You Are Invited (Pt. 1)

Content warnings for this story (click here for guide):

For HH

The band were in full swing in the village square, piping and drumming as if this were a happy day. An angry tear rolled down the girl’s cheek. She once again glanced at the possible exits but the hulking servant watching her shook his head with a cruel grin.

If only her father had not been so weak. Thomas Barrington had always been a hopeless gambler, and her mother had died without a scrap of jewellery left. She had managed to save a modest sum and keep it from her husband’s dice and cards, passing it to young Elizabeth for safekeeping.

As she neared 19, Elizabeth began to make plans to strike out on her own. Perhaps she could make something of her father’s ailing business, before he drained it entirely. She had a head for numbers and had been checking the books for years, which was often the only way to keep a check on her father’s embezzlement.

In Elizabeth’s 21st year, the elderly local landowner died and his son Lord Charles returned from abroad to claim his inheritance. With nearly £10,000 per year, he exercised great power in the area, and anything he wanted, he acquired one way or another. Almost immediately, he saw that Barrington had something he wanted. Not that the merchant had much capital left – just enough to keep his home and dress respectably. No, Lord Charles had set his sights on Elizabeth.

He would corner her in town or ask that fabrics be brought to the house for inspection before purchase. Given the family’s need for money, Elizabeth would comply, waiting stony-faced while the lord made suggestive comments. More than once, he complimented her figure and face, or made a crass remark about village girls and their exploits in hay lofts. She loathed him, with his opulent furniture, fine silk shirts and filthy smirk, but was able to stand him just long enough to take the gold, curtsey and dash home.

One morning, she arrived with a bundle of brocade from the continent and was taken into the drawing room as usual. Lord Charles entered and took her arm, leading her to the fire. She was about to sit in one of the two chairs there when he stopped her.

“No, today I think I should like you to kneel on the rug, like a cat.”

Elizabeth flushed with indignation.

“I should not like that at all. I would rather stand.”

Lord Charles smiled slyly.

“But you would make such a sweet pet for me.”

Elizabeth flinched and attempted to hide her distaste. She must not lose this valuable client, though she was on the verge of throwing the fabric in his face.

“I insist, Lord Fleetwood. I would rather stand.”

Lord Charles drank in her discomfort, then pretended to study the brocade.

“This is exceptional material, Miss Barrington. It would serve well for a wedding coat.”

“Your Lordship is planning to marry?” asked Elizabeth, silently pitying the bride.

“Indeed,” said Lord Charles, sly as a serpent. “Within the year. Yes, I am long overdue a sweet, obedient wife. I do so enjoy having a tame girl to please and entertain me. One with firm little haunches for my amusement.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes, appalled by his tone. Get the money and leave, she repeated in her head.

“In fact,” continued Lord Charles, “we should probably measure you up for your dress before too long.”

Elizabeth span round, forgetting herself.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your wedding dress, Elizabeth. I will expect you to look your prettiest for our wedding day. Not that you shall be wearing your gown very long. I shall strip you quickly enough after the priest has finished.”

Elizabeth was incensed, and snatched the brocade from his ringed hands.

“Let there be no mistake, Sir! I would not marry you if the only alternative were Satan himself! You are a rogue and a disgrace, and I am not some apple you may pluck from the tree and devour. Please find your goods elsewhere in future!”

That was the end of it, or so Elizabeth thought. Lord Charles appeared to leave her be when their paths occasionally crossed, though she swore she saw a flicker of a smile dart across his face. He was planning something, she knew it. She made sure never to walk the alleys alone, in case one of his servants cornered her. A little fanciful, perhaps, but she could not be too careful.

Without his custom, though, the family’s income was greatly reduced, so Elizabeth could not spend as much time watching her father. Lord Charles, meanwhile, had heard about Barrington’s weakness, and recognised an easy mark.

Elizabeth worked such long hours that she fell asleep almost as soon as she came home. As she slumbered deeply, her father was able to slip out in the darkness and head up to the big house. This he did more and more frequently, though his gait on return was always much less light.

Three months after her final visit to Lord Charles, Elizabeth overheard two women in the butcher’s shop.

“It’s outrageous, that’s what it is. His father would have been ashamed.”

“Like some den of thieves, they say. And there’s girls there as well – dirty little harlots from the city, as if the gambling weren’t bad enough.”

“And it’s every night?”

“Most nights, so I gather – tens of them playing cards until dawn. Honestly, that house has been defiled. And his father was such an upstanding Christian man.”

Elizabeth felt a chill run down her spine. Now and then, she’d half-woken to the sound of her father tiptoeing through the front door. In her dazed state, she’d assumed he’d been in the outhouse, but now she began to recognise an old, unwelcome pattern.

“Excuse me,” she addressed the ladies. “Of whom are you speaking?”

“Why, Lord Charles, Miss Elizabeth! Detestable creature that is. Runs a regular den of vice at the big house these days!”

Elizabeth left her goods on the counter and fled home immediately. Her father was sat in the kitchen with his head in his hands.

“Forgive me,” he mumbled.

Elizabeth put her hand on his shoulder.

“Father, I know your habit has returned. I forgive you, but we must be strong. I will help you resist temptation.”

“Oh, but it is so much worse,” he moaned.

“Lord Charles is a wicked man, Father,” Elizabeth soothed him. “He preys upon the weak. But we will get you free of his vices.”

“You do not understand,” sobbed her father. “I have amassed a great debt to him. One I cannot pay.”

Elizabeth inhaled sharply.

“How much, Father? I…might have some savings…I had been hoping to…I have nearly £200 put aside. How much do you owe?”

“Forgive me,” her father wept. “He kept urging me to win back my stake. What a fool I am.”

