
With sadness, Cynwise looked around the simple, one-room dwelling. Their parents had succumbed to smallpox two years ago, leaving their daughters to fend alone in the world. Elfreda had been ill but, thankfully, nursed by Cynwise, she had survived the terrible disease.
Elfreda playfully poked her in the ribs. "'Tis thy turn to feed the pigs. They will not feed themselves."
Cynwise raised an eyebrow and poked her back. "Aye, sister dearest, and thee will be feeding thine own Norman pig this eve!"
Elfreda gasped and went to slap her, but she was too slow. Cynwise had already leapt from the bed.
Cynwise grinned wickedly at her sister as she began to dress. "Elfreda, thou knowest I speak the truth."
"Hush, Cynwise. Thy tongue will get thee into trouble one of these days."
"If my Saxon tongue doth annoy a Norman, then he only hath to return from whence he came!" she exclaimed hotly, before flouncing out of the house.
Their four pigs snuffled around happily as Cynwise gave them the scraps from the previous day's dinner. Standing on the bottom rung of the fence, she looked across the fields at the imposing Ilchester Castle. It was newly built and owned by her sister's betrothed, Sir Gerard de Clairvoy, and would now be her new home, too.
She had only met Gerard a few times, and she had to admit, grudgingly, that he seemed a pleasant enough fellow. He was a dark-haired man of muscular build, in his early thirties. He had learned their language well, having lived in England since the Norman invasion in 1066 and was currently in the process of teaching Elfreda to speak his native French. She had taken to it well and had, with a little bullying, managed to teach Cynwise all she knew. Cynwise decided that although she would never accept the Normans as conquerors of her land, learning their language would be beneficial – that way, they could hide nothing from her, the devious scoundrels. As far as she was concerned, they would always be the interlopers, but it did not harm to have a hidden weapon.
Pulling a face, she went to step down from the fence and immediately gave a small shriek as two hands encompassed her waist.
"'Tis only me, Cynwise! I was lending a hand."
She heaved a sigh of relief as she heard Algar's voice. "Algar, thou didst frighten me."
He let go of her and looked over at the pigs. "I hath come to help with the livestock. Am I too early?"
"A little, Algar, but no matter. Wouldst thee take some refreshment?"
"Aye, I would." He fell into step beside her as she walked back to the cottage. "'Twill not be the same, without thee."
Cynwise blushed. "I will only be over there, Algar." She pointed to the castle.
"Aye, but thee might as well be on t'other side of the world. 'Tis a strong fortress and not for the likes of me, Cynwise."
"Oh, Algar. We shall see each other often, I promise thee. I may even be able to get thee a position there."
His face turned angry. "I will never work for the Normans!" he said vehemently. "My father lay down his life at Hastings. I will never forgive them, never!"
"I feel the same, Algar, but fate hath decreed that I live within those walls. It dost not mean that we cannot see each other. Wouldst thee still like to meet?"
Algar smiled, and she warmed inside. "Aye, Cynwise. How, though?"
"We shall find a way. Come inside and see Elfreda. Today is her marriage day, and despite marrying a Norman, we shall both be happy for her."
Algar shook his head but, nevertheless, pinned a smile to his face and went inside the dwelling.
* * *
Sir Renaud de Clairvoy looked up admiringly at the vast castle before him. His older brother, Gerard, had done well by King William. He, himself, had been given a large plot of land over at Dunster, and the last two years, he had been busy building a stone coastal defence.
Both had joined William in his conquest to overthrow Harold and gain power to the English throne. And as other knights in the same position, William gave them all land, on the proviso that they held it in the name of the Normans and would aid William as and when needed.
Today, his brother was to marry a girl of noble Saxon birth, Elfreda Golderon, whom Renaud had yet to meet. As long as his brother was happy, though, that was good enough for him. He himself would prefer a girl of Norman blood, but they were few and far between in Somerset. He'd dallied with the idea of travelling back to France and bringing a bride back with him, but he would need William's permission to do so and as yet, he hadn't got round to asking him.
Life at Dunster had been too hectic, what with the build and trying to keep the Saxon rebels at bay. He had come for the wedding, safe in the knowledge that his garrison of men left behind would guard the walls well.
He took off his gauntlets and rubbed his hands together briskly as he jumped down from his horse. His squire immediately took over the reins and led his destrier into the stables.
Renaud smiled heartily. He had come to feast and make merry, and both he would do with vigorous abandonment! He spotted Gerard striding over to him and smiled easily. "Brother!"
"Renaud!" They clasped hands, happy to see one another again. "It hath been too long!"
"Aye, nigh on a year, if I am not mistaken."
"And thy holdings, they art finished?" Gerard asked.
"Aye, brother. It hath taken a while but 'tis nearly complete. Thy castle is impressive – 'twill keep out these Saxon rebels with ease."
"Aye. King William will be proud. Hast thou had much trouble thyself with the local Saxon rebels?"
Renaud raised an eyebrow. "Aye, but my men are stronger and easily outwit them. 'Tis an unruly land but my fortress is strong – no Saxon shall take it from me. Dunster hath six towers, built with the finest stone. Thou shalt come and visit soon, I hope. 'Tis but two days' travel."
"Aye, and I shall be accompanied by my new bride. Come inside; she is waiting to meet thee."
Cynwise, peering from behind a stairwell, narrowed her eyes angrily as she watched the pair of them walk off. She had heard the portcullis rise and had wanted to see for herself what Gerard's brother looked like. Now she had seen him, she wished she hadn't. Handsome he might be, but he was also unbearably Norman!
