Chapter Nine
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Apologies for the longer wait for Chapter Nine. I've started a new job recently, and while I love it, it does mean I have less time for writing. Nonetheless, this chapter was a really engaging and fun one to write, and I hope you enjoy!

 

Chapter Nine

 

Annette stares at the title, reading it over and over again to ensure that each character is properly aligned and positioned. She’s checked it at least ten times, but it still feels like something is wrong somehow. Maybe it’s all in her head. The stampface reads: 

Economist Predicts 25-hour Week For Working Men

 

The rest of the article goes on to discuss a favorite economist of the Mallets, Frederick Lavoy, who wrote constantly on the importance of restructuring the labor market. He believed that automation could be a force for good for workers; that by turning jobs over to machines, laborers could massively increase production, and thus, reduce their working hours. The true issue, according to Lavoy, was industrial greed and production. The constant push for greater and greater levels of output was the primary factor for maintaining the current state of labor conditions.

“Inspiring, isn’t it?” Guy exhales next to her, leaning over the typeface with a roll of papers in his arms. 

“Breathtaking,” she mutters back. She’s sure it must be interesting, but between managing Cordelia’s affairs and volunteering to help the Mallets, she’s exhausted. Cordelia, to recoup her betting losses from her boxing match, has been taking on extra cases lately and this unfortunately meant that Annette was the only one between the two of them dedicating her time to investigating the Mallets. They’d finally taken her up on her offer to help out, which hopefully meant they trusted her, and placed her in their tiny print shop where they published their weekly pamphlet: Hammer and Spike

“Twenty-five hours a week,” Guy whistles contentedly, folding the papers into position to be printed upon. “I could live with that.” 

“Perhaps you could even take up cooking, to alleviate your wife’s burdens, too,” Annette pokes. “Seeing as you would have so much more time.” 

“Me? I’m a wretched cook,” he dismisses. 

You’d have time to learn, she rolls her eyes. 

“Besides, it isn’t a reality yet. I’m still running full shifts down at Bensen’s Mill most of my time,” he shrugs. “Between that and this place, I’ve got no time for cookin’. Only eatin’.” He pats his belly happily. 

“Does that print look properly set?” Annette asks. “Something feels off but I can’t place it.” 

“Looks fine to me,” he nods. “You doing okay, Red?” 

“Just tired,” she answers. 

“We’re almost done, I could finish it for you.” 

“That’s kind of you,” she says graciously, though she waves away his offer. 

Guy is nice enough, as Annette has learned over the past few weeks of working alongside him in the Mallet’s print shop. It’s hardly more than a spare storeroom out of the side of a bookshop, but it was enough. The worst part of it was that despite all of this time, she had learned painfully few relevant details to the case. The Mallets were surprisingly effective at keeping it together. 

Other than trying to learn more about their elusive leader, Failinis, Annette has been scrambling to uncover details about the ten straw dummies. If she was right that one of them represented Bembrook, one was for the Pemberley manager, and six were for the factory fire, it still left two kills outstanding. She’d thought she heard a potential reference to a ninth death last week but the lead fizzled out. It was impossible to tell if there were actually ten kills and that the dummies were related… though it could also be that there were two more targets they’d yet to hit.

The Mallets were bustling with energy out in Bellchester. The raid on the Docksims Square rally had bolstered their case with the working class in the city; if the police felt that the Mallets were a big enough threat that they needed to stampede their first meeting, then they must be doing something right. Failinis was especially effective at capitalizing on the death of a young woman at the rally, Margaret Bleecher, shot by a cop whose name had soon after become infamous in the city. Officer Frederick Montague could hardly show his face in public anymore, and despite the fact that the police chief refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, no one had seen Frederick patrolling the streets in the last few weeks.  

Guy returns to check back on her printing a little while later, dropping a modest crate onto the floor in the corner as he arrives. 

“That looks heavy,” she smirks, watching him stretch out his back. 

“Care to take a lift?” 

“Oh, no, I couldn’t dare deprive you the honor of possibly injuring yourself under its burden,” she smirks. 

“Real funny, Red,” he shakes his head, grinning. 

“What’s inside?” 

“No clue,” he shrugs. “Failinis says lift boxes, I lift boxes.” 

“You’re not even a little curious?” 

“Nope.” 

Annette snorts. “Suit yourself, then.” 

Guy steps out into the doorway, which leads out into the back alley, and lights a cigarette. He takes a long drag, savoring the warm and soothing feeling, and releases a slow puff of smoke. 

“Still don’t want a light?” He gestures it to her. 

“I still don’t smoke,” she shakes her head. “And I’m sure your wife would kill me for encouraging your habit.”

He smiles and takes another drag. “How’s things at home for you? Owner still an absolute ass?” 

“Impossible not to be with the amount of whiskey he drinks,” Annette smirks internally, thinking about Cordelia’s habits. Friendship with the detective wasn’t particularly different from the way things were before, Cordelia just simply allowed her walls to drop down a little more often. She was a little less obscured and mysterious, and would occasionally allow Annette to receive more context for her ideas; just enough that Annette could semi-reliably follow her train of thought. 

“Drinking really brings out the beast in a man, doesn’t it?” Guy tilts his head in thought. He puffs out another breath of smoke. 

“I have another question, Guy,” Annette tells him. 

Guy gazes over and nods, shifting his weight against the doorframe and turning to face her with a little more focus in his expression. “Ask away.” He settles into the comforts of routine, happily engaging with Annette’s inquisitions over the course of their time working together. 

“Would having a seat in Parliament really do that much for us?” 

“‘Course it would, Red,” he nods reassuringly. “It gets us in the halls of the people who make all the decisions. It lets us put a hand on the levers of power.” 

“We’d be sharing it with more than a hundred others.” 

“You’ve seen Failinis speak,” Guy rebuts. “If anyone can convince them, he can.” 

Annette buries her urge to scoff at the assumption. The nobles would never be convinced of anything that didn’t exclusively benefit them. She sizes Guy up and down, once more trying to decide how far she could push her line of questioning. After a few weeks, he did seem to trust her. Guy probably thought she was a little weak-willed or skittish, and she’d played into those assumptions to lower his guard, but he didn’t seem to think she could be any sort of threat. 

“Wouldn’t it be easier to…” She drops her head deferentially, as though her next words might be too much for her to handle. “... ahem. I lost a dear friend because of the rail baron, Mister Bembrook,” she explains. “But now that Mister Bembrook is dead…” 

Guy furrows his brows only to soften them a moment later as he understands her meaning. “You’re wondering if we should go after the barons directly.” 

“Yes,” she squeaks out. 

Guy pauses, and for a moment he has the air of a man who knows more than he is allowed to reveal, and is deciding how much restraint he truly needs to employ in his speech. After a breath, his face turns gentle. “Take heart, Red. You’re doing great work already for the movement. No need to sour your heart with those sorts of thoughts.” 

