It had taken Nan about a month to get used to working at the Duke of Stone’s vast mansion. She knew she was lucky to have that job, which she’d only obtained because her mother’s cousin was a childhood friend of Mr Farrell, the Duke’s butler; but she’d spent the first few weeks in a haze of panic, terrified that she was going to blunder and get fired, and it had been hard to feel lucky. At sixteen, the only work she knew was helping her parents at the farm and with taking care of her younger siblings, and the intricacy of the rules at the big house was frightful.
She had found her rhythm, now. She was getting along with the other maids, Mrs Rogers, the housekeeper, seemed happy with her, and she only ever got glimpses of her master and his daughter, the only two occupants in a house so large that it could have accommodated everyone from Nan’s village. Lady Elizabeth, the Duke’s eighteen-year-old daughter, had something of a reputation among the servants. She was said to be quick to give her favour and even quicker to withdraw it. If she took a dislike to you, she had no qualms lying to her father to get you in trouble. In Nan’s five weeks of working at the mansion, she’d only ever seen Lady Elizabeth in passing and had witnessed none of the terrible behaviour described by the others. What she’d noticed, though, was how stunningly beautiful the young lady was, and she sometimes wondered if it wasn’t jealousy that made some of the girls badmouth their mistress behind her back.
The gossip made Nan more attentive whenever she came upon Lady Elizabeth as she went about her duties. She examined the young lady’s mobile face as she talked to her doting father, looked at the way sunlight made her blond curls gleam, at her rosy cheeks, at the elegance of her slim, long-fingered hands. Sometimes, at the turn of a corridor, she could hear the tinkling echo of Lady Elizabeth’s laughter and stopped to listen to it the way other people listened to music. She became more convinced as time went on that the other servants were wrong about Lady Elizabeth, either mistaken or deliberately slandering her for some petty, mean-spirited reason. No one could hide a black heart behind such an angelic appearance—surely God wouldn’t allow it.
There were many servants in the house and Nan was just a lowly housemaid, so she didn’t delude herself into thinking that Lady Elizabeth even knew of her existence. It was a shock, then, when as she walked the corridor one day, intending to take care of the bedchambers, the door to Lady Elizabeth’s chambers opened and a golden head poked out.
“You. Come here.”
Nan stopped dead in surprise. Lady Elizabeth should have been eating breakfast with her father at this hour. Nan was the only person in the corridor, but it seemed impossible that the young lady should be addressing her, so she glanced over her shoulder to check if another servant hadn’t come up behind her.
“Yes, I’m talking to you,” Lady Elizabeth said. “Come on, I need you to help me get dressed.”
“But—” Nan wasn’t a lady’s maid; she didn’t know how to properly help a lady get dressed, and if she made a fool of herself in front of Lady Elizabeth she would die of mortification.
“Come on,” Lady Elizabeth repeated, impatience seeping into her voice, and Nan had no choice but to hurry inside.
She’d been in the room before, but never with the young lady in it, and her eyes glossed over the décor to pay attention to her mistress. Lady Elizabeth stood in her drawers and sleeveless chemise, the loose garment only barely underlining the shape of her hips, behind and breasts. Blond hair was spread in waves over her bare shoulders, looking as smooth and shiny as silk. Nan’s mouth had dried, and she was rooted to the spot, incapable of making any move to get closer.
“Are you going to help or not?” Lady Elizabeth said. She was holding an unlaced silk corset in her hand. “Did the cat get your tongue?”
“Right away, my lady.”
