Copyright © 2010 Michèle de Lully
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The secret smile that Amanda flashed at me over breakfast was enough to melt a prison matron’s heart. Still, it barely made a dent in my confusion. I was supposed to be a lady’s maid and I was corrupting her. But that only bothered me for scant seconds.
Vastly more importantly, I was supposed to be a normal, healthy woman, and this girl was corrupting me. I needed a man to set me straight. My problem was just that it had been so long I couldn’t remember what it was like.
Except I could quite clearly imagine what it would be like with that Greek prince, that lithe, graceful icon of manliness. But thoughts like that made me light-headed, so I had to push them away, and in their place spilled images of sweet, bubbling Amanda.
Today she bubbled more than seemed possible. After lunch she ransacked the mailbag and came up victorious. She tore open the fancy envelope in her hand with ferocity, an arch reminder that my golden kitten was in fact a grown woman, even if she did not know it yet.
“Grandma,” she sang out, barely reading the card. “Grandma, I must ask your leave.”
“What are you going on about, you foolish girl?” snapped the old lioness, suspiciousness flooding her face instantly. I could see how Amanda had remained so sheltered, the Dame was as paranoid as a police detective and twice as perceptive.
“Petros has given me a birthday present. Do you remember, last month, at dinner, he said he would have a surprise for me soon?”
The Dame glared, but saved her ammunition ’til the battle was truly joined.
“He says the weather is perfect, now, and the boat is repaired.”
Still the old lady did not bite. Silently I urged Amanda to proceed cautiously, to try to trap the old woman, but her girlish enthusiasm swept her away.
“He has invited me on a cruise! On his own yacht, the Argo. For two weeks!” She read from the card, enraptured with the words, “I long to see your glow by moonlight on the waters of my people. The Aegean sea will think Helen come again, to steal the hearts of men.”
“Mon Dieu!” The old lady gasped for breath. So did I—that sugary prose was enough to choke anyone. I would have laughed in his face if a man had said that to me.
But delivered in Amanda’s guileless voice, sweetness was the only aftertaste.
“Absolutely not,” said the Dame. “You can’t spend two weeks at sea with him.” I had to silently agree with her. Put Amanda within reach of a tongue that honeyed and there wouldn’t be any need of a doctor’s report. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, my dear,” she said, and clearly meant it. It was Petros she didn’t trust, any further than she could throw a Grecian pillar, and neither did I. “But it would not be seemly for an unmarried girl to be alone with a man of his, ah, stature.”
“But I won’t be alone,” countered Amanda triumphantly. “I’ll have my maid with me!”
My jaw dropped in time with the Dame’s. Neither of us had expected that.
“That is one of her functions, is it not?” Amanda pressed. “To provide an assurance of propriety?”
Amanda had run her grandmother up a tree. A tree she had obviously been planning since the moment she saw me and hatched the sudden desire for a personal attendant. I was pretty sure I would get the blame for it, though.
“I do not think a single maid is enough for propriety’s sake,” the Dame countered weakly, and I had to suppress a laugh. A hundred maids would not be enough.
“Then we should begin interviewing additions to the staff immediately,” Amanda said coolly. “The Argo sails next week, and I intend to be on it. I am eighteen now, and you cannot keep me from my betrothed.” She swept out of the room with such dignity that, for a moment, I thought she had become the Dame.
Glaring futilely at the departing princess, the old woman growled at me. “Perhaps not quite that much starch.”
Could it be true? Could my indiscretions have given Amanda that imperial confidence? The concept left me tongue-tied with amazement.
“No matter,” said the Dame when it was clear I had nothing to say. “Let us discuss the next phase of your employment.”
The menace in her voice was naked. So much for dignity. The old woman was about to threaten me with as much ferocity as a lioness protecting her cub.
“Since you’ve put this spine into Amanda’s back, you’ll have to see it through. Has anyone explained the facts of the matter to you?”
I could guess well enough what she was getting at. Amanda had to come back from that voyage intact.
“Yes, ma’am,” I admitted
“Not sufficiently, I warrant. So allow me to detail how they affect you personally. You still have three months left on your halfway house sentence. Should you skip out on those months, you’ll be sent to a real prison.”
“Yes ma’am,” I agreed, “but I’m serving them here. There was paperwork.”
“Paperwork,” she said carefully, “can be lost.”
I gasped, drawing my breath in shock. The Dame played for keeps.
“Your recommendation came from a police detective known to be a good and honest man. But he is of Cheroigne descent. Recommendations also can be lost.”
She leaned forward and grabbed the apron of my uniform. Such intimacy from this distant and formal old woman made my blood run cold.
