Jemima gripped the handle of her small wicker basket and stared up at the sign over the entrance to The Rose and Thorns. She’d never thought her life would come to this. That she’d have to swallow her pride and become a plaything, an object of pleasure, for men.
But it had. And she couldn’t see any other way to survive. It was this or die.
“It’ll be okay, don’t look so worried,” Emily, her friend of old said. “Mrs. Riley is a fair madam. She’ll make sure you’re fed and have a warm bed.”
Jemima nodded. Her parents had died suddenly of fever nearly a year ago, and it had been a long cold winter up on the Yorkshire moors. She’d been hungry most of it too, the crops having failed during her grief due to flood. And now, destitute and penniless, she had no choice but to enter a world of pleasure for money, of laying her virginal self down and doing what she needed to.
“And the fellas here are okay.” Emily opened the door to the tavern.
A rush of warm beer-laden air and a roar of deep male voices spilled out. A ruddy-cheeked man barged past them, holding his gut. He tipped forward, gripping the wall, and vomited on the cobbled street.
“Well, mostly they’re okay.” Emily slipped her arm around Jemima’s waist. “Come on, this way.”
They entered the throng of people. The floor was spread with sawdust and candlelight threw amber shadows over lusty, laughing male faces. Behind the bar girls served drinks, the necklines of their dresses low, their ample breasts spilling over the top, one girl exposing the dark arcs of her nipples.
“We’ll go straight upstairs,” Emily said, her grip tightening on Jemima and urging her forward. “Don’t make eye contact with anyone, not yet.”
Jemima’s heart rate soared and her mouth dried as they pushed forward. The heat of bodies wrapped around her and seemed to fill her nose, her lungs, and her blood.
She blinked rapidly as they walked through a puff of pipe smoke, then she gasped when a hard smack landed on her rump.
“Hey.” Emily turned and jabbed her finger at the culprit. “This one ain’t for sale.”
“Well, she should be.” He leered forward, showing off the fact he had no top teeth.
This is a terrible idea.
Jemima pressed closer to Emily as they continued.
“Alright, Em?” a tall bearded man said, folding his arms and looking down at them.
“Aye, thanks, we’re fine, Will, just heading to see Madam.”
He nodded and his gaze slipped to Jemima.
“She’s in her room. You got a fresh one, eh?”
“I have, and she’ll need you to look out for her.” Emily turned to Jemima. “Will is employed by Madam, to make sure we don’t run into any trouble and we always get paid.”
“I’m here if you need me, all you got to do is holler.” Will’s wide lips were flattened. It seemed he took his job seriously, which was something at least.
“Hey, dark hair, my sweet.” A man staggered toward them, beer sloshing from his tankard. He wore a lopsided grin and his stained shirt was unbuttoned almost to his navel.
“Arnold.” Emily turned to him. “You’re looking fine tonight.”
“So are you.” He set his hand on Emily’s shoulder, closed his eyes and pouted.
Emily kissed him briefly.
Jemima didn’t know how she could. The man was a drunken, ugly old leech.
This isn’t for me.
I have to get out of here.
“I will return soon,” Emily said, tapping Arnold’s head as though he were a pet. “I have to take my friend upstairs, and then I’m all yours.”
“Good.” He burped. “Don’t be long. I have a hard dick and hard coins for you.” He laughed, swaying as he did so.
“I’ll be back very soon.”
Turning, Emily ushered Jemima through a doorway Will had pulled open at the end of the bar.
“You’re going to be intimate with him, that old man?” Jemima said.
“In a fashion.”
“What do you mean?”
Emily stopped. The base of the stairwell was quiet in comparison with the frenetic bar. “You saw how drunk he was.”
“Yes, I did.”
“And you know about drunk men and their cocks, right?”
“Er, no.” Jemima frowned. What was her friend talking about?
“Oh, Jemima, you really are so innocent.” She shook her head. “I should never have offered to introduce you to Madam.”
“No, don’t say that. I’m desperate, you know I am.”
