Chapter One
2.3k 21 56
X
Reading Options
Font Size
A- 15px A+
Width
Reset
X
Table of Contents
Loading... please wait.
This work is deliberately a slow-burn romance. While I’m intending to have a variety of sex scenes throughout, I’m going to focus on building the relationship slowly and thoughtfully, with what I hope will be a satisfying resolution. In the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, I want this work to adequately involve the mystery and investigation aspects of a real detective novel. So, along with some good and naughty fun, I’ll be working to ensure that the plot is engaging and developed with a satisfying amount of worldbuilding and complexity.

This takes place in an alternate world, in what we might consider equivalent to late 19th Century England. Some aspects will be familiar, some will be original and unique to this world.

Part One

 

Chapter One

Annette stares at the townhouse, feeling a mixture of excitement and intrigue. It’s a fairly unremarkable three-story red brick home, shackled up in the middle of a long row of townhouses indistinguishable from it. Curved iron bars adorn the windows, more to prevent occupants from falling out than to keep intruders away, and its dark brown door sports a silver chester knocker. 

She holds her skirt down as the long cotton flutters in the calm morning breeze. Annette shuffles in place, still getting used to the weight and warmth of her petticoat and the ways that her corset stifles her breath. She’d been gifted the modest dress for the occasion, hardly able to afford it herself. It isn’t even particularly nice, just plain brown fabric with a little bit of ruffles and a weak shawl to drape over the shoulderless neckline. 

It’s time, she decides, shaking her head softly and wondering how many passersby on the street had given her strange looks for standing out in front of this house for so long. Her short heels click softly on the cobblestone as she walks forward, rising up the few steps to the doorway and resting her hand on the door-knocker. Timidly, she raps it against the wood a few times, takes a step back, and fidgets softly with her hands. 

After a few moments Annette can hear the sounds of boots stomping down the stairs and the rattle of a lock clicking open. The heavy door swings wide, revealing the semi-famous form of Cordelia Jones. 

Cordelia Jones wears a white collared shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, exposing toned but not necessarily muscular arms. It folds neatly into her deep gray slacks, held up by suspenders and tucked into her fine black leather boots. She’s tall and commanding, with a large presence and a firm body. Her black hair curls slightly and with volume, falling just above her shoulders. In her green eyes, Annette sees a piercing and perceptive gaze, able to size up whatever she’s looking at with nonchalance and intensity. Her lips are dark red, almost giving the impression she’s recently drunk blood, contrasting with her surprisingly pale skin. Cordelia’s jaw is wide set and proud, and she has high, sharp cheekbones. She’s younger than Annette expected, no older than thirty-three. 

“Who’re you?” Cordelia demands, her voice low and firm though not aggressive. She’s commanding and direct, but there’s an indifference in it that prevents hostility. 

“Annette Baker, Miss,” she curtsies politely, bowing her head as she does. “I believe Mr. Wemberly sent my papers along last week?” 

“Of course,” Cordelia nods, stepping out of the doorway and onto the steps and looking her up and down. She rests her hands behind her back, puffing out her chest and scowling without moving a muscle on her face. “I thought you’d look smarter.” 

“Look smarter?” Annette repeats back, tilting her head in confusion. “What does smarter look like?” 

Cordelia ignores her. “Can you read?”

“Yes, Miss.” 

“Can you write?”

“Yes, Miss.” 

“What’s eighty-seven minus fifty-one?” 

Annette pauses briefly to think and replies, “Thirty-six?” 

“Say it with more confidence than that.” 

“Thirty-six,” Annette repeats. 

“Again, more assured.” 

“Thirty-six.” 

“Can you cook, clean, do dishes?” 

“Yes to all, Miss.” 

Cordelia pauses, looking Annette over once again. She hardly seems to gaze at her as though she’s a person, instead reading her like a plaque on a statue or monument. Annette remains quiet, shifting uncomfortably under her scrutiny and wondering how on earth she was supposed to breathe if she’s wearing a corset full-time. It isn’t even particularly tight, it was just there with every breath, relentless. 

“Very well,” Cordelia concludes at last. “I’ll be sure to write Mr. Wemberly back and thank him. You can come inside, Miss Baker.” She returns through the doorway, striding into the home with purpose. Annette follows behind, careful that each step is soft and quiet. “You can give yourself a tour of the home on your own time, later. Kitchen is through there, wash basin is out back, your room is on the second floor, my study is on the third. Do not enter my study without permission, understood?” 

“Yes, Miss Jones.” 

“Are you going to refuse to call me Cordelia? The last one insisted it was too informal and got flustered every time,” she turns back, stopping by the fireplace and crossing her arms. 

“Whatever you prefer,” Annette replies. 

“Call me Miss Jones then,” Cordelia shrugs. “I take supper at six with tea. I only drink it hot with three sugars and no milk. I won’t touch it if it’s lukewarm or even just warm.” 

“Yes, Miss Jones.” 

“Where are your things? Don’t tell me you forgot to bring your things.” 

“I didn’t,” Annette says softly. “I… I just don’t have any.” 

