The carriage ride from the train station was much longer than Jane expected. In the hours it took to arrive at Rothhall Manor, over bumpy roads made worse by the spring rains, the sky clouded over to a depressing, oily gray. She herself was in quite a state of disarray. She was beginning—and not for the first time since her journey began—to reconsider her choice.
She had only to consider the failing health of her sister, and the wretched conditions in which they lived, to resign herself yet again to her decision. This was the best she could hope for now that her family’s fortunes were lost. While she had dreamed of escaping the drudgery of the servant class through marriage, perhaps to a shopkeeper or another merchant, she knew that those dreams were more than likely lost to her, and a servant’s position at Rothhall Manor was the best she could hope for.
The carriage stopped abruptly as she mused on her new home. They had come to the estate by a back route, pockmarked and unkempt, so she was stunned to see the elegant building looming above her when at last the carriage came to a stop and she leaned to the window to look out.
Horses whinnied, and the scent of manure and garbage wafted through the door when it was opened by the carriage handler. “Rothhall Manor, miss,” the driver said indecorously.
Jane stepped from the carriage. The carriage handler, a young man, made no attempt to hide his gaze as it traveled hungrily up and down her body as he held her hand to assist her to the ground. She fought hard to prevent the creep of a scarlet blush from crawling from her neck and up to her cheeks but failed. She would never become accustomed to the manner with which men treated young women of the lower classes.
Still, she did not want to make a terrible impression, so she straightened her skirts and ignored the young man. When her feet reached the ground, she heard the squelch of mud and felt a cool wetness envelop her foot, so she stepped to the side in hopes of drier ground. She found none.
She looked around, wondering if her arrival had been announced.
A rotund woman in a servant’s uniform exited the building to her right, and Jane heard the carriage handler refer to her as the new maid, a strange emphasis on ‘maid.’ The announcement caused the woman to wave away some chickens, stand up straight, and look Jane up and down with a stern expression on her face. She seemed to be glaring at her.
Jane, not knowing what else to do or the proper etiquette for a meeting between a servant and her underling, curtsied slightly.
The woman snorted. “We aren’t the queen, are we? Well. Come in and I’ll take you to your quarters. There’s work aplenty to begin today. Hope you had a good journey because there’s no rest for… you.”
This elicited a tremendous cackle from the carriage driver and the woman both. Jane pursed her lips in an attempt to ignore them. A bad feeling was overtaking her, and she had half a mind to turn around and go home. Though how such a thing would be accomplished, she had no idea. She was now penniless, and she had no desire to bargain with the sneering carriage boy for her return fare. The entrance to the estate loomed before her, dark and foreboding. The cook entered, absentmindedly waving Jane through the stained and nicked entryway. The carriage driver set her things in the mud next to her with a wink.
Jane prevented her lips from quivering by biting them.
It’s only temporary, she told herself. She remembered the weekly pay, and she closed her eyes to steel herself. She would work hard, pay for her sister’s doctor, get her back to health and perhaps get her a job through Mr. Hartcourt as well. And then, she would think of a way out of this predicament.
But right now, it was simply about survival.
Jane had been raised in a debt-ridden family, and so had begun her life with wealth and seen most of it disintegrate, leaving herself and her sister penniless upon the demise of her parents. A distant relative who had taken them in had squandered what was left of their family fortune, which in truth had not been much, and had since disappeared in Southern Europe, leaving Jane and Angelina with a decrepit house, the constant visitations of debt collectors, and little to sell to live on. Angelina was ill, they could not afford the doctor, and neither had any skills to speak of.
But Jane was a clever girl, and she mastered the art of blending in to her surroundings almost instantly. So, when she had stumbled into the small, disarrayed bureau downtown by mistake, seen that the owner, Mr. Hartcourt, had taken her for an applicant, and had recognized opportunity, she had pretended falsely and quite easily to be the person he wanted her to be.
And now, following the matronly Mrs. Ames, who seemed to be some kind of main housekeeper, Jane was doing her best—and evidently with some success—to ‘blend in’ with her surroundings. If Mrs. Ames believed she was a well-trained maid (she seemed to emphasize this point about training constantly) then Jane would allow her to believe it, and do her best not to disappoint. She only needed enough money to pay for her sister’s doctor, to buy them some time, and then to stage a return to society and secure a husband. Preferably, a very wealthy one.