“You are, like all young women, a foolish girl. You do not understand how important these things are. But they are important to me and to others, men and women you will never meet, but whose whims and attitudes can make or break your life. Bring my granddaughter back a virgin. Do not even contemplate the alternative.”
“How?” I choked, more out of a desire to buy time to think than in expectation of an answer.
“How else?” she all but snarled. “He is a man. You are a woman with nothing to lose. The rest you should be able to figure out on your own. But remember—Amanda has much to lose, and if you let her lose it, my wrath will have no ending.”
It would seem that I had just been ordered to place myself at the sexual disposal of my lady’s fiancé. I would have been outraged, except that it was the fantastic Petros, and I would not be able to keep a straight face while objecting.
But what it would do to Amanda began to worry me. Our friendship, as fast as it had grown, would never survive such a treacherous strain.
The old lady must have seen this fear on my face, for she said in a far gentler tone, “Do what is best for Amanda, in the long run. Do you care enough for her to do what must be done now, for the sake of her future?”
I nodded. Barely, but I did nod.
“Then see to it,” she finished coldly. “And I will see that you are amply rewarded. House Cheroigne does not forget its enemies, but neither does it forget its loyal servants.”
And that was what I was, of course. A servant. A few weeks ago I would have been violently angry at such oppression. But I had seen how the house ran, like a Swiss watch, every person in their appointed place. And I had seen the cost that the ladies paid for their privilege, in Amanda’s isolation and perhaps even now in the Dame’s coldness. I was not sure I wanted to switch places, frankly.
But I did not want to leave, not yet. If I could, I would see Amanda safely married to her prince. That would be the one good thing I gave away in my life, to balance all the selfish pleasures I had stolen. For now, at least, I would serve the will of House Cheroigne, and the future interest of my lady, even if she would never understand.
Jackie’s was crowded and noisy, even at six o’clock. But of course, construction workers started early and they’d already been drinking for hours now. She got plenty of looks as she worked her way to the bar, but shrugged them off with practiced disdain. She wasn’t interested in these blue-collar louts, and she could project that with just a twitch of her hair, or merely by the way she walked. Rejecting men before they could even speak to her was a defensive skill she had mastered long ago.
She bought a pint, because she didn’t want to be standing around looking unoccupied. Then she put a dent in it, drinking it a third of the way down to establish that she had been here a while, and was perfectly fine on her own. Now sufficiently entrenched, she let herself look around the room, trying to ignore the slightly dizzy feeling from the quick intake of alcohol and its heady fumes.
He was at a large table at the end of the room. Not the center of attention, but a comfortable fixture in a group of men and women, laughing and joking with them. Just watching him, at ease with his friends, made her feel his simple decency.
Then she glimpsed the belt, a dark band around his waist, and caught her breath. Under his gentle movements were hard muscles, under his soft flannel shirt and blue jeans was a strip of tough leather, bound by a steel buckle. The contrast fascinated her.
Her breasts agreed. The thin silk of her blouse utterly failed to conceal the nipples that suddenly stood out, sharp points that would not fail to draw every man’s eye. She cursed herself for having taken off her brassiere. There was only one man she wanted looking at her, and she didn’t want him looking there. She certainly didn’t want her body betraying her, revealing feelings or desires she hadn’t decided to have.
But it was too late to change her mind now. He was making his way to the bar, an empty pitcher in his hand, buying a new round for his mates. She watched his face as his gaze ran up her body, his eyebrows crinkled in admiration. When he met her eyes, he grinned.
“Hello again,” he said. She waited for him to say something catty, to force her to acknowledge that she had sought him out, but he just stood there and smiled.
“Hello,” she said, frustrated at her inability to predict or manipulate him. Why couldn’t he act like a normal man? He wasn’t even staring at her breasts, despite the way her nipples strained for attention.
But she was staring at his waist, her mind drawn to the flat, black leather, a sensation like falling into a murky well of unfathomable depth.
“Does it still look good on me?”
She fought off a blush, and cast about for a way out of the conversational hole she had fallen into. “Where did you find it? There weren’t any more on the rack. I couldn’t even find a place for it.”
He shrugged, unconcerned. “It was just the first plain one I saw. Do you want to join us for a drink?” The pitcher was full now, and he was paying the bartender. Soon he would walk away again, and she could not bear the thought.
“All right.” She followed him across the room, her eyes fixed on the belt, ignoring his broad back and tight buttocks.
His friends included her in the festivities without question, extending her the friendliness that radiated from him. She made small talk and wondered what she was doing there. To keep her distance from the group, she found herself drinking more than she had intended. Just when she realized she should start taking it easy, the party broke up.