“Christ,” Cordelia mutters under her breath. “We’ll take care of that then. How long is your contract?” 

Annette pauses, feeling her chest tighten and her mouth dry. “S-six years, Miss.” 

“Christ,” Cordelia repeats, shaking her head slowly and leaning up against the mantle of the stone fireplace against the far wall. “Wemberly didn’t tell me that.” 

“He asked me not to say anything.” 

“I can see why,” she snorts. “Not your fault, Miss Baker. No wonder your contract was so cheap. How’d you end up like that?” 

“I…” Annette scrambles to explain, but is saved by Coredlia interrupting her. 

“Don’t answer that,” she holds up a hand. “Mostly rhetorical, I think.” She takes a deep breath, rising from her place against the wall and standing in front of Annette once more. “General expectations: you keep the space clean and the house running. You don’t interrupt my work or interfere with any guests that arrive. You answer my questions directly and honestly. I’ll provide for whatever you need, but be reasonable. You’re welcome to have your own personal life, just don’t bring any drama back home. If I find out you’re useless I’ll sell your contract back to Wemberly.” 

“Understood, Miss Jones.” Annette smiles politely. Despite the circumstances, it could be far worse. From what she’d been told to expect from Mr. Wemberly, Cordelia’s rules are significantly more lenient than most owners could be. 

“Do you have any questions for me?” Cordelia asks, then quickly adds, “If you mention the Danverfold Six you’re out.” 

Annette grins, which seems to surprise Cordelia. She’d heard the tabloids about the Danverfold murder trials and all the rumors cirulating about Miss Jones’ involvement, but she’d chocked them up to be nothing more than hearsay. 

“Do you expect me to wear a uniform, Miss Jones?” 

“Not at home,” Cordelia replies. “If we’re in public, wear whatever you want so long as the collar is visible.” 

Annette touches a hand to the thin leather collar around her neck. At first it had been a nuisance, constantly tugging against her skin and choking her if she moved the wrong way. But, after a few weeks of wearing it, it’s easy for Annette to ignore most days. 

“So… wear what I want wherever?” Annette muses. “I can’t remove it.” 

“I suppose so then, yes.” 

“Do you expect me to wake you in the mornings?” 

“I already told you to do that,” Cordelia’s face finds a full scowl this time, furrowing her sharp brows and frowning. 

“You did not, Miss,” Annette ventures timidly. 

“Very good, Annette,” the scowl disappears, and Cordelia seems surprisingly proud. “If you’d be so kind as to wake me I would appreciate it.” 

“Of course, Miss Jones.” Annette inclines her head. “Am I to run errands for you? If so, I'll need a chainbook.” 

“Chainbook?” 

“Servant’s checkbook.” 

“I’ve never heard them called that,” Cordelia lets out a puff of air, intrigued. “I think the previous collar left one in your room for you.” 

“Perfect,” Annette confirms, hiding the slightly sour expression she feels at the term ‘collar,’ to refer to the previous servant. She’d known plenty of people who sold themselves into service complaining about owners using the term - it was one of those shorthands only used in derision. 

“Next order of business,” Cordelia announces, scooping up a metal object from the crowded dining table and thrusting it forward towards Annette. Up closer, it looks like a large iron nail, perhaps a half-inch thick and five inches long. “What do you make of this, Miss Baker?” 

“What do I make of it?” Annette tilts her head, confused. 

“Keep up. What do you think this is?” 

“A railroad spike, Miss.” 

“Indeed?” Cordelia takes Annette’s hand, setting the nail into her palm and folding her fingers over the coarse iron. “Still think so?” 

It’s lighter than Annette expects, but still obviously a railroad spike. “Yes, Miss. I’d wager it’s just a railroad spike.” 

“Excellent, Miss Baker,” Cordelia nods, satisfied. 

“Am I to expect basic recognition tests often?” 

“Basic?” Cordelia furrows her brow and purses her lips. “I suppose so. I’ll be in my study, Miss Baker. Feel free to acquaint yourself with the space.” 

Cordelia turns quickly on her heel, striding out of the dining room and towards the spiral staircase, which is strangely industrial for the common home. A quick flutter of wings bursts behind Annette, causing her to yelp with surprise as the bird flies past her and rests onto the railing of the stairs. 

Annette turns about to face the direction it flew from, noticing an open window and quickly moving to close it. “I’ll have to be sure to keep this closed, Miss Jones.” 

“Nonsense,” Cordelia scoffs. “This is just Harold.” She extends a finger to the bird, a common pigeon, lightly scratching the side of his face. Harold coos softly, pecking harmlessly between her fingers and ruffling his feathers affectionately. 

“Harold…?” 

“You’re not responsible for him, Miss Baker,” Cordelia replies, scooping the bird up to place it on her shoulder. “He’s quite capable of taking care of himself.” 

“Very well, Miss Jones,” Annette says quietly, trying to withhold her judgement. 

“He comes and goes as he pleases.” She explains, staring at Annette with a bemused expression. “Just be sure to fill a small plate with seeds on the back porch now and again.” 

“So I am responsible for him?” 

Cordelia pauses. “Just the seeds, Miss Baker.” 