Annette carefully notes his reaction and decides to push forward. “But they deserve it, don’t you think?” 

“Aye,” he shrugs. “But that doesn’t mean-,” 

“I want to make them pay for hurting us,” she affirms emphatically, stepping closer to Guy. “If I could…” she taps her collar around her throat and grimaces, “If I could find a way to make him fear me…” 

Annette carefully drops her voice lower and lets it waiver, throwing her arms around her chest to hold herself, as though she was scared and overwhelmed. Guy drops his cigarette to the ground and stomps it out with a twist of his foot, moving a few steps closer to Annette. He takes a sharp breath, readying himself to say something, but Annette decides to push the issue. 

“You have to promise me, Guy,” she declares. 

“P-promise you? Promise you what, exactly?” 

“That you’ll find a way to make them pay for the things they’ve done,” she looks down at the floor, pretending to be unable to meet his gaze. 

“I… Hmmm…” Guy is quiet for a long moment. “You really feel this way, Red?” 

“I do,” she affirms. 

Guy stares out the door for a while, letting her words sink in. Annette briefly wonders if she’s gone too far; she’s been so careful with trying to slowly build trust, and this was one of the first real tests to see if they’d let her in. She knew there was more to the Mallets than a run for Parliament and a print shop, and for the moment, Guy was the only person who could open that door for her. 

He starts and stops a few sentences, and when he does finally speak, it’s as though he’s abandoned the conversation. Guy nods at the print-maker behind her, smiles, and simply says, “It’ll be a good issue this week. It’ll really get people talking.” 

“Yeah,” she exhales, a little disappointed. 

“Keep up the good work, Red.” 

 

– – – 

 

“I’m worried I pushed too far yesterday,” Annette sighs, laying down on the couch in their living room. Cordelia sits in her favorite reading chair across from Annette, absent-mindedly thumbing through some case notes. 

“I’m sure it was fine,” Cordelia dismisses. 

Annette plops her head back into the cushions and stares at the ceiling. “He’s hiding something,” she insists. “They all are.” 

“I’m aware.” 

“How the hell am I supposed to be let into the inner circle? If we’re going to-,” 

“Annette,” Cordelia drops her notes down into her lap. 

“What?” 

“How does a telegram work?” 

Annette sits up and frowns at Cordelia. “Were you even listening?” 

“Of course I was,” the detective scoffs. 

She rolls her eyes. “I don’t know how they work. Sorry.” 

“It’s a process of making and breaking an electrical current,” Cordelia explains. “Press down and release, then it sends a pulse through the wires. There’s a language for it and everything.” 

“Is… is this relevant to either of our cases?” She furrows her brow at Cordelia’s stack of papers. They’d both been so absorbed into their own work lately, it was hard to remember what case the detective was actually working on anymore. “If you already knew how they worked, why did you ask me?” 

“I simply thought it was fascinating.” 

Annette glares at her in silence. 

“You seemed upset.” 

“So you thought a technological fact would cheer me up?” Annette tilts her head. 

“It cheered me up.” 

“God, you really miss drinking don’t you?” 

“I do not.” 

“Two weeks sober and you’re spewing out facts like an encyclopedia,” she smirks, enjoying the look of mild annoyance on Cordelia’s face. “Clearly we need to find someone for you to box, and soon.” 

“Well, you’ve yet to volunteer, Miss Baker.” 

“And I shall not.”

“Regardless,” Cordelia slowly stands from her seat, stretching at the waist as she rises, “I should begin dinner preparations.” 

“Preparations?” Annette snorts. “It must indeed be difficult work ordering your servant to cook for you.” 

“I’ll be cooking tonight.” 

Annette sits up quickly. “You’re cooking?” 

“Yes.” 

“You, Miss Jones, are cooking?” 

“I believe I’ve said so, yes.” 

Annette purses her lips in confusion. “You can’t cook.” 

“Of course I can cook,” Cordelia throws her arms over her chest and frowns. 

“No… you can’t?” 

“Yes, I can.” 

“So these past few months you’ve been having me cook every night despite the fact that you are entirely capable?” Annette furrows her brow deeper. “I just assumed you were incapable.” 

“A bold assumption, Miss Baker.” 

“... What’s the occasion?” 

“We’re having a guest over.” 

Annette stands. “I’m more than happy to cook for our guest.” A small part of her worries about what Cordelia’s true culinary aptitude is, and partially dreads the thought of what she might prepare. 

“Nonsense.”

Cordelia turns on her heel and makes her way into the kitchen, opening the pantry and beginning to select a variety of ingredients. Annette follows her, leaning up against the doorway and watching her with a mixture of suspicion, curiosity, and amusement. 

“So… what’s so special about this guest?” 

“She’s an old… friend,” Cordelia shrugs. “I’ll be taking up a case for her.” 

“So mysterious,” Annette puffs. “I wasn’t aware you had any old friends remaining.” 

Cordelia waves away her interest. “You’ll see soon enough. The rest of the afternoon is yours, Annette. I’ll inform you when she arrives.” 

“And you’re sure-,”

“I am up to the task of preparing dinner, Miss Baker.” 

Annette relents from her inquisition, holding up her hands defensively and strolling away. It must be some friend if Cordelia is willing to go through such an effort, she thinks to herself, grinning with an amused satisfaction. It could only be someone truly fascinating or unusual or otherwise remarkable for Cordelia to break from her typical routines, and Annette is eager to find out. 

 

– – –

Annette rouses from her late nap, feeling groggy and heavy. She immediately regrets her decision to give in to the sleepiness of the afternoon that had unfolded, letting the quiet patter of rain on her window gently lull her into the embrace of her mattress. She had intended to spend her time reading, nestled away in her small-yet-comfortable bedroom and getting some much needed rest, but her eyes so carelessly glazed over after a few pages of her book and she’d tricked herself into thinking a quick nap was possible. 

She groans softly as she sits up, removing her opened book from her chest and setting it aside. On its spine, she feels a warm familiarity with the golden letters of its title, Captain Calaviere, a rousing novel about a woman stowing away upon a ship in the Royal Navy and slowly becoming a pirate lord. It was a highly controversial novel when written and Annette believes its author, Wendy Quail, was never given another opportunity to publish her work. Annette loved it dearly. 

As the recollection of the evening’s mystery guest returns to the forefront of her mind, Annette quickly pushes away the desire to simply sleep through the whole evening. Surely the spectacle of Cordelia’s dinner and guest would be enough to justify rising from her far too warm and inviting bed. She recovers her nicer dress from her closet, a comfortable and modest piece that was far less constricting than her petticoat and corset but still lovely nonetheless, and descends the staircase to the ground floor. 

Harold is perched upon a little ledge by the window in the dining room, comfortably nesting in a little pile of straw Cordelia had made for him. He coos gently as Annette pets the side of his beak. She smiles as he rustles his feathers contentedly. 

