Kyla dressed quickly in one of Flint’s favorite gowns, but she was still late for dinner. When she rushed into the drawing room, Fred and Charlotte were already deep in muted conversation while Flint glowered from the hearth. “Shall we go in?” he asked stiffly. “Dinner was announced ten minutes ago.”
“I’m sorry, Flint, but I had to get Cook and Brena settled.” Kyla resolved to put a brave face on things, but she was beginning to regret her rash actions. She hadn’t done any good anyway, getting out ahead of him like that. The supervisor hadn’t made a single move to help her until Flint had arrived. She would have done better to wait for him, and what was worse, she should have known it would be so. Instead she had charged off without giving him a second thought, except to remember that she now had a carriage at her disposal, thanks to him.
“We’ll talk about it after dinner,” he replied darkly. After the servants had laid the first course and retreated to the hallway, Flint caught his mother’s eye. “I’m going to be making some significant changes at the workhouse, I think. That supervisor has got to go. Did you have anything to do with his appointment?”
Charlotte thought for a moment. “No, I didn’t. If memory serves, your father never attended board meetings and after his passing it was just assumed that we wouldn’t interfere either. I really hadn’t given the issue much thought.”
“You wouldn’t be expected to, mother, but I just wanted to give you notice so that if you hear something, you’ll be aware of the situation.”
“What is the situation, my lord?” Fred asked interestedly.
“I have reason to believe that the supervisor has been using the constable in Upper Perfield to funnel him cheap labor for his wool works. I had become suspicious some time earlier this year, but have been otherwise occupied so the matter slipped my mind. Now that it is being brought to my attention again, I intend to see to it that the conspiracy stops forthwith.”
“The constable?” Kyla considered for a moment. “It all makes sense now. My friend Moreen told me a strange tale, but it sounds similar to what happened to Brena and Cook, and to me for that matter.”
Flint nodded. “I reckon the odious little man needed more children to work in the shop this week, so the constable brought him Brena and a cook into the bargain. The magistrate must be in on it as well, though that will be harder to prove.”
“It will all take some doing, I would imagine,” Fred observed.
“Manfred Tramer is going to look into it for me. He’s only one voice on the board, but I have the ear of the other influential families in the district. They can’t hold out long against our combined disapproval whether we get hard evidence or not. I just want Tramer to make sure we clean out all the corruption.”
The rest of the dinner was taken up with speculation as to the causes and solutions to the problems at the workhouse, but all too soon for Kyla’s taste, Flint made the final toast that signaled the end of the meal. She and her mother-in-law had retired for only a moment before the men joined them and Flint began making their excuses. In only another few minutes, they were up in their bedchamber, Flint looking like a thunderstorm on the horizon and Kyla feeling like laundry on the line.
“Well, my lady, what have you got to—”
Flint’s initial salvo was interrupted by a knock at the door.
Kyla ran to open it. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s Brena. She cannot settle down,” Cook explained. “Keeps tossing and turning. Now she’s beginning to cough. If I could go and make her a nice cup of tea with honey and lemon, I’m sure it would soothe her.”
Flint gave a grimace but indicated with a nod that she should go to see about Brena herself. In fact, he followed her over to the guestroom and they all stood in the doorway watching the girl fighting back tears as she twisted and turned on her little cot.
After an hour, Kyla was at her wit’s end. “There must be something else we can do,” she fretted.
“We’ve tried tea and hot milk, cold compresses, warm compresses, more coal on the fire, opening the window, and even moving her to Cook’s bed. Nothing is going to work. There’s only one thing for it.” He exchanged a look with Cook as she sat next to the child on her cot again, stroking her forehead. At the older woman’s nod, he went on. “I’ll carry her.”
“You can’t mean to put them out!” protested Kyla, shocked beyond all thought.
“Of course not,” Flint replied wearily. “I’m going to do what Cook asked for in the beginning. You can wait for me in our bedchamber while I see them down to the kitchens.”
Cook sighed in obvious relief. “The pantry, yes indeed! That’s the ticket. A pantry is a pantry, I’ll warrant. Just the thing for a child who’s been through as much as this one has. A bit of familiarity.”
While Cook prepared Brena to be carried downstairs, Kyla pulled Flint aside. “I want to go with you. They’re my guests. My family, really. Please.”
He gave her a hard look. “What you deserve is to be standing in the corner waiting for your punishment. But if you’ll promise to give me no more trouble and take all you’ve got coming without any fuss, I’ll let you come and see them settled.”
Kyla nodded emphatically. “Yes, I promise. I’ll do just as you say once Cook and Brena are comfortable.”
In less than fifteen minutes, Brena was settled on a soft pallet on the floor of the pantry and a cot had been placed nearby for Cook. The exhausted child gave a weak cough now and again in her sleep, but Cook was smiling contentedly. “Thank you ever so much, my lord. I’m ever so sorry to be so much trouble.”