Jane was not above deception, but she was not a thief, though when she entered the manor, she did consider becoming one. A single item swiped from the endless rooms and halls in enormous mansion would easily buy her the time she needed to amend her problems.
Mrs. Ames explained very little as she led Jane to her quarters. Jane was surprised by the room she was given: she had expected something bare and minimal, and yet the servant’s room looked much like her old room, steeped in rich fabrics, paintings, and colors, even wallpaper, with a large bed and a very thick mattress. The room was quite large, yet she saw no sign that she had to share it. There was even a private washroom, though there was no bath.
Jane decided she would not ask about the bath until later.
“This is quite a lovely room,” she remarked. “This is a servant’s room?”
Mrs. Ames gave her a queer look, rolled her eyes, and sniffed disdainfully. She then waved at the bed. “I’ve set yer uniform out, yer to be working and meet the master tomorrow.”
Jane thanked her and set about unpacking her things. She used the washroom, arranged her clothing, and then decided to take a peek into the hallway and meet some other servants. But the hallway was empty, the doors to the rooms closed and locked.
She returned to her room, and decided it was best not to be caught doing something improper, before she even knew what propriety was. She went to bed without trying on the uniform, which she had rather hastily scooped up and set on a dressing bench.
She regretted the decision the next day, for when she attempted to put on the uniform, it seemed to be quite ill-fitting. She had risen at the crack of dawn from a sleepless night, and begun to get ready, because she also did not know what time servants began their work.
Mrs. Ames was pounding rudely on the door very soon after dawn. “Miss Peaton, breakfast is served. I expect you should be down there immediately if you’re wanting to eat.”
Jane was struggling with the clasps of the very ill-fitting costume: a black maid costume but, seemingly, for a dwarf. The real hire for this position must have been quite small, she thought bitterly, the petticoat flouncing around her knees.
“This costume is a bit… ill-fitting,” she complained through the door. “I just… I am struggling to—”
There was no time to react to Mrs. Ames opening the door with her own key and marching into the room. Jane’s face burned and she backed away from the older woman. Her eyes went to the hall, her senses felt acutely the part of her body laid bare by the size of the dress.
Mrs. Ames took a look up and down Jane’s body, scowling. Then she scowled even more deeply. “Not a thing wrong with it, suits you fine! Did they not take your measurements?”
Jane was too baffled to speak. Her mouth moved and she struggled with the clasps. “It’s, but it’s quite—”
She did not get to finish her sentence because Mrs. Ames had spun her around and was violently clasping the dress, cinching it tightly to her body. She spun her back around again, and Jane was staring at her own breasts, which had been pushed up and nearly out of the tunic.
“There you are,” she huffed. “Now, to breakfast with ye, and I won’t be doing this again.” She started to leave.
“But, Mrs. Ames!” Jane exclaimed. “This is… is this costume… certainly it’s too… short!” she exclaimed, her face growing red.
Mrs. Ames turned and looked at her as though she had grown a second head. Then she snorted. “It’s exactly as it should be, and you’d do best to stop your yammering, young lady. Your employers expect you at half past ten and I have other things to do with my time than to tend to your wardrobe. Scoot!”
Jane looked down at her bare legs, and the curious stockings of silk she had been provided, and quickly pulled them on, fumbling with the odd garters she discovered beneath them. It was all very… revealing. Her face burned.
Perhaps this was a much more modern house, the Hunters perhaps were foreign or had spent a great deal of time abroad, in the lascivious France, perhaps. It was all she could think of.
The shoes fit her poorly; they were too large and had a strange heel. This only added to her ideas about France, but she had little time to contemplate such things as Mrs. Ames was hollering at her down the hallway.
She was alone for her meal, the last of the servants exiting as she arrived. Jane noted with some concern that none of the maids appeared to be wearing a similar costume to hers. She decided there were likely things like scullery maids and regular maids, and she ate quickly with Mrs. Ames urging her to hurry. She then followed her through the vast mansion along the servants’ corridors.
Mrs. Ames mostly told her where she was allowed to go and where she was not allowed to go, opening door after door into rich, luxurious, high-ceilinged rooms. She explained very few cleaning duties and Jane felt a mounting panic as she pondered whether she was simply supposed to know what to do. How would she fake such abilities?
“Now, you’re to meet Mr. Hunter,” Mrs. Ames said, as a grandfather clock chimed half-past ten. A butler appeared from seemingly nowhere. “Mr. Ryerson shall accompany you.”
And with that, she was gone.
