As the horse pulled the small carriage through the streets, he realized to share his plan with Scarlet would require total privacy. Where would he be able to speak to her? When the cab pulled to a stop, his question remained unanswered, and hurrying through the cold to the door, he was about to press the doorbell when it magically opened.
“Richard,” Scarlet said, beaming at him. “I’ve been watching for you.”
“Where is Calder?”
“Luck is on our side,” Scarlet said happily. “Come in, quickly. I’m letting in all that cold air.”
“Why are we lucky?” he asked, stepping inside. “What’s happened?”
“You know Aunt Agatha, mother’s sister?”
“Of course, the one who always has something wrong with her. Is she still in a bad way?” he asked, removing his coat and hat and hanging them on the hall tree.
“It never stops. Anyway, mother got a note from her first thing this morning. Apparently she had a fall and claims to be in a terrible state. Because of the weather, father insisted she should take the big carriage, so she left, then father did as well, some business thing he had to attend. Both of them told me they wouldn’t be back until after lunch. Right after father headed out, Calder and the head housekeeper went shopping. Cook is making something special for the dinner tonight, and apparently she doesn’t have everything she needs.”
“So the house is ours!” Richard declared. “You’re right, luck is on our side.”
“Mother sends her regrets, of course.”
“I’m very glad this happened,” Richard said. “I wasn’t sure how we would find an opportunity to talk.”
“Let’s go into the library. It’s at the end of a hallway at the back of the house and only has one door.”
“That’s a coincidence,” Richard smiled. “I just spent the morning in the library at home. I’m very fond of libraries.”
“I am too. All those books,” Scarlet sighed, “there’s something so inspiring about them.”
As he followed her through the impressive home, she led him down a hallway that ended in double doors, and as she pushed them open he found himself in the majestic room he remembered from his youth.
“Your father would sometimes bring me in here when I would visit.”
“I’d forgotten about that. It was when you would come home for the Christmas holidays.”
“It was,” he nodded, recalling the carefree days of his youth.
“I’m locking these doors so the servants can’t just waltz in here while we’re talking,” she declared, closing them and turning the key in the lock.
“Good idea, now come and sit next to me on the couch.”
“Were you able to think of something?” she asked anxiously, settling down next to him.
“I do have a plan, yes,” he said slowly. “Scarlet, I think we should tell your parents that we wish to marry, and that it is something we’ve planned for many years.”
Shocked at his suggestion, she stared at him, completely speechless.
“I know it sounds a bit extreme,” he said quickly, seeing the stunned look on her face, “but it will solve your problem. We can tell them that we had a disagreement, and I was being obstinate, but when I heard that you might have a serious suitor I came to my senses. We have sorted out the problem, and it’s not just an understanding anymore, but a proper engagement.”
“In a year or so you can divorce me, then you’ll be free to marry whomever you wish, and of course you will have been married, so your, uh, physical state, as it were,” he said awkwardly, “will not be an issue.”
“I don’t know what to say,” she muttered, staring at him incredulously. “You would do all that, for me?”
“You don’t have to worry about any expectations on my part. You would have your own suite of rooms.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
“Scarlet, you’re in a terrible predicament, and I can help, I want to help. I care for you very deeply.”
“I, uh, I care deeply for you too, Richard, more than you know. We’ve always been such great friends.”
“Yes, we are great friends,” he nodded, wondering if she was telling him that’s all they were, all they ever could be.
“It’s a remarkable solution,” she said thoughtfully, “truly ingenious. You’re so clever.”
“There is one condition,” he frowned, “a rather serious one.”
“Oh? What condition?”
“Though we won’t be properly together, in one way you will be my wife.”
“What way is that?”
“You must be sincere when you speak the vow, to honour and obey. I must maintain authority over you. In other words, you will be subject to my discipline. I can’t have you running around willy-nilly. My household will have rules, and those rules will have to be followed.”
“When you say, subject to your discipline, what do you mean, exactly?” she asked, a funny feeling suddenly tumbling around her stomach.
“I think you know what I mean, Scarlet, but to be clear, I will not hesitate to spank you if I feel it’s deserved.”
“That’s what I thought you meant,” she said softly, wishing the warm blush she could feel would stop spreading across her face.
“Do you want to do this?” he asked solemnly. “Do you need time to think about it?”
“No, I don’t need time,” she said quietly. “It’s the most generous thing that anyone has ever done for me. You’re offering to save me, to put your happiness on hold for me.”
