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A collection of four spanking and age play short stories in one volume.
Desired by the Duke
Two noble minds, one dark secret, a spanking she’ll never forget
Lady Eleanor Risby is running for her life. Forced to leave the noble world behind, she's trying to hide from the men who killed her parents and are coming for her. She has one hope left but unfortunately it lies in the house of a man she vowed never to speak to again.
The last thing the Duke of Ryedale needed was a reminder of the world he left behind long ago. But as the first ever steam train rolls into Whitby, it brings with it the woman he’s spent a lifetime trying to forget.
Bound by a childhood vow, the Duke promises Eleanor she’ll be safe with him. But if she’s going to stay she’s going to have to accept his firm hand disciplining her on a regular basis. Now she must choose between risking her life or accepting being spanked by the Duke.
Seduced by the Scoundrel
An innocent debutante... When Lady Caroline was sent to Kensington Academy by her parents, she fears her hard won reputation may be at stake if she does not find out the truth about her new tutor.
A dominant Lord... When Lord George Hudson sees Caroline he decides to keep her for himself but when she vanishes without trace, George vows to track her down and make her submit to some firm discipline over his knee to teach her never to leave his side ever again.
Handed to my New Master
Taught a lesson she’ll never forget.
Caught in the act of stealing a valuable ring, Ella May Sutherland is given a choice, either accept a gaol sentence or become governess to an out of control society gent. She chooses the latter, after all, how much trouble can one man cause?
Anthony Mayhew vows to make her regret telling him what to do, trapping her in his house before revealing his penchant for a firm spanking, taking her over his knee to introduce her to a new world of discipline and submission until her only desire is to submit to her powerful new master.
He stole her home, now she’s going to steal his heart.
Isabella Reed spent a lifetime waiting for revenge on the man who evicted her family from their home. Hearing a rumour that the wicked Lord
Crossway has decided to take a wife, she realised her chance had come.
To carry out her plan, she must first enter his world of age play and spanking, a world where all the rules of decent society count for nothing at all.
As Vanessa tumbles down the rabbit hole of desire, she begins to realise that things aren't as simple as she expected, not when gaining her revenge will mean giving up the dominant master who has come to mean everything to her. Now she must choose between the revenge she always wanted or the firm hand she always needed.
TAKEN BY THE DUKE
DESIRED BY THE DUKE
The noise from downstairs was deafening. Eleanor lay crouched under her bed in the nursery, hands clamped over her ears to block it all out. There was another enormous bang followed by the shattering of glass somewhere in the orchard wing. She pressed her palms harder against the sides of her head, wishing the noise would stop, wishing that her parents would come and get her and make it all okay again.
Ten minutes earlier, she’d been sat cross legged on the nursery floor with her governess, making her first tentative attempt at the letter A with a pencil. “Very good,” Miss Eyre had told her as she concentrated harder than she ever had in her first three years of life. She gripped the pencil so tightly her knuckles were white, her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth as she rounded the dotted curve marked out on the paper ready for her. “Loosen your grip, try and relax.”
She was just moving down the page to attempt to draw a B when the door to the nursery burst open and her father ran in. Immediately, Eleanor wanted to cry. Father never ran anywhere. He always walked at a sedate pace, his hands clasped behind his back, a perpetual smile on his face. But he was not smiling nor gentle as he crouched down before Eleanor, glancing between her and Miss Eyre. “You must hide,” he said, his eyes wide with sheer terror. “Now!”
Eleanor glanced down at his hand. He was holding something she did not recognise. It was a strange looking thing. “What’s that?”
“No questions,” he said, pulling her up to her feet with his free hand. “Miss Eyre, get her under the bed and make sure she stays there until I return.”
“My Lord,” Miss Eyre replied with a nod. “Come, Eleanor. We will finish your alphabet presently.”
Eleanor was bundled under the bed and made to promise she would stay there. She had done as asked without complaint, seeing the fear in Miss Eyre’s face as she crouched beside her underneath the bed. For ten minutes they lay there together, listening in silence for whatever it was that had scared her father so.
“Is it safe to get out yet?” Eleanor whispered. “I don’t like it under here.”
“Nonsense,” Miss Eyre smiled. “Just pretend you’re hiding from pirates.”
“Don’t like pirates.”
“That’s why we’re hiding.”
Another five minutes passed without a sound. “Need the toilet,” Eleanor whispered.
Miss Eyre turned to look at her. “You stay here,” she whispered back. “I’ll go and see if it’s safe. “Don’t move. Promise?”
“Promise,” Eleanor replied, watching as Miss Eyre climbed out from under the bed and tiptoed over to the door. She turned and smiled at Eleanor and as she did so there was an almighty bang from somewhere out on the landing. Miss Eyre suddenly slid sideways against the doorframe, slumping slowly down to the ground with dark red liquid trickling down the side of her face. Eleanor gasped as the sight. “Miss Eyre,” she whispered as a figure appeared over her body in the doorway.
