The fifty-five-year-old man didn’t like to think of himself as cruel. He considered himself to be stern, perhaps even strict at times, but never cruel. Especially not to his two nephews, whom he’d come to love as if they were his own sons.
After his wife and their newborn son had died unexpectedly during childbirth twenty years earlier, Harry had fallen into a deep despair. He’d tried to take the advice of his friends and family members and find another wife, but soon found the only woman for him no longer existed. He knew that it was necessary to have heirs to his fortune, but after being fortunate enough to marry for love, he found he could not bring himself to do so for prospects.
The Lord seemed to understand his predicament and blessed him with the children of his two younger sisters. Both boys, Leon and Emil, had older brothers of their own and thus, no hope in taking over their own family businesses. So, it was decided that Leon and Emil would learn their Uncle Harry’s trade and one day take over for him.
It was the far more agreeable Emil who spoke next. “This arrangement you’ve come up with is hardly necessary, Uncle,” he said. The young man glanced at the other standing next to him. “I’m sure Leon and I can come to some agreement on our own.”
Leon, who was never known for successfully quelling his fiery temper, narrowed his eyes. “I believe I’ve reiterated that idea multiple times. Whether Emil chooses to follow through is another matter entirely.”
Harry observed his nephews as the obvious signs of a quarrel began to stir. It was rare for young Emil to show anger. His frustration was clear only through a slight tic in his rounded jaw. “Forgive me, Leon. I forget that you are hard of hearing.”
When he saw Leon’s hands curled into fists at his sides, Harry decided to intervene. “All you two are doing is proving that this arrangement is not only necessary, but overdue,” he said. He laced his fingers together and leaned forward at his desk to eye the two young men. “You will move into the manor together in a week’s time and tend to the land and animals there until I feel your relationship has improved.”
From the moment Harry had met his nephews when they were barely able to walk, it was obvious that they were as different as night and day. Not just in personality, but physical appearances as well. Emil’s hair was a striking blond color and his facial features were rounder and softer than Leon’s, whose angular and sharp features made him appear angry and disagreeable. Leon’s thick dark brown hair caused a striking contrast with his pale complexion and deep blue eyes. The blue almond-shaped Bennet eyes were one of the very few traits that the two cousins shared. That, and their smile, which was rare to behold as long as the two were together.
The reason for the arrangement was because one day, the two young men would have to work together in order to properly run their uncle’s shops and other business ventures. Emil and Leon had often fought when they were young boys. Their mothers and Harry had hoped that the quarreling would diminish when they were older. That clearly wasn’t going to be the case, so Harry decided that the best way to force them to get along was to have them live and work together.
“But farming, Uncle?” Leon cut in, eyes wide with disbelief. “We know nothing of tending to animals and harvesting crops.”
Harry nodded. “Nevertheless, it is honest work that many of the men and women who are renting land from us partake in every day,” he said, but not without sympathy. “You’ll have neighbors that I’m sure will be more than willing to teach you their ways.”
Leon and Emil shared a look that was more like a grimace.
“Why not just choose one of us as your heir rather than force us to be on good terms?” Leon demanded.
Harry eyed the two. Emil was looking at him intently, clearly wanting to hear the answer to that question as well. “There are a few reasons as to why you’ve both been chosen as my successors,” he began. He took a breath to prepare himself emotionally for his response. “As you know, I’ve no children of my own. I’ve come to view you both as my sons.”
“You’ve been nothing short of a father to me, Uncle,” Emil said, his expression sincere.
“Indeed,” Leon added. “My own father has been preoccupied with training my brothers to pay me much mind. I’ve looked to you for guidance since childhood.”
Harry nodded, touched by their admission, but refusing to show it. “Then you must understand why I am unable to choose between you two.” He waited for them to nod reluctantly before continuing. “It’s not just due to personal reasons that I am insisting on passing on everything I own to the both of you. It is undeniable that you both have strengths where the other lacks. With Emil’s patience and Leon’s tenacity, I have no doubt that I’m making the right decision.”
Leon and Emil looked into their uncle’s blue eyes that were so much like their own. It was clear from his countenance that he wasn’t going to be swayed so they politely excused themselves and departed.
“The old man has lost his mind, I’m afraid,” Leon said as they left their uncle’s grand estate.
“If you had just kept quiet, I might have been able to convince him to retract this whole idea of his,” Emil muttered.
Leon rolled his neck to glare at his cousin. “It appears that the arrangements have already been made. Don’t talk as if I swayed him in the direction in which he was already headed.”
Emil took a breath, knowing that if he were to goad his cousin any further, they could be arguing well into the night. Under normal circumstances, he would have done just that, but he was exhausted from the meeting with their uncle. So instead, he turned and started down the path that led into town.
Leon’s voice was demanding. “Where are you going?”
Emil didn’t turn to answer Leon’s question. “I’m going into town. I thought the direction I was going in would have made that more than apparent.”