“As you wish,” Annette mutters. 

“I’ll be in my study,” Cordelia begins ascending the stairs, Harold in tow. “I’m expecting company around noon, please be sure to show her upstairs when she arrives. Poor thing will likely be distraught.” 

“Is there anything else, Miss Jones?” 

“That’ll do,” she calls back, disappearing into the floor above. 

Annette releases the breath she didn’t realize she was holding so tightly. She shakes her arms to try and alleviate the nervous jitters that still cling to her bones, scoffing to herself at the eccentricity of her new owner. It could be far worse, she concludes. Eccentric was far better than demanding. 

She explores the home, shuffling back into the main hallway and trying to get a sense for how much work it’ll be to keep it together. From the front doorway, the dining room is to the left, small but comfortable, with a spacious framed window that draws the cloudy morning light into the room. Down the hallway, connected to the dining room, there’s a modest and well-equipped kitchen that opens into a clustered conversation room. A bathroom is tucked away in the corner, and the staircase descends down on the side of the single hallway. 

While Cordelia might be relatively lenient with her rules, the task doesn’t seem to be equally forgiving. The home is an absolute mess, each surface crowded with an unkindly amount of books, parchments, tools, candles, stray potted plants, dishes, and even some clothes. She isn’t sure how long it’s been since the previous servant departed, but Cordelia’s house feels as though it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks. The kitchen is even worse, with mounds of dirty dishes and food scraps; a few fruit flies swarm the sink, likely thriving off of the mess. 

Sighing to herself, Annette puffs out her chest and pushes the sleeves of her dress up. She locates the cleanest apron she can find, stained with mysterious spots she decides not to question, and throws it over her dress. 

*****

It takes hours for the ground floor to finally meet a reasonable standard for Annette. Her hands are damp and pruny from the task of washing so many dishes and there’s a mild burning feeling in her arms from lifting so many heavy stacks of books to the shelves. It was an impossible effort to figure out where all of the knick-knacks and stray objects were supposed to go, so rather than organize them by any reasonable system she attempts to piece together the connections between them, keeping objects grouped as best she can. It leaves the shelves rather disorganized to any sane viewer, but as least the tables and counters and floors are usable once again. 

Cordelia’s guest arrived just before noon; a stout and grim looking woman with a pale black gown. A veil drops down from the wide brimmed hat she wears, and combined with the glimpse of puffy red eyes Annette sees underneath it, she wonders if Cordelia is investigating another murder. She leads the woman upstairs to the door of Cordelia’s study, knocking quietly before returning to the insurmountable task of cleaning once more. 

Cordelia Jones’ reputation wasn’t nearly as famous as some of the other private investigators in Bellchester, but it certainly was the most colorful. Supposedly, she was willing to take up cases the others refused, often for lack of evidence or clues or motives or money. It wasn’t as though Cordelia even solved all of these helpless cases, she often didn’t. But at least she was willing to try. 

Satisfied that the house was at least functional again, Annette grabs some bread that’s just gone stale and cheese and locates her room on the second floor. She plops down onto the small mattress, pleasantly surprised it isn’t another run-down cot like she’s grown used to. The room is small, with pale brown walls and a single window that overlooks the street below. It’s empty, clearly vacated relatively recently, featuring only the bed, a small dresser, and a couple of tiny shelves. A small, unopened envelope rests on top of the dresser, which Annette leaves for later.

Taking a bite out of the bread and savoring the pungent cheese spread onto it, Annette lets out a contented sigh. She’d made it out of the collarhouse, off of the street, and into her own room for the first time in nearly a year. So long as she could do her duties and stay out of Cordelia’s way, she’d live in far more comfort than she had expected when she sold herself into servitude. Anything was better than another cold night huddled up in a tiny makeshift shack. 

She opens the window and lays back onto the bed, enjoying the breeze into her room and the quiet sounds of the street traffic below. The clicking of horseshoes on cobblestone and the rattle of carriage wheels is far quieter on this side of downtown, and Annette is amazed at the difference being a few streets over could be. Just a block or two away the noise was unbearably loud, constantly bustling and buzzing all around. Mill Street is so much more peaceful, but still close enough to easily access anything exciting. She finishes up her snack, laying back into bed and letting herself drift into a light nap. 

Annette jolts awake at the sound of Cordelia loudly calling her name, rubbing her eyes and trying to figure out how much time has passed. A quick glance outside reveals that the light hasn’t changed much - likely no more than a half hour. She quickly leaps up, striding down the stairs towards Cordelia’s voice. 

“Annette,” Cordelia frowns as she appears, crossing her arms tightly and glaring at the room around her. “What did you do?” 

“I tidied up, Miss Jones,” she replies innocently. 

“It’s horrible. Put it back.”

“You… you want me to make a mess again?”

“A mess? It wasn’t a mess!” 

“If you say so, Miss,” Annette pushes away her scowl. She takes a long, deep breath, trying to keep herself calm. 

It’s fine, she tells herself. If she prefers to live in a pig’s sty, it’s less work for me.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Cordelia growls. 

“Apologies, Miss Jones.” 

