“My lady,” said Miss Pritchett as she swept an elegant curtsey. “You asked to speak to Miss Margaret?”
Ermengarde raised an eyebrow. “The Lady Heathgrove, you mean.”
Miss Pritchett shook her head. “Begging your pardon, my lady, but Lord Heathgrove wants her called Miss Margaret for the time being. She is ready to see you, but you may be surprised at what you see.”
Ermengarde suppressed an impatient sigh. She disapproved of having a governess in the first place, let alone one as tedious as this. For the dozenth time, she wondered whether Cyril was right in choosing this strategy.
“Very well,” she said with acerbic disapproval. “Send her in.”
Miss Pritchett ushered Margaret in, and Ermengarde’s lifetime of good breeding worked overtime to prevent her from gasping out loud.
The girl—for indeed she was a girl—was clothed in a beautiful child’s dress of pink and white with ribbons and lace. Her absurdly short hair had been covered in an enchanting cap with more ribbon and lace, and Ermengarde noticed approvingly that the girl’s waist had been drawn in with a suitable corset. What a change from the madness of a few days ago! Miss Pritchett murmured to the girl, who raised her skirts and executed an adequate, if slightly jerky, curtsey and appropriately respectful nod of the head.
“Good morning, Lady Heathgrove.”
Ermengarde stared at the girl in wonder. The accent was downright savage, and the girl didn’t know what to do with her limbs. But she stood prettily, answered prettily, and waited with eagerness for her mother-in-law’s response.
“Miss Margaret has something she wishes to say to you, my lady.” Miss Pritchett glanced at the girl, who colored briefly. She gave her governess a pleading look, but it took only a slight shake of the head for her to continue.
“I apologize for my grave errors and flagrant misbehavior, ma’am. I have been suitably punished and will be chastised with great severity until I learn to behave in a manner befitting the House of Cartwell. I beg forgiveness and thank you for the grace you have shown me in allowing me to remain. If my behavior ever displeases you in any way, I will be—” here Margaret winced in evident fear “—thoroughly thrashed by my governess as penance for my sins.”
At the end of the speech, the girl hung her head and fought the tears flowing down her cheeks. Ermengarde shook her head. This plan was pure madness, but maybe it took madness to cure madness. She spoke to Miss Pritchett with far more warmth this time.
“Do you think she will be ready in a fortnight’s time?” For the first time, Ermengarde allowed herself to hope.
Miss Pritchett nodded. “Miss Margaret’s dancing is passable, although her academic studies will take years of remedial lessons. She is still headstrong and requires the strictest discipline, but as you can see we have achieved great results in a short time.”
Ermengarde marveled. “Come here.”
Margaret glanced at her governess, as if for permission, and stepped forward prettily. She dropped another curtsey, wobbling only once. “Yes, ma’am.”
Ermengarde lifted Margaret’s chin to stare into the tear-filled eyes. “How does your governess punish you?”
Margaret cringed and started to protest, but a movement from Miss Pritchett wrought an instant change in both tone and demeanor. “Miss Pritchett spanks me regularly, and she makes me stand in the corner and learn lessons. She believes in the strictest punishments because I am a naughty, willful little girl. If I displease you today, she will thrash me with a birch.” Margaret gave a piteous sniffle. “It really hurts!”
Ermengarde permitted herself a smile. “As it should be. Go now, and you may write out one hundred times on the blackboard, I am a lady, not a hoodlum, and I shall act as befitting my station.”
Margaret bit her lip but gave a bob. “Yes, ma’am. Does this mean you are displeased with my behavior and Miss Pritchett should thrash me?”
Ermengarde exchanged glances with Miss Pritchett, who waited with impassive calm. Still, Cyril’s plan had shown itself amazing in its effectiveness. Half measures made no sense now.
“No, I am not displeased. But I do think a good birching will do you good. If you speak and act this prettily after a spank or two, I expect a solid thrashing will sweeten you even more.”
Margaret began to cry in earnest, but she still stood at attention. Miss Pritchett came to collect her charge and curtseyed.
“Yes, my lady. You wish Miss Margaret to receive a reminder to continue her good behavior, not a punishment for misbehavior.”
Ermengarde hid a smile. “Correct. Thank you, Miss Pritchett.”
Miss Pritchett led the girl out, scolding her for crying. Ermengarde sat back in her desk, deep in thought.
