“Captain Edwards!” Mrs. Jameson hissed, as though Ellen were being slow on purpose. “He has just this minute arrived.”
“Oh. Must we call him that?”
“Call him what?”
“Captain Edwards,” said Ellen with a smirk.
Mrs. Jameson made a sound of impatience and went back to kneading bread dough with an air of great determination. The kitchen door creaked open and Martha appeared with a basket of dirty linen balanced on her hip.
“Oh, there you are,” she said, looking Ellen up and down, her face twisted in disdain. “I thought you might have fallen down a hole.”
“Wished, more like,” muttered Ellen.
Martha dumped the basket down on the wooden table with a thud, causing Mrs. Jameson to hiss and roll her dough over to the far corner where there was still some space. The table was already overloaded with dirty bowls, spoons, sheaves of paper, and scraps of fabric.
“Take it out to the wash house,” snapped Mrs. Jameson. “Quick, before the new master sees.”
“The new master?” Martha’s expression moved away from its usual sullenness to something approaching interest. “Where is he?”
“In the front room with Mr. Jameson. Now go, girl!”
With a pointed sigh, Martha slung the basket back on her hip and stamped out of the room. Ellen winced.
“What’s that you got there?” demanded Mrs. Jameson, who seemed determined to remain cross. She was nodding her head at Ellen’s bag.
Ellen gave a careless shrug. “Just a gift from our dear friend, Sir Henry Wraithbone.”
Mrs. Jameson stopped kneading and planted her fists on her hips. “Ellen, how many times do I have to tell you? This battle of yours with that man is ill-advised. Carry on like this and he will have you publicly whipped. Or worse.”
“I am not afraid of him.”
“More fool you,” replied Mrs. Jameson, returning to her bread dough.
Ellen wished that Mrs. Jameson could understand her hatred of Sir Henry but she had not been there in the dark days after nanny’s death when he had come to ‘pay his respects.’ It had not taken long for false condolences to be replaced by demands for Ellen to become his whore. Mrs. Jameson had not had to experience his hot breath on her face or his hands grabbing at her body. If it wasn’t for Mr. Edwards, Ellen didn’t know what might have happened.
No, Mrs. Jameson could never understand the revulsion that Ellen felt whenever that man crossed her path. Only nanny’s dire warnings of the consequences had stopped her from sending a curse his way.
“This place is a pigsty,” muttered Mrs. Jameson to herself, her eyes scouring the room as her hands pummelled the bread dough. “I don’t know what the new master will think…”
Ellen plucked one of the apples out of her bag and took a bite. “Just sing him a sea shanty,” she suggested through a mouthful of apple. “That should cheer him up.”
Mrs. Jameson stopped muttering and glared at Ellen. “You, young miss, should show more respect for a man of his rank!”
“Shall I call him Admiral Edwards?” suggested Ellen, an expression of practised innocence on her face.
“Laugh all you like. It is not often that men from our place in the world reach the rank of captain. You have to be special. Mr. Edwards was so proud…” Her voice trailed off and she turned her face away.
Ellen hurried over. “Forgive me,” she whispered, putting her arms around Mrs. Jameson’s shoulders and kissing her head. “Forgive me.”
“I only…” Mrs. Jameson took a shaky breath. “I only wish for us not to… to disgrace Mr. Edwards to his son. Mr. Edwards… he was…”
“I know,” whispered Ellen, squeezing her more tightly. “I will be respectful. I promise.”
Mrs. Jameson managed a tearful laugh at that. “Now there’s a promise I should like to see you keep!”
Ellen grinned and took another bite of her apple.
Mrs. Jameson had recovered her spirits by the time that Martha reappeared from the wash house. “What can be taking them so long?” she mused, as she shaped the battered bread dough into a round.
A flippant answer hovered on the very tip of Ellen’s tongue but she repressed it.
“Wish they would hurry up,” muttered Martha, the habitual scowl back on her face and her skinny arms crossed tight.
The bread had just gone into the oven when Mr. Jameson popped his head around the door and nodded at his wife. Mrs. Jameson let out a short, nervous laugh. Martha straightened her white cap and tucked some loose strands of blond hair behind her ears. Ellen brushed at the skirt of her dress and clasped her half-eaten apple behind her back.
As she trailed into the front room behind the other two women, Ellen felt a moment of worry. This man held their fate in his hands. What if he was cruel or arrogant or indifferent? But no: she could never believe that Mr. Edwards’ son could be any of those things. Mr. Edwards had been a man of honour, great kindness, and integrity; surely his son would be no different?
Mrs. Jameson was speaking in a fast, breathy voice as Ellen entered the front room. “…Martha here. Oh, and this is Ellen.”
Ellen looked across the room and saw a tall man with long brown hair staring at her, eyes narrowed. Her first thought was that he was far handsomer than any man in the village. Her second, more concerning thought was that he looked very familiar. For a moment, however, she couldn’t place him.
“I am sorry to say we have already met,” he said, his voice measured but heavy with disapproval. “Enjoying your apples, are you?”
And then it hit her. The rearing horse. The handsome stranger with the angry questions. She had taken him for a traveller, nothing more.