“Not your fault at all, my good woman. I hope you have a pleasant restful night.” Flint put an arm around Kyla and led her back up the stairs and out of the kitchens.
His bedroom seemed different to him now, had seemed different since the first night they had spent together in it after their return from Gretna Green. The muted browns and tans of the drapes and upholstery, the dark sheen of the chests of drawers and wardrobe that dotted the walls in the spacious chamber, everything had taken on a new glow once she had entered. He had carried her laughing into the room. He had wished fancifully in that moment that she would always laugh that way in this room, but had known even in his joy that life’s sea had storms as well as calms. This was to be one of the tempestuous nights.
“I was rash and I am sorry,” she admitted plaintively from her position by the window where she had fled as soon as he had opened the door for her. “I was just so upset when I heard about Brena and Cook in that terrible place.”
He followed her slowly, hoping to give her time to ready herself for her punishment, for punishment it would have to be. Her behavior demanded nothing less. “Of course you were, but that was no cause to be rude to the very man you had every cause to be grateful to. He brought you news vital to your interests and you rewarded him by fleeing the room. It occasioned some little misunderstanding between Mr. Tramer and myself, I can tell you.”
“You didn’t suspect him of offering me insult, did you?”
“The thought crossed my mind, until I heard him out. His mention of the workhouse confirmed my fears at first, but we got to the bottom of it in pretty short order. He can be more forceful than his jolly demeanor leads one to believe. He made me listen to him and accepted my apology with more grace than I deserved.”
“I’d like to apologize to him as well. Would a note do, or should I make a formal call?”
“We’ll have to consult mother about the etiquette of such things later. As for now, I intend to get to the bottom of our misunderstanding.”
“Oh, Flint, really, I said I was sorry. You can’t expect me to react to things as a lady would.”
“No, but you cannot expect me to let slide the instances when you make foolish mistakes and go off doing dangerous things.”
“Dangerous? How was it dangerous? I rode in a carriage driven by your servant across your parish. Who would dare to threaten me?”
“As long as you were in Steadling, of course you were safe, but the moment you entered the grounds of the workhouse, you were in peril. Did you not realize what Mr. Tramer’s message meant? If not his words, then surely you understood Cook’s story.”
A furrow appeared between Kyla’s brows. It was a sign of worry Flint hated to see. “I understand it now, after what you said at dinner. In theory, I might have been in danger, but as a matter of practicality, that constable would never dare to approach me and try to turn me into cheap labor in a factory.”
Flint gave an unwilling smile. She was still not used to thinking two moves ahead in the chess game she had fallen into. “No, of course not. The danger to you lay not in any direct threat to you but in the threat you represented to them. Anyone committing a crime would know that wherever you went, I would follow, shining a light on their deeds and sticking my nose in where they think it doesn’t belong.” He could tell by her reaction that she comprehended his meaning, but he went on anyway. “They might have arranged a little accident for you or worse just to keep me distracted and away from the workhouse. I’m sure there would have been plenty of signs to implicate someone else, all of them left where everyone could see. Now do you understand?”
“I… Yes, I do.”
“So it’s not just rudeness for which you are being punished. It is for putting yourself in danger.”
“I couldn’t have known about that. Not really. We hadn’t heard Cook’s story yet.”
“You told me if I let you go down to the kitchens to get your friends settled that you wouldn’t resist me, that you would accept your punishment without a fuss. I think I know, but it’s best to be sure. Are you going back on your word now? That would disappoint me greatly. “
“Your word means a lot to you, doesn’t it? And thus mine means a great deal to you as well. No one has ever taken me that seriously before. You really do love me, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. I love you too much to tolerate most of the things you have done today.”
Kyla turned from the window and walked toward him, her eyes downcast, her submission plain in her voice. “What would you have me do?”
Flint’s heart squeezed tight in his chest, as if it couldn’t move for grim relief. She had run from him and he had briefly feared he had lost her again, but she was here now, putting herself wholly in his hands. The trust that took, the complete surrender, made him feel ten feet tall. He nearly abandoned the whole task right there in favor of demonstrating his utter devotion and love in much more pleasant ways, but knew it wouldn’t be wise. While in the short run, that course of action would be quite rewarding, he was sure to regret it later when she continued to act in ways both unbecoming and risky.
“You will remove your gown and go to the corner by the fire wearing only your chemise and petticoat.” He watched her every move while she slowly complied. When she arrived at the corner, he stepped up behind her. “Very good. Lovelier every time I see you. How sweet you look in your frills and lace.” He adjusted her clothing to suit him, causing her to stand there and accept this intimate inspection. “Raise your arms up, my dear. That’s right. I love the way your figure looks when you stand that way. A lady never raises her arms like that in company, so this view is for me alone. Entrancing. Stunning. But you can only be as beautiful on the outside as your actions allow.”