Leon grit his teeth against the insult that was bubbling up in his throat and watched the other man go, before turning and stalking off in the other direction.
It was a lengthy trek into town, but Emil needed the time to clear his head.
He kicked a small stone in his path, grinning slightly as he imagined what his mother would say had she caught him partaking in the childish pastime. He kicked it along the path, watching as the tiniest scuff appeared on the point of his right shoe. He kicked the little stone more roughly as he thought about his cousin Leon. The two of them might as well be arranged to be married to one another; the inconvenience and burden were just as great. For as long as Emil could remember, he and Leon were brought together, forced to have playdates and outings with one another. The idea was that the two of them should learn to get along at an early age since they would be working together for the entirety of their adult lives.
Emil laughed out loud at the absurdity of their family’s plan for them, as if forcing them to be in each other’s presence could change the fact that they were two extremely different people. Although they had just been children when their futures were placed in front of them, Emil and Leon could see that they were being forced to share something that their elder brothers were given for their own. The resentment just grew as they took their school lessons together and were constantly compared to one another.
Emil didn’t hate Leon though. He just wished the other young man didn’t exist. At least then he could run their uncle’s business on his own and feel like his own man.
Emil kicked the stone off the path as the town came into view. He understood their uncle’s side. He’d raised both boys and taught them everything he knew about running his trade efficiently. It wasn’t unheard of for landowners and other tradesmen to acquire partners in their field, but this partnership wasn’t Emil’s or Leon’s choice.
Emil looked around at the dozens of people wandering through town. He didn’t venture into town often; that was usually done by one of the servants at his parents’ manor. Although, if he and Leon were going to be expected to fend for themselves, they would need to go into town for necessary supplies. For the first time in their lives, they would have no servants to meet their needs for them. It was probably best for at least one of them to familiarize themselves with the shops and businesses that made up the quaint but bustling town of Oxbury.
He was passing by the bakery when a flash of milk chocolate brown hair caught his peripheral vision, followed by a crashing sound and a tiny shriek.
Emil rushed to the young woman who had fallen. There was a basket and a couple of other packages scattered around her. He immediately began to help her put various food items back in the basket.
Her voice was a soft whisper. Emil barely heard the murmur. “Thank you so much. I apologize for my lumbering.”
“No need to apologize,” Emil said smoothly. He looked up to smile at her and his eyes widened a fraction.
The young woman before him was beautiful, even with her slightly mussed hair and plain dress. Her long brown tresses looked soft and shiny. Her wide eyes were just a couple of shades lighter and were almond-shaped and bright. Her lips were small, but plump and a smooth pink color.
Before he could stop himself, Emil stood and offered her his hand so he could help her up. He felt a shock go through him as her tiny hand hesitantly fell into his and he easily lifted her to her feet. Her dainty hand was warm and soft against his larger one. He felt the sudden urge to curl his fingers around it, but he resisted and allowed her to drop her hand from his so she could dust off the skirts.
“You’ve quite a few packages,” he said, dropping gracefully to one knee to gather the basket and hand it to her. “If you’d like, I could escort you home to help you with your load.” He bent and picked up the bag of fruit that lay on its side.
The young woman’s eyes rounded. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly impose, good sir.” She took the bag from him and bowed her head. “You’re too kind, but you needn’t worry. I don’t live very far away.”
Emil felt a stab of panic when she stepped away from him. “All the more reason I could be of some assistance. It should take hardly any time at all.” He grit his teeth, wanting to scold himself out loud for being so forward with the young woman, but there was something about her. He wanted to see her again and he couldn’t help but feel like if he didn’t do something, he would never see her again.
The girl’s smooth cheekbones colored into a rosy blush that had Emil’s heart stuttering. He ducked his head in a bow, ashamed by his actions. “My apologies. I haven’t a clue what has come over me. Of course it would be nothing short of improper for me to walk you home. I only wished to be of some help to you.”
The girl smiled shyly at his kind words, causing Emil’s breath to hitch. “Please don’t apologize,” she said in a voice that seemed to twinkle. “I do very much appreciate your offer and am horrified and regretful that I must decline it.”
Then don’t decline it, was what Emil wished to say, but he held his tongue and nodded, returning her breathtaking smile with one of his own. Feeling bolder than he had before, he said, “May I ask what they call you?”
Her head came up quickly as she met his gaze. “My name?”
Emil chuckled. “Yes.”
She swallowed before parting her pretty pink lips to answer him. “Eliza. Eliza Hill.”
“Eliza,” he repeated, lingering slightly longer on the ‘z.’ It wasn’t an uncommon name, but he couldn’t help but say it with a caress.
She was shifting slightly under his intense gaze. “May I ask for yours, sir?”
“Emil,” he said, with nowhere near as much care as he had said hers. He held out his hand to her. “Emil Bennet.”
Eliza gasped. “Bennet!” She recovered surprisingly fast however and put her hand in his for the second time.