She sighs, her green eyes flicking up and down Annette. “I want you to tell me before you mess things up like this next time.” 

“So you do want me to do this again?” 

“Of course not,” she huffs. “But when you inevitably do, I want forewarning.” 

“I… I shall do my best to provide it, Miss Jones.” 

“Where are all my things?” 

Annette looks around the room, glancing at all of the shelves she had put so much effort into filling. “I put them away. I can show you, if you would like.” 

“You’re just like the last collar,” Cordelia declares, voice dripping with annoyance. “She always insisted I wasn’t doing enough to ‘keep the space functional.’” 

“Is that why she left?” Annette asks quietly. She hopes Cordelia isn’t so quick-tempered that a single mistake is enough to oust her. The perks of the space are plenty enough to accommodate her strangeness and Annette is eager not to lose them so quickly. 

“Her contract ended,” Cordelia replies absently, scowling at the room around her. “It was a short one, only six months.” 

“And the servant before her?” 

“There wasn’t one.” 

“I’m only the second?” 

“And you’re here for six years, apparently,” she asserts, quickly adding, “Unless you prove yourself incompetent. This is a good step towards that, by the way.” 

“Understood, Miss Jones.” 

“How am I even supposed to find anything now, Annette?” She paces, glaring at the different stacks and rustling through Annette’s carefully organized piles. 

“I tried to keep everything together,” she answers, stepping closer and pointing at various groups, “Each case should be mostly intact.” 

“They were intact on the tables,” Cordelia grumbles. She picks up a book, flicking through a few pages before tossing it back onto the couch behind her. “How did you know they were cases?” She stands up quickly, eyes piercing into Annette. 

“I just guessed, Miss Jones,” Annette answers, carefully and politely holding her hands behind her back. “There’s so many unusual things… I just assumed they were related to your detective work.” 

“Some of them are,” Cordelia returns to rummaging through the shelves, ensuring everything is in order. “Some of them are.” 

“I will refrain from touching them again,” Annette inclines her head. 

“It’s fine,” Cordelia waves her concern away. “There’s only a few bits lost in the shuffle. Most of these are dead cases anyway.” She picks up a jar that seems to be filled with pickled olives, sniffing it and setting it back down. 

“Your pantry could use restocking,” Annette says cautiously, hoping a topic change will help. “I would be happy to replenish it for you. Do you have a budget?” 

“Just buy whatever Penny bought.” 

“Penny?” 

“The previous collar.” 

Annette stifles a sigh. “I’m not sure what Penny bought. Most of it is used up at this point and she didn’t leave a list.” 

“Then you can create your own. Buy whatever you like.” 

It feels as though Annette’s heart stops in her chest. She stammers, trying to get her words out clearly, “W-whatever I like? Truly anything?” 

“Be reasonable, Miss Baker,” Cordelia scoffs, hardly looking away from the shelves. She occasionally moves bits and pieces around, rearranging books or papers and reorganizing them. 

Annette takes a moment to steady herself. She’d known Cordelia must’ve had some money to be able to afford owning a servant, but the modest house made her expect it to be only a respectable sum. The idea that the costs of stocking a pantry didn’t even register to her… that Annette might have full control of where and what her next meal might be… 

“What’s wrong?” Cordelia mutters. “I can hear you thinking.” 

“Nothing, Miss Jones,” Annette forces her dry mouth to swallow. “I-I’ll prepare a list for your approval.” 

“Do you always require this much oversight, Miss Baker?” 

“No, Miss,” she shakes her head quickly. “I’m just trying to get settled in.” 

“Good,” the detective exhales. 

Annette returns to the kitchen, sifting through the pantry and trying to get a sense for what they’d need. She wasn’t an excellent cook by any means; but between the basic training at the collarhouse and the ingenuity that street-life had forced her to learn, she figures it couldn’t be too difficult to keep things up for Cordelia. With free reign, she could even visit the stalls that sold the expensive game. She’d never had the guts to try and steal from them. Annette had watched too many fail and get forcibly dragged towards prison or a collarhouse. 

It was better to willingly sell yourself into servitude than to be forced in, and not just for the psychological peace. Voluntary negotiation meant that a contract had some value and would cost more for a prospective owner to purchase. The more skills and experience and desirable qualities a servant had, the more their contract could be sold for and the more likely it would be snapped up by wealthier owners. Those forced into service lost most of their value, more likely to be doomed to a position of hard labor. After nearly half a year on the streets, never quite managing to find a foothold back into society, Annette had decided that service would be better than starvation. 

“I would like shepherd's pie tonight, Miss Baker,” Cordelia says suddenly, finally relenting from the task of re-organizing Annette’s cleaning. 

“Of course, Miss Jones,” Annette replies. That was easy enough, she’d expected Cordelia to have more expensive tastes. “I’ll need to visit the market shortly then.” 

“I’ll go with you,” Cordelia rolls her shoulders, striding over to a coat rack and grabbing a long trench coat that matches her slacks. A silver pocket watch chain dangles from the pocket. 

“It’s no trouble at all, Miss.” 

