The carriage arrived the next day just as requested. The driver smiled at her, taking her one measly case and ushering her in. She remembered that day even now. The bright blue sky shone vividly, a promise of new beginning and optimism. She would never welcome being anyone's whore, but Sir Egerton had money and looks exceeding most in this dismal little town. Her plan was simple. Encourage his lust and favour, make herself indispensable. Her only experience in the ways of womanhood had been with Mr Crawley, but she refused to dwell on that for long. Her strong attraction to Sir Egerton would sorely fan her enthusiasm and passion into flames of lust not easily extinguished. As the carriage passed the city, into vivid country life, she thought of her aunt and their cottage. She would give anything to feel that safe and secure again. She settled back, smiling at the happy little chirps of the birds, the trees beginning to flourish and welcomed the new warmth. Winter was finally over. Everything felt different, resurrected after such dreary, relentless weather. Happily, she realised Easter grew closer by the day.
At last, the carriage stopped by a long gravel road and vibrant green hilltop.
"Are we here?" she whispered to the driver, suddenly afraid despite the warm weather.
"The house is at the bottom of the hill, Miss. Follow me."
This was it. The moment she embraced her life , embraced Sir Egerton. Steeling herself, she alighted the carriage. The driver, Mr Oakwell, gallantly held it open for her. She thought it a good omen, he had a name so resembling her own. A small, short gentleman, he did not impose or ask unnecessary questions, simply did his duty, without the hint of a smile. They walked the rest of the way down the pebbled hill. Sir Egerton had not been lying when he'd described it as secluded , aside from leafy trees and grass, there was not a companion in sight. Mr Oakwell wobbled as he descended the hill, determinedly gripping her case in hand. Indeed, the walk, although not ten minutes, tired her aching legs. Physical activity did not favour her.
They finally reached the bottom of the hill, her fair skin pinking under the harsh sun. She realised she'd forgotten her shawl. The cottage, much wider than her aunt's, was painted a beautiful ivory. The two bay windows were recently polished and the small garden, had a few lily's and even white roses, although nothing compared to her formidable rosebush of old. She smiled at the memory, already comforted before she'd even stepped over the threshold.
Spying them in the window, Sir Egerton raced to the door.
"Thank you Oakwell, I'll take the case. Miss Oak, do come in. There is fresh lemonade on the table."
"Thank you," she said gratefully, sitting by the cream, oval table and delicately sipping a glass.
"I can take it from here Oakwell, have a good day."
He mumbled what sounded like a gruff thanks and left without so much as a backward glance at her.
Is he well? She held her tongue, it was not her place.
"Forgive Oakwell, his driving is much smoother than his etiquette . I trust you had pleasant journey?"
"Oh yes, the drive here was most pleasant. It is beautiful to be so deep in the country...much nicer than my aunt's. Are we far from there?"
"As you say, quite far. Your aunt's was in the other direction, this is more remote. "
"Town is miles away, impossible to walk by foot. I do not suggest you try."
She shifted on the chair, his undeniable cordial manner unpinned by something she couldn't pinpoint. It dawned on her how alone and stranded she truly was.
"Yes, you, Miss Oak, are truly alone in the depths of savage country and wildness. Who knows what beasts are out there as you lay innocently sleeping at night."
She trembled, smashing the glass.
""I'm so sorry- I-"
He laughed. " Don't cry after spilled lemonade and don't pout, it is much too late to fix things once truly broken. I'll clean it up."
She nodded, feeling foolish.
"I was only jesting. Please do not tell me you are one of these hysterical girls who cannot go anywhere without smelling salts in their skirts and fans in their hands?"
"No," she lied. She was exactly that girl.
"I blame all this gothic, simpering fiction. It distorts things, messes with ones head."
"I prefer practical reading."
"Of course you do. Books are lies, pretty, frightful lies...for those that have no purpose in life and seek to find it in sinful fantasy and escapism. I don't believe in escape, I believe in reality."