This time, Emil did curl his fingers around Eliza’s soft hand. “You know me?” he asked, surprise clear in his voice though he wasn’t at all shocked. The Bennet family was large and involved with various businesses all across Oxbury and beyond.
Eliza’s hand trembled slightly in his grasp but she managed a clumsy curtsey. “My lord, you—your family, I mean. They own the land that my family lives on.”
Emil’s eyebrows raised slightly. Now that did surprise him. “I see,” he said. He logged that information away, quickly masking the calculating look in his eye with another smile. “I hope that my family’s reputation will not tarnish your opinion of me?”
Eliza shook her head, causing her silky strands to wave around her shoulders. “Not at all, sir,” she said quickly. “My aunt always said that your family is very kind and hospitable.”
Emil nodded politely, wondering how much contact Eliza’s family had had with his own. He stealthily ran his eyes up and down her body. She was wearing a simple dress made of a dark blue material, a clear sign that she was of the lower middle class since darker fabrics were much cheaper than light. Still, the way that the material clung to her bosom and shoulders made Emil want to run his fingers over those areas. The dark blue color also seemed to bring out the healthy flush in the girl’s cheeks.
He watched with fascination as Eliza gazed up at him shyly and swallowed. “Forgive me, sir, but I best be on my way.”
“Of course you must,” Emil said quickly, stepping aside so she might walk past him. “My apologies. I don’t come into town often, and it seems my etiquette has suffered greatly as a result.”
Eliza looked up at him with shock. “I wasn’t under that impression at all,” she said earnestly. She ducked her head again as she murmured, “I was just thinking that you were quite the gentleman.”
It was Emil’s turn to flush at her words. It definitely wasn’t the first time the compliment had been bestowed upon him, but it meant something so much more coming from the modest country girl. Something in his chest swelled as she looked up at him with wide, trusting orbs. Something else rose up in his heart as she began to move past him.
“Do be careful on your way home,” he cautioned, realizing that the feeling was protectiveness. He reeled slightly in his mind; what a strange thing to have just met the girl moments ago and feel this way.
“I will,” she said, her tone suddenly light. She looked down at her basket and pulled one of the small, wrapped items from it. She held it out to him tentatively. “I hope you won’t think me too forward, but I’d like to give you this shortbread. It’s fresh, just baked earlier this morning.” She spoke quickly and her face was growing brighter with each word.
Emil immediately took the package, touched at the gesture. “Thank you, I’ll look forward to having them with this evening’s tea.”
Her answering smile almost had his heart stuttering once again. Her whole face seemed to light up. He couldn’t help but smile back at her.
“I do hope they’ll be to your liking,” she said.
Emil raised an eyebrow at the layers he heard behind the words. “Are you the one who made them by chance?”
Eliza nodded. “I’m an apprentice at the bakery, so I’m still learning,” she said, looking shy again. “They’re nowhere near as good as Tess’s, but I do hope you’ll enjoy them.”
Emil held the package more carefully now. “I’m sure I will.”
They gazed at each other silently for a moment. Eliza’s cheeks colored again before she bowed her head slightly. “Good day, Mr. Bennet. Thank you for helping me.”
Emil watched her go, a lump forming in his throat for some reason. “Good day to you, Ms. Hill.”
Eliza’s heart was pounding as she made her way down the dirt road leading toward home. She held her packages to her chest, remembering the kind smile of Emil Bennet as he took the shortbread from her. Another part of her was panicking that she actually had the gall to hand him baked goods made by a lowly apprentice baker. What if he didn’t like them? Not that it mattered much. She probably wouldn’t ever cross paths with the handsome young man again anyway.
She raised her head when she passed by her aunt’s house, where she had spent all her eighteen years of life. She could barely make out a couple of her cousins playing in the field. She stood at the very edge of the road, not daring to step foot on their land.
It was the seven-year-old girl that spotted her. Even from the several yards between them, Eliza heard her squeal in delight and she and her eight-year-old brother ran over to her.
“You’ve finished your chores early,” Eliza said once the two children were close enough to hear.
“I knew that Lizzy would be back,” said the boy. He pointed an accusing finger at his younger sister. “She didn’t think you would come today.”
Eliza smiled fondly at the two. They looked so much alike with their large, sparkling hazel eyes and pointed noses.
“I knew she would be back,” the little girl corrected indignantly. “Just not today.”
The two children bounced up and down excitedly when Eliza held the basket out to them.
“Are there cakes this time?” the boy asked, looking up at Eliza with a mix of expectation and hope.
Eliza giggled and nodded. “Only a couple small ones this time, though,” she said.
“Thank you, Lizzy!” the little girl squealed, wrapping her arms around Eliza’s middle. She looked up at Eliza with a small pout. “I wish Mama hadn’t kicked you out. We miss you so much.”
