The outskirts of London, 1892
Hidden behind the heavy, dark green velvet drapes, Charlotte fervently prayed her aunt Mildred would stop looking for her. Charlotte was sure, given time, the woman would calm down and the crisis would be over, but as she heard her aunt stride into the room calling her name, her heart sank. It was nearing the dinner hour, and she still had to change her clothes. If she failed to appear in the dining hall properly attired and on time, she’d be in even more trouble.
“You’d better show yourself if you’re in here,” her aunt called. “One of these days you will test my patience too far. One of these days I will spank you, I swear I will. This might be the day if I have to search you out.”
Taking a deep breath and putting on her most remorseful expression, Charlotte stepped from her hiding place.
“I’m here, auntie.”
“You are a wicked child. That’s what you are, a child. You’re nineteen years of age and still you behave so badly. You are like a spoiled ten-year-old.”
“I’m sorry, auntie,” Charlotte mumbled, “but was what I did really so bad? I was just looking, and I didn’t mean to do any harm. I am sorry, honestly I am.”
“Sorry? You’re sorry?” her aunt chided, her voice an almost shrill shriek. “You enter my room, which you have been told is off-limits, you open my jewelry case, which you have absolutely no right to do, and then you break my best string of pearls! You think sorry is going to be enough?”
“My most sincere apology is all I have to offer,” Charlotte mumbled with a woeful frown, hoping she sounded appropriately remorseful.
“This time, young lady, you’ve gone too far. Get out of that dress and wait for me by that couch while I make sure we will not be disturbed.”
“Out of my dress? Did you say, out of my dress?” she gasped, “but, Aunt Mildred, why?”
“I’m going to bend you over that couch and spank you, that’s why!” she barked, marching across the room to lock the door. “I’m tired of all your nonsense. Do as I say, right now!”
Shocked by her aunt’s strident instruction, but telling herself it must be a big bluff, Charlotte moved to the small padded bench set against the wall and tried to remove her clothing.
“Charlotte, what are you doing? Why are you still dressed?” Mildred said impatiently as she saw Charlotte struggling with her clothes.
“I can’t do it without help from Helen!” Charlotte declared, rolling her eyes. Helen had been her mother’s lady’s maid, and had stayed with Charlotte when her uncle had taken her in. Dressing and undressing without Helen’s assistance was impossible.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Mildred muttered testily as she marched across the room. “Drop your hands. Why these dresses are designed so we must have our maids to help I just don’t understand. Men, that’s the reason. They’re designed by confounded men.”
With deft fingers Mildred popped the fasteners and helped Charlotte disrobe. In short order Charlotte’s dress and petticoats were laid on the couch, and she was standing in front of her aunt in her undergarments.
“Auntie, am I not too old for this?” Charlotte softly asked, widening her eyes and doing her best to make them appear pleading. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but—”
“Now you don’t mean to be disrespectful?” her aunt retorted, interrupting her niece mid-sentence. “Disrespectful is your middle name, and I don’t buy this woeful act for a minute! As I said earlier, you are no better than a spoiled ten-year-old child. I should have spanked you the moment you walked through my door and disrupted my house. Tonight you will behave! Tonight you will not embarrass me! I will make sure of it.”
“I’ll be good, honestly. Please don’t do this,” Charlotte begged. “I promise, I’ll be—”
“Kneel,” Mildred barked, interrupting her again, “and I warn you, I will not be holding back. This dinner tonight is important, and you will sit still and be a perfect young lady at the dining table. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, auntie, I will, I promise,” she said, almost meaning it.
Shocked and dismayed that her aunt was about to carry out her threat, and fearing any further protest would just make matters worse, Charlotte dropped to her knees and waited. She had often overheard other young women gossiping in hushed whispers about being spanked, and how they didn’t mind a spanking delivered by hand so much, but they would all shudder when comparing notes about the terrible sting that was delivered by the dreaded rod.