“Being with you will make me happy, Scarlet.” Can’t you see the love in my eyes? Can’t you feel it?
“But you’re doing this to get me out of this terrible mess, and I know that.”
Not sure what to say, Richard decided to leave well enough alone. He would have plenty of time to show her how deeply he cared for her as the weeks went by, and maybe, just maybe, she would find herself falling in love with him.
“Thank you, so very much. Yes, let’s go forward. Oh, the relief I feel,” she sighed. “I’ve been so terrified.”
“You don’t need to be terrified any longer,” he murmured, putting a comforting arm around her shoulder.
“Um, Richard,” she said hesitantly, “there is something I want to ask you to, uh… do for me. This is difficult. I’m not sure how to put it.”
“I think you’ve already told me the most difficult thing of all,” he reminded her, “but you can always write it out.”
“Yes, yes, that’s a wonderful idea,” she said eagerly. “Hold on, there’s a paper and pen on the desk.”
He had to smile as she moved to the large wooden ormolu-trimmed desk, and as she began to jot down whatever it was she wanted to ask him, he could see how the ritual would be a part of their future. It was charming and sweet, and her shyness touched his heart.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she muttered as she walked back and handed him the folded piece of paper.
Opening it up, he read the words, then looked up at her in surprise.
“You want me to spank you?”
“Yes, and hard,” she whispered, dropping her gaze. “I feel so much guilt, and I know it would help me. I must be punished for what I did, for being so wilful and stubborn, and for not listening when I should have.”
“Does that mean you will?”
“I understand how you feel, and why it will help, so, yes, I will spank you, Scarlet, but we’ll need to be somewhere very private for something like this.”
“What about right here?” she said, staring around the room. “Mother and father will be staying at Aunt Agatha’s for lunch, Calder and Mrs. Holmes are out, and no one can come in, the doors are locked.”
“But Scarlet, if I punish you here and now, you won’t be able to yell out, someone might hear you.”
“I can bury my head in one of the cushions,” she suggested.
“Hmm, very well, but I’ll have to use something other than my hand,” he said thoughtfully. “The sound of the slaps might make too much noise.”
Richard scanned the room, seeking out an implement that would offer the sting that was needed, but would do so quietly, and then he saw it. A conductor’s baton. It was on display in a red silk and velvet-lined wooden case, sitting on a shelf with other decorative items. Moving across the room, he lifted the ivory baton from its case and held it in the air.
“Do you still wish me to punish you?”
“Yes,” she breathed, thinking the innocent stick looked as if it would carry a wicked sting.
“Lay yourself over the arm of the couch, and take the cushion and bury your head. I intend to lift your skirt and petticoats, and this time, I shall bare your bottom.”
“Oh, Richard,” she gasped, “must you?”
“Do you not think your behaviour warrants it?”
“I’m sorry to say I do,” she whispered. “It’s just the idea, it’s, it’s so…”
Unable to speak, her face flushing anew, she nodded her head.
“It goes along with the discipline, but if you want this to happen, it must happen now. We don’t have all day.”
She stared at him for a moment, then grabbing a dark brown cushion, she stepped around the couch and bent over the arm.
“Place your hands under the pillow. It will help you keep from throwing them behind you.”
Waiting until she was settled, he quickly lifted the many folds of fabric to drape around her waist, then stared at her round cheeks beneath the thin cotton drawers. He wished he could use his hand. Slapping her naked backside with his palm would be enormously satisfying, but he wasn’t prepared to take the chance. The drawers were of the modern design with no slit down the back, so reaching underneath her, he undid the string. He heard a quick intake of breath, but she lifted herself up, enabling him to slide them down her thighs.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she bleated, her voice muffled by the cushion. “This is almost punishment enough.”
“Not quite,” he replied, and stepping back, he tapped the stick against her deliciously bare behind. “This will sting, but it will serve more than one purpose. It will alleviate your guilt and shame, just as you need it to, but it will also reinforce my promise that as your husband, I will punish you when necessary. Don’t ever doubt that, Scarlet. Please ready yourself. I shall begin in just a moment.”
Swishing the rod against his own thigh to test its impact, it felt as he expected it would. It offered a biting sting. Raising it back up, he landed the first strike across the centre of her cheeks. He heard a muffled cry as a bright pink line rose in its wake, then lowering the rod an inch, he delivered another. As he moved the baton down her backside, he made sure not to cross the lines, and was careful not to add too much force. It wasn’t needed. The sting the stick carried was more than enough to serve the purpose.