He was of tall build, like Gerard, and just as broad-shouldered, although he wore his hair at shoulder length, unlike Gerard's cropped mane.
Unruly land, indeed! His accent was strong but, even so, she had understood him well enough to know he was criticising her beloved country.
The Saxons had been living very well before the Norman fools had decided to invade. Now, she found herself living in one of their castles, albeit against her will, and was having to be nice to them! Oh, if only Algar were here so they could sympathise with each other.
* * *
Elfreda blushed becomingly as Gerard introduced her to the handsome Sir Renaud de Clairvoy. He kissed her hand and smiled charmingly. "At thy command, my lady."
"'Tis a pleasure to make thy acquaintance, my lord. I welcome thee to Ilchester."
Gerard clapped him on the back and beckoned to a serf. "Will thee take a cup of wine, brother?"
"Aye. The ride was dusty, and my throat is parched."
Gerard handed him a goblet, and he drank a good draught before taking in his surroundings.
"Thy castle looks as fine inside as it doth outside, Gerard, and the lands look rich and plentiful."
"Aye, brother. With William on our side, we can conquer all!" He spotted Cynwise as she entered the hall. "Brother, come meet my future sister-in-law, Cynwise." He beckoned her over.
Renaud turned to find one of the prettiest women he had ever seen approach them. Her blue eyes regarded him steadily as he looked down at her.
Gerard introduced them. "Cynwise, this is my brother, Sir Renaud de Clairvoy."
"Good day, my lord." She bowed politely, but her eyes had a distinct chill to them. "I trust thy journey was untroubled?"
Frowning, he bowed his head and then levelled his eyes on her. "Aye, my lady. We were unmolested en route."
"Thee should take care when travelling across such an unruly land!" As soon as the words spilled from her lips, Renaud knew that she was mimicking his own from earlier, and he also knew where her loyalty lay—with the Saxons. He decided to play her at her own game.
"Aye, I said the very same words to my brother, earlier. It heartens me that as a Saxon, thee see the land as we do." He fixed her with a stare that clearly said he knew she had overheard him.
She flushed angrily. "Our lands were fine before the Normans invaded!"
Elfreda gasped. "Cynwise!"
Renaud simply laughed. "I hath heard worse, Elfreda. Be not fearful. She is fiery in her zeal, and her youthful innocence curbs not her tongue." He placed a finger under Cynwise's chin and made her look at him. Her eyes flashed back angrily.
"Watch thy words, Cynwise. 'Tis all very well amongst family, but be careful who might be listening."
"Thou had no fear earlier when thou spoke to Gerard!"
"Nay, and as the conquerors of this land, we do as we like. The Saxons will learn to abide by our law or suffer the consequences!"
Gerard had been quietly listening and decided to interrupt, before things became too heated. "Come, Renaud, Cynwise. 'Tis time Elfreda and I exchanged our marriage vows. Then we will hath a feast like no other!"
Elfreda smiled and took his proffered arm, thankful that he had dispelled the tense atmosphere. Renaud and Cynwise followed but refrained from speaking to one another.
* * *
The wedding was over as quickly as it had begun. Cynwise now had to accept the fact that Elfreda was married to a Norman knight. Whatever misgivings she had felt were now obsolete. Her sister was married, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Sitting at the high table, she grabbed a goblet and filled it with wine. Several platters of food were laid out before her, but her appetite had all but disappeared. Most people present seemed to be enjoying themselves. But then they would – they were nearly all Normans.
She could hear Renaud laughing with his brother on her right, and to her left, one of the visiting Norman ladies was in deep conversation with the priest.
Wistfully, she thought back to only that morning, when she'd seen Algar. How would life treat her now that she was in this big, stone fortress? Would she ever see Algar again? Arrogant Norman bastards! Why did they have to invade their shores and ruin their lives?
As she began to drink, she became more and more annoyed as the alcohol entered her blood and fuelled her temper. She sat brooding quietly, until a deep voice interrupted her thoughts.
"Wouldst thou pass the wine, my lady?"
She blinked as her eyes focused on one of the causes of her troubles, Renaud de Clairvoy. She pulled the wine jug nearer to her and snarled. "Fetch thy own wine. I am not thy serf, thou Norman swine!"
"Cynwise, desist!" exclaimed Elfreda, visibly mortified that her sister would speak thus to her new brother-in-law.
Renaud tapped his fingers on the table, clearly vexed. "I never said thou art a serf. I merely asked thee, politely, to pass me the wine."
* * *
Renaud quickly realised this was yet another battle of wills. If he let this pass, then she would continue in her quest to belittle him. Nay, he wouldst get her to comply by foul means or fair!
"I will ask thee one more time, and woe betide thee if thou dost not comply!" He leaned forward, his hand outstretched. "Pass me the wine."
He studied her, wondering how such a pretty exterior could hide such a precocious, willful wench beneath.
Cynwise leaned forward and said, "Nay!"
With a lightning move, Renaud pulled her from her seat and away from the high table. She squealed with fright and tried to fight him off.
Elfreda went to rise as Renaud flipped a protesting Cynwise over his shoulder and strode out of the hall, but Gerard stayed her with his hand. "Nay, wife. Cynwise hath behaved obnoxiously and will be treated accordingly."
"What will he do?" she asked apprehensively.
"Spank her, and before thee raises protest, I think thee will agree she is in dire need of chastisement."
Elfreda nibbled on her bottom lip. 'Twas true, Cynwise had behaved abominably. She only had herself to blame.
Renaud took the kicking and screaming Cynwise out into the inner courtyard where they wouldn't be disturbed. Quickly, he seated himself on a stone seat and pulled her struggling form over his lap.
