It was dangerous and oh so wrong but Caroline just couldn’t help herself. The moment she heard her sister’s bedroom door clicking shut, she reached into the top drawer of her nightstand and pulled out the well-worn paperback she kept hidden beneath a pile of silk handkerchiefs. For a moment, she studied the cover, taking time to appreciate each inch of the hero’s impressive physique, that massive chest that looked as though it had been chiseled from solid rock and those muscular arms. She felt the first familiar pangs of longing as she moved on to admire his face, sighing as she saw the passion he felt for the woman he held tight in his arms burning brightly in his eyes.
Caroline wondered if she would ever look up at a man like that, with such naked desire. It seemed unlikely, given that few men on this rotten planet were sculpted so beautifully. In fact, most were decidedly unattractive.
Feeling a surge of anticipation that was well known to her coursing through her veins, she turned to her favorite chapter, the corner of its first page turned down so she could find it easily. This was the point in the story she wanted to read again and again, the part where Sebastian bent Lucinda over the bed and finally claimed her body as his own. As she held the book up, angling it so she could see the text more clearly in the dim glow of her bedside lamp, Caroline popped open the button fly of her prized jeans, a recent purchase from her dealer in illicit twenty-first century merchandise, the man from whom she also had acquired her prohibited reading material.
Even before she slipped her hand inside her jeans, Caroline felt impossibly wicked. What would the High Council say if they could see her now? What would they say if they knew that she and her friends had formed an illegal group, The Hyde Ladies’ Circle where they sat around and talked about sex and politics and other topics forbidden to women? She shook thoughts of those crusty old men on the Council from her mind and turned her full attention to the book.
In the previous chapter, Sebastian had spanked Lucinda for trying to run from him. Caroline was not entirely sure what the appeal was but she relished those scenes where the heroine became aroused as she was disciplined. The women in the novels she loved all seemed to crave chastisement and Caroline wondered how she would react to being taken over the knee of a strong, powerful male. Certainly, in the book, by the time Sebastian finished administering the punishment, Lucinda was kissing him with every ounce of passion contained within her petite body. As he pushed her down on the bed, the novel’s heroine was dripping feminine juices and ready for his penetration and Caroline couldn’t help but think she might react the same way.
Moving her fingers beneath the silk of her panties, she gently stroked herself. Wet just from reading a few words of the story, her forefinger glided easily along her moist folds. As the hero of the novel thrust his enormous cock into his woman’s tight, virgin pussy, Caroline sighed with pent-up desire and began to circle her finger around the little bud of nerves she knew from her reading was called a clitoris. Closing her eyes, she dropped the book to the bed beside her and imagined it was her own helplessly quivering body that Sebastian was pounding ruthlessly into, an exhilarating thought that made her womb clench.
Her fingers began to move more urgently, applying a greater pressure to the engorged nub between her legs. As her breaths came out in frantic pants, the first waves of pleasure gripped her. She was close, so very close this time, to achieving that ecstatic release the novels described, a sensation that had always eluded her. As she began to feel a new, deeper arousal, there was a sudden, ear-splitting shriek that made her sit up, her heart racing.
Footsteps pounded along the hallway outside the room and she heard her sister shout.
“Caro, run! Get out now!”
Mere moments later, the back door slammed shut and the house fell quiet. Frozen in shock, Caroline listened, trying to work out what was happening, why her sister had fled. Her mind told her to move but her legs would not obey. She sat there, motionless, as a loud crash came from downstairs. Before she could register what was happening, her bedroom door was flung open with such force, it came right off its hinges. Light flooded the room, blinding her for a moment. Too late, she realized she still had her hand down her pants as a tall man clad in the austere gray uniform of the state police stepped into the room, a wickedly self-satisfied grin on his face.
“Well, well, someone has been a bad girl, haven’t they?”
Caroline quickly removed her hand and wiped the glistening juices that coated her fingers off on the bedspread. She had no time to think, to speak, to try to save herself as the man strode across the room, grabbed her arm in a bruising grip, and dragged her toward the door.