Nan helped Lady Elizabeth lace her corset as though in a dream. Her eyes were fixed on her mistress’s white, round shoulder and she barely knew what her hands were doing, all of her focus on the perfect shape of that shoulder, on the flawless skin of the arms and the delicate curve of the neck. Nan’s skin was specked with freckles and her shoulders were large and bony, but Lady Elizabeth seemed to have been shaped by a master sculptor. After the corset, Nan helped her mistress with the layers of petticoat, underskirt and skirt, somehow managing to do all of it well enough that Lady Elizabeth didn’t complain. After Lady Elizabeth dismissed her she had to take a moment in the corridor to compose herself. Her hands were shaking, her heart was pounding, and her skin felt hot, as if she had come down with a fever. She could have scarcely said what made her feel so out of sort, except that maybe some of the other servants’ gossip had lingered in her mind and left her worrying that she would do something wrong and that Lady Elizabeth, in a fit of pique, would ask her father to fire Nan.
The event continued to haunt her throughout the day, bits and pieces of memories flashing in front of her eyes as she brushed the mattresses, swept the floors, cleaned the grates, trimmed the parlour lamps. She held her broom and thought that she could feel the warmth of Lady Elizabeth’s waist between her hands. It left her feeling jittery, restless, distracted, and she started to wonder whether she wasn’t actually getting sick, some sickness of the heart that made it ache and throb in her chest. That night, as she lay in her bed listening to Polly and Susan’s light snoring, the lack of other distractions gave her mind latitude to replay at length the memory of helping Lady Elizabeth get dressed. The restless feeling that had nagged her all day took hold of her once again. Despite her weariness from her day’s work she felt wide awake, her body alight and her mind agitated. She pictured Lady Elizabeth’s smooth white skin and her breathing picked up, her heart beating too hard and too fast. She’d barely touched her mistress, just the perfunctory touches needed to help her with her clothing, but in her mind’s eye she allowed herself the liberty of resting her hands on Lady Elizabeth’s hips, of sliding them upward and—
What are you doing? This is wrong, sinful. Lord, what would everyone say if they could see in your mind?
Her face was burning and her heart felt like it was about to burst out of her chest. A throbbing ache had bloomed between her legs and she pressed a hand there, squirming in her bed, rubbing her palm against her nether parts as she’d done as a young girl, albeit never with such urgency. She bit her lips so as not to gasp out loud, the heat building up inside her, the ache growing stronger in waves. She felt a spasm between her legs and pressed her face into her pillow, her chest heaving with uncontrolled breaths.
She fell asleep quickly after that, but her dreams were murky and disturbed.
She didn’t see Lady Elizabeth for the next few days, and she didn’t know whether to be glad or disappointed about it. She hadn’t dared tell anyone about Lady Elizabeth asking her to help for fear that even a factual account of what had happened would let her betray the shameful ideas that had accompanied the event. She tried to forget about it; she was certainly busy enough that she didn’t lack other things to focus on. She’d almost thought she’d succeeded until one morning, when she crossed paths with an unknown young man in the same corridor where Lady Elizabeth had called for her a week ago.
The young man was tall, broad-shouldered, and he wore a woollen vest, a soft-collared shirt and pants that made it seem unlikely that he could be a guest of the Duke. His eyes flickered at Nan and he mumbled a greeting as he hurried past her. Nan watched him disappear around the corner, dumbfounded, and was only taken out of her stupor by the sound of a door opening behind her back.
“Oh, Nan,” Lady Elizabeth said. “Can you help me get dressed?”
Like a week ago, the young lady was in her chemise and her hair was loose. In a flash of understanding, Nan’s mind connected the young man’s presence to her mistress’s state of undress, and she blushed furiously. Lady Elizabeth smiled at her, and Nan could have sworn that it was a knowing smile, and that the young lady, far from being ashamed at being caught behaving improperly, was drawing Nan into her confidence.
If Nan had been agitated the last time Lady Elizabeth had asked her for help, she was now so febrile that it was a miracle that she managed to stop herself from shaking. Seeing Lady Elizabeth wearing only her chemise had been embarrassing before, but to know what she had probably been doing a moment before made Nan feel faint from how hot her face was.