"Thou art a stubborn, willful wench, and I will not be spoken to in such a manner!"
"Desist, Norman! Thou wouldst dare to spank me?" she exclaimed angrily, her voice ending on a high note as he threw up her skirts and revealed her bare bottom to his gaze.
"Aye, Saxon wench, and with much pleasure! Mayhap, 'twill still thy venomous tongue."
Before Cynwise could retort, his large hand began smacking her bottom. Instead of words, Renaud only heard shrieks—shrieks of outrage, mingled with pain.
Never before had a woman riled him so much. How dare she use his birthright as an insult!
Four hard smacks followed, the sound of his hand upon her tender flesh echoing throughout the courtyard.
He rained down more harsh slaps upon her upturned backside, relishing her cries as each smack made contact.
"Gerard told me thy parents are both deceased. In their absence, thee hath become most willful." Smack! Smack! "I shall see to it that thy tongue remains civil whilst I am under thy roof."
"Civil! What wouldst thee know of civility? Aow! Plundering another country to take what doth not belong to thee! Oh! Desist, that doth hurt! Prithee, I beg thee, no more!"
Three more smacks!
Despite her pleading, Renaud continued to mete out punishment until her buttocks were a deep, fiery colour. Only then was he satisfied that she had learned her lesson.
He pulled her upright, and she hopped from one foot to the other in front of him, rubbing her bottom to alleviate the pain. He noted with satisfaction that she scrunched up her face and was on the verge of tears. "If thee ever call me a Norman swine again, remember this punishment. I will not stand for such insubordination."
* * *
Cynwise opened her eyes briefly and fixed him with a petulant stare.
"And take that look from thy face!" he demanded.
Quickly, she averted her eyes, knowing that if she continued, she could very well end up with an even sorer bottom than she now had. The man was a beast.
"Thee will go back into the hall, thee willst pour me a wine, and thee shallt hath a smile upon thy face."
He smacked her hands away from her bottom and propelled her forward with a small push. "Thou shallt not rub away the pain. 'Twill be a reminder."
Sullenly, Cynwise re-entered the great hall and did as he bid. He raised an eyebrow when she didn't smile as she handed him the goblet, so she gave him the briefest of tight-lipped smiles before walking back to her own seat. Her seat was thankfully padded, but even so, her bottom hurt as she sat down. She shifted uncomfortably and, there and then, vowed vengeance upon the Norman knight who had dared to spank her!
A few days later...
"Cynwise! Cynwise! The king hath come!" Elfreda rushed into Cynwise's bedchamber.
Cynwise looked up from braiding her hair. "The king? Here?"
Quickly, Cynwise placed her wimple over her head and stood up. "How shall we greet him?"
"I know not, but we shall go together. He is already in the great hall with Gerard and Renaud."
Together, they entered the great hall and, with much trepidation, approached the king who had conquered their lands. He was fairly tall, although not as tall as the de Clairvoy brothers were, but he was strongly built. Cynwise guessed him to be in his early forties.
He eyed the two women with unabashed appreciation as Gerard introduced them. "Sire, my wife, Lady Elfreda de Clairvoy, and her younger sister, Cynwise Golderon."
The ladies curtseyed and stared at the king with big eyes. He laughed. "Thee both resemble startled deer. I do not bite!" He suddenly frowned. "Doth thee understand me? I cannot master this Anglo-Saxon language and only speak my native French."
Elfreda smiled. "We understand, sire. Gerard hath this past year instructed me in thy language. Likewise, I hath taught my sister."
"I congratulate thee on thy achievement. Would it that I could learn thy language so easily. Mayhap I am too old in the tooth!"
"Nay, sire," Renaud interjected. "There is no need to learn the language. These lands belong to the Normans now, and Norman French will be the spoken word."
Cynwise immediately bristled and went to offer a sharp retort but Elfreda squeezed her hand, signalling silence. She had to suffice with shooting a dark look at Renaud as he glanced triumphantly in her direction. She had avoided him as best she could since he had spanked her, but on the few occasions they had met, he never failed to rile her.
"Come and be seated by the fire, sire. I shall order some refreshments." Elfreda grabbed Cynwise by the arm and led her away towards the kitchens.
"Cynwise, prithee, I beg thee to keep a civil tongue in thy head. This is the king, not some lowly peasant," pleaded Elfreda.
"Tell that to Renaud. He aims to flaunt his Norman rule over me yet again."
Elfreda sighed loudly. "I know he doth but cannot thee ignore him?"
Cynwise closed her eyes briefly before opening them angrily. "'Tis hard, sister. Wherefore doth thou think I hath been resting in my chamber so oft? 'Tis to avoid that arrogant fool."
"Hush, someone will overhear thee."
"I care not!"
"Dost thou think the king will allow thee to show thy disapproval of his Norman birth?"
Cynwise shook her head and sighed, knowing she spoke wisely.
Elfreda continued, "Then hold thy tongue, I beg of thee." She turned to the kitchen staff and ordered them to fill several jugs with wine and ale, lay out a platter of their best meats, and fill a basket with seasonal fruit.
Whilst Cynwise watched Elfreda organise the refreshments, her thoughts turned to Renaud. For some reason, when she had lain in bed last night and tried to dream of Algar, she had found herself picturing Renaud's face. He had even invaded her dreams, spanking her lustily as she cried out for him to stop but, strangely, wanting him to continue. She had awoken to find her heart beating rapidly within her breast and her breathing heavy.
She pulled a face. It should be Algar she dreamed of, not Renaud!