"So ...they are no beasts?"
"None outside, no."
"And the servants-"
"No servants either."
Since her aunt's passing, she'd grown accustomed to waiting on herself. Airs and graces no longer disturbed her, and although not a great cook, she had taken it upon herself to learn from Mr Crawley's cook in case her circumstances turned sour and so could rustle up a decent meal. Yet no Ladies Maid to dress her? No footman or Butler? Alone in the country with not a charitable face or companion in site...she shivered, despite the warmth.
"I feel I have acted quite harshly," he said, sweeping away the glass into a bin and sitting beside her. "I thought, being used to your own privacy and company, you would favour it. I would rather not waste any unnecessary expense on the staff when I could be spending that money on you."
"I am to be alone? Unless you mean to keep me company all the while?"
"Alas no, as I'm sure you understand, I have my own estate in the City."
I shall have time to myself at least. But whatever to do?
"The house shall keep you busy, there is much to be done."
Apprehensive blue eyes swept past the sweeping pea green painted walls, hovering on the cream shelves, and lilac and bronzed rimmed ceiling. Two landscape paintings, portraying ideal country life hung proudly on the walls, a few farmhands gathering milk in the blazing sun, sweat rolling off their red faces: the other the rolling hills under sunset- this one she liked. Yet, as she looked around the fine room, she thought only of the amount of cleaning, dusting and polishing this would take. Her eyes went back to the first painting, seeing those dirty poor labours, struggling in the heat.
Is this what he expects of me?
" I thought you required a companion Sir, not a servant."
He grinned, yet his olive eyes were serious. "I require neither. It is selfish want and desire that moves me, not need. You do not need to maintain the house, it is your home, but if it gets neglected mould can set, dust and dank, it would irritate your delicacy and bring upon all kinds of ailments. I thought you would have preferred living in comfort rather than squalor. "
"Well of course but if you would just hire a servant-"
"Oakwell shall come every third day to bring you supplies from town, any your heart desires. Fine silk, lace, scarfs and hats, rich meat and fresh fruit, you shall not want for anything."
"I know not how to cook-"
"When you were a companion for Mr Crawley did you not learn how to cook?"
"We had a cook, I learned the odd thing but I have been raised a gentlewoman, I have no notion of...well anything."
"Then see, you shall be kept busy. You have all the time to learn. There are recipes here, and I have no qualm with educational books, as you shall see. You shall learn this, just as finely as you learned your accomplishments . You do after all, excel in those." He paused. "You look beautiful today."
He looked at her with such intensity, she forgot her indignation. This exotic man, an almost mythical foreign prince, wanted her, had saved her from ruin, and maybe it wasn't the way she hoped, but she had a beautiful home, a handsome , rich stately lover and hope of climbing her way to a better life. Obstinacy and anger never achieved anything, but compliance, even artificial compliance, did.
"Thank you," she'd worn her pink dress, the one she knew all men favoured. Her ash tresses, light eyes and fair skin glowed in any pastel, especially dusty pink. She looked sweet, dainty, innocent...incorruptible , although they both knew that was far from the case. She leaned towards him, relying on her femininity now. "I apologise for my ingratitude, I am truly grateful. The journey tired me."
"No, the truth is- you were right. I didn't think about your station. You're not a servant or my companion, you're Annette Oak... more fine and stunning than you ever were. I thought the privacy and solitude would please you, that discretion would be ensured and I assumed, unforgivably, that you would not mind tending to the house and cooking a few meals for yourself in my absence. If this arrangement does not favour you, I shall take you back at once."
Take her back where? To the streets? To Mr Temberlin? To that wretched market with those unforgiving, shallow people? The indignity of waiting on herself paled in comparison. "I am happy here, Sir. May I have the courtesy of showing you how much?"
" Please, be as generous as your gratitude allows."