It was a man in a black coat. He was holding an object in his hand that looked very similar to the one her father had been holding. Smoke rose from the rounded end of it in a gentle wisp. The man took a step into the room, ignoring the twitching Miss Eyre at his feet. He stood still for a moment, looking slowly around the room. Eleanor held her breath as he walked towards the bed. Eleanor shuffled backwards, closing her eyes in the hope it would help hide her from him. He did not look like a nice man.
She heard a scream from downstairs and opened her eyes to see the man twist and run from the room. That was when all hell broke loose. So many of those booming noises, the sound of shattering glass, one scream after another, Eleanor couldn’t bear it. She covered her ears and put her head down, her eyes tightly shut as she wished it would all just stop.
After an eternity, her wish finally came true. The silence that followed was deafening after such noise. She opened her eyes tentatively, glancing around her and hoping the man had not come back. Miss Eyre remained where she had fallen, she had not moved an inch. With trembling fingers, Eleanor edged out from under the bed, ready to dart back underneath at the slightest sound. She couldn’t hide any longer. She had to get to the chamberpot. She was just standing up when she heard the creak of a floorboard, followed by another. Someone was walking upstairs. Someone was walking slowly. Father walked slowly. Father was finally coming to rescue her. Eleanor grinned with relief as she made her way across the room towards Miss Eyre. The footsteps grew nearer. Another step and father would be here. She held her arms out ready for him to pick her up as from the landing a dark shadow fell across her tiny form.
Eleanor bolted upright in bed, her eyes wide open. The dream again. Looking across at the shutters, she could see a bright light between them. Had she overslept again? Someone knocked on her bedroom door and she jumped in fright, the dream still fogging her mind.
“Eleanor,” her uncle’s voice came muffled through to her. “Are you still in bed? The Marquis will be here soon.”
“I am awake,” she called back, rubbing her eyes as she did so, adding, “Though I wish I weren’t,” under her breath as the bedroom door opened. An obscene amount of light entered the room along with her uncle and her personal maid.
“Get up, slugabed,” her uncle said, turning his back on her once he saw her still in her nightshirt. “To think you are still in your bedclothes at this hour. Your aunt and I have already breakfasted and ridden out to Normanby and back.”
“I did not sleep well, Uncle,” Eleanor replied as she climbed out of bed.
“That is no excuse. The Marquis will not want you yawning throughout your meeting. You are supposed to be making a good impression.”
“Yes, Uncle.” Eleanor knew better than to debate with him. It was impossible to reason with the man. His obsession with the Marquis overrode any rational thoughts.
Eleanor walked behind the screen in the corner of the room, dressing with the help of her maid. “Is this a new one?” she asked, looking down at the yards of fabric gradually enveloping her.
“The dress? Why, yes it is. I thought you would want to look your best for your meeting. If this goes well, you will be engaged to the Marquis of Runswick. First impressions mean everything.”
Eleanor sighed loudly. It was not a first impression. She had met the Marquis on several occasions, turning down his advances every time. Yet still he persisted, bypassing seeking her favour by going directly to her uncle. It had worked. The arranged meeting between her and the Marquis with Aunt and Uncle watching every move was about to happen and it was going to be awful.
By noon, her uncle was running about like an overexcited toddler, snapping at the staff, brushing the statues with a cloth, straightening portraits on the wall, even rearranging the flowers on the table in the reception room. “You would make a good florist,” Eleanor said as she watched him from the doorway.
“I do not know why we have servants if I have to do everything myself,” he replied. “I asked for a display to match his crest and what do they give me? Roses and these bits of weed.”
“Calm down, Uncle,” Eleanor said. “He is unlikely to notice the flowers if my bosom is in the same room.”
The last time she had seen the Marquis, his eyes had been fixed on her cleavage, moving upwards only once before returning to their usual position. He was not even subtle about it. Her aunt had told her it was a sign he was thinking of creating a family with her. Eleanor knew better. If only she felt a spark of liking for the man, it might have been easier. But from his sallow skin to his limp smile and his supercilious manner, he was an impossible man to like.
The sound of the bell ringing in the hallway made her uncle look up from the flowers with panic in his eyes. “He is early,” he squawked, almost running into the hall. Eleanor followed just as the front door was opened to reveal not the Marquis but someone quite different.
“No, no, no,” her uncle said, shaking his head. “Today is not the day. Off with you.”
“Uncle,” Eleanor replied, walking towards the door. “That is not the way to talk to one of my closet friends.”
“Closest friend? A boy? Oh, I swear you are attempting to make me faint dead away, I cannot cope with any of it. Off with you, William, we have no time for you today.”
“Uncle!” Eleanor snapped, pushing past him to reach the doorstep. “Good day, William. Come, we will walk outside before Uncle melts into a puddle of anxiety before us.”
“Be back before one!” her uncle shouted after her as she stepped out into the sunshine, Duke Bailey of Ryedale by her side, doing his best not to laugh. “And do not get dew on that dress.”