“How much?” said Elizabeth sharply.

“Near enough £1,000,” said a voice from the doorway, as Lord Charles strode inside. “Isn’t that right, Barrington? And today the payment comes due.”

Elizabeth flew at him.

“You entrapped my father, knowing his weak mind! This debt is unjust and your disgusting practices should be reported to the justice!”

Lord Charles burst out laughing. Elizabeth went to her lockbox and drew out a purse of money, then thrust it at the noble.

“You will take £100 and be gone, and never approach our family again!”

Lord Charles shook his head.

“Then if you have any honour, you will forgive the debt. You are a wealthy man and to you this is a paltry sum, but to us this is a good amount. I appeal to your good name to waive this debt.”

“Elizabeth, my dear,” smirked Lord Charles. “There is no need for conflict. We have already agreed terms, and after today, your father will be free.”

Barrington moaned once again.

“What terms?” Elizabeth snapped.

“Why, your father has offered me your hand in marriage in exchange for a clean slate, and I have graciously accepted.”

“Never!” Elizabeth screamed. “Here, take £200! Take my entire savings and get out! I shall not marry you!”

“Oh, I think you will,” said Lord Charles, producing a signed contract. “Because the alternative for your father is prison, and not many survive that little sojourn. And who knows? You might lose your home and find yourself visiting my evening sessions in an entirely different capacity, just to earn a few pennies. Better to be the Lady of the Manor, surely.”

Barrington mumbled apology after apology and Elizabeth saw how hopeless her situation was. The bailiff and the JP were frequent visitors to the big house, and it was true: her father would die in prison. As reality set in, so did the cruel grin on Lord Charles’ face.

Elizabeth stood up, her luxuriant silk gown crackling with petticoats and dripping with lace and pearls. A maid adjusted her veil and added powder to her face to cover the tear tracks, then a fresh layer of rouge. Lord Charles had arranged for her to be dressed to his liking, starched and primped like a little bride doll.

The manservant escorted her out to the carriage, and misery descended as the horses trotted her to her fate. The band grew louder as they entered the village and the locals gave a muted cheer. A wealthy match indeed for a local girl, but they all knew the tales of Lord Charles’ predilections.

Unconventionally, the clergy had allowed Lord Charles to hold the ceremony in the village square. It was less a marriage and more an auction of livestock.

Humiliated, Elizabeth allowed herself to be helped down. As she stood, looking down the barrel of the aisle, with Lord Charles triumphant at the end, she heard the wedding march strike up.

She hesitated but the manservant steered her forward, and Lord Charles tapped his pocket, where the contract nestled. As she gloomily processed, she passed the JP, the mayor of the next town and various notaries, plump and gilded enforcers of this outrage.

As she drew close to her hated betrothed, something snapped in Elizabeth. Even if it was just a token act, and even if it caused her trouble, she had to show she was not a willing bride. As Lord Charles drew back her veil, she spat in his face.

The guests and priest gasped, and Lord Charles himself was stunned for a moment. He drew out a handkerchief and dabbed away the glistening scorn. Then he smiled and turned to the priest.

“Pray, continue. My sweet little bride is nervous.”

Elizabeth raged inside. The ceremony was brief, but felt interminable, and she hated her flounced skirts, blushing cheeks and corset.

At last, the priest asked if anyone had any objections. A good friend of Elizabeth’s rose with tears in her eyes, but Lord Charles raised an eyebrow and she sat back down.

The priest opened his mouth to conclude the marriage, but stopped.

“Yes…Lord Charles?”

“I have good reason, Father. An objection, but not a permanent one. Simply a need to know the truth. You see, I have heard tell of village girls and their lax moral habits, but I have also heard that outbursts – such as the little tantrum we saw earlier from my intended – can be the result of overstimulation. To be blunt, sexual overstimulation. No, I cannot marry a bride who is not a virgin, and I demand that she be checked for purity before we go any further.”

Elizabeth was utterly humiliated. How dare he suggest she needed checking for virginity? Still, did this mean a stay of execution? Perhaps she could escape while he sent for a doctor.

Before she could move, though, the man servant had pinned her arms behind her back and two others had lifted up her legs. A third drew her rustling skirts up her legs, revealing her silken drawers.

“NO!” screamed Elizabeth. “You can’t do this!”

“Perhaps she has something to hide,” mused the JP with a smile. “I could always arrest her for suspected prostitution, Lord Charles.”

The groom smiled meanly and slowly drew down Elizabeth’s drawers, exposing her to the guests. Laughter went up from the great and good as the bride struggled against her fate.

“I shall of course need you all as witnesses,” smiled Lord Charles, and slipped his fingers inside her, probing her relentlessly as she sobbed at the indignity.

Eventually Lord Charles was satisfied and withdrew his fingers, holding them up to the guests.

“She is a virgin!” he proclaimed. “I may enjoy defiling her myself, knowing she’s been a perfect little choirgirl for me. Good girl, Lizzie!”

Elizabeth was allowed down once more. A maid pulled up her drawers and arranged her skirts as though she were a little girl. She stood, mortified, as the priest pronounced them man and wife.

The manservant did not help Elizabeth into the closed wedding carriage; he lifted her like a trunk. Lord Charles thanked him and climbed in, slamming the door and ordering the driver on.

As the vehicle moved off, Lord Charles slipped a hand inside the seething bride’s bodice and squeezed her little breasts.

“Mine,” he murmured. “All mine. Such lovely little things, and they’re just the start. I do hope you’ll continue to present them for me at all times. You’re about to find out what being a good wife entails. I simply can’t wait for you to meet my friends, Lady Fleetwood.”

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