Why she had never felt the wrath of her aunt’s or her nanny’s spanking palm, Charlotte didn’t quite understand. It had certainly been threatened. Breaking her aunt’s pearls had been an accident, and it seemed almost unfair that she was about to experience her first spanking for something that had not been a deliberate and provocative act of defiance, even if she did go into her aunt’s room against her aunt’s wishes.
“I’m terribly sorry,” she repeated, hoping there was the right amount of tremble in her voice.
“That’s just not good enough,” her aunt snapped, “not by a mile, and if you think you’re going to be spanked over your drawers, you are mistaken.”
Seconds later, feeling the air kiss her skin as her aunt parted the thin cotton undergarment, Charlotte instinctively threw her hands behind her.
“Auntie, please, no,” she pleaded, wishing she owned the more modern bloomers that didn’t have the split in the back.
“You can forget your modesty,” her aunt snapped. “Lock your fingers together in front of you. Be quick about it. I don’t have much time.”
“Would you rather I call your uncle? I’m sure his hand will be much harder than mine, and if you’re embarrassed with me seeing your naked bottom, think how you will feel if you are exposed to his eye.”
Defeated and utterly mortified by her aunt’s suggestion, Charlotte clasped her hands in front of her, and seconds later the woman’s hand slapped down, landing with a significant sting.
“Wretched girl,” her aunt scolded. “You’re fortunate the housemaid found all the pearls and we can have them restrung, or I’d have you bent over your uncle’s desk in the morning and I’d find myself a rod. I might just do that anyway,” Mildred lectured, raising her hand in preparation for the next smack, “and mark my words, if the dinner doesn’t go well tonight, I will.”
“Ow, auntie, no more, please,” Charlotte begged as the second smack landed, shocked that her aunt’s swat could carry such a zing.
“I’ll say when enough is enough, missy. Going into my room against my specific instructions was bad enough, but going into my jewelry box? My hand isn’t severe enough. What else can I use?” she muttered as her eyes darted around the room in search of an implement.
Spying the large floral display on a tall brass pedestal by the door, Mildred noticed that between the blooms and leaves were several long, budded twigs.
“Yes, one of those will do nicely,” she said purposefully. “It appears you’re going to feel the sting of a rod after all. Those sticks are probably not as solid, but I can make up for that with a good, long stroke.”
Looking over her shoulder, Charlotte saw where her aunt was headed, and when her eyes fell on the nasty-looking, narrow wooden shoots, she let out a gasp of fright.
“Auntie, please,” she begged as an unexpected chill shuddered down her spine, “you don’t need to—”
“Be quiet,” her aunt bit out. “I fully intend to make your bottom burn. It’s the least you deserve, and as far as I’m concerned, this is well overdue. Corporal discipline will be the order in this house from now on. Your pranks and wicked ways will no longer go unpunished.”
Mildred wasn’t a tall woman, and was forced to stand on her toes and raise her arms to reach the display. Seeing a particularly thick branch at the side nearest her, she reached up and gave it a tug.
Still watching, Charlotte immediately saw what could happen. The vase appeared to be precariously perched on the pedestal, and if her aunt pulled on the twigs any harder the whole thing could come toppling down. In an attempt to prevent the disaster, Charlotte jumped to her feet and called out.
“Auntie, look out! It’s going to fall off the stand!”
To Charlotte’s horror, her outburst caused Mildred to jerk her arm, unbalancing the huge urn even further, and the oversized porcelain vase teetered towards her. Terrified that it would indeed tumble over on top of her, Mildred leapt backwards with a loud shriek, and seconds later the expensive vessel tumbled off its base, landing on the floor with an almighty crash.
“Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness,” her aunt wailed. “Now look what you’ve done, you beastly child.”
“Auntie, I didn’t—”
“Ooh, you are such a wicked girl,” Mildred railed. “Wicked, wicked, wicked! You’d better be on your best behavior tonight, do you understand me? Lord Pemberly is looking for a bride and I am determined that I will see you married to him and out of this house!”