“But you will not be able to bring yourself to… oh, never mind.”
“Tell me.” Jemima clenched her jaw. “Tell me what I need to know.”
“Okay, the drunker they are, the less their cocks work. Their desire is stoked by ale but they can’t perform. They’re the ones to go for, the really drunk ones.”
“Arnold comes in every Saturday night looking for me. I wait until he’s inebriated, happy, and lustful, then take him upstairs. It’s all over in seconds, a quick grope, sometimes an attempt at sex, and then I get paid. He can’t remember any of it so there’s no arguing. Easy as taking money from a bairn.”
“Easy as taking money from a bairn.” Jemima tried to picture the scene with herself in it.
A rise of nausea twisted in her guts. The thought of being groped and pawed by Arnold or any man like him was sickening.
And what would my poor parents think. God rest their souls.
“You’ll soon learn the easiest ways to make money.” Emily gestured up the stairs. “And once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes second nature. Come on.”
Each step Jemima climbed released a new spurt of adrenaline into her system. Being cold and hungry was beginning to feel like the better option. She was sure she’d be unable to hide her revulsion with one of the patrons of The Rose and Thorns. Likely they’d complain and she’d lose her job and be sent packing. She should perhaps just leave now, while she still had her dignity, and could step into church without shame.
“Come on,” Emily said. “I have work to do tonight. Collecting you from the high street has used up half of my earning time.”
“I’m sorry, but thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“Apology not necessary, I’ve known you since we were wee lasses and a friend in need is a friend indeed and all that.”
Jemima managed a weak smile. She’d managed to catch a lift on a cart carrying hay from the Dales to York. It had been a long bumpy journey but at least the rain had held off. The farmer had been kind, too, and given her an apple. It was all she’d eaten that day.
“This way.” Emily bounded off, holding her skirts up as she went.
They reached the top of the stairs. A long corridor, the walls misshapen as the structure had shifted over time, stretched before them. The paint-chipped doors were all closed and a strange cacophony of groans, cries, and grunts slipped beneath them.
Emily smiled. “It’s a busy night. Madam will be in a good mood.”
As they walked past the first door, Jemima stared at it. Soon she would be in that room, or one like it, with a fat drunk ape yanking at her clothes, drooling on her.
“I can’t do this.” She stopped.
“Sure you can.” Emily turned. “Take no notice of what I said earlier, it’ll be fine. You’ll see.” She jerked her head upward. “And you can’t sleep under the stars, not here in York, you’ll get your throat slit.”
“This is the best place for you now, and you’ve got me to watch out for you. Come on.”
It really did seem her fate had been decided. If she wanted to live—and she really did—Jemima would have to become a scarlet lady, a whore, a woman of the night.
God forgive me.
The door to the end room was ajar. The stench of perfume leaked into the air around it, as did tobacco smoke.
“Try and be positive,” Emily whispered. “Oh, and say you have some different clothes. Something more alluring, more saucy, you know.”
“But I don’t. This is the best I have.” She gestured to the plain blue woolen dress she’d traveled in. There were still stalks of hay sticking to it and a stain sat over the slight rise of her right breast.
Emily frowned. “I’ll lend you a dress, you’re the same size as me… well, you’re a bit thinner… but that will soon change now you’re here and you’ll be having a good meal each day.”
A good meal every day. Jemima could hardly imagine what that would be like. She’d been so hungry for so long.
“Who is there?” a voice called.
“We should go and introduce you,” Emily said.
Jemima summoned her courage. This was it, the point of no return. Once she’d accepted her new role in life, her course would be chosen.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
Perhaps it would be hell on Earth.
“Ah, Emily, who do you have here?”
“This is a dear old friend who is wishing to join your esteemed establishment, Madam.”
“Ah, I see.”
Madam was a rotund woman with a portly belly and jowls. She had a huge mole on her left cheek, and even in the low lamplight it was easy to see a long black hair grew from it.
Wearing a knitted black cardigan over a green dress, she was smoking and had a glass of what appeared to be sherry in her hand.