It is just as she’s about to greet Cordelia in the kitchen, hoping to tease her a little more about her sudden interest in the duties of keeping up a home, when Annette hears a knock at the door. It’s loud and curt, but in a way that felt refined. Each sharp wrap of the chester knocker rings like a bell chiming against wood. She briefly considers letting Cordelia rise to the challenge of taking on another of Annette’s duties, but shakes her head and grins instead. She bounces back to the main hallway, turning with a pep in her step and a curious excitement in her chest. 

Her hand pulls the door open to reveal the polished and nearly regal form of Samantha Deveroux. 

Annette’s breath catches in her throat and her eyes immediately dart away from the woman before her, as though even gazing upon her could be incriminating. Samantha supplies no such modesty, stepping forward into the threshold and smiling radiantly. 

“Good to see you too, dear,” she says in a low voice. 

Annette blushes. “Lady Deveroux, s-so wonderful for you to grace us with your presence.” 

Samantha extends a hand to Annette, gesturing for the servant to kiss the back of her palm. Annette stares at it fearfully, feeling a cold shiver descend down her spine. Samantha pushes it forward even further, nearly laying it into Annette’s hand to prompt her reaction. The servant timidly grips her fingers, touching as little of her skin as possible, and places a kiss on the back of her hand that was neither graceful nor indulgent. 

“Cordelia didn’t tell you I was coming over, did she?” Samantha gloats. 

“Not you specifically,” Annette gulps. 

“You’re so fearful, darling. Aren’t you going to invite me inside?” 

Annette nods nervously, stepping aside and closing the door for Samantha as she fully enters the home. Samantha’s eyes flick over the foyer with intrigue and familiarity, as though returning to a place that has remodeled since her last visit. 

“Aren’t you going to take my coat?” 

Annette extends her hands to receive the coat, only to find that Samantha wasn’t going to remove it herself. The noblewoman beams and turns around slightly, encouraging Annette to reach up and pull it off of her. Annette chokes down her nerves, anxiously gripping the fabric and sliding it down her slender arms, her face warm and flushed. 

“You’re so uncharacteristically skittish tonight, Annie,” Samantha pouts. “Is anything at all the matter?” 

Annette glances down the hall, confirming that Cordelia could not yet see them. She quickly hangs the coat on the rack and whispers, “She knows.” 

“I’m sure the detective knows a great many things.” 

Annette frowns. “She knows about us.” 

“Indeed?” 

Annette’s face drops at the lack of concern shown on Samantha’s face. She seems amused and fascinated by Annette’s reaction, hardly caring at all for the nerves of the poor girl. Annette tilts her head in confusion, placing an even more worried look on her face. 

“What are you doing here?” Annette asks. 

Samantha turns about and glances over the room once more, contentedly taking in the scene around her. “I’m here to provide a favor to an old friend.” Her voice drops lower, and as she faces Annette once more she wears an expression of mischief and seduction. “And perhaps to tend to the needs of a newer friend.” 

“That cannot-,” 

“Lady Deveroux,” Cordelia’s voice rings down the hallway. 

“Cordelia Jones.” 

Cordelia stands and stares at the two of them, her typical neutrality splashed across her face. “Annette, would you please show Lady Deveroux to the table. Dinner will be out shortly.” 

“You’ve cooked for me? How flattering.” 

“Are you still fond of kroppkakor?” 

“Adore them,” Samantha purrs. 

Cordelia clicks her heels and retreats to the kitchen, gesturing for Annette to lead Samantha to the dining room. Annette walks forward slowly, almost as though in a trance, and feels her heart pumping throughout her limbs. She pulls a seat back for Samantha, briefly noticing that in the commotion of a new guest Harold has departed. Annette closes his window, turning back to see Samantha sit and wave her over to the chair beside her. 

“Sit here, dear. I’d love to have you at my side.” 

Annette grimaces weakly. “Are you sure that’s a good-”

“You wouldn’t want to disappoint a guest, would you?” 

She sighs, cautiously lowering herself into the seat at Samantha’s right. She sits on the edge of the chair, as though the wood was instead made of hot metal and she might need to flee at any moment. 

“It’s been too long,” Samantha turns her torso open towards Annette, careful to ensure her chest is on as full of a display as possible for the servant, “I was worried something might have happened to you.” 

Annette swallows, feeling her mouth parched, and refuses to meet her eyes. “I… after the ball I’ve been too scared.” 

“I could happily massage your fears away,” Samantha smiles and leans forward more. “Besides, there’s nothing to fear from Cordelia. She’s just as guilty as you are. Probably worse.” 

“You knew? This whole time?” 

“It isn’t a secret she keeps well.” 

“Why didn’t you tell me-,” 

Annette hastily ends her sentence as Cordelia appears once more, carrying a large platter of tan dumplings. A light waft of allspice fills the air, along with pork and something else Annette can’t place. Cordelia places it carefully down onto the table and takes her seat across from the two of them, proudly serving the dumplings onto a plate for each of them and passing it along. 

“Kroppkakor,” Cordelia grins, “Just as you like them.” 

Samantha takes her plate graciously, and retrieves two small dishes of sauce, one filled with a deep red jam and the other with a white cream. “I was just telling Annette that she need not fear her desires for women in your home.” 

“You have no idea how difficult it was to acquire lingonberries in Bellchester,” Cordelia gestures to the red sauce, “I had to call upon numerous favors to come across a reasonable supply.” 

“To be sure, there’s hardly many safer places for Annette to be open and honest about this nature.” 

Annette flushes, glaring down at her plate and feeling an anxious tremble in her stomach. She pokes at the dumplings in front of her, and while they smell delicious, her appetite has quickly departed. 

“It’s not my best bechamel sauce, if I’m honest,” Cordelia deflects. 

The two of them begin eating, allowing the silence of consumption to fall upon the room. Annette takes a few timid bites before the awkwardness overtakes her. She sets her fork down and tilts her head towards Samantha, “Miss Jones mentioned you had a case for her.” 

“Oh, it’s much too early to discuss business, don’t you think, dear?” 

Cordelia looks up from her plate. “So she’s ‘dear’ already?” 

“That’s a lovely dress, Annette,” Samantha chips back. “It places your natural beauty on full display. Wouldn’t you agree, Cordelia?” 

“She looks nice.” 

“Not nice,” Samantha corrects. “Radiant.” 

“I’ll defer to your judgment, Lady Deveroux.” 

“My judgment is hardly ever in question. With few exceptions I’ve been universally complimented on my taste and attention to detail. Especially with regard to my perception of beauty.” 

“I am quite sure your taste is unimpeachable,” Cordelia takes another bite. 

Samantha follows her lead, only to quickly announce, “The bechamel is far too thick, Cordelia. You must have overworked your roux. What do you think, Annette?” 