Eliza stroked the little girl’s hair. “She didn’t kick me out,” she denied. “It would be inappropriate for me to continue living with you as an adult.”
Her little cousin just sniffed her disagreement. Her brother huffed and kicked at the dirt beneath his feet. “They should have sent Clarence away instead of you.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Eliza scolded him gently. “You know that your father isn’t in the best health. Clarence is the man of the house now. You must both show him respect.”
Both children looked down, pouting openly. Eliza sighed quietly, her heart going out to them. Their older brother and her cousin Clarence was nineteen and would no doubt be a capable merchant like his father, but he hadn’t the heart for children. She knew the two children feared their eldest brother’s temper.
After hugging the two children fiercely and sending them back to the small house, Eliza continued down the road. She had been devastated when her aunt ordered just a fortnight before her eighteenth birthday that Eliza leave them. Eliza understood. She was a burden to the family, which had four children of their own to care for. She was just an orphan, thrust upon them out of obligation to her aunt’s older sister, Eliza’s birth mother. Her mother had died when she was quite young, leaving Eliza with her aunt, uncle, and their two young sons. Since Eliza was only a year younger than Clarence and the same age as his younger brother Fletcher, Eliza was seen as a nuisance. Her aunt and uncle had little time for her, so she was given the bare minimum needed to survive.
Her family wasn’t cruel to her, but they were far from warm. Her aunt and uncle were strict with the boys, and treated her with a similar callousness. Like many other middle-class children, Eliza was taught to tend to the home at an early age. She followed her aunt around like a little duckling, learning to wash clothes and cook. Her aunt was more like a strict schoolteacher than a maternal figure. She scolded Eliza for every little thing. Eliza was punished for crying from an early age, being told that it was unladylike and unattractive.
She did grow close with her two male cousins. They often played with her and comforted her whenever their parents punished her, which seemed to be often. She learned that the best way to keep peace in their home was to be meek and as helpful as possible.
When the youngest child Lilith had been born seven years earlier, Eliza had been overjoyed to have something of a younger sister. She made clothes for the little girl and carried her around. Before too long, young Lilith could do most of Eliza’s chores. Eliza couldn’t help but feel like that was the catalyst to her being kicked out, but she couldn’t resent Lilith. She felt, despite their age gap only being eleven years, that the little girl was her own daughter.
Clarence and Fletcher had fought to keep her there, but Eliza felt it was right for her to leave. She was there to help her aunt and with Lilith being well old enough, she was only going to take up more space in their modest home. She had hoped that if she did leave, her aunt wouldn’t be as bitter and be more compassionate toward the children.
Eliza straightened and put on a brave face as she approached her new dwelling. She had been at a loss of what to do on the morning of her eighteenth birthday. She had been planning to ask if she could stay with the baker and his family, but couldn’t find the nerve to do so. She had found herself wandering the woods and happened to stumble across an old, abandoned carriage in a little clearing. The sun had been bright that morning and seemed to be shining down through the trees to illuminate it.
It took mere hours for Eliza to travel back and forth from the Hill family home to the carriage to transfer her stuff into it. She felt a little mad. It would be much more sensible to ask to stay with the baker and his family, but she didn’t want to be a burden on them either. She couldn’t help but suspect they only offered to take her in as an apprentice because they felt sorry for her.
This solution was ideal for everyone, Eliza told herself as she curled up on the thin blanket her aunt had given her. She had everything she needed: shelter, a bag of fruit that the baker’s wife gathered for her, and a book of poems that had belonged to her mother.
She didn’t need anything else.
Leon cursed under his breath as he straightened and tossed the old plow he had been holding onto the ground.
“You’re acting like a child,” Emil spat with disgust. He had been harvesting some vegetables from the little garden when he’d heard the tool hit the ground.
“Well, you sound like a mother,” Leon retorted with just as much contempt, but his ears turned red at his cousin’s observation. He knew it was true, but they had been working under the unforgiving sun for hours. Neither was used to the amount of physical labor and their bodies had begun to protest toward the start of their work.
They had expected to have to start from nothing and grow their own produce, but the quaint house they were taking up residence at had been previously occupied by a capable farming family. They’d been left with a well-kept garden and a healthy pack of animals. The tools had obviously been used for years, but were in good shape. The field they were to tend to was thriving with corn and wheat. It was humiliating as well as relieving that their uncle had set them up kindly.
Leon set his hands on his hips and leaned back, stretching out the muscles in his shoulders. His eyes focused on a figure just off in the distance, on the road in front of their property. The girl standing there was clearly staring at them. When she and Leon locked eyes, she quickly ducked her head and began to make her way down the road.
Emil had been watching his cousin and followed his gaze to the young woman. He stood quickly when he realized who it was.
It was Leon’s turn to stare at his cousin. He looked at the other man strangely. “What? Could it be that you know her?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Emil said, trying to keep his voice calm. “I met her in town days ago, that’s all.”