The room was small and crammed full of furniture. A bed on a slight tilt, as though one leg was struggling to take the strain. A wooden dressing table littered with toiletries, curtains that hadn’t been pulled completely and let the light of an oil lamp in. A fireplace was squeezed into a corner, the hot embers warming a black pot, which steamed gently.
“How old are you?” Madam directed at Jemima.
“You don’t look it.” She peered forward.
“She’s been down on her luck. Lost both parents summer gone and has been struggling to run their arable farm.”
“Hard times indeed.” Madam nodded. There was a softness in her eyes.
Jemima managed a weak smile. “It has been a long winter but now I have come to York to work.”
“As a woman of pleasure at The Rose and Thorns?”
Jemima paused, then after a deep breath, said, “Yes.”
“And what experience do you have?”
“She don’t have much,” Emily said quickly. “But she’s a fast learner, I can tell you that. She’s sharp, and a fast talker, she has men sending her love notes, offers of proposal.”
Jemima opened her mouth to speak. No such thing had ever happened to her.
Emily jabbed her in the ribs.
She closed her mouth.
“Mmm, she’s a bit on the skinny side. I’ve seen rats with more meat on them.”
“She admitted it’s been a hard winter.” Emily cupped Jemima’s right breast.
Jemima gasped, shocked by the sudden invasion of her personal space.
“And when she’s had a few good meals, these will fill out, you mark my words.” Emily squeezed. “She’s got a good pair, they just need feeding up.” She laughed.
So did Madam. “I can see that she’s in need, and if you can vouch for her then a week’s trial can begin. A trial, mind. I’m not paying for her to learn, she can do that at her own expense.”
“Of course I’ll vouch for her.” Emily grinned. “You won’t be disappointed.”
“She can start tonight. There’s a tub there.” She pointed to a tin bath beside the fire. “Bathe and change. I run a classy establishment, I like my girls well presented.”
“Can I get her some food from the kitchen?” Emily said. “The wee lass hasn’t had anything to eat today.”
“Aye, we don’t want her fainting and being taken advantage of. Some clients are rotters, they’ll take what they want then skip off without paying what I’m owed.” Madam waggled a finger at Jemima. A huge red ring sat on it. “You speak to Will, let him know you’re new.”
“We’ve seen him already, but I can show Jemima the ropes.”
“I know you can, you’re a good girl.” Madam sat back and sipped her drink. “Now chop, chop, let’s get on with this night’s work. Time is ticking on and time is money.”
Jemima felt bereft as Emily turned to leave the room—bereft and scared and out of her depth as she embarked on this new path.
But then a sudden commotion in the corridor had Emily backing up. A man, suited and booted with a white cravat and holding an envelope strode in.
“And who are you?” Madam said, puffing up her chest.
“Special envoy to the Duke of Hillcrest Court.”
Jemima looked at Emily, who’d slunk back in, clearly curious.
Emily downturned her mouth and shrugged.
Hillcrest Court was an estate to the west of York with imposing stone walls all around its land and an owner who was rarely seen.
“The Duke of Hillcrest,” Madam said. “Whatever does he want with my establishment?”
“He has sent a sealed letter, to be opened by you, madam of The Rose and Thorns.”
“This is most unusual.” She held out her hand. “Let me see.”
He stepped farther in, glanced at Jemima then handed a folded sheet of paper with a red stamped seal to Madam.
Madam opened it.
As her eyes scanned the words, Jemima felt a tug of jealousy. Madam could read. It was something she longed to be able to do. Unable to spare her from the farm, her parents had kept her at home most school days. There’d been work to do, food to put on the table.
“Well, well, well, there’s a turn up for the books.” Madam shook her head and blew out a breath.
“What is it?” Emily asked.
“He wants a woman to—”
The deliveryman cleared his throat and shifted from one foot to the other. He held up his palm.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” Madam directed at him.
“Perhaps I should wait outside. Letter was sealed for a reason. The duke doesn’t want gossip, he was quite specific about that so the less I know, the less I can reveal.”