“What’s happening?” Caroline finally found her voice as he hauled her down the stairs and out into the driveway, seemingly uncaring that he was handling her so roughly.
“What’s happening, you filthy little slut, is that you’re under arrest.”
“On what charges?” she demanded.
The single word he uttered as he bundled her into the back of a police transport vehicle chilled her to the bone.
As the police wagon slowly moved off, Caroline looked back at her house, its grounds swarming with agents of the High Council, and feared she would never see her beautiful home or her beloved sister again.
Jeers from the hostile crowds who lined the streets of New Cambridge assailed Caroline’s ears as the mechanized cart bounced along the cobblestones, jostling her from side to side. The metal cage she’d been forced to stand inside offered her no protection from the hate-filled glares of the masses or from the occasional missile that was hurled in her direction. Thankfully, nobody threw anything heavier than an overripe orange, although how they could spare such precious natural fruit just to fling at her, Caroline did not know.
The thin white gown her jailers had dressed her in after forcing her to endure an entire day of nudity in their presence, was no barrier to the cold and she knew that everyone could see right through the flimsy fabric to her naked form beneath. It filled her with shame to think that the thatch of thick, dark curls at the apex of her thighs, the taut rosebud nipples at the peaks of her breasts, and the pert little globes of her bottom cheeks were as much on display as they would be if she wore nothing at all. But she knew that this humiliation was just the beginning and she had to steel herself for whatever horrors lay in store for her when they reached their destination.
Fighting to retain her balance as the wheeled cage rumbled on toward the town hall where she was to stand trial, Caroline felt the strain on her outstretched arms, which were chained to bars on the insides of the rudimentary vehicle as she was pulled, first one way and then the other. Her heart beat rapidly, her limbs ached, and panicked thoughts churned so quickly through her mind, she feared she might pass out. But she had to be strong. Soon she would be brought before the High Council to answer their ridiculous charges of crimes against the state and she knew all too well that the mob, already baying for her blood, would have to be placated. The men on the Council were going to make an example of her.
“Bet she wishes she hadn’t survived the night,” the taller of the two guards who walked at the sides of the wheeled cage in case she somehow managed to free herself said mockingly.
“Would have done us all a favor if she hadn’t,” his colleague replied.
Caroline smiled sweetly, refusing to let the bastards get to her as they seemed to confirm her suspicions that her jailers had hoped she would not make it through to the morning. Having withstood twelve straight hours of intensive interrogations, she had spent an uncomfortable night huddled on a hard wooden bench that was supposed to pass for a bed with only one threadbare blanket to ward off the chill.
Before she’d even had the chance to answer the Council’s charges, to offer up some defense, they’d hacked off her gloriously long, dark tresses and left her with the shorn hair of a convicted criminal. Such cruel treatment told her that in the minds of the Council she was guilty and she had already begun to pay the price. Caroline knew that tossing her into a freezing cold cell and giving her nothing to eat or drink for twenty-four hours had been a tactic to weaken her, perhaps even finish her off. Unfortunately for them and as much to her own amazement as anybody else’s, it seemed that she was not quite as delicate as that.
For over a century, since the last devastating world war had wiped out more than ninety percent of Earth’s population, the authoritarian all-male Council had been in control. It would have suited them if she’d passed away quietly in the night. She was the highest born woman ever to have been brought up on such serious charges and she knew that it posed problems for them when determining what punishment to mete out. Usually for crimes like the ones she was accused of committing, the sentence was a series of harsh public floggings and life imprisonment in one of the city’s brothels or state-controlled breeding facilities established to assist with the repopulation efforts. Wherever a woman was sent, her body was used hard until the day she was no longer fit for purpose. Caroline had no idea what happened to female convicts after that but she knew it would not be pretty.