“What happens at one?” William asked as they strolled along the gravelled path towards the rose garden.
Eleanor sighed. “My life ends.”
William frowned. “You know the exact time of your demise? That’s quite the skill. Do you know when my life is to end by any chance?”
“In under a minute if you do not stop mocking me.”
William bowed theatrically. “I exist to entertain.”
“You exist to drive me insane.”
Passing through the gate into the rose garden, William paused, sniffing one of the flowers before sneezing loudly. “Think I inhaled a caterpillar.”
Eleanor smiled for the first time that day. “You always know how to cheer me up.”
“By devouring insects? Do not cry then, I’d hate to have to eat a mouse to help dry your tears.”
“A mouse is not an insect.”
“Correct, those hours of classes with your governess were clearly not wasted.”
A flicker of sadness crossed over Eleanor’s eyes. A memory of her early childhood came unbidden to her mind. The dream of last night returned to her a moment later. Poor Miss Eyre.
“What is the matter?” William asked, pointing to the stone bench besides the pond. “Come, sit with me a spell.”
Eleanor sat and watched the fish sluggishly moving in and out of the lilies, the sun reflecting off the surface of the water. “Do you ever feel that someone else is in charge of your life?” she asked at last.
“All the time. The life of a Duke is not his own.”
“Yet you are able to come and visit me when you like.”
“I did not know when I might have another chance. Once you are engaged, I doubt I will be as free to impose on your hospitality without your fiancé’s approval.”
“You heard, then?”
“Did you expect to keep it quiet? Eleanor Risby engaged to the Marquis of Greasy Hair and Hook Nose.”
“It’s not funny, William.”
“I am not laughing.”
Eleanor turned and looked at him. Why could he not have proposed to her? He was everything the Marquis was not. Handsome, witty, caring, interested in her and not just her body. But he had never shown a sign of love beyond that of a friend. He clearly saw her as a sister, not a potential wife. “How long have we known each other?” she asked, realising she had been staring at him.
“Twenty years or so,” he replied. “Since before the…” He trailed off into silence. “I apologise, I did not mean to remind you.”
“I had that dream again last night.” She felt tears welling up inside her. “Oh, William. I do not think I can marry him. He is the most awful man.”
William took her hands in his. “Then do not marry him.”
She pulled her hands away, her gaze moving to the pond once more. “I do not have a choice.”
Caroline squirmed as she fought to free herself from his grip. Her cheeks burned with shame at the sheer injustice of it. How dare he hold her in place on his lap like this? Had he forgotten who she was?
“You will take your punishment,” he growled whilst pulling up the hem of her dress. “And you can wipe that bratty look off your face or I shall make it a dozen.”
He would not do it, surely. He would not strike the backside of the daughter of a Lord. It was inconceivable. A second later, his hand whipped through the air and smacked her left buttock, leaving it stinging with burning heat. The humiliation hurt far more than the physical sensation possibly could. He had done it. The fiend had actually done it.
If it were not for the pained singing of her nerves where he’d struck her, she would have struggled to believe it had really happened.
“Five more to go,” he said with a smile as she fought ever more intensely to free herself from his grasp. “And by the devil, I shall enjoy each one. You have been asking for this since the moment I met you.”
She snarled up at him, attempting to put her fury into words but barely able to speak, the shock too much to handle. Never in her life, had she been struck. And now, this…this wicked scoundrel had taken it upon himself to spank her. How had this happened?
The vase hung in the air for the briefest of seconds, breaking free of the effects of earthly gravity. Time slowed down for Caroline as she stared at it, her mouth slowly falling open as the vase hung motionless in the hallway of Brentwood Manor, hovering without falling.
She blinked and that was all it took for time to return to normal. The vase flew downwards, smashing into polished wooden floor and shattering with such a noise that Lady Brentwood emerged from her boudoir an instant later.
“What on earth was that?” she asked, looking from her daughter to the countless fragments of blue and white china scattered across the floor at her feet. “What have you done now?”
“Margaret did it,” Caroline replied.
“Did she indeed? And where is Margaret now.”
“She ran to the kitchens. I am sorry, Mother, She was dusting and it fell. I tried to catch it, I swear.”
“Indeed,” Lady Brentwood said, sweeping imperiously past her daughter and vanishing into the kitchen, the domain of the servants.
Caroline listened to her mother’s yells. There was no doubt that Margaret would lose her job over this. Served her right.
A less steadfast person might have felt some guilt at the thought of an innocent person being punished for a crime they had not committed. Not Caroline. She held firm in her belief that the ends always justified the means. Margaret had seen her in the garden with Edmund Winchester’s hand up her dress. Therefore she had to go. It was that simple.
That evening, Caroline sat at the dining room table with her parents seated at either end of the polished wooden monstrosity that filled the room. Her father sat at the head of the table, sipping at his soup with the air of one who may expire at any moment. His eyes drooped, his hand trembled, his complexion seemed to grow paler by the moment.