"Stop thy daydreaming, Cynwise, and carry these for me." Elfreda handed her a flagon of wine. The serfs followed with the well-presented platters of food, and they re-entered the great hall.
"How long doth the king intend to stay?" Cynwise whispered to her sister.
"Gerard told me nigh on a week," Elfreda responded. "'Twill be a testing time for us all, methinks."
"Aye." Her gaze settled on Renaud as he laughed with Gerard and King William. The easy sound set her heart fluttering. Annoyed at her reaction to him, she set the wine down and turned to go, but his hand stilled her.
"Cynwise, wherefore doth thou goest? Stay a while. The king hath a question for thee and Elfreda."
She looked at King William. He patted the seat next to him. "Aye. Come sit with me, ladies."
They both took a seat on either side and waited for him to speak. "Hath thee knowledge of a man called Wulfwynn the Bold?"
They both shook their heads. "Nay, sire. Who is he?" asked Elfreda.
"'My spies tell me that he is a Saxon rebel in the process of leading a revolt against the Normans. He was last seen in this vicinity. 'Tis why I hath come."
"Thinketh thee, he wouldst make an attempt to gain control of Ilchester?" asked Gerard.
"I know not, Gerard. He could make an attempt on any one of our fortresses. Be aware and make ready thy men so that he will rue the day, should he try."
"Aye, sire. My men-at-arms art well trained. They will not fail me."
"As I thought. Even as we speak, I hath several scouts around the county, hunting him down. We shall hopefully find him afore he launches an attack."
Cynwise smiled slyly to herself as the king looked away. So, these Normans, who thought they could just march into England and take what they wanted, now found they were still under attack five years later. The Saxons were not such an easy enemy to conquer, after all.
She suddenly felt a pair of eyes boring into hers and looked up to find Renaud staring at her disapprovingly as he noted her smile. She raised her chin defiantly and helped herself to an apple. Mayhap, Wulfwynn the Bold would overthrow the Norman rule at Ilchester, including the arrogant Renaud de Clairvoy. She could only hope so.
* * *
A few days later, Cynwise lay on the hill outside the castle grounds and watched Renaud practice his sword fighting with Gerard. They were a handsome pair and, reluctantly, she realised her sister had made a good marriage. The castle was strong and well furnished. Elfreda would be happy here with Gerard; he appeared to treat her well and saw to her every comfort.
But what of her own future? To whom would she marry? Her thoughts turned to Algar. She had not seen him for over a week and yet, peculiarly, she could not picture his face properly.
She dismissed him and all thoughts of marriage from her mind. She was young and, at the moment, content to have fun annoying the Norman lord. 'Twas amusing to see his face turn dark as thunder.
She lay on her back and stared up at the clear blue summer sky, a broad smile on her face. Aye, life was good. Marriage could wait.
The Incorrigible Annabelle Spencer
The Ruttingdon Series, Book One
By Louise Taylor
Waterloo Station, London, 1880
The large train station bustled with hundreds of people walking briskly to and fro across the station, intent on their destinations. Large, hulking steam engines sat patiently at the edges of platforms, belching huge clouds of black smoke into the air. The noise level was immense; the screech of engine brakes and loud whistles broke through the busy hum of travellers calling to each other and enterprising vendors selling food, drink and other necessities for their customers' journeys
To a young lady more used to the genteel streets of Mayfair and the quiet green acres of Hyde Park it was a fascinating place that deserved further study. Sadly, her mother did not seem to agree. A firm hand at her elbow tugged the Honourable Annabel Spencer along the platform. Stifling a groan, Annabel turned her attention to her mother.
"Platform seven is this way, I believe," Viscountess Spencer said, peering about the crowded station, looking for some kind of sign, either material or spiritual, to guide her. Waterloo station, notorious for its confusing layout and poor signage, was living up to its reputation.
Convinced they were headed in the right direction, Lady Spencer ploughed forward through the crowds.
"Your father and I will be along to join you at Rosemere in two days' time," she was saying. "Heaven alone knows why the vote in Parliament has to be called now, just before the recess, but apparently this law is more important than the travelling plans of the members of the House of Lords."
"God forbid that the business of ruling the country interfere with a house party," Annabelle said waspishly.
She did not enjoy house parties, as a rule. For a young, unmarried woman there were far too many chances to indulge in reputation-damaging indiscretions, which meant that she was always chaperoned to within an inch of her life. Annabelle's inherent independence of spirit rebelled against such strict control on her behaviour.
"You will be wise to keep such statements to yourself while you are at Rosemere," her mother said sharply. "The Duke of Rothmuir—"
"Whom I have never met," Annabelle interjected.
"—will not be impressed by sarcastic comments—" her mother continued.
"Which he won't hear, because he will have no interest in talking to me," Annabelle added.
"—but by excellent manners, ladylike conversation and a pretty smile!" her mother finished, rather forcefully. Lady Spencer looked her eldest daughter up and down. "One out of three isn't too bad, I suppose," she said thoughtfully.
Annabelle huffed out a loud breath. She knew her mother wasn't being rude about her looks, but there had been many arguments over the years about behaviour and vocabulary. A noise at her back made her turn around; a darkly handsome man, no older than thirty, was walking just behind them. He was tall, with dark hair and deep, intelligent eyes and, if Annabelle was not mistaken, had just stifled a snort of laughter.
Annabelle raised an eyebrow to him. He winked at her. She turned back around, a blush starting to form on the back of her neck, a curse of her pale complexion. Lord, but he had been handsome. She had met young men before, of course, but none of them had a jaw line like that, as if it had been chiselled from a block of granite. Those shoulders could best be described as a broad expanse, too.