Emily laughed and stepped closer to him. She ran her hand over his collar. “Why, you are a delicate soul.”
He stepped back. “No, miss, I just take my job and my reputation seriously.”
“Very well, wait outside. Though you can hardly ‘un-know’ that the duke has had dealings with a brothel now, can you.”
“Sadly, that is true.” He turned and left, shutting the door behind himself.
“He’s a funny one.” Emily shook her head.
“Not half as funny as this letter.” Madam rubbed her chin as she reread it.
“He wants a woman to do what?” Emily asked after a few moments. “That’s what you started saying.”
“He’s quite specific.” She flapped the letter. “I’ll read it right out.”
“Okay.” Emily leaned against the wall and glanced at Jemima.
Jemima got the impression this was all most unusual and Emily was enjoying the drama.
“Dear Madam. Forgive me for contacting you this way but it is some time since I have left the grounds of Hillcrest, five years in fact, since the death of my dear wife. I have reached the conclusion now, however, that I would like to pay for female company.”
“Why does he have to pay for it?” Emily said. “He’s rich; surely women are falling over themselves to marry him.”
“If he doesn’t leave his estate he won’t meet them,” Jemima offered.
Emily nodded. “True.”
“And if they did meet him they might find his desires a little… odd.” Madam frowned.
“Now I’m really curious,” Emily said, raising her eyebrows.
“I’ll go on then.” Madam lifted the letter again. “Naturally when I came to this decision to pay for a woman your establishment came to mind, having visited once, as a younger man.”
“He came here? To The Rose and Thorns,” Emily exclaimed.
“Yes,” Madam chuckled. “He did, once. He was still wet behind the ears, and with a toffee-nosed friend. If I recall it was just before his wedding and he was bamboozled by his friend into taking a woman to bed. He had room six, at the end, if my memory serves me correct.”
“He took a woman to bed so he knew what to do on his wedding night,” Jemima said.
“I guess so.” Madam nodded.
“Sweet, really.” Jemima had never thought a man would do that. It struck her as considerate.
Madam cleared her throat. “So I ask you this, Madam, in strictest confidence, to send me a young woman for the period of a week. I am happy to pay one pound to you for this service.”
“Bloody hell.” Emily’s eyebrows rose. “I’ll go.”
Madam shook her head. “No, you won’t.”
“Why? I could live like a lady at Hillcrest and I could teach the duke a thing or two.”
“You can’t go.” Madam shrugged.
“Because.” Madam paused. “He wants a virgin.”
“What?” Emily laughed. “Is he living in cloud cuckoo land? There’s no virgins around here and…” Her words trailed off. She turned to Jemima.
Madam dipped her head again and continued to read. “I must insist that the woman is a virgin and able to follow my instructions without question, whatever they are. She must also be an expert in knowing how and when to be quiet. I am a botanist with important work to conduct in my study. I cannot bear noise, I don’t mind purring, but too much conversation is not what I desire.”
“Purring.” Despite herself Jemima giggled. “What does he mean by that?”
“Who knows?” Emily shrugged. “Men have some strange requests at times.”
“It is a shame I cannot help him out.” Madam flapped the letter. “Because it’s something we don’t have, a virgin. Damn bad luck when the money is enough to get the roof fixed and pay off my debt to old Nick Ballins.”
“Jemima.” Emily inclined her head, as if encouraging Jemima to speak.
Jemima’s heart did a strange rolling beat, as if it knew her next sentence would be momentous and would change the course of her life.
“What is it?” Madam asked.
Words were stacked on Jemima’s tongue. She swallowed, bit on her bottom lip.
“What is it?” Madam repeated. She hauled herself to her feet, setting down her glass of sherry and the letter. “Are you…?”
“Yes, she is,” Emily blurted. “She told me.”
“Oh, dear Lord.” Jemima reached for the small cross she kept around her neck. A flush of heat traveled over her cheeks.