To her left, mother was not eating, she was tapping the table with the fingers of her left hand, waiting for her husband to answer.
“Well dear?” Lady Brentwood asked after an entire minute of silence, the only sound that of the peacocks calling outside on the lawns. “Have you nothing to say about the matter?”
Lord Brentwood looked up at last, smiling weakly across at his wife. “I am sorry my dear, I must not have heard you.”
“You heard me perfectly well. I will have to let Margaret go. She broke the Ming.”
Lord Brentwood shrugged. “If she was responsible for this soup, I will not repent her passing. I have drunk thicker water.”
“You have nothing else to say?” Lady Brentwood asked, nodding pointedly towards Caroline.
Lord Brentwood set his spoon down. “What do you want from me, Jane?”
“I want you to stop this foolish charade and tell our daughter what you saw today.”
Caroline stiffened in her seat. What were they talking about?
Lord Brentwood turned towards her, the miserable look on his face deepening until it appeared much as if he had just dined upon a solid lump of arsenic. He winced, then coughed, and then winced again. “Caroline, my dear,” he said, attempting a smile but soon giving it up as a bad job. “I love you very much as you know.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Reginald,” Lady Brentwood sighed. “You have the backbone of an earthworm. Now, Caroline, tell us what happened this afternoon. Be sure to speak the truth, mind.”
“Of course, Mother,” Caroline said with a smile, launching straight into her well rehearsed speech. “I was walking from my bedroom to the library to fetch another of your superb works of moral value, for it is often my wont of an afternoon to educate myself in the proper ways of living a good Christian life. I have taken many a book from there to elucidate my learning and today was no exception. Upon my return, I spied Margaret dusting the ornaments in a most slovenly manner.”
She paused for breath and Lady Brentwood nodded towards her. “Continue.”
“Certainly, mother. To my eternal shock and surprise, Margaret’s duster swept off the vase from its stand and she ran without looking back. Margaret, I mean, not the duster.”
“Then you emerged, mother.”
“You are certain that is what happened?”
“I swear it is true, may I be struck down dead if I tell a lie.”
Lady Brentwood leaned back in her chair, pressing her fingertips together under her chin in that infuriating way of hers. “Perhaps then, you might explain how you were able to enter the library when your father unlocked it at noon today for the first time in three days?”
Caroline did not pause to think, the words coming out without conscious effort. “Did I say library? I meant I was collecting a book from the study, the collection in there by the portrait of Grandfather is most educational.”
“The study where your father was writing all morning?”
“Yes, mother. He was asleep when I entered and I remained silent to ensure I did not disturb him.”
“He was asleep?”
“Then perhaps you can tell me how your sleeping father was able to write four letters during his slumber?”
Caroline opened her mouth to answer but her mother silenced her with the wave of a hand.
“Also, you might wish to consider the fact that your father can see the Ming from his desk, as he could see you.”
“As he saw you push the vase to the floor.”
“He is lying.” Caroline realised she’d gone too far as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
Lady Brentwood blinked in shock. Lord Brentwood burst into a coughing fit as she stood up, her hand pointing at Caroline. “You would accuse your own father of lying rather than admit the truth?”
“I have told you the truth. He must have been mistaken, perhaps he was dreaming. And you know what his vision is like.”
Lady Brentwood drew herself up to her full height as her husband shrank into his seat in response. “You would have us rid of a good servant,” she said, her voice growing in volume as she spoke. “You spin tales of nonsense to your parents, you have smashed an ornament of not inconsiderable value, and you have just accused your father of lying. Have I missed anything?”
Caroline could not resist. “I have disposed of the ugliest vase in the house.”
Lady Brentwood turned almost purple in her rage. “This is not a laughing matter. You have lied to us both and not for the first time.”
“Oh, mother, do not exaggerate. What other lies have I told?”
“Just this week you promised me you would groom your own pony.”
“He was sick and the stable boy would not let me near him.”
“You told me you did not know where that pound note had gone from my purse.”
“I paid it back.”
“You promised your father a birthday present, told him it was a most valuable gift.”
“I gave him a gift.”
“One of his own roses does not count,” Lady Brentwood shouted at the top of her voice. She paused, taking a deep breath before continuing. “I have had enough of this.”
“Enough of what?” Caroline asked, feeling increasingly nervous. Her mother had never yelled at her like this before.
“Enough of you. You lie about everything. You take responsibility for nothing. I have had enough.”
She sank back into her chair and pulled an envelope from her pocket, sliding it across the table.
“What is that, mother?” Caroline asked, looking at the crest topping the envelope. “Tell me that is not what I think it is.”
Lady Brentwood smiled a smile colder than the iciest of winter winds. “So, that’s what you look like when you’re scared.”
“This is not funny mother. Put that away.”
“I will do no such thing. I intend to reply to this letter tonight. What say you to that?”
“You are bluffing,” Caroline said, her appetite gone. “You would not do it to me.” But the look on her mother’s face left her wondering if maybe, perhaps she would.