Scarlet would have agreed. The stinging fire was engulfing her, and she felt the pain keenly, but with every strike she said a silent thank you. She’d been headstrong and recalcitrant, and completely reckless, and she was finally getting what she deserved, the punishment lovingly meted out by a man she deeply cared for and trusted.
“There!” he declared. “I believe that will keep you uncomfortable for quite some time. I will rub you for a moment to help ease the sting, but I trust it was enough to have eased your conscience, and to understand I mean what I said. You will be subject to my discipline.”
“Yes, Richard,” she murmured, turning her head to the side, “but, oh, dear, it is burning fiercely.”
As he smoothed his soothing palm over her hot behind, she wriggled in pleasure, slightly separating her legs, and to his joy he spied her glistening pussy. His cock, already at half-mast, surged to life, and he ached to slide inside her.
“Please straighten yourself up,” he said, stepping away.
“Can you not rub me more?” she pleaded. “It feels so good.”
It was almost impossible to deny her, but he couldn’t, the temptation was coursing through his veins, and steeling himself, he moved across the room to return the baton to its case.
“It’s all part of the punishment,” he declared, “but once you’re fully dressed, you can rest in my lap and I will comfort you.”
Moments later, as she curled into him and he was holding her tenderly, she let out a long, heavy breath.
“Was that a sigh of relief?” he asked softly. “I’m sure your bottom is very sore, but other than that how do you feel, sweet Scarlet?”
“I feel as if you’ve restored me, and I’m going to have my life back. Everything you’re doing for me fills my heart so completely.”
“As you fill mine,” he murmured. “In a few minutes I’m going to leave to run a quick errand. It won’t take me long, and you’ll have a chance to refresh yourself. When I return we can have lunch together, then wait for your mother and father. I’ll speak to your father alone, as I should.”
“Gosh. This is really something,” she whispered, pulling back and staring at him. “How can I ever thank you?”
“Yes, it is really something, and regardless of your reasons, you thanked me by accepting my offer and bringing me back into your life.”
As confident as Richard was, when the carriage clock on the sitting room mantel dinged its subtle chime announcing it was two o’clock, he began to feel edgy. In spite of their family connection and his assured future, Scarlet marrying a young man such as himself, rather than a wealthy older noble, would surely be disappointing, especially for Ruby. Richard knew that she adored him, but he also knew that Ruby would be much happier if her only daughter was marrying someone titled, and someone of stature. Richard’s solace, however, was Scarlet’s father. He may have married into the aristocracy, but Richard was confident that Sloan’s priorities would be different from that of his wife, and Sloan had been very impressed with how Richard was performing at the company.
“You seem rather fidgety,” Scarlet remarked, watching him move to the window and peer out for the umpteenth time. “I admit, I feel the same, but I’m sitting on a constant distraction.”
“Yes, I’m sure you are,” he said, turning around and smiling at her. “I just wish your parents would get home, or at least your father.”
“I’m surprised he’s been gone this long, especially on a Saturday.”
“Perhaps I should give it to you now,” Richard mumbled under his breath.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. What did you say?”
“The thing is, Scarlet, I’m edgy for more than one reason. That errand I ran…”
“What about it?”
“It was to, uh, buy something for you, something rather special.”
“Something special?” she repeated, feeling her heart flutter.
“I think I should do this properly,” he suddenly exclaimed, and marching across the room, he dropped onto one knee and produced a black velvet box from his jacket pocket. “Scarlet Fairfax,” he said, opening it up to expose a diamond and sapphire ring. “I think you’re an incredibly beautiful girl, and I have loved you for a very long time, though I didn’t know it, of course, not until you stopped talking to me after that weekend, but I know it now, I know it in every part of me and with all my heart, and I’d be indescribably happy and deeply honoured if you would do me the enormous favour of marrying me.”
The words had tumbled out of him in a nervous and excited speech, completely out of character for the disciplined, controlled young man, and Scarlet stared down at him, amazed by his soliloquy.
“I, uh, I’m quite shocked, but I must say that was very convincing!”
“Scarlet,” he said, gazing up at her earnestly. “I mean every word. I simply couldn’t hold it in a minute longer, but my offer still stands. I mean, if you want to keep to yourself after we’re married, then I—”
“You do?” she said breathlessly. “You mean it? You do? You really do? Oh, Richard, I love you too, I love you to bits. Of course I want to marry you properly.”