Perhaps Cyril wasn’t too soft, after all. Perhaps, just perhaps, she had a genius of a son.
“Come along, Miss Margaret.”
Meg stormed through the hall and wanted to kick the walls. They wanted to treat her as a child? They’d get her as a child.
Miss Pritchett grabbed her arm and dragged her along. “You will, little madam, or I will make you.”
Meg squirmed out of Miss Pritchett’s grasp and ran pell-mell along the corridors. She meant to run out the front door, but too many servants lined the hallway. Instead, she fled through an open door into a deserted room. When she came up against a locked door, she turned around to face an alarming army of advancing servants.
“No!” she screamed, but they blocked her exit.
Miss Pritchett grasped her ear and marched Meg up to the nursery, tucking the hated little-girl skirt into the waistband before spanking her each step of the way.
“Let me go!” Meg howled, fighting to get free.
“Quiet this instant!” Miss Pritchett shouted, shoving Meg into the nursery. A curious rounded piece of wood lay on the floor where none had been before.
Incensed, Meg picked up the wood and hurled it onto the floor as hard as she could. It withstood impact, so she picked it up and bashed it against the wall. She brandished it at the hated governess.
“Come near me, and I’ll wallop you!” Oh, it felt good. She was mistress of her own fate at last.
Miss Pritchett locked the door behind her and sat in a straight-backed chair, a smile playing on her lips. Meg screamed and beat the walls, shrieking obscenities. Still, Miss Pritchett smiled. Meg threatened murder, but to no avail.
At last, Meg threw down the wood and stormed to the window. She couldn’t throw the sash open, at least not more than an inch or two. She broke a nail trying to force the window open, until she saw the wood screwed shut. Blast!
Dizzy and flushed with exertion, Meg spun around. No escape through the window. No escape through the door. Miss Pritchett waited, implacable. In spite of her anger, a sniffle escaped.
“Why?” Meg beseeched. She hated herself for sounding as childish as they wanted her to be.
“What do you mean, Miss Margaret? I should be asking you why you have chosen to behave like a fishmonger’s wife.” Miss Pritchett’s tone was almost gentle, something that frightened Meg.
“Why…” Meg faltered. She was too embarrassed to look at the stern governess. “I did what you said.”
She had, too. She’d answered respectfully, followed orders, and gone along with their crazy rules. She’d thought maybe, just maybe, she could get along in this world long enough to enjoy marriage to a wealthy man.
Miss Pritchett folded her hands in her lap. “Yes, you did.”
The lack of answer maddened Meg. “Then why?”
Miss Pritchett waited.
“Miss Margaret, you will address me as Miss Pritchett or ma’am. Either ask your question clearly, or be silent.”
It was the most Miss Pritchett had spoken without issuing threats. Meg growled the embarrassing question. “Why’d you let her say I should be… you know…”
Still the maddening woman waited! It was as if she enjoyed Meg’s discomfort.
“Birched,” Meg finished sullenly. She was the daughter of intelligent, resourceful parents. They reasoned with her. They did not subject her to physical cruelty.
“Because Lady Heathgrove said so, little miss. And in this house, when an adult speaks you will obey.” Miss Pritchett unfolded and refolded her hands.
“You will obey because you are a child, and you will refrain from arguing because you are a child. Do I make myself clear?” Miss Pritchett’s eyes narrowed, and Meg gulped. Better not to provoke further.
“Yes’m.” Meg wished the window had opened, even if they were on the third floor. Better a jump than to face what had been promised. “Are you really going to do it?”
“That’s enough foolish questions.” Miss Pritchett rose, unlocked the door, and called to a maid. “Fetch the birch switches, please.”
In a flash, Meg was filled with a rage she had never before known.
Miss Helen Pritchett grasped the ear of her unusual charge. “Stop howling this instant!”
Meg gave a shriek of outrage, wriggling in Miss Pritchett’s grasp like a fish caught on a hook. She stamped her feet, clutched at her abused ear, and grasped the back of her heavy skirts. “How dare you touch me? I’ll call nine-one-one!”
The bundle of thin, whippy birch rods swished against her bottom cheeks, leaving a trail of bright red lines interspersed with fainter ones. “You need nine more lashes of the birch for breaking position, and then we will resume your punishment? As you wish, Miss Margaret.”
Meg would have given a swift kick backward, but the odd, old-fashioned collection of stockings, drawers, knickers, and petticoats twisted around her legs made it impossible to move. Plus, the grip on her ear made her wonder whether this formidable being might never let go.