I lay across his lap with my bare bottom exposed, my soul aquiver with repressed desire. I fought to contain my feelings, knowing if I gave into them now all would be lost. It was all so different to what I had expected when I had first agreed to become Anthony Mayhew’s governess.
I suppose it really came about because of a friend of mine. George and I had been best friends since we were very small. I knew little of the arrangements that families made in high society, never having any idea that my parents and his had always planned for us to marry when we came of age. All I knew was that from the minute I could walk, there was a regular play friend by my side every minute of the day. From the back door of my house, the grass led gently downwards to the croquet lawn and we would roll down the hill together, cut grass getting caught up in our clothes and our hair, caring about nothing but that tingling excited dizziness that came from a momentary loss of control. We would nap together under the shade of the yew trees, our parents watching from a discreet distance as they talked incessantly about the dullest of subject, politics, current affairs, the weather.
When we were seven we were in the garden by the pond, leaning with our hands dipped in the water, watching the pond skaters skitter past and hoping the fish might come up and tickle our fingers. “I dare you to dive in,” George whispered, raising his eyebrows as he grinned at me.
So I did. I almost drowned. I had not had any swimming lessons, the pond was deeper than I had thought and the water as cold as ice once I fell past the sunlight warmed surface. I expected to reach the bottom and stand victorious before him. Instead as I dived into the water, the chill took my breath away. I attempted to breathe in but only managed to swallow a mouthful of water. I twisted around, my lungs burning as I pushed back for the surface only to catch my foot in the thick growth of weeds beneath me. I gasped again, swallowing more water as I reached down to try and free my foot. Above me I could see the sun rippling and shifting, mocking me from the safety of the open air.
I felt my arms weakening and just as panic threatened to overwhelm me, a pair of strong arms plunged down through the water and scooped me up by the armpits, tearing me free from the weeds and dragging me up to the surface. I emerged coughing and spluttering, looking up into the arms of one of the gardeners, a man whose name I did not even know.
He set me down on the grass beside the pond, examining me closely as I wheezed, my arms shaking with fear. “Are you all right Miss Ella?” he asked, his face a picture of concern.
“I will be,” I gasped before breaking into another bout of coughing.
I glanced across at the pond, so placid even with the diminishing waves still washing across its surface. It looked deceptively calm, something that I had never considered a risk now seemed to drip with invisible danger. My eyes moved to George who was shuffling on the spot behind the gardener.
“Now why on earth did you jump in?” the gardener asked. “What could possess you to do such a thing?”
George stepped forwards and opened his mouth but I spoke before he had chance to confess. “I wanted to cool off,” I said, pulling the remains of torn green frond from around my ankle.
“You wanted to cool off?” the gardener echoed my words. “You might have been killed.”
“But I wasn’t.”
He walked away muttering to himself whilst I sat dripping on the grass, goose bumps forming on my soaked skin even as the summer sun beat down on me. “Thank you for not telling on me,” George said, coming to sit beside me.
I looked across at him. “I’m wet,” I replied, getting to my feet. “I need to change.” I left him sitting there and walked across the lawns towards the back door.
I took a tremendous berating from my mother when she observed me walking into the house with my dress still dripping water. “The carpet!” she cried, running across to me, “the new carpet!” She caught me by the arm and shook me. “What on earth have you been doing Ella May Sutherland? You look like a drowned rat.”
“I fell in the pond,” I replied, unable to meet her eye.
“You fell in the pond? You need to be more careful. Go and wait outside and I will bring you a dress to change into. I will not have you traipsing pond water through this house.”
I stood shivering on the steps to the garden until she returned, a fresh dress folded neatly over her arms. “Come on, come on,” she said. “Out of those wet things this instant.”
As I changed on the doorstep, she continued her admonishment of me, only ending when I burst into tears, unable to contain my emotions any longer. “You need to be more careful,” she said, her voice softening at last as I sobbed beside her. “You are our only daughter and I do not know what I would do if we lost you.”
“I will be more careful,” I replied, my breath hitching in my chest.
“I will have to ask George to keep an eye on you from now on.” She was looking past me and I followed her gaze, spying George strolling towards us, his arm held upwards in a cheery wave. “Such a mature boy. If only you could be more like him.”
That was only the first of countless dares George goaded me into. As we grew, they became more elaborate, ranging from stealing the cook’s scales to climbing to the highest chimney pot on the house, an adventure that left me with a scar on my left calf still visible to this day. I still could not say why I agreed to each challenge other than the need to prove that I could match any boy in anything. My parents would often chastise me for my behaviour but it made no difference. A dare was a dare whether I was seven and half drowning in the pond or sixteen and running away from the greenhouse through the crunch of broken glass that my thrown stone had caused.
I was eighteen when things changed. I had changed beyond recognition even in the few years since damaging the greenhouse. Almost overnight my body had become that of a woman. My hips had widened, my chest so flat for so long had bloomed until I felt far more mature than my years. I would sometimes marvel at myself in my bedroom mirror, thinking of how I used to look. My hair was lustrous and curled neatly around my face where it had for so long been unmanageable despite the best efforts of the chambermaids.