Leon’s eyes narrowed as he pondered over the strange tone Emil’s voice had taken. His slitted blue eyes wandered back over to the girl who was walking quickly down the road. Leon’s eyes widened in surprise when he watched her look anxiously around before slipping through some brush on the side of the road.
“She just disappeared into the trees,” he said. Something in him caused him to make his way toward where he saw her disappear.
Emil was by his side in a flash, blocking his path. “You can’t just follow her, you’ll frighten her and besides that, it’s hardly appropriate.”
Leon stepped around his cousin. He was larger than the other man, and wasn’t at all opposed to getting into a brawl with him. It wouldn’t have been the first time. “What kind of business would a girl like that have in the forest?”
Emil grabbed Leon’s shoulder. “Business that is none of ours.” His voice was hard, but it wavered slightly as he considered Leon’s point.
Leon easily shook his cousin off and made his way purposefully to the road. Emil followed after just a moment of hesitation.
“I was under the impression that you didn’t approve of following her,” Leon said once they had reached the road.
Emil narrowed his eyes at his cousin’s back. “I’m only accompanying you to ensure that no harm comes to her.”
A sound came from Leon that sounded like a growl. “How would harming her benefit me? I only wish to figure out why she’s acting so suspiciously around our property.”
“She’s only a girl,” Emil protested as the two of them pushed through the brush Leon had seen her go through. When Leon didn’t respond, he let out an angry breath. “This is foolish. We’re only going to accomplish frightening her.”
“Go back to harvesting vegetables if your disapproval is so overwhelming,” Leon snapped, without turning. He strode purposefully forward, and Emil felt like he had no choice but to follow.
It didn’t take them long to find her. She had been moving quickly on the road, but was now traveling at a leisurely stroll. Leon felt the sudden urge to scold her for her slow speed. It wasn’t safe for a woman to go through the woods on her own. What could she possibly be doing? She moved as if she had no purpose at all, like she was enjoying her little romp through the woods.
The two stood frozen in shock when they got to a little clearing. They watched in dismay as Eliza approached an old carriage and slipped inside of it. It was clear she didn’t even slightly detect their presence when soft humming came from the wooden wagon.
Emil was probably more shocked than Leon, who just looked confused. He grabbed the other man’s arm when Leon made a move to step out of the bushes and into the clearing.
Leon didn’t turn, but stiffened his whole body. “Let go of me.”
Emil just tightened his grip. “We should leave, Leon.” He couldn’t bear to see Eliza’s look of disgust if she discovered that the two of them were spying on her.
Leon shook him off and strode into the clearing. Emil made a growling noise in the back of his throat, but once again, followed his more confrontative cousin.
“Good day, miss!”
Emil grimaced at the loudness of Leon’s holler, but he watched the piece of fabric over the carriage window expectantly. Several seconds later, the fabric shifted slightly and a pair of warm brown eyes peeked through. They widened considerably before Eliza stepped out of the opening, giving the boys a brief glance of the contents inside the carriage, which appeared to be bags of fruit and some blankets. The two boys shared a surprised glance before smiling at Eliza.
“Hello,” Eliza said shyly, her wide, bright eyes darting around nervously. She took a step back as they approached, looking as if she were trying to make the large wooden cart less conspicuous.
It was Leon who had initiated the exchange, but he looked at a loss as to what to say next. Emil, with a roll of his bright blue eyes, stepped in. “We apologize for disturbing you, Ms. Hill.” He faltered a bit when her brown orbs settled on him. She was really breathtaking. He swallowed thickly. “We just happened to notice you strolling past our manor and became concerned when we saw you disappear into the woods. It’s not safe for a young woman such as yourself to be wandering through the trees on her own.”
“It’s inappropriate and foolish,” Leon added in a sharp tone.
Emil turned his head to let out a frustrated breath at his cousin’s curtness. Eliza looked shocked and humiliated, ducking her head and pressing her lips together as if she were going to burst into tears. He suddenly felt the urge to fold her into his arms in order to comfort her, but he settled for stepping forward and setting a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, just as he had feared.
“You’ll have to excuse Leon,” he said in a soft voice. He frowned inwardly when he felt how thin her shoulder was. He chuckled lightly to mask it. “He might be my cousin, but we are as different as night and day, I can assure you.”
Eliza snuck a quick glance at Leon, who was glowering openly at both of them, before darting her eyes away. She sniffled delicately. “No, it’s quite alright. I apologize for this childish display,” she began, twisting her small hands in the fabric of her skirts.
“Not at all,” Emil insisted. When it was clear she wasn’t going to say anything else, Emil finally straightened and gestured to the carriage. “If I may ask, Ms. Hill, is this your carriage?” He watched with growing concern as the girl’s tiny, but full lips tightened. He wondered briefly if she was even breathing.