There were many wise courses of action that Ellen could have chosen to take—an apology being perhaps the wisest—but Ellen would always choose excitement or a good laugh over wisdom.
“Very much, sir,” she replied, grinning. Then she dropped a mock curtsey, retrieved the half-eaten apple from behind her back, and took a bite.
There was a part of Thomas that wanted to grin back. The girl’s insolence had a certain charm and there seemed to be no malice in it, only mischief. But as she cocked her head to one side, a look of amused challenge on her face and the stolen apple in her hand, Thomas knew that to let it pass would be a mistake.
So instead, he turned to Mr. Jameson. “Where did my father conduct his business?”
“In his chamber, sir,” replied the old man. “Up the stairs and the door to the left.”
Thomas nodded his thanks and turned back to Ellen. “Go up and wait for me there.”
Thomas saw Mrs. Jameson wince and shoot Ellen a disapproving look. It seemed clear that, despite her best efforts, the older woman had no control over her. Well, Captain Edwards was not accustomed to having his orders questioned or contradicted. He fixed Ellen with a look that could stop a gang of belligerent sailors in their tracks, raised his voice, and said, “Do as I say.”
The girl’s composure seemed to slip and, for a moment, she looked taken aback. Then she smiled sarcastically, dropped another pretend curtsey, and swept out of the room.
The moment the sound of her footsteps on the staircase reached them, Mrs. Jameson spoke up. “Please, sir, I know how it must look but… she’s not a bad girl. She is only… a little… wild sometimes. Please don’t send her away.”
“She is bad,” muttered the blond-haired girl whose name Thomas could not remember.
“Bite your tongue, Martha!” snapped Mrs. Jameson.
Ah, Martha. That was it.
“Well, it’s true!” replied the girl, her pale eyebrows drawn together. “You always take her side!”
“Enough!” said Thomas and both women fell silent at once, Mrs. Jameson blushing and Martha with a look of mutiny on her face. “Mrs. Jameson, Martha, please return to your duties. Mr. Jameson,” he turned to the old man and lowered his voice, “may I have a moment of your time?”
Mr. Jameson nodded.
Once the door had closed behind Mrs. Jameson and Martha, Thomas said, “Has this sort of thing happened before?”
The old man gave a slow nod. “Only ever fruit or vegetables. Your father never said a word about it but he would defend her, if anyone ever came asking.”
Thomas was silent for a moment. Yes, he could well see his father—kind, gentle man that he had been—protecting the likes of Ellen from her actions. But that was not Thomas’s way.
As though he knew what Thomas was thinking, Mr. Jameson spoke up. “There’s no harm in her, sir. And she’s a good worker. Your father took her in when her grandmother died. Forgive me for saying so but I believe… I believe he would want her to stay.”
Thomas appreciated the integrity of Mr. Jameson in speaking so freely and offering counsel so respectfully. The man was clearly wise and sensible and Thomas was not sorry to have him in his new household.
“She can stay,” said Thomas, nodding more to himself than to the old man. “But, unlike my father, I shall not be turning a blind eye to her infractions.”
“That is wise, sir,” said Mr. Jameson, although his expression was regretful. “I fear somebody must act before she finds herself in more trouble than we have the power to rescue her from.”
When Thomas entered his father’s chamber, he found Ellen curled up on a wooden bench finishing off her apple. She didn’t rise when he entered and barely looked in his direction.
Thomas closed the door behind him. “Stand up and put that down.”
“I have almost finished,” she replied, not moving.
Thomas paused, frankly astounded by her lack of respect. Could this really be the girl his father was so protective of? The girl that Mr. and Mrs. Jameson had been so quick to defend just now?
“Was this how you spoke to my father?” he demanded.
To his surprise, the girl jumped to her feet, her face flushed, feigned indifference turning to outrage in the space of a heartbeat. “How dare you!” she shouted, as her apple core tumbled to the floor. “Mr. Edwards was a good, kind man. He would never speak to me as you have done!”
“I merely told you to do as I asked,” he replied, keeping his voice firm and measured. “I am your master—the head of this household—and you must obey my orders.”
Ellen glared at him. “And if I don’t wish to?”
Thomas returned her glare with interest. “Then you are free to find work elsewhere.”
They stared at one another in silence for several moments.
Thomas was wondering how much longer this could go on when Ellen let out a harsh sigh and turned away.
“Fine,” she snapped. “I will obey you.”
She went to walk past Thomas to reach the door but he sidestepped in front of her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Back to the kitchen,” she replied in a tone that suggested he was stupid for asking.
Thomas maintained his calm exterior. “Not yet you are not. We still need to discuss your thieving.”
“What of it?”
“Do you know the penalty for theft, Ellen?”
The girl shrugged but Thomas had seen the flicker of fear in her eyes.
“Public whipping. Branding. Maybe even the noose.” He watched her face closely as he spoke and he could see some of the redness draining out of her cheeks.
“They are only apples,” she said, her voice much quieter now.
“It’s still stealing.”
Ellen crossed her arms. “So… what? You’re going to drag me to the magistrate?”