“Early day tomorrow,” he explained to her. “For all of us.” They were pouring concrete for a road, or a building, or something. She hadn’t really paid much attention to their laborer’s talk. Mostly she had concentrated on not staring at the belt. Several times she had become bored, and thought about leaving, but then her eyes would glimpse it again, and she would remain.
“Did you track down my address, detective?” he asked her on the way out, smiling.
She cut off his flirtation instantly, reflexively. “No.” But in the brief silence that followed, she surprised herself by saying, “Is it close? I could use a cup of coffee before I try to drive.”
He grinned. “Yes, it’s quite close.” They walked across the street together, not holding hands, but still a pair instead of two individuals.
“Welcome to my humble abode.” With a laugh, he unlocked the front door of a multi-story townhouse. They climbed three flights to the top floor, and she found herself in a small apartment with a huge bay window facing out across the tavern.
The apartment was sparsely furnished, but not barren, and reasonably neat and clean, although mostly from disuse. The rumpled bed in front of the main window was the surest sign that anyone actually lived there. Drawn to its disheveled covers and comfortably disarrayed pillows, she found that the apartment towered over the tavern, and the window looked out over the sea. She stared at the nighttime ocean, the gentle stars competing with the rigging of an occasional ship, the dock lights hard and silent.
“I rented it for the view.” He came out of the kitchen with cups of instant coffee. “But I should move now, I suppose.”
She should have asked why, but that was too much like interest, too much like caring. “Why do your friends call you chief?” she asked instead. The cup was still cool in her hands, not yet warmed by the heat of the coffee.
“Habit.” He put his arm around her, looking out to sea and drinking his own coffee.
This was what she was here for, wasn’t it? Why she had tracked him down at the pub. Why she had left her underwear in her purse. Why she had come up to his apartment and immediately run to his bedroom. Then why did she feel so distant, so uninvolved?
Like she always did.
Disappointed again, she began making up an exit strategy. She started to shrug his arm off, lowering her eyes demurely from the hypnotic vision of the bay, but then her gaze fell on the belt, and she stopped in mid-action.
The buckle gleamed faintly, reflecting the lights that shimmered off the sea. It called to her with a pull she could not understand or name.
He could not fail to see. “You really like this belt, don’t you?” Putting down his coffee, he began to take it off.
The sight made her knees weak, and she had to turn away.
“I’m sorry.” He laughed, misunderstanding. “I didn’t mean to imply… I was just going to show it to you.”
She was too confused by her inner turmoil to respond. Standing there, with her back to him, it was only natural that he should playfully snap the belt across her buttocks, trying to get her attention. “Hey there,” he said, chuckling.
It was only a slap, hardly more than a tickle, but the sensation arced through her spine like an electric shock, making her entire body twitch.
La Queue de Cheval
“Hello… My name is Angie.”
“Yes?” The woman on the other end wasn’t giving anything away. Not even a name.
Angie had to plow ahead on her own. “I was given a card.”
A brief pause, just long enough for Angie to think she might have called the wrong number.
“I will give you an address. If you are serious, you will present yourself tomorrow morning at nine o’clock sharp.” The voice was elegant, with a light French accent. “Plan to be away for the day. Do not pack anything. Your needs will be provided for.”
Angie’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding?” Like she would go away with someone without even knowing her name.
“Are you wasting my time?” Underneath the cultured poise was imperiousness.
“I mean, I don’t know you. I’m not—”
She was interrupted. “You are. You know perfectly well what kind of place you have called. You are either interested or you are not. If you come, do not be late.”
Angie wrote down the address, numb with confusion. Before she could say anything else, she was disconnected.
She remembered the pony-girl at the party. Especially the earrings and shoes. Yes, she knew what kind of place she had called. A place where rich people lived.
In the morning, she took a train out into the country. Disembarking at a small village station, she discovered company. Two other women, young and very attractive. Angie felt a little stab of competition.
One was blonde and very quiet. Her body and hair were both a little too thin for Angie’s taste, and she looked nervous. The other one, with full, bouncy black tresses and an equally impressive bust, smiled and tried to make friends.
“Hi. I’m Trina. I guess we’re all here for the same reason.”
“I suppose,” Angie said coolly. The blonde bit her lip and said nothing.
“Quite a lark,” Trina babbled on. “It’s my first time. I don’t really know what to expect.”
It was pretty obviously the first time for all of them, so naturally they were all nervous. But Angie was here to embarrass the annoying Jack Greyson. That gave her a sense of purpose and control.
