The trees were shedding their multicolored leaves, the brisk wind lifting them up and sending them frolicking across the lawns. The promise of the winter’s chill was sharp in the air, and though she was well aware of the unpleasant conditions, Charlotte hurried down the stairs and across the wide foyer to the front door. Barker, the home’s ever vigilant butler, straight-backed and square-shouldered, strode forward, reaching it just in time.
“My lady,” he said, opening it with a slight bow of his head.
“Thank you, Barker,” she replied, trotting outside.
As she moved down the wide steps and stood in the driveway gazing towards the distant tall iron gates, a gust of wind scampered around her, causing her dress to flap dramatically and her hair to fly around her head. Loath to take his eyes off her, Barker held the door ajar hoping for her speedy return, and as he watched from the upstairs gallery, a concerned frown crossed Edward Pemberly’s brow.
It had been just over a month since their return to Dunworth Abbey, and while his beautiful new bride had learned to contain her natural exuberance, in no small part due to his spanking hand, there were still times when she lost herself in the excitement of the moment. He waited, studying her through the half-open door as she vainly attempted to hold her hair in place and control the dramatic dance of her dress. If she didn’t soon see sense and return to the calm safety of the house, he would have to fetch her.
“I should never have planned for this weekend,” he muttered. “I should have realized the weather would turn.”
Deciding he could wait no longer, he started down the wide, carpeted staircase, and had just reached the foyer when she came bursting back inside. She was completely disheveled, and shaking his head, he paused his step.
“Would you care for a nice cup of tea, my lady?” Barker asked, grateful to be closing the door behind her.
“What an excellent suggestion,” she panted. “That wind quite took the breath out of me. It has left me all shivery.”
“Perhaps you should have a change of clothes,” Edward suggested.
“Edward, I didn’t see you there,” she exclaimed, her eyes darting across to meet his. “I will, and I’ll have Helen straighten my hair.”
“Afternoon tea in the drawing room, please, Barker. I don’t think we’ll wait any longer for our guests,” Edward declared, “and please send Helen up for her ladyship. Come, Charlotte, I’ll walk with you upstairs.”
He saw the flicker of guilt cross her eyes, and had Barker not been in earshot he would have scolded her on the spot. She had been warned about being impetuous, and it wasn’t the first time she’d run outside in inclement weather. Reaching the gallery at the top of the stairs, he took her elbow as they headed towards her suite of rooms.
“I’m sorry, Edward, I know I shouldn’t have dashed outside, but I thought I saw a carriage at the end of the drive.”
“I know you’re eager to welcome your cousin,” Edward said patiently, “but you know you should have remained indoors and greeted him in the shelter of the foyer. We’ve talked about this before.”
“Yes, but I couldn’t—”
“You couldn’t wait to see him,” he interrupted as he opened the door to her apartment and ushered her inside. “Just as well you were mistaken and it was a trick of the light and not his carriage. Take a look at yourself.”
Stepping front of the large, oval mirror, Charlotte’s eyes grew wide in surprise.
“Yes, oh, dear,” Edward repeated. “I warned you what would happen if you did this again. Lift your dress, quickly now, before Helen arrives.”
Moving behind her, she watched his reflection as he pulled the small folding rod from his pocket. He had taken to carrying it with him, and dispensed his quick, quiet discipline whenever he felt it necessary. Knowing a protest would only result in more than the three fiery kisses from the stinging stick, she raised her skirt.
“Keep your eyes on the mirror and look at the mess you’ve become as I punish you.”
Shifting her gaze, she studied her sorry state. Her hair, which had been so meticulously coiffed, was now a mess of loose strands dangling around her face, and while her dress had fallen back into place, small bits of debris were clinging to the fabric.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” she yelped as he delivered his three strikes.
They had landed swiftly, more swiftly than usual, but he had little time to dispatch the discipline.
“I know it stings,” he said, smoothing his palm over the thin red lines in a comforting caress, “but you will insist on misbehaving. You know I will punish you. Why must you persist in being so impetuous?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she whimpered. “I just don’t think.”
“No, you don’t. You’ve made such great progress, but in this area you still lack self-control. You must try to do better, Charlotte. Count to ten next time, and think it through. Now drop your dress and turn around.”
His voice was kind as he put the compact cane back in its hiding place, and when she faced him, he saw her eyes were filled with the sparkle that always came from his chastisement.