“I know,” she replies, “I just need to get out. Can’t seem to keep my body still up in my study. Come along.” She strides out towards the doorway and Annette shuffles quickly to follow, griping internally that she hadn’t yet finished assembling a list. She’ll have to remember things on the fly. 

Down the right side of Mill Street where it meets the aptly named Market Street, they arrive at a pleasant and bustling market, filled with streetcarts and stalls and vendors. It sits just on the edge of the Fennes river, where the cobblestone street eventually forms into a wall that falls down to the bank of the river ten feet below. Annette follows Cordelia delightedly though the stalls, eagerly grabbing anything and everything she could; she’s constantly picking up and smelling the various fruits and vegetables and herbs, ecstatic to actually bring some of them home. She turns a mango around in her hand, over and over again. She’d never actually held one before. 

“You… you seem rather excited by shopping,” Cordelia observes, standing a few feet behind Annette as she rummages through squash. She isn’t even sure what makes a particular gourd better than any other, but everyone else seems to be inspecting them before buying. 

“I am, Miss,” Annette calls back pleasantly. 

“This your new girl?” The man behind the cart grunts to Cordelia. 

“Just arrived this morning, Mr. Tumm,” Cordelia nods. 

“Welcome to town, Miss…” 

“Baker,” Annette chirps happily, seizing a few zucchini and shoving them into a bag. “Annette Baker.” 

“Phil Tumm,” he replies, resting a large hand on his chest and inclining his head. “I’m here nearly everyday, so I’ll see you around.” 

“Not that one,” Cordelia mutters, crossing her arms and looking away absently as Annette’s fingers wrap around an apple. She sets it down and picks up the one next to it. 

“There’s a better pick,” Phil agrees, nodding happily. “Fresh off the trees this morning.” 

“Do you have a nice farm?” Annette asks politely, rustling in her bag to pull out the checkbook for him. 

“It’s not much,” he shrugs. “Keeps me fed.” 

She scribbles a quick check, hoping she’d added up the cost correctly, though she isn’t sure Cordelia would even notice if she went too high. The investigator’s head remains on a slow swivel, scanning the crowds mulling around them. 

“Take good care of her,” Phil leans in, speaking so only Annette can hear and gesturing to Cordelia behind her. “Lord knows she could use the extra hands.” 

“You should see the kitchen…” Annette mutters and he grins warmly. 

After a few more booths and pleasant interactions with farmers and merchants, Annette feels high from the novelty of the experience. She had spent so long only interacting with firm scowls and watchful eyes, it’s invigorating to be treated so much more kindly; the collar around her neck serving as a message she was more trustworthy than a desperate, starving mouth with greedy eyes. She can hardly erase the beaming smile on her face and the lightness in her step, reveling in the sweetness of polite conversation. 

She wraps the handles of her bags over her shoulders, balancing the heavy weight carefully and trying not to drop anything in front of Cordelia. Along with some basic ingredients, she’s acquired some cured meats and cheese and nice butter and everything else her jittery heart could justify. She also picks out a few plain dresses and spare clothes, eager to have something less restrictive than her thick petticoat and corset. 

“What are you looking for?” Annette asks Cordelia, noticing her head still turning back and forth to take in their surroundings. 

“I’m not looking, I’m watching.” 

“What are you watching for?” She asks innocently. 

“Feel no need to continue asking questions, Miss Baker,” Cordelia replies cooly. “Conversation is not a requirement of your employment.” 

“Very well, Miss.” She readjusts the bags on her shoulders. “Shall I return home and put these away?” 

“Yes, Miss Baker,” Cordelia’s distracted and absent voice answers. She stands at the edge of the market, staring in towards the central plaza with her arms crossed, eyes flicking back and forth. “But do come back once you do.” 

Annette nods, slightly confused, but obeys. She trots home at a steady pace, feeling a burning tension in her shoulders from the weight of her purchases. It’d be less precarious at a slower pace but Annette underestimated how much she bought and doubts she could hold it that long. She stumbles inside the house, setting the bags down and striding back to rejoin Cordelia. 

When she returns, she’s mildly surprised to see Cordelia isn’t alone anymore. One of the Sisters from St. Bartholomew’s cathedral stands beside her, adorned in the modest robes of its convent. Cordelia listens intently, nodding occasionally as the Sister continues with her story. Annette takes a breath, forcing herself to remain calm and neutral as she approaches, but her endeavors quickly fail once she’s close enough to recognize the particular sister. 

“-found out after the last service,” the sister is saying as Annette arrives and hovers just behind Cordelia. 

“I’m sorry to hear it, Sister Pullwater,” Cordelia replies, hands folded behind her back calmly. “Is there any word regarding Father Thomas’ health?” 

“It’s to the Lord now,” Pullwater looks to the sky briefly, and when she looks back down her gaze locks onto Annette. “You have new help.” 

“First day,” Cordelia nods, gesturing to Annette behind her. “Sister Pullwater, this is Annette Baker.” 

“Oh, I’m quite familiar with Miss Baker…” Sister Pullwater’s crony eyes flash with recognition and scorn, causing Annette to shrink back into her skin slightly. She’d hoped that after the collarhouse she’d finally be free of the Sister’s ire. 