“You are, aren’t you?” Madam’s eyes widened. “We wouldn’t even have to pretend and hope he didn’t notice.”
“I… I have never been with a man,” Jemima managed. “It is true.”
Madam walked up to her, her gait slow and lumbered. She cupped Jemima’s chin in her hot hand. “And you were going to start work here, for me, tonight?”
“I have nothing, Madam, except for the clothes I stand up in, and clearly they are of little use to me. I was going to have to borrow a dress from Emily.”
“Oh, sweet child.” Madam shook her head. “You really should have said something.”
“And would you have let her start work here?” Emily asked.
“Why, yes… but her first client would have been the highest bidder, not one of the usual drunks. We can make a good profit from a virgin.”
“You’re not going to get a bid higher than that.” Emily nodded at the letter.
“Yes, but…” Jemima tucked the cross back into her dress and wrung her hands together. “What will happen in that week?”
“You’ll give this rich man your maidenhood.” Madam released her chin and turned. She leaned on the dresser as she moved back to her chair. It was as though her legs pained her. “And you will do whatever else he desires of you, no matter what. Consider this your week’s trial for The Rose and Thorns. If you pass and the duke is satisfied, if he pays up with no complaints about your behavior, then you can start work here. From that point on you’ll get a percentage of what you earn the house.”
“All you have to do is lay back, close your eyes, and think of something else for a week.” Emily laughed.
Jemima gulped. What if he wanted to do a whole manner of strange things to her? There was no Will there to holler for should she need him. This duke might be a twisted old fella who’d use and abuse her for his own enjoyment. It couldn’t be normal to have to pay for a virgin to come to his house.
“Call the delivery man in,” Madam said.
Emily opened the door and shouted for him.
The man came in, his head a little bowed and twisting his hands together, as though he really didn’t want to be there.
“You can tell the duke we can accommodate his needs.”
“And if he sends a carriage at noon tomorrow, his package will be ready.”
“I will relay the message. Thank you.” He backed out of the room.
“That,” Madam said when the door was closed, “will give you time to bathe, eat, and have a good rest. We need you looking the part of a young maiden when you step onto the Hillcrest estate.” She paused and frowned. “Not that we’ll be able to feed you up in that time, but we’ll work with what we have.”
“Yes, Madam.” Jemima’s heart was trip-tapping at an alarming rate. She couldn’t decide if her fate of spending a week with the duke was better or worse than having to live and work in The Rose and Thorns.
“Oh, don’t look so worried. You’re going to be staying in luxury. A big warm house, food on the table—”
“He will feed me, won’t he?” The thought of continuing to be hungry, having a hot tight ball of discomfort in her belly all the time, was more than Jemima could bear. She’d come here to York to leave that behind.
“What benefit would it be for him to starve you, child?” Madam said.
Jemima released a shuddering breath.
“I will send word with you, to his cook, to make sure you are properly nourished.”
“Thank you.” Jemima guessed that was the best she could hope for. “That is very kind.”
“I am kind to my girls.” Madam picked up her sherry. “And you will learn that when you come back here, to my establishment to work.” She sipped her drink, looking thoughtful. “And when you do come back, fatter, wiser, and able to please a man, you will be a great asset, I’m sure.” She nodded. “Yes, the duke is actually doing me a favor by educating you, and…” She chuckled. “He’s paying me for the service.”
“Wiser. Fatter,” Jemima mumbled.
“Which is perfect.” Emily gave her a quick squeeze around the waist. “So why don’t you get bathing and I’ll source you some food and clothes. You’ll need a few spare dresses to take; I’ll see what the girls have that they can part from for a week.”
“Good idea.” Madam nodded at Jemima’s basket. “What is in there?”
“A blanket my mother made me, and a few of my father’s tools, he was a carpenter as well as a farmer.”
“And you wish to take them?”
“I had no wish to leave them behind, they have sentimental value.”
“Mmm, well, they can stay here. You can use that basket to take some spare dresses, and some clips for your hair, perfume and soap. Perhaps if you make a good impression upon the duke he will send more business my way. And let me tell you, this is going to be the easiest money The Rose and Thorns has ever made.”