Nothing in Meg’s short and comfortable life had prepared her for this turn of events. When Miss Pritchett appeared with her wine-colored skirts and ostentatious hats, Meg convinced herself that Cyril would change his mind. She was not mad, she didn’t need supervision, and a return to her own time would mean taking the formerly dreaded anatomy and physiology test. She would welcome any and all tests if she could only escape this nightmare.
Instead, Cyril had softened her protests with a kiss. That kiss! The gentle, sweet kiss both boyish and manly at the same time. Meg had broken away, confused, before he took her face between her hands. “It will be all right,” he had told her, and Meg believed him.
Now, struggling to maintain her balance while biting the insides of her cheeks, the promise rang hollow. She had allowed various servants to dress her in an odd, little-girl dress with a dropped waist and vertical pleats next to the front button placket, and she had even allowed the ridiculous length of ribbon tied into an oversized bow on the top of her head. A strange metal contraption set by the fire singed half her hair in the attempt to torture the ends into curls. The crowning indignity, however, had been a Raggedy Ann frilled white cap to cover her head. No one could look at Meg directly without grimacing at her short hair.
She had put up with all of the odd fuss, but she drew the line at allowing this harridan to manhandle her. Manhandle. Meg would have given a wry grin at the irony, but the horrible woman let go of Meg’s ear only to heave her further across the schoolteacher’s desk. The white cotton drawers were thrust to each side, exposing her bottom cheeks that already stung with the fire of bee stings. Meg began to protest, only to be silenced by several merciless strokes in rapid succession.
“Owwwww!” She raised her voice to a shout, choking on a sob she could not allow to be heard. “I’ll kill you! I’ll—” She shoved at the wooden desk and lunged toward the door, but Miss Pritchett was too quick for her. Down went Meg, this time in a football hold underneath the governess’s arm. “Lemme go!” She kicked sideways, connecting with layers of skirts.
Miss Pritchett dropped the birch as it was too long to be of use in close range, and she stared at the defiant little miss. If a few lashes of her beloved birch wouldn’t calm down Miss Margaret, what would be better? She thought back to her most disobedient pupils, and an idea came to mind.
“Stand still.” Her tone was cold and commanding, and even angry Meg quailed. The naughty miss actually obeyed as Miss Pritchett retreated to the tiny kitchenette adjoining the schoolroom. She took out one of her favorite tools, an item she had planned to save for later. After this morning’s appalling performance, however, it was clear that more powerful measures were needed.
Miss Pritchett carefully peeled the skin of the ginger root, cutting away a generous finger and making sure to leave a thick, rounded top to one end. The pungent juices would enter the naughty little girl and teach her not to fight back. The combination of ginger and birching would leave even the most headstrong girl sobbing for relief. Best of all, Miss Pritchett could present a completely contrite, broken-down, and obedient charge to the master of the house.
When Miss Pritchett returned to the schoolroom, Meg lifted her head and gave a piteous moan. “What is that? What are you going to do? Please don’t…”
Miss Pritchett ignored the silly chatter. “We seem to have a misunderstanding, dear.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm on the last word. “Apparently, a good old-fashioned touch of the birch has not been sufficient to tame your sinful nature. We shall have to tame you from within. Spread your legs, and be quick about it.”
Meg paled, gulping and grasping the edge of the desk with white-knuckled hands. “I want to go home.” Her voice caught, and a tear shone in her left eye.
Much gratified at the response, Miss Pritchett stepped forward and applied a brisk hand spank across the upturned bottom. “Face forward, feet apart, and lean over as far as you can. You do not want me to repeat my order.”
When Meg sniveled without moving, Miss Pritchett picked up the birch. “I did warn you, dear.” She striped each cheek with relish until Meg, screaming with pain, doubled over and stretched her feet apart as far as they would go.
“Stop! Please, stop!”
Pleased, Miss Pritchett grasped the throbbing, reddened backside and thrust the moist root deep into Meg’s bottom hole. When Meg cried out and clenched in an effort to expel the foreign object, Miss Pritchett threatened another dose of the birch. With more tears and high-pitched whimpers, the naughty girl held still until Miss Pritchett forced the ginger root in as far as it would go.
“Take it out!”