A rare genuine smile brightened her, as her lips gently met his. She started hesitantly, she'd never initiated a kiss before, never needed to. Even in the case of Mr Crawley she had been given, or rather demanded, the invitation. Never once had she taken initiative this way. Filled with unaccustomed insecurity , she continued, tentatively tracing the outline of his soft lips, aware of her hammering heart. He let her do the work a while, not responding, which vexed her more. Just as she began to doubt her own skill, his tanned hands firmly grabbed her face. His lips blazed with fire as did her belly as he feasted on her mouth with hunger and enthusiasm she had never felt. It was if he was starved only her mouth was the cure. Ever since meeting him she'd imagined how it would feel to kiss him, touch him, feel his hard body on top of hers, if this was any indication of the rest of his skill, she knew she'd made the right choice. It wasn't sloppy and clumsy like Mr Crawley, or desperate and inexperienced like those suitors of old who would confuse passion with force or invasion, even when clearly improper and against all etiquette nor was it as gentle and loving as her previous favourite kiss with Mr Pierce, it was intense, powerful and strong. She no longer cared about her shameful experience with kissing, even before Mr Crawley because none of it mattered like this. It hadn't been real before this. As she was thinking this, while she was still able to think, he accidently nipped her lower lip. She pulled back, startled, letting out a painful yelp.
"Sorry, I lost myself."
"Be gentle," she muttered. Strength was good, painful biting and nipping was not. She had heard some tales of those who enjoyed such things, though never come across them, but she was no barbarian and would not be treated as such .
He seemed amused.
"Did I say something funny?"
" No, I am merely happy you're such a generous person."
"I'm afraid I do not understand..." she still felt heady, tired, confused.
"Why don't you rest. I am afraid there is no one to show you to your room, but I eagerly await the honour."
"I am tired."
"It's the room up the stairs, to your left. I'll wake you in a few hours, I have a surprise. Do you need help with your case?"
Yes, it was heavy and she did not wish to be carting around luggage.
"Please, if you could leave it on my bed, that would be lovely."
"As you wish."
She watched him carry the suitcase with slight distaste. A house really needed servants. Still, she would fix it, once he got what he wanted so would she, if he wished to keep getting it. He would not offer to return her anywhere once he realised how accommodating she was, how pleasant, how agreeable. He wanted her, she had the power and unlike with Mr Crawley there were no distractions getting in her way. He laid her brown case in the room, and left her, to her relief. She wanted him, even more now if that were possible, but he could wait . Let him stew in his desire and then she would feed his body, the way her lips had stated his hunger mere moments ago. Long as he kept his promise to be gentle and respectful.
The room was painted a beautiful turquoise with gold detailing, a long mirror sat in the centre of the room beside a golden set of wardrobe and draws. The carpet was a soft power blue and in the middle of the room hung a painting of Sir Egerton. A long red riding coat flowing down to his ankles, as he held a hunting rifle, on what looked like the hill outside. It made her think of another powerful gentleman, one who also enjoyed hunting and had even greater influence and riches, although even he did not flaunt himself quite so vainly.
Perhaps I shall catch up to the Wolfe's, after all. Though not a wife, at least yet, I can share in some of the finery. I hope I bewitch Sir Egerton and cause them to choke in anger and horror. If Lex can change her reputation through the aid of a man, why can't I? At least I care for mine.
The callous thoughts filled her with such happiness, that even after she'd unpacked her nightgown and changed for bed, lying in the disappointedly quite basic and small bed, she could not sleep at first, eagerly awaiting his surprise.
Oh la, what could it be?
Finally, she lay back, forcing her excitement to quell. She'd need rest to see her schemes met. Still, even with the white curtains closed , the quiet and seclusion, she could not shake this feeling something was watching her.
Only when she looked up, her heart pounding in terror, did she realise Sir Egerton's eyes still blazed down on her from the portrait.
Watching and protecting her still.
I promised an update so here we go.
KarasunoFan- Thank you for understanding and getting this and always reviewing. Honestly it's cliché but every comment means so much.