At noon the next day, Jemima stood at the top of the stairs in The Rose and Thorns.
The tavern was already filling and the deep voices of the patrons floated upward, the echoes thudding around the stone walls.
She’d bathed the night before, eaten till her stomach ached, and Emily had plaited her newly washed hair so as she’d slept it had taken on a bouncy curl. Now it sat around her shoulders, the ends landing on the deep burgundy dress she’d been given that smelled of lavender and powder.
“You’ll do,” Madam called from the door of her room.
“Aye, she scrubbed up, didn’t she?” Emily grinned and added a dot of rouge to Jemima’s lips. “Press.”
Jemima rolled her lips in on themselves.
“She did.” Madam nodded, then using the door frame as a prop, she turned.
Jemima’s nerves felt as though they were being singed. Although she’d slept in a warm, dry bed, her thoughts had pinged around the way a bird trapped in a shed might.
What will the duke be like?
What will he expect of me?
What if he’s a wicked man with a sharp tongue and fast fists?
Worry and anxiety had become her new companions as the night had stretched on and dawn approached, and now, here they stood next to her, almost as real as Emily.
“My friend.” Emily cupped her face. “Do not look so vexed.”
“It’s hard not to feel that way.” She paused. “And I won’t get a penny for it.”
Emily’s lips tightened. She glanced over her shoulder then leaned close to Jemima. “Which I agree, doesn’t seem fair at all, but…”
“You know.” She waggled her fingers.
“No, I don’t.”
“Oh, Jemima. Think about it, you’re going to be in one of the richest houses in Yorkshire. It’ll be full of treasures and trinkets. You really think he’ll notice if a few fall into your pocket or basket?”
“Emily… I can’t. Stealing is wrong. It says so in the Bible.”
“You need to forget about what they taught us in Sunday school now, Jemima, this is about survival.” Again she looked back at Madam’s room. “Take a few shiny little things to sell when you get back, at least a pound’s worth. You’ll make a wage then, you won’t be there for nothing, spreading your legs and pandering to all his kinks.”
Jemima’s mind was spinning. “Kinks? What have you heard about him?”
“To be honest, not much. He’s a recluse, ain’t he. So stands to reason no one knows much about him. I’m just guessing that he’s got kinks, that’s how these loners are.”
“So he could be a monster?”
Emily slipped her hands to Jemima’s shoulders and gripped them. She gave her a small shake. “Don’t go thinking that way. What good will come of it? Just think about what I said, only don’t get caught, or you’ll have hell to pay with the duke and Madam.”
Don’t get caught.
Jemima gulped and glanced down the stairwell.
Outside the town clock finished striking twelve.
“Listen, men are not that complicated,” Emily said. “They like to feel important as much as they like to feel a woman’s pussy around their cocks.”
Jemima swallowed, her mouth drying.
“And,” Emily went on, “they like to be obeyed, certainly a man of his standing will.”
“So I’m saying do as he asks of you, no matter how strange and you never know, you might like it.”
She huffed. “I can’t imagine that.” Giving her virginity to a man who was paying for the privilege was never going to be something she wanted to do. Not least when it wasn’t her he was paying.
Take a trinket or two.
“Hey, Emily.” Will was at the base of the stairs.
“That coach is here again, the one from last night. Says he’s looking for a delivery.”
“Yes, that’s right, just coming.”
“This is it.” Jemima picked up her basket.
“Aye, this is the start of a new life for you. And let me say, you’ve fallen on your feet. Even if he’s got a few quirks in his desires, you’re going to be staying in a mansion with good food on the table.”
“Quirks in his desires? How will I know—”
“You just will, trust me.” She chuckled. “Now come on, you mustn’t keep a duke waiting.”
Emily ushered Jemima down the stairs and through the tavern. A wolf whistle shrieked through the air.
“I’ll be back to see ya, later.” Emily waved in the direction of the piercing sound. “Hold that thought.” Then under her breath, “And hold onto your money.”