The one ray of hope she could hold onto was that it was unheard of for a lady of noble birth to be condemned to such a life and she knew the High Council would not take such action lightly. They would surely not want to risk alienating friends of her late grandfather whose money and ancient titles still carried a great deal of influence.
No, Caroline imagined, they would have to devise some new and hideous punishment for her. Perhaps they would banish her to the supposedly barbarian planet of Taar-Breck, which maintained an uneasy alliance with Earth’s rulers. That would get her nicely out of the way and the Council could erase all trace of her existence. She’d already been informed that all her possessions were to be seized and her wealth absorbed into the High Council’s coffers. Her prison guard had told her with great relish that her money would be spent on hunting down other women of her sort, by which she assumed he meant free thinkers, and providing them with the stringent training it would take to turn them into obedient wives. They intended, it seemed, to focus their efforts on rounding up other members of Caroline’s group, the Hyde Ladies’ Circle, and bringing them to heel. Their number one priority was to track down Caroline’s sister, sweet little Elizabeth, who had managed to get out of the house just moments before the police descended. Caroline could only hope she’d found someplace safe to lay low until this all blew over.
As the cage slowly trundled closer to its destination, the crowd grew denser and Caroline couldn’t help wondering how she’d come to be public enemy number one. All she’d done was gather a group of like-minded women together to read books and imagine another way of living, one where they enjoyed some of the freedoms the male citizens took for granted. It wasn’t as though they’d acted on their desires, other than by distributing the occasional pamphlet or writing anonymous letters to the High Council to ask for reform. Their methods had been strictly nonviolent but, for the authorities, the women’s very association with one another was crime enough.
“Whore!” Her thoughts were interrupted as a yell came at her from across the street.
Tears pricked Caroline’s eyes but she resisted shedding them, knowing that to cry would give the man who had thrown the insult endless satisfaction. Ironically, the last thing anyone could accuse her of being was a whore. She’d never known the loving touch of a man’s hand and now she feared she never would. Stoically, she stared straight ahead, determined to hold onto whatever small amount of dignity she could muster.
As they turned the final corner on their route, she spotted a familiar figure in her peripheral vision and looked around discreetly to confirm that it was her friend Victoria Walton she’d seen. A quiet, well-mannered girl of eighteen who never put a foot wrong in public but held strong political views in private, Victoria was the last member of the illicit Hyde Ladies’ Circle Caroline would ever have imagined would risk coming out amongst such potentially volatile crowds.
Wearing what was, for a woman of her class, the requisite corseted dress with long, flowing skirts and a beautifully tailored jacket that gathered in at the waist and then flared out over her hips, Victoria carried a little umbrella over her arm in case it rained. As always she looked to be the very model of propriety.
The women in the group had all made a pact that if any of them was ever arrested, they would disavow one another to avoid being dragged down together but, as Caroline’s eyes met with hers, Victoria put her lace-gloved fingers to her lips and blew her a kiss. It was a small, subtle gesture of solidarity that reminded the caged woman she was not alone, but she hoped, for her friend’s sake, that nobody had witnessed it.
A flicker of a smile passed across Caroline’s face as Victoria disappeared from view. That momentary glimpse of a friend, a sister in their shared cause, was something she could draw strength from and she needed every ounce of courage she could muster to face the coming ordeal.
As the cart came to an abrupt halt, its cogs locking together almost violently to stop the wheels moving, Caroline was flung forward so her arms were pulled painfully behind her and her head bounced off the bar at the front of the cage. The impact stunned her for a moment and so she barely noticed the chains being unhooked from the insides of the metal enclosure and then refastened behind her back.
One of the large, intimidating guards who had accompanied her on this humiliating journey through the streets took a firm grip of her arm and pulled her out onto the pavement. The concrete was cold and hard beneath her bare feet and Caroline suddenly felt a real chill gripping her.
“What do you think of the view, my lady?” The guard’s voice dripped with contempt.