“You do?” he repeated, raising his eyebrows in joyful surprise.
“I’ve loved you since I was six years old and you pulled me out of the pond. You were my hero then, and you’re my hero now. You’ve always been my hero.”
“You’ve just made me unbelievably happy,” he exclaimed, feeling a sudden wave of heat in the back of his throat. “I’m sorry. I should have done this in the library.”
“No, now is perfect,” she sighed, “and so is this ring. It’s absolutely the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It matches your eyes,” he said softly, taking it from the box. “Give me your finger. I hope it fits.”
As she held out her hand, he glided it into place, then clutching her hair, he locked her gaze for just a moment before pulling her forward and planting his lips on hers, kissing her with a warm, lingering tenderness.
“That was heavenly,” she breathed.
“It was so heavenly,” he whispered, “I think I must do it again to make sure it was real.”
“That is probably—” but his lips were back on hers before she could finish, and as his ardour took hold and he started to move her backwards onto the couch, the sound of the front door startled them both.
Jumping to his feet, Richard moved quickly to stand by the fireplace, while Scarlet ran a hand over her hair and sat up straight, perching on the edge of the couch.
“Richard,” Sloan Fairfax said, striding into the room, “what are you still doing here? I thought you were coming for morning tea.”
“I invited him to stay for lunch,” Scarlet said quickly.
“She did, but there’s a bit more to it than that,” Richard said nervously. “The thing is, I’ve been waiting for you, Mr. Fairfax. I need a private word, if you have a moment.”
“Yes, of course, I’ll always have time for you, my boy. Scarlet, you look rather flushed. Are you all right?”
“Yes, father, I’m very well, thank you.”
“Did your mother get back?”
“No, not yet, but you know Aunt Agatha.”
“Yes, I’m afraid I rather do,” Sloan frowned. “Come along, Richard, come into my study and tell me what’s on your mind.”
As Sloan turned to walk out, Richard shot Scarlet a wink, then followed her father through the door, his anxiety increasing with every step.
“Now then, what’s on your mind,” Sloan asked as they entered his study, “and close the door. Servants are always about, listening in the shadows.”
Doing as Sloan asked, it occurred to Richard that Scarlet’s fear of hidden eyes and ears may have come from her father, but it was a fleeting thought and he immediately returned his focus to the all-important matter at hand.
“The thing is, Mr. Fairfax,” Richard began, “I understand that a rather important man has been calling on Scarlet, and—”
“Indeed he has,” Sloan said, nodding proudly. “An earl, no less. Her mother is delighted. You know I’m not of noble birth, but she is, and such things matter to her.”
“Right, well, the thing is,” Richard continued, doing his best to keep his voice even, “when I heard the news, it hit me rather hard, and I suddenly realized that I couldn’t abide the thought of another man being Scarlet’s husband. I’m sorry, that sounded awkward, what I mean is, another man marrying Scarlet, sorry, I’m making a bit of a mess of this.”
“No, no, keep going,” Sloan urged, “you’re doing just fine.”
“The thing, is, sir, I have always loved her, and I didn’t know just how much until I heard about this other chap, so I took the bull by the horns, as they say, and I dashed over here and asked Scarlet to marry me. We did have an understanding at one point, then I said something I shouldn’t have, and we had a bit of a falling out, but that’s behind us now. I should have spoken with you first, sir, but I didn’t want to do that until I knew whether or not Scarlet felt the same, and my feelings were reciprocated.”
“And I assume they are, since my daughter’s face was completely flushed when I walked in, she is wearing a rather stunning ring on her finger, and the black box it came in is lying on the floor at her feet.”
“I’m not sure what to say,” Richard muttered, overwhelmed by Sloan’s astute observations.
“I believe you’ve said it all, and quite well, I might add. Her mother will be hard-pressed not to offer her blessing. You’re the son she never had,” Sloan said with a smile, “and she may understand this more than you think.”
“You mean… you’re offering your consent?”
“My consent and my blessing,” Sloan declared, walking across to Richard and vigorously shaking his hand. “I’ve never thought that chap was right for my Scarlet. He’s too stuffy, and far too old. I know you’ll both be happy, even if you are taking on quite a handful.”
“She can be that,” Richard grinned, thinking the word handful was the perfect description.