Jemima’s gaze landed on three portly men sitting by the window. Smoke from their tobacco drifted upward, and each had a leery glint in their eye.
Surely being with the duke will be better than being with one of these men.
She held onto that thought as she said goodbye to Emily and climbed into the black carriage. It was highly polished, the wheels new and the interior dressed in fabric with small yellow flowers. Curtains hung at the windows and swayed as they started off down the cobbled street.
With her hands clasped, Jemima stared out at the hustle and bustle. People touting their wares, carts and barrows rattling along, a brawl in an alley, and a dog barking at a group of children teasing it with sticks.
York. It had been a brief first visit and she was certainly traveling away from it in more style than she’d arrived. Maybe that was a good sign.
Soon the buildings thinned and the cobbles became a well-worn track. A postal horse passed them by at speed and in the fields farmers worked their land. She spotted a buzzard swooping into a patch of reeds and rabbits enjoying the spring grass in a sunny glade.
Sitting back, she tried to relax. Perhaps if she could flip into a positive mindset she’d enjoy the experience of being in a grand home and meeting fine people. After all, she’d never met a duke before. That just wasn’t the kind of thing that happened to poor farmers’ daughters.
Yes, that’s what she’d do. Try to find a smile, be the happy girl she’d been when her parents had been alive and see the good in her situation. It was considerably better than starving or freezing to death, she had to remember that.
As she finished the apple Emily had given her, a long stone wall appeared. It ran alongside the track for what felt like an age, before opening into huge black iron gates that had the symbol of a lion in the center. On the left of the gates a house stood, in the same brick as the wall. It had a thatched roof and smoke trickled from the chimney. The windows were diamond-leaded and the door painted red.
Hillcrest wasn’t as big as she’d imagined, but it was still sizeable and certainly appeared comfortable.
The coach drew to a halt; without the sound of the horses’ hooves, the familiar countryside birdsong fell around the carriage.
She poked her head out of the window. “Are we here?”
“This is the entrance to Hillcrest,” the driver said, jumping down. He marched to the gates, plucked a key from his jacket, and opened them wide.
He climbed aboard again, and as the carriage went onto the estate Jemima stared into the windows of the house, wondering if she might catch a glimpse of the duke. She didn’t. All she saw was the reflection of the carriage and her small, pale face staring from it. Her hair looked nice though; she’d give Emily credit for that.
The coach stopped again.
Jemima took a deep breath. This was it. Time to meet the man who had paid for her services for an entire week. She opened the latch on the door.
“What are you doing?” The driver frowned as he walked past.
“We’re not there yet.” He shut the door. “This is the gate house. This is where I live. Hillcrest is over that rise.” He pointed to the left.
“Oh, I see.”
She studied the direction he’d gestured to. A long straight driveway lined with oak trees stretched into the distance. To each side grassland gave way to more ancient trees and a herd of deer who were staring their way.
“We have farther to travel, please wait.” He nodded for her to sit back.
She rested onto the soft seat, wondering at the size of the house that was simply for a member of the duke’s staff to occupy. Now she looked closer she could make out a stable block too, and a large barn to the right of the gate house.
Soon they were traveling up the long driveway. It was impossible to stop her nervousness. Jemima squeezed her hands together to stop from shaking and despite the warmth of the sun a shiver went up her spine, base to tip, several times.
Eventually the duke’s majestic home came into view, the likes of which she’d never seen before. It had more windows than she could count, was at least four floors high—perhaps more owing to the rooftop windows—and had an enormous entrance approached by a wide set of stone steps flanked by pillars.
A sculpture sat before it, rising from a ring of water dotted with lily pads. It was of a hunter and stag standing side by side, as if at peace with each other for once.
The coach drew to a stop, the wheels settling on the gravel.
The driver opened her door and reached in for her bag.
“Thank you,” she said.
He smiled and held out his hand for her to take. “You are most welcome, Miss Jemima.”