Caroline looked around to see what he was talking about. Her stomach lurched as she saw the raised platform that the y-shaped whipping post stood on, heavy metal shackles dangling ominously from hooks at the tops. Shuddering at the thought of being forced to stand there, arms stretched and bound, on her tiptoes as her clothes were torn from her to bare her for the flogging, she allowed the guard to drag her past the gathered masses as his colleague hung back in case of trouble.
As she took one last look up into the sky, fearing she might never get to enjoy the gloriously crisp sunshine of a fine February morning again, the swarm of people surged forward. If they hadn’t been held back by a cordon of agents from the Council’s notoriously brutal security forces, she had no doubt that she would have been torn limb from limb.
“Move it!” the guard, panicked by the crowd’s palpable outrage, hissed in her ear.
She was pulled up the steps into the building and marched through a labyrinth of corridors at dizzying speed. At a large wooden door, the guard paused to unfasten the shackles from around her wrists.
“Try anything and you’ll be sorry,” he barked before leading her into the great chamber where the seven men who would determine her fate were already seated, their faces grim.
The viewing galleries, Caroline noted, were filled with an entirely male audience and, as she was brought forward, an awed hush fell over the room. The way their mouths hung open in surprise, anyone would think they’d never seen a woman before. She wondered whether she was a disappointment to them. They’d come here, no doubt, to see a dangerous criminal and, despite the severity of the haircut they’d inflicted on her, she didn’t imagine she looked like much of a threat.
As they reached the center of the chamber, the guard forced her to her knees on the unforgiving wooden floor.
“The prisoner, my lords,” he announced gruffly before moving off to stand at the side of the room, ready to spring into action if she dared to try to get away.
Before she had been taken from her cell and brought here, her jailer had instructed her to bow her head penitently before the men who would judge her but Caroline was damned if she was going to do that. Looking straight at President Hall, leader of the High Council, she met his eyes with a defiant glare.
From the sudden reddening of his fat cheeks and the almost comical juddering of his jowls as he shook his head, she knew her insolence had infuriated him. Well, good. She wasn’t prepared to face her fate with her eyes averted like some meek little mouse.
“Bailiff, read out the charges,” President Hall instructed.
A small, thin man stepped forward onto the floor of the chamber and unfurled a scroll of paper with such a flourish that Caroline had to stifle a laugh at his pomposity. Puffed up with an air of self-importance, the bailiff cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Lady Caroline Louise Chatterton, it is hereby charged that, in contravention of Article 6, Section 114b of the Preservation of Civil Society Act of 2317, you organized illicit gatherings of female persons at your home in New Cambridge. It is further charged that as leader of this subversive and illegal company of women you attempted to challenge the supreme authority of the High Council and distributed inflammatory and seditious pamphlets with the intention to incite rebellion in order to secure equal rights for the fairer sex.”
Mocking laughter rippled around the chamber and Caroline was disheartened to hear more than one man snigger “equal rights, indeed.” Her skin prickled with indignation that they should find the notion so absurd as President Hall banged his gavel on the desk to silence the crowd so the bailiff could continue.
“You are also charged with the possession and distribution of a number of banned texts deemed to be a danger to public morals. It has been noted that when you were arrested you were dressed in unauthorized, manly clothing, and you were committing the most flagrant self-abuse.” He paused to allow for the exclamations of outrage from the gallery to die down. “Furthermore, since your arrest you have acted in an unwomanly and disobedient manner by refusing to reveal the names of your co-conspirators.”
Caroline shook her head as she heard the ridiculous charges being publicly stated for the first time. Despite all she’d been through in the last twenty-four hours, she still couldn’t believe that any of this was happening. Less than a hundred years ago, nothing of what she’d done would be considered a crime. All she and her friends had ever done was talk about reform and publish the occasional pamphlet. There had been no attempt to raise a rebellion. Mostly, they’d sat around and talked about the books they’d read. Sometimes they did have serious discussions about history or politics but more often they’d indulged in tea and cakes and giggled about the naughty bits in the erotic romances they all loved. Where was the harm in that?