Mr. Ryerson was not a talkative man, saying nothing as he led her out of the servants’ passageways and into a grand hall, with large arched wood ceilings and a great deal of sunlight filtering through the open doors. He made a sharp right at one of the doors and clicked his heels. “Miss Peaton, sir. Your new… maid.”
There was a very odd tone in his voice when he said the word ‘maid,’ and it was this tone, along with the look he gave her, that finally alerted Jane that something very, very wrong was taking place. What had she gotten herself into?
She stood in the doorway, and then stepped inside when the stoic man facing the window did not respond in any other way to her presence. Her heart had begun to race, her mind was replaying everything odd about her position so far, and she was just starting to believe she had made a very big mistake… though of what nature, she could not be sure.
She decided, thinking of her sister, to allow the day to play out. She needed the money, she reminded herself. Anyway, how strange could the truth be?
She was unsure of exactly what posture to adopt as she presented herself to her new employer. She settled on folding her hands in front of herself and looking down at the floor.
Jane listened to the butler’s footsteps retreating and had her mouth open to question the impropriety of being left alone with a man, when a low growl of a voice barked at her. “Well. Come in and present yourself, Miss Peaton.”
Jane took a deep breath. Well, this must be how the lower classes were treated. She stepped into the room, a remarkable, enormous cavern, the walls filled with shelves of books and gilded mirrors and paintings, vast and ornate decor that must have cost a fortune. Jane forgot her meekness and stared openly around her before looking for her new master.
Her stomach fell as she thought of the word. But she must simply accept her fate, she knew. She continued into the dim light, looking for where the voice had come from.
Master Hunter had been standing next to a bookshelf and turned suddenly to face her.
He was a dark-haired man—his hair was a wild, tangled crop of wavy black, and his eyes were steel blue and piercing. His square jaw was set in a stern expression and had the appearance, for some reason, of rarely changing. He was tall, and his physique was imposing. Jane was set aflutter by the handsomeness—and the roughness—of this man, who was purportedly a gentleman. She had expected someone much more soft, more smooth-edged and small-chinned than the man who stood before her.
“I expect you to close the door when you enter my chambers,” he said.
His voice was low and calm, but there was a very rough and commanding edge beneath it. Jane’s stomach twisted and went cold.
“Sir, I…” she began, twisting her hands.
She wasn’t sure how she meant to finish that sentence and had been hoping he would do so for her. Instead, he looked at her plainly, his eyes burning through her skin, until she curtsied slightly, turned awkwardly, and, with her heart pounding in her ears, closed the door.
The room was utterly silent save for the crackle of the fire when she turned around.
Master Hunter was looking at her, his eyes burning like hot coals. In the most inappropriate way! He lingered, quite obviously, on her breasts, and the short skirt she became painfully aware of yet again, before moving his gaze over her exposed calves and ankles.
Jane blushed again, and her entire body felt as though it had been lit up like a fire. It was a most peculiar feeling, and it made her chest feel so tight she was sure she would be unable to speak. What she did manage to say eked from inside of her and left her mouth shaky and tight.
“Sir, this is the… your servants left this… uniform for me… and I am afraid it is… I didn’t want to wear it, but you see I had nothing else.” She took a deep breath in, waiting for him to interject and salvage the conversation, but he continued to stare at her intently. “It is most inappropriate,” she said. “I shall amend the situation immediately if only you can guide me to a… a… a tailor of some… kind…”
Her voice trailed off, because Master Hunter was still staring at her, a look of mild confusion on his face, mixed with displeasure. He was also stepping closer to her, looking her up and down, slowly, like a cat eyeing a mouse.
Jane’s heart felt like a lump of ice in her chest. The sensation was almost… pleasurable.
Her cheeks burned again as she had a very, very inappropriate thought, and she had a hard time swallowing.
“There is nothing wrong with your uniform,” Hunter said, stepping ever closer to her. He cocked his head slightly to the side. “Perhaps you are accustomed to something different at your last place of employment, but here this is what you shall wear. It facilitates your training in many ways. I am sure you understand that, Miss Peaton.”
She did not, and the dark feeling this place had given her started to return. Perhaps it was the way that Master Hunter said the word ‘training.’
She nodded and mumbled, “Yes, sir,” meekly, though. She could not ruin her one chance to save herself and her sister from a life in the poorhouse, or debtor’s jail.
“I trust Mrs. Ames has explained your household chores,” Hunter continued. “I am to go over your training with you. Naturally, I will require my own examination before you are fully approved for service.”