Annette clears her throat. “I… I am still simply reveling in the novelty of being the served rather than the server.” 

“I believe a thicker roux is more common in the Northern region,” Cordelia rebuts.

Samantha giggles. “Might I procure a map for you, Cordelia? Bellchester hardly qualifies as Northern.” 

“Northern Andland.” 

“The kroppkakor are better in the South,” Samantha asserts. She then turns to face Annette once more, eagerly trying to get the servant to meet her eye. “I believe the ornamentation of Annette’s collar adds to her beauty. It highlights her more homely nature. So domestic and obedient.” 

Annette’s face grows warm and she turns away nervously, raising a hand to tug on the collar, which suddenly feels as though restricting her ability to breathe. 

“Obedience is hardly a characteristic of Miss Baker,” Cordelia defends. 

“Indeed?” Samantha muses. “I have found the opposite to be quite true.” 

Samantha lowers a hand to Annette’s thigh. Annette pushes back into her chair, only to feel Samantha’s fingers slowly slip towards her inner thigh, making her face flush and her chest warmer. She resents the excited twitch between her legs. 

“Annette,” the noblewoman looks at her, “Serve me my next bite.” 

Annette’s eyes flick towards Cordelia, who maintains a surprising deadpan. “I’m not sure that I should-,” 

Annette,” Samantha commands. 

She pauses for a moment and takes a shaking breath, her eyes meeting the icey blue of Samantha’s irises, and once again feeling her charms take hold in her mind. Annette carefully retrieves Samantha’s silverware, cutting off a small piece of the kroppkakor, dipping it lightly in the lingonberry sauce, and raises it to the noblewoman’s face. Samantha opens her mouth, the corners smiling deviously, and accepts the bite, letting her lips caress the fork and staring deep into Annette’s eyes. 

“See Cordelia?” Samantha purrs after swallowing the bite. “Obedient.” 

Cordelia hides her reaction well, turning down to her plate and cutting a bite for herself. “I’ve found that Annette’s utility lies best in her innovation and curiosity. In many cases, it has been her liberal interpretation of my directions that have borne the most fruit.” 

“Are you struggling with maintaining her deference?” 

“I am not requiring it,” Cordelia furrows her brow. 

“How unorthodox.” 

“When have I ever trended towards orthodoxy?” 

Samantha smiles, her hand squeezing Annette’s thigh once more. “Dear, tell Cordelia about our first time together.” 

“I’d rather not,” Annette croaks, unable to meet Cordelia’s eyes. 

“Go ahead, dear.” 

“You are not required to share, Miss Baker,” the detective takes another bite. 

“I am expecting it,” Samantha frowns. She waits for a moment to see if Annette will obey, but quickly pivots. “Can you believe the coincidence that of all the possible women I might have selected, I stumbled across your collar, Cordelia?” 

“Miss Jones doesn’t believe in coincidences,” Annette pips, hoping the joke might alleviate some tension in the room. 

Cordelia smiles, taking another kroppkakor from the serving dish. “And what might be the implications of this fact for the present moment?” There’s something important in her tone, but it’s obscured. 

“What a fortunate encounter it was to meet one another,” Samantha grins. 

Cordelia shifts in her chair. “As I recall, you’re here with an offer from Mister’s Benton and Hayle.” 

“To business, then?” 

“At your convenience.” 

“Very well,” Samantha lifts her hand from Annette’s thigh, who feels conflicted over whether or not she resents its absence. “I will warn you that it is not your typical casework.”

“I suspected,” Cordelia nods. 

“Corporate espionage.” 

“On whom?” 

“Pemberly Exports.” 

Annette takes a quick breath and asks, “Why would Benton & Hayle want Cordelia to spy for them?” Benton & Hayle was no small company, rounding out a significant portion of the oil and steel industries in the country. 

“Not Cordelia, specifically,” Samantha explains. “Though at my recommendation they would happily employ her.” 

Cordelia smirks. “And you would do this out of the kindness of your heart?” 

Samantha leans back in her chair and smiles as well. She extends her arm to rest around the back of Annette’s chair, causing the girl to shift forward nervously. “I’d like to ensure our collar has a comfortable home. You can be so… inconsistent, Cordelia.” 

Annette chokes. “‘Our?’”

“You serve me in many ways already, Annie,” Samantha gloats. 

Her hand twirls through Annette’s hair, only to descend down to flick over the back of her leather collar. A shiver descends down Annette’s spine, and she resents the horrid part of herself that found Samantha’s possessiveness irresistible. She was staking her claim on the collar, using Annette’s affections and devotions as bragging rites. A terrified and delighted flash of butterflies flicker through Annette’s stomach. 

It takes a moment for Annette to regain her focus, and when she does, she weakly asks, “W-why would Benton and Hayle take your recommendation?” 

“Her sister-in-law is married to Mister Hayle,” Cordelia explains. Her eyes glower over the scene before her, but the expression doesn’t extend to the rest of her face. “What are the barons hoping I might discover for them?” 

“I shouldn’t say,” Samantha shakes her head, pulling an envelope out from a pocket in her dress. “It’s in this letter.” She sets it in front of Annette. 

Cordelia takes a long breath, then stands and announces, “I believe I shall fetch our dessert.” She nods, then exits into the kitchen. 

“‘Our collar?’” Annette frowns at Samantha. 

“Doesn’t the thought drive you mad?” 

Annette looks away quietly, annoyed that Samantha was right. 

“Kiss me,” she orders, grinning at Annette with a devious twinkle in her eyes. 

“She is just in th-,” 

Samantha closes the distance between them, using her hand on the back of Annette’s neck to pull her forward into a dramatic and impassioned kiss. Her tongue slides between Annette’s lips, dancing with her own for a moment before slowly retreating. Just as it feels as though the kiss might end, Samantha’s tongue hooks onto the back of Annette’s teeth and pulls her in once more. 

Annette sighs, feeling the intoxicating taste and smell of Samantha flow through her senses like a never-ending promise of something greater to come. Samantha’s touch has a terrifying sense of priority, pushing away any other thoughts or concerns Annette might have and pressing her focus solely into this feeling and nothing else. 

The clink of a porcelain dish being set on the table pulls Annette back into reality, and she hastily exits the kiss, grateful that Samantha’s hand on her neck gave her a reprieve. She clears her throat, watching Samantha lick her lips happily, and feels her face turn bright red. 

“Bit forward,” Cordelia mutters. She shrugs and gestures to the plate before her, displaying a handful of small lemon tarts.  

Annette scrambles to think of some sort of apology or something to say in her defense, but Samantha speaks faster, leaning forward and casually remarking, “She is a very good kisser.”

“So it seems,” the detective scowls, grabbing a tart for herself. 

Samantha tosses a smug look at her. “You haven’t tried?” 

“No.” 