The books the Council thought were so corrupting had once been widely available and any woman who wished to read them could do so without fear of punishment. The jeans and t-shirt she’d been wearing may not have been the standard dress for women in the last century or more but she knew from her research that they’d been acceptable at one time. Besides which, it wasn’t as though she’d worn her favorite historical clothing outside of the house. And as for the charge that she’d refused to name the other women in the group, well, no matter how unnatural they believed her disobedience to be, she could never betray her friends, not even on pain of death.
“You understand the penalty for your actions?” President Hall didn’t even try to mask the hatred in his voice. “You are to be punished most severely, young lady.”
“As far as I am aware, my guilt has not yet been determined,” Caroline protested, the strength and clarity she spoke with surprising her, considering how worn down she felt. “What about a fair trial? I have a right to defend myself against these charges.”
“You have no rights here,” Lord Barron, the youngest member of the Council said, to rapturous applause from the spectators.
“But,” Caroline persisted, “what about the due process of law?”
“What would a woman know about the due process of law?” Lord Barron sneered, raising a laugh from the audience that reverberated around the chamber. “Besides which, there is no possible defense. You were caught red-handed in the act of reading one of those foul texts, eh, what was it called, bailiff?”
“The Space Pirate’s Virgin Conquest, sir.” He sounded as though he might actually throw up, so strong was his outrage.
“Ah, yes,” Barron snorted as others in the room roared with laughter and lowered Caroline’s spirits even further. “You were caught pleasuring yourself with this book in your possession and we know that you have encouraged other impressionable young ladies to abuse themselves in a similar manner. We are well aware that you have tried to subvert the laws of our society by proposing reforms that threaten to shake the foundations of civil society including the bizarre suggestion that females ought to be given status equal to men, that they should be given access to education, and that they should be allowed to select their own husbands. Your guilt is not in doubt here. What we are here to determine is the severity of your sentence.”
So, it was worse than Caroline had feared. She wasn’t even going to be given the opportunity, however unlikely it was, to succeed, to persuade them that she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had to breathe deeply so they wouldn’t experience some perverse satisfaction in seeing her tremble.
“The standard punishment would be fifty lashes in public once a month for one full year and assignment to one of the state’s service programs for the remainder of your natural life.”
Despite the fear the threatened punishment instilled in her, she couldn’t help but snort at the euphemism. Referring to the brothels and breeding houses as service programs was a spectacularly sterile way to describe the enforced subjugation of hundreds of women to the whims of the male population.
“However,” President Hall continued, “we need to take into account your illustrious bloodline. Your grandfather, Lord Perceval Chatterton was, after all, one of our society’s founding fathers.”
Now Caroline really did have to fight to hold her tongue. Yes, her grandfather had helped to establish order after the chaos of the last war and the civil strife that followed, but the state’s values had long since become a mockery of everything he held dear. There was no way her beloved grandpapa, who’d taught her the history of the world they lived in, of the rights women had once held and their past achievements, had intended for the female of the species to live under such severe restrictions. Every action a woman took was scrutinized, each thought she expressed aloud was criticized, and her sexual needs were only met at the pleasure of her husband, a man chosen for her by her guardian without anyone asking her opinion.
Almost as though he’d read her thoughts, President Hall continued, “And it seems as though there was some error upon the passing of your esteemed forebear that left you and your sister without the benefit of a firm male hand to guide you.”
A loud gasp went around the room at that. It had been almost two years since her grandfather died and it was completely unheard of for a woman to be without a moral custodian for so long but Caroline knew that he’d deliberately failed to appoint one because he hadn’t wanted her and Elizabeth to be ruled over in that way.
“So it is perhaps not surprising that you have veered so far from the right path.”
This elicited murmurs in the chamber, signaling a general agreement that it was the lack of a strong male protector that had allowed this woman to become a danger to herself and society. Caroline’s jaw clenched as she struggled to hold onto her temper.