George’s attitude towards me had changed too. Where he had been happy to just be in my company for so long, once I began to draw admiring glances from other young bachelors he would scowl at me, as if I were bewitching them somehow, as if I belonged only to him. It was a day in June of my eighteenth year and we were out walking together through the park, having taken a trap from my house into town. Having left our conveyance at his townhouse, we were strolling past the bandstand when we passed a group of three young men, one of whom passed an admiring comment in my direction.
“That is my fiancée sir,” George scowled at the young man, his friends smirking at the show beginning before them. “You are not to address her now or ever is that clear?”
“I can speak for myself,” I replied, pulling my arm free from George. “And this engagement of ours has come as news to me.”
He turned to face me, the three swells watching behind him. “We are as good as engaged,” he snapped. “We only await the formalities.”
“Such as you asking my father for permission?”
“It was your father who suggested the marriage in the first place.”
Behind him the men chuckled. George glanced back at them before taking my arm and leading me away. “Let us discuss this somewhere more private.”
But we did not discuss it. He lapsed instead into a moody silence which lasted until we had left the park and were passing along the main thoroughfare. I stopped to look in the window of a jewellery shop, admiring the selection of necklaces and earrings. “May we go in?” I asked.
“Of course,” George replied, a smile appearing on his face for the first time in some minutes. It was a smile I recognised. A dare was coming.
“Good afternoon,” the jeweller greeted us as we entered. “Is there any way I can assist you fine pair on this beautiful day?”
“Perhaps we might look at the necklace in the window?” George asked.
The shopkeeper chuckled. “Of course good sir. Though you may need to be a tad more specific as to which of my fine pieces you might be referring to.”
“Which one did you like the look of darling?” George asked me.
“The ruby one, that one there.” As I pointed, George leaned over to my ear until he could whisper.
His voice was barely audible. “Dare you to steal a ring.”
I flushed as the shopkeeper reached into the window display. “Just cannot quite reach it,” he muttered, balancing on a stool and attempting to reach into the furthest corner. “Hold on a moment good sir.”
I glanced at him and then at George who was nodding at me eagerly. With a roll of my eyes, I spun on my heels and faced the counter. With a final look back over my shoulder I reached around the edge of the glass counter top, my arm stretching until I set my fingers on the nearest ring. I pulled it upwards just as the jeweller reached the necklace. “There we are,” he said. “You need long arms working here.”
“No doubt you do,” George replied as I slipped my hand into my pocket, feeling the ring weigh heavily in there, certain the shopkeeper would immediately notice its absence. I did my best to feign an interest in the necklace but all I was interested in was getting out of there.
“Perhaps you would like to try it on, Darling?” George asked, leading me across to the mirror sat on the edge of the counter. I stood facing the mirror as he hooked the necklace around me, leaning towards my ear as he did so. “Well done,” he whispered before stepping back. “There, I think it looks delightful.”
“You good lady will be the belle of the ball with such a magnificent piece,” the jeweller added. “Simply beautiful.”
“I am not so sure,” I replied, turning to George and pleading with my eyes to go. He took the hint after several seconds of frowning confusion.
“On second thoughts, perhaps we should consider the matter over luncheon,” he said, unhooking the necklace and handing it back to the shopkeeper.
“Of course, of course,” the jeweller said. “Take your time. I will be right here. I will even hold onto it for the rest of the day for you, just in case.”
“Thank you my good man,” George said, tipping his hat to him before pulling open the door and leading me outside. Once we were out I almost collapsed into his arms.
“We must give it back,” I said as he began to walk away. “A dare is a dare but we should not steal from someone so polite.”
George threw back his head and laughed. “So if he were rude, thievery would be acceptable? Come Ella, do not talk nonsense. How on earth would you explain returning it? ‘Oh I am sorry, this fell into my pocket from behind your counter.’ No, we shall keep it as the spoils of war. I daresay it will look nice enough with the others in your collection. Let us have a look at the fellow, shall we?”
He reached into my pocket but I slapped at his hand. “Not here,” I hissed. “He will see.”
“You worry too much,” he replied. Nonetheless he took my arm and led me around the corner before pulling out the ring. “Oh it is exquisite,” he said. “Here, try it on.”
It did not fit, being far too large for my finger. “Oh that is a shame,” he said. “Never mind. So are you hungry?”
I felt a rising sense of dread that only grew as the afternoon wore on. I was certain that at any moment a constable would lay his hand upon my shoulder and demand I come with him. I thought of prison and the gallows and being transported. My appetite vanished and I ate little of the splendid food we found at a little café by the river. Throughout the journey home I expected horses to overrun us at any moment, a wheeled gaol of iron being brought out so I could be jeered at by the masses, rotten fruit thrown at me in the stocks like some medieval peasant.