“Take a deep breath,” he said warmly, taking her hands. “Good, now let it out, and another. There now. Do you feel calmer?”
“I do,” she murmured.
“How old are you?”
“Who are you?”
“Lady Charlotte Pemberly, your wife, and mistress of Dunworth Abbey.”
The ritual was one he’d begun from their first days in his grand home. Whenever she lost control he would chastise her, then hold her hands and have her repeat her age, and her new station in life.
“Correct, not a naughty young miscreant running around your uncle’s house.”
“I forgot myself,” she sighed. “I don’t know why I do these things. I am sorry.”
“You’re forgiven, my sweet Charlotte, and you know you will always will be.”
“It is helpful when I repeat who I am now,” she said gratefully, “though I would prefer to do it without the stinging behind.”
“The two go together,” he smiled. “I think perhaps you should tell me again how you’re going to behave with Miranda Witherspoon.”
“I do wish she weren’t coming,” Charlotte grumbled. “When I think about how she lured me into that house to have that man spank me, it just—”
“Charlotte! We’ve been through this,” Edward said, his voice becoming stern again. “Miranda cannot know that you told me. She must think her threat to spread vicious rumors if you did has had the desired effect. She cannot be trusted, and I would remind you, had you not fooled that baron into thinking that she liked to be bent over a man’s knee, she would not have done what she did. I’m not defending her, but you did start the ball rolling.”
“Yes, Edward,” she replied, demurely dropping her eyes.
“I know the season is over, but dinners will still be held, and people will continue to visit one another. You know I cannot have any scandal, and just an accusation can bring dire consequences. I will see Miranda’s threat neutralized, but you must leave all of that to me.”
“I won’t let her know, I won’t; you can trust me, Edward, honestly.”
“Before Helen arrives, repeat to me how you will behave, or must I have her wait outside the door while I dispatch my stick against your bottom?”
“No, sir,” she said hastily. “I will smile sweetly, I will be extremely courteous and hospitable, and I will not respond in any way should Miranda attempt to provoke me.”
“Correct, but prepare yourself, Charlotte. I know her, and she will attempt to provoke you. She has a quick sharp tongue attached to an ill temper,” Edward declared, then after thinking for a moment he added, “though I doubt she will let it out in front of our guests. Please do your best not to be alone with her.”
“I will, Edward. I have no desire to be alone with her anyway.”
A gentle knock on the door announced Helen’s presence, and stepping back, Edward called for her to enter.
“Oh, m’lady, whatever happened?” Helen asked, shocked at the state of her young mistress.
“I, uh, thought I saw a carriage at the gate and I ran outside to meet it.”
“It will be wonderful to see Lord Danby,” Helen said, bustling forward, “but we must make you presentable again.”
“If he hadn’t warned us about some big surprise I might have been able to hold back,” Charlotte declared. “I am simply dying of curiosity. When Wally says something is a big surprise, he means a big surprise. It’s not going to be a packet of sweets.”
“I suspect, my dear, your excitement about seeing your cousin would still have sent you running out into the blustery wind, surprise or not surprise,” Edward remarked with an understanding smile, “but you won’t do it again, will you?”
“Good. Helen, please repair the damage quickly. I would prefer her ladyship is on my arm when I meet her cousin for the first time, or when Miss Witherspoon arrives.”
“Yes, my lord, I’ll shall have her spic-and-span in no time.”
“Charlotte, I shall be in the drawing room,” he said, walking to the door.
Closing it behind him, he paused for a moment as he often did. He found the comments made after his departure more illuminating than those said in his presence.
“That beastly girl, I do wish she weren’t coming,” he heard Charlotte complain.
“Just pay attention to Lord Danby,” Helen wisely replied, “and don’t let Miss Witherspoon get under your skin. She’ll only take satisfaction out of it.”
“You’re right. That’s an excellent point. She’ll only take satisfaction out of it. I’ll remember that when she does something maddening.”
Pleased with what he’d overheard, Edward walked silently down the hall. Helen was a gem, and he was grateful for her sensible, calm presence in Charlotte’s life. He reached the bottom of the stairs and was headed to the drawing room when he saw Barker and Mrs. Marks, the head housekeeper, walking towards him. He grimaced. They only approached him in unison if there was difficulty.