She smiled serenely at the other girls, and pointed at the long black limo that pulled into the station parking lot.
“I believe that’s our ride.” Angie led the other girls off the platform and towards the car.
The limo driver was huge, expensively dressed, and silent. Much like the limo. Real leather on the seats, etched glass ashtrays that were perfectly clean, and deep shag carpeting that looked as fresh as new-fallen snow.
The car glided through an imposing gate that closed itself behind them. The blonde girl was too nervous to speak, and Trina had mercifully responded to Angie’s coolness by shutting up. After they pulled to a stop, the driver leapt from his seat and marched smartly around the car to open the door for the women
The blonde showed a little life as they climbed the stairs to the huge oak front door. She stared at the magnificence of the mansion, and began to smile.
Oddly, no one opened the door for them. Angie looked in vain for a doorbell button or a buzzer.
“I guess we have to let ourselves in,” Trina said.
Instinctively, Angie glanced above the doorway, expecting to see fiery letters spelling out “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” With a harrumph at her own squeamishness, she pushed on the great brass handle. The door opened easily, making a soft, glassy tinkling to announce their presence.
Inside was a great hallway leading to a room flanked with large flowing staircases. In the middle of the room, an elegant, attractive, middle-aged woman waited for them.
“I will explain the rules to you exactly once,” the woman said. Angie recognized the voice, the tone of command softened only by the French accent.
“What rules?” Trina asked.
The woman flicked her eyelashes contemptuously. Angie was deeply impressed. It took a lifetime of practice to convey so much with so little, to so politely and yet effectively put someone in their place.
“The first rule is to not speak unless spoken to. You will refer to me as Mistress Vanya, when you have need of actually speaking.”
Vanya let that sink in, pulling an exotic cigarette from a small jeweled case and lighting it to pass the time. Angie tried not to fidget, wishing Trina would stop embarrassing them all.
“What you must know first is that this all for show.” Vanya looked each of them in the eyes piercingly. “If you are looking for complete domination, you must go elsewhere. We play at it here; we do not live it. Of course, our gentleman customers are men, yes, so you may expect the ordinary demands, which I am sure you are quite capable of fulfilling.”
“What are you suggesting?” Trina blurted out, but Vanya silenced her with a glance.
“The second thing you must know is that this is all completely voluntary. You may leave at any time. Bathshire Stables does not provide a product; it provides a service, to both our gentlemen customers and our female clients. On these grounds, rich men and pretty girls may meet each other under special circumstances, and come to whatever arrangement pleases both parties. You must follow some rules to facilitate those circumstances, but the end result is up to your discretion, taste, and ambition.”
Vanya inhaled from her cigarette, and slowly blew out a gentle stream of smoke. It smelled like cloves and perfume.
“You will find the rules…onerous at first. This cannot be helped. Again, you may leave at any time, but if you do so, you will not be allowed to return. Understand that our customers, and our staff, are bound by rules also, so your safety is assured.”
Angie felt herself starting to blush. Embarrassing Jack under these circumstances might be more difficult than she had expected. More disconcertingly, however, she found herself listening to Vanya’s presentation with interest.
“Finally, understand that we are experts. When we ask for something, it is because we know you are prepared for it. You must trust our judgment, and submit to our authority. By doing so, you will be taught to attract the attention of a suitable gentleman, who will then add you to his stable at whatever position of affection and loyalty you have earned. This, of course, is your goal, and it is Bathshire Stable’s goal as well. We have a long and proud history, and our reputation is everything to us. I can tell you that we often take in girls by referral. The life you have been seeking is now within your grasp, if you are willing to reach for it.”
Angie thought about her long quest, the noisy bars, the pathetic stockbrokers, and the lonely weeks in between. It was time to admit her plan wasn’t really working. Another few years of that and she’d be past her prime, unbearably lonely, and desperate enough to settle for some handsome, strong idiot who made a living with his hands.
Like Jack Greyson.
Against the memory of his thick hands, the vision of the pony-girl’s earrings glittered in her mind. More than that, the memory of the girl’s audacity, flaunting her beauty and sexuality, enjoying it instead of hiding it. Being valued for it. The power reversed. The act of sex becoming something that put her in control of the men even while she serviced them. Being the source of her man’s glory, instead of merely a reflection of it.
Angie wasn’t going to settle for a three-room flat and a handful of noisy brats, living off an underwriter’s salary, washing her own dishes, doing her own laundry, taking holidays at Brighton Beach instead of the Riviera. Angie wasn’t going to let herself be trapped like that.
“I’ll do it,” she said, even though Vanya hadn’t asked anything yet.