George left me on my doorstep, kissing me on the cheek before leaving, bidding me not to worry. “It will be fine,” he said as he looked at my panic stricken face. “I will protect you if it comes to it. Do not trouble yourself over a trifle, I always say. Especially your mother’s trifle.” He shuddered and grimaced and I managed a flicker of a smile. “I will see you tomorrow.” He kissed me again before mounting the trap and heading back towards the gates.
I watched him go before turning and heading up the steps to the house. I spent the evening in my bedroom, attending dinner only for the sake of appearances with my parents but eating little. The theft gnawed away at me throughout, the ring in my pocket whilst I mulled over just what to do about the theft. It was of course too late to return it now. Or could I send it anonymously through the post to the shopkeeper? I attempted to sleep on the question but slumber was a long time coming that night, my dreams filled with me in arrowed clothing, a noose around my neck, the jeweller pulling the lever to send me plummeting downwards until my neck snapped again and again and again.
All these years later I only have to close my eyes to see again the look on his face when I left him. It was a look I had waited so long to see; a look I had caused. It should have brought joy to my heart to see him as utterly broken as he was but instead all I felt at the time was pain; pain and an intense sense of guilt. I had done this. I had destroyed a man who loved me that much. And all because I wanted revenge.
I was the first generation of my family not to grow up in our ancestral seat. I was born in Highfield Manor but I have no memory of that place, being forced from it within a month of my birth. To think anyone could be so cruel as to remove a nursing mother from the home she had known her entire life, the home that belonged to her family. It would take a devil of a man to be so callous. Sir Josiah Crossway was that man.
What little I know of that time was not given gladly. It was a source of intense shame to my family that we were usurped and for years all they would tell me was that we had always lived at 12 Rillington Drive on the outskirts of York. I think I was eleven or twelve when the truth finally slipped out. I was walking along the city walls with my mother on a bright spring day when she suddenly took my hand and spun me round, walking briskly back the way we had come. “I want to go this way!” I remember saying to her, pulling my hands free and twisting away from her.
“Come back Isabella,” she called, a note of panic in her voice.
I ignored her and strode forwards, straight into a mountain of a man who was blocking my path. I bounced off him as effectively as if I had run into a solid wall. My mother caught my hand. “You wicked girl,” she snapped. “Come on.”
“Ah, Mrs Reed,” the man said, his voice a deep growl that made me look up at him, half expecting to see the face of a bear emerging from the top of his coat. Instead he had the features of a man around the same age as my mother. Thirty, perhaps thirty five, his hair was contained underneath an expensive looking top hat. Beneath the curls of his fringe lay a face which seemed accustomed to being obeyed, an expression of deep condescension resting upon his features which mingled with a hint of amusement. “How lovely to see you. How are you?”
“Do not speak to me sir,” she snapped at him, the muscles of her neck bulging as she contained an anger I had never seen in her before. “Come Isabella. Let us walk on.” She began to walk away, dragging me behind her.
“Oh surely you are not still angry about that trifling affair?” he called after us.
“Trifling sir?” She stopped dead, turning and striding back up to him. “Trifling? Is that all it is to you? Is that all life is to you? A mere game.”
“I see you still bear a grudge then.”
“Oh if I were not a woman, I would strike you to the ground here and now.”
He laughed, throwing back his head whilst my mother’s face turned an even deeper shade.
“To the devil with you!” mother said, grabbing me and walking away so fast I had to trot to keep up with her. She took the nearest set of steps down to the street and it was another minute before she listened to my pleading cries for her to slow down. As if waking up from a dream, she turned and looked at me, seeing the red marks on my arm from where she had gripped me so tightly. “Oh Isabella,” she said, kneeling next to me. “I am sorry. Are you hurt?”
My bottom lip trembled but I managed to resist crying. “Who was he?” I asked as she led me to a bench and sat beside me. She did not answer, instead looking into the distance for some time.
I was about to repeat the question when without looking in my direction she spoke in a quiet voice of resignation. “If I tell you, you must promise you will have nothing to do with that man. I cannot have any more lives ruined because of him.”
“I promise, Mother.”
She looked down at me, taking my hand in hers. “You must swear. If you ever see him again, you will walk away. He is toxic, a poison that will taint all who come near. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” My brow furrowed.
“Before you were born your father and Josiah were friends, they fought together for Queen and country many years ago. When they came back they had both acquired a new hobby, gambling at cards. The stakes were raised at every game until…until…”
She fell quiet and I noticed a single tear forming at the corner of her eye. I waited for her to speak but when she did it was to suggest we find somewhere to take luncheon. Only when we were sat in a café near the Minster, her with tea, me with a slice of cake and lemon cordial, did she then continue.
“You must forgive me Isabella,” she began, setting down her cup and leaning conspiratorially towards me, her voice low. “It is not easy for me to tell this tale and I had hoped to keep it from you. If we had not seen that villain today I might have continued to keep you safe from the brutal wickedness that exists in this world. But I know him and I know that look in his eye. He would befriend you to hurt us and I cannot allow that to happen. I care about you too much. You do know that don’t you Isabella, that your father and I both love you?”