“She hasn’t been the same since you two had your upset. I don’t need to know what it was about, but she’s been out of sorts ever since. It did occur to me more than once it was because she was missing you, but now I’m sure of it.”
“I must admit, I didn’t expect such a welcome reception,” Richard said, his relief obvious. “I thought you’d be against it. Isn’t the man in question coming here for dinner tonight for the express purpose of formalizing things with Scarlet?”
“He is, and I’m sure he’ll be none too pleased, but my daughter’s happiness is far more important,” Sloan said soberly. “You did the right thing, Richard, just in the nick of time.”
“I’m immensely grateful,” Richard replied. “Thank you, Mr. Fairfax, thank you very much. I must tell Scarlet right away.”
“You do that, and rest assured, I’m delighted, and don’t worry about her mother. Leave that to me.”
“I will, and thank you again.”
As Richard hurried away to share his good news with Scarlet, Sloan meandered around his desk and sat down. Earlier that morning he had received an invitation from his partner and long-time friend, David Portman, asking to meet at their club for lunch, something David would only do on a Saturday if it was of great importance. Over white fish fried in lemon and butter, David had warned Sloan that Richard would be asking for permission to wed his daughter.
“I would have told you yesterday afternoon, but you were out of the office,” David had said. “I know Scarlet is on the verge of accepting another proposal, and I thought you should have time to think things through before Richard shows up at your doorstep.”
“And ease the path for him?”
“Yes, of course, that too,” David had smiled.
Sloan was grateful. David had done the kind and smart thing, but David always did, and Richard was just like his father. Scarlet would not be marrying into the aristocracy, but she would be marrying into happiness.
“Now all I have to do is deal with Ruby and the earl,” Sloan mumbled. “Ruby will be more than accepting, but the earl, that’s not something I’m looking forward to.”
When Richard entered the sitting room he didn’t need to utter a word, Scarlet could see the joy in his face, and she jumped to her feet, letting out a squeal of delight. Closing the door, he hurried across to her, and grabbing her around the waist, he lifted her to her feet and spun her around.
“He didn’t object at all?” she panted as he stood her back down. “I can’t believe it.”
“No, not at all, he was… he was… now that I think about it, I believe he was relieved. I don’t think he wanted you marrying that man.”
“I got just the opposite impression. I wonder why didn’t he say anything?”
“You’ll have to ask him that question, and at the moment I don’t really care!” Richard exclaimed.
“Mother will be a different story.”
“He didn’t seem to think so, but he asked that we let him tell her.”
“What a wonderful thing. I’m so happy I could… I could…”
“You could what?”
“I don’t know. I have to think of something!” she giggled. “Yesterday I was the most miserable person in the world, and today I’m the happiest. How quickly things can change! We must set a date. I want to be married in late spring, in June.”
“That’s only, let’s see, we’re in the middle of March, that’s only three months away,” Richard declared. “Is that possible? Can you plan a wedding in three months?”
“I can, and I will,” Scarlet said firmly. “Oh, my goodness. Shall we have it in the country or here in town?”
“Wherever you want, my love,” Richard smiled.
“I’m so happy,” she breathed, wrapping her arms around his neck.
“I am too,” he sighed, holding her tightly. “Happy and grateful.”
There was a gentle tap on the door, a pause of a few seconds to give them time to break apart, then Sloan entered, and Scarlet ran across to greet him, hugging him and thanking him profusely.
“I shall take my leave now,” Richard announced. “I’m sure your mother will be home shortly, and, of course, your guest will be arriving.”
“Probably best,” Sloan nodded. “I would like to tell her in my own way, but I have to see her before you, Scarlet. If I spotted the ring in three seconds, she will in one, I can assure you.”
“Shall I take it off, father?”
“No, you leave it right where it is. Don’t you ever take that off, not for any reason,” Sloan said firmly. “Rings are tricky. Off your finger, they tend to sprout little legs and run away.”
“I’ll remember that,” Scarlet replied, laughing out loud.
“Richard, why don’t you come back for dinner with your mother and father tomorrow night, say, around eight o’clock?”
“That sounds excellent. Thank you, Mr. Fairfax. I’ll let them know.”
Still grinning broadly, Scarlet walked Richard to the door, and as it closed behind him and he turned his face to the chilly winter day, he decided to walk home. Things were almost perfect. Almost. June was just around the corner, and there was one last thing that needed to be dealt with before the sun began to warm the streets once again.