“No! I do not wish to be married,” Charlotte shot back. “Men are sniveling bores, all of them. I’m sick of all the suitors you’ve paraded in front of me. Who is this Lord Pemberly? You didn’t even tell me about him.”
“You will marry!” her aunt shouted. “Do you hear me? You will marry and you will leave this house. I will beat you every day until you do!”
“You will not, I won’t let you,” Charlotte shouted back. “I shall write to my cousin. He will come and take me away from here. You’ve been nothing but horrible to me.”
An unexpected banging broke into their battle, and her uncle’s voice boomed through the door.
“What the blazes is going on in there?” he demanded. “Mildred? Charlotte? Why is this blasted door locked?”
“One moment, Hugo,” Mildred called back. “One moment.”
“I can’t get into this dress by myself,” Charlotte exclaimed. “Do you wish Uncle Hugo to see me this way?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” her aunt growled, hurrying to help her. “You will be a proper young lady at dinner, do you hear me?” she scolded, bustling Charlotte back into her clothes. “If you are not, you will feel the rod on your bottom, so help me, you will! Do you hear me, do you?”
“Yes, auntie,” she said quickly, deciding their fight needed to end.
The fury was obvious in Mildred’s voice, and after the woman’s thwarted attempt to pull the nasty stick from the vase, Charlotte realized her aunt was deadly serious.
“There, you look presentable enough to get back upstairs to your room,” Mildred said tersely, tugging on the dress to help it sit right, then skirting the debris of flowers, dirt, and broken china in her path, she unlocked the door.
“What is all this?” Hugo demanded as he walked in and saw the mess on the floor. “Charlotte, what’s wrong with you? Your face is bright red. Mildred, what the devil is going on here?”
“I’ll tell you everything in a minute, Hugo,” Mildred replied, barely able to hide the anger in her voice. “Charlotte, go and dress for dinner. Our guests will be arriving shortly.”
Keeping her eyes lowered, Charlotte hurried past her glowering uncle and furious aunt, and moved quickly into the hallway, but risked pausing for a moment to eavesdrop.
“I’m at my wits’ end,” she heard her aunt declare. “I was about to punish her for breaking my pearls, but mostly to make sure she’d behave tonight so Lord Pemberly would be impressed. I was reaching for a twig to whip her bottom when she yelled at me. It made me jump. That’s what caused the vase to fall. It could have killed me, Hugo. She will marry that man, she will, she will. We must make it happen!”
“I’m sorry, Mildred,” her uncle grunted, “You’re quite right. It’s unfortunate she has been unlucky in love. We’ve certainly introduced her to enough young men that one of them should have found her acceptable.”
“I told you years ago to take the rod to her bottom,” Mildred snapped, “but you wouldn’t listen. She doesn’t treat her callers with decorum, or the right degree of respect. You know that, Hugo. She is a wicked girl, wicked. We shall never be rid of her. I am quite beside myself.”
“Mildred, my dear, please don’t get upset. Lord Pemberly is a man of the world. Perhaps that’s what she needs. The suitors thus far have been young men, barely a year or two older than she is. A gentleman like Lord Pemberly is better suited to deal with a spirited girl like Charlotte.”
Listening outside the door, Charlotte’s eyes grew wide. Lord Pemberly was a man of the world? She had assumed he would be like all the others; nervous, unsure of himself, unable to carry on a conversation for more than two minutes.
“Perhaps you’re right. She is so difficult, any of those young men would have been at their wits’ end in a very short time,” Mildred lamented. “Look at this terrible wreckage. Every day it’s something else. I want her out of this house, Hugo. I really am very upset, very, very upset.”
“There, there, my dear,” Hugo said, trying to calm his wife. “You must compose yourself. Our guests are about to arrive, and we will make sure the evening is a success. My niece may be a willful young woman, but she is very attractive. I’m sure Lord Pemberly will be taken with her.”