“Of course I do, Mother,” I said, dabbing cake crumbs from the corner of my mouth. “How could I not?”
“Your father, he was drunk when it happened. Josiah had been plying him with drinks for a day and a night whilst the cards were dealt, ensuring he was quite insensible and incapable of thinking rationally. The stakes had been risen again and again, your father certain he had a hand that could not be beaten. If only I had stopped him. Oh, how different things might have been for us all.”
She fell silent again for a time, a faraway look in her eyes and a wistful smile upon her lips. It took the breaking of a plate at the far side of the café to bring her out of her reverie. As a blushing waitress collected the pieces of fallen crockery, mother continued. “Crossway bet his home against ours. It was madness of course, Crossway Hall against Highfield Manor on a single hand. But your father was so sure he accepted. The cards were laid face down whilst the papers were prepared. They both signed, the agreement being that whoever lost would hand over their seat to the other exactly one year later. With half the staff watching, the hand was played. Father turned over his cards, barely able to see them in his stupor. ‘Beat that,’ he slurred.
“ ‘That is a fine hand to be certain,’ Crossway replied before revealing a set of cards which saw us thrown from our home when you were only a month old.”
She took a sip from her cup. “It has gone cold. Come, let us go home.”
I did not tell her but I made a vow to myself that day. I vowed that I would get revenge on Josiah Crossway. It was not the look upon my mother’s face that had led me to that decision. It was the half smile on that man’s face when I saw him on the city walls. He had cheated, I had no doubt of that. To wait until father was drunk to suggest betting for such stakes, for it to be his cards in his house, there could be no doubt he had swindled us out of our home.
I was nineteen when my vow coalesced into a distinct plan. “Have you heard?” Father said one morning, looking up over the top of his newspaper. “Crossway is looking for a wife.”
Mother almost choked on her coffee. “Him?” she exclaimed after a bout of coughing. “Who on earth would want him for a husband?”
I listened in silence, a dawning realisation taking place. Here was my chance for revenge, lined up before me. “What is that look upon your face?” mother said, turning to look at me.
“Oh nothing, Mother,” I smiled. “Would you please excuse me?”
By the end of that day my plan was set. I would introduce myself to him as a potential bride. I would seduce him, do whatever it took to make him fall for me. Once he had done so, I would break his heart by walking away and leaving him to mull over the consequences of cheating the Reed family out of what was rightly theirs. I knew I could not tell my parents of my plan for they would no doubt attempt to talk me out of it. Instead I told them I wished to stay at the home of Victoria Atkins, a friend of mine since childhood.
I did make the journey to Victoria’s house, confessing my plan to her once I arrived. “You must be mad,” she said when I had finished. “Have you not heard about him?”
“Heard what? That he is a wicked villain who deserves everything he has coming to him?”
“I have no doubt your grounds for desiring revenge are virtuous. But this is not the way Isabella. You would enter a den of iniquity and sin and hope to leave it with your chastity intact? And for what? It would not gain you back a single stone of your house. I say it is madness and I wish you would change your mind.”
“I will be fine,” I said, patting the back of her hand. “Do not worry about me unnecessarily.”
She sighed. “Well if you are set on this path, I want no part of it.”
“There is something you can help me with though.”
“What do you know about him? What does he like?”
“Oh Isabella, the stories I have heard about Josiah Crossway would make you faint dead away. I am not sure I should tell you.
“I am an adult Victoria, not some innocent child.”
“Yes but for how long?” she muttered so quietly I barely heard her.
“What on earth do you mean by that?”
“You will learn soon enough if you go through with this insane scheme of yours.”
“You know something Victoria. Tell me please, I implore you.”
“Very well. What I know of him comes from those in my circle who have attended his gatherings. To honour you I have of course refused to venture to his home myself, despite a number of grovelling invitations I might add.”
“And I thank you for your loyalty.”
She nodded. “Those who go speak of the sheer impropriety they observe. He has been seen to physically chastise female guests in a most brutish manner, indeed seeming to gain pleasure from such incidents. If rumours are to be believed, he has bedded a number of debutantes with no goal other than his own depraved satisfaction.”
I blushed from my head to my toes. “He would take them to bed without marrying? That cannot be true.”
“I hope not but I have heard it is so from several sources. Not only that but he has taken to insisting those who spend any time with him adhere to his commands without question. None have lasted in his home for longer than a few hours under such conditions. It is no wonder he has not yet taken a wife for who would put up with him for a husband?”
“You sound like my mother.” I pondered for a moment as a realisation came to me. “This may be the information I needed most of all,” I smiled. “I need only make myself amenable to him and the matter will no doubt be settled.”
“But Isabella, do you not worry what it might entail for you?”
“I can handle myself, Victoria,” I said. “I will be fine.”
Of course if I knew then what I knew a few hours later, I would have answered her very, very differently indeed.