“Surely you’ve considered it,” she insists, looking over Annette once more with a confident and conceited grin. 

“No.” 

“I don’t believe that for a single moment,” Samantha shakes her head. “If Annette belonged to me,” she flicks her fingers through Annette’s hair once more, making her lips ache to be kissed again, “I would never deprive myself of such pleasures. She’s quite eager.” 

Cordelia meets Annette’s eyes, once again retreating behind an obscuring wall of stoicism. Annette’s guilt bubbles nervously inside her chest, feeling frozen and trapped and unsure of herself amidst the two titans of conversation beside her. The detective directs her gaze toward Samantha, neither warm nor disapproving. 

“I’ll not add ‘chainlaid’ to my list of sins,” she says simply, returning to her tart. 

“Then you must have changed a great deal over the years,” Samantha accuses. 

While it might not be particularly uncommon for owners to engage in sexual or romantic activities with servants, it was not well thought of in Bellchester, especially if the servants were unwilling. The protections for servants, while meager, did provide some ability to renegotiate contracts or return to a collar house in particularly bad situations, but often it required corroboration or proof. The burden could be difficult to prove, but once demonstrated, the owner would quickly be thrown into deep scandal. They were supposedly expected to be above such sin and vice, and it spoke poorly of their character to be revealed as such a villain. 

It was, in some ways, considered worse if the relationship was mutual. Not only did the issues of mismatched class backgrounds bring these relationships into scrutiny, it often accompanied infidelity, and was generally seen as over-indulgent. Owners in this position were greeted with the pervasive and damning title of: ‘chainlaid.’ Annette tried not to think about it in the midst of all of Samantha’s divine and seductive promises to her.

Annette clears her throat and attempts to strike out on a different path of conversation. “How long have the two of you known each other? Cordelia said you were old friends.”

“From childhood,” Cordelia says simply. “Our families have had a long history together.” 

“I didn’t realize.” Annette ponders for a moment. “How… how did that work if you were an… illegitimate child?” 

“You can say ‘bastard,’ dear,” Samantha chirps. 

Cordelia narrows her gaze at the noblewoman before her, then says, “Lady Deveroux hasn’t always been a lady. She’s quite new to the nobility, in fact.” 

“Oh,” Annette nods, “I wasn’t aware that-,” 

“When one carries as much grace and elegance as I,” Samantha asserts, smiling politely, “it is possible to supersede certain boundaries of class. Admiral Deveroux has a likewise excellent taste.” 

“And as an Admiral, not a Lord,” Cordelia adds, “her husband is given many of the benefits and statuses of nobility without requiring the birthright.” 

“Lord Hastings, Cordelia’s father,” Samantha says quickly, “flawed as he may be, did apparently love her mother. Not enough to risk his status or reputation, of course, but enough to supply her with a collar for her home while she worked, spinster that she was.” 

Cordelia takes a long breath. “My mother’s servant’s name was Susan. Her daughter was Samantha.” 

Annette takes in the information. It’s uncomfortably quiet once more, and she once again attempts to fill the space, “I can’t believe you’ve known each other for so long. I’m surprised neither of you said anything when we confronted Lady Wilva, or anytime after.” 

Samantha leans forward onto the table, resting her elbows onto the wood and latticing her fingers together. “Would you care to answer her, ‘Delia?” 

“No.” 

“Come now, doesn’t your collar deserve to know?” 

Cordelia looks over at Annette, meeting her gaze and holding it for a long moment. The realization slowly settles inside of Annette as the pieces gather together, and she feels a twinge of guilt and dread drop into her stomach. “Oh God,” she swallows dryly, “You… you were in love, weren’t you?” 

Samantha leans back into her chair. “I’ll not speak for Miss Jones.” 

Annette feels the jitters of anxiety push through her, “Miss Jones, I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry-,” 

Cordelia holds up a hand, “You’ve committed no sins, Annette. There’s no cause for guilt.” She takes a breath and returns her focus to Samantha. “Please inform Misters Benton and Hayle that I would be overjoyed at the opportunity to be in their employment.” 

“Perhaps I’ve changed my mind,” Samantha threatens. “You wouldn’t know anything of the sort, would you, Cordelia?” 

“I already have contacts at Pemberley Exports,” Cordelia deflects. “We’ve an excellent working rapport.” 

Samantha ignores her, marching forward into the conversation with a score to settle. Annette hunkers down quietly beside her, preparing for the onslaught that was sure to follow. 

“Dear me,” Samantha sighs, “What was it you said that night? It has nearly escaped my memory. Something about ‘appealing to the respectability of class.’”

Cordelia sits quietly, tucking her hands into her lap. 

“What did you say, Cordelia?” 

“Clearly you remember,” the detective mutters. 

“Annette deserves to hear.” 

“I’m quite alright with-,” Annette attempts weakly, only to be silenced by Samantha’s raised hand. She sinks back into her seat. 

“Go on,” she tells Cordelia. 

“‘If I do not appeal to the respectability of class,’” Cordelia recalls, her voice low and quiet, “‘I shall never find entry into my family.’” 

“Come now,” Samantha insists, “Don’t leave out the important bit.” 

Cordelia looks over at Annette once more, her eyes shimmering quietly with something between shame and remorse. “‘In their perspective you are and always will be inferior company.’”

The words wash over Annette with the heartache of many lost years. She knew Cordelia had once attempted to belong amidst her father’s family, and she knew her attempts were ultimately unsuccessful. 

“Annette,” Samantha continues, “Can you believe that after she said that to me I then offered to sell myself into a contract to her? How pitiful. I believed I could go no further than my mother, and yet somehow she still sent me away.” 

Annette fiddles with her hands in her lap, feeling a bud of betrayal push through her mind. She didn’t expect Cordelia to always tell her everything… but to be hiding such a painful treason of someone she once loved? It leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. 

Cordelia returns to her tart. “You seem to have done well for yourself,” she mumbles. 

“Fuck you,” Samantha scoffs. 

The detective throws down her fork, scowling at Samantha. “So is that what Annette is to you, then? The collared jewel you hoped I would make you?” 

Samantha turns her nose at her, sneering with disdain. “Dessert looks lovely, but alas, I’m quite full already.” 

“Then I suppose it must be time for you to depart,” Cordelia exhales. 

“My business is as of yet, incomplete,” Samantha cuts back. “Annette, would you be a dear and show me to your bedroom?” 

Annette flusters. “I-I’m not sure that-,” 

“On second thought,” Samantha corrects, “Would you show Miss Jones to her room? I should like to borrow the use of her living room for your company.” 

Annette meets Cordelia’s eyes once more, feeling herself pulled in a mess of different directions. Her loyalty to Cordelia and loyalty to Samantha crash against one another, and the revelation of their history burns between them. And yet, she also feels the sting of Cordelia’s rejection of Samantha, feeling it unfortunately align with her experiences of Cordelia’s disappointment and repudiation of Annette as well. 