“I wouldn’t say that exactly,” she murmured, stiffening under his hand so much that he dropped his arm and took a small step away from her. “I happened across it and it didn’t appear to be in use. Of course if someone comes along and claims it, I won’t fight them!” She waved her hands in front of her face.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Leon cut in curtly. He eyed the old wooden carriage. “It’s obviously been abandoned, but that isn’t the issue here. What are you doing with it?”
Emil would have berated Leon for his hard tone, but wanted to hear the answer to that question as well.
“Well… I…” The rest of the words coming from Eliza were indecipherable. Both boys gazed at her as she tried to form coherent sentences.
“Ms. Hill,” Emil finally cut in. “You aren’t… living in this old carriage, are you?”
Eliza’s face immediately turned a brilliant shade of red, and her mouth hung open, confirming their suspicions.
“Enough of this,” Leon announced firmly, stepping forward so he could tower over Eliza. “Gather your things from out of that carriage. You’re coming with us.”
Eliza’s face immediately went from red to white. “What? But why?”
“Because it’s dangerous out here, that’s why,” Leon snapped. He pointed at the carriage. “Now go.”
“Ms. Hill,” Emil said, shooting Leon an exasperated look before settling his eyes back on the shaking girl in front of him. “Have you anywhere else you can go? Where is your family? Didn’t you tell me that our family owns the land that they reside on?”
“Yes, sir, I did,” Eliza confirmed, looking up at the two of them nervously. Thankfully some color was returning to her cheeks. “Oh, please do let me stay! I know I’m just on the outskirts of your property, but I won’t cause you any trouble. My family can no longer care for me, and I am a woman now who should be fending for herself.”
“What nonsense are you speaking of?” Leon demanded in a booming voice, making Eliza shrink away from them. “Are you suggesting that since you are a woman, you should be on your own? And you believe that fending for yourself entails dwelling in an old carriage that is clearly moments away from falling in on itself?”
“Well, no,” Eliza protested in a surprisingly sure voice. “I only meant that as an adult, I shouldn’t be burdening my relatives.”
Leon just shook his head in amazement. “Gather your belongings,” he ordered before once again gesturing toward the carriage, this time with a more threatening sweep of his hand.
“I must insist that you gather your things and come with us as well, Ms. Hill,” Emil added, stepping aside graciously, as if he were leading her through the doors of a grand ball.
“I couldn’t,” Eliza said, waving her hands frantically in front of her face again. “I hardly know either of you. I promise I’ll be alright on my own, but thank you for your kindness.”
“I’m afraid that this isn’t a request,” Leon intoned, stepping forward.
Eliza just gazed up at him with wide eyes.
“I give you my word that no harm shall come to you,” Emil said, stepping up to her as well, but much more gently and carefully, as if approaching a wild animal. He let his face fall just a little. “Do you not trust me?”
Eliza stared into Emil Bennet’s eyes for a long moment before a tiny smile graced her lips. “I do trust you,” she said finally. She looked away shyly then. “I just don’t think it would be appropriate for me to go into your home, and I would hate to take advantage of your kindness.”
“It would be far more inappropriate for you to continue living out here on your own,” Leon said, his hard voice laced with impatience. “I’m only going to tell you one last time; go and gather your things.”
“Leon, there is no need to be that harsh,” Emil growled.
Eliza glanced between the two cousins, looking like a startled bunny rabbit.
Leon crossed his arms and when Eliza didn’t move, he grit his teeth. “You’ll learn to heed my warnings, little girl, I promise you.”
Before Emil could even process what was happening, his cousin grabbed Eliza by the upper arm and delivered a handful of swats to the back of her skirts, causing the girl to cry out in surprise.
“Leon, unhand her—” Emil began to step forward to pummel his cousin, but stopped as he got a good look at Eliza’s face.
Her doe eyes had glazed over and her upper teeth were worrying her lower lip. She didn’t look frightened, but embarrassed. Once Leon let go of her she scurried off and into the carriage.
“Why would you do that to a young woman you just met?” Emil demanded once Eliza was inside the carriage.
“You know as well as I that spanking is the best way to ensure women’s obedience and respect,” Leon said without sympathy.
Emil just shook his head with amazement. Even though all the women in their family were subject to physical discipline, he didn’t agree that Leon should have laid a hand on Eliza Hill. Although, it was clear from her reaction that she hadn’t been afraid of Leon’s chastisement. And he had to admit that it was how they were able to convince her to come home with them.
It would still be going too far to say that he was grateful for his cousin’s actions.
“I’ve walked past your property many times in the past, and don’t believe I’ve seen either of you before,” Eliza said as they walked.
Leon was carrying sacks of food while Emil carried her clothes and blankets. Eliza had insisted she help carry some things, but a quick warning from Leon had her dutifully walking with them with nothing but the clothes on her person.
“We’ve only recently acquired this property for ourselves,” Emil explained as he shifted the items in his arms. He watched her from the corner of his eye, amazed that they were actually bringing Eliza Hill home with them. He couldn’t help but notice her sweet scent coming from the bedding and clothes he held.