Her feet sank into the stony ground and she looked up. The sunlight twinkled off the windows and a light breeze lifted her hair.
“I come up here twice a week,” he said. “To see if there are any errands to be run, but other than that I stay at the gate house, caring for the horses and ensuring the duke is undisturbed.”
“And your name is?”
“Thank you, James, for bringing me here.”
“He pays me to do his bidding, the way he does everyone here at Hillcrest.”
She swallowed as a tight knot of regret tugged her belly. It had been a slow, painful slide to this point in her life but this was the only way back up that slippery slope.
“Ah, here is Mrs. Cook. She will see to you now.”
A short stout woman appeared from the side of the steps, as though there was another entrance beneath them.
“Over here, Mrs. Cook.” James stepped forward, urging Jemima with him. “She doesn’t see so well,” he said quietly. “But is very good at her job of tending the duke.”
As they approached Mrs. Cook, Jemima could see that the older woman had a milky glaze to her eyes as though the dark center was fogged.
“This is the delivery?” Mrs. Cook asked.
“Yes, this is the young woman His Lordship requested.”
She clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “No good can come of this.”
“That is not for us to discuss,” James said, “or to judge.”
“If you ask me His Lordship has finally lost his mind, sending into York for companionship. All these years he’s been alone, working and now this.” She waved her hand in the direction of Jemima. “How can he expect a slip of a thing to heal his wounds?”
“His wounds?” Jemima asked.
“I think she’s talking about his grief,” James said quietly. “He lost his wife.”
“Yes, I heard.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Mrs. Cook said. “No one will ever take Lady Madeline’s place in his heart, no one.”
Jemima had no wish to enter the duke’s heart, only to serve her time here then escape the estate with a little something of value in her pocket and a job to go to.
Yes, I can do it. I can take a trinket as payment for my virginity. It’s only fair.
“This way,” Mrs. Cook said. “No point dallying around here all day gassing.”
“Good luck.” James passed her basket.
As she followed Mrs. Cook to what was a servant’s entrance beneath the imposing steps leading to the house, the wheels of the carriage crunched into the distance.
The interior was dark and cool and Jemima headed down a long corridor that had crates and boxes stacked on either side. Soon they emerged into a large kitchen.
At the center stood an enormous oak table littered with bags of flour, pots of herbs, rolling pins, and baking trays. A long black oven dominated one wall and opposite was a row of cupboards. A window surrounded by hanging copper pans looked out over a courtyard.
“This is my domain,” Mrs. Cook said. “Please do not enter here and move things around. In fact that would be wise to remember in all rooms at Hillcrest. The duke does not like his work to be touched by anyone other than himself; he’s most particular about that.”
“I have no intention of interfering with his work.” Jemima paused. “I heard he’s a botanist. What is that?”
“He studies and paints.”
“What does he study and paint?”
She flapped her hand. “Things.”
Jemima wasn’t sure if Mrs. Cook didn’t know, or couldn’t be bothered to tell her.
“Where shall I put my basket,” she said.
“Over there, in the corner, but tuck it under the chair so I don’t trip over it.”
Jemima did as she’d been asked. Walking past the oven, she noticed the sweet scent of pastry and cherries. Her stomach clenched and her mouth watered. She hoped she’d be offered some pie, if there was some to spare later on.
“How many staff are here?” she asked.
“Just me and James.” Mrs. Cook picked up a ball of dough and sprinkled it with flour. “You now as well, I guess, if you can be called staff.”
Jemima watched Mrs. Cook knead the dough. “It’s a big estate for only two staff.”
“We both work hard.” She puffed as she banged the dough down and worked it with enthusiasm. “Another thing you’d do well to remember.”
A sudden trill rattled around the kitchen, seeming to bounce off the pots.
“That’s His Lordship.” Mrs. Cook looked at the complex bell system. “Calling from his study.”
“Calling for what?” A new wave of nerves washed through Jemima.
“What do you think?” Again Mrs. Cook tsked. “You, girl. He obviously heard you arrive and wants you.”