"The house party won't be as large as the Duchess of Rothmuir planned; this last minute vote has stopped some of the guests from travelling."
Her mother's voice returned her attention to the argument they were having and away from the rude but attractive man.
"How lucky I am that you are sending me anyway," Annabelle intoned in the sugary-sweet tone of voice that had been recommended to her by the etiquette mistress at her fashionable finishing school.
Her mother frowned at her, immediately wise to Annabelle's true meaning.
Annabelle was the sole daughter amongst a brood of six strapping sons, a situation that her mother blamed for her less than ladylike habit of speaking her mind, along with some rather boisterous behaviour that did not suit London society's very strict definition of gentle femininity. Repeated exposure to firm governesses and expensive finishing schools had taught Annabelle how to hide her true nature under a thin veneer of ladylike gentility. Unfortunately, and as Lady Spencer was only too aware, that veneer was very thin, indeed, and Annabelle did not require much encouragement for that shell to crack and for her to return to her spirited and tom-boyish ways.
"You are very lucky," her mother snapped. "Rothmuir is that absolute rarity, an unmarried duke. More incredibly, he is young enough for a marriage to be considered. All the other unmarried dukes are widowers past sixty, and far too old for a girl of twenty. Not that it stops some," she added darkly. "Be grateful that your father and I aren't trying for a match with one of those."
"Father isn't trying for a match at all," Annabelle said crossly. "He would much prefer it if I stayed at home."
"Your father's opinion is not required in this instance," her mother said brusquely.
It was true; Annabelle was the apple of her father's eye, and if he had his way she would stay with her parents forever, or join a closed order, if she were that desperate to leave the comforts of home.
"What of my opinion, Mother?" Annabelle asked.
"What of it?" her mother replied dismissively. "Annabelle, youmust be married. You are too independently minded to be truly happy to stay at home. You need a house to run and a husband to manage. We will aim for the duke; it will be nice to say that there is a duchess in the family. If necessary, we will readjust our expectations."
During their conversation, Annabelle and her mother had been weaving through the many travellers thronging the platforms. Annabelle kept sneaking looks behind her and was all too aware of the winking man dogging her footsteps. He seemed to be heading in the same direction as they were. Suddenly her mother stopped dead, forcing Annabelle to look her in the eye and the man to sidestep hurriedly behind them.
"Nobody expects you to be married at the end of this house party, Annabelle," she said seriously. "I know that you have never met Rothmuir, and I would not be so cruel as to force you to marry somebody you disliked. You know that your father would never allow that, and I would never wish such a fate for you. But you must marry, and to do that, you must meet eligible young men. There will be other suitable men at the house party."
"I don't understand how we are suddenly appearing on the guest list of a duke, Mother," Annabelle said, skirting a group of children gathered around a harassed looking governess. "We never have before."
Lady Spencer steered Annabelle past two young men who were surrounded by a collection of confused station officials and enough baggage to sink a small ship. A heated discussion was going on in regards from which platform the train for Kingston-upon-Thames would depart. A small brown dog of indeterminate parentage barking and jumping around the feet of all concerned did not help the situation.
"The mother of the duke, the current Duchess of Rothmuir, and I were debutantes together," Lady Spencer explained. "Rothmuir is a Scottish dukedom, and the duchess spent much of the time in their holdings there, coming back to London for the Season each year. You know what the Season is like, especially for political wives. No time to escape for a few weeks to the country for house parties and the like. The duchess and I kept in touch, though, and we have maintained a friendship over the years. Now that her husband has passed away, she is intent on seeing her son settled. She wants an English bride for him.
"At all events, I met the duchess again this Season, now that she is out of mourning, and she asked us to attend. I am asking you, my dear, to please try to behave well and just see if you could consider Rothmuir as a suitor."
Annabelle sighed. Her mother was appealing to her better nature, and she hated when she did that. Her mother had a point—there was no way that she wanted to live under her parents' roof all her life. A married woman had far more independence than a spinster daughter, providing she managed her husband effectively. In this she had no better role model than her mother, who was the real authority in the Spencer home. Annabelle did not think herself particularly high in the instep, but she couldn't help but admit that there was an allure to the title of Duchess of Rothmuir, even if the word duchess made her think of large, very old ladies whose stays creaked when they moved.
"Very well," Annabelle sighed. "I will be on my best behaviour, Mother. For you."
"Thank you, my dear," her mother said gratefully. "Er, you may as well know. I met the Countess of Warminster last night at the Gardiner's supper. She and Lady Lily will be in attendance at the house party. Annabelle? Annabelle, what are you doing?"
"I'm looking for a train to throw myself under," Annabelle said, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "It's bad enough I was forced to go to finishing school with that poor excuse for a human being. I shouldn't have to put up with her now that I've left."
"Just do what you can to avoid her," the viscountess sighed. "Rosemere is a large house. You will not be in each other's way."
"She's vicious, Mother," Annabelle said flatly. "She's exactly the sort of person one wants to punch on the nose."
"We all know she's the sort of person that you want to punch on the nose, dear," her mother said with a sigh. "Your headmistress wrote some very—detailed letters on the subject."
"I was fully justified!" Annabelle said indignantly. "You didn't see what she did to—"
"Enough, Annabelle," her mother said firmly. "You will just have to do your best not to rise to her bait. Be the better person. A duke will not want to marry a lady who engages in fisticuffs."
"I'm not promising that I will marry the duke," she said in warning. "He may well find me ugly, or my conversation insipid. Or he may have a big wart on his nose, with little hairs on it, like Great-Aunt Augusta's."