Eliza looked at them in surprise. “You’ve both acquired this property?” she asked, her voice laced with confusion.
“It is technically our uncle’s property,” Leon put in. “We’re tending to it temporarily.”
Eliza nodded. “That’s very kind of you,” she said.
Both men winced, neither wanting to correct her and explain the less-than-ideal circumstances that led to the arrangement.
Eliza smiled softly when they got up to the house. She had admired the estate on many of her walks back home. It was the largest in the area, and was mostly white with a sleek roof the color of thunderclouds. Eliza, even as a child, thought that the people living in a home like that must be kindhearted.
She grew nervous when they approached the home and Leon shifted the large items in his arms to open the door. Even though they were both carrying a lot, they still insisted she pass through the door first.
Eliza gazed around like a child as she entered the large, but still modest dwelling. The entry was narrower than she expected and her eyes lit up when she spotted a little library to her left. The two men ushered her into the sitting room, Leon leaving to put her food items in the kitchen.
Emil set down the bedding on the cream-colored sofa before gesturing for Eliza to seat herself. She did so slowly, sitting up straight and a bit stiffly, worried that her clothes might soil the furnishing.
“I hope you don’t find my cousin and I too forward for insisting you come with us,” he said at last.
“Not at all,” Eliza said after a moment’s hesitation. “I’m touched by your concern. I only wish to make it clear to you that I won’t be able to stay long.”
“You’ll stay as long as is necessary,” Leon answered, appearing suddenly.
Emil opened his mouth to defend the young woman, but stopped when he glanced at her face. He expected her to be cowering in fear at his intimidating cousin, but her countenance was calm, her chocolate brown eyes actually fierce.
“I am thankful for your kindness,” she said, her voice somehow kind despite her stiff demeanor. “But I will not be forced to overstay my welcome.”
“Please, Ms. Hill,” Emil said before Leon could say a word. “Until a suitable place is found for you to inhabit, I also must insist you stay here.”
“With all due respect, Mr. Bennet,” Eliza said, standing up suddenly. “What is considered ‘a suitable place’ is no decision of yours to make. I was perfectly comfortable where I was before you found me.”
Leon took a threatening step forward, but Emil put an arm out to stop him.
“I’m afraid that seeing as you were just outside of our property, you are under our protection and rules,” Emil said evenly. Although he admired Eliza Hill’s courage, he also did not approve of her behavior.
“But I wasn’t on your property,” Eliza argued, planting her feet firmly and pushing her slightly pointed chin out.
“Sit down, Ms. Hill,” Emil ordered, his voice firm.
Eliza didn’t move.
Leon pushed past Emil so that he could tower over the small woman. “You are on our property now, Ms. Hill,” he informed her. “So I suggest you start obeying us.”
Eliza pulled her lower lip between her teeth as she gazed up at the two men. Many others would have been frightened into submission by their intimidating size and stern faces, but she had stubbornness flowing through her.
“Sit down, Ms. Hill,” Emil repeated, lowering his tone to a threatening one.
Eliza’s body twitched to obey, but she forced it back into a rebellious stance.
Leon looked at his cousin. “Perhaps she’s refusing to sit because she wishes to lose the ability to,” he said.
Eliza’s resolve faltered slightly, her eyes rounding with apprehension, but the stubborn tic in her jaw remained. A moment or two passed where the three of them just stared at one another.
Finally, Leon reached out and took hold of Eliza’s arm. “Should we show her what becomes of disobedient women?”
Emil locked eyes with Eliza, who now looked appropriately worried. He nodded his head.
Leon sat where Eliza had been just moments before and pulled her to him.
“Are you afraid of us, Ms. Hill?” Emil asked, coming to stand closer to them, just to her right.
Eliza shook her head no, but lightly tugged at the arm that Leon was grasping.
“If you’re afraid of us, then we would be happy to find you another place to stay,” Emil went on kindly. He was relieved that Eliza wasn’t afraid of them, but it was possible that the status could change suddenly, especially if Leon continued to act roughly toward her. “If you’re comfortable with it, we will house you until another arrangement has been made.”
“However, dwelling here doesn’t come without any costs,” Leon interrupted. He lowered his hands so that he was now holding tightly onto her thin wrists. “Women in our family have their bottoms warmed if they are disobedient. While you aren’t a member of our family, you will still be treated as they are since you will be under our care.”
Eliza swallowed thickly, her eyes focused onto the wooden floor beneath her feet. Her face reddened with shame at the thought of being chastised now the way she had been as a child. “May I at least offer some payment for my staying here?” she asked.
Emil shook his head. “That is hardly necessary,” he told her. “You will stay with us and go about your day as you normally would.” He said this, but couldn’t even begin to imagine what a normal day living in a carriage would be like.
“I can’t do that,” Eliza said, her voice hardening.