“Indeed?” 

“Sister Pullwater, so good to see you again,” Annette curtsies politely, though Pullwater’s judgmental glare seems displeased. 

“Maybe now you’ll finally learn obedience, Miss Baker,” Pullwater grumbles. 

“Troublemaker?” Cordelia’s eyebrow raises, looking back at Annette with a softly proud expression. “How do you know the Sister?” 

“I… I grew up in St. Bartholomew’s orphanage,” Annette says in a quiet voice. She tries to put on a braver face and continues, “Sister Pullwater has been watching over me since I was six.” 

“Not much good it did,” Pullwater mutters. She continues to stare down Annette as though punishment could be doled out by expression alone, though growing up she wasn’t exactly sparing the rod. “Keep watch over this one.” 

“I shall indeed, Sister Pullwater,” Cordelia confirms, cordial and confident. “Good day,” she bows her head as the nun takes her leave. 

Cordelia turns to look at Annette, hands still tucked behind her back and eyes flicking over her once again. Her energy seems to dramatically change once the nun leaves, dropping its warm, polite tone and returning to her usual sardonic glow. 

“You were raised by the nuns?” She asks after a brief moment. 

“Yes, Miss Jones.”

“Christ, I don’t envy you, Pullwater is a bitch, even by St. Bartholomew’s standards.” 

Annette lets out a surprised chirp of laughter, quickly covering her mouth with her hand. “I… I wouldn’t know what you mean, Miss Jones.” 

“Very well, Miss Baker,” she snorts. “Cancel my dinner orders, by the way. I’m going to be out tonight.” 

“Oh?” Annette tilts her head. “Very well, Miss Jones. Should I prepare anything for you before you go? Or for when you return?” 

“Nothing at all,” she nods sharply, her head flicking back towards the market behind them. “I’ll likely be gone all night.” 

“Should I stay up and wait fo-,” 

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Cordelia interrupts, vacantly looking away. “The rest of the evening is yours, Miss Baker.” 

Annette bows politely. “As you wish.” 

Uttering a quick, “Good-day,” Cordelia strolls away, disappearing off into the crowd and leaving Annette to wonder what she was going to do first with her newfound freedom. 

 

*****

 

Annette had made a promise to herself that she would stay away from the Fleeting Faery for a while once she’d sold herself. Any reasonable owner who caught her here would use it as easy grounds for termination of the contract or punishment. But Cordelia wasn’t really typical, and with an entire afternoon and evening off to herself… the temptation was too great. Samantha’s hand stroking her thigh made the decision even easier. 

“Let me see it closer,” Samantha pleads, smiling and leaning forward against the pub counter. It isn’t particularly crowded this evening, just a handful of regulars and a few strays. 

“I shouldn’t,” Annette shifts on her stool, mug of beer cool against her palms. 

“Come now, Annie,” the woman whines, though it's more from denied curiosity than anything else. “You wouldn’t disappoint a Lady like that, would you?” 

Samantha’s fingers on her leg squeeze a little tighter through Annette’s casual dress. She’s relieved to no longer be wearing the corset, and with the thinner fabric the warmth of the woman’s hand is hard to resist. 

“Fine,” Annette sighs, leaning closer and lifting her chin to expose her neck. “There’s metal under it,” surprise twinkles in Samantha’s dark brown eyes, her fingers lifting from Annette’s thigh to carefully grip the collar around her neck. “I thought it was just leather.” 

“If it was just leather, it’d be too easy to cut off,” Annette replies quietly. “The leather is just there so it’s slightly more comfortable.”

“You poor thing,” Samantha leans closer. 

Annette has known Samantha from a distance for a few years. They were both semi-regulars in the pub, one of the best and worst kept secrets of Bellechester. A bartender in the Fleeting Faery might give them a side-eye warning if they’re getting a little too close for deniability, but outside of a brothel it was hard to find a safe place to flirt with other women. She’d always admired Samantha, a Lady of the lowest rung of nobility, for her confidence and swagger. 

“It’s better than the street,” Annette shrugs. 

“Hardly,” another voice coughs from nearby. Annette turns to lock eyes with Mel, an older woman with a matching collar. 

“How’s Mr. Beckett treating you, Mel?” Samantha asks, lowering her hand back to rubbing Annette’s thigh. 

Mel throws back a drink, rolling her eyes and letting silence answer the question. She shifts to face away from the two of them, returning to watching a few others play darts with a grim solace. 

“Mr. Beckett is vile, Annie,” Samantha explains, speaking quieter. “You’d think a police captain would be better suited to enforcing decent conduct in his own home.” 

“Would you?” 

“I should think so, yes.” 

Annette recalls the many times one of Beckett’s men would kick a boot through her shelter and silently disagrees. She’d never be able to forget the chill tension in her bones when she saw a cop on patrol downtown. 

“So who bought your contract?” 

“I… I shouldn’t say,” Annette replies. Cordelia’s reputation was a mixed bag, and Annette decides it is better not to leave clues for the detective to find her. 

“Are they at least treating you well?” 