She relents, nodding and rising from the table. Cordelia follows her lead, crossing the dining room without so much as looking at Samantha, and she allows Annette to ascend the stairs with her in silence. They halt outside of Cordelia’s study, where the detective turns and faces her once more. 

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” Annette sighs, her heart heavy and conflicted. 

“You must have really captured her affections.” 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” 

Cordelia drops her hands into her pockets. “This was my way of sharing the news.” 

“A poor idea,” Annette scoffs, “don’t you think?” 

Cordelia lowers her brow, rocking back and forth on her heels for a breath. “You really care for her.” 

“How could you have done that to her?” Annette paces away, holding her hands tightly into one another. “She loved you, and you tossed her aside simply because her status didn’t fit your ambitions. You’re not nobility either!” 

The detective looks down at the ground. “You best not keep Lady Deveroux waiting. She’s not the patient sort.” 

Annette glares back at her, folding her arms over her chest. “You told me Penny was your first servant. You lied.” 

“Please be sure to clean up after yourselves,” Cordelia dismisses. “Can’t have the ground floor smell of sex.” 

Annette groans. “We’re supposed to be friends now, aren’t we?” 

Cordelia is quiet, shutting herself back behind her inaccessible walls once more. “Lady Deveroux has been quite forward on the merits of my friendship.” 

“You’re being vile.” 

“Good evening, Annette,” she opens the door to her study, halfway walking into it before turning back to look at Annette a final time, a look of pain and assurance washing over her face. “...I don’t regret what I did.” 

She closes the door, shutting Annette out once more.

Annette takes a series of long, controlled breaths in the hallway. One part of her wishes to throw open the doors and demand Cordelia to listen to her, to explain the full history and recant her wrongdoing. Another part of her wishes to drop down to the floor and pull at the strands of her hair while her heart sinks into a pool of emotions she wouldn’t dare attempt to understand. 

But it is the final part of her, that endless pit of deprived affection in her heart, that wins the day. She slowly creeps back down the stairs, deciding that for all of the confusion and frustration and revelation of the last hour, Samantha was still the sole conduit of sweet affections for Annette. To take her side over Cordelia is almost as commonsense as believing that the sky was blue, and that even the avarice Samantha wielded over Annette’s person tonight was simply explained away by the depth of her enjoyment of the servant. 

She arrives at the base of the stairs, walking as though the floor could shatter beneath her. Samantha lounges on the couch in the living room, her legs folded over one another, her back pressed deep into the cushions, her chin cocked just enough to connote power without sacrificing delicacy. Annette’s heart sputters in her chest. 

“You’re returned,” Samantha smiles, the corners of her eyes like that of a lion on the prowl. “Come, sit on my lap.” 

Annette holds her breath, pausing for only a short moment before striding over to obey. She lowers herself slowly down into her lap, letting her back carefully lay against Samantha’s breasts. The noblewoman’s hands quickly find their way onto Annette’s body; one gingerly draped across her waist and the other rising up to her hair. She playfully tugs at the end of Annette's braid.

“I’m sorry you had to witness such unpleasantries,” Samantha hums. 

Annette swallows down her nerves and excitement as Samatha’s hand rises slightly higher onto her abdomen. “I didn’t realize the two of you had a history,” she says weakly. “You could have told me.” 

Samantha’s fingers play with the ruffles of fabric from her dress. “I felt it best to allow her to reveal her true self to you.” 

“I… I’m at a loss for words for how she treated you.” 

“You’re so sweet for your concern, dear,” Samantha places an agonizingly light kiss on the back of her neck. “It did inspire me to discover my true worth. I’d never have thought myself deserving of my present position if it had not been for her rejection.” 

She places a fuller kiss just over the first, letting her hand drop from Annette’s hair down towards one of her breasts, softly cupping it and massaging it with great restraint. 

Annette exhales slowly. “You believe yourself… deserving of nobility?” 

“Of course,” Samantha whispers into her ear, sending a tingle down Annette’s back. Her other hand rises to Annette’s chest as well, adding more pressure to the touches. “Are you truly in a position to contest my worthiness?” 

“N-no,” her lips part as a breath escapes. 

“Smart girl,” Samantha purrs. 

Her movements slowly increase in both speed and pressure on Annette, encouraging the girl to lay deeper and deeper into the comfort of her body. Annette feels her panties tighten desperately, and sighs as she relents into Samantha’s grasp.

“I’m sure you know it to be true,” Samantha teases, her voice twinkling into Annette’s ear. “That I deserve whatever my heart desires.” 

A timid whimper escapes Annette’s mouth, and she’s embarrassed to be so quickly sliding into the gracious control of the woman behind her. The little hairs on the back of her neck and arms stand at attention, buzzing with enthusiasm and the intimacy of it. 

“Mmmm,” Samantha sighs, “Don’t you want to confirm it? Aren’t you excited to see what I might do if you affirm my speech?” 

“Yes…” Annette breathes out, hardly any sound to her voice. 

“Very good,” Samantha’s hips rise, slipping out from under Annette and using her hands to twist the girl down onto the couch, setting her back into the cushions. She then climbs over Annette, each movement of her limbs so terrifyingly precise and measured. She hovers just above her, beaming with a glimmer of seductive mischief. 

“Might I tell you my favorite quality about you, Annie?” 

Annette nods, enthralled. She wishes Samantha would toss her weight down onto her skin and let her feel the warmth of the noblewoman’s body. Samantha balances herself onto one hand, lifting the other up to drag a finger across Annette’s jawline. 

“You’re so easy to fluster,” she smirks, and Annette blushes immediately. “Precisely that, dear.” 

“Consider it a signal of my affection,” Annette whispers back. 

“Oh, I do,” Samantha mewls. Her fingers wrap around the base of Annette’s neck, lifting it up from the cushions towards her own face, but holds it steady just out of reach of a kiss. “It makes you so fun to play with.” 

“I thank you for the opportunity.” 

Samantha giggles, a soft and light chirp that is quickly muffled by her lips meeting Annette’s. It’s only gentle for a moment, and with a rushed exhale she soon after increases the pressure on Annette’s neck and drags her forward, deeper into the embrace of her sweet lips. Annette steadies herself with an arm and sits up, pushing herself further into the kiss and throwing her free arm onto the back of Samantha’s head, just as eager to be always closer. 

Samantha tosses Annette back down onto the couch, only to rapidly drop herself down with her and throw the entirety of her body into the embrace. Her tongue pushes into Annette’s mouth, less possessive than before but nonetheless devoted to the task. Her hands slide down Annette’s waist, lifting it up to meet her own. Annette feels the weight of Samantha’s hips pressing into hers, and feels her clit harden expectantly and excitedly at the feeling of warmth through their clothes. 

