“Are you ready, my dear? It won’t do to have you outshining all the other ladies at tonight’s affair,” Rory called as he strode down the hallway. “The coach is waiting. If we don’t want Philip to burst with pride and anticipation, we’d better be off.”
Grace checked the mirror to make sure her silver earrings hung evenly and gave a final pat to her hair. “That will have to do.” Making her way out into the corridor, she was checking to see that she had the correct handkerchief in her reticule when she heard Rory clear his throat. She looked up and was puzzled by the look of disapproval she noted on his face. “Is something troubling you? I know my hair didn’t turn out just as I had hoped, but I can—”
“Your hair is lovely, as it always is, but it would look even better complementing a gown worthy of the event to which we now go. I don’t mean to inconvenience you, but it would please me no end if you would return to our chamber and don your new gown.” He checked his pocket-watch and turned toward the door. “I shall alert Philip of the delay.”
She slipped past him while his head was turned. “Whatever makes you think this is not the dress we ordered last month?”
He stayed by the door to their bedroom. “Perhaps you ordered that gown at the same time, but I particularly wish you to wear the garment made from the silk I gave you.”
Grace showed him the shawl she had draped artfully around her neck and shoulders. “Is this not the material you mean?” She had the front door open and continued on her way, hoping to force him to drop the subject and follow her. “Oh, what a fine vehicle! A different one from that we now house for Wevrim, I think.”
He caught up with her just as Philip was letting down the steps to the carriage. “You are correct in your observation but not successful in your attempt to change the subject. If you can tell one vehicle from another even though carriages are not a special interest of yours, one would think it would be easy for you to comprehend that while I do not make a study of women’s fashion, I can tell muslin from silk.” He sent a grim smile in Philip’s direction but put out a hand to stop him helping his mistress up into the carriage.
“The color is a perfect match.” Grace tried to mount the steps unaided, but her slipper caught on the hem of her gown and she stepped back awkwardly.
Rory steadied her with an arm around her waist. “Is there or is there not, Grace, in your possession a gown made fully of the material that matches that shawl?”
He had left her no loopholes, no means of escape. Her only choice was either face his displeasure or lie to him outright. “Not in my possession, no, but Mrs. Pettigrew is confident that she can find a client who has the occasion and the inclination to wear such a grand creation.”
Pressing his lips together, he speared her with a glance. As he helped her into the carriage, he murmured in clipped tones, “She has in you a client with the occasion to wear such a gown. She has in me a client with the inclination to see such a garment worn. Together, we fill the requirements and if she has not already sold the silk, you will go on Monday and rectify your mistake. If not, I will take you to London and we will rectify it together.”
“Oh, not London! I cannot abide that noisome city!”
“Then you had best hope Mrs. Pettigrew is still in possession of my property.”
“It is no longer yours. You gave it to me and I exchanged it as I saw fit.”
She had wounded him. She could hear it in his voice and her heart clenched. “Well, I… Oh, dear. I most sincerely apologize. I saw it more in the line of an investment, like any you might bring from your travels. You don’t expect us to drink all the wine you brought. I’ve seen the receipts from the sales around the county. You’ve done quite well.”
“Again, your attempt to change the topic fails. I will have my say before we close this disappointing interlude. You will rectify your error come Monday morning, if you please, and you will do it on a very sore bottom. Now, let us say no more about it and try to enjoy the rest of the evening.”
She bumped along in miserable silence. His disappointment. His displeasure. His hurt. She couldn’t bear them. “Rory, please. Let us return home. I’ve ruined what might have been a lovely evening. I don’t deserve to go to the ball. Trying to be clever and shrewd, I’ve ended by appearing mean and ungrateful. That was in no way my intent!”
Rory turned a sad smile her way. “Of this I am well aware, my darling. Thus we shall still continue on our way. You have had little call in your life to experience the pleasure and closeness that come from gifts given and received. That saddens me as well, but I realize that you meant no disrespect.”
“Disrespect! Oh, goodness, yes, you must add that to my other faults! Please, have Philip turn the coach around.” Tears seeped out of the corners of her eyes faster than she could dash them away with her fingers.
“And miss the ball? Why offend our hosts as well? Again, not your intention. You will make good all your mischief and the matter will be forgotten.” Rory turned her face to his with a fingertip under her chin. “But that will not suffice to save this evening for your enjoyment, will it? No, I can see in your eyes it will not.” He brushed a stray tear away with the pad of his thumb. “How if you can begin your amends now? Will that restore at least part of your good humor?”
“But how could I do that? Mrs. Pettigrew’s shop is closed and we mustn’t disturb her well-earned rest.”
“No, no, that is not what I had in mind.” Rory looked up and unhooked the curtain that covered the inside of the opening where the window’s shutter formed the outside barrier to the wind and rain.
Grace hadn’t noticed it before, but both sides of the carriage were adorned with windows that opened for fine weather travel. These were now closed and covered with an exterior shutter of wooden slats and an interior decorative curtain suspended from a small wooden rod. Rory slid the curtain off this rod and pulled it slowly through his fingers. “You couldn’t. There’s no room.”
“I will manage.”
“But without the curtain, might someone not see?”
“At the rate we are moving, no one will pass us on this road, especially at night. And no one could see anything through that shutter.”