She’d done it before, so she could do it again—this was what Nan resolutely told herself. Her mistress’ private affairs weren’t her business and any stray thought Nan might have had at night after last time were her private affairs. She helped Lady Elizabeth fit her corset around her waist, but as she did so, she absent-mindedly glanced over the lady’s shoulder and got an accidental glimpse down her cleavage. She glanced away hurriedly, but Lady Elizabeth seemed to have caught her look.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Nan said, staring down at the scruffy tips of her leather shoes.
“Liar,” said Lady Elizabeth. With the tip of her forefinger under Nan’s chin, she forced her to look up. “You want to look? Well, look to your heart’s content.”
“I wasn’t looking, my lady,” Nan said, but she couldn’t divert her eyes from Lady Elizabeth’s front. The unlaced corset gaped a little and the swell of her breasts was visible underneath the chemise.
Lady Elizabeth let Nan look for a few more seconds before she said, “Since you’re looking at me, it seems only fair that I should be able to look at you too.”
“Take off your dress.”
“My lady, I can’t—”
“Oh, you can’t?” There was something triumphant about Lady Elizabeth’s tone, as if she’d hoped Nan would say that so she could shut her down. “Who are you?”
“Nan Miller,” Nan answered timidly, with the confused sense that it wasn’t the right response but knowing not what else to say.
“No, I mean what are you? What are you to me?”
“I—I’m a housemaid.”
“And I’m your mistress, aren’t I? When you say that you can’t, is it really that you cannot do what I say, or that you will not?”
“Because in the latter case, what use would my father and I have for a servant who won’t follow orders?”
The blatant blackmail left Nan dumb with shock. With numb fingers she unpinned her apron and unbuttoned her dress, stepping out of it. Lady Elizabeth signalled with a handwave that she should also take off her petticoat and corset cover. Nan dropped the garments in a heap on the floor and stood in her drawers, chemise and corset, shivering from the feeling of air on her bare arms and shoulders.
“What do we have here?” Lady Elizabeth murmured.
Nan risked a glance and saw that her mistress’ eyes were fixed on Nan’s breasts, her big, heavy breasts, which her mother had often lamented about, telling Nan that they would get her in trouble with boys. There were no boys present, but Nan had a feeling that this, whatever was happening here, was precisely what her mother had warned her about. Lady Elizabeth reached for the top of Nan’s corset and tugged at it. Nan never laced it very tightly because it made her feel constricted, so Lady Elizabeth easily managed to pull it down and Nan’s breasts spilled over the corset, suddenly free.
“So vulgar,” Lady Elizabeth said. She was still murmuring, as though talking to herself rather than to Nan. She slipped her hands under Nan’s breasts, lifting them a little as if she were weighing them up. “You really are a country girl.”
Nan could tell that Lady Elizabeth wasn’t expecting a reply, so she bit her lip and said nothing as her mistress rolled the breasts in her hands and then started to rub her palms over the nipples through the fabric of the chemise. They hardened, and the feeling sparked something in Nan, a sort of hot-cold prickle that spread from Nan’s breasts over to her whole body. Nan’s breathing sped up and then hitched. Her cheeks felt very warm.
“Ooh, you naughty girl,” Lady Elizabeth said.
She sounded teasing, as though she and Nan were bosom friends, and also a little breathless. Nan risked looking at her again. The young lady’s face was flushed, and with a horrified fascination Nan’s eyes followed the trail of red spots that blotched her lovely, pale skin down her throat and down the crease between her breasts. New warmth flooded Nan, a sudden fever, and she could hardly take a breath from the way her lungs had tightened. Lady Elizabeth stood so close to her that Nan could smell her faint honeysuckle perfume and the scent made her feel dizzy.
“Keep your eyes to yourself,” Lady Elizabeth said, grabbing Nan’s face roughly to force her to look up again.
“S-sorry,” Nans stuttered, but Lady Elizabeth didn’t seem to be listening to her.