“My lord, we have a problem in the room you have assigned to Miss Witherspoon,” Barker began. “Tell him, Mrs. Marks.”
“It’s the fireplace, sir. We’ve been trying all day to open the flue but it is impossible. The sweep must have jammed it when he was here.”
“Where would you like us to put her, sir?” Barker finished.
“I see. Which room would you suggest, Mrs. Marks?”
“I was thinking the Grecian room, sir,” she offered. “I don’t know this young lady, but it is very popular with the fairer sex.”
“The Grecian room is along the same hallway as the Burgundy room, where Lord Danby will be placed.”
“Yes, sir,” Mrs. Marks nodded.
Edward paused. Charlotte wouldn’t like it, but her cousin’s close proximity to Miranda Witherspoon might prove fortuitous, and it would make matters more convenient for the staff.
“Very well,” he nodded, “but now we must check all the fireplaces, but naturally the rooms we’ll be using for our activities this weekend are the priority.”
“It has already being done, my lord,” Barker replied. “The moment we discovered the problem, I sent Harris, our new second footman, to do a complete check of all the fireplaces in the house.”
“And?” Edward pressed.
“He’s still at it, my lord. He has found one other with the flue stuck so far.”
“In the future, you’re to do this check before the sweep leaves.”
“Yes, my lord,” Barker said, embarrassed that he’d not thought of doing so himself.
“Is the afternoon tea ready?”
“It will be in the drawing room momentarily,” Mrs. Marks replied.
“Thank you. Lady Charlotte will be down shortly. I shall wait for her there.”
Edward moved past them and entered the drawing room, walking directly across to the drinks cabinet. Splashing some Scotch into a crystal glass tumbler, he thought about the weekend ahead. Lord Danby and Miranda Witherspoon were the only guests staying through Sunday, but the dinner that evening would see ten around the table, and the following night was a formal party. It would be Charlotte’s official introduction to county society, and her first foray as the mistress of Dunworth Abbey.
The sound of the door opening caught his attention, and downing the Scotch in a single gulp, he turned to see Barker carrying a tray laden with tempting bite-sized morsels and cakes. He placed it on the large square coffee table in front of the fireplace, and the first footman, Spires, followed with the tray holding the teapot, milk, lemon, sugar, and cups and saucers. Overseeing the young man, Barker stood with his hands behind his back studiously watching him as he placed the china on the table.
“We weren’t sure when Miss Witherspoon and Lord Danby might be arriving, my lord, so I took the liberty of bringing extra plates, cups, and saucers should they appear before the tea service is cleared.”
“Excellent, thank you, Barker,” Edward said, placing his glass back on the cabinet and walking across to the couches.
“Oh, tea, wonderful,” Charlotte declared, entering from the opposite side of the room.
“We can manage, thank you, Barker,” Edward said as he cleared his throat, the signal that he wanted to be alone with his wife.
The butler and footman quickly left the room, and Charlotte perched on the edge of the sofa and reached for the teapot.
“I’m getting nervous about this evening,” she said as she poured. “I do hope I don’t disappoint you, Edward.”
“My dear, you will charm everyone,” he said reassuringly. “We have spent these last four weeks preparing you for this weekend, and you have proven to be an exemplary student. Everyone knows you are hosting your first social event, and I’m sure they will be very kind. Besides, you will have both me and your cousin at your side.”
Charlotte had poured the cream into her tea, spooned in some sugar, and was stirring the rich brown liquid. Slowly she raised her eyes. Her unspoken words were loud in the air.
“I know you’re still concerned about Miranda Witherspoon, but you must not be. She was enticed here by the prospect of meeting interesting and influential people. I told you, she is extremely ambitious, and she’ll do nothing that might cast her in a bad light. She’ll be wanting to impress everyone. Believe me, she’ll be on her best behavior.”
“Thank you, Edward. No doubt you’re right about that. I will focus all my attention on Wally,” she smiled. “I’m just so thrilled that he’s coming.”
“Yes, you do that. As I have said too many times already, leave Miranda to me.”
“I will, you don’t… Edward, what is that noise?”
The unfamiliar sound was coming from the front of the house, and placing her cup back on the table, she hurried to the windows with Edward following, equally curious.
“Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed. “Edward, do you see?”
“By Jove, I can’t quite believe it,” he gasped.
“Is that a… a…”
“It is, it’s a motor car, and I assume that is your cousin behind the wheel.”