“Well enough,” Annette takes a drink, frowning a little bit at the bitter taste of the beer. The buzz was worth pushing through the feeling. “It’s ironically more freedom than I’ve had in a while.” 

“That’s what I always tell people,” Samantha nods, “The collarhouses are good policy. It keeps people from the streets and gives them honest labor.” 

“Sure,” Annette hides behind another sip. Samantha’s cute enough to make Annette decide her wealth wasn’t a dealbreaker. 

“Do you think your owner will see the contract through?” 

“It’s six years,” Annette sighs. “There’s no telling.” 

“Some owners prefer longer ones. Chin up.” 

“If you say so.” 

“I do say so,” Samantha tilts forward, bringing her face closer to Annette’s. “You should be grateful, Annie. If you have enough freedom to still come around this place, perhaps I’ll still make it worth your while.” Her fingers slide further up Annette’s leg, making her face flush with warmth. 

“Like last time when you stood me up?” 

“Annie,” Samantha pouts, “You aren’t still morose over that affair, are you? It’s been a year. I already told you that Revier had called me to a surprise engagement.”

“I know, I know.” 

“Trust me, I’d much rather spend my time with you, dear.” 

“‘Dear?’”

“Don’t be daft,” her mouth cracks open with a sly smile. “You know you like it when I call you dear to me.” She sets down her drink, taking one of Annette’s hands with her own and rubbing her thumb across the soft skin. 

Annette can hardly deny the helpless flutter in her chest. “But if I were to call you ‘dear’...” 

“I shall never know what you mean.” 

Annette leans closer, scooting forward on her stool and bringing her face close enough to feel Samantha’s breath lightly brush against her face. It’s been too long since Annette has been truly touched; none of the other girls in the collarhouse were open to exploration and she wasn’t willing to really risk it there anyway. And not a single soul there had the poise and charisma that Samantha exuded. 

“Then you can keep calling me ‘dear,’ if you’d like,” she smiles and lets her eyes drift down to Samantha’s lips. 

“As you wish, dearest,” the noblewoman leans closer, pushing out her chest towards Annette and letting her gaze find Annette’s lips as well. 

“I think you should kis-,” 

Ahem,” the bartender puffs, wiping down the counter with a dirty rag a few feet behind them, brow furrowed. 

“Oh, sod it, Bill,” Samantha groans. Annette feels a pang of disappointment as she leans back, crossing her arms and ensuring there’s an appropriate amount of space between the two of them. Deniability was the only thing that kept the Faery open. 

“It’s not my rules, Miss Deveroux,” Bill pips back. 

“Thank you, Bill,” Annette grumbles. 

“You got a problem? Take it up with the police or with Missus Bevel,” he waves away her frustration. “It’s not my head that’ll roll.”

Samantha turns her back to Bill, blocking Annette’s view of him. “Do you want to get out of here, Annie?” She drops her voice lower. “Do something exciting…?”

Annette glances over her shoulder, locating the old, clanking grandfather clock in the corner. Quarter past eight. It’d be getting dark soon, hardly anyone would be able to see them if they wanted to sneak away and find a private alleyway. Or… if Cordelia really wasn’t supposed to be home until much later, maybe she could get away with having Samantha over. She’d get real privacy with a gorgeous woman. 

But she sighs. Bringing Samantha over would likely reveal her owner’s identity, and if they were caught… The memory of brisk nights and an aching stomach is enough to discourage her. Maybe once she was more established in Cordelia’s household, with a better awareness of what she could get away with. For now, it was too early. 

“I shouldn’t,” Annette hangs her head, hating the words exiting her mouth. 

“You should.” 

“No, I really shouldn’t.” 

“Be a dear, Annie,” Samantha leans forward again, whispering, “Be my Dear.” 

“Another time, I swear.” 

Samantha lets out an impatient and frustrated sigh. She throws back the rest of her drink and stands up from her stool, giving Annette a disappointed glare. “Boring,” she accuses, rolling her eyes and huffing away to another corner of the pub. 

Annette releases a tense breath. She stares down into the half-finished beer in front of her and decides the buzz isn’t worth it anymore. Despite her best interests, or perhaps because of them, she’d leave the Fleeting Faery sober and alone. 

 

*****

 

Annette wakes again in her new bed to a loud noise downstairs. She sits up quickly, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes and feeling her heart pound in her chest. Jitters of adrenaline tremble through her and it takes a moment to let it fade and realize the noise is just Cordelia loudly returning home, not a true threat. She waits in the dark for a few moments, deciding it must be just past midnight, and wonders if she’s needed downstairs. 

She’s just about to roll over and return to the grips of sleep when a loud crash of glass reignites her fight-or-flight response. Scrambling to light a candle in the dark, Annette stumbles out of her room and downstairs to investigate. 

“‘-not qualified for betting pools…’” Cordelia’s voice mutters below, “I’ll show them ‘not qualified for betting pools…’” She’s slurring, rambling to herself.

Annette carefully descends the staircase, holding the candlestick tightly in her fist. Her instincts tell her to move quietly but she quickly realizes that Cordelia might not appreciate her surprise appearance and deliberately makes a little noise as she makes her way down. 