She pulled at the collar of Nan’s chemise, hard enough that she tore the fabric. Cool air was now tickling the sensitive skin of Nan’s breasts. Lady Elizabeth grabbed one and the warmth of her hand was a shock. Even more shocking was Lady Elizabeth dropping to her knees and wrapping her lips around Nan’s nipple like a suckling baby. Nan gasped, almost a squeal. The warmth and wetness of Lady Elizabeth’s mouth, the pressure of her sucking, were too much stimulation for Nan’s feverish body. The strange, tingling heat that she’d felt between her legs last week had come back and her knees were shaking.
Lady Elizabeth let the nipple slip from her lips and said, “You like that, do you?”
Did she? She felt awful, but the awfulness was of a sort she’d never experienced before, overwhelming, scorching her from head to toe, and it had an edge that could have almost been called pleasure. Nan wanted to step away and cover herself, but she didn’t, and not just because she feared that Lady Elizabeth would get her fired. Something was eating away at her guts, a need that she didn’t understand and didn’t think she could relieve herself.
“Innocent looking little thing,” Lady Elizabeth went on. “But not so innocent—no one can have breasts like yours and truly be innocent.”
As she talked, Lady Elizabeth’s other hand, the one that wasn’t holding Nan’s breast, went under the hem of her chemise and crept up her leg. The tingling heat between Nan’s legs became stronger as she felt the hand bypass her knee and slide up her thigh on the inside, until it was touching the hair that covered Nan’s nether regions. Nan started trembling. She felt like she was about to fall over the edge and into a very deep abyss.
“My lady, don’t, don’t—”
“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you don’t want it. I can feel you dripping.”
She ignored Nan’s protests and one of her fingers spread the hair to touch the sensitive fleshy part. And she didn’t stop there—she went further, inside Nan, deeper than Nan had ever dared do to herself. Nan startled at the intrusion, letting out something that she’d meant as a cry but that morphed into a moan. Lady Elizabeth had started sucking on her breast again, and the double feelings of her finger inside Nan and her tongue circling Nan’s nipple threatened to tear Nan’s mind in two. Nan hid her burning face in her hands, trying to fight the fire had had flared inside of her and was burning so hot, growing so fast, that she feared it would engulf her whole.
Oh, Lord, save me. Please, please, oh please.
Lady Elizabeth’s finger moved inside her, exploring, and Nan’s legs buckled at a spark of something that was too sharp to be pleasure, but too warm to be pain. She shoved the side of her hand in her mouth to keep herself from moaning out loud again. Something wet and warm trickled down her thigh. A new wave of heat overwhelmed her, her insides squeezing Lady Elizabeth’s finger, and her vision blurred for a moment. When it cleared again, Lady Elizabeth had moved away and she was standing up. She licked her very red lips and the sight made Nan shudder. She’d once thought that Lady Elizabeth looked like an angel, but she now knew how mistaken she’d been. This wasn’t an angel; this was the Devil made flesh. He’d come to tempt Nan and she hadn’t been strong enough to resist it.
“Oh, don’t look so miserable,” Lady Elizabeth said.
Her cheeks were still red and she looked mirthful, like a child who’d got away with mischief. She pinched Nan’s chin between her thumb and forefinger, then leaned in and pressed her wet, warm lips against Nan’s lips. Nan stifled a whimper. She closed her eyes and felt tears spill out at the corners. When Lady Elizabeth let her go, she stumbled backward. Her legs felt wobbly and she was now shivering uncontrollably.
“I don’t need your help anymore,” Lady Elizabeth said casually. “I think I’ll have a nap, now. Pick up your clothes and get out. I may call on you another day.”
As she kneeled on the floor and gathered her clothes in her arms, Nan could feel Lady Elizabeth’s eyes burn the nape of her neck. I may call on you another day. She should quit her position before that day came. She may be able to find another job—not as good as this one, but safer. She should run away and escape to a place where Lady Elizabeth would never find her. If she went through this again, she would probably fall apart entirely and never be able to piece herself back together.
If she went through this again. Her heart beating hard at the thought of what would happen next time, Nan got up to her feet and left Lady Elizabeth’s chamber.