“No,” said Thomas, reaching down to unbuckle his belt. “I am going to punish you myself.”
Ellen’s eyes widened and she backed away. “Your father would never—”
“My father should have taken you in hand a long time ago,” said Thomas, interrupting her. He twisted the belt around his fist, leaving a short loop hanging free. “Now come here.”
Ellen shook her head, her wide eyes fixed on the belt in his hand.
“It’s time you learned that actions have consequences, Ellen,” said Thomas. “Do as you’re told and it will be easier for you.”
He hadn’t expected her to give in easily and so he wasn’t surprised when she attempted to dart past him and get to the door.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” he said, catching her around the waist with one arm. She let out an incoherent cry of outrage and tried in vain to wrench herself free. Thomas could feel her heart pounding against his arm.
“Let me go!”
“Calm yourself, Ellen!” he scolded, as he pulled her toward the wooden table in the middle of the room. “Anyone would think you had never been thrashed before.”
“I have not!”
Thomas could scarcely believe her. It seemed incredible that she could have reached adulthood without being chastised at least once. “Well, if that is true, I will soon remedy the situation.”
“You… will… not…” she ground out, still struggling against him with all her might.
“I will,” he said, holding her down over the table and pulling up the back of her dress. “I am your master and it is my duty.”
Ellen wriggled and kicked her legs but Thomas held her fast, unfastening her drawers with one hand and then doing his utmost not to stare at her beautiful bottom as the white fabric fell away. She gasped and froze under his arm. He could only assume it was the shame of being exposed in this way.
“How many apples did you steal, Ellen?” Thomas arranged himself into the right position, still holding Ellen in place.
He tapped the belt lightly against her bottom and she flinched. “Shall we say a dozen?”
“Please…” All of her bravado seemed to have abandoned her.
“A dozen it is.”
Thomas drew back the belt and steadied himself. He had an urge to go easy on her, to be merciful—if this was indeed her first time, it would be a great shock.
But no. This was a punishment. It was his duty to keep her safe and he couldn’t fail her now.
Thomas pressed his lips together and then brought the belt down hard across her bare bottom.
For a moment, Ellen didn’t feel anything; she only heard the loud crack as the belt landed.
And then—oh, God—then came the burning pain exploding across her skin. The force of it took her breath away. She tried to leap up but his arm held her steady. She could feel the hard edge of the table digging into her thighs.
Ellen had barely had a chance to catch her breath when the second stroke landed, just as hard and inescapable as the first.
She let out a panicked cry as the burn intensified.
Oh, why had she been so disrespectful to the new master? She had promised Mrs. Jameson—and herself—that she would not. Why was she always so foolish?
The third stroke brought tears to her eyes. Her bottom was throbbing now and her whole body was trembling in anticipation.
“You will never steal again, Ellen. Is that clear?” Captain Edwards’ voice was firm and hard and the sound of it only made her tears come faster.
“Yes,” she wept.
The fourth stroke exploded across her cheeks and she wailed.
“You must say ‘Yes, sir,’” he said, his voice not without gentleness.
“Better.” And then he lashed down strokes five, six, seven, and eight in quick succession, leaving her sobbing, writhing, and breathless.
“You are under my protection now,” he said. “I will take care of you and keep you safe; that is my responsibility. In return, you will obey my rules; that is your duty. If you disobey…”
Ellen cried out as the belt struck her sore bottom once again, propelling her even further forward onto the table.
“…you will be punished. Do you understand?”
“Yes!” she gasped, her fists clenched against the pain and her face sticky with tears. “Yes, sir. Please! Please, no more…”
“Hush. Only three more. Hold still now.”
Ellen screwed her eyes shut and pressed her face down onto the table top, wishing only for the punishment to end. She felt the smooth leather brush against her red-hot skin and fought the urge to flinch away. He was lining up the next stroke…
There was silence… and then Ellen cried out as the belt whipped down, reigniting the fire in her bottom.
Another… and she kicked her legs, trying desperately to shake off the sting.
“Last one, Ellen. Do you promise never to steal again?”
Ellen took a shaky breath. “Yes—yes, sir.”
And then the final stroke lashed down, harder than all the rest.
The pressure on her back eased as Captain Edwards took his arm away and stepped back.
“There now,” he said, as she sobbed into the table top. “It is done. We will say no more about it.”
Ellen hissed slightly as her skirts were lowered back down and the fabric brushed against the sore skin of her bottom.
“Here,” said Captain Edwards and then Ellen felt his hands on her shoulders, gentle now, helping her to stand. Her limbs felt warm and heavy but her mind was strangely clear.
Now that it was over and the tears were fading away, the punishment didn’t seem so terrible after all. As he guided her to the door, Ellen managed to compose herself enough to turn and drop him a genuine curtsey. “Forgive me, sir,” she whispered.
Captain Edwards’ stern demeanour flickered and, just for a moment, she caught an expression of amused affection on his face. “You are already forgiven, Ellen. Now off you go.”
For a reason that she could not begin to fathom, Ellen found herself smiling as she walked back down the stairs.
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