Jane opened her mouth and closed it again quickly, her eyes narrowing. Something was very, very wrong here. She could feel it in her bones.
“I wasn’t… aware that there was an examination,” she said quietly. She looked around the room. What sort of examination? Oh, dear, she would be kicked out before she even had a chance to try. Her eyes began to water. “I haven’t… sir, I feel most unprepared.”
Hunter seemed to glare at her. “Nevertheless,” he said quietly and sternly. “You shall be examined immediately by Dr. White. Ryerson!” he hollered, with hardly a break in his voice. Footsteps could be heard scurrying to reach the room. The doors opened behind him and the butler rushed in.
“Summon Dr. White and request that he meet us in the surgery, Ryerson.”
He gave directions with the sort of firmness and conviction that men who are very used to being obeyed direct others: he did not hedge his requests in polite phrases, and he spoke with the even tone of a man who did not consider it a possibility that his orders would not be followed.
Something deep inside of Jane, between her heart and her most private places, became taut like a strung bow.
Ryerson clicked his heels. “Of course, sir.” He left after another bow.
Jane could not help watching him leave, feeling the same discomfort at the lack of propriety on display.
She turned with a confused expression to Mr. Hunter, her mind returning to the even more disturbing breach of norms: the ‘examination.’ What sort of examination would she do in a surgery, with a doctor?
“Come,” Hunter said, striding past her. “I am satisfied with your appearance thus far, and so we shall proceed with a more intimate examination.”
The tight bow in her body stretched again and the word ‘intimate’ amplified in her mind, repeating over and over until she felt a hot flush creeping over her cheeks. She was so stunned by the unexpectedness of her situation, and the utter impropriety she had seen not once but thrice, that she was unable to speak. It was only after a few minutes, through numerous grand hallways and passages, dripping in rich tapestries and gilded portraits, that she found her voice.
“Sir, Master Hunter, please, sir… I apologize but I believe that there has been… I think there is some kind of—”
She had been about to say “mistake,” but the tall man had already stopped in his tracks and turned upon her. His dark figure towered over her, his blue eyes churning with a frightening intensity as his entire demeanor remained otherwise calm.
“Miss Peaton,” he said, his voice even. “Such lack of discipline I have never seen in a servant from Hartcourt. You shall be punished soundly for speaking out of turn, and I expect you shall be silent and obedient until we reach the surgery.”
He added, after a pause, “Or you shall receive a punishment the likes of which you have not so much as imagined.”
Had Jane been a more experienced woman, she would have recognized the waver in Mr. Hunter’s voice as the clutch of consuming lust. The words took a moment to circulate through her mind, and when they did, the taut string inside of her felt as though it had been plucked. The vibration traveled to her heart and her groin, throbbing in both places as she followed Mr. Hunter to the surgery.
She told herself that she did not want her pay to be docked, or worse yet, her job to be lost at such an early stage. She could not, in fact, afford either of those things, after all.
The words he had used—punishment, receive a punishment—did not sound like that sort of punishment, though.
And why had they stirred such a… such a wicked, naughty feeling inside of her? She was feeling things in that very bad part of her body.
She closed her eyes for a moment, lowered her head, and followed Master Hunter. She was simply unaccustomed to the ways of the servant class, imagining things that were naughty and wicked and somehow appealing, and being quite ridiculous.
She would simply submit to this examination—whatever it was, probably a perfunctory search for typhoid or some other low-class disease—and then she would keep to her own work. And not think about Master Hunter and his muscular hands, or his stubble-covered jaw.
They entered a small room in a lower-level corridor near the servants’ quarters. Mr. Hunter opened the door and stood aside, gesturing that she should enter. Another strange breach of protocol, as far as she knew, but one she found less frightening. Jane proceeded into the surgery, the gesture making her feel much more natural.
Once inside, however, the realization that she was quite outside of the world she knew so well became a stark and undeniable reality again.
Another stunning man turned to her as she entered, and rather than greet her, his eyes traveled up and down her body as one might look at a horse or a fine vase for appraisal.
The man wore a doctor’s white coat over two pieces of an autumn-weight three-piece suit. Like Mr. Hunter, his clothing was impeccably tasteful and expensive. Also, like Hunter, he was dark-haired, though his complexion was more fair, and his features were somehow softer than Hunter’s. His eyes were brown and gentle, and though his expression was serious, his features had the appearance of easily smiling.