"Let us assume," her mother said in a very patient tone, "that the duke is wartless, shall we?"
"Do you know that?" Annabelle queried. "Have you ever met him?"
"Never seen him before in my life," her mother said cheerfully. "Unmarried young dukes do not move in the same social circles as middle-aged viscountesses. But let's give the man the benefit of the doubt, shall we, dear?"
Together they carried on walking to their platform, Annabelle's maid, Ellen, following behind them carrying her valise and jewel case. Their trunks had been unloaded from the carriage by railway porters, who would hopefully see that they were put onto the correct train.
From the corner of her eye Annabelle could see the man who had winked at her hanging back behind them. She did not turn to stare at him directly; that would be giving him attention, which he clearly wanted. Instead she made do with small glimpses as he dodged his way through the crowds, staying close to their party. He was as tall as her brothers, who were all around the six-foot mark, and he was built along the same lines—sturdy, not slender. His clothes were well made, his shoes well shined, and he seemed to take care with his appearance; or, at least, he had a valet who took pride in his work.
Waterloo Station was confusing. They took two wrong turns and had to be guided to their correct platform by the harassed porter Lady Spencer had strong-armed into helping them.
"You never said who would be chaperoning me at the party, Mother," Annabelle said as they waited on what they could only hope was the correct platform.
They were early—too early, in fact, as their train had not arrived yet. Instead, the previous service that ran along the same line was waiting to depart. Carriage doors clattered as people began to seat themselves in the first and third class compartments, and large clouds of sooty black smoke began to belch forth from the scarlet steam engine at the far end of the platform.
If Lady Spencer had a fault, in her daughter's eyes, it was that she could not bear lateness in herself or others. She was so punctual, in fact, that the Spencers often arrived unfashionably early for parties and the theatre. Lady Spencer's third son, Thomas, was often heard to remark that he was the black sheep of the family for having the temerity to be born a week later than anticipated. Arriving at the train station an hour ahead of schedule was therefore not considered unusual Spencer behaviour.
"Didn't I, dear?" her mother said vaguely, scanning the platform, as if looking for somebody in particular.
"Is it Aunt Hannah?" Annabelle asked.
Her mother's sister was widowed, but past her year of mourning and moving happily in society. She would be a natural chaperone for her only niece.
"No, I asked, but she is unwell," her mother replied, still looking about the platform.
"I suppose Ronald would do, in a pinch," Annabelle said doubtfully.
Her eldest brother was perfectly respectable, but seemed an unlikely escort.
"He's in the middle of courting the lovely Miss Debenham, and refused to leave London," her mother said sourly.
Annabelle had no doubt that Ronald was in for a maternal drubbing in the near future, and hoped she was around to witness it. It was an unwise Spencer child who refused maternal commands. She frowned. Who else could do the job of protecting her just-about-blemish-free reputation? The Spencers weren't blessed with a number of convenient maiden aunts, and none of the boys had married yet, so she had no sisters-in-law who could chaperone her. Her mother usually did the job. Of course, in the past, when she had been in the schoolroom, her governess had doubled as a chaperone when they went about town.
Annabelle could feel herself going pale. "Mother, tell me you did not!" she said, appalled.
Lady Spencer had the grace to blush a little. "I had no choice," she said apologetically. "Your Aunt Hannah is ill, and Ronald is in a delicate part of the courtship, and I can't leave your father until after the vote. I called in personally at the agency, and Miss York was sitting in the receiving parlour. She is between positions at the moment, and was grateful for the work."
"No wonder she is between positions," Annabelle ground out. "That woman is a monster. No doubt she was sacked from her last job!"
"Be fair," her mother chided. "She was an excellent governess."
"She was a prison warden!" Annabelle exclaimed. "I had no freedom to do anything that wasn't sanctioned by her list of approved activities!"
"You were an extremely difficult child," her mother said defensively. "Miss York did the very best she could, in the circumstances. And, you must admit, you had a first-class education."
"You weren't in that schoolroom," Annabelle muttered. "You have no idea what I endured."
"I have a good idea what Miss York endured," her mother said darkly. "And the whole point of hiring a governess is so that a mother does not have to do battle with her children over French verbs and the multiplication tables. As far as I am concerned, Miss York did a superb job with highly questionable material. "
"She is loathsome, and I won't tolerate her," Annabelle said mutinously.
"Do be quiet, dear, here she comes," her mother said, elbowing her sharply in the ribs. "Smile and be nice. It's only for two days, until your father and I can join the party. Three days, possibly. No longer than a week, certainly."
"A week!" howled Annabelle, to the amusement of the man who had been following them across the station.
He had stopped at the same platform, the one for the Oxford-bound train. She glared at him, and he smiled, clearly enjoying her displeasure. He bowed his head politely, and headed towards the train waiting at the platform edge. He disappeared into a cloud of steam and smoke, and was gone. Annabelle hoped he had fallen off the edge of the platform, with only his strong jaw line to break his fall.
Across the crowded space, Miss York plodded inevitably towards the Spencers. Her habitual frown was in place, and her spectacles sat primly on her large, hooked nose.
"Mother, I beg you, don't make me put up with her," Annabelle pleaded.
"The matter is settled," Lady Spencer said with heavy finality. "Don't be such a child, Annabelle. Ah, Miss York!" she called, waving.
Annabelle looked around the platform in desperation. They would have a whole hour, possibly longer, to spend in polite small talk before she was despatched to Oxfordshire with Miss York for company. She would have to tolerate her, alone, at a house party where she probably would not know anybody else, for possibly a whole week.