“I want you so badly,” Annette sighs as Samantha’s kisses descend onto her neck once more. Her back arches forward to be closer to the woman, and she feels a building warmth race across her skin. 

“And I, you,” Samantha chirps back, tilting Annette’s lips back up into a kiss. 

Annette whimpers happily at the feeling of mutuality of touch. There was something magical and restorative about the experience of a woman like Samantha. It reached down into the desperation hidden inside of Annette’s heart and summoned it forward, only to hold it gently and caress it. Annette knew she cared for Samantha, but despite her reservations about the differences of their statuses and the feasibility of any true sort of relationship between them, she feels the terrifying pull of love anchor her into the woman’s embrace. She was falling for her, fast and hard. 

She pulls away from the kiss for a moment, her hands upon the sides of Samantha’s face, and intimately gazes deep into her icey blue eyes. Annette smiles, bashfully and blissfully, feeling her breath pant lightly. 

“Annie?” Samantha cocks her head.

“Just… I…” Annette’s eyes dart away, suddenly overwhelmed by the vulnerability of the moment. “Samantha, I…” 

“Shhh…” Samantha’s finger pushes softly on Annette’s lips. “Not another word, dear. Not until I’ve had my way with you.” 

Annette nods excitedly, her face innocent and brilliant and enraptured. 

“I was hoping that I might reward you,” the woman smiles. “You endured such a display at dinner.” 

“Reward me how?” 

Samantha’s hand drops to Annette’s hips, carefully tugging her skirt up to expose her cotton panties underneath. “Have you ever…?” 

Annette’s eyes close as Samantha’s hand gently lays across her undergarment. A fresh pulse of rapture lifts over her skin, and it takes a moment to understand Samantha’s meaning. Her eyes dart back open, and she meets Samantha’s gaze, wondering if she was truly implying what Annette thought she was. 

“It’s… yes,” Annette nods slowly. “But it’s been quite a while.” 

“Pity,” Samantha pouts, “I was hoping I might have the place of honor as your first.” 

“It’s no less special to me,” Annette reassures her, only to realize that Samantha’s pout was largely fabricated. She drops her head back into the cushions, laughing lightly. 

“You’re so easy to tease,” Samantha grins. 

“If my gullability reaps such reward, who could fault me for it?” She smirks. 

“Well said.” 

Samantha lifts her own skirt, lowering her hips down to rest her own panties directly onto Annette’s. Annette exhales sharply at the move, and as Samantha begins slowly sliding her lips up and down her shaft, it takes an inordinate amount of restraint not to beg for more. She wonders if that was Samantha’s hope. 

“So eager,” Samantha beams. “Shall I continue to torment you so, or will you ask for what you want?” 

“Spare me,” Annette sighs longingly.

“If only I would have worn my dress from the Hasting’s ball… you would be even more helpless at my effects.” 

As though I had any self-control remaining, Annette thinks to herself. 

Annette carefully brings her arms down to her hips, jostling her legs to remove her panties and allow her clit to stand upright. Samantha, rather than remove her own, simply drops a hand to the fabric, pulling it aside and removing the barrier. She smiles once more, taking hold of Annette’s sensitive and stiff clit and guiding it into herself, lowering her hips down onto the girl and pulling a satisfied sigh from the both of them. 

Annette’s body races with an electrifying joy, consumed by the immediate rush of delight from the sensation. The feeling of being inside Samantha is irreplaceable, and as the noblewoman slowly begins rocking her hips up and down onto her, Annette’s mind quickly melts into a blissful peace. She throws her hands onto Samantha’s thighs, pulling her down with every slow thrust. 

“You… you feel incredible,” Annette puffs happily. 

Samantha throws her head back and moans, her eyes closed as she savors the sensation. Rather than tease Annette any further, the noblewoman dedicates herself to the act, riding Annette as though she were nothing more than a tool at her disposal. Even as Samantha’s mouth parts with each sighing gasp, Annette sees the corners of her lips tip upwards in a glorious smile. Samantha runs her hands through her own hair, pouring herself into the feelings surrounding her. 

It’s nearly impossible for Annette to think of anything else as she meets each drop of Samantha’s hips with a thrust of her own, and she feels as though her clit could burst at any moment. The sound of Samantha’s moans, and the feeling of her lips grinding against the skin of her shaft drives Annette wild, and she soon follows Samantha’s lead and entirely gives herself into the feeling. 

Annette whimpers when Samantha suddenly stops her bouncing, dropping her hips a final time down onto Annette and beginning to grind back and forth instead. She drops a hand to her own clit, hastily circling her fingers around the tiny button while moaning contentedly. Annette sits forward, propping herself up onto her arms and kissing Samantha once again. She adores the ways that the noblewoman’s cries of joy bounce into her own mouth, and she trades them back and forth with her as the waves of pleasure crash through her. 

Annette is just about to speak a praise of Samantha, willing to gush about her devotion to the beautiful woman for as long as she would let her, when Samantha’s thighs suddenly clench tightly into Annette’s and she throws her full weight into her. Samantha lets out a long and low moan, firmly locking her hips down onto Annette as an orgasm overtakes her. It seems to travel in long bursts, and Annette grins with pride as Samantha’s face contorts with pleasure. The look of delight splashed across her pink face is both adorable and graceful, and Annette feels as though she could sing songs of praise. 

“S-sorry…” Samantha smiles weakly between heavy breaths, “I… I didn’t expect it to overtake me… s-so quickly.” 

“I’ll simply accept the compliment,” Annette beams back. 

“Just… a moment, and I shall continue.” 

Annette watches her contentedly as Samantha steadies herself, refusing to rise off of her hips. Annette can feel her clit continue to twitch inside of her, eager to resume. When Samantha does continue, she returns to her usual self, far more forceful and commanding of Annette’s attentions. She pushes the girl back into the sofa, resting a palm against Annette’s chest to hold her in place, and carefully maneuvers her hips in such a way that Annette is quickly gasping for air. 

“Not only are you… mmhpf… beautiful, Annette,” Samantha towers over her, a lustful glimmer in her eyes, “but you, you are quite capable.” 

Annette attempts to respond, only to find her own moan interrupts her. She closes her eyes, once again feeling an urgency in her hips take control of her mind. 

“Eyes open,” Samantha commands, “I… I want to watch you… mmmm.” 

Annette nods weakly and whimpers and Samantha pinches her nipples, placing both of her palms against Annette’s breasts. She massages the soft flesh, enjoying the way that it makes the girl squirm. 

“Tell me when you’re close.” 

“I… I already am!” Annette squeaks, feeling the need for release rapidly push forth. 

Samantha increases her speed, rocking faster and faster against Annette and giving her no reprieve. “Mmphf… I want you to… to tell me when you cannot bear it any… any longer.” 