“But someone might hear.”
“Then you will have to endeavor to keep your cries to a minimum, for cries there shall be, my dear.”
And somehow, she knew that she needed him to punish her. Memories of other spankings rushed back at her, of the pain and heat that burned away any resentment or remorse, leaving her first calm then passionate. Her voice got lost in the fog of her trepidation, so she merely nodded.
“Very good. Over you go. There’s a girl.”
He made short work of the offending dress, pushing the hem up and over her waist, then bunching the material so that her bottom was bared to his view. Before he had worked on her for more than five minutes, she was desperately wishing he had left her at least that scant protection. The embarrassment of lying there, her naked backside waving in the air in full view of her fully clothed husband and so close to his fully clothed servants was overwhelming. She blushed crimson every time she thought that just through that wall stood Philip, hopefully oblivious to what was going on inside the carriage but still there, watching the road from his perch above the vehicle. Even more embarrassing was the thought that it was her own thoughtless action that had motivated him to treat her this way.
His application of that short rod gave her little energy to contemplate her chagrin, however. Her hopes that the limited room to swing the implement would lessen his effective use of it were in vain. He was able to wield the little rod in such a way that the burn that followed the initial sting continued to grow even when the wood was not touching her skin. She seemed to feel ghosts of each stripe long after it fell. Soon every inch of her rump seemed to be crawling with tiny flames that sank deeper and deeper as he moved the implement down her thighs then back up to the fullest part of her tender flesh.
As he spanked her, in a voice low but clear, he reminded her of what she had done and what she should never do again. “When I give you a gift, you shall accept it with gratitude. If you have a need, you shall notify me of it immediately. You shall not exchange one for another. You shall not go behind my back or against my wishes. To do so constitutes an implicit lie, whether I ask you directly about the action or not.”
She nodded her responses to his scolding, fearing if she opened her mouth, what would escape would be either cause for more scolding or loud enough to be heard not only by the servants driving the carriage but by half the county. Biting her lips together, she could not helping pitching and swaying as the carriage lurched this way and that, but Rory seemed to be completely comfortable with the motion. Of course, she thought wryly as he continued to apply his correction to her posterior, he was accustomed to much worse pitching and rolling on the high seas.
Eventually, she could control her hands no longer. She reached back with a hiss and a kick of her feet. “No more! I can’t stand any more! Please!”
Taking her hand in his, he held it gently to the small of her back. “Now, now, little miss, you surely don’t mean to tell me that you don’t deserve this punishment.”
“No, certainly not,” she answered, glad of the momentary respite.
It was short-lived. “Then keep those pretty little hands out of the way and let me get on with it.” Back to work he went, applying that rod with skill and efficiency. He did pause every now and then, however. Running his hands over her backside, he soothed a bit of the pain before increasing it again.
She rode the waves of pain he created, renewing her strength in the troughs for the hard job of tensing against the crests. Turning her face to the cushioned seat, she muffled her sobs as best she could.
“Give over, dearest. Don’t resist me. Rest in my care. It will be easier if you let the current take you.”
Not surprised that he would be thinking in aquatic metaphors also, she wondered if it was in her power to comply. Her strength was nearly spent, squandered in useless resistance to his will. He only wanted what was best for her, both now and in their lives. Had not his every action bent only toward her benefit? Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to relax. Through the pause and into the next set of strokes, she lay, willing herself not to move. Each swat swelled in fire, but her heart rose above the pain and seemed to float on the surface of some peaceful sea. She could feel the swells underneath her, bearing her up, taking her toward a goal that surely Rory understood better than she did.
It took several moments for her to realize that she was sitting upright, cradled in Rory’s lap, having her back stroked and her name whispered in her ear. Was it her name or his love for her he declared in his low, masculine tones? The way he pronounced the sounds, she could not distinguish the two. Finally, she pulled back to look up at him. “I’m all right now, Rory.”
“Of course you are, my dear,” he assured her. Still he sounded relieved as he went on. “Good thing you have not adopted the modern custom of applying cosmetics to your cheeks. We have quite a while for your eyes to return to normal if you stop swabbing at them like that. Here, allow me.” He applied his handkerchief to her eyes so gently that Grace could barely feel his ministrations, but they were effective.
“I was tempted to use a little rice powder, but Ellen discouraged the idea.”
“Smart woman.” Rory put his handkerchief back in his pocket. “You need nothing to enhance your natural beauty.”
“Do you really think my face will not show signs of crying by the time we arrive?”
“I’m certain of it. We have quite a way yet to go. Kalesworth Hall is still several miles off.”
She snuggled toward him, ignoring the discomfort in her burning backside. There was another fire growing inside her that rather than wishing to quench, she desired to feed and satisfy. “That’s very well then.” She hoped the flames in her heart were reflected in her eyes. Steaming looks and wandering hands were as far as she could bring herself to go while flying in the face of convention.
It was as if he had anticipated her reaction. He was already shifting around and his breath sounded as if he had just weathered a storm. Perhaps he had, but rather than exhausting him, it had merely served to ready him for the next. “There’s little room here, but if you are willing, we could try a trick I saw depicted in a book once.”
Grace let a slow grin spread over her face. “And people scoff at my keeping a well-stocked library.”
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