Something inside her snapped. This was going to happen; there was nothing she could do to stop that. It was a fait accompli. However, if she moved quickly, she could have the entire train journey to Oxfordshire alone, as well as a few hours at the house party without the confining presence of Miss York. She'd bat her eyelashes and blame a mix-up at the railway station, and have a bit of an adventure. It would be the last such adventure she would be able to have for a week, at the very least.
The guard on the platform was waving his flag.
"All aboard!" he called.
The train started to billow more smoke. Doors slammed shut with finality. The cars were beginning to move slowly. It was now or never.
"See you soon, Mother!" Annabelle said suddenly and darted for the train.
She had moved so quickly that her mother did not have time to grab her arm. She ran for the nearest compartment and yanked the door open. Annabelle's mother had put her foot down about tightly laced corsets several years previously; Annabelle was to wear only the more sensible and loosely-laced Jaeger corset that was lined with cord, not whalebone. This maternal sensibility allowed Annabelle to clamber up into the moving carriage and slam the door just as the train began to pick up speed. She stumbled backwards into a seat and laughed with glee as they began to leave the platform behind. She looked back through the window and saw her mother scowling with fury as Miss York began a decent attempt to catch the moving vehicle. However, the power of steam locomotion was more than that of a determined, middle-aged woman in a tight corset, and Miss York quickly dropped out of sight.
Sighing happily, Annabelle pulled out the pins securing the hat to her dark blonde hair. She settled the small blue confection on the seat next to her, glad that it had not been lost in the dash for the train. She was fond of a good hat.
"That was a surprise exit," a deep, masculine voice said dryly. "I take it you were fleeing the monstrous Miss York?"
Annabelle looked around in alarm. The carriage was not empty, as she had imagined it to be. Sitting in the middle of the seats on the opposite side of the compartment was the man from the station. He had been reading the newspaper, and was now peering at her over the top of it, an amused smile on his face.
"Eavesdropping on private conversations is an ungentlemanly act," she said with all the hauteur she could muster.
"Ah, but when they're so amusing, how can one resist?" he said, his dark eyes lit with humour. "And, if I may be so bold, leaping onto trains unescorted is hardly the act of a properly behaved lady."
"I did not leap, I—entered," Annabelle blustered. "At speed," she allowed. "And it's my mother's fault," she added, seemingly unable to stop herself under the scrutiny of those dark eyes. "If she weren't so keen on being early all the time, there wouldn't have been a train for me to board. As it is, I'll just be slightly ahead of my chaperone. There is no danger."
"But you're here, alone, with me," the man pointed out. "There is danger in that, is there not?"
Annabelle looked at him properly and took in the width of bicep shown by the tight cut of his coat, the size of the hands holding the newspaper.
"You may be no gentleman, sir, but I do not take you for a villain, either," she said bravely. "I do not believe those ghastly penny rags with their stories of the dangerous railways. I do not think you would do me harm."
"Perhaps not," he said, his head dropping to one side as he looked at her properly. She felt his assessing gaze drift down from her face, down to the swell of her bosom and down over the length of her legs, hidden from view in her neat, pale-blue travelling dress. "But a lady can never be too sure of these things. We are, after all, alone in this compartment."
"There is a guard," Annabelle said, her voice challenging him to retort.
"This is the last carriage," the man responded, immediately. "And the first class carriages are separate from the third. The guard will not enter this carriage until we stop at the next station which will not be for—" he paused to flip open his pocket watch, an attractive gold timepiece that looked both old and expensive. "Forty-five minutes."
He looked up from the watch and caught her gaze straight in the eye.
"Anything could happen to you in forty-five minutes."
Annabelle bit her lip. He was right; anything could. A sudden wickedness bubbled up inside her. Oh, how she wished he would do something.
"I refuse to believe that you would do anything that I did not wish you to do," she said with boldness that she did not quite feel. "Or that I would let you do it," she added for good measure.
He let out a bark of laughter, truly amused by her words.
"You think that you are capable of defending yourself?" he asked, putting down the newspaper.
"I think that I have six brothers, and that I have learned how best to defend myself against their constant attacks," she said dryly. "I know how to hurt a man."
She did, too. Once she had elbowed a brother in a particularly vulnerable spot, she soon caught on to how quickly a male would fall to the ground howling. She also paid attention to the impromptu boxing lessons that sprang up amongst them, and she had blackened the eyes of four of her brothers at various times, the last being a fortnight past.
"You know, I do believe that you could," the man said, smiling again.
Annabelle did not know what to say to this, so remained silent. She turned her head to look out the window and watched London fall behind the steaming locomotive. Soon streets full of houses turned into pleasant green fields, which were decidedly less interesting to look at. Annabelle had been carrying a small bag with some necessary items for the trip. She had her coin purse and train ticket, a small comb, mirror, and a slender novel. The cover proclaimed it to be called Agatha: The Story of a Virtuous Maid but that was only because Annabelle had switched the cheap paper cover from that novel onto the far more salacious one she was now reading. There was nobody called Agatha in this book, and no virtuous maids, either. There were a number of young ladies getting up to all sorts of licentious behaviour which Annabelle should have known nothing about.
The beauty of having so many brothers still living at home was that they were bound to have a stash of contraband items. Andrew, her second eldest brother, had a predilection for naughty novels, and Annabelle had been borrowing them without his knowledge for years. She merely kept the disposable dust jacket from a far more worthy tome and wrapped it around the scandalous one. Nobody had ever been the wiser.
"Your book still has the dust jacket on it."
Annabelle sighed aloud. Of course this insufferable man would notice that.
"I find it protects the book," Annabelle said, without looking at him.