“And,” President Hall continued, “there is the question of your virginity. If you are, indeed, untouched as you claimed to be during your interview at the prison, we will need to take that into consideration.”
“Prove it! Prove that she’s pure!”
Caroline looked up in alarm as the call went out around the chamber for them to prove her virginity, shuddering to think how that might be achieved. President Hall banged his gavel repeatedly, demanding that order be restored but several members of the audience were now on their feet and it looked as if a riot might erupt. Glancing toward the door, Caroline contemplated making a run for it though she doubted she would get very far.
“Silence!” A commanding shout rang out and all heads seemed to turn as one toward the imposing figure who was striding onto the floor of the chamber, flanked by two equally impressive-looking men in military uniform.
It took Caroline only a moment to recognize Commander Andrew Rossingham, the greatest flyer the interplanetary air force had ever known, and darling of the evening newscast. A good bit taller than the average human male, the commander was broad-shouldered and muscular and he looked as though he could tear an opponent to pieces without breaking a sweat. His eyes were an unusual shade, an almost purple blue and his hair a golden blond unlike anything she had ever seen. It was, she supposed, an indication that the rumors that his birth mother was a native of Taar-Breck, the planet his companions clearly hailed from, were true. Rossingham certainly bore more resemblance to the two men he was with than he did to the people who raised him, the late Adaline and Arthur Rossingham, although he did have a look of his father about the nose and mouth.
The commander’s impressive physical strength was matched by a fierce intellect and negotiating skills that had helped to open up new food supply routes from Taar-Breck. There were few men who would think about challenging him and, Caroline thought wryly, a great many women who would like to try. Rossingham had once been a student of her grandfather but that was a long time ago and while Caroline was no longer the shy child she’d been back then, he was no longer the same gangling youth. What he was doing here was a mystery to Caroline. A hush fell as he began to speak.
“Mr. President, gentlemen of the High Council, I have here a contract signed by Lord Perceval Chatterton shortly before his death,” he held up a piece of crisp parchment for the audience to see, “consenting to the marriage of his granddaughter Lady Caroline Chatterton when she attains the age of twenty-one, an event which I believe will occur in two days’ time.”
Caroline held her breath, stunned by this turn of events as President Hall asked the question that was running through her own mind.
“Marriage? To whom?”
“To me.” Rossingham’s tone was infuriatingly matter of fact given the unexpected news he was imparting. “Now, as I understand it, this contract is binding upon both parties and, as such, under Article 6, Subsection 181b of the Preservation of Civil Society Act of 2317, it supersedes the authority of the Council. I believe that I have the right to claim Lady Caroline as my bride and to see to her correction using whatever methods I deem suitable.”
Caroline struggled to process this shocking new information. Why would her grandfather have arranged for her betrothal without telling her, especially to a man whose dominance screamed from every pore? Why had he not prepared her for this startling turn of events? As she looked up at the man who’d intervened in the proceedings, studying the harsh planes of his face, the angular jaw, she couldn’t help but wonder if being his wife would be any less punishing than whatever it was the Council had decided to do to her.
While she pondered her fate, there was a flurry of activity as President Hall’s legal advisers rushed to verify Rossingham’s claim. The contract he’d brought with him was studied carefully, law books were pulled from shelves, and people scurried about trying to make sense of what was happening. Within minutes, precedent was found and, after a terse, whispered conversation with his lead counsel, President Hall turned to the commander with his response.
“Yes, Commander, it seems you are quite correct. Lady Caroline will be yours to do with as you please if you should choose to claim her.” Hall’s beady little eyes narrowed fractionally as a salacious grin formed on his lips. “Provided, of course, she is still a virgin.”
“Indeed.” Rossingham turned to Caroline and gave her a look she could not interpret; a plea to bear with him, perhaps? Whatever that slight grimace indicated, it passed quickly and his expression became blank once more. “We must establish that she is untouched. I will not take her otherwise.”