Leon snaked a hand around her waist then and slapped her bottom roundly, causing her to yelp. “Best not to argue, little girl,” he warned. “One more disrespectful word and you’ll be tipped over my thighs.”
Emil sighed and stepped around so that he could see Eliza’s flushed face. “I’m aware that we hardly know you, but we’ve been brought up not to ignore a young woman in need of assistance.”
Eliza’s head shot up and she gave Emil an exasperated look. “But I am not in need of assistance!”
Emil just stepped back and sighed again when Leon let out a low growl before flipping the poor girl over his lap, bringing his hard hand down on the seat of her skirts over and over.
Leon was intimidating and clearly upset at the moment, but he was also very clearly in control. He held Eliza firmly over his thighs with one arm, with her head and legs dangling over the floor on either side of his body. His hard hand came down firmly, but rhythmically.
“Please, don’t do this!” Eliza begged, wiggling in Leon’s grasp.
It was Emil who answered. “First rule when you’re in this position is to not speak unless spoken to,” he said, but not unkindly. He positioned himself so that he could look into Eliza’s eyes, crouching down in front of her. He was relieved once again to see that she did not appear frightened, only embarrassed. His heart swelled with affection when Eliza tightened her lips to keep herself from speaking.
Leon didn’t speak as he punished her, his face steely as he brought his hand to the lower portion of her backside. The only sound that could be heard was the popping sound of his hand against the soft material of Eliza’s skirts. After a few dozen swats, his hands dove to the hem of her floor-length skirt.
“No!” Eliza cried out.
“I don’t remember giving you permission to speak,” Leon intoned, flipping her skirts up and over her back with one swoop.
Emil’s face heated when Eliza’s thin cotton drawers came into view. Leon seemed to be having a similar reaction, hesitating a moment too long before continuing the chastisement over her underwear.
Emil’s eyebrows furrowed when Eliza’s face began to turn red and her breathing labored. He looked up at Leon in alarm.
“Stop, Leon, she looks like she’s about to swoon,” he said, not even waiting for the other man to respond and quickly, but carefully helping Eliza off Leon’s lap.
“How was I to know that?” Leon demanded, but he hovered over them, concern written all over his face.
Emil gripped Eliza’s arms and sighed with relief when her face color went back to normal and her breathing began to slow down. He hesitated as he held the young woman, knowing that laying over Leon’s lap without passing out would require loosening her corset, but it was far too improper for them to do so.
“Please, Mr. Bennet,” Eliza gasped out, looking up at him pitifully, her doe eyes wet with unshed tears. “I’m sorry for my disobedience.”
Emil smiled tenderly at her. “Thank you for your apology,” he said. He furrowed his brows sternly though after a moment. “I’m afraid we’re not yet finished with your punishment, however. I’ve only let you up because I was concerned that you were having difficulty breathing.”
Leon chose that moment to step in and firmly, but gently grabbed Eliza’s upper arm. “Over here, young lady,” he said, guiding her back over to the sofa. He pushed on her back lightly until she bent over at the waist, her hands flat against the cushions. He wasted no time in once again pulling her skirts up so that her thin cotton undergarments were once again on display.
“Next time you disobey, your chastisement will be administered on bare skin,” Emil warned her. He couldn’t help but grin when he saw her whole body stiffen at that announcement. “We’re being lenient with you since this is your first punishment.”
“You will do well not to force our hands in the future,” Leon said, slapping her bottom with each word.
Eliza’s tears began to trickle down her cheeks, more so from the shame due to the humbling position rather than from the burn quickly building in her bottom.
Leon’s stern countenance wasn’t a front. He truly believed that women should obey men. He knew that he was probably being too harsh with a woman he hardly knew, but he was determined to make sure she minded them. He couldn’t properly explain the fear and protectiveness that flowed through him when he learned this girl had been living in an old carriage. He had the sudden urge to shelter her and make sure she was taken care of.
The best way he knew how to care for a woman was to warm her bottom. It was easy to harden his resolve when he imagined his younger sister trying to live in a carriage. His frustration rising rapidly, he focused some harder swats on the lower half of Eliza’s pert buttocks, watching in satisfaction as they shook beneath the thin material of her underwear.
“Leon, that’s enough,” Emil said, stepping forward and setting a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “She is more than repentant. I’ve no doubt she’s learned the error of her ways.”
Eliza let out a long breath when Leon released her and took a step back. She righted herself, adjusting her clothes before wiping at her wet cheeks, her eyes downcast.
Both men felt the sudden desire to hold her. She looked so small and pitiful as she stood before them, clutching the fabric of her skirts in her small dainty hands.
“Have you anything to say regarding your behavior?” Leon demanded.
“Leon,” Emil snapped, sending the other man a withering look.
“I apologize,” Eliza murmured in a small voice. Both men had to strain to hear it.
“You’re forgiven,” Emil said immediately, wanting the forlorn frown on her face to disappear.