"Most people throw them away," the man said, sounding interested.
"I am not most people," Annabelle said through gritted teeth.
"No, you are not," he said in a measured tone.
He moved quickly for a large man; before Annabelle could react, he reached over and snatched the book out of her unsuspecting hands.
"Agatha: A Virtuous Maid," he said aloud. "How very—improving."
"Please give it back to me," Annabelle said icily, extending her hand.
"A good book, is it?" the man enquired. "Exciting?"
"Not particularly exciting, no," Annabelle said warily. "Please give it back. It's not mine."
"That's odd," the man said knowingly. "Because you were blushing."
"I was not blushing," Annabelle said hotly, cursing her pale skin.
"You were, too," the man said, flipping the book open. "I wonder what virtuous things Agatha was doing to make you so worked up."
"Please don't do that!" Annabelle cried, lurching for the book.
She misjudged the length of her dress, and stepped on the hem, sending her stumbling forward towards the man. He caught her deftly, his quick reflexes evident again, but he did not release her. Instead he lifted her off her feet and sat her on his lap. His left arm wrapped around her like a steel band, trapping her in place. In his right, he held the book.
"Let go of me," Annabelle commanded through gritted teeth. She struggled against his grip, but he held her firmly.
"Stop that wriggling," he said sternly. "Or continue it, if you wish, but you will be responsible for the consequences."
She writhed some more, and then suddenly came across what he had referred to as the consequences. She had read enough of those naughty novels to understand what that bulge in his trousers indicated. She felt a blush stain her cheeks and a familiar wetness start to moisten the meeting of her thighs. Her body did that when the books made her excited. When she was in that state, her natural instinct was to rub against something firm. The books had guided her towards understanding the pleasure her body could give her. This was the first time that a real person had given her those feelings.
"Now, let us see what Agatha has been getting up to," the man said, flipping the book open to a random page. He scanned the page, muttering the words under his breath. "I say," he said admiringly. "Old Agatha is having some fun. No wonder you were blushing."
Annabelle had been trying to break the man's vice-like grip, but she was unable to free her arms. She slumped against him in defeat.
"It gets better in chapter four," she told him, resigned.
"Chapter four," he said, letting the pages fall open. "Let me see—"
He was a fast reader, Annabelle noted. His eyes scanned the pages quickly. He seemed to tighten his grip on her as he read; he jostled her slightly so she was shifted enough for his left hand to reach her breast. He squeezed it almost absent-mindedly, as if it were the natural thing to do to a woman perched on his lap. His touch sent instant messages to Annabelle's core, and she could feel herself becoming wetter and wetter. Everything about this situation was wrong, Annabelle knew, but at the same time it just felt so right. She was torn between screaming for help from the next carriage, and begging him to slip his fingers into her dress and touch her skin.
He let the book snap shut suddenly, and placed it on the empty seat next to him with great care.
"Jumping into moving train carriages," he said, his voice sounding even deeper than it had before. "Avoiding the company of chaperones. Possessing books that describe some of the most lascivious sexual acts ever put down on paper. I think you, young lady, are a very naughty girl indeed."
"So what if I am?" Annabelle challenged him. "What is it to you? You don't know me. You shouldn't call me young lady in that tone, either. You cannot be much older than I am."
"No," he said thoughtfully. "I do not know you at all. I do not know your family name. We have never met before today. You, in turn, know nothing of me."
Annabelle nodded her head. This was true. Other than his being the most shockingly attractive man she had ever met in her life, she knew nothing of him.
"You read novels about naughty young women punished by strong, stern men," he said, with a nod to the book. "I am a strong, stern man who just happens to have a very badly behaved young lady here in this carriage. I think it is my responsibility to punish you for your lack of decorum and proper behaviour, just as the heroine of that book is punished."
Annabelle's breath caught in her throat. Was he suggesting—did he want to—
"You are, of course, an unmarried young lady," he went on. "I would not relieve you of your virginity."
Was what she felt relief? She should be relieved, she knew. She didn't think she was relieved at his statement of intent, though, which was a whole other worry.
"I will spank you," he said decisively. "And if I think that you bear the punishment bravely, I will reward you with the pleasure you read about so voraciously."
"And if I say no?" Annabelle asked weakly. "If I do not wish to be punished?"
There was a pause before he answered.
"Then I will let you go," he said, his mouth close to her ear. "You will sit in your seat across from me, and I will not speak to you or touch you for the rest of our time together in this carriage."
Why did this sound like the real punishment? And why did the heat from his breath send such shivers down her spine?
"What do you say?" he asked. "Will you be punished, or not?"
"Yes," she gasped, and the hand on her breast squeezed reflexively.
"Say it," he ordered.
"Yes, I want to be punished!" she said, crying out as his fingers on her breast found her nipple and squeezed.
Pain lanced through her body, followed quickly by a quick bolt of intense pleasure. The iron band of his arm suddenly released her.
"Stand," he ordered. "Pull up your skirts."
Blushing furiously, Annabelle did as he said. Up went the pale blue silk of her travelling dress, and up went the long white linen petticoat beneath it. She wore drawers underneath, of course, long ones hemmed at her knees. Now, though, she was beginning to wonder about the practicality of the slit at the back that left her most private parts exposed.
"You may leave those on for now," he said, looking her up and down. "Get over my knee. Quickly, now."
Annabelle glanced at the glass window in the door. The blind that would block them from view was not pulled down. Should other first class passengers wander along the passageway, they would see everything. She moved towards the door with her hand raised, intent on pulling down the blind.
"I said quickly," he bit out sharply. "Leave that blind alone and get over my knee!"