She hung her head and turned as if to address him, but he cut her off. “You are not allowed to speak just now, my dear. I want you to listen to me and me alone. I don’t want you planning what you are going to say or framing fresh or clever arguments. If you understand, you may nod. Nothing more.”
She nodded slowly, her face still downcast.
“Perhaps your arms are tiring, my dear. I should like you to lower them now and put them behind your back. Gather the back of your petticoat so that I may see your pretty little bottom. That’s right. Just so.” He ran his hands over her backside, up and down then side to side as if trying to decide how he would approach the problem of applying his hand in such a way as to turn it just the proper shade of red that would let him know she would feel the effect for several days.
Finally ending the sweet torture, Flint went on. “The female bottom. What a wonder it is. And yours is, I feel sure, the loveliest of them all, though of course I have no way to know for sure. I’ve seen precious few in my life but yours is, I am confident, a treasure. Dependable for resting on, attractive to the touch, and so very decorative. But at this moment, its purpose is somewhat more serious. It must be the recipient of strokes of instruction. Toward that end, I wish you to leave your corner now. Without letting the petticoat fall,” he reminded her when she released her grasp on the material, “you will present yourself to me in front of the fire. I don’t want you thinking of the cold while you receive your correction. Neither will I allow the darkness of the room to hide you from my sight.”
Again, she did as she was told. He could tell by the bright blush of shame on her cheeks that she found the whole ordeal deeply embarrassing. That was a good start. When she had positioned herself in front of the fire, he pushed a hassock into position beside her and with a hand to her waist turned her so that she could lean down and rest her hands upon it.
“Why are you here, young lady?”
“I’m sorry? I don’t understand. I’m here because you told me to be here.”
Flint allowed himself a reluctant smile. “Yes, of course. I mean to say, tell me why I have called you here. Why do you find yourself in this embarrassing position?”
“I… Oh, Flint, must I?”
“It’s part of your correction. You must learn that nothing should come between us. We are one, you and I. Nothing I require should daunt you because you should know that I shall never ask anything of you that is not for your own good. It may not be enjoyable, but it will be instructive and for your benefit. Now, I shall ask you again: why have I called you here?”
“Because I was rude and… rash in my actions. I should have waited for you to help me with my problem, rather than running off and trying to solve it myself.”
“What about putting yourself in danger? You mustn’t fail to mention that.”
Kyla nodded ruefully. “I also put myself in danger. That’s what I meant by being rash.”
“Ah, yes, that is one way to put it. Softens the sharp sting of discomfiture, doesn’t it, to call something by words not so very terrible. But in order for the lesson to be learned and remembered, there is often need for awkward honesty. I want to hear the words from you, my dear. I want you to ask me to give you the punishment that a naughty, disobedient wife deserves. Ask me to spank your bare bottom.”
“Oh, Flint, please! I can’t.”
“You can and you will. Now, do as you are told or it will be the worse for you.” He held his breath, hoping she would comply.
She took a deep breath and he could almost see her internal struggle. Self-preservation won out. “Will you please spank my bare bottom?”
“Go on. Explain why I should do so.”
“Because I have been naughty and disobedient.”
“Exactly so. Because I love you as a careful and caring husband should, I am going to spank you so that you will never act in such a dangerous and unbecoming way again.” He went to stand behind her and ran his hand over her upturned bottom for several long moments before beginning to apply his palm sharply with hot stinging swats. She accepted it well, shifting and crying out, but keeping her hands on the hassock and her bottom presented. When he was satisfied with the pink color, he stepped back.
“That was for being rude to our guest and leaving quite a bit of disquiet and unpleasantness in your wake. I don’t expect you to know all the ins and outs of polite society just yet, but in this instance you knew better. We’ll have no more of that, will we, young lady?”
Kyla shook her head. “No, my lord. I’ll be sure not to do anything like that again.”
“Now, as to the disobedience…”
“In my own defense, I must say that you hadn’t told me not to go out in the carriage alone.”
“That’s true enough. It will no longer be a problem since I am warning you now that your carriage-riding privileges have been revoked. If you want to go anywhere, you’ll have to have someone with you. The stable staff have all been informed.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“But I will tell you now, so that there will be no confusion in future: a lady does not go anywhere alone. The driver of the coach will not suffice as a companion. You must have someone with you at all times, as befits your station in life. We will see about finding you a companion to travel about with you if you wish to make calls.”
“No, that’s quite all right, my lord. I don’t know who I would want to see anyway. I’ve challenge enough right here learning all that is required of a baroness.”