Annette obeys, allowing herself to devolve into the desperate need taking over in her mind and body. She gives herself over to Samantha’s control and touch, reveling in the smell of both Samantha’s perfume and her excitement dripping down along Annette’s clit. She pants and moans, and after some time feels the urgency take hold. 

II’m close!” Annette squeaks, throwing herself deep into the cushions. 

Samantha pulls herself off of Annette, quickly replacing her wet lips with her hand and stroking Annette at the same pace. She pushes Annette over the edge, and seconds later the girl lets out a powerful gasp, clutching for the fabric of the cushions while her clit washes with bliss. Samantha continues stroking as the orgasm overtakes Annette, and she feels herself fall deeper and deeper into the overwhelming sensation. 

Even as it ends, Samantha gives her no reprieve, lightly running her thumb over the tip of Annette’s clit, using her cum to lubricate it. Annette shivers at the sensitivity of the moment, feeling her heart echo in her ears and her body slick with sweat. Eventually Samanta relents, lifting herself forward and laying next to Annette on the couch, pulling Annette into her arms and cuddling her softly. 

“That… that was incredible,” Annette pants, her breath blowing back against Samantha’s neck. 

“You, dear,” Samantha runs her hand through Annette’s hair, playfully tugging at her braid, “were quite remarkable.” 

Annette smiles, innocently and candidly into Samantha’s neck. She squeezes her arms around her, bringing the two of them even closer together and reveling in the feeling of their dresses and skin intertwining. As their stomachs expand and collapse into one another with each breath, Annette feels all of the warm feelings of affection race forward once more. 

She leans her head back slightly, trying to meet Samantha’s gaze. “I… apologies if this is… well… I…” 

“Go ahead, dear,” Samantha nudges. 

“You mean a great deal to me.” 

“You mean a great deal to me as well.” 

Annette’s stomach bubbles happily at the affirmation, and she decides to push forth even further in her vulnerability. “I know that I joked the first time that we… I implied that I might wish to say that I loved you.” 

“Are you saying it now?” 

“I think I am,” Annette buries her face back into Samantha’s neck. “God, that’s wretched of me, isn’t it?” 

“No, not wretched at all,” Samantha’s hand gently rubs along her back. “Are you hoping I’ll say it in return?” 

“I’m afraid to ask you to,” she mumbles. 

“I care deeply for you.” 

Annette takes a careful breath. “But you don’t love me.” 

“I don’t believe in love, Annie,” Samantha says simply. “I didn’t realize that you did.” 

“It’s alright, I understand.” 

“I continually treasure our times together nonetheless,” she affirms. “There is none but you who captures my interests or excites my desires.” 

“Thank you,” Annette replies softly. 

“And you as well.” 

Annette presses deeper into the older woman’s chest, savoring the warmth and comfort of it. The novelty of such sweet affection quickly overcomes her, and Annette lets out a sigh of satisfaction that for the moment, they were safe and secure; that for the time being it could simply be the two of them. They need not fear detection or scrutiny from anyone, save perhaps Cordelia. 

The thought of Cordelia’s betrayal of Samantha returns to Annette’s mind. It’s so powerfully confusing to her, and as she lays in Samantha’s arms it feels impossible that anyone could ever have rejected her. A small part of Annette puffs its chest with the understanding that had she been in Cordelia’s position, she would have done differently. And then her mind continues wandering down the endless paths of what could be in a different world, one where she need not fear loving a woman. One where she might not need a contract to survive. 

In the quietness of Samantha’s embrace, Annette even wonders if she truly liked living in 167th Mill Street. Sure, it had its charms and freedoms compared to many other places, but despite the interest that detective work had captured in her, Annette was still somehow struggling with Cordelia. It never seems as though the two of them can settle into any particular pattern for a duration of time. Just as quickly as she might capture Cordelia’s good graces, she seems to lose it just as fast. And for every moment of sympathy for her that Annette might develop, she gains a corresponding criticism. 

“Might I ask you something?” Annette breaks the silence. 

“Anything, dear.” 

“If… what if I were to take you up on your offers?” Annette feels the decision slowly rush forth, and she gives in to the inertia of it.

Samantha leans back slightly, her eyebrow popped with confusion. “Offers?” 

“Perhaps… perhaps I am interested in trading my contract to you,” Annette suggests, feeling bashful and sincere. Her voice trembles with the nervousness of a possibility she had seldom let herself admit she wanted. “What if I could actually be your chambermaid? I could see you after every ball and be regaled with stories of the night’s events. And massage away your stresses and anxieties. And be with you.”

“A charming notion,” Samantha chirps. 

“If I could convince Cordelia, would you buy my contract?” 

Annette’s eyes twinkle excitedly as she watches for Samantha’s reaction, and she feels her whole chest bubble with nervous enthusiasm. 

“Oh,” Samantha sits up quickly, reading the look on Annette's face. “You’re serious, dear.”

“I am,” Annette rises with her, leaning against the back of the couch and scooting forward to be closer with her. “I could try to talk with her.” 

“Annette…” 

“I know it’s risky,” Annette says quickly, “and I know it’s a lot to ask of you, but we could be together. We could get the privacy and time together that we struggle to find now. I… I could try and find a way to recoup the cost.” 

Samantha takes a long breath, and Annette can feel her own feelings teeter cautiously upon the edge. Samantha leans forward, resting her head in her hands. 

“You don’t have to answer now,” Annette says quietly. “I… I just wanted to suggest it.” 

Samantha remains silent and doesn’t answer. 

“What are you thinking?” Annette asks timidly. 

Samantha sighs. “Christ, why did you have to ask that, Annette?” 

“Pardon?” 

The noblewoman stands, adjusting her dress carefully as she does. “An Annette who is attracted to me, I enjoy. An Annette who is enraptured by me, I adore. An Annette who is in love with me, I can tolerate… but an Annette who is offering to sell her contract to me?” 

“...I thought you found the fantasy exciting.” 

“As fantasy!” Samantha paces away a few steps, a thoughtful and serious look crashing over her face. She strides back and forth for a long few moments, leaving Annette anxiously shifting on the couch, watching her with a pit in her stomach. 

A conclusion seems to settle in Samantha’s eyes. “Annette, you are charming, and witty, and beautiful, and exciting… but this?” She waves her hand at the nervous girl on the couch, “Offering to sell me your contract? That is an Annette who is pitiful.”  

Annette’s chest feels as though it rends open at her words, and Samantha shakes her head in what appears to be disgust or disappointment. It suddenly feels as though she can’t breathe, and tears push forth into the corners of her eyes. 

“Of all the…” Samantha mutters to herself. She shakes her head, seemingly arriving at a place of resolution. “Goodbye, Annette.” 

Samantha turns quickly and strolls out of the living room and into the hallway. Annette watches in a stunned silence as Samantha pulls her coat from the hanger and throws it over herself, opening the door and slamming it behind her without so much as a cursory glance back at her. 

40