“Miss Jones?” She calls out timidly. 

Cordelia doesn’t respond. She’s laying her chest down across the dining room table that is thankfully still clean, resting her forehead against the hardwood. The shattered remains of a whisky bottle glitter across the floor in the dark. 

“Are you alright, Miss Jones?” Annette asks again, trying to keep her voice calm and neutral. She steps carefully over the shards in her nightgown, lowering the candlestick to see the floor better. 

Cordelia mumbles something to herself but it’s unintelligible. She weakly hammers a fist against the table, causing it to rattle, and slowly turns her face over to look at Annette. Her lip looks cut and bloodied and her knuckles are cracked and red. 

“What do you want, Annette?” Cordelia sighs, scowling at her. 

“I came to investigate the noise. Are you alright?” 

“I’m fine.” 

Annette sets the candlestick down on the table and carefully tiptoes into the kitchen, retrieving a broom and dustpan as well as placing a kettle onto the stove. As quietly as possible, she begins sweeping up the remains of the bottle, hearing only the soft jingling of the glass scraping against each other and Cordelia’s labored breaths. 

“What happened, Miss Jones?” 

“It isn’t your business.” 

Annette pauses. “Can I bring you anything?” 

“I gave you the evening off… go away.” 

“I’ll either have to clean this now or clean it tomorrow,” Annette replies patiently. “I’d rather avoid you cutting your foot on this glass.” 

“You’re as insufferable as Penny,” she grumbles, but relents in her protests. 

“I shall endeavor to be more sufferable going forward, Miss Jones.”

Cordelia snorts. She lifts up from the table and drops her body down into one of the chairs, glaring at Annette with an expression of bemusement and vexation. Her movements are slow and sluggish. Annette continues brushing up the remaining shards, trying to ignore Cordelia’s eyes fixed upon her. 

“Are your wounds alright?” 

“They’re fine,” Cordelia huffs. “I’ve had worse.” 

“May I have a look at them?” 

“And do what, exactly?” 

“Ensure they won’t get infected, Miss Jones.” 

“Will you finally leave me alone if I let you?” 

“Yes, Miss.” 

Cordelia folds her arms across her chest and shakes her head in disbelief. After a few moments, she exhales, “Fine.” 

Annette sets the broom against the wall, hoping she hasn’t missed too many glass pieces. She’ll double back in the morning and make sure the rest is clean, but at least for now it looks acceptable. She returns to the kitchen and pours some hot water from the kettle into a bowl, grabbing a clean rag and returning to Cordelia, where she pulls up a chair and sits down. 

“May I see your hand?” 

Displeased, Cordelia obeys, stretching a hand out and sloppily placing it onto the table for Annette to inspect. Nervously, Annette reaches out and takes Cordelia’s palm, surveying the damage for a brief moment before dunking the rag in the hot water and gently dabbing it against her knuckles. Cordelia hardly winces at the feeling, which Annette decides is either a sign the wounds aren’t too bad or that she’s had too much to drink. Perhaps both. 

“What happened?” She asks, trying to avoid meeting Cordelia’s gaze. 

Cordelia looks as though she wants to turn a stiff lip and ignore her, and Annette is surprised when she doesn’t. “I defeated Conrad.” 

“Conrad?” 

“The number six heavyweight,” she explains, a little proud. 

“Boxing?” 

“What else would it be?” 

“You box with the men?”

“Can’t box with women, can I?”

“I suppose not,” Annette concedes. “I’m amazed they let you into the ring.” 

“They don’t.” 

Annette gives her a confused look and reaches out to take her other hand. Her left hand is far worse than the right, and the skin has cracked open to reveal deep cuts in multiple places. “How then did you box Conrad?”

“I fought him in a bar after his match.” 

Cordelia winces at one particularly deep cut, though it quickly fades to relief as the hot water disinfects and then soothes the wound. 

“And you did this for a case…?”

“My life isn’t just being a detective, Miss Baker.” 

“So you do this for fun.” 

“If that’s what you’d like to believe.”

“Penny must’ve had her hands full taking care of you,” Annette smirks. 

“Christ, Penny had no sense of privacy. She was always pestering me and nagging me and trying to dictate how to keep things in order,” Cordelia groans. “Never expected that having a collar would be so much work.” 

Annette purses her lips. “And so you took on another?” 

“You were cheaper,” Cordelia says simply. 

“And I’m very grateful you took on my contract, Miss Jones.” 

“Are you always so smug, Miss Baker?” 

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” 

Cordelia is silent. Annette is surprised to find herself relax and even smile politely. Something about Cordelia’s presence tonight feels muted and resigned, and her vacant threats to replace or remove Annette feel shallow, as though there is nothing behind them at all. 

“Are your lips alright?” She asks, finishing with her hands. 

“I can take care of it myself,” Cordelia sighs, grabbing the warm cloth and pressing it to her mouth. “You’ve done enough, Miss Baker. Go back to sleep.” 

Annette remains fixed to her chair. “Are you hungry?” 

“I told you to go to sleep.” 

“I’m aware, Miss Jones. Are you hungry?” 

“Go to sleep, Annette.” 

 

56