“I suspected as much, but I wanted to be sure. Do you have any other questions or objections?” His tone was wry as he looked down at her, bent over the hassock with her fanny sticking out and glowing bright pink. She had to feel ridiculous and he hoped for both their sakes that she had no idea how utterly desirable her submission and trust made her to him at that moment. Far from ridiculous in his eyes, she had never looked more feminine and attractive, but he mustn’t let her know that just yet.
“No, not at this time, my lord. I gave my word that I wouldn’t make a fuss and I won’t.”
“Your cooperation is noted and appreciated. Now, spread your legs apart a little wider.” He tapped her inner thighs with a forefinger until she had complied. “That’s the way.” He felt her eyes on him as he went to the hearth and selected a long thin branch from among the kindling. It was supple and smooth so he had saved it rather than putting it in the fire when they had returned from dining that evening. He positioned himself behind her once again and took his time rubbing the switch up and down her backside, wondering if this brought any comfort along with the dread she must be feeling.
“I’m going to apply six strokes of the switch and I want you to count them. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” she whimpered.
He could hear the despair in her voice and longed to ease her mind, but getting the thing done would be, he considered, the kindest way. Toward that end, he determined to delay as little as possible. The first stroke he aimed at the fullest part of her nether cheeks. She jerked up on her toes and gasped. “One,” she counted obediently.
He landed the next swat slightly lower and a bit harder. “Two.” The next struck lower still, causing another jump. He could hear the tears in her voice as she counted, “Three.”
Wasting no time, he held back a bit for the fourth swat. “Four,” she sniffed as he let the next stroke fall on the tender crease between buttock and thigh. “Five,” she squeaked, obviously not ready. He let her catch her breath before he applied the last stroke on her upper thighs, making sure the switch fell across both legs. “Six,” she wheezed and then she was in his arms.
He carried her to the bed and pulled her up with him so that she lay sprawled over him while she cried. “There, there, now, dearest. It will all be better by and by. Why all the tears?” For she was still weeping, harder now it seemed.
She tried to speak, but he could only understand one word in four. “Never… Cook… wanted… fear… luxury… awful…”
“Never mind, my love. We’ll speak of it later. It’s all right,” he murmured until she gave in to the sobs that seemed to bring her comfort in the end. He stroked her hair and her back, hoping to bring comfort to her bottom now that the punishment was over.
When her breathing returned to normal and the storm had finally passed, she accepted the handkerchief he offered her. “Thank you, Flint. I know I said it before, but I want to say it again now. I am very sorry. I want to be a good wife to you and I know I’m not. All my life, I’ve had to get by on my own. I used to think it was futile to ask for help because no one would answer. Now I know that you will answer, so asking for help isn’t hopeless.”
“Of course it’s not hopeless. It’s my greatest pleasure and most enjoyable duty to take care of you, whether you ask or not. It’s simply more satisfying when you do.”
“You’re so good to me. I understand you want me to come to you with my difficulties and wishes, so why don’t I do it? I want to be a better wife, but I’m afraid I never will be.”
“That’s the sort of talk that will earn you another session with the switch if you’re not careful!” he chided gently. “You are a wonderful wife. You give my life meaning. Have you really no idea the joy you bring me every day?”
“Not today, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did! And I’m a baron, so you have to take my word for it,” he teased.
She gave a watery chuckle. “Very well, my lord, but I still don’t see how you can say that.”
“Because you showed spirit and compassion, not to mention loyalty. If you will only learn to express them in ways that involve me rather than leave me gawking at the side of the road, we will get on famously, I assure you.” While he was speaking his voice took on his favorite tone of mild self-mockery with which he tried to let people know that he really wasn’t a snob. His humorous parody of a country lordling usually put everyone at ease and tonight was no different. “We’ll be unstoppable, you and me. Together we’ll make this district into a paradise. Why, even the clouds won’t dare to thwart us. What picnics we shall organize! And the cows will give better milk, and the corn will—”
“All right, all right! I see what you mean.”
“I hope you do. I don’t expect perfection, nor do I blame you for any troubles I might have. We’ll have our difficulties, same as any married pair and I don’t want you blaming yourself unduly. Any husband will need to correct his wife from time to time. You’ve been corrected. I’m satisfied that you’ve learned your lesson and have every hope that you will mend your ways. End of discussion. On to more pleasant activities.” His hands had begun to wander on courses they were beginning to claim more and more as their right, earned by dint of the pleasure they had invoked with increasing regularity.
He knew what to do to please her but was always looking for new ways to bring forth the sounds he loved to hear. Tonight, however, she seemed to hold back. “What’s troubling you, my love?”
“Haven’t you forgotten something?” she whispered, her hands underneath the shoulders of his jacket.
He had completely forgotten his clothing. “How observant you are, my dear,” he noted in a wry tone. Then, with particular haste, he rectified the situation.
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