When Meg’s formerly strident shout switched to a subdued, tearful pleading, Miss Pritchett smiled at last. If a single insertion of ginger caused this dramatic of a change in attitude, clearly she was on the right track. She would have to talk with Lord Heathgrove about his misguided desire for leniency. Clearly, this naughty miss needed good, firm, old-fashioned discipline, and Helen Pritchett was the woman to give it. She’d had enough of spoiled heirs and heiresses, and she was tired of being relegated to a child’s world filled with unchallenging tasks. In Lady Margaret of Heathgrove, Helen Pritchett had met her match at last. She would enjoy taming this brat, far more than she had enjoyed teaching mealy-mouthed little girls who were afraid of their own shadows.
“Silence, insolent little madam!” Miss Pritchett gave the girl a vicious pinch on the back of her neck. “Or you will find out just how nasty your life can become.” She gave the ginger a twist, pulling it out before rotating it half a turn and plunging it in again. The girl’s knees buckled as she moaned and thrashed against the desk.
“It hurts! Take it out, take it out… not there!” Meg’s protests rose to a shriek before Miss Pritchett surveyed her implements and picked up a good, stout walking stick. She shook her head in regret. Not yet. Instead, the governess selected a heavy ivory hairbrush she had used to brush the girl’s hair.
Bending Meg forward and stretching her knees even further, Miss Pritchett slapped the hairbrush with an impressive series of swats, each as loud as a gunshot. Not one speck of white flesh escaped notice, and the soft undercurves of Miss Margaret’s bottom came in for some special attention. The brush nipped and bit, whipping the formerly sullen brat into a broken mess of pathetic cries.
“Please…” Meg could manage no more than the single word before her body shuddered into defeat. Her sobs quieted, and she lay limp across the desk. Her bottom swayed from side to side in a lewd dance of invitation.
If Meg had been hers… but Meg was not hers. Miss Pritchett gave a sigh of regret.
“You, little miss,” she lectured as she continued the spanking. “You will show proper respect to every adult you meet, including and especially your governess. Do you understand?” When Meg’s soft cries failed to produce the proper answer, Miss Pritchett parted the girl’s legs and struck the inside of each thigh. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes! Yes!” Meg screamed in terror, quivering all over.
“That’s ‘yes, ma’am’ or ‘yes, Miss Pritchett.’” The governess held the flat of the hairbrush between Meg’s legs until the girl gave her frantic agreement. “And because you have inconvenienced me and caused us to lose an entire morning’s work, you will stand in the corner for the next hour with your thrashed bottom on display. When your papa asks for today’s report this afternoon, you will tell him you have been punished and why.”
A smothered groan greeted Miss Pritchett’s pronouncement. Even Lord Heathgrove would see that such terrible behavior warranted discipline.
“And after your hour in the corner, you will fetch your nursery cane and bring it to me, kneeling before me and begging me to thrash you until all thoughts of misbehavior are gone forever.” Miss Pritchett hid a smile. The power felt good, she had to admit. The quick, rapidly constricted tremble between the girl’s shoulder blades, the low-pitched cry of distress, and the desperate attempt to silence the cries all spoke of a girl properly chastened. Of course, Miss Margaret would misbehave again. In fact, Miss Pritchett expected and desired it. Until the little chit was broken and brought to heel over and over again, any appearance of obedience would be only that—appearance.
Helen Pritchett meant to break this willful girl and build her back up again piece by disobedient piece. If she couldn’t present England’s finest lady by the end of the trial period, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.
And in the meantime, she would thoroughly enjoy herself.
Meg blindly felt her way to the corner, holding up her skirts as the tears streamed down her cheeks. She lowered her forehead against the wall, crying out her pain and humiliation. She hated that evil Miss Pritchett. She’d get even, somehow. Even if it meant the worst punishment since kingdom come, she couldn’t let this injustice go unanswered.
As Meg’s tears flowed, she shook her head. How could she possibly defeat the monster given complete authority over her? No matter what she said or argued, her supposed husband would take the witch’s side.
And in an hour, Meg would have to fall to her knees and beg for a repeat performance. How could she bear to live?
Oh, God! I’m sorry I ever complained about classes or phones or vacations. If I can get back home, I’ll never complain about anything for the rest of my life. Please!
Across the room, Miss Helen Pritchett surveyed the woman in child’s clothing, crying bitterly in an unconscious call of seduction. Miss Pritchett crossed one leg over the other, determined to remain professional. She would produce a well-behaved charge. That was all.
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