“Oh, I do hope so,” Mildred said with a heavy sigh. “It is said he has been searching for a bride for some time. He must be very picky. A man with so much to offer would be wed by now were he not. I’m afraid I do not share your optimism.”
“Come, my dear. We must have the servants clear up this carnage, and I would suggest a small sip of something to settle your nerves.”
“Yes, that would be helpful, thank you, Hugo, and I am depending on you to have a word with Charlotte. If we are to have any chance of a successful introduction, she really must be demure and properly behaved during dinner.”
“I’ll do my best,” he sighed. “You know my niece is her own girl, headstrong and willful, but I will do my best.”
“Thank you, Hugo. I’m relying on you. You might be right about her needing a gentleman. A man of the world would not put up her with nonsense, not for a moment.”
Strangely titillated and intrigued by the description of the mysterious Lord Pemberly, Charlotte scooted down the hall and trotted up the stairs.
“That’s why Aunt Mildred wanted to be sure I’d be on my best behavior tonight,” she mumbled as she entered her room, barely noticing Helen carefully laying out her clothes for the evening.
“Excuse me, m’lady?” Helen asked, looking up as her young mistress ambled towards her.
“I was talking to myself,” Charlotte replied. “Good, I see you have my clothes ready.”
“Yes, m’lady. Are you all right? Your face is awfully red.”
“I’m perfectly fine, thank you. Just get me dressed. I don’t have much time.”
“It’s not like you to worry about time, m’lady,” Helen smiled.
“No, but my aunt is in a hateful mood, so I think I should make an effort,” Charlotte replied, and I’m interested in meeting this Lord Pemberly. A gentleman is much more appealing that some sniveling boy who is all fingers and thumbs. I think I would like to be on time for once.
Having been together for so many years, she and Helen had perfected the complicated process of dressing for dinner. There was the lacing of a fresh corset, then the layers of undergarments before the gown itself. Styling Charlotte’s hair and selecting the jewelry followed, and going through the motions with the ease of practiced professionals, it wasn’t long before Charlotte was pulling on her long satin gloves.
Staring at her reflection in the tall, oval mirror, she was pleased with what she saw. A dark green beaded gown hugged her curves, sparkling gems were delicately placed in her hair, and with her mother’s diamonds gracing her neck, she looked every bit the aristocratic young woman that she was.
“This should please auntie,” she murmured, “and possibly this Lord Pemberly chap. Interesting we have not crossed paths before now.”
Hearing the sound of horses in the driveway, she moved across to the window to observe the arriving guests. There were several carriages slowing to a stop, but one visitor was galloping across the front lawn on a majestic, dapple-gray steed.
“That must be a stallion.”
“What’s that, m’lady?” Helen asked, hurrying across to join her.
“That horse. He must be a stallion,” Charlotte replied. “Look at his neck, and what a powerful stride he has. Not an easy ride, I would imagine.”
“I wonder why that man isn’t in a carriage,” Helen remarked. “He certainly strikes a dashing figure.”
“Yes, I wonder too,” Charlotte smiled. ”I think I’m actually looking forward to meeting him.”
“You are, m’lady? I’ve never heard that before.”
“No, and I could be completely wrong. He may be a frightful bore like all the others.”
“I doubt that,” Helen said with a knowing smile. “I can’t imagine a man on a horse like that would be a bore.”
“Perhaps,” Charlotte said thoughtfully, and as she watched the man pull his impressive horse to a stop, to her surprise, he gazed up at her window.
“Look, m’lady. He’s staring up at you?”
“I doubt it. We’ve never met, and he probably can’t even see me. He’s just studying the house. It is rather grand.”
She watched as the man dropped from the saddle and handed the reins to a footman.
“Do you know who it is, m’lady?”
“I believe he might be Lord Pemberly,” Charlotte replied. “He’s the only one I didn’t recognize.” Hmmm, maybe I will be a good girl at dinner after all. A very good girl, or maybe I’ll be extra mischievous.