“A fine specimen,” he said to Master Hunter.
Jane had stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the doctor and then she could sense Hunter’s enormous body behind her, even though he moved with a silence that was peculiar for a man his size. Something radiated from him, the way heat would transfer, but it was another thing, something that sent tingles up and down her spine.
She jumped slightly when the door closed behind her and the radiation from his body came even closer to her.
Hunter moved with his frightening, quiet grace to Jane’s left, his eyes on her with the same unknowable expression, stern and disquieting.
There was a silence in the room as Jane looked desperately from one man to the other, her stomach writhing, the bowstring inside of her getting tauter with each passing second.
At last, the doctor gestured at an examination table in the center of the room. Jane followed his hand to where it pointed, and was shocked to see not only a table, but leather cuffs at each of the corners, such as might be used for restraining.
But restraining what? Animals?
The restraints were thick and well-used and looking at them caused another wave of the very bad, naughty feeling to course through Jane—the feeling that she was looking at something she most certainly should not be seeing.
Her heart felt cold again. Like a beating piece of ice in her chest.
“I don’t… I’m not…” she stammered, looking from one to the other as though someone might explain the perplexing situation to her.
Master Hunter grew impatient next to her; she could sense the disturbance. “Miss Peaton. Submit to your examination.” His voice was the same level, accustomed to command voice he had used in the hallway, and the taut bowstring was again plucked inside of her.
Under his breath, he addressed the doctor. “Honestly, Dr. White, this one has behaved as though she has a concussion.”
Jane was frozen in place. The sense that she had stumbled into something quite different than what she had expected was pouring slowly over her, and she could not gather her wits to piece the puzzle together. She looked helplessly at the doctor, unable to speak.
“Please remove your clothing and assume an examination position,” the doctor said. His gentle brown eyes were not indicative of what his voice sounded like at all. He was firm and even-toned like Hunter, with a steeliness to his words.
Jane looked from one to the other while trying to will her limbs to move, though she was unsure which direction she wanted to go. To the table, and whatever absurd fate awaited her there? Or to the door, to run out to the desolate moors, and then what?
It was becoming apparent, with each passing moment, that some sort of terrible mistake had been made. She could see it all now. Well, not all of it, but enough of it: the salacious looks from the driver, the ease with which she’d gotten the job, the uniform that defied propriety, the comments from the other servants, and now… now this.
“There has been,” she said shakily, “a terrible mistake.”
There were blank expressions for a moment. Master Hunter’s lip curled up at the corner, in pleasure and what seemed to be almost perverse cruelty. The change in his demeanor was as unexpected as anything else Jane had been subjected to, and she found herself more confused than ever, a rising panic strangling her from the inside out.
And yet… there were other feelings inside of her, feelings of excitement and curiosity, the tight bowstring that so frequently plucked and reverberated in places she was not to mention. Perhaps these forces kept her in place, awaiting the men’s reaction.
“Hartcourt really has come through, hasn’t he, Finn?” Hunter said, his eyes still on Jane. His gaze was so hungry, so overtly sexual, that Jane could feel it on her like the heat of the sun.
She fluttered her eyes nervously from the floor to the doctor.
He was looking at her, astounded. His expression had changed as well; he now seemed pleased by her behavior. “Indeed, he has.”
Jane found a will to move her feet, and backed toward the door, not wanting to let either man out of her sight. “I don’t understand what is happening here—”
“You are being disobedient,” the doctor said, with a smile beneath his stern expression. “And you will need to be punished accordingly.”
Jane’s body chilled. “Sir,” she said. “Respectfully, I wish only to perform my duties as your servant… I… but I…”
The two men exchanged glances.
“Marvelous,” murmured the doctor. “Now, to see how she reacts to discipline.” He looked at Jane. “Are you going to submit willingly, or must you be taught to receive punishment as well?”
Jane’s mouth hung open. Her insides stirred: she could feel a fire building in her most dirty places, and she could not explain to herself why. She knew she should leave immediately, because there seemed to be something in store for her that she had not bargained on.
She needed the job, for one thing, which is what she told herself to smooth away the dirty truth: she wanted to remain there. The words ‘taught’ and ‘punishment’ were ringing in her head, repeating over and over, and each repetition was fanning the embers in her lady parts, plucking the string in her gut.
She was still surprised as ever when her mouth opened, and the words tumbled out:
“I must… I suppose I must be taught.”